May 172015
 

zombie

We continue to experience interruptions at NC. We went down twice yesterday. But as far as I can tell, we’ve been online since some time yesterday afternoon. Right now we are limping along with most of the plugins, as they are called, disabled. Our precious and elegant hovering footnotes are not working, for example.

The language of disruption is fascinating. It has evolved into several (competing) narratives, involving Apaches, zombies, the undead, the defunct, the runaway, the unstoppable, the infinite, and the bad boy. Yes, apparently in server-land, NC was a bad boy yesterday. And you thought technology was devoid of poetry!

The tech person(s) at the hosting company said we had spawned an unsettling number of processes that had somehow not ended correctly and had spun loose from the main program (and thus became “ownerless”) and were continuing to process endlessly, perhaps also reproducing. These took up more and more space on the server memory until it was choked and stopped working. Since they haven’t ended correctly and are ownerless, no one can stop these things, and the only way to get rid of them is to turn off the system. (Jonah says the best way is to turn off and restart the server, but the hosting company won’t do that, as far as I can tell, because we share server space with other sites.) The system software is Apache. So twice yesterday because of NC, the host had to kill Apache, thus making NC a “bad boy.” Yes, this is the way they talk, in an affable non-confrontational way, of course.

These runaway processes (called runaway processes, too) are called “zombie processes” or defunct processes. They are the undead who refuse to be killed and rise in rebellion against the living forces of logic and reason. They create chaos and disruption.

You would not think such things could exist, but they are created in moments of change and conflict (the human metaphor keeps expanding). Somehow I triggered the zombie when I upgraded WordPress three days ago. I also upgraded the database but for some reason that failed (who knows what happened or what the status is now). In itself, that possibly triggered the rise of the zombies. But the tech people (still calling me a bad boy by implication) think one or more of the plugins we use is having a conflict with the new WordPress software. The plugins are subsidiary add-on programs written by freelancers, not WordPress. They provide a myriad of extra functions (like those lovely footnotes; but even the spam filtering software is a plugin). But they are not always kept up to date with the new WordPress upgrades and sometimes they have bugs (another metaphor) of their own that cause conflicts.

Maybe you all know these words, but it’s fun to write them out and own the metaphors that proliferate in the land of technology. We live, still, in a world of myth and fantasy.

Meantime, keep your eyes open and please report anything you see amiss on the site.

dg

May 132015
 

Lucrecia Martel

This month’s Numéro Cinq at the Movies post brings us another entry from Sophie M. Lavoie on the provocative and fascinating film work of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martal. Lavoie has analyzed two of Martel’s other short works for Numéro Cinq: her experimental short “Pescados” and her disturbing, beautiful fashion film for clothing company MiuMiu, “Muta” (click the links to check out those articles, too).

“La ciudad que huye” is a more documentary turn for Martel and Lavoie’s reading here lends us essential socio-economic and historical filters to understand this short documentary and understand it in relation to Martel’s other work. Lavoie also turns this analysis back to us, gives us pause to ponder Martel’s film and reflect on our own increasingly absurd ideas about how to plan cities and build walls.

—R. W. Gray

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Twenty-five years ago, while on a location scout in the sprawling city of Buenos Aires, Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel filmed what seemed like an endless wall. At the time, she remarked “What an absurd idea!” and thought gated communities would never work. However, upon seeing the expansion of these upper-class sanctuaries in the Argentinian capital, in 2006 Martel directed this informative short (whose title would be better translated as “The City That Flees” in English) about the more than 600 gated communities that can be found in Buenos Aires alone, an area of real estate totaling 360km2, roughly the size of the Gaza Strip.

The documentary short seems to be meant as a warning against one of the most important urbanistic transformations taking place in Argentina and throughout Latin America and the world: the move towards gated communities. 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.

1280px-Gated_community_near_Ezeiza

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.

Calgary writer Marcello Di Cintio’s recent award-winning travel reportage on the subject, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, puts the existence of this divisive phenomenon in its global context. While Di Cintio’s project examines many different walls, from his privileged position he naively claims: “My nationality grants me access anywhere. Nowhere in the world bars my entry. No place claims I am not wanted or not worthy. No one has ever built a wall for me.” Di Cintio has probably not attempted to enter one of Canada’s prestigious gated communities, a phenomenon which is developing as inequalities further widen the gap between rich and poor.

The most important feature of these new walled neighbourhoods is clearly exclusion, keeping out people who do not belong. Only those people who are (pre-)approved can enter. Although he does not mention them specifically, French anthropologist Marc Augé would surely qualify these gated communities as one of the non-places that breed solitude and alienation, and this is captured in the lens of Martel’s short film.

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For Augé, in Non-Places: Introduction to Anthropology in Supermodernity, “the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it). He is reminded, when necessary, that the contract exists. (…) the space of supermodernity is inhabited by this contradiction: it deals only with individuals (customers, passengers, users, listeners), but they are identified (name, occupation, place of birth, address) only on entering or leaving.” Martel’s film emphasizes the contract. We see the gated communities from outside the walls, from the gates leading into them, and, thanks to modern technology, we are even able to see them from above, using a satellite view, perhaps Google Earth. These wider views, unavailable to the naked eye, reveal large grassy expanses and enormous mansions with pools, all hidden behind the walls. We see where we might go, but have no ticket to enter.

As with most of Martel’s films, we hear lots of puzzling ambient sounds and partial conversations. The only human beings we see up close are security guards. The off-camera dialogues of the security underlings with their bosses illustrate the seclusion and secrecy of the communities as well as the strict hierarchies of power upon which these communities are built. Indeed, the film’s narration points to the secretive, ruthless military dictatorship in the seventies as the culprit for the construction of the extensive highway system that now allows for the movement of personal vehicles out of the dense city centre and into the peripheries. This construction, coupled with decreases to publicly funded transportation, has made the greater urban centers what they are today: places where each social class has its neighbourhood and where, in Greater Buenos Aires at least, close to two million poor (of a population of over 14 million) live in and around the city in precarious slums.

Villa miseria

The upper echelons of Argentinian society supported the dictatorship that was responsible for the killing, torture and disappearing of thousands of people during the period known as the Dirty War (1976-1983). Structurally, the elite Argentine society has shifted little since the dictatorship; many of the same families and their descendants now live behind the walls of these gated communities.

Buenos_Aires_historic_map_1756

They fear the violence which they perceive comes from the lower levels of Argentinian society, from the so-called villas or villas miserias, the Argentine equivalent of Brazilian favelas or shantytowns that now surround every major city in the country.

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Films from South America often focus on the differences in social class stemming from the inherent inequalities present in most Latin American countries. If this class disparity is not explicitly on the screen, it is often there between the frames. Most of Martel’s feature-length films display these inequalities in Argentinian society: her award-winning films La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008) all portray upper-class families leading seemingly pointless and secluded lives.

Although for her full-length feature films, Martel herself has not incursioned into these gated communities to tell the stories of their inhabitants, many recent Latin American films have touched upon this problem. Costa Rican director Hernán Jiménez made a perceptive documentary in 2004 about the change he saw in his native city of San José called Chains and a City Lock/Doble Llave y Cadena.

The 2009 feature length film La nana/The Maid by Chilean director Sebastián Silva showed the life of a family in such a community, told from the point of view of the domestics. In many cases, these modern-day slaves live in the gated communities far from their loved ones. These are but two examples amongst many.

Martel’s film was made with the help of many prominent figures including award-winning architect Juan Manuel Borthagaray, his frequent collaborator, Maria Adela Igarzabal de Nistal, a leading authority on urbanism in Buenos Aires, and Pablo Martorelli, President of the Argentinian Railways Institute (IAF), among others. Their presence is not seen or heard in the film, except in the information they provide regarding the changes to Argentine society. The ingenious geographic map animations in the film illustrate the changing urban landscape and perfectly contrast with the meek austerity of Martel’s chosen scenery: slowly passing walls, fences, hedges and other fortifications. These visuals help us go beyond the dominant inert image and cumbersome idea of the wall.

Lucrecia Martel’s La ciudad que huye demonstrates once again the director’s keen eye and ability to tell a story that is much greater than what we succinctly observe on the screen.

—Sophie M. Lavoie

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Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

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May 132015
 

Just back from a wild swing to the farm to oversee vast excavation and pipe-laying to repair the tenant house (twice burned down, but the original house was the first on the farm; ancient stone foundation dating to before 1850, we also found the remains of what must be the original well) plus swing to Toronto to see Jonah (hiked down the Humber River to the lake and back). Many pictures, no theme, my brain is a scattered mess.

Re. the pipe. We had a line locator come out to locate the old line, which he didn’t manage properly. So we had to follow the old pipe with the backhoe, a lovely serpentine hole with a couple of false tangents and trial digs here and there. Kind of interesting and delicate, especially at the very end when we were sure we were close to the main pipe. These digging photos are of purely documentary interest. No one made a map the last time the pipes were put in, and now I have pictures. Otherwise, I will spare you the details.

dg

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May 122015
 

John Malcolm BrinninJohn Malcolm Brinnin 1916-1998

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.”

—Julie Larios

 

Imagine this scene in Florida’s Key West: the sun beats down on a white sand beach,  a hot breeze blows the palm fronds, and six middle-aged men sit around a table playing anagrams. They rearrange the letters of words to make new words; they argue about the rules; they yell a lot. If it sounds to you like these men should be Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza and their friends, I agree. But the group consists of composer Leonard Bernstein, journalist John Hersey, and poets John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill and John Malcolm Brinnin.

Anagrams A Favorite Pastime Among the Literati of Key West

Three or four times a week, depending on how many of them were in town, these men played anagrams and poker together in Key West. Ciardi was the most aggressive of the group and, according to his biographer, expected to win every game. Bernstein, according to the same account, insisted on his own rules. They were all successful and well-known artists – all, that is, but John Malcolm Brinnin, who was described by the literary critic Phyllis Rose this way: “Even some of us who saw a good deal of John Malcolm Brinnin in his later years forgot he was a poet….John was known to us, his friends, for the high drama of his eye glasses, massive horn affairs that were as much a product of his wit and conscious choice as his courtesy, his conversation, his skill at anagrams. A lot of poetic spirit went into his self-presentation.”

Of the several poets presented in the Undersung series here at Numero Cinq, there is not another one among them who could be said to have had his or her poetic reputation subsumed by self-presentation, and I think Rose chose the words of her reminiscence carefully. In it, she implies both affection for Brinnin and criticism of him – she enjoys his elegance and his contribution to the party atmosphere (“He dressed so well one always looked forward to his getup as part of the fun of a party….”) but chastises him for his “conscious choice” of style over substance. To subordinate your talent to self-presentation (though some people might call self-presentation an art in itself) is a puzzle. What Rose seems to be saying is that Brinnin was  – like a good formal poem – elegantly composed, but also  – like a bad poem – overfabricated.

Well, we don’t have to judge poets by their self-regard, nor by how well they dress. We can choose to judge them by the poems they wrote, and Brinnin’s work more than measures up. It’s true that the poems in his first book (The Garden is Political, 1942) were called “mannered” by one critic who was, most likely, eager for the diction of poetry in the 1940’s to to be looser and more modern. It’s true, also, that Brinnin’s work does not sound loose; his language is denser, more opaque than the broken lines of prose that became more and more popular as the 20th-century progressed. Not many authors survive the curse of being called old-fashioned. But whatever the reason for the mannerisms some critics accused him of, Brinnin’s poetry pleases me in the same way Shakespearean monologues and sonnets please me: they’re the product of someone with large things to say, someone using his or her intelligence to put pressure on the English language to be simultaneously truthful and beautiful.

La Creazione degli Animali

Here that old humpback Tintoretto tells
Of six day’s labor out of Genesis:
Swift from the bowstring of two little trees
Come swans, astonished basilisks and whales,
Amazed flamingos, moles and dragonflies,
to make their lifelong helpless marriages.
Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells
From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.
The patriarch in that vicinity
Of bottle seas and eggshell esplanades
Mutters his thunder like a cloud. And yet,
much smaller issues line the palm of God’s
charged hand: a dog laps water, a rabbit sits
grazing at the footprint of divinity.

From the largest moments of that poem (Heaven, Hell, Time, divinity) to the smallest (a dog lapping water, a rabbit at the feet of God) Brinnin offers up the “dumb wonder” a person feels in the face of such an ambiguous world, and in the presence of work produced by a master artist.  The poem follows some of the rules of a sonnet – fourteen lines, with a slight turn or refocus after the eighth line. But Brinnin is no stranger to adapting the rules to his own purpose – the rhymes assert themselves clearly but without establishing a conventional pattern (ABCA/DEAA/FGHG/HF.) The couplet which usually closes a conventional Elizabethan sonnet is buried mid-poem (“Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells / From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.”) The full rhyme of “vicinity” and “divinity” still chimes loudly despite being separated by four other rhymed lines – not an easy task.

Tintoretto - la creazione degli animaliTintoretto – la creazione degli animali

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.” Rosten rightly said that “the question of ‘popular’ understanding is very important to a revolutionary magazine.”

So Brinnin was not a poet of the people; his poems are layered and dense and must be worked out slowly. I suspect hearing them aloud would untangle them more quickly than reading them on the page. In fact, when I read Brinnin, I often imagine someone reading his poems to me – someone like Ian McKellen or John Gielgud. Again, his work has a Shakespearean elegance. Being read aloud, the complications of syntax might settle down, while the musicality of them would shine. Brinnin’s sentences are long, which ups the level of difficulty; the verbs sometimes hide within the verbiage, so their narrative thrust – that is, their “sense” — is not immediately discernible. Brinnin’s words will never make their way onto a revolutionary’s placard, and clarity is not their goal. Take this example:

A River

A winkless river of the cloistered sort
Falls in its dark habit massively
Through fields where single cattle troll their bells
With long show of indifference, and through
The fetes champetres of trees so grimly bent
They might be gallows-girls betrayed by time
That held them once as gently as Watteau.

Electric in its falling, passing fair
Through towns touched up with gilt and whitewash, it
Chooses oddments of discard, songs and feathers
And the stuff of life that must keep secrets
Everlastingly: the red and ratlike curios
Of passion, knives and silks and embryos
All sailing somewhere for a little while.

The midnight drunkard pausing on the bridge
Is dumbstruck with a story in his eye
Shuttling like his memories, and must
Outface five tottering steeples to admit
That what he sees pass under him is not
Mere moonlit oil and pods of floating seed,
But altogether an astonishing swan.

The river, I mean, for all is riverine,
Goes slowly inward, as one would say of time,
So it goes, and thus proceed to gather in
The dishes of a picnic, or the bones
Of someone lost contesting with the nations,
Glad in the wisdom of his pity to serve
Though the river’s knowledge, whelming, overwhelms.

This isn’t subject/predicate/object territory; a sadistic high school English teacher could make her students suffer by requiring students to diagram the sentences of it. Each seven-line stanza is a single sentence, nouns often sit quite a way from the verbs they depend on, and lush dependent clauses make readers push to figure out exactly where the sentence goes. The effect of this poem is similar to a cubist painting; like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” we see the movement before we quite understand the figure; we grasp the gestalt before we deconstruct the individual lines. From “fetes champetres” on, we know we’re in for some work. Questions pile up: In what way was the artist Watteau gentle? What does it mean to say that a river goes “slowly inward”? What does the river represent – to me, to other readers – and what did it represent to Brinnin himself? Who exactly, or inexactly, is “lost contesting with the nations”?

Answering or not answering these questions is a matter of personal preference; I’m comfortable being “riverine” and flowing past some of the difficulty, then following up later with a little research. Without much trouble I find images of Watteau’s paintings and realize that many of his people face away from us, just as “the stuff of life that must keep secrets.” I can ponder that for awhile, and isn’t pondering part of the pleasure of poetry? I read the best of Brinnin’s poems again and again, and I understand them better each time; I find new beauties each time. I’ve read the following poem several times and still have questions; to my mind, that’s a plus.

Rowing in Lincoln Park

You are, in 1925, my father;
Straw-hatted, prim, I am your only son;
Through zebra-light fanwise on the lagoon
Our rented boat slides on the lucent clam.

And we are wistful, having come to this
First tableau of ourselves: your eyes that look
Astonished on my nine bravado years,
My conscious heart that hears the oarlocks click

And swells with facts particular to you –
How France is pink, how noon is shadowless,
How bad unruly angels tumbled from
That ivory eminence, and how they burned.

And you are vaguely undermined and plan
Surprise of pennies, some directed gesture,
Being proud and inarticulate, your mind
Dramatic and unpoised, surprised with love.

In silences hermetical as this
The lean ancestral hand returns, the voice
Of unfulfillment with its bladelike touch
Warning our scattered breath to be resolved.

And sons and fathers in their mutual eyes,
Exchange (a moment huge and volatile)
the glance of paralytics, or the news
Of master-builders on the trespassed earth.

Now I am twenty-two and you are dead,
And late in Lincoln Park the rowers cross
Unfavored in their odysseys, the lake
Not dazzling nor wide, but dark and commonplace.

Brinnin was perhaps best known to his generation as “the man who brought Dylan Thomas to America.” As head of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center (now known as the 92nd St. Y) from 1949 to 1956, Brinnin founded a series of poetry readings that included some of the best known poets in America and Britain. He acted as Thomas’s “agent” in America, scheduling readings and arranging for places Thomas could stay. During the Welsh poet’s last cross-country tour in America, Thomas fell ill; despite efforts to fulfill his public obligations, he ended up being taken to a hospital in New York City where he died a few days later; Brinnin’s strange lack of response to the emergency (he didn’t come down to New York from nearby Connecticut until several days later, after the poet had died) stirred up quite a bit of controversy, especially when Thomas’s doctors assigned the cause of death to pneumonia and Brinnin claimed it was alcohol poisoning. The postmortem showed no signs of alcohol being involved in Thomas’s condition, and doctors insisted it had not been an alcoholic coma that Thomas was in but a severe bronchial condition; nevertheless, Brinnin’s assertions played into the myth of the Poet as Self-Destructive Madman, a myth quite popular at the time (and, possibly, still popular now.)

Even more controversy was caused by Brinnin’s publication of the book Dylan Thomas in America, in which he continued to propagate his assertions about the poet’s death and to paint the poet – not completely undeservedly – as a boozer and a womanizer, out of control, in a self-destructive spiral, and functioning without a strong sense of duty to his professional, collegial or marital relationships. Thomas’s family considered Brinnin persona non grata for failing to attend to the poet’s needs while in America and for spreading gossip about him. One reviewer of the biography had this to say about it: “A fascinating read, even if you are not interested in DT. On the surface, a story of wretched excess and inevitable self-destruction, but even in this entirely one-sided account one senses an anxious, self- serving agenda. It was keenly interesting to later read the accounts of Thomas’ family, who regard Brinnin as an exploitative hanger-on who added character assassination to his almost criminal failure to help the dying poet.” Critics have considered the possibility that Brinnin’s indifference and inattention at that crucial time was due to Brinnin being in love with, but rejected by, Thomas. The fact that Brinnin kissed Thomas full on the lips in public on the occasion of one of Thomas’s departures from America might have contributed to that theory.

In spite of the controversy (or perhaps because of it), Dylan Thomas in America sold well, better than Brinnin’s poetry collections had. Brinnin resigned his position at the Poetry Center but continued to spend time with and write about other celebrities in the literary world, many of whom he had met there. He published books about Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Truman Capote (a lifelong friend who, according to Brinnin, abandoned his talent and took on “the role of mascot to cafe society.”) Maybe Brinnin submerging himself in the world of other poets meant withdrawing from that world as a poet himself. As he once told an interviewer, ”I think I’m as well known as I deserve to be.”

In any case, he wrote less poetry after the controversy, publishing only one more collection twenty years later, and he focused on cultivating friendships, editing anthologies, and writing biographical pieces and accounts of travel on ocean liners (a passion of his – he crossed the Atlantic Ocean over sixty times.)  In some way, his role in Key West was that of the leader of a private literary salon, making sure he was a star in that firmament. His book Sextet is full of gossipy anecdotes about celebrities, including some his own friends or the friends of friends. T.S. Eliot, according to Eliot’s roommate, John Howard, was no slouch when it came to self-regard. Hayward told Brinnin “On the day Time magazine came out with his face on the cover, [Eliot] walked for hours looking for wherever he might find it, shamelessly taking peeks at himself.” Christopher Lehman, who reviewed Sextet for the New York Times, said, “…there’s something about these six easy pieces that makes a reader faintly uneasy in the author’s company – something that makes one feel slightly compromised by having to meet these people under Mr. Brinnin’s auspices.” And Brinnin could be vicious. In a review of one of William Meredith’s books of poetry, Brinnin kills three giants with one stone: “In poetic terms, Meredith takes us into a region recently charted by the knuckleboned asperities of Robert Lowell and by the vaudeville turns of conscience played out in the ‘Dream Songs’ of John Berryman.”

I’ve met enough poets and sat through enough lunches with them to know that their personalities are not always in sync with their poetry — affable and upbeat people can write pessimistic and mean-spirited poems; conversely, whiny and egotistical people can write poems that lift our spirits and fill us with wonder. For me, Brinnin the Gossip comes across at times witty, at other times narcissistic; Brinnin’s poetry, on the other hand, is humble and full of wonder. Without wonder (and its co-conspirator, curiosity) poetry cannot exist, and  I agree with Brinnin’s own take on the subject: “Unfortunately, a sense of wonder cannot be instilled, installed, or otherwise attained. Rather it is something like a musical sense — if not quite a matter of absolute pitch, a disposition, something in the genes as exempt from judgment as the incidence of brown eyes or blue.”

The Giant Turtle Grants an Interview

How old are you, Old Silence?
…..I tell time that it is.
And are you full of wonder?
…..Ephemeral verities.
What most do you long for?
…..No end to my retreat.
Have you affections, loves?
…..I savor what I eat.
Do shellbacks talk to shells?
…..Sea is a single word.
Have you some end in mind?
…..No end, and no reward.
Does enterprise command you?
…..I manage a good freight.
Has any counsel touched you?
…..Lie low. Keep quiet. Wait.
Your days – have they a pattern?
…..In the degree of night.
Has solitude a heart?
…..If a circle has a center.
Do creatures covet yours?
…..They knock, but seldom enter.
Have you not once perceived
…..The whole wide world is yours.
I have. Excuse me. I
…..Stay utterly indoors.

Choosing to put Brinnin’s work in front of the readers of Numéro Cinq, I found myself wondering whether we need to admire an artist — the man himself or the woman herself — whose work we admire. The question was raised pointedly in the movie Amadeus — Mozart as a man is a giggling fool but as a composer is a genius, while Salieri the man is serious and committed to his art while the art he produces is mediocre. Some days I find myself thinking that if a poet is a son of a bitch, a bigot, a boozer, a racist, a loud-mouthed fool, a shameless self-promoter and/or a misogynist in real life, I’d rather not read his work, thank you. Other days, I couldn’t care less who the poet is — I just want to see if the necessary element of wonder is present in the poems; if it is, I can relish them and ignore everything else. My conclusion right now is this: John Malcolm Brinnin may, like Capote, have wasted his talent and become another mascot to café society, but he was wrong about himself — he is not as well-known as he deserves to be. I might not choose to play anagrams or poker under a beach umbrella in Florida with someone like him — by many accounts backbiting, gossipy, and self-aggrandizing . But that has nothing to do with how much I enjoy and admire his poems.

Key West Writers“A Day at the Beach, 1984″ – Key West Writers

From top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright. From bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin. Photo by Don Kincaid.

— Julie Larios

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Numero Cinq photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize; her work has been published in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Ecotone and Field, and has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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May 112015
 

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024Photo by Nancy Marshall

 

Sam Savage was born in Camden, South Carolina, on 9 November 1940, the fifth of seven children of Henry Savage, Jr., and Elizabeth Jones Savage. Henry was, to quote the author, “a polymath: lawyer, architect, civic leader, historian, naturalist, and author of several books of history, biography, and natural history,” while Elizabeth’s tastes “were more literary. She was well-read to an exceptional degree.” Savage exhibits a combination of these skills. Though not entering school until age seven, as discussed below, he attended the University of Heidelberg and Yale, graduating from the latter with a degree in philosophy.

For much of his adult life Savage has written poetry and fiction, publishing intermittently from the age of twenty, but not finding his true voice until late in life. In 2005 his first book appeared, The Criminal Life of Effie O., a novel in verse that Savage considers an “amusement.” His career as a fiction writer changed with the publication the next year of Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), a first-person narrative told by Firmin, a male rat that can read. The Cry of the Sloth (2009), an epistolary novel, features every word, right down to grocery lists, written over the course of three months by Andrew Whittaker, minor writer and small-time slum lord. In 2011 came Glass, a first-person set of reminiscences by Edna, who spends her days typing. The Way of the Dog (2013) is a set of reflections by a male narrator named Harold Nivenson, who observes things out the living room window of his home and recalls his former activity within the art world. Savage’s most recent novel is It Will End with Us (2014), a collection of connected memories put down by Eve as she recalls her Southern childhood. All works except the first have been published by Coffee House Press.

This interview was conducted in February and March 2015 via email. My thanks go to Sam Savage for his patience.

 * * * *

Early life and education

Jeff Bursey (JB): Perhaps we could begin with something about your family. What kind of people were they? What did you think of them when growing up, and what do you think of them now?

Sam Savage (SS): Both sides of the family have roots in America going back to the mid-1600s, my mother’s side in Virginia, my father’s in Massachusetts. My father owned large tracts of timberland. We were local gentry of sorts. My father was probably the town’s most prominent and certainly its most admired citizen.

What did/do I think of them? My parents were kind, upright, generous people, utterly devoted to their children. In manners they presented a seamless blend of Yankee restraint and Southern courtesy.

JB: What religion were you raised in?

SS: I attended the Episcopal Church until I was about twelve, when I lost faith in the existence of God.

JB: You had a period of rebellion in your teens, the kind that comes upon many. What were you rebelling against, and what form did that take?

SS: Against everything and nothing—mindless encompassing anger, a condition of such unrestraint that parents would not let their sons and daughters get in the car with me for fear I would entangle them in some catastrophe. It’s a miracle I got out of that alive.

JB: What does it mean for you to consider it a “miracle” you got out of your teens alive?

SS: My teenage years were marked by extremes of recklessness that I can scarcely compass today. The “miracle” is that they did not end with prison or death by automobile.

JB: If we can stay with this for a moment, I’d like to know how you mean the word “miracle” to be taken. It’s a charged religious term, and readers of your work know you are quite often exact, even when being ambiguous. Does it have a particular meaning for you?

SS: I just meant the odds were long.

JB: In The Way of the Dog, your lead character, Harold Nivenson, says: “By the time I was eighteen I was already practically insane. By the time I was twenty I was already completely crazy. I must have been crazy for a long time before that, perhaps from birth.” That sounds like your own experience.

SS: Well, the manner in which we were crazy was different.

JB: With reference to your parents’ manners of restraint and courtesy, where did the “mindless encompassing anger” come from, and where did it go? Were you antagonistic towards those manners? Did these feelings flare up from nowhere and burn out as mysteriously?

SS: I was intensely loyal to my family. No rebellion there. On the contrary, I experienced the house as a place of calm and refuge. Leaving the South lifted a great weight off me, in Boston first, then New York, then France. With each move I felt freer.

JB: Anyone reading your books would know that most of the main characters are simmering with anger, fear, resentment and other emotions, but the narrative only provides brief glimpses of their past. That repression coupled with the at times unhinged nature of Edna or Andrew—their manias, if that’s not an inapt word, shown more than their genesis—creates a lot of the energy and power found in your novels. Do their states owe anything to the intense feelings you had?

SS: I don’t suppose I could ascribe to my characters emotions or states of mind that I had never experienced, but the fact remains that the lives of these characters bear little resemblance to my own.

JB: You speak of losing faith at age 12. In his The Life of Ezra Pound, Noel Stock says one of Pound’s uncles “inclined towards the Episcopal Church because it interfered ‘neither with a man’s politics nor his religion.’” I read that Darwin was a favourite of your father’s. The dearth of any Supreme Mover or Higher Power or God, however one wants to phrase it, is noticeable in your books. In a review of Glass I suggested this: “One wonders if Sam Savage is indicating that we live in a Godless universe, with Edna just one more creature in a glass cage, unloved and not made to last. If so, then this is a chilling picture of old age and contemporary society.” Up to the loss of faith you mentioned, did you feel a tug between science and religion, or was there something more intimate going on?

SS: My answer to your earlier question about religion ought to have been more nuanced. I never had “faith” in any real sense. I attended church with my family when I was quite young, but I never gave two thoughts to what was said there. My first encounter with God was with an absence. I suppose the problem, put crudely, is that I have in the course of life developed a religious sensibility and a scientific mind – a problematic combination. Though I don’t explicitly talk about it, the absence of God is, I think, a presence in all my books, like a shadow falling over them.

JB: That combination—how do you see that working itself out in your life and fiction?

SS: The characters in the novels are searching for meaning in the world and in their lives. I regret if that sounds terribly old-school and cliché. Meaning is not something you can invent, something you can freely choose. If you can choose it you can unchoose it just as easily. It has come from without in some sense. It has to make a claim upon you. Nothing I have seen in the world as I understand it (the natural-scientific world) is capable of making such a claim, and all my protagonists experience that.

JB: It doesn’t sound old-school to me. I would ask where you think meaning resides when you say it “has come from without…”

SS: I mean it has to come from beyond and be independent of our ratiocination and whim. Meaning is something you discover. It is something you experience, not something you can just make up. Where it resides now I have no idea. For a large segment of Western culture there was a general collapse of meaning, a disenchantment and desacralization of the world, between Darwin and the end of the First World War. Modernism in literature and art can be seen as a response to this, an attempt to reckon with the new reality.

glass

JB: Where did the first years of your education take place, what type was it, was it satisfactory, and were there particular teachers you got something from or who saw something in you?

SS: I hated school from the moment I stepped through the schoolhouse door when I was seven. I hated the teachers, the books, the building. I was in and out, refusing to go and (when sent to boarding school) running away. I was twenty when I finally graduated from high school. Except for a smattering of mathematics, everything useful I had learned by that time I had taught myself or absorbed by osmosis from my family. I went to Yale (admitted on the strength of SATs), disliked it there, and dropped out after three months. I returned five years later, finished the undergraduate program in three years, graduating in 1968.

JB: Were your feelings about school, at age seven and a little more, understood or tolerated by your parents, even as, I assume, they insisted you keep attending?

SS: The Savage family did not have harmonious relations with schools. Some of my siblings had relations nearly as stormy as my own. My parents understood perfectly that the fault lay in the stupidity and unconscious petty brutality of the schools and not with their children, who wanted nothing better than to be encouraged to learn in their own way. They did not insist that we continue, once they had grasped what torture it was for us.

I started at seven because the school was overcrowded and there was no room for me the previous year. I had attended a total of seven schools by the time I graduated, and I had gone one year without attending school at all. For most of that epoch I was more interested in cars than books. I wasn’t made to feel peculiar. I always had friends. I think some people thought I was crazy, but that didn’t bother me. I was thoroughly miserable through most of my teenage years, but not more so than a lot of other people at that age. Given a time machine, it is not a period of my life that I would willingly visit.

The 1950s were an awful time—oppressive, violent, hypocritical, frightened, and suffocating, doubly so in the deep South. I don’t know if a decade can kill a man, but the 1950s came close to killing me, I think Norman Mailer remarked somewhere. I wasn’t quite a man yet, but it was a rotten epoch to come of age in. My wife jokes that I can’t talk about the 1950s without, as she puts it, “frothing at the mouth.”

