Dec 312011
 

 

 

Here’s a very smart, fresh, angular essay about Martin Scorsese, a recapitulation of his films, his trajectory in the art, but crucially focused on the idea and markers of success (material and otherwise) and tainted success, the kind of success that betrays authenticity. What makes this essay especially fascinating is that the author writes from the perspective of a Catholic intellectual, a stance not necessarily popular in this arid post-liberal climate we inhabit but nonetheless full of hermeneutic vigor. Scorsese is a lapsed Catholic, but a world view founded on ideas of sin, the fall, and redemption suffuses his gritty films—at least, when the case is made, it makes sense.

Philip Marchand is an old, old friend. See his complete and charmingly self-written biography below the essay. Suffice it to say here that he wrote the best biography of Marshall McLuhan ever, a book that I revisit and treasure and not just for what it says about McLuhan—it actually helped me understand how subplots work in novels. And he also wrote a gorgeous book called Ghost Empire about the great French explorer La Salle (but also about the author himself, the history of North America, and the decline of the west, which yet managed to be amiable and friendly and charming). Here’s the opening of a review I wrote at the time:

In Ghost Empire, Philip Marchand’s new book about the voyages of the great and peculiar 17th century French explorer Robert de La Salle, the author doesn’t tell us much that is novel about La Salle. But in recounting the daring explorer’s epic wanderings Marchand manages to compose an amazingly fresh, surprising take on North American history, French-Canada, Catholicism, and the author himself, a faintly quixotic character, bookish, erudite, and appealingly self-ironic.

(Author photo by David Penhale.)

dg

TAINTED SUCCESS AND THE HEROES OF MARTIN SCORSESE

By Philip Marchand

 

Martin Scorsese ends King of Comedy in the same way he ends many of his films — with a man alone, overshadowed by a huge moral question mark. In this case, the question mark is also a narrative one. The final scenes of the movie show a cascade of newsmagazines featuring on their front covers the face of this man alone — the movie’s protagonist, the wannabe stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin. Pupkin, these magazine covers tell us, has finally become a somebody, a celebrity. But are those magazine covers “real,” or are they part of Pupkin’s fantasy?

There is an answer to that question, and we shall come to it, but more interesting for the moment is how starkly this movie’s ending dramatizes a dominant theme in Scorsese’s work. Pupkin is a character who, despite huge odds, obtains what he has long sought, a moment in the spotlight. Unfortunately he has accomplished this by kidnapping a genuine celebrity and refusing to release him until given a spot on the network so he can perform his comedy routine. Pupkin knows he is committing a crime but defiantly assures himself that it is better to be a “king for a night than schmuck for life.” He is expressing in milder form the same imperative that drives the gangsters in Goodfellas, who would rather be “whacked” or imprisoned than remain “content to be a jerk” (Tommy DeVito) or a “sucker” (Henry Hill).

On his own terms, then, Pupkin succeeds. It is a success, however, like the temporary successes of Scorsese’s gangsters, obtained by criminality and loss of conscience. This phenomenon of tainted success — a phenomenon rich in social implication — lies at the heart of Scorsese’s work.

Continue reading »

Dec 292011
 

This is a classic music video (in the ironic sense). A brilliant avant garde something or other written by John Cage. You might want to think of the famous blank chapter in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as you watch/listen to this magnificent work.

I myself am making preliminary notes toward a complete blank novel, epic in scope, called, poignantly enough, Emptiness.

dg

 

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image
Dec 232011
 

 

 

Everything Starts With Language: Gary Lutz’s divorcer

A Review by Jason DeYoung

 

Gary Lutz
divorcer
Calamari Press, 2011
117 Pages, $13.00

Gary Lutz’s seven stories in divorcer are preposterous—in the best possible way. They disobey logic, scorn common storytelling technique, and frolic with destabilizing off-plot descriptions that are at once powerful and confounding. Yet Lutz never loses sight of his character’s emotions and how they squirm to “get around to” their lives.  He respects his characters—despite the grim maze of humiliations he puts them through—by giving them some of the best writing out there to take breath in. Built from an intense, ferocious vocabulary, Lutz’s fiction decries the mere functionality of language. Each unnerving story uproots expectations and delights with showing the reader the sun of a new approach in sentences that range from the overgrown to the monosyllabic to the fill-in-the-blank.

divorcer is Gary Lutz’s third full-length collection of stories (Stories in the Worst Way from Calamari Press and I Looked Alive from The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square are the two others, and A Partial List of People to Bleach is fourth collection, which was published as a pamphlet from Future Tense Books).  Lutz lists Barry Hannah, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, and F. Scott Fizgerald as influences, and he is a former student of Gordon Lish, who published many of Lutz’s early stories in the legendary The Quarterly, the avant-garde journal Lish ran between 1987 and 1995 (publishing (and introducing) such writers as Don Delillo, Nancy Lemann, Thomas Lynch, Tim O’Brien and Numéro Cinq’s Capo di tutti capi Douglas Glover).

Continue reading »

Dec 222011
 

The tried and true revenge plot takes on a decidedly yuletide flavour as “Treevenge” explores the trauma and abuse Christmas trees face, and then offers a cathartic glimpse into their ultimate, bloody revenge.

The film was created by local (to me) Halifax filmmakers Rob Cotteril and Jason Eisener who first got notice for their fake film trailer for “Hobo with a Shotgun” which won Robert Rodriguez’s SXSW Grindhouse Trailer Competition and was featured as part of the double feature theatre release of Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. They have since developed the fake trailer into a real film featuring Rutger Hauer.

Happy Holidays to everyone. Especially the trees.

–RWGray

Dec 212011
 

Here are three spoken word poems & recordings from a brand new collection by Toronto poet Liz Worth who is also the author of an unforgettably named nonfiction book Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. The poems are personal/social commentaries, incantatory, and replete with surrealistic detours and juxtapositions and the three-syllable latinate nouns characteristic of the genre. The collection is called Amphetamine Heart, published by Guernica Editions. Liz Worth has also written three chapbooks, Eleven: Eleven, Manifestations, and Arik’s Dream. She lives in Toronto. (Author photo by Don Pyle.)

dg

 

Amphetamine Heart: Poems & Readings

By Liz Worth
.

.

On Cheetah’s Speed

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

we are taut and directionless,
networks of revolutions suspended
like fingertips to a temple,
poised and blurring into white spider legs,
their ends painted an intrusive shade of red.
At this angle everything looks better from the left,
even the accelerated aging of blondes.
Warts of perspiration radiate,
glossed by black lights and exit signs.
We are marked as wounded, fragile,
the stimulated strength beneath us, between us,
imperceptible.

