Oct 242014
 

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reserved Sam Shelstad and dg at the Open Space Gallery, Victoria. Photos by Miles Giesbrecht.

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Cannibal characters, love, Hermann Broch, Numéro Cinq, Jane Eyre, and sundry other topics, more or less interesting, come up in this lively onstage interview I did at the Open Space Gallery in Victoria, October 8. The nominal topic was my book of stories Savage Love, from which I had just give a reading. My charming interlocutor was estimable Sam Shelstad, a well-published MFA student in the University of Victoria writing program. As my son Jonah once observed, I never answer the question asked, just compose whimsical responses loosely inspired by the question and whatever free associations come to mind as I wander on. I don’t know if this is a fault or a virtue.

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© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reserved

Oct 232014
 

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reservedDouglas Glover reading at Open Space Gallery, Victoria. Photo by Miles Giesbrecht.

 

I hate to inundate you with all this stuff from my Victoria trip, but you all know I don’t get out much and hence my tendency to hyperventilate if I get over the county line. Here’s a the recording of my reading from Savage Love at the Open Space Gallery in Victoria. The art work behind me is by Tommy Ting and Dong-Kyoon Nam. The story is called “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night.” The reading is preceded by an introduction by my gracious hostess, who gives all the particulars of the event.

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Oct 222014
 

My beloved and loyal fiction publisher, Goose Lane Editions, had its 60th birthday last month. Part of the celebration was the publication of a little boxed set of similarly designed small books, six@sixty, one short story each by esteemed Goose Lane authors over the years: Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady, Mark Anthony Jarman, Alden Nowlan (whose house I used to visit when he was alive, back when I was a reporter at the Evening Times-Globe in Saint John, New Brunswick), Shauna Singh Baldwin, and Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, as well as me. All the books look like mine but in different colours. It’s a lovely gesture, a limited edition, simple and elegant. Also mine is very cute, like a book you can keep as a pet.

My story, “Woman Gored by Bison Lives,” is from my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour, which Goose Lane published in 1991. It was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction that year.

It’s a melancholy love story about a lesbian couple in Saskatoon. They watch an English tourist gored by a bison, and subsequently one of the lovers dies of cancer. I was learning to write aphorisms in those days. The story ends with a little run. This is the surviving lover talking to a three-year-old child: “There are certain things you have to know. Suicide is not an option. Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants. Masturbation is healthy, the sooner started the better. It’s a sin not to take love where you find it. That is the only sin.”

The story as a whole begins like this:

Days, while my husband is at work, Susan and I make love on the couch in her parents’ basement. It is a desperate thing to do, and we are both a little stunned by it. But something has pushed us to the edge of caring.

Gabriela, the baby, is upstairs sleeping, while Susan’s mother does housework or watches soap operas. We keep our clothes on, manacled at the ankles by a tangle of underwear, jeans and belts.  And when Susan comes, I press my palm across her lips to keep her from shouting out her joy.

I don’t know if we are in love. But we are both in need of solace, and our sex is a composition of melancholy and violence, as though we are seeking to escape and punish ourselves in the same act.

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Back Cover

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Oct 202014
 

DSCF9318At the end of the Victoria trip, dg spent an afternoon with the Coast Salish master carver Charles W. Elliott in his studio at the Tsarlip First Nation Reserve on the Saanich Peninsula north of the city. Above is a thunderbird atop of a Charles Elliott totem pole  in front of the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal High School just down the road from the studio.

DSCF9299Charles W. Elliott holding a print he designed as a symbol for the University of Victoria Indigenous Governance program.

Still processing this visit. Charles Elliott is an amazingly generous and intelligent artist, very articulate and personable. He took a lot of time to describe what he does. Coast Salish art is a formalist invention (which, naturally, makes is tremendously interesting to me) — he called it the Salish “system” — that involves the use of a finite set of motifs (e.g. thunderbird, raven, orca, etc.) and design elements (eyes, bracket shapes, lanceolate shapes, etc.). Often the smaller formal elements are fitted into a larger form that derives from a utilitarian space (house fronts, paddles, spoons, bowls, etc.). The print above, for example, is circular, a shape derived from the spindle whorl used by the native women to process wool. The artist fits larger motifs into the overall form and then fills the blank spaces with either smaller versions of a motif (or in inversion) or with repetitions of the abstract design elements. For example, the thunderbird wings contain eyes, brackets and lanceolate shapes. Beneath the thunderbird is an orca, and you can see the bracket shapes used down the whale’s back. The idea, Elliott says, is to bring the spaces “to life.” The large motifs refer to legends, myths, and powers (also, in some cases, clan and social organization elements), so they carry story and meaning to the viewer. But at the same time there is a purely design aspect to the art, a pleasing abundance and vivacity of structure. What’s truly interesting is how the abstract design elements can be used to imply naturalistic details (see the shins on the thunderbird’s legs).

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Here’s the school front. Note the repetition of the structure: thunderbird on top of the pole, thunderbird on the from wall of the building, and the structure of the building as a whole is a thunderbird with wings. What you can’t see from the angle is that before the front door is an entryway in the shape of a bird again. To get into the school, students pass beneath the thunderbird’s wings. Also not the bracket shapes along the roof  line. And then think what a lively public art form this is.

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DSCF9281This is Elliott’s studio with a huge ocean-going dugout canoe made of old growth cedar, a work in progress. On the left is the base of a new totem pole.

DSCF9282Studio again. Note the Che Guevara image, one of several, in the studio, also mentioned by Elliott. You can’t forget that the natives are a colonized and dispossessed people who wake up every morning and look around and see commuters racing up the highway to a city that covers the land that was once theirs spiritually and economically, land they never gave away in any sense proper to their own culture and way of thinking. Put yourself in their shoes. As Elliott said, it’s as if there is a constant cloud or blanket of colonization over the natives. How they could they forget and be pleased?

DSCF9297Little things all over the studio. Here’s a spinning fish lure in the shape of an octopus, the legs scalloped with those bracket patterns. Everything comes to life in this art world, inanimate objects, utilitarian objects.

DSCF9284So here’s a bronze spindle whorl (traditionally they were made of wood) made by Elliott’s 19-year-old son, Chas Elliott, who is learning the art from his father and brought this over to show us. If I remember correctly this is a seal (but I heard so much I might be misremembering). Mouth in the spindle opening. Flippers or paws to the side. Flippers accented with eye and bracket and lanceolate shapes. Here’s a link to show where both father and son appeared a couple of years ago.

DG with a “talking stick” (you would hand this to someone who would then hold the floor whole others listened). By now you should be able to distinguish some of the motifs and design elements.

DSCF9229Outside the studio looking at a totem pole in for repair after about 20 years in the field. Totem poles don’t last forever, obviously. This one needs to be shaved down to fresh wood and repainted. And there is some rot at the top that needs digging out and a plug put in. A sad thing is that native carvers like Elliott can only work with old growth timber. For some reason, the old growth trees grew slower, their tree rings are much closer together, and the wood is harder and more durable. Newer trees seem to grow faster (perhaps because they get more light), the rings are farther apart and the wood between is “punky.” There is hardly any old growth timber left. I won’t go on. This is just a taste of the visit with Elliott, an immense privilege, not to mention fascinating; I could go on and on.

—DG, photos mostly by MF

Oct 162014
 

goldwing[1]

Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham‘s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

In keeping with Numéro Cinq’s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her first article, “Rosebud.”

Reading Trimingham’s reflections on film is for me like reading someone else’s love letters. It led me to reminiscing about my own film loves, and here, specifically, the moments that have made me gasp and filled me with wonder. We’d love to hear about your favourite film moments of wonder in the comments.

— R. W. Gray

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Part 1: Rosebud

As a new mother, I used to dream of the apocalypse. B-movie stuff, but real enough to my sleeping self. The world on fire, thugs on the loose and armed to the hilt, bony-backed dogs on the prowl. I was always running with my infant son in my arms, trying to save him from whatever disaster impended. Waking life seemed much the same, with similar failure. The knowledge that despite my best efforts, the oceans are acidifying, the soil is dying, the aquifers are drying, all hell is breaking, and human idiocy and barbarism continue apace, that I cannot save the world for my son, almost crushed me. My fear of collapse zeroed in on my own body. Legs going numb. Tongue heavy. Short of breath. Heart too quick. When my palms turned itchy and bright red in a hysterical gesture of  stigmata, I called a counselor; although she specializes in troubled children, she was the only such person I knew in town and I thought she might provide direction. Turns out, she sidelines in Jungian analysis for adults,  and she was willing to take me on.

And it turns out that Jung is all about dreams, about decoding images projected from the subconscious. Dreams are films unspooled at the back of the mind; anxiety is a harshly lit breaking news broadcast in my frontal lobe: both are communications sent by far-flung outposts of my self. My analyst Sharon acts as translator with Jung’s Dreams Memories Reflections (which lies as yet unread on my nightstand), as an app for the subconscious.

The more I think about dreams, the more I think about the films I’ve watched and the films I’ve made, and how they have, in turn and in part, made me. Although my first film, about a young woman born with a tail, likely sprang full-formed from my twisty subconscious, later films have hints of external influence. I can draw a smudged line between Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, a strange pseudo-documentary about people who turn into birds after the apocalypse, and my own ficto-documentary about a singer who spreads her copper wings.

Falls,-The

It’s been pointed out to me that I must like Bergman (I do) because one of my black and white films features a couple fighting as they drive home in the night rain. I’m the product of a mother who loves American Technicolor musicals, so how could I not want to shoot an imaginary plane-ful of synchronized stewardesses?  But these are image-to-image, film-to-film correspondences, and I keep being drawn back to the idea that film might inspire or inform a psyche, a self.

As I suspect we all do, I carry inside myself a mash-up of images and scenes culled from movies I’ve watched. The clips that stick, the films that I am likely misremembering now as I work through these thoughts, tend to bend in the direction of wonder. And of brutality. Metabolized over years, these images have worked their way into my blood, bones and brain. They are spliced into an internally projected, constantly revised reel of my own dreams, memories and reflections, all of which then make their way into my own work, which in turn can be read as a waking dream.

Wonder, brutality. Is it as simple as the beauty and truth formulation? Wonder as beauty ratcheted up, as an experience so big and so deep that it becomes mysterious, miraculous? And brutality as the hardest kind of truth, the ugliest and most naked: of man stripped bare of humanity. Are these the things that take our breath away?

Rosebud is the word made with Citizen Kane’s last breath; it is also the word that begins, that causes, that animates the film. That word is Kane’s alpha and omega, and the entire film is about wondering what that one word means. We are suspended for almost two hours in a state of unknowing, of being led by Orson Welles’ tracking shots in a spiral that leads to the center of Kane.

Citizen Kane poster

A bud, like a self, unfolds from the center. To be struck with Stendahl’s syndrome is to experience dizziness, to faint, to be overcome by beauty. That syndrome is the namesake for the man who wrote that beauty was la promesse du bonheur, he didn’t say it was happiness itself. A bud is a rose that has not yet bloomed: its beauty is the promise of a rose. The cook who lives next door to me makes a dessert of wild roses that grow by the sea: a candy glass made from rosewater syrup, a sweet foam whipped from the hips, all of it then scattered with petals. 13 Ways of Eating a Rose. And then the flower is gone, swallowed. All you’re left with is memory. Orson Welles, Rosebud on his lips, dies trying to name, to call up the memory and metaphor of his childhood, his happiness, his time of wonder.

Rosebud still

I saw my first movie when I was six and was amazed to see versions of my self – the children in Small Change – writ large upon the screen. In François Truffaut‘s film, a toddler climbs onto the sill of an open window several stories up, entranced by a cat just out of reach. The toddler slips, plummets. The neighborhood gasps. The camera pans down, an agonizing moment of anticipating a smashed skull, blood on the sidewalk. But there the baby is, sitting up, laughing. A moment of astonishment, resilience and delight that I have held onto, now for decades. Escape to Witch Mountain was undoubtedly mediocre, but it was the first movie I watched from the back seat of the family station wagon at the drive in, and it has given me forever the image of a child levitating, saint-like, in a tree.

magnolia

Frogs fall from the sky in P.T. Anderson‘s Magnolia. The artless photographer frames overlooked beauty in Patricia Rozema‘s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.  A woman wandering through Tivoli’s spectacular water gardens disappears into a fountain in Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d’Artifice. All of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. (A year-long stint as a volunteer at Anthology Film Archives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan imprinted me with classic experimental films). The loveliness of the wintered Ontario forest stops Julie Christie in her snowshoeing tracks in Sarah Polley‘s Away from Her. The heart-rending music in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique and in Bleu is not so much soundtrack as character or catalyst.

DLV singing

The Ice Storm has a young teen so dreamy and astonished by life that he doesn’t even notice when the football is thrown to him during a game.

When I was in film school, we learned to edit on an old Steenbeck, a hulking machine operated with foot pedals and manually loaded reels. Film clips, the actual, physical strips of frames that constituted takes of each scene, hung from clothes pins in a bin. You’d work in a cramped room with the overhead fluorescents off, squinting at the crude backlit screen, cutting and taping frames together.  Each bin was organized by act or scene.  As I write this, I notice that I’m hanging these clips of childhood and mystery, of incomprehensible beauty, all together. The bin fairly glows.

But how quickly the sublime flips into something darker: Julie Christie’s character is lost in the forest because she’s losing her mind.  As Weronika, the Polish double, solos and hits an impossibly high note, she collapses and dies, pang-ing the French Veronique with an ineffable sense of loss. The boy in Ang Lee‘s film will be electrocuted by a line felled in the ice storm at whose loveliness he has stopped to marvel.

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I have become a believer in the notion that filmmaking is an act of orchestrating chance, of listening and serving, as much as it is a deliberate construction, and that something more than light and sound are imprinted on film stock.

I remember shooting “beauty crowds me” in the shower room of an old army barracks; the set was closed: it was just me, my (now ex-)husband/producer, a steadi-cam operator, and women in various states of nakedness. One woman drags another across the floor; one washes another’s back; the bathers move as if underwater. Occasionally they look straight into the camera. The viewer is complicit, implicated, acknowledged. Listening to Sarah MacLaughlin on a boombox, Carey, the camera op, pas-de-deuxed with Denise, the protagonist, as she made her way towards the shower, slowly shedding her clothes.  Emily Dickinson’s short poem has absolutely nothing to do with bathing:

Beauty crowds me til I die
Beauty mercy have on me
If I should expire today
Let it be in sight of thee.

The words have always struck me as a prayer, a plea for wonder. My aim was to have Denise catch sight of some beauty that hovered out of frame, next to where you, the audience, might be. (Naked because it seems like that is the state of a soul when, like Whitman,  it stands cool and composed before a million universes.) Between takes, the women would slip into  jewel-toned bathrobes and hang out in the barracks common room with the crew. It was an enchantment: we all surrendered en masse to the music, to each other, to the poet speaking across time. When wrap was called, we emerged into a changed world: snow had been falling, and was now thick and softly blue in the twilight.

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Somebody once said to me after watching the film, I don’t know where I just was, but I was there. There is something alive in the air, in the collective energy of cast and crew and story and moment, that is captured,  then shared with the audience. I’ve often thought that film’s trick of transport is reason enough to call a crew together, to paint walls, to shop for props, to dress up and choreograph, to run lines, to fire up the lights and roll camera. The cumbersome apparatus of filmmaking – machinery, logistics, personnel, budget, schedule – finds its end in a beam of light. A beam of light through which you can pass your hand yet one that moves us. Sometimes we even fall in love with the world anew.

Experiences of wonder can open us up, make us bloom. Don’t ask me to explain, but I believe that it keeps the apocalypse at bay.

 

—Julie Trimingham

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DSC_0053 - Version 3Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically.  She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards.  Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

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Oct 152014
 

Woodard Bigger

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Daisy sits in a fast food restaurant booth, waiting for a man named Red Carnation to arrive and purchase her soft pebble of a baby, who is propped atop the Formica table, fast asleep inside a bassinet. She listed the child online as “like new” and included photographs of him clowning with a stuffed rabbit to up the cuteness factor.

Daisy’s unsure why, but over the past month, she has traded, sold, or discarded every item that ties her to this town. Gone are her souvenirs and trinkets, her albums and yearbooks. The purge feels cleansing, and the tyke is her final fragment to shed.

Questions had inundated her inbox: Is the father strong? What is the average height of the men in your family? How well can the baby see in the dark? In the end, Red Carnation seemed the most straightforward of potential patrons: He had few queries and plenty of cash dollars. There was also the fact that he too was named after a flower. Daisy saw that as a sign.

When she described herself to him in their last telephone exchange—medium height, medium weight, medium length blonde hair—Red Carnation didn’t reciprocate.

“Those who frown upon the selling of children are always listening,” he told her in a wise, gravely voice.

Her body begins to itch with anticipation.

Has the baby reacted unusually to a full moon?

The door opens and a small man enters wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, jeans, and a red carnation tucked behind his right ear. He approaches Daisy with a smile; her pulse quickens. “Hello, Red?” Daisy says. Sitting across from her and the tot, he shakes her hand and replies, “You look conspicuous without any food.”

She eyes the blank table space in front of her. “Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I’ve never sold a baby before.”

“Baby or no baby, it’s about appearing normal.”

“I’m not very normal.”

“That’s all right,” Red Carnation says. He slides a five across the table. “It’s on me.”

She looks around for others. “And you’ll steal my baby while I’m away?”

“This isn’t my first rodeo, and I’m no monster, miss.” There’s a cowboy twang in his grit that appeals to Daisy. It’s the twang of trust.

Daisy slowly inches off her seat, keeping a close eye on Red Carnation as she walks to the register and buys a cheeseburger. A bead of sweat skates down her cheek. The boy serving her resembles a reflection in a funhouse mirror, and he concentrates on a Chemistry textbook resting on the counter. “You wouldn’t happen to know the difference between an ionic and a covalent bond, would you?” he asks as he makes change.

“One steals and the other shares,” Daisy says.

“Sounds like my friends.”

Daisy groans. “I’m talking electrons.” She takes the bills and coins from the boy. “Look, I’m no tutor, OK?”

Is the baby afraid of loud noises, particularly loud motors?

The child shifts as she unwraps the cheeseburger in the booth, but still does not wake. She holds the wax paper close to his face and scrunches it hard. Again, no reaction. Daisy nods at the impressive feat, at the perfect baby in front of her, with impeccable manners.

Red Carnation says, “Did you medicate him?”

“Who drugs a baby?” Daisy replies, then remembers why she’s here and feels a tad sheepish. She stifles a laugh and reaches out to give Red Carnation his change, but he tells her to keep it.

“Like a bonus?” Daisy says.

Red Carnation gently runs his fingers over the baby’s wisps of hair. He is about to ask her why she’s giving up the child. The inquiry hovers in the air, like a radio wave. Daisy inhales a mouthful of cheeseburger. “We don’t have much of a connection, I guess,” she says as she swallows. “He’s not good at reading my mind. And there isn’t a daddy.”

“He’ll be very happy with us,” Red Carnation says. He withdraws a phone from his pocket—not the phone he used to contact her, a burner most likely snapped in two and dwelling in a dumpster out back—this is his everyday phone, and he shows Daisy photos of his farm. On the small screen, the landscape looks pleasant, welcoming. He does not reveal the farm’s location, but extra radio waves tell Daisy it is upstate New York, or Vermont, or New Hampshire, or Maine, or maybe Arkansas, or Oregon.

The final photo he pulls up is of the rest of his family. They’re all dressed in white shirts, including the little ones, sitting and standing in a cornfield. There are so many faces and bodies they don’t fit in the frame.

Daisy imagines her son with this group. There would be bunk beds and campfires, sing-alongs and fishing. As a boy, he might climb trees, ride horses, pass through a screen door into a kitchen thick with the smell of broth. He could drift on vapors into a room full of couches, where a sister, the same age as him, practices a violin. The tune Daisy conjures is that of a lullaby, and the boy curls tight on a cushion and shuts his eyes. His mouth bends into a smile, a truly genuine smile. He is so very happy.

“You don’t have room for one more, do you?” Daisy jokes.

Red Carnation plucks the flower from behind his ear and hands it to her.

What is the precise sound of the baby’s cry? Have you played the lottery since the baby’s birth (and, if so, did you win)?

From here, the transaction lasts less than three minutes. A crumpled contract is signed: Daisy’s hand shakes and her name is illegible, but Red Carnation says it’s fine as he photographs her with the contract in hand. A small bag replaces the bassinet.

“Any last words?” Red Carnation says.

“You sound like an executioner,” Daisy replies, to which Red Carnation laughs. She places the bag next to her on the bench.

She doesn’t remember watching Red Carnation and the baby leave, but the flower remains on the Formica, a token, like in the movies when someone wakes, saying, “It was all a dream,” before finding an important object under the bedcovers.

Daisy thinks about that broth, the horse rides. She thinks about the sigh of the violin as she loiters in the restaurant. While she’d like to leave, she finds that she cannot separate her legs from the booth’s bench. It is as if all of her energy has evaporated during the transaction. The act of walking, of standing, feels too great, too grim.

Even as she swallows her fourth bite of cheeseburger and spies a long, brown hair, shocked golden with mustard, drooping from the sandwich bun, Daisy does not rise. Gummed to her seat, she looks back at the boy learning Chemistry, so very lost in science, in terms, then turns her attention to the restaurant’s large bank of windows. It is dark outside, and the restaurant’s neon sign, boasting of billions served, paints the night a wash of red and yellow, the colors of action and cowardice.

— Benjamin Woodard

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

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Oct 152014
 

Swan-Osher 140503-19Gladys Swan

Gladys Swan’s first novel Carnival for the Gods, an offbeat, comic blend of fantasy and reality originally published in the Vintage Contemporaries Series, is now the first book of The Carnival Quintet, an 18-year project finally coming to completion. Carnival of the Gods has just been published by Kiwai Media in Paris, and the remaining novels will come out 2015 and 2016.

Carnival for the Gods follows the adventures of a small ragtag circus/carnival traveling through the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, located somewhere between Mexico and the U.S., the El Dorado the Spaniards were searching for when the came north to New Mexico. It is the dream of Dusty, the producer, to create a circus greater than The Greatest Show on Earth, but he is down on his luck. Most of the acts have deserted the show except for Dusty and Alta, aging trapeze artists; Curran, a midget; Donovan, a giant out of Rabelais; Amazing Grace, who dances with snakes; the Kid, who doesn’t talk, but aspires to be a magician; and Billy Bigelow, a magician-cum-handyman and electrician.

Swan did the cover paintings for the quintet, all five distributed below. For the full lowdown on Gladys Swan, see our interview, a short story, and a selection of paintings published on Numéro Cinq).

1. Carnival for the GodsCarnival for the Gods, Cover Painting, Oil, 3’x4′, Gladys Swan.

 

 

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Chapter 1

It was the first time Dusty had ever backhanded her, and it was not just the blow, the pain, the blood from her lip flowing saltily into her mouth that gave Alta the shock: it was the sense that something fatal had struck at the roots of her life. Things would never be the same. It was the edge of Dusty’s ring that had cut her lip, a gold ring with a strange little head carved in ivory that he’d bought during a fit of extravagance in Kansas City and said was his good luck and that he’d never part with it. As she stood in the cramped little bathroom, looking into the mirror, teeth all outlined in red as though she’d been eating red-hearted plums or pomegranates, the lip still bleeding, it seemed as though she’d never staunch the flow. This is my life, she thought; this is time leaking away, as it has been doing year upon year. And I’m standing here letting it happen like I was born without a brain.

The whole of the little trailer had shaken with their quarrel, till even words and the clash of voices could not contain the violence. Pansy, the little curly-haired dog she kept, a cross between a poodle and a wire-haired terrier, had taken refuge under the couch and, looking at Alta with brown eyes that seemed full of the light of tragedy, still refused to come out. Dusty meanwhile had thrown himself out of the trailer and into the truck, banging doors all the way, setting up a cloud of dust as he roared off into town, leaving her there alone with the freaks and the animals in the broken-down carnival. She dabbed at her lip as she tried to calm her feelings. She was looking pretty terrible at the moment. Face blotched, bags under her eyes, broken lip, but she wasn’t all that old—forty-seven—and there was still a chance for … what? For love, for money?

Money talks-she’d learned that much. It says yes and it says no. Says, you owe it to yourself, baby; go on and have it. Be my guest. Says, you’re out of luck, sister. Says, go to the city and have yourself a ball; says, stay home and starve your gut. Says, turn on the gold-plated faucet, break out the champagne. Says, stay away, lady, you smell bad, and nobody’s gonna give you a second look. Says, dream—the sky’s the limit. Says, look at the walls peeling. Says, go hang yourself.

It says, Alta concluded, you have been with a man who’s brought you nothing but trouble and grief, all the while promising you the world. And where has it landed you? Down in the flatlands with blood on your teeth. Always full of harebrained schemes. And he wasn’t half as crazy as the rest of the outfit, only more unreliable.

“I’m sick of this life. Filled up to here.” That’s how it had begun. Dusty, sitting at the narrow formica-topped table with the bench on either side, at which they had shared what might be called their domestic life, was adding up one of his interminable columns of figures. Always trying to turn nothing into something, as Alta had it, to make less come out to be more. “Sick of it.” He looked up: “There’s no anchor hanging out of your ass.”

The truth of this observation left her momentarily speechless-a yawl in a dead wind. Then her fury unlidded, and the fine brew the years had whipped to froth came boiling over, pouring out: the salt was. in her mouth, the distillation of years of sweat and tears and gall. All she might have had-all that had gone down the drain. It was the sandstorm that finally did it to her. Bad enough to have the equipment truck break down in the flattest, most god-forsaken stretch of natural freakishness she’d ever laid eyes on. Like somebody’s uninteresting nightmare. A world created out of what any sensible being would’ve rejected in the first place or else reached for only in the dry heaves of violent boredom: things twisted and sharp and spiny and hard. Some of them reached up and out with arms dried and dead in their attitudes of empty aspiration. They seemed neither plant nor tree, these cacti and joshua trees; nor alive, these clutches of dry grass and sage brush against a rocky ground that gave off a hard glint. The rocks that rose in the distance looked to have no living thing growing on them. Only telephone poles and the blacktop to show that human beings had been here, mainly, Alta thought, to get through it and on to somewhere else: the sort of place you might consider beautiful only if you didn’t have to be there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASmall Wonders, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

It was one of those undistinguished spots of blacktop, miles from the notion of a town, they’d come to a halt in the middle of, when the rear axle of the equipment truck broke down, and their little procession came to an uneven halt, like train cars piling up. There was a dull, angry look in the sky, and they’d no sooner got their vehicles pulled off onto the shoulder than the wind picked up the dust and flung it at them, striking the metal roofs and sides like a flail. It was a good thing they weren’t going anywhere, because they couldn’t have seen to get there anyway. The sun was eclipsed, the windows dark with dust. And though the doors and windows were shut, so they were nearly stifled inside, the dust sifted through anyway, a fine layer over everything. They drank it in their coffee and ate it with their food.

