Dec 112010

The Author

(Photo and makeup by Jonah Glover)

Jonah hasn’t been himself lately. I don’t know what’s up. Maybe he’s a little tense about school. (No animals were harmed or mistreated in the production of this photo.)


Dec 102010

Here’s a fine “What it’s like living here” piece from Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate Glenn Arnold who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where it goes to -40 in the winter and there’s more oil than in Texas. Glenn took the photos of himself and the art gallery. His son Craig Arnold shot the street view, the refinery and the gorgeous cityscape down the valley.



Merge Right (or Left)

I’m on my way to see the play Studies in Motion, the true story of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who more than a century ago tried to stop time through experimental photography, but couldn’t stop the tragic entropy of his own marriage.  As I sit in my car, alone again, waiting to merge in a construction zone, I remember the essence of an old joke. An Edmontonian stuck in traffic comments to his friend that it’s a nice place to live, and will be even nicer when it’s finished.  This frustrating and seemingly endless road construction hints at a deeper truth.  The city is always building, always inventing itself, but it’s never clear what it’s trying to become.  There is always progress, but what is the goal?

The city is confused, juggling multiple and conflicting personalities.  Edmonton is isolated and extreme.  It is the northernmost, major city on the continent, and on a map, it sits apart from the other Canadian cities that huddle around the American border.  My life has been filled with long, contemplative hours behind the wheel, the endless patchwork of farmland and prairie mesmerizing me as I try to get somewhere, maybe to see her, maybe someone else.  This sense of isolation is fed by the severe climate: temperatures typically range between -40C and +30C.  People here have a sense of grim survival, gladly spreading their blankets on the flattened grass in Hawrelak Park in July, battling mosquito mobs, just to absorb a little of the solar radiation that will be such a rare commodity later in the year.  In deep winter, the sun is a weak orange orb, low in the sky, limping across the horizon for barely seven hours a day.  In my days as a cubicle drone, sunlight was only a vague dream.  Now it’s a little better: my office has a window that provides me a thin hope that I might survive the coming darkness.

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Dec 102010

This is a stellar first for Numéro Cinq, a full-length original novella by Toronto writer Mike Barnes. DG published three work-in-progress excerpts from Mike last month (see the introduction there for more information and links). In conversation at that time, the existence of this novella came up and dg offered to publish it. The novella’s structure includes footnotes and photographs. The footnotes were difficult to lay out. Normally, they would have come at the bottom of the page, but on NC they would have appeared at the end of the text. That would have meant tedious scrolling back and forth. And the footnotes are essential, carry a kind of subplot. So we ended up by including the footnotes as boxed texts just where they are tagged in the text. DG hopes this works and that you can find your way. Mike Barnes is the author of stories, novels, poems and a gorgeous memoir about his own descent into madness and recovery. This novella, too, deals with madness. It is an intricately structured rendering of madness and memory, a mix of hallucination and dense, concrete realism, which only makes the phantasmagoria of illusion all the more poignant. This is an amazing work—supremely intelligent, cooly self-analytical, eerie, melancholy, revelatory and terrifying.


Ideas of Reference

A Novella by Mike Barnes

(Ideas of Reference)

Food in dreams appears to be the same as food when awake, but the sleepers are asleep, and receive no nourishment.  —St. Augustine, Confessions Book III

On a spring afternoon in 2007, I was lying on the couch in my living room reading Simon Schama’s Power of Art. This chapter was an essay on Picasso’s Guernica. As I read Schama’s account of the German planes appearing in the sky over the Spanish town on April 26 1937, something caused me to look up from the book. The objects of the living room, clearly outlined in the spring light, seemed altered somehow, stark yet dubious along their edges. Not quite familiar, either as themselves or as an arrangement of objects. I had a sense of items poised in a museum, absorbing my attention while contriving to escape it utterly. Clear and hunkered as they were, I couldn’t quite see them. I realized the date was April 26 2007. The same day as the Guernica attack, exactly seventy years later.