. Continue reading »

Dec 202011
 

Here’s a wild and extravagant fictional account of a parallel-Barack Obama, a Barack Obama who never was but exists—as the imaginary biracial Dexter Arjuna—in the fevered imagination of a writer who, like Robert Coover or Thomas Pynchon or Don Delillo, takes contemporary events and re-invents them as satire and myth (and, yes, a teachable moment). Adam Lewis Schroeder was one of my favourites back in the Paleolithic when I edited Best Canadian Stories (his stories appeared in the 1999 and 2004 editions). He had traveled and lived in the Far East, especially Indonesia, and his inspired stories were rich with mystery and cultural observation and the clash of tradition and modernity.

Adam grew up in Vernon, British Columbia, and now lives in Penticton with his wife and kids.  He is the author of the fiction collection Kingdom of Monkeys (2001) and the novels Empress of Asia (2006) and In the Fabled East (2010.) Douglas & McIntyre will publish All-Day Breakfast, an apocalyptic road novel, in Spring 2012.  He teaches Creative Writing at University of British Columbia Okanagan.

dg

 

The Fairy Tale of Dexter Arjuna, President-Elect

Adam Lewis Schroeder

 

Since the election on November 4 the fact of Dexter Arjuna’s biracial identity has been extolled even more often than the 2:1 majority with which he dominated the Electoral College, as though those mundane descriptions heard early in the campaign—“the candidate, whose mother was Indonesian” or “the Democratic nominee, who is half-Asian”—could suddenly not do him justice.  The very moment the election was called—11:07 EST, as many will recall—CNN, Fox News, the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera and the regular networks simultaneously took the phrase “the first biracial president-elect” into their mouths like dogs with a particularly meaty bone, as if simply being half-white and half-Indonesian were far too narrow a description for the epicentre of such support from the American electorate.  Because a president-elect who is biracial might be any combination of half-black, half-Latino, half-white, half-Jewish, half-Asian, half-RFK, half-Gandhi or half-MLK.  His heritage is the heritage of the beholder—hybrid vigour indeed.  What’s more (and could the networks have been unaware of this?) biracial seemingly straddles interracial and bisexual so that as Dexter Arjuna delivered his acceptance speech beneath Seattle’s Space Needle he was not just throwing the gauntlet down at the feet of foreign oil, terrorists, corporate bullies, bipartisan whips and extremists of any stripe save those committed to freedom, he appeared as all people to all people while simultaneously having carnal knowledge of all people.  “Yes, we can,” he declared, and a billion viewers world-wide were simultaneously sated and seduced (with the meagre exception of some 40 million American Republicans.)  Such was the power of President-elect Arjuna’s voice; his profile; his dreaming-yet-wrought-in-iron, 1000-yard stare; the untapped power at the corners of his mouth; and his cosmic new label—Biracial!  (Eternal! a hysterical crowd might mouth in the same breath.  Unyielding!)  Yet to side-step the plain fact that he is Indonesian on his mother’s side is to never comprehend the events which truly brought Dexter Arjuna to power.

  Continue reading »

Dec 192011
 

L’Immacolata: The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in Liguria,[1] Italy,
By Natalia Sarkissian

 

YouTube Preview Image

Vivaldi-In Turbato Mare Irato, RV 627

(click and listen to the motet[2] sung by soprano Susan Gritton while viewing the following photographs)

.

On December 8, schools and businesses close throughout Italy. It’s the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.[3][[3]]A doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, the Immaculate Conception signifies that the Virgin Mary was conceived free of original sin. As dogma, it is conceptually distinct from the virginity of Mary and the virgin birth of Jesus.

Continue reading »

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Liguria, a narrow strip of land to the north of Italy, lies on the Ligurian Sea and is ringed by mountains (the Alps to the north and the Appenines to the east). Liguria is one of the smallest regions (1.18% of the total land mass of Italy). Of this, 65% of the Ligurian region is mountainous with the remaining 35% made up of hills.
  2. According to musicologist Margaret Bent, “a piece of music in several parts with words” serves as definition of the motet from its inception in the 13th century and beyond. The Medieval theorist, Johannes Grocheio, believed that the motet was “not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art.”
Dec 162011
 

 

The Irish writer John Banville once said, “Under the artist’s humid scrutiny the object grows warm, it stirs and shies, giving off the blush of verisimilitude; the flash of his relentless gaze strikes and the little monsters rise and walk, their bandages unfurling.”  Brad Watson’s characters come to life thusly, little monsters dreaming through Gulf Coast towns, lazing on the beach, jumping off garage roofs, walking into the path of shotguns, being abducted by aliens or seduced by palm-reading, poolside gypsies. His stories are inhabited by flawed, fascinating and fully realized characters. They come to life in places so heartbreaking and familiar, so thoughtfully imagined, that to read a Brad Watson story is to leave yourself, which is the point, after all.

Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1955. He now lives in Wyoming and teaches writing and literature at the University of Wyoming. A self-described ‘misanthrope’, Watson was anything but misanthropic over the course of several email exchanges and a phone interview. Warm, affable, funny and blunt, Watson’s personality is a mirror of his writing. What’s most admirable about his stories are their willingness to stare life down, in all of its infinite complexity and messiness. His characters survive, even transcend, the darkest moments of being, and though the journey is often dark, it is also tender, funny and real. They are abundantly human stories,  yet dreamy, wispy things in their rendering.

 Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,  was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award.  Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.

I reach him in his office in Laramie. It is late afternoon, and he has just finished making copies of his students’ theses. Watson speaks softly, with just a hint of a Mississippi drawl, more noticeable in the slow cadence of his words than by any twang in his speech. He asks if can call me back because his son has phoned with a homework problem. His son is a senior in high school and lives in Alabama. Watson apologizes (unnecessarily) for the interruption. We talk for the better part of an hour. At times, I lose track of the fact that I’m trying to takes notes on what he’s saying because I find the conversation so interesting.

—Richard Farrell

 

Making the Little Monsters Walk: An Interview with Brad Watson

 By Richard Farrell

 

Richard Farrell (RF): I’d like to start with a question The Paris Review once asked of Arthur Koestler: What do you dislike most of all?

Brad Watson (BW): (laughing) Rules. Rules and the people who follow rules, who are obsessed with keeping them and enforcing them. Assholes who get uptight and yell at you if you cross the street the wrong way. That kind of bullshit. But you can apply it across the board.

RF: You’ve travelled around a lot.  You’ve grew up in Mississippi and you lived and worked in Alabama, Florida, in Los Angeles and Boston. You’ve lived in Wyoming for the last 6 years. And one of the things that struck me about your writing is how deeply important a sense of place is to your work. I wonder if your sensibility about place in your writing evolved out of so much movement in your personal life.

BW: In a sense, yes. My life and imagination are deeply rooted in Mississippi and Alabama, so my stories still seem to arise from that and there. But being away also intensifies that imaginative connection and even frees it up, somewhat. You’re able to be there in your head, unaffected by the present circumstances of actually being there. So in a way it’s more purely imagined.

