Oct 172016


Fiction is a construction that arranges space and has a structure that defines spatial relationships. As such it is a kind of architecture, but its structure, especially in our more challenging, more exploratory fictions cannot be pictured as the simple pyramid Freytag gave us years ago. Matteo Pericoli, architect, author, and illustrator, has students explore these relationships and make them visible in models they build in his Laboratory of Literary Architecture, a workshop he has taught around the world. As he says:

In any real architectural project, there are ideas that need to be designed and conveyed, a supporting structure, sequences of spaces, surprises and suspensions, hierarchies of space and function, and so on. In creative writing, many of the challenges seem to be similar. For example, how should different strands of narrative be intertwined? How can chronology be rearranged in a plot sequence? How is tension expressed? What do certain narrative sequences and omissions convey or mean? How do characters connect?

And he cites Alice Munro, from her Selected Stories:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

Above, Katherine Treppendahl’s model of Joyce’s Ulysses.

This model represents my interpretation of the structural relationships within James Joyce’s Ulysses. While the novel occurs over the course of just one day, the text is lengthy, rich and exhaustive. The central story is that of salesman wandering Dublin. But revolving around and within that story are thousands of others—both internal stories developed within the novel and allusions to stories external to the text. The primary external text is, of course, Homer’s Odyssey, and the chapters and characters in Joyce’s novel reflect scenes and characters from Homer’s story. I developed an architectural language for translating multiple aspects of the structure of the novel. This language takes into account the progression from realism to abstraction in the text, the shifting roles of and intersections between key characters, the passage of time, the interior stylistic parallels, and the reader’s journey through the text.

Her full analysis of the model is extensive and can be found at her site here.


W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, by Joss Lake in collaboration with Stephanie Jones.

The structure is a tall and narrow space, reflecting both the vast scope of the book as well as the intimacy of the reading experience. An uneven path is suspended along metal supports, and gradually rises and falls across the entire length of the structure. The path’s shape is dictated by the fragmented and surprising nature of the narrative, in which the novel leaps from subject to subject through unconventional avenues, such as the documentary playing in the narrator’s hotel room … The darkness of the tall and narrow space is broken by clusters of light bulbs. The constellations of lights are not comforting; they too are disconcerting … These light bulbs are the core of the novel, the details that Sebald, and his narrator, use to recover the past.


Amy Hempel’s essentially plotless story “The Harvest” derives its motion and containment elsewhere. Ytav Bouhsira, Barbara Clinton, Silvia Jost, Eithne Reynolds created this solution.

The different planes of understanding cause discomfort for the reader. So compelling was the story that reading it was likened to being on a fast train and unable to get off.

We developed models to better reflect our understanding of what the structure of the story would look like and to give the story its spatial form. What emerged were models with airy layers, corners and angles. Through discussion, we realized that we were more comfortable with a form that shows that the author tries by different planes to adjust the story again and again.

While our structure is layered, these layers to not overlap. Rather than giving the reader more information, they show a different attempt of place-making. They have connection and are built one upon the other. There are no pillars or stairs that hold the building together. The space and the structure are the same.

What makes our building inhabitable is that the ground and roof are speaking the same material language. They create a system that allows the narrative to work. The different layers connect with the roof at just one single point–which reflects the moment in the narration where the author talks to us directly in the text and disrupts the narration.

The models are interesting in their own right and take on a life of their own. They could serve as starting points for other fictions.

All text from his site, all pictures © Matteo Pericoli, with his generous permission. More pictures of these models and other models can be found there. Matteo also, along with Giuseppe Franco, has begun a series of Literary Architecture projects in The Paris Review Daily that can be found here.

I had to try my own, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


The first thought is to make a winding corridor into density and darkness. But really the stalled trip up the river only provides an intensification of what we see in glimpses at the beginning. The plot does not develop anything we haven’t seen before and resolves nothing. It is not a novel of action, but of Marlow’s discovery and perception.

My model, like the novel, rests on water. Marlow tells his story while on the Thames waiting for the tide, makes his trip on a river, and the novel ends with the narrator’s gaze on “the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.” Instead of a plot line my model takes its structure from a rational grid of streets the color of blood. Rising from the grid a crystalline city, or a section of one. The novel shows us almost nothing of Africa or its people. What we most see instead, and what I show, is the western imposition and exploitation. As Marlow tells us, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” and it was the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs who commissioned him to write the report on which he later scrawled “Exterminate all the brutes!”

“The meaning of an episode,” the narrator tells us of Marlow’s story, “was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz throws “a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts.” My model captures this glow in reflected lights, but instead of the sought transcendence we have transparency of motive. There is no green in the model. I rejected Conrad’s notion that darkness was inherent in nature. We largely see nature in the novel as an obstruction or source for plunder. The darkness in the heart of Africa comes from ourselves, our contradictions, our corrupt projections.

Gary Garvin

Oct 132016

Stridentopolis, by Ramón Alva de la Canal


IN ROBERTO BOLAÑO’S The Savage Detectives, the characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima head north from Mexico City to Sonora in search of Cesárea Tinajero, a forgotten poet from the 1920s. Loosely associated with the post-revolutionary avant-garde movement known as Stridentism, Tinajero had since become a cult figure for the Visceral Realist group led by the book’s young heroes, who are eager to track down any information they can find on her. Anyone who’s read The Savage Detectives, however, knows that their quest is a distraction—one of the characters even says he believes Belano and Lima invented Cesárea Tinajero to justify their trip to Sonora. It’s perhaps fitting, however, that the Stridentists are largely known for their role as a MacGuffin in a novel written some 70 years after the movement’s demise—in real life, as in the world of the novel, they’re primarily conspicuous by their absence.

Though we’re approaching the centennial of the Stridentist movement, there are few signs that they ever existed. Only a fraction of their texts are available from Mexico City’s main public library, and while Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire has gone on hosting poetry readings and art exhibitions to this day, its counterpart in Mexico City—Café Europa, once located in Mexico City’s gentrifying Roma Norte neighborhood—is now a hipster bakery. Mexico’s cultural historians have either ignored the Stridentists—Octavio Paz didn’t think to even mention the movement in the chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude on the post-revolutionary intelligentsia—or they’re brought up simply to be dismissed as a cheap knockoff of the Futurists.

In their heyday, however, the Stridentists were admired across the Americas: their work was praised by a young Jorge Luis Borges and John Dos Passos translated Manuel Maples Arce’s poem Urbe into English in 1929, while the future Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias led the (potentially fictitious) Guatemalan chapter of the movement. They also had a considerable impact at home, with one contemporary work of criticism comparing Urbe and Arqueles Vela’s short story La Señorita Etc. with Diego Rivera’s murals at Texcoco’s Chapingo Autonomous University, arguing that these three works marked a revolution in Mexican aesthetics—but while the work of Diego Rivera is rightly lionized today, Maples Arce and Vela have largely been forgotten. It’s no wonder that the Stridentists obsessed Roberto Bolaño—researching them, even in the Internet age, is an equally frustrating and rewarding experience, involving a great deal of time in the National Library’s Rare Book Room.

So who were they?

First we should set the scene. By the end of 1921, the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution had definitively ended. Emiliano Zapata had been assassinated; Pancho Villa, though retired and living on a ranch with his last remaining followers, would soon suffer the same fate. The first two revolutionary presidents, Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza, had also been killed, the first during a counterrevolutionary coup d’état and the second by a rival group of revolutionaries. Power passed into the hands of a one-armed revolutionary general named Álvaro Obregón, under whose rule Mexico would begin to recover from the ten years of civil war that had left one million dead.

In the view of a young poet named Manuel Maples Arce, however, there was something hollow about this brave new age. “No spiritual agitation accompanied these outward convulsions,” he would later write. “In Russia, the Suprematist poets and painters painfully affirmed the restlessness of the Bolshevik moment. The November Group did the same thing in Germany. But Mexico’s intellectuals remained apathetic. Abroad, they continued to judge us for our endless exportation of literary trifles, sentimental junk and execrable odes sold at laughable prices to publications destined solely for the archives. But the post-revolutionary restlessness, with its proletarian eruptions and tumultuous protests, stimulated our inner agitation. We too could revolt. We too could rebel.”


A strange manifesto then appeared on the streets of Mexico City, posted between advertisements for plays and bullfights. Opening with a declaration of war on Mexico’s national heroes (Death to Father Hidalgo!) and the Catholic religion (Down with the Archangel Raphael, Down with Lazarus!) and freely quoting F.T. Marinetti (“An automobile in movement is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”), Maples Arce’s manifesto rejected the Symbolist-influenced poetry then popular in Latin America in favor of an art that would embrace the new: “It’s necessary to exalt, in all the strident tones of our propagandistic pipe organ, the contemporary beauty of machines…the industrial system of great throbbing cities, the blue shirts of explosive workers in this electrifying and poignant time: all the beauty of this century.” Despite the undeniably strong influence of Futurism, Maples Arce distanced himself from that movement’s forward-looking focus: “Nothing of retrospection. Nothing of futurism. The entire world, at rest, marvelously illuminated in the stupendous climax of the present minute…always the same and always being renewed. We shall have presentism.” The manifesto concluded with an index of European and Latin American avant-garde figures from a wide variety of schools; here Jorge Luis Borges appeared alongside Jean Cocteau and Diego Rivera alongside Max Ernst. Other names are more obscure. Like the infamous list of experimental musicians included with Nurse with Wound’s debut album, the manifesto utilized the catalog of influences as a statement of purpose.

Using the manifesto and his first book of poems, Interior Scaffold—which Borges praised “for its torrent of images and the mastery of its form”—as a calling card, Maples Arce attracted a small circle of writers that shared his desire to revolutionize Mexican literature. The first to declare his allegiance to Stridentism was Arqueles Vela, a columnist for the Mexico City weekly El Universal Ilustrado, who was soon followed by the Puebla-based poets Germán List Arzubide and Salvador Gallardo—as well as by Kyn Taniya, the son of Mexico’s ambassador to France, who had already established himself as a poet in Paris, rubbing shoulders with Apollonaire and Romain Rolland. They would be joined by a group of visual artists that included Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Fermín Revueltas, Germán Cueto, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. Together they launched a short-lived magazine, called Irradiador, which published their work alongside that of their counterparts in Spain’s Ultraist movement.

Exterior Scaffolding, by Fermín Revueltas

Much of their early work was given over to a celebration of the new marvels of the 20th Century (airplanes, radio, jazz, urbanism), capturing Mexico’s post-revolutionary optimism despite themselves. When the country’s first radio station was launched in May 1923, the inaugural broadcast featured the reading of a poem by Maples Arce that celebrated the new technology. Their critics lambasted their embrace of modernity as being derivative of Futurism, but this weakness was in many ways also a strength: while European avant-garde figures such as Marinetti and André Breton spent much of their time exploring the respective meanings of Futurism and Surrealism, leaving behind a large store of theoretical writings, the Stridentists simply wrote. With their disdain for theory and dogma, the Stridentists were able to avoid the cardinal sin of high modernism: difficulty. It’s hard to get through Ezra Pound, for example, without outside guidance, but the work of the Stridentists is much more immediate—Arqueles Vela wrote that Stridentism was a “sincere poetry, one that doesn’t organize emotions, which are always disorganized.” As they sought to capture the new sensations of their time without submitting them to an intellectual scheme that would require extensive interpretation on the part of the reader, their work was often playful and highly accessible, as can be seen in the following poem by Kyn Taniya:[1]


All this for no more than a dollar that’s
right just one hundred cents gets you
electric ears to catch the sounds that sway
in the kilometric hammock of radio waves

………………………………………… EO EEEOOO EO…

The Stridentists spent their days at Mexico City’s Café Europa, which was so desolate that they dubbed it El Café de Nadie—Nobody’s Café. “Nobody cares for it or administers it,” Vela said. “No waiters bother the customers, nor does anybody serve them anything… We are the café’s only customers, the only ones who don’t pervert its spirit.” Vela mythologized the café in his short story El Café de Nadie, which centers on two men—evocations of Maples Arce and Vela himself—who haunt the back tables, watching as a woman named Mabelina takes on a series of different personalities to please her rotating cast of lovers. By the end, she’s left writing her name on the café’s tables to remind herself of her identity. Here the engagement with modernity is much more ambiguous than with the Futurists, to whom they were so often compared: if the anonymity of urban life is liberating, allowing us to reinvent ourselves as we please, the danger is that this very anonymity will remake us in its image.

El Cafe de Nadie, by Ramón Alva de la Canal

The Stridentists would take full advantage of the café’s solitude. There they held poetry readings and concerts of “Stridentist music” by Silvestre Revueltas, exhibiting masks by Germán Cueto, photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, and paintings and engravings by Fermín Revueltas, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez, all hung between advertisements for Moctezuma beer and Buen Tono cigarettes.

It was at one of these exhibitions that Maples Arce debuted Urbe, one of the key texts of Stridentism and the poem that marked the movement’s political turn. The inspiration for Urbe came one May Day, when Maples Arce had to return home on foot as the city’s trolleys had been paralyzed by the day’s strike. As he walked through the city’s streets, he mingled with the proletarian demonstrators and reflected on Mexico’s still shaky political situation: “The dissent of the unions, the political agitations and the threats of civil war loomed over us,” he would later write. “In the Chamber of Deputies, speeches were suddenly interrupted by the thunder of pistols. Those who stood in the way of progress encouraged groups of politicians and military officers to try and seize power while the workers demonstrated their state of alert. I observed these spectacles, reflecting on the circumstances and responsibilities of those men who could influence the nation’s destiny. Under these stimulating influences, when I got home I started writing a canto that trembled with hope and desperation. I saw the clear need to give the revolution an aesthetic agenda, and in Urbe I joined my intimate emotions with the clamor of the people.” It’s easy to see what attracted Dos Passos to this poem and led him to befriend its author during his 1927 trip to Mexico. Like Manhattan Transfer, published the same year, Urbe is both a celebration of urban modernity and a longing to redeem its sins through leftist politics:

Here is my poem,
and multiple,
to the New City.

……………………….Oh city all tense
……………………….with cables and labor,
……………………….the sound
……………………….of motors and wings.
……………………….The simultaneous explosion
……………………….of new theories,
……………………….further off.
On the higher plane
……………………….of Whitman and of Turner
……………………….and, a little nearer by,
……………………….of Maples Arce.

The lungs of Russia
are blowing towards us
the wind of social revolution.
The literary pantysniffers
won’t understand
this new beauty
born in the century’s sweat,
……………………….and the ripe moons
……………………….that fell, rotting
……………………….are the stench
…………………….that rises
……………………….from the intellectual sewers.

If Urbe was the first sign that the Stridentists had become tired of shocking the bourgeoisie and longed to overthrow them instead, they would get their opportunity in 1925, when General Heriberto Jara became governor of Veracruz. Jara, a former anarchist, had joined the Constitutionalist Army during the Mexican Revolution but maintained his ties to the labor movement. As governor, he promoted the growth of unions, expanded and modernized the state’s infrastructure, and fought the power of the British and American oil companies that treated Mexico’s oil-rich Gulf Coast as their personal property.

Shortly after Jara’s inauguration, Maples Arce, armed with a letter of introduction, traveled to Xalapa and convinced Jara to make him his right-hand man. List Arzubide soon joined him, as did Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. There they edited a new magazine—Horizonte—which, in the place of the avant-garde texts and theoretical articles of Irradiador, ran translations of Tolstoy, H.G. Wells and Rudolf Rocker beside articles on the initiatives of Jara’s government and the political issues of the day. Their new publishing company, Ediciones Horizonte, printed cheap editions of the classics alongside their latest poems, as well as the first mass-market edition of The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela’s classic novel of the revolution. During this time, List Arzubide wrote Zapata: Exaltation, the first book celebrating the now-legendary insurgent leader, who was then seen as little more than a glorified bandit. The Stridentists also involved themselves in the founding of the state university and Xalapa’s proto-brutalist athletic stadium. Thanks to the patronage of Governor Jara, they were able to go beyond eulogizing modernity through poetry to working directly to modernize Mexico: they would turn a sleepy provincial capital into Stridentopolis. “Stridentopolis consummated the truth of Stridentism,” wrote List Arzubide. “An absurd city, disconnected from everyday reality, it corrected the straight lines of monotony by developing the landscape.”


This utopian project was not to endure, however. In 1927, Mexico’s post-revolutionary government was facing its worst crisis in ten years. It was fighting on several different fronts—against foreign oil companies, against large landowners and against the Catholic Church, which had been chafing under the restrictions of the 1917 Constitution (article 130 of which placed restrictions on its political rights). Though this last conflict had been festering ever since the constitution was promulgated, the situation worsened in June 1926 when President Plutarco Elías Calles demanded the full application of Article 130. In response, Mexico’s Catholics launched a guerrilla uprising on January 1st, 1927. President Calles needed the support of the United States government in order to win the war, and so Jara—who had been seizing the assets of British and American oil companies that owed taxes—had to be forced from power.

Jara’s fall triggered the disintegration of the Stridentists as a group. The movement’s internal cohesion had already been strained by the move to Xalapa, as not everyone heeded Maples Arce’s call—Arqueles Vela had instead gone to Spain as a correspondent for El Universal Ilustrado, while Kyn Taniya was made Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, where he and Miguel Ángel Asturias proclaimed the formation of the Guatemalan chapter of the Stridentist movement, of which no other trace seems to have survived. Salvador Gallardo, in the words of List Arzubide, simply “went out into the provinces and the provinces swallowed him up.” Both Maples Arce and List Arzubide, meanwhile, were encouraged by their experiences working with Heriberto Jara to focus on politics full-time. Maples Arce grew disgusted with Mexico’s political climate after only one term as a federal deputy, however, and left for a short period of self-imposed exile in Paris before reconciling himself with the post-revolutionary state in the mid-1930s. List Arzubide would remain an outsider. He joined the Communist Party and on one occasion narrowly escaped deportation to the infamous Islas Marías prison colony alongside Fermín Revueltas’ younger brother José, who would later write a celebrated novel about his imprisonment. On another, Sandino—then in Mexico to collect money and weapons for his insurgent army—gave him an American flag that his men had captured from the U.S. Marines and emblazoned with the words “This flag was captured from the imperialist Yankee forces. Fatherland or Death. Cesar Augusto Sandino.” When the U.S. Embassy heard that the flag was in Mexico, they demanded that it be returned to them. List Arzubide then smuggled the flag out of the country, traveling first to New York, where he hung it from the balcony of a friend’s apartment, before taking it to the World Anti-Imperialist Congress in Frankfurt.

xalapa-athletic-stadiumXalapa athletic stadium

In the year following Jara’s downfall, Álvaro Obregón was assassinated by a Catholic extremist and the subsequent crackdown on dissidents began Mexico’s slow drift towards a sui generis totalitarianism. This coincided with a period of silence on the part of nearly all the movement’s writers, a period that gave their rivals the opportunity to write them out of Mexico’s literary history. Yet this fate is what allows us to come to their work fresh today—the fact that the movement fell apart when a popular revolutionary was constitutionally but undemocratically removed from power even gives them a certain aura of martyrdom. If it’s now impossible to think of Marinetti without recalling his association with Mussolini, and if Mayakovsky died a “second death”—as Pasternak put it—when he was eulogized by Stalin and taught to Russian schoolchildren, Maples Arce and his comrades still remain untainted. This was undoubtedly partly what attracted Bolaño to the movement, especially at a time when the old rivals of the Stridentists were cheering on the bloody repression of the 1968 student movement, an event that forms the political background to The Savage Detectives.

In a sense, the Stridentists’ ephemerality is a testament to their success: neither looking forward nor back, they sought to capture a given moment in time, and they succeeded. In the first Stridentist manifesto, Maples Arce quoted Walter Conrad Arensberg’s assertion that a true poem shouldn’t live for more than six hours; Stridentism lasted for six years and then disappeared. “As good revolutionaries, we knew that every revolution that isn’t crushed at the right time will become reactionary when it crystalizes and is forced to uphold what it had fought in the immediate past,” List Arzubide reflected after the movement’s end. “We were the only revolutionaries who were willing to sacrifice our struggle for lack of heirs. And now that the movement has been liquidated, we hand our work over to the historians because from here on out we hope to avoid the discussions of the academics from the year 2941 who will measure, weigh, clean and polish what was born precisely, lived completely and died without an echo.” There is no better epitaph.

— Joshua Neuhouser


Panchito Chapopote by Xavier Icaza
El Movimiento Estridentista by Germán List Arzubide
Poemas Estridentistas by Germán List Arzubide
Las Semillas del Tiempo by Manuel Maples Arce
El Café de Nadie by Arqueles Vela

Secondary works:

Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti by Patricia Albers
Elevación y Caída del Estridentismo by Evodio Escalante

Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution by Rubén Gallo
El Ruido de las Nueces: List Arzubide y el Estridentismo Mexicano by Francisco Javier Mora
El Estridentismo o Una Literatura de Estrategia by Luis Mario Schneider

[1] All poems translated by Grant Cogswell



Born in Indiana and raised in Seattle, Joshua Neuhouser has lived in Mexico City since 2010, where he works as a freelance translator. His projects have included Rebellion in Patagonia by Osvaldo Bayer (co-translation with Paul Sharkey, AK Press 2016) and The Iguala 43: The Truth and Challenge of Mexico’s Disappeared Students by Sergio González Rodríguez (Semiotexte, forthcoming). He is currently at work compiling an anthology of the Stridentist writers.


Oct 122016



THE SIGHT OF you in the bustle of the late winter street paralyses me. I had better turn tail and flee, I think: my words squeeze me out of my apathy, seeing you I am embarrassed as though I had inadvertently opened the bathroom door and found you standing naked in front of the mirror, I am startled and would like to back out. What strangers would settle with one phrase I embellish with a lengthy explanation and over-emphatic apologies until my patience runs out and I turn on you because you don’t answer. But how come this imaginary bathroom scene occurs to me? We met on the street by accident, mother and daughter. I recognize myself in you, I find this intrusive and despair at once: how dare I appropriate what is yours, your beauty, as if it were my merit in the least, how dare I presuppose that you inherited it from me, that you resemble me. You fear my love as I do yours, I ratiocinate to myself, and despair at once. If you are weary and the premature, erroneous shadow of age shows on your young face, my heart shrinks, for I cannot help thinking that if one morning you should see yourself as I have just seen you, you will be hurt. Still, I don’t want to rush time: may you stay young yet, I wish, a cruel teenager; I have already burrowed myself in my hole, but please don’t demand explanations from me.

You were around eleven; through the window the light of the full moon illuminated our home: the stage. I tidied up your room while you two were fast asleep; I picked up your scattered things from the floor: a book, one sock, paper tissue, a ballpoint pen and lastly, the half-gnawed apple fallen on the rug, and went out into the bathroom to wash your white blouse for the school festivity the next day. I spotted my careworn face in the misted-over mirror. I was washing your blouse as romantic heroines wash their child’s linen shirt in the rippling creek. Self-commiseration brought tears to my eyes, they flew over, into the water foaming with the washing powder, into the world, into the thick steam, I don’t know why I consumed so much water to wash one single blouse. I tried to cool my swollen eyelids in the cave-like bathroom but my tears continued flowing, I kept wiping my eyes, that is, I was lacerating myself in the usual way. How do you see me, I asked myself and answered my own question: A shadow, a body no longer living, a black contour chased by the routine activities. I jotted down my words on an envelope at hand—for what we write down we manage to distance from ourselves: a mute slave, an hour hand—so I phrased my complaint—that unprotestingly walks the clock face of days, nights and years for you. I hung up your blouse above the bathtub to dry, then sat on your bed and watched you sleeping, taking in your beauty, relishing your free-flowing tresses, my lovely terrorist: as if you were permanently running away from your hunters. A few years later—you were no longer living with us—you showed up on the street all of a sudden, with your cascading gold-chestnut hair: a strange girl in a black shawl, a strange woman was walking uphill on the other side of Török Street. At her sight my heart jumped, but she pretended she didn’t recognize me, she didn’t even greet me. Had you really not noticed me, or did you merely not want to see me? I haven’t dared to ask you ever since, for you always tell the truth and would say, Yes, I had seen you and avoided you.

Quite understandably this time I am overcome by the desire to flee, to disappear in the opposite direction before you see or don’t see me, to be spared the disappointment: you are not happy to see me. I immediately recall that the year before, during the first term you were coming to my university to attend English classes—by that time you had been living apart from us for seven years—we finished at the same hour, we could at least have walked together to the subway station, but you chose to walk with your girlfriend instead, only sparing the time to say hello. So I get off the bus like one drawn on a string, I hasten my steps towards you. I often feel as though I were pulled on a string by a foreign will, for I wouldn’t otherwise stir an inch by myself. I will not put on it the label: on such occasions I get a whiff of the cellar breath of depression. You are approaching with arms wide open, quickening your pace. We wear identical jackets. I had bought you, your little sister and myself identical jackets in America—for financial reasons, it had been a rational decision. They were available in one colour only, this fashionable off green, I risked wearing the same jacket as yours. I rejoiced at the thought of us wearing identical clothes and I thought you wouldn’t mind. On that despondent winter, far from each other on the overcrowded city’s streets, three women would go on their shadowy errands, unaware of one another’s itineraries. But why should winter be despondent? From now on we would embrace each other when we met, for from now on you would come towards me with arms wide open, and I hardly dare believe my eyes.

