Nov 302010
 












Poems from Privanje na svetlobo (Adjusting to the Light)

By Andrej Hočevar

Translated by Andrej Hočevar and Kelly Lenox

 

Kelly Lenox is a poet, translator and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate. Some of you have attended the VCFA summer residencies in Slovenia where Kelly has been the boots-on-the-ground facilitator and interpreter for ages. DG particularly recalls a day he and Kelly spent wandering around Venice together during the 2008 residency. She was a delightful Virgil to dg’s Dante, though, as dg recalls, Kelly was nearly as lost as he was. In part because of her connection with Slovenia through VCFA, Kelly has made something of a specialty of discovering Slovenian poetic talent. Herewith, a series of poems by the young Slovenian poet Andrej Hočevar.

Don’t miss these poems. There are some lovely, heart-breaking lines:

I re-stack the books, I lie on the sofa,
my presence only thickening the dark,
my stillness but a thing among things.

And this:

I drink another glass of wine
out of another glass. Where are you.
There is a new color forming as the birds
breathe with the evening. Where are you.
I don’t know how to put this; I mean,
look, how I struggle with myself
for you to see me at all.

Born in 1980 in Maribor, Hočevar has published four books of poetry. He also writes essays and reviews of books and music, is a member of the editorial board of the Literatura magazine, and plays bass guitar in the rock group Mrtvi psi. His poems have been translated into Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian, Italian, Hungarian, English and German.

dg


Untitled

Meja med mano in zrakom se je
dvignila čez vrhove dreves, zdaj je
oddaljenost dneva najbolj otipljiva.
nebo je narobe obrnjeno jezero,
naježene veje, ke jih bo zdaj
zdaj pogoltila tema, stojijo
pokončno kot moški v osemdesetih.
Danes je rojstni dan mojega deda
in nov letni čas mi k nogam polaga
stare užitke, v katere začenjam
spet verjeti. A dnevi so zdaj kratki,
zato začnemo hitreje misliti
na tistega, s komer jih želimo končati.


Untitled

The border between me and the air
has risen above the treetops—
the remoteness of the day at its most tangible.
The sky is an inverted lake,
the bristled branches, soon to be
swallowed by the dark,
stand upright like a man in his eighties.
Today is my grandfather’s birthday
and the new season brings me
old pleasures I’m beginning to believe in once again.
But the days are short now
and so it is earlier when we begin
thinking of the person
we want to end them with.

Continue reading »

Nov 292010
 

‘Tis the season of eating and eating and eating and drinking.  And drinking.  Whether you drink to make the extended family table seem humorous rather than grim, or because “holidays” is a better excuse than “Tuesday,” or because you love the sounds of the drinks—Beaujolais, Tobermory, Stolichnaya, Boone’s Farm—you’re probably about to embark (or have already embarked) on a late-year bender.

A cabernet glass, a shiraz glass, and glass for pinot noir

What does this have to do with writing? (Need I respond, really?)  Well, I recently wrote a triad of essays on Scott Russell Sanders’s “Under the Influence,” which is about Sanders’s alcoholic father.  It’s a wide-ranging and powerful essay that charts a life of drink, in a way that is neither judgmental nor sentimental.  Tough to do.  I have an alcoholic father, so I know this essay was deliberately assigned by DG for some diabolical ulterior motive (and I thank him…I think).

The third of my essays is about lists.  For it, I narrowed my beer-blinders from my more typical whole-essay examinations of structure and techniques and instead took apart just one sentence.  Yup, one sentence—but it’s a doozy.  (I think I’ll memorize this and say it as next year’s Thanksgiving grace.)

Consider a few of our synonyms for drunk: tipsy, tight, pickled, soused, and plowed; stoned and stewed, lubricated and inebriated, juiced and sluiced; three sheets to the wind, in your cups, out of your mind, under the table, lit up, tanked up, wiped out; besotted, blotto, bombed, and buzzed; plastered, polluted, putrified; loaded or looped, boozy, woozy, fuddled, or smashed; crocked and shit-faced, corked and pissed, snockered and sloshed.

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Nov 292010
 

Here’s a new poem by my friend John Lee who hails from Brantford, Ontario, (Wayne Gretzky’s hometown and the place where Alexander Graham Bell lived while experimenting with early telephones), just fifteen miles down the road from the Glover family farm. “In the Muddy Shoes of Morning” is the title poem of John’s new book, the last of a trilogy, what he calls The Port Dover Trilogy. You may all remember Port Dover from last summer when Jonah and I spent an afternoon at the internet cafe there, also because it is Fred Eaglesmith’s homebase. Port Dover was once reputed to have the largest fresh water fishing fleet in the world and was famous for its distinctive steel-hulled boats called turtlebacks. My grandfather built a cottage in Port Dover, and I spent a good deal of my growing up time on the beach or in the bars of that town.

This poem is absolutely gorgeous—a giddy couple staggers across a muddy field in the rain, but at the turn, the poet changes keys, softly and gently modulating his poem into a meditation on the ages, on life and death and love. I particularly like the biblical rhythm and reiteration “…the very breath of their going/ and their having gone.

and I think now as I write this poem
of  hundred-thousand-year-old preserved impressions
of a man and a woman
following the almost permanent footprints
to the very breath of their going
and their having gone

say this of me, reader
after the voice-vanish of this life
I felt the joy of foolishness
and in the muddy shoes of morning
saw love

The book, In the Muddy Shoes of Morning, is being released by Hidden Brook Press in December.

dg

In the Muddy Shoes of Morning

By John B. Lee

 

Last night in the dark
we walked mud-blind
crossing the sludgy roadwork
between house and car
and we seemed to find
in the unfrozen ground
of early spring
with every mucky step
the deep wet weight
of a puddleplace
or the clay-heavy suck
of something that wanted our shoes
and we clung together
laughing and yawing
and seeking a way
when earlier in the light
we had simply followed our eyes
over the sure dryness
of a mother-lucky path
but somehow
this sinking-in was far better
this sticky yellowing of shoe soles
feeling an almost toppling
and joyful giddiness
of shared fate
a commingling
as we sank and rose and pitched
like children
over the new-plowed furrows of a rain-soaked field

and I think now as I write this poem
of  hundred-thousand-year-old preserved impressions
of a man and a woman
following the almost permanent footprints
to the very breath of their going
and their having gone

say this of me, reader
after the voice-vanish of this life
I felt the joy of foolishness
and in the muddy shoes of morning
saw love

—John B. Lee

See also “Burning Land.”

Nov 272010
 

P1020538

Felicia van Bork is a Toronto artist now living in Davidson, North Carolina, with her husband, the poet-novelist Alan Michael Parker. DG met both Felicia and Alan when dg was the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in the spring of 2005, a semester memorable for friendship, conviviality, the brilliance of the students, and for sitting in Zoran Kuzmanovich’s kitchen drinking flavoured vodka. It was always an amazing experience going to the Parker-van Bork house for the proliferation of art work which hung from the walls in every room. In those days, Felicia worked mostly in encaustic, whereas now she has veered off into print-making, especially monotypes as represented below. To dg, what is amazing about these prints is the tension between the apparent immensity of the space inside the frame and the actual dimensions of the works. Felicia somehow implies vast spaces and grandeur in the shapes she creates. Also places—silent marine depths. And life forms, and dramatic, swooping gestures. There is little representation here, but implication is all. She limns a world pregnant with immensity and motion. When dg wrote to her about the new work, Felicia responded:

It’s true. Encaustic is awesome, but things change. A couple of years ago, I was in Provincetown, in the MFA program at the Fine Arts Work Center. I was making nice paintings. Then I took a three-hour monotype workshop in the printmaking studio and – and – that was that. I bought the biggest piece of plexi that would fit on the huge American French Tool press and started making prints like “Deep Music in Deep Water.” In fused encaustic, it’s difficult to make graphic lines, hard edges and gradients, but in monotype printmaking, those pictorial elements are part of the basic tool set. And because prints are worked in reverse and with the unpredictable action of pressure on ink, my addiction to chance is still being fed. Unexpected things happen all the time, and I get surprises every time I peel the paper away from the plate. A single print may go through the press more than ten times, so there are lots of opportunities for the Divine to have a go along with me.

I do edge-to-edge printing, meaning I don’t leave a border of unprinted paper around my images. When the plate is inked and the ink has been manipulated, I have the freedom to place the paper on the ink as the image demands, without worrying about registering the image perfectly in relation to the edges of the plate. And because inked plexi is more or less transparent, I can see how the ink marks on the plate will be positioned on the image in progress.

—Felicia van Bork

 

Monotypes

by Felicia van Bork

 

F_vanBork_2

Deep Music in Deep Water, 2008, monotype, 35.5″ x 106″, diptych

 

Continue reading »

Nov 262010
 

Kim Aubrey writes about Toronto, her adoptive home, soon to be left behind. Vet visits, bed bugs, in-laws—and the silence and melancholy of being uprooted and leaving loved ones and things behind.

dg

What it’s like living here

from Kim Aubrey in Toronto



Bathurst Street

You drive the six miles home down Bathurst from your doctor’s office, where you’ve been weighed, measured and questioned about the year’s habits, good and bad. You pass the bagel shops and delis, the Bowlerama where you used to take your daughters for birthday parties, and a little further south, the square squat apartment buildings with their blond-brick facades. A young man in jeans and a light jacket dances up the sidewalk, hips fluid, hands pressed together, long arms flipping outward and upward, as if he’s a yogi praying. When someone approaches him from the opposite direction, the dancer lowers his arms, quiets his body to a walk. You wonder if he’s just being polite and will start up again once he has the sidewalk to himself.  Or if it’s simple Canadian diffidence, only surprising in one willing to dance at the edge of a busy street in the middle of morning.


Yonge Street

Your Jetta crawls in rainy rush-hour traffic up what used to be the longest street in the world. You and your husband were in Paris yesterday morning, eating croissants and jam in a sunny café, the Pantheon cutting its iconic shape into a blue sky. Now you’re both jetlagged, ready for bed at six in the evening.  Instead, you’ve agreed to pick up your daughter and her field spaniel, Iggy, from the vet, who has sliced away the puppy’s testicles and sewn him back up again.