Continue reading »

Dec 162011
 

Brad Watson’s novella, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” is like a recursive dream.  You’re never certain about where one dream ends and where reality (or the next dream) begins.  At first glance, it appears to be a simple love story about Will and Olivia, two high school kids living in Mississippi. When Olivia becomes pregnant, they marry, rent a small apartment near a mental hospital and suffer through an oppressive, breezeless summer. Their ambitious love-making disturbs the landlady; their families object to the arrangement; they survive on leftovers and beer. One night, Will wakes and finds a strange couple sitting in his living room. They are familiar yet unnervingly strange. “‘We’re what you might call aliens,’ the woman said.” After this, things change in the story, in dramatic, funny, hopeful and heartbreaking ways.

Watson has re-written the contemporary love story. He challenges the basic assumptions of dreaming and waking states, questioning the idea of destiny and meaning. Part fantasy, part social commentary, part meta-fiction, part Southern Gothic, part autobiography, Watson’s novella bends conventional boundaries in weird and wild ways.  “Young people don’t just drive around, bored, drinking beer and crashing into trees and other vehicles, slashing and flailing away at one another in parking lots and vacant lots out of rage or boredom,” thinks the narrator near the end of Aliens.  Watson makes you wistful for those times.

Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,  was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award.  Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.

Read an interview with Brad Watson here at Numéro Cinq.

—Richard Farrell

 

From “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives”

By Brad Watson

 

 

In the moment after the couple from the asylum had left us that previous night, when I had begun to construct our little paradise in my mind, Olivia had awakened, dressed quietly, crept from the house, down the steps from the rickety deck, and walked away.

As she walked, and as dawn seeped into the cooled August air, the landscape began to change until she knew she was no longer in our little hometown.  It was as if she didn’t know where she was, or where she wanted to be, and the landscape continually reshaped itself with the beautiful, disorienting whorl of a kaleidoscope turned by an invisible hand.

She put her own hand to her belly as she walked.  It was flat and soft.  Well, that was gone.  That had ceased to exist.  That was not a problem anymore.

Continue reading »

Dec 152011
 

“Why don’t clouds float along the ground?” one of the young girls in Jane Campion’s short film “The Water Diary” asks. The film itself meditates on things as unreachable as these: the clouds, a child’s comprehension of all these adult mistakes, and any solution to the environmental disaster these people are enduring.

Campion’s contribution to the United Nations’ 8 film project tackles the seventh goal of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Goals: “ensure environmental sustainability.” Numero Cinq already presented the fifth film, Jan Kounen’s “”The Story of Panshin Beka” (you can see it and the intro here). The film shares a quirkiness with the Jane Campion’s “Passionless Moments” short films which Numero Cinq also presented (you can see them here).

The film places the central issue in the hands and imaginations of children. The child whose diary narrates the film has a perspective limited by her innocence but unlimited by her imagination. She cannot see where the horses have gone at first, her friend calls the central issue “global warning,” and she imagines impossible worlds where there are clouds on the ground and dancing mattresses. So where the adult response to the catastrophe in the film is to have dreams of rain and commit awful sacrifices, the children are able to each take their own small steps and imagine a possible solution.

What fuels the children and this story is the way the children seem to understand sacrifice and pain better than the adults. The horses provide the most visceral and material metaphor for the price these children are paying for their parents’ poor environmental choices. The narrative sees no solution in this sacrifice though, just further adult missteps. As one child warns, “If they think we’re going to look after them when they’re older, they can just forget about it.”

Campion uses extreme long shots to emphasize the landscape and its relationship to the small children in it. The children often appear in the lower corners of the frame or to the side, as in the last shot of the girl playing the viola. Though the children are perhaps diminished, what Campion emphasizes through these shots is how connected these children are to their environment and that small gestures, even single tears in a glass of water, can cause change.

Campion leaves the ending ambiguous. On the one hand what we imagine comes next depends on our own cynicism or imagination. On the other, the point of this story is not the rain, but the spirit, drive and sacrifice to cause change in the world – to fix what has been broken.

–RWGray

Dec 142011
 

Sprezzatura is a Renaissance term/style: nonchalant, natural, apparently careless though, in fact, the opposite—a pose in a sense, an attitude, a rhetorical stance.

Alan Michael Parker is a poet-novelist, that is, he began his career as a poet, has published five volumes of poetry, an impressive and expanding opus. The last book Elephants & Butterflies is, as it should be, perhaps his best, confident, urban, urbane, knowing, acerbic, witty, quick, cutting and surprising. Parker has a way of talking about God and TV dreck in the same moment. He has made sprezzatura his own.

Dear God who made me act
in whose gaze I am rerun
now I lay me down

Alan is an old friend and colleague from dg’s stint as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina. He had the good taste to marry a Canadian, the painter Felicia van Bork. He is a prolific poet and a novelist, a poet-novelist, a wry, energetic presence with a gift for teaching and satire.

dg

Sprezzatura with Two Rabbits

By Alan Michael Parker

.

Talking to the two rabbits in the herb garden, I could be Gerald Stern,
the way he talks to everything, my god,
and really Gerald Stern is always singing to everything,
and everything is singing back.

I tell the rabbit on the left her name is Plato,
and the rabbit on the right she’ll have to wait for a name
because so many names are just a necessarily lesser quality
of an original thing. I call both rabbits “she.”

I describe to the rabbits Gerald Stern’s childhood in Pittsburgh,
his Greek roses and his Borscht Belt beauty and his poem about Auden;
predictably, the rabbits don’t seem to care about my story,
jittery and motionless in their agitation, while the stiller I have to stand

to keep my audience, the more some muscle in my left arm
starts to twitch like a bad rhyme,
or like a captive princess kicking over the table
in a fable when the witch wants rabbit stew.

But since I killed so many rabbits in a poem in 1996
with a shotgun—my best weapon then, before I learned to
write about my family—I feel too guilty in advance
to kill and skin and cook and eat

a rabbit named Plato or her pal.
Writing poems makes me hungry for what I can’t have, sometimes,
which I think Plato probably knew about poetry, but I need to Google it.
FGI, I tell myself all the time, Fucking Google It.

But now one of the rabbits is named Plato and the other’s Gerald Stern,
a combo I’m surprised by, although I suspect that
this poem suspected so all along, and named both rabbits
“she” only as a ruse. Hop away, hop, hop,

hop away free, you bunnies: go back to the greatness
of the garden, your fur dusted with sage and thyme, your lives
opening into a warren filled by the mind of God,
with carrot tops, twenty-seven brothers and sisters, and endless sex;

free of the human need to name, or our crude ambitions
to see whatever light we hope to see,
and hop up and down as we shout the light! the light!
before we’re gobbled up by mystery.

—Alan Michael Parker

Dec 132011
 

Kazushi Hosaka ©Yomiuri Shimbun
.

The In-Between Generation

A Review of Kazushi Hosaka’s Novel Plainsong

By Brianna Berbenuik

.

Plainsong
Kazushi Hosaka
Translated by Paul Warham
Dalkey Archive Press
176 pages; $17.95

Kazuchi Hosaka’s first novel Plainsong is full of characters who read like Japanese versions of Bret Easton Ellis’s narcissistic, directionless young Americans.

