Aug 292014
 

effortsattruth

Here’s a review I wrote nearly 20 years ago, published in the Chicago Tribune at the time. The book is out of print, I think. I can’t find it on the Dalkey Archive site. But it deserves to be remembered and reread, as does its author. God loves the outliers and eccentrics, his hopeful monsters, too.

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Efforts at Truth: an autobiography
By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press 1995

Nicholas Mosley is a rare beast — a reactionary revolutionist, what they call in Canada a Red Tory. He is an English lord, son of an infamous fascist anti-semite, a one-time Church of England apologist, and a writer for decades of highly regarded experimental novels in which he explores the ideas of consciousness and responsibility as a way of critiquing what he sees as the victim ethic of liberal modernity.

At first glance, he looks post-modern or avant garde, but he is not. He is just the opposite — pre-modern, if you will, the voice of an older tradition. Mosley is the champion of an heroic Christianity which reflates the Kierkegaardian ideas of paradox and the romance of risk. Not for him the Christian Coalition brand of weak religiosity with its emphasis on being saved — God’s version of Social Security.

Mosley places humans in the center of a mystery, with a duty to spend their lives paying attention, learning, experimenting — their reward being not safety but the chance of discerning a pattern. “To discover what is hidden,” he writes, “you have to go on a journey; what uproar, indeed, before you arrive at what is there!”

The author of thirteen novels and numerous works of non-fiction, family memoirs and screenplays, Mosley is best known in this country for his novel HOPEFUL MONSTERS which won the 1990 Whitbread Award in Britain and capped a brilliant sequence of books collectively called CATASTROPHE PRACTICE begun in the 1970s.

In CATASTROPHE PRACTICE, the same six characters weave through a series of stories dealing with contemporary issues of love, marriage and the upheavals of history. The books are difficult and unfashionably didactic — demonstrations of the paradoxical questing Mosley posits at the center of existence. But they are also immensely interesting, dense with a sardonic self-honesty, humane and accepting.

Now Mosley has written EFFORTS AT TRUTH, a magnificently idiosyncratic autobiography, in which, with characteristic tenacity, intelligence and decency, he tries to picture the patterns that have informed his own life and work.

Sir Oswald Mosley, the author’s father, was the dashing, charismatic, philandering leader of the Black Shirts, British Fascist sympathizers during World War II. Faced with the paradox of loving his father and hating his ideas, Mosley quickly learned to walk a tightrope between admiration and criticism. While his father languished in a British prison, Nicholas Mosley was in the army fighting Hitler. And amidst the fighting, he found time to exchange loving, deeply intelligent letters with his father.

This ability to hold contradictions suspended in thought, to walk psychic tightropes (Keat’s called it Negative Capability), with minefields on either side, is one-half of the Nicholas Mosley equation.

The other half has to do with the Bible, the Church of England and old-fashioned goodness. Mosley’s dissatisfaction with the traditional novel form stems from a commitment to a literal Christianity, the kind that explores earnestly what is meant by goodness, God and grace in worldly and up-to-date terms. Mosley is no born-again tub-thumper — he is the sort of Christian writer who can write, in his inimitably droll fashion, “For the experience of making patterns the word ‘God’ is useful, but not imperative.”

According to Mosley, modern novels portray characters as victims, with no room for assigning or accepting responsibility for actions. “The literary world seemed to have been taken over by a vast army of contemporary fashion in which freedom was denied and ideas of dignity and redemption mocked.” He set out to write books which, in his words, related the inner (thought) to the outer (actions).

This was no easy task. A new form had to be invented. Mosley’s prose style has a functional awkwardness built in (Mosley himself has always stuttered — he speculates upon the relationship between trying to see the world clearly and his inability to speak). He mixes together letters from lovers, wives and friends, excerpts from his essays and biographies, and passages that are formal pastiches from his novels.

One of Mosley’s favorite devices is the rhetorical question, which gives the narrative a questing quality, an open-endedness. Frequently, his syntax stretches for a kind hypothetical uncertainty — “And at the center of the paradox, should it not indeed be something about sponteneity that is learned?” Sentences like this read strangely at first, till the reader begins to see them as tied perfectly to the author’s project: the careful dissection of thought and action in an effort to reveal some central pattern whose nature may be inexpressible in ordinary expository terms.

Mosley’s rhetoric, like that of Jacques Derrida or Ludwig Wittgenstein, has the quality of seeming to teeter at the very edge of language. Those questions, the sudden twists of self-doubt, the leaps of understanding, the conditional hypotheses — have the effect of drawing the reader’s attention to something that is not quite being said or understood.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH weaves back and forth between Mosley’s life and the life of his books, showing how the one influenced the other. The discovery that, in his earlier books, he has repeated the self-sacrificial hero motif, leads him to shake off a post-combat depression and locate an unexamined yen for the Church of England. (What, after all, is Jesus but a self-sacrificial hero?)

He befriends a monk, suspends his novel-writing and takes over an Anglican magazine called PRISM from which pulpit he blasts the church for moral complacency. This wild turn into Anglicanism happens just as the Angry Young Men, writers like John Osbourne and Kingsly Amis, are storming the bastions of English letters and is an example of Mosley’s sturdy inability to stay with the crowd. Modishness is a vice to which he seems singularly, and sometimes comically, immune.

Meanwhile, Mosley has married, had children, and become willful philandering skunk like his father. At one point, father and son meet accidentally while chasing women in the same London dive. But Mosley’s monk-friend takes him aside and gently suggests there is something wrong in his family dynamic, especially in regard to children.

Till then Mosely has taken forgranted the upper class English notion that children should be raised by someone else. Author and wife energetically fire their nanny and begin to teach themselves how to take care of children, how to love them. Later on, he even figures out about the philandering mess — but not before his willfulness has ruined his first marriage.

Mosley has a fling with screen-writing when two of his novels sell to the movies. He suffers a terrible car accident from which it takes him a year to recover. He goes into analysis and marries a fellow analysand, both of them embarking on this venture in the charmingly naive belief that they have achieved wisdom enough to assure a problem-free marriage. “Here were Verity and I intending to be model spouses and parents in some psychoanalytically re-cycled Garden of Eden. Oh dear!”

Mosley is unsparing of himself, exploring his own smokescreens and cruelties, detailing the awful consequences of his infidelities. One woman has a nervous breakdown, another an abortion. In a letter, his first wife writes: “We are beastly when we are together, but I like you when you’re away very much.” One gets the impression of a creative volcano, an immensely intelligent and self-willed personality, guaranteed to give a rough ride to whoever comes within reach.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH does not set out to be a popular autobiography. There is no name-dropping, little inter-twining of current events (surprising for an author who, in HOPEFUL LOSERS, wrote a masterful historical novel). Mosley sticks with his work and his family, knowing that within this narrow ambit most of the great mysteries of life are played out.

All this is told with infectious brio. Despite the in-built difficulty of the argument, EFFORTS AT TRUTH radiates a cheerfulness, a curiosity about life that is fundamentally healthy and humane. Mosely marks his sins but does not compound them by wallowing in guilt; he does not present himself as a victim of his own faults.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH is an antidote for those who feel the current debates between the right and the left, the Moral Majority and the advocates of a social safety net, have bogged down in stale rhetoric and endlessly circling arguments. It is a brilliant work of literary artistry and an act of faith — a message of mysterious complexity that goes straight to the heart of existence.

—Douglas Glover

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Aug 152014
 

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In David Cho’s “Where We Are,” the film’s assertive title is betrayed by a montage of images under the dialogue of two lovers who wonder where they might be now, both geographically and emotionally. The title might suggest a destination, a place where we and they will find one another, but the tension between what the characters say and what we see in the film instead reveals that either one or both of the characters would rather not arrive, would rather carry on desiring across the distance between them.

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The film’s dialogue is composed of what might be an intimate phone call, non-diegetic sound for an otherwise silent film, separate from the pictures we see. In an interview over at directorsnotes.com, Cho indicates that he saw these voiceless and soundless images to be flashbacks. He connects these to his “themes of separation, distance, and memory” and adds that he’s interested in “blending what characters see in their minds’ eye with reality and the present. It’s something that our minds do so seamlessly and we can fall into daydream without even realizing it.”

Film language, in its most realist forms, cannot show or represent the reality of this stream of consciousness and memory which is so indelible human, so it falls to more formalist, styled film choices to show us what that visually might look like.

where_are_we_02

The peculiar thing about “Where We Are” is that Cho chooses to shoot the visuals in a more realist, hand held, improvised fashion. On the one hand this captures the randomness of moments in desire, but because these moments are small here and not momentous or overwrought in terms of symbolism or narrative significance, they do not necessarily read like memory.

The visuals have the kind of Terrence Malick style that Nick Schager laments in his Vulture article, and, indeed, the content is visually pleasing but the content is not necessarily distinct, unique, or revealing of character or plot. Yet that is probably the point. These are small happy moments, the kind most easily lost to memory.

Traditional film syntax would Vaseline or blur the lens, but Cho resists this for the most part; the images are warm and sometimes there’s soft focus, but nothing overt. The absence of diegetic sound (relating directly to the action) does to some extent dislocate the images, contain them in a way which makes them more memory like, but there is something insistently present tense about the visuals.

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“Do you wonder where I am?” “Do you miss me?” The woman on the call persists with her questions. When the man suggests the woman should come to him, however, she replies, “I’m happy here.” On the most overt level, this is the woman defining her contradictory desires, where she seeks the answer to “Do you miss me?” before she will assert “I am happy here.” Come here / go away. This is Anne Carson’s “sweetbitter,” cultivated by the woman who wants longing more than having. On another level, the dislocated dialogue appears over these memories and the “here” where she is happy could be memory, specifically these memories.

1_Where

When the man replies with his checkmate question, “Are you? Are you happy with him?” he unfolds a second possible reading of the film, one where he is not the man in the footage. Supporting this, there is no diegetic sound moment where we hear the voice of the man on the call connected to the body of the man in the film. Granted, I am a little oversensitive to these dislocations since I just shot a film on super 8 film that has no sound and then after the fact had to find some way to identify voice overs with bodies in some symbolic fashion. I found, as I find here, that voices divorced from bodies can sometimes be symbolically useful. Here, it adds an indeterminacy: we cannot know if the man who speaks is the man in the film and we cannot know if what we see is the love he once had with her or the love she left him for. The more realist, improvised footage also more readily supports this later interpretation, looking less like memory and more like caught moments.

Where-We-Are

If it is not memory, then whose perspective? Is it the man’s fearful imagining of how happy she is now with this other man, or is it real, present footage of her current happiness with the man she has chosen over him?

If it’s her perspective, what we see and hear is a woman happy with one man while she longs for another. She lures a declaration of longing from the man in the dialogue while we see her being happy with another man, one who is perhaps oblivious to her duplicitous heart. Then, her last line — when the man asks if she is happy with the man she’s chosen instead of him, when she replies “I love this place” –reads even more like betrayal. She has chosen “this place” over the one who longs for her, and chosen the man she’s with for his place.

Or maybe these are just memories, the title playing off the more Hollywood narrative The Way We Were. Regardless, “Where We Are” ultimately won’t let us know where we are, just leaves us in a space of indeterminacy. All of these interpretations are possible and true. All of these desires, these words, these images, lovely memories or not, suitably point to just how impossible and contradictory desire can be.

— R W Gray

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Aug 142014
 

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go. —Darren Higgins

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In “Lawn Chairs,” the last poem in her new book, Translations from Bark Beetle, Jody Gladding writes about “stars / so far away / they’ve long stopped burning.” “Unfathomable Mystery!” she goes on to exclaim, without a hint of pity or mourning, which, if we’ve been paying attention, should come as no surprise. Bark Beetle presents one unfathomable mystery after the next—stars burnt out, relationships damaged, butterflies blasted by traffic—but in this magical collection, that’s no reason for despair. As Ovid, another poet concerned with metamorphoses, has written, while everything changes, nothing is lost.

“Process and decay are implicit,” says the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. “Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.” Gladding has come to celebrate, or at least embrace, such impermanence. Yes, she is the kind of poet who will incise a poem (“Habitat”) on an icicle:

why
I
am
like
this
place
is
beautiful
and
cold
.

The icicle, of course, is long gone, yet the words, and the act of their creation, persist. I imagine that final period falling away in a drop of water, followed, in the rising light of the winter sun, by everything else. With its specimen-box cover design, Bark Beetle serves as reservoir or record of numerous such disintegrations. Indeed, there is a photograph of the melted icicle in the back of book, along with images of other “object poems” that served as incubators for and partners to the poems on the page.

I should rephrase that: the object poems are poems in their own right. Over the course of her career, Gladding has come to see poems, whether on the page or off, as physical things built to interact with the world. She writes on paper, of course, but also on feathers, tongue depressors, milkweed pods, X-rays, split logs, eggshells, and change-of-address forms. Bark Beetle, by juxtaposing textual poetry with full-color images of these object poems, gives readers and viewers an unprecedented glimpse of the remarkable range of her poetic art and artistic ambition.

Tongue Depressorsswallow

LikeLichencrossroad

Gladding’s interest in objects, nature, and the changeable language and life within landscapes is not new. “Midwifery,” the first poem in her first book, Stone Crop (winner of the 1992 Yale Series of Young Poets Award), begins:

These stones
I unearth
squatting
in my garden
working them
into the light

Taking us from “pregnant” garden stones through to the birth of her daughter, the tactile, sensory poems in her debut collection are grounded in seasonal shifts, in soil and snow, death and life, cycles unending. In Bark Beetle, she again unearths stones, but there is a difference: here she has made them poetry (see “Seal Rock” or “Gris-gris is a powerful charm”).

Seal RockSeal Rock

Other recent projects also spring from a sense of such poetic transformation—wrapping a quarry in blood-red bolts of cloth, making a series of site-specific nests with grasses, sticks, and strips of text, and weaving yarn and wool around the interior of an ancient stone shelter in France. Spaces, openings, margins, sanctuaries.

In “Triphammer Bridge,” A.R. Ammons writes,

sanctuary, sanctuary, I say it over and over and the
word’s sound is the one place to dwell: that’s it, just
the sound, and the imagination of the sound—a place.

Gladding knows the sound of such places. She is a great listener, a great believer in listening. In this increasingly amped-up, on-demand-everything world, she makes us stop and listen too. Take “Sonogram of Raven Calls,” from Bark Beetle:

rapp
……………………………..krapp
…………kra
……………………………………………..pruk
……………………………………………………………..quork
………………..gro
……………………………………………………………………………………kaah

While the lines in her early work tend to arrange themselves obediently on the left, Gladding’s words in recent years have begun scuttling across the page like beetles on a log. And so “Sonogram” continues, corner to corner, placing us in a forest of song rising up from the white. You can hear the music here (“the imagination of the sound”), but you can also see it. You are in it.

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go.

—Darren Higgins

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I first met Jody Gladding twenty years ago at Cornell University, where she was kind enough to say that the tortured poems I kept submitting for her writing seminar showed promise. Recently, over a series of weeks, her kindness undimmed, she took the time to speak to me—in person, over e-mail, and on the phone—about her poetry and art, her new book, and how she approaches her work.

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

DARREN HIGGINS: How long had you been making the pieces that are found in Translations from Bark Beetle? Did you see them from the outset as constituting a greater whole, or did that sense of unity or cohesion only come into focus over time?

JODY GLADDING: The oldest piece in the book, “Gris-gris is a powerful charm,” goes back a decade to the 2004 elections. After Bush stole the presidency in 2000, after his warmongering response to 9/11, after all the eloquent, articulate arguments against him, how could he have won? Maybe it had something to do with what those arguments were written on. Which led me to try writing on/in stone.

As my work over this time drifted further and further from the page, it seemed less and less likely that a book could come of it. So, no, I had no sense of a greater whole, only a growing excitement about the possibilities that were opening up to me. Then, a couple years ago, I looked at what I’d been making and tried to see what might be lured back into a printed format—which became the manuscript for Bark Beetle.

Mobile Since Mars won’t be this close to Earth again

DH: I love the handcrafted feel of the book itself—part field guide/notebook, part artist book. How did the publication come together, and how involved were you able to be in the layout, image selection/placement, and so on?

JG: Milkweed Editions was absolutely wonderful about collaborating on the production of the book. What I submitted to them as “manuscript” included poems, rubbings, photos, and notes. I knew the poems required landscape orientation and the bark beetle specimen box should serve as the cover. Milkweed’s Jeenee Lee came up with the design itself, plus the typewriter font, which makes the whole thing feel provisional, like field notes. I love the sense that you’re opening a specimen box as you turn the first pages.

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

DH: Could you discuss how some of these pieces were created? Do you collect objects that fascinate or engage you, only to figure out what can be done with them later? Or do you head out into the world with a poem in your head, seeking its perfect medium or vessel?

JG: It’s different for each piece. I had the tongue depressor before the poem with “swallow,” but “roc” was on paper long before it found its way onto a feather. With “Nesting Ravens,” from the beginning it needed an egg. But would the egg be whole or broken? In a nest? It wasn’t always a broken egg. Before it broke, I could actually read from it at readings—slow going, because the print is small and the egg has to keep turning. Once at an area high school, a student came up afterward and said it was like the words were coming out of the egg as I read them. Ideally, that would be true for all these object poems.

Featherroc

DH: I had the pleasure of seeing “The Object Poems: Translations from Bark Beetle,” an exhibition of your artwork, photographs, and poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts gallery. You wrote something in your artist’s statement that I keep coming back to: “I consider the objects themselves to be the poems. I’m interested in how poetry operates in physical acts, in three-dimensional space, in the world at large.” At what point, then, did you begin to think that the writing could live apart from the art (or vice versa, as the case may be)? Were there pieces for which this kind of vivisection was not possible? More broadly, does the success of the art depend at all on the separate or distinct success of the text? That is, would you consider the art incomplete if the text could not find a home on the page?

JG: All good questions. The word “success” makes me nervous, but yes, in compiling the manuscript there were poems I rejected because, separate from their objects or sites, they seemed insufficient. I’m coming at this process, this way of making art, as a poet, so the text itself must feel as viable to me as any poem I write—that is, what it’s on or what larger project it’s part of can’t act as an excuse for it. On the other hand, I don’t think of the page as the poem’s final home. Some of the poems that are in the show didn’t make it into the book, not because they were any less “successful,” but because the book just couldn’t accommodate them.

EggShellNesting Ravens

DH: In the gallery show and in the book, translations abound: Your printed poems as a kind of translation of the object poems. The objects as translations of landscapes or specific sites. The photographs as translations of the objects. In addition to being a poet and an artist, you are a translator of French. What is it that excites you about translation? And can you talk about the differences between, say, translating from bark beetle and translating from French?

JG: I think translating makes you aware of the spaces between languages, and I think that’s where poetry springs from. I translate French to earn my keep, so my excitement about it ebbs and flows depending on the project. Translating French generally pays—that’s one difference. Translation lets us rethink our own linguistic frameworks, lets us transit across, beyond or through them. That was certainly at the heart of my attempts to translate bark beetle.

DH: You have spoken elsewhere about your embrace of the ephemeral. Many of your recent art projects have channeled transience, living purposefully fugitive lives. Many of the object poems in Bark Beetle are fragile and clearly not meant to last. Have you always been this comfortable with disintegration? If not, how has it come about? And does your attitude extend to your writing?

Hard WoodHardwood

JG: I’d like to say I’ve always been comfortable with transience, but the fact is that when I put together my first collection of poems, in about fifth grade, I imagined archeologists excavating it from ruins eons hence, and I wrote “by Jody Gladding (a girl)” on the cover, so they wouldn’t be misled by my gender-neutral name. I can’t say when not lasting, limited shelf life, became more appealing. It just makes sense. I’ve always been saddened by library discards, stacked remainder tables at bookstores. Better a beautiful demise. The ephemeral works of Andy Goldsworthy or Cecilia Vicuña, are profoundly moving to me. A.R. Ammons, who we both knew at Cornell, has this little poem:

Providence
To stay
bright as
if just
thought of
earth requires
only that
nothing stay

Scan11 Sentences

DH: It seems to me that your pages have themselves turned into landscapes, and that your words—as printed, typographical objects—have, for a while now, been inclined to wander somewhat restlessly across them. Do you ever feel constrained by the page?

JG: It goes back to that notion that poems operate as physical acts, in physical space, in the world at large. Visual artists or installation artists, especially those with poetic sensibilities—I’m thinking of Ann Hamilton, for instance, or Roni Horn—have long worked from that premise, they just didn’t begin on the page. I’m coming to a similar place but from another direction.

Vellum book stitch

DH: After reading Bark Beetle, I was left imagining an inscribed world, a familiar place utterly transformed. Your work, both on and off the page, has long been associated with place. Do you feel that the landscape itself has something to say? In other words, are your works an interpretation or translation of that natural “language,” or do you feel that you in some way impose a language on the land? Can language be trusted in this context? Merwin writes, “our ears / are formed of the sea as we listen.” I suppose I’m really asking how you feel about failure.

JG: I do feel that the landscape has something to say, not to say to us, in some romantic or mystical way, but that the landscape is speaking all the time and we can only benefit by listening, which means expanding the boundaries of what we allow to be language. Recent studies on loons reveal that the particular call that echoes from a particular lake belongs to the lake itself and not the loon. That is, when a new loon takes up residence at a lake, it adopts its predecessor’s call, even if they’ve never met. And a loon moving from one lake to another will change its call to match its new home. If I entertain the notion that language resides in and issues from landscape, the realm of “linguistic beings” increases exponentially. The poems that then emerge? Closer, I hope, to translation than to imposition, to play than to betrayal, but there’s always the danger of making things up.

Failure? My language may fail (and I like what Andy Goldsworthy writes, that “each failure has taught me a little more about the stone”), human language may fail, but language? As a natural phenomenon? Failure is out of the question.

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding

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Jody Gladding’s newest poetry collection is Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions, 2014). Recent poems have appeared in ecopoetics, Orion, Terrain.org, and other journals. She lives in East Calais, Vermont, teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and translates French. Her work includes site-specific installations that explore the interface of language and landscape. 

Darren Higgins

Darren Higgins is a writer, editor, and artist living in Waterbury Center, Vermont, with his wife, two sons, and a cat who never comes when she’s called. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has written poems and stories for a variety of publications, essays for a couple of local newspapers, and commentaries for Vermont Public Radio.  

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Aug 142014
 

Biss

In my recent interview with the brilliant essayist Eula Biss, we spoke at length about one of the major themes in her new book: the continuity between human beings and the environment we inhabit, as well the continuity between all human bodies and human minds. I find this to be an evolution of a major theme in Biss’s last book, the remarkable 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land. This book, which established Biss as one of the great nonfiction writers at work today, is predicated on the continuity of past and present. There can be no separating ourselves from history. In Notes, Biss invokes of the great crimes of early America and confronts the myriad ways we encounter their echoes—in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our fractured families and complicated identities. Best of all, Biss immerses herself in each essay, examining the place she occupies—as a researcher, a writer, a neighbor, a daughter—in the various attitudes, narratives, and institutions the book seeks to expose and challenge.

This lens, at once highly confessional and fiercely critical, is put to use once again in On Immunity: An Inoculation. Biss and I spoke about her desire for the book to highlight “the intellectual work of mothering.” Indeed, On Immunity might easily be read as a personal struggle with information; an intellectual odyssey. But the added drama here is that the life of one’s child depends on that struggle.

In the following excerpt, Biss confronts the common model of the human immune system as a defensive military force eternally on high alert. Our metaphors have consequences. Late in On Immunity, Eula Biss quotes George Orwell from his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” I find that one of the driving forces behind On Immunity is a hopeful reworking of this idea: if thought enriches language, language can also enrich thought. On Immunity is a challenging book, often as sharply critical as its predecessor. But it is also, as Biss noted in our interview, about moving forward. It is an incitement to “live one’s life reparatively.”

— Adam Segal

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org

 

Three immunologists on a road trip in 1984 became excited about the possibility that the cells of our bodies might, like the humans they compose, use a system of signs and symbols—a kind of language—in their communication with each other. After traveling for seventeen hours in a VW bus with a ripe wheel of Taleggio cheese and an Italian edition of Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics, they determined, through some rough translations performed by the Italian among them, that a better understanding of semiotics, the study of how signs and symbols are used and interpreted, might enhance their work in immunology.

When I learned of the resulting conference on “immuno-semiotics,” I was excited by the possibility that it was devoted to the discussion of metaphor, a semiotic device. I thought I had found a group of immunologists interested in dissecting their own metaphors. To my disappointment, the conference papers revealed that they were much more concerned with the question of how our bodies, not our minds, interpret symbols. But as the immunologist Franco Celada proposed in a paper titled “Does the Human Mind Use a Logic of Signs Developed by Lymphocytes 108 Years Ago?” our minds may have learned the ability to interpret from our bodies.