I would have liked so much to finally tell you—we have always liked to discuss men—that not long ago, on an empty Sunday when your little sister was baby-sitting in England and I, slowly recovering from an unreal love, was going to the swimming pool on a tight schedule, on one of my swimming sessions I suddenly halted in the middle of the pool as if an engine had stopped in me. (The engine had tired of the tight schedule, strength ebbed from it, the water reached up to its mouth.) I made my way to the lane rope and gripped it. I had known the man who was swimming on the next lane for years, our paths often crossed at noon when the others would be eating their lunch, napping or whatever, when there were few people in the pool. He swam to the lane rope in his strange, funny swimming cap (I had anticipated this) and said hello. What a pretty cap you have, I smiled at him (I often smile in self-defence). He took advantage of the situation and proposed that we walk together for the length of a few bus stops after swimming. I said yes. I had indeed wanted to walk, bored by the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon (as if I were kicking an empty barrel upwards on a ramp), I longed to hear a man’s voice next to me. I was of course not a bit embarrassed because of the ambiguity of the situation, for I had no plans with him, I merely wanted him to talk to me in his deep voice—as though social mores did not apply to me (and they did not, indeed). He was well-proportioned, a bit younger than me. At that time I, too, was still considered beautiful or, more precisely, one that’s got the look. On the same summer a short, pig-faced professor who was to become the rector of the Technical University shortly, and whose twin daughters had been your groupmates in kindergarten about twenty years ago if I’m not wrong, came up puffing after me on the roof terrace, stopped above my chaise-longue and renewed his boorish proposal, familiar from the years before, but, as he pointed out, for the last time. My refusal had been unequivocal, but it seems he hadn’t learnt his lesson (neither have I ever learnt how to shame those who make loutish proposals. In addition, the pig-faced man happened to be my colleague.) Next year you won’t be so attractive any more, he warned me, huffing. He stayed some more by my bedside, expecting his sincerity to make me think twice. Even if his offer fell on deaf ears, his prophesy proved to be astute.

I could hardly recognize the man with the swimming cap who was waiting for me at the entrance according to our agreement. He wore a check shirt, jeans and worn trainers. Dressed like that, he looked penniless, which made me feel embarrassed and moved at the same time. We walked in the heavy smog along Mártírok Street (or was it already Margit Körút?), we could hardly hear each other in the traffic noise. The ambiguous situation irritated me and I was sorry for wasting the day. He stopped in front of a restaurant whose name sounded familiar, I couldn’t recall from where. I invoked some non-existent appointment for family lunch to get rid of him; at this he asked if I would like to have a glass of wine with him. I felt ashamed for my fib that he must have seen through, for up to that moment I hadn’t appeared to be in a hurry. Against my better will I ended up saying yes, for the second time already. We entered the dining hall redolent of kitchen smell, sat down at a table with soiled table cloth; with princely nonchalance he ordered a bottle of white wine. The restaurant and the bad wine made him more self-assured. I asked about his profession but, lest he might take my question for a cross-examination, I added that I taught literature at the Faculty of Arts. This was another lie (of course I wanted to cover up the traces beforehand). He asked me if I knew Shakespeare. Well, I’ve heard his name in conversation, I laughed. Do you also know Richard III?, he inquired further. “My life would be incomplete without him”—and this was even true. But he made a remark that suggested strong skills of observation. “You tend to exaggerate. Or are you just doing it for my sake?”

Ever since I bought these three olive-green jackets in America I have often toyed with the idea that if somebody observed us from high above and placed us next to one another on account of the identity of our outfit, then we three do belong together. You look at me with tenderness, it is perhaps the first time you notice that the lines around my eyes show not only when I’m laughing: they stand at attention, ready to grow deeper, even when I’m watching something with my face going stiff. “What’s up with the two of you,” you ask, “how’s life?” Well-behaved, I answer your question as though it were a stranger’s, quickly going over the tissue of my days and weeks, but can’t find anything worth mentioning, anything your eyes should linger on, or in which your palpating fingers should get caught. Still, I cannot whole-heartedly say I feel this way because of my forsakenness. I myself cannot tell what was first, the thousand small signs of your love withdrawn from me, or this even more unbearable, even more telling feeling of forsakenness in me. (I feel that everybody is happy with their grown-up children, except for me with you.) So I bravely drag forth some promising topic, academic success, travel, I don’t remember what. I can obviously not speak about what preoccupies me most, what I phrase to myself, alluding to its unbearableness, as “I live wounded to death,” and that “I ought to see a doctor before it’s too late.” Not only because of you but also because of the fresh break-up that put an end to our seven-year affair with K. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I answer, but immediately start wavering, perhaps you will find me indifferent and would say good-bye rightaway and then the magic will dissipate. My sharp-eyed swimming-pool acquaintance might be right in the smelly, smoky restaurant: I exaggerate when I talk about myself. Although I might bring up an excuse: it is not only my words but also my feelings that are so passionate. Throughout my teens I was convinced that everybody was like me. I couldn’t understand where the indifference on the faces of others came from, their sheepish patience in front of injustice, I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t rebel. Later, in my arrogance, I arrived at the conclusion that the others saw halfway and dimly, while I saw far and clearly. I was already a grown-up, the two of you were born, when I realized that the ability of too sharp phrasing was at once my strength and my weakness.

“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. / Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, / Our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, / Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.” My acquaintance in a poor man’s apparel halted for a moment in the middle of his recitation, I thought his number was over but I was wrong. He gave me a searching look to see if I was with him. I could see the unuttered question in his eyes, so I named the play. Like an award-winning student I added: first act, opening scene, but it seems I misunderstood his question, for he waved his raised finger at me to be patient and continued quoting Gloucester, the future Richard III: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasure of these days. / Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other. / And if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle false and treacherous…” At this verse he halted and gave a laugh with a mysterious expression. My face was all amazement. “So you are an actor?” I didn’t quite believe it, I was trying to acknowledge his stunt rather. “You missed it narrowly,” he said in a mystifying tone, but I could see on his face that my guess flattered him. “Then let me ask something else, do you have a regular day job or are you a freelance?” “I am unemployed.” I tried to avoid the dangerous high waters. “And where did you get your swimming cap?” His answer was no less surprising than his performance: “I had sewn it myself,” he said. “So you are the one with the sewing, while your wife goes to work,” I was trying to joke, although I would have liked to steer clear of discussing our family situation by all means. I felt like biting my tongue, but fortunately he didn’t take up the issue, he merely answered that he was not married and lived with his mother. In the meantime he was diligently pouring himself one glass after another, his eyes were shining already, while I barely touched the sour wine and, although thirsty, didn’t dare to order water for fear I’d offend him, as a short while ago I warded off his invitation saying I was not drinking of the wine because I was not thirsty. So I returned to the play: “Do you really love Shakespeare so much?” “I needed him. I can quote whole acts by heart.” I liked the past tense, and the arbitrary, lordly “I needed him” suggested an adventurous life or else, serious professional dedication.

You will of course have your own stories of me, memories that I perhaps don’t remember at all, or at the very least remember differently, out of self-defence. Not for absolving myself but rather, in order to be able to lull myself into the conviction: basically everything was all right between us. For I love you, and the birth of the two of you has been the best decision of my life. And you love me too, it is only our temperaments that are not suited. The realization that one’s treatment of one’s children can be tackled as a methodological issue, and that the books on parenting give outstanding recipes for coping with conflicts with teenage children, came like a cold shower—to stick to the imagery of the bathroom memory. I found the awareness that we ourselves could be characters in a case study, and that the positive or negative outcome of our conflict depends on my skillfulness, humiliating. I refused to believe that the first child, if a daughter, is a rival of her mother and if a son, a rival of his father. My shelves were laden with psychology handbooks, I fooled around with ha’penny horoscopes you could pick up everywhere on the street, with cheap booklets about famous people born in different zodiac signs, I bought everything to persuade myself that it was not my fault and perhaps not yours either, to doom our lives was maybe the unfavourable constellation only. It was chance that helped me learn the lesson “at the dawn of our love” with K. (to use his phrase). His presence changed our relationship. I simply had no courage to burden this relationship with my despair over the latest evidence of your inability to love me. At fourteen for instance, one Friday afternoon you announced that on Tuesday you would move out. K., as my sympathetic witness, said that I should be glad, for this way the situation would be solved in the most peaceful manner possible, and that I shouldn’t be brooding over the fact that you told me in the last moment. It was the last possible moment anyway, it would have been too late to fight for you, something that I would never have done to your detriment or against your will, by the way. We were invited for a dinner that evening, so there was no time to get engrossed in my failure or inquire about the practicalities. (I knew so much that instead of your mother’s, from then on you would be under a father’s supervision.) I can remember well the moment when you chose to communicate your decision, I was just putting on my thinnest coffee-coloured tights. “I have already arranged about moving my things out on Tuesday,” you said. I answered only that I was sorry I would not be at home and therefore unable to help with carrying your things, because I had classes that afternoon. You were so taken aback by my calm that on the day after your moving out you unexpectedly came over for a visit. We were just celebrating K’s birthday—alone for the first time. Perhaps you felt that you were losing me, that day you stayed with us late. Your little sister was away on a school trip.

“Do you need the Shakespeare quotes for your work?” I inquired. I would have been glad to hear that my interlocutor sought an outlet for his intellectual energies, or that he had learnt lengthy scenes for emotional reasons, but he said nothing of the kind, just continued to play mysterious. “Indeed. And not just in general but in the most concrete way possible.” I suspected that he wanted to test my inventiveness and that it would please him if I guessed sooner or later, even if slowly and with some help, what he did for a living before becoming unemployed. But nothing came to my mind apart from the theatrical professions, because the thought that he was getting drunk and I couldn’t get rid of him paralyzed me. Much help it will be to me, I joked to myself, if he turns out to be a prompter who is a dipsomaniac. I also remembered why the restaurant’s name rang familiar: the waitress living in our house worked here, where I was sitting at a table decked with a soiled tablecloth, in an intimate tete-a-tete with the stranger of doubtful circumstances. If she spots me, she would spread rumours in the house that I led a double life, I panicked. I hastily removed my elbow from the table, knocking over the wrought iron ashtray. At the loud clatter that startled everybody on the premises the waiter came to our table; I apologized but he didn’t grace me with an answer. With a commandeering gesture he replaced it, as if I had pushed it off the table deliberately. “Are you a theatre prompter?” I risked the question I came up with a moment ago. “You’re getting closer and closer,” he laughed complacently, with satisfaction, as if he had hidden an object from me that I was supposed to find. “I give up!” I answered impatiently, at which he said: “There is a time for everything.” And added that he wanted to see me open up entirely, whereas I was very reserved. As though I had been at a police interrogation, his unmasking observations uttered in a tone of superiority rained down on me. On top of it, every time the waiter passed through the swing-door, the light of a naked electric bulb pierced my eyeballs. “I loathe it when they analyze my soul,” I answered, closing my eyes. “How typical!” he commented without apparent rancour. “But allow me, how do you know that there is such a thing as a soul?” “I feel I have one.” I immediately realized the stupidity of my reaction. How can I be debating this issue, with this wretch? So I suggested that we talk about him rather. “Ask me, and I will answer,” he offered. “What do you live on if you have no job?” “I hold a few shares.” Once again I was surprised. “I had always imagined shareholders differently.” “You don’t live in this world, do you?” He fixed his velvety eyes on me.

I don’t even know for how long I’ve been living not in this world. I would have liked to tell you this when to your question, what was up with us, I answered, nothing special, I was just busying myself with my dream of the Last Judgement. It must have been about ten years after the death of my mother, your grandmother. In my dream we were all together in the garden expanding into an infinite square, of our last common home: not only the family, but all the living and the dead. The people came stepping on one another’s heels, in a controlled vortex. Trams pulled in with passengers hanging in clusters around the open doors; taxis came; crowds of pedestrians. The air filled with the excitement of apprehension. People were walking to and fro on the road, on the pavement, along the garden paths strewn with pebbles, their mouths moving mutely as if they were memorizing something, or trying to remember some important event by reciting their story. I heard the flutter of angels’ wings approaching and, now and then, a clash imitating the striking of a clock. All through, a dull, repetitive popping, as in the houses, through the wide open larder windows the souls of preserves tore open the cellophane and broke free from their jars and, crossing the airspace above the square, the erstwhile fruits flew back on the branches of surrounding trees. In my dream I felt the beatific state of belonging together; the boundaries separating me from the others dissolved, my senses were sharpened as if I had taken drugs. But I knew that if I started relating my unrelatable dream I would phrase it wrongly and you would correct me at once, saying: rather than beatific, my vision seemed downright terrifying.

Do you remember the Christmas Eve we spent with your grandmother, when she was no longer let out of the hospital? We brought in the plates, the cutlery, the Christmas dinner. We laid the table on the corridor, dressed the Christmas tree—it would be undressed in an hour and a half—and started eating. Unexpectedly the doctor on night duty stopped by our table—he bore a serious grudge about the fact that every Monday mother’s one-week pension would go to the ward doctor, never to him. “Are you at least aware that you have become a drug addict from taking so many painkillers?” he unleashed himself on mother. Never has the worn-out cliché sounded more truthful: “food turned bitter in my mouth.” We were eating the dessert, the Gerbeaud cake, its taste instantly turned to gall; I spat it out into my napkin and mother, too, pushed the plate with the cakes away from herself, we all put our forks down and started packing. I don’t even know why you came home with us after dinner at all? Probably for the books you got as present, in order not to offend me by leaving them there, or for your lovely leather gloves that you left in a taxi that very night. When you said good-bye I was arranging your shawl; you pulled out violently and shouted at me: Take your hands off me! At this I smashed a cracked Meissen plate on the floor. I can’t even say I grabbed it up in an irate moment: I knew exactly that I had placed it on the edge of a library shelf because I decided it was ready to be thrown out. So I dashed it on the floor and it broke to pieces. I have often heard that the best way of releasing built-up tension is to smash plates. I followed the advice like a half-hearted reveler, and it brought little relief. But my clownish role hurt me to the quick. As though the stage-prop wooden rifle had gone off, shooting the one who was brandishing it. I gasped for air, my heart stopped, I collapsed into an armchair. From that time I stopped sharing my dreams with you. Just as I don’t tell you that at Christmas time the Child is not born for me. Even though not from that day—for there had been signs before that I was on the doorstep of peril. I even phrased it for myself: “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” I had believed myself to be strong enough to drink the bitter cup and stand without a scratch, for I had sufficient routine in unhappiness. At most I would sleep more, or sit listlessly in the armchair mentioned above. But, however concise my phrasing, later it proved to be too self-indulgent. I had smashed a cracked plate. I had not denied the world but merely the circumstances I lived in. I chose another place for my home: music. For weeks I would listen to the same pieces of chamber music. But instead of sounding ever clearer, the trios or quintets repeated to the point of madness became increasingly fragmented; the possibility of continuous reading between the lines was lost, the weighty beats were punctuated by overlong pauses, the musical phrases rapped like so many clots of earth on an (imagined) coffin lid. My workplace, too, became a stage, although it was at exactly that time that I was appointed chair and so could travel all over Europe. I couldn’t have imagined earlier how many things you can do by being half present, without anyone taking notice of my half-absence. I was overcome by a strange feeling: it was as if I were invisible and anybody could stick their hands or walk right through me. At times, riding tram 4 or 6 to work, I fell out of time; at the sight of a Gypsy girl’s beautiful, bare shoulders my eyes filled with tears and I forgot I was going to the exams. In short, the ever thinning sentence, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” losing its complements (or concessions), was soon reduced to five words, not reducible any further, and my wish—which by that time appeared far too compromising—became “I don’t want to live.” As soon as I found this brief negation I felt relieved. Soon I resigned from my position at the university, thereby losing the severance pay, the condition of which would have been common assent, but I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t want to profit from my behaviour. My dream of the Last Judgement seemed to justify, retroactively, my rash decision.

So for the moment my swimming pool acquaintance observed that I was not living in this world, although his observation was meant to refer to the world of shares and dividends. “I remember a poster of a fat capitalist with a top hat and cigar,” I answered lightly, “with a gold signet ring on his sausage-like fingers. And you forgot to put on your signet ring!” I joked, gazing at his shapely hand and suddenly a clever idea about his profession struck me. “Are you a psychologist by chance?” “As you could have seen, I have studied psychology,” he answered, placing his fingers on the bottom of his glass. And—” He stopped suddenly. I looked at him: “And?” “And I have known lots of people like you.” “You have no idea how consoling it is to know that there are many people like me,” I continued joking, “so I’m not such a strikingly pathological case after all.” “At least not among my former acquaintances,” he nodded approvingly at his own words, “there are many similar ones.” He leaned back in his chair. The light of the naked lightbulb glared in my eye, I saw our waiter, holding the swinging door open with his foot, exchanging a few words with the receptionist. After your births I would have loved to have a third child, but had to realize that our marriage would not last another trial. Then I kept daydreaming about adopting an abandoned newborn from the nearby orphanage, before it became “manageable,” that is, before it got used to the lack of love. As a result, our walks took a turn towards the home on Lóczi Street, perhaps you remember the terrace, sunny even in winter. According to the strict rules, the nurses weren’t allowed to form closer bonds with the babies, for it would have made it even more difficult for these to cope with the fact that at one year old, then at three, and then at regular intervals throughout their school years, they were taken out of the community imitating a family where they may have taken roots. With my hopes connected to you and then with their repeated dissolution, I myself became distorted into your easily manageable, abandoned child. Don’t worry for me, but don’t try to love me either, I wished for later, for my eyes got used to the dark and your love would blind me.

“When the Company was dissolved,” my swimming-pool acquaintance revealed his cards suddenly, pulling the ashtray in front of him while his dark brown eyes pastured on my face, “they gave us a few shares.” It was the first time I heard the code name Company, but I knew at once what he was talking about. Perhaps I had already solved the riddle when I phrased my experience, inwardly, it is as though I were at an interrogation. So, I was having a conversation with a member of the dissolved Legion in the third-rate restaurant. I knew exactly what kind of shares he was talking about, because on one of our organized trips the driver informed the passengers about them when he stopped at a certain gas station. I must have become stand-offish. “Does this rule out our meetings from now on?”, my acquaintance asked. “Does the truth disturb you?” “It does.” I couldn’t tell anything else. Slowly we got up, he fished an one-thousand banknote, the only one, from his seedy purse, I protested in vain to share the bill at least, he insisted to pay.

The third yes. She was lying on the fresh bedsheet bleached from overwashing, covered with a blanket. She was numb, she remembered her negation, “I don’t want to live!” She was surprised that she had believed it to be irreducible any further, but now she knew one sentence that was shorter even. “I don’t live”: this was her conclusion. The ticking of an alarm clock was chasing the dust on the shelves decked with lace coverlets. The lace hung over the edge of the shelves. She could never understand why someone who is not good with plants would keep greenery in pots, if not for wanting to test the endurance of agonizing with leaves turned yellowish-brown. “Since my mother was taken to hospital”, the man apologized when they entered the flat, “everything’s been untidy.” She took a good look at the room. In fact everything was tidy. Tidy and dusty. She started dressing before becoming herself a stage prop, she rushed through the mechanical gestures, wanting them to be over the soonest possible, just as she wanted the ones to which she had lent herself a short while ago in the bed to be over. She picked up her blouse from the chair, disturbing the daytime sleep of a moth. She remembered her first love, the overwhelming bliss of thirty years ago, that barely let her sleep at night. Back then the flutter of a moth’s wings would wake her up at night, or at least she would have liked to believe so, as her senses got so sharpened that even noises inaudible to the human ear could startle her. In those days she was sorry for the time spent sleeping. Probably it was not the moth but the sense of her happiness that shook sleep from her eyes. She had read somewhere that in the empty hours, while waiting for a bus, queuing in a shop or bank, the thoughts of ninety percent of grown-ups revolve around love. It is curious, although perhaps understandable, that in this very situation she should remember this word, so out of place. She glanced at the door: the key which the man had turned at the moment of their entrance, probably mechanically, was no longer there. She tried to open the door but couldn’t. “How will I escape from here?” she asked, aghast. In the meantime they must have been talking about some thing or other with the man, because she could remember his pleasant voice coming in from the kitchen now and then, but had no inkling what the subject was. Did he want to hold her captive? Or was he merely warning her that she had walked into a trap?

To this day I can’t understand how it could happen. For a month my parents took care of you while I was in Madrid with a research scholarship—almost fifteen years ago now. I worked from the morning into the afternoon in the Cervantes Library. I lived in a depressing hostel where a lone 40-Watt lightbulb spread its sickly light in the windowless room, in utter solitude, without friends or company, dividing up the two-week grant to last a month. I lived like a hermit, even if not on berries and roots but on the two-course menus of cheap restaurants; rising early and going to bed early in the narrow iron bed; forever warding off the insistencies of the postman who would knock on my door on his free Sunday afternoons, put his foot in the gap when I opened the door, and whom I had to push out into the corridor. I toyed with the idea that I was all alone in the world, I didn’t even have you. I was always hungry, eating or carnal desire was forever on my mind. Often I dreamt of my father who had been dead for six years already. He had had a beautiful death, as they say, a heart attack took him away very quickly. It often occurred to me that, had he been alive, I could have asked him for advice. I didn’t see him die; perhaps he was still alive in some intermediary state, I codded myself. I would have liked to tell him that in my dreams I got letters from him, as thin as gossamer, they were handed to me by our dipsomaniac postwoman from back home. Leaning over the railings of the stairs I could barely reach her held-out hand, I would have complained; the sheets of the letter, sticking to one another, became unreadable and were torn in my hands. But, to return to my story: I had agreed with you that when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel I would call you. I had reckoned that it would happen halfway through my stay, so I had asked you to be at home on the 17th, on a Thursday afternoon at 6 o’clock. Back then it took twelve days for a letter to reach me from Budapest, and ten for one from me to travel home, so I didn’t have any fresh news from you, or you of me. From your little sister’s doodles I gathered that she missed me very much. In my happier days there I recognized her in all the black-haired little girls in long skirts. Once a little girl of about seven even greeted me: “¡Buenos días, seňora!” and I answered happily, to be ashamed in the next instant when she corrected me with the self-confidence of a proper young lady: “It wasn’t you I greeted, Madam!” Howeer absurd it sounds, her rejection made me very despondent. Her greeting was answered by the woman walking behind me. Your plump, trusting letters I interpreted now as a promise of the return of our lost happiness, now as its refutation. When I imagined how good it would feel to hear your voices, I immediately became insecure: you might be dismissive. I conjured up the possibility that they organize a school-wide ping-pong championship on that day, or that you would want to enroll in an orienteering competition but either have to drop out or leave earlier because of me. I feared that my mother might over-emphasize my importance and this would fuel your resentment. I tried to ward off my depressing thoughts with diligent note-taking and museum visits at luxury entrance fees. Then one morning on my way to the library I saw a poster announcing the screening of Bardem’s film, Calle Mayor, at a reasonably priced downtown cinema.

I had a season ticket for ten single journeys, I had to be tight with money, so I only took a bus or trolley-bus for long distances. That afternoon, too, I started out on foot on the Princesa to the cinema, leaving myself sufficient time. I had already bought the ticket and still had about half an hour to spend, so I walked on for a few streets’ length when I noticed a large glass office building or emporium on the corner; according to the billboard, a “Sala de Conferencias”, a “Conference Hall”. There were rather many people waiting inside, I thought I would take a look around the hall flooded in light, to see with whom you could have a conversation in there, and on what. I would like to ask my father, I toyed with the idea, if I was allowed to have cheap adventures. I craved the velvety skin of men and the touch of their long fingers, exactly as he used to crave women. As if my yearning had no further aim beyond aesthetic pleasure, and as if one step did not engender the next one, my desires appeared in lamb skins. As if I could stop this side of the instant of complete abandon and could be satisfied by running my fingers along the line of their mouths, or rest my head on their naked chests. Can I keep my name secret from them, and—as soon as I step out the door—become a stranger to them, just as they would remain strangers to me? I would have liked to hear his approval to such questions. But he kept silent until the night of our return from America. He only spoke to me in the mist of the night separating All Souls Day from All Saints Day, when I said good-bye to K. with whom I met for the first time after my long absence in an acquaintance’s flat. When I was groping in my handbag for my key to open the gate, at that moment he addressed me: “You live rightly.” But perhaps you have already guessed what the glass office building or emporium was in reality? The post office headquarters for long-distance telephone calls. The day of my cinema outing fell on April 17th, the Thursday of our agreement, and the hexagonal clock on the wall showed exactly a quarter to six. So I called you exactly at the time when you expected it. Your sister picked up the receiver, then my mother followed, and in the end you arrived (you had a ping-pong championship at school). There must be a rational explanation, to do with the working of the unconscious, for the fact that I didn’t forget about the call, although I had well-nigh forgotten about you. I was filled with gratitude towards providence that you were not disappointed in me, that I could keep my word.

The secret police agent soon reappeared in the shabby room with a flowery majolica plate full of sandwiches. On the one hand she was hungry, on the other hand she thought she couldn’t offend her one-time partner, provided he would let her out at all, so she took a bite. The bread with pork grease and Lajta cheese wrinkled up around her teeth. The grease reminded her of the most tortuous period of her childhood, the months she spent on a farmhouse without her parents; fortunately she couldn’t detect in the taste that smell of the pigsty, the swill and of the boar, which always made her stomach turn; it was its consistency rather that disgusted her. She watched the man’s boyish upper body, familiar from the pool. She didn’t even feel a passing tenderness towards him, her head would not rest on his smooth chest, although she had believed that in her dejection she was ready for this betrayal even.