JB: Did you know how to read before going to school at what seems a late age?

SS: I was read to, but with four older siblings I was not read to as much as I am sure my mother would have liked. I taught myself to read in the first week or so of school, and I had no use for school after that. In those first days we were drilled in the alphabet. There was a moment of insight: I suddenly saw how it all worked, how the code worked, with letters standing in for sounds. That was a Friday. My mother told me I sat in the house for two days puzzling it out. On Monday I could read.

JB: I’ve not heard of any child figuring out how to read like that. Was this something your siblings could also do?

SS: I don’t know. Understand that I wasn’t jumping into Dickens—I was just reading my first-grade books: See Spot run. See Jane run, and so forth.

JB: What did you like to read at that age?

SS: I read all sorts of things. Hardy boys of course, and endless comic books, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini, the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, but also Walter Scott and Dickens. A child doesn’t read like an adult, processing language; he dreams the book. I read Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Waverly, Quentin Durward, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, completely untroubled by the hundreds of words I didn’t know, sailing right over them. I would give anything to be able to read like that again.

JB: The words you didn’t understand in those books you read as a child, did you ever look them up?

SS: I don’t think so. I don’t remember making use of a dictionary as a child. I remember that my oldest sister, four years older than me, spent a long time memorizing Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, so she wouldn’t have to bother looking up words anymore. I remember being terribly impressed by that. I must have been eleven or twelve when she was doing that.

JB: You say: “everything useful I had learned by that time I had taught myself or absorbed by osmosis from my family.” What were those things? And do you mean useful for you alone or useful for anyone?

SS: I mean useful to me as a writer—the capacity to recognize a good sentence, a fondness for clarity and wit, a boundless admiration for artistic achievement and its corollary: sympathy for those who strive and fail.

JB: Your phrase about how a child “dreams the book” brings two things to mind. First, in Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life, he talks about “the physical ambiance of the occasion,” and the feel of the book, the smell of the pages. In that book Miller also says he’d love to have a library of the books he read from childhood to becoming a young man, which seems to echo your thoughts.

SS: I have had feelings like Miller’s. I used to love buying new books. I loved having them in the bookcase. These days not so much. I use the public library when I can, except for books by living authors. Those I always buy: I don’t like depriving an author of his or her meager pittance. I got rid of almost all my books a dozen years ago, thousands of volumes, but now they are piling up again. As Edna remarks, books are rather unsanitary objects. They collect dust easily, have a tendency to mold, and are among the rare personal items that cannot be washed.

Sam&Son 1982 (637x640)Sam and Son, 1982

JB: Second, that phrase would seem to encapsulate the form of your narratives as spun out by your characters: they write letters, memoirs, notes, and impressions, on typewriters and by hand, all in an effort to reach some imagined or real Other. Though it might be more accurate to say they nightmare the book.

SS: I don’t see the narratives as dreamlike except maybe in the way they are not governed by any overarching schema, in the way the narrative wanders down a path that has no goal or preset destination, where paragraph 38 is there because paragraph 37 is there, or maybe for no reason at all, because it popped up in the narrator’s head at just that moment.

JB: Before talking further about your books, can you describe in a bit more detail your time at university, and your studies? Were there any professors you recall fondly or otherwise? What kind of philosophy did you prefer studying, and has that interest changed over time?

SS: In September 1960 I entered Yale the first time, disliked it there and dropped out after three months. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for spring semester 1961 and dropped out. I went to New York at the beginning of 1962, left for France in early 1963, and returned to Yale in the fall of 1965. I don’t remember the name or face of a single classmate from those years.

I was at the University of Heidelberg for three semesters in 1970-1971 while still in graduate school at Yale. I did not take a degree there. I went to Heidelberg to study philosophy and improve my German, and because Hans-Georg Gadamer, a prominent post-Heideggerian, was a professor there. Two professors at Yale had a strong effect on my thinking then, and even today to some extent: Karsten Harries, who taught Heidegger, and Robert Fogelin, who taught Wittgenstein.

Two hours after defending my doctoral thesis (on the political thought of Thomas Hobbes) at Yale I was on a train to Boston. I have never been back.

 

Career

JB: Though you left Yale quickly after the defense, while you were a student did you imagine a career as a philosophy professor or as a philosopher? What kind of philosophy did you prefer?

SS: I spent most of my time on German philosophy, Kant to Heidegger. But also classical Greek philosophy and Wittgenstein. In my final year as an undergraduate I was named “Scholar of the House,” which meant that I was exempted from course work that year and allowed to spend all my time on a thesis, rather like a Master’s program. I wrote my thesis on Nietzsche. I also taught Nietzsche at Yale during the three semesters I was hired as what they called an Acting Instructor, which meant basically a full-time teacher who was paid very little. I also taught an introduction to ethics and a course on Marx.

I enjoyed teaching, but I never wanted a university career. I finished graduate school in 1972, taught for a while, as I said, and got my Ph.D. in 1979. In the years between 1973 and 1978 I was living in France and making fitful stabs at writing fiction, actually imagining myself as a writer but not accomplishing anything, and at the same time doing nothing to advance my doctoral studies. In 1978 I decided to complete the doctorate, for no good reason, just so as not to have another abandoned project on my conscience. It took me six months to research and write the thesis. It was a fine, almost intoxicating feeling, to be through with the academic world for good. I went back home to South Carolina, to a little town of 400 souls, stayed there for the next twenty-three years, raised two children, and wrote doggedly, living all the while on my small income, occasional jobs, and the labors of my wife.

JB: On the academic world. Harold Nivenson says: “The university as presently constituted… is a death-trap for the mind, I have long thought.” Does that come close to your own beliefs?

SS: Yes.

JB: What about being employed, at odd jobs or more regular work, in childhood, as a student, or later?

SS: I never held after-school or summer jobs while growing up. My mother thought it wrong for the children of more affluent families to take summer jobs that would otherwise go to those who needed them more. She was right of course. I later worked at several jobs intermittently over the years, none for very long, except for those few years teaching, first as a teaching assistant and then as acting instructor.

It is important to note here that I always had a small inherited income, not enough to live on easily, but enough to keep me free of the economic restraints that drive many people into careers they dislike. I was fortunate in being naturally handy, I actually enjoyed physical labor of the less grueling sort, and neither I nor Nora minded living on little. People like to talk about the unusual jobs I have held, but some of those were actually of no importance, more like pastimes than work.

JB: Apart from studying, and writing, was there something enjoyable outside academia? Theater, museums, films, or travel, for instance. Or was it all work?

SS: Films, of course, especially those of the Nouvelle Vague, and I was crazy about ballet, used to sit all night on the sidewalk for a ticket to see Nureyev dance. Besides getting a degree, I read a lot of philosophy at the university. I am at a loss to say how or to what degree that immersion in philosophy has affected my writing.

JB: What did you like about ballet, and is that still an interest?

SS: I still love ballet. I love the brave and futile challenge to gravity and to the burden of a human body. Witnessing a fine ballet is for me like watching angels taxiing for takeoff.

JB: Do you go to live ballet performances now? How has that art changed, in your opinion, since you first started going?

SS: Every year, when we lived in South Carolina, Nora and I would attend the ballet performances at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Sometimes a decent dance company shows up in Madison, but I am not able to go anymore. With such sporadic attendance I am not in a position to comment on the evolution of the art.

JB: What did you take away from time in France and Germany?

SS: From Germany, mostly a little better understanding of the polyvalence of history and a lot better grasp of spoken German, which I have, alas, almost entirely lost in the decades since. France is different. I have always felt most at home there. I lived in France for a total of over eight years. Many of my closest friends have been French. I was married to a French woman for seven years. I have a son who was raised in France. Nora Manheim, mother of my two other children, who has stuck by me for forty years now, is an American who grew up entirely in France, daughter of expatriates there. I haven’t been back in a long time.

JB: You mentioned having friends when in school but not remembering anyone from university. Was socializing with classmates not important, or did whoever you meet at that time simply fall out of your life once you were done with the institution?

SS: You have to understand. I was 25 years old, I had been around, and now I was once again a freshman at an all-male institution that was, socially, indistinguishable from an elite New England prep school. Most of the students lived on another planet from me. Furthermore I was married and father of a child. I lived off-campus, something no other undergraduate students did at that time. I am talking about undergraduate years. I do remember some of my fellow students in graduate school, though I haven’t kept in touch with any of them.

JB: I understand you would like to leave some matters alone, so we can move on. What was the appeal of South Carolina? Where did you move after that, and why?

SS: It was a place where, after so many years, I found I was comfortable again. It was still unjust in many ways, but the violence was mostly gone and you could see progress every day, something that was hardly the case in the rest of the country. I like to sit with Southerners and talk. They still tell the best stories. I love the swamps and marshes. My wife and I, with the help of friends, built a house in the woods there. I would be there still if I could. We moved to Madison twelve years ago. We moved because we have a disabled daughter, and this is a better place for her than isolated among the pine trees in South Carolina.

With Nora 2013(640x424)Sam and Nora, Madison, Wisconsin, 2013

JB: What is life like in Madison? Are there storytellers there, like in South Carolina?

SS: Life in Madison? I work. I used to take walks in the neighborhood. Now I look out the window. In the warmer seasons Nora and I go out to lunch once or twice a week. My sons come for long visits every year. Friends come from South Carolina and from France. I don’t know anybody in Madison apart from neighbors, a couple of Nora’s friends, and doctors. I can hardly be said to live here. I feel I am just passing through, practically unobserved, like a ghost.

 

Health and writing

JB: In the 1970s you learned you had alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. What is that, in your own words?

SS: I am missing a blood component that protects the lungs from attack by some of the body’s own enzymes. The consequences vary widely. Chief among the more serious are liver failure and lung destruction in the form or early onset emphysema. I noticed breathing problems before I was thirty, but assumed it was asthma. It’s an ineluctable, irreversible process.

JB: Does your health feed into your fiction?

SS: It must, though I am hard put to say how. Illness is a world of its own. Everything is colored by it. I have outlived my prognosis by many years, but for decades the illness would not let me contemplate a “normal” life stretching into a vague and distant future. All my narrators are, one way or the other, in the process of dying.

JB: When you say you have “outlived your prognosis,” I think of the tenacity of certain characters in your novels, but it’s of a kind that comes from the most basic instinct for survival. No one in your books, human animals or non-human animals, to use a current distinction, lives well. As you say, they’re “in the process of dying.” Do you explore the extinguishing of life with your own health in mind because it’s a topic of interest, to have a conversation with yourself, to communicate something that can’t come out any other way, or for other reasons?

SS: Had I been in booming health, I might have written differently, I suppose, though there are also reasons to think otherwise. There was a long period, in my twenties and early thirties, before I became really noticeably sick, when awareness of death in the form of a boundless encompassing dread was so persistent and unbearable that I contemplated suicide in order to escape it. I thought: better die now than experience this dread every day, possibly for decades, and still die in the end. I am constantly amazed that not everyone seems to feel this. I suspect a cover-up. Maybe a genetically based survival mechanism that lets us be deliberately stupid in this regard, so we can get on with our lives as if nothing were amiss. Bad faith on a planetary scale. Maybe being sick—and during the last twenty years quite obviously so—has made me more sensitive to the blitheness with which we normally—and I suppose I can say mercifully—go about the business of living. But there is such a thing as truth in fiction. A novel, if it is any good, ought to let us see the lies we tell ourselves. It is not a novelist’s job to be merciful.

JB: That dread of death ended before you became sick. Obviously it never felt so overwhelming as to make you commit suicide. What kept you alive? And did the dread taper off or end because you became sick?

SS: What keeps anybody alive? Love, distraction, I suppose, and, above all, an unwillingness to do that to my children.

JB: Kjersti A. Skomsvold is the author of The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am. She had been diagnosed with an illness, and went home to her parents’ basement to die. There she began to write that novel. At a PEN event she gave a talk in which she said: “I was very lonely those years, and scared. When I was lying there, looking up at the ceiling, I started to think about death. I wonder if the inevitable loneliness of being human is due to the fact that when we die, we die alone.” That seems to be one of the merciless truths your novels explore, especially in Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth, but being alone is present in the other works too.

SS: We die alone, of course. No one can die my death for me. The awareness of death throws us back into the essential solitude of the self as nothing else can. We are talking now about something more fundamental than loneliness, which can be relieved by other people. We are talking about aloneness, that state in which we are genuinely ourselves and not anyone else, when the social world with its myriad deceptions has fallen away. All my protagonists dwell, each in his or her own way, in that aloneness.

JB: “All my protagonists dwell, each in his or her own way, in that aloneness.” With your health the way it is, and the early dread of dying, would you say that your awareness of aloneness is given to these characters or is it impossible to write them without that as a precondition?

SS: I think one can write about all sorts of things one has not experienced. I imagine that with enough research I could set a fairly credible novel in prison or in Moscow. But I doubt the same is true of states of consciousness.

 

Publication

JB: When did you start writing, and what did you start with? When did you start writing for publication? What sort of reception did it have? I know in Poets & Writers you stated there were only a few poems published and that you stopped writing at age 55. Had writing, as an activity, pleased you up to a certain point and then, due to not being accepted, ceased to be that? What had it become by the time you stopped?

SS: I was eighteen when I first imagined becoming a writer. By the time I dropped out of college at twenty I saw writing as what I essentially did, everything else being ancillary to that. And so it has been ever since except for the five or six years I was obsessed with philosophy. I wrote a great deal, mostly poetry, but fragments of novels as well, and disliked what I wrote, and threw it out. I was not discouraged by rejections. I submitted rarely, was accepted as often as I could expect. It was not a rewarding thing to do, publishing poems of no interest alongside other poems of no interest in journals that nobody read. Publication has never been the goal; rejection has never been the problem. The writing I did for forty-odd years was not coming from the place that real writing comes from, and I knew that, and that was the problem. Genuine writing, writing that is true and good, is a product of compulsion. It possesses the shape and content it does because you can’t do it any other way. It took me a long time to feel that what I wrote was coming out of that kind of necessity.

JB: What happened to change things?

SS: I don’t know. One day the writing was different, and I knew it.

JB: What kinds of poetry did you write at first, and what kinds of fiction?

SS: Between the time I left Yale and the time I returned I was primarily interested in the poetry coming out of Black Mountain: Olson, Creeley, Oppenheimer, Duncan. Also W.C. Williams and the whole objectivist school, George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff in particular. And behind them all, of course, the poetry of Ezra Pound. I wrote a fair amount in a sort of objectivist vein. Nothing survives from that time. I doubt it was any good. Most of my fiction efforts in those early years were attempts to make money so I could live as a poet: unfinished crime and science-fiction novels, and even an attempt at a romance novel. That one turned rather lurid, as I recall.

JB: What appealed to you about the Objectivists and the Black Mountain poets? Has that lasted?

SS: I think it was the economy, the avoidance of cliché and worn-out rhythms, and the sparseness of the verse. I haven’t read any of them in decades. The poet I feel closest to, the one who has spoken to me in the most personal way for decades now, is John Berryman. He alone in modern literature is able to achieve a truly Shakespearian pathos.

JB: What fiction writers, beyond Williams and, I suppose, Reznikoff, did you read? Who do you read now?

SS: I am not familiar with any fiction by Williams or Reznikoff. A list of the books I have read over my many years would be exceedingly tedious. Among the modern writers who “knocked my socks off,” as Firmin liked to put it, the first time I read them would be Céline, Hamsun, Joyce, Beckett, Bernhard, Faulkner, Gaddis, Lowry. I read less now than I use to, and I read more slowly now. I don’t know much about contemporary fiction, meaning the works of writers younger than me. I reread a fair amount. Here’s what I read this past winter: I reread The Brother’s Karamazov for the third or fourth time; I read two novels and a memoire by Natalie Sarraute (The Golden Fruits, Do You Hear Them?, and Childhood), The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, and Henry James’s The Bostonians. Not a long list. And I notice it contains only one contemporary writer. But it is typical, probably, of my reading in recent years.

JB: Does reading inspire you to write, or make you think, “I could do something with that”? A related question: when you’re writing, do you stay away from reading certain writers or genres?

SS: I received from my parents, from their own attitudes, the gift of admiration. While reading a novel I often think how wonderful it would be to write like that. This past winter I was reading The Golden Fruits. Nora passed through the room, and I said something to the effect that this was a wonderful novel. She laughed and said, “You always say that.” I was interested to see, when David Markson’s library ended up at the Strand, that he wrote marginal comments in the novels he read, often highly critical comments, as if arguing with the author. I don’t do anything like that.

As for avoiding certain writers or genres, I stay away from books that I suspect might resemble the thing I am working on.

Sam&Nora 1993 (640x433)Sam and Nora, 1993

JB: Did you, or do you, feel part of a community of writers? Here I mean not only connected to those who you read but those who you met. Not that you felt part of a group—that would surprise me—but if you perceived that individual contemporary authors were on the same wavelength as you. If that does exist, is that shared interest—in topics, approach, what have you—important for your morale? Does it help keep you going? Or do you feel lonely as a writer?

SS: I have two writer friends, one of whom I haven’t seen in fifty years, and neither are remotely on my wavelength. Do I feel lonely as a writer? I don’t know that lonely is the word. I feel isolated.

JB: In your published novels there is often a mystery as to what’s going on, where the fault lines are in a character, how they landed where we see them, and, as mentioned, with very little history given. The reader is expected to piece things together. Is that a lingering effect—a good one, in my opinion—from trying to write crime novels?

SS: I don’t think so. If that tendency came from anywhere it was more likely from reading Faulkner and Ford Maddox Ford. You are right that I require readers to be more active and engaged than maybe most novelists do. I want to make it so readers have to participate in the creation of the story. I want them to lend their consciousness and lifeblood to the characters, so those characters can come alive inside them.

JB: What kind of science fiction did you write? And romance—I’m imagining a younger and more cheerful Eve Taggart, from It Will End with Us, in a sweltering southern city, with beaus and such.

SS: Dystopias, of course. I don’t remember my attempt at a romance novel. I only recall my judgment of the fragments I managed to produce: dishonest and second-rate, even for pulp.

JB: If publication has never been the goal, what has been, and has that goal changed over time?

SS: I once, only half facetiously, made a list of three things I wanted to accomplish in life: run a marathon, learn to play the saxophone, and write a great poem. I have failed at all three.

In fact I have always had only one goal: to write one truly good poem, or later, one truly good novel.

JB: Twenty-three years writing. What did you learn about yourself in that time? Patience, I assume.

SS: I learned that I am a certifiable lunatic who can’t quite admit the jump is too high for him to clear.

JB: What keeps you trying to make that jump?

SS: God only knows. A lot of free time, maybe, and a mulish temperament.

JB: Before getting into what these books are about, I’d like to know when the title comes to you.

SS: All the titles were chosen after the novels were written. While in progress they bore the names of their narrators: Firmin, Whittaker, Edna, Nivenson, Eve. I would like to have kept those names as the final titles, but the publisher wouldn’t have wanted to do that.

JB: I know you like Gilbert Sorrentino, whose last books were also published by Coffee House Press. He wrote in an essay called “Genetic Coding” that he has “an obsessive concern with formal structure…” Many of your works could be said to fall into the category of memoir, since we don’t get the particulars of the lives of these figures. Is this revisiting of that form, if indeed that’s what it is, on one level similar to what Sorrentino is referring to?

SS: While I admire Sorrentino, his integrity as an artist, his capacity for formal invention, and the frequent brilliance of his writing, we have almost nothing in common. He once remarked, I believe, that for him content was an extension of form. For me the opposite is true. I am, I fear, an old-fashioned realist at heart. However, looking back on it all, I can see there is a structure common to all the novels. They are, as you observed, first-person narratives, confessions really. The speaker is always confined in a dwelling of some sort (bookstore, apartment, house, etc.). All the narrators/protagonists are attempting to complete a work of some sort, and in most cases that work is the one we are reading. Another odd thing, which I am at a loss to explain: every novel has an emblematic animal: rat, sloth, rat and fish, dog, birds. In one case (Firmin) the narrator might (or might not) actually be an animal. In another he imagines himself as an animal (Sloth). In The Way of the Dog the animal becomes emblematic of acceptance and wisdom. In Glass the rat and fish are emblematic of Edna’s confinement and separation from the world (by sheets of glass). In It Will End with Us the birds are emblems of transcendence, I suppose I can say.

 

The novels

JB: Was The Criminal Life of Effie O. your first completed book? Is there an earlier completed manuscript in a desk drawer? How long before your work was accepted by a publishing house, and did that experience work out as you had hoped?

SS: Nothing in the desk drawer of any interest. I found a publisher (Coffee House Press) in a matter of weeks—no dramatic tale of artistic suffering and perseverance there. I have no complaints about Coffee House Press. There are obvious disadvantages to publishing with a small house, but they have never interfered in the writing itself. They have stuck by me through thick and thin (a lot of thin lately), something no commercial press would have been able to do.

Effie O. was written as an amusement, a joint project with my sister, who illustrated it. I published it only because I didn’t want her to have wasted her time on illustrations for a book that would stay in a drawer. I don’t know if it will ever be of interest to anyone. I toy with the idea of taking it out of print. It would make a good basis for a musical, though, and maybe somebody someday will find some such use for it.

JB: Are you musical?

SS: Though I love music, I have no musical talent. Unhappy lessons on the flute as a child were proof of that.

JB: Can you say something about the kinds of music you like?

SS: Classical and jazz, for the most part. And Dylan. But he’s an outlier.

JB: Particular composers or epochs? Do you go to concerts?

SS: In classical, pretty much any epoch, though I am not musician enough to enjoy some complex modern works. Most of Schoenberg, Webern, and Carter, for example, is beyond my reach. In jazz, it’s the 1950s and 1960s. Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Mingus, etc.

JB: Do you write with music playing?

SS: Never. In fact I don’t understand how some people can do that. When I write I have rhythms in my head that are impossible to hear when other rhythms are being laid on top of them.

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JB: Why would you think of taking Effie O. out of print?

SS: I had hoped that the relative success of Firmin would prompt people to take a look at Effie O., but that seems not to have happened. It was not intended to be a great artwork. It was meant to entertain. If it fails to do that, I don’t see the point of it. It is like when you tell a joke and no one laughs. All you feel is embarrassment.

JB: Andrew Whittaker asks himself if his jokes “were ever funny, or did I just make them seem so by my laughter.” It’s one of the many sad comments he makes.

Could you say a little about how each book came to be?

SS: The process is always the same. I write the first paragraphs, more or less out of the blue, without knowing who is speaking or where it is going. Mostly those paragraphs go nowhere. But rarely (meaning it has happened five times) several other paragraphs follow, I catch a voice, a way of speaking and writing unique to that character. I am usually well into the novel before I get a glimpse of the shape it will take in the long run. I don’t know how it will end until I get there. Everything else in the novel gets revised or shifted about but those first paragraphs remain unchanged, almost word for word the way I wrote them.

JB: Where does the “voice” come from for the paragraphs that become novels?

SS: I have no idea. It is suddenly there. I don’t of course mean an audible voice: a way of speaking, a way of seeing the world from an angle so specific that it defines the character of the person who is viewing the world in that way.

JB: The first book of yours that I read was Firmin. That a rat—or an apparent rat, to keep your distinction in mind—could elicit sympathy is a feat of the imagination. He lives on chewing books, but also becomes literate, though he can’t speak anything other than, well, Rat. He is ostracized by his family for his astonishing abilities, and he can’t connect to the human world, represented by Pembroke Books, where he lives. He is outside everything. I assume that no one could have predicted the popularity of this book. Tell me about its reception and how it affected you.

SS: I thought the book was good, and I thought it would get a favorable reception, but I assumed this would come from a very narrow audience. If somebody had suggested the book would sell three thousand copies I would have scoffed. When it started selling in the hundreds of thousands in Europe I was flabbergasted. Flabbergasted by the numbers, of course, but also by the fact that people seemed to be reading a book I didn’t know I had written. They were encountering a lovable character, some even found him “cute” (the unkindest compliment of all), when I had meant to model him on the despicable self-loathing narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. I thought I had a written a tragedy. I thought it was desperate book. I felt like shouting, “But that’s not what I meant, that’s not it at all.” This widespread reading was reinforced by Random House, which issued a hideous edition of the book with a big bite taken out of the cover and little mice in the margins of the pages in what I think was a deliberate effort to trivialize the novel, trivialization being, in the publishing world, widely viewed as a recipe for success. It might have been better if subsequent publishers had kept the marvelous illustrations Michael Mikolowski did for the original Coffee House Press edition, which have a much harder edge than the later ones by Fernando Krahn.

I recognize that an author’s intention is not the sole criterion for the interpretation of a work, that it is the reader’s privilege to see the novel differently from the way I meant it, but nevertheless I was thoroughly disconcerted by the discrepancy. I sometimes feel that I am not actually the author of that book that sold in those hundreds of thousands. A bystander, an innocent witness to the hoopla.

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JB: Especially since in Firmin there is this line: “I despise good-natured old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones.” That would seem warning enough to a reader not to view this as a novelty tale.

You’re surprised by how this book was received, that you meant to convey something different than what many readers came away with. Do you think people misread the book? Do you think there were themes and emotions in that novel that might have seemed minor to you, or escaped you entirely, but that were primary for other readers? I wonder if you think eisegesis was performed by many.

SS: Clearly there are themes and emotions that escaped me. Some readers found a book I didn’t know I had written, that perhaps I might not have written had I been aware of it. But in no way am I denying that I wrote it, however inadvertently.

I certainly don’t resent the success. But I do think it has probably hurt the reception of my other novels. It has given a lot of people a wrong idea of the kind of writer I am. They come to those other novels with certain expectations, and they are disappointed. And then of course they blame me for it, as if I had written a bad novel rather than a pretty good novel that was just not for them. Or they don’t come to the other novels at all, thinking that I am only the author of a funny rat story.

JB: As you said, intention is not the only criterion. Leaving aside The Confessions of Effie O. and Firmin, which of your other novels has been received and understood more like you wanted?

SS: I don’t have any complaints in the case of the last three. The reception of The Cry of the Sloth was sometimes problematic for me. People tended to pigeonhole it as a satire of the so-called literary world, which it really isn’t, at least not fundamentally. I don’t know anything about the literary world and have no interest in satirizing it. The novel was meant to be a satire of the human capacity for ambition and delusion, in whatever milieu, and a study of a certain complex self-parodying individual at war with himself and his environment.

JB: Do you stay away from the literary world?

SS: Not expressly. I am simply not part of it, have never been part of it. I don’t live in a writerly world, in Brooklyn, for example, and I am not connected to a university. When I began to publish I was already too sick to do writerly things like readings, book fairs, and so forth, where I might have encountered denizens of that world.

JB: The diction and tone, grammar and perspectives, of your novels are always very precise. In a letter to his ex-wife, Andrew says: “Even at the time of your departure at least half of them”—he’s talking about houses they own—“were white elephants or worse, and they are now so heavily mortgaged, so deteriorated, they barely suffice to keep my small raft afloat while it is being tossed about on an ocean of shit, meager as it is and weighted with the barest of necessities. (I mean to say the raft is meager; the ocean of shit is, of course, boundless.)” Edna is also careful in her language: “And I ought not to have said that the doorbell rang suddenly. After all, how else could it ring? Unless it were outfitted with some sort of crescendoing device that would let it gradually work its way up from a tinkle.” Does this precision occur, or have to occur, in those first paragraphs, is it natural for you to write that way, or do you introduce this finicky aspect into the narrative as you build the character?

SS: No, it is not natural for me to write that way. This was a trait belonging to those characters, not to me, a trait reflective of their personalities, though it functions differently in the two cases. I don’t in fact write like any of my characters.

JB: After those first few paragraphs, if they look to be going well, do you make notes about things you would like the character to say?

SS: Yes. Things like that pop into my head at all hours, and I jot them down and later put them in a folder that I label “material.” Some end up in the novel, a lot more prove useless.

JB: How do you know when a project is or isn’t going well?

SS: I know it isn’t going well when it stops going, when further paragraphs fail to appear. I struggle with it for a while – where “struggle” means staring out the window – and if nothing comes, I drop it. That’s the usual way. Lots of false starts. But now and then the character takes over. It’s a feeling many novelists have, I think – that the character, or the writer’s unconscious mind, takes command of the story to such an extent that you feel you are taking dictation.

JB: I’ve mentioned how a tale about a rat can be affecting. Did you think that as you wrote? I don’t mean that you’re calculating how to wring pathos from vermin. But do you feel the emotional truth of your writing as you go on, line by line? In case anyone thinks that there is only misery and grief in your novels, I should say there are passages and lines that have made me laugh, unexpectedly most times. Do you feel enjoyment when you write?

SS: I frequently laughed out loud while writing The Cry of the Sloth. It’s an odd thing: I have to force myself to begin writing in the morning. I will find all sorts of excuses to put off doing it. When it is going well I can’t say whether I enjoy it or not, I am so completely lost to myself. Nabokov referred to his characters as his slaves. Maybe that is a common sentiment among grand Apollonian novelists. But in my case it is just the reverse of that.

JB: Are you, then, a slave to the characters?

SS: Absolutely.

JB: You say you’re “an old-fashioned realist…” I might differ when you leave it there. But perhaps you might define that term before we go on.

SS: I don’t mean anything technical by it, just that I hope I have created thoroughly believable characters who live in a world we recognize as our common world, however distorted it might appear when seen through the eyes of my narrators, and that includes Firmin. Most of the richest characters in literature belong to the realist tradition. I think it is mainly the subjectivity of my works that distinguishes them from classically realist novels.

JB: Whenever I read your books and the works of some others—Gabriel Josipovici, Cesar Aira, and Karl Ove Knausgaard are examples—I become wrapped up in them, even with pen and notepaper at hand, and my notion of reality gets nudged sideways. The intensity of the way you present manias and severe anxieties, set within a claustrophobic environment of one character’s consciousness and one person’s physical space, displaces my own consciousness temporarily, an aim I assume you have. It therefore robs me of whatever reality I own (however provisionally), a state of affairs that lasts for a bit after I close the book. I feel my presence and the narrator’s presence—or maybe saying the narrative’s presence is more accurate—mingling. Slowly my mind becomes my own again, but it is coloured—it has been coloured since Firmin—with what you have written. Hopefully—hopefully on more than one level—I’m not the only one who responds that way. I close the book and your reality is there, and what was mine is not, not right away, and not in the same way after.

What I want to get at it is that your version of a “common world,” perhaps against what traditional or current realists (Jonathan Franzen, perhaps) say is theirs, replaces what readers experience, if they allow themselves to sink into the writing. We can agree that the characters are subjectively realistic, but how are you only a realist when, first, the thinking and experiences of Firmin, Andrew, and Edna, to use the most extreme cases, are skewed or “distorted,” according to conventional standards, to the extent that they aren’t in what some would consider the real world—by which is meant the sane, commonsense world—and, second, when you posit alternate worlds with such fidelity and relentlessness?

SS: I am happy that in your case the books have had such an effect. And, as I said earlier, that is precisely my intention. But I insist, my characters are in the common world. All I have done, through the skewing and distorting you mention, is simplify that world so everyone can see, to use William Burroughs’ phrase, what is on the end of every fork. I would guess that if the state of affairs presented in the novel temporarily displaces your own consciousness, as you say, that is because you recognize that it is your world too.

JB: I’ll consider that last remark, but away from this interview.

That “sparseness of the verse” of the Objectivists and Black Mountain poets remains with you as you aim to simplify?

SS: I don’t think so, not in the sense they intended. Except for It Will End with Us I don’t think of my novels as sparse. “Concise” is the word I would choose. As I said, I feel closer to Berryman, who is about as far from those guys as you can get.