“Immunologists are forced to use unusual expressions in order to describe their observations,” the semiotician Thure von Uexküll observed at the conference. “Expressions like ‘memory,’ ‘recognition,’ ‘interpretation,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘reading,’ ‘inner picture,’ ‘self,’ ‘nonself,’” he maintained, were unknown in physics or chemistry. “Atoms and molecules have no self, memory, individuality, or inner pictures,” he said. “They are not able to read, to recognise or to interpret anything and cannot be killed either.” Some of the other semioticians at that conference, most notably Umberto Eco, would question whether the cells of the body were literally engaged in acts of interpretation, but the immunologists seemed less skeptical.

When the anthropologist Emily Martin asked an array of scientists to discuss descriptions of the immune system that depended on the metaphor of a body at war, some of them rejected the idea that this was a metaphor. It was, they insisted, “how it is.” One scientist disliked the war metaphor, but only because he objected to the way war was being waged at that moment. In her study of how we think about immunity, which was conducted during the first Iraq war, Martin found that metaphors of military defense permeate our imagination of the immune system.

“Popular publications,” Martin observes, “depict the body as the scene of total war between ruthless invaders and determined defenders.” Our understanding of disease as something that we “fight” invites an array of military metaphors for the immune system. In illustrated books and magazine articles, the body employs some cells as “infantry” and others as the “armored unit,” and these troops deploy “mines” to explode bacteria, while the immune response itself “detonates like a bomb.”

But this war imagery does not reflect the full diversity of thinking Martin discovered in her interviews. Alternative medicine practitioners, as a group, consistently refused to use war metaphors in their descriptions of the immune system. Most other people, scientists and nonscientists alike, tended to gravitate toward militaristic terms, but many were able to suggest different metaphors and some explicitly resisted military metaphors. “My visualization would be much more like a piece of almost tides or something . . . the forces, you know, the ebbs and flows,” a lawyer remarked, clarifying that by forces she meant “imbalance and balance.” A number of other people, including scientists, echoed this idea of a body striving for balance and harmony, rather than engaging in armed conflict. The inventive metaphors with which they imagined the immune system ranged from a symphony to the solar system to a perpetual motion machine to the vigilance of a mother.

The term immune system was used for the first time in 1967 by Niels Jerne, an immunologist who was trying to reconcile two factions of immunology—those who believed that immunity depended largely on antibodies and those who believed it depended more on specialized cells. Jerne used the word system to unite all the cells and antibodies and organs involved in immunity into one comprehensive whole. This idea that immunity is the product of a complex system of interdependent parts acting in concert is relatively new to science.

Even so, what we know of this system is staggering. It begins at the skin, a barrier capable of synthesizing biochemicals that inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and containing, in its deeper layers, cells that can induce inflammation and ingest pathogens. Then there are the membranes of the digestive, respiratory, and urogenital systems with their pathogen-ensnaring mucous and their pathogen-expelling cilia and their high con- centration of cells equipped to produce the antibodies responsible for lasting immunity. Beyond those barriers, the circulatory system transports pathogens in the blood to the spleen, where the blood is filtered and antibodies are generated, and the lymphatic system flushes pathogens from body tissues to the lymph nodes, where the same process ensues—pathogens are surrounded by an assortment of cells that ingest them, eliminate them, and remember them for a more efficient response in the future.

Deep in the body, the bone marrow and the thymus generate a dizzying array of cells specialized for immunity. These include cells that can destroy infected cells, cells that swallow pathogens and then display pieces of them for other cells to see, cells that monitor other cells for signs of cancer or infection, cells that make antibodies, and cells that carry antibodies. All of these cells, falling into an intricate arrangement of types and subtypes, interact in a series of baroque dances, their communication depending in part on the action of free-floating molecules. Chemical signals travel through the blood from sites of injury or infection, activated cells release substances to trigger inflammation, and helpful molecules poke holes in the membranes of microbes to deflate them.

Infants have all the components of this system at birth. There are certain things the infant immune system does not do well—it has trouble penetrating the sticky coating of the Hib bacteria, for example. But the immune system of a full-term infant is not incomplete or undeveloped. It is what immunologists call “naive.” It has not yet had the opportunity to produce antibodies in response to infection. Infants are born with some antibodies from their mothers already circulating in their systems, and breast milk supplies them with more antibodies, but this “passive immunity” fades as an infant grows, no matter how long it is breast-fed. A vaccine tutors the infant immune system, making it capable of remembering pathogens it has not yet seen. With or without vaccination, the first years of a child’s life are a time of rapid education on immunity—all the runny noses and fevers of those years are the symptoms of a system learning the microbial lexicon.

When I asked for help understanding the basic mechanics of immunity, a professor of immunology gave me a two-hour explanation of the immune system in a coffee shop. He never once, in those two hours, used a military metaphor to describe the workings of the body. His metaphors tended to be gastronomic or educational—cells “ate” or “digested” pathogens and “instructed” other cells. When he spoke of something being killed or destroyed, he was referring to literal death or destruction. The scientific term for a type of white blood cell capable of destroying other cells, he told me, is natural killer.

Later, I attended a series of lectures by the same professor. While I was learning the distinction between innate immunity and adaptive immunity and trying desperately to keep track of a proliferation of acronyms—NLRs and PAMPs and APCs—I would note that the cells of the immune system lead lives in which they kiss, are naive, eat, purge, express, get turned on, are instructed, make presentations, mature, and have memories. “They sound like my students,” a friend of mine, a poetry professor, would observe.

If a narrative of any kind emerged from those lectures, it was the drama of the interaction between our immune system and the pathogens with which it coevolved. This drama was sometimes characterized as an ongoing battle, but not the kind that involves Apache helicopters and unmanned drones— this was clearly a battle of the wits. “And then the viruses got even smarter,” my professor would say, “and did something ingenious—they used our own strategies against us.” In his telling, our bodies and the viruses were two competing intelligences locked in a mortal game of chess.

— Eula Biss

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org

 

Eula Biss holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her second book, Notes from No Man’s Land, received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. Her work has also been recognized by a Pushcart Prize, a Jaffe Writers’ Award, and a 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library. She teaches writing at Northwestern University and is working on a new book about myth and metaphor in medicine with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Howard Foundation Fellowship. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in the Believer, Gulf Coast, Columbia, Ninth Letter, North American Review, Bellingham Review, Seneca Review, and Harper’s.

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Aug 122014
 

Eula Biss Eula Biss photograph by Akasha Rabut

 And yes, becoming a mother has changed my understanding of impossible apologies. — Eula Biss

Capture

On Immunity: An Inoculation
Graywolf Press, September 30 2014
216 Pages; $24

 

I would often wonder, during my time in that town,” writes Eula Biss at the outset of “Is This Kansas,” published in her 2009 collection Notes from No Man’s Land, “why, of all the subcultures in the United States that are feared and hated, of all the subcultures that are singled out as morally reprehensible or un-American or criminal, student culture is so pardoned.” This is the theme of an essay that critiques the white-washing of Midwestern collegiate debauchery by setting it against the narratives we cling to regarding the urban poor, particularly poor black Americans. That town, incidentally, is Iowa City, Iowa.

Eula speaks of Iowa Avenue as an epicenter of overindulgent partying life, while Lucas Street, “with all the hooting from dim porches and the boys smashing beer cans, [was] significantly scarier than anywhere I had ever lived in New York.” Some years after she left, I once happened to live, during my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, in an old white house on the intersection of those two streets.  So the honor I was recently granted of interviewing Biss was tinged with a soft, highly personal strain of shame. I believe there is much for which to apologize.

“Is This Kansas” stands out to me for its personal immediacy. But it also exemplifies Biss’s style as an essayist: her frustration with conventional narratives about race and privilege, her desire to expose the coded language we use to cover up our uglier thoughts, and her desire to visualize the derelict buildings, the dried-up or overflowing rivers, and the unfulfilled promises that make up the ruinous legacy of American injustices.

This September, Graywolf Press is publishing Eula Biss’s new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation. Inspired by Biss’s experiences as a new mother, On Immunity is a manifesto on the intersection of public and personal health, as played out in our own bodies and the bodies of our children. Central to the narrative—for there is a narrative here—is the contemporary controversy over vaccination. I’ll allay quickly-aroused fears presently and say that Biss is not against vaccination. But neither is this book a single-minded crusade in the name of vaccination. There are, I’m sure, hundreds of printed and digital articles one could read to that effect.

Biss uses this book to explore the complicated history of immunization. She examines the metaphorical language we use to describe immunity, and relates the often maddening work of a parent to navigate the endless streams of conflicting information in order to answer the primary question: how do I care for my child, and how do I care for the children of others? And is there a way to do both? That we still inhabit the imperfect world of Notes from No Man’s Land is made explicit in On Immunity. Here we must come to terms with all that humanity has wrought upon this Earth—the injustice, the pollution, the chemicals in our food and in our bodies—and accept that it is now a part of us. This time, Eula doesn’t leave us in ruins. She leaves us with something perhaps more useful: a vision of humanity enduring, proceeding, together.

Recently I corresponded with Eula Biss by way of email. We spoke about the place for personal narrative in nonfiction, the power of a carefully chosen metaphor, the illusion of bodily and mental independence, and the debts we owe to our parents and our children.

—Adam Segal

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Adam Segal (AS): Your new book is heavily influenced by Susan Sontag’s 1977 Illness as Metaphor as well as its 1988 follow-up, AIDS and its Metaphors. Both books work to disentangle disease—particularly cancer and AIDS—from the associated narratives and metaphors Sontag saw as harmful to literal patients of those very real diseases. Our metaphors, she argues, obscure and distract from the reality of suffering, and often increase suffering by instilling shame in patients and preventing people from seeking effective treatment. In Illness as Metaphor it is never mentioned that Sontag herself was diagnosed with cancer, a decision she explains in AIDS and its Metaphors in the following way:

“I didn’t think it would be useful – and I wanted to be useful – to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage… though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea.”

You note in On Immunity that Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring with similar feelings. “She did not want her work to appear to be driven by anything other than scientific evidence. And so her personal struggle with cancer was told only through dwindling numbers of bald eagles, through eggs that did not hatch, and through the robins that lay dead on the lawns of suburbia.” On Immunity, in contrast, presents your own story prominently. That you present yourself as mother in addition to being a writer and researcher is perhaps what makes your new book so relatable. We all fear for our families, we all want to care for our children, whether real or potential. But was there was a time in the writing process that you considered following the example of Sontag and Carson in keeping your personal narrative out of the finished work? And if there was, what finally made you choose to write On Immunity as you did?

Eula Biss (EB): I suspect that there was a lot more than a desire to be useful behind Sontag’s decision not to write a personal narrative about her struggle with cancer. Her aesthetics as an essayist, for one, don’t seem to favor such a work. And—this is purely speculative, as I am an admirer of Sontag but no scholar of her—perhaps the pressures of being a female intellectual in her time also played some part in that decision. Rachel Carson, who studied biology when that field was almost entirely dominated by men, likely faced similar pressures.

I know about those pressures, but I don’t really feel them when I am writing. My work as an essayist is heavily influenced by poetry, and I was lucky to be reading Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath as I was finding my way as a young writer. I count that as one of the reasons why I tend to think of personal narrative—particularly when it concerns the body or domesticity—as a perfectly viable space for intellectual exploration. Both of my previous books use personal narrative to explore ideas and problems. But when I first began writing On Immunity, I found myself gravitating toward information and abstract ideas more than narrative. Sontag was a valuable guide to me because she is so very comfortable in the meditative mode, and so adept in her handling of ideas. Part of what I felt driven to do, in the early drafts of On Immunity, was to address the intellectual work of mothering. There is some acknowledgment in our culture that mothering is physically demanding and emotionally demanding, but I think there is less acknowledgment of the fact that it is intellectually demanding. So the ideas came first.

I was nursing a child and changing diapers—very viscerally engaged—but I was most captivated by disembodied ideas. As I worked, some personal narrative emerged, in part because it was, in places, the best way to address the ideas that interested and vexed me. I struggled, for instance, to write about the complexity of paternalism in medicine until I used my son’s surgery as a window into some of the contradictions of paternalism. I was very reluctant to write about that experience—in part because thinking about it was still painful, but also because I wanted to offer my son some privacy. (With two parents who write personal essay, he is at risk for quite a bit of exposure!) The narrative of his surgery was ultimately much more effective at communicating my thinking than my initial draft, which was not narrative at all—I have Maggie Nelson to thank for that, as she encouraged me toward personal narrative in that case.

AS: You’ve certainly succeeded in addressing the intellectual work of mothering. One of the more compelling aspects of On Immunity is that the story of your search for (and struggle with) information—as a mother and as a writer—is as important to the personal narrative as your stories of motherhood.

Sontag writes in AIDS and Its Metaphors that her two books on illness are an exercise in being “against interpretation.” So in her books on illness, she asks that we speak of illness without reaching for further meaning. “Of course,” she admits, “one cannot think without metaphors. But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.” But where Sontag’s books are purely dedicated to stripping illnesses of excess metaphorical weight, you have a different tactic entirely. Often in On Immunity, you seek to replace an arguably harmful or archaic metaphor with one that is more fitting or more positive. For example, in assessing negative associations with paternalism in medicine, you write, “If fathering still reminds us of oppressive control, mothering might help us imagine relationships based not just on power, but also care.”

You once wrote, in an essay pitting the myths of New York City against an individual’s actual lived experience of that city, “I know now that it is very difficult to dismantle one story without replacing it with another.” Is this why you’re so interested in choosing new metaphors, rather than just dismantling them as Sontag does? And do you suppose it’s really possible to, with active surveillance of the language we employ, find metaphors that don’t harm or distort?

EB: I think it is entirely possible to employ metaphors that do more good than harm. They just need to be apt metaphors. As Sontag notes, we can’t think without metaphor. Nor can we speak or write without metaphor—our language is dense with metaphor, much of which we no longer recognize as metaphor. My project in On Immunity was never to strip immunity of its metaphors—not much would be left in that case, as even the technical language of immunology is built on metaphor—but to make the metaphors we employ around immunity visible enough for us to think about them, rather than simply through them.

Early in my research I read a book called Bodily Matters, which is a history of the anti-vaccine movement in England from 1853 to 1907. The book is full of surprises, but I was most surprised to discover that some of the metaphors I was hearing in contemporary usage around vaccines were already in use over 150 years ago. The metaphor of pollution, for instance, is an old one. Victorians were very concerned about bodily pollution and the threat of a foreign substance polluting the blood set off some of their anxieties around purity, anxieties closely tied to class and race politics. We still have those anxieties, but the metaphor of bodily pollution has gained even more power for us from its association with environmental pollution. This is a loose association, and environmental pollution is not a good metaphor for much of anything that goes on in vaccination, but our anxieties around everything we associate with pollution tend to be intense.

While I was reading Bodily Matters, I reflected on the source of my own fears about vaccination. Many of those fears were tied, I realized, to metaphors of pollution. The idea that vaccines contained “toxins,” for instance, invited all my concerns over the ambient toxicity of our environment and the destruction of our environment to bleed into my thinking about vaccination.

But when I thought more deeply into both vaccination and environmental pollution, I began to feel that the metaphor of a vaccine as a pollutant that enters the environment of our body and degrades it was a highly inaccurate metaphor that obscured what was really happening. And yes, I did ultimately feel moved not just to critique that metaphor, but to replace it with a new metaphor or metaphors related to environmental preservation. It seemed to me that the metaphor we were using was so wrong that it was actually suggesting the opposite of what was true, so I tried turning the metaphor around. There are a handful of metaphors that I turned in this manner: I replaced metaphors of pollution with metaphors of habitat preservation, I replaced metaphors of fiscal corruption with metaphors of fiscal responsibility—banking is a persistent refrain throughout the book—and I replaced the metaphor of the vaccinator as a vampire preying on babies with the metaphor of the unvaccinated person as a vampire preying on the social body.

AS: Another of your projects within On Immunity is to engage with and revise the language we use to position ourselves as somehow Separate. Separate, for example, from an idealized “nature.” Separate from the viruses and bacteria that thrive in us, have evolved with us, and have become a part of us. And separate from the pollution we’ve collectively brought upon the natural world. One of my favorite passages from your book makes it perfectly clear that such a separation is impossible:

“If we do not yet know exactly what the presence of a vase range of chemicals in umbilical cord blood and breast milk might mean for the future of our children’s health, we do at least know that we are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large. We are all already polluted. We have more microorganisms in our guts than we have cells in our bodies – we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”

It is in this last point that I am most interested. Much of the book’s later portion is dedicated to examining the extent to which humans are continuous and codependent. You quote your sister, a professor and Kant scholar, as saying “you don’t own your body – that’s not what we are, our bodies aren’t independent. The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making… The point is there’s an illusion of independence.” On Immunity makes a compelling case for the idea that our bodies are not the self-contained systems we imagine them to be, that the skin around our flesh is not an impermeable boundary between Us and Them. “From birth onward,” you write, “our bodies are a shared space.”

But I sense that the most basic way we feel separate from others isn’t in the perception that we have separate bodies, it’s in the acknowledgement that we have (or seem to have) our own inner lives, our own consciousness. Whether one sees the mind, soul-like, as independent of and higher than the body, or whether one sees mind and body as utterly inseparable, a model of humanity in which all human bodies are continuous with one another complicates the idea of an independent consciousness. Suppose the model of a broader human body you present were to take hold, how would it affect the way we understood the conscious mind? This illusion of independence, does it extend to the inner self?

EB: I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand I want to believe that, yes, my consciousness is mine alone. I remember a moment from a Faulkner course I took with Marilynne Robinson when she answered a student’s question about the difficulty of The Sound and the Fury by talking about the inherent difficulty of entering the consciousness of, for instance, Benjy, a mentally disabled adult. Literature is, she suggested, the closest we were ever going to get to inhabiting another consciousness. I think of that often when I am writing—literature can bring a consciousness to the page to be shared.

But part of why I was surprised when I read Bodily Matters is because I recognized, in reading that book, that my fears around vaccination weren’t original to me. They weren’t, in fact, even original to my time. They were historically sourced, bred by shared social anxieties, and fed by collectively embraced metaphors. Our minds and our emotional lives aren’t self-contained—they are constantly informed by the people around us. The results of a well-publicized study recently suggested that one can “catch” happiness from one’s friends—emotional states are, to some extent, contagious. As is obesity, for many of the same reasons. The health of our minds, like the health of our bodies, depends on the people around us. Our minds don’t exist in isolation and isolation isn’t good for our minds. Solitary confinement, for instance, can be psychologically harmful. The mind doesn’t thrive when it is cut off from other minds.

But yes, in a culture that is as thoroughly steeped in Enlightenment values of individuality as ours is, it can be even more difficult and threatening to think of our minds as connected than it is to think of our bodies as connected. I’m reminded of the Borg on Star Trek, the alien race that is made up of many species that have all been “assimilated” into a collective that is made up of somewhat autonomous bodies that share a “hive mind.” The Borg is a persistent threat in various episodes of Star Trek and it remains sinister in part because it offers us an opportunity to explore our fear of the collective, especially collective thought. The idea of a shared mind terrifies us. But it’s not science fiction. One of the things my research for On Immunity taught me is how much of our knowledge, as well as our information, is a product of a hive mind. Our most pressing scientific inquiries are performed collectively. Insights are arrived at through the collaboration of many minds. We do not know alone.

AS: The moment that I found most affecting in Notes from No Man’s Land wasn’t within any of the essays, it was actually the endnote to the final essay “All Apologies.” In that note, you compare our relationship with the past and present injustices of our nation to the relationship you have with your parents:

“If America was a young country during slavery, then she is now an adult who must reckon with her childhood. The guilt I have lived with longest and felt most deeply is my guilt over all the debts I will never be able to return to my parents, and over all the impossible apologies I owe them. In this case, I can only hope that my life, which is my crime, might also serve as my apology.”

After a book of essays chronicling the legacies of American injustices, this final passage offers a suggestion on how to move forward: To recognize (but not necessarily to dwell upon) all that has been done and cannot be undone, and to live one’s life as an apology for that wrongdoing.

But in On Immunity you no longer play the role of child. Here you are very clearly a mother. Do you feel that this new book is a continuation of that lived apology? Has becoming a mother perhaps changed your understanding of these impossible apologies you owe?  (Does the debt now belong to your son?)

EB: When I began working on On Immunity, I didn’t really think the book had much relationship to Notes from No Man’s Land. The subject matter felt like a departure, and it was stylistically different. But as I worked, I did begin to think of it as a kind of continuation of Notes. The idea of living one’s life reparatively, rather than destructively, emerged in Notes, but even after the book was published I was not certain that I really knew what that looked like in a practical sense. And then I found myself confronted, through my research for On Immunity, with all the ways that refusing vaccination resembled other manifestations of privilege. I understood that if I really believed in living reparatively, I was going to have to act out that belief through my son’s body. And yes, it caused me some anguish to hold down his arms and legs while he screamed and struggled against vaccination. I told him some version of “this is for your own good” at the time, but the truth was more complicated—this was for his good and the good of everyone around him.

When he was first born, I thought a lot about what it meant to live a “good” life. My parents raised me with a moral vision that was mostly communicated not by what they said, but by what they did and how they lived. One of the many debts I owe them is that vision, and as a mother I can see that I may not be able to pay that debt back, but I can pay it forward by casting their moral vision into the future through my son. I want him to grow up knowing that the wellbeing of the people around him is important.

And yes, becoming a mother has changed my understanding of impossible apologies. I have taught my son to apologize, but I want no apology from him. Nor, I am now certain, do my parents want one from me. We do what we do as parents out of love. When my son was quite small, around three, one of his good friends lost her father. So we had a lot of conversations about death. He asked me questions like, “Can you still see after you’re dead? And can you still hear?” And then he asked me, “Can you still remember your life after you’re dead.” I told him that nobody knows, and then I asked him what he would like to remember from his life. He said, “loving you.” I still haven’t recovered from hearing that. I told my husband recently that I hope to have earned that sentiment by the time my son is grown.

—Eula Biss & Adam  Segal

 

Adame Segal

Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.

 

Aug 112014
 

author pic Shane JonesShane Jones

The world of Crystal Eaters, from its myths to its inhabitants’ futile struggles (to be remembered, to avoid death), mirrors so closely our plain old world, and all the more in its dissimilarities, the bits that simply seem out of place, because what it exposes is the movement of our beliefs, no matter what we believe in, as a movement beyond ourselves—and perhaps towards nothing. —Sebastian Ennis

Crystal Eaters cover

Crystal Eaters
Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio (June, 2014)
Paperback; 183 Pages; $16.00

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Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters crossed my email with no more description than “tight prose, reckless imagination.” Basically: take note. This is the real thing. His debut novel, Light Boxes, was about a town that wages war against February. Jones followed that with The Six Failure, a “sick little fairy tale” set in a town where speech filters through a dream-machine of recycled bureaucracy and shuffles through stacks of papers so tall they touch the sky. That one’s about a group of messengers tasked with telling the life story of an amnesiac. It’s a novella of rhythmic variations and the unbecoming of memory. Then came Daniel Fights a Hurricane, which Jones described as “a novel of hallucinations.” This one popped up on our radar at Numéro Cinq. “[Daniel Fights a Hurricane] is a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics,” writes Jason DeYoung:

but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.

DeYoung, plenty risqué on his own to be sure, was actually quoting Jones there, from an interview with BOMB Magazine:

Beauty in novels is important to me. I really don’t care for novels that have an agenda, a political statement, a sassy take on contemporary society. Give me something fucked-up and beautiful.

(I’ll come back to this.)

And now there’s Crystal Eaters, published by Two Dollar Radio, a family-run outfit you should keep an eye on. It’s about a village where people believe they’re born with 100 crystals inside their bodies (probably in their stomachs), and as they age, as they get hurt, their count goes down. It’s also a family saga and a coming of age story; it touches on modern life, rituals, myths, and bygone days; it’s hallucinatory, dreamlike, lapsing into memory, collapsing landscapes and dreamscapes and mental states in drug-induced sensory overloads; it’s about a city that grows on its own like a fungus in the night spreading a quarter-inch further across the horizon each day; it’s about a mother dying; it’s about the sun colliding with the Earth; it’s one of those stories that seems familiar yet not, sci-fi but not really, poetic but only just, even _________ (but I can’t write “Kafkaesque” here; however apt, it’s a dull and overused adjective).