Thus we started out together with my swimming-pool acquaintance from the restaurant to the bus stop. I wore his company like a thistle sticking to my coat after a walk through the thicket, all the way to Moszkva Square and from there on tram 59 for a few more stops, until the thistle finally detached itself from my coat and got off, for, as he said a short while ago, he lived around there. I imagined his apartment (his mother had been in hospital for some time). Perhaps women go up to his place and help with the cleaning up, perhaps they even cook for him, I mused. Provided he kills his time with women. His neighbours hardly knew anything about him, he told me when we were still in the restaurant, because his apartment opens on a closed corridor, so they can’t check. He must have a secret cabinet with drawers from which he takes out his documents, starts a strategy game, lays out photographs. With me too he proved to be a sharp observer, so at home he would open a new file and put down accurate notes on my behavior. “She has two grown-up daughters. Teaches literature at the Faculty of Arts. She is easy-going and open by temperament but is cautious and backs out before the decisive step. Has a bit of intellectual arrogance. Makes hostile statements on the past regime, doesn’t like to talk about herself, her behavior is tense. The one surveiling her should expect her to lose her nerve at any moment, or to simply turn round and leave. She has her weak spots through which she can be easily approached, these are to be specified, provided the relationship with her continues.” I had already got used to the fact that you would ridicule me. That my feeling of isolation would culminate this evening and I would drown in its high waters, but tomorrow morning, eternal survivor, I would surface again. It is not entirely bad to be a stranger—even to our own child—if we dive into the depths. By giving a shape to my story I tried to gain your sympathy, but I am not trying to get anything, for I’m afraid of change. That you should send me into exile among the happy, and be born to me again? It caught me unprepared that you embrace me, that two identical jackets embrace each other—this makes me lose my bearings. Once the daughter of a well-off family left off her university studies and went to work in the Renault factory: from that time whenever somebody spoke to her kindly she thought their kindness was merely an effect of a misunderstanding. For a long time to come I will live with the faith that you are mistaken, and that your error will shortly become obvious to you, too. Yet out of weakness, for a moment I rest my head on your shoulder.

— translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa


Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature OnlineShe lives in Budapest.



Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.



Oct 112016

Okla Elliott


Satan, Bring Me My Guitar (Or: Use the Condom—
You’ll Be Happy You Did Later)

Three times I wished to find an end

Twice you called and said it was the end.

What’s the use of all this trying this wanting-more
your denials your holding-together?
What use the machinations the theatre the holy pornography?

Mister, there are mystical stains everywhere
I go
these days; I don’t want
or at least
don’t want to want
or at least
don’t want to admit I want or want to want—

Oh, to hell with such
roundabout poetics.

My blood is 7 degrees Celsius.
I am not alone.
There are others,
brothers of near-freezing blood; it’s that near
that keeps us close, that forms us.

What makes this room
suddenly Dantean in demeanor?

The pastel skulls are too much,
recurring details of a Día de los Muertos
acid trip gone horrifyingly wrong.

I want to compose a song.
Here is the refrain:
Our Father, I would like to complain
of senseless erections.
I have been meaning to say so
for years, but it only occurred to me now
because I have your attention.

Okay…that song would suck, I admit,
but that doesn’t make me not want to
(or want not to) compose it. So:
Satan, bring me my guitar!

But you don’t want me to compose
a song for you.

What do you want?

You always talked about commitment
at any cost,
so I will prove I am committed.

I wrote the title of this poem
before I was done
and now I will commit
to that parenthetical condom,
which I included just to amuse myself
and my friend David Bowen
with whom I was IMing when I was
drafting this poem.

So, here goes:

You visit me

And I tell myself,
Use the condom; you’ll be happy you did later.

There should be a barrier here
something to block the past
from entering the present unhindered.

Let’s Not Imagine


Let’s say night never arrives again.
Would the moon disappear in a sun-flash?

And what if all the flowers in all the poems—
flowers I’ve often never seen or heard of, except in poems,
what if these flowers were petrified?
What would we make of these colorful stones
planted throughout world literature?


I read about a torture method
used by rebels in South Africa. Necklacing.
You place a car-tire around your victim’s neck,
then you pour gasoline in the tire, and—
Well, you know what comes next.

The victim’s face disappears in a sun-flash
and all flowers should blossom stone forever.

Let’s not imagine the kind of corpse necklacing leaves.
Those eyes will not see the stars of night.
Some survived. Would you want to meet a survivor?

Antinomies and Intensities


Askew, askew, I float. The darkling waters
turn my helpless boat round.
The rippling dots of starlight—dead stars, dead.

The rippling of starlight on the water
and overhead. Silently, I merge the world
with my mind. Silently, it becomes one world.

I wobble myself upright and balance.
The body’s warm intensities, its needs,
its abilities. All of this, turning slowly

on the night’s river.


I watch the weather gather
yellow doom into its belly.

The water will wash runnels through the sand.
It will wash away the self-monuments of man.

Say your prayers. The sky won’t listen.
Say them anyway.
The sound of human voice in the storm,
this might be of more value than we can guess.


There is a vowel in the wind. A voiceless vowel.
There is joy in the void. A hopeless joy.

I will ride the waters over the cliff
into the abyss.

I will embrace this apocalypse—

Ruinwind Sonnet

A hot wind has blown across land and ocean
bringing a desert howl, a desert death, with it.
The wind has changed the angle of your hair,
changed the angles of our hearts.
I sniff the air and smell death. I sense the depleted
souls of uranium shells.
Among so many battlegrounds and burial grounds,
how do I dare to be happy?
Your honest high-pitched laughter
carves the air, counter to the grain of the distant wind
that has burned my day to a ruin.
But that is just a metaphor in my life,
a neat poetic phrase.
Others, their lives are literally burned.

—Okla Elliott


Okla Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University. His work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming).


Oct 102016

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It is Minoru Yamasaki’s misfortune that the two works he is best known for, the World Trade Center and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, are best known for their collapse. The World Trade Center, or its site, has attained the status of a shrine, so reflection upon its design and influence will have to be postponed for another time. Postmodern apologist Charles Jencks hailed the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death—prematurely—of Modernism, and critical smoke from that debate still lingers. In both cases, however, the major factors that led to their destruction came from structural tensions outside the buildings, not within, from design flaws in the larger world. And many of the same forces that shaped Pruitt-Igoe, social and economic, direct the design of homes for most of us today and determine where we live and how well.



Most of us know its story, or at least most of us have seen the pictures that left afterimages in our imagination of disaster. At least Pruitt-Igoe brought issues of public housing to the fore. Originally planned as a segregated complex in downtown St. Louis, Pruitt Homes for blacks and Igoe Apartments for whites, the project comprised 33 11-story buildings holding some 2800 apartments on a 57 acre site. It was cause for hope when tenants started moving in, 1954, this at the time of the optimism of the post-World War II boom. The design, with interior pillars supporting an exterior skin of brick and windows, a facade free of ornament and reference, followed principles of Modernism and initially received critical acclaim. To encourage community and give the residents open space Yamasaki placed corridors on the floors, a nod to Le Corbusier’s “interior streets” in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. On a larger scale Pruitt-Igoe echoed Le Corbusier’s utopian desires, as outlined in his book The City of To-morrow and Its Planning and demonstrated in his various designs for an ideal city, where his essential solution to urban crowding was density—high-rise offices and apartments set in a rational grid to allow light, space, natural landscaping, and, supposedly, freedom.

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Yamasaki’s design is derivative, perhaps, but there has been far worse for public housing, and private for that matter. The major criticism of Pruitt-Igoe and similar projects has been density. Studies have been made examining the deleterious psychological effects of crowding people in small spaces, especially the higher up a building goes. But as in Le Corbusier’s post-World War I Europe, the need for low-income housing in St. Louis was large and pressing, as it is now in urban areas around the world, and solutions have to be large scale and entail simplification and sacrifice. In many urban areas today, given steep real estate costs and increasing population, the only alternative is to go up. As it was, Yamasaki intended a less dense complex with a mix of high- and low-rise buildings, but rigid federal standards mandated the taller buildings, and other cost-cutting compromises were made that reduced space within the apartments and without. Building contractors inflated their bids, straining the budget further. Still, it did have playgrounds and open space, and facilities for communal needs. The buildings were solid and had heating and plumbing, often lacking in the slums. In so many ways Pruitt-Igoe was superior to the housing tenants had before.

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Occupancy began high but plummeted. Attempts to integrate Igoe, after a Supreme Court desegregation ruling, failed. Whites left. The buildings suffered rapid deterioration and became a focal point of gangs, drugs, and vandalism, of neglect, assault, and fear. The corridors turned into a no-man’s-land, avoided and defiled. Hope turned to a pathology so broad and impacted that the only solution authorities could see was to destroy them. Their answer to violence was more violence. Demolition started in 1972 and continued until 1976, when razing of the entire complex was complete.

A quick review of the causes of its demise will not do them justice. They are complex and interrelated, pervasive and ugly. Nor will numbers tell the story persuasively. Rather the conditions have to be experienced, suffered and endured, to understand their magnitude and insidious effects. Still, Chad Freidrichs’s recent film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, now on DVD, built on extensive research from city planners, urban historians, and sociologists, provides a depth of understanding lacking when the project was first conceived.

Start at ground level, before construction began, with attitude and motive. Government funded construction for public housing has never been strongly supported in this country, as was the case in St. Louis in the ’50s. Business interests, however, prevailed, but their desire was to clean up the eyesore of the downtown slums to make commercial and residential developments attractive for the thriving St. Louis metropolis they anticipated, which they wanted to give a modern face. There were other motives, not publicly voiced, that emerged later.

Many facilities were not adequate in the first place, their problems exacerbated by lack of funding for maintenance. Elevators broke down, incinerators overloaded and trash gathered, water pipes broke in winter. Security and other services also got cut. The buildings declined in rapid, downward spiral. Many residents were poor blacks who fled the agricultural South in hope of better opportunities. The assumption that tenants could pay for maintenance was not realistic. It became completely untenable when their incomes fell because the urban boom, the modern, new St. Louis, did not come. Instead the city’s population shrank with the flight of tax-paying residents to the surrounding suburbs, taking with them the commercial and industrial base and jobs from the city’s core.

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Pruitt-Igoe did have mixed income at the start. Soon, however, the residents were overwhelmingly poor, many paying as much as three-fourths of their income on rent, and they were densely packed together. Tenants of high-rises on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, however, manage well enough. Density most affects low-income families. Their circumstances wear at their resolve and they lack the means to change them. Concentration increases pressure on the fault lines. The family is the first circle of the structure of community and the first line of defense in crisis. Welfare laws undermined families by mandating fathers of recipients not be in the home. By 1965 two-thirds of the residents were minors, most in single-parent homes, attenuating the social fabric even further. Residents were constantly surveilled, and other restrictions made them feel isolated from the world and neglected.

The overwhelming factor was race, bound to poverty in intractable and destructive concentration. Segregationist sentiment remained strong, publicly and privately, and blacks, by various tactics and covenants, were barred from the suburbs and the jobs there, and from the jobs that remained near where they lived in urban St. Louis. For so many blacks a project like Pruitt-Igoe was the only option, or the option the welfare authorities pushed on the poor. Public housing became the instrument not to solve social and economic problems but to isolate and contain them, and allow them to fester and erupt. Really, Pruitt-Igoe was a monument to its society’s prejudices, blindness, and failures, and their combined results are what the pictures of demolition we all know so well most represent.


Now, 40 years later

How much has changed? Paul Jargowsky, in “Architecture of Segregation,” reports that concentration of poverty in barrios and slums has returned and again is linked to race, again is the result of policies and attitudes similar to those of the ’50s. It is almost twice what it was in 2000 and falls heaviest on minorities, black and Hispanic poor. We have seen its effects in the police shootings and subsequent rioting in Ferguson, just outside St. Louis, and Baltimore, as well in reprisals—police slayings in Baton Rouge and Dallas. What we don’t see is what lies beneath the surface of those isolated events, yet all indications are disturbing. Mood is difficult to detect, but we’ve gone from a world that in the ’60s found the need to proclaim Black Is Beautiful to one that tells us Black Lives Matter.

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Next up the economic scale, most of the rest of us. What the chart on the left shows is that income for 80% of us has flatlined while it has soared for the top 1%. More of us are now living with compromises, stagnant pay and diminished benefits in low-level jobs with limited chances for advancement or in contract work that pays even less and is less secure. Or we work longer hours in jobs that do not match our talents, and even hold down two. Or we try to make it on our own with small businesses in an economy that is stretched.

Money is power, and what the chart on right represents is our influence, our ability to make changes for ourselves and in the world at large. It also determines the construction we see in our world as well as gives voice to how we are supposed to see it. Architectural commissions, like money, like land, are limited resources, and the top 1% hold the greatest sway as they hire top architects to build their luxury townhouses or suburban spreads and the most prominent buildings in our urban environment, offices for the corporations they control and institutions where they have influence. These are the buildings that get the most attention in architectural reviews.

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Meanwhile housing, our major living expense, continues to rise steeply. Public-built homes for those of us at the bottom is a moot point as low-income housing is handled through subsidies to private concerns by a ratio of four t0 one, its quality and character determined by lowest common denominator design, its price by whatever the market can make its residents bear. For those of us steps above, an increasing number cannot afford to buy a home but have to rent, and the cost of rentals has kept pace. In its recent report “Out of Reach” the National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates that there isn’t a single state in the nation where workers paid minimum federal wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of their income. On average they need two and a half times that pay. The burden is much, much worse in many areas. The report breaks the numbers down, state by state.

Even as you climb the income ladder, many of us are making still more compromises with homes well below the standards we once had cause to expect. We are moving further away from the cities, from our jobs, and from each other in exurban sprawl, or into infill housing or shared housing or smaller, crowded apartments in the city, homes whose quality and style run from dismal to variations of bland.

What can’t be graphed is the decline in the quality of our lives or the effects the disparity may have years from now, or soon. In the tension of the current environment it is difficult to know whether one is being realistic or alarmist, but it’s hard not to wonder if the Pruitt-Igoe pictures aren’t prophetic in another way.

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“[A] town is pure geometry,” Le Corbusier tells us in City of To-morrow. “When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.” He takes our breath with the clarity, consistency, and comprehensiveness of his vision. And chokes us. Jane Jacobs, who lived in the city and studied its people, found that his open spaces led to isolation and bred crime. It is hard not to believe that the simplicity of his design didn’t mask some psychological drive, hidden. Despite genuine sympathy and the best intentions of planners from Fourier’s Phalanstère in the early 19th century, a response to the crowding and squalor brought by the Industrial Revolution and an influence on Le Corbusier, on into designs of the 20th, so many architectural solutions for mass housing have been marked by isolation, containment, and coherence through abstract regularity in a hierarchy of some sort. And by grimness. They want to clean things up and put them in order, not give them life. The working poor were seen en masse as an abstract problem to solve, not individuals looking for variety and fulfillment. Later reactions to Le Corbusier’s monolithic plan were just that—reactions motivated by reverse sentimentality and abstract theory out of touch. Recent urban designers have shown more knowledge and sensitivity, but one has to wonder how much time planners, past and present, spent learning about the people they were trying to help.

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Le Corbusier should not be singled out for criticism, however, and in many ways he responded to the spirit of his times. The world had become abstract itself, absorbed in process, notably industrialization and technology, which architects embraced, and distant from the beliefs and customs that once gave our lives texture and character. The major abstraction the world has to contend with now is the move to the free market, which is anything but free. Whole systems of values have been replaced with fascination in whatever we can be induced to buy, a theme we play out in endless variation. Government managed economy and public welfare policies of the last century have lost substantial ground. Government designed by political thinkers is dead. The greatest irony of “free enterprise” is that it has led to consolidation and growth of large corporations now worldwide, shrinking our influence and status in this process. Business leaders created monoliths on their own, without the help of architects.

Free enterprise does have efficiencies and provides incentive, but as a system of belief and behavior it offers, by definition, nothing substantial, yet its adherents invest it with a veneration that approaches religious fervor. They have also given it a wild ride. Housing was once the bedrock of the economy and a means of individual stability and expression. In the first decade of this century we had a spree, when mortgages lost their moorings and became instead a source for massive, exotic speculation. Complicated financial instruments were created on top of a huge pool of subprime—dubious—loans that no one understood, not even those who bartered them, resulting in a crash that took the economy with it. It was all exhilarating, really, if you can step back a moment and take it in, a non-euclidean triumph. Perhaps a stretch, but the temptation is to say that our more exotic, risky, even perilous architectural designs of the last decades match this spirit, this abandon.

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Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health in Las Vegas.

So much other architecture now, clean and white, open and transparent, appeals to us with its purity and abstraction. Some of it is classically well-proportioned, some is fanciful, some is funky, some technologically marvelous. But so much of it works within theoretical inbreeding and a narrow set of esthetic assumptions it does not question, assumptions and ideas that give us an ever-diminishing sense of self. Some propels us forward towards a fantastic, abstract future that shows no recognition of the past and has little bearing on our present lives. How well these buildings will stand up to the test of time, how well they will weather the abuse of climate and social and environmental erosion, whether they can maintain their pristine appearance and if so at what cost—all these questions remain open.


Billy Towns

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The most moving and convincing statements in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth come from interviews with a handful of former residents themselves, who were strongly attached to their lives at the complex. At the beginning they experienced joys and a community there that have been overlooked. They speak with clarity and conviction, and reveal the depth of their humanity. They also are not blind, as they understand the motions within and without that strained their lives and led to conflict. One watched his brother die of wounds from a fight as his mother tried to put him back together. But they have endured and come out whole. They represent possibilities missed and lay the groundwork for future construction.

Of special interest is a bonus feature on the DVD, More Than One Thing. It’s a 16mm black-and-white film made by Steve Carver while a graduate student at Washington University that juxtaposes scenes in the life of Billy Towns, a high school student whose father died early and who grew up at Pruitt-Igoe, ever present as backdrop. The ghettoes, he calls it, exposing the stigma attached to such housing, though he goes on to say the projects aren’t that bad. He always tries to make the best of what he has.

Billy is ambitious and wants to make it in life. Most he wants to be somebody and gain respect. The way to do that, he says, is be good at more than one thing, thus the title. He plays two sports, basketball and football, and has dreams, unrealistic, of playing pro. Apparently he can hold his own in the pool room and also plays trombone. At the beginning we hear, in ironic statement, his faltering yet spirited rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” But he is observant and thinks. He is realistic about himself, his world, and his chances.“I don’t think I look that good,” he tells us, “and I don’t think I look that bad.” He knows he will need ability and have to make opportunities himself. He respects the value of education and wants to go to college.

He also understands the ways of the world, and the film shows how they have molded him, unconsciously, imperfectly, and potentially tragically. Against his ambition and efforts, boredom, which he fights. He says there’s nothing to do in the projects, a recurring theme, so he goes uptown, where he sees white stares. If he has to be good at more than one thing, it’s because he knows he will have limited opportunities because he is black. He also knows what is most needed in our world: “Without money what else can you do?”

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His greatest tension and temptation is violence, to which he may have succumbed. Gang pressure is implied and likely is overwhelming. Fighting is stupid, he says, and he sees the insanity and desperation of blacks killing blacks. But violence of some sort simmers beneath the surface of the whole environment. It is the counterpart to frustration. Like the residents in Myth, Billy feels the urge to lash out somewhere, anywhere, at someone, at something, even if it’s just to break a bulb or smash a windshield. The only other alternative is to be passive and just let things go. Billy’s solution is to stay away from connections. Friends get you in trouble, he says, and he has few. It’s not good to trust too many people because he believes closeness can hurt you, as it probably has. He also mistrusts romantic attachment, more than might be expected at his age. His resolve comes at a price—isolation.

Yet he remains upbeat and keeps looking for options and keeps moving on. At the end of the film, hat in hand and thrust forward, he joins a few friends in a loose, bluesy dance on the sidewalk, utterly engaging, all of them in sync.

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Not only should we build housing for people like Billy Towns and the Myth tenants, construction that knows and respects them and gives them space to be themselves and grow, we can also learn from them. In spite of everything, we see Billy’s irrepressible spirit, his desire to reach and move forward and not be defeated. We can learn what it means to be alive and how to stay alive, a lesson that might sustain us all.

And we should construct housing like this film. More Than One Thing is a tremendously successful piece of architecture. It builds for Billy what Pruitt-Igoe couldn’t, a container that gives him recognition and life. Carver finds spirit and complexity where others only see abstract problems, people as abstract types, and pathology. His style is original yet universally compelling, not lapsing into rigid symmetries, sentimentality, or the constraints of esthetic theory and political ideas. Every shot is well composed, with texture, contrast of shadow and light, and compelling spatial variety.

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The film understands context, the world it which it stands, and transforms its facts, its currents, into vital expression.

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Carver can also find the poetry of flight in the barest place.

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Most, the film has rhythm, in the pacing of its shots and a jazz score that links it frame to frame, that lifts the spirits and keeps it, Billy, and all of us moving. Just as important, it is built on a solid base, humanity, empathy, and broad social understanding.

Firmatis, utilitas, and venustas, durability, utility, and beauty, the principles of architecture Vitruvius outlined centuries ago—More Than One Thing succeeds on all counts. It is well made and solid, and should last a long time. It is useful in the ultimate utility, the means to have a life. There are many types of beauty, and many theories of beauty, but all derive from the same source, the human spirit. Carver has found his own that transcends the trendy or merely pretty. It is a gorgeous film. Relevant to the subject, he accomplished all this on a low budget, with limited technical means.



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Manifestos serve a purpose. They make quick, abrupt statement, clear the air, and get attention. Seldom do their authors test their assumptions, however, or even examine them, but there is some value here as they don’t get diluted in qualification. This manifesto is no different, except it has nothing theoretical to state nor anything specific to propose. It only has one maxim: there are no good ideas. Its only corollary, which necessarily follows, is that there are no good designs.

That does not mean there aren’t bad ideas or designs. There have been too many that were too gross or malignant, and we have suffered too much from their effects. Nor that we shouldn’t come up with new theories and test them or try new designs. On the contrary, we must. “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” Keynes warned us at the time of the Great Depression, and we see the result in our free market chaos now. The same applies to politicians and architects. “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back,” he added, anticipating the totalitarian horrors to come.

Explaining why the manifesto is true, and how many different ways it is true, however, would take volumes, and that is the point. To do it would require thorough study of all the partial successes and wholesale failures from the past, of all the theories upon which they were built almost all of which had short half-lives. But those are all we have to work on. The view that we have discovered something new and final, or are going in that direction, that we can make a break and leave the past behind, that we have changed in some fundamental way, that we are moving towards some future progress—is an illusion and a trap we have fallen into too many times. The thought that we can build the perfect society or perfect building is already an act of crippling surgery. Any idea, any design, necessarily, inevitably, will come up short. There is too much much to comprehend, too much beyond our control, too much we can’t predict. Forcing a concept and projecting it globally compounds the deficiencies by accelerating orders of magnitude.

Really, the non-manifesto is liberating. It allows openness and flexibility and provides a check to our impulse to contain, control, and extend. We will always end up with compromises, and understanding that will help us come up with plans that are workable and satisfying. It also encourages us to be tentative and keep close to the world around us and to what most matters.

We have known all along what we most need to know about ourselves. We will always have to observe and explain and try out new ideas, and we will always have to make adjustments. But the things that most define us are the things that most resist definition. At our core, the irreducible fact of our existence. We stray from it at our peril.

“Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms. Living. Changing. Now.” Mies van der Rohe, “Working Theses,” a century ago. The industrial and technological momentum he found attractive and wanted to transform now strains us and drains our will. Anything we build now will have to be durable and protect us. It better be ready to take some hits. But hopefully we will come up with something that is resilient and gives us life.

— Gary Garvin



Notes and Credits

More Than One Thing has recently been restored as part of a National Film Preservation Grant. It is at the Film and Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis and will be aired this November at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

Special thanks to Steve Carver for his permission to reproduce the stills from his film.

Permission for the photograph of slum housing in St. Louis, near the Pruitt-Igoe site, from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photograph of Le Corbusier’s proposal for a city from ArchDaily.

Pictures of the aerial shot of Pruitt-Igoe, implosion sequence, vandalized corridor, and Phalanstère from Wikipedia Commons.

Income graphs from “It’s the Inequality, Stupid,” Mother Jones.

Housing graph from J. P. Parsons Real Estate Charts. Note the recovery from the last housing bubble and his prediction of another.

Photo of Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health from “Gehry in Vegas,” BoomerReviews.Com.

The Obama administration has just released the Housing Development Toolkit to tackle issues of housing inequality. Introduction:

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers–including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes–has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

This graph from the Toolkit is telling:


Richard Florida breaks down public housing expenditures in “The U.S. Spends Far More on Homeowner Subsidies Than It Does on Affordable Housing,” The Atlantic Citylab. Excerpt:

The U.S. shells out roughly $46 billion a year on affordable housing—$40 billion on means-tested programs and another $6 billion in tax expenditures through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which supports affordable housing investments for low-income Americans. Compare that to $195 billion in subsidies that flow largely to wealthy and middle class homeowners via tax deductions for mortgage interest.

The subprime mortgage crisis has recently been covered in the film The Big Short, which takes much of its information from Michael Lewis’s book of the same title. I have given it my best shot, using largely the same source, in “Under the rainbow: capitalism/the subprime mortgage crash,” adding my own speculation.


Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.


Oct 092016


Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. —Frank Richardson


The Angel of History
Rabih Alameddine
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.00

What if you were Satan’s chief delight? How chilling, how disturbing, how psychosis-inducing would it be to discover Satan—yes, the actual devil, Mephistopheles, the Morning Star, Lucifer—said that you rejuvenated his jaded heart? Who would want to know that? In The Angel of History, Rabih Alameddine’s newest novel, we learn the answer to this question, for Jacob, a Yemeni-born poet and survivor of the AIDS epidemic, is Satan’s delight, and the fallen angel makes it his mission to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past.