Continue reading »

Nov 242010
 

John Proctor introduces video artist Christine Dehne and her work. This is something else. Amazing, strange, obsessive, hilarious, provocative work. Attentive to small domestic changes & acts. Edging into surrealism and experiment, absent context and frame, in a way. Yes, terrifying, for a writer, to think of giving up so much interpretive cushion. Makes me twitchy, the idea of not being able to explain my characters. Something to think about as NC dabbles in word & photo essays, off the page poetry, photoems and such.

dg

The Video Art of Christine Dehne

By John Proctor

When I met Christine Dehne in 2007, she was at work on a project in which she was recording cell phone conversations in public places. She had just moved to New York City a few months before and was using the project as a way of exploring and learning about the city. I asked her once if she was recording our conversations. She responded with something about us not being in a public space, but the message was clear: “Don’t flatter yourself, pal.”

Christine eventually finished that piece as a sound collage, with a video map of the city as the visual. The piece is less concerned with forming any narrative than with capturing voices, isolating them, and shaping them into a work of art with a logic of its own — in essence, making them strange. The piece has shown at Arizona Digital Media Investigations in Flagstaff, the Heritage Film Festival in Baltimore, and Sweet Lorraine Gallery in Brooklyn. You can see and hear it online here.

Dehne studied Marcel Duchamp. Perhaps his best-known work is his 1917 “Fountain,” which was simply a “found” urinal he submitted as art for an exhibit that promised everything submitted would be accepted. Duchamp’s intention was to make the statement that anything could be art, if brought out of its utilitarian framework and examined as art.

Dehne recent piece “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter as a Fountain” is an indirect descendent of Duchamp’s “Fountain.” “Portrait” evolved from the multi-year lifelog of her pregnancy and motherhood of our daughter Amalia. It refers directly back to Bruce Nauman‘s “Self-Portrait as a Fountain,” which itself, intentionally or not, refers back to Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Dehne’s 31-second video slowly, meditatively lingers on Amalia’s chin as she, well, drools like a fountain.

The first piece in her lifelog series, “Everyone Told Me the World Would Look Different,” begins completely out of focus, slowly “awakening” to the world of an ear. About a minute into 1-minute, 17-second video, we hear the sound of a binky being sucked and see, for the first time, Amalia’s face.

One fascinating aspect of Dehne’s work is her complete reliance on the object and the empathy it can evoke in an audience. To me, this is a terrifying concept — I’ve always relied on the drive of the narrative to pull me and the audience through, and especially expected it in the film work I’d been exposed to before meeting Christine. To think of video as a non-linear, concentric medium is, I guess like reading non-narrative, lyric poetry.

Before we were married, Dehne began working on a series of short pieces involving her (and by now our) dog Pants and decided to use him to symbolize her own domesticating instincts, creating a series of ultra-short film loops with Pants as a stand-in for her.  The dog became a metaphor and also a work-based connection between me and Christine’s art. She eventually showed these pieces together at the “In Home: In Response” show in Baltimore, but the most erudite criticism, in my opinion, came from our friend David Marshall:

What range! I laughed.  I cried. Despite his somewhat proletarian appellation, Pants epitomizes nobility.  He’s a veritable Lipizzaner of the canine world.  His form and tireless pursuit of perfection in “20 minutes” awed and delighted me.  His (dare i say it?) dogged search for truth in “30 minutes” was inspiring. His courage and sheer animal magnetism in doing an interspecies homo-erotic love scene left me panting for more.

You can share the love here.

—John Proctor

Nov 182010
 

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Y

ou remember once, when words were your only company, how it felt like treachery when writers wrote about their kids.  You swore you never would.  It was an easy vow, since you figured your books would be your babies.  Your boys would be in books.  Now you have babies, you have boys—but no books.  O crazy carnival ride life: turning you here, depositing you there.  Splitting open your heart, tying off your tongue.  Could anywhere be the same as anywhere else?

Strangling on Trees

There are so many big trees on this island.  Alder, Arbutus, Fir, Gary Oak, Pine,  Spruce, Hemlock, Cedar, Yew, Maple, Dogwood:  the light above your desk dims with each tree you type.  Because nearly everyone who lives on this island is an environmentalist of some sort, it is considered a crime (worthy of, at the very least, several angry but carefully-composed rants against you in the editorial pages of the local paper) if you cut down a tree.  Neighbors hear the chain-saw and come running in their gumboots.  Even at 3 a.m. they hear it.  Especially at 3 a.m. they hear it.   Seeing the panicked fury on their faces, you decide to pretend that they are owls, swooping down to alert you to their nests of downy-white owlets perched in the branches above.   Kindly apologize, while shivering in the shade that rotted tree casts.

You could argue that the giant slab of nature known as sky—the clouds the sun the stars the moon—are being neglected here, choked out by greenery.  You never would.  Somehow all this forested wilderness is inherent to being Canadian.  And because you hide your American origin carefully, you also hide your tree-induced claustrophobia.

The Arbutus tree is your favorite.  Muscular and red as any horse’s leg, twisting against sky with little adornment.  When you go hiking your son likes to carry a piece of fragile red Arbutus bark in the pinch of his hand, which makes you think of love letters you left behind, in some other place you lived.   He can only carry  it a few steps this way before ripping it.

Because nobody cuts any trees or bushes back, when you pull up to an intersection you have to drive out into the road—into crashable territory, with your boys in the backseat—to determine whether it’s safe to pull out.  You cringe and fight urges to close your eyes as you step on the pedal.  You fantasize about coasting forward in a convertible, wielding a 30-foot -long bayonet.

You love the sun.  You always thought you would live in the desert, as a hermit.  You would take long walks on parched land in search of bones and flint, until your silhouette resembled barbed-wire.

When the wind blows wildly, limbs that normally nest snugly against the power-lines—because, again, it would be wrong to cut them—fall lightly, and everyone loses power.  Your first son remembers with delight the Christmas Eve you each wore all your coats at once and melted pots of snow on the wood-stove to make drinking water.   Admit it was very quiet, so quiet you could hear the snowflakes clicking as they landed.  Remember the fun your son had scooping snow, the wonder on his face when he mistook the flickering candle’s reflection on the black windowpane for a sleigh scooting across the sky.

Still, when you go to a birthday party for a two-year-old who has begged for a logging cake—and the artistic mother has complied with hacked Cadbury Flakes for tree carcasses, with jagged silver gum wrappers folded into chain-saws—you laugh with delight and eat two pieces.

Other Lives: Sponsored by Water

Oh how you love to look across the water.  The distance opens your mind.  It’s as if someone skipped your brain across the sun-lit surface and every near-thought expanded into many full and amazing thoughts.   Your island has, in addition to the ocean surrounding it, five large lakes.  You spend large amounts of time at the edge of these waters, holding a baby, staring out.  Once upon a time you were a long-distance swimmer.  Your body twitches, remembering.  You swallow.  It’s cruel that freezing water can be so clean and turquoise.  It’s cruel to feel land-locked on an island with so many empty boats and kayaks speckling the shores, begging (in little dips) for passengers.

During a limited stretch of hot summer days, you can bring the boys into the water with you.  The older one wears water-wings; the younger lets himself be glided, emperor-style, in an inflatable boat.   But you can’t go far.  Your boys are anchors.  You imagine one day they’ll take running leaps off the dock and stroke so fast away from you that you’ll have to stop and rest, treading water.  You’ll look back to shore and remember wistfully how for years you trapped first one and then the other there, breast-feeding them on a blanket.

People live on boats in the harbours.  From visiting 25-foot luxury yachts to old wooden planks with torn roofs, rotting into the ocean.  Kids from the outer islands take a boat called The Scholarship to and from your island’s high school.  No school bus for them.  No chipper morning kid bombarding you with chatter, nope, not over the boat engine.  Don’t forget your life jacket, honey!  Calls your mother at the door.  And at the dinner table you lift your fork and say: Today on the way to school?  We almost hit a seal.

Your favorite boat isn’t technically a boat.  You have to hike through hoards of trees to look out at it.   You bring binoculars, and peer at the deck for signs of life.  You never see any signs of life, which enables you to invent all sorts of stories about who lives there.  Usually who lives on it is an 8 year-old girl named Delany who is crazy about the color orange.  She is quite civilized for an orphan, and brushes her teeth three times a day.  She made her toothbrush herself, out of driftwood and dog hair.   People–all the people from all the places she might live but won’t—gather and they call out from the shore:  Dellannnyyy! Delllannnyyyy! Come on home now!  But she just keeps moving her eyes or her hand over the page and doesn’t hear.

Drop Me Right Here

Hitch-hikers on this island get rides.  And then you will read something in the paper like this:  To the hitch-hiker I picked up last Tuesday morning at Cranberry, headed to Fulford:  you left your green metallic travel mug in my car.  Call 653-8003 and I can return it to you.  Nice drivers.   Nice passengers, too.  One of your friends claims a hitch-hiker left her a whole bar of organic dark chocolate in the seat.  On purpose? You ask.  I pretend yes, she says.  She sighs and adds that ever  since then she always gives her car-seat a careful scrutiny when the hitch-hiker steps out.  Those damn hitch-hikers, she says.  They make me crave chocolate.

(She is a friend from the prairies.  You find the people from the prairies speak their mind more, with less polite wording, than the people from British Columbia.  Because they have fewer trees to hide behind?  Someday you will visit the prairies and see if it is like Texas, where you also lived.  You hope it will be like Texas, but with less litter and animal corpses.)

You pick up hitch-hikers, too, if you’re not running late and your baby isn’t wailing in the back-seat.  If Bob Dylan is playing on the car radio.  You don’t stop for the crazy looking ones, the ones who probably need rides most.  Usually you pick up females, who as the stats show are less likely to rape a driver or her babies.

Sometimes a hitch-hiker will shine with excitement, making you wistful for the days you were alone, travelling light and without an itinerary.  Sometimes a hitch-hiker will be fatigued and full of shadows.  When you drop her off your two boys, in the rear-view mirror, are coated with rings of light like in smultzy paintings of Jesus and you can barely breathe, hit smack in the throat with your huge luck.

Mama? Your son sang to you from the backseat, when he was Two, Do hitch-hikers have Mamas?

Animals That Aren’t That One

You had seen this landscape before you ever came to Canada, all swirling greens and greys and blues, peeping shards of sky, in the paintings by Emily Carr.  Even her sweeping curves prepared you, for Salt Spring Island is full of hills and steep winding roads and therefore when you and your sons try to re-create your island in the bathtub you can’t just splay a floating bath-book out flat and call it done.  You have to pile it up quite high with tipped plastic boats and cups and wash rags curled into hills.  If you run here you will get faster.  After eight months pushing your baby up and down hills in a stroller you will dash through a marathon in pouring rain to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  Boston, you will murmur dreamily—until you double-check the atlas and see it, across that deceivingly-flat page, all the way over there.   Unfathomable.