Here’s the thing about Jones and Kafka though: they both know how to do “fucked-up and beautiful.” Not only that, but their writing does something to us; it suspends fear and beauty in a complex and inescapable space of mundane human struggle, and by no more than presenting it thus, without overnaming the anxiety we feel when we realize the paradox of our situation, it creates a terrible effect (terrible because it’s impossible to place, impossible to trace back to an origin; it shouldn’t be and yet it is everywhere). Ben Marcus’ recent article on Kafka’s “A Message from the Emperor” pinpoints these feelings and their transformative effect:

The kind of feeling that Kafka traffics in I find especially appealing because of its contradictions and conflicts, and because of the mixture of fear and beauty, the seemingly incompatible sensations are suspended and held aloft and presented to us . . . An individual sentence can be penetrating, almost like a drug when it gets into me. I read, and as I read I find myself rearranged and transported and moved, as if I’ve swallowed a little pill. I love sentences that instantly hit my bloodstream and derange me.

The pills might look different, but the effect that Jones and Kafka produce when they’re at their best is the same: it’s what Marcus calls “defamiliarization”—it’s the sort of word that crawls out of your mouth one leg at a time, like some nasty academic thing. Describing the effect of Kafka’s intimate prose, the way it drags you in deep and shakes you off in a familiar place before spitting you out the other side of elsewhere, Marcus writes:

This is a stunning feat of defamiliarization—we’re not in the real world, and yet the world is entirely familiar to us—from stories, from myths, from legends. It’s dreamlike. It’s not invented to the degree where you have to suspend disbelief—there’s a feeling of plain normalcy, this banal particularity that is our world, at the same time it’s otherworldly.

Marcus doesn’t mention “the uncanny” here, which, given its proximity to what he’s describing, seems odd. Maybe because “uncanny” is as hard to define as “Kafkaesque”; as Freud put it, the word “uncanny” is not always used in a clearly definable way, but we expect that it implies some intrinsic quality which justifies the use of a special name. Of course, then Freud went and famously defined the uncanny as: “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Something uncanny seems unfamiliar at first and then all too familiar; it syncopates between the two. So the uncanny produces an effect that can also be called “defamiliarization.” And yet, while the uncanny uncovers a banal strangeness we’re used to, it goes about it in a different way than what’s going on in Kafka and Jones, who aren’t particularly terrifying. Instead, they use the fucked-up, the odd, the out of place in a way that’s just familiar enough to affect not a gestalt shift but the feeling of a putting in question, digging at our beliefs from the edge of a precipice.

The world of Crystal Eaters, from its myths to its inhabitants’ futile struggles (to be remembered, to avoid death), mirrors so closely our plain old world, and all the more in its dissimilarities, the bits that simply seem out of place, because what it exposes is the movement of our beliefs, no matter what we believe in, as a movement beyond ourselves—and perhaps towards nothing. In a recent interview with The Paris Review, when asked about the layers of mythology in Crystal Eaters, Jones said: “The idea of choosing something—a value system—and believing in it is very beautiful, even if it’s absurd in the face of death.” Belief moves the soul outside itself, and it’s going on all around us—this form of transcendence—in a very mundane sort of way that might not mean anything. For Jones, the absurd beauty of belief isn’t reserved for the dirt dwellers, who, here, believe they have a number of crystals inside them; but a myth like this shows us something of our own beautiful distractions, our everyday beliefs and all we take for granted that’s odd and out of place in our lives while seeming unremarkable. Of course, it’s all absurd in the face of death and maybe it’s a bit fucked-up, but, hell, if it isn’t beautiful all the same.

— Sebastian Ennis

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Sebastian Ennis

Sebastian Ennis is a future law student living in Vancouver. He is a graduate of the University of King’s College in Halifax with a background in Classics and contemporary French and German philosophy.

 

Aug 102014
 

Harvey imageMatthea Harvey

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions,  and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. —A. Anupama

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
Matthea Harvey
Graywolf Press
160 pages, $25.00
ISBN: 978-1-55597-684-2

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In If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions, and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. And if that’s not enough, the list of collaborations and co-inspired projects at the end of the book adds audio, film, and even more poetry and visual art to the experience.

Matthea Harvey is the author of four collections of poetry and two children’s books. Born in Germany in 1973, she lived in Marnhull, England, until age eight, when she moved with her family to Milwaukee. She earned a BA in literature from Harvard, then an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Her third poetry collection, Modern Life (Graywolf Press, 2007), won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was also a New York Times Notable Book.

A silhouette of a mermaid with a hand-saw for a tail greets us on the first page of this new collection. And the mermaids tie back to that earlier collection. In an interview about Modern Life, Harvey said, “My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran—a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I’ve just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.” The strikingly beautiful sequence of mermaid poems that opens her new book could have leaped right out of “You Know This Too” in Modern Life:

…through the restaurant window he sees flashes of silver and pink in the river. It’s so clogged with mermaids and mermen, there’s no room for fish. And under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffiti—Long Live the Berlin…. The spray paint runs out and while they’re shaking the next can in their clenched claws, the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.

As Harvey scissors back into the subject, various types of mermaids sing their grievances in brief prose poems. “The Backyard Mermaid” suffers namelessness as well as persecution by the neighborhood cat, and “The Straightforward Mermaid” has learned through experience to avoid hooks and sailors. The lament of “The Objectified Mermaid” reveals that:

The photographer has been treating her like a spork all morning. ‘Wistful mouth, excited tail! Work it, work it!’ He has no idea that even fake smiling spreads to her eyes and her tail and there’s nothing she can do about it short of severing her spine. Without asking, the assistant resprays her with glycerine…. After an hour under the studio spotlights, she’s starting to smell pretty fishy. Can’t blame it (as she has before) on her standard seaweed bra because this fool of a photographer has her holding two clear fishbowls in front of her breasts so it looks like goldfish are swimming past her nipples. She’s supposed to pretend it tickles. She wants to ask if he’s heard the phrase ‘gilding the lily’ which she recently learned at Land Berlitz. When asked if she’s tired, she lies. A downward spiral means the opposite up here.

Objectified Mermaid

In another brilliant sequence, this one titled “Inside the Glass Factory,” Harvey pretends to invent a new type of mythic creature: girl factory workers who live entirely within glass walls and glass ceiling.

Since they’re not allowed outside—
never have been, never will be—
they used to watch rainstorms
like television, cross-legged, wiping
the glass if their breath fogged
the view. They used to exclaim
over drops of dew. They used to
run their fingers along the walls,
searching for a way out, but that only
smeared the sky. At break they lie
on their stomachs in the sunroom,
where they’ve stacked a wall of cracked
glass hands. Looking through it is the closest
they come to touching the things they see—
the horizon a lifeline across one palm,
the pine trees in the distance like
bonsai in tiny finger terrariums.
Moving things—foxes and half-moons—
slink in and out of adjacent wrists,
slide under successive glass fingernails.
Once a stag walked past and scraped
its antlers along the glass wall.
They all gasped. It was the closest
they had ever come to another body.

When they make a girl out of glass, the creative process anneals to reveal that their kiln-born invention is an accomplice in escape:

The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them,
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what
they imagined. The sky is like lead
about their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias.

Rhyme slides like reflections across glass throughout this sequence and the collection as a whole. Harvey creates special effects with slant rhymes, like “cross-legged” and “fogged,” or various styles of non-end-line rhymes, like “she,” “see,” and “key” in the middles of lines 6, 7, and 8 in this poem. Often Harvey uses one end word and one internal word as a rhymed pair, as with “lead” and “heads,” or she flattens the poetic line with placement of one word in the middle and the other at the end, as in “smeared the sky. At break they lie….” In the three lines beginning with “Once a stag,” Harvey’s combination of slant rhyme (scraped / gasped), end word with internal word rhyme (wall / all), and assonance with alliteration (glass / gasped) and consonance (stag / past / gasped) reveals the dimensions of kaleidoscopic reality. At the end of the sequence, Harvey remarkably renovates one of the most clichéd rhymes in English poetry: trees / breeze.

Another holds a thermometer
horizontally, and uses its markings to measure
the height of trees. The mercury inside
shivers in the newly imagined breeze.

Harvey - glass factory image

The titles of the poems in this sequence are photographs of glass bottles, which distill space, color, and light in a dazzling movement. The images and texts scissor past each other, raising the highest temperatures of sensory attention. My review copy offered only black-and-white reproductions, completely unlike the full-color experience, which I was happy to find available online at the American Public Media website along with an interview and audio performance. This set of poems and their photograph titles were commissioned by the Poetry Radio Project, a collaboration between the Poetry Foundation, American Public Media’s Performance Today, and the White Pine Festival, as a multidisciplinary performance of Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 5” with the Miro Quartet.

Before I snip loose threads and sew up this review with glories from the substantial final sequence, let me add a few poems from the middle of the collection that reveal some of Harvey’s poetic tone. “When the Water Is at Our Ankles” devastates with its calm, dark voice cutting through to reality in the form of global warming.

Unwedge the ruler you use to prop up your
window and meet me in the street. I’ll bring
the measuring tape curled in the desk drawer
like a sullen snail, and hand in hand, we’ll watch
as the water creeps up an inch, then two…

“Last Stop Dreamland” prefaces a string of post-apocalyptic poems, most of which are titled by photographs and which I marked as little marvels, beautifully imagined and individually distinct. In this particular poem, the robot–beverage cart on a train “is careful about feet / so careful about feet. Once someone slapped / it, and the cart thought, ‘this will serve me a lesson / to look where I step’….” Later in the poem, Harvey observes this—

…Through the window,
a flash of horse nodding in the field (nose to
the hay, nose to the sky) and the chorus
of sugar maples above singing almost there, nary
a care, as the passengers gather their reflections
from the windows and slap them back onto
their faces and chests, flex their feet, and
arch their backs to erase the shape of their sitting.
The ice cubes are all melted, the books are
stowed away, and as the people exit the train,
they look dazed, hazier, as if their bits aren’t
quite put back together. The Treatzcart hums
along happily—soon it will start over, chugging
down the aisles offering bagels, coffee, juice.
It loves to watch the faces waver as they choose.

The passengers’ staring into glass for a semblance of themselves echoes the action in the sequence “Inside the Glass Factory.” Harvey manages this evolving repetition masterfully throughout this collection. Another example: the ice cubes melting in this poem echo an earlier sequence of photographs of objects embedded in effervescent ice.

The last sequence, “Telettrofono,” echoes the mermaids in the form of Esterre Meucci, wife of the inventor Antonio Meucci, who is credited by some with creating the first telephone. The dramatic scene-by-scene text reads like an instruction manual or patent application, with scientific figures illustrated in embroidery. The first of these figures is a cross-section of Meucci’s telettrofono, featuring a double-helix in periwinkle thread next to a microphone stitched in chartreuse. The first instruction reads: “Hello? Please turn off all twenty-first-century gadgets, as they will interfere with the delicate instrument you are holding in your hand.”

The delicate instrument could be the long poetic sequence itself, measuring the precise length of a love of sound:

Esterre wants her ears closer to the clouds,
wants them to stretch over the water
so she can hear the opposite shore.
You give her one thing, she wants more.
I bring her a hare after a long day of hunting
and she cries and strokes its long ears.

and the density of a love affair:

…She gave me scraps
of white cotton and muslin for my snow cradle—
we suspended the bag above the stage and a man
in each wing shook the strings gently, gently
so the snow-cloth sifted through the holes
in the bag and drifted down onto the singers.
That snow scene was the only silent thing that
ever made her smile.

Some of the segments of text are framed as stage directions for an opera, dramatic monologues, math problems, or fairy tale. The sequence takes up the last quarter of the collection—a significant portion of the work. Harvey created the sequence as a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett, and the hour-long audio is available on the Poetry Foundation’s Soundcloud [https://soundcloud.com/poetryfoundation/telettrofono-by-matthea-harvey]. The full text and images are also on the Poetry Foundation’s website. If I could snip a couple of favorite images from this sequence, they would be the bone xylophone and the marine telephone—beautifully close to seeing Harvey’s poetic language and imagining the sound she had in mind.

harvey_bone xylophone

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? contains worlds and collections, which spill intimately, like your suitcase probably would upon security inspection, and pronounces what you already know: you’ll never get that thermometer back.

 —A. Anupama

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A. Anupama

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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Aug 092014
 

Lee Thompson

 

George and Chiara spotted the sea monster not far from where they had set down their picnic blanket and basket.  It was George who had recommended this spit of rocky tongue that overlooked the sea, but not because he thought a monster might be floundering a stone’s throw from Chiara’s smooth, tanned knee, but because he wanted to be alone with her, away from the hotel, and on Chiara’s map she had written ‘hidden lover cove’.  But it was while gazing at her knee – which had small, pale scars – and while letting his gaze slip higher that something beyond her hip caught his eye.  That hip now, the hip he had held and pulled to him last summer, that hid beneath a thin summer dress, there was no reason for his eye to leave that hip, especially as his cock began to stir against his thigh.  It is not so easy this time, Chiara had said as they set the blanket down.  There are… complications.

It is hungry, was what Chiara said, after they had wandered to the shore.

It was green-black, serpentine, had a dog’s head and fur here and there where its stubby limbs joined the body. The fur was more a bronze colour, and thick.  It didn’t look real.  It had nostrils that flared and closed, like a seal, and Chiara said it is just a weird sea lion, George, and George remembered her way of saying weird, and other strange inflections.  Its mouth, when it opened its mouth, was wide, sucker-like.  OK, it is not one of those, said Chiara.

I do not like it.

But we should feed it.

.           

If there was divine form in the universe, it was that sweep of hip, that fall and cradle for a cheek or a palm. In bed last summer, in Chiara’s childhood bedroom, her mother having stepped out to get a few things at the market, George had thought this and tried to tell Chiara.  You think too much, George, she said.  Once, I thought too much.  But no more.  Do you understand?  And she had moved over him so slowly, like a curse, and took him in her mouth.  She did not stop when her mother returned, calling out from down the stairs, nothing George understood for he was distracted and not good at Italian.

How did he feel when she went below and then kissed her mother on the forehead?

And how did he feel when her mother kissed her, on the lips, and then met George half way up the stairs and kissed him, too?  I love… this man, she said, proud of her daughter’s choice, and her own passable English.  Keep him.  And they ate.

.

Why does it not like fish, George?  It is a thing of the sea, it has the smell of the sea, but look, you throw it fish, dead fish, alive fish, and it is like you give it shit.

George told her not to stand so close.

Why, it won’t eat me!  Chiara stuck her foot toward the monster, told it to take a bite, and before George could move – for they were on slick rock – the thing had lunged and perhaps only her falling back had saved her, that and her swearing.  She had bloodied her elbows but was never one to feel pain, unless it was the pain of the past.

It needs a pig, she said.

So they left it in its shallow pool on the edge of the spit and gathered their picnic blanket and basket and hopped in her old French car and drove inland, to the mountains, where she said they would catch a pig, a wild boar, with their hands, no, but with the blanket and put it in the basket, yes, that was a better idea.  George recalled last summer when she would not make love in the forest for fear of boars, and now she wanted to scoop one into a basket?  She laughed.  Just a baby one, but you will have to keep the mama away.

They did not catch a wild boar.

But she told him about the complications.

.

There once was a man and a woman, George.  And the man and the woman lived very far from each other.  They lived so far from each other that there was water between them.  So much water.  And the water was full of salt, like tears, like crying tears, not tears like rips.  Am I saying it right?  Tears. Teers.  Stupid language.  Why is your language like this?  Why do you not fix it?  How do you English talk to each other without every body saying what, eh, huh, excuse me?  Squid!  Stop the car, turn around, George!

It’s context.

What? Turn around.

At the roadside market she bought too much squid, but she liked it, too.  And squid was also a weird word, she said.  She squeezed her hands together, delighted.  Squid squid squid, she said, pretending to squirt something then looking him in the eye and saying oh Georgie, I want to squid you.  I am very serious. So they drove back to the serpent while the sun sank through the sea and set the blanket down once more and made love.  The serpent thrashed in its shallow pool.  Its odour, and the odour of the squid in the bag, and the scent of Chiara’s hair and the musk of her body lotion and the breeze from the shore had George drunk and not worrying about anything beyond Chiara’s movements.  Her mouth covered his and she held him between her thighs, would not let him pull out.

I am pregnant, she said afterwards.  So do not worry.

Naked, they threw squid into the tidal pool.

But it did not eat.

.

It wasn’t his, and that was the complication.  She would not say whose it was, saying only there is so much water, George. He had his hand on her brown belly, his pinky finger in her pubic hair and his thumb over her navel.  A baby?  She shrugged.  Are you sure?  She nodded.  I stopped bleeding, did the stupid test, now it grows in me.

Could he make love again?

She took hold, tried to tease it back to life.

Why won’t you eat, she said to it, then laughed.  She spread her thighs.

They left the motel and stopped the car alongside the highway, for there was a stench.  A bag of hot squid in the trunk.  George said it was a waste but Chiara said the sea birds and homeless cats would not let it go to waste.  But yes, it is sad to throw it out.

The tide had ebbed, flowed, left behind wrack and dreck, had easily washed over the sea monster’s pool, but had left the creature behind.  It is dead, said Chiara.  And I am hungry.  Throw a stone at it.  George lobbed a stone underhand and the sea monster sloshed its tail.  Chiara swore, said she would not spend her vacation doing this, said let’s grab it and George said we should just tell someone.  Who?  Isn’t there a marine centre, or?  They have seals and dolphins, George, not these.  She took off her sandals and before George could stop her – he had returned to the car for his camera – she  entered the pool.  Are you fucking crazy, George shouted. Chiara, turning, made a small sound deep in her throat and collapsed.

.

He would rescue his beloved with her car.  He would put it in neutral and push it over the edge where it would tumble down the rocks and land atop the beast. He stood at the edge of the pool and saw the car topple, pin the sea monster. Just kill it, kill it.  But how do you put a standard transmission in neutral?  Where are the keys? Hit it with a rock!  Who had she fucked?  Why did she do that?  There was a metre of water between them.  If he leaped in?  Distracted it? Call, call for help.  If it ate her it would also eat her baby.  He couldn’t watch it eat her.  He was doing nothing.  How could she just stroll in like that?  Really, how messed up is that?  It’s like you’re that kid who strolls into the tiger exhibit holding out his sandwich.  But that’s it, isn’t it?  That explains why she had fucked around.  And come on, there was Paul, remember?  George, Paul will not be happy with me, I should not see you.  What about Ringo?  She paused, then laughed, was sputtering, was crawling for the edge of the pool reaching for George, who pulled her out.

If anything, the sea monster had moved farther from her.

It won’t even eat me now, George.

It was electric, she said, lying in his arms.  Zap.  Zap zap.

____

Days later, when Chiara could walk again, for she had indeed taken quite a shock, they returned to the tidal pool. It was dusk and high thin clouds swirled.  On the salmon-hued horizon a sailboat’s mast swayed and they could hear the sea crashing.  This is the Ostro, Chiara said, or the unhappy wind, so we mustn’t stay long.

He told her he wished she wouldn’t.

My hair?  It is mine to do with.

But I love your hair.

You are leaving, George, what do you care?

On the drive along the rocky spit she had said she could feel it in her hair, the creature, that it had discharged in the pool, peed or squirted something, but you wouldn’t understand.  This is because no one understands.  She placed her hands on her stomach.

She hadn’t lost the baby.

At the hospital George changed the story Chiara had burbled while under pain killers.  Not a monster, he said, non e monstro, non e animale, era… uh, lightning… rumble sounds and sky gestures.  The doctor’s brow furrowed, una tempesta? ieri sera?  Si, George said, ieri sera, tempesta, ma… piccola tempesta.

You should not even try, Chiara had said.

Little storms pop up all the time, George had said.

You are foolish, Chiara had said.

And the mood was no better an hour later.  Why should he be bothered if she wanted to cut her hair?  It was long and black and cutting it would make her much less attractive and, but what did that matter, too?  She was expecting another man’s child.  How did that happen?  With him she was always  insistent on condoms, saying a baby would be a disaster, there would be rumours in her hometown, her father would know she’s not a virgin (she laughed), she’d have to quit her job teaching kids to dance, which would leave those kids with nothing to do all summer and maybe they’d start smoking, drinking, get pregnant…

The sea monster was still there.

.

We will get gasoline and set the pool on fire.  But we should do this at night, when no one will see the smoke.  I know what you are thinking, but smoke will hide the flames.  No, I do not have experience with this, George. But it is common sense.  This is cruel, though, so we won’t do this.  We should get a shark and put it in there.  Well, a small shark, please George I am not stupid.  But we have to do  it. It is our responsibility.  What if children come here to play?  It will kill them all.  We will be guilty.  Maybe you can throw a stone at its head?  You throw stones well.  But that could take a long time.  A gun?  No that is crazy, you cannot get a gun on the island.  Why are you looking like that?  You don’t think we should kill it?  It tried to eat me, George.  Let’s wear boots and drain the pool, OK?  Yes, this is the best way – it will leave the pool when there is no water, or it will die.  Both of these things are the best things.  So we need the little buckets and rubber boots.  But you cannot buy rubber boots here, we must steal them from fishermen, who buy them off the island.  They only sell sandals here, and flip flops.  No, no we don’t need to stand in the water, we’ll just scoop the water out.  We will do this tonight.  I will make us sandwiches. 

.

To Chiara, a sandwich was a brick of dry bread with a chunk of brie stuck in the middle and George wondered what kind of wife she would be.  She had a fear of corners, and she talked about this as if it were a common thing.  My fear of corners is worse than most.  She didn’t allow him to touch her clitoris directly, but would tear the hair from her loins with a brutal, buzzing device.  He watched her while she did this, one leg set on the bathtub ledge.  You like to watch me torture myself, George?  But everything was a kind of torture. 

In bed she was erotic, but a prude.

She often called him a sorcerer.

You have a big belly (he didn’t!), so how do you do this to me?

They lay in bed, the sheets soiled from two weeks of heat and secretions, his cock aching and his underarms rank.  She was two months along, she’d said.  She liked not having her period, not bloating like a seal.  It hadn’t set in, really, that she’d be a mother.  She asked if he was angry?  She said no you are not, you do not anger, and George shrugged.  Or is it only fucking, George?  He said it wasn’t, but it was, though it wasn’t, so he didn’t say anything for he saw her as volatile, not dangerous, not a storm, just…  Well, admittedly, if he’d arrived and she’d said I’m pregnant and we cannot have sex, it would have been different.  He’d be unhappy, yes.  She started to stroke him, no longer surprised that he was hard again.  She wondered if it, the monster, had a cock.  Maybe he only wants a girlfriend?  Maybe he is the last of his kind.  Poor guy.  She stroked him slowly.

.

As midnight approached and the rising moon slipped in and out of mackerel clouds, the creature began to keen.  Above the falling surf it keened, a sound that was not like a baby’s mewling, though that’s what George thought of.  It keened as they scooped seawater from the dark pool and Chiara said it knows what we are doing, George, but George said perhaps it keens every night.  Chiara started to cry.  George held Chiara.

They were racing against the tide.

There is too much water, said Chiara through her tears.

.

They slept in the car, the back seats set back and Chiara sprawled over George, who woke to the sound of rain.  The remnants of a dream slid across the rear windshield and the car shook.  His heart raced.  It had been in here, or it had tried.  Through the rust it had moved, the vents.  The car shook and it was the wind, he knew, lashing from the sea. The Ostro whistled through the rocks below and he moved out from under Chiara, an arm numb, moved out and slipped into the front seat, started the car and turned on the headlights, saw sheets of rain and white crests of waves, tried to put it into gear, stalled, remembered that she had parked too close to the edge, the drop was there, the passenger side.  He turned the headlights off, then the car, slept in the front seat until the sun woke him.

When it did, his lover was not there. The car’s rear hatch was open.

And he did not find her down at the shore, sitting at the edge of the tidal pool, watching over the  serpent, which was gone.  He walked, then ran along shore, stumbling over rock, seaweed, stung by plump purple jellyfish when taking to the water, thought he saw her offshore, on a jagged excuse of an island the locals called Scoglietta, the Little Stone, so he stripped nude and swam part way, but nothing was there and the current took him far from the spit.  He drifted, tread water, trusted the tide would return him to shore.  After an hour he stopped calling her name.  After two a local on a surfboard helped him to a beach, which was filling with sunbathers.  His nudity did not shock them, but the violet blisters from the stings did.

____

George, wake George.  Wake up please.  Why can’t you wake up, George?   We don’t have all day.  Can I slap him?  Why did he swim?  What kind of fool swims with jellyfish before breakfast?

George.

He felt a soft touch on his face, then his cheek being pinched.

Were you looking for me, George?  You were?  Yes?  No?  He heard her ask if people swim in their sleep, heard a grunt in reply, heard her say he talks in his sleep all the time, talks nonsense.  He could see her gestures, but the rest was a blur.

You are a mess, George. You are like… bubble wrap.

Crap, he said.

I don’t think we can have much fun on your last week.

Damn, he said.