They seem trapped in limbo, on an aimless pursuit while an older generation overtakes them. They suffer from what you might call premature nostalgia, a Quixotic expectation, an empty yearning for something that doesn’t exist for their generation but was ever-present for generations before.

Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels.  They are, after all, an “in between” generation.

Hosaka was born 1956 within the same decade as two better-known Japanese authors: Haruki Murakami (IQ84 and Kafka on the Shore) and Ryu Murakami (Almost Transparent Blue and Coin Locker Babies). Haruki Murakami established himself as a literary giant with a distinctive style often aligned with magic realism (in Plainsong the nameless protagonist mentions that he once wrote an article about Haruki Murakami); Ryu Murakami writes about sex, drugs and the disenfranchised youth of Japan; Kazushi Hosaka, in contrast, has taken on the subtle and quiet themes of everyday people, exploring relationships with a delicacy and sensitivity that gives his writing a “naked” feel without being too revealing.

Hosaka’s prose is sparse and minimalist. His slender novel is a meandering journey, almost dream-like despite the plain, everyday details.  The action takes place in 1986 (when Hosaka would have been thirty). The nameless narrator’s girlfriend has just left him; he suddenly finds himself accumulating a steady stream of strange house guests.  The novel allows you to watch the characters through the eyes of the narrator, but does not allow you intimate access to their thoughts or feelings.  They are passing acquaintances; simple, transient people entering and exiting the reader’s field of view in the course of the novel.  At the end, they are easy to let go.  Like a passing satellite view – you’re there, then you’re gone and over different terrain.

Continue reading »

Dec 122011
 

Xu Xi (Photo by W. McGuire)

 

XU XI is the current (2009-2012) Faculty Chair of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program, an old friend, and colleague. This short story “Lady Day” is XU XI channeling Charles Dickens, at least to the extent that she originally wrote it for serial publication in the Hong Kong magazine Muse, much as Dickens did with his novels (serial publication, not in Hong Kong–in London–oh, the horror of dangling modifiers!). XU XI used to live in Plattsburgh, NY, and oscillate back and forth to New York. Often she would stop in Saratoga Springs, and she and dg would have coffee at a restaurant called  Scallions. There is less of that now, regrettably, since XU XI spends much more of her time in her native Hong Kong where she also teaches writing. DG misses those visits. But it is some consolation to be able to publish this lovely story, which, besides being in the magazine, also appears in XU XI’s brand new collection Access Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press, 2011). See early reviews of the book here http://www.susanbkason.com/2011/11/14/book-of-the-week-access/ and here at The Hindu.

XU XI is a Chinese-Indonesian Hong Kong native and the author of nine books of fiction and essays, including the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  In 2010 she was named Writer-in-Residence at the Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, where she established and directs the first international low-residency MFA in creative writing that focuses on Asia and writing of Asia. “Lady Day” was serialized in a three-part bilingual (Chinese/English) publication in Muse, Hong Kong, Issue 11, 2007 & Issues 12 & 13, 2008.

dg
.

Lady Day

by XU XI

.


It’s the stiff collar—tightly buttoned, covering the entire neck—that draws the eye to the lips. Makeup, high heels, and the walk are second nature; thighs—firm, barely, silkily there—flash through the fitting cheongsam’s side slits. Their glances, discreet or longing, slide up the leg, over the hip, away from the front and round back to where my black hair falls, like some endangered feline’s tail, long enough to sit on. I pass as easily here in Amsterdam as in New York, with less complications.

Medical complications are something else. Outwardly, nothing’s changed, not yet. But inwardly, I feel different, and know that the onset about which I’ve been warned has probably begun. There are things inside you can’t deny, and the best physicians and all the money in the world won’t yield the desired return.

Right now, though, I’ll live these nights, playacting a little longer. Tonight’s the “dynamic duo.” Double jeopardy, double the return. It’s their third transaction this week, the last night of their little “business trip” to the continent. They’re having the time of their life. Those boys obviously like my wares.

What I miss, what I’ll never get back, is the rush of control, the game of being her. Running the whole show on my terms. Many returned. Repeat business; Bernard taught me well.

Waan yuen, as Daddy might have said. Party’s over. No one to blame, not even Hewitt.

But most of all, I’ve missed daylight.

Continue reading »

Dec 122011
 

Herewith an excerpt from Plainsong, a novel by Kazushi Hosaka, translated from the Japanese by Paul Warham and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press. Plainsong was heralded by the Japan Times as a “laid-back celebration of the empty and the ordinary” that “reads like a Jean-Luc Godard movie scripted by Samuel Beckett with added jokes by Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.” NC’s reviewer, Brianna Berbenuik, writes: “Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels.  They are, after all, an ‘in between’ generation.”

dg

Excerpt from Plainsong

By Kazushi Hosaka

Translated by Paul Warham

 

All of this made me feel like talking things over with Yumiko again. I called her after lunch the next day from a phone booth near Ebisu station. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello, stranger. I’m just breast-feeding at the moment, actually.” I had to laugh—this seemed an odd way to start a conversation over the phone with someone who didn’t call more than once in a blue moon. But maybe she talked about this kind of thing with everybody.

“Don’t be silly—you’re not just anybody. But come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to work with anyone unless I felt comfortable talking to them about this kind of thing, so maybe it comes to the same thing. Maybe I do talk about it with just about everyone—everyone I know, anyway.” I had another question, though: how long was it normal to breast-feed a child for?

“I don’t know. I mean, my kid has been eating normal food for ages now. But I decided to keep on breast-feeding till he’s five.”

“Wow.”

“Didn’t I mention it before?” Yumiko asked, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “I think it’s good to provide a child with a strong maternal presence for as long as possible. Don’t they say it helps give a child a more optimistic outlook on life?”

“Who says so?”

“Ah, maybe I just made it up. Anyway, that’s what I think.”

I couldn’t imagine any child of hers being troubled by a pessimistic or gloomy outlook.

Continue reading »

Dec 092011
 

Herewith a lovely, meditative essay on the conjunction of poetry, memory, and childhood from Nancy Eimers. The essay draws its inspiration from Proust and the art constructions of Joseph Cornell and draws to a close with Mary Ruefle’s Now-It, an erasure book made from an antique children’s book about Snow White. Nancy Eimers is an old friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In March NC published poems from her new collection, Oz, published in January from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her three previous collections are A Grammar to Waking (Carnegie Mellon, 2006), No Moon (Purdue University Press, 1997) and Destroying Angel (Wesleyan University Press, 1991). She has been the recipient of a Nation “Discovery” Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships and a Whiting Writer’s Award, and her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.  Nancy teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

dg

 Charmed Objects: Poetry and Childhood

By Nancy Eimers

 

The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.  —John Ashbery

 

Image from Webmuseum at ibiblio

Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) is a brown box with metal handles on either side. Here is a list of its contents.