The first time you land in Canada and step out of the Vancouver airport you can’t believe the air.  So cool and clean: you keep huffing it until someone asks if you are  alright.  If this is air, then what was that you had thought was air, back in those other places you’d lived?  It must have been exhaust.

Geese dapple the fields, private and public.  They dapple until you are right upon them—then they loom.  Then they explode into the sky.  Chasing a field of geese is well worth the mess it collects on the bottom of your shoes.  When your first son is up and running, you waver between teaching him to ignite a whole field of geese with his wobbly body, and teaching him not to bother them.  You do a bit of both.

You love the geese, and the deer: the deer that lurk all day and night outside the gate of your fence, waiting for you to swing it open, as plotting and stubborn as any deer in Gary Larson cartoons.   They eat the apple-starts off the apple trees.  They stomp across your tomatoes to get to the lettuce.  When your son and husband rush out in their gum boots to corral the deer out the gate—the boy shrieking with delight, the man booming out the game plan, you stand at the back door laughing.  No matter what they are wearing, you see them streaking across the yard in overalls and Daniel Boone caps.  The sight is  worth accidentally leaving the gate open.  It is worth a ruined garden.

You love the geese and the deer for what they are not.  They are not the animals that used to prowl the place where you lived before this, way up north.  They are not bears, they are not mountain lions.  They are not the grizzly bear that you surprised, that surprised you: it rose up on its hind legs and swatted at you, roaring.  The roar echoed across the air; it would echo in your head for weeks.  The grizzly mock-charged, its claws narrowly missing your face.  But there is nothing mock about a charge.  You put up your hands in surrender.  I’m sorry, you half-spoke, half-whined: pathetic last words.  You found it was impossible not to look into the eyes of the thing that is going to kill you.  They were very dark, and flashing like the eyes of someone trying not to cry.  You got away.  One of you got away, and the other one of you will always be a mauled corpse on the side of a dirt road.

You’re told that sometimes a bear will swim across the ocean and land on this island.  On ferry boat rides you scan the water not for orcas or dolphins, but for a massive hump of slick brown fur, straining furiously toward you.

Lots of Space to Generalize

The people here.  To generalize, which of course any sentence must that begins, The people here.  The people here…are industrious.   Here are some of the things these islanders offer for sale, on the 15 minute drive to your son’s preschool:  pottery, flowers, jam, vegetables, organic beef, eggs, kindling, monster dolls, honey, portable sawmill (for hire), knit leggings, birdhouses, baked goods, venison.   You also pass two wineries, three (of many) art galleries, and the workshop of a shipwright.

You can sell whatever you make, too, right outside your house.  But first you have to be industrious enough to construct a little wooden farm-stand.

The people here.  They…..are polite and mild.  Formal.  Respectful of space.

In many ways this is a relief.  You are a secretive Scorpio spy who has always associated being seen with diminished seeing powers.  Also you have some social anxiety, otherwise known as:  can’t we just communicate on paper?  You’ve been known to slide into a closet when someone knocks on the door.  When the phone rings, you step away from it.  If you are returning from a run and see a visiting car in the driveway, even if you know the car and like its owners, your first impulse (and the one you usually take) is to keep running.  So it’s a relief being here, where people give you a lot of room to hide.

On the down side, you can feel brash and snoopy, when you are merely being direct.  When you feel brash and snoopy, you feel like a parody of an American.  You can feel lonely at a party.   Specifically, you can feel lonely for bars in places like Bandera, Texas, where heated discussions (possibly escalating into full-out pistol duels), made for wonderful entertainment and quick friendships.  You can feel lonely for insistent, engaging types.  Like the New Orleans musician on the corner of Iberville and Decatur who would call out to you on your way to work:  Those new shoes you sportin’, aren’t they?  Why you lookin’ so glum now, with this sun lovin’ on you?  You best hustle, girl, you late today!  You smiled at him, even when he drove you crazy–and now, when for long stretches polite islanders fail to call you out (too loud) or ask about you (too nosy), you are glad you smiled.  Some people just flipped him the bird.

A woman you meet briefly tells you about a friend from the United States who was visiting her in Vancouver.   He had recently been in a car accident, and his face had a fresh and gruesome scar right down one side of it.  She introduced her friend to all her friends.  They went to several dinner parties.  And no one!  She roars.   Not one person asked him about his face!
You giggle.  How rude, you say.

But.  The people here….are kind.  And smart.  Respectful.  And wanting to do good.   And industrious.  You feel lucky to be raising kids among people with these qualities.  The flamboyant brashness–that can be introduced easily enough in so many places.  By the television set, for instance.  This other, the quiet space people create here, is so much harder to come by.

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Things you do to fit

When you hear the temperature, you double it in your head and add thirty.  You say pro-ject, not pra-ject.  You write labour and colour and metre.  You sing out “Zed” with your son during the alphabet song, even though it makes the verse not rhyme.

You say, Now where did I put my toque? without cracking a smile.

When you go to an outdoor festival in the heat of summer you don’t smirk at the little roped-off area you have to be inside of, to drink a beer.  And babies aren’t allowed: they might grow up to be drinkers.  You won’t smirk nor will you cry, thinking of those years you prowled the French Quarter with one hand curled around a go-cup.

In September, you add little tin wheels on the biggest zucchini from your garden so your son can enter the zucchini races at Fall Fair.  At Salt Spring Fall Fair, for 20 dollars, you can enter “Muffin Madness” by betting on a tiny plot of numbered field.  If the amply-fed-with-special-grain cow they release into the field decides to let his fresh poop drop on your number, you win the entire profit of the ticket sales.   It’s quite a lot.  People clench the fence nervously, willing an uncomfortable and oblivious animal to step right or left, to step forward or back.

In October, you take off your shoes and stomp with tons of other barefoot people–all various levels of clean—in a vat of grapes.  For a long while after this you refrain from buying local wine.  You make your Mom’s oyster dressing for Canadian Thanksgiving and wait for her or your sisters to call, so you can brag how you got to eat yours a month early.  But no one calls; none of your people in the U.S.A. ever remember the mid-October day that is Canadian Thanksgiving.

In November, you wear a poppy on your shirt and ignore the election disputes  that waif in vaguely from your computer.  But you always watch nervously as the results of the Giller Prize—Canada’s big literary award–are announced on T.V.  You rasp Shhhh!  to your boys as the finalists, each one in turn, approach the podium to read excerpts from their books.   You laugh a lot because of the amazing public fanfare made over books, and because writers make such lousy rock stars.  When the lights hit their made-up faces, they twitch like moles caught naked and quivering outside their holes.  The book you like best is seldom picked.  Each year you wish you’d planned a party around the prize, with big money bets and impromptu readings and literary drinking games at the commercial breaks.  But it is on in the morning, when all the writers you don’t know are writing.

In December, you watch as a large crowd of people huddled around a television set refuse to return to their vehicles and board the ferry headed for Swartz Bay.   It has come down to shoot-outs in the Olympic Canada versus U.S.A. hockey match.  Who you cheering for, Mama? Your son asks, over the excited commentary on the car radio.  Uh, you say, suddenly exhausted.  Does being an expatriate, straddling two homelands, automatically sap a person of the energy to cheer for either of them?  Or is it just you?  A disgruntled ferry worker begins waving cars forward and back, directing the intricate maneuvering required to drive around the abandoned vehicles.  It is the last ferry of the night, but the crowd in there—black figures postured tensely in the yellow windows—would rather be without their beds than leave the game.  Canadians, you finally say.   Your husband winces, so that you have to quickly tell him you don’t mean the Montreal Canadiens.   I mean those Canadians, you say, pointing to the empty cars as he rolls the truck forward.

In winter, it rains for weeks on end.  This is good.  If it snows, the very few plows your island has will focus on the main roads and neglect the hilly side streets.  It rains, or it snows—it rains and it snows, the snow turns to rain again.  The rain freezes.  One night over whiskey, while your husband talks dreamily about his time in Belize, you try to remember your own hot seaside places.  They are faded poloraids, buried under leaves and limbs.  You tilt your face up at the snow-buried skylight, straining to recall.  How can your body forget that kind of heat?  A heat so stark it instantaneously dried the ocean droplets on your skin to lines of lace.

In winter,  you take a hot bath with your boys.

But before that—twice, in fact—you decide it will be fine to give birth without drugs—since there is no anesthesiologist or surgeon on your island.  The first baby is born on a table at the local hospital with the crazy mid-wife telling you not to push and the Victoria helicopter team on hold on the telephone.  The second one is born with the calm and wise midwife, the one you wanted the first time.  The baby arrives on a Friday afternoon on the floor of your bedroom, right where your husband tends to pile his dirty clothes.  Because you spend most of your labour in the bathtub, you thereafter find taking a bath with his real live body in your arms, in the same tub, an extraordinary and humbling thing.  This, you think, is why people stop moving.  This is why they find a home and stay in it.

In winter, you grab a wash-cloth and get your whole face wet, so your older son doesn’t ask you why you’re crying.

–Carrie Cogan

Carrie

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Nov 162010
 

Barnes

Mike Barnes and dg met years ago at The New Quarterly WILD WRITERS WE HAVE KNOWN CONFERENCE (see the famous 400-page double issue Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3) in Stratford. He appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories during the decade dg was editor (which tells you what dg thinks of his fiction). He is the author of numerous books—novels, story collections, a book of poems and a stunning memoir of his own struggle with psychosis The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. He writes occasional entries in a blog called 2009 which nowhere mentions his name. But if you go there you can find links to readings and talks he gave based on The Lily Pond, also gorgeous poems and photographs. What dg is printing here are three excerpts from a work-in-progress, a sneak preview of a dystopian future, not to be missed.

dg

These excerpts are from a novel-in-progress, a future-fantasy about an ever-expanding world-hospital, or “medically based consumer imperium” as the resistance movement terms it. The world-hospital is part “real” (e.g. concrete and steel) architecture and part mass consensual hallucination. It is “total architecture.” The novel is a mosaic of dispatches sent by telepathic scribes, assembled by central collators in the aftermath of a disastrous battle between the resistance and the world-hospital. This phase of resistance—what happened? amid the wreckage—thus consists of attempts at accurate polyphonic reportage and archeology. The name in small letters below each dispatch is the moniker, or “scribesign,” of the scribe that submitted it. Sometimes multiple scribes collaborate on a dispatch. Two of the bits (“Mixer” and “Little People”), show the world-hospital’s furthest extension, beyond life itself, and feature the same character, for continuity, and the other (“Blowback”) is a short comic glance at the resistance movement.