The Angel of History is Rabih Alameddine’s sixth book and fifth novel. Born in Amman, Jordan, he spent his youth in Kuwait and Lebanon. After moving to the United States, he first pursued an engineering career, but gave that up for painting, and then writing. In 1998 he published his first novel, the critically acclaimed Koolaids, a blistering indictment of war and a harrowing examination of the ravages of AIDS. His other novels include the experimental I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters (2001), The Hakawati (2008), which draws on the tradition of Arabian fables, and the bibliophile’s delight, the sublime An Unnecessary Woman (2014), which won the California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Now fifty-six, Alameddine spends his time between San Francisco and Beirut. Once again exploring the subjects of AIDS and war in the Middle East, with The Angel of History, Alameddine gives us provocative storytelling at its finest, a fabulist tale that explores how we grieve and how we succeed and fail in confronting our most painful memories.

Jacob’s Elegy

Ya‘qub, the protagonist and narrator of two-thirds of The Angel of History, arrives one rainy night at a crisis psychiatric clinic in San Francisco determined to be admitted. The fifty-something Ya‘qub has used the Americanized ‘Jacob’ since moving to San Francisco in the 1980s as a young man. Jacob explains to the triage nurse that he has been suffering from hallucinations again and is depressed. His employer had suggested he seek counseling, but it wasn’t until Jacob saw a report of another U.S. drone-strike on a Yemeni village, this time his mother’s hometown, perhaps the one where he was born, that he finally broke down. He needs an emotional holiday, and his ideal version would be three days in the psychiatric unit of Saint Francis Hospital with a nice Haldol-Ativan cocktail served with a chaser of Lexapro—after all, drugs had helped before—something to quiet the voices, something to deaden the pain, something to turn out the light of memory.

The majority of the 300-page novel is arranged in three titled sections—“Satan’s Interviews,” “Jacob’s Journals,” and “At the Clinic”—each of which is divided into twelve chapters, many with titled subchapters. Alternating in sequence, the three major sections present three parallel plots from multiple points of view providing a nonlinear reconstruction of Jacob’s history.

A poet who earns a living as a word processor for a law firm, Jacob lives alone in his San Francisco apartment except for his large black cat, Behemoth, whom he named specifically after the infernal feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita—another novel featuring a well-tailored Satan. Jacob suffers survivor’s guilt. All of his friends, including his beloved partner Doc, died from AIDS-related diseases twenty years ago during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s. Overcome with anguish for his lost friends, Jacob hasn’t been able to write poetry for some time, but his old muse, his “angel of remembrance,” Satan, has returned.

The primary plot of the novel, set in the notional present and narrated by Jacob in the “At the Clinic” chapters, covers his breakdown the night he seeks admission to the hospital. Jacob’s narration is often in a stream of consciousness style, mimicking thought, as in this example where he explains the reappearance of Satan in his life:

It has been getting worse, Doc, I don’t seem to be able to cut him off, I am all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness, it wasn’t always this bad, I went along for years doing rather well, didn’t hear his voice, but then one day he reappeared, and he’s been getting more demanding, more irksome, hissing, hissing, and I get headaches, I fear the return of the great migraine storms, I need a break, Doc, I need a break.

Devastated when his friends died, Jacob spent time as an inpatient in the same hospital to which he is once again applying. He had thought he was stable, he had thought he had escaped the trauma of history: of losing his friends and his mother and the memories of his childhood. As he writes in his journal, always addressing Doc:

While my mind processed the chaos that passes for thought in the early morning, I had cracked five eggs by the time I realized I was about to make you an omelet as well. Decades may have passed and sometimes it feels like only yesterday that we had our breakfast together. . . . I’d had a life since you left . . . I did yoga . . . I went to art openings . . . I watched bad television shows . . . I was living, I thought I was content, I was told I was happy. I did a marvelous impression of a man not crushed by dread.

Moments such as these reveal Jacob’s deep grief and give the impression of a hollowed out life. Jacob’s tender admission evokes the tone of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, another novel that addresses living day-to-day with heartache for a lost partner.

“Jacob’s Journal” is part requiem, part confession, and it is also where we learn what Jacob remembers about his mother, a teenage Yemeni maid who became pregnant by the equally young son of her wealthy employers in Beirut. Kicked out, she becomes a homeless wanderer through squalid desert villages where she is forced into prostitution. Mother and child finally settle in a Cairo whorehouse for the most stable and in many ways happiest time of Jacob’s childhood. But these memories have been repressed, or lost, or ignored for too long. Jacob writes about his childhood:

You, Doc, wait, I need someone to hear this, listen to me. . . . I don’t know why I tell you all this about me, I need to, I guess, but with this need to tell comes the concomitant desire to forget everything . . .

An assiduous Satan has been working against Jacob’s “desire to forget,” and Jacob’s journal and ensuing breakdown have been the result. In an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, Jacob tells a bartender, “I am your angel of history”; namely, a being who sees the past as a single, unalterable catastrophe.

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920

Angels and Ministers of Grace

The most significant subplot of The Angel of History unfolds in “Satan’s Interviews” and involves Satan’s attempt to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past. One of the most entertaining, often hilarious, and clever parts of the novel, “Satan’s Interviews” features third-person omniscient narration, usually limited to Satan’s locus of perception.

Being supernatural, Satan simultaneously coaxes Jacob to leave the clinic and hosts interviews with his son, Death, and a group of Catholic saints at Jacob’s apartment. The devil has a long tradition in literature, with some of the most memorable and most human versions found in Milton, Goethe, and Bulgakov. Alameddine’s Satan is eerily human with a voice as beguiling as one might expect from the personification of temptation. Jacob does a fine job describing Alameddine’s Satan (in a sly metafictional stroke) when he writes in his journal how Doc “endowed the devil with wickedness and perseverance, you made him fun, witty, intelligent, frisky, lively, ironic, and above all, petty, all too human, like us.” But for Jacob Satan is Iblis, Islam’s whispering jinn, a sulking, lonely creature with nothing better to do than torment him.

Satan is a fully realized character, complete with his own conflicts and a clear desire: he wants Jacob back. During Jacob’s first hospitalization he was drugged to near catatonia, and after leaving the hospital he spent many years on antidepressants and a variety of pharmaceuticals, both legal and otherwise. Satan doesn’t want his favorite whipping boy tumbling down that rabbit hole again.

In the first of “Satan’s Interviews” Death—whimsical, mocking, irreverent—asks his father why he is intervening in Jacob’s life now; Satan replies: “Because he has been sleepwalking through life since his friends died, because he has been so lonely without me, because his poems were getting more and more boring, his dreams more banal, and worst of all, he began to write stories.” However, it could be worse, Satan concludes, horror of horrors, Jacob “could write a novel.” Satan’s motivation, ostensibly for the benefit of Jacob’s art, is, not surprisingly, purely selfish: Jacob “rejuvenates my jaded heart” Satan confesses to Saint Blaise. Furthermore, Satan tells Jacob that it was him, not the saints, who saved Jacob from AIDS:

funny you should credit the silly saints with healing you, and not me, Death came for you and I intervened . . . I sat him down, told him your soul was mine, a long time ago I claimed you, you child of pestilence, you squashable worm . . .

And this is part of Satan’s interest in Jacob, namely Jacob’s squashability—most clearly reflected in his sexual history. Jacob’s experience with sex begins violently when a customer of the Cairo whorehouse demands that the ten-year-old paint henna on his penis. In his Lebanese boarding school Jacob is beaten and repeatedly humiliated by bullies. As an adult in San Francisco, jealous of Doc picking up another man, Jacob visits an S&M club where he is whipped—and it will not be his last indulgence in masochism.

Death asks Satan if he is going to interview “the others”—meaning the saints that Jacob prayed to as a child and as an adult until AIDS took everyone from him. In a Catholic tradition dating to the Black Plague, there are a group of fourteen saints—known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers—who are prayed to for specific maladies. Satan doesn’t interview all fourteen, but he does call upon them, remarkably, for assistance. It seems that Satan has done his job all too well in helping Jacob remember and now he needs help in keeping Jacob sane and off memory-impairing medication. Death, whose job is to offer the cup of forgetting, the waters of Lethe, expects Jacob will choose him, and so the dance between remembrance and oblivion begins.

In his depiction of the saints, Alameddine shows us compassionate but weary caregivers, for eternity is long and people exasperating. The interviews also offer humorous, welcomed breaks from Jacob’s somber memories. For example, Satan is unnerved by Saint Denis holding his decapitated head in his lap and insists he return it atop his neck, and Saint Margaret mocks Satan by holding a balloon of a baby dragon, for according to legend, Satan, in the form of a dragon, swallowed her but then choked on her cross. It is Saint Margaret who asks Satan to bring Jacob back to poetry: “A poet is tormented by the horrors of this world, as well as its beauty, but he can be refreshed, reborn even; he can take to the sky once more.” Saint Catherine sympathizes with Jacob’s past choices, she feels he only “did what he had to do during the time of sunder, he girded himself against the dirge,” but in the present she agrees with Satan’s assessment: “We must wake him and hazard the consequence. We must offer the apple.”

14-helpersTilman Riemenschneider workshop, The Fourteen Holy Helpers, c. 1520

War All the Time

In addition to the three major divisions of the novel, there are three sections labeled “Jacob’s Stories,” each containing a single short story independent of (but harmonizing with) the novel’s plot. The elegiac tone of Jacob’s journal changes to bitter resentment when he thinks of the humiliating final stages of his friends’ suffering, and his anger, inflamed by the interminable carnage he witnesses in the land of his birth, is vented in his stories.

Alameddine displays a formidable gift for satire in “Drone” and “A Cage in the Penthouse.” The latter, reminiscent of George Saunders’s equally acerbic “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” features a wealthy couple who keep a caged Arab as a pet in their Manhattan penthouse. In “Drone” we see U.S. drone strikes through the point of view of a sentient, self-righteous attack drone named Ezekiel.

 Through Jacob’s thoughts and his stories, Alameddine reminds us how easily wars are forgotten. Indeed, one of the epigraphs is from Milan Kundera (a writer who has had much to say about war and memory): “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” War tears through the countries of the Middle East daily, and for Alameddine—who grew up in Lebanon and spends much of his time there—this subject runs through his fiction like a scar.

Finding Time Again

The Angel of History shares more than a few characteristics with that paragon of memory novels, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Jacob’s past is what Satan and the saints are there to help him find and keep. Alameddine’s talent for nonlinear narrative—evident in Koolaids where the Lebanese civil war is starkly juxtaposed with the AIDS epidemic—shines brightest in The Angel of History with its exquisitely interlaced chronology, multiple plots, and points of view.

“Jacob’s Journals” presents a conventional memoir: Jacob thinking about his past. “At the Clinic” is more complex; here Jacob is thinking about his present, past, and future, but the narration feels like an extension of his journal, as if the events of his night at the clinic are added to his journal in the future. Satan’s interviews take place concurrently with Jacob’s night at the clinic but tell the story of Jacob’s mother and his childhood through the saints’ recollections. Satan’s imperative to the Fourteen Holy Helpers is clear: “What I hear he remembers . . . Remind him of himself.” Each interviewee recalls different parts of Jacob’s history which Satan then channels to Jacob. The ingenious conceit of the interview chapters is that, given the supernatural nature of the interlocutors, time is irrelevant and all the interviews can be simultaneous in an eternal moment. Furthermore, in these chapters Alameddine uses third-person, taking advantage of a wider range of point of view. These shifting times and points of view reveal Jacob’s memories in manner much like the actual process of remembering, a process during which we often take two steps back for every step forward.

Alameddine leaves little doubt about his admiration for Proust’s fiction in An Unnecessary Woman. Here as well, Proust informs Alameddine’s novel, from the simple homage—naming Jacob’s roommate Odette—to more direct references. For example, Jacob has moments of involuntary memory, such as in a grocery store where “the mephitic aroma of disinfectant assaulted my senses, and you jumped the levee of my memory. Proust had his mnemonic madeleine, but bleach was all ours, Doc, all ours.” Note, Alameddine doesn’t miss an opportunity to layer his images, here alluding to Mephistopheles. But to emphasize such references, as fun as they are, would be to neglect the genuine beauty of how Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them.


In An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya pleads with writers to “Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” Rabih Alameddine is not a fan of epiphanic endings, and you won’t find one here. The Angel of History asks questions and raising issues for which there are no simple answers. Is ignorance bliss? Can we deny our past? Should we try? The Angel of History tasks us with the necessity of facing our memories, even the most painful ones, for to neglect them is to surrender to Death, to drink from the river Lethe, to become complacent drones (pun intended). Alameddine’s book is a statement on memory, on surviving loss, on war and disease and how we cope with them, and finally on art; and that poetry, or any art, cannot exist in a memoryless (and thus painless) vacuum.

On his walk home from the clinic through the nighttime streets of San Francisco, Jacob stops to write impromptu poems and statements on storefronts he remembers from happier times; on a No Parking sign he writes:

You all dead
I still walk
Therefore I am
I know it is so
For I long
I long for solace
How does one find such
Among so many ashes?

Jacob’s question cannot be resolved in a single moment of enlightenment, and like him, we too must confront our losses, for there is no solution to grief other than learning how to live with a shadow of hell.

—Frank Richarson



Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.


Oct 082016

Camilo C


Camilo Carrara (1968) is a musician based in Sao Paulo, Brazil whose work refuses to be categorized. His recordings range from classical to popular and jazz, and anywhere in between. Though he’s often described – accurately – as a guitarist, he plays, arranges and composes for many instruments, including 12-string guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, and other strummed instruments. He is also a teacher and a Sound Branding Consultant. He has done more than sixty solo and ensemble recordings, and his performance career spans three continents. He’s played concerts in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, USA, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, and throughout Brazil. He teaches guitar at the annual National Music Festival in Maryland, and has been the guest artist and soloist with orchestras throughout Brazil and worldwide.

Carrara also works as a producer, particularly in his long-time work with the HSBC Christmas Concert, one of the largest holiday events in Brazil. Since 2011, he has been the arranger and producer of this concert. At the heart of this event is a children’s choir, 160 children who are the victims of violence or who are orphaned. Carrara has a degree in classical guitar from the University of São Paulo, and is finishing a Masters Degree in Strategic Marketing Management at the São Paulo University School of Economics and Management. He teaches at Faculty Cantareira in São Paulo, and at the Music in the Mountains Festival, in Poços de Caldas, Minas Gerais.

One of the most interesting things about this conversation for me was Carrara’s commitment to creating music that communicates to a broad listenership, and the limitations of a single identity.  This is based in part on his background growing up in Brazil where his father was imprisoned and tortured as a result of his political convictions. Carrara spent nine months of 1989 traveling and busking throughout Europe, and was present in Berlin when the wall between East and West Germany was torn down. His career seems to suggest that the walls between traditionally separate musical traditions may not be as permanent as they may seem.

Camilo Cararra By Tiago Sormani 2

Carolyn Ogburn: As I learned more about you for this interview, I was struck by how many interests you have. It seems to me that in general people – professionals of the music field or any other manner of profession – are required to be specialists these days. But your career has blended popular and classical performance (on guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instruments) as well as teaching, composing and producing, and you’re studying for a graduate degree in marketing. How do you answer the question, “What do you do?”

Camilo Carrara: Carolyn, how interesting you start our conversation with this question. In fact, after studying strategic marketing management for over 2 years, this is an issue for me. After all, it is part of the strategic marketing technique to define well what is the focus of your business and what products you sell. For anyone who is an artist and only moves in the world of arts, sometimes talk about product and market gets to be a heresy. But it doesn’t need to be so.

In fact, I consider myself all that you listed above and depending on the situation, on the context, I respond differently. Sometimes I say that I am a musician. Sometimes I stand as a solo guitarist. But I am also a multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, electric guitar, 12-string guitar, cavaquinho  — typical Brazilian instrument used in choro and samba), composer, arranger, improviser, teacher, and music producer. I also work as a music expert on causes court involving copyright and as Sound Branding consultant – the discipline that creates and manages the sonic identity of the brands.

I usually feel good doing many things, despite knowing that this can be risky, professionally speaking. Doing many things have a price and returning to the issue of strategic marketing, I know that my challenge is to communicate all these multiple skills to the public without it look like I’m an imposter (exaggerating a bit), or it seems that I do not know how to do anything well done. The issue of communication is one of my biggest challenges today.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had a very consistent musical training and at the same time I know many of my limitations. All I do is the result of hard study and work and it is very gratifying to be recognized by my peers and also by the general public. In fact, I think it was because of this sort of “more general profile” that I was invited to participate in the National Music Festival in Maryland, in the last five years.

What should be a very short and quick response …

CO: (laughing) I think many artists can relate to your answer…we do many things, I think. Though not always with as much expertise! Do you think there is a push these days to be more diversified as a musician? And – since you’ve been at this for a while, have you noticed any changes in that since your early years as a musician?

CC: I found it curious that to reflect on what it means to be a diverse musician, it reminded me of a great Brazilian literature professor, Alfredo Bosi, with whom I had classes at the university, at the time I was a linguistic student. He spoke a few times about the phenomenon of “repetition” and “novelty.” And this is very interesting and beautiful. According to him, the repetition causes the sensation of comfort as the novelty causes alert feeling. That is, learning to dose these two phenomena is a matter of life. We need both to live. Thinking specifically within the framework of creation, in the framework of the creative world, this is a central issue for composers, writers, painters, etc. But it is also a very useful way to think about demand and understand how the market works: almost everything we do is in order to fulfill the wishes and needs.

I have the feeling that diversity is linked to the concept of the novelty. If contemporary classical composers are looking for other solutions to attract public, for example, it means that they feel that the public is starved for news. Or that they are tired of repeating. In this sense, I see the resemblance to my student days. There has always been this kind of movement: the musicians seek to know what are the interests of the public or the public demand for what is interesting musically.

by Camilo Carrara
Composition for dance performance.
Inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”
CO: You produce the annual NSBC Christmas Chorale, one of the largest Christmas events in Brazil involving literally thousands of people. How did this get started?

CC: This event attracts thousands of people every year and was created 25 years ago. It is especially beautiful because the center of attention is a children’s choir. These are children who receive special attention or because they were abandoned or victims of some type of violence. It is a work done with great care throughout the year. Musically speaking the concept is orchestral. It was developed by the conductor of the choir Dulce Primo. She is an amazing person and brought a lot of sophistication for a considered popular presentation. The interesting thing is that she managed to mix very well the influences of classical music with what is richer in Brazilian popular music. It is the meeting of polyphony and the richness of Brazilian rhythms.

My role in this event is to be arranger and producer. It’s a big challenge. I write the orchestral arrangements, record instruments and edit the audio. I take care of all the steps to (record and create) a CD. Several months of preparation to (be heard by) an average of twenty thousand people a day. They estimate that four hundred thousand people attend the show every year. I also study this event from the point of view of the impact of marketing. The concert is sponsored by a major bank and can be considered one of the largest brand content event in the world. It is an amazing way for brands to create emotional connections with their customers and the general public.

Camilo Cararra, by Pappalardo

CO: Many of us outside Brazil have been watching your country with great interest as we read news stories of political and economic turmoil. (Outside the Olympics, of course!) I read with interest an article from the Guardian that you’d shared titled “The End of Capitalism.” Artists, of course, have a unique responsibility – that is, quite literally, the “ability to respond” – to social upheaval like that we are experiencing today. I guess my question is, how do you see the role of the musician in times of social unrest?

CC: I think that when artists manifest themselves politically they have the advantage of hearing. These are people who have more access to the public and it can make a difference in practical terms. The common people, especially in poor countries, are heavily influenced by artists. It is an important question of responsibility and should be considered.

The other big issue is related to the quality of political positioning. Not every artist thinks critically about politics. It should be, but is not. It is very common to see artists talking a lot of nonsense. Of course, there are the “privileged heads,” the artists who are very well prepared intellectually and politically. These figures can make an important difference in the course of history. If I’m not mistaken, this article you refer to “The End of Capitalism” came against what I was studying at the time. (It) deals with the shared economy, a subject that interests me especially. I do not think we are seeing the end of capitalism, but a transformation. It is no longer possible that in the twenty-first century, (there) still exists misery. This has to end quickly.

CO: Speaking of social unrest…Whenever I read your bio, the year of 1989 which you spent traveling the world is almost always mentioned. This must have been a very important year for you, and it certainly was important globally, as the Berlin Wall fell, and the cold war drew to an end. Do you want to talk some about how this year affected your growth as a musician?

CC: It was a very special year in my life and coincided with some very important events historically. In 1989 I was an itinerant musician, traveling for nine months throughout Europe. I had the luck and privilege of celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution in Paris and witnessing first-hand the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was also in Budapest, near the Romanian Revolution, when the people overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. I could feel the energy of transformation, but without the historical dimension that I have today. I was 21 and had been raised in a left-wing political environment. My father is a communist and was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship. I went to Berlin thinking to know the Eastern part. I was very curious to see firsthand how it worked a communist country. And I got to spend a whole day in the eastern part. Of course, it was very little time to form an opinion. But I remember that I felt the contrasting atmosphere, the simplicity of the people. Culturally, in just one day I could go to an amazing concert at the Berlin Staatskapelle and also bought an incredible amount of sheet music, something unimaginable in Brazil at that time. It was very striking and exciting.

A few days later I was surprised by my German friends who came home elated with the news of the fall of the wall. We went to the street and spent many hours in the crowd. A pity I could not speak German. I felt I was losing the details. But some things impressed me a lot to see. I remember it was very shocking to see long lines of East Germans enter the big brand stores such as BMW, Mercedes, or even sexy shops. It was very impressive. At that time West Berlin was stunning and shiny. The city shone. I had the feeling of seeing those pure people being contaminated by lust. It was really crazy!

CO: Do you find any resonance between 1989 and the present moment?

CC: Thinking about it, that kind of transformation started with the change of the socialist paradigm may even be associated with this new model of capitalism in which rethinks the limits of profit, especially in terms of sustainability. We can not admit the misery nor admit the destruction of natural resources. Nowadays any revolution is possible because of technology. The connectivity already enables it. Ultimately we are talking about a social pact on important issues for everyone. No wonder that the great fortunes of the world are collaborating (regarding) key issues such as hunger and education. See Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, richest man in the country, is revolutionizing education in the country. These are just a few examples.

CO: When many Americans think of Brazilian classical music, we might be limited to a few well-known figures, such as Villa-Lobos, or Laurindo Almeida. Who are we missing?

CC: We have an interesting musical history as the formation of a Brazilian musical identity, which could be defined as the synthesis between European, African and indigenous cultures. Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), is undoubtedly the great Brazilian composer of all time. (He) can be considered the inventor of a Brazilian sound. If the country has a unique sound, Villa-Lobos was responsible for it. The amazing thing is how his work is so little known, even here.

It is unfair to leave to point other very important composers, but I think for a first survey of Brazilian composers, I would highlight, in chronological order, composers with symphonic approach:

Carlos Gomes (1836-1896)

Henrique Oswald (1852-1931)

Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920)

Francisco Mignone (1897-1986)

Radamés Gnatalli (1906-1988)

Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993)

César Guerra Peixe (1914-1993)

Hans Joachim Koellreutter (1915-2005)

Gilberto Mendes (1922-2016)

Willy Correia de Oliveira (1938)

Marlos Nobre (1939)

(And in) popular music:

Chiquinha Gozaga (1847-1935)

Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934)

Pixinguinha (1897-1973)

Tom Jobim (1927-1994)

Laurindo Almeida, who made his career in the US, (was) part of our team of guitarists/composers who transited between choro and samba (bossa nova). Just name a few: João Pernambuco (1883-1947), Dilermando Reis (1916-1977), Garoto (1915-1945), Bola Sete (1923-1987), Baden Powell (1937-2000), Guinga (1950).

Which of course makes me want to ask – who were your primary influences, as a young musician?

At first, I was very influenced by my father’s musical universe. In spite of being a communist, (he) was a creative director in advertising and a poet. At home, we listened (to) jazz, classical music and Brazilian popular music (Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Jacob’s Mandolin, Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth).

I started studying classical guitar at the age of 10 and through college, I was very influenced by my main teachers of the instrument: Celia Trettel, Paulo Porto Alegre, and Edelton Gloeden. From a young age, I wanted to be a concert guitarist. My musical roots (were) very focused on interpretation, in the study of interpretation. In the search for refinement of sound, the articulation of voices (polyphony), understanding of the musical text: phrases, musical form, etc. I knew well the most significant repertoire for the instrument. I played and listened to many composers who are better known within the guitar universe. Just to name a few: Alonso Mudarra, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, and Leo Brouwer.

In addition to composers, I was greatly influenced by the great interpreters. At that time, I remember my idols were Julian Bream, John Williams, Manuel Barrueco, Assad Brothers and Brothers Abreu, for example. I heard very (many other) instrumentalists, like Glenn Gould, Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, Nelson Freire, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich. I could say that these were my musical roots.

— Camilo Carrara and Carolyn Ogburn




Carolyn Ogburn



Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

Oct 072016


Tanga, May 28

‘Can’t you see what he’s trying to get you to pay for?’

I’ve just mentioned Jamhuri, who has told me about his child. She’s very sick. Gloria is driving me to the Amboni Caves north of town. She takes the road past the Hindu crematorium—a pretty, white colonial-style building surrounded by frangipani trees. It’s right next to the town’s fuel depot, and I wonder if this is a cause for concern.

‘The child has epilepsy,’ she says. ‘He wanted me to take her to a witch doctor. I won’t pay for that crap. So now he’s asking you.’

‘A witch doctor?’ I attempt a look of minor incredulity.

‘You can’t sling a cat in Tanga without hitting one,’ Gloria says. ‘But of course Jamhuri only wants the big gun. A certain Mr Sese.’