She whispered, Well maybe you can watch.

She said that, he knew, to wake him, rouse him under the sheet.  Was there stirring?  He was very tired, he said, but tried to smile.  You swim for, like, ever, George.  They found you in the lido next over!  I drove to the hotel for my phone, and then there are sirens so I thought yes, those are for George….

You know me well, he said.

And then I thought no it’s just a crazy man showing his penis to every body.

Oh…

She sat on the bed next to him.  But I kind of recognized…

.

Chiara drove George back toward the hotel the following morning, happy that he’d only truly been suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.  The stings would heal, but leave purple scars.  She liked scars, she said, scars told the truth.  Her mother, she told him, was arriving later that evening, so they had to meet her at the port.

My mother likes you, George.

The sea monster, she said, laughing, it was some kind of plant.  Like a vine.  She’d gone down to the pool while he’d slept snoring like a toad, and everything was a mess, seaweed and sand and garbage and there it was, George. I gasped. It was trying to get out. It was crawling toward the car and I had no time to wake you so I grabbed a piece of drifting wood and I thought it’s going to eat me and my baby but I smashed it.  I am a tiny woman, you know, but when I get angry, bam bam bam.  She laughed, then shuddered.

It had strings in it, and green blood!

Strings?

You know, like rope, like… sedano.

Fibres?

It was a stupid stupid plant. That is all.

Well, but… no, Chiara, that’s not

Yes, and it lives in the ground, George.  I bashed it and it started to move, just a little bit.  And I said George, George come and see and then like, like a noodle it was sucked back in.  Into the hole, George!  And then all the water, too.  I must be hallucinating, I must be dreaming this.  And then I go back to the car and you are gone, so I run down the road looking for you.

Crazy, crazy morning.

.

Chiara did not stop at the hotel, but drove on through the royal palms and roadside agave saying she hated the hotel and wasn’t it too much like a hospital room?  You smell like a hospital, my lover.  On the west side of the island there will be no one, she chirped, the beaches are too rocky, but the wind is happier.  It is the Mistral. We will lay you out on the shore, George, take off your bandages, cover you with a soothing balm and we will kiss you where you have not been stung.  Will you show us where you have not been stung?

George’s cock stirred against his thigh.

And then we will go get mother.

—Lee D. Thompson

 

Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher.

 

Aug 082014
 

Paul PinesPaul Pines

yggdrasil gamle naboerYggdrasil

 

Probative Values

The future of High Culture in today’s world is a daunting question, assuming there is a definition that we can agree upon. One might well ask if High Culture even exists. And if it exists, where do we find it? Perhaps in the historical consensus of universally valued products like Phidias’ 5th Century BCE statue of Athena Parthenos, the poetry of Li Po who died in 762 supposedly trying to embrace the moon in the Yellow River, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” painted in 1665, or Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D minor,” in 1795. There are the obvious venues of High Culture such as the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center offering “La Boehme,” or The Getty Museum in Brentwood displaying a restored Jackson Pollock, “Mural,” commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. Then there is the anti-elitist vision expressed by Matthew Arnold in his 1875 essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” as that which makes “the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” All of it buckles under the weight of changes in the last century that make it unclear what High Culture looks like, or how it functions. We may, like young Parsifal in the spectral castle known as Mount Sauvage, ask the wounded Fisher King: Who does the Grail serve?

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal searches for the grail in a Waste Land devastated by war. Nathanael West’s novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, written in 1933, describes just such a landscape stripped bare of traditions, symbols and long held beliefs that once provided comfort and civility. Standing in the Waste Land of a Civil War field hospital, Walt Whitman wondered what had become of the grail he’d called “democracy”, and soon after wrote that we might be growing “an expanding material body with no soul.” For Whitman, as for West’s wounded Miss. L., soul loss is an abiding wound that can only be healed by the poetic imagination.

Whitman declared the poet as shaman, able to call forth the vision to unite a culturally diverse nation. Only the poetic imagination could forge this connection, give birth to a High Culture that would water the flowering tree at the center of our garden. There is evidence that the symbols of this idea have been buried in the relativist trope of Post Modernism and the expanding web of electronic media. Ominous clues suggest that poetic imagination has been reduced to a retail commodity in the global economy. High Culture, subject to a rate of change equivalent to that of the G-force that pulls space craft loose from gravity, may be unrecognizable.

gimbutas-Spirals-60ANeolithic Spirals — Maria Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess

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Starting at the Centre

…he drew a circle on the face of the deep…Proverbs 8:27

In considering the plight of High Culture in our time, it may be helpful to examine its roots. Around 8,000 BCE patterns appear on Paleolithic vessels from the Great Mother Culture representing forms of energies,  i.e. the chevron (bird), waves (water/frequency), swastika (wheel of life in motion), and the most basic orienting symbol of all—the circle  traversed by four lines converging at its center: the circle-squared. Visible in this structure is the paradox of stillness (center) and motion (periphery) and basic orienting division into four starting with the four directions, four seasons, and four phases of life. The center still point, axis mundi, is often depicted as a tree with roots below and branches above. Energies flow from upper and lower worlds through the nexus where time meets eternity to animate the material world.

This paradigm can be found in Plato, the Egyptian Night Sea journey of Osiris, Sioux Medicine Wheel teaching and indigenous Central American cultures. Most often the center is anchored by a tree, the Mayan Tree of Life, the Kabbalist’s Yesod and the Norse Yiggdrasil. In these systems the dark world at the root works in tandem with branches flowering in the light. Where the center holds, masculine and feminine, the whole congress of opposites work to form the unus mundus, one world composed of many parts.

In Vedic discipline the world-tree is the spinal column rooted in the pelvic chackras rising through the heart chakra to an opening between the eyes through which the soul-bird is released at death. The snake and the bird inhabited the Tree at the center of Inanna’s Sumerian garden as early as 4,000 BCE. Quetzalcoatl, the snake-bird, was equally at home in the roots and branches of the Aztec/Mayan World Tree in 1511 AD when the Spanish first cruised past the gleaming towers of Tulum. It is interesting to note that the soul’s double-nature carries the morphic resonance of the biological link between snake and bird.

The most complex form of the circle-squared is the mandala common to Navajo, Ancient Egyptian, Cretan, Jewish, Druidic, Roman, Christian, Indian, Aboriginal and Tibetan cultures. A Chinese alchemical text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Richard Wilhelm, speaks of a Golden Flower (lotus), four petals rising from the center. Psychologist Carl Jung recognized in it his own mandalic structure, the flowering of the individuated Self/Soul. Nomadic groups in Paleolithic Europe or the buffalo rich Native American Plains left little physical evidence of advanced civilization, but poetic imagination abounds in the symbols on Venus figures and exploits of Coyote of oral tradition: the metaphysical system of the circle squared may well be an Ur-product of High Culture.

cross-circle-horned-serpent-3Aztec Serpent Wheel

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The Original Vision

And I say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops
that made 
one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight,
and in the center grew one mighty 
flowering tree to
shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

Black Elk Speaks, J.G. Neihardt.

Oglala Sioux shaman Black Elk, cousin of Crazy Horse, had a Great Vision as an eleven year old while deep in an illness those around him thought he wouldn’t survive.  During this time he was taken to the center of the world he saw “with the sacred eye” his nation as one of many sacred hoops. The year was 1874. Wasichu were passing through Sioux land on their way to the gold fields. He was given power-gifts to save the flowering tree at the center of his nation. Fifty-one years after the battle of Wounded Knee, that sounded the death knell of his people, Black Elk agreed to share his Great Vision with ethnologist J.G. Neihardt, who found the old man at the rear of a squalid reservation. He had lived the last two-thirds of his life there lamenting his failure. In spite of his efforts, the tree had died. But as the end approached, he thought his Great Vision might instruct others, its truth find a way back into the world.

After all, his hoop was one of many. He saw that when the tree dies, the center is lost. When a center is lost, it is buried and must be renewed. Black Elk’s cry to the Grandfathers at the end of his life echoes those other visionaries for the loss of their cultures: the buried Merlin’s grief for Camelot echoes through the wood, Ezekiel weeps for Jerusalem, Aztec poet Netzahualcoyotl

(Hungry Coyote) who appears on the Mexican 100 peso note, divines as the bearer of High Culture: The smoking stars gather against it; the one who cares for flowers is about to be destroyed.

Pauli_s_World_ClocknewThe World Clock: Wolfgang Pauli, the Nobel laureate physicist saw in a dream this image that came to be known as Pauli’s world clock. It is a multi-tiered mandala similar to the circle squared where a vertical and a horizontal circle share a common centre. Pauli and C.G. Jung suggested the image supported their intuition of a unified psychophysical reality that interfaced with individual consciousness.

T

Ralph Loves Walt

Thirty years before Black Elk received his Great Vision, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his essay, “The Poet”, calling for “one with tyrannous eye” to unite “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas…” He promised that poet, “Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor…”

Implied in his call was the fear that without poetic imagination the culture would fall apart. Ten years later Walt Whitman sent Emerson the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In the introduction he stated: “The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of its poets.” Whitman articulated a version of democracy in which our very atoms resonate, but enjoined us also to prize individuality—a High Culture built on poetic imagination, its ability to integrate as well as renew experience.

Later this vision, like Black Elk’s, dimmed.

The nation divided by Civil War left its youth for dead in heaps, and shuffled others into make-shift tents. Whitman threaded his way through the fetid field hospitals of D.C. nursing the boys he loved, navigating their corpses, lost limbs, buckets of blood swinging from broom handles; his optimism darkened. It may have been with a touch of PTSD that he wrote in his late essay, “Democratic Vistas,” dated 1871, of the failure of poetic imagination to take hold, and the withering flower at the center of his hoop:  “…with unprecedented material advancement–Society in these States is canker’d, crude, surreptitious, superstitious and rotten…I say we best look our times and land searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease…It is as if we were being endowed with a vast and more thoroughly appointed body, then left with little or no soul…

meta_navajo_sandNavajo Sand Painting

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The Centre Cannot Hold

Black Elk lived from 1863 to 1949, from the buffalo-rich open prairie to the post Holocaust reality in the wake of WWII. Even so, he held on to the core of his Great Vision. Prior to the 20th Century, the circle-squared archetype of wholeness passed easily from one civilization to the next until it hit a hard edge mid-way through Modernism, and broke. Cracks had appeared at the dawn of the 19th Century, but went largely unobserved.

In 1807, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel published his theory of Geist in his Phenomenology of Spirit. His idea of Geist, translated as “spirit” or “mind,” is essentially an examination of consciousness. The consciousness in question is a collective one realizing itself over time through the philosophical work of individuals starting with Heraclitus and culminating in Hegel, who posited that the history of philosophical enquiry ended with him; from that point forward consciousness didn’t so much unfold as contained absolute knowledge. This was cause for celebration in the Hegel household. He had secured the Paleolithic/Platonic ontological center of the circle squared. That’s when cracks appeared in the saucer of Hegel’s teacup. Something dark began to shimmer in the wings of the departing century: the swan-song of the Victorian age. Nietzsche, Freud and Marx danced onto center stage in bow ties and patent leather shoes. Billed on the marquee as The Hermeneutics of Suspicion, they declared that nothing is what it appears to be; all received wisdom and articles of faith must be regarded with suspicion.

By mid-century, philosophy no longer addressed general questions about the human condition, but cracks into numerous specialties each in search of a foundation. The dervishes of Post Modernism, chief among them two Jacques, Lacan and Derrida summed it up. Lacan called The Real “the impossible.”  Derrida thought any inquiry outside the limitations of language unthinkable, and everything inside of it only spin.

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The Crack Up

The Great Depression confirmed for many that there was nothing of substance at the center. A few grieved the demise of High Culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West wailed in the 1930s Waste Land. West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts as a night clerk at the Hotel Albert in Greenwich Village, and then at the Hotel Kenmore on 23rd Street. From his desk at the latter, looking out on a second floor terrace, he watched bankrupt millionaires fall from the top floor, “lovers leap.”  He observed that in the absence of a center, pain can’t be addressed. The result was a culture of cruelty and disconnection. His novel follows a sports journalist reassigned by a sadistic editor to the Advice Desk where he answered letters from the heartbroken as “Miss. L”. His attempt to take on the burden of the suffering humanity fails. Miss L. experienced a psychotic breakdown rather than what at an earlier time might’ve been mystical union or a redemptive renewal of faith.

West never made a penny on his novels. He moved to Hollywood in 1935. He met F. Scott Fitzgerald on the lot of Republic Pictures, aka Repulsive Pictures, where the major stars were singing cowboys. Fitzgerald’s royalties plummeted to $50 in 1933 from an earlier high of $29,757.85. The author who once defined The Jazz Age, now analogized himself and the world in which he found himself to a cracked plate. It might be glued and used, but would always be a cracked plate, not suitable for company. In essays for Esquire published posthumously as the Crack Up in 1940 by Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald wrote about the death of High Culture. The novel, which he’d thought “the most powerful medium of conveying thought and feeling from one human being to another,” had become “subordinate to a mechanical and communal art…capable of only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.” Poetic imagination had given way to Hollywood, a collaborative medium which fed on the obvious.

In West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust, the “dream machine” fabricated and recycled virtual realities for financial gain. Its illusions were paper thin, but addictive. The novel ends with an apocalyptic riot; a panicked crowd covers the land like locusts driven by a viral hunger to consume their own medium. Fitzgerald and West became fast friends. One day after news of Fitzgerald’s death reaches him, West collided with another car. He and his wife, Eileen, returning from a hunting trip in Mexico, were killed. West is thirty-seven.

-axis-mundi ldsanarchyAxis Mundi — LDS anarchy website

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Chinatown Chicken

As a young man in search of a center, I engaged in numerous addictions, but none so telling as one in Chinatown. The object of my hunger for The Real, which Lacan labeled “the impossible”, was a chicken. Not the edible kind, baked in clay or shredded with almonds and bean sprouts, but a live fowl, occupant of a glass case mounted on a platform in an arcade south of Canal Street.

The challenge overhead read: BEAT THE BIRD.

No one ever beat the chicken at its own game: tic-tac-toe.

A quarter in the slot, and the game was on. A board at the base marked each move with an illuminated X or O. The chicken didn’t have to see it. His attention was on the pellet that dropped into one of several dishes to prompt his next move. The whole affair was run by wires and electrical connections to which the player became attached as an input in an otherwise selforganizing system. It didn’t really matter who performed that function.

It was not simply passive pleasure that held me, but the hunger that drove West’s substance starved movie audience to swarm like locusts. I became infected by the inevitability of defeat, but couldn’t stop hitting keys, a glimpse of the addiction that would later wire me to Facebook. Years later teaching an essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” I asked my American Literature class at a small college in the Adirondacks if they agreed with William James that “the pleasure culture” posed a greater danger to us than the “warrior” culture. Facing the fear of death-in-battle deepened those who survived it. Entertainment and entitlement in pursuit of pleasure offered only endless adolescence. James suggested that we find moral equivalents for those rites which made men of boys, but without the violence of warfare.

Was my attachment to the tic-tac-toe chicken an early immersion in pleasure culture, or a moral equivalent worthy of a warrior?

There was no contest; the chicken always won!

But I succumbed to the addictive thrill of punching the buttons to watch the chicken dance in front of the feeding tray. Who does the Grail serve?

What would William James say? I see him as a young man who feels like a failure and suffers a nervous breakdown. No warrior, he pays for another man to face the rebel yells in his stead, and most likely die. Older, at his desk, scruffy beard starting to grey, he sniffs ammonium nitrate from a beaker, giggling as he makes notes for an article, “Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide,” in the Psychological Review (1898). High Culture gives way to getting high, William James, in pursuit of altered consciousness, uses an anesthetic gas. Foldedin the chemical hilarity, James writes:

Good and evil reconciled in a laugh!
It escapes, it escapes!
But–
What escapes, WHAT escapes?

Integra Natura—The Whole of Nature (1671) – Robert Fludd physician, alchemist, philosopher and artist depicts in this engraving the correspondence between realms linked in the Great Chain of Being by the World Soul, Anima Mundi. From his two volume masterwork Ultriusque Cosmi.

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Numbness and the Mediated World

Here is a conversation recently overheard between two girls at Starbucks in NYC.

GIRL 1: I mean…it’s like he doesn’t even care.
GIRL 2: Why do you think that?
GIRL 1: I posted something super nice about him on Facebook and he never liked it!
GIRL 2: When did you post it?
GIRL 1: Like…an hour ago.
GIRL 2: Oh, that’s serious!!

Thomas de Zengotita’s “Numbing of the American Mind, Culture as Anesthetic,” (Harper’s, 4/02) captures the ironic relationship of stimulation to numbness. It opens with a quote by Nietzsche: …the massive influx of impressions is so great; surprising, barbaric, and violent things press so overpoweringly–balled up into hideous clumps–in the youthful soul; that it can save itself only by taking recourse in premeditated stupidity. The philosopher isn’t referring to I.Q., but to being anesthetized. “Ever notice how, when your hand is numb, everything feels thin?” asks Zengotita. “Even a solid block of wood lacks depth and texture. You can’t feel the wood; your limb just encounters the interrupting surface. Well, numb is to the soul as thin is to a mediated world.”

His point is hiding in plain sight: the effect of constant stimulation is numbness. The absence of sensation is not linked to sense-deprivation, but to excessive input of shifting images and messages claiming our attention. The excitation is numbing.  When the surface becomes all there is to life, stress is “how reality feels.”

Post Modernists assert we live in closed, self-referential systems such as language, culture, identity, politics—constructions of the moment. We can’t claim to live in reality, only our representation of it. Derrida insists that there is nothing outside the text, but more text, which we create to describe the purport of our text.

What happens when the soul turns numb and poetic imagination goes underground? What difference does it make if our children are fed packaged imagery designed to sell product but leave their inner worlds atrophied? Why should we care if there is no perceived difference between news and entertainment, advertising and information, Vivaldi and Kenny G.

Nezahuacoyotl Peso

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The Submerged Centre

There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course…

—Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”

It may be impossible to endure the crushing G-Force, that propulsive rate of change, without a degree of protective numbness. At the same time, the structure of the psyche remains the same since it gave birth to Paleolithic images on cave walls.  Symbols rising spontaneously from its depth inform and guide us.  Polymath anthropologist George Gregory Bateson tells us that the ordering process of self-organizing systems is not imposed by the environment but established within the system itself. Two dynamic principles are at work here: self-renewal and selftranscendence–the ability to reach beyond physical and mental boundaries in the process of learning, development and evolution. A system that becomes stressed—read here “numb” or “stupid”—will become rigid and unable to adapt, connect to its own symbols, and hear its inner voice.

Socrates called his inner voice the daemon. Romans, the genius.  Native Americans, the Spirit Guide. Mayans know it as the Nahual. In analytical psychology it is the Self or Objective Psyche. In a study of destiny, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman refers to Plato’s myth of Er, in The Republic. Er returns from a near death experience to describe the protocol of returning souls. Before crossing to the re-birth destination, each soul witnesses the Fates spin, weave and cut the cloth of its destiny. The soul knows the unique pattern before it drinks from Lethe. Some drink more deeply than others. Those who hears the spirit guide whisper in its ear, are said to be touched by Genius, the submerged center.

This is another way to describe poetic imagination and its ability to give birth to works that constitute High Culture. Poetic imagination rises from the same intelligence that conveys information about the destiny of individuals and civilizations. Even unheard, at times when the center collapses, the Genius speaks, seeks a way to break the surface of numbness and denial. William James curiosity about altered consciousness, including his love affair with Nitrous Oxide, can be viewed as a search for the pharmakon, that remedy mentioned by Plato which is both cure and disease. It can be argued that those most in touch with poetic imagination in the last century were scientists, not poets.

Sacred Script: Catalog of signs collected by Marija Gimbutas, showing core signs at left and derivatives at right formed by additional dots, lines, curves or alternate orientations; from her ground breaking work, "The Civilization of the Goddess."Sacred Script: Catalog of signs collected by Marija Gimbutas, showing core signs at left and derivatives at right formed by additional dots, lines, curves or alternate orientations; from her ground breaking work, The Civilization of the Goddess.

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Albert Einstein’s imaginative “thought experiment” in 1905, working in the Swiss Patent Office, led to his theory of special relativity. Using poetic imagination, Einstein was able to formulate the behavior of movement at the speed of light when time falls away. Later, he would write in his essay, On Science: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Depth psychologist Carl Jung asserted that imagination and its products must be understood as facts. Jung worked with quantum visionary Wolfgang Pauli to explore the phenomena of meaningful coincidence, which Jung called synchronicity, and Pauli non-local causality. They published a paper together in 1952, “The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche,” concluded that “the observed patterns of matter are reflections of patterns of mind.”

But the question remains, how can we discern the voice of poetic imagination, rooted in the archetype of wholeness, through the numbness of surface stimulation?

350px-Mandala_of_VajradhatuMandala Of Vajrahdatu

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The Face of the Deep

“My core fear,” writes Sven Birkerts in The Guttenberg Elegies, “is that we are as a culture, as a species, becoming shallower; that we have turned from depth…and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture…” Birkets views the changes to our world, (and our psyches), as a Faustian trade-off.

Cyber-technology promises mastery of time and space, the ability to make love to a virtual Helen or Hercules, circumnavigate the globe in a heartbeat, and access financial markets at a key stroke. The reality is that we are trapped in an “electric tribalism” where individual development is not a goal but an impediment. Instead are offered superhuman avatars, but exist as insects stuck in a web, or as Birkerts would have it, bees glued to a hive. He may have reason to fear the hive mentality and it consequences for depth of any kind. For example, the most frequent and celebrated activity on Facebook is the ritual changing of the Profile Picture. Two recent examples of this drifted through my timeline this morning.

Which 80s Superstar are you?
Which mystical creature are you?

Two “friends” linked to me by the wireless network for no apparent reason but that we share the technology, responded to these challenging questions with answers applauded by each of their networks first separately and then on a “share”, together:

Madonna (w/photo), responded one.
A Fairy (Tinkerbelle), declared another.

My “profile picture” of choice belongs to Sri Ramana Maharshi  on the cover of his collected works published in the early 60s. When I first opened the book years ago I was stunned by its simplicity the teaching. The man in a loincloth with a trimmed grey beard lean body curved slightly like a question mark broached this call and response.

Maharshi posed what philosophers today would call a foundational question: Who am I? He then instructs the student to answer: “Who is asking the question?” This may fairly characterize the sum total of the teaching.

Who is asking? He persists.

I repeat this over and over to myself, going deeper with each repetition. Eventually one understands:  Who am I? is not a question.

Who breaks the surface by asking Who.

Who delivers the intelligence that draws on personal and collective fields.

Who messages in dreams, epiphany, and the shaman’s visionary consciousness.

Who pre-exists language and can’t be deconstructed, embedded in the structure of the psyche.

Who rises from the submerged center.

Who hosts the poetic imagination, and interfaces with the informational field that holds all forms in potential?

Who in the psyche that knows the knower.

Who looks back at me through my eyes but remains unseen.

Tree_of_Life_geometry2Tree of Life geometry

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The Problems of High Culture

There are many ways to understand the term High Culture. On the most obvious level it is a privileged procession of products agreed upon by consensus, i.e. Michelangelo’s paintings on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, which he did under protest; on another level, self-selecting groups of esthetes may admire carved duck decoys or Faberge Eggs. Those whose products are deemed worthy of High Culture might often be more at home in the Cedar Bar than on Park Avenue, while the reverse may be true of those who consume those products to verify their status. Then there is the culture of improvisation that takes place in smoke filled rooms, street theater, subway mimes. For example, French composer Darius Milhaud, foremost among the Les Six, disembarked in New York and went directly to Harlem instead of Carnegie Hall, to hear authentic jazz, arguably the only high art form created on this continent. We are familiar with High Culture Enshrined, but what about the numinous moments that pass and are gone, High Culture In Time? About which Thelonious Monk said: “If you’re not there, you miss it all.”  Perhaps there is a working definition that connects them.

High Culture: that which connects us to the submerged center, conduit for poetic imagination, moves people beyond numbness, dumbness, violence and blind belief, absorbs pain that is otherwise not addressable—and suggests something permanent in the midst of impermanence.

Does such a thing exist?

And what becomes of a Rothko painting once it appears as a postage stamp?

High Culture may slumber like Schrodinger’s cat closed in a box that regarded from the superposition suggested by complementarity is both alive and dead.

As we move forward, it is important to understand the proof that haunts our dreams, the archetypes of totality, refrain of oracles and sages, often using the same words.

Empedocles: “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Timaeus of Locris (via Plato): “A circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”The Timaeus

Hermes Trismegistus: “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” Book of the 24 Philosophers.