—Mike Barnes

/
Mixer

Steve and Randy meet each other at a mixer for the newly dead. They went to the same high school but are a few moments placing each other before they break into grins of startled recognition.

“It’s you!”

“Yo, Steve.”

So much has changed, so many reversals, in the passage across. Randy, a depressive back in the warm world, has taken to the après-vie like nobody’s business and is already doing well for himself. Steve, a doctor’s son who except for an ill-advised romance in his senior year has mostly had a blast, is having trouble finding his footing.

“It’s a whole new ballgame, Stevie,” says Randy, a shy stutterer so recently but now empowered by fluent clichés. “Look at me.” Steve is looking. “I used to have trouble carrying off a change of sweater and a haircut. Here, though. Here I’ve given myself a brand-new name and not one person has laughed. “I’m”—he hesitates a moment, a hiccup of life reflux; it’s little Randall Maggs for Chrissakes talking to SH the football captain—then declares confidently, “I’m Randy Raven.”

Steve doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t even feel like it. At first he heard razor, Randy Razor, and even that seemed possible. Doable. Like any good athlete, Steve is a fast study of the field, and he sees that Randy really can be anything here. He can stop the identity wheel on any slot he likes.

It reminds him of changing schools when none of your friends comes with you. You can carry on as before—the old game in a new location—or you can find yourself holding a brand new hand of cards, getting strange new urges to bluff, bet, fold. It’s not always symmetrical. Losers can win, winners lose, sometimes it’s a yawning steady-on, and there’s every sort of mix and halfway state.

In his new, bullet-spray voice, gaining confidence the way a rocket gains swerve and speed with altitude above the launching pad, Randy Raven disabuses Steve about any myths he may be clinging to about their present circumstances. Not about sin. Punishment. Purgatory. Not reward either. It really is an afterthought, a nowhere zone into which the fastest, sleaziest operators naturally move first and grab hold.

“Your dad. That hospital project with St. Bar-Laz. I’ve seen some pictures of it here.”

Here.”

“Sure. The smart advertiser goes to where the clients will be, not where they are. Be there to greet them. Who knows what kinds of postcards they’ll send back.”

“Send back?” Steve’s head is whirling. All around the room he sees pairs of people in the orientation postures he and Randy have assumed: the leaner-in, the knower, crisp, assured; the dazed recipient, wobbly of stance and expression.

“It’s a two-way street, man.”

As Randy goes on rapping, his eyes lambent with the newfound pleasure of holding forth, Steve tries to distract himself with thoughts of unbuttoning Cathy’s blouse, but the well-worn grooves of erotic revery don’t work so well here, the fantasy feels tackily remote, its old allure now discordant—like memories of a piñata party in solitary—and Randy’s patter keeps breaking through, and by the time he’s unzipping Cathy’s Levi’s Steve is hardly even surprised by the hard-veined icy cock that springs into his hands.

“By the way”—Randy is smirking, the ghost of an Old-World Randall peephole- in-the-girls’-changeroom leer—“telepathy is the rule here. You have to learn to shut it down. I’ve almost nailed it. No one can show you. It’s a knack, like wiggling your ears.”

Randy fills Steve in on the basis of the afterlife as a credit scam and protection racket, a Ponzi/pyramid scheme on a vast scale of interlacing levels.

In a pause, Steve says, “I thought it would be, I don’t know…pure. Or something.” Now it’s his turn to pause as he realizes he had no opinions about the afterlife, he was 18 when he sailed his father’s Buick LeSabre off the mountain brow, the girl, Cathy, with her top off screaming beside him.

“Nothing pure about it, man. It’s the oldest and dirtiest neighborhood there is. No wonder Wardworld set up shop here. Stands to reason. It’s poorly regulated and mostly out of sight. Hell, not even many people believe in it anymore. That’s an added bonus.”

Steve doesn’t get the Wardworld reference, but there’s something else he needs to know first.

“What do I need protection for? I’m dead.”

“Which means you’ve lost your last line of defense. You’re like a snail evicted from its shell. And”—Randy leans close, lowers his voice—“the universe wears big boots.”

“What could happen to me?” The involuntary quaver in his voice used to be in Randall’s all the time.

“What couldn’t? If you can dream it up, it’s probably here. And if you can’t, it definitely is.”

Steve buys a basic protection plan from Randy with the only currency he’s got—time. 10,000 years to start, with a vig of 2% (“for a friend”). He’s soon in way over his head. The pyramid scheme is the usual bucket brigade of downhill pain. A guy tells you you’re on fire and hands you a bucket to put it out. But the bucket is the fire, and the only way to turn it into water is to hand it off to another sucker. On earth it ends with a bottom layer engulfed in flame, roasted alive. But with infinite time the wall of flame expands forever. Steve understands how it works, but can’t rouse himself to find a newbie to pass the bucket to. (Self-immolation from inertia/apathy causes certain local collapses in any downward construction.) He holds on to the pain bucket, staying on his level.

Leaving the mixer, he wanders dispiritedly down streets that are also like corridors, wide spaces that close high overhead, and which with their gradual curves, inclines and declines, give an impression of a vast architecture he’s treading. It’s twilight or it’s dawn, he can’t decide about the pearly gleams. Through gaps between the storefronts, he sees other corridors, semi-opaque tubes, slightly below or slightly above the level he’s on, with dark bars above and behind them which may be yet other passageways. The impression is of a labyrinth, but not a conventional labyrinth, rather a maze that swallowed other mazes, incorporating their twists and turns into its own, the way an engulfing bacterium ingests its prey’s genes, or a colleague’s, which alter and complicate and enlarge its own blueprint. He’s not alone, but he might as well be. The many people he passes, of all types and ages, share a single facial expression of faintly frowning preoccupation. And yet, it’s weird to say, but this face of inescapable concerns looks settled into, almost relaxed. It formulates a resignation verging on peace. As if they’ve finally found their way to a narrow band of tolerable strife, a treadmill of hassle and hustle…but it’s the treadmill they know. All they’ve really lost is the desire to escape it. Could lost without the desire to be found be…found?

Envy is immortal, Steve learns. Just as status is. Steve’s car crash was fiery front-page news, a crater in someone’s lawn and in many hearts; Randy’s pill-and-vodka exit in his room—in June, after graduation, when not even the principal needed to react— was “sadly missed” by elderly parents and a sister in Florida who couldn’t get home for the funeral. But now he’s—Randy the Raven. And I’m….

Steve takes to watching the living, a pastime of only the most insolvent dead. It’s every bit the declaration of bankruptcy that, in life, is signified by sitting around thinking of vanished times and faces, fixing your gaze on the departed.

Glass Union



Blowback

LIn six-foot-high brown letters, spray-painted on an exterior wall of a Gerontology hub:

200 IS THE NEW 90

Local Medcrimes takes the case, which looks an obvious if spectacular instance of patient breach. The lab report identifying the brown paint as human excrement confirms the investigation’s routine progress in the direction of vandalism and/or dementia.

But complications (“wrinkles, ha ha”—Constable Tippett) soon emerge. First is the location of the graffiti on the 22nd floor, a billboard-sized slab of concrete bordered by a few small windows and distant from any doorway. “How would a wacked-out Gero even get up there?” (Constable Warren, Tippett’s senior partner)

A second lab report adds the details that the excrement a) came from at least 27 different bodies, and b) was fired with enough force, perhaps from a high-pressure hose, to fuse it with the concrete by embedding it deeply in every pore and fissure. Effacement is expected to be costly and protracted.

Copies of the reports forwarded to Administration, attention Budgeting and Long Term Planning.

Bill Richards



Little People

LIt feels strange to watch your lover when you’re dead. Not nice, not not-nice, necessarily. It isn’t anything necessarily. Just…strange.

The strangeness comes, Steve thinks, from not knowing or feeling anything you didn’t know or feel before, with one exception: you know and feel you’re dead.

You’ve gained and lost. What you’ve gained is knowing and feeling you’re not alive. What you’ve lost is not knowing and feeling you’re dead.

And it’s that trade or transfer, he thinks—that switch from non to on, on to non—that adds the weight you feel around the dead. A kind of heavy fluid sense of accrued density. Not age, since you no longer exist in organic time, but it feels like old, old age might feel to the living.

That seabottom sort of pressure makes a newly dead fetus twice as old as the oldest ever living person. Without being in any sense wiser. Without being wise at all. The dead fetus doesn’t even know what a nipple is, it never got to find out. Yet it’s ancient.

Passing these wizened pygmies, Steve sometimes thinks with a shudder, That could be my son or daughter for all I know. I had a few girlfriends, we weren’t always careful….

One of them is his child. Something he can’t know because the only person who could tell him is on the other side. On the side of the non-dead.

“You have to size death up, same as any other opportunity,” says Randy Raven. “Sure, some doors close, but others open wide.” Steve relates Randy’s growing tendency to speak in brassy bromides to the shadowy corporate entities he’s seen him talking to (or listening to), dark oily vapors, like congealed smoke, who have given up maintaining organic semblances (which takes an effort of will as well as recall) in favour of drifting in stormcloud congeries down streets and corridors, sometimes massing in a front that hangs in the sky, low and oppressive, curtailing views and moods. These heavy new friends give Steve another reason, besides his mounting unpayable debt, to duck down alleys at the approach of his earthly classmate, who is as gormlessly attracted to power as ever, but who power has now perhaps decided has something to give back.

Since he no more occupies the space of organic life than its time, when he visits it, Steve can assume any vantage point large or small.

One morning he watches Abigail from behind a walnut, chewed on his side by a squirrel, near the park bench she is sitting on. She looks unwell. Listless and without expression. Two canes lean against the bench and she wears braces on her lower legs. A thick white bandage covers her left eye. When he goes through it, he is shocked to find not a damaged eye but no eye. He explores the spongy black socket, touching its cauterized nerves and vessels.