The animals nearly went crazy. The horses neighed and tried to rear in their trailer. The little elephant stamped and trumpeted. The tiger paced her cage all night. And what with the fray and the clatter, the bay gelding had somehow injured a leg. They needed both a vet and a mechanic, two more bills to pay. So it was no wonder that on this day, in what appeared to be the wreckage of the storm, most of the people in the show pulled out. The operators of the booths–little independent outfits that had hooked up with them and would hook on somewhere else. The shooting gallery left, and the lucky spinning wheel, the car races, the coin and ring tossing set-ups–most of the acts and all the games of chance were taking their chances elsewhere.

“Well, you gotta live,” Pearl Diamond said when she and Bates, who threw knives at her till her silhouette stood outlined upon the wall and she stepped forth unscathed, were taking off. “Be seeing you,” they said to Alta. “No hard feelings.” The first to leave, they had put the idea into the common mind, though no doubt somebody else would have thought of it too. Any woman, Alta thought, who trusted a man enough to allow him to throw knives at her was either too dumb or too lucky to have troubles in the world, and she envied her even as she wished her well.

If they hadn’t missed the turn-off, probably none of this would have happened. They were supposed to have headed north towards Albuquerque, but they’d missed the sign and hadn’t had the sense God gave a turnip to stop and look at a map. Before they knew it, they’d gone fifty miles out of their way.

If you hadn’t … And how are we going to get out of this godforsaken place? Money and blame. Bitch, bitch, bitch. As if a man hasn’t got enough troubles… Whose idea was it to … ? As if you never made a mistake. . . Money and blame. I could’ve made fifty to your one, and we’d both be better off. Brick bats flying back and forth. Pulling your weight… Whose weight?. . . Fed up with your… Because of you, godammit. You gave me nothing, not even .a child … Couldn’t plant anything that belly of yours except a fart  … I should’ve got me a better man to try.

The blood had dried on her lip. Tentatively she touched the spot, then turned from the mirror. I could’ve been… Not been–was. Was one of the best damn trapeze artists in the business. The two of them together: Gold Dust and Dream Girl. The dream had turned to dust—hah! Ashes to ashes: Gold Dust to Dusty, what a joke. The two of them one great act, till the moment suddenly came, maybe by a slip of the foot and one miss in midair too many, by too dizzying a glance down below, Dusty seemed to lose his nerve, wanted to settle for a life on the ground, but with higher ambitions: a show of his own. At the time when they could’ve had top billing in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Dusty chased his dream of something grander yet, circus and carnival together, triumphantly called “The Carnival for the Gods.” Earth wasn’t enough for him.

He was headed into the clouds, into the skyscape of the forever possible, the shape of things to come. They’d play all the big cities, bringing back the days when everybody went to the circus. Giant celebrations in the heart of every city.

But the idea never really got off the ground. It was too vast for anybody but Dusty to believe in for very long. The force of his enthusiasm—he could talk people into anything and they would follow him around with puppylike loyalty—held them for awhile. But starvation was a powerful eye-opener. The shine wore off and off they went. And now they were down to the rag, taggle and bob that had stayed because they had nowhere else to go.

There had been better days: when she was up on the high wire, and her body was a flash of motion as she swung, hanging by her heels, across the top of the tent, the faces below like rows of lightbulbs, her body light as a firefly in her blue body suit. All alone up there, no nets below, with the tight thrill that was the joy bred of danger. The tingle in the blood. God, how she loved it! It was the years that had brought her down to earth. She’d nearly killed herself once in a fall. She’d lost her timing, her body had gotten heavy despite all her efforts. The pull of gravity, the reluctance of the flesh. And all the while Dusty trying to put together his misbegotten scheme.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADancing with Snakes, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

She put some water in the kettle to boil and took out ajar of Sanka. She didn’t like the taste much, but even with the heat it was something to put into your mouth and swallow. Something to look into and stir your spoon around in while you sat. She spooned out the instant, poured in the water and sat ruminating, waiting for the coffee to cool, gazing into the dark liquid. Time out. It allowed you to sit down right in the midst of life while somewhere else people were killing each other or having babies or getting the mortgage foreclosed or carrying on a family quarrel that would leave seven people sworn enemies for life. Set a cup of coffee in front of you and none of it mattered, at least for the moment; otherwise you were out scratching and biting and clawing because the world was an obstacle you had to strike out at.

She was full of yearning, but she didn’t know what for. When

she had had money, she bought clothes, strange fanciful outfits that could have taken her to another age and fashion, or to a costume party. She loved bodices decorated with pearls and sequins and fringes that shimmied when you walked and rhinestones that danced the light. She loved bright colors: reds that could have come from the throat of a trumpet and pinks and oranges and purples that peeled your eyeball back to the optic nerve. She had trousers and a turban made of cloth of gold, and tops all embroidered. Even now, when she took tickets she sometimes dressed up as the Queen of Sheba or a priestess of the moon in a gown, her special creation, that shimmered between gold and silver, set off by a crown of rhinestones with a fan of feathers rising from the back. But nobody paid any special attention. She had the stuff all packed in the closet. And Dusty wanted her to get rid of all that rubbish, just taking up space, but it would have been like stripping off her own skin. Yet she knew she’d never wear them anymore. Most of them were too tight anyway.

No, money wasn’t good for anything. It was good to spend when you had it, but then you tossed aside what you had bought as so much junk. Dusty still had his ring–so much for the luck it had brought him.

As for love, that was even worse. Had she loved Dusty, she wondered, or had she just wanted a man who dreamed big, was headed for the clouds?

He couldn’t even give her a child.

Small wonder he had time to put the makings in her belly, considering where his head always was: scheming and dreaming and adding up columns of figures and charting their course around the country and talking half the night away, too excited even to make love. And though there were ups as well as downs at the beginning, things now were headed in one direction only. It didn’t seem to occur to him that they were all washed up. The gaggle of folks they’d picked up was the rout, the survivors who hadn’t quite gone over the edge, not the glittering argosy he’d always had in mind. A man with a dream was a madman.

Love. Much worse than money. A giant and a midget who fought and were inseparable. An animal trainer who was convinced a woman lived inside his tiger, the only woman he’d ever wanted. Idly, she wondered if anybody had ever tried fucking a tiger. She’d heard about doing it with cows and sheep and dogs. Probably even with trees, provided you weren’t so unlucky as to strike upon a bee hive inside. For all of which, she thought, you’d have to be pretty damn desperate. But a tiger. Even if you could get one to stand still for it, there was something in the nature of a cat that ought to make you a bit leery. You couldn’t put your dependence on them. But then the trainer, Sam, was nuts too. Love was too much. It created bizarre obsessions. It was a form of drunkenness and self-abuse. They threatened you with blindness if you twiddled your own organs, or with impotence or insanity. But they should’ve been smarter than that. Love itself was blind and impotent, insane, and ate the heart away until it was white and leprous and scarred beyond all telling. Never trust it, she thought.

Every once in a while when she needed to feel a little pride in herself, she got dolled up and ran off to have an affair with a truck driver or salesman or drifter who was looking for a little diversion. Men she didn’t count on seeing again and usually didn’t–or, if she did, the interest had passed. She used to like the thrill in the blood of having a new man, but even that had got old. She didn’t trust it anymore, no more than she trusted a greenback. No, neither love nor money had taken her anywhere–just left her here tasting her own blood.

She wanted vaguely to kill somebody, but there wasn’t anybody handy and certainly nobody worth the trouble. If it wasn’t love and it wasn’t money…. The blood was beating in her veins. It went on beating and beating. Blood, sweat and tears–maybe they were real. She found the water running out of her eyes. Real as dirt. Till you were dirt too. They’d discovered America, and what was it but dirt? She looked outside. The dust had blown off and under the blaze of sun the land was cooking into a piece of burnt toast. Maybe she should go out and start digging, see if she could strike oil. Wouldn’t that be a humdinger!

Or maybe she should pull herself together and get up and leave like everybody else. She and Dusty had fought and torn at each other, had driven and goaded and disappointed one another nearly as far as human things can go. And now he’d made her taste her own blood, and she was still here. And what if from now on he made a pleasure of beating on her? Or if she stood for it…. It made no sense. And if she left …what would she do? Go wandering through the world, probably, only by herself, waitressing at some cafe or bar. Trying to cadge drinks and lure men home. Even now there’d be snickers behind her back, not to think of the future.

She got up from the table and gave herself to the task of fixing supper: cut up meat and fried it with sliced onions and put in the tomatoes and chili peppers and set the pot on the stove to cook. What with the mechanic and the vet costing an arm and a leg, it might be the crew’s last good meal for a while. Every time you took somebody a car or a body it seemed they wanted you to set them up for life. She’d make a big pot of chili that would either tide them over for a couple of days or feed whoever happened to wander in. Once she’d done that, she washed her face and cleaned herself up a little. She was needing company. She’d see what Billy Bigelow was up to.

She could count on him. He’d been with them forever, first as electrician, carpenter, handyman, what-have-you, and now, after the defection of Carnaby the Great, he was featured as Bigelow the Magician. He could pull cards from out of people’s pockets and from behind their ears and discover scarves where they hadn’t been before. He had mastered appearance and disappearance and seemed to want to climb to ever higher steps of illusion. Though sometimes he would simply take a pile of long thin balloons and blow them up, twist them into dogs and lions and elephants and kangaroos and send them sailing out into the crowd.

She found him sitting on the couch in his trailer reading a Time magazine. Probably months or a year old, since Billy never bought one. But the dates never interested him, it never mattered to him when an event had occurred.

“Dream Girl,” he said, “come on in.” He was the only person who ever called her that, and it seemed to be the only image he’d ever had of her: up in the air on the high wire. If it were anybody else, she’d be convinced she was being made fun of.

“Been looking at some moon shots they got here. All crust and craters.”

“My God, why don’t you look out the window? Isn’t that desolate enough for you? If you get up and go outside, you could be on part of the moon they haven’t discovered yet. The lower part.”

“You really think the moon looks like this,” he asked.

“If it don’t, it’s missed a bet.” She’d come over to joke a bit, but the direction the conversation was taking her, making her think about where she was, only brought on her irritability. She wished Dusty would come back so she could throw something at him.

“You know what I think?” Billy said, taking off his glasses so he could see her more clearly. “I think they go out and take all those pictures and say it’s the moon.”

“Why’d they do a thing like that? Besides, you got all those rockets going up and men coming down in capsules and stuff.”

“Oh, you could fake that.” Billy said, with a snap of the fingers. “No trouble at all. Just take a picture, put it alongside another and say it’s the moon.”

“What on earth for?”

“Because you got to keep one step ahead of the public. You got to keep them wondering, always in suspense. Otherwise they’d get so bored and dull in their minds they’d turn back into tree frogs. There they’d be, rocking back and forth going mumbledyboo and their eyes would go crossed and their lips would droop and pretty soon they’d be squatting in clusters like fungus, just trying to keep the burner going so life wouldn’t go out altogether.”

“You got some imagination.”

“No, I mean it. That’s why you got to have carnivals. Probably they got a secret genius agency somewhere with people that do nothing all day and night but think things up, one leap ahead of the rest of us.”

“But all you’re talking about is plain lies.”

“Of course. What other kind is there? Except some lies are plainer than others. People need them, couldn’t get along without them. Think about what people have believed, beginning with the earth being flat. All you have to do is get it into their heads and then they swear it’s true.”

“But now look,” she said. “Nobody really believes you find cards behind their ears.”

“They’d like to. And if you could convince them you got some leetle secret, they’d believe that too.”

He was always playing these games with himself, and she loved the way he twisted everything around till you didn’t know whether you were coming or going. She’d lost all her anger. “Well, if everything can be a lie,” she said, “then everything can be true just as well.” She hadn’t the faintest idea what she meant.

“Because people believe it? Then anything can be the truth, can’t it? Like all that stuff about living past lives. That could be true.”

“Suppose it is. I can’t say it isn’t. I can’t say people haven’t been on the moon.”

“The people from the future would be living right now, wouldn’t they?”

“And how would you know?”

“Use your head. It’s got to follow,” he said. “And suppose you could go back to the past and you killed your grandfather, would you be alive now?”

“Of course not,” she said offhandedly, even though she knew she was being had.

“But then how could you go back … ?”

“Why weren’t you born with two heads?” she wanted to know.

“Then one of you could live in the past and the other in the future and tell each other all about it.”

“Probably fall flat on my face,” he said, “and the present would go leaking through.”

“Through the hole in your head.” She stopped, all used up.”

“How come you don’t leave like the rest?”

“The show must go on,” he said.

“Come on,” she said. “What show? This flea-bitten, half-assed …”

“I love you, Alta—you have such a high opinion of we serious professionals.” She couldn’t tell if he were teasing her or making fun of

himself, or maybe both at once. “I’m a magician.”

“And an electrician and a carpenter and—”

“A man of parts,” he said.

“Is one of ‘em a stomach,” she asked. “I’ve got chili cooking.”

“Gotcha.”

 •

Back in the trailer she stirred the chili, added some oregano and cumin and then sat down to look at the copy of Vogue she’d slipped out of the dentist’s office the time she had a toothache in Biloxi.

The sun had really turned on the juice, so she tried to get a little relief by opening the window and turning on the fan. But the flies came in through a tear in the screen and buzzed around her head, and Pansy sat and snapped at them. Now and then she glanced out the window to watch Fred taking care of his horses. He’d taken them out of the trailer one by one and tethered them over by some scrub cedar. He’d brought out hay and water and then had lingered in the heat, grooming them, talking to them, trying to soothe them and make up for a life that offered no explanations, just endless travel, unexpected stops, dust storms, injury and inconvenience—all for the sake of those few triumphant moments in the ring when Ginger, his wife, leapt and danced across their backs.

4 Dream SeekersDSC_0502a(1)Dream Seekers, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

Every now and then a car or a truck would come whooshing past with a rush of hot air and a slash of light, then go plummeting on into the distance. She had no idea when Dusty would be back. Maybe he’d just taken off like the others. Then a truck—not his—appeared, slowed and finally stopped across the road from the horse trailer. A lean, wiry man got out, took a leather bag from the seat and walked over to where Fred was working with his horses. The vet. As she watched them, a couple of tow trucks pulled up and parked. A burly man, T-shirt sticking to his chest, sunglasses, got out. Then a tall guy, cap on his head, long arms, big hands. Burt, their equipment man, emerged from the rig and came over to talk to them. Then a lot of backing and maneuvering, hauling of chains and attachments. And after a time they were towing the truck away in the direction of what she supposed was a town, though more than likely nothing more than a mirage. She’d believe it when she saw it. But no Dusty. Then the vet was gone too, and she watched Fred lead the horses back into the trailer. That done, he walked over to the trailer where he lived with Ginger, who leapt from one horse to the other while they raced round the ring, who went up into a handstand or did a flip at the height of their motion, who was beautiful to watch. There was a lightness in her. They deserved better, Alta knew. They were young and, like everybody else who’d been drawn in, had the dream painted in their heads. All full of enthusiasm. Dusty’s dream was their dream. She’d seen it happen over and over again. And he wasn’t lying when he went on painting the sky in vivid colors. He believed every word of it: it was going to happen. Then, one day, they woke up. He owed them money, like he owed everybody money. Now she knew they were leaving too. She didn’t get up to say goodbye, though she and Ginger had sat in each other’s trailers and traded intimacies. And Ginger had showed her bruises on her body in places that didn’t show. And sometimes she’d wept: Fred was fonder of his horses than he was of her, treated them better. And to tell the truth, she was sick of the smell of horse. Fred always smelled of horse. Alta didn’t go over to say goodbye, because chances were they’d come across each other when they least expected it. In this business you were never surprised.

She felt bad about the money, but there was no help for it. If their paths did cross and Dusty were flush, he’d pay off. That’s what he said, and she had no reason to doubt him because so far Dusty hadn’t had any money. She watched Ginger climb into the cab of the trailer while Fred went back to drive the one with the horses. Then they were gone. Why wasn’t she leaving with them? Was one kind of wandering any worse than another?

For a time she sat there blank and empty, all used up. The anger of the morning seemed as far away as last month. She wasn’t even waiting for anything. She turned off the chili, then let the evening move in around her. She sat with her dog in her lap. The deepening sky was a rich blue, a mingling of blues, lighter and dark, with a smoky feeling underneath; it came down into the landscape, softening the edges of the mountains, turning brown slopes to lavender, to indigo, to darker shapes yet that made all of it one vast stillness that reached far beyond her, perhaps to the borders of the world. There were only the little lights of the few trailers left: animal trainer, giant and midget, magician-cum-handyman.

That was the carnival now—the scrapings from the pot.

5  Down to EarthDown to Earth, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

From out of the indigo she saw headlights approach, then heard a truck pull up and stop. She went outside. Dusty was back, but with somebody with him in the front seat. She bent down, leaning on the side of the truck to look in. A girl. She could just about make her out in the gathering dusk. Though she looked to be no more than seventeen eighteen, she knew everything a woman could know and then some.

“This is Grace,” Dusty said, by way of introduction. “Amazing Grace. Wait’ll you see what she can do. We’ll hit the bigtime yet.”

I know what she can do, Alta thought. Amazing, all right. Probably one of those street kids that had left home at twelve or thirteen, soon as their periods started and they had their union card for womanhood. Then they peddled it on every street of Everytown in the great U.S. of A. Double A for Amazing. Then she noticed a childish face in the narrow seat behind Dusty. A boy. But so wild he looked like some creature that had been torn away from the land and still carried in its eyes the reflection of the water hole from which it drank, the snug of the nest where it had spent the night still clinging to the fine white hairs on his arms.

“Does he talk,” she suddenly asked.

“The words have gone out of him,” the girl said, “but the singing has stayed behind. He knows the ballad of Kitty Moreno and Amigo and the Battle of Glorieta Pass and Indian Joe and his fight with a bear and the loves of Pajarito.”

These are barely human things, Alta found herself thinking, for she had learned to recognize such and they were not new to her experience. And here was another set in front of her that she might look at and talk to and never understand. She could ask questions till her teeth rotted and it wouldn’t make a ghost of a difference. There they were, almost cringing in the seat of the truck. In the back with the boy, she noticed two crates that looked to be the dimensions of their personal property and inside which something stirred and moved with a vaguely animal and somewhat sinister quality. She didn’t ask what.

“You want something to eat,” she asked, for she could recognize hunger too, though on what level she couldn’t always tell. “I’ve got a pot of chili on the stove.”

They stepped out of the truck, the girl rubbing her arms against the evening chill. Alta saw a square of light as the door of Billy Bigelow’s trailer opened. He’d be coming too.

She looked off into the distance before she went inside: over in the mountains it looked as though a storm was brewing up. A sudden flash of lightning and the mountains stood out, every slope and draw outlined in angular crossings of brilliance. If it rains, she thought, it will pick up the dust and the sky will fall down in mud. First they’d nearly been swept away, now it was more than likely they’d be mired down. Or else the water could come tearing down the mountains in a flash flood.

“Come on inside,” she said, and went to the stove to put the fire on. Dusty was still fiddling outside in the truck while these two stood uncertainly in the doorway. “You can wash up in there,” she said. The boy’s eyes went roaming around the trailer as if it would take getting used to. Alta went about setting the table.

Here they were, just another pair among the number she had seen in the procession of all the broken, ill-formed, misbegotten things headed out of the world and onto the road, moving from town to town, never calling any place their own. They were her family, if you could call it that—they were her fate.

She closed the front door. It was getting cold now as night took over the desert. She was closing the door against the night, against the rustle of lizards and the spines of cactus, against whatever shapes lay in the darkness and whatever moved in the silence. Then Billy Bigelow and Dusty came in talking about the day. Only the sound of voices and the smell of chili seemed warm and real.

—Gladys Swan

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Prior to The Carnival Quintet, Gladys Swan has published two novels and seven collections of short fiction, of which The Tiger’s Eye: New & Selected Stories is the most recent. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various magazines. Also a painter, she has done the cover art for several magazines and books by other writers as well as her own. She was the first writer to receive a fellowship for a residency in painting at the Vermont Studio Center. She has taught in the creative writing program at the University of Missouri–Columbia and was a faculty member of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Vermont College. New Mexico, where she grew up, is the setting for much of her fiction.

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Oct 142014
 

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Warning: I burst out giggling every time I stick my nose in the following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Han Dong’s A Tabby-cat’s Tale. It’s a perfect example of how the author uses irony to inspire laughter. As you read this excerpt, it’ll be hard to focus on anything besides the hero, an anti-social, flea-ridden, incontinent cat called Tabby, but try and pay a little attention to this Chinese family’s reaction to the cat’s quirkiness. Tabby’s eccentricities don’t diminish their love, but intensify it. It’s truly hilarious. —Melissa Armstrong

Han Dong
A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages;  $2.99

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We never found out what had happened in those two hours, but what was certain was that the cat’s temperament had changed radically, and that it had gone in a highly unusual direction. Tabby no longer wove around our legs under the table. In fact, the family rarely knew his whereabouts, or if they did, they couldn’t get at him. Everyone knew we kept a cat, but the only signs of his existence were a particular smell—though it was impossible to trace the smell to its source. The neighbours’ children were endlessly curious and searched every corner of the house. Sometimes my sister-in-law, as Tabby’s owner, put on a show of joining in, but she wasn’t in the least anxious—she knew that Tabby was unlikely to make an appearance. So as the kids ransacked the flat, even turning cupboards and drawers upside down, she smiled secretly, knowing full well that Tabby had found a safe hiding place. Even my sister-in-law was unwilling to hazard a guess as to where he was. If she knew, she might betray her fear, so it was better not to know, better to have unconditional trust in Tabby. (This gave my mother an idea: Why not hide their savings book with Tabby? No burglar would ever find them.)

Tabby, strictly speaking, belonged to my sister-in-law. It was her idea to get a cat, and she was his chief caregiver. The rest of us just did the odd bit to help out but we had no particular role. With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough in itself, but having to find the mess first made it even worse. As I said, Tabby was an expert at hide-and-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on. Every day she had to get my brother or me to move cupboards and bookshelves and lift the bed boards and frames. She swept out the turds, applied charcoal to get rid of the smell of cat pee, washed the soiled upholstery and bedding and hung them out to dry in the sun. The flat was never really tidy, in fact it got to be quite a mess. The furniture was piled higgledy-piggledy in the middle of the room, as if we had just moved in or were about to move out and the removal truck was waiting downstairs. It began to get us humans down, but Tabby was in his element. Our house had become a jungle, the air pungent with the odour of cats. Gradually, we too became acclimatized; the smell became attenuated and our noses less sensitive. This had the effect of making it more difficult to locate the puddles of cat pee, and we failed more often. My sister-in-law, conscious that her olfactory sense had dulled, worried constantly that she had overlooked something. She went around sniffing all day long, until she sounded as if she had chronic rhinitis.

Still, there were good times. Picture the touching scene: My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it in a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour or so, the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.

Our cat was infested with the creatures, so his mistress had to repeat this service constantly. By this time, my sister-in-law was the only person who was allowed to touch him, and even she had raw, red scratches all over her hands from his sharp claws. She didn’t care and never went to get a rabies inoculation. My brother was horrified. Rabies can stay dormant for as much as twenty years, he told her, and might flare up at any time. ‘But Tabby’s a clean-living cat,’ retorted my sister-in-law. ‘He never goes out, so he can’t possibly have picked up rabies. If he bites us and behaves oddly, it’s because he has psychological problems.’ Tabby lay in the crook of her arm like a beautiful baby, staring at us wide-eyed, content to allow his mistress to part his belly fur this way and that. His eyes closed in blissful content and grunting issued from his throat. But appearances were deceptive: at any moment, this un-swaddled infant might leap into the air and extend his fearsome claws. Once, my sister-in-law was bent just a little too close over her task, and Tabby nearly had her eye out. As it was, her nose was badly scratched, and she was scarred for life. Her cat duties were not just never-ending, they were extremely hazardous. No wonder they demanded her unwavering attention.

My sister-in-law went to work every day, came home and spent the rest of the evening caring for Tabby. As time went by, the cooking gradually devolved on my mother, who was over sixty and in frail health. Until then, the most she had done in the kitchen was lend my sister-in-law a hand, but now she wielded the ladle over the wok and my sister-in-law didn’t lift a finger. My elderly mother shopped and cooked, served us and even did the washing-up afterwards. It was hard for her—she’d been a pampered only-child, and this was the first time in her life that she’d had to take charge of the house. At the start, my mother accepted her new responsibilities with alacrity. Her daughter-in-law constantly praised her efforts—because she had a guilty conscience—and so my brother and I had to follow suit. If my sister-in-law put her nose through the kitchen door, it was only to prepare food for Tabby. She stewed fish guts for him until the kitchen stank to high heaven and we had to hold our noses. But sometimes, the kitchen smells were delicious—that was when, on high days and holidays, she went out especially to buy fresh fish for Tabby, which she left swimming in the wash basin. These she cleaned and cooked herself, entirely for the cat. We never got so much as a taste, nor did she. She and my mother jostled for space in the kitchen, so that Tabby should get his meals on time. Sometimes the smell of Tabby’s food made our mouths water. Once, my brother and I accidentally tasted a spoonful of Tabby’s food and told my mother how good her cooking was; another time, I had a spoonful of the sweet and sour fish my mother was making and it was so horrible that I thought it was for the cat. Eventually, my mother’s confidence in her cooking plummeted, and she no longer wielded the wok ladle with the energy of a master chef.