JB: Where and how do you write? By hand, on a typewriter or computer? And could you describe your process of revision? Is there much editorial discussion with Coffee House Press?

SS: I write on a computer. Before computers, I used a typewriter. On a computer I am able to try out sentences, turn them this way and that, as many times as I like, something one is loath to do on a typewriter or in longhand. I fiddle with them endlessly. When revising I save the work as a new file and rewrite from the beginning. I seldom go back and rewrite individual parts, since by doing that I would lose the feel of their place in the whole, the tempo, for example, or the overarching mood in which they are inserted.

I have rewritten a novel many times before Coffee House ever sees it. They get a clean piece of work. The editors make some suggestions, but they never attempt to override my decisions. All writers should be so fortunate. After reading the manuscript of Glass the late Allan Kornblum, publisher and founder of Coffee House Press, said, in a warning, “It’s hard to recover from a book like this,” meaning I was heading for disastrous sales and a reputation for not selling that would dog all future books. He was right, of course, but he published it anyway.

JB: Do you print parts of or the whole manuscript and edit by hand after writing on the computer?

SS: No. The only novel I printed out before finishing was Glass, and it is also the only novel whose parts were radically rearranged ex post facto. I printed the novel and chopped it into pieces, maybe forty or fifty, and spread them out on the floor of the living room. Then I walked around and rearranged them. It was the only way I could manage an overview of the whole thing.

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JB: We’ve talked about the kinds of writing you attempted before finding your true voice. In The Cry of the Sloth Whittaker’s letters make up the bulk of the novel, and we are also presented with his diary entries and fragments of his own fiction. Did you use discarded writings of your own or were these bits created during the process of writing?

SS: They were all invented for the occasion.

JB: How was it to write those parts?

SS: Writing for me is a form of impersonation, I think I can say, and so this novel was the occasion for a much larger variety of “experiences” or, maybe, “performances.” If I had a chance to relive the writing of one of my novels, I would choose it.

JB: You mentioned laughing while writing this book. Was it fun to create such a waspish figure as Whittaker? He has some very good lines.

SS: Yes, it was often fun, but sometimes he would break my heart.

JB: What meaning does Whittaker search for, and do you think it’s fruitless? When I read that book, with its time setting in the Nixon era, it seemed to bring together the mess of his own home and the devaluation of property, as mentioned above, with systemic corruption of an organizing entity. How could Whittaker find positive meaning when surrounded by such competing forces?

SS: Near the end of the novel Whittaker says, “I have unpacked my soul and nothing is in it.” He has arrived at the end of his illusions. The image of himself that had guided and oppressed him has been shattered, and he is free. Free for death, possibly, but also free for another kind of life.

It is at that point, in that spiritual desolation, where the constructed self has come undone, that the next three novels begin.

JB: Are these novels a quartet or quintet, then, if we include Firmin? Or do Glass, The Way of the Dog, and This Will End with Us make up a trilogy? How would you characterize the sequence, and would you have an overall title for the works?

SS: I didn’t intend them that way, but in retrospect I can see that the last three do form a sort of trilogy. I would love to see them in a single volume. Maybe I would steal a title from Raymond Chandler and call it The Long Goodbye.

JB: Edna in Glass has to type. This seems to be what she does most. How did you come up with that?

SS: I’m not sure. She was already typing when I met her. But forty years ago I was friends with a man who lived in a basement and “processed” his life, as he put it, writing down everything he thought or experienced in one notebook after another. Though he worked at it for hours every day, he was falling steadily behind, life was unrolling faster than he could record it, to his great distress. He might have been the inspiration for Edna.

JB: In the novel there appears this passage: “I could not think of anything to type at Potopotawoc. Sometimes I copied things out of magazines, I typed an entire issue of the New Yorker, including the ads.” When critics responded to The Cry of the Sloth by thinking it to be a satire of the literary world, you found that not to your liking. But here is another of your characters who performs, unwittingly, an act of uncreative writing. Are there grounds for reviewers to wonder how far apart from the literary world you are? Or maybe you’re far apart from that world, but not from its interests, movements, and concerns.

SS: I am a writer, and writers of all stripes have concerns and interests in common. So in that sense I am a part of the literary world. I read the New York Times Book Review, I subscribe to Bookforum. It’s just that other writers are not participants in my social life, such as it is.

JB: We can’t trust Edna’s version of events any more than we can Whittaker’s. She has a very jaundiced view of her dead husband, Clarence Morton, a writer. The at times unpleasant Whittaker, though that’s not by any means a rounded view of him, is also a writer. Is it a simple convenience to choose writers as figures of derision or do you think negatively of them as a class or group?

SS: I don’t think negatively of writers generally. I don’t care for the ones who are windbags, pontificators, or arrivistes, but who does?

JB: In Glass Edna repeats a comment Morton made, that she thinks too much. Is that possible?

SS: If happiness is the aim then one surely can think too much. I suspect that’s what Morton was suggesting.

JB: Could Morton have meant something else that Edna skewed to her liking?

SS: Sure. He might have been expressing his frustration with a mind that turns in circles, or, better, in spirals, and with a woman whose “unmarketable” ruminations are a silent reproach to him and his hunger for “success.” But as to what he “really” meant, your guess is as good as mine.

JB: At the end of Glass there appears to be deliverance for Edna from her state, to speak vaguely so as not to ruin the experience for future readers. It’s one of the ambiguous endings frequent in your books. How much time did you spend on those last pages?

SS: A lot. I rewrote those pages dozens of times. There was the absolutely important final phrase, “and then I will see,” and I struggled to build a scaffold to it.

JB: To me, Glass is the most overtly philosophical novel you’ve written, due to Edna’s focus on language and her exactitude of impressions, and the dusty glass in her eyrie-like apartment that gets murkier as her economic state declines, speaking, perhaps, not only to Edna but to humanity’s condition of humanity. Do you view the book as your most philosophical?

SS: I don’t know that it is the most “philosophical.” I would apply that label to The Way of the Dog, with its ruminations on story and meaning. But I suppose the judgement here will depend on what sort of thing one regards as philosophical. That said, I have no objection to your description.

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JB: In The Way of the Dog you move from the writing world to the art world, but the picture you provide is no more positive. Did you have bad experiences in the art world?

SS: I have known more painters than writers, but I have no bad experiences to report.

JB: What painters? What were those interactions like? Do you collect art?

SS: My oldest friend in the world is a painter in France. Impossible to describe such a friendship, short of a book. I don’t collect art.

JB: Harold Nivenson, the narrator, is unwell, and is missing Roy, his dog, who as you said is “emblematic of acceptance and wisdom.” I suppose I could start by asking about your experience with dogs.

SS: I grew up with dogs all around and have lived with dogs, often multiple dogs, whenever circumstances permitted. We have a dog now. I am fond of her, I show it, and she responds. Her predecessor, a marvelous fellow, was dying at my feet while I was writing the novel.

JB: Had you started the novel knowing he was dying, or did this start partway through?

SS: I wrote the first two paragraphs thinking of him, of his impending death, of myself without him. At the time I thought I would not live to write another novel. Hence the paragraphs:

I am going to stop now. A few loose threads to cut, some bits and pieces to gather up and label, so people will know, and then I stop.

I had a little dog. We went through the world together for as long as he lasted, through the world this way and that, just to be going. At the end he had grown so weak I had to prod him onward with my shoe. He is buried somewhere. His name was Roy. I miss him.

So the entire novel, in a sense, came from the presence of the dog at my feet at that moment. I should have listed him a co-author. His name was Bertram. I miss him.

JB: Nivenson is often mean, though to balance that he does love Roy, his dog, and is aware of how he behaved when younger. People drift back into his life, like Molly and Alfie, but before that has much effect we are treated to his impressions of his neighbours. For you, this is a large cast. Was there a different kind of thinking present to accommodate the presence of other characters than from your earlier books?

SS: I don’t see a big difference in the kind of thinking. More people make appearances in this novel than in the others, but none except Moll and the painter Meininger rise to the level of being characters.

JB: Unnamed family members and unnamed former wives are mentioned. This may seem an odd question, but what does it take for a character in your books to be bestowed a name? For it often seems like a dispensation.

SS: They get names if I want to be able to refer back to them in a later passage. If there is only one sister, for example, she becomes “my sister.” Her name doesn’t tell us anything, so why say it?

JB: The presence of Buddhist sayings in this novel is not a typical feature of your works. What significance do they have, and were they used only for the book, or do you see something in Buddhism that appeals to you?

SS: At one time I read a lot of Buddhist works. I still do sometimes. My younger son is in his ninth year at a Tibetan institute in India, undergoing the traditional training of a lama. When I am reincarnated I hope I will have the good sense to become a Tibetan monk.

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JB: We’ve come to It Will End with Us. Last year for Numéro Cinq I reviewed it, and I’d like to come back to something you said a while ago about your mother, as it relates to Eve Taggart, the narrator of this latest book. Her mother, Iris, is an unpublished poet who’s slowly losing her mind. Eve says this about her writing: “I was fifteen when I finally understood that my mother’s poems were not literature.” In your interview for Poets & Writers from fall 2011 you talked about your mother’s ability to recite poetry from memory, and how much she admired Keats. Did you find her abilities—and I think how you learnt to read, and your sister’s memorization of the dictionary—normal and worth emulating?

SS: Of course. She was a fabulous reader, a great “admirer” in the sense I explained earlier. My family was unusual in many respects, and for me unusual was normal. I can’t begin to even approach my mother’s knowledge of literature nor, I think, do I have the capacity to draw from it the comfort that she did.

JB: What do you draw from it?

SS: Pleasure, of course, at times exquisite; distraction from daily care; insight into what Yeats called the foul rag and bone shop of the heart

JB: In that same interview, you also say your mother “‘…had less of a life than she should have had.’” Readers of It Will End with Us will think of Iris and compare that portrait to what your mother was like. Elizabeth Jones Savage wrote poetry that was published, but I gather that was not enough. Could you say a bit more about her life, and how much she was a model for Iris?

SS: She was not a model for Iris, except very tangentially. My mother would probably have been happier in a Northern city than in a small Southern town, but she was not a tormented woman like Iris. She was extremely kind and gentle. She was soft-spoken and witty. She was, I think, a very wise person. She would have been happier elsewhere, but she had a rich life, and it was a happy life on the whole.

JB: In It Will End with Us Eve is conscious of the absence of animals in her new home, especially birds, and at one point she lists species she used to see in Spring Hope, where she was born. Her family has no descendants, the South is shown in decline, and in the largest sense, the world is fading away as animals slowly disappear from sight. Eve and Spring Hope could be Eve and Eden. Since your latest novel potentially includes everyone in its title, and addresses global concerns, are we meant to see it as an epitaph, an appeal, a warning? With humanity on the brink, is the first woman seeing herself as the last woman?

SS: As regards the natural world, the title can be seen as all three, I suppose, but the mood of the novel is mostly one of mourning, so I think “epitaph” would be best. It is important to note that the “declines” you mention are not at all parallel. In the case of the South the decline is of the old South, the premodern South, a conservative and deeply unjust region that during my childhood was rapidly vanishing beneath the homogenizing imperialism of American cultural sameness, and becoming what the “Old South” is today—a vulgar and ugly parody of itself, the historical wing of Disney World. My childhood is deeply attached to the old dying South (with no caps or quotes), and I can still summon the love I felt for it, but I can’t in good conscience mourn its passing.

JB: Do you have a dim view of our collective future? This isn’t that dystopian novel you tried to write in the science fiction genre, but is it aiming towards that?

SS: I have a bleak view of our collective future. That humankind will survive in the long run does not look like a safe bet at this point. I am not even sure that human survival is something we should wish for. I have no difficulty imagining a not-so-distant future so awful it would be better to have no future at all.

JB: Is there a connection between the use of Biblical imagery here and Buddhism in The Way of the Dog? I mean in your technical use of both and in drawing useful imagery from these sources for the narrators to comment on or, in Eve’s case, perhaps embody.

SS: The imagery was appealing, given the circumstances, but the two cases are quite different. In one it sets up a theme of compassion and acceptance against Nivenson’s bitterness and anger. In the other it evokes a lost paradigm of innocence and perfection in the life of the planet to parallel Eve’s recollection of her banishment from the small Eden of her childhood.

JB: You have a story in the latest Paris Review (No. 211, Winter 2014), “Cigarettes,” one paragraph over two pages of a man and his landlady talking about smoking. She says she should quit but can’t, and often borrows a cigarette from the unnamed male narrator. One thing she says is: “‘Next time I decide to stop, you need to tell me it’s not worth it.’” On the surface it’s an amusing sentence, in context, but here’s a woman looking to have her aim deflected even though she knows smoking is unhealthy. What makes your characters undercut their own motivations?

SS: Well, it seems to me that there is often, and maybe even always, a difference between what we tell ourselves we want or even sincerely believe we want, and what we really do want. The human project, so to call it, often involves finding the right lies to tell ourselves so we can get though the day, and the right tune to whistle as we walk past the graveyard. We are, needless to say, frequently unsuccessful in this project, often because we have other yearnings that undermine it. This is basic Dostoyevsky, by the way, and basic Freud: living characters are never mere collections of traits—they are collections of elements at war with one another.

JB: Is this story part of a collection or an excerpt from a novel?

SS: While I am waiting for a novel, I write little things. They are, I suppose, the debris left behind by my searches for a novel, outgrowths and trimmings of aborted starts. Some are ten or fifteen pages, many are not more than three or four sentences. Some of the shorter ones were published a few years ago in the journal Little Star.

JB: Are there plans for a collection of those pieces? I’d like to see them in book form.

SS: I play with the idea sometimes, of ways I might arrange them so as not to present just a grab bag of disparate stuff. I have a lot of trouble estimating the value of many of them.

JB: Who are you writing for? Do you have an ideal reader?

SS: The ideal reader, I suppose, would be myself as other. By that I don’t mean that I write for myself, far from it, but that I think of my reader as being someone with tastes and inclination more or less in line with my own. That is not, given my personality, a great formula for success in the market.

Savage 2007 (640x480)Sam Savage 2007

Conclusion

JB: Do critical reviews of your work mean much?

SS: By “critical” I suppose you mean negative and not the sort of literary-critical review that you, for example, have written. The answer, in that case, is that I have never received a negative review that I felt touched by. I have never in fact received a negative review at all, if by “review” we mean more than a half-dozen sentences and the granting of little stars, just like in first grade. That, I think, is because a reviewer doesn’t earn any stars for him- or herself by negatively reviewing a book which people weren’t going to read anyway. You get creds in the review world by climbing in the ring with somebody other than some weird old guy who just wandered in off the street.

JB: Is there any question you’ve wanted to be asked but have not been? If so, here is an opportunity to answer it.

SS: Maybe something like the question that Nora Joyce is rumored to have asked Jim: Why don’t you write something that makes sense so we can get a refrigerator?

His answer was not recorded. Nor will mine be.

JB: Before we end, I’d like to return to the subject of your unpublished fiction and poetry, as well as your letters, and any other material a writer might leave behind for institutions and biographers. I’m rather regretful, if you don’t mind me saying, to hear you tossed away so much, and I wonder why that’s your practice. Biographers will be frustrated.

SS: I am a very private person (weird in this day and age, I know). I don’t like the idea of strangers rummaging without restriction in my life, in my past, or in work that I thought not good enough to publish.

—Sam Savage & Jeff Bursey

NC

jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

May 102015
 

David Spitzer

.

Book A:  Nominative part one:  Isaak (from Genealogy of the First Person)

ii.    isaak        I watch light fracture, shape itself along the bronze edge.  it radiates out of the hip of my father; it rises.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s call.  everything smolders beneath the midday sun.  something from below.  from above—its arcing sea-wave, a wave of pale air, a voice, a temblor, an open storm.

.

*                        *                        *

.

I       ………  am sacrifice.

I      ……….  am paradox.

(unfathomed;
unresolved.)

I    ……….    am promise, covenant—future in the instant; presence.

a people thousandfold            like stars.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of uncertainty, of
promise.

.

*                        *                        *

.

eyes whirl   ……….     to the light, in
the light.

the light
is the message,… ..   an angel
of the g-d.

all eyes
roll towards the teeming waters
above us.

“Abraäm
Abraäm”  [22:11]

..

.

the voice of g-d mirrors
itself and all
else within the mirror of it-
-self. ..   a window.
………….a voice
…………………….of mirrors.

empties itself in the paradox, the double.  I hear

light
from ..    the very center of his bronze knife.  speech
flags
the air distancing light   …. earth  …      perpetual waters of the above.

.

“you
see
I.”  [22:11]

.

an angel is a lightning-tip, a
ledge
of primeval
water.  a word
a vessel— ……..       lightning strikes, reduces itself
………………………… on the surface of heaven.

volting heavens of a worded sea, angel:

.

“Not    upon
the neutral ground
the play with no player

Never.”  [22:12]

.

*                        *                        *

.

I watch light fracture, shape itself along the bronze edge.  bronze light radiates out of the hand of my father; it rises.  it falls on the dry earth.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s call.  everything smolders beneath the midday sun.  something from below.  from above—its arcing sea wave, a wave of pale air, a voice, a temblor, an open storm.  a storm of precipice, open, unbroken.  immanence in a torrent upon my eyes.

.

*                        *                        *

.

negatives slit

the fabric of    vocables, air;
earth
rent on a  ….   seam, a shorn

jagged edge of too too solid flesh,
split.

.

I        …………am not

the hewn pine, not
the torches’ resin, the pyre’s
ember.

not    ………   the father, is
………………..not the blade is

not..    the light.  light
…………..is not the sound, not fury.

sound     ….   is not voice; voice not echo.

…….echo
…….is not    light.

I   ….. am not    messenger, but
……………………….the message, the sign.

.

.

the chasm of heaven and earth and the chasm
once more of earth as air is
I:

……………….self, ……………       fissure.

.

.

plural        …………is the number of the first
………………………………………………..person;    negation inside self; negation

.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………&

.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………its other.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of uncertainty.

.

*                                                *

.

I     ……………………………..                   am         …………………………….               now.

.

*

.

[the moment is the self, an eternally sudden ‘now’ and the present tense as such; victim to the annihilation of the moment into its next instance.  the self, as isaak, is sacrifice to the ephemeral, is the ephemeral in its flashpoint, the day’s relentless arc to later day and later day and twilight and night.

the moment, as isaak, works as an object to others, for others; a blank in the continuum of willing, not as isolated units that accumulate to the whole of time, but instances of a hurling out or hurling into the path of others; of the self.  a suspension of the ethical:  not mere conformity with universal—which requires no such suspension because the ethical always presents itself as the ground and backdrop on & in which the individual acts and for the sake of which the individual commits the tragic ethical action (city, people, et cetera)—but an outburst from the universal into the region of faith, whose field is the absurd.

isaak is no ethically invested institution but a beating heart straining itself to live as its individuality on the field of the absurd, the ‘apart from the silence, the unspoken-ness of what is.’

isaak is the ego in his aspect of the beating heart upon the ground of the absurd; the object of a divine promise; paradox.  all that is ethical depends on the ego and its preservation, while faith and its unspeakable depth hinges on the will to sacrifice it into the starless void of the eternal:  the very essence of the ego at rest on the knife’s edge.  the threat of immanent and absolute annihilation renders the ego in its most interior moment, the moment of its initial posture towards the exterior in faith.]

.

*                        *                        *

.

I watch light fracture my reflection along the bronze edge.  it radiates out of the eyes of my father; it rises.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s voice.  everything trembles beneath the midday sun.  from above— a voice, its arcing sea-wave, an open storm.

.

*                        *                        *

.

still

a word …..       atom-  …..      -izes

i

i

now        ……..a focus, a
…………………center in flames.

…………………still, one:  an offering
…………………of smoke; dis-
…………………………………….-integra-
…………………………………………………-tion.

rise I like unto stars, ten-thousand eyes of heaven written on the name I am (given).

.

I          …………………………….              am       …………………………….                 given.

.

*                        *                        *

.

first, my voice says:

…………………………………..“father.”  [22:7]

.

I am a sacrifice replaced by a ram on the mountaintop.

there is a pyre beneath every
action I take.  when
will the god arrive to spirit
away this volatility?

.

this frailty—

.

*                        *                        *

.

and
inside this

frailty, spirited away as   …. i

……………………as:

laughter.

i:   the laugh of an elder upon an eternity of parchment, of sand

.

*                        *                        *

.

and……..       called an angel of the lord

……Abraäm, again
……out of heaven, speaking

.

just as the stars of heaven
and just as the sand gristing the
sea’s lip,

a blessing to you, where blood is
water to flow
into water, where
bone is smoke
for the air, where
my voice is all—

.

turned away Abraäm toward the children of his own and uprising they made their way together toward the spring of the oath.  and down settled Abraäm upon spring of the oath.  [22:15-19]

.

*                        *                        *.

.

I am light fractured along the bronze edge of the g-d’s voice.  I radiate out of the mouth of earth, and of sea, and of air.  heaven is vast.  the earth is blood and emanating the knife’s voice of blood.  everything bleeds under the sun.  something stirs itself up from below.  from above, something has fallen, something risen, a wave of blood-tinged air, a voice of water, an open storm.  where I end the world quivers, sands give way into stars.  a merciless sky.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of certainty, of
promise.

—D. M. Spitzer

.
After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Mr. Spitzer’s first book, A Heaven Wrought of Iron, will be published by Etruscan Press in Spring/Summer 2016. Current poetic projects include:  the afterword to a collection called mousika, which presents transfigurations of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets & the Latin texts of the psalms used by Igor Stravinsky in his Symphony of Psalms; an essay to accompany a new transfiguration of the poem by the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, tentatively (re-) titled Figures of Being; and continued work on the large-scale hybrid project Genealogy of the First Person. In fall, 2015, Mr. Spitzer will begin work on a Ph.D. in comparative literature where he plans to concentrate on the relationship of poetry to philosophy as it occurs in early Greek thinking and the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife & their three children.

.
.

May 092015
 

Macdara Woods Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014Macdara Woods at the Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014 — photo by Robin Parmer

Macdara Woods unquestionably possesses one of the most singular voices in Irish poetry. He has published eleven collections of poetry since 1970 with his Collected Poems appearing in 2012. In addition he has published two collections in Italian and has poems translated in twelve languages. In 2002/3 he worked on two collaborative commissions: the first, In The Ranelagh Gardens, a sequence of  twelve new poems to go with four new pieces from the Irish composer Benjamin Dwyer, first performed by both, in Dublin, in the Bank of Ireland Mainly Modern Series, February 2003.  In July 2003 he completed the second, The Cello Suites, a six-part sequence of 480 lines, in response to a performance of the Bach Solo Suites by US double-bassist Richard Hartshorne at Verbal Arts Centre, Derry, in 2002. It was premiered by both in Harrisville, New Hampshire, December 2003, and performed again in Toronto, New York, and Dublin. He has read and lectured extensively throughout the world over the last fifty years, most recently in Brazil and Argentina.

Perhaps Bernard O’Donoghue, in his Irish Times review (2001), put it best, “Macdara Woods has been an absorbing and relatively unplaceable presence in Irish writing since the 1970s, because the internationalising tendency of his poems to push the boundaries of Irish poetry outwards was always balanced by a rooted use of Irish language and tradition.” And push those boundaries he has, but in a careful measured way. While living mainly in Dublin, he also resides as much as he can in Umbria, where the poem featured below, Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light, is located.

Macdara has described this poem as “a serious statement of record and intent arising out of a nightmare progression of medical catastrophe, starting from a fairly routine surgical intervention.”  Five days after the routine surgery he collapsed with a severe near fatal sepsis which necessitated a second surgery and a further eleven week stay in hospital. Upon release, he suffered excruciating pain in his back and leg which ultimately led to a hip replacement, “but I was so wrecked from the sepsis, and because I also had a still open wound, the surgical team was very hesitant about going ahead. So they hit upon the idea of keeping me semi-knocked out, to try and control the pain, until January when they hoped I might be stronger and a bit more healed. In the event, two days before Christmas Eve, there assembled round my bed 4 serious faced harbingers, the man who had done the first and second operations, the man who would be doing the hip replacement, a beautiful and high-powered Romanian anaesthetist, and a microbiologist. There to tell me that I was getting worse instead of better, that in fact I was as good as I was ever going to be…”

The following day he had his hip replacement which required him to learn to walk all over again. It was more than a year after his initial surgery that Macdara was finally well enough “to get back to Umbria, a place I had begun to feel I was never going to see again, to start reassembling myself.” The poem was written last September after he managed to climb up to the top of the hill-town of Nocera Umbra.

—Gerard Beirne

.

Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light

I.

My father did not finish things
Such things as rows
Or playing parts ..And breakdowns
Retiring early ..Died too soon
His final words to me — A
Half a question ..Half unasked
At no point answered ..Comes there
Any answer ever? ..Do you…
Do you remember…When…and there
It stops unfinished in my head
Do you remember when we… ..Lost
The points of contact maybe
Or lost the faith ..Or lost our nerve
Lost certainty along the way
As is the way of things ..And now
That I am gathering speed
The train tracks meeting in the distance
Far behind ..The fearsome nameless
City rearing up in front ..where I know
No one ..and none know me
But where we all get off
It is too late to even think of asking questions
And of whom? ..The young Eastern
European with the tea-urn
Has passed up and down the corridor
Three times ..has disappeared
And gone for good
As has the man who checks the tickets
And the district nurse ..who is
The only one that anyone could trust
Out of the whole shebang and calaboose
Or – to use my mother’s phrase –
The Slaughterhouse
This travelling slaughterhouse on wheels
We call a life
……………..But not an unconsidered one
Out of the four last things
This one remains ..Impervious to fashion
Time or doubt: ..the flame ..it flickers
And goes out
The bird across the banquet hall
No more than that
………………………..And yet we
Mostly ..stand our ground ..because
It is expected
And what I am trying to understand
Even now at this late hour
Is your unhappiness and thus my own
Beyond the dopamine deficiency
And those endorphins
Creatures of ..the vasty deep
Who do not come when they are conjured

.

II.

Yesterday I climbed ..lungs heaving
Up the earthquake damaged street
……………………….Nocera Umbra
Much ..chiuso per restauri
And simple minimal ..so beautiful
So free of traffic ..free of noise
Mid-Wednesday afternoon
One self-conscious policeman
Checking doors so tightly shut
Not even dust could penetrate
And near the top
Two men are laying cobble stones
In sand ..tapping them square
Into the roots of time
In shadow
In the lovely buttered ..honey light
Of mid-September
……………………..This constant need
For rehabilitation ..Spells in John Of God’s
Cataracts removed
Appendices
Colonoscopies and cardiograms
Or how in 1991 in Moscow
So many Metro escalators stopped
Seized-up ..steep egress from the underworld
Sotto Restauro ..everywhere Ремонт
Remont ..we climbed up from
The marble bowels and chandeliers
Of Kruschev’s dream made real
But lacking maintenance
The way we do not finish things ..is
Where entropy comes in ..is Auden’s
Sinister cracked tea cup
And the Watcher in the shadows
Who coughs when you
……………………………would kiss
Or coughing ..labour upwards
On a stick and artificial hip
To the Civic Tower and campanile
La Campanaccia at the top
Built nine hundred years ago
And standing straight ..full weight
Erect proclaiming ..Eccomi
For I am here and have been here for all to see
And have been seen
………………………..As I too am here
And have been seen ..been part of this
Small space today between the Tower
And the Cathedral
All chiuso per restauri ..Have seen
The maintenance and putting things
In place ..Knowing that they must
And will go wrong again
And be put almost right again
Poor transients —
Until the Heracliten lease runs out

.

III.

And one day indeed the words ran out
And we ..with nothing ..left to say
Consulted over menus
Read bits of news ..repeated saws
To get us through the silence — you
Didn’t know
……………………..And I had yet to learn
That few words ..A simple few
Could be enough ..could tell it all:
A tendency to stagger to the left
And sometimes teeter backwards
Which could explain
My dreadful fall in Fiumicino
Too much saliva
Varied tremors ..Hands and chin:
And sometimes fingers clawed
In sudden spasm
…………………….Do I go on
Into the realms of dysgraphia
Staccato speech ..Shoulders stooped
A slowing of the gait?
I prefer
To watch the dancers in the village square
The ballo in piazza
Sunburnt mirth ..Provencal song
That so caught Keats’ fancy
Out of reach
And I have had a longer run than that

And not yet reached Astopovo:
Still travelling
………………..To places all unseen
Invisible to those with open eyes
It needs a certain antic 20 20 vision
To housepaint in the dark
As we have done ..And plastered walls
Without a light in Fontainebleau
Not cowboys then or now
Just battling with addictions
………………………Drink and pills
And work ..At labouring ..And selling
Two hours of life to buy a third
The hell with that bum deal
I said ..And I have now grown old ..And someone
Cooked the booksbooks
……………………….Along the way
The way we knew they would – So
Who owes what to whom is moot
Irrelevant ..We last from day to day
No more than that ..That’s it .Enough
For now
The diagnosis works ..Of course it does:
Who ever died a winter yet?

………………………………September 19th 2014

—Macdara Woods

.

Macdara Woods was born in Dublin in 1942. Has been publishing work since the early sixties. He is a member, since 1986, of Aosdána, (set up by the Irish Government to honour those who have made an outstanding contribution to the Arts in Ireland). Recent reading tours include Austria, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greece. His Collected Poems were published in 2012 by Dedalus Press and his pamphlet, From Sandymount to the Hill of Howth, was published by Quaternia Press in 2014. He currently lives in Dublin, and when he can in Umbria. He is the founder-editor of the magazine Cyphers (1975 to the present). He is married to poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and they have a grown-up son, Niall, a musician.

.
.

May 092015
 

Early Autobiographical Work, age 5Early autobiographical work

Leona age 9Nine years old

.

The pop machine

MY FATHER OPERATED a garage in the small prairie town of Bredenbury, Saskatchewan, pop. 500 or so, located just off the Yellowhead Highway 30 miles west of the Manitoba border. The garage was low and squarish, with a huge sign mounted high on the front that read ‘Hi-Way Service,’ navy blue letters against white. I don’t know how much that sign set my father back, but I know it was too fancy by half for a small-town shop in the sixties. A year or two after the sign went up, the new highway went in, skirting the town entirely. The unlucky Hi-Way Service now fronted on a low-traffic graveled street little different from any other street in town. Over time, the blue letters weathered to a colour close to purple.

Inside the garage, over to one side, was a pop machine built like a chest freezer. Sometimes, not often, on a hot day I would slip into the garage, into dimness after sunlight. The clank of a tool hitting a workbench, the pffft of an air hose, the earthy smell of oil. I would make for the pop machine, use all my muscle to push open the lid, and peer over the side at the rows of glass bottles. They hung in their separate metal tracks, NuGrape, Orange Crush, Seven-Up, Club Soda, Coca-Cola, suspended by their bulbous little chins, their lower parts immersed in a bath of ice-cold water. I could reach way, way over, feet lifting off the floor, and plunge my hot hand into the cold bath. Once in a long while, or maybe once, period, my father found a dime and slipped it into the coin slot, and I slid a bottle of NuGrape along its track and out past the metal guard. Ten cents bought one release of the guard and the satisfying slap as the metal fell back into place after the bottle came out. An opener was mounted on the front of the machine, a pry mechanism, and below it a cap-catcher shaped like a tiny pregnant belly. I held the bottle, sliding-wet from its cold bath, and my father gripped it further up, along its tapered neck, and helped me lever off the cap. It fell, clink, against the other caps inside the little belly. I have never lost my appreciation for the earth-sweet smells of gas and oil. I wasn’t really even supposed to be in the garage.