Another time he is stretched across the winter sky. It’s a nice thinned feeling, being everywhere, noplace more than any other. She breathes him in, sucking the cold air through her teeth. Her lungs are pink, but more mucusy than they should be. He’s no doctor—not even a dead one—but from pictures he recalls from his dad’s textbooks, or maybe a health class—the smoking lecture—these bronchial trees have too much gummy fog, some thick drippy liquid, oozing between their branches. Yet he doesn’t smell smoke.

On his next visit, he doesn’t see her smoking, though he stays with her through what a wall clock says are several hours, sitting on the roof of a barn in an ugly oil painting on the wall of the crowded waiting room she is stuck in. Why are doctors so cheap? he wonders, floating out from the barn to take in the tacky farmscape. Two hundred grand a year, and what? Crappy paintings a flunky found at a yard sale. Old Reader’s Digests, again probably brought in by a secretary. Lumpy chairs with torn upholstery. Abigail deserves to wait for their verdict in at least minimal comfort.

It’s like the musty Used Books and $1 Charity Bake Sales at banks. $1. From a bank. Maybe $42 on a busy Friday, the tellers cranking out the Rice Krispie and date squares with curses the night before. Wherever money pools, life dries to a trickle. Even the dead feel it. The dead more than anybody.
Lost in these thoughts, he looks out to find the clinic dark, everyone gone.

This kind of thing happens often. He has a guess why. He’s too attuned to Abigail’s welfare to keep up with her comings and goings, her biography. He thinks that could be why his visits to her skip about so randomly, and seem to come about independent of his will. He’ll want to visit her, but can’t. Then suddenly, he’s there.

She’s in a single bed in a dingy bachelor, fucking a skinny, balding man with a bad tattoo of a leprechaun on his shoulder. The movements of his shoulder blade make the leprechaun kick in a spastic jig. Abigail seems into it, she’s moaning with her eyes pressed shut, but Steve, sitting with his back against the base of the bedside lamp, watching the shadows jerk and tremble on the wall, grows disconsolate.

Abigail has some silver hairs threaded in with her brown. When is this? he starts to wonder, but the question falls like a pebble dropped down a bottomless mine shaft or canyon. No plink or echo.

She doesn’t think she can do any better, he thinks.

Glass Union
Yggdrasil

—Mike Barnes

/
Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.

/
/

Nov 162010
 

Henighan in Romania

Hot off the presses (actually not even off the presses yet), here is the first chapter of Mihail Sebastian’s novel The Accident, translated into English from Romanian for the first time by Stephen Henighan and about to be published by Biblioasis (in just a few weeks). Numéro Cinq readers are already familiar with Stephen’s fiction (see his story “After the Hurricane” earlier published on NC). He is also an indefatigable globetrotter, critic and translator. Here is his own short intro to the chapter that follows.

dg

Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was one of the major Central European writers of the 1930s. Born in southeastern Romania, he worked in Bucharest as a lawyer, journalist, novelist and playwright until anti-semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. His long-lost diary, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, was published in seven countries between 1996 and 2007, launching an international revival of his work. Sebastian’s novels and plays are available in translation throughout Europe, and also have been published in Chinese, Hindi, Bengali and Hebrew.

The Accident is Sebastian’s first work of fiction to appear in English.

In spite of what his death date might suggest, Sebastian was not liquidated by the Iron Guard (Romania’s Nazis). He survived the Holocaust (in gruelling circumstances), resumed his public career in early 1945 and was run over by a truck in May 1945, at the age of thirty-seven, while on his way to give a lecture on Balzac. On the basis of the four novels and five plays he left behind, it’s hard not to conclude that Europe lost one of its major writers.

—Stephen Henighan

 

The Accident

By Mihail Sebastian

Translated from the Romanian by Stephen Henighan

 

Chapter 1

She didn’t know how much time had passed. A few seconds? A few long minutes?

She felt nothing. Around her she heard voices, footsteps, people calling out, but all muted and grey, like a sort of auditory paste, from which occasionally a tram bell or a shout shook loose with unexpected clarity, only to fade away again into the suffocated commotion.

They’ll say it’s an accident, she thought very calmly, almost with indifference.

The thought made her feel neither alarmed nor hurried. She had a very vague impression that she must be stretched out next to the sidewalk with her head in the snow. But she didn’t try to move.

A stupid, senseless question passed through her mind: What time is it?

She strained to listen to the tick-tock of her wristwatch, but couldn’t hear it. It must have been smashed. Then, in an effort to concentrate, as though immersed in herself, she observed that in fact she heard nothing of her own being; not her pulse, not her heart, not her breath.

I’m…, she reflected. I’m like a clock. And it seemed to her that she was smiling, although she couldn’t feel her lips, for whose outline she searched in vain somewhere in that familiar yet vanished space that was her unfeeling body.

Continue reading »

Nov 132010
 

A deeply shocking and poignant “What it’s like living here” from Court Merrigan in Torrington, Wyoming. Neither a former student, nor a VCFA graduate (he doesn’t have an MFA), Court is just a writer and a human being who joined the conversation and became part of the NC community. DG wishes there were more like him, more nominal outsiders who join the blog just because they like writing and a supportive camaraderie. We’re not a closed shop. This text reminds dg of something Tomaso Landolfi once wrote: “…is not this a world in which incredible things take place and, I would say, only incredible things?”

dg

WHAT IT’S LIKE LIVING HERE
by Court Merrigan

Bedside

Four extra bedtime stories for your daughter, five.  She grows fidgety and irritated, wants to be left alone to sleep.  Once she would have stayed up all night with you.  Now she’s three and those days are gone.  You trudge upstairs.  Your wife is in bed.  She goes to bed early nowadays.  It’s too early for you.  Time to get yourself occupied.

Two weeks it’s been.  Two weeks of closing your eyes to see Todd.

1.5 miles up Laramie Peak Trail

At first Todd looked like he was taking a nap, or had just leaned against the warm rock on that perfect seventy-degree day, looking across Friend Creek through a golden-leafed bough of aspens to the sheer mountain slabs across the rift valley.  I thought he was on the lookout for mountain goats.  He really wanted to see a mountain goat, kept on asking if we thought we’d spot one.

“Well, this is about where we expected to catch up with him,” my father said.

Irritated, I thought that he ought to be further along than this, that he was going to start talking about the goddamn mountain goats again – all he wanted out of Wyoming, it seemed – and at his trudging pace, it would be hours before we got back to the trailhead.  He was semi-retired and at his leisure, but I had a pregnant wife and a kid to get back to.

Then I noticed the odd angle of his neck, the wrist twisted behind his back, legs folded in an Asian posture he could not possibly have adopted at sixty years of age.  I began to run.  His face was slack jawed, sunglasses askew, lips a pale violet.  When I knelt and touched his face a skein of spit dribbled onto his new denim shirt, so new you could see the store creases, smell the store shelf.

Continue reading »

Nov 122010
 

 

 

I knew about the stories for years but had relegated them to that mental stack of things I never get around to for one reason or another. Only a series of accidents a few weeks ago induced me to buy a copy. I had no expectations when I started reading, which may be the best way to begin any book, perhaps to encounter other people.

The first five stories are set in the middle of almost nowhere, the Imperial Valley in Southern California, a place of deserts and fields and irrigation, the time around the ’60s. This is a good place to begin, too, with almost nothing, then see what you can discover, what you can add, as Ariel has done.

“Hunter,” below, is my favorite. It begins quietly, slowly, maybe innocently, and from that ground builds into a story that has engaged and haunted me as much as any I’ve read in a while. I didn’t expect that at all. The story is told in its images and in something else Ariel touches I’ll never be able to explain. Each time I reread I see small lights I missed the first time through.

I ran into Ariel a few weeks ago, and she gave what is the most compelling reason to write I’ve heard. She said she didn’t feel right inside when she wasn’t writing. It was this comment that moved me to buy the book.

Ariel Smart, in fact, grew up in the Imperial Valley, was born at the Green Lantern Motel, mentioned in this and other stories, and writes and teaches now in the San Jose area. “Hunter” was first published in Love and Sex in the 21st Century (New Mexico University, 1988), then in the collection The Green Lantern and Other Stories (Fithian Press, 1999). She has another collection, Stolen Moments and Other Stories (Fithian, 2003). Both are available, of course, at Amazon.

—Gary Garvin

 

Hunter

 

 

by Ariel Smart

 


Cabin Number 1 of Frank Harper’s Green Lantern Motel smelled of the after-breakfast aromas of fried bacon and eggs and smoky-tasting coffee. The sound of a bulletin being read from the California Farm Labor Bureau droned from a radio placed on top of the refrigerator. Delia Harper put aside her book, Lad, of Sunnybank, and watched her father prepare the lunch she would take with her to her fourth-grade class at Acacia County School five miles from El Centro. His dark face, browned from the sun, was intent and purposeful at a perfunctory task. With a steel-bladed butcher knife, he carved cold beef from the Diamond Jim pot roast he customarily simmered on Sundays with fresh tomatoes, green Anaheim chili peppers, yellow onions, cloves of garlic, and red beans.

He placed an ample wedge of sliced meat between two thick slices of bakery bread. “Want horseradish?”

Delia turned up her nose, shaking her head vigorously. Her dark, brown hair, which her father had plaited into one thick braid, swung behind her neck down to her waist.

“Okay for you. More for me,” he said good-naturedly.

“Tell me again about Uncle Les’ work horses.”

“Not about his twenty-six milking cows? Named alphabetically, Alice through Zelda.”

“Horses.”

Continue reading »

Nov 122010
 

 Dave Margoshes is a poet, novelist and short story writer from Saskatchewan. I won’t go on about him or my long and checkered past with Saskatchewan because Dave has already appeared on these pages and I would be repeating myself. The last time I saw him my son Jonah was about six and he and I went on a reading tour of Saskatchewan, driving up and down the province in a little  rented car, meeting old friends, exploring abandoned homesteads, peering at distant bison, clattering around cluttered wayside museums. I miss Saskatchewan sometimes. Its astringent landscape is always exciting to watch and the people are delightful. When I used to edit Best Canadian Stories, I seemed to put a Dave Margoshes story in just about every other year. And now he has a new poetry collection just out with Black Moss Press (which published my first little book of stories, yea, these many years ago). “Theology” is from the new collection Dimensions of an Orchard and is particularly apt as it dovetails nicely with my Bible-reading thoughts these days. I love, here, God’s refolded tour map and “the illusion of unintended routes” and “against his own idea of tide.”

dg

 

Theology

 

A quarter moon hangs low in the morning sky,
a thumbprint reminder that night is not through
with us, oh no, not yet. Day, night, light, dark,
the cycle carries on with tedious regularity, each
extreme laying a trail of clues leading inextricably
to the other. The seasons too pass in their cycle,
and the ages, infancy to infirmity and through
the transmigration of souls into infancy again
if that’s what you care to believe. The tides rise
and fall, the leaf buds, greens, browns, withers
all according to plan. And where is God in all
this? Puppetmaster, enmeshed in his own strings,
or tourist, folding and refolding a map? The creases
are worn thin from this incessant folding, creating
the illusion of unintended routes, a false cartography.
Like any man, God is reluctant to ask directions.
He batters on, against his own idea of tide,
seeking a way.