It was not that my sister-in-law wanted to leave my mother in charge. In fact, her constant care for the cat was largely done for my mother’s benefit. If she didn’t prepare the cat’s food, then he would have had to eat a portion of our food, wouldn’t he? Most importantly, my mother was super-sensitive to bugs. In summer, a single mosquito in the flat would keep her awake. If she got bitten, she would be scratching all night. And the mosquitos found her irresistible: in fact, she was the best mosquito-repellent for everyone else. Any mosquito would make a beeline for her and leave the rest of us alone. With fleas, it was even worse. Even since Tabby’s arrival, my mother had been covered in streaks of blood from flea bites, which were indirectly caused by the cat. My sister-in-law felt so sorry that she redoubled her efforts to rid Tabby of his fleas. But she wouldn’t get rid of Tabby. Even my mother could see that her daughter-in-law treated him like her own son, and she accepted this. Both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law were highly principled women, and somehow, Tabby kept their relationship in harmonious balance.

Tabby was the pivotal point of family life, and the pivot of the pivot was the never-ending supply of fleas. One day, my sister-in-law bought him a Happy Kitty flea collar. The fleas deserted him in droves, which made him happy, but rather than disappear, they scattered to the four corners of the flat before coming together in one place—my mother’s bedding. My mother wasn’t wearing a Happy Kitty flea collar, so you can imagine the outcome. The old lady had a much harder time of it than Tabby: no flea collar and no one to spend all day picking the fleas off of her. When my sister-in-law saw the appalling devastation that my mother’s continual scratching was wreaking on her body, she had to take Tabby’s collar off. Once they had heard the news, most of the fleas returned to live on the cat, although a few remained behind, and even one bite was enough to give my mother a sleepless night. However, she was at least liberated from the torment of hundreds of fleas inflicting thousands of bites on her. The truth is that my mother learned to tolerate the flea bites somewhat, and the sight of my sister-in-law bent assiduously over Tabby’s belly made it difficult for her to complain.

After that, my brother swore to exterminate the pests. He got a can of insect repellent and directed a fierce jet at Tabby. The cat yowled and fled, not under the bed or behind the cupboard, but onto the windowsill, perhaps seeing safety in the outside world. Our flat was on the seventh floor, and luckily the windows were screened with a plastic mesh. Otherwise, Tabby would have fallen through. He dangled from the mesh, and his claws scrabbled and tore at it. Spread-eagled and silhouetted blackly against the rectangle of light, he mewed piteously. But my brother was determined to solve this problem once and for all. He emptied half the can, filling the flat with DDVP; the spray formed droplets on Tabby that dripped from his fur. His mewing grew fainter until finally he dropped, still spread-eagled, to the floor.

My brother had to adopt emergency measures to revive him. He rinsed him with bowl after bowl of clean water, finally holding him under the kitchen tap. Tabby went limp and let himself be handled. Normally, he refused to be bathed, and it took the two of them to manage it, my sister-in-law washing him while my brother gripped his back legs. This time was different: he even allowed my brother to give him two soapings and several rinses. My brother then towelled him dry and blew warm air at him with the hair dryer; he even trimmed Tabby’s front claws. My sister-in-law came home from work to see a well-groomed Tabby and my tenderly solicitous brother. This gave her a gnawing, jealous feeling, but she never got the bottom of what had happened, and my brother never told her about the insecticide. From then on, however, Tabby never trusted anyone but my sister-in-law. She was the only person he allowed close to him, yet he attacked her with renewed savagery. My sister-in-law’s arms were covered in a network of scratches, both fresh and old, and she became expert at dodging his attacks. My sister-in-law must have been suspicious about the cold Tabby caught as a result of the incident with the spray can, and his subsequent bath, perhaps connecting it with something my brother had done, but her woman’s intuition warned her not to probe too deeply, in case it led to divorce. She didn’t want that—neither did my brother—so Tabby’s bath became a taboo subject, which they both learned to avoid. My brother simply assumed an air of guilt, as if he were a man with a mistress on the side.

—Han Dong, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harmon

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Oct 132014
 

Han Dong

Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat. —Melissa Armstrong

cover

A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages; $2.99

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Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat.

Han Dong’s Tabby may not be the stereotypical hero, but he nevertheless derives from a line of similar characters in literary history. The author’s portrayal of Tabby fits quite nicely alongside the hilarious and often eyebrow-raising wit J.R. Ackerley employs in My Dog Tulip. Published in 1965, My Dog Tulip describes the tumultuous but unconditional sixteen-year love affair the narrator shares with an untrained and sometimes downright stubborn Alsatian bitch — who bites, barks excessively, gets booted from several public places, including a veterinarian’s office and a grocery store, and delivers a litter of pups in a London flat.

In Han Dong’s story, separated by thirty-five years and seven thousand miles, we meet Tulip’s soul mate, a cat named Tabby that lives and dies on a seventh floor apartment in Nanjing, China. In A Tabby-cat’s Tale, we follow a Chinese family’s eight-year plight, taking care of their feline, who despises people, doesn’t use a litter box, has fleas, and often displays violent behavior. At one point, the cat scars the sister-in-law for life when he swipes her nose with his “fearsome claws.” But, amusingly, instead of finding another home for Tabby, the family goes to extraordinary lengths to make life comfortable for the cat, cooking him special fish-gut soup and starting a war with the neighbors so that Tabby can live on their apartment complex roof.

Like Ackerley’s portrayal of his dog Tulip, Han Dong hilariously depicts Tabby with vivid descriptions of the cat’s bad habits. In terse, sometimes lively (vulgar) language, Han Dong exposes all of Tabby’s faults, such as his failure to use a litter box:

With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough as it was, but having to find the mess made it even worse. Tabby was a master of hide-n-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on.

Or his flea-ridden coat:

My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it on a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour, or so the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.

Ironically, the cat’s incontinence and fleas don’t stunt the family’s affection one iota. If anything, as the cat’s eccentricity increases so does the family’s obsession. At the crux of this irony — the crease between the family’s growing tenderness and the cat’s oddities – is where Han Dong achieves some of his greatest comedic moments.

Tabby’s story is told by a first person narrator, but over the course of the cat’s eight years, he has four different caretakers, the sister-in-law, the brother, the narrator, and his fiancée Xulu. Each character shares the same desire: to care for Tabby. In fact, people’s extraordinary reactions to Tabby’s weird habits are as comical as the cat’s behavior. The sister-in-law, the feline’s first steward, relinquishes all household responsibilities, working afternoons then returning directly home, in order to cook fish-gut soup for Tabby and rid his coat of the dreaded fleas. When the childless sister-in-law dies – on her deathbed — she bequeaths the orphaned cat to her husband.

In turn, the brother treats the feline like a son. The narrator relates: “After that, no matter how much my mother complained about the fleas and the cat’s crazy behavior, ripping the sofa to shreds with claws and eating all the plants on the veranda down to their roots, my brother turned a deaf ear.” At one point, the brother, realizing that his care can never equal the standards of his wife’s maternal instincts, searches for a replacement with qualifications to serve as a stepmother to his feline. The family’s fixation with their pet cat pinnacles when the narrator and his fiancée move into the seventh floor flat and become so obsessed with Tabby that they forego everything else in their lives.

There was clearly something wrong with the way we were living our lives. I wondered if Tabby had put a spell on us. He looked so young, and I had never seen a more handsome cat. The markings on his face gave him an aloof beauty, and it was this, rather than pure boredom, which absorbed our attention. We would spend hours at a time on the balcony, forgetting to eat or go to work.

Born in 1961, the author Han Dong lived through China’s Cultural Revolution; as a child, he was exiled along with his family to the countryside to live and learn among the peasants. This experience heavily influences his first novel Banished!, which won the Chinese Novelist Prize in 2003, a PEN Translation Award, and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. Before Han Dong pursued a full-time literary career, he studied philosophy at Shandong University and subsequently taught in Nanjing and Xi’an. Currently, he’s known as a poet, editor, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and blogger.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way the narrator’s philosophical — almost scientific — commentary turns a quirky tale of an odd cat into a sophisticated story about the fascination and frustration of communicating with animals. A Tabby-cat’s Tale and My Dog Tulip are anecdotal accounts of the puzzling behavior of a cat and a dog, but simmering beneath the antics of these animals is the complex problem of language. How can we understand creatures that don’t speak?

Early in A Tabby-cat’s Tale, Han Dong concedes that people can never truly comprehend animals because we don’t share a language. When the novella opens, Tabby acts like a playful kitten, but after an afternoon spent with a neighbor, Tabby returns home transformed into an antisocial feline. The narrator is away when Tabby changes; he’ll never be able to simply ask the cat what caused his drastic personality switch. And yet:

…the truth is that even if I’d been at home, I couldn’t know everything that happened to Tabby. He was just a cat, to be found under the bed or along the walls, living a life that was completely separate from mine. Besides, he couldn’t speak our language, and a cat’s thought and needs can never fully be understood by humans, no matter how carefully they pry.

This grasping for meaning outside the conventions — and freedoms — of a shared language replays itself over and over again throughout the novel and appears in every character entangled with Tabby. Whether it’s the neighbors rummaging through the feline’s perceived hiding spots on the roof or the fiancée hanging her clothes above cat feces so they absorb the smell, each character tries to predict the animal’s motivations but fails. When the narrator becomes Tabby’s primary caregiver, he sheds all daily tasks and begins writing A Tabby-cat’s Tale, while his fiancée manically fills their flat with doodled drawings of felines. Yet, ultimately, even they can’t truly comprehend the object of their fascination.

The theme of frustration with communicating outside language also appears repeatedly in My Dog Tulip. In scene after scene, whether deciphering the dog’s preferred pooping spots or finding a stud for Tulip to mate, Ackerley struggles with his inability to understand what his beloved dog is trying to say. And even though both authors understand the futility of their efforts, they never cease yearning to discern the unknowable.

In the last few pages of Han Dong’s novella, the tone turns deeply philosophical as the narrator, at his obsessive peak, contrasts his humanity with Tabby’s nature. Afraid the cat has cast a spell over him, the narrator discovers pleasure in Tabby’s ordinariness, such as when the cat tries to cover his “turds” with invisible cinders or when the fiancée catches him “wanking.” As the narrator struggles with his fanatical attraction, he also succumbs to the mystery of it.

And yet, in the end, the narrator answers his own preoccupation. When the cat “threw up violently,” instead of calling an ambulance that would have whisked an ailing human to a hospital, he lets Tabby’s illness linger until it’s too late, and he dies. After all, he’s only a cat.

—Melissa Armstrong

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Melissa Armstrong lives outside Nashville, TN with her husband and five dogs. Currently, she’s working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes a blog, TheFarnival.com, about her efforts to rescue and rehabilitate animals in the rural south.

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Oct 132014
 

The Collaborators Kim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing room The Collaborators Kim Maltman & Roo Borson in their shared writing room.

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I’ve known Kim and Roo since we were students together in the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia in the 1970’s. It was clear then that they were the real deal, and already writing pretty sophisticated poetry – though they snort at the idea now. We see each other rarely, but I’ve always felt a kinship because of those early days of tiptoeing – then leaping – into the writing world.

Roo Borson, poet and essayist, has published over a dozen books and has won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry. She has also co-written ‘Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei,’ a Pain Not Bread poetry project, in collaboration with Kim Maltman and Andy Patton. A forthcoming volume of prose- poetry, ‘Box Kite’, is a collaboration with Kim Maltman under the pen name Baziju. A native of Berkeley, California, the daughter of two doctors, Borson did her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Barbara and Goddard College and later received an MFA from the University of British Columbia.

Kim Maltman, long time partner/spouse of Roo, was born in Medicine Hat and achieved undergraduate degrees in Math and Chemistry with a PhD in Physics from the University of Toronto. He is a professor at York University in the Mathematics department and a particle physicist, as well as being a poet. He is author or co-author of more than 6 volumes of poetry.

—Ann Ireland

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Picture the poet, a solitary figure, brushing hair from her eyes as she gazes out the window at the street below. Or maybe she stares at rolling hills and grazing sheep. But she is always alone, for isn’t it in this deep communion with Self that poetry lives?

‘We have no interest in the primacy of the individual voice,’ says poet/physicist Kim Maltman. We are sitting at the dining table in a Toronto house that he shares with poet and life partner, Roo Borson. ‘I remember reading a review of Roo’s that singled out a line as being ‘classic Roo Borson’ – but I’d written it.’

Their collaboration goes back to the mid 1970’s when they – and I – were in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Department. It was at these hands-on workshops that they got in the habit of offering suggestions and adding lines, re-structuring each other’s work. The poetry workshop was led for a brief time by Pat Lowther. After a couple of sessions Lowther disappeared – forever. Her body was discovered in a creek near Squamish. Police arrested her husband, the lesser-known poet, Roy Lowther, and he was convicted and sentenced for her murder.

The same Roy Lowther who offered me my first-ever publication in his journal, Pegasus.

Roo would go on to win the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry in 2005.

‘We have different product lines,’ Kim explains with a hint of a smile. ‘The Borson line; the Maltman line; and various official collaboration lines.’ Notable amongst these is the Pain Not Bread project – a ten year enterprise where the pair worked closely with painter/writer Andy Patton, a collaboration that resulted in a book of poetry published by Brick Books in 2000: Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei.

Kim Maltman

I ask about the process of this collaboration. Did they write on their own, then show work to each other for feedback and additions?

For the most part, no. Or not exactly.

Kim says: ‘The rule was not to let the piece get an established voice, but to put it out there (for the other two to look at) quickly so that it would really be a joint creation, starting from fragments.’

Roo isn’t so sure. ‘I’d disagree,’ she says, ‘though Kim believes this to be true. As I do in my own work, I take the writing as far as I can, then hand it to the others.’

‘As far as you can,’ Kim reminds her, ‘means you get stuck, or that you are unsure if the idea is good.’

Roo agrees: ‘Then we sit and talk about it.’

The Pain Not Bread collaborators worked off a variety of source materials, mostly traditional Chinese poetry in translation. Kim and Roo went so far as to study written and oral Chinese, though Roo claims to have forgotten it all.

How did they use this material?

‘You fuzz up your eyes looking at the source text,’ Roo says. ‘It replaces your habitual vocabulary and replaces it with another vocabulary.

Kim adds: ‘It was a structure to move us from our usual tendencies and bad habits.’

Both poets agree that the process of writing Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei was ‘addictive’. Roo goes on to say: ‘We began to craftily mimic each other. Andy has poignancy; Kim takes abstractions almost as if they have a sensual tangibility – and I do images.’

If one person didn’t like something, then it wouldn’t make it under the Pain Not Bread umbrella.

Andy Patton emails: ‘The work was very difficult but working with them was easy. In some sense, it was as though “Roo” and “Kim” disappeared, until we were through working for that day, and there they were again.’ Patton goes on to quote from one of the poems in the book:

from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)

…The range of meanings
is not important, so long as we can get together
every week or so,
make these protests against our own characters,
and, like teasing feathers from an ancient pillow,
find out what it is that might be in our minds.

Capture

Back to the question of the solitary artist. Kim shrugs off the concept: ‘It’s about making the work better; not being ‘close to my heart.’

How interesting then, to read Pain Not Bread and sense how intimate the writing feels, how close to the ear and eye. And yes, heart, the collaborative heart.

Working with others ‘allows you to have access to more skills than you alone possess as a writer,’ Roo emails. ‘Working with Kim and Andy, and/or just Kim, means that my written world is larger than it would otherwise be. More tonal avenues. More ways to move.’

I ask Kim: ‘ How does it feel to have one foot in the science camp and the other in poetry?’

Neither odd nor awkward, he claims. ‘I’m out on the fringe of science,’ and his research field of theoretical particle physics is ‘hyper – metaphorical in approach.’ Metaphor is how one can begin to understand difficult concepts. Like string theory, I’m thinking. Pulling up Kim’s York University website I learn that he is interested in: ‘…the consequences of the Standard Model of particle physics for few-body nuclear systems and low-energy particle physics and dynamics.’ I recall something he said earlier, about how poetry enters the mind: ‘You have to sit with it and let its meaning happen.’

Glance out the window at laundry flapping on the clothesline in their backyard in the Oakwood/Vaughan Road area. Such a relief to visit an unrenovated house, no need to go on about the new kitchen cabinets and gas fireplace and shiny bamboo floors. If I squint, it’s not hard to fall back into time, late 1970’s. By then Roo and Kim and I were living in Toronto, at different ends of the city, and we’d meet at readings of the Harbourfront Reading Series organized by Greg Gatenby. This was before the famous International Authors Festival got up and running. Our faithful group consisted of Greg; the featured author(s); novelist M.T. Kelly; poet David Donnell; me – and Kim and Roo. After the reading, the gang would head to the Hayloft bar to toss back beers and chips, and to talk about literature and our nascent projects. Baby writers in those days, we all went on to win some pretty tasty awards.

My hosts’ latest project is a book of prose poems that will appear with House of Anansi Press in 2016. Box Kite is composed by Kim and Roo under the pen name Baziju. Unlike the Pain Not Bread project, this work is not intertextual nor does it riff off source material. They took turns working on the pieces, Kim picking them up at night after Roo was asleep, and the next morning they’d ponder the results together, followed by ‘further Roo-trials during the day and further Kim-trials the subsequent evening.’ One might launch a piece that was simple but, as Kim explains, ‘We wanted the work to open up and become rich and unwieldy so we banged our heads against things, waiting for a weak spot to open.’

Often they’d read aloud, ‘punching new openings in existing pieces … the structure finally yielding and producing a functional opening only because of the pressure of the collective onslaught.’ This is Kim talking, or rather writing, a day later. The duo shares an email address, and one learns to recognize phrases and quirks of language.

‘Kim and I have very different minds,’ Roo points out. ‘I’m scattered and he’s totally focused. I’m never super-focused and I can work on a poem for two minutes, go off and do a bunch of domestic duties and emails, then return to work. Kim needs long stretches of time to go in deeply.’

Roo Borson in the readingthinking chair in office

Flashback: A few years ago I’m tramping up the hills behind the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California- Roo’s home town. Camera in hand, I have a task to perform. Roo’s family house, built by her grandfather, burned down in the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991, and she’s held off checking what has become of the place, perhaps because it’s too painful to contemplate. She has written about visiting the site soon after the disaster, how the chimney, made of brick reclaimed from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, stuck up intact, surrounded by rubble. I continue to trudge upwards in midday heat, past Arts and Crafts style houses, haciendas, and countless eucalyptus trees – trees which have a tendency to explode in high heat. Roo left Berkeley in her late teens, but was here for free concerts by the Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park and Grace Slick singing White Rabbit.

Finally, there it is, a hideous yellow monster house built to the edges of the property line. Snap photos. Press ‘send’.

Today, Kim tells me that a ‘serious criminal’ now lives in the house.

I ask to see the pair’s writing space and we head upstairs to a small room equipped with desk, an old IBM Thinkpad, and an easy chair next to a side table littered with books.

‘I’m on my own a lot,’ Roo says. ‘More than I’d like.’ This is spoken in a matter of fact voice, not plaintively. I think of how many writers live, yearning to be alone yet feeling lonely when they are. She plunks down on the easy chair, demonstrating where she sits to read, to think, to work.

‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.

‘Not really. I’m frustrated all the time, so I’m motivated to make the poems go better.’

I ask which poets they read these days and who they read when starting out. Michael Yates, professor at the University of British Columbia, introduced them to poetry in translation, notably Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez, a work which opened up the possibilities of prose poetry, and Tomas Transtromer, Swedish writer and recent Nobel Prize winner. Roo emails later how Transtromer’s poetry ‘is built around stunning, unsurpassable symbolic imagery.’ This discussion of influences and touchstones continues via email. Kim and Roo both speak of the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, whose work Roo reads for – ‘his intimacy and spirit, expressed in astonishingly perfect formal music.’ Kim notes Alice Oswald’s Memorial, ‘an exceptional intertextual cross-cut through the Iliad, with an amazing use of repetition and large scale structure.’

Roo reads widely. ‘Unlike some poets, who only read certain schools of poetry,’ Kim notes.

Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’

Roo Borson (all photos by Ann Ireland)

Even when working on the ‘Borson product line’ Roo counts on her partner’s immersive feedback. She’ll slip the work -in-progress into a folder at the edge of the dining table and wait for Kim’s response. This can take weeks, or even months, due to his heavy teaching and research schedule. He’ll ‘ponder’ the draft and at some point, as he describes the process – ‘I’ll feel I have a line of entry into it.’

‘Doesn’t it drive you nuts that it takes him so long to get back to you?’ I ask, thinking of the way I hover over Tim as he reads my latest attempt.

Roo shrugs. ‘I’ve learned I have to leave it for as long as it takes. By the time the poems get to the pile I’ve worked on them for a very long time.’

Kim adds: ‘I’ll write new parts and rearrange, and she does the same for me.’

Roo agrees. ‘And I’ll put two of his poems together and make it one. We’re doing this all the time.’

Kim likes to speak of the ‘voice’ of the poem and he doesn’t mean the writer’s voice, or not exactly. Nor any character’s voice within. It’s something that belongs to the DNA of the poem, its language and syntax and sensibility. ‘I have to have a sense of this (in order to work on Roo’s piece) and it can be hard to find.

‘This whole voice thing is harder for me to know about,’ says Roo. ‘I feel my way through images, whereas Kim feels his way through voice.’

Back downstairs, she disappears for a moment into the kitchen and returns with a plate containing a loaf of banana bread. We dive in.

As we sat around the rectory-style table in crumbling Brock Hall at the University of British Columbia all those decades ago, I recall the way Roo would lean forward on her chair during the workshop sessions, elbows on thighs, clutching the weekly worksheet. She’d be frowning as she sought to pin down what a particular poem was getting at. She’d press on, puzzling it out, then say something off-kilter so that we’d all laugh. Kim, beside her, hair down to his shoulders and bearded, sat upright on his chair, arms folded in front of his chest and when he talked, it was often out of the corner of his mouth, his brain working too quickly for speech.

We were learning how to be what we wanted to become.

—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos

 

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Poems

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Cook

James Cook, 1728-1779

An overwhelming rain beats down and, mainmast snapped,
Cook turns again toward the islands.
/
Already there has been much grumbling in the villages,
against the gods, their appetite for pigs and women and plantains,
much talk as well about the iron nails from their ships,
and how such things of value are to be
desired and gained.
/
It is the beginning of the end:
the little Eden of aloha and blood sacrifice,
of stone tools and of plenty will not long survive.
/
Seen from here it passes in an instant,
even the time of the navigators is no more than the
blink of an eye, like the life of the mayfly we make of
all of history one immense and telescoped distortion —
island upon island —
Midway, now, halfway across the ocean, waterless, eroded,
yet it seems immutable.
/
In portraits of the time, Cook sits like that.
Contained. Immutable.
It is the great colonial age.
England, the European powers, vie for dominance.
They see time as flowing past and through them,
and think to fasten themselves to the fabric of it —
like enormous, beautiful gemstones,
no longer in fashion.
An age of “Destiny,” of corpulent aristocrats, for whom the
mountains and peninsulas and islands will be
named, and re-discovered, earnestly debating,
in ornately panelled rooms,
honor and glory,
notions we can hardly bear to speak of any longer.
/
Only death, the figure of it, seems quite real.
Cook, returning to the beaches of Kauai — sprawled out
beneath the fury of descending wooden clubs —
astonished, suddenly outside of time —
the man who, as the god, struck,
cries out, revealing himself,
and the murmur runs though the crowd,
“he bleeds.”

—Kim Maltman

 —

/
Vocation

Night after night on the kibbutz
they berated me for staying out late, watching the moon.
Drink your milk, they said —
in the morning you’ll have to work. All day
you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you!
Night after night they berated me.
And night after night, my cup of milk shining,
I came out anyway.
Drink your milk, I said.
In the morning you’ll have to work.
All day you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you.

—Roo Borson, from Water Memory (McClelland and Stewart)

 —

XISHI DOUFU

Jilong was every shade of grey in the rain. Red-grey, yellow-grey, green-grey, grey. It had been raining all the way from Hualian, where there were mudslides. In Hualian we’d spent the night in a hotel decorated with red velvet and imitation stained glass, overlooking an intersection which shrieked the whole night through with gunning motorbikes and small trucks blaring out presidential campaign ads, live, through loudspeakers, handheld or mounted on their roofs. And now the rain-soaked sea, the blocky cement structures of the sugar towns, a cement-coloured crescent of wet beach, this or that hillside grotto of cycads, ferns the size of small houses — each time the train was swallowed up in a tunnel the world went black, swaying and rocking, only to be resurrected again the next moment. Now, at last, all this was behind us and, now heavy, now light, now drenching, now middling, the rain continued….

A map we’d picked up at the station had shown several hotels, and we’d made our way now to the nearest of these. A sailor took a swig from a mickey-sized paper bag as I squeezed past in the narrow corridor which served as a lobby, and into the tiny elevator. Passing by an open door along the way, I caught sight of one of the other guests, a young woman talking on a cellphone. Our room-to-be had an actual porthole for a window and beautiful, mildewed wainscoting, which gave off an odd air of dampness and chill. And so for the second time I passed by the young woman, who sat perched in her miniskirt on a matching circular bed, still talking softly on her cellphone, and rode back down to the lobby to return the room key and decline the room, and then we slogged our way again through the rain, dragging our luggage up and down over the labyrinthine series of pedestrian overpasses.

After tea, a hot shower, and some desultory television in a second (this time, mercifully acceptable) hotel called The Kodak, whose sewing kit I still carry with me, we made our way downstairs to the hotel restaurant. What we wanted was a bowl of rice, a green vegetable, possibly some bean curd, above all to avoid having to venture out again into that pouring rain. The menu, when it finally arrived, however, spoke more of the hotel’s elevated image of itself than of the contents of its dishes, being one of those composed almost entirely of gracious yet curious literary allusions, most of them unknown to us, and only a handful bearing names into which words we recognized for food had been allowed to slip. Among these was a dish called Xishi Doufu.

This (leaving aside the doufu for the moment), although also an allusion, was at least one that we recognized. Xishi: legendary beauty of the Warring States period. Favourite concubine to the last, doomed King of the state of Wu, so bewitching that, languishing in her company, he allowed his whole kingdom to be overrun and lost. Rice, a vegetable, and Xishi Doufu it would have to be then, although why Xishi, and what this doufu that now bore her name might turn out to consist of, we would have to wait and see.