‘What does a witch doctor do?’

‘Oh, it’s not so much about the witch doctor, doll. It’s about the believer.’

I frown as if I don’t understand. But I’m thinking about Dorothea. ‘There is a place where many strange things happen. There are ghosts and spirits.’ I see her clearly in my mind, her grief and her terror of the box: ‘Take it away from here, take it far away from here.’

Gloria interprets my expression as disbelief, and rises to the challenge. ‘Last month, I took Jamhuri’s little girl to a specialist in Dar. He prescribed phenobarbital and reckoned she’d probably grow out of it in her teens. But you know how these people are—well, you don’t, do you? Jamhuri was expecting she’d get an injection or an operation and be completely healed, just like that. I don’t think he even tried the pills. That’s why he wants to go to Mr Sese. He thinks she’s possessed by shetani. He wants you to pay for his daughter to see Mr Sese.’


‘Ghosts. Spirits. They’re everywhere. Apparently.’

‘And Mr Sese is—’

‘The pre-eminent witch doctor.’ She leans toward me in a stage whisper.

‘Headvises the president.’

Gloria brakes at an intersection, takes this opportunity to turn and regard me with her curious owl stare. She’s trying very hard to locate the rat she senses scurrying through my words.

A loud honking erupts behind her. ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going in such a hurry?’ she yells out the window, but shifts into first and pulls forward. ‘Don’t get me wrong. These guys like Sese are very powerful. When I first got here, I had a girl who came to cook and clean. She was a little thing. After a couple of months, I noticed she was turning gray. No kidding, her skin was turning gray. Like wet cement. I finally got her to talk to me. She said she was dying. I didn’t doubt that to look at her. I took her to the doctor. Full panel of blood work. A small fortune. No AIDS, no cancer, no TB, everything fine. The doctor told me she was indeed dying—from a powerful curse. I said, “You can’t be serious, you’re a doctor.” He said, “Of the body, not the spirit.”

‘He told me there are certain curses so powerful that the person who casts them must also die. The only way you can kill your enemy is to kill yourself. For instance, there’s this cooking pot curse. You sneak into your enemy’s kitchen and steal his cooking pot. You shout a curse into it, wishing their death. Then you smash the pot and bury the shards in the bush. If your enemy manages to find all the pieces and put the pot back together, then he will be saved. If not, well, kufa kabisa—he’s dead. But—’ she sticks a stubby finger in the air to make her point. ‘But, you die too. That’s the deal you make with the shetani. A twofer.’


‘Sure. Two fer the price of one. And, you know, that little gray girl, I found her one morning in her room, curled up like a dead moth you’d find in the window. I suppose she’d died in her sleep, there was nothing to be done, she’d got it into her head that she was going to die, she’d willed herself to die. And so she died. I don’t know why she thought she deserved it. But that’s a powerful thing: to do with a thought what most of us can only do with a gun.’

I glance at Gloria’s profile. She is all soft. A small, putty nose, skin loose and soft as dough, her great soft body pillowing in her soft, drapey clothes. I notice for the first time that her pale blonde hair is actually dyed. Her roots reveal a mousey gray. Did Mary dye her hair—or does this belong to Gloria alone?

After a moment I ask her, ‘What do you believe, Gloria?’

She hoots a laugh. ‘Moolah, doll. I believe in Almighty Moolah.’

We pass the old Amboni Sisal estate, just bush now perforated by the occasional row of sisal. How precisely the sisal was planted, the immaculately measured rows. What were the colonial farmers thinking? That they could take this unscrupulous bush and make it neat as a formal garden? This Africa where people smash cooking pots and die of curses.

At some point, Gloria makes a left turn onto an unmarked dirt track. Only when we’ve driven several hundred yards do I see a small sign announcing: Department of Antiquities—Amboni Caves. Gloria makes several more turns—none of which are signposted—past a school, through the middle of a small village and a flock of chickens, cutting a hard right in what looks like someone’s front yard, and then down a steep, rocky hill. The bottom of the car crunches over rocks and jars against rills of erosion. Gloria doesn’t seem concerned. The car rattles and squeals.

We enter a thick screen of fig trees and cross a dry riverbed. The shadows are deep and cool and grateful, and soon we arrive at the caves. An old man in a Muslim kofia gets up from his chair under the trees. He stands very erect, like a soldier.

Gloria turns off the car. ‘Watch how he doesn’t give us a receipt. Not that I blame him, given what he must get paid.’

She greets the old man with great politeness, which he returns. They speak at some length in complicated Swahili.

He takes the money and disappears into a small, dark hut. He emerges carrying a flashlight and no receipts. ‘Swahili or English?’ he asks, looking at Gloria.

‘Oh, I’m not going in. I’ve been before.’

‘But you’ve paid, madam,’ the guide says in perfect English.

‘I’m waiting for a call. You go on.’ She opens her handbag and scrambles for her phone ringing inside. ‘The Ministry of Health. Let’s see how much they want.’ Then she sneers, ‘Uchawi, my ass.’

The guide leads me up a set of steps carved from the rock. ‘This is limestone,’ he says. ‘Long ago, it was beneath the sea. And the sea created these caves. But now the sea is very far away. Yes, the world changes.’

The entrance has been domesticated. Beneath the tall archway of stone and the canopy of wild vines, the sandy floor has been swept and plastic patio furniture placed on a natural terrace. There are potted plants and, on the table, half a clamshell for an ashtray.

From here I can see Gloria. She is standing with her back to us, gesticulating, as if she’s angry or perhaps just adamant.

‘Let us begin the tour, madam,’ the guide insists. And so we enter the caves.

He talks about the bats, which cluster like dark grapes on the cave roof above. When he shines his flashlight they twitter and fidget. I don’t have to worry about them, he assures me, they never attack. The danger is not from the bats but from the cave itself.

A couple and their dog were exploring the cave, he says, sweeping the flashlight to the right, illuminating a small chamber. ‘The dog fell down this hole.’ The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

We walk on. I think about the story, how it doesn’t make sense. If the couple were never seen again, how does anyone know they went looking for their dog down this particular hole? But I have no doubt that people have gone missing here, in this maze of dead ends and sightless corridors, unseen holes. There is no natural light. We are within the earth, like rabbits. The guide says the tunnel system goes so deep and is so extensive that cave experts have not been able to chart it. However, some believe it goes all the way to Mount Kilimanjaro—five hundred miles west.

He shows me another low and unexceptional cave where three Mau Mau fighters hid during the war for independence in Kenya. And here, around the corner, the rock has formed a chair. He is not satisfied until I sit in the chair and say, ‘Why, yes, it is exactly like a chair!’

We climb up a ramp of earth, squeeze between a crack. ‘Are you afraid of the dark?’ he asks. ‘I am going to make it very dark.’ He turns off the flashlight.

This is not darkness but a kind of obliteration.

I think about Strebel’s daughter telling him she thought she was dead.

The guide turns on the flashlight.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Just a few more minutes.’

He turns it off, makes a dry little cough.

My body blends with the darkness. The barrier of skin dissolves. I diffuse into the air, into the exhalation of my breath. I am the tiniest particles, un-being.

He sighs, turns the light back on. ‘Now I show you the image of Jesus.’ When I hesitate—for I feel the loss of that moment—he registers his annoyance, ‘You must come, please. The tour is for a limited time.’ We walk down another tunnel and he illuminates a smudge of mildew that vaguely resembles a face.

‘Yes, it looks exactly like the face of Jesus.’ My voice surprises me, as if it is coming back to me, an echo, from very far away. ‘Exactly like the face of Jesus.’

I have no idea that we have turned toward the mouth of the cave, only that I can feel my pupils begin to shrink. Daylight filters in, low down along the ground. We surface slowly into light.

Just before the entrance, I notice a small side chamber crammed with plates of fruit, sticks of incense, bottles labeled as rose water.

‘What is this?’

The guide hurries on, waving his hand impatiently, ‘Just local people. Pagans.’
‘But what is it for?’

‘I am a Muslim! This is for primitive people.’

‘Can I look?’

He sighs. He is a repertoire of sighs. This one expresses long-suffering acquiescence.

‘Why do they make the offerings?’

‘For good health, for money. Some women ask for help to get a child. For many different things.’

I kneel down. ‘Has this been here for a long time?’

‘Yes. Many, many years. As a boy I remember it.’

In my place, exactly here, the desperate have knelt with their hopes and desires. Women have begged to conceive. Mothers have prayed for their children to be well again. Men have asked for opportunity, for rain, for a new fishing boat, for good luck at sea.

How foolish to believe life could change with the lighting of incense, the purchase of rose water, the offering of eggs. And yet, when you have reached the end of yourself, what else is there? When the tangible world has failed you, why not indulge in the possibility that a corner of the universe might stir, send a shiver of atoms through space, that you might be delivered after all.

The guide shifts his weight. Any moment now he will sigh. I am about to obey, to stand.

But something among the bottles catches my eye: a small jar containing a piece of flowered cloth. I reach in and take the jar.

‘No, no!’ The guide steps forward, alarmed. ‘You must not touch the offerings!’

I’m not really listening. I take out the cloth. It is red cotton flannel with yellow and white flowers.

I look up at the guide, showing him the jar, ‘Do you know who put this here?’

‘Madam, please, I do not know. How can I know? Local people coming here do not report to me. They are free, this is their place. You must not touch these things.’

‘But if a white man came here you would know. Everyone would know.’

‘These are not your things. They are not for you to touch or meddle. You must be respectful.’

I replace the jar, stand and wipe the sand from my knees. I try to sound sensible. ‘Is it a curse?’ I want to see the truth in his eyes, I want to have some instinct. But he is hidden, he is vanishing back down a path into the bush.

‘I know that cloth. I recognize it. I want to know who put it here.’

‘The cave, madam, it has had an effect.’

‘I have money. I can pay you. More than he did.’

He moves nervously, definitively toward the entrance, ‘Your friend is waiting for you, madam.’

Back at the car, Gloria seems preoccupied and barely greets me. She turns the ignition. With a little cough—rather like the old guide’s—the engine starts.

‘Why did you bring me here?’

‘What?’ She’s looking straight ahead.

‘Here. Why are we here, Gloria?’

She grips the steering wheel and takes a deep breath, so her whole body expands and subsides. ‘Have you got a thousand bucks?’

—Melanie Finn


Melanie Finn is the author of three novels: The Gloaming (Two Dollar Radio, 2016); Shame (W&N, 2015) and Away From You (St. Martins Griffin, 2014).

Oct 072016


It is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take a standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally. –Mark Sampson


The Gloaming
Melanie Finn
Two Dollar Radio, 2016
318 pages, $16.99

Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before. A sensitive but troubled character, at or near the threshold of middle age, suffers some major or minor tragedy in his or her life, and, looking for a fresh start, or reboot, or whatever, decides to travel to a far-off and “exotic” land, which, through the sheer scope of its exoticness, its novelty, provides the precise experiences or perspectives that our intrepid protagonist needs to learn something important about him or herself, or life in general, or whatever.

Yes, from Heart of Darkness and The Quiet American to Eat Pray Love, there are many works whereby the allure of foreign landscapes, of exotic adventures, supplies the writer with fecund and fruitful narrative soil. I myself have admired many novels that follow the general template described above, and, yes, even published one myself a couple of years ago. So it is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take this standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally, in her new novel, The Gloaming. If you yourself are a writer and thinking about forging your own “going aboard to learn something about yourself” kind of story, you would do no harm to it by reading this small masterpiece. It’s good to know what you’re up against.

Finn certainly holds some serious “foreign land” credentials. Having lived in Kenya until age eleven, she was educated in the United States and engaged in a busy journalism and screenwriting career while living in no fewer than six countries. Beyond her well-received debut novel, Away from You, published in 2004, she is also known for working alongside her filmmaker husband, Matt Aeberhard, to create the acclaimed 2008 documentary film, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, in Tanzania. Reading The Gloaming, one gets the sense that this is a writer who knows Africa intimately, who understands the rich panoply of its cultures, its histories, its contradictions. To say this novel offers an unvarnished view of Tanzania would be an understatement, and yet there is a raw and terrifying beauty to the abject privation and misery that Finn unpacks in these pages.

The particulars of The Gloaming’s plot do not do justice to the emotional journey it takes the reader on. Our hero, a young, attractive, thirtysomething woman named Pilgrim Lankester (née Jones) is the wife of a successful human rights lawyer named Tom, whose work takes them to various countries around the world. When they end up in Switzerland, Tom meets, falls in love with, and leaves Pilgrim for a younger woman named Elise. Pilgrim, now stranded in a bland Geneva suburb called Arnau, is devastated by both the suddenness of her husband’s betrayal and its sudden flourishing (Tom and Elise have a child together very soon after pairing up). But the real tragedy of Pilgrim’s life is yet to come: while out on a drive, she loses control of her car and slams into a bus shelter, killing three young children on their way to school.

This horrific accident would be bad enough if it had occurred as a result of negligence on Pilgrim’s part and she was declared a Kindermörderin (“child murderer” in Swiss German). But it’s almost worse when the investigation and subsequent court judgment rule that what happened was, in fact, a “no fault” accident. Pilgrim becomes a pariah on the streets of Arnau, receiving regular insults and death threats from the locals, so she decides to flee Switzerland and her divorce and travel to Tanzania. After a guided tour takes an unexpected turn, she disembarks in the impoverished town of Magulu and decides to stay.

Now going by her maiden name, Pilgrim begins to meet a curious swath of characters who are in Tanzania for a variety of noble or ignoble reasons. There is the diminutive doctor, Dorothea, who tries to provide health services to Magulu despite a lack of supplies and a surfeit of superstition. There is the ruthless mercenary from eastern Europe, Martin Martins (his name conjures an allusion to Lolitia’s Humbert Humbert) who spends the early part of the novel referring to Pilgrim as “Princess” and trying to get her into bed. Later, we meet the character of Gloria, an “ugly American” stereotype who has much more going on than what first appears: she is in Africa on humanitarian work after the death of her son, and we soon learn that her grief may hold a key to Pilgrim dealing with her own guilt over the children she killed back in Switzerland.

An air of the damned soon descends over Pilgrim’s journey into the chthonic heart of Africa when a mysterious package arrives in Magulu. The box holds the remains of an African albino – the telltale curse of a witch doctor – and Pilgrim offers to get the box out of town and to its proper recipient. Yet this action prompts a journey that will reveal just how closely associated Pilgrim’s accident back in Switzerland is to the life she is now trying to live in Africa. She will eventually learn that the figurative distance between these two worlds is not as wide as she first thought, and certainly not wide enough for her to escape what she has done.

Indeed, the narrative structure of The Gloaming shows just how tightly linked the place Pilgrim has fled from is to the place she has fled to. For the first sixty per cent of the novel, Finn alternates chapters between what happened in Arnau the previous winter/spring and what is happening to Pilgrim in Africa now. This flipping back and forth is expertly rendered, and in the process we meet two Swiss men who have the largest impact on Pilgrim’s pilgrimage to Tanzania. The first is Paul Strebel, the Geneva detective assigned to investigate the accident that killed the children. Trapped in a loveless marriage to his well-meaning wife, Ingrid, Strebel develops a brief but intimate relationship with Pilgrim during the investigation, and he soon finds himself obsessed with her. The other is Ernst Koppler, the father of one of the dead children. Koppler is a deeply tragic figure – he lost his wife to cancer not long before his daughter is killed in the accident – and he too becomes obsessed with Pilgrim. Strebel eventually learns that Koppler, in his grief, has tracked Pilgrim to Tanzania and is travelling there with perhaps the idea of causing her harm. Lying to his wife about attending a police conference in Iceland, Strebel follows Koppler to Africa in the hopes of intervening in whatever plan he has in store for Pilgrim.

This additional thread is what sets The Gloaming apart from other stories that use the well-worn trope of travelling abroad to escape an unseemly event at home. Most novels, if they tie in the tragedies of the past, do so lightly, symbolically, allowing the present action in the foreign locale to dominate the narrative. Finn has opted for the opposite approach. Instead of having Pilgrim be figuratively unable to escape what happened back in Switzerland, Finn literally makes those events an integral part of her character’s journey. This creates a tightness, an intimacy between the past and the present that is often absent in books with a similar structure. Instead of relying on an “emotional” inability to let go of the past, The Gloaming makes the past an actual character in the present action, affecting events in a very literal sense.

Along the way, Finn shows an adept hand at balancing all the characters she has created, the two landscapes that dominate her book, and the themes that weave their way through it. Every aspect of The Gloaming’s complex structure reveals a clear-eyed vision and a near-perfect execution. The shame and threat of violence hanging over Pilgrim’s appearance in Magulu is almost immediate (there is a scene not long after she arrives when she is briefly terrorized by a gang of children) and reminds us of the atmosphere captured in another great African novel, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Through just a handful of short descriptions, we get a sense of Pilgrim’s stilted, stunted life as “Tom’s wife,” the way she tried to remain an anonymous cipher so that he could build a successful career: “For hours at any given dinner table I was able to deflect to reveal not a single thing about myself while giving the impression of participating in the conversation.”

There are other resonant flourishes. Finn captures the jingoism and xenophobic paranoia that seems to grip a lot of Swiss culture; her creation of Pilgrim’s mettlesome Arnau landlady is a wonderful view into that. She also does a great job of showing what it’s like to be an itinerant global citizen, the way you can feel at once like a worldly, urbane ladder-climber while at the same time be completely alienated from the succession of adopted homes where your (or, in this case, your spouse’s) career takes you. Yet, in the end, The Gloaming’s penetrating insights into Africa is where it shines best. The vividness, the poverty, the fear that Finn is able to exact upon the page is palpable. One scene stands out in particular. Pilgrim and Gloria are travelling through Tanga in May, looking to visit the Amboni Caves just north of the city. These dark, complex caverns, so reminiscent of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, hold a deadly legacy: a husband and wife got lost in them while chasing after their errant dog and were not able to find their way out. Pilgrim’s discovery of this from a tour guide becomes full of ominous portent:

The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

This episode is rich in symbolic foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Pilgrim in Africa, what the continent itself is threatening to do to her.

And then a curious thing happens around page 175 of this 310-page novel. Finn diverts from Pilgrim as her protagonist and dedicates each of the remaining chapters to one of the secondary characters we have already met. It’s a daring narrative risk, but one that succeeds by the sheer luminosity of The Gloaming’s prose and character insight. By ditching Pilgrim’s singular, centralized viewpoint, Finn is able to flare out the wider aspects of this story like a fan, giving us much more access the book’s narrative arc. The strongest of these chapters is the ones focused on Strebel. We get a profound sense of his struggling marriage, the dangers and inanities of being a police detective, and just how deeply he falls in love with Pilgrim during their one, brief sexual liaison. By the time we are finished with his sections of the book, we feel as if we know Strebel just as well as we have come to know Pilgrim herself. Dorothea, Gloria, and even Martin Martins get their own chapters of varying length, and with each switch in the point of view we realize just how immersed Finn is in the lives of all these characters, and how close to the surface each of them remain in her story.

The Gloaming, in the end, defies convention and carves a new and innovative path for itself in the canon of expat literature. Finn has fashioned a book that is rich, dark, engrossing and infinitely complex – much like the continent it spends many of its wonderful pages portraying.

—Mark Sampson


Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Oct 062016

German Sierra


sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

— Virgil, Aeneid, 1.461


Nothing is colossal.

The air is almost water, the trees rachitic, the sea sweats dead dark clouds of filth and salt,

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard, leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost.

mountains are collapsed hills, beasts are torpid and blind, towns are tiny clusters of ruins, kings were thin and weak, people die young, rocks are eroded pieces of furniture inhabited by frogs, heat is cold, the land is wet, love is lukewarm, gold is a lethargic rust over the earth’s crust, the green is diamond and it laughs at you like a mossy hell of water and weed. No gods could have been brought to life there—they had to be seized from the future.

Creepy crypto-CRISPR. Fuck genomic darkness.

The rain is plain plan B.

Death rides the dirty waves; death rides dust, exactly like a moth.

 A saint, a bearded flea-bitten hermit shrouded in burlap and fed by the generosity of a chestnut forest was living on top of a wormholed bubonic hill in a wooden hut asphyxiated by ivy branches, hiding in there from the slimy touch of the rotten photonic wave-stream (distilled through the cloudwall into a filthy dark smearing fluid) that ran through the air to splash over the burnt-and-drilled crust of the earth. A ghost town would eventually emerge from that watery land, colloidal dust in a dizzy river—a space then occupied by the greenish-grey woods and the unbelievable mess of emerald-green moss, tarnished leaves, vinyl lichens, camo toads, and ampersanding golden fern blossoms.

So dendrites volupt. Like it matters, wrote Amaranth Borsuk.

Now, undead people go phantoming around over the cobblestone shattered-mirror pavement—but back then it was the wild, under the same lead-dead sky.

Real life is like the outcome of a zombie apocalypse—but you’re expected to restrain yourself from slashing the zombies.

All zombies are undead equally.

A collapsant sky, a vertical horizon of crystalline Damocles’s swords.

A swarming soil and soul.

Splashing sounds, splashing souls.

A murderous sea, infested with seaweed-smeared, mud-vomiting necrotic-skinned creatures.

Once upon a time, swirl-crowned monsters emerged from the depths, swam to the shores, crawled up creek streams leaving threatening footprints in the sand, feeding themselves with exhausted salmons and lampreys. They crept over the hills waving menacing tentacles, surrounding the man-of-god with extra-terrestrial arrogance. Until he found himself encircled in a ring of unsurpassable evil beauty.

He lifted his baculus and turned the monsters into boulders…killing all beauty around, immortalizing evil.

This sounds more proper of a sorcerer than a saint, she replied.

Later on, the saint’s followers carved the sea-monsters’ stone corpses into churches, their tentacles into sinuous arcades that branched in spiral alleys leading nowhere. Nowhere was everywhere—the pavement blobbing and cracking like fried fish skin, and the dark deformed houses growing clustered and superimposed like bad teeth, hovering over automatic people.

But this is not how the story goes!—although the actual one is also a fairy tale, nothing more credible in any of its multiple details.

Both are professionally concerned with the past.

She’s an archaeologist: She unearths eerie things, such as the big tin bird with golden eyes hypothetically intended for astronomic calculations that, since exhibited in the almost-empty local museum, has encouraged a kind of weird cult: people killing birds—crows, lost seagulls, jays, sparrows—and hanging their corpses from street lamps.

He’s a historian, he works with texts instead of mud, he knows the past is just a lie that’s been around for enough time to be used as foundation for future falsity.

Recently, she’s been unearthing certain stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there and hiding it at home: a fairly well-conserved but unidentifiable iPhone 20, a real-size Barbie doll, and a sophisticated-looking metallic prosthetic hand. All of them prevenient from the underneath of a never-before-excavated Romanesque chapel. All of them, most probably, originated in what is commonly called the future.

She wonders if there is a market for relics of the future.

She cares about money, because money, in pure capitalist logic, means the possibility of change.

Who would want to keep objects from the past? But then, who would like to pay for vestiges from the future?

In pure capitalist logic there’s not an outside of pure capitalist logic, so money is time.

A few days later, she and her colleagues meet to discuss what to do with the found futureware. On one hand, it’s obviously new—nobody ever saw an iPhone 20 before and, although they won’t publicly discuss its appearance to avoid conflict with Apple’s confidentiality policies, they coincide in acknowledging that it doesn’t look like anything they would easily identify as an iPhone. On the other, it’s evident that the objects are old—dirty, rusty, worn out, with some broken or missing pieces. Does a market for old future things exist? The most plausible explanation would be that they’re fake—it wouldn’t be the first time future objects are forged by some artist and exhibited in museums—, but whoever might have done it must have been really cautious about fabricating their placement: the stone blocks didn’t seem to have been removed in centuries, and the relics were buried under seven feet of mud and medieval debris.

The saint’s followers came also from the shore, sleepwalking like oxygen-drunk overdeveloped fish insisting on evolving into batrachia. They arrived from small fishermen’s port villages, carrying the sulphurous smell of rotting seaweed with themselves. They were squid-eaters.

Later on, they developed a taste for a wider diversity of cephalopods and crustacea.

From time to time, those who had built the town stacked up new stones over the monsters’ relics to prevent their awakening. Every winter, the mountains chanted and cried hypnotic black tears of granite. The squid-eaters’ offspring secured the monsters’ backs with buttresses, nailed their heads to the ground with hefty needle-towers. However, they never felt safe inside the creatures’ golden bellies, so they finally turned to the Bishops for help.

Bishops, the true lords of the land, drank blood and raped men and women with no regret. They gave instructions to paint the churches’ intestines with children’s gore. The walls absorbed the blood to the last drop and the old stones showed again their grey, grainy, shimmering surface. Bishops were terrified their sins would reanimate the primeval beasts, so they willingly paid in gold coins for the heaviest and hardest stones to be carried and carved and piled up on top of the ancient, ruinous chapels. Chapels grew into churches, churches into cathedrals—people died young and returned as rocks. How did they invent killer languages? From time to time, stone people uproot themselves from the walls, carrying singing swords, hideous musical instruments, and fearsome religious symbols. Flesh people tried to stop them from bubbling out by painting them over, but sponge-stone people kept drinking all the paint and all the blood they were able to smear over the walls.

All that was forgotten.

We live in an empire of mud and weather, wrote Janice Lee.