Alain of Lille: “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Nicola of Cusa: “Your eye is a circle—or better, an infinite sphere—sees—all things at once.” De Visioni Dei

Hildegard of Bingen: “In its workings the Godhead is like a wheel, a whole.”

Voltaire: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” The Philosophical Dictionary

Blaise Pascal: Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (Pensees #199 in Penguin tr.)

It’s as if we all woke up from the same dream!

Or were enfolded in it.

We thirst for that long draught of what Mircea Eliade calls a thirst for the experience of being, the ontological soul-bath. If in this metaphor God/Self/Genius is understood as the center of consciousness, that circle of wholeness in the depths of our psychic field, is everywhere, then it can be accessed wherever we find ourselves. The voice from the submerged center calls to us,

“Drop your bucket anywhere and pull up sweet water. Break the surface and be healed.”

Buddhist Wheel of LifeBuddhist Wheel of Life

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Damage Report

In The Guttenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts opines that electronic media destabilizes “our entire collective subjective history;” reduces our capacity for “inwardness,” and repeats William James’ warning. The “pleasure culture” has given birth to the “hive mentality,” a form of mindless collectivity. Absent a concrete center, Birkerts sees every dissolving digital byte as a “metaphor for chaos.”  The energies of eternity flowing into time have gone underground, along with historical memory.

Until recently, the cultivation of memory has been central to education. Simonides handed down his memory system in the 5th Century BCE after the roof caved on friends at dinner while he was standing outside. The bodies couldn’t be recovered but he found a way to recall who was there by remembering where each friend was sitting. Cicero’s memory system linking things to remember with rooms in his villa was used by Renaissance luminaries like Ficino, Picus, Campenella, and Giordano Bruno. In the 16th Century Guilio Camillo built his Theater of Memory to contain the entire history of man.

One might observe without hyperbole that memory is the guardian of meaning. There is no High Culture without it. Unfortunately, memory has been a prime casualty of the pleasure culture and hive mentality. We can access endless information at a keystroke, but ignore the scaffolds for memory to support a coherent vision of events and ideas.  Abjured in the schools, memory has become a fatality of impact and speed.  We entered the 20th Century on horseback and exited with the first man on the moon. At that speed, a collision of Historical Memory with the Virtual Present is both inevitable and catastrophic.

No doubt the accident took place on a difficult merge. According to the report, Virtual Present did not give way. Historical Memory was forced to pull into oncoming traffic. Witnesses fled the scene. Most severely injured, High Culture was rushed to the ER, admitted after a long wait, and then placed in ICU.

There are no clear directives, no Proxy Power of Attorney, DNR or Organ Donor plans. The court may have to appoint a Medical Guardian. Fortunately, the vitals have stabilized and High Culture, uncovered by private insurance, was moved into a public ward. It is however resting comfortably, hooked up to IVs and monitors charting oxygen levels, heart rate and BP.

There’s been discussion of rehab, but it’s premature.

The speculation is that High Culture may continue to exist, but more as an idea within the  virtual body of ideas, rather than as a direct experience

Maya worldtreeMaya World Tree

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Summing Up: The Pharmakon

Plato talks about the pharmakon as both a remedy and a poison. It is the cure in the disease and the disease in the cure. That medicine had a double nature was well known to Galen and Asclepius as well as Paracelsus and Derrida. The pharmakon may be the Objective Psyche or the submerged center. By the same token Post Modernism, with its claim of absolute relativism married to Faustian promise of technology and instant information may be the poison in which the panacea is secreted. Caught between the dreams of virtuality and globalization, a wounded poetic imagination bombarded by packaged images for consumption, symbols replaced by brands, we must not retreat in grief and anger, or to easy answers. In her exploration of centrality, Dreams of Totality, Sherry Salman warns us that where the old symbols no longer hold and new ones have yet to emerge, we must be wary of “the pull toward passive or righteous identification with either utopian faith or dystopian demise.”  If we hold the questions in our consciousness, the submerged center, Genius, Objective Psyche will in its own time yield answers, give birth to new symbols. Beyond that, the sense of helplessness and fragmentation is inevitable.

“We know that in order for new dreams of totality to emerge,” Salman continues, “the old ones have to be broken, and that this happens at the point of weak links, where disenfranchised elements create the tension. Stay near this edge between order and disorder. Have empathy for what’s dying and being born.”

What is the future of High Culture in the world as we now know it? Where is a credible center, or conduit for poetic imagination? We may well ask again, like Parsifal, “Whom does the Grail serve?”

What lies ahead may be taking shape in us even as we question its existence.

The Genius whispers, “This way.”

— Paul Pines

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Bibliography

ACZEL, D. Amir, Entanglement, The Greatest Mystery in Physics, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001

BATESON, G. (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). Hampton Press.

BIRKERTS, Sven, The Guttenberg Elegies, The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, NEW YORK: Fawcett

Columbine, 1994

BOHM, David, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1987

DANIELSON, Dennis Richard ed., the book of the  cosmos, Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking, NEW YORK: Perseus Publishing, 2000

DERRIDA, Jacques, Disseminations, tr. Babara Johnson, Chicago, Universit of Chicago Press, 1083 EINSTEIN, Albert, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, New York, Covini-Freide, 1931

EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

EDINGER, Edward, Ego and Archetype, New York: Putnam, 1972

GELL-MAN, Murray, The Quark and the Jaguar, Adventures in the Simple and Complex, San Francisco,

W.H.Freeman, 1994

HILLMAN, James, Re-Visioning Psychology, New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1977

———————, The Soul’s Code, In Search of Character and Calling, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 1997

HEGEL, G.W.F., Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, translated with introduction, running commentary and notes by Yirmiyahu Yovel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)

HOLLIS, James, 2004, Mythologems, Incarnations of the Invisible World, Toronto, Inner City Books.

JAMES, William, The Principles of Psychology, vol 1, New York, Cosimo Classics, 2007

JUNG, C.G. The Collected Works, (Bollingen Series XX) 20 vol. Trans. R.C.F. Hull. Ed. H. Read, Princeton University Press, 1953-79

————————–, Man and his Symbols, New York Doubleday and Co;, 1964

————————-, Memories, Dreams, Reflection, Ed. Aniela Jaffe, New York, Pantheon Books, 1961

—————————,”Commentrary of ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’”, 1957. In Alchemical Studies, vol.   13, The Collected Works of C.G.Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

————————-The Red Book; Liber Novus, Edited and introduced by Sonu Shamandasani. New York,  W.W.

Norton, 2009

JUNG, C.G., and Wolfgang PAULI, Atom and Archetype: The Pauli-Jung Letters 1932-1958, Edited by C.A.

Meier, Princetone NJ; Princeton University Press, 2001

MCQUADE, Donald, et.al., The Harper American Literature, vol 2., New York: Harper Collins, 1993

NIETZSCHE Friedrich, The Portable Nietzsche, Ed. Wlter Kaufman, New York, Viking, 1972

PEAT, F. David. Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind, New York: Bantam, 1987

——————–Infinite Potential, The Life and Times of David Bohm, MASS., Addison-Wesley, 1997

RUDOLF, Anthony, 2013, London, silent conversations, Seagull Books

REGIER, Willis G., Masterpieces of American Indian Literature, New York: MJF Books, 1993

SALMAN, Sherry, Dreams of Totality, Spring Journal Books, New Orleans Louisiana, 2013

SHELDRAKE, Ruppert, The Presence of the Past: morphic resonance and the habits of nature, New York, NY:

Times Books, 1988

TALBOT, Michael, Mysticism and the New Physics, Toronto, Penguin Arkana, 1993

TODD, Peter B., The Individuation of God, Integrating Science and Religion, Ill, Chiron Publications, 2012

Von ESCHENBACK, Parzival, New York, Vintage Books, 1961

Von FRANZ, Marie-Louise, Alchemical Active Imagination, Shambhala, Boston, 1997

WHITMONT, C. Edward, The Alchemy of Healing, Psyche and Soma, CA, North Atlantic Books, 1993

YATES, Frances, The Art of Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966

 

 

PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published ten books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, Breath, Adrift on Blinding Light, Taxidancing, Last Call at the Tin Palace, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Divine Madness and New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros. The last collection recently won the Adirondack Center for Writing Award as the best book of poetry in 2013. His eleventh collection, Fishing On The Pole Star, will soon be out from Dos Madres. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia appear on the Summit label. He is the editor of the Juan Gelman’s selected poems translated by Hardie St. Martin, Dark Times/ Filled with Light (Open Letters Press, 2012). Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.

 

Aug 082014
 

dancersDancers, Photograph by John Oughton

/
Dawning

“To many, the language of birds is therefore nothing more or less than a series of secret codes and phrases, which pass by in daily conversation, except for those with ears that ‘hear’.” —Philip Coppens[1]

Before the human eye can catch the light
birds call up the sun,
each giving a separate secret name
understood only by them and the awakening star.
One robin calls: warmer-of-lost-eggs
and a cardinal: bleeds-the-eastern-sky
a jay announces: shards-you-can’t-look-at
and whipporwill: courser-of-clouds

when all these qualities are uttered
the new-known sun arises
and birds fall silent,
drained of aspects to declare.

/
Force Field

A field, a dance floor,
The poem can be.
A tennis game (with Rhymes)
But what if it’s a vacuum, abhorred,
massive black hole around which
one galaxy turns?

Everything sucks into its event
horizon. Nothing achieves escape
velocity. So, circulating in this hive
of form: the hardest scream
life can draw from your throat,
Lost loves, the scent of flowers
your face was pressed into, unwilling,
The moments you thought death
came next, all the lines you never wrote down.

And this: last night’s dream,
growing anxiety as you couldn’t
find the black car you’d parked to
get an aged aunt home, the midway ride
twirling in air around the belfry
pealing clangour,
an endless paean to midnight.
Your shame, your surprise,
Your last word.
In this poem.

/
Arise

Waking, I trail a skin of dreams
like a caul, contrail
I am the sniper – crosshairs aligned
on the joy of a clean kill

rainbow-scaled, I fight my way up the ladder
flying is only walking with more will
I am the wise child, lost man
with breasts, knee-length beard, new needs
dogged, fur pelts forth
I lie cat-kin along possibility’s wall

From this surfeit of symbol
I rise slowly, half thought, half felt
become small waves in a cup of coffee.

—Poems & Photographs by John Oughton

birdbath Birdbath by John Oughton

.

Oughton

John Oughton has published five books of poetry (most recently Time Slip, new and collected poems from Guernica Editions). He has also produced several chapbooks, over 400 articles, reviews, blogs and interviews, and a suspense novel which will be published by Neopoeisis Press. He is a member of the Long Dash writing group. As a photographer, he has had three solo exhibitions, and his images have appeared on book covers, in journals and e-zines. John works as Professor of Learning and Teaching at Centennial College and is completing a doctorate in Education at York University in Toronto.

/
/

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. From “Tweet tweet: the language of birds” http://www.philipcoppens.com/birdlanguage.html
Aug 072014
 

leslie-ullman_09

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The sky is all taunt and taskmaster, even though I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. Or maybe because I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. The air is thrilling, illusive, a blade that sings without a sound. I and my sister trekkers gulp it down as we climb well before dawn—4 a.m., to be exact—to reach the highest point of our eight-day trek and be rewarded, hopefully, by the most spectacular in a week of spectacular views before the day’s usual clouds set in.

We camped last night at over 14,000 feet, after five days of almost steady climbing, although we took one day off to rest and acclimate when we reached 12,500 feet. We made our way through dense vegetation at first, tall trees lining our paths and the rivers we crossed. Then rhododendrons, a whole day of them, their leaves deep red in the early October sun. Plant life thinned as we climbed, trees turning to bush which then turned to scrub. The tree line is very high in this part of the world, Sikkim, a little sleeve of India, once a separate country tucked between Bhutan and Nepal.

When the sun peeks through the almost constant cloud cover, especially in early mornings, we are surrounded by white peaks, whole walls of white  that make me feel I’m at a remote northern reach, even though Sikkim lies at a latitude similar to that of central Florida, closer to the equator than most of the United States. Now, as we trek through the dark in our good hiking boots and headlamps, there is scant vegetation to interfere with our climbing. But the step-like rocks give us enough to work with, as does the air itself, an odd mixture of presence and absence that keeps me focused on my breathing the way I’ve never managed to do in a yoga class.

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I have skied and hiked in high places, but this is the first time I’ve experienced the altitude as a personality, as something to negotiate. I’m not uncomfortable, exactly; rather in something of an altered state, aware of what every muscle is doing, and focusing on one rock at a time. I place my each foot just so, not wanting to waste any energy regaining my balance. And then there’s the fatigue, a feeling of being packed in cotton, all excess tamped down. For once, none of us have social energy to spare, even though we are eight women from Moab, Salt Lake City, and Taos, middle-aged athletes and power-shoppers who normally have plenty to say.

We climb silently through darkness that begins to lift now, only to reveal thick mist and cloud cover. Not a good sign. Normally dawn is clear in this part of the Himalayas, and already we have gotten a few early-morning glimpses of Mt.Pandim, the third highest peak in the world, a mass of blinding white that is sacred to the Buddhists of Sikkim and said to be unclimbable. Our goal today, and perhaps the goal of our entire eight-day trek, is to get an unprecedented view of this mountain whose presence all week has beckoned and then disappeared into mid-morning clouds.

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The dawn grows brighter, but not bright enough. We have arrived at our lookout point at 16,500 feet, the light grey around us and rain beginning to sprinkle, then fall with conviction. Our guide Namgayl pulls on a bright blue poncho, and our Sherpa helpers don their own red, yellow, grey, and blue rainwear before handing around mugs of tea, hardboiled eggs, apples, and brown breadlike slabs of something thick, sweet, unrecognizable and sustaining, which they baked the night before. Never has an egg tasted so good. And the tea, lemony and sweet. As for the apple—by now I trust that it has been washed in thoroughly boiled water, and I take a huge, thirsty bites, feeling none of my earlier fears of contracting something ugly.

We are all bent over our breakfasts like this, chattering again, energized and even happy while the rain pelts down, when one of the women suddenly gives a cry and points behind us. The clouds have broken just over Mt.Pandim, and now it hovers larger than I could have imagined, so close it seems to be breathing over us. We feel held in something like a kind hand made of air and sky, a hand that has parted those clouds just for us, just for these moments, as we stand in the rain three miles above the earth’s floor. The mountain seems to bless us, dwarfing us and then offering all of its calm self, its whiteness, its unconquerable splendor. We offer back our silence. And our tears.

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—Leslie Ullman

 

Leslie Ullman is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity published by University of New Mexico Press in 2013. Her awards include the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and two NEA Fellowships. Now professor Emerita at University of Texas El Paso, where she taught for 27 years, she continues to teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. For the past eight winters she also worked as a full-time ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico.

 

Aug 062014
 

imageDavid Hayden

In his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust famously introduced the concept of involuntary memory where the taste of a madeline dipped in tea brought back to his narrator, Marcel, a memory of the past, the memory being triggered unconsciously, effortlessly, by a sensory experience. Memory researcher and cognitive psychologist, Marigold Linton, rather poetically, described these involuntary memories as “precious fragments,” and I was reminded of these precious fragments when first reading David Hayden’s story Memory House.

Generally by placing events in sequential order and suggesting a connection between them, the writer gives meaning to plot, the narrative allowing causality to be inferred, but here the construct of the narrative replicates the fragmented process. If we accept that selfhood exists in the continuity of memory, then the narrator’s search for identity lies in the retrieval of encoded past experiences. In this regard, Hayden’s vivid language is rich with the sensory detail necessary to provide the triggers. Ultimately, however, we learn of the narrator’s personal history not through the memories themselves (which are not described) but through their metaphorical impact.

Metaphor, as we know, is not simply a figure of speech but a form of thought, and the associative nature of Hayden’s writing coupled with the sheer power of his imagistic words reveal marvellously the internal unseen world.

—Gerard Beirne

/

Memory House

/

The memory house is in my mind; today and everyday. Each thing is itself and is a way out to another object or to a time that happened or almost happened or didn’t happen.

I am the broken plate lying on the kitchen floor. Eight main pieces are grouped together on the yellowed linoleum that is cool beneath my bare feet. Scores of fragments are scattered in the greasy shadows, or wedged under the heels of the table.

The warped, lemon-shaded light is my mother’s eye. It gives off a gentle heat and can see nothing. Each chair is a misplaced friend. If I sit down I will remember who, and why they became lost and, perhaps, where they are today.

The table is a stony beach on a Cretan shore. Facing north, a salt-thickened breeze pushes back my hair. There are lights out to sea but none behind me. My baby boy rests warmly on my hip, his eyes narrowing as he looks out into the future.

From upstairs I hear the blunt crack of steps on a broken board. I should be alone here. I’ve always been alone here. But lately I’ve found evidence of a visitor. In the bathroom I found a damp, half-smoked cigarette in the sink. The sink is my broken tooth with taps for tears; hot and cold. I didn’t see the assailant’s face and I still wonder if he cut his hand.

The air is coloured with the smell of bay rum and sandalwood. I look into the empty bath. It is the smile of a girl I liked at school forty years ago. I open the window and the staleness is sucked out into the dark leaving the room cold and alert.

I’m on the stairs sounding like a horse and then comes the kitchen.

From the shadowed pantry three white eyes stare out. They are flour, rice and sugar. Clouds of flour become thoughts cased in bone, grains of rice pulse out from my wooden heart through cracked ceramic veins, sugar crystals swell in my bladder.

I must go.

Down two steps, across the rushing carpet its pattern forming, distending and breaking; the floor underneath could be one great muscle. I am at the bottom of the stairs and at the top of the stairs with no motion in between. I follow the urinous smell to a battered door.

I pull the pure cord in the dark and something white and sticky pours from the ceiling; it is light. The cord is clean from the fat circular fitting at the top but halfway down turns brown as a stick, ending in a grey, plastic bell fragment.

I relax my muscles and micturate a stream of sugar into the bowl which piles up on the slope before slumping into the water. I shake and grains patter on the floor.

The hair moves on the back of my neck, tall, dry grass, my head a rounded dune travelling slowly to the shore, a mud-choked littoral, the smell of ozone, sewage and tobacco smoke. I turn around to see a fat, white cigarette left on the top stair post, it is burning rapidly and by the time I am within reach it is all ash.

There is a clatter in the kitchen but from where I am I cannot move. Someone shouts and the sound billows out behind me then funnels away before sweeping back over my head and down the stairs. I follow, passing the mirror at the bend in the staircase. I look into the glass and a seagull gazes back, stone blue pupils, yolk yellow iris, beak wide open dripping black tar. I hiss back.

Downstairs the sea crashes against the windows, a pane shatters, the grey water plunges in then the wave rescinds taking the glass with it.

All stills.

In the kitchen a broken umbrella and belted raincoat lie on the table. I don’t recognise them and return to the living room where I squat in front of the fireplace placing coal in the grate a piece at a time from a galvanised bucket using a pair of brass tongs. The matches are damp but one flares and I start the kindling. Moonish smoke rises from the pyre and begins to fold on top of itself, layer after layer. I lie on the mossy sofa, a spring pressing into my back. The fire begins to roar orange and my fingers unclench in the easy warmth.

Rolling forwards, one hand forks over my face and I sneeze, a green smile twitches on the floor like a tapeworm. The smile ripples towards, then over, the tiled surround, puckers slightly then kisses the hot coals. I hiss again, bitumen breath and a white gas cloud the size of a sugar cube puffs from my mouth. I put my hand behind my back, dig under a cushion, pull out a bag of broken biscuits and begin nipping off the hard pastel frosting. I throw the biscuit discs towards the fire but I miss each time.

The radio comes on loud in the yellow bedroom. I feel like my teeth are going to fall out. I get up and the sofa’s skin stretches and snaps back to itself. I stumble for the stairs. Light is washing and blinking around the trembling frame of the bedroom door. The handle rattles. I know I will be shocked if I touch it. There’s a rushing sound behind me and I run into the bathroom waving steam away. The shower is on, yellow, green, red, sprays from the head into the tub and onto the floor. I close my eyes and grab the tap turning and turning, and when the flow stops I stand up and hear silence where the radio’s clamour was. I undress and get into the bath which frees me of the need to sleep that I have had for as long as I can remember.

The dark, unfilled rags that are my empty clothes wrap around each other on the floor. I step back into them and walk into the yellow bedroom. A young, well-fleshed dog fox is sitting on a stool in front of the dressing table its brush trailing on the floor. In the mirror I see the fox’s jaw exposed, fizzing with yellow maggots, its eyes staring steadily, wisely into themselves. On the bedside table there is a glass full of water in which is a pair of dentures made with far more teeth than can be contained in a human mouth. A small metal box, a radio, shines next to the glass. I switch it on and there is a loud belch followed by a round of applause. I switch the radio off.

On the stool in front of the dressing table is a coat. From behind me there is a gagging then a throaty gurgle, a wet, chunky evacuation, perhaps through the nose as well as the mouth. On the bathroom floor in front of the toilet bowl lie strands of tomato and lumps of shrimp. I clean the floor and open the window, which slams shut immediately that I release it as if the outside air were resisting the gastric stench within. On the third attempt I manage to wedge the window open with a toothbrush.

I look up through the glass into the massing sky, bruised silver-grey and violet, and raise my arms, my hands, thinking through the sudden pain in my head, and see a frozen lark fall at great speed before exploding on the concrete path, scattering its music all around the garden in numberless, glittering fragments.

I open the back door and for the first time walk outside and when I look back I see nothing but trees. I sit on a rock and watch the nearest one to me. Silver bark crumbles from the trunk and snows onto the ground. The tree trembles.

I stand up in brilliant sunshine and turn to look over a rotten stile at a meadow that slopes away; long grass, scrubby, clumping weeds with tight pink buds, yellow butterflies twitch in the air, white mushrooms nose up through the damp soil, swallows dip and roll. In place of the sun a giant, golden, severed hand radiates in the sky. The hand closes into a fist making the world dark. Turning around, I run for the trees, eyes twitching up to the trunks and boughs that are scarred with hoops that glow orange ember. I trip over the step and fall into the kitchen smoke rising from my jacket.

The smell, like toasted marshmallows, makes me feel sick and hungry at the same time. I roll to my feet and approach the bread bin, carefully lifting the lid and, as I put my hand in the loaf scuttles into the corner pressing up against the side, palpitating under the bag tie.

This is my hunger.

I put the hand under the tap and watch it turn red.

Walking quickly from the sink I step out of my shoes, they float away and I feel lighter and truer. There is a breakage far in the distance but still inside. The stranger is coughing and laughing in the parlor.

I reach the door which gasps softly as I push against it and sighs as I pull it back. I refuse to do this again.

I step onto an irregular orange rug, the burning sand cradles my feet, one move, two moves and I am struck by a jag of glass that pierces my foot to the pith and I stand bleeding freely. The desert turns red and I become blue while my foot pulses. I move off into a corner and reach for the floor which spins around to meet me. Within reach there is a narrow bed and, propped next to it on its side, an empty television. I can’t remember all the programs I must have watched there when it had a screen but I know the time must have passed because here I am inside, looking at myself, watching nothing. I cough and, for a moment, I think I must be the stranger – I am a man after all – but I hear laughter outside the window, and then I think that he must be a piece of me that has broken off and is living a happier life than the one that I lead but, somehow, still cannot completely escape the original self who now lies maimed on the parlor floor.

But then I remember.

I don’t smoke.

I can’t be the stranger.

The pillow ascends and approaches as if interested in my breath. It becomes as big as the moon; or maybe it is merely close and white and glowing cold like a pillow does before one falls into its plump, lightly wrinkled face with one’s own red, heavily wrinkled, bewhiskered one. The moon or the pillow is behind me and my face is in front of me and the lack of a breath is not troubling me and I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down. I land heavily on my knees. (There will be a bruise.) The room shakes awake and I long for a blanket. I hear a long crisping sound, a suck and a pout, nearly silent, and a louder, but still quiet, exhalation, sour smoke drifts over my head and I struggle to stand, to turn, to see the secret smoker, to seize him – because it must be a him – to push him over, to crush his pack and kick away the yellow lighter, with its grind wheel and shimmering liquid gas, into the shadows of the shadows under my bed where I will reach for it in the morning – should the morning come.

I scramble sideways, pull myself up and balance on toe-tips, fingertips, before shuffling forward and rising in one long stretch. On the stairs I hear the rolling grind and fat thump and thump of a heavy ball descending.

I press my fingers into the palm of my left hand to dig out a chemical itch. I hold the sparkling hook in the air above my head before dropping it into my mouth and swallowing. There’s a fishy wiggle and a tickle and then it’s gone into the acid darkness.