Often when I think of doufu, I remember the novel A Small Town Called Hibiscus by the Chinese writer Gu Hua. The novel is set in a poor village in Hunan during the sixties and seventies, a period of great upheaval throughout the country. It makes frequent and lavish references to an incredibly tender bean curd, a bean curd which in fact turns out to be not exactly bean curd, but a ‘bean curd’ contrived out of the sweepings of rice powder gathered from the storeroom floor. The bean curd vendor, Yuyin, has been declared a “rich peasant,” dispossessed, and forced to make her living selling bean curd on the streets. Throughout the novel, numerous servings of this ‘doufu’ are dolloped out, steaming hot, into bowls, and doused with chili oil and green onion. Each appearance in the novel made me famished — so much so that, ever since, every unknown bean curd dish appearing on a Chinese menu makes me once more long for it.

At the end of Gu Hua’s novel it is 1979, and Yuyin has, at last, been rehabilitated. Her tormentor, Wang Qiushe, has gone mad and wanders the streets, calling out endlessly for yet another revolutionary political movement, long after the era of such movements, and the devastation they (and he) have brought to other peoples’ lives, has passed. I thought again of Yuyin’s doufu as we waited (patiently, and for some time — like the King of the doomed state of Wu, we joked) for our order to arrive.

And now before us stood a dish of Xishi Doufu. The cubes so white they seemed almost translucent, so delicate they registered even the slight shocks of the waiters passing, unobtrusively as always, near our table. The tremulous cubes slid away at the touch of the serving spoon and, upon being lifted with chopsticks, would pause a moment and then break in half.

Often since then I have thought of that dish, though in my mind it is now hopelessly entangled with the doufu of Gu Hua’s story. Thus, on occasion, when I come upon doufu listed in a restaurant menu, I find myself not only remembering the town of Hibiscus and the doufu of those revolutionary times, but wondering whether I might not, like the legendary last King of the once great, now long-vanished state of Wu, be living through the last days of some great tragedy I am as yet completely unaware of. Perhaps this is why the story of ordering Xishi Doufu in the restaurant of The Kodak Hotel, in the port city of Jilong, on the northeast corner of the island of Taiwan, has stayed with me, and why I am now writing it down — to (as Gu Hua says in his postscript, reflecting on the times he lived through) “comfort, encourage, mock and explain myself.”

—Baziju, from the manuscript Box Kite

 Roo Borson and Kim Maltman’s chair in their officeThe Borson/Maltman communal office easy chair.

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

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Oct 122014
 

DSCF8995Surprisingly, there are great swathes of clear cut forest all along the coastal road in the west. Sometimes the lumber companies leave a thin screen of trees along the road and sometimes not. Depressing to see. Most of the logs go straight to China these days.

DSCF9036Sombrio Beach (photo by MF). Behind us, makeshift tents and campsites occupied by surfers trying to dry out in the dense mist.

DSCF9135The Juan de Fuca Trail near Sombrio Beach.

IMG_2248DG at the University of Victoria First Peoples House as a guest of Taiaiake Alfred and the Indigenous Governance department, talking to grad students and faculty in the program. Not a great photo and dg looks particularly self-important, perhaps conducting a symphony, but it’s the only one and it preserves the moment.

First Peoples HouseHere’s the hall (without people). Amazing place modeled on the traditional Coast Salish long house.

tshirtTaiaiake Alfred presented dg with a coveted Indigenous Nationhood Movement tshirt, which meant a lot.

DSCF9172Harbor seal off the marina wharf in Mill Bay. They were playing all along the coast, some far out and diving with dramatic tail slaps. At Mill Bay we heard the tail slaps, saw loons and a kingfisher and then a bald eagle zoomed close overhead, all in about five minutes. DG stopped mentioning the seals to the locals because it marked him as a greenhorn.

DSCF9186Cow Bay, a touristified, single-street, old village on the coast, organic foods, organic baked goods, and one store that sold liquor and tools.

DSCF9214This is the so-called butter church on Comiaken Hill in the Cowichan Reserve, Cowichan Bay in the background to the right. Abandoned, it was the first church in the area, an ancient-looking chapel, on a hill that feels lonely, mysterious and sacred, empty grass field to the left where people were once buried, though most of the markers are down, one lone oak tree, low mountains all around except in the direction of the bay. Also a place of ill-memory because of treaties signed nearby in the 1850s. The church was built in 1870 with the help of natives who were paid with money earned from the sale of butter. Apparently.

DSCF9205

DSCF9192St. Anne’s Church, just down the road from the butter church. Back in Victoria we had run into an ancient beekeeper who said his great- or great-great-grandfather was Chief George Tzouhalem of the Cowichan band. An Irishman who fought with Pickett at Gettysburg apparently came up the coast and married the chief’s 15-year-old daughter — this was the beekeeper’s line. He said to drive up to this place because old chief Tzouhalem is buried here and his grand-daughter bought a pink granite plinth and had it raised over the grave.  We walked all through this sombre place and finally, yes, did discover the plinth, raised by the grand-daughter Ettie George, just as the beekeeper had said. He had known Ettie and had stories.

DSCF9195

DSCF9190

DSCF9191Christianity is dissipating perhaps. The crosses all over the graveyard were mostly temporary markers. Occasionally, there was something more indicative of a different way of being. Later, I got to talk to a man who makes the grave markers, a social role passed down through his family, and he said the crosses are just places to put names now, not signs of belief. Alarming number of fresh graves in every native graveyard, signs of hard lives, poverty and the depression that goes with being a dispossessed and colonized people.

Oct 122014
 

daniel-kehlmann-5

Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces. —Jason DeYoung

F

F
Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Panthenon, 2014
$25.95, 256 pages

F is “for people who don’t trust family novels,” Daniel Kehlmann said recently in an interview. F is for fate and family and father and fake and fraud and forgery, too. Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces.

Daniel Kehlmann is famous in Germany, roughly a wünderkind, with something akin to the American readership of Donna Tart. His first novel was publish when he was twenty-two, while he was working on a doctoral thesis on the sublime in the works of Immanuel Kant. His novel Measuring the World (2005) became the best selling novel in Germany since Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985). Just thirty-nine, he’s written five other books, many of which have been translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, including Me and Kaminski and Fame. But he doesn’t have the readership in America that he might deserve. The superb F might change that.

Broken into six sections, each part of F operates both as its own story and within the context of the novel. The opening scene sets up the family dynamics. Arthur Friedland is taking his twin son’s—Ivan and Eric—from a current marriage, and an older son, Martin, from a previous marriage, to see a traveling hypnotist show. Arthur is something of a stay-at-home dad who writes novels no publisher will take. He has a particular itch for quoting Nietzsche and a child-like disposition for arguing with his sons about animated movies and Yoda’s speech patterns.

The boys are set at odds by marriages and brotherhood. Martin is clearly intelligent but shy with his younger half-brothers whom he looks upon distrustfully because of their close bond. Eric, already at thirteen years old, is well-aware that his father is pitied by others for his failure and unemployment, and has resolved not to be like Arthur. Ivan is steeped in insecurities, worries about talent and intellectual gifts, and wonders how people without them “put up with their existence.” These opening pages subtly portray a fractured family, members who don’t know one another very well.

At the show, the hypnotist will call Arthur to the stage. Arthur will tell him that he cannot be hypnotized. But something happens, because after the show, Arthur will leave his family. In fact, he leaves them so swiftly, Martin is left stranded.

When we next meet the brothers, it’s some twenty-five years. Each brother gets his own section in F, and each section takes place on one day—8 August 2008. Martin is the first brother examined. Overweight and obsessed with the Rubik’s cube (an obsession he’s carried from youth), he has gone into the priesthood, yet his reason is too strong, and he’s not entirely certain he has faith in God. Eric has pursued money, but has committed fraud through a pyramid scheme, and he’s on the verge of being caught by his biggest investor. Lastly, Ivan has become a painter, who begins to paint pictures for a mediocre artist, yet Ivan adds innovative turns into the artist’s work, and this strange form of forgery grows the older painter’s reputation and makes him famous. With patient characterization and expansive narrative, Klehmann dramatizes each son’s fakery, each man’s simulation of their profession. The irony the brothers share is the belief that others—colleagues, family—can “see through them,” see their dishonesty and their small “wounded” selves. Of course, their sham is too convincing, their fake is too good.

Moving in and out of the novel’s story lines is Arthur who since leaving his family has gone on to write a number of successful, experimental novels, one so bleak and powerful as to cause a few of its readers to commit suicide. Whether it was the hypnotist’s doing or Arthur’s true character, we are never made privy to why it is he left his family. The hypnotist holds that a person under hypnosis will never do something he or she doesn’t want to do, but it’s a strange moment in the book, full of uncertainties and doublespeak, when the Great Linderman puts his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and says: “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want to me to give you the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it cost.” The “effort” referred to is Arthur’s ambition to be a novelist, the profession he tells the Great Linderman he’d failed at doing.

Perhaps he wanted the order, perhaps not? But unlike his sons, Arthur doesn’t have the same pretensions—he is not faking. Later in the book Martin will confront him about it. “Obligations,” Arthur says, “we invent them when required. Nobody has them unless they decide they have them.” Still, he will tell Martin that he had to learn to live with the guilt and regret of leaving.

Inspired by the work of Roberto Bolaño and magical realism, the novel acknowledges without examination a supernatural or otherworldly presence within our own. Martin is convinced that the devil attacks him on the subway; Eric sees cloven feet disappear around hedges; Ivan is met several times by different people trying to tell him his future. Ivan’s experience with the supernatural is particularly interesting and delves into the book’s more metaphysical issue. Is fate true or an illusion? F’s response in this instance is that it is true, as the universe is trying to tell one of the twins “not to get involved with the three,” which turns out to be the novel’s wicked subplot. As we are told in the beginning, the twins lose track of which one is which. The universe, however, doesn’t know the boys accidentally switched places (Eric and Ivan might not know it either) and thus the message goes to the wrong brother, and for one of the twins life ends tragically.

Although the central questions of the novel are the same ones we’ve been dealing with since our beginnings, F handles its material with originality and modern sensibilities, offering responses to the questions about fate and meaning, but not real answers. As Kehlmann himself has said: “Novels are all about ambivalence.” While F is built on traditional plot mechanics, it does have some experimental turns. For example in the third section of the novel, we have a short story written by Arthur about a linage of fathers. Working from his own generation back to the Middle Ages, it operates like the information dump found in traditional family novel. While Kehlmann might be satirizing the tradition, the actual story (which does disregard traditional plot structure) tells something far more horrifying about our lives—when they are all written out, they’re all unhappy in the end, that if our ancestors hadn’t survived there would be “others in our place, others who regarded their existence as inevitable.”

Yes, something of Tolstoy’s comes to mind here, but this is also integral to the novel’s overall ambiguity, and Kehlemann’s storytelling. Fate is part-and-partial with the sublime and ineffable. As Ivan asks late in the book: “What if you could read the universe? Perhaps that’s what is behind the terrifying beauty of things: we are aware that something is speaking to us. We know the language. And yet we understand not one word.” (By the way, the only ancestor in Arthur’s story who lived contentedly was a man who accepted that God had sent him on a “mysterious path” which he walked without complaint.)

Daniel Kehlmann said that with F he wanted to write a character-driven novel, a novel for which he had no clear destination for, just a general notion of wanting to write about three brothers and their various social milieus. The success of F lies partly in the fact that it is one of those rare philosophical novels that doesn’t shackle its story to a preconceived theory but sets its characters adrift with their own conflicts and demons, allowing them to have their own life-altering insights, even if those insights are contested, if not made fun of, by the other characters. Told slowly with gradual assemblage of deceptive details which are revealed in the end to be masterfully constructed, F is the best kind storytelling, filled with doubles and switchbacks, it constantly playing with what we know and what we think we know to bare witness to how many lives are built on that shakiest of foundations: faith.

—Jason DeYoung

 IMG_3723

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

Oct 112014
 

me_5

 

It had begun to snow. Nieves lifted his head to the slow, slanted cascade of flakes and stuck out his tongue. He savored the cool on his tongue as he watched the dog charge across the parking lot and disappear down the trail head.

There was more to savor than snow. Nieves recalled the night before. He had attended a wedding reception held at an Italian social club Nieves frequented. He was seated next to the sister of one of the club’s executive. She was visiting from Rome. “How’d you learn to speak Italian so well?” she asked him. Years before, he said, he had played semi-pro soccer in Sicily. He told her a story from those days. His crew were locking horns with a cross-town rival, a gang of savages culled from the worst of the league by a dodgy, penny-pinching industrialist. One of the goons pulled Nieves down in the box and he was awarded a penalty. Nieves sauntered to the ball and hit it clean but the ball sailed on him and rattled off the cross bar. The goalie bolted from the net towards the stands where the rabble were already celebrating with gutter fervor. Nieves stood his ground in a pose of dejection. From behind his guise, he watched the ball as it began to roll towards the goal, propelled by a furious backspin and the uneven ground of the pitch. The ball crept across the line, the referee signaled a goal and the stadium died a death.

The woman threw her head back in laughter, a genuine guffaw and her hand had come down on his. She didn’t seem like a lady who expected much. At one time, she told Nieves, she had been a stewardess for an Italian airline. “I went everywhere. And nowhere.” She was thin and tall with black ringlets piled high above a lined but open face as tawny as his own. Just under fifty, he thought, a bit younger than himself but the same breed. They danced and when it was time to leave, tipsy as they were, he slipped his hand around waist and drew her in for a peck. In a week, she would be back in Italy. The thought gnawed at him.

As Nieves reached the trailhead, the dog scampered out of the woods to meet him. Nieves teased it for a moment, playfully batting at its face. The dog pulled back and kicked up clouds of snow. Nieves began to walk and the dog settled into a crisp saunter. In the summer, some dead trees had been cleared out and wood chips spread on all the main trails, leaving them well marked. But the dog was a tireless drifter and when they came to a fork, Nieves knew where they were headed. “You devil,” he said, reaching down give the dog a rub. The dog romped away down the small path that would take them deep into the woods.

The snow’s cascade seemed like the slow arpeggio of a harp, thought Nieves, sounding the notes in his head. It was early, too early. He woke up before dawn and the woman had already left his condo. He couldn’t fall back to sleep and waited restlessly in bed for the faint light of dawn. Nieves continued with the music as counterpoint to the whispering hush of wind and footfalls. As they moved to the back of the park, Nieves could make out the imposing hulk of the defunct racetrack through the scrim of barren trees. Its future loomed over the preserve. Developers were licking their chops as they dreamed of the wrecking ball swinging wild and hard.

The dog glanced at Nieves and picked up his pace, disappearing around a bend. He spent most of his time carousing at the farm where Nieves grew up in the county. Nieves traveled a lot for work and had only taken the puppy as a gift from one of his sisters. A dog like that had no business in the city, thought Nieves. His people on his mother’s side were tomato farmers off the boat from the Azores. His father had returned to Portugal shortly after the younger sister was born, leaving Nieves and the two girls alone with their mother. Money was always tight. The struggle marked them all, especially his sisters. They were beautiful but self-serving. Both married well. Divorced well too, with no kids to bog down future adventures in avarice.

They must be slipping some of their loot to his mother, Nieves was sure of it but she still worked a fruit stand in the summer, selling everything she could to locals and cottagers. Marie Nieves, tippling home-made wine, cajoling in broken English. Shit-faced but never showed it.

The dog returned, grumbling with short, sharp barks. Up ahead, the path was blocked. The obstacle soon revealed itself. Nieves noticed the savaged flank of the deer. The animal must have clipped itself on the fence as it moved from the grasslands on the other side of the preserve and the blood attracted the coyotes.

The dear’s gaze into oblivion caught Nieves short, as if he had bit his tongue. He felt a nature rapture overtake him. The woods suddenly seemed alive with animal spirits, inscrutable and imposing. When he was a teenager, his father had re-appeared, just like that. He behaved as if he had always been there and nobody questioned his return. One day, Nieves was driving back from the city with him. They had gone to the market to sell produce and on the way home, his father stopped at a bar. Nieves plugged the jukebox while his old man threw back rum, that was his drink. By the time they left, it was dark. His father should have seen the deer charging out of the woods but he didn’t and the deer took out the right fender before rolling into the ditch. Nieves remembered his old man pulling onto the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s have a look.” He never spoke English, never liked it.

His father shone a flashlight. The deer was thrashing about, trying to right itself. But its front legs were destroyed and blood covered its breast. His father gave Nieves the flashlight and took out a sledge hammer from the back of the truck. He stepped smartly to the deer and swung. The deer wrenched its head from the blow and thrashed again. His father took another swing. The deer made a sound and moved and went still. A car whizzed by and then another.  “Hold that light steady,” his old man said. Nieves watched his father pause at the top of his next swing, staring at the deer, choosing his place for delivery. The hammer dropped. The deer’s head exploded.

Nieves stepped around the doe, the dog holding fast to his leg. Nieves glanced through the fence at the abandoned racetrack. Tomorrow, he would take the dog there, before he was due at his mother’s for Sunday dinner. He thought again of the woman, her hair spilling over him, but the deer crowded her out.

Back in the parking lot, with the dog settled in the backseat, Nieves reached into the glovebox and pulled out a flask of rum. He took a swig and watched the snow through the windscreen. Exhaustion and longing flooded through him and it was all he could do to turn on the engine. He put the car in gear and eased out of the lot.

—Timothy Dugdale

 

Timothy Dugdale is a senior copywriter, brand strategist and freelance journalist who writes for a variety of luxury lifestyle magazines in North America and the Caribbean. He also composes existential novellas and poetry.

 

Oct 102014
 

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reservedReading at Open Space Gallery, Victoria.

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reservedPhoto credit: Miles Giesbrecht. Artists’ works: Tommy Ting (London), Dong-Kyoon Nam (Winnipeg).

DSCF8947Mist on the water. Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sooke.

DSCF9024DG on Sombrio Beach.

DSCF9150Port Renfrew otters (just before we saw the bear).

DSCF8791First Nations exhibit, Royal BC Museum.

DSCF8764Douglas Street.

DSCF8742The bookstore founded by Alice Munro and her first husband.

DSCF8907Breakwater (dark by the time dg got to the end).

Oct 102014
 

with grandson arthur(26) copySydney Lea with grandson Arthur

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An eagle shot from nowhere and killed
One of two black ducklings
Without the least effort as I canoed
A mirror lake at dawn.
When the small bird disappeared, the hen
Rushed to shield the last of her brood,

Urgent as my own mind, which rushed
By habit to metaphor
And by dint of will alone stopped shy
Of the poetaster’s O–
For all the sad creatures. I paddled on.
So did the two that survived.

They fossicked again for surface insects,
The mother settled her feathers,
The world went ahead with its usual business,
And I thought of my Bosnian friend,
How he opts for a sturdy manner. He tells
Good jokes in the bastard English

He learned from American comic books
And talk behind the translation
Of our television sitcom soundtracks.
He moves on in spite of all.
That poor doomed duckling’s wisps of down
Floated in air like snowflakes,

Diaphanous, after the raptor snatched it,
Beautiful, backlit by sun.
I recall the eagle as a totem of splendor
While it managed its own savage business,
Even as the pitiable rasps and squalls
Of the grown duck likewise linger,

Indelible, in the brain. And so
I may just write of them soon,
Though I think how my friend beheld the brain
Of his brother splayed against
A wall in a town so picturesque
It all but beggars the mind.

O, I’m a poet of no consequence.
The sniper picked one of a pair
Who walked a quaint old street together.
I feel guilt not envy.  Indeed,
I’m otherwise content to be
So wanting in subject matter.

—Sydney Lea

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

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Oct 092014
 

Biscevic MostarSamir Biščević “Mostar”

In 2004, my first trip to Bosnia wrecked and remade me in a matter of days, altering forever the rhythm of my heart. When I returned to the States, I began immersing myself in Bosnian literature and visual arts, and I began seeking the company of Bosnians in the diaspora, in places as far-flung as Boston, Charlottesville, Atlanta, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

This is how, in Chicago in 2008, I came to find the extraordinary abstract expressionist painter Samir Biščević, who saw the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) terminate his formal training at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. As much as anyone, he has helped me understand that Bosnia’s loss is our loss. Years later, on YouTube, I came across the brilliant concert accordionist Merima Ključo and soprano Aida Čorbadžić, performing live in downtown Sarajevo, poignantly marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the siege. Their art, their voices, and their stories accompanied me from afar when I traveled to Bosnia in the summer of 2012 and conceived of this essay. When I read the piece publicly for the first time early in 2013, Merima was there, in person, offering opening and closing music with soprano Ariadne Greif. It was one of the great moments of my life.

This essay is dedicated and addressed to one of my dearest Bosnian friends (you in the essay, unnamed), a fiercely private soul trying desperately, in exile, to put the pieces of his life together again. By implication and extension, it is also for all the Bosnians who have welcomed the stranger, who have sheltered and known me in the darkness. For their unflinching solidarity, for their unfiltered love, I am eternally grateful.

(A quick Bosnian pronunciation guide, oversimplified but providing enough, I hope, to help throughout the essay: for consonants that have a diacritical mark, add an “h” sound to make a soft “ch,” “sh,” or “zh.” A “c” without any diacritical mark is pronounced “ts,” as in “hats.” Each “r” is rolled like a soft “d,” each “j” softened to a “y.”)

—Thomas Simpson

YouTube Preview Image
Merima Ključo

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Sarajevo RoseSarajevo Roses

Springs
Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2012

The steep, narrow streets of Sarajevo are the only way to get to you. I stop at the base, where the cold spring water flows, and it feels like redemption before it evaporates in the summer valley heat. I join the old women walking up slow, their thick forearms carrying fresh bread. Somehow they’re impervious to the traffic that barrels down, past your mother’s roses, your brown metal door.

You say this is how you got fast, running this hill in the siege, your wheelbarrow shuttling jugs of water up from the brewery below. Sweating, heart pounding, flashing in and out of the sniper’s sights. His comrade’s shrapnel had already lodged in you, that first October, inches from your spine. The time you were in a neighbor’s field, snaking just to glean a few potatoes or pears that might have secretly come to term.

Thank God for the brewery, pumping fresh water from the underground, where the earth whispers its resistance: Take. Drink. And come back later, because we’ve got a little beer. Take a bottle down to the nightclub. Pass it to your brothers and sisters, the chalice, a couple of cigarettes the body broken for you.

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Ash

My first time in Bosnia, ten years ago, I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke. Ashes to ashes, the relentless headache, hack, wheeze in a fog of second-hand truth. It was worst in Mostar, the desert-dry city with the old stone bridge, the sparkling green river, and the battling sounds of the muezzin, the church bells, and the thumping dance beats pouring out of the riverside cafés.

Stari MostStari Most, the old Ottoman bridge at Mostar.

Now, at Ilidža, at the source of the river Bosna, you light the first cigarette, and I brace myself for a second respiratory hell. Desperate, I wonder if Sarajevo can help me overcome another deep aversion. I remember my smug contempt for the accordion vanishing in a heartbeat last spring, when Merima first got hold of me. She was on streaming video, playing a love song for Sarajevo: Što Te Nema, “Why Aren’t You Here?” Merima on a makeshift, outdoor stage, cradling and wrestling life from the accordion, before an audience of 11,541 empty red chairs. I traveled four thousand miles to follow that sound, all lungs and tears and love. So now, I let the smoke wash over me. It fills my lungs, older, suddenly not afraid anymore, lungs that know love is everything and it will kill you quick as hate.

Tunel Spasa InteriorTunel Spasa interior.

We go to the tunnel museum, Tunel Spasa, your only way out during the siege. You tell me that English-speakers get it wrong when they call it the tunnel of hope. It’s the tunnel of salvation. Salvation for the few, crouch-digging underground in the hungry damp cold, trying to survive only for exile, trying to survive only for salvation from the ultra-nationalist Christians who burn, shell, murder, and rape. I think: Jesus, maybe we’re hopeless.

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Salt

We drive north to Tuzla, the city of salt mines and salt lakes. Mima and Zilka meet us at Vive Žene, the center where women counsel tortured, shell-shocked sisters. We sit in a circle, taking small comfort in coffee, fresh cherries, and wordless understandings. It conjures a line from Žalica, the filmmaker: the microsurgery of the soul.

In the evening, we feast with a family preparing to send a son to Phillips Exeter Academy where I teach. On the back patio, the bread of life—burek, ćevapi—the stunning flowers, the setting sun. Then we walk to the town square. It’s sinking—watch your step—there’s been too much extraction and now the salt of the earth is gone. We come to the memorial, where Edina draws me close and translates the poem for the night in May, 1995, when shelling hit the square and cut down seventy-one, mostly youths. We cry. Yet it is beautiful here tonight, the teenagers striding through the square. We start to walk again, and Edina’s baby lets me hold her a little while. She seems to know I need to hold her a little while.

Tuzla Square 1

I remember a tip from a friend back home: go to the Phillips Exeter school archives, he said, and get the transcript of a talk that a young Bosnian, Vedrana Vasilj, gave in the chapel back in 1997. We were transported, he said. I find it, Vedrana in late spring, revealing that she was there that awful night in Tuzla, working at the hospital, receiving the bodies of her friends. She said, in perfect and plain English, that it was the night Tuzla’s hope died. And the crowd cried, my friend told me, a little salt from their souls for Tuzla.

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Grounds

I tell you I have to tour Srebrenica. You must wonder what I want to do with ghosts—you want to live. We make the slow drive from Tuzla, hugging the Drina, that river of blood. You’re as tough as they come, but when we arrive the tour guide’s talk, all those names carved in stone, it’s all too much. You have to leave. I go on earnest, reverent with the tour, the talk, the film, the photographs, the hush, the sacred remains, the thousands of graves. I fight the hallucinations: all the Muslim men and boys running for their lives, there, through those forests, over those hills, trying to make it, somehow, to Tuzla. The hallucinations that Samir still paints in Chicago—their nightmares, their steps, their path. His Guernica.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial

When I have seen everything, I find you. You’re back from the dead, sipping coffee and charming the old widows who run the little souvenir stand at Srebrenica, in head scarves and long skirts, the women who endure only to mourn. You’ve been sitting with them for hours, enfolding them with your eyes, letting them remember their sons and grandsons a little, strong, funny, fierce, tender. They’re in love. They help us find a gift for my wife, Alexis, a scarf, dazzling pink set against pure black. We thank the women, choking back tears, and we get the hell out of Srebrenica.