—blue cloth
—blue thumbtacks
—a map of the moon
—three glass discs
—light blue egg, in a cordial glass
—doll’s head, painted blue and gold
—three white wooden blocks
—white clay bubble pipe

Really, they are ordinary things, in one world or another.

If you visit Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, you must keep a distance.  You will not be allowed to open the box and play with the bubble pipe.  Not even if you bring a child.

Now, a look at the box.  But not an image.  Words are the medium here.

Oh roundnesses you can feel in the palm of the hand. The moon’s at the center, silvery blue, and dominates.  Carte Geographique de la Lune.  The doll’s head, cheeks scarred, has been smiling now for how many years?  Also a silvery blue, the doll and the egg are bathed in the thought of the moon.  The discs of glass are laid at the floor of the box; if you picked one up, the rim might cut your hand.  Every circle is synonym to a bubble: doll’s head, egg, bowl of the pipe.  Even the craters of the moon.  One of the books Cornell loved was a series of lectures delivered in 1890 by a scientist, C. V. Boys, to an audience of children, on soap bubbles.  You cannot pour water from a jug or tea from a tea-pot; you cannot even do anything with a liquid of any kind, without setting in action the forces to which I am about to direct your attention.

 Image from Rocaille

I haven’t seen that soap-bubble box except in a book, but I’ve seen Untitled (Forgotten Game) in Chicago’s Art Institute.  A pinball-like game of a box with holes behind which there are pictures of birds cut out from the pages of old books.  Inside the box there are ramps down which a ball is meant to slide.  If you could open the little door at the top and insert a blue rubber ball, if the ball were to slide down the ramps and reached the bottom, a bell would ring.  That it doesn’t ring is part of a terrible sweetness.

Forgotten game, blue-silver moon, recessed birds, egg in a cordial glass, to what forces have you drawn our attention?

“Perhaps what one wants to say,” said sculptor Barbara Hepworth, “is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent in trying to say it?”

 *

I remember a gaudy, jeweled pin worn by my grandmother.  I say “gaudy,” but I didn’t think it was gaudy then.  Costume jewelry is made of less valuable materials including base metals, glass, plastic, and synthetic stones, in place of more valuable materials such as precious metals and gems, explains Wikipedia helpfully.  But I hadn’t read and wouldn’t have been helped by this sentence then.  The jewels, their blue and pink sparkles, enchanted me.  They seemed almost to say, there is this other world.  The pin is lost forever, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers somewhere between Oz and Kansas.  But I feel the pull of a former feeling, not subject to reason, proportion, knowledge of anything likely/unlikely to happen.  In memory, where I am holding it in my hand, the invented and the real haven’t quite parted ways.  You can’t get beauty.  Still, says Jean Valentine, in its longing it flies to you.

I think this will not be an argument but a meditation—held together by asterisks, little stars—on how charmed objects, long lost, come back sometimes in poetry, present only as words, touchstone, rabbit’s foot, amulet, merrythought, calling us back, calling us forth.  What are they, now that we’ve lost them?

*

The Child Is Reading the Almanac

The child is reading the almanac beside her basket of eggs.
And, aside from the Saints’ days and the weather forecasts,
she contemplates the beautiful heavenly signs.
Goat, Bull, Ram, Fish, etcetera.

Thus, she is able to believe, this little peasant child,
that above her, in the constellations,
there are markets with donkeys,
bulls, rams, goats, fish.

Doubtless she is reading of the market of Heaven.
And, when she turns the page to the sign of the Scales,
she says to herself that in Heaven, as in the grocery store,
they weigh coffee, salt and consciences.

In an almanac there are moons, full and half and quarter, and there are new moons that look like black moons.  There are meteor showers, tides and eclipses.  Signs of the zodiac.  Questions of the Day.  Why is the ring finger sometimes called the medical finger?  Weather predictions.  Three misty mornings indicate rain.  Fact and prediction, the seen and the unseen intermingle; the strange is detected in the commonplace, and the commonplace in strangeness.  No wonder the child in this early twentieth century poem by French poet Francis Jammes has been tempted to set down her basket and read.

Jammes “wrote of simple, everyday things,” says the introductory paragraph on the torn yellow book jacket of my copy of his Selected Poems.  And inside the book, in the introduction, Rene Vallery-Radot marvels, “From a little provincial town there rises a voice that ignores all the gods, that tells of life simply, not at all systematized in theories.”  In a photograph just inside the cover Jammes, an old man in round black glasses and a long wispy beard, looks down at a page he is writing on.  For all we know he was writing this almanac poem. The child must have stopped on her way to or from the market (to sell the eggs? having just bought them?).  Perhaps she wonders if even an egg, like the animals in the market, has its counterpart in the stars.  The wondrous almanac testifies that as things are on earth, so they must be in heaven: how miraculous, how natural, that Heaven resembles an earthly grocery store on this most ordinary of days!

Still, Jammes remembers enough not to oversimplify, or presume.  On earth, scales are also associated metaphorically with justice, even by a child.  And like any child, this one must have done something, committed or contemplated committing some small act, a rebellion or peccadillo for which, in some small way, she’d paid, or feared to pay.  She spoke harshly to the donkey.  Maybe she broke an egg.  She dawdled on the way to the market.  Whatever it is, she keeps it secret.  Let us not trespass.

*

It is because I believed in things and in people while I walked along those paths that the things and the people they made known to me are the only ones that I still take seriously and that still bring me joy.  Whether it is because the faith which creates has ceased to exist in me, or because reality takes shape in the memory alone, the flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to me to be true flower. —Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

In her autobiographical story “In the Village,” Elizabeth Bishop invents or remembers this from her childhood:

We pass Mrs. Peppard’s house.  We pass Mrs. McNeil’s house.  We pass Mrs. Geddes’s house.  We pass Hill’s store.

The store is high, and a faded gray-blue, with tall windows, built on a long, high stoop of gray-blue cement with an iron hitching railing along it.  Today, in one window there are big cardboard easels, shaped like houses—complete houses and houses with the roofs lifted off to show glimpses of the rooms inside, all in different colors—with cans of paint in pyramids in the middle. But they are an old story.  In the other window is something new: shoes, single shoes, summer shoes, each sitting on top of its own box with its mate beneath it, inside, in the dark.

The child is bereaved, though she doesn’t entirely know what this means.  It is for her too new a story.  Her father—her mother’s mate—like one of those shoes, has been closed inside a box of his own, but forever, unlike the shoes.  This story is one of those houses with its roof lifted off, so the writer, so we, may look inside.  But we may not enter.

Memory affords glimpses: of a flower, a doll or a shoe in a box, a marble rolling comet-like across the floor.  “My life,” writes Tomas Transtromer:

Thinking these words, I see before me a streak of light.  On closer inspection it has the form of a comet, with head and tail.  The brightest end, the head, is childhood and growing up.  The nucleus, the densest part, is infancy, that first period, in which the most important features of our life are determined.  I try to remember, I try to penetrate there.  But it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.