There is a tapping under my feet, not on the plaster ceiling some distance below, but a hard, sore-knuckled rapping on the boards directly beneath the coarse leather of my shoes. There is a muffled shout from the same place; it must be hard to breathe there. I stamp my foot twice, three times and the sound stops. I fold over and put my ear to the warm wood.

The dark is hovering in the dark and behind these are the walls.

“Are you there?” I say but when I realise that I’m talking to myself I stand up.

Vines twist around the iron loops and knots of the bed head. There is a force of sweetness passing through these living cables, swelling the grapes that group together and nod towards the pillow. Dragonflies rise and fall in the turbid air, rapid wings making a deep hum and I imagine that this is what makes my glasses tremble and slip down my nose. I go to lie down and I’m relieved to be that little distance further from the earth, pleased to be upheld, and I recognize the vastness of the effort required to keep flesh, bones, skin, frothing blood and the soft, thinking matter of the brain from parting, each from the other, and sliding into the soil.

I sense the possibility of no more happening.

There is a sudden fall, a cough, of soot in the chimney and a small cloud passes over the tiles and settles on the carpet.

The stranger’s sounds make sense for the first time.

He is saying: “Get out of my house.”

I turn around and a man is standing close to me swelling large on the in breath, shrinking and warping on the out breath.

I talk and my words run backwards but I pull the sounds in and blow them out in the right direction.

“This is my home… my house. I have the deeds in my pocket. I always carry the deeds.”

I hand them over for his inspection.

“You see,” he says, waving the papers in the air. “I have the deeds. This is my house.”

“But all of this is mine. It’s what I’ve lived. Look – look… The rug there – it’s the skin I tore from my back when I fell off my boy’s scooter after steeping down a gravel path in the park.”

“Everyone has skin.”

“My books. All my books. I’ve read them.”

“No one has the words. The mind is on a slope and the words pour off like water and who knows where they go?”

“Not the words. The books. They’re mine… Downstairs… in the drawer. The knives. They cut my food.”

He has folded his arms and begun a slow, wet smile that I fear may never end.

“There’s no food in this house.”

I point upwards to the ceiling, his gaze follows and he cries out at the rough, fibrous shag of an over roasted slice of beef; wet strings of fat hang down, bloody drops pendulate, hesitating to fall.

The stranger reaches over and returns the deeds.

“It’s your house. It is.”

He stands wavering; thinning out.

“What am I doing here?”

“You’ve been scaring me.”

“I was happy scaring you. I never thought that it was my house. I was lying.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t live in a house like this.”

“Neither do I.”

The stranger looks down at his shoes and so do I. They are just shoes.

“The truth is… I can’t remember anything.”

—David Hayden

/

/

/

An Apple in the Library

/

The librarian sits at her desk; unblinking, because unable to blink, unmoving, because unable to move. Air rushes between the stacks making a hoarse throat-music. The lamps are on and the ceiling is covered in scars.

The books know but are still.

The reader pushes at the door, considers his choices when it resists him, then pulls on the door, which opens. There is no knowing what the librarian is thinking. It is possible to know what the librarian is thinking.

The reader approaches her.

“Do you have an apple?”

If it were possible she would be nodding, not talking, nodding; indicating the shelf behind the reader where the apple is. He turns around and turns back.

“I’m sorry. I need the apple. And you can’t help me?”

The librarian stares at the reader. She knows that she cannot help. He smiles, considering his own simple appetence, it is a lovely thing, perhaps better than the apple sought; but still he must have the apple.

“Who brings you here? Are my questions cruel? I don’t feel cruel although I know what it is. I can look at you and in seeing you not see you, only a dark part of myself which I do not recognise as myself but as you; the surface of you, made a thing; a thing I see and want, or don’t want, to look at, to act on.”

Every day. Every single day,” thinks the librarian.

This is a loud thought but the reader can not hear it. She thinks it again.

Every single day.”

“I’m sure the apple is near,” says the reader.

“I have the idea of it in my hand. I possess the weight of the idea; not much, it is sufficient and, while lighter than many ideas, it is, at the moment, larger and more present than all those other thoughts.”

You are loud, unsheathed and boring, but you have a good smell; cleanliness with a superadded element, a bright unguent applied on the face with the fingers of each hand in a soft, swirling motion that awakes the skin, makes it live and feel like my skin, my flesh, once felt; a good smell; the odour of self-love, of care, of caring to be seen, of inhabiting one’s aliveness and feeling it both never ending and short-lived.”

The lights blink off and the library stages a presentiment of endless darkness. The reader can smell the apple now; it is behind him or, perhaps, over his head, floating. He reaches up into the dark pursuing his sense and the lights blink on and he is staring at his hand reaching out to nothing.

The librarian has a thought but it is not in words. The reader wants to be guided to the apple by words, by the alphabet even, but the fruit is before, or outside of all that; it is possible that the apple leads to the words but not the other way round.

“I will look at the books. It’s all right that I look at the books?”

The reader looks again into the librarian’s face.

“Everything I need to know today is in there. What do you do with it all, I wonder?”

Love. It’s enough.

“The apple is near and you are here and if I take the trouble to search I will find it.”

You are so vehement. It’s right behind you; you might not find it; perhaps you will.

“I like being here with you; so little moving.”

Your lips are moving.

“Everything that I need here and unable to leave.”

Nobody talks like you; it’s not credible; it’s not a good thing.

“There’s no resurrection except in small moments.”

The reader turns and finds the apple; the apple finds his hand. The apple is more than one simple green, perfectly imperfect as a minor sphere with spongy facets that can take the light and appear white in patches, but never completely. Wood, a stalk, and a tiny, heart-shaped, serrated leaf which, when lightly tugged, pulls back, belonging to the apple. He pushes the fruit into his mouth; his tongue’s memory of other apples creates an unthought motion to test, to paint the smooth, cool surface. Between the head and the hand: the apple; and out of the head, the mouth, the teeth. The reader is biting and chewing and it’s all happening very quickly.

The librarian thinks:

Is he eating the apple? Is the apple eating him?

The apple is finished.

The reader stands with one arm and hand free, the other bent slightly at the elbow; the core pinched lightly between his thumb and fore and index fingers.

“What I have had must come back to me; a thing, an event; done to, done by, me or who or her or him. The core turns brown, my fingers wet and sticky and fragrant.”

My eyes pour out meanings, longings – not him – meanings that stop at my eyes, which are dry; terribly dry.

The reader raises the core to his mouth and his tongue works, the teeth click and snap, and white flesh pulses out and around the fibrous, seedy pith and the apple grows fuller and more itself, and a waxy, green ribbon peels out from the reader’s mouth and spins around the fruit until it is complete.

The reader places the apple back on the shelf.

“Thank you.”

The librarian blinks.

The reader leaves.

—David Hayden

 

David Hayden’s short stories have appeared in The Yellow Nib, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Spolia and The Warwick Review, and poetry in PN Review. He was shortlisted for the 25th RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story prize. Memory House is from his unpublished collection of short stories titled It’s Darker With the Lights On.

Aug 042014
 

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La Grande was Juan José Saer’s final novel, published not long after the Argentinian author’s death in 2005.  Recently translated by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books, La Grande follows Nula Anoch, Willi Gutiérrez and a host of other characters over the course of a single week. Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s long and tortured history, the characters contend with memory, loss, love, betrayal and hope in the days leading up to a party at the Gutiérrez compound. Part mystery, part  philosophy, part answer to the question, What is the novel? Saer’s masterwork is a wonderful example of why the novel remains relevant and very much alive. Saer reminds you of John Fowles, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, all rolled together into a South American exile with a Paris address.

In this excerpt. Nula (five years before the major events of the novel) has been swept up in a strange, sordid relationship with a married couple, Lucía and Riera. For months, LucÍa fondles Nula on the couch with her husband’s permission, but she refuses to bring him to orgasm or have intercourse with him. Still, Nula is mesmerized, and progressively becomes a puppet to this couple, until, in a heart-cringing scene, Lucía and Riera have sex on the bed while Nula watches television on the floor.

Saer’s ability to precisely render a scene, coupled with his unflinching gaze into the heart of human desire, offers a tense, gripping and unforgettable view into the mystery of existence.  We may not understand it all, but we will never forget it.

—Richard Farrell

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After that October night, for several months, until the following fall, they were almost always together. Lucía didn’t work, which meant she had lots of free time, but Riera went to the office early, and later, during his lunch hour, and in the evenings, he made house calls; Nula worked at the law school kiosk several times a week, and when he stayed home he pretended to prepare for his philosophy exams in November and December, but the thought of returning to Rosario, of leaving the city and Lucía, and Riera too, even for a single day, seemed intolerable: it would have been like stepping out of a magical world, a novel and seductive place, not exempt from sordidness and cruelty, to return to the uncertain, grayish days, with their perpetual seesaw between doubt and serenity, where he’d been treading water, resigned, since his childhood. He wanted to be Lucía’s lover, but he was barely her friend, her confidant, and sometimes he even reached the status of lap dog. Even though it would’ve been enough for him to know her, to sit calmly and silently at her side, she allowed him certain gratifications: every so often she let him touch her, kiss her, put his hand down her brassiere, and even suck on her breasts, and two or three times she’d accepted, submissively, when he guided her hand to his open fly, squeezing his penis in that strange way, squeezing and releasing, but once when he’d put his own hand over hers, forcing her to rub until he finished, she’d jumped up, rearranging her clothes, indignant and flustered, protesting, Oh no, not that, definitely not that! And she’d practically run to the bathroom and the bedroom to clean up and change. But despite that, when she returned she seemed content, with an abstracted, placid smile. After being with them a few times, Nula realized that Lucía and Riera were joined by a feeling, or whatever it was, that wasn’t exactly love, in the altruistic sense of the word at least, but actually something more turbulent that combined with a sort of voluptuous interdependence in which their differences generated a sarcasm more mocking than violent and their affinities a blind, impulsive, almost animal fusion. It was strange to see how the most insulting nonsense from one, verbal or otherwise, first produced indignation and then complicit laughter in the other. Nula felt momentarily excluded in those situations, but they, together or alone, always rushed to recover him. There was always the perpetual enigma: were they manipulating him, were they laughing at him, were they using him for some incomprehensible ends? Or did they really appreciate him and acted like that with everyone? Even now, lying face down on the mat, his chin resting on the back of his superimposed hands, feeling the sweat run down his face and back, even at this very moment, when they’ve reappeared, unexpectedly, into his life, he still doesn’t know. The fact that he’d been with Lucía two days before, finally possessing what five years before he’d sought in vain, and then the coincidence that Riera had called to announce his arrival from Bahía Blanca, restarts the mechanism of the past, and though he knows that he’ll never be trapped by them again, a distant, even vaguely ironic curiosity suggests that he should be alert in the days ahead. With his eyes closed, his face sweaty, pressed against the back of his hand, Nula laughs, shivering expectantly, and he realizes that his affection for them persists, but that its charge has been reversed, that it doesn’t have the same painful dependency of the first period, which had lasted a while after he voluntarily decided to stop seeing them, and has now taken on a paternalistic forbearance, a sympathy without a trace of possessiveness, governed by a completely atheoretical and in fact sporting inclination, to anticipate their curious reactions, for pure entertainment, without inverting any sentiment in the issue. This attitude provokes in him an excessive impatience to see them again.

Lucía was rich, but Riera, on the other hand, had come from a family of petty merchants in Bahía Blanca, and he always said that because petty merchants and the rich had more or less the same things weighing on their conscience, that it was only a difference of proportion, he and Lucía had been made for each other from the start. Lucía always complained that, because she was expected to marry rich, she hadn’t been allowed to pursue secondary studies. She’d had a rancher boyfriend, but she’d left him for Riera. Her mother disapproved of the relationship (Lucía’s father had died long before), but her own sentimental complications didn’t allow her the occasion to worry about Lucía’s future; Leonor, for her part, had been born rich, and because she’d married a rich man from whom she’d inherited a second fortune, she knew instinctively, and from personal experience, that money made intelligence superfluous. But Lucía’s ignorance tormented her: when Nula and Riera discussed science and philosophy (each loathed the other’s specialty), Lucía’s mood would sour, and Riera, mercifully, would change the subject. The sexual disarray of Riera’s life contrasted with his professional diligence. When he finished at the office he went on house calls, and he also worked with a group of doctors who treated people from the shantytowns and the countryside free of charge; they distributed medicine, and, in the worse cases, sent them to the hospital. He also saw the novitiates of a semi-clandestine brothel and though the owner paid him he gave the girls condoms and free samples that pharmaceutical salesmen had left with him. One Saturday afternoon, Nula was in Riera’s car with him when suddenly he stopped, opened the door, and ran out onto the sidewalk, leaving the car running; they were downtown, and because it was Saturday, it was crowded on the street. The row of cars and buses behind Riera started to honk, but Riera didn’t seem to hear a thing. Nula got out and saw that a boy who was about ten, a shoe shine who always worked on that corner, was lying on the ground, convulsing and drooling. Riera bent over him, and with two or three quick operations, did something to his jaw and laid him on his side, trying to contain his seizures. It was an epileptic fit. The boy calmed down gradually—the scene lasted two or three minutes—and Riera told Nula to open the rear door of the car and then to pick up the shine box, while he himself picked up the boy, laid him down on his side on the back seat, set the shine box on the floor of the car, closed the door, and sat down behind the steering wheel. He told Nula to kneel on the front seat and watch the boy in case the seizures started again. The boy was pale but calm, and seemed lost and drowsy. Riera took him to the hospital, to the neurological office, and didn’t move until he was sure he had a bed and a specialist to examine him. Nula had gone to his office to meet him for an afternoon swim at the beach in Rincón (Lucía had gone to Paraná to see her mother), but at two thirty they were still at the hospital, so when they left, shortly after three, they ate a slice of pizza standing up at a pizzeria across from the hospital, and Riera, although he didn’t usually work on Saturday, decided not to go to the beach after all, and leaving him at the entrance to La India’s, went back home.

In late November, Nula had a fight with La India because he’d decided not to take his philosophy exams in December and push them back to March, under the pretext that he still wasn’t prepared. You’re one of those people who thinks that the mayonnaise gets made whether you beat the eggs or not! La India had exploded; she’d noticed that something strange had been going on with him since September, though she didn’t mind that he was staying in the city, working at the kiosk and living at home. Ever since their father had left, and especially after he was killed, her sons’ emotional life worried her, and she preferred to always have them on hand, but it was difficult (with Chade, who was more reserved, almost impossible) to talk about things in a clear and direct way. The offhand and somewhat aggressive talks she had with Nula contributed more to hiding the real problems than to revealing them clearly. Nula listened with a serious expression to La India’s remonstrations, but every free moment he had he spent with his new friends. Sometimes he was alone with Lucía at their house, or they went out walking, and other times he met up with Riera for a beer and they’d talk a while, but what he preferred was for the three of them to be together, because he got the feeling that Lucía and Riera really appreciated him and did everything they could to make him feel welcome. But with them there was always something false that came through despite the fact that everything they did seemed so natural, so much so that Nula ended up thinking that they must have been unaware of it. Riera would sometimes take him to Cristina’s—he remembers a week in December when her son was in Córdoba, at his grandparents’ house—and the thing that seemed unconscious with Lucía became obvious, even brutal, when they were with her. Riera’s political theories were as expedient as they come: the problem with society wasn’t the poor but rather the rich families that controlled the banks, the military, the seats of political power, the media, the factories, the press, and so on. Because they were very few, the simplest solution was to kill them all, but because this was impossible, they had to start by corrupting their women, and he’d taken on the task of corrupting the wives of the bourgeoisie in order to precipitate social change. And he always followed that brief discourse with that terse, somewhat degenerate laugh that no one, male or female—and he knew it—was capable of resisting. Cristina wasn’t particularly rich: if her family did have money, it was certainly less than Calcagno’s fortune, of which Riera never touched a dime, referring to it often with contempt and even disgust. Riera subjugated her, and she, Cristina, accepted everything he gave her. Sometimes, in Nula’s presence, he even ordered her around, and one night even suggested she should sleep with him, something she accepted immediately, but Nula, although he was very excited, didn’t dare do it and went home. He heard them laughing as he went out to the street, and then, after taking a few steps along the sidewalk, he stopped and stood for a couple of minutes, thinking about going back, but he changed his mind and went home, past Lucía’s house, which was dark and silent, and since it was almost midnight he didn’t want to ring the bell, so he just went to sleep.

The summer passed in this way; March, and the exams, were approaching. Nula studied, and because the law school shut down from early December to early March, the kiosk closed too. The bookstore, meanwhile, closed in January, for the judicial holiday, and reopened in February, half days only. Nula worked there twice a week, Thursdays and Fridays, which allowed La India to spend long weekends in the country or at the shore. Riera and Lucía didn’t leave the city all summer, and all that time Nula was trapped in the aura that they secreted, trying to prove to himself that he was capable of controlling his desire, his suffering, and even his lust. Their company became a kind of addiction: wherever they were was the center of the world, solid and brilliant; everything else was soft, shapeless, and gray. He knew he wasn’t getting any farther with Lucía, but while they continued to make him feel like he existed as something other than the theater of their wretched war—a feeling he often had—he’d be able to tolerate their machinations. One night in early March, having already decided to go to Rosario for his exams, he decided never to see them again. The heat was dreadful, so they ate in the courtyard, but suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, a storm drove them inside. After the lightning and thunder of a dense and turbulent storm had passed, a rain settled in that would surely last till the morning. Lucía proposed that they watch a movie she’d rented, a detective story that had made a big splash the previous winter, but which she hadn’t been able to see in the theater. They moved to the bedroom, with fruit and cold water, and sat down together at the foot of the bed to watch the movie. After a while, Lucía said she preferred to lie in bed to be more comfortable, and five minutes later, without saying a word, Riera followed her. Nula felt his heart beating harder and harder in his chest. His throat dried, and he opened his mouth to breathe, trying to be silent, because it felt like he was drowning. At first he thought these were the symptoms of desire, but immediately he realized they were of pain, and that, in fact, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart. The unnamable, the inconceivable, was happening. Because they’d turned on a bedside lamp so as to not watch the movie in the dark, the room had a warm glow, which from time to time brightened even more when the film passed from a dark image to a clear one, and which meant that everything happening was perfectly visible. But Nula didn’t want to turn around. Suddenly he heard Lucía’s voice behind him saying, Poor thing, we left him alone, and then, directly to him, Are you alright there, on the floor? with a distant, absent voice, as if she were falling asleep. But Nula was sure that she wasn’t falling asleep—just the opposite; their barely audible voices, their movements, their sounds, signaled not only that they weren’t sleeping, but that in fact they were wide awake, though in a somewhat different state of consciousness, which may have even pushed them radically farther from consciousness than a dream, believing they liberated in a whirlwind of sensation that defined them most intimately, when in fact they had been possessed and were now controlled by what was most external to them. Up till that moment, Nula had thought that the strange laughter that connected them precluded intercourse, that they left that extenuating labor for others—an illusion that, later, when he thought it over, seemed at once hilarious and pathetic. For several minutes, he was frozen, rigid, leaning against the edge of the bed, trying to ignore their whispers, their laughter, their moaning, the squeaking and creaking of the bed, the rustle of the sheets, but when Lucía finally started to emit a guttural noise, increasing in intensity, he crawled out on all fours, like a cat, trying not to make a sound, all the way to the hallway, where he stood up and walked out, practically running, through the darkened house that, over the last few months, he’d come to know by heart. Except for the morning when he’d seen them from a taxi, in Rosario, he never saw either of them again, until about a month back, in March, five years after that night, when he saw Lucía come out of the swimming pool in a green swimsuit, and when Gutiérrez, looking at him, had said, It’s not what you think. She’s my daughter. After the March exams, Nula stayed in Rosario under the pretext that classes were starting soon and he didn’t want to get behind that year, and when he came to visit La India on the weekends he almost never left the apartment, and if he did he never took the walk around the block; he always walked straight to the city center. Later, from Cristina, who he bumped into that winter, with her husband, he learned that Lucía and Riera had moved to Bahía Blanca. That October he met Diana, and he forgot about them completely; with Diana everything seemed easy and transparent, which was why, when she got pregnant and she told him she was willing to get an abortion he responded that it would be better if they got married. With his Greek philosophy professor he’d studied Problem XXX.1, attributed to Aristotle, or to Theophrastus, where the affinity between wine, sex, poetry, and philosophy—common ground of the melancholics—was discussed, and because he had to find work and just then an introductory seminar in enology was being offered at the Hotel Iguazú, and which created the possibility of finding a job if he did well, he enrolled with a loan from La India, and, soon after, with another brief course in Mendoza, he was offered a job with Amigos del Vino, which meant that the next year, when Yussef was born, he had enough to provide for him, and by the time Inés was born he was already one of the top salesmen for Amigos del Vino, at least the only one who Américo allowed to bend the rules. And now he’s lying on the mat, face down, tanning in the sun, feeling the sweat drip down the corners of his face pressed against the back of his hands superimposed on the edge of the mat.

 —Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

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Juan José Saer (1937–2005), born in Santa Fé, Argentina, was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the University of Rennes. The author of numerous novels and short-story collections (including The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Scars, The One Before, and The Clouds, all published by or forthcoming from Open Letter Books), Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.

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Aug 042014
 

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 This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring. —Richard Farrell

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La Grande
Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books
497 Pages, $16.95

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Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.

In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Paraná River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel.

An important subplot follows, involving two characters, Soldi and Gabriella. They are writing a literary history of “precisionism,” a suspicious, possibly fascist-friendly art movement founded by Mario Brando in the 1960’s. Brando is long dead, but Saer always entangles, so that the Brando story parallels but contrasts with many aspects of Gutiérrez’s story. Then there is Nula himself, whose friendships and vibrant sex life constitute the connective tissue of the novel. Nula moves through the seven days of novel-time, bedding women, selling wine, jotting notes down on philosophy. There are also many subplots, twists, anecdotes and memories, so that when these various characters gather at Gutierrez’s house in the final chapter, we know them intimately, like old friends.

La Grande is Saer’s final novel. An afterword from the book’s translator Steve Dolph tells us that Saer was still working on the novel when he died in 2005. Though nothing about La Grande feels unfinished, and the familiar subjects of Saer’s earlier novels—time, movement, philosophical speculation mixed with pragmatism and politics—return in full force here.

Argentina’s turbid political history in the aftermath of World War II is the backdrop for the narrative action of La Grande. Because the nation remained neutral during both world wars, Argentina’s economy, culture, and literacy rates positioned it to be a world power. But Argentina was slow to industrialize. Much of its labor economy faltered as post-war rebuilding set a new pace for world markets. When Juan Perón became president in 1946, he rode to power as a populist leader, touting a labor-friendly brand of ‘right-wing socialism’. In time, however, his over-reaching social agenda began to bankrupt the economy. Perón also drew the suspicions of many powerful anti-communist nations, including the U.S. and Great Britain.

Perón’s ouster by coup in 1955 ushered in a new wave of instability and violence. What followed were two decades of reactionary bloodshed and political upheaval, as Argentina worked out its schizophrenic feelings toward Perón. When he died in 1974 (after again serving as President), Argentina descended into its most violent period, the now infamous “Dirty War.” Military dictators clashed with leftist guerillas. Up to thirty-thousand citizens were either killed or became desaparecidos, the disappeared, men and women snatched off Argentina’s streets never to be seen again. It was during this violent era when Gutiérrez flew to his European exile (like Saer himself) and when Nula’s father was murdered outside the pizza restaurant. The repressive military governments met their demise in 1983, after the British military retook the Falkland Islands and a more moderate government replaced the dictatorship.

Against this backdrop we descend, to the Santa Fe region of Argentina, Saer’s favorite choice for his novel settings. Gutiérrez, the exile-come-home, survivor, enigma, left Argentina as a young man “in search of three chimeras: worldwide revolution, sexual liberation and auteur cinema.” Of course the reader knows that Gutiérrez also fled Argentina’s political turmoil. Gutiérrez rants about the way European commercial interests are misguided. “He refers to the rich as the fifth column and the foreign party, and the rest, the masses, he argues, would be willing to trade their twelve-year-old daughter to a Turkish brothel for a new car.” At first blush, it might be easy to dismiss this character as a type, the craggy grouch railing against the system, but Saer rarely paints with simple brush strokes. A paragraph later, he broadens out the description:

The vitriol in the sentiment contrasts with the composure of his face each time he looks over his left shoulder, with the calm vigor of his movements, and with the monotone neutrality of a voice that seems to be reciting, not a violent diatribe, but rather, in a friendly, paternal way, a set of practical recommendation for a traveler preparing to confront an unfamiliar continent.

Many aspects of this character description equally mirror the experience of reading the novel. There is a distinct neutrality to the way events unfold. A paternal coolness—friendly but formal, polite and pragmatic—directs the action. The further we read, the more prepared we are to confront the unfamiliar continent. Saer leaves little to chance, so that even a simple character description can recapitulate and reflect on the larger themes of the novel itself. This marks the high mastery of a brilliant writer.