Hi-Way Service before the SignHi-Way Service before the sign

 

The pasture

I was a town kid, but Nickel’s pasture was my little bit of wild. I could get there by walking: across a gravel street, across the corner of a neighbour’s triangular lot, across a ditch. Not there yet: across the gravel road that used to be called a highway, across another ditch, and finally along a lane. I liked to sit in the pasture at the bottom of a little draw, low enough that I couldn’t see a single house or car or shed. The pasture was rimmed by scrubby bush: chokecherries, saskatoons, spindly poplars. Down in the draw I was in the Wild West, a place I knew from TV, in all its black-and-whiteness. Kicking around the house we had an Indian-princess hairpiece—a pair of braids made from three pairs of old nylon stockings. Bobby-pinned into my hair, the braids hung on either side of my white and pink and freckled face and draped onto my shoulders. I don’t recall if I was wearing the braids on the day I’m thinking about now, the day I was frightened by my own heartbeat. Crouched in the draw, summer warm on my hair, sun frying my freckled nose, I listened to the silence of that small world. And then I heard a beat, relentless, rhythmic. Indian drums! From the stand of poplars over there! I froze for a moment; then I ran home fast, listening as the drumbeat sped with me, inside my chest.

Years later, my sister and I and the girl from across the street put the pasture to another use. Hanging from a nail on our kitchen wall was a tin matchbox holder, and in it was a box of Eddy’s Redbirds. The tips of the matches were banded blue and red and white, the colours of the Union Jack. We’d grab them by the handful, couldn’t stop ourselves from licking them to taste the naughty taste. We’d make off with them to light our little fires. In the pasture we pulled together small, dense stooks of dry grass, lit them, and watched as they went poof, and flared and died. One day the flare didn’t die. We high-tailed it away and waited for a grown-up to notice the grass fire. Eventually, a grown-up did. The volunteer fire department came out in force to quell the flames, and we were either not found out or were silently excused without a fuss.

The _Little Kids_ (Leona on the left)The Little Kids (Leona on the left)

.

The nuisance grounds

Small-town Saskatchewan kids were free-range kids in the sixties. We could walk along a country road to what we called the nuisance grounds, about a half a mile from town. On one excursion, we three girls found skin magazines, and we ripped out pictures of partially naked women and folded them into our pockets. Were we ten or so? In the heat of summer days, among the reek of rotting left-behinds, we found other memorable junk—one day the remains of the combination mailboxes the post office had disposed of after the conversion to keyed boxes. The old boxes had metal fronts, about five inches wide and four inches high, each with two concentric dials on the front that reminded us of the safes we saw on “Get Smart.” These metal doors were still attached by hinges to wooden drawers, and the drawers slid in and out of what remained of the wooden framing that housed them when they were still in use. Some of the frames were open at the top, and we could see inside the guts of the mechanisms well enough to figure out the combinations by watching closely as we turned the dials. Every kid needs a place to store her secrets. We had a wagon with us (of course), and we each took home a mailbox or two. We memorized the combinations, closed the open tops with nailed-on boards, and hid the dirty pictures inside.

Water lines

 

The Red Thing

We four sisters shared a bedroom. Two sets of bunk beds. I assume that The Red Thing, which stood at the foot of one of the beds, began as a display stand that came to the Hi-Way Service in the course of business, and once the product it displayed was sold out—oil, antifreeze, wiper blades?—my mother or my father carried it half a block to the house so it could be put to a new use. It was made of heavy-gauge wire, say three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and the wire was coated with a red material, silicon or plastic or some such. It had two or three shelves, and the back and sides were an open grid of wire. Into and onto this rig we piled books, teen magazines, comics, puzzles, paper dolls.

—Where’s my Nancy Drew?

—It’s on The Red Thing.

The Secret of the Old Clock, Donna Parker, The Curly Tops Snowed In (my first-ever hard-cover book, which my mother brought home from a magical place in Regina called The Book Exchange), Heidi, Treasure Island, Little Women, Call of the Wild. The bottom shelf was low to the floor, and the broom wouldn’t fit underneath; you’d have had to move the entire rig to sweep there, and so when I sat in front of it to sort through the sliding stack of Archie comics and colouring books I could see the dust curls underneath. We weren’t much for housekeeping anyway. Words were the thing.

We discovered The Red Thing was sturdy enough, and freighted with enough printed matter, that it could counterbalance the weight of a child hanging upside-down off the front of it, feet up top, hands grasping the sides halfway down. Every kid needs a members-only club, and every club needs a pledge. I remember one of my sisters, face blossoming red, hair dangling inches from the dust bunnies, reciting “I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down for my club, the upside-down club.” I can recall no function of the upside-down club other than hanging upside-down.

One evening—I think I was about nine—I heard my three sisters laughing in the bedroom, and I walked in and grouched at them, because what could be funny when my mother had just told me we were about to lose the house, and we’d all be out in the snow with our furniture by Christmas? Snow falling on the bunk beds and The Red Thing, I supposed. And on all the books, the ones on The Red Thing and the others, hundreds of them ranged on shelf after shelf in the living room, the ones I had to stand on the back of the sofa to reach.

I don’t know how my mother succeeded, ultimately, in saving the title to the house. A lot of yelling went on, those years, and we girls managed sometimes to tune out the specifics. I do think it must’ve been my mother who saved the title. My father was smart in his way, a small-time genius as an inventor, mechanic and electrician, but he had no head for business or law, and he was so good at avoiding the tough questions that he knew how to leave mail unopened for years if he didn’t like the address on the upper left corner of the envelope. Long after my parents died, going through old files, I came across a sheaf of papers that had to do with the house, the garage, the courts: eight letters from the sheriff, seventeen from various creditors, fifteen notices to do with unpaid taxes, and three to do with court proceedings. A note in my mother’s handwriting attests that a letter from one creditor remained unopened for seven years; it was old enough that the mailbox the postmistress would have sorted it into would have been opened by combination rather than key. Through the years when all that was going on, I would sometimes sit in front of The Red Thing and open my copy of Heidi and bring it to my nose and sniff the pages. The smell of ink and binding glue and pressed paper would call up a feeling that I want to describe as friendship. I still do this with books; I still am surprised by that same feeling, whether or not I know beforehand that it’s what I’m looking for.

SistersWeavingSisters weaving

 

The garden

In the early years, we grew vegetables in the vegetable garden. One summer my next-older sister and I—we were the “little kids” and the two oldest were the “big kids”—were paid 88 cents each for a couple of days of hand-pulling portulaca and pigweed free of the stubborn clay. Why 88 cents? Because the general store was advertising an 88-cent sale and as part of this special occasion they’d brought in toys, a rare addition to their stock. When my sister and I walked into the store clutching our coins we learned that most of the toys were in fact priced at $1.88 or $2.88. We did each come home with something cheap and plastic and unmemorable, I’m sure we did, and I’ll bet we loved these things for as many days as we would have loved the more expensive bits of plastic. But weeding—we hated it. The garden became a wonderland only after my parents lost interest in using it to grow vegetables. In the area where a different family might have planted potatoes and beans and corn, my sister and I dug an enormous hole, an underground fort. Evenings, I would scratch my scalp and have my fingernails come away full of grit, a satisfying feeling, evidence of a day well spent. We dragged old boards from here and there and laid them across the top of the hole, and we crouched inside amid shadows and candlelight. The smell of a candle burning inside dirt walls gave me a thrill I felt low in my tummy. A finger in the flame, how long can you hold it there? Or drip some wax into the palm of your hand and feel the bite. The small rituals of our club of two in our safe little hideaway, built too small for grown-ups. We were the bosses down there. We owned the place.

Sisters in the Garden (Leona on the left)

 —Leona Theis

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Leona2014 #2

Leona Theis writes novels, short stories, memoir and personal essays. She is the author of Sightlines, a collection of linked stories set in small-town Saskatchewan, and the novel The Art of Salvage. She is at work on two other novels and a collection of essays. Her essays have appeared in or are about to appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. She lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

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May 082015
 

walter

 

In 1977 Walter Bernstein was nominated for the Academy Award in screen writing. We met that same year at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. To him I became “The Kansas Kid,” sometimes shortened to “The Kid.”

The movie was the Marty Ritt film, The Front staring Woody Allen. I had not seen it, nor did I know much about film scripts, and I knew nothing about Bernstein’s accomplishments: Fail Safe and the Molly McGuires among other movies.

The other writers at MacDowell at that time included Lucy Kamasar (who had recently integrated McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village); the poet and playwright Honor Moore; Milton Klonsky (who would win a McArther Award the following year); Iris Owens, who had just published After Claude, Mary Higgins Clark, the author of Where Are The Children, and a George X , working on his second book about Russia (I cannot, even with the help of Goggle find him, nor obviously recall his last name, even thought he loaned me his house on Ibiza the following year. Madness.)

I had just published a novel set in the west and in a moment of youthful vanity, I gave a copy to the MacDowell library where Walter checked it out. For what reason I would soon learn.

MacDowell in those days was (and maybe still is) a gift of time and place for writers.

You could stay up to about six weeks; they furnished you a small cabin where you could write and even stay over night if you didn’t want to use the dormitories, also provided. Around noon a handy man arrived with lunch. My cabin (and I guessed others as well) had a fire place and when the man who brought you lunch saw that you’d used you stash of wood from the front porch, he brought you more. As I was there in January, I went through more than my share. It was the custom of the country that only the wood-and- lunch man were to stop by your cabin, and he never came in, nor even knocked.

For dinner you went back to the main hall where many of us gathered in a large room (also with a fire place) for drinks. I don’t remember if we brought our own (I think we did) or there was a bar set up. Maybe there was a bar. There was much quick-draw and rapid-fire talk about politics and art, much of which (being who I was then) left me behind. I remember Iris Owens saying she had once worked for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press in Paris. Her job was to edit the first draft of Lolita. I thought no one had edited Nabokov, much less Lolita.

“Oh, she said. “It was a mess of motels going all across the country running to 600 pages with the two of them entangled in the sheets every ten pages. I’d cut motels by states: there goes three in Ohio, there goes four in Illinois, there goes all of Kansas.” (And here she looked at me because Walter’s name for me had gotten around). I believed her at the time.

The one subject that was off limits was our writing—the day’s work that just ended, or whatever project was in progress for the stay. As I had never been around so many accomplished authors I missed to chance to hear them on their writing. And how I understood I was not to ask came about because one evening at drinks I said to George X: “How goes it?” To which there was a collective silence, then: “It goes.”

“Hey, kid,” Walter said one evening to me at dinner. “I read your novel. Very good. Would you read a draft of my screenplay? It’s a western and I’m a furtive Jew from New York. What do I know about cowboys?

Walter was then writing The Electric Horseman, not for Robert Redford, but for Steve McQueen who, it turned out, was about to die. When that happened the studio sent the project to Redford who fired Walter. But all that was to happen later. For the moment, Walter wanted to know what I knew about horses and cattle and cowboys. I was flattered. Sure, I said.

ELECTRIC HORSEMAN, THERobert Redford, The Electric Horseman

A few days later at dinner Walter gave me a copy of the script made from the MacDowell Xerox machine. Mark it up, he said. Or put lines down the side where I’m getting things wrong. Then we can talk. Sure, I said.

I had never read a movie script. There was “Ext.” and “Int.” Also “Cut To” and “Back To,” with sometimes “Continuous.” There were numbers running down the page which I took to donate scenes.  There were some (but not many in Walter’s script) camera shots. Flush left on the paper were descriptions. Sometimes accounts of what the actors were to do, sometimes of the setting. In between and indented, was the dialogue.  I had no idea how I could be of help, but I knew I wanted to.

If you want to see Walter from those days, rent the Woody Allen film Annie Hall. You have to go all the way down the reel (to use Walter’s term from before DVDs) but there he is, standing outside a movie theater with Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and Sigourney Weaver. Walter is Annie’s date. The script might have read: Scene 47: Ext. Movie Theater. Alvy with unidentified woman; Annie with unidentified man. Gestures. VO (Voice Over):

I did run into Annie again. It was on the upper West side of Manhattan. She had moved back to New York. She was living in Soho with some guy. When I met her, she was dragging him to see “The Sorrow and the Pity”…which I counted as a personal triumph.

As to Walter’s script, at first I found myself so mesmerized by the form that I didn’t read it with care the way Walter wanted me to: But yes, there was confusion about horses, sometimes they were horses, then they were stallions, then they were mares (when in fact they were probably all geldings).  I had to untangle bridles from halters; I had to take horns off cows, and change cows to steers (with or without horns, but I thought unless they were Texas Longhorns for show instead of ranch cattle, they had probably been de-horned.)

Somehow Walter had learned the word hackamore (probably from an East Coast riding friend) and so I had to take the hackamore off all horses and put bridles and bits back in their mouths. I also added lead ropes otherwise Robert Redford and Willy Nelson (in the final version) would be tugging horses (or mares or stallions) along by their halters, unless they were using reins attached to bits and bridles, which in two scenes at least they were not.  Saddle blankets were fine. Stirrups as well. Saddle horns, yes. Chaps, ok, but we called them leggings. Spurs, fine. But from I could tell they were never needed. Still, the audience probably needed them. Most of this was description and while I felt comfortable making those changes, when it came to dialogue, I was less sure of myself. However, I did without hesitation make one change: Walter had written a Willy Nelson line as: Tonight I’m going to find myself a little keno girl who can suck a tennis ball through a garden hose. My rewrite (which, as it turned out, did not get me screen work) was: Tonight I’m going to find myself a little keno girl who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Arthur Laurents, eat your heart out.

YouTube Preview Image

“Thanks, Kid, “Walter said at dinner a few days after I had handed back the script. “I guess cowboys don’t play tennis.”

In this way, to paraphrase a bit dialogue from another movie, there began a beautiful friendship. But that was to be further down the reel for the two of us; in the meantime, it was the next week or so that Walter learned he’d been nominated for an Academy Award in screen writing which meant his picture was all over the papers, including New York Times that MacDowell subscribed to, plus various local papers when it was discovered that Walter was in residence at MacDowell.

I remember there was a toast in front of the fireplace one night. Then as well, pats and handshakes and cheek kisses over dinner as folk stopped. Our two person table grew chairs. Walter seemed pleased indeed.

About this time I got my first royalty check and I thought I’d like to share it with Walter by taking him to dinner. There was supposed to be a good place to eat in Keene, not far away: the Red something (Lion?) Inn. It will turn out that it is owned by a former student of mine from the college where I was then teaching. Not only was he the owner, but the chef as well.

“Sure, Kid. Thanks,” said Walter.  “But I have friends coming up in a few days, would you mind if they joined us. My treat.” Fine I said, but insisted the bill would be mine. “Then I’ll leave the tip,” he said. “We’ll use my station wagon.” I made a reservation for four in my name.

Why Walter didn’t tell me his two guests were Diane Keaton and Diane Carroll I don’t know, nor did I ask. He might have meant to surprise me, but it didn’t seem that way when we all met in the large hall, Walter saying to the two Dianes, this is Bob Day, he’s helping me with the Steve McQueen script. Bob this is…and… We all shook hands, although Diane Carroll gave me something of a hug and noted that it was about time Walter got the recognition. Then off we went out the door, bundled up in coats and sweaters against the New England January. I wanted to look back to see who was staring after us, but I did not. Grace under pressure. Cut to:

EXT: The Red Lion Inn:

Walter goes through the door first, followed by Diane and Diane. They stand there for a moment until Bob enters: Cut to:

INT: Full Shot: The restaurant is busy. A pretty receptionist asks for a name.

Bob

Four for Day.

Cut to:

Close up on Kitchen: A young man looks up from a steaming pot.

Back to:

Walter Bernstein, Diane Keaton, Diane Carroll, Bob Day

Young Man (VO)

My god, it’s Bob Day

Reaction Shot: (VO): Ad Lib: Audible Amazement. Fade to Close.

The End

—Robert Day

Read the entire “Chance Encounters” series here.

NCRobert Day

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

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May 082015
 

Gunilla JosephsonGunilla Josephson

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AN OLD WOMAN in a hospital bed leaks crystal tears.

Behind the windows of stalwart Stockholm houses we spot glimpses of chaos, fragments of high emotion pitching back and forth.

A woman is intently at work, seen only from the shoulders-up, her hair flying, and after a time her head distorts. What is she doing? Playing piano? Maybe. But we worry that she is falling apart or exploding.

“Everything I make is connected with the fibre of my life,” says Swedish-Canadian video artist, Gunilla Josephson. “But I point towards other artists. I’m interested in family– and death, more and more as time goes on.”

After receiving a degree in Sociology, Josephson attended the Stockholm College of Art and Design back in the 1970’s. She recalls a fine arts department dominated by modernist painters and when she declared an interest in experimenting with the then-clunky video equipment, her instructors were appalled: “What do you think you are – American?”

Josephson calls her work “anti-film.” For starters, she rarely uses dialogue. “I hate dialogue, even in books.” We laugh, bearing in mind that her spouse is the novelist, Lewis de Soto. “Dialogue is almost always banal,’ she goes on, being a bit take-no-prisoners in this regard. I flinch, mentally counting up dialogue sections in my own work. ‘Reading is very intense for me,” Josephson says. “I read books that you put down because they are so intense. Lewis in an ex-tensive reader and I’m in-tensive. Very different.”

I’m curious about how they live as artists together. Lewis paints as well as writes and he’s written a biography of painter, Emily Carr. “We talk about film, art and books all the time,” Gunilla says. “And grandchildren.”

Does she offer feedback on her husband’s work in progress?

“Not so much now,” she says, and adds, “to his detriment, if you want to know. I can be a little harsh at times.”

Josephson’s videos evoke feelings of fragility and tenderness in the viewer, yet also, at times, show a playful spirit. One feels an ongoing investigation of  inside/outside;private/public;seen/unseen.

The old woman leaking crystal tears is oblivious to her inside self falling from her eyes. We want to protect her, yet at the same time the viewer might think – “What is there to hide, ever?”

In Josephson’s world, the artist peels back layers to expose what may be alarming or cryptic, or even funny. Can emotions ever be fully contained, or is there always leakage, and if so, why are we so drawn to these moments?

—Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland (AI): Can you tell us something about your background and education?

Gunilla Josephson (GJ): I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, except some high school time in Caracas, Venezuela where my father, taught at the university. My mother and grandmother were both Red Cross nurses who when they married, in both generations had to stop practicing their profession. When I understood this fully I took on their indignation which made me a budding feminist.

clip_image004My parents in Stockholm, early 1950s

My dad was a civil engineer/ researcher and also taught at Stockholm University. He worked hard at two jobs, yet when he was with the family he was caring and kind, and never shunned a chore. One day he suddenly quit both his jobs, landed employment at UNESCO and took my mom, my sister and me into the world. We lived in Caracas, Venezuela, but hanging out with ‘radical’ art students after school scared my parents, probably for good reasons, and I was sent back to Sweden to finish High School. Directly after High School followed a year of studying printing techniques at Aquinas University in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where my dad worked at that time. I returned to Stockholm to complete a BA in Social Sciences at Stockholm University. After a few years raising my three children in England in my first marriage and continuing with art studies, we moved back to Sweden and I completed my education with an MFA at [Konstfackskolan] Stockholm College of Art and Design.

AI: Early influences?

GJ: I have an early memory of a yellowed booklet tied with a red ribbon on my Jewish grandfather’s ‘smoking table. It smelled of cigar smoke like everything else in that little room, but I didn’t mind. I opened the booklet and in it were colour prints of paintings, faces, that all seemed alike but and yet different. It said Rembrandts självporträtt. Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Under it I read a dedication Vi tu äro ett [We two are one] written in my grandmother Esther’s beautiful handwriting in blue ink. It touched me deeply and in my young mind my grandparents and Rembrandt van Rijn became one to me that day. I still connect with my paternal grand-parents when I look through the leaflet, now in my book shelf, or when I see one of Rembrandt’s self portraits in a museum.

As a teenager I developed a fascination with Surrealism (not uncommon for teenagers). Perhaps simply because Salvador Dali’s Enigma of Wilhelm Tell and Meret Oppenheim’s Fur tea cup and spoon were in the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and thus were accessible to me. There were no reproductions of art in my family. Art was ‘real’, still held a mystery as the original. If you wanted to see art or know about it you visited museums. Like wine, art must aged to be ‘real art’. Hopelessly Eurocentric, and eccentric.

Later came early feminist artists, Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Table, and Eva Hesse’s skin-like ‘transparencies’. I admired and loved Swedish artists Hilma af Klint and Vera Nilsson, both brave women and pioneers in painting who shaped their own destinies against the consensus of ‘woman as well behaved’ in the mid 20th century.

I took an early interest in films but never dared take the leap, not even in my mind, to apply to Film School. Bunuel and Dali’s Surrealist film Un chien andalou was probably the first art film I saw. It was the tail end of French Nouvelle Vague, and I went to see the films of seminal Belgian auteur Agnes Varda. In1967 Jean Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise hit the cinemas, at least in Northern Europe. It hit me right in the solar plexus and I came out from the cinema a new self, a budding Maoist and completely in love with the film and the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. I acquired Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and started ‘my real life’.

It was impossible to avoid Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, whose looming presence made it almost impossible to get support to make a film in Sweden between 1950 – 1990. I was an extra at SF [Swedish Film Industry], hoping I would either be discovered as a new Bergman actress (I was 15) or somehow become involved in movie making. All in vain.

In 2001 I made a video, HELLO INGMAR, a short 7 minute cultural patricide in which I rearranged certain Bergman films and inserted myself as a character.

YouTube Preview ImageHello Ingmar

It got the Festival Prize at Oberhausen Short Film Festival. Up until Bergman died in 2009 I was hoping the film would catch his attention, at least enough to irritate him, particularly when it showed in a program at Moderna Museet in Stockholm – but this never happened.

AI: What makes video such a compelling medium?

GJ: There are several aspects to why video can be captivating and gripping, both for artists and viewers.I fell in love with my first Digital video camera [1998] and slept with it beside me. I found the tool compelling, generous in its clarity and crispness of image.

I had not wanted to use video as an artistic tool until then, finding the cameras heavy and the striped image dull. Maybe it worked for the political, but not for the aesthetic and poetic aspects of art. It was in the late 1990s when the light-weight and more affordable digital minicams (handycams) appeared on the market. They prompted a new wave of video art, and to my mind there is a ‘before and after’ in the history of video art. This user friendly yet highly developed tool eliminated the need for heavy equipment. The means of production were now in the hands of the artists, significant for female artists who no longer depended on muscular strength. The MiniDV camera became an explorative instrument; ‘it could roam around, shift focus very quickly and go very close to an object and focus in less than a second. Artists could edit at home on their own computer systems.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an overall project that pulls together individual art projects?

GJ: The overall project is to investigate my encounter with the world. All my work is produced under the umbrella of my production company AHEDDA Films. What holds my productions together are the people I have worked with for many years. Most important to me is Swedish artist/painter, friend and comrade-in-arms Anna-Lena Johansson, who runs a farm with her husband in Normandie, and exhibits her paintings regularly at Gallery Hera in Stockholm. She is a frequent solo performer in my productions since 1999. Canadian, Berlin-based artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay performed in several works with Anna-Lena e.g. The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke and ART THIEVES.

YouTube Preview ImageHAPPY HOUSE. The Id, the Kid and the Little Red Fireman

YouTube Preview ImageThe Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke

YouTube Preview ImageART THIEVES

For sound in my videos I have collaborated with Toronto musician Eve Egoyan since 2003 . She was the performer in E.V.E Absolute Matrixa 48-minute Floor-to-Ceiling Projection that premiered at Trinity Square Video for The Toronto International Images Festival in 2009. (Read about it in the Globe and Mail here.)

YouTube Preview ImageE.V.E Absolute Matrix

I have also worked with Canadian visual artist and editor Aleesa Cohene since 2002 and with Toronto – based sound editor Konrad Skreta at Charles Street Video.

Last but not least, my life partner, writer Lewis DeSoto, has worked with me in many different ways: script writing, cameraman, computer wizard and as an excellent cook.

AI: You said to me that you are interested in exploring how NOT to be a well behaved woman. What does this mean to you?

GJ: In hindsight that was a general statement that needs to be developed: Today we are able to deal with feminist subject matter with a more analytical eye. Rebellion as a theme throughout any feminist discourse is an intrinsic part of my work. From the actions of the characters (or performers) to my own use of the video camera and later in the editing process I disrupt the norms, constructing resistances to the tyranny of orthodoxy, or, as in Twinning series 

YouTube Preview ImageTwinning: Wall Flowers from the Twinning series

and How to be a Woman

YouTube Preview ImageHow to be a Woman

commenting on them. When shooting video and later in the editing process, I work in a way that exploits unbridled emotion and marries it to abstraction. I challenge the accepted conventions of art as an entertainment that is well behaved.

AI: Is there a Swedish sensibility that you share? What might it be?

GJ: There is an intrinsic sensibility that is connected to that land of intense polarities between the extreme summer light and the winter darkness that I share. It manifests as a worship of nature in the warm season and as the cult of the lit candle in the dark and cold season. Swedes celebrate the solstices intensely. There are many pagan rituals in Swedish culture and seasonal shifts are ritualized since Prehistoric time in that forbidding place. This is just a nostalgia for the infinite. The Swedish model is long dead. Sweden is now a European country politically divided by the rise of a small but ultra conservative party whose priority is to stop immigration. The pagan rituals have been usurped by the Neo-Nazis.

I would also say that ingenuity/inventiveness is a Scandinavian trait. Perhaps a people so long in isolation develops ways of surviving which become methods, then inventions. Hundreds if not thousands of hours huddling by the fireplace seem to be conducive to inventiveness. I would also say that Swedes have a social conscience extending far beyond one’s neighbour.

AI: Do you see yourself as fitting into any school or niche in the Canadian or North American art scene?

GJ: I might not be aware of the niches but what struck me soon after my arrival in 1986 was the powerful position of female artists, and writers, in Canada. I experienced a huge artistic thaw shortly after I left the North European tyranny of Modernism. I soon found the world of moving image art and felt at home and welcome there. That might be my niche..

AI:  Which video artists do you pay attention to and why?

GJ: The art market and the art star system bore me, but I pay attention to my contemporaries with whom I move through the world. Probably the most important image of profound humanity and intensity in expression is Mother and Son, a film portrait of a dying mother and her son by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.

Finnish artist Eila-Liisa Ahtila is known for her psychological videos. Her work is highly intellectual and at the same time has a certain stark beauty. Abel Gance’s film Napoléon from 1927 was intended for more than one screen, which was unheard of at that time, and it ran for more than twice the standard feature length. I think of it as the first Art video. That kind of product was relegated to a category called the Third Cinema and was often feared in Sweden as a possible Communist propaganda tool. My films belong to that category too.

I pay attention to Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, in particular a work called The Sandman where the mise en scene is a German allotment on a partitioned sound stage rotating in two directions. The title comes from a found letter about two children and the Sandman. This is a kind of art piece that can only be experienced and is too complex and mysterious to fully remember. Very interesting and inspiring to me.

AI:  Video artists don’t have ‘objects’, exactly, to exhibit. How do you go about installing your work in a gallery or museum setting?

GJ: I work in two veins. I make a moving image that is placed on the wall, playing on a monitor like a sort of painting, as in Nothing is True, a video diptych exhibited at Ryerson Image Center in Toronto, from January 21 to April 5, 2015.

Or, I envelop the viewer in a totality of images and sounds, usually a more epic video, large format video projection, video installation. Occasionally I exhibit film props from the production in the gallery to animate the space.

AI: In the past you made sculptural objects and paintings. How did the transition to video come about?

GJ: It was a love affair between a first generation digital video camera and me. We met at Vistek in Toronto in 1989. Love at first sight. I shot my first video and I edited it using two VCR players. I was invited to participate in a couple of independent Toronto group shows in 1998-99 and simply showed my video playing on a stripped airplane TV monitor with a large pillar balancing on top. I joined Vtape, an excellent international distributor of art videos in Toronto learned computer editing at Charles Street Video and haven’t stopped since. I have changed camera a couple of times as they develop but I’ll never forget the first love, the Panasonic Digital Mini Camcorder.

AI: How much do you map out a video?

GJ: Most of the mapping out happens in my head during a lengthy gestation period. I make a simple drawing for an idea, a concept, and pin it up on the wall. Occasionally I draw a storyboard, I research. I trust my intellect and my life experience to steer me. We scout for places and spaces as shooting locations. A mise en scène gradually comes to life, working with the same people. I am not interested in control. I don’t have a Director’s chair. I do guerrilla filming. I want to destroy the One Man’s perspective dominating the history of film. For instance if you take the camera into the Catacombs in Paris along with your character in WW2 Resistante costume, you cannot be sure what will happen. The story line/narrative is created, in part, depending upon the material we come away with, but always following the loose narrative, even for my ongoing series of video portraits. There is always some kind of story told. I then go home and write the next scene, often together with my husband, Lewis de Soto. He thinks linearly, which can be useful when you assemble a video for a rough cut. Later you can destroy it. A good example is The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke produced during a four months Canada Council Residency at Cité International des Arts in Paris in 2003.

JD is an anti-narrative feature -length video about a Quebecoise nun who thinks she works as a courier for the Resistance in WW2 Paris, roaming in tourist spots like the Louvre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, the Catacombes, Notre Dame Cathedral, les Quais, etc. The cast were Adrienne Le Coutour as J.Darke, Anna-Lena Johansson as Evil Gestapo Nun and Berlin based Canadian artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay as Jean MalreuxResistant.

We collaborated and improvised, discussed, wrote and shot. In the end we did not make a movie, which was my concept, but a strange meandering document where the camera had its own will, sabotaging the story and ultimately turning into itself. It is the story of a video that refuses to become a movie. With this film I am commenting on and parodying the clichés and tropes of the WW2 Resistance Movie genre while consistently pointing to paintings, music, books, and all kinds of histories, as the more important, and fun task. In the last scene when Johanna is in jail I use the text of the last two pages of Albert Camus’ L’étranger. I have always wanted to press those lines into art.

AI: Some of your work is narrative in structure, other pieces focus solely on image and sound. These are two distinct ways of working. Care to comment?

GJ: Every image suggests a narrative, even a still. As much as I would hate to confuse anyone I don’t really see a distinction between a narrative and a slowly moving portrait. The only difference is that the narrative in the portrait is that of the viewer.

AI: There is always an element of mystery in your work, something hidden or half-hidden, or seeking to be exposed. Comment?

GJ: I am seeking. Truths are always hidden or suppressed in our society. A mystery revealed loses its allure. Questions are more interesting than answers.

AI: Role of sound?

GJ: It is good to start with the proposition that sound tracks are the enemy of the moving image. Soundscapes are the antidote to an illustrative sound track. I use sound as a psychological dimension that operates in parallel with the image. Sound in an art video is the opposite of multiple sound tracks in commercial movies. Sound does not illustrate, it comments on and makes a work more intimate, more accessible. Often I create a kind of silence. Silence is quietly noisy. Complete silence hurts the ear. Sound should nor be heard but felt.

AI: The work often evokes a feeling of tenderness in the viewer, a desire to protect the fragility of what is  being looked-at, whether it be a person or an object. Why are these feelings/sensations interesting to explore?

GJ: These feelings are yours. Humanity evokes tenderness.. Both happiness and suffering evokes tenderness. I love life, its cruelty, fragility and beauty.

AI: You said to me, “Everything I make is connected to the fibre of my life.” Can you expand?

GJ: I don’t see a separation between art and life. The art work is the manifestation and the residue of living. It is not interesting to produce art for the sake of producing art.