Maybe it is important not to explicate our childhoods.  Or simply, merely impossible?  Cornell, from a journal entry, May 13, 1944:

 . . . stopped by pond of waterworks with cool sequestered landscaping—gardens & here had one of profoundest experiences + renewal of spirit associated with childhood evoked by surroundings—it seemed to go deep through this strong sense of persistence in the lush new long grass—the most prominent feature turned out to be “no trespassing” sign

Water, hiddenness, the cool, such things return for a moment from—exactly when and where?  What did it look like there? We can’t quite know, we can’t see inside.  No trespassing.   But the grass is/was lush.

Talking about her younger brother Joseph, Betty Cornell Benton recalls this scrap from their childhood:

Late one night he woke me, shivering awfully, and asked to sit on my bed.  He was  in the grips of a panic from the sense of infinitude and the vastness of space as he was becoming aware of it from studying astronomy.

From an earthly point of view, a comet is stationary, seen at night—then remembered in daylight—then seen—then remembered—over the rooftops.  It is there for a time.  Star with a wake of light.  Then it is gone.  That too is remembered.

*

“Stove” is one of the six end-words of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.”  A Little Marvel. Brand new, that model would have been painted silver.  Through daily use, it would have grayed; open the door and it would be blackened inside.  MARVEL: the name is on the door.  It dominates like the map of the moon in Cornell’s soap bubble box.  Above, below, on either side there are swirls and curlicues forged in the cast-iron, resembling serious, stirred up clouds.  It has four legs, curving outward, stubby and braced.  In an early twentieth century village, a stove was a daily thing in anyone’s house, but to a child it must have seemed marvelous, like Saturn’s rings.

I have only seen photographs of the Marvel; but they were not photographs of the real thing.  All I found was a salesman’s sample, 16 inches high, still advertised on eBay but already sold.  That ship had sailed.  And a toy Little Marvel, complete with two ovens, burners and lifters.  Nickel plating over cast iron.  All complete and in very good all original condition.

A child in me is entranced.

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

House.  Grandmother.  Child.  Stove.  Almanac.  Tears.   Six end-words, like miniatures on a bracelet.  (Even the tears have their charm.)  Each time the words, all nouns, come back, they are in their original form—no juggling with word play or parts of speech, no punning or homonyms.  Simple words, like primary colors, or figures from an old storybook.

Or they are like comets, passing before us seven times from the early twentieth century, Great Village, Nova Scotia.  As in the story “In the Village,” there is death at the nucleus.

tears/house/almanac/grandmother/stove/child
child/tears/stove/house/grandmother/almanac

And so on.  In the ordinary world a grandmother is trying to amuse a child.  Each time a word comes around again it feels sadder.  Even tears get sadder; the teakettle weeps, the teacup fills with dark brown tears.  To the grandmother, tears are recurring, equinoctial. The child senses something.  Unspoken grief is working its magic: the almanac begins to resemble a bird; the stove gets philosophical; the world grows cold.  The almanac knows what it knows but won’t say what.  How much does the child know, what is she warding off?  The poet senses something.  Does the child miss the man in the drawing?  How much can even Bishop have known of the child she was?  “Early Sorrow” was the poem’s original title.  Then withdrawn.  Explication fails, or it is irrelevant.  The child sees little moons in the almanac fall down like tears.  The poem ends, as it began, in present tense.  The child draws another inscrutable house.

That moment of wonder and puzzlement goes on orbiting but it is in the past, forever out of reach.  So are the stove and the almanac, ancient tears, the worried grandmother and the inscrutable child.  All in the past, except for the house in Great Village.  (. . . it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.)  That house is still there.  You can visit it; you can go inside; you can even arrange to stay.

*

In her art review of the Ann Arbor exhibition “Secret Spaces of Childhood,” Margaret Price describes certain characteristics of childhood hide-outs:

Almost always the entrance to a secret space is guarded, to protect the privacy and sometimes the fragility of what lies inside. . . .  Moving through the doorway into the space itself is often a rite of passage, and often the point of access is the most highly charged area of the whole secret space: usually elusive, always exciting, and sometimes dangerous.  Often they, or their entrances, are small . . . . being small of stature confers the privilege of access.  A hideout cannot function for a person too large to fit into it.  On the other hand, a child’s small size is a    passing attribute, and children know it.

Peering into the windows of a dollhouse, I feel almost an ache of pleasure.  I think this has to do with its smallness; the feeling is paradoxical.   I am charmed by the inaccessibility; and I yearn to be small enough to step inside.  If I could grow small enough to enter, the house and furniture would no longer seem miniaturized to mini-me and so would have lost their mystery; but I might find among the toys in its nursery (for in a dollhouse there is almost always a nursery) a tiny dollhouse, and who knows, perhaps an even tinier dollhouse inside of that dollhouse’s nursery, and so on and so on, as if longing were satisfyingly infinite.

Is remoteness integral to a certain kind of charm?  In a silk-lined box I keep my charm bracelet, a mercury-head dime and a single clip-on pearl earring.  I know they are there, but I hardly ever look.  I like the look of the hinge that fastens the lid.

from the Art Institute of Chicago

On the basement floor of the Art Institute in Chicago you can visit the Thorne Rooms, a permanent exhibit of miniature rooms behind glass.  These aren’t so much dollhouses as interiors, 68 rooms that, “painstakingly constructed,” as the museum website explains, “enable one to glimpse elements of European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930′s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930′s.”  The rooms contain exact reproductions of period furniture, carpets, wallpaper, chandeliers, other objects—all somehow failing to interest me, I finally realized with some disappointment the last time I visited.  Perhaps it was more petulance I felt than disappointment; I had come in the spirit of a former child, and being there felt more like studying than play.

What bewitched me, though, were the windows.  Out every window there was a view—an exterior—tiny, intricate gardens with bushes and flowers; patios; benches; trees; and an artificial light from a source that wasn’t visible.  I started over, room by room, looking not at interiors but out the windows, craning my neck to see as much as I could; it was tantalizing, I couldn’t see everything.  Shining faintly into miniature rooms in the basement of a grand museum, the light seemed remote, a late-fall, old-world light.  Out of every window of every one of the 68 rooms was a little world a child might just have begun imagining . . . .

Or perhaps it was simpler, perhaps I just wanted to be inside looking out.  In fact, it occurs to me that may be why (at least in part) I’m so happy when it snows: as opposed to looking into dollhouses or the windows of other people’s lighted homes at night, I finally feel as if I’m inside something.

*

A charm is a miniature object worn on a bracelet.  A sombrero.  A bell.  I am childless, who will I give it to?  You can’t hear the tinkling of the tiny bell for the tinkling of the bracelet when you pick it up.  The use of the word charm as trinket did not occur (was not recorded) until 1865.  But charm has meant “pleasing” since the 1590′s.