The bombers had appeared in the sky at 4 p.m. I looked at the homemade wooden clock on the end table. Hand-sawed and painted yellow-green, it has the shape of a tall, slim house with no windows and, at its base, a little red door askew on its hinges. The hour hand had dropped below the eave on the right, two thirds of its way toward the crooked little door. The big hand pointed straight up into the peak of the tall roof. It was 4 p.m.

For a long instant, like the sustained vibrations of a musical chord, past and present collapsed together like the two ends of an accordioned paper figure. Or more than two: the moment thronged with splintery harmonics. Stretched out, the two sequences–the destruction of a town, which became the subject of a famous painting, which became the subject of an essay; and (reversing things) my reading of the essay about the painting about the destroyed town–were separated by the innumerable twists and folds of seven decades. Then somehow, with a speed that gave me vertigo, they shut up tight together, without a wafer of space between them.

They overlaid each other like clear transparencies. That was part of the vertigo. As if the intervening seventy years had suddenly gone sheer and negligible. Like wandering (I was looking at the house-clock again) in a building made of glass. A glass construction polished to such speckless transparency that things that ordinary walls and floors and ceilings would keep at a distance could suddenly loom, merge and blend.

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Dec 092010

In the last years of his life, Rilke wrote hundreds of poems in French. Not widely translated, they continue his meditations on and imaginings about the things of the world but in the fresh expression of this adopted language. Marilyn McCabe is poet and essayist and an old friend, part of “the Greenfield Crowd,” a disparate and rowdy group of writers, painters, cellists and cross-country skiers loosely based in Greenfield, NY (though Marilyn actually lives in Saratoga Springs). Laura Von Rosk and Naton Leslie, who have both appeared on these pages, are part of the group. Marilyn has published widely, including an essay in VCFA’s own magazine Hunger Mountain. With Elaine Handley and Mary Shartle (two more members of the Greenfield Crowd), she published a collection called Three Poets on Themes of Love, Death, and Sex. It’s a great pleasure to be able to introduce her here.

from Vergers (Orchards)

Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated from French by Marilyn McCabe


Ce soir mon coeur fait chanter
des anges qui se souviennent….
Une voix, presque mienne,
par trop de silence tentée,

monte et se decide
à ne plus revenir;
tender et intrépide,
à quoi va-t-elle s’unir?

Tonight my heart makes sing
the angels who are remembering….
A voice, close to mine,
lured by too much silence,

rises and decides
to never return;
intrepid and tender,
with what will it unite?

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Dec 082010

This is Mary Stein’s critical thesis, hot of the press, as she says. It’s part critical essay, part personal essay, one writer’s adventure in the art of reading as much as an exploration of the technique of absence in Amy Hempel’s stories. Would that all readers could be as curious, open, intelligent and humble. Would that we could all have such readers.


This essay was really selfishly motivated––I was basically just trying to figure out why I had been so obsessed with Amy Hempel, and now I have a 30-page half-answer to that question. I also like to think I belong to the “reality” camp, and while writing this, it was clear the essay experienced a crisis of identity, and I had resigned myself to a mildewy fate in the basement in College Hall. More than anything, I just wanted to figure out a thing or two about artful craft and about my own creative process…

—Mary Stein


Another Way to Fill an Empty Room: The Voice of Amy Hempel’s Aesthetic

By Mary Stein


“Here’s a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband’s bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.”

(“Nashville Gone to Ashes,” 20)

One may not notice the loneliness of an empty room until you place a small desk and chair in its corner.

Amy Hempel’s words are the desk and chair that sit in the corner of an empty room.

It is no secret that Hempel’s stories rely heavily on aesthetics. For Hempel, construction is of utmost importance: She intends her stories to start from and arrive at a particular destination, approaching each story with knowledge of its final line. In her stories, what is not present becomes just as important––if not more important––as that which shows up on the page.