AI: What are you working on these days? And what shows/exhibitions do you have coming up in the next year or two?

GJ: Dinner in my new kitchen which I will be exhibiting to all my friends. You can come too.

Ok seriously, I have a work in an exhibition at Ryerson Image Centre ANTI GLAMOUR, running until the end of April. I am currently working toward “Ways of Something”; a commission for a one minute video interpreting a segment from John Berger’s 1972 BBC Television series Ways of Seeing”, curated by Toronto artist and curator Lorna Mills. Simultaneously I am producing a commissioned short film with Canadian writer Russell Smith. As well, a lot of thought and research goes toward a solo exhibition in September 2016 at Rodman Hall Art Centre, St. Catharines, Ontario, curated by Stuart Reid.

In process and closest to my heart is a film Pieta, of my mother’s last hours. A difficult but ultimately beautiful process.

—Gunilla Josephson & Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

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May 072015
 

A koan- or haiku-like style of description in bursts of short sentences…Lish’s writing is as composed as a soldier: methodical, precise, on mission. —Tom Faure

Preparation for the Next Life
Atticus Lish
Tyrant Books, November 2o14
417 pages, $15.00

Many challenges can assail the lost person in a single given night—when there’s no bed, no radiator nor space heater, no roof nor figurative womb to enfold and heal the daily shredded spirit. The forgotten characters of the night wade through a dark terror punctuated by McDonald’s arches, Chinese calligraphy, imperfect halogen, and harsh sounds like billy clubs dragging down fence railings and cash register ka-chings tearing at the tired mind’s fractious sense of reality.

Such muddled, taurine-riddled minds are front and center in Atticus Lish’s outstanding debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life. Released in November by boutique publisher Tyrant Books, the novel just won the 2015 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Lish’s characters live on the margins, but this is not a pity party. If anything, it’s an introduction to globalization. We do not distinguish between the empty roads of Queens and those of Mosul. Nor their trash-filled alleys, nor their migrant workers, nor their deceptive blue skies. The difference is not even clear to the well-trained eyes of Brad Skinner, a stop-lossed, three-tour Iraq War veteran who sees IED risks even in the tumbleweed saunters of an empty plastic bag. Now in the United States, Skinner and an undocumented fast food busser, Lou Zei, are star-crossed lovers trying to get by in the melting pot of Flushing, Queens.

Skinner and Zou Lei (Thunder, in her Uighur dialect) are from near-opposite worlds, but Romeo and Juliet is not the only analogy to draw—Lish’s protagonists are a Beauty and Beast who discover each other literally in an underground food court, an apt crossroads for an aspiring illegal worker and a traumatized, depressed soldier. Lish’s touch is so deft that he does not come off as cloying or contrived in choosing an overtly fitting setting like a black market for these lovers struggling to survive in the shadows of the crumbling towers of the American dream. On the contrary, the novel, while deeply empathetic, seems uninterested in heartstrings. It is caring, but unpitying and unforgiving.

Looking for work early one day, Lou Zei walks from neighborhood to neighborhood, noting that Roosevelt Avenue’s graffiti changes every few blocks, but what does not is the steady sound of locks pulled down and shutters pulled up—of business, the great Sino-American common ground, cranked manually by the working poor in the liminal limbo between twilight and dawn. The lucky ones still are senseless, hearing nothing: they are asleep. The rest are senseless, too: they are exhausted. The problem for Zou Lei and Skinner, ultimately, is that this melting pot of multicultural poverty does not mix well. Violence spills over, not willing to spare young love.

The most devastating aspect of Preparation for the Next Life is not its rich, understated description of wealthy nations and poor people in the Age of Terror. It’s the love story. It’s the characters in general—convicts, cops, veterans, immigrants, and the many combinations thereof. Everybody’s just trying to get by. Skinner rents a basement room, goes to the gym, and relives the horrors of combat on the internet. He sees mangled corpses in folded pizza slices; he holds his gun to his head and dreams of relief. His landlord’s son returns from a ten-year stint in prison; the house is not big enough for the both of them.

*

How to explain Atticus Lish’s prose? It reads first as if he is overly fond of sentence fragments—but he actually does not use fragments in abundance, save for the occasional litany of descriptive images. The seeming effect comes from a koan- or haiku-like style of description in bursts of short sentences, as well as the omission of dialogue indicators. A typical passage intertwines calm eddies of four- to eight-word sentences driven by rich, concrete verbs, with the occasional hypnotic sentence that stretches into Fitzgerald-like lyricism, employing active participles and gerunds to string images and observations together in a style resembling almost the stream of consciousness—though his prose does not suffer from the hectic spasmodic urgency of Beat sentimentality. Lish’s writing is as composed as a soldier: methodical, precise, on mission:

His body jerked. He moaned. […] In his dream, he knew what was happening. When they had first arrived, they hadn’t known, having yet to learn. Their unit had provided security for a colonel on daylong sector-assessment missions called SAMs that lasted into the night, and they had seen very little action. If this is war, I’m disappointed, Nowling said, pulling security in the spectacular heat. […] It was hard to sleep. People said I miss my girl. I wanna get some. They manned a checkpoint and shot up a car. Their doc from Opa-locka poured a bag of clotting factor in an Iraqi’s chest. Mom’s head was gone. White-faced, Sconyers ran and got a beanie baby for their daughter.

[…] In the basements, they found electronic equipment, stiffened rags, a crumbling prayer book. Children stared at them. The corpses were few at first, but then they started finding bodies every day. Some were mummified by fire. A bomb went off and spit a person out of a doorway. That smell is burning hair. A truck drove by them full of men with beards and satisfied expressions. Why are we letting them go? Sconyers asked. I don’t get it—Sconyers who carried a copy of the Report of the 9/11 Commission in his assault pack.

Because this is the army. Because this is their country. Because this isn’t supposed to make sense.

Lish’s writing is allusive without lacking concrete immediacy. The description mixes panoramic observations with implied exposition. Implied—because, he laces new expository detail into his scenes without pause or explanation. This is expertly done and contributes to the unsentimental tone of the novel. Take for example this revelation that Skinner has proposed to Zou Lei:

When she came outside in the purple dusk at quitting time, he was waiting. They ate pizza slices while the streetlights came on, went down past the gas station and walked along the river.

She was so moved she didn’t talk for nearly a mile.

What are you thinking?

You have a great heart, Skinner!

He liked it that she was happy

Just you say you will marry to me, it’s incredible.

Lish has suggested he avoided seeking help from his father Gordon—the renowned author, editor, and Raymond Carver’s blue pencil—but there’s something Lish-like here. Maybe it’s in the blood. The answer to this authorial originality question doesn’t matter. What the link does, rather, is illustrate how this author still early in his career is well on his way to becoming a master of story-telling:

The house was two houses. On the first floor, there were the lace curtains and plastic on the couch, the kitchen had a cuckoo clock on the wall, and there was a velvet picture of Elvis looking handsome above the couch his mother sat on. The saints and elves were in the yard. The rooms upstairs were a mess of clothes and junk where his mother and Erin lived among bottles of perfume and shampoo and tarot cards and curling irons and maxi pads and beer can empties and cigarettes and photo albums. You could open a drawer in a broken dresser and find a stack of Polaroids of people and scenes you did not recognize, then look at yourself in the mirror and wonder who you looked like.

He begs rereading.

I don’t know exactly when it was—maybe page 40, maybe 50—but I started rereading some of Lish’s pages backwards. I would reread each of its sentences in reverse order. This reading contained a strange wisdom. Here’s a glimpse of a typical Lish page in which we see the city, the lovers, and his writing style:

When she went back into his room to get her jeans, she saw what they had done to the bed, the mauled sheet. His camouflage gear and clothes were all over the floor. He slept in his poncholiner. On the bedside table were his pills and his lifter’s magazine and a strip of four condoms with blue wrappers. The room smelled like him and her, their sweat, latex, and tobacco. All about the room were empty beer cans he used as ashtrays. Under the bed, there was a used yellow wet latex condom. Another one was twisted in the poncholiner. Her eyes scanned over his cigarettes, his jeans. His boots were lying where he had kicked them off. A pair of blue faded cotton panties had fallen on them, hers.

He came up behind her and put an arm around her waist and put his face in her neck. She held his hand. His face smelled like tobacco. They rocked back and forth like that.

[…] They went out into the quiet night and started hiking down Franklin Avenue until the small American houses gave way to ghetto buildings and then the huge cathedral of Chinatown, over the hill through the dark trees and down the longblock that extended out to the freeway like a jetty.

Now you have to go all the way back, she said.

That don’t matter. I can’t sleep anyway.

[…] The sheds were built open at the top like changing rooms, and when she pulled the chain, her light disturbed her neighbor, who muttered behind the plywood. She switched the light off and kneeled down on her broken mattress, on her coverlet bought in Chinatown, showing teddy bears in bowties. By feel, she plugged her cell phone into the charger, her link to him, and the screen lit up indigo in her hands for several moments shining through her fingers.

Combined with the other characteristics of his writing style, the unified yet non-linear nature of Lish’s prose reminds the reader of the vast multitudinous nature of the various wars the characters are facing. There is no one voice in control, there is no up or down, no central organizing order or clear causality, no beginning or middle—but there is an end. A devastating end.

—Tom Faure

a

Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com

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May 062015
 

Madison Smartt Bell

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THE HILL PASTURE SPILLED upward like a green tongue probing the dark trees on its borders. There had once been red horses. Then the square black cows. Then sheep, unshorn, their wool gone grey and matted with bramble, dung clotted under their fat, heavy tails.

Now the deer brown as dry leaves, wind-rustled over the greensward.

.

At night I heard coyotes, but it was rare to see them. There was one once in the low pasture; I saw him hunting mice. Ears pricked, attention perfect, everything in him concentrated on his prey. Perhaps not mice after all, but larks in the lengthening grass, a bird pretending to be wounded, circling wider away from the nest. I could not detect the prey, only the coyote’s sharpening perception, straining forward, then the quick, spring-loaded pounce.

.

Since everything had been destroyed I lived in the feed room of the middle barn, with a board floor raised hip height from the dirt, and a door still stout. The heavy planks of the wall were thick with a fine dust and plastered with nests of the dirt dauber wasps. There were empty gunny sacks once full of sweet feed and others stuffed with uncarded wool.

In a shaft of sunlight slicing between the boards, a black dirt-dauber droned harmlessly.

In the creek was cress and water; I was no hungrier than that. By night I peed or crapped like an animal on the ground outside the barn.

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The white wolf’s muzzle probed rotten burlap, avid for the taut pink bodies of the blind mice nested there. Each morsel burst on the wolf’s long teeth like a berry.

.

 *

*   no words   *

no words

 *

 .

The white wolf was my daughter, child of my heart.

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The dark of the moon was a black circle where the moon once had been. A socket from which a white tooth was pulled.

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The bronze, oiled Indians, mostly naked and smelling of lard, dashed out my baby’s brains against the doorpost. She was no bigger than a rabbit. She never had a chance to cry. They had already scalped my father in the corn field, then broken his head with his own hoe.

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The white wolf walked in the cornfield, disguised as a black-robed crone. Black crows moved elliptically around her, keeping the same safe distance from her fearfulness, lifting and lighting among the dead yellow stalks, the long narrow leaves that whispered in the wind.

.

Upon a day I will no longer have the strength to pull myself up onto the high floor of the feed-room. I may still crawl underneath, however. There I will be sheltered but not so secure.

.

Rain lashes the tin roof of the barn. The front stalls leak, along a faulty seam. Tomorrow their dirt floors will be a bog. I can smell hay rotting in the next chamber (also ground level like the stalls) but in the feed-room it is dry. Extremely dry, as I forgot to fill the rust-brown feed can with creek water for the night. This situation could be remedied by holding the can out under the rain through the open door, but I am too drowsy among the old sacks, and rattle of rain on tin is a great comfort.

.

Under the twisted half-dead hackberry wait the remains of an old wagon: paint bleached away, wood rendered back to earth, the metal wheels and tree and springs more slowly dissolving under rust. There is a wagon in skeletal form, infinitesimally more transparent day by day.

.

The white wolf was my mother, and I her favorite son.

.

On the edge of the creek I watched the water spiders darting over the water, their movement so abrupt as to be invisible. They disappeared from one place and appeared in the place and no line could be drawn between the two locations. A water spider gripped its spot on the water with its legs crooked like fingers of a mechanical hand. The points of its legs dented little dimples into the surface of the water, without ever piercing it.

At that time the creek water was perfectly clear, no more than a few inches deep in most places, so I could see the rounded rocks on the bottom, slightly magnified, and sometimes a crawdad moving among them.

.

Once I laid the corpse of a lamb on the bottom of the wagon bed beneath the hackberry tree. The lamb was the weaker of two twins and never stood up to find the teat. It was still warm though its life had scarcely spanned an hour. Its cooling wooly surface was limp as a wet rag in my hand. On the board of the wagon bed it stiffened into a shape of running with its neck and tongue stretched out. The grey beetles wandered in and out of its mouth and anus. Presently the flesh had withered away and there was wool still shrunk onto the bone, then the wool rotted and was washed by the rain and only a pattern of bones remained. Then a frail light imprint on the board to show how intricately those tiny bones had lain.

Now the boards are gone themselves, at the end of an imperceptibly slow burning which reduced them to ash, to dust I mean—to infinitesimal points of carbon scattered to the wind.

.

When the white wolf dropped the milk jug to shatter on the kitchen floor we did not know if it was the accident that infuriated her or if she had thrown the jug down deliberately in a rage that had already begun. We never learned the answer because we were afraid to approach her, my father and I, lest the wolf tear out our throats with her white teeth.

I picked up the large pieces of glass from the floor and mopped the half gallon of milk with a towel which over and over I wrung into the sink, and finally found the last near-invisible shards by cutting my fingers as I moved my hands over and around the floor like a mesmerist, mingling the milk with blood.

The white wolf paced an angry circle in the yard, hour upon hour.

.

I was afraid in the high garden, alone, also bored, discontent, recalcitrant if I had been sent there to pick beans or thin new-sprouted corn. It would be evening, night’s shade approaching, sun broken on the points of the dark cedars sprouting up behind the gnarled apple trees of the abandoned orchard, drooling the last red light of the day like the yolk of a rotten egg. The corn rows were interminable and it seemed to take forever to half-fill a basket with green beans, hurry as I might, breaking stalks in my haste and sometimes even uprooting a plant from the row. Such carelessness would make the white wolf snarl. The high garden was behind the horse barn well away from the house—behind the barn was a field to cross and a passage through woods that seemed long to me on my short cub’s legs.

There were no more Indians then. The coyotes had not yet come and the deer were rare. Rabbits, groundhogs, quail rustling the dry leaves. Bobcats were there, but we did not see them. Bobcats were shy. There was nothing to fear coming out the arched shadows between the darkening apple trees; rather fear emerged from shadowy niches inside my head only; as much as I knew it to be true my unease grew as the darkness expanded, the bean basket obstinately refused to fill.

The white wolf was inside the house, melting bacon fat on hot iron; she could not see me or protect me there.

.

An owl who cries by day is not an owl, except the screech owl who kept releasing its peculiar ululating trill into the midst of a sunny, snowy morning, perched on a chicken-wire corner of the henhouse roof, eyes squinched as if blind or injured or trapped, although, when we netted it and brought it inside, the owl proved to be none of these things.

We put the owl into a bird cage—an arched, frail and delicate thing, intended for a canary or a parakeet. The white wolf caught field mice for it, bringing them into the house pinched delicately between the tips of the wolf’s front teeth, so no mouse would be torn or punctured, save by the owl’s talons.

The cage must be covered with a cloth for the owl to kill and eat, so that the owl could operate freely in false darkness, and also as a matter of decorum. Afterward the owl slept on its perch in the dim daylight filtering into the room and after that I could pick apart the pellets to examine the dry shreds of hair and the warped little bones.

We showed the owl to visitors but these seldom came and we did not keep the owl in the cage or the house for long; it was a wild thing after all.

.

Dry–rotted for a decade, the gunny sacks still hold an odor, like a memory of the sweet feed they used to contain: cracked corn and a kind of rolled pellet like the Indian money fossils we found around the edges of the stock pond, the mixture globbed together with molasses. I tasted it a time or two, attracted by the pleasant scent, but sweet feed was not for human digestion; it required the four stomachs of a cow.

I lie mottled among the rotten sacks, remembering: damp muzzles nuzzling the feed from my open hands, the rasp of a heavy tongue drying the last sweetness from my palm.

.

With a start I woke and found the whole two sashes of window at my bedside filled with the head of a lion, maned and roaring. Terror stopped my heart—then the white wolf rushed in with her long jaws snapping and drove the lion away. She held me with her hands and calmed me, explaining that there was no lion at all, only an overgrown limb of the hackberry tree scraping its twigs against the window glass.

When the wolf had returned to her own nest, I lay in the dark considering; I did not feel the same fear as before, but no trust either. The wind still rushed around the house and the hackberry limb rustled on the window, with a sound that was nothing at all like that lion’s roaring.

.

How then could my father have believed those owls were owls, crying as they did in the broad light of day, and shifting to surround the cornfield? How could he have gone to hoe the corn without a gun? The bleating of a ewe cutting off so sharply, what did he make of that?

And yet, in the house where I waited with my babe in arms, I heard these things myself and still did nothing. I could imagine things to do but could not do them.

.

Horned owl at dusk.

.

*

*   xx xxxxx   *

 

*

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I watched the tame hens watching the owl, great horned owl that settled on the barn lot pump-head—folding his long grey wings in the dusk. The large soft-feathered head was featureless in the gloaming, his wingspread wider than I could stretch my arms. The tame hens craned their necks and clucked. They were about to go to roost but going to roost would not help them.

.

Some of the Indians came toward the house on all fours, covered in the bloody skins of the sheep they had slain in the middle barn lot, but it could not be for any purpose of concealment as others of their band came on their hind legs capering and howling in a tongue beyond my comprehension. One of these had my father’s scalp already strung to his lance.

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At this time the white wolf lay in a shallow grave with her head cradled between two roots of an old oak tree, with a wedge of bluish limestone piercing the ground to mark her feet.

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The rifle my father ought to have taken with him to the cornfield hung on its pegs above the fireplace. I knew the use of this instrument but did not reach for it. Nor did I shut the door and pull the latch string. I stood in the doorway, my babe in arms, watching, struck still as if dried blood had glued me to the spot.

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I was amazed when the white wolf first peered out through the eyes of my daughter. It impressed me also, how close my daughter could walk up on buck deer.

.

*

*               *

*

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`~

                                                ~                                  ~~~~~~~

                        ~          ~   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~                 ~   ~   ~   ~~~~   ~