When we arrive Sunday in Bihać, on the other side of the country, Zehra and Almir are waiting for us with the same coffee, the good, strong Bosnian coffee, Turkish like espresso in small cups with the grounds thick and dark as tar. The apartment building is tall, socialist grey, and all these years later you, Zehra and Almir, you still have to live within the shelled walls and cracked glass, and it makes me hate them so much. But you don’t want to talk about that—the flowers in your window box tell me all I need to know. You have kept watering the soil. It is so clear I am lost.

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Ink

A couple of days later Almir notices, over coffee at the sidewalk café. He says I should stay longer, that I’m just a few days away from being a real Bosnian. He means it, and I think I know what he means. The night before, we stayed up for hours at the neighborhood pub and tattoo parlor, joking like idiots, throwing darts. But by two in the morning, I was exhausted. I really wanted to leave, but you were my ride, and you were already home. So I started imagining myself stretched long on the tattoo bed by the bar, knowing that to be a real Bosnian I’d have to do some time there, and in that haze getting a tattoo started to seem like a fantastic idea. But soon we left, I slept, and it was gone.

Back in Sarajevo, we sit by the river Bosna, at the source, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, feta, and beer, Sarajevsko, straight from the brewery. You laugh at me when I tell everyone I fell in love with Bosnia the first time I tasted the garden tomatoes, but I swear it’s true, you have no idea what the American tomato has become. Then I flash to that feast eight years ago, with Jasmina’s aunt, up near Banja Luka in the house the Chetniks had occupied and trashed during the war. It was restored now, and there we gathered, fifteen of us, the heavenly banquet, everything fresh. I was falling in love with it all when I noticed Jasmina’s uncle wasn’t saying much. Then I remembered he had been in the camps, where someone’s needled concentration left numbers on his arm. And hate was seared to the skin of my love.

We were supposed to meet Nermina, the art critic, Samir’s friend, but it’s almost 100 degrees and it’s too hot for anyone to walk to us. So we go for a drive up Mt. Trebević, one of the Olympic mountains, where bobsledders once screamed down a track that’s already in ruins. The graffiti is spellbinding. We keep going, all the way to the top, and up there what must have been a beautiful restaurant is wrecked, burned out, graffiti-tagged, no hip urban art just the scattered signatures of death.

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Tile

When I look all the way down Trebević, I finally see how easy it was for them, fish in a barrel, firing down at the millions of terra cotta tiles, roofs burnt orange against blue summer sky, those perfect illusions of shelter.

Sarajevo Terra CottaSarajevo Terra Cotta.

Trembling, I step back from the edge. You’ve taken a phone call, so I’m on my own. I decide to head into that restaurant, shards of tile and brick crumbling under my feet as I move with my camera toward shafts of warm sunlight. When I come back, you hang up and say shit, man, stay out of the shadows, there could’ve been landmines. I lose my breath, thinking of the killers’ deranged hospitality. Killers high like gods with artillery made to take planes out of the sky, but they, they liked aiming it down at the city that has always been a place for travelers to rest.

Trebevic Restaurant

Back in your apartment, where your father laid red tile for you, I toe a depression in the kitchen floor. I ask if I did something wrong, and you say no, that’s where a little while ago your ex-wife dropped a heavy pot. Crash, the pot falling, your wife falling so out of reach and shattering the tile of your heart. You tell me that was rock bottom, and it was peacetime in Sarajevo.

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Pulse

You want to live. And if you know anything in Bosnia it’s that we can’t be afraid to be alive. So we talk, listen, laugh, cry and crank the music loud—Dubioza, EKV, Kultur Shock—yes, we rock and groove all over Bosnia in Sasha’s beast of an old red Ford station wagon that tells the mountains to bring it on and says who’s the stupid American always in the passenger seat who can’t drive a stick?

And the young women stride through Sarajevo with their eyes on the latest fashion, their hair highlighted smooth bronze, blonde, or indigo against brown. I remember Zehra telling us where to get some of that dye for Alexis, whose hair is dark like Zehra’s, her favorite color purple. So we walk into a pharmacy and I grab the box before I realize how ridiculous I’ll look holding this stuff in line. You say give me a break, just be confident, so I do it, and like magic, the American woman next to us starts to flirt with me a little. She says wow, that’s gonna look great on you. I look at you, and we laugh like we’re seventeen.

Then we step out into the mid-afternoon sun, and I see my God, we’re on the street where Merima played her song for Sarajevo, last April, twenty years since the beginning of the siege. Merima’s accordion and her inexhaustible, sweet embrace of the survivors, the sorrow, and our broken, beautiful lives, our lives with all we have left.

YouTube Preview Image
Merima Ključo & Miroslav Tadić

—Thomas Simpson

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Simpson author shot

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

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Oct 082014
 

Goran SimićGoran Simić

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 “Until lions have their historians
tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
African proverb

1

I got tired of victimizing myself.
Empty perfume bottles overgrow
The pile of my mistakes
And a gigantic pen with its lame heart overpowers
My simple need to record
My little self.

I got tired of punishing myself,
Of apologies because the pigment of my skin can stand
Only moonlight,
Tired of myself looking like a dog,
Howling like a wolf,
Hidden in an immigrant services file.

Banned book covers inhabited me in the form
Of paper plates in the hands of Sunday park protesters.
I turned into kitsch,
A sweet monster who no longer hides a wedding ring
Made of barbed wire.

I became ashamed because I allowed bank clerks
To tune their beggar-producing machine
To my blood pressure,
Because I let my sorrow be measured
And packed in the same colourful boxes
That remained unopened under
Last year’s Christmas tree.
It was nobody’s fault but mine,
The maple tree started drying after I engraved the name
Of my forgotten homeland.
Now I am collecting dry leaves for my pillowcase,
For my ancestors who still bribe me with ampoules of blood.
My back turned to my chest,
The basement ceiling bent my spine
Into a hunch.
I buy shoes in the children’s department
And can’t remember how to stand tall
When bullets fly,
Or the difference between soldiers and heroes.

I got tired of the whispers I was sending myself
From countries I never memorized,
From cities that taxed me for eyes too big,
From beaches where old mocking turtles
Walked over a new old man covered with sand.

In those whispers
There is no return address,
No name.
Just the sound of a roaring garbage truck in the distance,
Grinding perfume bottles like an anthem,
There, a few blocks away,
At the place where my sorrow starts.

2

What did I miss before I was born?
Not much it seems to me,
Nothing that didn’t repeat itself in the same shape.
The way mothers incessantly curse the funeral home apprentice
Who sits idle at the Maternity Hospital gate
Eating toast with black milk.
The way the chicken obediently goes into the coop
Dreaming of the moment when a peacock will come out
Of an eggshell in full bloom, bravely stepping
In front of the hand groping for the stupid egg.

I am talking about millions of shells who chew
Their own brain for years, counting on the day
When a little pearl will shine on the neck of a fairy-tale queen.
Before the same queen all oceans turn into mirrors.

I am talking about my small hands
That worked for years to place a heavy metal door
In the window’s place,
To peep at the world through its keyhole.
The same world I helped to shape the way I dislike
So I could puke on it whenever I want.

Before nightfall I put on heavy drapes
Because of the mad sniper who has been active
Since the war that started before I was born.
He simply shot at ordinary and content people,
At policemen disguised in a preacher’s robe,
At war veterans that manage kindergartens,
At politicians disguised in a postman’s uniform,
Hidden deep in the womb of the red cloud
Above my scared town.
He aims at street signs named for heroes
But the streets are covered by
bloodthirsty pigeons’ bodies.

He’s not me. Still, I am not suspected.

Even neighbours reported seeing me content
While listening to a lullaby of metal rain
Tap on the roof
And pretending not to know that the sound comes
From the cocoons falling from the cloud.
The same cocoons I will obediently broom
From my doorstep.

3

I kept secret my birth
And I used not to retell events I could express
Only with tears.
As a butterfly larva in diapers, I never managed to fly.
Instead, it crawled blindly obedient to the mirror
To became an ugly spot,
The eye that looks at itself.

My imagination was born from my simple need
To be silent instead of cry
Because silence alone has the colour I am craving
To paint myself,
Which finds no place on the hardware store’s palette.

How many times the Coast Guard stopped me from
Swimming deep down toward the bottom of the ocean.
They begged me to give up
Because there is nothing there but moist darkness
But I would always swim underwater
In search of something already promised to me
That belongs to me
Which I have never truly defined.

That something that became my goal
Was perhaps already registered
In my skin
In the form of bruises from the golden sandbars
While I was swimming deeper and deeper,
In the fishes’ bites selfishly chewing eternal darkness,
In my own failure to breathe my own breath again,
Under the mask
In my smile
After defeat I swim back up to the silent beach.

Who knows,
Maybe I was right when marrying the silence,
Because my scream became my lover
Who doesn’t see the difference between a fishing boat
And a submarine,
Who doesn’t care if I breathe black water
Or white air.

4

No, it wasn’t me
the one who would leave the house at dawn
dressed like a fisherman
going to the North to reconcile clever rebellious salmon
with thousands of stupid lures
and returning home with canisters full of oil in my hands.

It wasn’t me,
Who would shake out desert sand
From shoes made of polar bear fur.

I was born on the tarp in the military warehouse
And a flashlight was the very first star I saw.

Perhaps I watched in the wrong direction
And learned too late that only losers have a right
To celebrate
And that headaches are what remains for conquerors,
For fear of those who celebrate.

On my first trip from clinging to my mother’s skirt
To wearing my father’s military backpack
I was told: the safest way to go for a crocodile hunt
Is to wear crocodile-skin boots.
My pointer finger is still sweating while throwing
Celebratory fire crackers into the refugee camp,
While I sniff kerosene under the vulture’s wing
And read horror on the lips of the stewardess
Who smiles like a pregnant woman before takeoff.

But I was never the one
Who went to the North to chop down ancient trees
To carve an old pulpit.
God is my witness.
If any witness remains
At the end of the day.

5

So many times I moved from place to place,
That I don’t even remember my first address.

I remember the cities because of the train tickets
And continents because of the stamps in my passport.
I don’t even carry anything else in my suitcases
But city and road maps.
I don’t even get surprised anymore when the suitcase bites me
When I try to close it.

I live in the flight attendants’ fake smile
When watching suspiciously
The plastic rose in my hand.
I drink the train conductors’ politeness
When asking me for the origin of my face’s scars.
From the plastic plate I eat somebody else’s bitter bread
With its country of origin written on the bottom of each slice
That will eat me before I reach my stop.

My camera resists capturing the sunny landscapes,
My pen is dead to describe
Nameless stops and faceless people.

A pocket flashlight is my guide
When thinking of my true love, who agrees
To live in my imagination.

Behind me, blue snow falls from the sky,
On the streets that I have just passed.
In front of me hotel rooms still devour the bones of lovers
Who walked away with new dreams.

Strangers pronounce the name of the country they come from
Like they are pronouncing
The name of a terminal illness
That one dies from only in front
Of a blank TV screen.

Strangers’ voices sound like telephones that don’t ring
In new hotel rooms,
Email messages appear on the computer screen
As swallows
On the roof of the old family house.
Afterwards the same swallows turn into storks
After patiently waiting for years on the frozen chimney
And then leave
For some other roof.

Every foreigner dies in a dream with the
Old country’s anthem
Stuck in his throat like a fishbone,
Dies with wide-open eyes
Too small to chew up new landscapes,
To wake up in a cold silence
After the pillow starts smelling
Of the flag bleached by rain
And wind.

I am also one of those in search of home,
In search of the warmth of my mother’s womb.

In search of
My first address.

6

When you left the bar
Only your frozen gloves remained in my pocket.
I pretended nothing was left after you
Except your lipstick stamp on the glass
That morning will eat like breakfast.

Only the barman knows the reason he showed you
The exit door,
Only the waiter knows why you left him a condom
Instead of a tip,
Only I know how long I kept your gloves
In my pocket to make them soft and tasty like ice cream.

I shouldn’t drive
With your gloves already on the wheel,
I shouldn’t present you with a bracelet made of my hair,
I shouldn’t notice the moment when the bear tattooed on my chest
Bites your hand ready to stretch its golden claws.

I could guess,
Your wallet will knock on my door one day
To tell me that you were stolen
And liberate me from accusing myself
Of never giving you a chance.

7

When I fall in love for the first time

I promise to donate my organs
To anyone who believes that death happens
Only to those that wander from oneself to somebody else,
Like food in the market that moves
From shelf to shelf.

My brain could extend the life of some old man
Who believes
That there is a difference between the brain rotten with cancer
And the brain already infected by life.
It could be of use to some suicide beginner
To make another try,
Or to some young preacher punishing himself in a cell
Whenever imagination overpowers rules.

My liver is my cellar
In which the smell of vine lives in forbidden relationship
With a young woman ready to taste her own skin.
It may be useful to someone who never tasted the shame
In front of a Red Cross kitchen,
In a long line of those who believe that food eats
Those who didn’t prepare it by themselves.
He must be used to sorrow and doubts
That make love constantly,
Their pregnancy in the shape of tobacco smoke.
My liver might explode like a balloon
If the new owner starts baby-talking it
After yesterday’s storm comes again from the past.

That room is too small for one and too big for two.

My skin is like a map,
A battlefield where gentle fingerprints fight
With the bruises of a club.
Only I, hunter,
Can read the fear in the runaway’s roar,
Can read from my skin why I am going
To hunt
With a gigantic pen on my shoulder
And a plastic gun in my pocket.
Out of my skin I never manage to make the flag
Adapt to the hundred colours of the belt
I purchased from the retired hangman.

My skin could easily be used
As a patch for the scars on someone’s cheek
But I don’t see any woman who would press her lips to it
Without feeling that the kiss already happened
A long time ago.

My heart could easily be placed in the chest
Of some young man
Ready for rebellion
But inexperienced in loss.
Unless that lucky man quickly learns
How to compare mystical bits of the new heart,
Already blue from ink,
With the bits from an old wall clock
Grinding hours into minutes.

But who would desire that kind of heart
Already infected by love?

8

I embrace you so tight
That drops of ink appear on your skin.
You hug me back and watch
A drop of orange juice glide down from my chest
Making a road like a scar.

You claim that your skin is a never-ending desert
Stretched before the masters of caravans.
You comfort me
My face got the shape of a camel
Only because of your imagination.

How horrible must be the moment of defining
Something that doesn’t exist.
How wonderful it is to be protected
By the cage of words
Soaked with the religion
Of the deaf and blind.
In the homeland of
Stupid, careless question marks
That will survive the desert even without ink
And a drop of orange.

 —  Goran Simić (translated by the author and edited by Tom Simpson)

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Born in 1952, Goran Simić emigrated from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Canada in 1996 under the auspices of PEN Canada. In his native Yugoslavia he was a widely published poet and writer of short stories, puppet plays, librettos for opera, and radio plays. He was also an editor and columnist for magazines and radio networks.

He has been a Senior Resident of Massey College, University of Toronto (1996). He held a Fleck Fellowship at the Banff Centre for the Arts (2000), and he was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Guelph (2006). He has also been Writer-in-Exile at the University of Alberta (2011).

Since 1996 his literary work has been translated into 15 languages and was included in several world anthologies, such as Scanning the Century (Penguin, 2000) and Banned Poetry (Index of Censorship, 1997), as well as numerous anthologies in Canada and the former Yugoslavia. He received the Hellman-Hammett/PEN USA Freedom to Write award (1994), and the People’s Award, Canada (2006), along with numerous literary prizes for his work in puppet theatres. Recently the Canadian Association of Authors named his Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman the best poetry book in Canada of 2012.

His other published volumes include Sprinting from the Graveyard (Oxford University Press, 1997), Immigrant Blues (Brick Books, 2003), and From Sarajevo with Sorrow (Biblioasis, 2005). Additional collections of his selected poems are forthcoming in the UK, Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria.

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Tom Simpson

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, whose faculty senate awarded him a dissertation-year fellowship for excellence in teaching and research. In 2006 he won the American Society of Church History’s Sidney Mead Prize, for the year’s best essay based on doctoral research. He has also received Phillips Exeter Academy’s New Teacher Award (2011) and Distinguished Faculty Fund Award (2013). His previous published writings have appeared in Religion and American Culture, Church History, Perspectives on the Social Gospel, the online gallery of Bosnian painter Samir Biščević, and the Bosnian website jmbg.org.

From 2002-2004 he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with the Bosnian writer Goran Simić on a collection of poems and essays, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire with his partner, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

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Oct 072014
 

Samuel StoltonSamuel Stolton

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The most imprudent of all terms that can be applied to a work of art is to say that it has been ‘created.’ Such an affirmation suggests that a presence has been formed in a subjective totalization that affords one the ability to ‘create,’ undiscriminated by the status of previous forms. Perhaps this is why the terms ‘creator’ and ‘to create’ had no place in ancient Greek terminology. The ambiguous history of artistic creation relies on the discipline of ‘making,’ what the Greeks termed, poiesis. The operation of this act is dependent on a bifurcation between ‘presence’ and ‘materiality,’ representing a theoretical division delineated by ancient and modern conceptions of poiesis. In the following, I will examine how this conceptual junction animates the enterprise of ‘creation’ through ‘making’, in relating to an oscillating cycle of communicable ‘forth-bringing’, whilst I shall also identify how the magnificent authority of poiesis in presencing art, has the capability to actuate itself upon a universal transmissible communicability.

In order to castigate the capacious division between materiality and presence that so severely informs the art making process, my first course of action will be to trace the original contours that afford poiesis a viable agency in applying the distinction. For Plato, it is the “emotional force” that ‘making’ invokes by advocating a domain upon which we are in the “presence of an aesthetic experience.”[i] Such a communion is composed upon the act of producing an item, opposed to the modern conception of poiesis as reliant on the resonance that an item has in its final form. The modern conception was perpetuated, as William Watkin observes, by the nominalistic theories attributable to thinkers such as Nietzsche.[ii] This can be noticed in his concept of the Will to Power as Art, as a common purposiveness that bids the ‘will’ duty in creation, ex nihilo.[iii] The Will, driven by the force of supposed ontological functionalities, offers a direct path to the final presencing of a work. Nonetheless, subsequent thinkers such as Gianni Vattimo have appropriated Nietzsche’s ‘Will’, upon a more diluted theorisation, calling it, as Vattimo does, the pensiero debole – meaning “weak thought.”[iv] Vattimo’s postulations were met with wide criticism, his definition of weak thought as “a way to encounter being once more as trace, recall, a Being used up and weakened,” was judged as a detrimental outlook on the authoritative power of driving forces.[v] Nonetheless, in analysing the statement, a Being used up and weakened, it begs us to question how a ‘Being’ is firstly animated, and subsequently exhausted.

AgambenGiorgio Agamben

It is important here to review Agamben’s addressing of Plato’s conception of poiesis as a dramatization of form that serves to ‘bring something into existence that was not there before.”[vi] Agamben delineates the substance of existence by which poiesis dispenses its authority, relative to the availability of a pro-duction into presence. He speaks of the “energetic status of a work” receding amid art’s setting-up as an aestheticised model.[vii] The Heideggerian ‘being-at-work’ is “erased to make room for its characters as a stimulant of the aesthetic sentiment.”[viii] Subsequently, ‘making’s’ materialistic virtues are informed by the ‘stimulant’ of praxis, which is the action of doing, and techne, which represents, as Watkins observes, the “skilled knowing through doing.”[ix] Nevertheless, the operation of praxis in the modern age has become all too comfortably associated in applying an insurance that the “transformation of all human intentional activity” may profess to result into “some mode of making”;[x] a making that may very well achieve a state of existence, but nevertheless, in order to inject a certain ‘being,’ the participatory union of an active condition of ‘being’ is required; as such, it is possible for the ‘being’ of creative thought to legitimise the capabilities of a being-presence in art.

Experiments in the field of cognitive neuroscience have identified a functional correlation between brain activity and such creative-making ‘thought’. This has been realized in electroencephalographic (EEG) research that analyses the “quantification or task – or event-related (de)synchronization of brain activity,” resulting in what Andreas Fink has discovered to be, a “cortical idling phenomenon.”[xi] That is to say, in the experiment, Fink recognized that when a participant was presented with a task-orientated creative opportunity, and such an opportunity was acted on, this resulted in the “reduced or lower activity level of the brain [of which] is needed to produce novel, original ideas.”[xii] Is this in fact what Vattimo meant when he spoke of man’s ‘weak thought’? Vattimo’s term essentially concerns itself with the philosophical “dissolution of theory,”[xiii] relating to the withdrawal in theorizations of knowledge, that is episteme, and the subsequent emphasis on the technical aspects of craft, techne, that exemplify the postmodern persuasion in ‘making’ art. Episteme relates to the absolute knowledge as a theoretical imperative that has the propensity to inform the operation of techne, as Heidegger says, episteme is “knowing in the widest sense…to understand and be expert.”[xiv] From the aforementioned scientific observations, it can be suggested that the subcerebellar functionality of the brain may pertain to a potentiality toward the abilities and actions of techne, in creative thought,as opposed to a direct force in the comprehension of compounding an ulterior source for knowledge. That is to say, in the process of making art, the brain moves towards an emphasis on technical design, potentiality, as opposed to the formulation of an epistemological outcome in the ‘product’ of the work, actuality, thus supporting Vattimo’s claims.

The differentiation between actuality and potentiality relates to the order in which techne is performed. Heidegger deems the natural articulation of presence in the “bringing forth of something out of itself”[xv] as apparent in the cataclysmic energies that eternalize ‘being’, in such instances as the “bursting forth of a blossom into bloom, the birth of a baby or the ripening of fruit.”[xvi] On the other hand, technes abstractive, synergetic determination, readapts itself to form the process of the “bringing forth of art.”[xvii] This notion hybridizes the engagement of techne, upon an “oscillation between poiesis and enframing.”[xviii] When the process of techne provokes a bringing-forth as revealing, it is poietic, but conversely, when the mastery of its instrumentality compounds the work’s constitution as a made-thing, this represents merely a “controlling revealing.”[xix] Techne’s completion results in the retrospective formality of potentiality, but the fashioning towards its completion, revertively constitutes the ‘being’ of its actuality. Techne’s purposing is therefore not to achieve an ‘end,’ but to attain a ‘means,’ the end result being merely subsidiary to the practice itself.

HeideggerMartin Heidegger

The exercise of an absolute techne ability can never be comprehensively ‘total’, as it is impossible to appropriate an ubiquitous ‘controlling revealing’ to all realms and domains of craft, as humans, our attainment of episteme is restricted to the conditions of praxis. That is to say, we can only ‘know’ to the extent that we are able to ‘do,’ and we can only ‘do’ to the extent that we ‘know.’ We have not the authority to incite being in the crimson blush of a rose or the heavy sigh of a winter’s breeze. We are trapped within the harsh confines of our own ability, of our own equipmentality, of our own resources that afford us the aptitude toward our own perceptions.

This brings me onto a great difficulty I have in conceptualising the opportunity for creation. The issue is that we have an explicit inability to prognosticate a form that does not pertain to human sensory reception. There appears always a process taking place, an instrumental faculty, an inter-aesthetic ghost, presencing the possibility of presence itself. But nevertheless, objects appear to be exclusively sensually informed. What art do we not see, smell, touch, hear or taste? Can we ‘will’ an art, even in conceptual ‘thinking,’ that does not summon a sensory provocation? Agamben explores the emergence in seventeenth century culture of the “man of taste,” a rationalist essentialism that promulgated the “man who is endowed with a particular faculty, almost a sixth sense…which allows him to grasp the point de perfection that is characteristic of every work of art.”[xx] It is therefore possible to determine a communicative synthesis between art’s presencing of character, and man’s inheritance of such a presence, unbound from the physiological capacities of sense data, that permit a point de perfection to be realized. To explore this theory further, I must combine two concepts that in their amalgamation, support the notion that a poietical presencing is not exclusively reliant on a sensory referencing. The two theories of which I shall strive to coalesce are the Kantian sensus communis, and Jürgen Habermas’ communicative rationality.

The sensus communis translates literally as the English ‘common sense,’ which is a horridly ambiguous term in itself, and within Aristotelian theory, it originally referred to man’s ability to commune with an object through a preordained comprehension that facilitates the objective understanding upon the elemental dynamics of its ‘being’. That is to say, the unity of the sensus communis, as a concealed meditation, “allows the soul to distinguish between the proper objects of particular senses.”[xxi] Kant viewed the sensus communis as something shared by us all, that is “a power to judge that in reflecting takes account (a priori), in our thought, of everyone else’s way of presenting, in order as it were to compare our own judgement with human reason in general.”[xxii] The sensory judgmental casus belli of objects perform as per the demands towards the reasoning of human nature. We are able to reflect, judge, and think because the mode of such inquisitions is driven by this common sense. However, we have to ask ourselves, from what ontological division does the sensus communis derive? Here, I cannot merely concur with Kant in the delineation of its presencing as an a priori disposition, I would suggest however, that it originates from man’s communicative abilities. Communication, in the broadest sense of the term, facilities the movement of the sensus communis into an established perceptive prerequisite, interaction can be the only rationale that informs the continuing flux of ontological components. As Habermas states, the communicative rationality, is “orientated to achieving, sustaining and reviewing consensus.”[xxiii] Together with the determinate existence of the sensus communis, communicative rationality adapts and frames a terrain of which inhabitants appropriate the fundamentals of both functionalities. That is to say, the sensus communis is actuated upon an engagement with communicative forces. Without communicative abilities, even in the most elementary operation, presentation, as an affectation of ‘everyone else’s way’ would recede into hybridized elements of which would have no outlet for a renegotiation that the sensus communis allows. Communicative rationality continuously evolves from this, striving for an intersubjectivity founded on the composite principles of human nature, communication and interaction build these, and the subliminal operation of the sensus communis fundamentally affirms them.

HabermasJürgen Habermas via Wikipedia

Poiesis then, may be realized as a communicative presencing, it is ‘making’ from the faculty of the sensus communis, protruded by communicate rationality. It does not ‘create’ but it is the renewal and materialistic manifestation of a presencing. It is the redundant propensity, actuated upon various schema, through techne and praxis, that allows potentiality and reverts back to the only undeniable actuality, that is of the possibility of its being in the first place.