Though in one sense Gutiérrez functions as the novel’s hub, he actually doesn’t do much. He throws the party, and the others come. And though most of the novel’s momentum surges toward this party (which occurs in-scene in the final chapter) we never really grasp who Gutiérrez is. He remains, purposefully, enigmatic. Too much time has passed since he left his homeland. The real story grows in the countryside, its history and the people who endured the misery of Argentina’s tumultuous wars, coups, and dictatorships. The novel’s other characters seem drawn to Gutiérrez out of curiosity. Who is this man? What might they have become had they too left? What destinies did they abandon or inherit? Gutiérrez embodies aborted memories, memories that never grew, never played out. And because his participation in most of the actual events was lacking, Gutiérrez is oddly detached from what for the others are familiar experiences, shared so intimately.

In a gorgeously dense passage, Gutiérrez gazes at the Paraná River and meditates:

Gutiérrez’s senses perceive the rain across the deserted expanse that surrounds them, while his imagination projects it over the contiguous and distant spaces they have crossed and that, despite their imaginary provenance, are complemented by and confused with the empirical plane that surrounds them. What he perceives from the point in the verdant space where they find themselves, his imagination likewise assigns to the entire region, where, for the past year or so, after more than thirty years away, he has been living. And he thinks he can see, in the leaves that shudder silently as the drops fall, in their impacts with the yellow earth, and, especially, in the agitation that the drops cause as they cover the rippled surface of the river over an infinite number of simultaneous points, the intimate cipher of the empirical world, each fragment, as distant and distinct from the present as it might seem—the most distant star, for example—having the exact value as this, the one he occupies, and that if he could disentangle himself from the grasp of this apparently insignificant present, the rest of the universe—time, space, inert or living matter—would reveal all its secrets.

The “intimate cipher of the empirical world” will forever elude Gutiérrez. The novel attempts to reveal life’s secrets, unlocking meaning and rendering their beauty, but not for him. Gutiérrez walks through the world as a time traveler, who has passed through three decades unscathed. His memories are detached, cut-off from the land, less intimate, perhaps more innocent, because history, age, the passage of seasons, have exacted no toll. In many ways, Gutiérrez remains a ghost, the intimate cipher, encrypted by absence, forever a stranger in a familiar land.

For Nula Anoch—raconteur, wine salesman, part-time philosopher, full-time philanderer—memory comes at a great cost. If Gutiérrez is the still center of La Grande, Nula is the story’s bent rim, frenetic, wobbly, navigating the world with a notebook in his pocket for jotting down philosophical points that strike him (as they often do). Nula rarely rests. Imbued with an intellectual spark mixed with a salesman’s charisma, he is the primary point-of-view character (though Saer is never above dropping into omniscient narration). Despite a penchant for seducing women, Nula wonderfully remains in love with his wife, the beautiful but disfigured Diana. “Nula cheated on her often, telling himself each time that he really loved her but was incapable of establishing a direct correlation between love and fidelity.” Rarely are Saer’s characters one dimensional.

Two primary events have shaped Nula’s life: the first was the murder of his father years earlier in the political firestorms that ravaged Argentina. Nula’s journey might well be seen as a quest for lost paternity. The other event, and the one that occupies a good deal of the second half of La Grande, is an affair that took place five years before the party with an exotic couple, Lucía and Riera. This libidinous husband and wife seduced Nula into a strange love triangle (one that never achieved sexual fruition). When Nula encounters Lucía again, at Gutiérrez’s house (in the pool, in fact), the themes of betrayal, mistaken identity, paternity, grief, and recovery all come together.

In many ways, Nula’s role in the novel is a simple one. Nula delivers the wine. He acts impulsively, without restraint. But he also forges the connections between the various characters, which will allow their significant histories to be told. If this works as the dramatic device, so be it, because a traditional plot is something Saer eschews. Instead, we get movement. Characters are always moving, across the littoral region of Argentina, through city streets, across rivers, across time, across space. This churning creates the story. Through choppy cadences, false starts, and carefully timed pauses, Saer creates narrative and meaning.

In a pivotal scene, Gabriella and Soldi, two of the peripheral point of view characters who appear in an important subplot representing the history of Argentina’s literary avant garde, are crossing a bridge over the Paraná River (note the motif of movement again). They pause and simultaneously observe two boys also standing on the bridge:

Suddenly the tallest one, the one who’s most calm and most patient, without warning but nevertheless gently, asks, What is the novel? And the other one, who’s slightly younger, without even looking up from the whirlpool, says, The decomposition of continuous movement.

Movement is essential to understanding Saer. Like an orchestral piece of music, each instrument plays a part. Various sounds form, often in a disharmonic state, until each note begins to register, until a melody emerges. The sophistication of voice, the ease with which Saer switches point of view, time, even story lines, points not to erratic or jumbled narrative, not to jazz, but to a deeply sophisticated harmony, something that forces us to pay attention, to admire, and, eventually, to understand.

Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.

Suddenly, in a spark of clairvoyance, he realizes why they are together, gathered around the table, relaxed and happy, because, he thinks, no one among them believes that the world belongs to them. They all know that they are apart from the human swarm deluded into thinking that it knows where it’s going, and that separation does not paralyze them, just the opposite, it actually seems to satisfy them. Every one of them, not to mention the owner of the house, who guards an impenetrable mystery behind his forehead, insists on being something other than what’s expected of them.

—Richard Farrell

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Rich Gun-001

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

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Aug 032014
 

Debbie1

The purpose of travel must be to abandon expectations.
—Deborah Willis

Volcan Santiguito croppedVolcan Santiguito

 

Chichi fire

Ash

The roads are grey; the buildings are grey; the pigeons that congregate in the central square are grey. This city is surrounded by volcanoes, including the still-active Santiguito, and I imagine that the people of Quetzaltenango once swept up volcanic ash and used it to construct their city.

Of course, that’s not true. What’s true is that most houses and buildings were built of concrete blocks—more accurately, rebuilt with concrete blocks after a 1902 earthquake and the volcanic eruption of Santa María. This city seems meant to be solid, not beautiful.

Each evening, after studying Spanish in a café, I walk home with my friend Mary along Calle 5A, where there is a McDonald’s, a gas station, and tiendas that sell chips and corn nuts and tamarind liquor that swirls in the bottle like clouds of diesel from the cars.

“Watch out,” says Mary as we stroll along the sidewalk. “There’s always vomit or poop on this street.”

Xela street sceneXela Street Scene

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Flesh

The high elevation means cold, dry air and no beaches—this is not the Central America of my imagination.

I might as well have stayed in Calgary, I think petulantly as I unpack. I’ve brought skirts and t-shirts, so the first place I go is an outlet store called MegaPaca. It too reminds me of growing up in Calgary, when my friends and I took the C-Train to Value Village and bought plaid pants and cardigans and old costume jewelry. At the door to MegaPaca, a security guard with a rifle checks my purse, then I look through racks and racks of used clothing as Christmas carols play over the sound system. To the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock,” I hear:

won’t you please touch my
won’t you please lick my
won’t you please suck my cock

I must be the only English speaker in the store; everyone else continues to shop, oblivious to the lyrics.

I buy two sweaters, one grey and one black, and they set me back the equivalent of two Canadian dollars. I wear them, one on top of the other, every single day.

Xela marketXela market

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Water

According to legend, Guatamala’s second-biggest city got its name when the K’iche prince, Tecún Uman, was killed by conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. The battle turned the nearby river red, and when it was over, the Quetzal—a small, red-breasted bird—flew out of the prince’s bloodied chest.

Now, four hundred years after the Quetzal rose like a phoenix from ash, four hundred years after the city was brought under Spanish rule, everyone still refers to the city as Xela, the shortened version of its pre-conquest Mayan name, Xelajú.

I’m here to study Spanish, and for five hours a day, five days a week, I sit with my teacher, Aracely. She is five years younger than me and five months pregnant, with a pleasant double chin and a slash of blue eyeliner over each lid. She is a feminist; she is stylish; she has been working since she was ten years old. She carries Kleenex tucked into her sleeves because the cold morning air makes her nose run. “Mi nariz,” she says, shaking her head. “Oh, mi nariz.”

I love her the way I loved Madame Potvin in grade two, when our class had a ginea-pig and I got to keep him at the end of the year. Aracely writes grammatical notes for me on thin sheets of grey paper. We sit at a wooden table, on hard wooden chairs, next to a row of old desktop computers. We tell ourselves that the computers humming beside us are generating heat, even though that’s not really true. What’s true is that as Aracely quizzes me on verbs, we can see our own breath.

Making tortillasMaking tortillas

Home isn’t any warmer. I’m living in a homestay with Doña Maria Teresa, a woman who moves heavily through the house, sings to herself, talks to her dog, and makes the best food I’ll taste in Guatemala. Lime and tomato soup, whole-grain pancakes, fruit salads of papaya and pineapple. Maria Teresa’s long black hair is veined with ash-coloured streaks, but her face doesn’t seem old so much as soft and malleable like the dough used to make tortillas. She wears the traditional traje of indigenous women in Guatemala: yards of cotton wrapped around her waist and a blouse hand-embroidered with bright flowers.

She runs a store that sells mostly liquor to men who stop by at lunch or on their way home from work. The store is attached to her house, but Maria Teresa keeps herself separated from the men by a metal grill, passing them bottles or bowls of soup through the bars. She keeps track of her expenses and sales in a small notebook, and washes dishes and clothes by hand in a pila—a cement sink with a built-in washboard.

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Exhaust

One weekend, to escape the diesel-fumes of Xela, my friends and I decide get out of town. We travel on a “chicken bus,” Guatemala’s cheapest form of transportation, a former school bus familiar to me from my childhood in Calgary. I sat at the front with Leanne Snowden, and the grade sixers at the back threw staples and dirt and bits of chalk at our heads. I don’t have to worry about bullies now, but my guidebook advises me to be careful of theft—lock the zippers of your bag, keep nothing in your pockets.

Chicken busChicken bus

Mostly I’m distracted and thrilled by the pimped-out glory of the chicken bus. Instead of the typical mustard-yellow exterior, the bus has been painted glittery blue and green and gold. Prayers are stenciled on the inside and outside: Jesu Cristo vive. Que dios nos acomparnos.

Passengers crowd three-to-a-seat or stand in the aisles, tilting into each other as the bus takes the turns too fast. There are women with babies tied to their backs, children with blackened teeth, men playing games on their cellphones, tourists who are exhilarated and exhausted. We are a moving congregation, addressed by traveling salesmen instead of a preacher. “Are you tired?” asks one of these men. “Is your energy low?”

The sermons sell us vitamins, small packets of shampoo, creams to cure rashes and acne and dry skin.

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Smoke

We arrive in Chichicastenango—or Chichi, as it’s known—the site of one of the biggest markets in Central America. Everything is here: blankets, sandals, fruit, vegetables, notebooks, chickens, tortillas. I buy a shoulder bag, a drum for my nephew, earrings, and—for an almost unimaginably kind man who lives in Calgary—a piece of cloth embroidered with the image of that rare bird, the Quetzal.

Chichi street sceneChichi street scene

After the market we visit the cathedral, a white building that houses many gods. A woman named Tomasa offers to give us a tour. When she smiles, which is often, she shows a beautiful plate of false teeth: there’s a gold, five-pointed star at the centre of each tooth. She tells us that Jesus is worshiped at the front of the cathedral, and at the back there are twelve Mayan altars. Here candles are burned—white for prosperity, pink for love, yellow to bless the dead—and they make a soft crackling sound.

Mayan priest -001Mayan priest

Outside, on the church steps, Mayan shamans burn pine resin or swing metal cans that release white, aromatic smoke. In jeans and sneakers, they are nothing like the shamans of my imagination. Tomasa says they are hired by families to pray for luck, or happy marriages, or better job opportunities. Across town there is a smaller, darker church that represents death, says Tomasa, but this one is used to celebrate life.

Chichi church stepsChichi church steps

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Fire

Back in Xela, to celebrate life, we drink overly sweet mojitos then decide to go dancing. We head to a place called Pool and Beer, which provides exactly what the name advertises, then to another place that must have a name but I can’t remember it.

People are smoking and it reminds me of when you could still smoke in bars in Canada, when I was eighteen and went to Cowboys and drank 25-cent draft. Except now, instead of two-stepping with men who are too old for me, I salsa dance with a Guatemalan who is too young for me. He looks like a Latino Justin Bieber: slim, with a popped collar and a tongue-piercing that glows in the dark. It flashes like an ignited flame every time he smiles.

Xela eveningXela, evening

The next evening is one of my last in Xela, and I walk through the streets wistfully wishing I could stay. This city consistently failed to live up to my romantic imaginings, and yet, during my days here, I have felt calm and engaged in my life. The purpose of travel must be to abandon expectations. I lived here like a child. Made new friends, relied upon Maria Teresa’s kindness as though she were a mother, found my way around without GPS, learned the language one word at a time.

I find myself in the central square during the procession of Guadalupe. A plastic, lace-draped, neon-lit effigy of the saint is carried through the streets. After she passes, strips of firecrackers are set off. I’ve read that during Guatemala’s civil war, rebels sometimes set off firecrackers to mask the sound of their gunfire. I’m sure that I could stay in Guatemala for years and never get used to the sound. I cover my ears as a string of firecrackers explodes. When it’s over, the casings smolder and it looks like the street itself is burning, or like the pavement is volcanic.

Mayan candlesMayan candles

—Deborah Willis

Deborah Willis was raised in Calgary, where she currently makes her home. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was named one of the Globe and Mail’s best books of the year and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for fiction. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver and at the University of Calgary. Her fiction has appeared in PRISM InternationalGrainThe Walrus, and Zoetrope.

 

Aug 022014
 

CaptureAn elf

People living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. And if you’re in Iceland, even displacing a stone could be sacrilegious. That’s because there could be elves under there.

Warped rock in the continental rift between the North American and Eurasian plates. There may be elves hidden in there.

Don’t ask why, but I”m on the loose in this lusciously green country of volcanos, glaciers, geysers, and $30 fish-and-chips. (Don’t even get me started on the price of beer.) I’ve found this country of 325,000 people to be an exotic, friendly (tourist-trappy, even) haven for lovers of isolation, the outdoors, and folklore.

As the ridiculously cool Settlement Exhibition explains, scientists are still uncertain when the island was first discovered, ever since a recent unearthing of pre-Viking ruins debunked the conventional story that Ingólfur Arnarson was the original settler, in 874.

Capture

And as detailed here last year, another ongoing mystery is the existence of “hidden people,” or elves. They live among the rocks in the lava fields that cover substantial parts of the island. Now, many Icelanders kind of mock this traditional superstition, but few have gone so far as to say they are certain elves don’t exist. On one tour I joined, the guide spoke of elves without a trace of irony. On the other hand, ethologist Árni Björnsson suggests only 10% of Icelanders actually believe in the little guys.

Many are agnostic on the issue. That’s partly why activists have successfully protested even large-scale construction projects in the name of the Huldufólk.

CaptureFemale elf near tree hideout. I myself did not see this.

Whether elves themselves exist or not, there’s something uncanny and lovely about the idea of a “hidden” entity contributing to the mystique and beauty of this rather unique country. At the time of this writing, no elves were immediately available for comment. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

A geyser with water reaching 80-100 degrees Celsius. Probably no elves in there, but the steam felt quite lovely.
The heath and lake in the continental rift.
The gorgeous Gullfoss (gold fall), so powerful it sprayed much water up onto its visitors.
The gorgeous Gullfoss (gold fall), so powerful it sprayed much water up onto its visitors.
No elves out here in the ocean, where I caught a majestic rainbow rising above the mainland. I was riding to the Westman Islands, where a 1963 volcano birthed one of the world's youngest islands, Surtsey.
No elves out here in the ocean, where I caught a majestic rainbow rising above the mainland. I was riding to the Westman Islands, where I observed colonies of the beautiful puffin and where a 1963 volcano birthed one of the world’s youngest islands, Surtsey.

—Tom Faure (on Elf Assignment for NC)

 

Aug 012014
 

BattleofIssus333BC-mosaic-detail1Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus, during the battle of Issus. via Ancient History Encyclopedia

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 History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
—Karl Marx

…Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
—W. B. Yeats

Anderson, slender and bespectacled, and Haggerty, who retained the musculature of the high-school wrestler he once was, had been roommates in graduate school. They had been rivals then and ever since. Before they knew one another, each had decided to major in Classics, and they had both applied to the same top-tier graduate programs in that field: Princeton, Brown, Berkeley, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, Penn, UNC-Chapel Hill, Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. Both had been brilliant undergraduate students, excelling particularly in history and languages, including, of course, Greek and Latin. Since they had also been fulsomely recommended by their dazzled college professors, it was no surprise that, even in the fiercely competitive struggle to gain admission to these formidable programs, both had been accepted by all the universities to which they had applied. As Fate, and the rankings, would have it, both chose Princeton.

Fate once again took a hand in throwing them together as roommates, and, for whatever reason, both found themselves, after the first year, gravitating toward the study of Greece in the fourth century BCE, focusing particularly on matters Alexandrine. Here their paths diverged, and sharply, for they quickly and adamantly adopted antithetical positions regarding the Great one.

Following, with some sophisticated nuances of course, in the line of the venerable W. W. Tarn, Anderson, in a beautifully-written article in the Classical Quarterly and a well-received contribution to A Companion to the Hellenistic World, honed the image of Alexander as not only a forger of Greek-Persian-Oriental unity, but an idealistic believer in the ultimate unity of all man-(and woman-) kind. Though he was deeply troubled by his hero’s brutality in suppressing the early rebellion at Thebes, Anderson adhered in general to the line of thought so movingly laid out by Tarn back in the 1930s and recapitulated and amplified after World War II in his celebrated two-volume Alexander the Great (1948). The result was Anderson’s own magisterial and eloquent Alexander the Far-Seer (Harvard UP, 1995), in which he directly engaged the problematic “situation” at Thebes, gingerly depicting that slaughter of men and enslavement of women and children as ultimately humane: Alexander’s admittedly severe but effective way to punish betrayal and to preempt subsequent mutinies among the other Greek city-states.

Tarn’s image of Alexander, as embellished by Anderson, was that of a chivalrous (Exhibit 1: his exquisitely courteous treatment of the captured mother, wife, and daughters of the defeated Persian king, Darius) and visionary conqueror, a man more than two millennia ahead of his time. The appeal of this Alexander no doubt explained why, once he had become a professor himself, at Columbia, Anderson had been sought out by both Martin Scorsese and then by Oliver Stone in connection with Alexander film projects. Anderson, who had been remunerated handsomely as a consultant in both cases (enabling him to purchase and furnish a spacious apartment on Riverside Drive), regretted that Stone’s film had actually been made, starring an unfortunately blonde-wigged Colin Farrell, while Scorsese’s, which was to star Leonardo DiCaprio, had fallen by the wayside.

As for Haggerty’s Alexander: that was an altogether different kettle of fish. Haggerty had been powerfully and permanently influenced by the scholarship of the formidable Ernst Badian, who had been kind enough, even in retirement, to read and comment on a paper Haggerty had sent him unsolicited. For Badian, Tarn’s image of Alexander was a starry-eyed idealization created by a brilliant but UN-influenced scholar who had imposed his own well-intentioned but dreamy twentieth-century global utopianism on an ancient blood-letter, a brutal conqueror whose legacy, far from any unified world, was a Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic morass of division, endless war, and misery. Haggerty’s long-gestating major study, Alexander: The Myth vs. the Man, published by Peter Lang in the very month (May, 2011) Ernst Badian had died, exhibited, despite its relentless thesis, some modicum of scholarly balance. But it was too little, too late. More than occasionally, prior to that belated publication, Haggerty, fatally injuring in the process his status in the scholarly community, had succumbed to sensationalism, most notoriously in his scathing review of the second edition of his former roommate’s Alexander the Far-Seer.

In this jealousy-fueled assault on Anderson’s magnum opus, the legitimate son of Philip was summarily dismissed as a “murderous bastard and drunken thug,” not to mention being “homoerotic and undersexed.” Haggerty’s most vitriolic scorn was poured on Anderson’s “mendacity” and “patent hypocrisy” in rationalizing the “bloodbath at Thebes.” In Haggerty’s telling of the tale of Alexander, only Bucephalus—chosen, but not himself at liberty to choose his master—fared well. In fact, in his concluding sentence, Haggerty tossed a single contemptuous sop to his rival by unqualifiedly praising Anderson’s “justified admiration of the psychotic’s innocent warhorse,” a “four-legged hero who had played no part whatever in the bestial and bloody atrocities inflicted by his master on the unfortunate citizens of Thebes.”

§

Before the rivalry between Haggerty and Anderson had intensified and then petered out into a typical academic power-struggle evoking the spectacle of two impotent serpents hissing at each other, they had interacted, in their Princeton days, in a civilized and gradually friendly manner. Just as Fate had made them Classicists, sent them to Princeton, made them roommates, and drew them to the study of Alexander, so that uncanny and intertwining Power arranged for them to date, interchangeably, two very different women, having only beauty in common. At first, Diana had been with Haggerty, Alicia with Anderson. But at some point (the quartet could never pinpoint the precise moment of transposal), there had been a sudden switch. However incongruously, sensuous, pouty-lipped and opulently breasted Diana ended up with the delicate, even slightly effeminate Anderson; delicate, slim-hipped, ash-blonde Alicia with burly Haggerty.

Separately but simultaneously, the couples married the year after the men graduated from Princeton. As ambitious as her husband, Diana was not in the least reticent when it came to charming whoever might be in a position to advance her husband’s career. And that career did advance, rapidly, thanks to the combination of a burgeoning list of publications, entrée to the New York Review of Books, very occasional but still first–name relationships with “Marty” and “Oliver,” and that ample and strategically-located Riverside Drive apartment—all voluptuously enhanced by the social and related skills of a stunningly attractive hostess-wife.

Though it took well over a decade, it seemed, at least to an envious and increasingly embittered Haggerty, no time at all before his old roommate was a chaired professor in the Classics Department at Columbia, his considerable salary buttressed by an inherited but shrewdly augmented stock-portfolio. Meanwhile, Haggerty, professionally scarred by the “intemperance” of his savaging of Anderson’s much-applauded Alexander the Far-Seer, labored in the obscure vineyard of a second- tier small liberal arts college in upstate New York. On occasion, Haggerty would come down to New York City to work for the day in one or another of the libraries; then scurry back to the sticks on Amtrak. However, on their brief biannual visits to Manhattan to take in a show, he and Alicia were, at least at first, invariably invited to stay with the Andersons, who “wouldn’t hear” of their friends  “putting up at an expensive hotel.” The other unheard-of matter, ever-present but never addressed during these visits, was the attack on Anderson’s book: what even Alicia, the most candid of the four, simply accepted as the Great Taboo.

gemitoAlexander the Great mounting his horse Boukephalon. Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929) via Wiki Media Commons.

As the years went on, these visits always seemed to coincide with parties, during which Alicia, though still attractive, was inevitably outshone by Diana, who had become ever more glamorous, a Bergdorf blonde whose champagne, salon-tended coiffure made Alicia’s unpretentiously-styled, naturally ash-blonde hair seem dishwater-dull. For his part, Haggerty, though he stood over six feet and had retained more than the remnants of an athletic physique, almost literally felt the testosterone drain from him during these affairs. He would drink too much, and still find himself self-conscious and cringing, surrounded by Manhattan theater people, and, even worse, by higher-paid and better-known academics. When the subject as to where he “taught” came up (as it always did), the cosmopolitan professors would predictably and condescendingly observe that they had heard “good things” about his little college “up there.” Eventually, both he and Alicia wearied of these petty humiliations, and either skipped coming down to the city at all, or slipped furtively in and out of town without informing the Andersons.

§

Then came the fateful autumn day. Haggerty, in Manhattan to do research in the Berg Collection of the 42nd Street Library, stopped at the Wine Bar in Bryant Park before heading to Penn Station. Suddenly feeling as leaden as the sinking light of dusk settling over the park, he realized, with a shock of recognition, that his current project, whatever its initial excitement, had palled. Even if he supported with solid evidence the point, or quibble, that had been preoccupying him for several months—so what? He needed at least one drink, maybe more, before setting out on the long, dark trip back along the Hudson and Mohawk. And there, a sudden burst of light in the darkness, was Diana! She had just tucked her cell phone in her bag, and was sipping a white wine. She glanced up, saw him, and smiled, then smiled again, this time differently. She was never more radiantly gorgeous, and Haggerty hadn’t seen that particular smile since their nights together back in Princeton. After three or four drinks, Diana pressed her warm lips to his ear and whispered, “I think it’s time we moved this act to a more intimate setting.”