It wasn’t until Elizabeth Bishop arrived in Brazil and found herself, for a time, enormously happy, that she began to be able to write of her childhood in Great Village.  She says in a letter to friends, “It is funny to come to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia—geography must be more mysterious than we realize, even.”

Of course she meant some geography of the interior.

Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be. —Marcel Proust

*

Ghost stories written as algebraic equations.  Little Emily at the
blackboard is very frightened. The X’s look like a graveyard at night. The
teacher wants her to poke among them with a piece of chalk. All the children
hold their breath. The white chalk squeaks once among the plus and minus
signs, and then it’s quiet again.

This is an untitled prose poem from Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End.  I have been that child, puzzling over the signs and portents on the blackboard, messages sent by way of math, of grammar, or even handwriting, strange row of continuous l‘s or o‘s.  In a way, it seems like a minute ago.  Did the teachers know how wildly some of us may been mistranslating what they were writing on the board?  Numbers especially, and their plusses and minuses, went beyond the explanations of words, beyond even paragraphs.  I am a teacher myself now, though white boards and dry erase markers have replaced the powdery chalk.  I am still a little frightened, like Emily, standing in front of the class.  The white boards haven’t solved or eliminated the mystery, yesterday’s propositions, assertions, and mistakes still lurking under today’s.

Though the blackboards of my childhood were almost always green, the first blackboards were black, made of slate.  For a newer generation of blackboards, the color green was chosen because it was believed it would be easier on the eyes.  As for the chalk, I can still feel the powder on my hands as I lay it back in one of the crevices of the metal rim.  I had been asked to do a problem on the board.  Or to outline a sentence.  Or maybe I hadn’t touched it at all but was sitting at my desk, watching my teacher, mentally tracing the swoops of her hand (his hand) as it held the chalk.  Oh mysteries of the chalkboard’s palimpsest, yesterday’s sums or sentences only half-erased.  And let us not forget the mystery of the chalk itself, composed partly of limestone, the sum of fossilized sea animals.

*

Vivien Greene, whose family moved repeatedly when she was a child, devoted much of her adult life to the study, collection, and restoration of Victorian dollhouses.  She had seen her own beloved house in London bombed and split open in the Blitz.  It seems that rift was decisive: after that she and her husband (the novelist Graham Greene) permanently lived apart.  (Graham, who wasn’t interested, said Vivien, in either her dollhouses or domesticity, had already formed what they used to call “another establishment.”)  “Houses have influenced my life deeply,” wrote Vivien Greene in a brief essay called “The Love of Houses”; “They have entered into dreams, made me stand enraptured, suddenly in unexpected places, filled me with a longing to possess; or they occasionally frighten.”  Fear of . . . bombs?  Of ghosts, of moving yet again?  She doesn’t explain.  In the evenings during the war, she used to sit behind blackout curtains working on her dollhouses, tearing down old wallpaper, adding the new.  Greene was the author of several excellent books on vintage English dollhouses.  They are filled with exquisitely old-fashioned and discursive descriptions of staircases, windows, doorways, furniture, even the crockery.  At one point, she writes, apropos of nothing,

 As some people ask and need to be stripped of ownership, so we can believe others are hardly fully alive, complete as persons, until certain material things, a horse, a place, a boat, have been loved and owned and afterwards remembered.

*

“In the lyric you can stop time,” said Ellen Bryant Voigt in an interview; “you pick that moment of intensity and hold it. The narrative moves through time.”  In Michael Burkard’s poem “The Sea” nothing really happens.  There is instead a kind of lyrical parallelism that advances no narrative but deepens the shades of emotion.

It could have been worse but for the sea. The watch of it. What was it
Chekhov wrote?—”Self same sea”—Yes. Yes. It was there, as was my mother’s
family, in Nova Scotia. There beyond the sloping meadow near Aunt Dorothy’s
farm, there from Cousin George’s kitchen window. The sea and its often daily fog
permeated everyone, everything. And because there was no electricity in those
days, only candles, lantern light, and no plumbing, it seemed almost a sea more in
the air than in the sea. You could not shut it out.

The poem travels sideways, or inward.  Certain words appearing numerous times, sea, there, now, as if, become on one level sheer sound, a force, a mystery.  They don’t so much stop the moment as return to its vivid pastness, over and over again.  There is something bygone and sepia about the scene described.  “There” suggests something in existence but away.   The landmarks in the poem are family names, a meadow, a kitchen window.  And the sea.  Which is also a kind of weather, an intrusive force or guest.  The residents of the poem are mired there, in a world miniaturized by memory.  Here is the rest of the poem:

And the lanterns we ate by, sat by—how small! Yet this permeated as much as
the sea, as much as the fog from the field, the conversion of one cowbell to
another cowbell in the fog, the red-yellow light flickering, now against a deck of
cards, now against faces and hands playing the cards, now being carried with one
or by one off to sleep. Sleep by the sea, as if the sleep were to last a thousand
years, as if the summer were a medium for color which could become
permanently framed, wearing only so slowly for another thousand years. Self
same lantern light shadows, sea and shadow of sea, and her face there, a thousand
years ago, only to be seen a thousand years hence and then to stay beside her face
for as long as ever is.

The fog doesn’t so much occur as seem always to have been; the family members play cards, listen to sounds, fall asleep.  Memory’s village: perhaps everything wasn’t always filmed over with sadness?  “A thousand years” means one thing to a child looking forward, and something else to an adult looking back.  Is the face that appears the face of the speaker’s mother?  On one side is there and ago, on the other hence and ever.  Stay is not an accomplishment but a plea.  Ever: at all times; always.  Matched by is, the moment stopped in time.  He doesn’t say “forever,” though.  He is, we are, outside the time that is “as long as ever”; it is already over.

Cowbells, by the way, come in various colors and sizes, but the ones I hear in the poem sound silver, and tarnished.

*

We move through time, like characters in a story.  The objects we loved with intensity seem timeless.  Is this because we let them go?  And yet, resurrecting the thought of them, don’t loss and accomplishment co-exist?  The story goes on and we go with it, but part of the story is what we’ve lost.  In “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Zbigniew Herbert asks forgiveness from three charmed objects:

Truly my betrayal is great and hard to forgive
for I do not remember either the day or the hour
when I abandoned you friends of my childhood . . . .

His “friends” are: a pen with a silver nib, illustrious Mr. Ink, and a blessed lamp:

when I speak of you
I would like it to be
as if I were hanging an ex-voto
on a shattered altar

Herbert’s elegy might as easily be to a soap-bubble, or a forgotten game.  But not to the story that edited them out.

I thought then
that before the deluge it was necessary
to save
one
thing
small
warm faithful

so it continues further
with ourselves inside it as in a shell

There is that moment when we touch something for the last time.  But the child can’t know, as Herbert says, still addressing his “friends,” that “you were leaving forever / / and that it will be dark.”  Against that dark, the poem saves one thing, something that, reimagined, paradoxically remains miniaturized but it holds us: it is we who dwell within.