Perhaps then, the materialities of presence that dwell in the most barren and vacant pockets of the mind, awaiting upon an instance to be ‘brought-forth,’ perhaps these quiescent chapters of thought rely on poiesis to be discovered. These ‘presences’ are in constant renewal, dependent on interactive and communicative processes, and in each actuation into the fully material domain, recede from the original habitation of the maker, and, through the subjective translation in an exposure to their material ‘being,’ take up another residence, presencing in the mind of the recipient to the work. Resulting in a universal and continuous series of transmissible occurrences. A subject, therefore, has the propensity to delve into certain chambers of hidden thought, and bring forth such potentialities for making, that trigger the “transition from nonbeing to being [that] means taking on a form,”[xxiv] in order to manifest what Watkin has called “logopoiesis”.[xxv] The most coarse analogy which I can beckon to represent this is a worldwide, objective game of ‘pass the parcel’, except that everyone receives some form of a gift from the undertaking. This gift, although germinating as a mere potentiality, upon its possible actuation, is ‘used up’ as Vattimo said, but is vitally not weakened, but in fact strengthened upon a translation that conditions the essence of what Aristotle referred to as entelechy. That is the “inner urge” to be fully realized through various processes of natural design. As such, the operations of poiesis, provide a suitable, yet incredibly tragic substitute, in the search to make and actuate an immortality reflective of that of nature. As the extemporaneous cycles of nature – from blossoming to decay, are in continuous cultivation, man attempts, through the transmissible processes of presence-making, to reflect this unattainable naturality: immortality, through the contagious affair of poiesis.    

—Samuel Stolton

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Samuel Stolton is a writer living in London. He co-edits 3:AM Magazine and is the Founding Editor of the journal of philosophy, poetry and politics, Inky Needles.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Julius A. Elias, Plato’s Defence of Poetry (New York: SUNY Press, 1984), 226.
  2.  As evidenced in: William Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis (London and New York: Continuum Publishing, 2010).
  3. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Random House Inc, 1973), 76.
  4. Gianni Vattimo, The Responsibility of the Philosopher, ed. Franca D’Agostini. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 113.
  5. Gianni Vattimo, Not Being God: A Collaborative Autobiography, trans. William McCuaig. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 87.
  6. Plato, The Symposium (Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1971), 43.
  7.  Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (California: Stanford University Press, 1999), 66.
  8. ibid.
  9. Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis, 75.
  10.  Gyorgy Markus, “Praxis and Poiesis: Beyond the Dichotomy,” Thesis Eleven 15, no. 30 (Jan 1986): 30.
  11. Andreas Fink, “Creativity meets Neuroscience: Experimental Tasks for the Neuroscientific study of Creative Thinking,” Science Direct 42, no. 1 (Dec 2006): 75.
  12. ibid.
  13. Vattimo, The Responsibility of the Philosopher, 89.
  14. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays(New York: Garland Publishers, 1977), 13.
  15. ibid., 11.
  16. Barbara Bolt, Heidegger Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts(New York and London: I.B Tauris Publishing, 2011), 80.
  17. ibid.
  18.  ibid.
  19. ibid., 81.
  20. Agamben, The Man Without Content, 9.
  21. A.G Chern︠i︡akovThe Ontology of Time: Being and Time in the Philosophies of Aristotle, Husserl and Heidegger (New York: Springer Publishing, 2002), 73.
  22. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 173.
  23.  Jürgen HabermasThe Theory of Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 17.
  24. Agamben, The Man Without Content, 37.
  25.  Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis, 119.
Oct 062014
 

Author Pic

The_Obituary-Front_Cover-web

 

“We wait for a thing, and when we come upon it, it is already in the process of turning.”

                                                         —Nathalie Stephens, At Alberta

 

 

Introduction

 

How to do justice to a text so rich that I could only do justice to it, as Charles Bernstein says, by repeating it exactly? The Obituary (2010/12) is the most challenging and enigmatic of Gail Scott’s works to date. It borrows a little something from each of her previous works, exhibiting an array of experimental techniques that are visible in her earlier work back to her first novel, Heroine:

The Obituary incorporates multiple perspectives, or multiple speakers which merge with one another (the protagonist and speaker R—or ‘I/R,’ or ‘Rosine,’ or ‘Rosie’—is both continuous and discontinuous, for example, with I/th’ fly, another speaker, and with ‘The Bottom Historian,’ yet another speaker). The subject, or self, The Obituary depicts is in this way porous; it is not unlike the protagonist of Scott’s Main Brides (1993), Lydia, who, as Jennifer Henderson points out in an insightful analysis, is never rendered in any depth, but is only accessible through the portraits she provides of the other women at whom she gazes, portraits ‘she,’ as a self presented, ultimately blends with (Moyes 72-99).

The self The Obituary depicts is also obviously fragmented (it splits off into multiple perspectives), a fact that is enhanced by Scott’s use, in the novel, of the sentence fragment as a main building unit. Scott’s use of the present participle—“Increasingly I am slipping. Yesterday, riding bicycle down sidewalk…sticking middle finger straight up…Trying by slightly bending th’ digital…Turning right + driving, still on sidewalk…” (7)—is intended to serve the same end: to allow the subject, literally absent from many of the fragments, to fritter away. These techniques become visible in Scott’s oeuvre with My Paris (1999).

The jarring syntax in both My Paris and The Obituary takes effort to acclimatize to; the language making up Scott’s prose in these two works actively draws attention to itself. Because it takes getting used to, it delays the reader’s—depending on the reader—absorption into narrative (though not forever).

Scott’s novels have all, in one way or another, attempted to reinvent narrative; they can be said to exist as part of the rich and motley tradition of so-called non-narrative.[i] The Obituary, in particular, reimagines narrative structure as an improvised structure which exhibits recurring elements (in this case, tropes and specific questions) without seeming to head anywhere (while keeping a running commentary on the fact that it seems only to meander): Plot—at least understood in conventional ways: promise and the deferred fulfillment of promise; desire, thwarted, then navigated; conflict and the unfurling of its consequences—has a minimized place here and, as a result, the book does not lend itself to blow-by-blow summary.

‘What happens’ in the first section (“R, Negative”) continues to happen in each of the text’s remaining major sections (“The Triplex,” “Venetians That Even Private Eyes Have Trouble Sleuthing,” and “A Clue in R Case”), though of course not in the same way:

A face peers from the window in her Montréal, upper-floor apartment (her city is a fictional Montréal that, in many ways, has real-world resonance); the face is noted by different passersby, whom the narrative voice describes in excessive detail (conceptually-motivated excessive detail). Sections in which the face is present, gazing out, are intercut with sections in which R/protagonist, who is both continuous and discontinuous with the face, is moving through the city streets, either by bike or by bus, or is lying on her bed in the middle of her dark-centered apartment. In the sections in which she is described as lying on her bed, R might be dead, a corpse, or she might be masturbating, or she might be reflecting upon her family history (or on her lover, the absent addressee ‘X’): each of these possibilities is suggested. The Obituary refuses to decide between them.

The sections in which R is actively traversing the city occur in the fall, whereas those in which she is bed-bound tend to be set in the winter (there is ice on the sidewalks, for example). By the winter, specifically by November 2003, the face in the window, R, has been reported missing; two cops—a young, Québécois aspiring-actor who can’t seem to handle his food (he is highly flatulent) and an older Parisian virtuoso—have set up inside the stairwell outside her apartment. The Parisian peers in through her peephole and can perhaps see her there, on the bed; the younger gendarme sits a few steps down with a computer; at different moments he seems to succeed at hacking into her files. I/th’ fly is also in the stairwell, flitting about on the old cop’s shirt collar (“essayin’ little samba…I/th’ fly stickin’ backside out + swivellin’ to left, pirhouettin’ to right…” [76]). This fly/speaker is nearly omniscient: able to “see” into the apartment with the recumbent Rosie, or R, notwithstanding the apartment’s walls and closed door, and is also able to narrate the cops’ backstories.

The rest of the text in which the above ‘set-up’ is embedded, and repeated, reads like a collage of memory and history (the prose is densely reminiscent). As R rides about, either by bike or by bus, or simply reflects, the speaker, at times coincident with her, documents the city’s current process of transformation, the people in its buildings and streets, the hybrid languages and politics found there, as well as the play of events which helped shape the city into what it is (the labouring ‘Shale Pit Workers!,’ a smallpox epidemic, and the conflagration of the historical Crystal Palace building are recurring points of focus). As the narrative voice roves, it also documents the more encapsulating history of a country founded on genocide. Creative footnotes contribute to The Obituary’s historical enterprise, supplementing the main text with critical reflections, questions, and counter-memories (from “the margins of perception” [55]) which give the lie to dominant historical narratives. A footnote in the voice of The Bottom Historian reads, “What leads generation after generation of new arrivals in the Americas to endlessly iterate that everyone here an immigrant? From earliest fresh-faced settler boys enlisting, for economic reasons, soon leaning over pits + bayonetting every copper skin that moved…” (82).

R finds that the violent effacement of the Indigenous population is not even noted in the supposedly comprehensive Book of Genocides (on loan from her landlord), which she subsequently rips up, allowing the yellowing pages to scatter on the streets below her window (they become a recurring motif). Whether she is out and about or on her bed, R is haunted by this violence, particularly insofar as it permeates her personal and familial history: She herself is Indigenous, but her ancestry is spotty: it has been downplayed and, in some cases, actively concealed; she is unsure of the details. In the final section, “A Clue in R Case,” R addresses an absent grandfather with a few of the questions which agonize her:

Grandpa: on the subject of marrow. Was your paternal grandma Maria’s lack of family name meaning she Indigenous? Was the Canuck Maria marrying somewhere au nord du Québec mixed? Or pure laine? Was your father the Shale Pit Worker! fleeing smallpox epidemy, really marrying an Ojibwa somewhere in Ontario? Whose offspring [you, Grandpa] marrying [but why only saying after she dying?], the Métis, Pricilla Daoust… (158; brackets in the original)

These questions are not answered; they exist as instances or examples of hauntings and elaborate on the novel’s central preoccupation: R tells us early on that she is posturing as a woman of “inchoate origin” (we might read: an origin not formed, but forming and hence unknown) in order to “underscore how we are haunted by the secrets of others” (6). The text proceeds as a sort of sustained meditation on this subject: R, returning again and again, in different contexts, to the question of her origin, is not the only one haunted in the text: The passersby are haunted by R’s face in the window; the cop’s in the stairwell and her psychiatrist are haunted by the fact of her absence; those who have qualms with R, her neighbours, including her landlord—the latter because R set her sex toys out on the balcony one day, where they were plainly visible to children—“Dildo like a stallion’s!” (89)—are antagonized by the secret of what she gets up to in the privacy of her own home.

Scott has used the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ or of ‘roundness’ to describe the structure of her novel Heroine (1987), which proceeds in a similarly repetitious, meditative way (with the protagonist returning again and again to the question of whether her creative practice should be subordinated to political engagement, and to the somewhat masochistic ‘open’ relationship she is engaged in with a political leader, which is deteriorating). Heroine, as Scott discusses in her collection of essays, Spaces Like Stairs (1989), is supposed to enact a feminist politics of form while gesturing through its content and structure toward a conception of the self as, not only fragmented, but unfixed (the self could be or become anything). The Obituary enacts a similar politics and gestures toward a similar conception of the self, or subject. And yet it is also a text which actively resists reductive interpretations. It may seem impossible to have it both ways: to both inscribe the novel with a politics and to shun the idea of fixed meaning (this is one of the reasons postmodernism, a champion of unfixed meaning, has seemed so incompatible with, and has even seemed like such a threat to, feminism). In what follows, I examine the ways in which The Obituary, continuous, as a text, with other texts outside it, treads precisely this hard, paradoxical line. It is a feminist, postmodern novel if there ever was one.

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A Politics of Form versus the Dead Author

It will be helpful to examine Scott’s poetic, as well as the feminist politics it implies, and the problem this politics might be said to pose for postmodernism, in greater depth before exploring the respects in which it plays out—in a way that is actually compatible with postmodernism—in The Obituary (at the level of the novel’sthemes, as well as at the level of its structure).

A poetic is typically understood as theoretical writing pertaining to an actual poetic practice, though poetry and poetics can intersect at times. Scott’s works have been marketed for the most part as fiction (novels, stories), though perhaps this term, in Scott’s case, is best reduced to a marketing label. Elsewhere she refers to her works as ‘prose experiments,’ and, in general, her writings refuse the sort of dichotomized mindset that would sever fiction from poetry. Why, Scott asks, quoting Ann Lauterbach, “should only poetry [be]…about the way language works (rhythms and sounds and syntax—musical rather than pictorial values) as much as it is about a given subject?” (The Virgin Denotes). In her collection of (at times also structurally and linguistically innovative) essays, Spaces Like Stairs, Scott expresses a desire for both poetry and the cultural legitimacy bestowed by ‘story’; at no point does she forsake fiction, though she does reconfigure it in order to better create, as she says, “stories ‘shaped’ like me” (67).

Her desire in this regard—to create stories “‘shaped’ like me”—is deeply indebted to the communal feminist/aesthetic practices that were specific to late twentieth-century Montréal. These practices, in which Scott herself participated, were informed by European French feminist philosophy and what we might call postmodern writings (writings by thinkers like Foucault and Barthes), which, given the absence of a language barrier, could find their way into that context independent of translation and mediation via academia. La Théorie, un dimanche (Theory, A Sunday) is a collection of essays by the writers working in that context and imbibing these European writings (Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Louise Cotnoir, Louise Dupré and Scott herself contribute essays). Its content reflects the conversations that transpired between these writers in a formal discussion group initiated by Nicole Brossard in 1983: meetings on different topics were held every two months, and the fruits of this sustained form of thinking were published in French in 1988. The English translation, Theory, a Sunday was only recently published—2013—by the American experimental press Belladonna.

There are several themes which recur in this text and which carry over into Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs, which was published a year later (in 1989). The possibility of a ‘feminine subject’ is a central concern. For these thinkers—though we can see the idea in the French feminist writings which were influencing them, particularly Hélène Cixous’ influential essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa”—“the feminine” expresses a gap, or black hole in patriarchal culture: it is something that has been misrepresented, distorted, and even actively occluded in a patriarchal setting, particularly by language as it is deployed according to the (patriarchal) norms and conventions (including literary norms and conventions) that govern this setting. The question for these writers is then how to score “the feminine” in culture through creative work that does not use the very language and literary forms that are deployed to obstruct it. This is a difficult task because, as they say, the patriarchal imagination not only governs the way in which women are represented (say, within works of fiction, or even within cultural narratives), but also preserves for itself the power to either validate or discredit works of literature—praising those which conform to its aesthetic and consigning those which do not to the proverbial gutters as either ‘green’ or ‘garbage,’ effectively exiling the author from prize culture and other avenues of legitimation.

The critique here is deep: It challenges the very criteria of literary valuation, which it recognizes is not neutral, demanding that its governing conception(s) of excellence be reassessed, and that we allow a descriptive rather than a prescriptive ethos to inform our engagement with new texts. As Louky Bersianik points out in her contribution to Theory, A Sunday, “a number of critics seem far too busy telling authors, especially female authors, what they should be doing instead of taking an interest in what they are actually doing” (64).

Scott’s Spaces casts light on the functional conception of the patriarchal aesthetic that serves as a backdrop for these writers’ thinking: In it, she suggests that linear narrative (with its linear time and cause-effect logic) and conventional sentences (which hammer subjects to verbs—in a later interview she also suggests that they “sentence” in a juridical sense, deciding things, definitively [Moyes 221-2]) may hinder the expression of “the feminine.” She also articulates a suspicion of the value of ‘action’ in narrative and conventional (possibly anti-intellectual) notions of accessibility, favouring writing which follows the ear, or lets language, lets poetry specifically, “take the lead in making ‘sense’ of the socially fragmented female ‘core’” (67). Those who care deeply about creating linguistically interesting sentences, or, even more generally, linguistically interesting text, may be more likely to appreciate the tension that exists between language that titillates the ears and is visually pleasing on a page and a focus on language as communication: It is hard to both control the direction of the prose and resist falling into ‘language as usual.’ As Nicole Markotic says, speaking as a writer of prose poetry, “[a]s soon as I take a step toward the horizon, the horizon reconfigures—itself and me” (“Narrotics” par. 5).

Consistent with this, some of Scott’s early critics claimed her prose consisted merely of “a whole lot of images going nowhere,” or, if they acknowledged a through-line in a given piece, claimed it was too distracted (Spaces 67). These qualities, of course, are not inherently negative (though the claim that Scott’s images go nowhere is overstated). Nothing in art is inherently negative, and these qualities in particular make sense within Scott’s theoretical framework, which suggests that “the feminine” might be best achieved in writing through the pursuit of poetry and the temporary suspension of plot, character, form, and “reasonable” writing more generally (reason has historically been associated with masculinity—femininity, conversely, has cultural associations with madness, chaos, emotion and puerility). “The more one transgresses,” Scott writes, “the more one distances from law and order” (73).

As I mentioned earlier, Scott has used both the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ and the metaphor of ‘the sphere,’ or ‘roundness,’ to speak of the structure of this alternative mode of writing she is engaged in, which, as she sees it, is conducive to creating stories ‘shaped like her.’ A story shaped like her, a particular female self who exists and writes from within a community of other critical female selves with whom she is not exactly uniform (since no self is), is, according to the theoretical framework she is working in, a story which bears the imprint of “the feminine” (“the feminine” therefore admits of no generic template). Scott’s politics of form—which is committed to bringing “the feminine” into view in a culture which has covered it over—insists that this imprint should be present: “the writing subject is not neutral, gender coding cannot be absent from the text” (Spaces 49).

This insistence on the trace of the author on the text at first seems to stand in opposition to a postmodern way of thinking—Barthes concluded his infamous essay “The Death of the Author” with the claim that the text (namely, the postmodern text) and the birth of the reader would have to come at the expense of the author: To attribute the text to an author in terms of whom the text could be read—the text could be read as a manifestation of the author’s psychology, or history, or could be read in the way the author ‘intended’ it to be read—was seen as a gesture which limited the number of ways it could be read: the meanings linked to an Author-God, rather than existing alongside other meanings, would eclipse all other possible meanings—they would, in other words, ‘close’ the writing. The postmodern mindset, reflected in pieces like Derrida’s “I have forgotten my umbrella,” is one, conversely, which values the proliferation of meaning, encouraging readers to promote this proliferation and to eschew reductive readings by relating to words, sentences and texts in a way which does justice to the nature of language—a system of signs whose meanings, according to this mindset, are always potentially infinite and have more to do with the way signs, or words, mingle with each other than they have to do with connections between words and the things in the world, to which they are usually said to refer.

This being said, the trace of “the feminine” can be thought in relation to the postmodern in a few ways: As the insisted-upon trace of the author (a gender coding which cannot be absent), it might be thought to threaten the text’s capacity to ‘mean’ in an unlimited number of ways (it might be thought to provide a lens for the text which, treated as the exclusive lens through which the text can be explored, will hinder a reader’s exploration of the work’s myriad other possible significations ). Alternatively, the trace of “the feminine” might be conceived as a harmless pseudo, or merely supposed, trace, since fixing “the feminine” as an imprint on the text would be, according to a certain postmodern way of thinking (there are, in fact, a few different postmodern ways of thinking), an impossible task to begin with:

This postmodern mindset insists on understanding the text as a network of words which not only do not gesture to a world beyond language, but also, in mingling with each other in an infinite number of ways, perpetually posit meaning, “but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6). The text, viewed from within this mindset, cannot actually possess an ultimate meaning, let alone an ultimate feminist meaning. Because the language that makes a text up is not supposed to refer to an outside world and the things within it (words merely refer to other words), it is supposed to be impossible to discover “society, or history, the psyche, or freedom” behind it (Barthes, DA par. 6). This particular postmodern mindset also makes the more extreme suggestion that there is in fact no society or psyche (let alone a feminist psyche) behind the text: All is text. Simply. As Christian Bök puts this in “Getting Ready to Have Been Postmodern,” “the play of the postmodern goes on to display a new atopia of humanist cancellation in a world without any certified existence” (89-90; in Stacey).

I would like to defer discussion of whether “the feminine” as a fact of existence “beyond” the text is actually incompatible with a postmodern perspective (a kind of postmodern perspective) until the final section in this essay. For now, I would simply like to examine the ways in which the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are dwelling within and acknowledge the postmodern perspective as outlined above, while also exploring the respects in which “the feminine” as an imprint on a given work may actually be compatible with this perspective.

For one thing, the thinkers of Theory acknowledge that it is impossible to limit what a text can mean; they profess a desire to create works which refuse singular meanings, as well. Louise Dupré writes that “[t]exts written by women cannot be reduced to a feminist reading, even a well-intentioned one. They constantly resist such a process” (Theory 101). Even Scott is explicitly devoted to creating texts that remain ‘open.’ In Spaces Like Stairs, she insists that “[w]here there is closure (firm conclusions) in ‘straight writing’ there are spaces, questions in hers. Even her anecdotes point to other possible representations, leave themselves open for reader intervention” (102)—‘her’ in this instance refers to a writer of “the feminine.”

As far as “the feminine” goes, moreover, it is in many ways bereft of content. True, expressed as a gap in patriarchal culture, something covered up or distorted, the term seems to point toward something pre-existing, specific and perhaps ‘essential’ (an ‘essence’ usually implies content of some kind: it is the key trait or set of traits that makes something what it is). In Spaces, Scott recounts, for example, how at a colloquium a writer asked her what she meant in using the language of “listening to the animal inside her” (presumably while speaking about how “the feminine” might be accessed): “I had to admit I meant listening to something essentially ‘feminine’—perhaps to a part of ‘self’ (i.e., self-as-woman) not quite integrated into the law, closer to ‘nature.’ In [postmodernist] terms this was heresy” (52). Yet elsewhere in Spaces, she describes “the feminine” as having a changeable meaning: it could be or become anything (47). This shift in Scott’s vocabulary speaks to a kind of intellectual flexibility and provisionality on her part; it is also in keeping with the idea that the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are consciously engaged, not in an act of making feminist ideology—they are not telling a story about an essential “feminine”—but in an ongoing, open-ended, critical process of thinking:

Taking risks. That’s what fiction does when in uncovers a woman-consciousness that goes beyond the feminist superego. In this moment when it seems that theory is spinning its wheels, when young girls see feminism as a form of ideology, a strict doctrine that accuses them for what is actually imposed upon them from the outside, writing allows for a conception of feminism that would be a space of discussion, questioning, change. In short, a conception of feminism as it actually is: a territory in motion, open, polymorphous. A movement. (Louise Dupré, Theory 101)

“The feminine,” like the feminine subject, or self, and like the thinking that takes her as a subject, or topic, and that articulates her in different ways, is difficult to pin down in terms of content precisely because it is always “in process.” It does not necessarily find expression in female characters as they are represented or in feminist themes, and, as a result, as Scott points out, writing which inscribes “the feminine” may not necessarily lend itself to “content-focused” feminist analysis: its feminism, in keeping with a literary tradition particular to Québec, instead plays out more as a “radical contestation of language and form” (Spaces 39). I would add that, if it is registered on a thematic level, it is registered more during those meta-moments when a given text (we will see that this is true of The Obituary) has the opportunity to explicitly reflect on what it is doing (compare Spaces 47).

What is “the feminine” then? If it is, in the ways I’ve been describing, content-less, it is not clear in what sense, inscribed in the text, it would limit, like the looming Author-God Barthes criticizes, the field of a given work’s possible meanings. We still might ask how “the feminine” might be understood. I stumbled upon a passage that is illuminating in this regard while reading Rob Halpern on the topic of New Narrative. ‘Community’ as Halpern discusses it—as a concept which denotes a content that is only ‘potential’—is in some ways analogous to “the feminine” in the sense that we’ve been discussing it:

[P]otentiality characterizes New Narrative’s approach to community not as something replete with self-present or transparent content, but as a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what it is given…This suggests the temporality of the future anterior…In other words, what will the present’s incoherence look like from the vantage point of the transformed future our story will have ushered into being…” (89)

Interestingly, the future anterior does crop up as a theme in The Obituary—perhaps it is the trace-mark of a larger conversation, since Scott does have ties to the New Narrative tradition in the States (they developed after she became established as a writer through her initial engagement with Québec’s writing scene in the seventies and eighties), or perhaps it is not. Regardless of whether it is or isn’t, the future anterior, as a tense that is a metaphor for a future vantage point, helps us make sense of “the feminine” as something which might be both politically effective (it may usher in a new way of thinking, a new world because, proposed as a ‘blank’ or ‘opacity,’ “the feminine” poses the gendered social world as a question, suspending its assumptions) and non-ideological and in this sense non-reductive: Hindsight may show it to have a discernible content, but until then, it is without one (unless its content is its dearth of content), and by then the world and “the feminine” within it will once again be transforming.

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The Feminine Subject-in-Process in The Obituary’s Themes and Structure

 “A sphere: a nice feminine shape to take off from, a shape that gives us the latitude to avoid linear time, that cause-and-effect time of partriarchal logic. Yes, the sphere is precisely the kind of shape, of movement, that permits us to leave reasonable prose behind. It’s a shape that abets (my) departure from a horizontal plane of writing, the better to decipher a memory blocked by silence, to leap from my discoveries towards a future not yet dreamed of. Twisting, altering in the process, the sphere itself…” — Gail Scott, Spaces 73

The prose making up The Obituary seems to meander. The text, which proposes a mystery and in many ways incorporates the tropes of film noir and the detective novel—we have R in the center of her dark apartment (though she may also be missing) and the two cops in her stairwell, who may see her or may not, and who are trying to solve the case of her disappearance, her possible murder—also gestures toward a direction the prose could take: It could move toward demystification, a denouement, toward the case resolved. And yet the novel only gestures toward this direction in a superficial way: it gestures toward the detective novel, toward crime fiction as a genre, only in order to subvert its conventions (particularly ‘the reveal,’ as well as the underlying assumption that there is a truth to be obtained); in doing so, the novel defines itself via a negative model (this is what I am not). Recurring themes and questions (which themselves are subject to variation as they are iterated) lend the text a degree of constancy without furthering the text along the path of knowledge. In this sense, the text’s structure is circular rather than linear (events do not unfurl and characters are not shunted along towards an endpoint, or the realization of a goal).

“The feminine,” I suggest, manifests in The Obituary, not only through the novel’s various repetitions, but also as a kind of digressiveness: as what seems at times to be the text’s improvised or haphazard, as opposed crafted, structure. ‘Digression’ takes the text afield of what is conventionally understood as good (reasonable) writing, in which all elements are supposed to serve some function (though it is never the case that every element in a text serves a function, and though it is always the case that every element, whatever it is, can be read back into a text so that it seems to). The Obituary’s seemingly improvised structure is also framed, in the text’s running commentary on itself, as an intentional and hence crafted structure, and the coexistence of these two possible meanings (such that the text can be read as both ‘improvised’ and ‘crafted’) functions to ‘open’ the text in a way that is consistent with a postmodern framework.