The slashed eye of the monocular chapel stares at him from the other side of the grimy window glass. The city is still, deeply rooted in the centre of the earth. It’s the kind of city you run from, not the kind of city you run across. He is the one who remembers the untold story, the one who listens to the grey silence screamed by the crushed beasts. While sipping his coffee, he fantasizes about becoming a necromancer and bringing monsters back from death. He dreams of godzillating the town: crushing cars and skulls and trees and houses. Dust to rust. The sky is a greasy low ceiling, made of goo, just an indistinguishable extension of the warped and dull and miserable land. He misses the feeling of her weight on his chest—her weight, maybe the liquid pressure of her skin on his skin, maybe her warm sweet-and-salty sweat as a membrane of sea water flowing like a tiny flat tide between his and her body. His illusion is now just to lay still beneath her heavy flesh until his joints and muscles begin to hurt. Just the pressure and the pain, and nothing else. There’s nothing like being enlegged by her mediterranean cities of white marble.

Nothing else matters, says the song.

When the enemies left the still city, they buried radioactive debris under the pavement to slowly burn the feet of its inhabitants.

When he was young, he was a pulsating black hole. A computer moon buried in dewy jelly. A naught surrounded by a universe wanting—perhaps pretending—to collapse onto him. His body was constructed with nanosize bits from that same selection of the cosmos that was destroying him—the outside. Booze, new drugs, old books, boys and girls he was fucking…All the elements, the bits; all the universe’s demons rashing and competing against each other to occupy the void. They eventually abandoned his inner space while he was growing up—exorcised from his hollow flesh with every ejaculation, with every vomit, with every nosebleed—leaving, nonetheless, some traceable imprints of their presence in the void until the void started to collapse over itself.

Now, after a long battle, he believes to finally own his anti-body, and ongoing destruction comes autoimmunely from the inside, from the inner mirror side of naught. Every time a demon managed to leave the void, the void emitted light. Then, for a second, he became visible, viable, a true phenomenon, superimposed to reality like a Pokémon.

Dust against the machine—it’s chalk, it’s sand, it’s ice.

Ashes from a lost life—stardust is, in fact, a gas, swirling, a lost gaseous world that was a father’s world. It’s a death-city where people wear stone—he’s cold, but tombstones are his clothes—due to their failure in having thrown some sand on the brain. It’s b-rain, it’s blood.

There are sand and ashes in the machine.

In the machine, every word is made of pixel dust and blown away by the swirling gas coming from disintegrated stars, never ever cracking the mistaken mystery of the world, the crashing world he wrongly chose to be himself, just to be chalk and dust in the machine.

He’s seen the greatest minds of his generation bored to death, asphyxiated by ridiculous institutions, wandering the social media labyrinthoids in search of a quantum of meaning, masturbating to the screen’s visual white noise of polished pixel dust, crystals of b-rain to keep him running as fast as possible over the cracked screens of life.



They met for the first time during one of those unusual visibility events: I can only see you when you’re orgasming, she whispered. He jerked off for her visual pleasure. She wasn’t visible most of the time either, which was fine for him. More often they weren’t able to see each other, they just felt some gravitational-attraction pulses directed towards a particular location of the invisible-out-there. Touching was like the clashing of two clouds: confusing, humid, gaseous and electric. He licked her with perfect parsimony to make her almost visible—a fluctuating white-noise shadow like a Hollywood ghost. Like an intermittent reflection on a dewy mirror under a throbbing neon light. They buzzed and glitched the observer’s perception systems while somehow haunting the house. When they fucked, a vibrating protoplasm acquired form on the bed, on the couch, a misty blanket floating a couple of inches over the living room’s wooden floor. They were faithful to multiple and different savage dimensions. Possessed by a succession of objects in order to acquire temporal corporeality. Invisible to each other, most of the time, but each one longing to become visible to the other. They were beautiful when perceivable and then they were gone.

They grew hard, thick, solid, filled with the world’s debris. Their waste-stuffed bodies were eating them from their hollow intestines. As time went by, they became more easily perceivable. They tried to get rid of the debris by acupuncturing each other in rooms full of candlelight and essential oils, but it didn’t work. They remained visible for longer times and it was boring, and only pain could made them disappear again after a while, so they hurt each other with fire and lashes. But as soon as pain melted into pleasure they became solid and opaque again, so they sat separately, crying transparent tears of transparent xanthan gum.



He never sleeps well at night. He looks so pale! If he could be true to himself, he’d vanish, he’d collapse into information…fornever. Uncoloured like a broken zero, like the theoretical in-between of quantum states. In-between morphospaces.

Insects become translucent-white during metamorphosis—don’t they? She doesn’t want to lose him—even though neither of them know very well what they mean to each other.

Presence: it should be enough.

Absence kills the brain.

Has this skin been ever burned by the sun? Long ago, perhaps. It was another dimension, not just a former life. Extinct life forms. Monumental fossils. A lost realm of old cheap paperback editions, itching vegetal blade cuts and cigarette burns, boys and girls waving towards the drunken boats from the abrupt dark-grey rocky shore, diving in the cold and salty waters. Orbited in the water by evanescent sea snakes and phosphorescent plankton. Swimming by night among the Tesla lightnings of dinoflagellates.

He never quit smoking or masturbating, keeping himself connected to the mental dinosaurs from that lost teenage world. She is younger, she must have been a toddler back then. Before mobile devices, not even a reliable phone number during summer vacations; just the books, the grains of sand between the pages, just the water, just the misty freezing reverberation of sunset, the hour of eclosion, the night dropping its veil of light, the cloudwall like a cotton pad over the bleeding neck of a beheaded god, just the pleasure of licking salty goosebumps on a girl’s leg. Just the aura of the burnt golden sea around the naked bodies. She’s a tree, he’s an epiphyte. Do they live in a venetian internet? When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem at all? It seemed to be fine when they were regularly fucking, and it seems to be fine now after they stopped almost a year ago. She thinks he never really believed it would be possible to be living together, that he would go crazy and would start screwing around and finally leave. He dreams of gardens.

Town people dream of gardens to bury their pet’s bones, eventually their children’s.

He doesn’t understand the urge to own land. Land is just dirt. And grass, and worms, and bugs, and plants, and trees….He doesn’t understand how those things could ever be owned. Land that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for money and seized again and inherited and given as dowry and sold again.


Every funeral is a cannibal act. A reading of minds. A nanodust-bleeding crack line on the silky screen of time. Never mind if (they) devour the corpse or the corpse renounces to the kind gesture of devouring them. The (he) the (object) hopelessly waiting for a watt-less fuck under the dim glow of low-intensity light bulbs and air-pixelating TV white noise, light hissing on the mirror’s surface, a moth, mechanically, repeatedly trying to collapse into the other side of itself. The air is old black-and-white TV hiding from light. Clean clothes lay on a chair. She dreams of cities—of a warm comfortable house in a megalopolis covered by snow. She dreams of being other, of being somewhere else.


He spent most of his young age lost somewhere in the future.

In some (fortunate) places the past is just a fine powder that might be dusted by the winds of future, where dry bones may be easily crushed just by walking on them. In the still city, however, the past is a heavy and soaked tombstone: He learned from her that truth doesn’t matter when you approach the past, the only thing that matters is weight. Maybe this is the reason why he misses her weight.

The most obvious, albeit improbable explanation of the objects’ presence was time travel. This was initially discarded as irrational, especially because she wanted to avoid making public that they might be the victims of a hoax. Her colleagues, however, were very inclined to call the press immediately—they were picturing the headlines: ‘first evidence of time travel discovered by…’, but she was much more conscious of her reputation. Reputation is a currency for the non-rich. People who are very conscious of their reputation often consider a black market.

When they first started thinking about time travel, they did it in the popular, fictional way: people coming from a future civilization, carrying with them some objects that might have been left behind. This could explain the iPhone and the prosthetic hand, but who would travel to the past with an oversized toy doll? A family from the future on vacations in the middle ages? One of her colleagues proposed an alternative explanation: why should we always think about people travelling in time? Why should the objects be leftovers instead of protagonists? Time travel might pose many risks to living beings, but it could be much easier for inanimate matter. This was equally unlikely, but it somehow seemed a more rational approach. Maybe the result of an experiment designed to send things across time? But if any future civilization will find the way to send stuff back to the past, why has nobody found evidences of future objects before? She imagined a future engineer working on a way to get rid of disposable junk: let’s just flood our stupid ancestors with our trash! Of course, there are all those temporal paradoxes and causal loops that might have stopped him, which could be the reason why he made just one experiment, or very few ones, and, despite the technological possibility, he finally decided to abort the project.

When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem?

From the first time she warned him that she would never cope, that nothing would be granted, that he would have to seize her every time.



Bodies are a lot more that candy genitalia. Bodies are tiny time-points in an ever-changing morphospace. Sex is the digital version of a much more complex body-to-body-to-non-body communication network. Sex could be just stored in a hard disk, or somewhere in the cloud, leaving it there until new software has been implemented.

Software, however, has never been updated.

She doesn’t understand the desire to own a body. Bodies are dirt, hair, bugs, blood, thoughts… She doesn’t understand how these things could ever be self—not to say shared. Her flesh—that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for comfort and chocolate and peace and dreams.



He can’t recall recalling his first time. Not to recall recalling is supposed to be weird. This kind of stuff is expected to draw emotions and to be emojified somewhere into the body of the self—preferably close to its outer surface like scabies or tattoo ink. He does remember, from past dust, abstract-expressionist mats of wet hair and blood stains and wet wool pullovers and tiny shining corneas. Some of them might have belonged to the hypothetical first one—he might even be right if randomly bricolaging a candidate. Riddle as past. Deciphering previous propensity codes that shape the present network of brain cells.

He does recall some encounters with a woman in particular —what he cannot remember is her placement in a specifically databased chronological order, if any of the encounters he is capable of picturing happened as part of a logical sequence of events or if he has precisely forgotten the first one because others were more intense or fun. He doesn’t see the reason why sexual inception should be of particular interest. Love is not an action but an environment, a particular arrangement of reasons growing from a particular arrangement of things. Love is neither action nor pathos—it is, in fact, a variant of boredom, a conscious refusal to be entertained. He can’t either remember the first novel he read, or the first time he got drunk. He can’t usually remember the order of things—but are things ordered anyway?—, what happened before and what came later. Why is (sequential) order important? He feels/thinks about his life as a turbulent flow rather than a succession of events. A cycle, like the blood circulating across the body, continuously looping nowhere. For most people, sex encounters are like transfusions, but for him they’re bleeding, a way to melt into something more eager to drip. Fluids go effortlessly everywhere, slaves to gravity, never caring about when they were before or where they will be later. Solve et coagula.

Then, the most important thing to investigate would be when (in the future) the objects were time-transferred to when (in the past). Have they’ve been there for centuries, for millennia, before one filthy beast was transformed into a chapel? Buried under the dark soil of the woods? Or did they appear one thousand years ago? Or maybe last month, or last week…? Is time-transferring one-directional—for instance, always to the past—or multi-directional, and in that case, does it require matter exchange? Could the (future) objects substitute for (past) stuff, such as someone in the future sending back the objects and receiving some pounds of mud in exchange, so the objects could be delivered anywhere assuming (Eureka!) they would dis-time exactly the same volume of matter?

She, however, guesses it all depends on the person who forgets or remembers. Liquid people’s memory spills everywhere, turning itself into environment, and their remembrances are a knock on the door of an empty cabin.

He always liked old, recycled, used clothes, long before vintage was a fad. Specially black clothes. He remembers when almost everybody was wearing black, with that eclectic style mix that characterized the version of afterpunk that managed to arrive to his country. Hiding from everybody, they arrived to the seashore, where sea monsters once emerged, from where they slithered to the hermit’s hut. It was wintertime and there was only wind. Wind blowing up foam, not a horizon ahead but a fog wall. When future is not imagined, memories are not recorded. What keeps the REC button pressed is the belief that there will be a future from which the present will be remembered. Sand and clouds and water and wind were the same thing. A cinnamon-colored dog was looking from a corner, but he was not looking at them.



He had been dancing at the disco. He was barely visible. He was recovering his breath leaning on a pillar when an unknown girl just jumped on him. He didn’t see her approaching him, and he was unable to see her face during a long, asphyxiating kiss under her long soaked hair. Like he had been wrapped in a wet blanket. Hooded like a man sentenced to death while his mouth was being drilled by a muscled mollusk. It was raining hard when they went out to smoke a joint. He hates the rain, but he remembers she was turned on by rain because it reminded her of Rimbaud. She also wore black, or very dark blue, and she never put any underwear on. Now he thinks of her as one of those dripping-wet glitched Japanese ghosts emerging in the form of white noise from the TV or the bathtub. Student apartments were often cold, humid, uncomfortable and utterly disordered. Mold stains on ceilings switched shape and color as if every house grew its own clouds, its own ameboid god. He remembers being threatened by monsters. Students burned sweet brandy and drank it to fight the winter cold. They shared stolen drinks in the disco. Moss grew on old stone houses’ facades. Rhododendrons on balconies. Moss, mold, stone and paint talked to each other in their own language of mutually assured destruction.

But then, what if time travel is a rare spontaneous phenomenon occurring without human intervention? What if chronotaxia is a physical property of some particular objects, or some particular locations, or some particular times? What if it hasn’t been detected before because who would care if some non-human-related inorganic stuff such as a stone, a few gallons of water or some cubic feet of nitrogen had ever arrived from another time?

Never mind to wait.

She had been living abroad and mothered a child.

All was unexpected.

One of these occasions you jump into the void to realize the other person was just expecting you to follow your desire. Maybe she wasn’t wanting him, just wanting to be wanted. There was weed and rice and coffee and a few poetry books at her place, and many vinyl records and posters on the walls and dried blood drops in the bathroom. No memory, no pictures, no representation of pleasure. Joy always happens on the B side of remembrance.



They had chosen the past for very different reasons. For him, the past was a game—an approach that, depending on her mood, amused or infuriated her. For him, everything was a child’s play, and the only unavoidable requirement to keep playing, as any toddler knows, is a subjectively safe environment. He was unable to take anything seriously except, perhaps, the particular disposition of some random spatial arrangements that helped him to establish that subjectively safe environment. The critical mess. His past was loaded with future. He didn’t see disorder, and that was another reason why he couldn’t remember anything from his past—or from their shared past—in an orderly way. Only professional players and some committed amateurs, remember the details of previous play. How he managed to keep his job as a teacher was a complete mystery to her until she realized that he had that extraordinary memory for books. Books were part of his daydreams but, unlike other daydreams that were continuously appearing and disappearing, allowing him to happily contradict himself in a question of seconds, what he obtained from books was a specifically structured world, so that, although considered as another portion of his imagination, although never taking the historical records as facts but as thoroughly malleable fiction, he was able to present books in an entertaining way—something he rarely did with personal experiences. Maybe the gap opened itself between different concepts of experience. For her, experience was a serious thing, something to be cherished and cared for and curated: there were essentially good experiences and essentially bad experiences. Experiences became her—you are what you eat, you are what happens to you, you are what you unearth. But for him, experiences were also toys, people were also toys, pain and happiness and despair and death were also toys, so they could be whimsically loaded with diverse emotional and symbolic charges at will. His way to stand life was to transform anything into a delirious game, including himself, including her. She wouldn’t understand how he could be so responsible and so irresponsible at the same time. He wouldn’t understand how she could be so engaged, so serious, with such trivialities. What was for her an obstacle to overcome, was another piece on the tableboard for him. If he was able to see the world with that sharpness he would certainly be terrified. So she knew she couldn’t ask him about the future objects because he would understand their presence as something natural, like if a green alien or a flaming demon just appeared in the middle of the room. It’s not that he would refuse to find a rational explanation, but that searching for a rational explanation wouldn’t be the first thing to do. It probably wouldn’t be the second thing to do. For him, the future was mixed with the past, so the objects’ chronophoresis was not shattering his world in any way. He would just keep lying down in his voluptuous ennui, as trying to rule the world with a telekinetic superpower. And he would say something like the objects are a clear evidence of the existence of a post-techno-capitalist leisure middle class developed from the unemployed masses for whom some abstract machine will be covering their basic necessities, so property will be meaningless and they will focus on communication (the iPhone), entertainment (the doll), and enhancement (the hand). At the end, he would sound as a regular historian, producing narratives to preserve the present by protecting the past from future’s influence. And she would think fuck you, you always have to tell the last word.

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard and leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Time is a crystalline construction seen through occult windows of life. Left to the past, sex becomes an obsolete skeuomorph. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost. Is a dead star still a star? Is a shining star hydrogen plasma, or is it the light travelling across spacetime? She turns back to him. He’s reading, or pretending to read. All the objects she had previously unearthed were pieces in a puzzle, things that could become tiny details in networks or narratives. Lantern fishes lost in the abyssal depths but sparkling anyway. Inserting their existence somewhere—a museum, a journal, a hidden corner of the mechanoic city—produced a vaguely disturbing meaning beyond their own presence in the here and now. Even unusual gadgets such as the tin bird were perfectly fitting into an accepted model of the past. The products of her last excavation, however, couldn’t be interjected in any preexistent context, they were existing by themselves, as an indirect proof of something that might have happened—that something will have happened. Yesterday, she washed them carefully in the bathtub and placed them in her studio room over a blanket. As an evidence of the present existence of a future, at least a near one. Humans weren’t going to be extinct tomorrow. Or maybe humans will vanish and intelligent machines will start disposing human trash in the past bin. She understood that she wouldn’t be able to obtain any proper knowledge from the objects. She understands that she will never be able to live in the still city but she will never cross the cloudwall. The past is broken, he says, we can’t hold on to it. Let’s fill the cavernous diseased holes of memory with sink water and molten silicon. Fake or not, to her, the objects must be art. Put a frame around them. Real or not, their shared endurance would be love. He wouldn’t dare to touch her. I can’t see you, make yourself visible to me, please, she says. She’s packing the objects carefully. She’s sending them beyond the cloudwall, to a laboratory in America. Let’s see what they can find.

I open shafts, I expose categories, minerals. I slit face-mouths, open wounds that heal on the other side of time, wrote Aase Berg.

—Germán Sierra


Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido (Debate, 1996), La Felicidad no da el Dinero (Debate, 1999), Efectos Secundarios (Debate, 2000), Intente usar otras palabras (Mondadori, 2009), and Standards (Pálido Fuego, Spain, 2013)—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje (Mondadori, 2004).



Oct 052016

Deirdre thumbnail

Deirdre Baker, who not so long ago joined us as a production editor, liked the work so much and proved so helpful (she is much more organized than I am) will now ascend Olympus and sit upon the throne of Production Manager. She will take over overseeing pieces through production, copyediting, and format consistency. She is also going to rationalize and update out style sheets. She will relieve me a certain amount of day-to-day office work. I will be able to sit on the deck, overlooking the mountains and the defunct swimming pool, drinking margaritas by the pitcher, throwing tennis balls from my deck chair for the dogs. This is, of course, what an editor’s job should be like. Many of you will now deal with Deirdre after you send your work in. She is very nice, much less apt to raise her voice and TYPE IN CAPITAL LETTERS!!!! than I am. She will be ever so much more polite when she hounds you for missing bios or new photos. The changeover will be gradual, but it has already begun. And, of course, several of you already know her.


Deirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.

Oct 052016

Catherine WalshCatherine Walsh


These poems will appear in Catherine Walsh’s forthcoming book Barbaric Tales.


barbaric tales
looking desire in the eye
xxxxeyeing desire eyeing desire
xxxxxxxxxin the eye
xxxxxxxxxxxof fine
xxxxeyes  ide ides ore
xxxxxis a dor re
xxxxxxxxxxis i dor us
xxxxxis a dora ea
xxxxhis a
xxxxhe’s a
xxxxxxxxeyes a  ‘S
xxbarbaric tales
skeptics looking through
xxtravesty    tangling as
xstruggling  these notions nations
exist their bigness small their
smallness a still silent in
the breadth of flight beyond
xxunderneath through this and
all or any refined concentrate glows and grows
light cellular compactations as particles
waves in crevices on cracks under motorways




in spans of striding bridges this energy
existing feeds repeats resumes beneath our
gaze out of above temporary horizon
lines fluctuating in time  patterned  ribboned
ululations wares of opaque air we are
there pleasure in this clearly hidden
lugar sound centrifuge of
spatiality humming hub  con  in
re  di  verse (transistor-amplified
vibrations set on top standard 60s’
freestanding cabinet as further amplifier)
(the notice of things)
echelons  The weeping!  The laughing!
eclectic joys of which might
strum peace navigate superficies
of order resonate magnificently
till all known farthest tangents lay slightly
disordered  bare  approachable
to fend in the world
other becomes  plaisír
as it is voices clarions nascent surge




and where you cannot look
to the sea you look to the
mountain  flutter in the
montbresia passing by the
third day of mauve hydrangea
vased in black enamel
outside a council door repeat
a step the kerb depletes a necessary
force whistles or that bikes past she
with arms akimbo those white
in-ears wired up  flourishes unaware
in the patternled stream



this courage to go
beyond  let it be the measure
that we let this be the
measure that we let
be measure this that we
let this be the measure
that we let
binding explosive
sequestered interpretabilities
your fear the door closes as
its noise summons movement
change air light  hefted
currents blighted
with human skin
mould  lacerations
of joy  poignant murmurs
of the hinge  release
insensate reluctance

refusal’s life
this is your dear moment in
capacity motion towards its
beckoning strimming wide




swathes aloud  bee
glade dell hollowed by
wind stroking the palms
of justice  bedrock
glacial implicatory
owl coiffed true
more janus will
ensue  the tale of
the tall ships resuming
telling in order to
be some inspired version
yarn  enigma  how can this
be aimed true our very breaths a shift?




where viewing the stuck in
the possible stealth of evening
overtaking each
endeavour stale
want of more
being heard or being a spectacle
it’s all my eye lost ironic arcs
in trite thrall this
was voice voicing
this ah this was being
heard all my eye or not
replete phenomenological
repressivistic maelstrom of
what  termed
as if complete desire  was
unerringly boxed set stilted
agendas sifted validity
recomposition detritus




roman wall in the evening
gloom Ibero-Grec reinforcement
arches dug in
natural alignment
hill side  which
escarped and cutaway
tails the formality  black
tarmac concrete road
curves shoulders lower
slopes from where I
could breathe just
remember it when
hate in fear those
eager counting
injury grief as right
indignant lack
unappeased anger

pained forlorn its

dishonesty which cannot





I am interested in your precepts
does not mean I have to either
agree or disagree with them

perfect development
all it could be  unless
it were imperfect

is it worth it?
not just that so many
concerns hang round that
hackneyed phrase
for centuries
it’s that inestimable
evaluation in the face
of realities

the normative influence at
the conjunction of any
such confluences
taken conjunctively with the
actuality of the precedents
set in relation to
past or known realities




xthis is it
xxis it worth it?
xxthe past
xxto present
xx∴ perfect

xI could go on endlessly
xxexcept it would probably
xxbore you needlessly

yes  I’m sure you would
find it boring were
I to keep on trying
to extemporise on the
same point

least you forget it would
prove useful to maintain
the ability to distinguish
such structures if you
were to come across
them in your reading




of mind
allowing abstractions
reside  unmolested
uncontested  at-the-ready
in our heads

on the T-Rex footprint scale
it doesn’t seem like
much of an imprint
granular sand particles
defunct mineral
dehydrated life
embrasured on strand
opinions vary  while
the composite components
structuring bone mass
don’t much

sea come  go
pull away there

carried fro’
any  where push

in here  mast up
cell  carried to

some fruit pull

it surprised her  what had been
written  dehiscence of
time  pah  like that
they said this would be a good
title  some said something
else  arbitrary nature
of the ordinary  turn it
over  pah  nothing you
see surprised her  in this
way each day  could be
seen to  fragment





(itself)  miscellaneous
phonic locutions and a
monologic episode  your
play  she said  is if
I may say so she
said  episodic
wow  imagine
time past  before my eyes
ears  before my ears
blood beat  we are
carried  so many
wrapt environs  immaculate
xpresence of doubt
xxthen we are
here  where rivers run
time holds in stone
xsoil    sand
xxkept transient
fitful  glancing

—Catherine Walsh


Catherine Walsh was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1964, has spent some time living and working abroad, and currently lives in Limerick. She co-edits hardPressed Poetry with Billy Mills. Her books include: Macula (Red Wheelbarrow Press, Dublin: 1986); The Ca Pater Pillar Thing and More Besides (hardPressed Poetry, Dublin, 1986); Making Tents (hardPressed Poetry, Dublin, 1987); Short Stories (North & South, Twickenham and Wakefield, 1989); Pitch (Pig Press, Durham, 1994); Idir Eatortha & Making Tents (Invisible Books, London, 1996); City West (Shearsman, Exeter, 2005); Optic Verve A Commentary (Shearsman, Exeter, 2009) and Astonished Birds; Carla, Jane, Bob and James (hardPressed Poetry, Limerick 2012).

Her work is included in a number of anthologies, including the Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2001) and No Soy Tu Musa (Ediciones Torremozas, Madrid, 2008), a bilingual Spanish/English anthology of Irish women poets. A section from Barbaric Tales appears in the spring/summer 2016 edition of the Irish University Review.

She was Holloway Lecturer on the Practice of Poetry at the University of California, Berkeley for 2012/13 and was a research fellow with the Digital Humanities cluster at An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University during 2014/2015. Her books Barbaric Tales and The beautiful Untogether are forthcoming.



Oct 042016



An Attorney for the Bureau of Consumer Affairs of the
Federal Trade Commission, Midwest Region, Inspects Natural
Path Sanctuary, a “Green” Cemetery, near Madison, Wisconsin

In the end, consumers are consumed by grief, morticians’ easy marks. No sign of that here. Nothing. Nothing but graves, graves turning over in graves.