—Dave Margoshes

Just for fun, see also “The Persistent Suitor.”

Nov 112010
 

Annie Dillard, self-portrait

Annie Dillard’s “Seeing,” a philosophical, literal, and historical romp through the seemingly simple act for which the piece is named, is packed with but-constructions.  They appear in nearly every paragraph, sometimes two-to-a-graph.  They fall into two clear types: “action/description buts” and “mood change buts.”  It is easy to distinguish between the types because, almost without fail, the action/description ones appear within a sentence, while the mood change ones are the initial word in a sentence.

The action/description buts don’t particularly stand out.  They occur within sections of basic storytelling, rather than in the more philosophical passages of the essay.  Some examples:

I wandered downstream to force [the blackbirds] to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered.

I bang on hollow trees near the water, but so far no flying squirrels have appeared.

When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, you don’t see the fog itself, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in dark shreds.

In all these examples, the ‘but’ is necessary to accurately relate the action or accurately describe something.  They make for nice sentences, but don’t have great symbolic value.

Dillard’s other type of but-construction, the “mood-change but,” is the main method she uses to swing the essay from the thrill of seeing something new to the despair of not being able to see something, and back.  This “ocean swell” rhythm, from optimism to pessimism, hinges on the ‘buts,’ which occur at the crests and troughs. These “mood-change buts” typically also employ a more complex grammatical structure, which effectively breaks the flow of the essay and turns it in a different direction.

There are numerous examples, but the two discussed here include more than one “mood-change but” in rapid succession.  The essay begins with a short section about how a young Dillard used to hide pennies in the public realm.  The second section flashes to the present and, within the first two paragraphs, there are four “mood-change buts.”  The text begins (after the section’s two opening sentences):

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?

Then a sentence that introduces some natural elements into the mix, then:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

Then a few short connecting sentences, then:

I used to be able to see flying insects in the air…. My eyes would focus along that column of air, picking out flying insects.  But I lost interest, I guess, for I dropped the habit.  Now I can see birds.

Then several sentences about nature and Thoreau, then:

I cherish mental images I have of three perfectly happy people.  One collects stones.  Another – an Englishman, say – watches clouds.  The third lives on a coast and collects drops of seawater, which he examines microscopically and mounts.  But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.

The first “mood-change but” turns the mood down, from the happiness of a world studded with pennies to pennies being worthless.  The 2nd turns the mood back up (pennies can be valuable); the 3rd turns it back down (Dillard can’t see flying insects any more); and the 4th — an instance that actually packs two ‘buts’ into one sentence — brings it into a deeper trough (the inability to see as specialists do).  In each case, the ‘but’ begins a sentence.  It is an abrupt change of course from the previous sentence: one mood, full stop, second mood.  Even reading only the ‘but’ with the end of the preceding sentence, the impending mood change is apparent: “…generous hand. But….”  “…won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But….” “…picking out flying insects.  But….”  The period and the big capitalized ‘B’ serve, in written form, as the verbal inhale-and-pause people use when delivering news (either good before bad or bad before good).

The second example of “mood-change buts” occurs in the last paragraph of section 4 (page 700 in Lopate’s book).  The grammar here is even more complex, and an initial reading might not make clear whether the ‘buts’ are meant to turn down the mood or turn it up.  Here is the text:

Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after the other.  It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign.  But I can’t see.  Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribband of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.  No culture explains, no bivouac offers real haven or rest.  But it could be that we are not seeing something.  Galileo thought comets were an optical illusion.  This is fertile ground: since we are certain that they’re not, we can look at what our scientists have been saying with fresh hope.

The feel here is dreamlike, and both sentences that have a ‘but’ also contain a negative.  The first, however, transforms the hopefulness of the first two sentences into dejection.  It concludes “looking for a sign” with “terror.”  The second ‘but’ sentence looks pessimistic, and read alone it could be interpreted as such (as in, we’re missing something important).  This little sentence, though, moves the passage from a scary dark place (with no “haven or rest”) to the possibility of understanding (“fertile ground”).  By suggesting that “we are not seeing something,” Dillard is stressing the “something:” there is something there to see, and that’s a positive thing.

But, says Dillard throughout the essay, it’s not always easy to see, and this paragraph grammatically parallels that challenging journey.  There are adjectives after nouns (“beauty insoluble”), an expected second verb (in the first sentence) that never appears, vague descriptions (“things both great and small”), and the sudden introduction of a real person (Galileo).  This is a tricky paragraph (including the five following sentences not transcribed above), and the “mood-change buts” reinforce its up and down tone.  The tension is resolved after the section break that follows this paragraph, when Dillard turns the narrative to a long discussion of a book about blindness and sight by Marius von Senden.  That entire section contains not a single “mood-change but.”

It is worth noting one more use of ‘but’ in this essay.  Near the end of the piece there are two sections that begin with the word.  These are the only two sections that do so, and both deal with the same topic: seeing by letting go.  This, Dillard admits, is the most difficult type of seeing.  To introduce it, she creates the shortest section in the entire piece, and begins that section with ‘but’ (“But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go”). Then she writes a section with a specific experience of seeing fish flashing in the sun in the creek; a section that contains not a single ‘but.’ Then the idea returns in the next section with another initial section ‘but’ (“But I can’t go out and try to see this way”).  If the “mood-change buts” as described above are the inhale-then-pause, these section-beginning ‘buts’ are the inhale-then-pause-then-look skyward-then-sigh.  They physically jump out from the page and create the most prominent moments in the essay (especially the first, short section).  They are used to begin the essay’s conclusion and to highlight the most true (say Dillard and Thoreau) way of seeing.

Interestingly, the final one-paragraph section includes two “mood-change buts,” both turning the mood up.  Unlike all other “mood-change buts,” the ‘buts’ here are inside their sentences, perhaps signaling an end to the rise and fall of the essay:

The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.

And, three sentences later, the last sentence of the essay:

The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Adam Arvidson

 

Nov 092010
 

Philip Hartshorn as Dior; Juan Carlos Tapia as Celegorm

A lot goes into writing a fight scene – sometimes.  Our challenges for the fight scene in this film came in many forms, the first of which was the source material’s ambiguity concerning the situation surrounding it.  The following is Tolkien’s text in The Silmarillion concerning the final outcome of the Sacking of Doriath.

“…Celegorm stirred up his brothers to prepare an assault upon Doriath.  They came at unawares in the middle of winter, and fought with Dior in the Thousand Caves; and so befell the second slaying of Elf by Elf.  There fell Celegorm by Dior’s hand, and there fell Curufin, and dark Caranthir; but Dior was slain also, and Nimloth his wife, and the cruel servants of Celegorm seized Dior’s young sons and left them in the forest to starve…” -Tolkien, 242

This book in particular is written in a similar fashion (stylistically) to the Norse Myths (Kevin Crossley Holland’s translations come to mind).  The story of Dior is expanded in The Book of Lost Tales 2, but this draft was very clearly “un-canonized” by Tolkien before his revisions of the former book, so the above is all we had to work with.  I interpreted the scene into the screenplay as a confrontation between Dior and the three brothers as Dior is attempting to get his family (namely his daughter) out of the burning city.

The text from my first draft of the script concerning this scene was equally vague.  I scrawled out something about Dior killing Curufin and Caranthir, then dueling Celegorm.  I knew this wasn’t exactly how I wanted it, but I was afraid to go further, for the reasons of A) I knew I was going to let my brother choreograph the movements, and B) How was all of this going to happen?  Where is Nimloth, and how can I incorporate what happens to her?

I decided to write the death of Nimloth as a separate scene, which gave attention to the characters involved and built up the tension and relationships – both sympathetic and antagonistic- of surviving characters before the end.  This worked very well in terms of sets, locations and the focus of the actors.

Take a look at this video, which concerns my brother(our fight choreographer)’s enthusiastic efforts to materialize this scene.

Production Report: The First Stages of Fight Choreography

Putting this thing together was a tall order.  The above video was filmed in the later parts of summer when we were brainstorming just how the hell we were going to pull off any of this.  As our final weekend of shooting ended this past Sunday, the fight has been done and awaits the cutting room in a currently-crowded lobby.  Here are a few sneak peek photos (I’m keeping the fight relatively under wraps) of what came out of the final product.  Please note that these photos are captured from the raw footage of the film: nothing has been added or edited (yes, the sparks are real).

What we’ve got is a high-risk, quick-paced, colorful, 360-degree spectacle involving real swords, acrobatics, drama, and gorgeous mountains below.  At least, that’s what we’ll have after a few good days at the editing desk.

See also:

Nov 082010
 

DG realizes that this may be a stretch for some of you. A couple of weeks ago NC published Jacob’s poem “After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat” which has proved amazingly popular, partly because it’s a witty poem and partly because it gets a certain number of hits every day from people searching “dead rats” on Google (who would have thought this was an underground hot topic?). DG took off the “rat” tag, but that hasn’t stopped the deluge. In any case, this is neither here nor there to Jacob who wrote the poem for fun and who has since translated it into Latin for fun. The fact that he has a mind for this is a continual delight to his father.

dg

After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat

Vidi id in bestiolam via
Secundo die autumno
Bestiola, quae bestiolae fuit, sed
Nunc nihil non fuit, sed
Aliqua non Ens
Bestiola habuerat, sed nunc
Tenebras firigidas rigidarumque habet.
In via, secondo die autumno
Enti cinctus est, in Ente,
Idquod bestiola, non iam ens, fuit
Olim, Ens in Bestiola fuit
Olim Ens fuit hac bestiola, quando ea
Fuit ens.
Sed nunc, Ens nihil non est, abfuit,
Ex hac bestiola, utique, ergo abisset.
—Jacob Glover

Nov 072010
 

Lynne Q summer 2008

Lynne Quarmby is an old friend, an eminent gene biologist with a lab at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, an outdoorswoman, and a painter. She paints with water colours and what comes out often looks genetic, looks biological, looks like an image of life filtered through a microscope, rhythmic, patterned, explosive.

dg

focal plane high res

Focal Plane (14”x10”)

Star Island

Star Island (14”x10”)

Continue reading »

Nov 072010
 

cindy2 019_2_4

Cynthia Newberry Martin takes time from her writing and from her splendid writing blog Catching Days (one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love”) to let NC know what it’s like living in Columbus, Georgia. Catching Days is a fascinating site with links to Cynthia’s own publications, reviews, and an ongoing series of posts in which noted authors describe a typical working day. See the latest, “A Day in the Life of Bruce Machart,” here. Cynthia has been commenting on NC from the very beginning, a generous, helpful presence.

dg

What it’s like living here

From Cynthia Newberry Martin

in Columbus

Dear DG,

In Columbus, the seasons change, but they take their sweet time about it. First summer doesn’t want to let go, and then the leaves cling to the trees. Not until late October do the golds, oranges, and reds sprinkle this over-green world with color.