`~~~~~~~~~~~~

                        ~~~~   ~   ~   ~ ~ ~                        ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

~~~                                                                 ~~~

                        ~~~                                                                 ~~~~

                                                ~~~~                                                              ~~~ ~~~~~

                                                                        ~~~~~~~~~ ~ ~   ~   ~

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Starlings drift over the stubble of the cornfield, lighting and lifting, a sheet of them moving in near-unison, curling up and away from the yellow-gray stalks like a strip of torn black lace. Wind or their wings carries the starlings over the fence post and forms them into a spiral, a helix—and then they are gone, or almost gone, a set of pin-prick speckles on the sky above the hills.

—Madison Smartt Bell

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

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

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

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May 052015
 

Adorno

 

That we live in turbulent times is a matter of consensus. We live in an age where people on one side of the world can engage in the most enthusiastic hedonism imaginable in the name of freedom and people on the other side of the world can shoot up school-buses full of children for that very same ideal. Uneven development is not always an evil of the global situation; more often for competent observers, it is local. It begs the inevitable question: if mankind is not sovereign as a species, what kind of species are we in being mankind? Have we any innate or potential freedom or are we, as the English philosopher John Gray suggests in his upcoming book, merely The Soul of the Marionette? Since the end of the Middle Ages, we in the West have based our entire historical tradition on the notion that we are sovereign beings living in sovereign states that, as history progresses, resolve into the sovereign nations we now constitute. But what if we were wrong in our original assessment, if we have lied to ourselves about our historical situation for centuries, if we have concocted freedom as a philosophical antidote to our real conditions of existence?

*

In order to understand our present we must exhume our past. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant, the foreman of Western ethics, formulated his philosophy of human autonomy, a quality which he ascribed only to a certain segment of the world: the educated European who alone among the species was endowed with the capacity for pure reason. Kant’s philosophy found an enduring audience in the West, not least for its message of rational freedom and for its insistence on Enlightenment. The Europe of his time was utterly drenched in a presumptive racist and cultural supremacy. Kant’s later successor in German idealism, Hegel, thought that Asia and Africa were ahistorical regions that did not participate in the meaningful currents of history. Exclusion of the particular and inclusion of the general defined high thought in all its aspects. Despite Kant’s anthropological exclusion of the majority of mankind from meaningful history, his paradoxical universalism found a broad audience—and to this day his philosophy, internal contradictions and all, pervades American and European thought and neoconservative policy. The 18th century, with all its innovations in technology and social formations, soon enough ushered in the 19th century, with its nascent capitalism and internationalism, which in turn ushered in the 20th century and its ambition to relieve the world of its suffering only to provoke catastrophe after barbaric catastrophe. The philosophy of that century witnessed mass murder and spoke of it with the reverence it had once reserved for the Absolute Idea. Had Kant witnessed the terror his Enlightenment eventually provoked two hundred years after he wrote his Critiques, he might have enacted the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa’s observation that “could the heart think, it would stop beating.”

Following upon centuries of first ethno-religious and then specifically racist warfare against the Jews in the West, the German philosophers of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote their treatise on philosophy Dialectic of Enlightenment during the darkest hours of the Holocaust. They poised this book against their contemporary technological zeitgeist, which placed supremacy upon racial distinction, material domination, and the ruling of nature by a subsegment of mankind who thought themselves abidingly separate from Nietzsche’s reckoning of “the herd.” From the misinterpretation of Nietzsche and the forefathers of German nationalism, philosophy produced the horrors of Nazism and its own best criticism, a criticism Adorno thought equally poised against an America in ascendancy, whose intensive capitalism mirrored Nazi Germany’s own, along with its cultural ideals of law by caveat, family centrism, and international superiority.

Adorno did not locate in particular this parallel between America and Nazi Germany in, say, the alliance between Henry Ford and his model of conveyor-belt capitalism and the focus on efficiency the German wartime economy demanded. He located the parallel in American science and German science, and the cultural value they imparted to their scientific practices. For Adorno, the Holocaust was the dialectical result of technocratic rationality, of what he called “the administered world,” a social sphere completely opposed to egalitarianism or ethical Enlightenment but one rather geared solely to administering law as formatted into being by those who had attained historical power. Whereas Karl Marx, whose critical theory influenced that of the Frankfurt School, had located this power nexus in the European bourgeoisie’s relations to its proletariat, Adorno located it in the managers and the administrators of the world in their relations to those employed unto death.

These powers did not need truth in order to operate. They needed only the will to truth, and as the Holocaust set out to prove, the content of will was more important than the content of cognition when it came to realpolitik. The manifold insanities of Nazi Germany did not depend on the cognitive content of the reflective mind, since all they had in their cultural arsenal was a foundational myth so obviously wrong it could only be taken seriously by the cynical, the desperate, or the naive. “The fake myth of fascism,” Adorno wrote, “reveals itself as the genuine myth of prehistory, in that the genuine myth beheld retribution while the false one wreaks it blindly on its victims.” The Nazi philosophy depended on the administrative method and its ideal of rational conquest of nature, in which realm mankind too was included. Adorno, a Jew by birth if not religion, was expelled by the Nazis, who no doubt lamented that they could not kill him, that they could not, per the peculiar invention of the Nazis, administer the science of death to him and his inconvenient discontent.

The administrators of the Holocaust used the latest methods of social control then available, inverting the formula for human freedom into the formula of human extermination. Sovereignty, like the mythical Uroborus, consumed itself and produced its opposite. If man is not a sovereign species, whose every individual is sovereign, then what kind of species is he? For Kant, mankind was a paradox of freedom, for certain of its members were disbarred from participating in freedom by virtue of their race. Contemporary science, as in Dr. Sussman’s The Myth of Race, has once and for all done away with the biological concept of race and so too with Kant’s more destructive contributions to history. For the fascists, who adored capitalism in its every facet, man was not autonomous but a slave of the state and the necessity of its markets, which thought itself the perfect and utter representation of objective reality. If racism has been revoked by the biological sciences, what of the sciences of capitalism?

Fascism is the loudest boogeyman of history, its outermost dark and nihilistic undercurrent from which we think ourselves now permanently delivered. But for Adorno, that deliverance from fascism was only an illusion. It is not that Ford, the face of American capitalism, thought fascism viable in its mythical assumptions or its focus purely on power itself. Ford thought fascism was viable because of its method — its intentionality toward control, its will to method. The temporary political alliance denounced itself and assumed instead an alliance with its method, which, unlike the name of fascism, might hope to continue its aims nevertheless. In what kind of world do we in the West now live but a world governed by method, by administration? If we are not sovereign, it is because we have seen through the Church Militant, that bastion of medievalism, and replaced it with what we thought was a better form of polity: the secular government. Under its auspices we have prospered in virtually every human sphere imaginable. But, as all things occur in sequences, what has become of our secular government? Adorno might say it has become the godhead of administrative method, a hegemon and its semi-conscious dictates according to which all must live in obeisance. We are ruled not by atomic facts but by the inter-penetrative method of law which, even when liberal, regards all with total purview.

Dictatorship need not have a face provided it has hands. Certain of our actions under liberalism might now be permitted whereas before they might have been condemned by the theory of religious sin, as political philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it in his thoughts on “permissive oppression,” but they are all regulated in their method, by the method of our rational governmentality. In being moral agents we always locate authority not in the God of former ages but in the state and its legalism. It is as though, in launching the governmental method of the classical liberal John Locke and the American Founders in order to free ourselves from our originary monarchy, we have merely subsumed ourselves to the logic of our own abstractions, which have come to rule us all even though we ourselves first invented them. According to Adorno, in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, “number became enlightenment’s canon.” It is now unconventional madness not to conceive of the world quantitatively rather than qualitatively, for all quality has been subsumed by the technocratic rationality of Adorno’s forewarning. If theocracy abused quality in its endless theorizing, secularism has abused quantity in its applied form. Christopher Caudwell, the 20th century English Marxist critic, wrote in his Studies in a Dying Culture that “the unparalleled increase in productive powers has given birth, not to peace, plenty, and happiness, but to war, famine, and misery.” Caudwell had not heard of the Frankfurt School before his death; but such is the outcome of Adorno’s dialectic.

Western philosophy has long been enamored with the debate between human determinism and indeterminism, ranging from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s theodicy of free will to the later natural sciences. These last have for centuries suggested we are but limited points in the progressive logic of the world, not its agents but components of its relations. Wherever philosophy roams, mankind too is supposed to roam free, even when philosophy condemns him to a freedom he dislikes. The behaviorist sciences of the early 20th century, which denied free will completely, petered out into the neuro-cognitive sciences of our modern era. Science is at a crossroads as to the age-old question “are we free or unfree?” But whether such a question is even in the purview of science to answer is, itself, up for debate, for scientists and philosophers continue to claim the domain of human destiny for themselves. The more interesting question to consider is how method influences the questions we ask, a la the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend and his unruly epistemology of scientific inquiry, and the parallels its internal discussions might uncover as to our larger condition. For, where Adorno and Feyerabend intersect, the question of method within the human drama comes to predominate. “Are we sovereign” sounds very much like “are we free,” only it seems much more a propos not of biology but of the structural violence of the state. For Adorno, “enlightenment is totalitarian,” a system proposing complete administration and the abolition of autonomy. The anarchistic aspects of Adorno’s criticism of industrial society sound chiefly like the whimpers of a man who saw mankind’s best hope plunged into its coffin prematurely, only to leave its creators enslaved to circumstance and each other. Under fascism heroism and capitalism were one.

Adorno and Horkheimer are often classified as European pessimists or mere aesthetes preaching doom through critical theory at the dawn and end of fascist Europe. Adorno suffers this indictment in particular, not least for his aphoristic monograph Minima Moralia, a long lamentation for bourgeois European society; though Horkheimer’s anti-Western Critique of Instrumental Reason certainly deserves a mention for his penetrating indictment of modernity. In “The Concept of Man” from his Critique, Horkheimer wrote:

In the historical period after Kant the material conditions for a rational administration of the world improved to a degree undreamt of… In the century of Enlightenment free thought was the force that knocked the solid supports of stupidity from under institutions which bad conscience had driven to adopt terroristic methods; it was the force that gave the bourgeoisie its self-awareness. In our own time, on the contrary, the feeling is abroad that free thought is helpless. Mastery of nature has not brought man to self-realization; on the contrary, the status quo continues to exert its objective compulsion.

Such a mood no doubt stemmed reflexively from postwar European self-criticism. But this philosophical duo was onto something whether or not their pessimism was misplaced: the rebelling students of the 1960s cited them in their chants against authority as surely as they cited the French Marxists, Thomas Paine, and Dr. King. In their angry optimism these students posed the question: “what is method, once it is taken from the realm of pure science, and applied to nature and mankind?” The fascism into which that generation had been born had posed method as the answer to human life, but America, a supposed bastion of liberty, had replied in kind: method is everywhere. Thus Adorno’s hallowed critique of the American culture industry and its paler reflections in the psychology of everyday life under late capitalism. The governors of the administered world “posture as engineers of world history,” spreading first the culture of representative democracy and then its neoconservative and neoliberal dimensions, which convert mankind into “mere objects of administration.” Whether by domination through sheer power, as with the military apparatus of the Nazi state, or through the pro-capitalist propaganda which Adorno thought identical with American cinema, the cultural potentials for subversion are now, as then, shunned to the realm of philosophy where they pose no threat to the status quo. The will to cataclysm has now super-imposed itself over the will to philosophy with the people at its epicenter: although Adorno was a bourgeois, like Marx, he despised the abolition of intellect from any class that could, with persistent theory and action, free itself thereby.

In the 19th century, although it was concerned with emerging markets in the private sector, the apparatus of American government was not quite so solidified as it is now. In America, at least, government simply did not want the purview of all human behavior that its European counterparts had sought to dominate for centuries. From antiquity to the Wars of Religion in the late Middle Ages, Europe had sought to intrude its governmental apparatuses into every sphere of human life, from the social and economic to the moral and private. Its popular history of libertinage was largely a response to its invasive government. America thought it had saved itself from this damning total purview: it was internationally reserved, except for its internal (and brutal) policies of expansion, until the 20th century, when it entered into the World Wars. From that decisive point on, it has sought to develop governmental method to its highest degree, first in its domestic and international markets, with Fordism at the birth of American economic dynamism, and then with our contemporary panopticon of surveillance and our unending series of Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Terror, etc.. Whereas once America left method to nature, it has now fulfilled Adorno’s warning, and turned nature into a method. We have turned ourselves into factota, our species-being into a being of servitude, and the world into an office-space.

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If free will ever existed as a viable metaphysical postulate, the modern world has wiped it out. Postmodern insights have roundly condemned what used to be called “the human being,” after the manner of the humanists from the Renaissance to the 18th and 20th centuries, as merely “the subject,” an entity only biologically human but philosophically conditioned. From Freud to Foucault we have discovered we are not what we appear to be to ourselves — even Freud’s notion of the ego had something of the substantially determinate, if not determined, about it. But we have also lost the ego itself. Now, we have a sum of relations to compose ourselves, which are likewise but social products. The soul has been abolished by the intellect, which in turn was abolished by the condition of the global office-space. Bourgeois idealism, the creator of that office-space, assumes that man is substantially free of the social relations that took their most vicious form in the feudal restrictions but is apparently enslaved to them. Thus, the bourgeois will to freedom is not philosophical but social — in locating himself purely in himself rather than in the social totality, and with himself his laws, sciences, and arts, he wants to remove himself from mankind and exist as though in a vacuum. To be free is to be free from social relations, which throughout the centuries he has mistaken for the return to feudalism. From this he produces his Protestant Christianity and capitalist individualism; but it is an ignorance to assume that man is ever free from man. To even speak it is to acknowledge with a socially-received language that man is always social, never individual or at least not purely so, that man is composed by society which in turn is composed by man. Social relations constitute a man far more than do the private fantasies of not-belonging, of Cartesian and Freudian ego, of the willful alienation from the social into the self. Capitalism is the economic manifestation of this asocial tendency; Protestantism is its religious manifestation; America is its national form. In Adorno’s view, we moderns are administered from without, not determined from within. The ancient philosophical distinction between subject and object has been erased by capitalist relations and their larger, more modern applications.

What an impoverished accountant in Bangladesh does, as his paid labor, affects after a manner one’s own Western phenomenological consciousness — even if it is merely at the level of a two-cent increase in the price of beef. More expansively, what an archivist does in the US State Department affects entire feudal villages in the Middle East, from whether or not they can continue to wear their traditional garb without the imminent threat of retaliation from local extreme moralists to whether or not they can expect to raise children who do not die of starvation by the age of five. Globalization, the manifest destiny of Adorno’s pessimism, affects us all and does so totally — the very nature of the process ensures it affects we in the West as much as it does those more dismally disposed to it in the rest of the world. Between “the West and the rest,” we are composed by our global relations to capital and its desires, and by virtue of that relation, we are also determined: capitalism has never been a humanism. Augustine of Hippo and the other theorists of free will had sought eternal propositions, but it must not be forgotten that our current dilemma is decidedly modern in genesis. Adorno wrote in the Dialectic that:

Even the ego, the synthetic unity of apperception, the agency which Kant calls the highest point, from which the whole of logic must be suspended, is really both the product and the condition of material existence. Individuals, in having to fend for themselves, develop the ego as the agency of reflective foresight and overview; over successive generations it expands and contracts with the individual’s prospects of economic autonomy and productive ownership… The conspiracy of rulers against peoples, implemented by relentless organization, finds the Enlightenment spirit since Machiavelli and Hobbes no less compliant than the bourgeois republic. 

Adorno would locate the roots of this administration in the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rational distribution of both material goods and intellectual goods, such as values and the roles of ethical systems. Originally egalitarian, the enlightening tendency produced its own antithesis: Spinoza and his reason transvalued into Hitler and his myth. Enlightenment directly produced fascism, Adorno thought, because it provided the intellectual underpinnings and global desires of the fascist imperative. Thereafter, it syncretized global capitalism and value-universalism into the current American vision of monoculture, the “end of history” as characterized by the global spread of capitalist relations disguised as liberal democracy. It cannot leave things as they are: it must transform us all until we are on the clock. To be a Westerner is to be always already administered from without. What we used to attribute to the whims of God, we now must attribute to an absurdly impersonal history we once thought individual heroes composed.

To make the general particular, consider your job. It supports your entire material existence, for without it you would soon become homeless and perhaps starve to death. But your job, in turn, depends for its existence on the capricious global market, even if you are a lowly cashier at a franchised local grocery store, or a mid-level insurance agent. If the price of pork and broccoli plummets too low or raises too high, or if the set rate on return clashes with your overhead, you’re the first one downsized — and so your life undergoes a whole revolution involuntarily. Precarity defines your whole existence because precarity defines us all, but this precarity is daily manipulated by consumer price indices and capitalist lobbies in the political sphere. You, and therefore the rest of us, have very little control of your daily life, no matter how contrarily your unreflective thoughts might countenance this fact. Comfort is always a temporary phenomenon under capitalist dynamism. You are administered from the outside, if not by historical market forces, then by individuals expressing their class interests in the market sphere. And so, whether a product you depend on obsolesces into the rubbish bin of history, or the price of your labor specialty nullifies, you come to realize that our materialism is always aleatory, based on chance, and where it is not based on chance, it is administered from above. What you see at eye-level is determined by a constellation of actors far beyond your vision. Sociology, the paranoiac’s science, understands that human beings are always social, from the individual to the sprawling entirety of civilization in which we live without exemption.

Adorno’s philosophy of total administration owes some of its insight to the sociologist Max Weber and his theory of impersonal bureaucracy. For Weber, bureaucratic regimes, whether benign in scope or not, could act as automatic machines once they had access to a labor supply and a formally-rigorous operational system. The IRS is a good example of a Weberian bureaucracy. To be a bureaucrat, for him, was to be a nameless cog, an instrument of the institution rather than its actor. Its work could well be completed by the cyclops Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey who gives his name as No Body. Because administration does not depend on faces but on numbers — the tattooing of the wrist in Auschwitz being most prominent in Adorno’s mind — it can do its far-reaching work without resource to personal morality or the institutions of religious reflection. Speaking of the machinery of civilized man, Horkheimer declared in his Critique that “if the dream of machines doing men’s work has now come true, it is also true that men are acting more and more like machines.” Such is the admittedly pessimistic rendition of administration. It has its better sides, of course. We daily depend on its machinations in our complex civilization, in which literally everything is interconnected, from the maintenance of our streets to wage schedules. There are no islands in a nation-state of 300 million people.

Survival for the vast majority is not possible without administration. What the classical economist Adam Smith called “the hand of God” is now the hand of bureaucratic consensus and scientific management. Hegel himself considered the bureaucracy of his native Prussia a “universal class” removed from the competitive interests of civil society that, through its mediation, ensured a relative peace amidst commercial conflict. But for this abundance, Adorno asked, what resultant cost? We subject ourselves not to a “lordly gaze” but to an administrative network the size of which is now identical with global civilization. Amid such abundance, even the Hegelian slave might be well-fed as civil society directs him this way and that way, though he remains a slave nevertheless. Wage-slavery is not only an analogy but also a synonym for feudal slavery; in its succession of forms, it has only changed the slave’s relation to his directive imperative from the master’s dominance to the dominance of wholly impersonal capital. For the majority of mankind, even for those in the developed world, freedom from methodical determination is as fictitious as the City of God. What the formal relations of bondage encompassed for the medievalist, global Taylorism accomplishes for the modernist: Rousseau’s agony in endless repetition.

As to the philosophical condition in which this leaves us, our end is ambiguous. We are certainly not free, as bound by market forces and government forces and social forces as we are. In being administered, we are also fed and clothed, given as though children all that we need to subsist. We live within a liberal tradition, so at least nominally we try to avert future Holocausts, we try to support human comfort rather than human misery, and we try to use our technocratic methods for the common weal rather than the common woe. Outside of war — in which respect America is particularly adept — our administrations ensure we can count on having enough food to eat, enough adequate clothing to wear, and schools to send our children to in order to receive at least passable educations. Without rational administration of the division of labor, we would be lost, as though blind in the modern wilderness –– what philosophers used to call “man in the natural state.” Only there never has been such a natural state untainted by want and death unmitigated: with or without method, mankind has always lived as though above an abyss.

This rationalized organizing principle is double-edged, however, or as Adorno would declare, dialectical: in being fed, we are also enslaved to administrative circumstance. “Poverty,” he wrote in the Dialectic, “as the antithesis between power and impotence is growing beyond measure, together with the capacity permanently to abolish poverty.” Decades after Adorno and Horkheimer wrote their philosophical treatise on the encroachment of methodical administration, the will to abundance has become the will to impoverish, free will has become the will to governance, and the popular will has succumbed to mumbling resignation. Now that we are all poor we dwell in a worldly paradise so wealthy it “radiates disaster triumphant.” The nightmare of Adorno’s century has through our silent consent found a home in our own 21st, replete as it is with ever-increasing economic disparity, ever-decreasing historical literacy, fundamentalist religion become ascendant, drone strikes dubbed humanitarianism at a distance, and a structural fascism of global aspirations that first introduces itself as the very concept of freedom and which then proceeds to abolish freedom completely.

–Jeremy Brunger


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Jeremy Brunger

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

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May 042015
 

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Six years old in Phoenix, Arizona, and I wanted to sing country. I’d walk to Squaw Peak Elementary by myself; my two sisters too young for school.  There was a house on the corner with a desert yard, a looming saguaro instead of a tree. A low fence kept kids from kicking up the sand. In that sand was something shiny, a glinting by the base of the cactus tree. I’d eye it every day, and every day I wanted it more. Often, walking to school, singing under my breath, I’d practice my twang, the one I thought necessary for a singer. This aspirational twang is forever wed in memory to the shiny, forbidden object buried in the sand.

We are meant to sing. Words want to dive and swoop in the air. A considered tune wants words. I have wanted to sing for decades now, and I’ve sung to myself, quietly, or in closed spaces.

Too, I am drawn to things that need no metaphor. In looking for an invisible thing, my voice, I take singing lessons.

Your voice box sits atop your windpipe, which sits atop your bellowing lungs. Exhale through this apparatus while flexing your vocal cords, and you will make sound. Your head is a maze of boney caves. The notes you make will echo in the passageways and hollows of your body. You can pinpoint the thrum of each pitch. Middle C rings down at the collarbone, the C above by the eyes, High C springs from the top of your head.

HeadAndThroat

The voice is an instrument made of bone, modulated by flesh. It is wind squeezed through a hole. A bone flute.

In Mozart’s Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night sings a famously difficult, unreasonably high aria. She must hit the F more than two octaves up from middle C. Repeatedly. She must do so with trills – and the appearance of ease. She must launch her voice into the stratosphere.

Queen of Night Aria 1Mozart’s Magic Flute, Queen of the Night Aria

A recording of Edda Moser singing this aria is in included in the collection of sounds from Earth on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. This is what the inhabitants of  some future, faraway world will hear. This is what they will know of us.

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But since you are here, and now, listen also to Diana Damrau’s rendition. Watch her mouth.  The shape of the mouth shapes the sound.

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It’s all about holes. Holes through which the world enters, and out of which come babies, words, blood, shit, song.

And it’s about bones, the structure for our living mess.

Or. A bone in the hole. The bone thrust in a hole at the start of a soul.  The baby grows amidst a confusion of metaphors and hypotheses and then, when that song has ended, the clatter of bones lowered into a hole.

People expire when they take their last breath.

Inspiration feels like talking to god, being filled with something beyond yourself.

Spirare, to breathe.

I can’t breathe, I have thought before, in panicked states.

When I lived in the Canadian Rockies, work would sometimes have me driving at night through blizzards. Being tailgated by trucks. I was terrified. The only way I kept calm was by singing to myself.  There is the song, with its own calmative force, and also the deep breathing it requires.

Singing lessons are mostly lessons in breathing.

When I was a girl, my father would bring home discarded x-rays from the hospital. My two sisters and I would cut out the bones and tape together skeletons. You would think I’d know what the inside of a body looks like; I thought the diaphragm was a vague thing shaped like a birth control device, wedged into the rib cage. It is, instead, as I learn in a singing lesson, a huge, thin muscle stretched across the bottom of the rib cage like goat skin across a drum. When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm expands downward. I imagine it like a balloon, and our lungs like balloons-within-balloons.

A diaphragmatic breath is the singer’s breath. You make yourself a loose and empty thing, a vessel. Air rushes in. The space between your gut and your sex expands. You are pregnant with song.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if aliens would see much difference between humans and nematodes, a basic worm type.  We are both bilaterally symmetrical animals, sharing what is called a tube-within-a-tube body plan. We are tubes with holes at the beginning and at the end. Tubes for air and food. When we die, we are worm-food. Alive, worms are bird food.

Songbirds can produce two notes at once. Some can imitate chainsaws, barking dogs, and crying babies. Swooping through the air, they echo the world around them.

Why are angels never described as bird people? They sing and they fly.

My ex-husband believed that some singers were angels and that’s why they were always crashing in planes. It seems to me that angels should stay aloft.

Plague doctors were another form of bird people. Convinced that pleasant aroma would prevent the inhalation of miasma, the foul breath blamed for plague, the men wore bird masks, and would burn sweet herbs in the beak.

The ancient Greeks feared bird women. They knew they were helpless when they heard the sirens sing.  Sappho was described as a nightingale with misshapen wings.

Hypothesis: Angel minus person does not equal bird.

Aviary. Loggerhead Shrike by Sara Angelucci 

When you sing, you can’t hear yourself accurately, the echo chamber in your head distorts your sound. You must learn to feel where the sounds are in your body, how to perceive the sympathetic vibrations. You must imagine that you are opening spaces you didn’t know were there, spaces you thought of as secret. You are a tube of air, a tube with holes that, when closed or opened, makes notes. A wind instrument.

A warm-up exercise has me singing a scale of “kee” sounds. Keys, I think. I might unlock something.  The hard k sound requires breathing into the lower belly and is a voiceless velar plosive. Explosive.

My husband, in his sixties, compares peri-menopausal women to volcanoes. Sappho lived on a volcanic island. I am in my forties, and just learning to sing.

The voice resonates in the chest, in the head, and somewhere in between. There are two breaks in the female voice, one between the chest and the middle voice, and another between the middle and the head voice. A break is where the voice can crack. A break is also known as a passaggio. How you navigate these passages affects the song. I can’t help but think of periods, monthly punctuation. Starting to bleed and stopping are the two passages of the female body. How do you navigate these passages? I was a hot mess of a teen.

Anybody could be in the high school choir, but jazz choir was for the elite. I could read music, sing in tune, and follow directions. I auditioned. The choirmaster rejected me on grounds that I shouldn’t be allowed to have everything I wanted, citing my good grades as proof that I was spoiled. I was a diligent, quiet girl; he was a soft-bodied man in beige slacks the same color as his skin. He wanted to hang out with the cool kids; jazz choir swelled with cheerleaders. I started throwing up. I am not saying that the choirmaster, that unwitting prick, caused my bulimia, but I am saying that if you have a song inside you, it will find its way out, it will erupt. It may no longer be a song, and it may not be beautiful.

The song will find its way out, a distortion. Or you will silence it, an erasure.  For a while, as a teen, I went quiet, I stopped eating. I thought spirit and bone were all that mattered. That flesh, my womanly flesh, was dangerous.

EpiglottisEpiglottis

Ancient Greeks thought the womb wandered around the body, causing a variety of female problems, another way of saying that being female was the problem. Foul odors repelled the womb; pleasant aromas attracted it. And so, a suffering woman would have garlic stuffed into her mouth, sweet herbs up her crotch. The womb could thus be held fast by smells. The wandering womb was described as an animal inside an animal.

The voice is an instrument inside the body, a living thing of and within us.  An animal inside an animal.

A wild boar lays waste to a kingdom; two brothers set out to kill it. The cowardly brother goes to a bar and gets drunk. The brave brother is given a magic spear, and with it, kills the boar. Jealous, Drunk kills Brave.  Drunk claims the prize, the king’s daughter. One of Brave’s bones is found and made into a flute. The bone sings out the story of what really happened. The king hears the song, hears the truth, and orders Drunk’s death. The princess is freed from the boor, and the brave hero, though dead, triumphs, thanks to his singing bone.

Mozart’s Magic Flute, Queen of the Night Aria

The Queen of the Night gives Mozart’s hero a magic flute, somewhat smaller than a spear, but perhaps size doesn’t matter. She wants him to save her daughter. The flute in Mozart’s opera can change men’s hearts, that’s why it’s magic. A skin flute, a meat flute. The hero triumphs, thanks to his melodious pecker.

I could sing about bones.

I could sing about the feeling of quickening desire, of a cock crowing, of a bone bonering against my back as I lie between sheets, embraced.

I would sing of domesticity and the marriage bed.

The echo chamber in our head distorts our sound, we can’t hear our own songs truly. We need each other to be heard.

When I was going through divorce, I listened to Keith Jarrett moaning above his piano notes and Glenn Gould above his.  These raw and moaning men.

When I was going through divorce, I made a film about a singer. The singer loses her marriage, her faith and her voice, in no particular order. She can’t tell the difference between falling and flight, her voice cracks on the high notes. My favorite poem at the time was an ancient lament with many translations. The last line: what was never one is easily split: our song together.

I went to Newfoundland. I’d had dreams about humpbacks, the singing whales, and the high cliffs diving into sharp water.  My heart was broken in several directions. I am a bad guitar player, but I needed to sing, and so I did, shut away in a little rented room. The song was another presence, it made me feel less alone.  One day, my landlady and I went out in a skiff, we were looking for whales. Two soon found us, they swam under and beside us for over an hour. I was over the moon. Blissed out, as in my singing whale dreams. One of the pair lifted its monstrous tail in dripping goodbye as he dove down and away. My landlady said, You’re looking for a whale in the shape of a man. I think what I was looking for was a song together.

Sappho-001Sappho

Sappho was described as a whorish woman, love-crazy, who sang about her own licentiousness. Looking for a song together, I fell in love like crazy, always with writers. I can see myself in scraps of their poems, their stories. A muse’s mirror.

I have settled on an island now, in sight of a volcano. I am married again and we have a boy. I write myself. And, I am learning to sing.

Hypothesis: Volcanoes are to love as sex is to singing.

It is discombobulating and also thrilling to learn that I might be a soprano. In high school choir, I was shoved to the back row of altos, and have thought of myself as alto ever since. My would-be soprano is faltering, fledging. Aspirational. Paper airplane rather than rocket.

To jump, one must push against the ground, against gravity. The deeper the knees bend, the harder you push, the higher you go. Same deal with voice. To sing the high notes, I press down, inside my self, down through my cunt.  Giving birth. At the same time, the high notes feel like flying. I feel them in my head, above my eyes.

The Greeks made much of the mouth/cunt connection, had the same word for them.  When I search the words “vagina” and “mouth” in an effort to learn more about Classical theories of same, Urban Dictionary tells me that “vagina mouth” refers to somebody who’s always talking about vaginas, or a person always down on their knees, open-mouthed and ready.

Classical virgins were open, ready for penetration. When a parthenos finally had sex, she was forever transformed by the man’s sperm and spirit.  All her words were an echo of the masculine presence now inside her, her songs were his.

The Oracle of Delphi, a virgin priestess open to Apollo, would sit astride a crack in the earth, a crack from which hallucinogenic fumes, the breath of god, spewed.  She breathed these vapors in through her cunnus, her cunning, her cunt, and out from her mouth came the word of god. Some say she raved, some say she spoke in poetic meter. Maybe she sang her advice?

The epithet for Echo, a nymph who was nothing but voice, was the girl with no door on her mouth.  She never shut up, and in her conjugal relations with Pan, she had sex with all of nature. No door, indeed. And no words of her own, poor thing. Poor thing.

How to love, and yet be essence as well as vessel, meaning as well as mouth?

Sappho stayed open, she stayed her self, she sang her own words. It didn’t matter whom she fucked.

LaSirenaLa Sirena

The ancient Greeks feared sirens.

In college, my roommates and I had our gimlet eyes fixed upon a lacrosse player, a frat boy with Greek letters on his jacket. There was a rumor that he’d done it in the bushes outside our dorm, and ever after, my roommates and I would tease each other with an ironic slam, well, you do it in the bushes with X. We were virgins; the thought of sex was terrifying and hilarious.  One day, one of us did do it with X.  According to the post-coital report, he emitted high-pitched squeaks as he came.

The sounds we make in sex are often honest,  spontaneous, and I have always loved these sounds almost as much as I have loved the sound of an unencumbered laugh.

The ancient Greeks, those old vagina-mouths, also had a word for a female scream of intense pleasure or pain. Ololyga is described as disorderly and/or divine.

I once heard a story of a woman who’d lost her voice in the range where she would scream. As I remember it, she’d been raped, had screamed, and hadn’t been heard. She wasn’t saved. Ever after, her screams were silent.

An old man steals the Queen of the Night’s daughter. The queen finds her girl, and gives her a knife. The Queen, in her famously high aria, commands her daughter to stab the old lech to death. The name of this fancy, super-femme song is Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart.

The Queen of the Night gives the hero a magic flute, but she gives her daughter a knife.

My singing teacher teaches screaming. She also works with bel canto.  I practice breathing. I practice shaping my mouth. I practice, practice, practice. What we want, after all, is ease. Beauty. The wedding of order to chaos, light to dark, reason to rhyme. The voice made true, the word made flesh.

We are nothing if not memory. We are nothing if not together. We can’t hear our own songs truly.

Singing is a sympathetic resonance of souls across time, across space. We echo each other, with variations.

aviary_curlewAviary. Curlew by Sara Angelucci

The world needs more songbirds, more sirens, more humpback whales. We are meant to sing.

In the beginning, there were three muses. Memory, Practice, and Song.

Then, six more were added, I don’t know why. Nine total.

Sappho was called the Tenth Muse. The Mortal Muse. Her music clings to time-worn fragments like spirit to the bone.

What happens when a muse serves not as inspiration for someone else, but sings her own song?

Hypothesis: She cannot be erased.

—Julie Trimingham

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NOTES & SOURCES:

There are, of course, many interpretations of The Magic Flute / Die Zauberflöte. It is a complex work. Mozart was a Freemason. It is not original to note that the flute is a penis, a creative force; some readings posit the flute as the penis of Osiris, the Egyptian god who looms weirdly large in Masonic culture and in the opera.