— § —

Before Today’s Session, a Supreme Court Clerk Sharpens the
Twenty Goose-Quill Pens, She Will Later Arrange, Neatly
Crossed, at Each of the Four Counsel Tables

I wear this suit of morning clothes. Forgetting whom he was fitting, the tailor asked on which side I dressed. The inkwells are for show. Dry.

— § —

A Biologist of the Fish and Wildlife Service
Confirms the Success of the Plague Vaccination
by Observing that the Prairie Dogs’ Whiskers Have Turned Pink

Now, predate, my stressed, my endangered black-footed ferrets, my BFFs. Aerial drones vector laced M&Ms to your flea-infested prey. Prey away. These sweet sweetened treats.

— § —

The 45-Foot Mail Boat, J.W. Westcott II,
the Postal Service’s Only Floating Zip Code, 48222,
Hails the Freighter Mississagi Steaming North on the Detroit River

Our motto? “Mail by the pail.” On the fly, not stopping, making ten knots. The bucket hoisted aloft! Its passenger? One postcard from the Pacific.

— § —

The Last Army Cobbler Fits a Horseshoe-Shaped Heel Plate
to a Tomb Shoe Worn by a Sentinel
of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard)

Nineteen steps: Sand the leather. Tack the toe-taps. Peen the kick plates. “Every.” “Shoe’s.” “Different.” Twenty-one tomb steps. The marble worn into a trench.

— § —

The Public Affairs Specialist 2nd Class
of the USCGC Hollyhock (WLB 214)
Launches the Infrared Equipped Aerostat
for the Houghton-Portage Elementary School Kindergarten’s
Future Guardians

What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? Tend Keweenaw Waterway’s buoys, beacons? Aid Aids to Navigation? To nowhere? For forever?

— Michael Martone


Michael Martone is the author of Michael Martone, a memoir done in contributor’s notes. His newest book is Memoranda, hint fictions celebrating the various jobs done by the United States federal government.


Oct 032016


Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. —Patrick O’Reilly


Contradictions in the Design
Matthew Olzmann
Alice James Books, 2016
100 pages, $15.95

Early in Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection of poetry, Contradictions in the Design, we are introduced to a young boy. For his birthday, the boy has been given a box of hand-me-down tools. “Immediately, he sets out to discover / how the world was made / by unmaking everything the world has made” (“Consider All The Things You’ve Known But Now Know Differently”, 9). The boy may serve as a stand-in for Olzmann himself, who excels at finding connections between the broken, the incomplete, and the obsolete, and who eyes every artificial thing with skepticism. As he claims in one interview, he is “the type of writer who understands the dark only by flicking the lights on and off a couple dozen times. I understand the deep end of the pool by splashing through the shallow side.”

With his award-winning debut Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), the Michigan-born poet earned a reputation for his humour and accessibility, and his talent for juxtaposing seemingly incongruous images. Now residing in North Carolina, and armed with the confidence a well-received debut brings, Olzmann continues to explore his sometimes-jarring narrative style in Contradictions in the Design.

One stand-out poem is “The Millihelen”, named for “the amount of beauty that will launch exactly one ship.” Olzmann discovers such overlooked poetic sources with ease, and elaborates them masterfully. “The Millihelen” revisits the Trojan War, and considers a single ship leaving the entire fleet. Is this a ship carrying a disillusioned soldier away from the beachhead of Troy to a love he left behind? That’s not entirely clear, though it certainly seems that way. In any case, this ship is given more importance than the thousand Greek frigates sailing towards battle, a part bigger than the sum.

In “The Millihelen,” beauty is a destination. But that raises a possibility: perhaps this ship is the one which carries Paris and Helen away to Troy. That would be more consistent with the rest of the collection, where beauty and art are positioned as false virtues, traps which an audience could fall prey to. Certainly Paris’s own overly-enthusiastic pursuit of beauty had disastrous consequences.

The idea of beauty presents challenges for the artist as well. “Femur by mandible, I know what it means / to watch your good fortune change its mind,” Olzmann writes in “The Skull of an Unidentified Dinosaur”. That’s every poet’s pain, no doubt. But the poem itself depicts a dinosaur skeleton made up of mislabeled and mismanaged parts, the product of misguided creative labour, and exposes the blind faith and false assumptions required to not only appreciate, but to create art.

How Olzmann himself struggles for or against this artificial beauty is not always clear. There is little to suggest the kind of painstaking editing necessary to more intricate or experimental verse. Throughout, Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. What recommends Olzmann above them is the sense of cohesion in these poems: while most poets of a similar style still go in fear of literalness and overstatement, often to the point that their poems devolve into non-sequitur, Olzmann spares no effort to ensure that the reader follows every step of his associative process.

Olzmann’s talent lies not in his simple situational observations, but his observation of the whole metaphor, his observation of actors in a metaphor. He pursues the metaphor from its superficial meaning down to its pulp, showing the reader just where and why that metaphor is so poetically resonant. Think of him as a miner with a silver hammer, tapping the vein all the way to the motherlode. Oddly, Olzmann’s gift for drawing connections does not extend to other forms of comparative language. His similes, for instance, are usually duds: houses go “dark / like condemned buildings”, hair unfurls “like a flag”. These suit Olzmann’s unfussy, conversational style, but add nothing.

Olzmann is a noticer, rather than a craftsman. Coincidences and contradictions occur to him, and he draws them into the right perspective, but he never shapes them. This usually works. While not “formal poetry” in any traditional sense, nearly every poem in Contradictions in the Design operates under a particular formal apparatus wherein the poem is set up as a meditation on some single object or situation, then veers off in a completely unforeseeable direction, before returning to its thesis. This strategy, which I’m calling the “Olzmannian diversion,” makes it nearly impossible to quote from one of these poems and do justice to the whole poem, but it allows Olzmann to consider his subject from every angle, as though walking around a statue rather than merely looking at one face-on. As such, most poems in Contradictions in the Design have a satisfying sense of completeness.

Take, for example, “The Man Who Was Mistaken”, about a man who reconnects with his own sincerity thanks to a drug-addled roommate. The poem begins by mentioning the speaker is often mistaken for another professor at his university, who in turn is often mistaken for Moby, the electronica artist beloved by the speaker’s roommate. Then the turn:

Once he thought our furnace was talking to him.

Which is when I said, Why don’t you tell me
what the furnace was trying to say?

Which is when he said, It said
that me and it would always be enemies.

Which is when I said, Son, that’s a fight you can never win.

Which is when he said, Okay, and then went outside
to dance on the hood of his car.

Which is when the cops came.

Perhaps he was right. Jesus was inside the music.
And that music was inside my roommate.

And the state could not tolerate it.

I should note that this is just one small part of a long chain of events; “The Man Who Was Mistaken” follows Olzmann’s typical form: an opening gambit, a turn into shaggy dog territory, and then a return to the original theme in the third act, sort of like a sitcom. And the poem, already a page and a half long when this anecdote begins, goes on for another fifteen lines. The final line in the excerpt serves as that second turn, bringing the poem back to its original line of thought. While it acts as a punchline, dripping with false indignation toward “the Man,” it is also filled with genuine dismay that such harmless enthusiasm should lead to police intervention. The line rests precisely between the cynical and the sincere, which is where much of Olzmann’s best work happens.

But Olzmann’s competence can be its own trap. This is not a book one should read cover to cover. Taken at random, and with few exceptions, any one poem in this collection would be considered very good. The imagery is evocative, the humour charmingly ironic. But this one jarring, book-ended form would be more effective if used more sparingly. Reading Contradictions in the Design comes with a sense of degradation: inevitably some poems don’t seem to hit as hard as those which came before, and add nothing that earlier poems didn’t imply to greater effect. The Olzmannian diversion can lend a poem a sense of efficiency that it does not usually deserve.

This is a limitation to Olzmann’s style, as well. While the hyper-colloquial first-person narration affords him a degree of freedom not found in other poetry, it can also lead him to strain for importance. Such is the case with “Still Life With Heart Extracted From The Body Of A Horse” (16), a clearly personal, pointed poem, which devolves into bromides and clichés and eventually ends with a thud. When Olzmann gets political, as he does with this poem or “Imaginary Shotguns” (14), his politics are unthreateningly liberal[1], more bumper sticker than rallying cry.

What does one look for in a poetry? How can one define it? Olzmann himself might view even the question with suspicion. The poems which make up Contradictions in the Design are not challenging in any sense, but some might assert that “not challenging” is not necessarily the same as “not good.” I find myself, admittedly to my own surprise, in this camp. Olzmann draws insightful, even profound, connections between object and meaning. An artful poem, where several components work together in harmonious efficiency, such that you cannot replace a single mark for fear of breaking it, offers a kind of wonder. Here is a thing that shouldn’t exist, yet can’t possibly exist any other way, a made thing that feels innate. Olzmann’s poems are robbed of this wonder. But if the poems are without wonder, they still provide something like relief: that thing you noticed about the photocopier? Matthew Olzmann noticed, too, and he’s found some meaning in it that you hadn’t. Sometimes that’s enough.

—Patrick O’Reilly


Patrick OReilly

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Be advised: this is the opinion a Canadian critic. Issues like gun control and same-sex marriage, more or less settled here, may demand a less daring or incisive take in the United States.
Oct 022016

Firstclassroom 500px


“The same Society [of Loretto] will become, besides, an asylum or shelter for old age, decrepit or useless slaves, and whatever kind of sick or distressed fellow creature may call for their assistance, as far as this poor condition shall permit.”  —Father Charles Nerinckx, 1813

“In America, we’re all immigrants. This land did not belong to the white people till we stole it.” —Ceciliana Skees, Sister of Loretto, 2016

For over two hundred years, the Sisters of Loretto have aspired to sanctify what history books have termed the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky into a home for the Virgin Mary. The first nuns, the daughters and sisters of pioneer farmers, envisioned the bluegrass plains and open skies to be as pure and untouched as the body of their beloved Mary. But the land they chose for the new home of God’s mother was as ancient as the hills of Jerusalem and as bloody as Golgotha. By 1812, when the original five Sisters of Loretto, Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart, began teaching Catholic children the rudiments of their faith, the land on which their motherhouse rested had been mapped, contested, divided, parceled, and sold, with generations of its original inhabitants besieged by epidemics and invasion. After over a century of warfare between natives, colonists, British, and French, the fields of central Kentucky were cluttered with detritus of battles primordial and fresh. The land was holy ground for many different people, but it was also blood land. In fact, the first Mother of the Sisters of Loretto, Ann Rhodes, purchased the land for the convent with the sale of a slave named Tom. This commodification of human flesh is a strangely disturbing beginning for an order of women who hoped to create an enclave for good works and education. How are we to understand women who swore vows of poverty but nevertheless bought and sold other Catholic souls? Such paradoxes of intentions run through the history of Loretto, as they do through the history of America.

Embedded deep into the consciousness of white settlers was the sense that the seemingly limitless fertile acres of America were an untouched Eden, the earth at its most new, its most pure. Perhaps the Sisters rejoiced that they were building Mary’s home in a newly born world, exempted from the sins of their forebears. But they also confronted a land of ruins, of mounds full of bones and the spirits that had once animated them. They were of a vocation and a religion that believed it was possible to converse with heaven, to hear the call of saints and spirits. If there were ghosts in the bluegrass, surely they glimpsed them. What did Mary and Ann Rhodes think when they discovered clay shards and copper medallions while digging in their gardens? How did they respond to the risings and ridges of the earth, the palimpsest of a land that had once teamed with people? I wonder if the nuns had a sense of the age of the land they inhabited, if they tried to fit the relics they found into their story of the creation and redemption of the world.

Loretto itself is named for Loreto, Italy, where pilgrims since at least the later middle ages have venerated a one-roomed stone house as the childhood home of Mary in Galilee. Tradition holds that angels carried the home to Italy to escape the ravages of the invading Turks. The choice of name is telling. The first Sisters hoped to recreate an ancient Judaean dwelling-place on the American frontier. None of them had ever been to Italy, so the Loretto they envisioned must have sprung from sermons, gospel verses, and their own imaginations—a home built of sandstone and flavored with olive oil, a place of simple domesticity where a young girl learned and grew into worthiness and first heard the voice of an angel. This home of Mary’s girlhood represented their hopes for themselves, for the children they would raise and send out into the world, and for those who would join them in their eternal prayers at the foot of the cross.

Society of Loretto buildingsLoretto Motherhouse, Nerinx, Ky.

Yet other people possessed competing spiritual ties to the same fertile floodplains of the Ohio River Valley. The Shawnee believed that the central Ohio Valley was the heart of the world, given to them by Meteelemelakwe their Creator for perpetual sustenance. In recorded origin stories, Meteelemelakwe had lowered the ancestors of the Shawnee to the island of the earth in a basket and instructed them to travel to the river that would be their home for eternity. To them, the land that included Kentucky could never be sold, promised, or bargained away. Since the 1750s, they had fought a series of wars with the British and the Iroquois in order to keep settlers, hunters, and land speculators from encroaching further west. The Five Nations of the Iroquois, as well as the Cherokee, had twice sold the land to speculators, and in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British had ceded it away to the newly formed American government. Despite promises and bargains, the British did not stop the onslaught of eager settlers who traveled on flatboats down the Ohio River or climbed over the mountains through the Cumberland Gap to reach Kentucky. In 1775, there were only about 150 Anglo-Americans. By 1800, there were 220,855. Within ten years the number had doubled to 406,459.

The original Sisters of Loretto may not have been aware of the intricacies of failed treaties and false sales with the Shawnee that precipitated their arrival at Loretto, but they were certainly aware they were not the first inhabitants of their Edenic possession. White settlers had only been present in Kentucky for thirty-seven years, and those years had been rife with blood and conflict. The War for Independence lasted for eight years, but in Kentucky it had turned into twenty. Thousands of people, Shawnee, Lenape, Ohio Iroquois, French, and British, had been killed, taken captive, or died of starvation. The Sisters knew that only thirty years before, other settlers had crowded into forts for protection. They would no doubt have heard the tales that circulated among colonists of women taken captive, disappeared into the dark wilderness. In 1780, only five years before the Rhodes family emigrated to Kentucky, over 700 Shawnee and other warriors, along with British rangers, attacked several forts and captured 300 colonists. The experiences of the captives varied widely, with many, especially women and children, adopted into native families to replace lost members. Many were so pleased with their new lives they had no desire to leave when given the opportunity. But colonists considered the natives akin to demons, and many women feared the threat of sexual assault, true or not. The Old Testament books that made up the bulk of their readings were replete with battles, carnage, and violation. When the Sisters read of the rapes of Dinah and Tamar, did they envision Levantine kingdoms of centuries past or the forts and newly built farms of Kentucky?

It is difficult to get a sense of individual consciousness from the first five sisters—Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart. Any surviving key to their individual personalities has become shrouded in hagiography. According to the legend of Loretto, Mary Rhodes was so disturbed by the lack of schools in Kentucky that she began teaching her nieces and nephews in her brother’s house. She soon banded together with two other single ladies, Christina Stuart and Ann Havern, and the three of them moved into two old log cabins across the creek from Mary’s brother’s farm and invited local children to board with them and learn their letters. After a few months they revealed their joint desire to take the veil and sought the approval of their delighted priest, Father Charles Nerinckx, a Belgian immigrant who was hoping to nurture just such fledgling female communities. On April 12, 1812, the women traveled to the Nerinckx’s home on nearby Hardin’s creek. Kneeling outside the roughhewn church with a statue of Mary imported from Belgium, they received his blessing and he pronounced them the first sisters of the Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were soon joined by Ann’s younger sister Sarah and Mary’s younger sister Ann.

Loretto main buildingMotherhouse main building

According to the early histories of Loretto, the first Sisters were hardworking, courageous, devoted to their students and the survival of their Order. They faced hardship with tenacity and never wavered in their faithfulness to the Virgin Mary. In both their prayers and their actions, they strove to imitate her compassion for the world as well as the suffering of her son. And there is little to contradict or augment that portrait, as only a handful of documents from their own hands exist, and none of those are letters, diaries, confessions, or any of the narratives that indicate character or temperament.

Of course, some of this reverential biography must be true—in order to survive in unfamiliar country without stores and roads, living in split-log cabins, anyone would have had to be courageous and not averse to hard work. One of the original cabins still exists at the Loretto Motherhouse, although it’s been deconstructed and reconstructed several times. A tiny one-room cabin, with wooden shutters blocking most of the natural light, it manages to be at once claustrophobic and cavernous, the testament of an extremely harsh life for the people who crowded into similar such rooms. The rain and snow soaked in through cracks in the walls and the damp rose from the earthen floors. Ann Rhodes died of tuberculosis in a cabin like that. The Sisters and their students crowded into spaces impossibly small and uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. Somehow they managed—folding up the beds during the day to make room for meals and lessons, cooking outside in a lean-to, planting and canning vegetables to get through the winter. All that was true. But they didn’t have to do it alone. And they were hardly as impoverished as the stories would indicate. While the pioneer Sisters defied the elements and renounced all their earthly possessions for the greater treasures of Heaven, they still retained ownership of other humans.

The first document to survive from the sisters is a record of purchase. In that loopy cursive of centuries past, Ann Rhodes recorded that she was selling one bed, two spinning wheels, assorted kitchen furniture, and one negro male named Tom to Father Charles Nerinckx in perpetuity for seventy-five dollars. She used the money to purchase the surrounding land, as well as to pay for repairs on the cabins. Father Nerinckx returned both Tom and the furniture to his spiritual charges and nothing more is written of him in the records.

Bill of sale of slaveBill of sale for Tom and assorted household goods (used with permission of the Loretto Archives)

Tom would be joined by others within a few years. Within the lifetime of Father Nerinckx (who died in 1824), there were enough slaves to merit two separate kitchens. An early set of copybooks from one of the Sisters recorded that Father Nerinckx had ordered that strangers were not permitted in either the white or the colored kitchens. In 1860, there were 70 slaves at the Motherhouse. In March of 1853, upon the death of Mary Rhodes, there were altogether 170 Sisters living at the Motherhouse and eight other schools and convents in Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and New Mexico. Since the other convents were smaller, there may have been as many slaves as Sisters at the Motherhouse.

The presence of those 70-some slaves places the stark purity of Loretto’s early mythos in further context. The brief references to Tom add another story, of more than 70 other stories stitched into and around the central narrative of early Loretto. But those stories are shadows, lost on the edges of old diaries, fallen in between the ripped creases in letters. We know the occasional name, the occasional number, but we don’t have any written memories relating what life was like for those who lived, worked, prayed, and died in the service of the Sisters at the Motherhouse.

Everything is conjecture, based on comparisons and built around blank spaces. But Loretto rose from two cabins in 1812 to a sprawling estate that was both a school, a house of worship, and a fully functioning self-sustaining farm community, and slaves were responsible for much of that achievement. Their labor also contributed to the flourishing of the larger Catholic community in Kentucky—owning slaves gave the Sisters the free hours to teach Catholic children, which was their central goal. They could not have fulfilled their mission without slaves to till their grounds and tend to their laundry, harvest their corn crop, milk the cows, and see to the never-ending labor of an extensive farm.

The Sisters of Loretto bought and sold slaves, and some received them as inheritances from family members. According to her father’s will, Mary Rhodes received “a boy named George, a girl named Anna, and one feather bed and other furniture.” New postulants also brought slaves along when they joined, as part of their dowries to the institution, such as the four women who joined in 1817, bringing ten slaves with them. Many of their transactions’ records were destroyed in a fire, but at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, a convent of similar size, an entry for the annals in 1840 records that “they bought five negro men; two women, two girls and two boys . . . . The prices of hire were also very high; and the Council decided it was better to buy servants for the farm etc., then pay so much for hire and often get bad ones.” In the same year, Catherine Spaulding, the foundress of the Charity convent, sent money back to the Sisters for the purchase of two girls. She was the same woman who had declared that, “our Community must be the center from which all our good works must emanate.”

One of the hallmarks of slave experiences was a marriage of Christian religion with native African practices, memory, and experience merged into a distinctly African-American creation. This was true regardless of denomination. How do we understand the lived moments of spirituality for individuals enslaved in a religious house? Throughout Kentucky, masters and slaves worshipped in the same churches, with slaves in the back or up on a balcony. Father Nerinckx had insisted that the slaves in his parishes, which included Loretto, receive the sacraments so if they believed in the teachings of the church they served, they knew their souls belonged only to God. They were washed with the same water at birth and departed their bodies to the same rites. Regardless of whether slaves accepted their status or rebelled in their hearts, they participated in the rituals of their masters. And judging by the numbers of African-Americans who remained Catholic after emancipation, they imbibed the meaning of those rituals. African-American Catholics didn’t split off into their own congregations, unlike Protestants who formed specifically black denominations, historically spoken of as the Black Church. Catholics insisted on communion within the larger body of Christ.

Living as a slave in a house of education may have provided opportunities, even if only grasped in stolen moments. Another scribbled statement, from Father Nerinckx, copied in a notebook by an anonymous hand: “Permission is given for the sisters to instruct colored women and girls, but they may not converse with them without the superior’s permission, and the superior should be vigilant that no disorder occur through her negligence.” Unlike other states, it was never illegal to teach slaves to read and write in Kentucky.

Given that some slaves in Loretto were literate, it’s hard not to wonder what they may have read and how their reading affected their identities. It’s tempting to imagine slaves at Loretto developing subversive ideas through books. Abolitionist literature existed in Kentucky, and it’s not impossible (although impossible to prove) that some of it made its way into the kitchens, laundry, and slave quarters of Loretto. Beginning in 1822, the Kentucky Abolition Society regularly published a newspaper, and of course, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold 300,000 copies the first year of its publication. Even if none of these works ever reached the confines of Loretto, however. there was no shortage of bibles, and biblical stories, with tales of Israelites yearning to be free from bondage and the Lord hearing their prayers, were among the most subversive in a slave-holding society. The religion of the Sisters preached equality before God, equality among the members of the body of Christ, however they may have practiced it. And slaves and Sisters alike must have recognized this contradiction. If black women were the ones more likely to be literate, as Nerinckx’s memo suggests, than the spiritual hypocrisy they faced was even more baffling. The lessons they learned in the bible as well as those they received during the liturgy directly contradicted social dictates about the worth of both their souls and their bodies.

The female slaves occupied a strange space at Loretto. According to historian Deborah Gray White, in popular imagination, the black female body was oversexed, as ripe for exploitation as it was devoid of virtue. The same society that prized white female chastity valued black women as objects of male lust and as breeding sows to provide more property. Owners had no stake in preserving black virginity. At a convent, the contrast between the different conceptions of womanhood could hardly have been more starkly apparent. The nuns possessed the privilege of control. In the days before effective birth control, monastic vows offered women a socially approved alternative to dangerous and potentially tragic cycles of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and childrearing. Vowed women controlled their bodies, tempering them with fasting and long hours of prayer, but never ceding physical or legal control to a man.

Black female slaves, however, were not the owners of their own bodies. They could hardly make decisions about their virtue when they could be married off and sold away at another’s whim. In 1837, at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, the Sisters, “resolved that the black girl Matilda be sold for $550 to a catholic who will not send her down River.” “Down River” referred to the Mississippi River, the main conduit into the deep South. Slaves sold down the river faced separation from their families as well as increasingly brutal labor conditions on cotton plantations.

Female slaves also faced sexual violence from white men and black slaves alike. And yet the female slaves at Loretto found themselves serving other women whose flesh had been demarcated as not only privileged, but sacred. A young black woman could wonder, surveying the untouched bodies of her communal mistresses, am I not a virgin too? And yet that virginity was somehow a less perfect offering for the God whose waters had baptized them both.


Dolors of Mary

Loretto was meant to be the home of the Virgin Mary, but Kentucky is not Nazareth, and its landscape bears the scars of its twinned worlds. A biography of Mary’s sorrows, rendered in marble, lines the path to the cemetery at the Motherhouse. The Dolors of Mary, as they are known, trace the holy family from the flight into Egypt through the tortured steps of the Passion. Artistic tradition limits the sculptures to seven, but each tangle of stone limbs bespeaks a lifetime of maternal care, from the loss of her child in the Temple at Jerusalem to her final harrowing witness. At the fourth station, Mary meets Jesus in the streets as he carries the cross on his back. They lean into each other in an embrace, the sun and the wind driving against them, the temple as their sky. She helps him bear the cross just for a moment but knows she must relinquish him to his fate and its weight.

If you follow the path of the Dolors to the end, you find yourself at a rough stone slab about the height of a tall person that rises above the gravestones of deceased Sisters, a memorial decorated with a handsome brass plaque featuring a relief row of African-featured profiles—women in headscarves, an old man with a worn expression, a young child with round cheeks. It has stood there since 2000, bearing all the known names of the slaves at Loretto, names gleaned from archives, from contracts, handwritten in faded ink, slanted antiquated handwriting, catalogued in acid-free boxes numbered on shelves in the archives. Clearly the names listed on the stone are just fragments of memories, brief references in bills of sale— “Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, The Drury Family of Ten slaves, Anna and George, the slaves inherited in 1838 by Sister Laurentia Buckman . . . And all those whose names have been forgotten.”

Loretto Memorial

The placement of the Dolors and the memorial stone together perfectly encapsulates the paradox of slavery at Loretto. The Sisters of Loretto sorrowed with Mary and suffered with Jesus. That moment existed eternally and defined their entire identity, including their prayer life and their earthly mission. To that end, they created their own forms of suffering to emphasize with Jesus—asceticism in food, sleep, dress, separation from friends and relatives, and obedience to the rule and will of superiors. But who embodied sorrow and suffering more than their slaves? Tom, Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, and all the other men and women of Loretto enacted the torments of the Cross on a daily basis, with their forced labors and subjugated wills. In the reminders of their inferiority, whether in the form of cruel taunts, harsh censure, or gentle explanation, they lived out the experiences of Jesus, tormented and insulted on the road to Calvary. And they bore a Cross from the moment of birth. One African-American spiritual, with clear Catholic overtones, equates the affliction of slavery—the hollering and scolding of masters—with the burden of the Cross.