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The Novel as Improv

The Obituary is typographically unconventional and a reading which focused on its visual presentation—a reading which paid attention, for example, to its plus signs and brackets, the line breaks which at times interrupt prose paragraphs, reconfiguring the space on the page, as well as the text’s playful lapsus linguae (its reference to Breton’s “great novel Najda” [100], among many, many others)—attempting to articulate its implications for the set of the novel’s possible readings would be valuable. Here, I will only point out that the inconsistency of its visual presentation—frequently varied spellings of “identical” words, the line-breaks I mentioned, the novel’s irregular abbreviations of ing- to in’-endings, and its irregular use of the hyphen along with the plus sign (as in “hurrying blue- + white-collar workers” [37] compared to “filth-+-vice-ridden city” [13] compared to more regular, unhyphenated combinations, as in “switching back + forth” [60])—seems to support the idea that there is no rule to this text, that it follows the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment (or that, more specifically, its “writer”—the writer the text implies, if not its actual author—was following the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment and for some reason chose to forgo editing).

Some of the text’s stricken words also belie the idea that there is any necessity behind its narrative direction: “Reeef, smiling rakishly, alongside Veeera his precocious little beauty Rosie. Already showing more leadership in her little finger than most” (121). ‘Veeera,’ the initially proposed focus, being Reeef’s wife. Rosie, swapped in, being his daughter. The text could have gone one way, but it went another. If we were to interpret the text’s omnipresent plus sign, which frequently takes the place of the conjunction ‘and,’ as a literal addition sign, then we could take its presence to suggest that the narrative progresses additively and is able to append whatever it happens to encounters to itself:

We are informed repeatedly, in different ways (which, taken together, make up the text’s meta-commentary) that the novel’s ambulation is and will continue to be that of the flâneur: random and indiscriminate, “subject to countless deviations” (25). In a footnote, the voice of The Bottom Historian tells us that, “Little by little revealing why we meandering in speaking. As disparate in associations as a voyageur on a train”; then, leaping off from her mention of the voyageur on a train, goes on in the same self-consciously meandering, free-associating way: “Hallucinating on various angles of the sunset, unless distracted by fussy table linen, or fancy brickwork or stations of the early era. When this still new, therefore allegorical, mode of transport advancing in winter night over ‘empty’ prairie…” (33).

Similarly, the “future novel space” is said to be opening “[w]ide as the legs of a porn queen” (24)—perhaps this can be taken to mean that it will admit much and admit anything.On page sixty, the novel absorbs and details a Cuban it confesses has “no future in R story.” Even one of the text’s major motifs, Hitchcock’s film Dial M for Murder, is introduced, or is presented as introduced, to the text in an aleatory manner:

A nobody in a bar R frequents notes that the washroom is “right out of Dial M for Murder” (24). The narrative voice goes on to describe his observation as “A serendipitous error. To use to our benefit,” then claims “Peter has served his purpose: / Dial M for Murder” (24). In other words, Peter, initially introduced, like the Cuban, haphazardly, and not because he had use-value, has come, it just so happens, to have use value: he has inadvertently provided The Obituary with a frame that it may now roll with; he has sparked an idea. It is illuminating, for example, to watch the film and to hear Mark Halliday, the crime-fiction writing character, explain to both Margot and her murderous husband why he believes in the perfect murder, but only on paper: “Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to and in real life they don’t—always.” And, in the film, of course, the husband’s plan goes wrong, and Margot destroys her would-be assassin with a pair of scissors. The Obituary chooses to shirk Halliday’s claim about stories and the relation authors bear to control and proceeds, conversely, as life in the film does.

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The Novel as Crafted

If The Obituary does in some ways identify with Hitchcock’s film, however, it also collides with it, or contests it. The novel may suggest that it proceeds, not in the way of a novel, but as life does, and yet it also unsettles this idea: As much as the Dial M for Murder motif seems to be introduced haphazardly, it is also the case that it is presaged: it appears, dripping with intentionality, six pages before Peter in the bar, when R suggests that her apartment is “awkward as 3-D set of Dial M for Murder” (18).

The Obituary, moreover, despite its labyrinthine way of proceeding, despite its indiscriminate curations, its descriptive excesses and digressions, also remains puzzlingly on task. At least compared to a work like Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence. Dies is anchored with a basic, recurring narrative frame—in this case, two people in different ways limbless, in a trench, awaiting onslaught, preparing soup—which, as Susan McCabe points out in her introduction to the work, freely recedes so that all manner of events and language can surge up, over and around it (xvii). The work lends itself to comparison with The Obituary because it, too, is a poetic experiment with narrative and is in similar ways friendly to digression and excess. However, whereas Dies tolerates sea-beasts bursting from ‘sea-sacks’ (see 43) and epic dungeon battles, The Obituary refrains from straying into the (overly) implausible or phantasmagoric. And yet The Obituary is, like Dies, intensely linguistic, sonic, odd: It is more than realistic (it is so linguistically specific it is less than realistic), only, unlike Dies, it is so without ever quitting a world whose historical and political valences resonate, uncannily, with our own. The following excerpt is in this way illustrative. ‘The face’—which is both continuous and discontinuous with R—has just streaked by the apartment’s peephole. It is

Ancilliarily coated in same dusky, near horizontal light penetrating inner stairway. Via Bottom oeil-de-boeuf door. Rendering our surveillants as splotches of miasma in corrupted stairwell air. Nitrogen. Methane. Ammonia from stagiaire J-F Jean’s [the young cop’s] steamy hotdog lunch. Dust mites. Scattered neurons. Dead ketones. Whorling swarms + electrons. Odour o’ p-p-p-patchouli from neighbouring sex trade worker. On whose scarlet salon wall hookers in blouses, long skirts, wooden trunks held over heads, themselves on way out West, ca. 1910. Crossing rocky steam in little boots. Walking walking toward red disc of a timepiece perched atop a craggy peak… (53)

The text suggests that this seemingly all-encompassing resonance, the way the novel, digressing, as towards the prostitutes above, remains so puzzlingly on-task, results from the fact that experience itself is over-connected (66). The novel, like the city in which its happenings are anchored, is saturated with history; any digression into history or memory, very capacious categories, moreover, is no digression at all, but aligns with the novel’s preoccupation with origins and genocide. In one possible reading, then, it is history, particularly but not exclusively the history of Indigenous erasure, which ‘over-connects’ experience, thereby giving rise to “th’ paranoia any citizen by definition trying to deflect” (ibid.). R/protagonist is, conversely, not a “citizen”; she is paranoid: She is trying to resist assimilation into a society of ‘better lawns’ and willed-ignorance, and, finding everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, goes missing herself. “Are not all paranoids,” her psychiatrist says, “self-fulfilling prophecies?” (ibid.).

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A Gap in Lieu of Truth

R, as a character, is fractured; as a narrative voice, she blends with other narrative voices: those of I/th’ fly and The Bottom Historian, for example. She is also fractured in the sense that the novel refuses to make a decision about whether she is living and present, living and missing, or dead (murdered). She is also, like “the feminine,” or the feminine subject as we discussed her above, in her own way content-less. The mystery of her ancestry, of her origin, is at times presented as a major obstacle to identity (see 52). And yet ‘the truth’ regarding her ancestry, like ‘the truth’ regarding her disappearance, is tied, on a thematic level, to the novel’s (seemingly) improvised structure: the truth (whether regarding her ancestry or regarding her disappearance), the novel seems at times to suggest, is a mere improvisation as well.

I mentioned above that The Obituary subverts the conventions of the detective novel and the film noir, particularly by doing away with the requirement of a denouement; doing away with denouement is one way the novel subverts the premise that there is actually a fact about, for example, what happened, or about who murdered whom, or who attempted to murder whom (in Hitchcock’s film, the husband attempts to have his wife murdered), or even about R’s ancestry. The text is consistently ambiguous in this regard; different possibilities surface as R ruminates, but they are always framed in a way which calls their accuracy into question: “I/R [angry]: — I’m more Autochtone [exaggerating peut-être]. Than anything!” (59-60; brackets and italics in the original; “peut- être” meaning “a little”). Later, R states that, in school, “[n]o one teaching anything Algonquian.” (153).

The novel leads the reader on, perpetually making promises of a denouement (of answers) and gesturing toward a mode of arriving at it (them) which seems more suspect, more whimsical and jubilantly ineffective, every minute: “For a story, to be feasible, must be moving forward. Which is why I/R daily boarding avatar of public transport” (48). “Reader, in interest of dénouement, let us follow silhouette dégageant from wind-battered crowd” (125). Again and again, the text seems only to posit narrative direction as a pretext for its own persistence: “Is not our future narrative to keep us moving forward?” [9]yetwhatever it decides to say or turn its eye on, no matter how tangential, will sustain the forward motion. Oh! it seems to say, in its various addresses to the reader, ‘Let’s do this because we can. I mean, trust us, we are heading somewhere.’ At various points in time, a voice surges up and claims to be setting the novel back ‘on track’ (“But let us stick to the path of our intrigue” [28]; “Here, it behooves I/Basement Bottom Historian, to surface. Encore. For purpose of resetting intrigue on path to dénouement” [115]); the novel’s meta-statements concerning its own self-reflexive aimlessness, however, work tirelessly to corrode a reader’s faith that this is actually what’s happening.

The recurring, repeatedly re-contextualized, somewhat enigmatic idea that “we are moulded by circumstantial evidence” also vexes the idea that, in the novel, there is a truth to be had, specifically a historical truth beyond history’s various tellings, which are themselves sculpted by the vagaries which weave the context from which they issue: “But we are moulded by circumstantial evidence, so for th’future…no visible dénouement [again, no interval during which truth will be ousted]” (55). “R little surrogate,” moreover, is at a loss to “secrete th’Méta Physique under th’ Topo Logic of reality [or, we might say, though there are multiple ways the phrase might be interpreted, the (non-extant) truth under a linguistic surface]” (144).

Even the young cop—a knowledge-constructor—sitting, once R has gone missing or has been murdered, or has simply barricaded herself in her apartment, a few steps down from her keyhole, working away on his computer, decides to assemble his final police report—the hard evidence, as it were—using a “hazardous selection method” inspired by Breton’s “Najda” (100). He collects: E-mails. Word Doc diary entries. “Chat logs. Police cams in trees. Phone tabs. Whatever. Gleanings he ideally formatting into little rotating loops, disappearing/appearing in no fixed order. Creating nifty multi-flash effect” (ibid.). Truth here is merely the clash of random documents, which, taken together, remain enigmatic and uninformative.

We could read the young cop’s random assemblage, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel’s penultimate section, as a mise en abyme, a small-scale version of what is going on in the novel on a larger scale: The Obituary in this way insinuates that its parts have likewise been haphazardly selected, while rendering the idea that we might glean from it, from them, through our readerly efforts, any kind of knowledge or clarification concerning R—that is, knowledge which exceeds the idea that she is a missing center—suspect.

The text’s final section (where its denouement would be placed, if there was one) takes a similar form: it is a motley gathering of flashbacks, epistle-form reminiscences, and sharp, sometimes sad images (I am thinking of an image of Veeera, R’s mother, who is dead; R remembers her “expiring on divan. Tummy swollen from sugar + wheat. Very pale from refusing in summer to let tanning sun fall, even on back of little finger” (162); she refuses to be dark, and there is a racial meaning here, since the text also suggests that she was raised unaware of the fact that she was iBndigenous.)

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The Future Anterior in Poe’s “Ligeia” in The Obituary: Two Readings

To be sure, The Obituary is not a lighthearted novel. It depicts a self, a subject, with a gap at her core. It deftly confuses the truth of the subject with its own ludic way of unfolding, proposing, perhaps, that there is no truth below the surface of a narrative that just happens to happen as it happens. In a sense, it favours the reach toward knowledge (the act of questioning) over the possibility of attaining knowledge (the answer). The former, it sustains; the latter, it suspends indefinitely. At the same time, it showcases other ideas and features (like its meta-commentary) which trouble this reductive reading. Perhaps, it suggests, for example, the text’s structure is not improvised after all.

In a sense, the novel also suggests that R’s history, far from absent, is lodged in her in a way that is so concrete it could actually be related to her eventual murder. I would like to trace this tension in the text between the thought that R is, like “the feminine,” content-less and the thought that she is overdetermined by her history (the thought that her ancestry determines her destiny). The Obituary refers to many outside texts—among these: Breton’s Nadja, Hitchcock’s film, which we discussed, Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as Romeo and Juliet, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia.” It uses these texts to frame its own preoccupations. It is “Ligeia,” in particular, that can be read alongside Scott’s novel in a way which brings out the idea of an oppressively present past, or origin.

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First, A Note on the Ghost of the Author

So far, I’ve been reading The Obituary largely in terms of the framework provided in Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs and in the collaborative work Theory, A Sunday, so I provide this new reading (making use of Poe’s “Ligeia”) partly as a way to deviate from that framework. Contra Barthes when he claims that “[t]o give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing” (DA par. 6), I want to examine the way in which the thought of a feminine-subject-in-process, possessing a content which might only come into sight retrospectively, exists as only one lens among others through which the work might come into focus. Yet, I want to insist that, in this case, a reading that hews (in a way certain postmodernists would find dubious) to what Scott, or The Author, has said about her own work is a necessary supplement to the alternative reading I outline below: it keeps this alternative reading from having what postmodernists should find even more dubious: a monopoly on meaning (the text’s possible meanings are supposed to be infinite).

As far as the question of whether “the feminine,” which I have suggested is inscribed in various ways in The Obituary,[ii] refers to something “beyond” the text goes…The extreme version of postmodernism suggests that everything is text, that there is no world and no self “outside” of the text, never mind a feminine subject which might be inscribed in the text for political purposes, namely, in order to bring that subject into view in a culture which has ignored it. And yet postmodernism is also a perspective that refuses hard and fast distinctions between opposites; it is in this sense a way of thinking which in theory should actually resist the idea that texts and selves, or even texts and the world, could be thought in any way other than in relation to each other: The thought that ‘all is text’ is too one-sided for this way of thinking.

In writings like Of Hospitality and “Violence and Metaphysics,” for example, Derrida collapses ‘self’ into ‘other’ and ‘inside’ into ‘outside’—he writes these concepts out in a way which allows us to see that these so-called opposites actually participate in each other, and that they wouldn’t be what they are if they didn’t. The subject, or self, that Foucault theorizes (from different angles in his early and late works) is likewise saturated with what is sometimes conceived as its “outside”: cultural norms as well as the writings and categories which make up the available means of self-interpretation. Foucault’s subject is, in many ways, just this “outside” in the sense that such texts make up what Foucault wouldn’t but what we might call its psychology.

This idea does not have to be taken to imply that the self is “only” text. The philosopher Seyla Benhabib goes this route when she argues that the self cannot be understood as both language, or text—as part of “the chain of significations of which it was supposed to be the initiator”—and as a political agent: If the self is only a “position in language,” then, she supposes, it cannot reflect on and alter language, let alone the world through language (a situation which leaves postmodernism and feminism looking pretty irreconcilable). Judith Butler’s works Giving an Account of Oneself and The Psychic Life of Power, conversely, encourage us to rethink the self, and its ability to act, as a paradox: as consistent with the idea that the social world’s normalizing categories and practices make up the self’s proverbial tissue, while at the same time making agency (mainly in the form of self-change) possible.

Postmodernism’s “dead” author can be thought of, then, in a way that is perfectly consistent with postmodernism, not as an instance in which the writer, or self, and world are abolished, but as just another instance in which self and other, and inside and outside, blend. When Barthes claims, for example, in “The Death of the Author,” that if the writer “wants to express [read: insists, naively, on expressing] himself [sic], at least he should know that the internal ‘thing’ he claims to ‘translate’ is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum” (par. 5), this claim in itself does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject (rethought), in the world (rethought) beyond (even the idea of ‘being beyond’ must be rethought) the work. It also does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject, leaving a trace on the text, or participating in the work as a frame which sits alongside and only sometimes inflects its many other meanings: Writing, as Barthes says, “ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6)—why couldn’t a novel, then, posit “the feminine” in the way it posits any other kind of meaning: ephemerally?

All this being said, I should acknowledge that “the feminine” I’ve read into The Obituary has been relayed through another text (a book of Gail Scott’s theory): All I’ve truly done is read one book in terms of another by the same author. The above discussion has not been fruitless though, because, having read the “novel” in terms of the “theory,” we would still have to wonder whether a form of culturally-downplayed feminine experience could be said to exist “outside” of these paired works,and we would still have to wonder if articulating the feminine, whether in theory-form or fiction-form or via some inter-genre, such as Scott tends to work in, is both, even from within a postmodern way of thinking (since I am attempting to read The Obituary as a specifically feminist postmodern novel), possible and meaningfully political. If all is text, brute text (as opposed to text as the nuancing folds of Judith Butler’s mind make it out to be: text can take the form of a living self), then it is hard to see how anything other than the “new atopia of humanist cancellation” Christian Bök associates with postmodernism could be possible.

Reading The Obituary alongside Scott’s Spaces is a (postmodern) fair move. Any piece of writing is an entity with questionable boundaries, after all (remember that strict distinctions like ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ lapse from within a postmodern perspective). To speak metaphorically, a book extends into, or takes in, the other works to which it refers. It can also be joined, through a reading, with any number of other texts. (And the author is perhaps just a text of a different sort.)

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“Ligeia” (R/protagonist as Rowena)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” is a more conventional sort of text embedded in The Obituary. The young Québécois cop siting in R’s stairwell is also a drama enthusiast and is planning to audition for a night-school performance of a play based on Poe’s story. Other details strewn about The Obituary also serve to connect it to “Ligeia.” A brief summary here, so that I can draw these connections out:

In the tale named for her, Ligeia is a woman of angelic beauty and unsurpassed intelligence; her dark eyes, “orbs [of] the most brilliant black” (570) (which pop up at various places in Scott’s novel), according to her husband, the narrator, are her defining features. She falls ill, then passes. After losing her, the narrator purchases a gloomy abbey in England, where, in one of its decadently ornamented, though strangely moribund, chambers—perhaps it is the presence of vertical sarcophagi that does it—he takes another wife: Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine, though he continues to suffer his memories of Ligeia, mourning what, to his mind, had been an ideal marriage.

After their second month together, Lady Rowena takes ill. She summons her husband to her bedside on the night she is sure to die; she appears to be fainting, and so the narrator leaves her side to procure, from elsewhere in the chamber, the same chamber in which he had married her, “a decanter of light wine which had been ordered by her physicians” (576). But as he goes to fetch the wine, he feels “some palpable although invisible object” pass lightly beside him and notices “upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich lustre thrown from the censer, a shadow—a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect—such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade” (ibid.). He also becomes aware of “a gentle footfall upon the carpet” (ibid.). He returns to Rowena and gives her the wine, but as she drinks, he notices a few drops of ruby fluid spring, “as if from an invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room” (ibid.) into the goblet. Rowena’s condition immediately worsens.

Soon afterwards, she dies. Around midnight, the narrator, who has stayed with the body, hears a sob. In fact, Rowena is not dead, he determines: there is colour in her cheeks; he hastens to resuscitate her. But all is in vain, for the colour drains off and a “repulsive clamminess and coldness” (577) colonizes the body. The narrator returns to his wake, sitting in the ambient dreariness, eyeing the corps. The clock rolls on and once more he hears something: a sigh, this time. The corps nearly grins: the lips disclose “a bright line of pearly teeth” (ibid.). There is “a slight pulsation of the heart” (578). The narrator responds again with all of his impotent urgency, but the corpse, once more, becomes corpse-like. Until the grey dawn, we are told, the narrator navigates, again and again, this “hideous drama of revivification” (ibid.)—until, finally, the corpse is committal: Its stirrings become more vigorous than previous stirrings; it stands and advances “boldly and palpably into the middle of the apartment” (ibid.). The shrouds loose off, and the narrator knows, by its indisputable eyes, that it is Ligeia.

In The Obituary, mention of ghosts is frequent. Early on, R, during one of her excursions into history, speaking of British officers, tells us that “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. / This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The stricken word ‘dead’ is, of course, because stricken, ambiguous, but the novel also suggests, at various points, that R might return as a ghost (47 and 115) (at any point in time, it is unclear, of course, whether she is dead or alive). At one point, as the young cop hunches in the stairwell, working on his computer, a “[w]hite light spot bob[s] back out 4999 Settler-Nun casement” (150)—4999 is R’s apartment number. Ligeia’s disembodied shadow on the carpet in Poe’s tale, as well as the narrator’s ghostly rubbing and the soft patter of footsteps he mentions, resonate with The Obituary at this moment in particular.

A few of The Obituary’s subtitles as well as the title given to the novel’s last section also link Poe’s dreary bridal chamber, which is also a death chamber, to R’s shadowy bedroom (the center, we are repeatedly reminded, is dark, and that is where she, or possibly her corpse, lies). These are “The Crypt’s Tale,” “Her Little Shelf a Cemetery,” and “A Clou in R Case,” respectively (“a clou in R case” sounds like “a clue in our case,” and can take on that meaning, but once the French word “clou” is translated, it literally becomes “a nail in R case,” which might be taken to mean something like “a nail in R’s coffin”). The “hideous drama of revivification” Poe’s narrator witnesses, moreover, finds an echo in The Obituary’s back-and-forth between autumn scenes in which R is out, roaming about the city, and winter scenes in which she is (possibly) dead in her apartment.

The most striking connection between Scott’s novel and “Ligeia,” however, is the absence of R’s shadow in a vision her fortune-reading grandfather somehow conjures in a teacup: “Black eyes [remember Ligeia’s], blonde curls, skating on future ice of big dark city. Something happening but winter keeps her warm. Entirely my sentiments, old man thinking. When beholding, in bottom of cup, time going on back. Out Room door. Stairs. Yellow leaves, also exiting court. What alarming Grandpa most: his little Rosie casting no shadow” (119-20). R’s absent shadow is, of course, the inverted figure of the shadow Poe’s narrator observes on the carpet, which is not attached to a body (but which may be attached to a ghost), yet both details stand out because they are curious. R’s absent shadow is suggestive of Ligeia’s unaccountably-present shadow because it is equally curious.

In all of the ways just outlined, The Obituary self-consciously aligns itself with “Ligeia”; because it does so, it becomes possible to read “Ligeia” in terms of The Obituary’s themes; it also becomes possible to read The Obituary in terms of the “Ligeia” which emerges when Poe’s text is read in terms of The Obituary’s themes: The Obituary, relayed through “Ligeia,” embellished there, returns to The Obituary. The character Ligeia can be read figuratively, specifically as a representation of R’s history, ancestry, or what she terms her origin, and this reading has consequences for the way we might read The Obituary.

Ligeia, the narrator’s former wife—her life has, quite literally, passed, such that she, and the narrator’s former life with her, are things of the past—readily lends herself as a figure for the past, or history. In Poe’s tale, however, she is fully restored, if the narrator is to be believed, to the present through the body of the hapless Rowena. It is possible that she even destroys Rowena or abets her illness so that she can take her place (red drops spurt, as if from an invisible spring, into Rowena’s cup, and we might associate this event with Ligeia, whose presence as a ghost has just been implied, and conclude from the fact that Rowena’s condition, once she has had her drink, immediately worsens, that the drops were a poison of some kind.)

Linking this reading back to The Obituary, we can note, once more, that R, noticing everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, herself goes missing. “Did not Auntie Dill,” R ruminates, “sitting on her scooter outside Starby’s in Kelowna…reply when asked what colour Grandma’s hair was, hint of panic beneath her perfect curled lashes:/ —N-O-T N-O-I-R [not black, or not dark]” (16). The fact that R’s is Indigenous, though she does not know the particularities of her ancestry, is significant. When speaking of the British officers mentioned above, she says, “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians.” Of course, ‘girls like me’ could, given what we know about R, also mean girls who happen to be Indigenous. This interpretation makes sense in light of the way R finishes her thought/verse: “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The pronoun ‘we’ in this last sentence is ambiguous, however it does include R: if R is Indigenous, then the British (a figurative stand in for a more general cultural force perhaps) will kill her like they killed the other “Indians” they hated.

The origin which obsesses R, in a sense, and on a figurative level, in the way Ligeia overtakes Rowena, does her in. She cannot escape it: “Do not skyscrapers bear, deep within, straw huts? The person, her ancestors?” (115). She perhaps, the novel insinuates, in the past, even attempted to escape her origins (she has a dream about her mother, who is accusing her of lying about her origins [ibid.]; in the text’s final section, in an address to her grandfather, she also explains a move across the country as a way of attempting to become authentic, a state of being she associates, with having origins, with being either able, or willing, to remember them, all of which implies that at some previous point in time she was ‘inauthentic,’ either unable or unwilling to affirm them [see 152]). In the end, however, R does not escape her ancestry: she still goes missing, as if her Indigenous blood has marked her, such that she cannot be an exception to the genocide she has trained her eye on. “It is so easy to be murdered” (157), she tells us.

Read against the backdrop of Poe’s story, R’s ‘origin’ comes into sight, not as a gap, but as a concrete, future-determining presence. As such, it gives us an alternative way to understand ‘the future anterior’ at those moments it surfaces in the novel (we already encountered Rob Halpern’s version). ‘The future anterior,’ as a grammatical tense, signals the idea of a past which is not yet a past, but will be a past at a future point in time (‘she will have returned by tomorrow’). In other words, it is a future past, or, stretching things (figuratively again), it is a past lodged in the future (like Ligeia is lodged in Rowena’s body). (In the novel, the future anterior is presented as the figurative location at which “all stories are told” [46], a domain which is, according to R, “the realm of the ancestors” [152].) But this past lodged in the future is also described as a monstrous one: R refers to “th’ future [+ th’ anterior within it]” as a “monstrosity” towards which she is “obliged to keep movin’” (145; brackets in the original). The fact that it is described as monstrous is consistent with and supports a reading in which “th’ anterior” within “th’ future” is understood as one representation of R’s origin, or ancestry, which, pitted against an enduring cultural hatred, ensures her annihilation. Again, it is no coincidence that she goes missing: she is Indigenous, and her ancestry haunts, and governs, her future, which it expunges, much like Ligeia blots out Rowena. Her ancestry, on this reading, both provides and exhausts her ‘content.’