Wulf and Eadwacer is an Old English poem, the only copy of which was found in the Exeter Book.  It, like the Queen of the Night’s aria, is famously difficult.  The narrator is presumed a woman; Wulf and Eadwacer might be husbands, lovers, sons, one might even be a dog. You can find a million interpretations. The woman is on an island, and she is speaking for herself. The line quoted above, about our song together, is hers.

Etymologies: Ancient Greeks used stoma to refer to the mouth that eats and speaks and also for the mouth of the uterus. Cunnus is another Latin word for vulva, and has a few possible sources, including Indo-European roots meaning woman, cover, and wedge. Cunning comes from the knowing root that gave us ken and canny. Cunt has tangled and uncertain etymologies, but seems unrelated to the Latin. Germanic in origin, cunt likely comes from a root meaning hollow space.

I construe marriage bed loosely. I like the sound of it, and it means, to me, a bed in which two people who truly love each other fuck, sleep, talk, and hold each other.  I am glad to live in a place where gay marriage is legal.

Laughter is the daughter of uncontained sound: Iambe, offspring of chatty Echo and wild Pan, was the Greek Goddess of Jokes. We get the prosodic term iambic from her, too.

Lyric poetry was meant to be accompanied by a lyre. These words were lyrics, words for a song. Sappho was a lyric poet; she sang.

aviary_fpigeonAviary. Female Passenger Pigeon by Sara Angelucci

Artist Sara Angelucci has created a provocative series of human/bird hybrid photographs, Aviary. Loggerhead Shrike, Female Passenger Pigeon, and Curlew are featured in this essay.

In A Mourning Chorus, women make beautiful birdlike sounds and songs in an elegy for disappearing songbirds.

In the video of the Art Gallery of Ontario performance, Fides Krucker and other bird women keen for vanishing species.

Fides Krucker is a Canadian singer, vocal composer, teacher and writer. She is also a friend and my singing teacher. This essay owes much to long conversations we have had about voice. Her teaching incorporates extended voice techniques, bel canto, and her own philosophies and techniques developed over years of personal experience. In particular, Fides talks about the dropped breath, about the pelvic floor, about effortlessness, about the female body and emotions in a way that is unique to her pedagogy.  The Girl with No Door on her Mouth was an opera Fides commissioned, produced and sang, and was based on Anne Carson’s work. She performs regularly in Canada and Europe. She is part of the Mermaid Collective, which will be staging the opera Dive, based on the Lampedusa story The Professor and the Siren, in summer 2015. The recording of Dive will be released in the spring of 2015. Fides is working on a book about her pedagogy, as well as a memoir.  You can read Documentary Singing, her blog.

Some years ago, I took an intensive and formative voice workshop with Richard Armstrong, who was a student of, and continues work influenced by, Roy Hart. After this workshop, Richard introduced me to Fides, and the three of us worked on Butterfly, a three part project:

Butterfly, a documentary;

Opening Night, a music video;

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and From an Opera Without Divorce, a fictitious opera,

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all on the subject of voice. I also studied briefly with Susan Carr; I first really understood what the diaphragm was in a lesson with her, and her exercise using the “kee” sound are referenced above.

She has produced an extensive app featuring videos and exercises for all levels of students, as well as screaming techniques. Sue coached Seahawks fans on how to scream loudly and safely as they cheered their way to a world record crowd roar, recorded at 137.6 decibels.

Diana Damrau and Edda Moser are both German coloratura sopranos, famous for the their Queens of the Night.

My favorite male singer these days was, I thought, a woman. I am glad for such surprises. He’s no boy soprano, no castrato. He inhabits a female voice, an adopted voice, like an animal within an animal. In his song Bang Bang, Asaf Avidan blurs the line.

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If you are magnetic, the world is yours, is an example of a maxim from Vocal Wisdom, Giovanni Battista Lamperti, transcribed by William Earl Brown, Taplinger Publishing Company. Mostly, though, it’s a primer on breathing, diction, and other bel canto techniques.

Confronting the Classics,  Mary Beard, W. W. Norton & Co.

Glass, Irony, and God (1992) Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound.”

Greek Virginity, Giulia Sissa, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press.

The fairytale of The Singing Bone was formalized by the Brothers Grimm.

Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, translated and with a forward by Willis Barnstone, Shambala Press.

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Julie Trimingham is a filmmaker and writer.  Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. Way Elsewhere, a collection of fictional essays, is forthcoming from Lettered Streets Press. She loves writing for Numéro Cinq. Stories she has told at The Moth Story Slam are posted at www.julietrimingham.com.

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May 032015
 

tumblr_msh9wzikn81rp46e4o1_1280Photo by Jowita Bydlowska

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After Joe moved out of his bachelor apartment and got back together with his wife, I started paying attention to public bathrooms. Precisely, family bathrooms, the ones you could lock from inside, ones with a baby change table. The change tables were sturdy. They could hold you up even if you were not a baby. If you were a grown woman, too, getting it from behind.

Wherever I went in the city–museums, restaurants, malls–I looked for bathrooms like that. I wrote down the locations in a little notebook. It would be easier to make notes in my phone but I was still too ashamed that I was looking for them, the bathrooms, and I didn’t want my phone to send me reminders of my humiliation.

There was enough humiliation. I felt it all the time as I moved through the city like an animal, stupid and wet.

*

After the first time we had sex in a bathroom, I sat on the floor for a while with my head between my knees. He didn’t ask me how I was. I didn’t want to get up. I wanted him to get out, to leave me alone. I told him to leave. I meant leave as in: go home.

But he didn’t; he waited outside with his hands in his pockets and when I came out, we walked toward a table and sat across from each other. What we had just done seemed like a procedure. Like a thing you’d do in a bathroom.

The waitress came and asked, would we like to see the menu?

Just a half-a-pint of Stella for me, Joe said.

Stella for me, too.

He didn’t look at the waitress. He was staring at me.

We should go see a movie sometime, I said. I imagined us cuddling in the movie theatre. I missed our intimacy that was no longer possible because there was no longer an apartment to be intimate in.

Sure, he said.

The waitress brought the beers.

We drank the beers, talked about music we hated, music we liked. When the beers were finished, we parted, went home: he back to his wife, me back to my three roommates.

We repeated the procedure two more times. A high-end restaurant with a bathroom with a chair inside it and a flowery wallpaper—I was proud of this finding— and a Starbucks.

*

But the first time Joe and I had sex, I was menstruating. He didn’t mind, he said and didn’t ask me if I minded – I didn’t. He said, he and his newly estranged wife used to fuck on a towel when she’d bleed, would I like a towel?

Do you mind if not? I said. He didn’t mind. It was his bed. He had just moved into the bachelor apartment.

I’m kind of sensitive so go easy, I said, and he said okay, but then shoved himself deep inside me as if he intended to hurt me.

I had never been in so much discomfort. It was stabbing, over and over, every nerve split and pounded. I tried counting backwards, multiply minutes by seconds, think of what colour to dye my hair… to distract myself but it was impossible to ignore the pain. Eventually, I gave up trying to move from underneath him, trying to slow him down. He pulled my hair hard; he bit my face, my neck. It was like being fucked by a giant cat. I knew that it would have to end at some point; nothing lasts forever, neither good or bad fucks. I simulated an orgasm; I thrashed and moaned. I had a headache. I was sore everywhere. He came inside me with a roar and I felt a sudden urge to laugh: at the roar or from relief? I don’t know. I turned my laugh into a squeak; it got lost in the roar anyway.

My body smelled foreign—I was covered in his sweat. He was wheezing. He pulled out, there was blood on the condom. He collapsed, half on top of me. I moved from underneath him, rolled him over onto the side. He looked at me with love in his eyes. My knees were shaking. I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking.

My knees are shaking, I said, pointing to them. That’s never happened to me before.

He smiled; he probably felt proud of himself.

I smiled back.

Throughout that night, he moved all around me, half on top of me—but not to fuck me— and he would pull and hold me tight as if I was a blanket. There was some deep sadness there, I felt—no lover has ever cuddled me like that, like I was a blanket, like I was his mother; there was this insistence in Joe as if he needed to absorb himself into my body. He had said he normally didn’t do that with his wife and whether that was true or not, I felt gratified but I also felt great and peaceful sorrow.

We would cuddle and talk and fall asleep for a minute and wake up and talk and kiss and half-fuck till it was 7 am and I had to go to school with bleary eyes.

The next evening after that, I was bruised up and down; the insides of my thighs were splotches of grey-purple. My neck was covered in bites. There was a knot in my hair that I had to cut out with nail scissors.

I came over to his place late, half-drunk.

How are you?

I’m drunk. I want to go to bed.

He said, Whatever you like, baby.

He pulled my silk dress over my head. I was naked underneath it. You couldn’t see the bruises in the half-darkness. I lay on the bed. I looked down on my body – it was silver and pale; it seemed to glow. A bruise on my thigh like a shadow. Joe kissed my neck; he kissed the bruises.

How are you feeling now, he said.

I’m okay, I said. I was still bleeding but I was less tender.

The sex was just aggressive as before, and, again, I faked my orgasm.

That was beautiful, Joe said. It always amused me when men said that, how beautiful an orgasm was, as if I perfectly played an instrument or as if I were an instrument that they had played perfectly.

I like you a lot, he said.

He went back to his wife a week later. So many things are predictable like that; rebound affairs especially. I cried, looked for bathrooms to be banged in; hated myself for looking and for crying.

 *

On the last day I would ever see him, right after we fucked inside the Starbucks stall, we were crossing the street together, me ahead of him. A fast car came from out of nowhere, from around the corner and I lunged to escape getting hit.

I looked behind me and he was standing on the sidewalk on the other side, big eyes. He ran across the street.

I should’ve pulled you to get you out of the way, I saw her coming. I’m so sorry I didn’t, he said. You almost died, he said. His voice shook.

I felt laughter coming up and this time I didn’t stop it. I laughed and he looked at me as if I spat in his face.

Fuck you, I said in case I wasn’t being clear enough.

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“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — Margaret Atwood

—Jowita Bydlowska

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AuthorJowita2014
Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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May 022015
 

AliceFulton_Hank De LeoPhoto Credit: Hank De Leo

The subject matter itself is often grim. And in their way, these lines can take on a bleak dimension of their own, a nihilistic push off the cliff of linguistic certainty. But silence, once it has been confronted, must be pushed out. — Patrick O’Reilly

barely composed_978-0-393-24488-5

Barely Composed
Alice Fulton
W.W. Norton & Company
112 pages ($25.95)
ISBN 978-0-393-24488-5

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Robert Pinsky once wrote against “the stupid, defeatist idea that poetry, especially modern or contemporary poetry, ought to be less ‘difficult.’” After all, he argued, “people still read the poems of [Marianne] Moore and [Wallace] Stevens because they don’t wear out, because they surprise and entice us—and maybe, in part, because they are difficult”[1]. Difficulty takes on many forms, and comes with its own rewards.

Barely Composed is a difficult piece. It is Alice Fulton’s first new book in more than a decade and in some ways I am still waiting for it because it continues to reveal itself in increasingly exciting ways. Employing virtually every linguistic trick there is, and lighting on themes from art to love to death to time, the poems of Barely Composed demand the reader parse the lines again and again in new and creative ways. In that sense, the book’s title is a taunt to the reader, a challenge: catch me, if you can.

The most striking feature Fulton’s writing is her maximalist approach to language. Barely Composed is built on a fragmentary style where shrewdly broken lines constantly heighten ambiguity. As they go, Fulton quotes Shakespeare and Celan while dropping in the occasional emoticon or snatch of Esperanto; puns and nonce-words abound. Repetitive artificial forms and meandering vers libre are equally welcome. High and low language coexist harmoniously, but not peacefully. One result of this approach: there is not a single page of this book in which I couldn’t find an astonishing line or image. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a poet who adventures through language so broadly and enthusiastically. Lines like these, from “Wow Moment,” exemplify the book’s usual tone:

……………………………..The gentle interface of yawn and nature.
It would soothe us. It would soothe us. We would be soothed
by that slow looking with a limited truth value. See

how the realtor’s lens makes everything look larger
and there’s so much glare the floor looks wow
under the smartificial xmas tree.

……………………………………………………………(24)

A Fulton line seems as effortless and thrilling as a Muhammad Ali spar session, but it can be just as dizzying if the reader is not paying attention. A tribe of disembodied pronouns roam across the landscape, and the purposeful ambiguity of the phrasing can send the reader on the wrong track unnoticed for lines at a time.

This difficulty isn’t frustrating if one is willing to be taken wherever the words lead them, and find an individual meaning in every line. Even a passive reading of this book offers more than the usual amount of surprise. This play-impulse becomes a powerful argument in its own right: what is poetry for, if not to test the limits of language, to bend things to the point of breaking, then cobble them back together? And certainly, a number of poems, such as “The Next Big Thing” and “’Make It New’” attest to poetry’s inherent value. As a defense of poetry, or of “art for art’s sake,” Barely Composed would stand just fine on its own. However, as Fulton writes in “Triptych For Topological Heart,” “Without ardour, / theory suffers” (19), and there is a more stable bedrock below the swift current.

Barely Composed is not merely a case of style in lieu of substance; the dense verbiage can occasionally obscure, but not replace or negate, the somber contemplation at the book’s core. For example, the longer poem, which begins the book’s second section, “Forcible Touching,” questions the ability of art to respond to trauma. True to form, the poem weaves a variety of narrative voices together, including the advice of a children’s grief counselor, a children’s story about death, the anecdote of an animal control officer whose voice is “Un-American,” and a modern re-telling of the story of Philomel[2]. Throughout, however, more conscious poetic voice lurks within the text:

……………………………….The voice of the shuttle = =

as on a clumsy native loom she wove a brilliant fabric,
working on words in red. When the child colors One day
…………Chipper’s mom told him his sibling
…………had died it is all right
…………to suggest crayons for the blotchy insides
…………of the ears and the blank circles in the eyes
…………that indicate reflection. Unmellow Yell-
…………ow Cool and Crazy Blue. The Animal Control

guy trembled in the one tongue
…………that must do for all his days. I hear the animal soundings.

…………Cage cage scream scream. So pain.
…………In this point I scared. I sad

…………I’m gonna lose job here after.

………………………………………………….(30)

The blend of clinical jargon with broken English, and the application contemporary language to an ancient narrative, plays to the imagery of the Philomel story, while also conforming to the established style of the book (at least in the sense that one can “conform” to a style the strength of which is constant motion, incorporation, and evolution). More importantly, these stylistic jumps enact and reaffirm the impenetrability of narrative, forcing the reader to interrogate just how well narrative can convey trauma, let alone repair it. Nonetheless, the poem concludes “It is a good idea. It is quite surprising” (34).

No subject is explored more thoroughly than parental death and abandonment. The image of a dying mother recurs throughout the book, and especially in the fourth section, which deals with the topic most directly, and which is comprised mainly of elegies; the linguistic experiments, while present, are more restrained here than anywhere else in the book. These poems become a record of the mother’s passing and the child’s anxiety, a perspective in which “the future is a room / so small you can sit in the middle and touch / all the walls” (“Doha Melt-Down Elegy,” 73-74), and where the speaker passes time in the waiting room, editing “a sweat of student essays, changing is to was” (“Still World Nocturne,” 66). The language here becomes conspicuously scientific, making allusions to nuclear energy – a slight tonal shift which emphasizes the cold, post-traumatic space of the clinic. The grief swells and warps, reshaping all previous imagery; by the time the book reaches its ending, the “quietude” and “snow crystals” invited in the opening poem (“Because We Never Practiced With The Escape Chamber,” 11), are invaders, colonizing forces, best kept at bay by writing (“Personal Reactor,” 60); “Make It New,” 83).

The subject matter itself is often grim. And in their way, these lines can take on a bleak dimension of their own, a nihilistic push off the cliff of linguistic certainty. But silence, once it has been confronted, must be pushed out. The “gift” imagery which appears throughout the book reassures the reader, and the speaker as well. A continual appraisal of what a gift is, its purpose and reason and significance, begins in the very first poem and lasts to the very end. It is often mirrored by a self-reflective discussion of writing itself. Having spent the book refining the idea of “gift” – “Love is a gift” (“Triptych For A Topological Heart,” 19); “A gift cannot be cynical / unless the giver is” (“Triptych For A Topological Heart,” 21); “giving it away / doesn’t make a thing a gift” (“Malus Domestica,” 37) – Fulton concludes this thread with the lines “and when you said I gave you what I wanted / myself I gave you what I didn’t want” (“You Own It,” 92). That gift is grief, repurposed into language. Writing becomes a response and a salve for pain, “the fire / that burns fire” (“A Lightenment On New Year’s Eve,” 88). Seeking solace in reading, the speaker of “Doha Melt-Down Elegy” remarks “It was a good book to be lost with. I began taking notes / and by the end realized I’d transcribed every line” (76); that statement is such an accurate description of reading Barely Composed, one cannot help but see it as an anecdote about writing the book, as well. This book, more than most others, has not been completed until it has been read.

The fifth and final section of Barely Composed is fixated on newness – the newness of poetic language, and the newness that defines aftermath. One poem takes its title from Ezra Pound’s famous modernist axiom, and declares “New / breaks the reckoning frame and rests / in pieces,” before requesting “Let me collect its DNA / from the tears on your desk” (“’Make It New’,” 84). “End Fetish,” the last poem in the book, is made up of that DNA – the final line of the previous poems. Taken together, the end-lines serve as an inventory of what it took to crawl through grief, and an index of the gift now being given.

It happens sometimes that a reviewer encounters a book which is smarter than he is. He knows it’s good somehow, but articulating the reason or root of that good-ness is beyond his capability; he is overwhelmed and hyperactive, leaping from one highlight to the next, never pitching down anywhere just long enough, and must be satisfied to say “trust me” until he finally learns his way around. I’ve read Barely Composed a half-dozen times now, maybe more, and I like it a little more every time – each time, the darkness becomes a little more palpable, the structure more instinctual. But the language never becomes less surprising; I plan to reckon with it a few more times at least. Whatever work the reader puts in is well-rewarded here. Trust me.

— Patrick O’Reilly

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Patrick O'Reilly2

Patrick O’Reilly, from Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, is pursuing an MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. He earned his BA at St. Thomas University (Fredericton NB), where he was a three-time winner of the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry. His poetry has appeared in Qwerty, untethered, and Numero Cinq.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “In Praise of Difficult Poetry,” Slate, April 23, 2007.
  2. In the story of Philomel, the titular woman is raped by her sister’s husband, who cuts out her tongue; she reports the assault to her sister by weaving the narrative into a tapestry.
May 022015
 

karl ove
The fraught interplay between the teenage Karl Ove and his father, who is now divorced and living a different life with Unni, his girlfriend, is caught in this extract. One of the first changes the sixteen-year-old notices is the informal way of dress for a formerly carefully put-together man; the second is the steady drinking; the third is that infractions he commits that would have been punished before, such as spilling a drink, smoking, or having another glass of wine, pass by unremarked. The narrator’s disorientation is clear; this is not the father he once knew. However, everything can change back quickly, and the alcohol-induced state of cheerfulness on the part of both adults descends into anger once Karl Ove’s mother is brought up too many times for Unni’s comfort. Abruptly dismissed from their home, Karl Ove boards a bus. He doesn’t dwell on the mood shift any more than we consciously think of the air we breath. The narrative jumps forward a quarter century to when he has possession of his dead father’s notebooks that indicate Karl Ove’s visits, along with other matters.

—Jeff Bursey

 

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From My Struggle: Book Four
Karl Ove Knausgaard; Translated by Donald Bartlett
Archipelago Books

The following afternoon I went to Dad’s. I had put on a white shirt, black cotton trousers, and white basketball shoes. In order not to feel so utterly naked, as I did when I wore only a shirt, I took a jacket with me, slung it over my shoulder and held it by the hook since it was too hot outside to wear it.

I jumped off the bus after Lundsbroa Bridge and ambled along the drowsy, deserted summer street to the house he was renting, where I had stayed that winter.

He was in the back garden pouring lighter fluid over the charcoal in the grill when I arrived. Bare chest, blue swimming shorts, feet thrust into a pair of sloppy sneakers without laces. Again this getup was unlike him.

“Hi,” he said. “Hi,” I said. “Have a seat.”

He nodded to the bench by the wall.

The kitchen window was open, from inside came the clattering of glasses and crockery.

“Unni’s busy inside,” he said. “She’ll be here soon.” His eyes were glassy.

He stepped toward me, grabbed the lighter from the table, and lit the charcoal. A low almost transparent flame, blue at the bottom, rose in the grill. It didn’t appear to have any contact with the charcoal at all, it seemed to be floating above it.

“Heard anything from Yngve?”

“Yes,” I said. “He dropped by briefly before leaving for Bergen.” “He didn’t come by,” Dad said.

“He said he was going to, see how you were doing, but he didn’t have time.”

Dad stared into the flames, which were lower already. Turned and came toward me, sat down on a camping chair. Produced a glass and bottle of red wine from nowhere. They must have been on the ground beside him.

“I’ve been relaxing with a drop of wine today,” he said. “It’s summer after all, you know.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Your mother didn’t like that,” he said. “Oh?” I said.

“No, no, no,” he said. “That wasn’t good.” “No,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, emptying the glass in one swig.

“Gunnar’s been round, snooping,” he said. “Afterward he goes straight to Grandma and Grandad and tells them what he’s seen.”

“I’m sure he just came to visit you,” I said. Dad didn’t answer. He refilled his glass.

“Are you coming, Unni?” he shouted. “We’ve got my son here!” “OK, coming,” we heard from inside.

“No, he was snooping,” he repeated. “Then he ingratiates himself with your grandparents.”

He stared into the middle distance with the glass resting in his hand. Turned his head to me.

“Would you like something to drink? A Coke? I think we’ve got some in the fridge. Go and ask Unni.”

I stood up, glad to get away.

Gunnar was a sensible, fair man, decent and proper in all ways, he always had been, of that there was no doubt. So where had Dad’s sudden backbiting come from?

After all the light in the garden, at first I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in the kitchen. Unni put down the scrub brush when I went in, came over and gave me a hug.

“Good to see you, Karl Ove.” She smiled.

I smiled back. She was a warm person. The times I had met her she had been happy, almost flushed with happiness. And she had treated me like an adult. She seemed to want to be close to me. Which I both liked and disliked.

“Same here,” I said. “Dad said there was some Coke in the fridge.”

I opened the fridge door and took out a bottle. Unni wiped a glass dry and passed it to me.

“Your father’s a fine man,” she said. “But you know that, don’t you?”

I didn’t answer, just smiled, and when I was sure that my silence hadn’t been perceived as a denial, I went back out.

Dad was still sitting there.

“What did Mom say?” he asked into the middle distance once again. “About what?” I said, sat down, unscrewed the top, and filled the glass so full that I had to hold it away from my body and let it froth over the flag- stones.

He didn’t even notice!

“Well, about the divorce,” he said. “Nothing in particular,” I said.

“I suppose I’m the monster,” he said. “Do you sit around talking about it?” “No, not at all. Cross my heart.”

There was a silence.

Over the white timber fence you could see sections of the river, greenish in the bright sunlight, and the roofs of the houses on the other side. There were trees everywhere, these beautiful green creations that you never really paid much attention to, just walked past; you registered them but they made no great impression on you in the way that dogs or cats did, but they were actually, if you lent the matter some thought, present in a far more breath- taking and sweeping way.

The flames in the grill had disappeared entirely. Some of the charcoal briquettes glowed orange, some had been transformed into grayish-white puffballs, some were as black as before. I wondered if I could light up. I had a packet of cigarettes inside my jacket. It had been all right at their party. But that was not the same as it being permitted now.

Dad drank. Patted the thick hair at the side of his head. Poured wine into his glass, not enough to fill it, the bottle was empty. He held it in the air and studied the label. Then he stood up and went indoors.

I would be as good to him as I could possibly be, I decided. Regardless of what he did, I would be a good son.

This decision came at the same time as a gust of wind blew in from the sea, and in some strange way the two phenomena became connected inside me, there was something fresh about it, a relief after a long day of passivity.

He returned, knocked back the dregs in his glass and recharged it.

“I’m doing fine now, Karl Ove,” he said as he sat down. “We’re having such a good time together.”

“I can see you are,” I said. “Yes,” he said, oblivious to me.

***

Dad grilled some steaks, which he carried into the living room, where Unni had set the table: a white cloth, shiny new plates and glasses. Why we didn’t sit outside I didn’t know, but I assumed it was something to do with the neighbors. Dad had never liked being seen and definitely not in such an intimate situation as eating was for him.

He absented himself for a few minutes and returned wearing the white shirt with frills he had worn at their party, with black trousers.

While we had been sitting outside Unni had boiled some broccoli and baked some potatoes in the oven. Dad poured red wine into my glass, I could have one with the meal, he said, but no more than that.

I praised the food. The barbecue flavor was particularly good when you had meat as good as this.

Skål,” Dad said. “Skål to Unni!”

We held up our glasses and looked at each other. “And to Karl Ove,” she said.

“We may as well toast me too then.” Dad laughed.

This was the first relaxed moment, and a warmth spread through me. There was a sudden glint in Dad’s eye and I ate faster out of sheer elation.

“We have such a cozy time, the two of us do,” Dad said, placing a hand on Unni’s shoulder. She laughed.

Before he would never have used an expression such as cozy.

I studied my glass, it was empty. I hesitated, caught myself hesitating, put the little spoon into a potato to hide my nerves and then stretched casually across the table for the bottle.

Dad didn’t notice, I finished the glass quickly and poured myself another. He rolled a cigarette, and Unni rolled a cigarette. They sat back in their chairs. “We need another bottle,” he said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he put his arm around her.

I fetched the cigarettes from my jacket, sat down and lit up. Dad didn’t notice that either.

He got up again and went to the bathroom. His gait was unsteady. Unni smiled at me.

“I teach my first course at gymnas in Norwegian this autumn,” she said. “Perhaps you can give me a few tips? It’s my first time.”

“Yes, of course.”

She smiled and looked me in the eye. I lowered my gaze and took another swig of the wine.

“Because you’re interested in literature, aren’t you?” she continued. “Sort of,” I said. “Among other things.”

“I am too,” she said. “And I’ve never read as much as when I was your age.” “Mm.”

“I plowed through everything in sight. It was a kind of existential search, I think. Which was at its most intense then.”

“Mm.”

“You’ve found each other, I can see,” Dad said behind me. “That’s good. You have to get to know Unni, Karl Ove. She’s such a wonderful person. She laughs all the time. Don’t you, Unni?”

“Not all the time.” She laughed.

Dad sat down, sipped from his glass and as he did so his eyes were as vacant as an animal’s.

He leaned forward.

“I haven’t always been a good father to you, Karl Ove. I know that’s what you think.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Now, now, no stupidities. We don’t need to pretend any longer. You think I haven’t always been a good father. And you’re right. I’ve done a lot of things wrong. But you should know that I’ve always done the very best I could. I have!”

I looked down. This last he said with an imploring tone to his voice. “When you were born, Karl Ove, there was a problem with one of your legs. Did you know that?” “Vaguely,” I said.

“I ran up to the hospital that day. And then I saw it. One leg was crooked! So it was put in plaster, you know. You lay there, so small, with plaster all the way up your leg. And when it was removed I massaged you. Many times every day for several months. We had to so that you would be able to walk. I massaged your leg, Karl Ove. We lived in Oslo then, you know.”

Tears coursed down his cheeks. I glanced quickly at Unni, she watched him and squeezed his hand.

“We had no money either,” he said. “We had to go out and pick berries, and I had to go fishing to make ends meet. Can you remember that? You think about that when you think about how we were. I did my best, you mustn’t believe anything else.”

“I don’t,” I said. “A lot happened, but it doesn’t matter anymore.” His head shot up.

“YES, IT DOES!” he said. “Don’t say that!”

Then he noticed the cigarette between his fingers. Took the lighter from the table, lit it, and sat back.

“But now we’re having a cozy time anyway,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “It was a wonderful meal.”

“Unni’s got a son as well, you know,” Dad said. “He’s almost as old as you.” “Let’s not talk about him now,” Unni said. “We’ve got Karl Ove here.” “But I’m sure Karl Ove would like to hear,” Dad said. “They’ll be like brothers. Won’t they. Don’t you agree, Karl Ove?” I nodded.

“He’s a fine young man. I met him here a week ago,” he said. I filled my glass as inconspicuously as I could.

The telephone in the living room rang. Dad got up to answer it. “Whoops!” he said, almost losing his balance, and then to the phone, “Yes, yes, I’m coming.” He lifted the receiver. “Hi, Arne!” he said.

He spoke loudly, I could have listened to every word if I’d wanted to. “He’s been under enormous strain recently,” Unni whispered. “He needs to let off some steam.” “I see,” I said.

“It’s a shame Yngve couldn’t come,” she said. Yngve?

“He had to go back to Bergen,” I said.

“Yes, my dear friend, I’m sure you understand!” Dad said. “Who’s Arne?” I said.

“A relative of mine,” she said. “We met them in the summer. They’re so nice. You’re bound to meet them.”

“OK,” I said.

Dad came back in and saw the bottle was nearly empty. “Let’s have a little brandy, shall we?” he said. “A digestif?” “You don’t drink brandy, do you?” Unni asked, looking at me. “No, the boy can’t have spirits,” Dad said.

“I’ve had brandy before,” I said. “In the summer. At soccer training camp.” Dad eyed me. “Does Mom know?” he said.

“Mom?” Unni said.

“You can have one glass, but no more,” Dad said, staring straight at Unni. “Is that all right?”

“Yes, it is,” she said.

He fetched the brandy and a glass, poured, and leaned back into the deep white sofa under the windows facing the road, where the dusk now hung like a veil over the white walls of the houses opposite.

Unni put her arm around him and one hand on his chest. Dad smiled. “See how lucky I am, Karl Ove,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, and shuddered as the brandy met my tongue. My shoulders trembled.

“But she has a temper too, you know,” he said. “Isn’t that true?” “Certainly is,” she said with a smile.

“Once she threw the alarm clock against this wall,” he said. “I like to get things off my chest right away,” Unni said. “Not like your mother,” he said.

“Do you have to talk about her the whole time?” Unni said.

“No, no, no, not at all,” Dad said. “Don’t be so touchy. After all, I had him with her,” he said, nodding toward me. “This is my son. We have to be able to talk as well.”

“OK,” Unni said. “You just talk. I’m going to bed.” She got up. “But Unni . . .” Dad said.

She went into the next room. He stood up and slowly followed her with- out a further look.

I heard their voices, muted and angry. Finished the brandy, refilled my glass, and carefully put the bottle back in exactly the same place.

Oh dear. He yelled.

Immediately afterward he returned.

“When does the last bus go, did you say?” he said. “Ten past eleven,” I said.

“It’s almost that now,” he said. “Perhaps it’s best if you go now. You don’t want to miss it.”

“OK,” I said, and got up. Had to place one foot well apart from the other so as not to sway. I smiled. “Thanks for everything.”

“Let’s keep in touch,” he said. “Even though we don’t live together any- more nothing must change between us. That’s important.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes. It’s important we keep in touch,” I said.

“You’re not being flippant with me, are you?” he said.

“No, no, of course not,” I said. “It’s important now that you’re divorced.” “Yes,” he said. “I’ll ring. Just drop by when you’re in town. All right?” “Yes,” I said.

While putting on my shoes I almost toppled over and had to hold on to the wall. Dad sat on the sofa drinking and noticed nothing.

“Bye!” I shouted as I opened the door.

“Bye, Karl Ove,” Dad called from inside, and then I went out into the darkness and headed for the bus stop.

***

I waited for about a quarter of an hour until the bus arrived, sitting on a step smoking and watching the stars, thinking about Hanne.

I could see her face in front of me.

She was laughing; her eyes were gleaming. I could hear her laughter.

She was almost always laughing. And when she wasn’t, laughter bubbled in her voice.

Brilliant! she would say when something was absurd or comical.

I thought about what she was like when she turned serious. Then it was as if she was on my home ground, and I felt I was an enormous black cloud wrapped around her, always greater than her. But only when she was serious, not otherwise.

When I was with Hanne I laughed almost all the time. Her little nose!

She was more girl than woman in the same way that I was more boy than man. I used to say she was like a cat. And it was true there was something feline about her, in her movements, but also a kind of softness that wanted to be close to you.

I could hear her laughter, and I smoked and peered up at the stars. Then I heard the deep growl of the bus approaching between the houses, flicked the cigarette into the road, stood up, counted the coins in my pocket, and handed them to the driver when I stepped on board.

Oh, the muted lights in buses at night and the muted sounds. The few passengers, all in their own worlds. The countryside gliding past in the dark- ness. The drone of the engine. Sitting there and thinking about the best that you know, that which is dearest to your heart, wanting only to be there, out of this world, in transit from one place to another, isn’t it only then you are really present in this world? Isn’t it only then you really experience the world?

Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as “love”? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly, weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity that doesn’t hurt so much, but nor is it as good.

***

Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I’m sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children’s room, Ingrid, the children’s grandmother, on a bed in the liv- ing room. It is November 25, 2009. The mid-’80s are as far away as the ’50s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there. Hanne is out there, Jan Vidar is out there, Jøgge is out there. My mother and my brother, Yngve – he spoke to me on the phone two hours ago, about a trip we are planning to Corsica in the summer, he with his children, Linda and I with ours – they are out there. But Dad is dead, his parents are dead.

Among the items Dad left behind were three notebooks and one diary. For three years he wrote down the names of everyone he met during the day, everyone he phoned, all the times he slept with Unni, and how much he drank. Now and then there was a brief report, mostly there wasn’t.

“K.O. visited” appeared often. That was me.

Sometimes it said “K.O. cheerful” after I had been there. Sometimes “good conversation.”

Sometimes “decent atmosphere.” Sometimes nothing.

I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise.

—Karl Ove Knausgaard

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May 012015
 

karl ove

Knausgaard peels back his more youthful self’s skin to reveal confusion, desire, and ineptitude without once asking for pity. —Jeff Bursey

MyStruggleBook4_CatCover

My Struggle: Book Four
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated by Donald Bartlett
Archipelago Books
Cloth, 485 pp; $27.00
ISBN: 9780914671176

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1. Near the end of the latest installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable auto-fiction sequence collectively titled My Struggle, the nineteen-year-old narrator, angered by his family’s lukewarm reception to his short stories, makes a vow:

I’ll damn well show him [his brother Yngve]. I’ll damn well show the whole fucking world who I am and what I am made of. I’ll crush every single one of them. I’ll render every single one of them speechless. I will. I will. I damn well will. I’ll be so big no one is even close. No one. No. One. Never. Not a chance. I will be the greatest ever. The fucking idiots. I’ll damn well crush every one of them.

I had to be big. I had to be.

If not, I might as well end it all.

Born in 1968, Knausgaard won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature for his novel Ut av verden (Out of the World is a literal translation; it’s not available in English) in 1998, marking the first time the award had been won by a first-time author. A little over one year after the bulk of the events in My Struggle: Book Four Knausgaard had, if not crushed his family, established that he had talent. Six years later he proved the first book had not been a fluke when his second novel, En tid for alt (2004)—published by Archipelago as A Time for Everything (2009)—was nominated in 2005 for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and other awards. He had become a notable writer on the Norwegian scene. The ego on display may be repellant or appear ridiculous, but for many writers the fierceness to exceed expectations can be ugly, and is often phrased in crude ways that most choose not to reveal. This passage, like so much else in the book, displays both the separation of a male teenager from his family as he sets out on his own for the first time, with only himself to rely on, and a confessional quality, without the shadow of catharsis often implied when we term poetry confessional. The statement that he’ll “crush every one of them” reminds us subtly that Min Kamp, the Norwegian title, is Mein Kampf in German, and is uttered with the earnest despair found in teenagers everywhere.

What put Knausgaard on the world stage, where he has been considered for the Nobel, the IMPAC, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and other prestigious literary trophies, and seen his books published by Archipelago Books in hardback and in paperback under the Vintage brand, is the sequence of startlingly candid (or candid-seeming) works that, as has often been reported, took Norway by storm when they first appeared. Some are doubtful they are read with such intensity elsewhere. English novelist Tim Parks, resident grump for the New York Review of Books, in July 2014 wrote an article looking into how popular Knausgaard’s books are in English, and by implication questioning if they should be:

The curiosity with Knausgaard, then, is that the impression of huge and inevitable success was given not with the precedent of previous international success, but solely on the basis of the book’s remarkable sales in the author’s native Norway. Norway, however, is a country of only 5 million people—a population that is half the size of London’s—and of course the whole tone and content of My Struggle may very well be more immediate and appealing for those who share its language and culture; it is their world that is talked about.

Parks may have been quite right on the sales figures at the time of his article, but he ventures beyond statistical analysis. It’s always good to be reminded, particularly by an Englishman who has lived in Italy for over thirty years (and translated Italo Calvino and Alberto Moravia), that London embodies the British Imperial standard for literature worldwide. The expression “their world” makes it seem that Norway is Mars and its population so unrepresentative and odd—never mind the rhetorical ruse “may very well”—compared to everyone else that their experiences scarcely resemble what people elsewhere go through. By these standards, English readers everywhere can dismiss Grass and Bolaño, Dostoevsky and Goethe. Yet on a trip in February I noticed, in various Canadian airport bookstores, the first three volumes of My Struggle in paperback, clearly meant for a mass audience, perhaps drawn in by the photographs of Knausgaard on the cover of each volume (already repackaged with explanatory titles for the mathematically fearful as, respectively, A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, and Boyhood Island; now there is Dancing in the Dark).