I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
Done wid driber’s dribin’ …
Done wid massa’s hollerin’ …
Done wid missus’ scoldin’ …
I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary hail!
To help me bear de cross.

The sufferer cries out to Mary, who, in Catholic literature and liturgy, is the archetype of sorrow. How many sorrowing mothers watched their children sold away from them? Watched the children left to them broken in body, in the fields, at the whipping post? While the Sisters sorrowed with Mary, did the slaves hope that Mary sorrowed with them?


Loretto came of age alongside the state of Kentucky and indeed, the entire United States, so to get lost in its grounds and to dig through the extensive archives is to confront the paradox of American history. And when we study that history, when we read the names on memorial stones or dig into the sinews of the earth, we learn that we are a species of dark hearts and infinite cruelties, with conflict woven in our souls. We also long for salvation, whoever we are, and have composed an infinite variety of paths back to the sky or into the ground, myths of suffering and redemption, and stories of sin and forgiveness. Our first hope for atonement, for the bodies broken and displaced on a multitude of crosses, for the voices disappeared and the records lost, is acknowledgment. And once we have built the memorial stones and reached the ends of the records, what then?

Sisters of Loretto Graveyard

Many thanks to the Sisters of Loretto and their co-members, especially Eleanor Craig, Susan Classen, Antionette Doyle, and Ceciliana Skees, for their candor and their generosity.

— Laura Michele Diener

Works Consulted

Barnes, Mary Matilda SL. One Hundred and Fifty Years. Loretto Motherhouse Archives, Nerinx, KY.

Boles, John B. Religion in Antebellum Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976. Print.

Butler, Anne M. Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Campbell, Joan SL. Loretto: A Early American Congregation in the Antebellum South. St. Louis: Bluebird Publishing, 2015. Print.

Joan Chittester, Ed. Climb along the Cutting Edge: An Analysis of Change in Religious Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1977. Print.

Copeland, M. Shawn, Ed. Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009.

Gollar, C. “Catholic slaves and the slaveholders in Kentucky.” Catholic Historical Review [serial online]. January 1998;84 (1 ):42. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 8, 2016.

Harrison, Lowell R. and Clotter, James C, Eds. A New History of Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Hogan, Margaret A. Sister Servants: Catholic Women Religious in Antebellum Kentucky. Diss, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008.

I Am the Way, Constitutions of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Nerinx, KY, 1997. Print.

Lakomäki, Sami. Gathering Together: The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.

Lewis, R. Barry, Ed. Kentucky Archaeology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Print.

The Loretto Community. A Century of Change: 1912-2012, Loretto’s Second Century. Point Reyes Station, CA: Chardon Press, 2012. Print.

Suenens, Leo Joseph, Card., The Nun in the World: Religion and the Apostolate. Westminster, MI: Newman Press, 1963. Print.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985. Print.

Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.



Oct 012016

fiveravensFive Ravens



Over the course of recorded history, many profound intellectuals have contemplated the nature of mathematics. Albert Einstein believed that math was nothing more than “a product of human thought,” which caused him to wonder how its principles could seem “so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality.” In contrast, Johan Kepler believed that mathematics was an inherent feature of the Universe, famously stating, “geometry existed before creation.” But regardless of one’s philosophical leanings, it’s obvious that, from the curious perspective of a human mind, Nature seems to be “written in the language of mathematics” (Galileo Galilei).

A few million years before Einstein, Kepler, and Galileo mused about the Universe, the concept of mathematics likely originated from an evolutionary breakthrough that happened before modern humans ever walked the earth. When hominids emerged from their primate ancestors, they gained a powerful ability to recognize patterns in the natural world, which allowed them to comprehend cause-and-effect in a way that had never been achieved by any other species. Their ability to understand and predict patterns of behavior in wildlife allowed hominids to become effective hunters and trappers, despite their relatively weak and slow physiology; their ability to recognize patterns of physical correlation allowed them to manipulate different materials to create novel technologies (e.g. tools, clothing, housing, etc.); and their ability to understand and predict seasonal patterns would eventually lead to the development of agriculture. All of these examples illustrate that hominids’ pattern recognition fostered a myriad of practical evolutionary benefits. But along with these utilitarian advantages, this ability also provided a cognitive foundation for creative expression and this would eventually lead to the earliest known forms of visual art.

In 2014, the Leiden Museum carbon dated a collection of prehistoric cutting utensils found on the Indonesian island of Java. The tools were constructed from mussel shells by Homo Erectus, a primitive species of hominid that is closely related to modern humans. While this technology was relatively typical for the time period, researchers noticed that there was something quite atypical about these tools: some of them were engraved with zigzagging lines and the arrangement of the patterns demonstrated a high degree of intent. With no reasonable inference regarding their practical value, the researchers had to assume that the lines were made for aesthetic purposes. When the tools were tested, the results indicated that the shells were roughly 500 000 years old (300 000 years older than any previously discovered artwork); this suggested that hominids developed conceptual thought much earlier than previously believed. But with regard to mathematics, since these artifacts were made roughly 400 000 years before any known stone figurines or cave paintings, it also suggested that geometry – not figurative images – inspired the first aesthetic creations.

When hominids evolved into modern humans, they developed an ever-growing fascination with Nature. And undoubtedly, as they explored, examined, and experienced their environment, they would have noticed, even before the concept of geometry was developed, that the Universe often structures itself in aesthetically balanced forms. The circle, the pinnacle of balance in geometry, was likely the first shape to capture their attention. The sun and the moon were (and still are) omnipresent features of life on earth, and I imagine that our ancestors would have frequently gazed skyward to appreciate their seemingly perfect form. But Nature’s creations go far beyond the circle: from the radial symmetry of flowers, to the logarithmic spirals of mollusk shells, to the fractal scaling of succulents – geometry pervades the Cosmos. To early humans, these elaborate arrangements must have represented an underlying order, a guiding spiritual force that created and organized the Universe. So unsurprisingly, mathematical arrangements played a significant role in early religious art .

As humans moved out of Africa and spread across the globe, they split into numerous civilizations, all with unique beliefs and practices. But despite their profound diversity, all cultures had some form of visual art, with the vast majority incorporating mathematical arrangements. Some symbols, such as the “flower of life” (a series of overlapping circles arranged to form a floral pattern) and the Pentagram (a five-pointed star made of a continuous line), were found on artifacts from pre-classic Greece (and in all likelihood were developed by earlier tribal civilizations); other symbols are still in use today: Taoism’s “yin yang” (2-fold rotational symmetry), Judaism’s “star of David” (3-fold radial symmetry) and the “Caduceus” (1-fold reflection symmetry) are all ancient geometric forms that have survived through the ages into modernity.

But these techniques were not limited to the “Old World,” and, in the Americas, many indigenous cultures used geometry in their art work – including my Salish ancestors. While Coast Salish culture didn’t create semiotic symbols like many European civilizations, they did create visual art (spindle whorls, rattles, house-posts, etc.) with animal and floral forms that utilized the same geometric techniques found around the world. These design elements have been carried into modern Salish art and have been expanded upon by the contemporary master, Susan Point, and subsequently, by the newest generation of Salish artists, such as lessLie , Maynard Johnny, Chris Paul, and myself.

As I began to study Salish design, I became enamoured with the geometric techniques used by my ancestors. This inspired me to widen my research, and I engaged in an expansive study of traditional geometry in other cultures. In this exploration, I became particularly fond of two styles: the Asian mandala and Islamic tessellations.

Mandalas are geometric images that represent the Cosmos, which are used as a meditation tool in some Buddhist and Hindu cultures. They traditionally consist of a circle that is enclosed in a larger square with four t-shaped gates, all structured using 2-fold reflection symmetry. Some of these designs show characteristics of fractal geometry – meaning shapes that show similarity at every scale (such as a mandala within a mandala within a mandala etc.). Modified versions of these techniques became an integral part of my artistic style – a style that would eventually lead to the works in Sacred Geometry.

Islamic art has had an equally strong influence on my creative development. Unlike Christianity and Judaism – whose worshippers have a long history of producing depictions of religious figures (e.g. Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” or the Tzippori Synagogue Mosiac), idolatry is considered blasphemous in Islam. As a result, their cultural art diverged from the other Abrahamic religions, and Muslim artists created many unique art forms, such as calligraphy and tessellations. Tessellations are infinitely repeatable patterns consisting of a series of identical shapes (called tiles) that fit together to form a larger design. A checker board is one of the simplest forms of tessellation (a series of identical squares), but Muslim artists took the concept to a remarkable level of complexity. From the 7th century through the entire Middle Ages, in South Asia, The Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, Muslim artists decorated rugs, ceramics, architecture and much more with these awe-inspiring patterns. Using little more than straight lines (a detail that would play a significant role in the development of my exhibit), Muslim artists created intricate designs with interlacing and overlapping polygons and circles that often unite to create star and floral forms. The symbolic value of these tessellations adds the sacred element to the geometry: the circular shapes represent the paradoxical unity and diversity of existence, and the pattern’s infinite nature (i.e., its geometric ability to expand forever) represents the boundless possibilities of the divine realm.

The modern master of mathematical art, M.C. Escher, credited Islamic geometry as the inspiration for his renowned woodblock prints. In 1936, he visited a Moorish mosque in southern Spain and was enthralled by its tessellated architecture. Escher (and at his request, his wife) feverishly tried to sketch the various patterns for later imitation. After this visit, Escher engaged in years of study and practice, until eventually he was ready to reveal his unique twist on the tessellation. But he believed that “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” would hold “little meaning” for his audience and that his tessellations would only be appreciated if they were recognized as “clear symbols of people, animals, [and] things…” But this is where my artistic intentions diverge from the master.

Considering the artistic era that Escher lived in, it’s not surprising that he had a deep passion for figurative art, which had been a nearly universal convention for centuries prior. But while Escher was developing his geometric style in the 1930s, Modernists were shouting, “make it new,” and developing an aesthetic world space that would transcend the fetters of artistic tradition. The Modernists would, in time, essentially change the definition of fine art, but at the beginning of Escher’s career, these new creative movements were still quite divisive. Taking into account the divided nature of the zeitgeist, mixed with Escher’s formal training in illustration (an extremely figurative medium), it’s easy to understand why his art took its specific form – a form that I’m forever grateful to have known and studied.

But since the 1930s, artistic culture has traveled through a vast range of movements, which, during Escher’s development, had yet to be imagined – one of which being Minimalism. Following the Modernist currents towards Post-Modernity, some artist drifted further and further from the verisimilitude that had dominated art for most of recorded history. And in the early 1960s, some New York City artists – such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly – were creating abstract paintings with simple geometric forms that lacked any notion of figurative imagery. Since these artists weren’t overly concerned with imitating objective reality or even representing objective reality through a unique perspective, they were able to focus on the subtle aesthetic aspects of their paintings (such as contrast, weight, balance, orientation, etc.), which created works with an understated but powerful effect. Considering the enduring legacy of these artists, I believe that their work has demonstrated that, contrary to Escher’s opinion, “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” can be meaningful, if they exist in an appropriate artistic atmosphere. And by abandoning the religious, naturalistic, and humanistic meanings of the past, Minimalist art carries a meaning that, in my opinion, is at the pure center of all creative endeavors, a meaning that has slowly become my primary artistic focus – which is to represent that mysterious and elusive quality known as beauty.

As I continue my studies of visual art, it seems as though the more I learn about aesthetics (i.e. the nuanced details create and emphasize beauty), the less I intellectually understand the concept; this is likely because beauty doesn’t operate on the intellect and is, by nature, not rational. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to call beauty irrational either. A far more accurate term, one used by the philosopher Ken Wilber, is trans-rational, because it seems to operate on something much deeper than the intellect, what some might call the heart or soul or spirit. In my experience, beauty only fully manifests when the intellect subsides, when the mind goes quiet and all “hows” and “whys” disappear. There’s no rational value in gazing at a midnight sky punctured with mysterious light from distant worlds or the radiant spread of red hues rising in a twilight fade from the horizon – but, for me, only the trans-rational aspects of life can give meaning to existence. Or, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “We have art so we may not perish by truth.”

My growing devotion to aesthetics helped me set the parameters for this exhibit: I decided to let my intuitions about geometric beauty guide every creative decision. This meant prioritizing aesthetics over the figurative elements (i.e., animal forms) that I was accustomed to using in my traditional Salish art. Although animal images do appear in a few pieces, those specific designs developed organically – meaning they only took a figurative shape if, in the designing process, it seemed to happen on its own. The appearance of figurative art among these images might be due to some quasi-Pavlovian impulse that developed from years of Salish designing – illustrating that artistic habits, like all habits, also die hard. But regardless of their origin, I’m happy with the results.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed the puzzle-like challenge of arranging animals to fit my aesthetic vision and taste. But the designing process for Sacred Geometry was a refreshing change in my practice. I surrendered control to the mathematics, and with nothing more than a little refinement, the designs essentially built themselves based on the geometric processes I applied. This manner of working felt much more natural than any designing I had done previously – so natural that, more often than not, I hardly felt involved. While the idea might seem cliché and is often perceived as pseudo-spiritual hyperbole, I (and numerous people I have talked to) know firsthand that, in those purest moments of expression, art seems to be created through you, not by you. And I can say, without a hint of exaggeration, that these experiences are the sacred aspect of creating art.

The other constraint I set for myself was to design using only straight lines and circles, a style that I serendipitously discovered while sketching. I loved the idea of creating art with such simple structures – so simple, in fact, that they are almost always the first structures that a child learns to draw. Take, for example, a toddler’s stick figure: it generally consists of a circle head, circle eyes, a half circle mouth to form the obligatory smile, with straight lines creating the torso and limbs. But what, I wondered, would be possible if I restricted myself to these fundamental aesthetic tools? When I first started working with the constraint, I thought that the possibilities would be limited; at most, I hoped to get a small series of designs from the concept. But to my surprise (and ecstatic delight), I found that the potential was much greater than I anticipated. As I experimented, more and more avenues for creation presented themselves, with a surprising range of diversity. Within a month or so, I knew that I had the concept. And, more importantly, I knew that I had discovered a new creative world space that I could return to for the rest of my life.

Some might consider the art in Sacred Geometry more contemporary than my other work, and, in a way, it certainly is. But in another sense, this work is more traditional than anything I have done before – because it draws on a tradition that started before my Salish ancestors ever carved a spindle whorl on the Pacific Coast, a tradition that started before the first human crafted a symbol to honor the earliest conception of God, a tradition that even started before Homo Erectus carved that first pattern into a mussel shell. It’s a tradition that started in the big bang (and according to Kepler, even before), that first moment of creation when, in a mysterious Cosmic exhalation, Spirit took a three-dimensional form and started building the Universe according to timeless laws of geometry.

—Dylan Thomas

brave-new-whorlBrave New Whorl






tipping-pointTipping Point




Born in Victoria, in 1986, Qwul`thilum (Dylan Thomas) is a Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation, originally from Valdes Island. Dylan was exposed to the art at a young age because his family continues to participate in their culture and tradition. He has trained in jewelery with Seletze (Delmar Johnnie) and has apprenticed under Rande Cook in all mediums of the art. Rande has also been a major help in the development of Dylan`s design. His other artistic influences have been late Art Thompson, Susan Point and Robert Davidson.

The images reproduced here were originally produced for Thomas’s first solo show at the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, British Columbia, which opened in August.


Oct 012016

YelloKoKoCardImageYellow Kokopelli by Tom Pecore Weso

In the slider at the top of the page this month we’re featuring work by First Nations and Native American artists and writers who have appeared in the magazine, paintings by Tom Pecore Weso (Menominee), poems by Denise Low (Delaware), fiction by Taiaiake Alfred (Mohawk) and Darrel J. McLeod (Cree), carving and print making by Charles Elliott (Coast Salish) and nonfiction by J. M. Jacobson (Ahtna Athabaskan), not to mention the work of Dylan Thomas, a young Coast Salish artist who appears in this issue.

Sep 242016

fiveravensFive Ravens by Dylan Thomas

This issue is a scorcher. I go around all month thinking the next issue is a flop. How can we ever  pull off another incendiary collection of pieces like the last time (and the time before that, and the time before that)? We have to hit a speed bump. There has to be a lull. Then I put together the issue preview, and suddenly it sizzles, the match hits the fuse.

This time we have gorgeous art work that combines tradition and pure math from a young Coast Salish artist from the West Coast of Canada, Dylan Thomas. This piece was a long time coming. I first heard of Thomas when I visited Taiaiake Alfred’s Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria two years ago. I was told about a young artist on the rise. I emailed him, heard nothing. Then finally this summer he got in touch with me. He had a show coming, he was ready to give us his work. And amazing work it is. Even more exciting is an essay accompanying the work, a narrative of the artist’s development going back to the roots of human evolution.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed the puzzle-like challenge of arranging animals to fit my aesthetic vision and taste. But the designing process for Sacred Geometry was a refreshing change in my practice. I surrendered control to the mathematics, and with nothing more than a little refinement, the designs essentially built themselves based on the geometric processes I applied. This manner of working felt much more natural than any designing I had done previously – so natural that, more often than not, I hardly felt involved. —Dylan Thomas


img_2852Dylan Thomas

In October, we also have extravagantly witty little gems of fiction from the protean Michael Martone, these gems springboarding from outdated, forgotten, and unintentionally hilarious federal government job descriptions (yes, I know, maybe they are intentionally funny, maybe that’s how they entertain themselves).

martoneMichael Martone

A Biologist of the Fish and Wildlife Service Confirms the
Success of the Plague Vaccination by Observing that the
Prairie Dogs’ Whiskers Have Turned Pink

Now, predate, my stressed, my endangered black-footed
ferrets, my BFFs. Aerial drones vector laced M&Ms to your
flea-infested prey. Prey away. These sweet sweetened

—Michael Martone

stZsuzsa Takács

From our prolific translator and writer (she has a story of her own in the September issue) Erika Mihálycsa, we have a brilliant short story by the Hungarian writer Zsuzsa Takács.

We met on the street by accident, mother and daughter. I recognize myself in you, I find this intrusive and despair at once: how dare I appropriate what is yours, your beauty, as if it were my merit in the least, how dare I presuppose that you inherited it from me, that you resemble me. You fear my love as I do yours… —Zsuzsa Takács translated by Erika Mihálycsa

Okla ElliottOkla Elliott

And mordant, witty poems from the wonderful poet, translator, prose writer, and politically-engaged (does the man ever stop) Okla Elliott.

Mister, there are mystical stains everywhere
I go
these days; I don’t want
or at least
don’t want to want
or at least
don’t want to admit I want or want to want—

Oh, to hell with such
roundabout poetics.

—Okla Elliott

Catherine WalshCatherine Walsh

From Ireland, NC’s Uimhir a Cúig (you know, Number Five in Irish) presents gorgeous work from Catherine Walsh.

this courage to go
beyond  let it be the measure
that we let this be the
measure that we let
be measure this that we
let this be the measure
that we let

—Catherine Walsh


Our own Frank Richardson, who makes book reviews an art form (have I said this before of him?), reviews the latest by the Lebanese-American novelist Rabih Alameddine.

Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. —Frank Richardson

ra2Rabih Alameddine

German SierraGermán Sierra

And a special treat, a second appearance by the amazing Spanish writer Germán Sierra, this time fiction  (see his brilliant essay on deep media fiction in our January issue), one of the best pieces of fiction we’ve published. I have to tell you his essay had a profound influence on the way I think; now his story is pointing a new way forward.

Now, undead people go phantoming around over the cobblestone shattered-mirror pavement—but back then it was the wild, under the same lead-dead sky. —Germán Sierra

Bill of sale of slaveBill of sale for Tom and assorted household goods (used with permission of the Loretto Archives)

Okay, another! special treat. This essay is explosive. The topic of slave money financing colleges and universities has been in the news lately. But Laura Michele Diener discovered the actual bill of sale for a man named Tom that financed the founding of a Catholic convent in Kentucky. This essay is not a tabloid exposé, it’s more serious than that. And the sisters have long acknowledged and done what they can to expiate the stain of the past. But Laura Michele takes a beautiful and complex look at cultural cross-currents that America is only just beginning to acknowledge.

The first document to survive from the sisters is a record of purchase. In that loopy cursive of centuries past, Ann Rhodes recorded that she was selling one bed, two spinning wheels, assorted kitchen furniture, and one negro male named Tom to Father Charles Nerinckx in perpetuity for seventy-five dollars. She used the money to purchase the surrounding land, as well as to pay for repairs on the cabins. Father Nerinckx returned both Tom and the furniture to his spiritual charges and nothing more is written of him in the records. —Laura Michele Diener

Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener

Gary GarvinGary Garvin

Our resident (now that he has joined the masthead) eccentric Lego artist, essayist, memoirist, story-writer and architecture expert Gary Garvin contributes a profound and profoundly intelligent essay on the history and contradictions of public housing in America.

It is Minoru Yamasaki’s misfortune that the two works he is best known for, the World Trade Center and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, are best known for their collapse. The World Trade Center, or its site, has attained the status of a shrine, so reflection upon its design and influence will have to be postponed for another time. Postmodern apologist Charles Jencks hailed the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death—prematurely—of Modernism, and critical smoke from that debate still lingers. —Gary Garvin

1 NC Post


From Mexico, our Numero Cinco feature this month is a masterful essay on the evocativelly-named Stridentist movement by Joshua Neuhouser. (See below:  they used to hang out at bar called Nobody’s.)

The Stridentists spent their days at Mexico City’s Café Europa, which was so desolate that they dubbed it El Café de Nadie—Nobody’s Café. “Nobody cares for it or administers it,” Vela said. “No waiters bother the customers, nor does anybody serve them anything… We are the café’s only customers, the only ones who don’t pervert its spirit.” Vela mythologized the café in his short story El Café de Nadie, which centers on two men—evocations of Maples Arce and Vela himself—who haunt the back tables, watching as a woman named Mabelina takes on a series of different personalities to please her rotating cast of lovers. —Joshua Neuhouser

neuhouserJoshua Neuhouser

Camilo Cararra, by PappalardoCamilo Cararra

Caroyn Ogburn contributes an interview (with sound files and videos) with the Brazilian-based composer/performer Camilo Cararra.

I have the feeling that diversity is linked to the concept of the novelty. If contemporary classical composers are looking for other solutions to attract public, for example, it means that they feel that the public is starved for news. Or that they are tired of repeating. In this sense, I see the resemblance to my student days. There has always been this kind of movement: the musicians seek to know what are the interests of the public or the public demand for what is interesting musically.—Camilo Cararra

olzmannMatthew Olzmann

Patrick O’Reilly is back after a lengthy detour into MFA-land with a deeply thoughtful  review of Matthew  Olzmann’s poetry collection Contradictions in Design, a review which challenges the assumptions of experimental form.

The idea of beauty presents challenges for the artist as well. “Femur by mandible, I know what it means / to watch your good fortune change its mind,” Olzmann writes in “The Skull of an Unidentified Dinosaur”. That’s every poet’s pain, no doubt. But the poem itself depicts a dinosaur skeleton made up of mislabeled and mismanaged parts, the product of misguided creative labour, and exposes the blind faith and false assumptions required to not only appreciate, but to create art. —Patrick O’Reilly


mel-headshotMelanie Finn

Mark Sampson reviews Melanie Finn’s novel The Gloaming (and we have an excerpt).

One scene stands out in particular. Pilgrim and Gloria are travelling through Tanga in May, looking to visit the Amboni Caves just north of the city. These dark, complex caverns, so reminiscent of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, hold a deadly legacy: a husband and wife got lost in them while chasing after their errant dog and were not able to find their way out. —Mark Sampson

And, as usual, there is more (some of it will yet surprise me; it’s that kind of place): among others, a review from Ben Woodard and another NC at the Movies.

Sep 222016


I recently relocated to the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and have been trying to get my bearings. “Gritty” St. Johns, as Portlanders say, or “up-and-coming” St. Johns, as Realtors tell us, was once an independent city built on its port and a few industries. It was incorporated into Portland a century ago. The other day I walked by a display, pictured above, in the windows of a store that had just closed. Free verse, public art—Sharon Helgerson tells her story and St. Johns’. Age 79, she is third generation St. Johns and a former Longshoreman, once a member of ILWU Local 8.







Nolan Calisch and Nina Montenegro joined to put her words up, part of People’s Homes, a collaborative art project. The store is across the street from James John Grade School, where Sharon began attendance in 1942.

The other morning I searched online to see what I else I could find about Sharon and ran across this casual picture she took in 1968:

bobby-kennedy-st-johnsVia the St. Johns Heritage Association.

Bobby Kennedy, campaigning in Portland, made an appearance in St. Johns after their May parade, just a block away from the school, the store with the sign, and the place where I now live. Ethel and John Glenn were there as well. Two weeks later Bobby was shot.

The coming elections are in mind, and I’ve been thinking about ways to repair the break in time and the rent in our social fabric, as well as imagine what words I might put in a public window some day, without success.

Gary Garvin

Sep 212016

This has been a long time coming. No drumroll, just the satisfaction of a circle closing, a sense of rightness. Gary Garvin has been part of the magazine’s history since the February, 2010, issue. He helped design the site. He went away for a while, his wandering in the wilderness years, then came back and has been working prodigiously on his essays and fiction for us ever since. Now he has agreed to come out publicly as a Numéro Cinq co-religionist and join the masthead as a special correspondent. You can check out his many contributions if you click on his name below. But there will be more.


Gary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.