Return for a moment to the image of a room sparsely populated with furniture: In the emptiness of a room, a reader may view herself in relationship to the space that surrounds her. (I called the room “lonely,” whereas the narrator of Doris Lessing’s story, “To Room Nineteen,” may have called it “salvation”). If that same room is filled with objects and people and pictures and doors to other rooms, a reader will be more likely to view all these objects in relationship to one another. Regardless, the role of the reader in relationship to a story is clearly important as it is with any text. We are entering some Bertolt Brecht territory of the relationship between the roles of the audience (readership) and the art (text)––how a reader becomes an inextricable part of what she observes, diminishing the possibility of pure objectivity. Of course, we don’t read stories in hopes of objectivity. But the risk of using economic prose to write narratives as spacious as Hempel’s is that these stories will more likely foster speculation: There is literally more room for a reader to project his or her own interpretive slant on a story.

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Dec 072010

I met Russell Working years ago when he was at Yaddo, the art retreat just across town from where I live. Now Russell is coming to teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In fact, we’re running a workshop together during the winter residency (and Rich Farrell will be there for his last VCFA workshop).  Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. This story is taken from his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize). I wrote a blurb that went like this: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.



By Russell Working

Every life, Dr. Tamara Rudyakova believed, is determined by a few fateful moments comprising but a blip of one’s allotted years on this planet. At such times the entire future hangs on the decisions one makes; everything else is mere consequence.

Case in point: a few minutes’ conversation with a child beggar one Saturday in late August of 2002, midway through Tamara’s third decade, or “halfway to the grave,” as a colleague had cheerfully toasted her on her birthday last month. There was a whiff of golden autumn in the air, when the trees yellow on the hills of Vladivostok and whitecaps blossom on the Sea of Japan and the weather, in this gap between the summer typhoons and late October snowfalls, is on its best behavior all year. That afternoon, Tamara was hobbling across the Vtoraya Rechka market, where the produce of the dachas crowded the stalls: onions and carrots and bunches of dill and filthy potatoes the size of a child’s fist. An outdoor market is not an easy place to negotiate on crutches on a busy Saturday. She carried her purchases in a daypack slung from her breast to keep thieves from raiding it from behind as she queued, and other shoppers thumped her crutches with their duffel bags as she sculled through the throng. A butcher with an ax hacked a frozen side of beef into pieces, and a flying chip of bone nearly blinded her.

She was halted by the scent of muskmelon. Nearby, a Korean farmer sat on a stool beside a pyramid of cantaloupes buzzing with gnats. From one of them he gouged out a wedge for a woman to sample. Tamara could almost taste the hot sweet summer flesh of the fruit. Perhaps she could fit a cantaloupe in her pack, but did she really want to lug it, along with everything else, up the hill and five flights of stairs to her apartment on Kirova? So she stood there for a moment and simply savored the smell, reluctant to surrender the associations of youth, of a time when she was able to walk without crutches, of the collective farm where in Soviet times university students had been compelled to help with the harvest and where she had made love, for the first time, to her ex-husband, Filipp, then a fellow medical student. But then, having detained her, fate drew her gaze toward a small boy sitting by the entrance to the corrugated steel building that housed the clothing market.

Strange to say, his face alone set her heart pounding. He had longlashed eyes, pursed lips, an upturned nose, and ears that were pinched inward at the top. He appeared to be a rather small five, and in his jeans and Star Wars T-shirt, he was as grubby as the homeless Roma and Tajiks who passed through the city every summer. Yet with his blond hair, sunburnt face, and blue-gray eyes, he had the same Petersburg complexion as Tamara herself. Propped beside him was a cardboard sign decorated with an icon of an infant Christ and the Mother of God, along with the words, “in the name of Christ, kind people, spare some change for an orphan.” The boy had aroused the pity of other shoppers, it seemed, for he had accumulated a small pile of coins and ruble notes in a candy box, to the envy of a babushka panhandler nearby, who cursed him and told him to go find another place to beg, this was her spot. But he ignored her, his attention was elsewhere. A few meters away, a woman was selling pit bull puppies from a cardboard box, and the boy was riling them by tossing pebbles at them while their mistress was preoccupied chatting with a friend. He threw with his left hand. His right hand was hidden in his pocket, but even before he pulled it out, Tamara knew with a sickening prescience what she would see: his thumb and forefinger were missing. Nevertheless, she gasped when he reached to collect a pebble in his three remaining digits and transferred it to his left hand.

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