There are at least three notable constants about these books: they have enlivened the spring release season due to the writing power within them; they contain tension even in those passages, or pages, that some might consider editing out; and they set readers off in either the Zadie Smith way (“I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack,” she has been reported as tweeting) or with skepticism about the literary merits of depicting seemingly dull affairs. There seems to be little middle ground. The latest volume will not bring those two ends together.

2.

Focusing on his time in a fishing village called Håfjord (population 250) in northern Norway, where the eighteen-year-old Karl Ove, as he is referred to, takes up a job as a first-time school teacher (who “hate[s] all authority”), My Struggle: Book Four explores several themes: the effects of isolation, especially as the hours of darkness increase; the proximity of females both contemporary and underage (thirteen-year-old students); the break-up of his parents’ marriage and the navigation required in two households; his sexual dysfunction; the importance of music and literature; and drinking. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It might be argued that any good novelist could take two or three of those and consider that sufficient material. Knausgaard is nothing if not ambitious, as his own words indicate, and as the preceding volumes have demonstrated he is able to juggle and combine complex topics as well as banal details.

In Book One the narrator freely moved from addressing one time period in his life to discussing others. (This is a feature of all the books.) Among other topics, that volume introduced his first marriage, his feelings towards his children by his second wife (which we see more of in Book Two), and his views on art. But its two main topics take in different stages of his life: the teenage years—bands he likes, friendships, and drinking, with the lowering shadow of his father present at all times—and, in the last two hundred or so pages, how an older Karl Ove and his brother Yngve deal with the death of their father, and the mental decline of their paternal grandmother, in the wretched house they shared. Few pages have stayed with me in the same way as those. A seemingly sad and normal thing—going through a dead man’s possessions and tidying a home—are packed with insights, incident, drama, believable mood swings, and the fear that their father may not be dead at all, with excellent pacing. In Book Two the father is placed to the side, and the emphasis is on how Karl Ove presses ahead with writing against the demands for more time with the family from his second wife, who he loves, and the requirements of their children. This time the narrator has friends with whom he can talk writing, and his world has expanded. As in the first volume, there are scenes of drunkenness and self-denigration. Book Three is about his childhood, and here we are shown, more visibly than before, the cruelty visited on Karl Ove and Yngve by their father, and how their mother rarely intervened.

In each of the previous books there is one major line of tension that runs throughout. In the first and third volumes this is provided by the presence of the father (even when he is absent), and in the second it is generated by what might be termed as the intransigence of Karl Ove to bow to society’s demands that he embrace the role of father and husband above that of an artist. In the newest volume the strain is provided by his actions when teaching (he often feels nervous) and when drunk; he can’t be trusted not to make a misstep or to do something cringe-worthy. Knausgaard peels back his more youthful self’s skin to reveal confusion, desire, and ineptitude without once asking for pity. Karl Ove regularly embarrasses himself by drinking too much and not being able to recall how he got home, and he ejaculates prematurely with every girl he is fortunate enough to have sex with (and for that reason avoids spending too much time with some of them). His attempts to hide the evidence of his emissions from them and from his mother, who does the laundry, can be seen as pathetic or laughable or, usually, somewhere in between. There are frequent scenes where he is sneaky, belligerent, or a thief, and he is prone to tears when caught or called to account for his behaviour. When two male villagers come by his home he is acutely aware of their masculinity, “it filled the whole flat and made me feel weak and girly.” He regards himself as “a kind of freak, a monster…” Only a portion of this can be attributed to normal teenage angst.

Karl Ove is a social misfit who nevertheless becomes quite popular in Håfjord with the young girls he teaches. Lessons begin well enough, but he doesn’t have the training to keep his composure. When three of his thirteen-year-old students, all girls, visit him at his home—a common practice in a small place where children and teenagers look for escape from boredom—he is discomforted. He has already had to hide erections in class. That he is a virgin, a state of affairs he is desperate to change, sharpens the edge of his appetite. Given the Scandinavian setting, one is inclined to think a porn movie will break out at any moment. There are many lines like this one: “[Liv] was walking beside Camilla as I arrived, and she sent me a stolen glance as she turned into the corridor. I eyed her slim firm backside, formed to perfection, and a kind of abyss opened inside me.” Balancing this, he is trusted by a young boy named Jo when they’re out walking the school grounds. “Didn’t he understand how this would look to his classmates, walking around hand in hand with the teacher?” The unpopular boy draws comfort from his teacher, something that Karl Ove notices, and he does not withdraw his hand despite reservations on Jo’s behalf. It requires work on the part of the sensitive teacher to create distance.

Despite his growing interest in one student, Karl Ove does not cross the line. His more important struggle is with what he wants to do with his life. On his first day as a teacher he emerges from a classroom “almost jubilant” at how things went only to realize, a few moments later, that “this was not what I wanted, for Christ’s sake, I was a teacher, was there anything sadder than that?” Against that he sets aside time to write those short stories his family will read, but that time comes between parties and binges, walks and short trips to other communities, and humiliating himself.

3.

Music and literature play significant roles in My Struggle. Book Four shows Karl Ove deepening his appreciation for both, partly as a way of keeping some semblance of familiarity around him in new surroundings, and partly in an effort to extend his knowledge of what is happening in both fields. At age sixteen he had started writing a new music review column for newspapers. “Thanks to music I became someone who was at the forefront, someone you had to admire, not as much as you had to admire those who made the music, admittedly, but as a listener I was in the vanguard.” He brings Roxy Music, Fripp and Eno, David Bowie, Talking Heads, the Smiths, and Simple Minds, as well as Scandinavian bands, to Håfjord, though in his temporary home there are few who regard his taste with the appropriate respect, “but there were circles where it was seen and appreciated. And that was where I was heading.” In literature, his preference is for regional writers and figures more familiar to English readers (Hubert Selby, Jr., Jack Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski), but he wants to be more aware of new thinking about fiction, such as the innovations of Jan Kjærstad in The Big Adventure. When Karl Ove encounters an article on Ulysses for the first time he slots that unread book alongside works by Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Arnold Schönberg, Thomas Mann, and Knut Hamsun.

The latter plays more than one role here. The quiet, and natural-seeming, introduction of Hamsun occurs in a book that includes the opinion Karl Ove’s paternal grandfather has on refugees: “‘We’ve slogged our guts out and we’ve done well, and now they want to take over. Without lifting a finger. Why should we allow that?’” (171) Unlike his father, Karl Ove is open to helping the refugees. Hamsun’s own views were racist and right wing, in line with many Norwegians of his time and with the ideology of Nazi Germany. “Tolerance has never been Norway’s strong suit,” wrote Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books, discussing two books on the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, who used a bomb and bullets to murder 77 people on 22 July 2011 (injuring many more) in an effort to staunch, in the words of Hugh Eakin, “‘Islamic colonization’ of the country abetted by the Labor Party’s ‘multiculturalist’ immigration policies.” Karl Ove and Yngve drive by both Hamsun’s “Nørholm property” (259) that the narrator remembers visiting with his ninth grade class, and “the old Hotel Norge, where Hamsun had done some of his writing…” He reads Pan (1894) when sixteen and living with his mother. The most substantial literary reference has Karl Ove preferring his countryman over Milan Kundera because “no one went as far into his characters’ worlds as he did, and that was what I preferred, at least in a comparison of these two, the physicality and the realism of Hunger, for example.”

Reviews of earlier volumes of My Struggle (let alone readers of Norwegian) already know that the sixth and final volume has extended essays on Paul Celan and Adolf Hitler. In Knausgaard’s own words, it “…really does end in Norway, with Anders Breivik killing sixty-nine children on Utøya Island. This happened while I was writing… And the novel ends there, in that place, in that collision of the abstract heaven we have above us and our own physical earth. Which is what Breivik’s killings were.” Much of the content of My Struggle seems to have been written in an associative style, but it is hard not to view the use of Hamsun and, by implication, his political views as foreshadowing a castigation of Norwegian attitudes about people who are considered too different from them.

In a recent Paris Review interview with James Wood (No. 211, Winter 2014), Knausgaard speaks directly on matters in Norway:

There is a new kind of moralism evolving, where the obligation is to the language—there are some words you can no longer say and some opinions you no longer can express. This is a kind of make-believe. It makes everybody comfortable, they feel good about themselves, because they mean well—while at the same time there is a whole generation of immigrants locked out from education, work, and privileges and there is anger growing in the part of the population that doesn’t have its voices heard, or whose opinions are considered evil and kept out.

While ideology has little part to play in Book Four, occasionally there are mentions of politics (but not ideology), and Karl Ove sees himself as a radical. He likes to read Hamsun, too. Another contradiction in a work filled with them.

4.

As he states in the quotation at the top of this review, the price of failure to achieve Karl Ove’s sizeable goals is high: “If not, I might as well end it all.” That can’t be taken lightly. His fellow countryman and contemporary, Stig Sæterbakken (1966-2012), wrote: “The need to become intoxicated bears a close affinity to the desire for death. Which itself is in the same family with an incurable Unfähigkeit [inability], […] vis-à-vis the realities of adult life.” At different points Karl Ove describes his blackouts: “…I was in the void of my soul…”; “we slowly but surely got drunker until in the end everything disintegrated and I drifted into a kind of ghost world.” His reliance on alcohol, from age sixteen to nineteen, to make him at ease in the world, could push him down the road to death his father is already traveling. It’s a coping strategy or inheritance he never explicitly notes, preferring to justify (rationalize doesn’t seem quite the right word) drinking to excess: “I drank though, and the more I drank the more it eased my discomfort.” He recalls one “alcoholic high” as similar to “a cool green river flowing through my veins. Everything was in my power.” The kinship to his father is ignored: “It didn’t matter to me that Dad had clearly split into two different personalities, one when he was drinking and one when he wasn’t… it wasn’t something I gave much thought.” (249) Further: “I wanted to steal, drink, smoke hash, and experiment with other drugs… But then there was all the rest of me inside that wanted to be a serious student, a decent son, a good person. If only I could blow that to smithereens!” It isn’t a surprise that the young Karl Ove does not examine the resemblance of his divided nature to that of his father’s; the farthest he can go is to acknowledge that, like his father, he is seen as “unreliable.”

Amid the teaching and the socializing there is fiction to write. Brief summaries are provided of a few of Karl Ove’s stories, and his thinking about how to write matures as time goes on. He vehemently rejects capturing what a friend and fellow teacher calls “‘God’s wondrous creation! All the colors! All the plants!’” Karl Ove replies that nature is “‘a cliché,’” yet that doesn’t mean he refuses to appreciate his surroundings. As the bus he’s on approaches Håfjord, emerging from a tunnel, he has an emotional reaction:

… Between two long rugged chains of mountains, perilously steep and treeless, lay a narrow fjord, and beyond it, like a vast blue plain, the sea.

Ohhh.

The road the bus followed hugged the mountainside. To see as much of the landscape as I could I stood up and crossed to the other row of seats…. The mountains continued for perhaps a kilometer. Closest to us, the slopes were clad in green, but further away they were completely bare and gray and fell away with a sheer drop into the sea.

The bus passed through another grotto-like tunnel. At the other end, on a relatively gentle mountain slope, in a shallow bowl, lay the village, where I would be spending the next year.

Oh my God.

This was spectacular!

There are many such passages that evoke the beauty, and the smallness, of this village, and of the natural beauty that rings it. Perhaps thinking about nature is not as clichéd as writing about it.

5.

During the course of his interview with Knausgaard, James Wood remarked: “It’s obvious enough that in your work the insane attention to objects is an attempt to rescue them from loss, from the loss of meaning. It’s a tragedy of getting older.” (75) There could be more to it than that. Drinking to the point of oblivion, hypersensitivity to the moods of colleagues, friends, strangers and his pupils, hypervigilance when it comes to determining, on an instinctive level, who may be a threat—“Everything that came from the outside was dangerous”—and the compulsion to remember and recount everything, as if doing so would flush out that one memory or insight that would provide an answer to crucial questions, might indicate something else. Towards the end of Book Four, when recalling his time in Håfjord years after he left, Karl Ove wonders: “Did terrible things happen there? Did I do something I shouldn’t have done? Something awful? I mean beyond staggering around drunk and out of control at night?” It’s impossible to say, but taking into account all that he has said in four volumes, and his general nervousness, Karl Ove’s upbringing appears to have been traumatic.

In this book his father’s dictatorial ways diminish in intensity due to alcohol consumption, but the eighteen-year-old Karl Ove is right to remain wary in his company “…because when I observed him, and his eye caught mine, I could sense he was still there, the hardness, the coldness I had grown up with and still feared.” There are many unpleasant scenes, witnessed by the two brothers, involving their father and his new girlfriend, Unni, who becomes his wife. A family discussion between the two brothers and their mother occurs, and in it the mother admits she had blindly followed her husband: “‘…I always saw it from his side, what happened.’” Despite what happened in the past Karl Ove commits to being a good son. That could be regarded as the father having control without even needing to reinforce it, keeping him in line no matter what he did, or it could be an earnest desire to be a better man than his role model. In Knausgaard’s tactile, tumultuous, at times feverish, world both things could be true at the same time. Lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” come to mind: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself./ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In My Struggle: Book Four Karl Ove Knausgaard has given us yet another packed work about a fragile, fragmented young man who has his first warranted moments of self-belief, but who slips back from confidence into a miserable dungeon of his own making. There are two volumes left, and though we leave Karl Ove in a changed state, with an acceptance at a writing school in Bergen, thanks to the previous volumes we know an easier life does not lie ahead despite material successes. That may be the best news for those enthralled by this universally appealing and astonishing set of works.

—Jeff Bursey

NC
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Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Apr 302015
 

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When members of Jimmy’s family told Jim McQuade, Director of Schuyler Hill Funeral Home, that, at Jimmy’s request, we were having neither priest nor funeral mass, he warned us that we might have trouble getting Jimmy into St. Raymond’s Cemetery. He proved prophetic. Growing up, Jimmy and I had been thrown out of a couple of Bronx taverns, but getting barred from the graveyard was a new experience. In lieu of a priest, I had been invited by Jimmy’s family to give a eulogy. “That would be fine,” said Jim McQuade, as we sat at a table; I could “just briefly sum up Jimmy’s life.” We laughed because, more than anyone I’ve ever known, Jimmy’s life was not one to be glibly summed up. Everyone thought they knew Jimmy; but they knew only aspects of the whole, complicated man. His life, rich and multifaceted, fell into many different, apparently incompatible phases. Yet there was an underlying integrity, in both senses of that word.

Jimmy had been a hell-raiser and legendary fist-fighter growing up; then a father who raised one son early, and later two young children single-handedly when their mother, Sharon, died young. Professionally, he was chief consulting engineer for the Bronx from 1980, and was in charge of the capital budget program, overseeing money allocated for such construction programs as the Grand Concourse rehabilitation and the parks improvements from Hunts Point to Riverdale. “But he was a lot more than that to me,” said former Borough President Fernando Ferrer. “He was indispensable.” As the go-to person for district leader Michael Benedetto, Jimmy handled housing and zoning issues; in addition, demonstrating Assemblyman Benedetto’s description of him as a “tremendously giving person” who quietly helped many people, Jimmy, each year, did the income taxes, gratis, of more than a hundred seniors who couldn’t figure out the forms or afford to pay a professional.

After retiring in 1995, Jimmy stayed on for almost two decades with the borough president’s office as a part-time consultant. In these years, he also taught physics at Bronx Community College. As engineer and architect, Jimmy created—pro bono—the building now housing the Chippewa Democratic Club, of which he was treasurer for more than 40 years. Still vital, energetic, and physically powerful, Jimmy was, in 2005, diagnosed in a late stage of a particularly horrible form of incurable cancer.  It was in valiantly battling multiple myeloma for ten years (which must be the world’s record) that we all saw Jimmy’s stamina and real courage. So, is there any key that helps explain so varied a life? Not really, but let me make a tentative triple-suggestion that will seem strange to those who didn’t know the “whole” Jimmy: strength, stars—and pigeons.

The pigeons, a group shot.

From the time he was a kid, Jimmy had a coop, and flew pigeons.  Later, residing in Locust Point, he had a flock that numbered almost two hundred. Jimmy and his sons David and Alex lived very near the Throgs Neck Bridge, its under-structure a favorite nesting place for peregrine falcons and hawks. Jimmy flew his pigeons every day and loved how they out-maneuvered the predators, making undulations and quick turns in the air, so that it was almost impossible for a falcon or hawk to kill one. (When many were killed, including Jimmy’s pair of beloved black homers, it was not by a hawk, nor by the family of feral cats Jimmy fed daily, but by a raccoon who got into the cages.)  Once, a frustrated brown hawk pursued some pigeons right into those cages. Jimmy’s first instinct was rage, but he quickly appreciated the magnificence of the hawk and he knew that it, too, had its part to play in the natural order. So he kept it for a day or two, admiring, studying, and photographing it.

As for strength: When we were growing up, Jimmy was himself a hawk, a warrior who never lost a fight even against much larger opponents. I’ll give just two examples, but they represent many stories of Jimmy’s almost mythical prowess as a fighter. My neighborhood, Alden Park, had (laughably enough) a so-called private beach, consisting of a pier and about 50 yards of water. Once, when we were sixteen or so, Jimmy came over to hang out with me. We went down for a swim. An older guy, a blond and brawny 6-foot, 220-pound wire-lather, informed Jimmy, who weighed about 145 at the time, that this was a private beach and that he wasn’t welcome. Jimmy started to leave. But the Big Man couldn’t leave well enough alone: “And don’t come back, you little guinea.” About ten seconds later, Jimmy did leave; but they had to carry the wire-lather home. Jimmy, 75 lbs. lighter and 3 inches shorter, had cut him down with a half-dozen lightning-fast punches that left the would-be hero and actual bigot sprawled and bleeding on the pier.

This is a photo I took myself about 60 years ago circa 1956. Jimmy is standing with two of the girls in our crowd Diane Schleininger and Janet Gartner

On another occasion, a year or so later, Jimmy faced down even bigger odds. In a nocturnal raid, we had snuck into a pool and concession called Bronx Beach and stolen 17 cases of beer. Having “borrowed” a rowboat, we transported our booty to a small cabin cruiser moored off a waterfront stretch called Big Oak. The plan was to return early the following morning and move our goods to a safe location. Unfortunately, when we arrived shortly after dawn the boat was gone. We discovered that the owner and his friends (who must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven) had left for Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island to fish and camp out. A few days later word reached us that they were back and were having a grand time in what was then an orchard that sloped down to our own Bay, not really a “bay” since it opens onto the Long Island Sound. When Jimmy and I arrived and peered through the foliage we saw eight guys and their girlfriends listening to music and enjoying “our” beer. This was a moral outrage, a violation of the code of honor among thieves. We jumped the fence and Jimmy walked right up to the biggest guy, the fellow who owned the boat we’d used for temporary storage. “The party’s over,” Jimmy announced, ordering the leader to pack up the beer, put it in one of their cars (we were carless) and take it to where we wanted it. Even with their girlfriends present as witnesses of their humiliation, he and the others complied. Even at odds of 8-2, they were afraid to tangle with Jimmy.

Back then, he seemed all strength and speed. The first time we ever saw a set of weights, Jimmy, 14 years old and weighing about 140, military-pressed 20 pounds or so above his body-weight, astonishing the older guys who owned the barbell.  He ran the 100 and 220 at Cardinal Hayes, winning at both distances; and once, at a Rice Stadium meet where I was running the 440 for St. Helena’s, Jimmy was asked to substitute for an injured shot-putter. I watched amused as Jimmy, a complete novice at the event, outdistanced the competitors, but was disqualified on all three shots, one of which was so off it actually grazed someone in the audience.

But under all that physical power there were other, deeper qualities. Jimmy had a formidable brain, and dreams. When he and I weren’t getting into trouble, we often sat on the sea-wall, gazing at the opening to Long Island Sound off City Island, looking out at the beautiful green lantern of Stepping Stone Lighthouse, and up to that greater lighthouse, the stars above our heads. In time, Jimmy would know almost everything there was to know about the birth and death of stars, as well as about black holes, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. Back then we would discuss “escape velocity,” the speed a rocket would have to attain to break earth’s gravitational pull: 7 miles a second. And this was long before John F. Kennedy pledged to send a manned rocket to the moon and back.

Jimmy and Alex2Jimmy and Alex

Earlier this week, when Alex invited me to look through his father’s books, I was re-reminded of the range of Jimmy’s interests.  There were books on the Bible, and on Jesus alongside volumes on the universe, on string theory and quantum mechanics; several books on Einstein; on history and philosophy; novels, poetry, books of literary criticism (not all, but most by me, since Jimmy was as proud of me as I was of him). From the time he was a boy, Jimmy was what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called an “Inquiring Spirit,” especially when it came to questioning, from the perspective of science (physics and evolutionary biology) the religion in which we had both been raised and long believed. In later years, he was particularly fond of two passages I’d cited in my book on Emerson. In his essay “Intellect,” Emerson posed a choice between “Truth and Repose.” He who simply accepts the comfortable “creed” he has inherited will find rest,

but he shuts the door to truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as a wall, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

This passage had a momentous impact on the lives of both Emily Dickinson and Emerson’s greatest disciple, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were raised in deeply religious families. Nietzsche, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, echoed Emerson’s thought, and choice, in a youthful letter to his sister. Should we, the twenty-year-old Nietzsche asked rhetorically,

arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable?….Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth….Faith does not offer the least support of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.

Restless (as his sister Barbara told us) from the time he was a colicky baby, Jimmy never, ever sought “repose,” either in his life or in his intellectual inquiries. I should have added that his library included, along (of course) with studies of pigeons, books on aviation. When, after he got out of the Marines, Jimmy was living with his wife Beth and their baby, Jimmy Jr., in a trailer in Moonachie, N.J., he was working full-time and studying for his engineering degree. Yet he somehow found time to learn to fly a plane!  Why?  Well, pigeons fly, don’t they?

Jimmy in the Marines.Jimmy (right) in the Marines

Armed with his engineering degree, Jimmy eventually rose through the ranks of the New York City Highway Department and other positions to become chief engineer of the Bronx, working, as I said, out of the Borough President’s office. Whatever lunacy and law-breaking we engaged in growing up, once Jimmy was in a position of power, he proved incorruptible. As many told me at one of his retirement parties, Jimmy’s word was his bond. His agreement over the phone could be, literally, taken to the bank. Many projects in the Bronx are the visible results of Jimmy’s efforts.  As boys looking up at the stars, we talked about escape velocity; but Jimmy, unlike the rest of our crowd, never wanted to escape from the Bronx. Instead, he wanted to stay and improve it. And he did. As current Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., remarked in his tribute: “James Cerasoli gained the respect and admiration of all through his tireless work in the Bronx. His signature is imprinted on numerous maps; his work and his memory will live forever.”

Jimmy with David as a baby

That most endearing of Jimmy’s qualities—his intense and lifelong love of animals—bore enduring fruit in improvements to the Bronx Zoo.  In charge of the capital budget, Jimmy made sure the Zoo got its share and more of the borough funds. Our close-knit crowd of two dozen, which has kept in touch for six decades, always loved the Zoo as kids; for us it was an oasis, a Magic Kingdom. When Jimmy and I, with my own family, visited it as adults, Jimmy was treated like a king by those who appreciated his support. Why was the Zoo such a priority?  Of course, it was the borough’s main tourist attraction. But for Jimmy, it was personal. The bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. His answer was as famous as Willie himself: “that’s where they keep the money.” For Jimmy, the Zoo was where they keep the animals and, if they had to be in confinement, he wanted to do what he could to insure that they were kept in state-of-the-art comfort and able to enjoy maximum freedom. The big cats are no longer in cages.

Jimmy among the deer at Catskill Game Park.At the Catskill Game Farm

The one photograph his sons submitted for Jimmy’s newspaper obituary shows him, a quarter-century ago and looking much younger than his 52 years, feeding deer at the Catskill Game Farm (closed, sadly, in 2006). As his son David rightly said, the photo exemplifies Jimmy’s love of animals. I think that love of animals, especially his doting on his pigeons, even helps explain Jimmy’s liberal politics; he always championed the underdog rather than the predatory and powerful. His pigeon-skills certainly honed the qualities that made this tough athlete and undefeatable street-fighter a loving and nurturing caregiver when he was left with two young boys to raise on his own. He had learned whatever he needed to master in order to care for his pigeons; now he learned whatever he needed to know to take care of his boys—even learning to cook, and to cook well.

Jimmy’s final decade was incredibly difficult, but he fought this terrible and terminal disease with the same courage and skill that he’d once displayed in fist-fights. (He studied multiple myeloma, and soon knew as much about it as his doctors). In this battle, however, he had the support and love of a close-knit family: his sisters Barbara, Arlene and Pinky, his brothers Hank and John and his young sons David and Alex.  For years every Friday was set aside by Hank and John for lunch with Jimmy at a restaurant of John’s choosing.  When I was visiting from upstate, I was invited to join them.

Jimmy Jr. and his wife and three children lived far out on Long Island, but for Jimmy’s 75th birthday, the whole family got together, and again I was invited. Ironically, Alex, who had been at his father’s side virtually every day since he’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, had to be in Florida. But it was good that the rest of us were there, since, just a year later, young Jimmy suddenly died of a heart attack. This was, in many ways, the last twist of the knife. I came down for the first of two wakes, right here at Schuyler Hill. But Jimmy (burdened with an oxygen tank that embarrassed him and which he relegated to Jim McQuade’s office rather than draw attention to himself) had to endure a second wake and funeral out on Long Island.  When I came over to the house the next day, and asked the stupid but inevitable question as to how it had gone, he said, “Pat, I felt feelings I didn’t know I had.” Alex told me that that was the beginning of the end for Jimmy; that much of the fight—and it had been a long and brave fight—went out of him.  David, Hank, and John agreed, and I sensed it myself, though Jimmy tried to maintain a stoic front. I can’t talk here about David’s and Alex’s own relationship to their father because I will be reduced to uncontrollable tears—as Alex was at Jimmy’s deathbed while David, my godson, tried to hold it together.

Jimmy with his three sons.

Terrible as that death was, it was peaceful, and Jimmy, who we think was able to hear us, was surrounded by those who loved him—no small thing.  It seemed to me at the time, and even more so today, that it was particularly appropriate that when his time came, he died in a hospital named for his intellectual hero, Albert Einstein.  The last long conversation I had in Jimmy’s kitchen (I’ll tell you in a moment about our last phone conversation), we talked about Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein.  I knew why Einstein had (one of his few errors) rejected quantum mechanics; but Jimmy actually understood quantum mechanics! Though Einstein acknowledged that it explained much, he could never bring himself to accept quantum theory because it was random and Einstein was committed to strictly determined mathematical laws of nature. As he famously said, quantum theory “says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the old one [der Alte]. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice with the Universe.”

 That kind of God-talk led many—especially in his adopted country, America, where he was much beloved and had become a pop-culture icon—to conclude that Einstein believed in a personal God, one who cares about us, is accessible to prayer, and promises (for good or ill) an eternal Afterlife. Einstein did not believe in such a deity. In a letter written to a little girl in the sixth grade who wanted to know, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein, endearingly, took her question seriously. He responded that scientists are not likely to be inclined, in a world where “everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature,” to believe “that events could be influenced by prayers to a supernatural being.” Nevertheless, he continued,

Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

His God, Einstein told the New York Times, was “Spinoza’s God,” a divinity inseparable from Nature itself—though he was also convinced, like that sublime and “god-intoxicated” yet “atheistic” 17th-century Jewish philosopher, that no matter how we try to “penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature,” we find that, “beyond all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend, is,” said Einstein, “my religion.” That “humble admiration” and “deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” Introduced to the philosophy of Spinoza by his friend Coleridge, William Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” captured that “presence” (the essence of Spinoza’s pantheism) in deliberately vague but deeply moving lines:

MMMMAnd 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,
And rolls through all things.

In 1930, Einstein concluded his credo, “What I Believe,” by defining what he actually meant in calling himself “religious”:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead….To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

In that sense, and that sense only, Jimmy, an inquiring spirit in the mode of Spinoza and Einstein, was a devoutly religious man—to the very end of his life and beginning from the time when, as kids, he and I gazed out on the water on moonlit or starry nights and then up to the stars themselves. When we were rummaging through Jimmy’s books, Alex showed me something his father had inscribed on the library wall, and which Alex intends to carve out and save: “My improbable God: before Infinity, there is God; after Infinity, there is God.” If that’s not good enough to get into the “religious” cemetery, to hell with them.

Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years2Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years.

I’ll end with that last phone call, and with the final lines of a Wallace Stevens poem, both of which involve deer and, of course, pigeons.  I phoned Jimmy one day while I was looking out the window at my back yard.  Out on the lawn were three deer, a few squirrels, two mourning doves and two pigeons. “How are they interacting?” Jimmy asked, the old enthusiasm still there despite the pain. “Harmoniously,” I said.  But the peaceable kingdom was interrupted.  There’s a 100-foot spruce in my yard and a huge female goshawk (bigger than the males of the species) often nests there. She swooped down. The deer were unnerved, the squirrels scampered to safety, and the mourning doves ducked into the hedge. But the pigeons took off with the hawk in fierce pursuit. I was disturbed, but Jimmy assured me, “don’t worry, she’ll never get them.”  He was right.

This scene prompted me to quote to him over the phone the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” a poem centered on a woman who does not go to church that morning, but instead seeks her religion in nature.  She finds herself in what the poet calls in the final stanza “an old chaos of the Sun, unsponsored”: a beautiful but perishable universe in which we must all die. This is our mortal condition; what are our consolations? Jimmy loved the ending of the poem, finding in it, along with the appreciation of deer and birds, a beautiful and brave death-image, an image that applies, as my friend Barron Boyd recently remarked, to Jimmy’s characteristically courageous acceptance of his own impending descent:

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness,
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Jimmy, who seemed unconquerable, is gone. But nothing can erase, as Borough President Diaz noted, Jimmy’s permanent “signature imprinted” on the Bronx. That “will live forever,” as will the memories that will be preserved—until our own deaths—in the hearts of family and friends who loved and valued this remarkable and many-sided man. And I will think of my brother-in-spirit as inextinguishable in a more profound sense. When, without that funeral mass, we were denied permission for burial in the Catholic cemetery, we decided to have Jimmy cremated. Back in 1957, when he was 19, Jimmy shared with me a now famous essay in which four astrophysicists argued that the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, are the remnants, the ashes, of stars that died in supernova-explosions billions of years ago. When, this summer, we scatter Jimmy’s ashes in Long Island Sound, it will be into water we now know derived in part from a titanic gas cloud older even than our solar system. Out on Hank’s boat, we will be returning Jimmy to the world of nature he loved, and to the cosmos that fascinated him, stardust back to stardust.

Pat Keane/ April 10, 2015

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Afterword: For David and Alex

I returned to Syracuse in time on April 11 to make, I thought, a Curlew Theatre play about W. B. Yeats, for which I’d written an introduction and which was scheduled to be performed at Le Moyne College at 7pm. I didn’t know that while I was in New York City for Jimmy’s death and wake, the time had been changed to 4pm. It was good that I didn’t know, because something rather wonderful happened in my walk over to the college—as I told Kate Costello-Sullivan, Le Moyne’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, in the following email, which I’m now sharing with you.

Dear Kate,

Unaware that the play had already been performed, I left for the college at 6:50. I was walking due west on Salt Springs, thus directly into the setting sun. As I came over the rise in the road, I suddenly found myself looking at 7 or 8 deer: they were just standing there, stopped in the midst of crossing from the college side. I heard two cars coming fast, maybe 100-150 feet behind me. Between the brightness of the sun and the fact that the deer were just over the rise, neither driver could see what was ahead. I jumped out in the middle of the street and started waving. One driver slammed on his brakes, the other swerved onto a lawn alongside the road. The little herd of deer took off. The drivers understood.

When I got to the college, the doors were locked. I tried another possible venue, and that’s when I saw a poster, with the time, 4:00, and featuring a line excerpted from one of Yeats’s finest poems: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” I’d felt pretty good about the deer episode right off. But as I started walking back, it dawned on me that if I hadn’t been precisely where I was at precisely that moment, one or both of those cars would have plowed into the deer.

My friend Jimmy had been cremated that morning. As I’d emphasized in my eulogy, along with being a legendary fist-fighter when we were growing up, Jimmy was, among other things, a deep and lifelong lover of animals. Later, as Borough Engineer of the Bronx, in charge of the capital budget, Jimmy was responsible for many improvements in the Bronx Zoo. He hated the idea of animals in captivity; but if they were to be confined, he was determined to insure that they were comfortable and enjoyed maximum freedom. And they do.

Jimmy kept and flew pigeons from the time he was in grade-school; and on his last visit up to see me, he loved seeing the deer in my back yard. I ended my eulogy with the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” beginning, “Deer walk upon our mountains,” and ending with pigeons, at evening, making “Ambiguous undulations as they sink/ Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

I don’t believe in miracles, but I’d been despondent walking over to see the play—a play that, as it happened, had already been performed. Thus, I had no reason to be on that road at 6:50. You apologized, Kate, for not getting my phone call in time to stop me. I’m obviously delighted that you didn’t. Walking back to my house, the more I thought about having “saved” the deer, the more elated I became. I remembered that little Robert Frost poem, “Dust of Snow”:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. The reminder that we still live “in nature,” with creatures other than ourselves, altered without erasing my sadness at the death of a friend I loved and admired, got in trouble with, and discussed literature and science and religion with, for two-thirds of a century. But last night, going to bed still thinking about those deer, I slept for almost 11 hours—more than the preceding five nights combined. Being on that road at 6:50 was a gift, and it comforts me, even as I’m writing these words, to think, intuitively rather than rationally, that it was a last gift from Jimmy, still watching out for the animals.

—Pat

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Pat Keane and Jimmy.

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 302015
 

clasp

Congratulations to Doireann Ní Ghríofa on the publication of her first English language collection of poems, Clasp (Dedalus Press). Doireann, of course, featured early on in Uimhir a Cúig (in collaboration with Peter Madden). At the time, I spoke of the cognitive impact of bilingualism upon the creative process: “Although the written poems appear on the page in a single language, the thought processes to create them are borne of a far more complex interplay. I like to think of this interplay occurring in a type of cognitive marshlands, a ghostly transition zone between water and land with its own unique emotional ecosystem…”

In her recent article, Writing Through Windows (published on  Writing.ie,) Doireann speaks of another transitional zone, the place that a window separates: “Writing given me this strange quirk, of discovering potential windows framing everything I see. These windows and the process of gazing through them is what gifts me my poems. When I sit down to write, I rest my head on the sill, I get so, so close to the glass that I can see the song my breath sings there, and I peer at the poem that lies beyond the window. Through looking at what lies beyond the glass, I create a poem from what is hidden within.

In writing my newly-published book, Clasp, I peer through a multitude of windows in an attempt to explore a multitude of absences. In these poems, I was interested to see whether I could speak about an absence by describing what remains. It’s a strange paradox, but similar to the idea of trying to describe a silence using words, in order to create a sense of absence, one must sketch all the things that remain, the edges that define the hole, if you will. By seeing what’s through the window, you can also see what is not.

doireann imram 2014 3

Doireann’s book, not surprisingly, has been receiving great attention:

In Southward (New Writing From Ireland): Clíona Ní Riordáin reviews Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s newest poetry collection (… be sure also to enjoy the whole online issue and explore Southward’s archives too!)

On RTE’s Arena (April 10) listen to Kathy D’Arcy’s review

Read Doireann’s article from The Irish Times “…on writing Clasp and what became of Airt Uí Laoghaire’s horse”

Or listen to Doireann on  The Poetry Programme (April 25) speak about and read from her collection

You know what they say, you can’t get too much of a good thing!

—Gerard Beirne