This take on the future anterior is, of course, markedly different from the one Halpern provided us with in suggesting that the ‘community’ New Narrative writing sometimes takes as its focus is always only a potential community: it is posed as “a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what is given,” rather than inscribed with a specific content. Above, following Halpern, I took the future anterior to imply that retrospection from a not-yet-existing (future) vantage point alone can make sense of what, at present, may seem to be a given novel’s chaos or nebulous ambiguity. “The feminine,” in Scott’s work, like New Narrative’s community, might come into sight as having a specific content from this vantage point, but, until then, remains a gap. Of course, ‘the future anterior’ might be interpreted in a more extreme way as well: It can be taken to mean that what a given novel—and whatever it preoccupies itself with, whether a community, as in Halpern’s case, or “the feminine,” in Scott’s—never means anything (any one thing) in particular and always only will have taken on a particular meaning, since a future tense remains a future tense (it does not, like the non-grammatical future, become the present, and then the past), and since this implies that the future vantage point the tense implies, not to mention the ‘content’ visible from that vantage point, is one which never arrives.

The future anterior, a theme in Scott’s novel, taken in this last way, dovetails with the idea of a (content-less) feminine-subject-in-process expressed in the work, where it is manifest partly as a structure that seems to wander, repeat itself and, ultimately, head “nowhere”—a structure which is the possible effect of an unconventional and, perhaps in many contexts, culturally disavowed approach to writing—a “feminine” approach, to use Scott’s terminology—which eschews logic linearity, knowledge and fixed endpoints, and instead pursues poetry in a way which allows the writer “to leap from [her] discoveries toward a future not yet dreamed of” (Spaces 71). It also resonates with the postmodern attitude which understands a given work’s meanings as open-ended and infinite (meaning only congeals at a never-arriving vantage point). It is in this strange way fully compatible with the alternative interpretation of ‘the future anterior’ which emerges when we read The Obituary alongside “Ligeia,” though the reverse is not true, since the version that emerges through this joint reading points towards the thought of an origin as the self’s—as R’s—fixed content, and also as a guarantor of death (her fixed end), which itself would depend on a fixed interpretation of the work.

Yet both meanings (and many more) emerge in the work, where they trouble each other. In fact, many of Scott’s sentences and sentence fragments have been crafted in such a way that they maximize possible interpretations and minimize situations in which one interpretation could become dominant: “By the end of our tale,” R tells us, “we may likewise be dead” (7). The word ‘dead,’ stricken, I mentioned above, is ambiguous. Because “dead,” in this sentence, is stricken (not absent, but still implied under the strike mark), the sentence might be read conventionally: “we may likewise [like the “Indians” the previous sentence refers to, and whom the British officers despised] be dead” (my emphasis; “may,” here, introduces another element of ambiguity, since it indicates a possibility, not a necessity). Or it might be understood in an opposite way (since ‘dead’ is, for all that, crossed out): “we may not be dead” or, more specifically, we may not, like the “Indians” the British officers despised, be dead: in one sense, they are not dead because they continue to haunt R. And a ghost—which R may or may not be—is itself an ambiguous figure: it is both dead and present, both dead and, in a sense, living.

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The Obituary posits meanings constantly, but only to evaporate them. Interpreting the novel is part of the pleasure of engaging with it, and because of the way the novel is written, it will remain perennially interesting. The first time I read this book, about two years ago by now, I read it quickly, and not for meaning at all: it was poetry, sound, weird, refreshing language I was after. My particular reading here has depended on many other essays and creative pieces I was reading while encountering the novel for a second time: encountering it as a reader hoping, also, to write an essay—hoping to lock myself into a deeper kind of engagement with the work, hoping even, maybe, to ‘get something’). The Obituary absorbed these other texts, but it is not limited by them. It is forever a work that will have been. You must read it now. And forget everything this essay claims.

—Natalie Helberg

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Selected Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill & Wang. Print.

_____. “The Death of the Author.” Aspen (No. 5 + 6) (UbuWeb). Web. June 4. 2014.

Benhabib, Seyla. “Feminism and Postmodernism: An Uneasy Alliance.” Marxist Internet Archive. Web. July 1. 2014.

Bernstein, Charles. 1992. A Poetics. Cambridge; London: Harvard UP. Print.

Bersianik, Louky, et al. 2013. Theory, A Sunday. Brooklyn: Belladona. Print.

Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP. Print.

_____. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford UP. Print.

Dial M for Murder. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Warner Bros., 1954. Film.

Halpern, Rob. “Realism and Utopia: Sex, Writing, and Activism in New Narrative.” Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (2011): 82-124.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 2002. “Ligeia.” Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. Edison: Castle Books. 569-79. Print.

Markotic, Nicole. “Narrotics: New Narrative and the Prose Poem.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue One). Web. 10 July. 2014.

Moyes, Lianna, ed. 2002. Gail Scott: Essays on Her Work. Toronto; Buffalo; Chicago; Lancaster: Guernica. Print.

Place, Vanessa. 2005. Dies: A Sentence. Los Angeles: Les Figues. Print.

Scott, Gail. 2012. The Obituary. Callicoon: Nightboat. Print.

_____. 2002. “The Virgin Denotes:Or the Unreliability of Adverbs To Do with Time.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue Three). Web. 10 July. 2014.

_____. 1999. My Paris. Toronto: Mercury. Print.

_____. 1993. Main Brides. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1989. Spaces Like Stairs. Toronto: Women’s Press. 65-76. Print.

_____. 1987. Heroine. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1981. Spare Parts. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

Stacey, Robert David, ed. 2010. Re: Reading The Postmodern: Canadian Literature and Criticism after Modernism. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P. Print.

Stephens, Nathalie. 2008. At Alberta. Toronto: Book Thug. Print.

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Gail Scott is one of Canada’s most eminent experimental writers. Between 1967 and 1991, she worked as a journalist and eventually as an instructor of journalism in Montréal; during this time she also participated in Anglophone and Francophone feminist circles which deeply influenced her writing practice. She is the author of four novels, or ‘prose experiments’—Heroine (1987), Main Brides (1993), My Paris (1999), The Obituary (2010)Spare Parts (1981), a collection of short stories, and Spaces Like Stairs (1989), a collection of essays. In 1979, she founded the French language cultural magazine Spirale; in the eighties, she co-founded and worked as an editor for the bilingual journal Tessera. More recently, alongside Mary Burger, Camille Roy and Robert Glück, she founded and edited the online journal Narrativity, whose express purpose was to supply a form of “missing nutrition” in articulating “ideas about theory-based narrative”; she co-edited the experimental narrative anthology Biting the Error (2004; shortlisted for a Lambda award in 2005) alongside the same writers.

Scott’s French to English translation of Michael Delisle’s Le Déasarroi du matelot was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award in translation in 2001. The Obituary was a finalist for the Montréal Book of the Year (Grand prix du livre de Montréal) in 2011. Her own work, the sentences which make it up, make much out of the bilingual and even multi-lingual language-contexts out of which they arise—they are clamorous, unique for their musicality. Scott has lived in a variety of places, including Paris, Grenoble, New York, and Stockholm, but her base continues to be Montréal.

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 helberg pic

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Scott’s writing grew out the experimental feminist writing scene localized in Montréal in the seventies and eighties; in Canada, around that time, bpNichol and Steve McCaffery were also toying with the idea of non-narrative narrative through their work on the book as a machine. This work emphasized the book’s materiality (some dimensions of which would be the look of words and letters used in a work and the use of white space on a page—the presence of suspect smirches on a particular copy’s page would count as well) and also attempted to dismantle the hierarchy between writer and reader, since the sort of texts they were theorizing were supposed to promote the reader’s participation in ordering the text—in choosing the sequence in which the text is read—among other things.
  2. Through its structure, when that structure seems improvised, through the running commentary it keeps on that structure, which gives the lie to the idea that it is fully improvised, and through the novel’s repetitious concern with what it means to be haunted, as R is, by the secrets of others, which I mention in the introduction.
Oct 042014
 

Salgado photo of artist

Andrew Salgado’s paintings have routinely all sold on or before the opening day of his exhibitions, at least they have in his last six solo shows in London (UK) twice, Ottawa, Regina, Cape Town, South Africa, and in New York City this spring. There’s tremendous excitement and a sense of pressure for his upcoming solo show, “Storytelling”, opening in London on October 7. Will it happen again?

Salgado’s artwork is stunning, larger than life. Looking at the “Storytelling” paintings, you can see, feel and, yes, hear the energy of this artist’s palette and brushstrokes, and the music that drives his inspiration to create these great bodies of work. His newest “album” of work is playful, bright, exciting, and pleasantly less somber than previous works, yet the dark side still lurks beneath.

Is “Storytelling” a modern olde-fashioned court pageant of sorts? The subjects in the paintings seem to be preparing for a show themselves. Some in contemplation as if they are getting ready for the role they are about to play, others still working on the script or perfecting a routine. All seem like characters ready to entertain you, the viewer. Or maybe for you to entertain them?

For some time now, Salgado has been the story-teller. What stories is he telling now? Does the tension between his intention and our interpretation give rise to the stories’ sub-plots? We have, in the end, to view the paintings and decide for ourselves what we are seeing (and hearing) in his work. Turning the question “what is it meant to be?” on its head and asking instead “what does it mean to me?” may give you some of the answers.

Social media savvy, Salgado shares with his 183,000-plus Facebook followers the Spotify links of the music he is listening to while he paints. It is no wonder his bodies of work are like record albums; some of his exhibitions, at least their titles and themes, have been inspired by song. Yet, the titles of his shows over the past several years have been both defined and arbitrary as are the different stories he tells through his paintings.

On his Facebook page he routinely posts updates of his work, activities, art likes and dislikes, and that “somebody took my soap from the communal washing-up-room”. Don’t get him wrong, though, he’s anything but frivolous. Playful? Hell, yes. Serious? Most definitely. He frequently donates to charitable organizations worldwide and is not shy to offer his artwork as an incentive for others to contribute to worthy causes.

Salgado, who has lived and worked in London since 2008, studied art history and theory at the University of British Columbia and graduated with a B.A. in 2005. Four years later he completed, with Distinction, a Master of Fine Arts (Honours) at the Chelsea College of Art in London.

At 31, Salgado has already exhibited around the world, from South Korea all the way west to Australia with stops in Thailand, South Africa, Scandinavia, Germany, United Kingdom, Venezuela, the USA, and Canada. In 2013, his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, hosted his first museum exhibit at which time he received the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award. He has another Cape Town show later in 2014 and one in Taipei in 2015.

Storytelling” opens on October 7 at Beers Contemporary in London and runs until November 22, 2014.

—JC Olsthoorn

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1-Salgado-Preparations underway for StorytellingPreparations under way for Storytelling

JC Olsthoorn (JCO): Looking at your exhibitions over past couple of years, it seems you are moving from ‘body of work’ to ‘body of work’. How do you see this process, how does it work for you?

Andrew Salgado (AS): Since about 2012, I have been fortunate enough to focus on completing each body of work; one consecutive to the other. I like to think of it like an album, where I release one completed collection and then move on to the next.

The interesting thing about the works within each body of work is that the paintings are completed concurrently. I like to think of it as a bathtub filling up (as opposed to building blocks, so to speak). So in essence painting 1 and painting 10 are being worked on at the same time, and elements that come in later on in the creative process can actually double back and thereafter occur on earlier works. It makes the entire body more cohesive, more connected.

JCO: You mention the “album” metaphor for your bodies of work. Does the listening to music influence your work?

AS: I think music definitely pervades the creative process. And to me, it’s crucial. Of course, we’ve all heard the belief from a particular camp that considers music to be a perversion of the artist’s true vision, as though there exists some fundamental or erroneous cause that will destroy your artistic vision if you – god forbid, listen to music while you paint – but you know, I will do whatever I need to do in studio to make myself comfortable. I don’t drink alcohol when I paint, and I know some artists that work half-cut most days, and I don’t think them any better or worse for it. So any real practicing artist will get past these strange stigmas and work however they want, in whatever context allows them to tap into that creative source. I listen to music obsessively, and this has often greatly informed my practice. For me, there’s a brilliant marriage between the two, and to think that they are or should be mutually exclusive is foolish. The greatest brains of all time have always considered art as a whole and complex entity: think of the Italian Renaissance, these people were artists on the largest sense and this idea encapsulated all art forms.

I spend the majority of my time alone, performing upon my own set of expectations, and music keeps me calm and focused. I’m very particular about what I listen to, but I think music can have beautiful effects on the brain and how that in turn affects the performance of the body, and translated thereafter to the brush upon the canvas. I tend to fixate rather obsessively on things in studio, and over the years certain albums have epitomized periods of my work. One of the first albums that struck me so profoundly while working was Kate Bush’s 2005 Aerial which is such a complex, obsessive piece of art in and of itself that it actually changed how I worked as a painter. Antony and the Johnsons The Crying Light was really affective, but I had to stop listening to it because it became too all-consuming, and quite sad. Some favorites since then have been Wild Beast’s Smother. St Vincent’s Actor has been played steadily for a couple of years. Wooden Arms by fellow Canadian Patrick Watson is an album close to flawless for me. And I love Radiohead, but who doesn’t? Right now I’m relishing an album by iamamiwhoami called Bounty.

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JCO: How did Kate Bush’s Aerial change how you worked? What in your painting changed?

AS: Kate Bush’s album was so influential because its such a profound work of art. From start to finish. And it slowly, aggressively, worked its way into my subconscious that it was like a drug. I could not get enough and there were days in the studio that (for 8 hours) it was the only thing I listened to, on repeat. The beauty is that the form equates the content so incredibly…the last (title) song in particular is a thrusting driving repetitive rhythm that was really like a trance. I responded to that aural stimuli as visual output.

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JCO: Do you “see” music? Does it manifest itself somehow on the canvas?

AS: Actually for Variations on a Theme exhibition [New York City, May 2014] I made a playlist where each painting was directly related to a song. Kind of like a synesthetic experience. You see the painting, hear the song; hear the song, see the painting.

The Party, 180x190cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: Are you drawn more to the words, the music, or the whole of the song?

AS: I think I’m drawn at first to the melody, but the words definitely come into play. However I notice when I’m really in the zone I can go through 4, 5 songs in a row without even really realizing. So I guess that answers the question quite definitively that it boils down to the music itself over the lyrics.

Ludovico Einaudi has also been very influential for me lately.

JCO: Einaudi’s music in the 2011 film Intouchables were “wows” for me.

AS: Perhaps what I like about Einaudi is that it allowed me to slip into that trance…not be so ‘aware’ of the music but still let it propel me. There was something really inspirational and moving for me about Two Trees and later Burning that would cause me to put them on repeat and forget myself. Another song I recall having that almost hypnotic quality was Bon Iver’s Wash. I’m a very big Tori Amos fan and I find that her best is the same for me. I think sometimes the music has to be really calming, but that’s a bit of a lie because I also find myself really into loud, aggressive, repetitive music. Arcade Fire or the Dodos.

The Acquaintance [Regina, October 2013] exhibition was named after Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance song. There’s a great essay on this by Margaret Bessai. She kind of contextualizes the connection between the song and the paintings in a way I was never quite able to.

“The narrative is an elegantly understated account of the numbing sadness at the end of a love affair. Although the term acquaintance usually refers to a near stranger, a person casually met, in O’Connor’s lyric it describes the time period of social contact, an intimate knowledge that comes to an end. Acquaintance in philosophy is the relation between a knower and the object of his knowledge. Each of these meanings may be applied to the relationship between artist and model.”

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Enjoy the Silence exhibition in Cape Town [January 2014] was named after the song of the same name, originally by Depeche Mode and covered by Tori Amos and I would listen to both a lot. In this instance however I think it actually was the lyrics that drove the points home: suppression, control, power, submission, pain, violence, all held down under the thumb of ‘love’ and ‘righteousness’.

Listening to [Ludovico Einaudi’s] Devenire now and yes….this is exactly what I love to listen to…It is a ‘wow’ you are quite right. I guess its like the music allows me to find a mood that I want to emulate.

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JCO: How do you take what you’ve experienced and learned from a previous body of work and move forward to the next one?

AS: I always say that each successive body of work has to be a response to – but also reaction to – the body of work before it. While I’m immensely self-critical throughout the creative process, I try to refrain from making overarching critiques until after the show, and the dust has settled. In this case, I like to go visit my own exhibition a few times and think critically about what has been done. What can change, its fortes, its shortcomings. This is quite a difficult process but its hugely important to be honest with yourself and re-asses your own production; I truthfully believe this is the only way to grow.

After The Acquaintance, my first museum based exhibition, I realized that despite my advancements, the exhibition was basically the same painting, done 8 times. The only two differences here were “Cinema” and “Subject” (to a lesser degree). So for the Cape Town exhibition, Enjoy the Silence I wanted to be sure that the actual content and composition of the works offered something different. Often, without really realizing it, an adjective pops into my head that guides the resulting works. Here, it was “intimate” The result was a show that was incredibly cohesive but had a greater range of compositional breadth.

3-Salgado-Notes_230x170cm_2014_oil on canvas 3Notes, 230x170cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

Then, when preparing for Variations on a Theme [May 2014, NYC] my strongest critique against Enjoy the Silence was that it was too warm, too intimate…ultimately too sedate. The guiding word here was “purposeful”, and the result was an even greater breadth in composition, scale, media, and presentation…but the resulting works were wild, energetic, and (finally) in a huge gallery, only 9 paintings. I went for statement and purpose over quantity. There was no more and no less; only exactly what was needed.

I think these basic ideas provide the greatest point of departure; but I try not to overthink when beginning a new series, otherwise I run the risk of ‘freaking’ myself out before I’ve even begun. At present I’ve started preparation for Storytelling [London, Fall 2014] and my points of departure are simple. A colour palette that varies (slightly) from what occurred previously. The adjective is more of an idea this time around…complexity masquerading as simplicity. I like to call it “deceptively simple”. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve encountered to date…if it weren’t the biggest challenge, then I’m not pushing myself enough. And if I’m no longer advancing, then I should quit. Right now I’ve completed the first 2 paintings for this show, and I can already see how its incorporating elements I have learned throughout my entire career. The works are very true to my ethos, but feel like another step forward.

I do find, however, that lately I try not to overthink before I engage. I like to learn through the process of discovery. I struggle with issues of anxiety and self-doubt. And as I mature as a person and an artist I like to think that this anxiety can be channeled and used in my favor. It’s like playing with fire, but I think that I can be a fire-eater and use this to push my own sense of creation to its limits. Each time I do so, my limits expand. I’m never satiated. It’s actually quite an exciting feeling.

4-Salgado-Temple_210x200cm_2014_oil on canvas 3Temple, 210x200cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: You’ve mentioned post-show dilemmas, that feeling between bodies of work where you say you feel (or fear) you have forgotten how to paint. Does it happen often, are they recurring? How do you arrive at that point and how do you work them out, how are you working this out?

AS: These dilemmas are inevitable; and important. Because without them I’m not pushing myself forward. There are a lot of technically proficient artists, who continue to execute variations of the exact same painting. For me, this is a practice of futility. I feel like, ‘sure, you do one painting, and you do it well, and you’ve done it well for however long….but you’re not advancing.’ In most cases, these artists are getting lazy, moving backwards. I have no time for the one-trick pony…and he is out there, feeling comfortable in his work. I often say that an artist’s worst enemy is a false sense of security in the studio. This is the kiss of death. I have no time to feel comfortable, I crave that feeling of uncertainty and excitement that comes with knowing you’re eking in one something totally new. It’s exhilarating.

Magic, 180x190cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: Your points of departure in preparing for Storytelling includes a “colour palette”. Given music’s influence, is there also a “sound palette” (beyond a playlist)?

AS: Is there a sound palette….hmm… To be honest, I’m not sure. I think there are an accumulation of songs over time that help me slip easily back into the mood of the exhibition. Albums and songs that (like smells) instantly allow me to re-enter the mood I want to work in. So perhaps there is a sound palette but I try being a little vague about these things because I do think that on one level I guess that while the music is important for me to ‘create’, its not important for the viewer to ‘view’. It’s like my own personal connection…but it can be irrelevant to the viewer. Because my process is a lengthy and lonely one, I need that comfort and connectivity to something beyond my own abilities and shortcomings.

JCO: What other things influence you as you prepare and go into the next phases of your painting?

AS: Obviously looking at painting is hugely inspiring. A number of the great literary genius’ would read chapters, or even entire books by their favourite authors before beginning to write for the day. It’s a similar process. I think that ‘quoting’ in art is often frowned upon; for some reason there’s a stigma that seems to be attached to this, whereas in other art forms its encouraged, celebrated. I’m quite honest about this practice of ‘quotation’ because a gifted artist can dislodge his inspirations from their original sources and translate them into something truly unique. It’s the hacks that end up appearing derivative. Even Picasso stated that “good artists borrow, but great artists steal”. Because ultimately we’re all paraphrasing each other, eternally, cyclically. Its exciting to think that my inspirations can come from so many varied sources and come out looking entirely my own…because as a matter of fact, it is my own. I’ve recreated something new from a vernacular that has been around for centuries.

Variations in particular looked to art history for inspiration, and did something of a ‘historical flattening’ in which anything from any era was fair game. So in some paintings I’m quoting Caravaggio, in another its Bacon, and in another it’s a friend or peer. Sometimes all these are happening at the same time.

Drawing Lesson, 180-165cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: I like this idea of ‘flattening history’ … but I see this happening as well through the idea of a story-teller who doesn’t tell just one story, the story-teller is telling many at the same time akin to “complexity masquerading as simplicity” perhaps?

AS: I guess I’m not so certain what the story is. I’m not certain there even has to be a defined narrative. But what I do like (with this title and Variations) is the freedom it allowed me. I’m no longer working within such restrictive conceptual restraints. The Misanthrope [London, 2012], The Acquaintance, etc., and all the shows before, were very specific. The works will speak for themselves.

Actually the narrative that I develop for myself is not something I will share with the viewer; I think its integral to the reading of the works to have that porousness and allow the viewer to take their own conclusions (or questions from the pieces). But I do like the idea of omniscience. I steer the ship, and I call the shots. I am allowed to lie, propose fantasy, remove the works from any adherence to reality. So I’m trying to push that. And in my head I’m developing the show piece by piece, and I’m not sure where I’m taking it.

It’s a different way than I’ve ever worked before, and so far it’s working for me. The idea of deceptive simplicity comes in both form and content. I think I’m purporting to do less and less, but the paintings are becoming far more complex. I believe it has to do with confidence and maturity. There is a kind of intimacy that the viewer is being led, through the forest, to view each piece. The first painting in the show, ‘Bruce’s Vision’, enters this fantasy where the viewer is greeted by a painting of the back of a man’s head. He is like the tour guide, I suppose.

Three, 80x80cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: But what stories are you telling in Storytelling?

AS: The stories are individual but also overarching. I’m going back to character types: the king, the sad queen, the prince, the pauper, the elder, etc. They’re ‘kind of’ popping up as I develop the show but only in a very loose manner. I’m definitely all about drawing attention to hidden details. But this is just a context for me to explore real, socially relevant ideas. These are a lot of connected, complex thoughts that I continue to explore through my work. The one thing I do see different from Variations already is that the show is less based on the history of art. It’s telling its own story…It’s more topical, more relevant.

JCO: And I wonder if it is more about how art works its magic, how one art form influences another?

AS: I think as artists we are drawn to other forms of art and magic. We all want to believe that these things exist. We all want to be surprised by the power of art. I want to surprise myself with my work, just as I want others to come into the show and go ‘holy fuck’. Art has that power, and I want to harness that power.

—JC Olsthoorn & Andrew Salgado

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ANDREW SALGADO (b. 1982, Regina, Canada) has created a buzz for himself with bold, generally large scale figurative paintings that have situated him as one to watch in both the UK and North America; even listed by Saatchi as “one to invest in today” (Sept 2013) and lauded by esteemed critic Edward Lucie Smith as a “dazzlingly skillful advocate” for painting. Salgado is one of 100 artists to be featured in the forthcoming publication 100 Painters of Tomorrow, authored by Kurt Beers and published by Thames & Hudson, (2014), and he is recipient of the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award (2013).

Salgado has exhibited in the United Kingdom, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia, Venezuela, Thailand, Korea, South Africa, Canada, and the USA. Forthcoming solo exhibitions include Storytelling, Beers Contemporary, (October 2014), and an as-yet-untitled exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan at BlueRider Art. Previous solo exhibitions include Variations on A Theme, One Art Space, New York City, NY (2014); Enjoy the Silence, Christopher Møller Art, Cape Town, South Africa, (2014); The Acquaintance, his first museum-based exhibition, Art Gallery of Regina, Canada (2013); and The Misanthrope, Beers.Lambert Contemporary, London, (2012).

His paintings have hung alongside works by Tracy Emin and Gary Hume in London’s Courtauld Institute of the Arts, included in the Merida Biennale of Contemporary Art (2010), the NordArt Carlshutte Biennale (2012); and has been featured Maclean’s (Canada), The Globe and Mail (Canada), The Independent, The Evening Standard, Shortlist, Yatzer, Metro and more. He frequently donates to charitable associations worldwide, including the Terrence Higgins Trust, MacMillan Cancer Support, and others, and garnered the highest-bid ever auctioned at Canada’s esteemed Friends For Life Annual Charity Auction (2011). In 2011 he was featured in the Channel 4 (UK) documentary What Makes a Masterpiece, alongside artists Anish Kapoor, Howard Hodgkins, and Bridget Riley (2011). In 2013 he was commissioned to create a brand new series of large-scale works to adorn the windows of the luxurious UK-retailer, Harvey Nichols.

Salgado has lived and worked in London, UK since 2008.

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JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

JC Olsthoorn spends time at the Domaine Marée Estate near Otter Lake, Quebec, writing raw poetry, creating coarse art and cooking scratch food. His poems have been published in a chapbook, ‘as hush as us’ and have appeared in literary magazines.  JC’s artwork has been exhibited and has appeared in several publications. He is wrapping up a 30+ year career in communications and citizen engagement just in time to become a curator at the Arbor Gallery – Centre for Contemporary Art in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. His first show is the gallery’s sixth annual EROS 2015, an exhibition of erotic art, opening in February.