Haggerty concurred, wondering only briefly if he could get away with using his Amtrak ticket a day late; tonight, at Diana’s insistence, they would be “putting up at an expensive hotel.” She called and made a reservation at the nearby Grand Hyatt. After they’d each discreetly attended to their other necessary phone calls (two, he noticed in Diana’s case), they headed out at full tilt to the hotel. Stopped by a red light at 42nd and Madison, Haggerty, unable to wait, pulled her to him and kissed her with a passion fired by genuine lust and a fury of jealousy and anger that had been simmering for years.

At the desk, he had to hold his briefcase in front of him to conceal his erection, and when they finally got into the room, he once again couldn’t wait. As it happened, neither could she. Their first fuck, up against the wall and half-clothed, was violent, almost savage. It was fantastic while it lasted, but he was too hot to control himself for long. He came earlier than he intended, and explosively. She groaned, but was far from finished. They stripped, had a drink from the mini-bar while he recovered, and then hit the bed. He went at her breasts like a starving baby, and then he was deep inside her. She felt familiar and yet different, better and certainly blonder. It was during their third encore that she murmured, “You’re making me crazy,” and she meant it.

§

That autumn, winter, and spring, Haggerty found it imperative that he work in the Berg Collection at least twice a month. Simultaneously, Diana discovered that her own delicate psyche demanded “quiet time,” when she needed to be “by herself” for a day or two. This need for contemplative solitude arose twice monthly, coinciding with her bi-monthly hair treatments and re-colorings at Bergdorf Goodman’s. As fate would have it, these restorative hiatuses also coincided precisely with Haggerty’s research expeditions to the city, during which he never had occasion to renew his “Special Visitors” card, the catalogued riches of the Berg Collection going unexplored while Haggerty devoted his energies to exploring the more palpable riches of the opulent Diana.

Anderson was not unaware of his wife’s flexible interpretation of their marriage bond. Aware as well that her exuberant sex drive dwarfed his own, he tended to be tolerant. But these twice-monthly absences eventually proved too much even for him. Suffering from unaccustomed jealousy and a festering sense of betrayal, he found himself becoming distracted from his current research—on Callisthenes, nephew to Aristotle and official historian on Alexander’s expedition into Persia. His research into Callisthenes’ possible (probable?) involvement in the Royal Pages’ conspiracy to murder their warrior-king fueled Anderson’s growing sense that he too was the victim of a conspiracy.

Awaking from a troubled dream one night, his scholarship and his likely cuckolding suddenly converged in a single name: “Haggerty!” A week later, on a bright Tuesday morning when Diana had set off for her regular bi-monthly salon visit to Bergdorf’s followed by her bi-monthly “rest,” Anderson phoned the hinterlands. Alicia answered. When, after the routine pleasantries, Anderson asked to speak to his old pal, she informed him that Haggerty was, “in fact, in Manhattan, doing some research, though he would be back Wednesday night.”

“Really,” said Anderson, concealing his emotion. “He should have arranged to stay with us.” The pretense of civility, hypocritically maintained over years now, had never ceased to amaze Alicia. Though Haggerty’s ferocious attack on Anderson’s book had in fact shattered their friendship, the offending review was never spoken of, or even alluded to, by either man. Always there, but never mentioned, it had long been the perennial elephant, or the warhorse, in the room.

“Well, there have been several trips of late, and he didn’t want to bother you and Diana.”

“Hmmm,” said Anderson. “Just what is it he’s working on?”

Alicia chuckled, but it was mirthless; her awareness of the men’s professional rivalry, like her husband’s suspiciously frequent trips to the city to do “research,” was far more a source of pain than of amusement. “I wouldn’t be at liberty to tell you if I knew. But, to be honest, I don’t. It must be going well, though; he always seems to come back…rejuvenated.”

“I just bet he does,” said Anderson, in a tone Alicia found more than usually difficult to decipher. Her own resigned tone touched Anderson, who found himself wondering, as he often had over the years, how it was that, betraying his heart and even against his will, he had turned from Alicia to Diana. Not that the turn was ever quite complete. Anderson had flirted with Alicia on a few occasions; and there was that night a few years back when, having had one scotch too many, he had kissed her when they were alone for a moment in the Andersons’ dining room. His attempt at seduction, if that’s what it was, ended before it began, with Alicia unresponsive and murmuring something about her “husband,” a loyalty that embarrassed and, even more, angered Anderson. But so be it: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, it would be Anderson and Diana, Alicia and Haggerty. Perhaps old Pindar had it right: “that which is fated cannot be fled.”

Anderson let it all marinate. The longer it did, the more furious he became. Diana’s sensuality, at an earlier stage an ancillary means to career-advancement, had begun to degenerate into potentially embarrassing sexual indiscretions. But this treachery—with Haggerty of all people!—went beyond the endurable. Conscious of the melodramatic touch, he nevertheless vowed vengeance on both miscreants. Perhaps, afterward, he and Alicia, no longer bound by loyalty….

2801624-bucephalusAlexander Taming Bucephalus” by Francois Schommer, German, late 19th century. Via Wiki Media Commons.

As for Haggerty, Anderson’s resentment now soured into much more than professional hatred, though his emotions also leached into his scholarship. In a New Republic piece, he introduced a detectable caveat to his central Alexandrine thesis: the conqueror’s ultimate vision of universal unity and concord as the end to which all the bloodshed was merely a tactical means. “The end of art is peace,” said the late, great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, in accepting his Nobel Prize. He acknowledged borrowing the phrase from his predecessor, the late, great Irish Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats; who’d borrowed it from the not so-great, non-prize-winning, non-Irish 19th-century poet, Coventry Patmore; who doubtless lifted it himself. Anderson couldn’t speak for “art,” but he had long been sure that the end, as well as the beginning, of academic scholarship was not peace but war. Now he was beginning to wonder if the end—the purpose—of war was, not peace, but just…more war. He would soon, at his publisher’s request, be undertaking a 4th edition of Alexander the Far-Seer. Anderson decided to defer further historical speculation to that new—and very possibly substantially revised—edition of his masterwork.

§

In the meantime, he prepared to bait a trap. His plans were delayed when he wrenched his knee while jogging in Riverside Park, missing his step because of his preoccupation with his stratagem. But with some rehab, and a brace and cane, he experienced only minor pain, and productively utilized his un-Diana-like “rest period” by polishing the details of his version of Hamlet’s mouse-trap.

One particularly fine spring morning, when birds were singing and whatnot, he informed Diana over breakfast, just before she headed out for her bi-monthly highlighting and hiatus, that he had come to a decision regarding his estrangement from Haggerty. He had, he said, long since forgiven his erstwhile and underpaid friend for his intemperate review of Alexander the Far-Seer; indeed, to be candid, he had been “slightly” rethinking his own thesis. He even had enough equanimity to chuckle at Haggerty’s having limited his agreement with the book to the sentence in which Anderson had praised the brave and blameless Bucephalus, who, along with performing magnificently in battle, “had played no part whatever in the anomalous episode at Thebes.”

In any case, it was “high time” to “let bygones be bygones,” to “bury the hatchet, as it were.” What—he wanted to know—did she “think about a get-together? Perhaps dinner next week in Manhattan with the four of us, my treat, including their trip down from upstate.”

Though caught off guard, Diana, her feet as quicksilver as Mercury’s, instantly adjusted, responding that she thought the idea “fine,” even “delightful,” though she wondered if it might not be too much too soon on his knee.

“Not in the slightest. Wednesday, then, this week or next. I understand from Alicia that he’s been doing some mid-week research at the Berg twice a month.”

Diana was lighting a cigarette when he came out with that, but only the eye of a detective (or Anderson’s) would have caught the slight trembling of her hand as she flicked the lighter. What occasion had he to be speaking to Alicia? Was it just to do with his sudden idea for the men to make up over dinner, reuniting the two jolly couples of Princeton days? And what exactly had Alicia said, other than to blurt out the news about Haggerty’s “research” trips to the city? Best, Diana thought, to pass over all that terra incognita, and focus on the dinner plan.

“Wonderful. Where?” she asked, dilating her pupils to what she calibrated was the appropriate degree to convey surprised delight.

“Smith & Wolensky, I think. Not far from the library, and Haggerty loves a good steak.”

“Great. But I must dash.” Forgetting that she had just lit it, Diana stubbed out her cigarette, pecked him on the cheek leaving a faint imprint of lipstick, and was gone.

§

When, following their afternoon coupling and some rather more amorous imprintings of her lipstick, Diana informed her lover of this peace offering, Haggerty was instantly suspicious.

“Do you think the devious little prick knows about us?”

She thought not, and mentioned the unmentionable: Anderson’s specific reference to Haggerty’s review of Alexander the Far-Seer. He had even laughed, she reported, at what Haggerty had singled out as their one point of agreement: the praise of splendid Bucephalus.

“For whatever reason, he’s forgiven you. He recently injured his knee. Maybe he’s mellowing with age. In any case, his new attitude seems to be ‘live and let live’.”

“Arrogant son of a bitch; he doesn’t leave us much choice, does he?”

When Anderson phoned the following evening and extended his invitation, Haggerty, armed by Diana’s advance warning, worked up as much feigned surprise and enthusiasm as he could manage without puking. Actually, he was now looking forward to the meeting. He had decided to show up with his own peace-offering, a “Greek gift.” Triggered by Diana’s reference to Anderson’s injured knee, the idea had solidified into a specific shape. He had some shopping to do.

§

The following week the four met as arranged. After the somewhat strained handshakes and obligatory kisses, Haggerty checked a long package in the cloakroom adjoining the entrance. “A gift,” he winked at Anderson. The two couples had several drinks at the always inviting copper bar, and then adjourned to their reserved table. The evening, lubricated by several bottles of a fine red, was unexpectedly convivial. Warmed by the wine, and experiencing a vestige of the old friendship, Anderson began to waver. At one point he came close to jettisoning his plan to expose the clandestine lovers. But as fate would have it, that was the very instant that Haggerty and Diana exchanged furtive glances, fleeting and yet so unmistakably intimate that it re-fueled Anderson’s rage. Only the most Herculean effort at self-restraint enabled him to maintain his false veneer of bonhomie.

Though controlled, his hostility, squirming beneath the lacquered surface, took the form of several supposedly innocent questions intended to goad his rival: queries as to how Haggerty’s research in the Berg Collection was going? Whether he had received any grants and/or secured a publisher—other than “Peter Lange”—for his current and “long-gestating” book? What the “cost” was these days for a round-trip Amtrak ticket to the city? He even expressed a sincere wish that Haggerty hadn’t “spent too much” on the “gift” he’d checked in the cloakroom.  Diana grew a bit suspicious and restive, but, to Anderson’s annoyance, Haggerty refused to join in the petty professional game-playing by rising to the bait. Whether he was oblivious to Anderson’s barely camouflaged taunts, or simply basking in the confidence that comes from secretly fucking the wife of one’s interlocutor, host and rival, Haggerty remained maddeningly complacent and convivial.

Just as they were finishing their steaks, and Anderson was ordering yet another bottle of Pibarnon, Haggerty, who had been so animated and voluble during dinner that Alicia had suggested at one point that he try being “still” for at least a moment, excused himself. He returned with his package, presenting it to Anderson with a jovial yet enigmatic grin. Once unwrapped, it proved to be an exceptionally handsome mahogany cane, its oversized knob adorned with a silver horse’s head inscribed… BUCEPHALUS.

photo_verybig_129490Warrior (possibly Alexander) on a Horse, Macedonia, 2011. Photo by EPA/BGNES.

Only Alicia seemed puzzled, until Haggerty re-explained the inside joke. Diana, who required no explanation, wondered where it was all headed. Nervous, but anxious to alleviate the palpable tension at the table, Diana laughed. In fact, they all laughed—with the notable exception of Anderson, whose face reddened with repressed fury. He understood the joke beneath the joke. Haggerty was still rubbing it in, repeating, with that silver Bucephalus-head, his original assault on Anderson’s magnum opus. Anderson had brought them here, at considerable expense, to expose the sordid liaison between Haggerty and Diana. Softened by the wine, the fine meal, and the dinner conversation, he had considered abandoning his plan; and now, Haggerty, turning the tables, was not only cuckolding him, but making him the butt, rubbing salt in the old wound by bringing up that goddamned review. True, in the end, the attack had backfired, damaging Haggerty’s reputation far more than his own. But that sarcasm and ridicule still smarted, indeed stung even more, because, in his heart of hearts, Anderson had slowly come to realize that Haggerty’s critique, however snide and hyperbolic, was largely accurate.

He also realized (though no one at the table noticed at first) that his body was shaking.  Suddenly, in a spasm of uncontrollable rage, Anderson took up his steak knife, and—unaware of making any conscious decision, apparently guided by the inexorable Fate that had bound them together in so many other ways—leaned across the table and plunged it into Haggerty’s chest.

As the women screamed, the surprised stabbee clutched, as well he might, in the general vicinity of his heart. But the old wrestler in him rallied and he staggered to his feet, knocking his chair backward, grunting in pain and rage, and stretching out his trembling but still powerful hands toward his assailant. Shrinking back at first, but then rising to the occasion, Anderson hefted the heavy, Bucephalus-headed cane, and brought it down, battering his rival’s skull repeatedly, until Haggerty, strong as he was, finally collapsed on the table, the blood spurting from his chest and head-wounds forming two stains—distinct, then unified, then again separating—which, between them, soaked most if not all of the fine S&W linen table-cloth, turning the white one red.

Continuing to shriek, Diana and Alicia looked on, open-mouthed but catatonic. The stunned patrons round about them, having finally snapped out of their momentary paralysis, rushed belatedly to disarm the caner and assist the victim. The bludgeoned Haggerty twitched twice, then lay, finally, and in both senses of the word, still—in accord, ironically enough, with Alicia’s earlier suggestion. Struck dumb herself, Alicia gazed at her husband’s body, then at Anderson—who turned to Diana, then to Haggerty, then back again. The gesture implied causality: a causality into which Alicia—who now joined Anderson in staring at a for-once unnerved Diana—had a sudden, all-illuminating insight.

In the moment before he succumbed, providing he retained some minimal ability to appreciate irony, Haggerty may also have experienced a graphic insight:  in his case, into the all-too-human and universal nature of the wine-dark, mysterious impulses driving the bloody violence he had always dwelt on, perhaps to a fault and certainly glibly, in writing about Alexander. And, had he been able to articulate the thought, he might conceivably have expressed regret regarding his ill-chosen (or fated) gift of that formidable, Bucephalus-headed walking stick.

For his own part, Anderson experienced, albeit more consciously than his rival, a similar double-illumination. He felt that now, at last, he fully appreciated the sterling virtues of Bucephalus, and further, that, for perhaps the first time in his career as an Alexander scholar, he had grasped the immediate point and lasting impact of his hero’s Theban policy.

—Patrick J. Keane 

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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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Jul 312014
 

Nela Rio

 

Rio_Laberinto_vertical portada

The Argentinian-born poet Nela Rio’s writing is imbued with nostalgia and longing. She composes poems about everything from women victims of imprisonment and torture to the tango. She has even published a collection of erotic poetry. In El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth (translated by Sophie M. Lavoie and Hugh HazeltonBroken Jaw Press, 2014), Rio invents a woman-centered creation story, an original myth meant to disrupt the Christian biblical tradition. Though her exquisitely precise Spanish makes Rio’s work difficult to translate, many of of her poems have appeared in bilingual collections, from Spanish to both French and English. Nela Rio has lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for the past 45 years. She is the most prolific poet of the ten Latino-Canadian writers described by Hugh Hazelton in his book Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. Broken Jaw Press has now published ten of her collections of poetry and short stories. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth will be published in the Spring of 2014.

—Sophie M. Lavoie

 

Las Mistícas 

… también había una que decía
de aquellas mujeres
que amaron a dios con amor de mujer
y lloraron la ausencia de la carne
en sus rezos que ardían de fervor.

Veneraron la parte de la Unidad con sabor a hombre
y se deleitaban en sus imágenes
saboreando los colores rozándolos con la lengua.
Ellas guardaban bajo amplios mantos
tejidos con los colores de los corales
los pezones erguidos de placer
en las noches en que en los corredores encantados
la magia del amor les traía vahídos de aliento sagrado.
Y no se contentaban con la tierra que recibía los pasos,
ni con el aire que recogía los murmullos,
sino que besaban con labios temblorosos
la plegaria
para que ascendiera a los otros.

Las castigaron por mala compañía,
por aceptar la naturaleza de sus pensamientos,
y les llovieron lluvias
hasta ahogarlas de amor en las noches tristes.

Preguntaron si estaba mal amar al hombre
diciéndoles “el amor es sagrado”
y también dijeron “así es”.
Las mujeres volvieron y amaron en su corazón
y dejaron que la carne se deleitara
en exquisitas oraciones.

 

The Mystics

… there was also one who said
that those women
loved god with a woman’s love
and mourned the absence of the flesh
in their prayers that burned with fervour.

They venerated the part of Unity that tasted of man
and delighted in its images
savouring the colours, running their tongues over them.
They kept their nipples, erect with pleasure,
under flowing blankets woven in shades of coral
on nights when, in the enchanted corridors,
the magic of love dizzied them with sacred inspiration.
And unsatisfied with the earth that felt their steps
and the air which collected murmurs,
they kissed the prayer
with trembling lips
so it would ascend to others.

They were punished for being bad company,
for accepting the nature of their thoughts,
and rains fell upon them
drowning them with love on sad nights.

They asked if it was wrong to love man
saying “love is sacred”
as well as “that’s the way it is.”
The women returned and loved with their hearts,
letting the flesh delight
in exquisite prayers.

§

Rivalidades 

Algunos, subiéndose a montañas
o descendiendo al fondo del océano
o contemplando el cielo
o meditando sobre la tierra
comenzaron a creer que algunas cosas
eran más hermosas que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más sabias que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más poderosas que otras y las alabaron.

Y comenzaron a haber dioses diversos
y rivalidades
y para superarse unos a otros
crearon normas y modos y leyes.

Y aún más, inventaron castigos,
y se habló de obediencia y desobediencia
y de resbaladizos planos de lomos intranquilos
donde moraban la condena o el invencible goce.

Y ya no hubo entendimiento entre la gente
porque hablaban idiomas distintos
y amaban las mismas cosas pero con exclusividad.

Así la Unidad quedó tamizada entre los siglos
y el amor tuvo que disfrazarse de muchas cosas
para sobrevivir.

 

Rivalries 

Some people, climbing mountains
or descending to the depths of the ocean
or contemplating the sky
or meditating on the earth,
began to think that some things
were more beautiful than others and praised them,
or were more learned than others and praised them,
or were more powerful than others and praised them.

And there began to be many gods
and rivalries
and to outdo one another
they created norms and modes and laws.

And they went even further, inventing punishments,
and spoke of obedience and disobedience
and of slippery planes of restless backs,
a land of condemnation or invincible pleasure.

And there was no longer understanding among people
for they spoke different languages
and loved the same things, but exclusively.

Unity was then filtered through the centuries
and love had to disguise itself as many things
to survive.

 §

Sol de Cartón 

Dicen que algunos de los hombres
se cegaron porque miraron la luz
creyendo que se irradiaba de ellos mismos.

El mayor secreto que guardaron
en sus pupilas vacías fue
que se tuvieron por gran señor
y fueron adúlteros con gran diligencia
y abusadores sin discriminación.
Respetaron su sabiduría y se sintieron sagaces
y fabricaron la gran diferencia.
Le dieron a la mujer el lugar
que correspondía
en su cosmogonía
y se entretenían limpiándose los traseros
cuando hacían justicia o predicaban.

Crearon niveles para vasallos
y con grandes sentimientos celebraban
que todo estaba por debajo de ellos
y lo guardaban con vigilancia.

Así la piel se les fue endureciendo
y el corazón se les achicó
y se les hizo tan remoto
que lo colgaron de una rama filuda
y lo escuchaban latir muy de vez en cuando.

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Cardboard Sun

They say some men went blind
from looking at the light
thinking it came from themselves.

The greatest secret they kept
in their vacant pupils was
that they thought themselves great lords,
and were skilful adulterers
and indiscriminate abusers.
They respected their own wisdom and felt sagacious
and contrived the great difference.
They gave woman the place
that fell to her
in their cosmogony
and kept busy covering each other’s ass
while they carried out justice or preached.

They created ranks for vassals
and celebrated with great pomp
that everything was now beneath them
and kept close guard over all.

Thus their skin became thicker
and their hearts grew smaller
and became so remote
that they hung them from sharp branches
and only occasionally listened to their beat.

§

Cánones 

Te negaban la cima
donde se propaga la raíz del fuego, mujer,
tu boca abierta, clandestinamente sellada
por la rosa violada del idioma,
EEEEEEsufría la cópula con la desnudez del círculo,
EEEEEEramalazos de frío entubando calles.
Derribaban tu voz de firmamento de alas
EEEEEEescapando de pupilas transparentes:
pero ahora sabes que el idioma también puede disfrazar palabras,
obligarte a la mudez.

Por eso transformas la montaña con tu sed de ruptura,
te eriges como la fuente que proclama
la copiosa vertiente del acorde.
Penetrando el vuelo de la noche
enroscas tu voluntad al centro de la vida.

Tu pasión coral exige conciencia de destino,
resonancia del silencio.

Con el caprichoso alfabeto fecundizas, mujer,
la vocación de abrazo que tiene la palabra.

 

Canons

They denied you the summit
where the root of fire spreads, woman,
your open mouth, clandestinely sealed
by the raped rose of language,
EEEEEEsuffered copulation with the circle’s nakedness,
EEEEEEgusts of cold channelled by streets.
They cut down your voice of winged firmament
EEEEEEspringing from transparent pupils:
but now you know that language can also disguise words
and force you to be mute.

That’s why you transform the mountain
with your thirst for breaking away,
establishing yourself as the fountain proclaiming
the abundant slope of harmony.
Penetrating the night’s flight,
you curl up your will in the centre of life.

Your coral-coloured passion demands awareness of destiny,
resonance of silence.

Woman, with your capricious alphabet you fertilize
the word’s vocation to embrace.

—Nela Rio; Translated by Sophie M. Lavoie & Hugh Hazelton

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sophie lavoie prince rupert cropped

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’Études 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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Hugh Hazelton reading

Hugh Hazelton is a writer, translator, and retired professor from Concordia University who has run The Banff Centre’s International Literary Translation Centre programme for years. Hazelton is author of a number of translations and was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Literary Translation in 2006 for his English translation of Joel DesRosiers’s Vétiver. He is the author of Latinocanadá, A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth is Hazelton’s first collaborative translation.

 

Jul 312014
 

R W GrayR. W. Gray

Top of the Page this month is the inimitable R. W. Gray, Senior Editor, the wizard behind our wildly successful Numéro Cinq at the Movies series, a unique collection of short films with commentaries; you can’t find anything like it anywhere else, a major cultural achievement. Rob has also contributed a full length screenplay for the feature film Alice & Huck and the title story from his amazing collection Crisp.

Besides his personal contributions to the magazine, he has nurtured a broad array of new talent, including people like Jared Carney, Jon Dewar, Megan MacKay, Sophie Lavoie (who also appears in the August issue as a translator), Erin Morton and Taryn Sirove. All these names appear in the Numéro Cinq at the Movies series. But there is still more: he has edited a special series in which he coupled poets and critics. One of these pieces — The Sally Draper Poems: A Poem Cycle by Jennica Harper, Introduced by Tammy Armstrong — became one of our all time most popular posts when it got mentioned on Slate.com.

Needless to say, the magazine wouldn’t be what it is today without Rob Gray. It’s been one of the pleasures of editing the magazine to have gotten to know him so well.

dg

 

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. He is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Frederiction.

Jul 282014
 

drugsDetail from Bad Medicine by Adriaen Brouwer (1606-1638), Musée Des Beaux-Arts, Dijon. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images via aeon.co

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Witches, doctors, Newton! Willow bark! Quinine! LSD! Snail water! Coffee!

Catching up on our reading, we wonder how many of the above we’ve ingested today, and note that the traditions of 17th century apothecaries, Enlightenment scientists, and psychedelic enthusiasts are not so different. Be it in 21st century laboratories or 18th century poets’ homes, Benjamin Breen reminds us that drug experimentation has always served both recreational, medicinal, and inspirational ends, at least since the Renaissance.

The fun of the piece is in the stories and ancient recipes, but the thesis is sound: “The clash between alternative and Western medicine might not be a clear-cut contest between ancient, ‘traditional’ remedies and modern, scientific ones.”

Read the entire romp @ Under the Influence: How did enlightenment thinkers distinguish between ‘drugs’ and ‘medicines’? And how should we? — aeon.co

—Tom Faure

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