 

 

The river and Carson McCullers

The Chattahoochee River, the western border of Columbus, floods the city with the mood that gave rise to Carson McCullers:

I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.

And to Ma Rainey:

Thought I’d rest me, I couldn’t hear no news. I’ll soon be there ’cause I got the walking blues.

The words and the blues flow together and join the river. And these days, you gather your want and walk your blues for miles and miles on the Riverwalk, a narrow park that edges the banks of the river. You spend a lazy day beside the water, your thoughts swirling with the current. You see Alabama on the other side, and you imagine the rest of the world out there somewhere. You cross the bridge and look back at Columbus with perspective—not a lot but enough.

Red brick

Columbus wears its clay-red brick well. The old buildings, only two or three stories high, allow plenty of light to reach the sidewalks and plenty of air to breathe. Downtown streets are divided by a grass median the width of what could have been another lane. Statues hide benches inside. The place of art in the world is valued, as is a good place to rest and watch that world go by. And downtown, the train still chugs through the middle of the street, right in front of the modern eleven-storied Government Center. You hear the whistle and stop to watch. Each time, it’s hard to believe.

Row houses and the wash

Columbus used to be a mill town, but most of the factories now lie in empty disrepair. Living here you become fascinated by the beauty of abandoned buildings, the simplicity of row houses, and the openness of laundry hanging on lines to dry. These images stay with you and recur in your stories.

The people

Friends bring supper when you’re sick—pimento cheese and egg salad, country captain, fried chicken. The people who come to your door care about you too. Dale is your FedEx guy. He gives you a package and shows you a picture of his twin granddaughters, Layla and Dakota. He gives you his cell phone number so if you need to sign for a package, you can call and find out where he is. The UPS guy is a real person as well, knocking on the door to ask if you’re supposed to receive a new printer three days in a row. It’s a long story, you say. He smiles.

foxThe little fox

Sitting at your desk, you watch deer graze—whole families. The doe, the buck and the fawns. You take a picture, and their white tails flash through the woods. A hawk lands on top of the old wooden swing set where no one plays anymore. But it’s the little fox who wins your heart. He doesn’t know he’s not supposed to play for hours in the middle of the grass right in front of your window, distracting you from the words. You look up from your computer more often, hoping to see him. You watch him learn to sit like a fox is supposed to sit. And then, one day, he doesn’t come out. You miss him. Back to the words.

Family

Your husband is the reason you’re here. Long ago he sweet-talked you into moving to the town where he grew up and where he plans to stay. Your children live in other places now—Texas, Scotland, California. Only one left at home. You’re hoping for the Northeast.

And in Columbus, the unhurried life is the perfect soil for words. Take your time, it says. You have plenty of it. Fall is your favorite season, the harsh heat of summer behind you and nothing but cold mornings and dark, early nights ahead. Bare branches. Fires inside and out.

—Cynthia Newberry Martin

Nov 052010
 

Foto_by_Dixon

 

I only know Goran Simic by reputation and by the power and beauty of his poems (which is to say that at a certain level I know him well). Since he came to Toronto from his native Bosnia  in 1996, a year after the war ended, he has been a stalwart of the poetry scene, that rare thing in North America, a man-of-letters, an indefatigable  promoter of other writers and their books, and a moral beacon. He has won numerous awards including a Helman/Hammet grant (for writers who have been victims of political persecution) and a PEN USA Freedom to Write award. His poems and stories about the war he lived through and the Siege of Sarajevo are incredibly stark and moving.

The river carries the corpse of a woman.
as I run across the bridge
with my canisters of water,
I notice her wristwatch, still in place.

Someone lobs a child’s shoe
into the furnace. Family photographs spill
from the back of a garbage truck;
they carry inscriptions:
Love from …love from…love …

(from “The Sorrow in Sarajevo”)

It’s a great pleasure to display here seven poems from Goran’s new book Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman which will be published by Biblioasis in December.

(And for Goran’s poignant essay on coming to Canada, on being an immigrant and on becoming visible, click here.)

dg

What I Was Told

When I was born everybody rejoiced.
This is what I was told.
I was also told that in his notes my father the King
described hundreds of tents in front of the castle
for the common people’s celebration of my birth.
For months wine flowed and roasted quail were eaten
until the wine started to sour
and quail started smelling of wine.
My father the King invited the best fortune tellers in the country
to read my kingdom’s fate from my baby palm.
Some of them were richly rewarded.
No trace of the unfortunate others was found in my father’s notes.
When I grew tall enough to touch my father’s shield,
he issued a state decree ordering
the people of our kingdom to build a castle for me
on the hill. I could smell the sweat
of those who pulled stone slabs up the slope
while I lolled on my throne.
Those who survived the ten years of work
are mentioned in my father’s notes. This is what I was told.
Those who didn’t were buried in the castle’s foundation
and were not recorded in my father’s notes.
I forgot the name of my bride.
The taste of matrimonial wine lasted no longer
than the wedding night
when I had to lead my army to war with our neighbours.
My father told me to follow the tradition
and that I will find reasons once I learn how to read.
Sitting on my black horse, watching graves being dug in our wake,
I wondered why people called my army the Virus of Death,
why the sunset scares me
even after the leaves under my horse’s hooves
changed colours ten times.
Once my sword acquired the scent of burnt homes and rotting flesh,
I returned to my kingdom in a golden carriage.
But when I arrived
nobody was there to decorate my exhausted soldiers with garlands.
Only wretched old men and witches were begging forgiveness
for failing to predict my return.
The plague had eaten my father the King,
and my darling whose name I lost in the roll call of my generals.
All I had left from my kingdom were neglected fields
and a notebook that I couldn’t read.
Now I sit in my tower with a crown on my head.
I watch storks leaving the cold chimneys of my kingdom,
while I listen to the wind riffling the sheets of my empty bed,
leafing through the pages of my father’s notebook.
In this very moment I would happily exchange
my glory and my golden crown,
for someone who would teach me to read.


Continue reading »

Nov 022010
 

Micheline Maylor comes from Windsor, Ontario, but lives in Calgary where she writes poetry, teaches writing at Mount Royal University and edits FreeFall Magazine. Some of these names may be familiar to you. Apparently, Micheline is quite good at getting dg to do things. He is judging a fiction contest for FreeFall and Micheline’s student Gabrielle Volke recently interviewed dg for an essay she is writing and the resulting dialogue appeared on Numéro Cinq and will appear in FreeFall. Micheline Maylor is also an accomplished poet. Her first collection Full Depth: The Raymond Knister Poems was published in 2007. (Raymond Knister was an early 20th century Ontario poet, story writer and novelist, something of a cult figure in Canadian literary circles for his early promise and the tragic way he died. His daughter used to live in Waterford, dg’s hometown, and he chatted with her there in the drugstore, oh, maybe three or four years ago now.) It’s a pleasure to be able to introduce you to Micheline and print one of her new poems, a kind of memento mori, a stern vision of death,  in Numéro Cinq.

dg

Bird at the University

By Micheline Maylor


Four months, it takes, for the sinew
to release bones from skeleton.
A whole semester.

From August, I walk back and forth past the bird
one hundred and twenty-two times.

I think of me and you, us,
while this elegant architecture called bird
disintegrates.

He’s belly-up, beak to the north,
wings splayed to the poles.
In two days, his eyes are sockets,
in four days, his under-feathers scatter to the east.
The gentle wind detonates
a downy bomb on still, green grass
only a few stray flight-feathers cling to the skeleton
in the mud beside the late pansies.

November snow covers everything.
Stray footprints press him tighter to the earth.

Much exists in my lexicon that was not there yesterday,
last week, last month, last year.
In this new normal, grief accumulates
with that first rime
with that first staying snow.

Yet, like the bird,
I learn to relax,
wings open,
to all these elements.

—By Micheline Maylor

Nov 012010
 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

———-

I teach writing to college students. It’s a great job – only two or three days on campus, I get to teach what I do, and I’m paid to talk about things that matter to me. I teach at a small liberal arts college, so by necessity I teach writing in many of its variants – media writing, academic writing (the Art Formerly Known as Composition), creative writing – and, partially because of this, I tend to see many overlaps in these disciplines. Take the personal essay, for example – as a form of creative writing it was given, about 20 years ago, the nomer “Creative Nonfiction (CNF)”; in the media world it wears such hats as “literary journalism” and “immersion writing”; the realm of academic writing (populated primarily by wide-eyed freshmen) it usually gives it lip service as “personal narrative,” usually the only assignment freshmen find remotely enjoyable to write.

As I read more and more personal essays, creative nonfiction, literary journalism, what-have-you, I’m finding the overlap to be instructive. The separation between these forms comes not from fundamental differences in the writing, but from the need – in both academia and the publishing marketplace – to categorize and delineate. Perhaps due to this realization, I find it almost a rebellion to concentrate more on the similarities. This search for common ground, for conversation, is in fact the taproot of the personal essay. The form is essentially a written conversation between the essayist and the world, the essayist’s sources, and the essayist’s self.

To give this argument a touch more humanity, indulge me in an analogy: I think of the world of the essay as a big party, and reading an essay as mingling. As a reader I think of every writer as a person at this big party, and each essay as a conversation with this person. The first thing to turn me off to an essay is essentially the same prompt for me to excuse myself from polite conversation – listening to people talk only about themselves is boring. This could be why I’ve never liked Proust, or to be more specific why I once threw Swann’s Way across the room after 90 pages. There’s one guy I’d never want to corner me at a cocktail party – I can imagine him over a tray of hors d’oeuvres , explaining in excruciating detail what childhood trauma each piece of food reminded him of. Just as boring, I suppose, is just talking about the world – small talk.  While many times the beginning of a substantial conversation, it’s never a replacement for it, at least if you’re looking for anything but small talk. And of course, the blowhard who only talks about what he’s read tends, in the short term, to seem pretentious, and after awhile makes the reader/listener wonder if he has anything original to say.

So, then, the most successful essays are the ones that converse organically with all three of these things, engaging the reader on each level. Another challenge for the essayist, as with the conversationalist, is to make it seem natural, like all of these conversations come easy.  I say all of this to introduce the element of Montaigne’s work that he’s perhaps best known for – his conversational style –  and to contextualize it with the trifecta of interlocutors I’ve mentioned – his world (including the reader), his sources (primarily drawn from his voluminous library), and himself.

The essayist is a student of the world; for reinforcement of this, one need look no further than the first of Montaigne’s Essays, “We reach the same end by discrepant means,” in which he compares many of the conquering heroes of his time, using the term “assay,” a cognate of essay, three times, not in relation to himself, but to his subjects:

The soldier, having assayed all kinds of submissiveness and supplications to try and appease him, as a last resort resolved to await him, sword in hand. (6)

Now these examples seem to me to be even more to the point in that souls which have been assaulted and assayed by both these methods can be seen to resist one without flinching only to bow to the other. (6)

None was so overcome with wounds that he did not assay with his latest breath to wreak revenge and to find consolation for his own death in the death of an enemy. (8)

This introduces a key element of Montaigne’s writing style that was different from the styles of any of his contemporaries I’ve read, which has become a seminal characteristic of the personal essay form –just as a soldier or leader assays his courage and fortitude in battle, the essayist assays his ideas in conversation with other ideas. This example may seem a bit feudal, but keep in mind that Montaigne writes mostly about soldiers and leaders in this essay – including Prince Edward of Wales, Emperor Conrad III, Dionysius, and Alexander the Great – as heroes who became noble through testing, or assaying, their mettle in physical attack and rebuttal with other heroes (or potential heroes). Analogously, the essayist tests the value of his ideas, conjectures, and stories most thoroughly through direct discussion with other ideas.

This bring us to sources, which in Montaigne’s case were primarily readings from his prodigious library. In “On solitude,” Montaigne expresses an opinion on choosing sources that can best be described as alternately cautionary…

Spending time with books has its painful side like everything else and is equally inimical to health, which must be our main concern; we must not let our edge be blunted by the pleasure we take in books: it is the same pleasure as destroys the manager of estates, the miser, the voluptuary and the man of ambition. (105)

…and lackadaisical:

There are branches of learning both sterile and prickly, most of them made for the throng: they may be left to those who serve society. Personally I only like pleasurable easy books which tickle my interest, or those which console me and counsel me how to control my life and death. (106)

Of course there is considerable cheekiness to be read into each of these passages, as there is in the voices of most personal essayists after him. Essaying oneself in conversation with other writers, to Montaigne, is built on associations rather than formal transitions. As a telling example of this pellmell in-and-out assaying of ideas in relation to each other, his 64-page “On some lines of Virgil” spends the first eleven pages citing and/or referring to Ovid, Martial, Plato, Seneca, Cicero, Horace, Catullus, Pseudo-Gallus, Bishop Caius Sollius Apollinaris, George Buchanon, Ravisius Textor, Plutarch, Erasmus, Nicephoros Callistos Xanthopoullos, St. Augustine, Origen, Hippocrates, Diogenes Laertius, and Aristotle before actually getting to any lines of Virgil! But in “In Defense of Seneca and Plutarch,” for example, he reveals  a sincere appreciation for the sources he assays himself against, defending Seneca from what he sees as false analogies to King Nero and faulty characterization by the historian Dion (186-187) and, in response to what he sees as egoistic responses to Plutarch, he takes to task those who either can’t or won’t transcend their own subjective prejudices when reading or encountering others:

We must not judge what is possible or impossible according to what seems credible or incredible to our own minds…It is nevertheless a major fault into which most people fall…to make difficulties about believing of another anything which they could not or would not do themselves. It seems to each man the master Form of Nature is in himself, as a touchstone by which he may compare all the other forms. Activities which do not take this form as their model are feigned and artificial. What brute-like stupidity! (190-191)

In segueing into Montaigne’s conversations with himself, it’s worth noting an analogy he makes between fatherhood  and writing towards the end of “On the affection of fathers for their children”:

Now once we consider the fact that we love our children simply because we begot them, calling them our second selves, we can see that we also produce something else from ourselves, no less worthy of commendation: for the things we engender in our soul, the offspring of our mind, of our wisdom and talents, are the products of a part more noble than the body and are more purely our own. In this act of generation we are both mother and father; these ‘children’ cost us dearer and, if they are any good, bring us more honour. In the case of our other children their good qualities belong much more to them than to us: we have only a very slight share in them; but in the case of these, all their grace, worth and beauty belong to us. (165)

This correspondence with the self that produces writing, then, is not necessarily a challenge or assay like the conversation he creates between himself and his sources, or even himself and the world – it’s intimate, consummate, and capable of producing a life that proceeds from the intercourse in the form of the essay. Then, carrying on the metaphor of Writing as Family in “On three good wives,” after telling the story of Seneca’s wife finding that her husband was to be bled to death and arranging the same fate for herself, Montaigne cites the essay as the Good Wife who gathers man’s stories together and making them beautiful:

If any author should wish to construct them into a single interconnected unity he would only need to supply the link – like soldering metals together with another metal. He could by such means make a compilation of many true incidents of every sort, varying his arrangement as the beauty of his work required. (200)

*            *            *

In “Remember Death,” a not-as-morbid-as-the-title-implies essay in Patrick Madden’s 2010 collection Quotidiana, Madden refers to the skull in St Jerome’s study, a symbol many writers of the Renaissance and probably earlier always kept nearby to remind them of their own mortality. That same skull, or one nearly identical, adorns the cover of my copy of Montaigne’s The Essays: A Selection. Madden follows his mention of St. Jerome’s skull with the same quote (different translation) from“Of Three Good Wives” by (his nomer) Papa Montaigne. The connections to Big Papa don’t end there. Like Montaigne’s essays, Madden’s flow like cream, so that the reader finishes a twenty-page essay in roughly a half hour (longer, if you’re as slow a reader as I am), then realizes how rich and full the prose was. His style, like Montaigne’s, is conversational in the best sense. His voice  – learned but not stuffy, confident but self-effacing – holds the reader’s interest by letting us in on the conversations he’s having with the world.

Take, for example, “Panis Angelicus,” his essay that gets its title from recording he has of his grandmother singing an old Catholic hymn in Latin. He sets up the discourse of the essay by defining Catholic mass as a process of spiritual transubstantiation:

In the Mass, transubstantiation is the change from bread and water into the body and blood of Christ…But transubstantiations happen all the time: food into muscle and blood and bone, water to vapor to snow back to water, ideas and images into words and images and ideas in another head.

I’ll be the first to admit that my idea of transubstantiation was fuzzy at best before reading this, but Madden manages to not only define a relatively opaque term but to include the reader in the discussion on whichever level we choose – spiritual, physical, or academic. The connections he then makes in the essay, between listening for the first time to his grandmother’s  voice as an adult with his children and extended family, to his father’s survival of Vietnam, to a busker he hears singing “Panis Angelicus” on a bus in Uruguay while on a Fulbright Fellowship. Everything in the world, he implies, is connected, as are we.

Madden’s choice of sources is just as varied than Montaigne’s. He juxtaposes literary, critical, and historical references with mathematical formulas, condensed narratives, lists, quotations, and pictures (including one of Montaigne himself) – and that’s all just in the essay “Gravity and Distance.” Another essay, “Asymptosy” (another new vocabulary word for me), essentially about words and numbers and images and the relationship between them, is set up in sections that seem to be a set of riddles and puzzlers. And the essay “Singing” starts each section with a general statement, sometimes aphoristic, sometimes personal – that he then expands on, including:

Singing is at once natural and unnatural.

And:

One time I and two other motorists, whom I could see in my rearview mirror, were singing the same song at the same time.

And my personal favorite:

Cantar es disparar contra el olvido.
[To sing is to fight against forgetting.]

Each of these is a sort of call-and-response, like a musical convocation or a work holler. And as always, he’s finding connections – my personal favorite is his discovery that “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the ABC song share the exact same tune, a discovery that I made as well recently with my daughter. We were sitting outside a coffee shop and I was humming “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to her, when a little girl next to us who must have been four or five years old started practicing her ABC’s.

And finally there are the conversations Madden has with himself, most notable (for me, at least) in the final and longest essay of Quotidiana, “Finity,” which he starts by relaying his obsessive-compulsive counting of the grapes he bought at his local supermarket:

There are 172 grapes in the bag I bought from my local Smith’s supermarket. One-hundred-sixty of them look to be in good shape, four of them are undeveloped, six of them are deflated, and two were hiding underneath the drain in the sink where I washed them yesterday, thus upsetting the nicely round number (a prime number multiplied by ten!) I thought I had.

In itself, this literal recounting of his inner compulsions might be offputtingly Proustian, but Madden uses this compulsion to numerate the stars in the sky; possible grains of sand in the world; the progeny of Abraham, Brigham Young, Niall Noigiallach, Genghis Khan, and his own forefathers; surnames of his family; and the world population. But he also interjects this numeration with the stories that underlie them – of Abraham’s struggles with his own faith, for example – and punctuates the juxtaposition by reminding the reader that we no longer need to count grapes, people, or grains of sand:

Once we see the expanse of this vast world, once we can know, almost instantly, the tragedies our brothers and sisters are facing halfway around the globe, once our fruits come to us no matter the season and from far away, more temperate places that grow things we could not have otherwise, we no longer wonder, at least not so much, how many there are of things.

If this all sounds a lot like the dialectic of list and story I covered in Part II, I’ll chalk that up to another level of the conversation.

—By John Proctor

See also

Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 2: The Dialectic of List and Story, with Joe Brainard in Tow

Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 1: Integrating Universal Ideas with Personal Narrative (With a Glance at Joan Didion as a Contemporary Example)