But before we leave that dark, W. G. Sebald has something else to say about it:

. . . in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air. . . .

Some yearning of the child’s imagination, Sebald suggests, forged those patterns of meaning in the flights of swallows.  If, like the swallows that have diminished in number, some freshness in our early imaginings gets lost along the way, poetry yearns for the “half-created” in things we once perceived.  A Marvel stove, school chalk, cowbells, a blessed lamp, a silver nib, things that once ordered the dark—or were ordered by it.  If nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, still, isn’t there something swallow-like and mysterious in our yearning, resistant yet integral to the very passage of time?  Poetry imagines the traceries that might once again hold things together, lost possessions, past and present, worlds real and imagined.  It restores the lost moment, shoe, cowbell, basket of eggs or blessed lamp, utterly itself; it is we who are changed, because we know it is lost.

* (last little star)

In Now-It, a collage-and-erasure book Mary Ruefle made out of an old children’s book called Snow White or the House in the Wood, she has pasted the words “the cry of the button” beside the picture of a streaking comet.  Oh you here and there, you cry and streak, all that’s precious in the commonplace!  Now that button and comet have found each other, the child in me believes nothing more need be said.

—Nancy Eimers

———————————————

Works Cited

Art Institute of Chicago, website on Thorne Rooms.

Ashbery, John. “Joseph Cornell,” Art News, summer 1967.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “In the Village,” in The Collected Prose.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.  261-2.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “Sestina,” The Complete Poems.  New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 1983.  123.

Boys, C.V.  Soap-Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them.  Memphis: General Books, 2010 (reprinted).

Burkard, Michael, “The Sea,” My Secret Boat.  New York: Norton, 1990.  22.

Cornell, Betty Benton, quoted in A Joseph Cornell Album, Dore Ashton, author.  New York: De Capo Press, 1944.

Cornell, Joseph. Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files.  Ed. Mary

Ann Caws. : New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.  105.

Greene, Vivien.  English Dolls’ Houses of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.  23.

Greene, Vivien.  “The Love of Houses,” The Independent (London), Nov. 29, 1998.

Hepworth, Barbara.  From notebooks.  Quoted in Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Museum, St. Ives.

Herbert, Zbigniew, “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Elegy for the Departure.  Trans.  John and Bogdana Carpenter.  Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1999. 127-132.

Jammes, Francis.  “A Child is Reading the Almanac,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes.  Trans. Barry Gifford and Bettina Dickie.  Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.  23.

Price, Margaret.  “Secret Spaces of Childhood: An Exhibition of Remembered Hide-Outs,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2000.  248-278.

Proust, Marcel.  Remembrance of Things Past: 1.  Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.  New York: Penguin, 1954.

Ruefle, Mary.  Now-It.  Carol Haenicke Women’s Poetry Collection, Rare Book Room, Western Michigan University.

Sebald, W. G.  The Rings of Saturn.  Trans. Michael Hulce.  New York: New Directions, 1999.  67.

Simic, Charles.  “Ghost stories written,” The World Doesn’t End.  Boston: Mariner Books, 1989.  13.

Transtromer, Tomas.   For the Living and the Dead: New Poems and a Memoir. Hopewell, NJ:  Ecco, 1995.  25.

Valentine, Jean.  “Then Abraham,” Break the Glass.  Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2010.  16.

Vallery-Radot, Rene.  Quoted in Introduction,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant.  Inteview, The Atlantic Online, Nov. 24, 1999.

Dec 082011
 

Is it possible to film a dance piece with a corpse as a dancer?

Bravo!Fact describes Pedro Pires’s “Danse Macabre” as “The intimate journey of a body after its death.” Pire elaborates: “For a period of time, while we believe it to be perfectly still, lifeless flesh responds, stirs and contorts in a final macabre ballet. Are these spasms merely erratic motions or do they echo the chaotic twists and turns of a past life?”

The camera moves more than any body does in this film. And, indeed, for the first major shots, there is an absence of bodies, life instead represented by the flutter and dart of birds caught inside cathedral ceilings and hallways. We don’t see the body in question until it lurches from a chair and is suddenly hanging from the ceiling. It is the largest movement this body will make and the most violent as it marks the end of a life, though not the last time the body will fall.

The only body we get then is an abject body which soon turns fluid in ways that disgust and horrify: the dance of bubbling embalming fluid, the blossoming of blood in water draining from the autopsy table, and the body’s rigor mortis contortions. The film finds beauty in all this. In one section, an underwater ballet, the dancer’s dress and gestures resemble blood staining water, then the shape of her turns almost uncannily in utero, glancing back to birth.

And then the shot fades to a heart in a glass jar. The body is all these things on its way to becoming none.

In another section, as the body is lowered to the autopsy table, there is grace, edged with something unspeakably almost like longing in its repose, where the body touches the earth with one torqued foot, then one slack hand dragging the table, each a last tenuous connection to this earthly plane.

There’s a long tradition of representing “Danse Macabre” in painting where it is usually represented with a group of people, usually from different walks of life, to emphasize that death has dominion over everyone – no one escapes.

In another film representation of the “danse,” the final shots of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, death drags the characters along the hillside, they fight his pull, a chain of suffering, and still a dance.

If these images of “Danse Macabre” signify that no one escapes death, they also, perhaps, suggest that because no one escapes we are connected to others in this experience.

But not for Pires’s dead dancer. For her, death is reached alone. No other body, no one else ever enters the frame. The coroner, the undertaker, loved ones of the deceased, anyone that might have come into contact with the body . . . they are all absent. The body is always alone except in the flash montage of photographic images we see once the body has been lowered to the autopsy table. There are images of the body alive, dancing, and an image of a child. We see fragments of a life which just further emphasize how alone this body is now in death.

The film is built from an idea by the Canadian artist extraordinaire Robert Lepage who Pire worked with on Lepage’s Possible Worlds.

Pedro Pire’s second short film, Hope, also produced with the Phi Films collective, just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Promotional material describes it as “Inspired by the play JIMMY, CRÉATURE DE RÊVE by critically acclaimed playwright Marie Brassard. . . [it] explores the fragmented violence of war seen through the eyes of a General on his deathbed. Accustomed to a life on the battlefield, he surrenders to a stream of consciousness, mixing death, brutality, and finally, one last gesture of hope.”

– R W Gray

Dec 072011
 

“Arise and Go Now” is an exquisitely written short story, also sad and funny and a beautiful character study. It has a deft exactness, a precise forward progression. Nothing is wasted. The identification of the mother/friend is clear and poignant. And, because dg knows the author, all the more poignant.

Sheridan is an old friend, dating back to the time dg used to teach novel-writing at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College when she charmed him by drawing a map of Australia in the air with her fingers and said it was her heart. She is Australian, he is Canadian—they shared a common background in the colonies.

Sheridan Hay holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her first novel, The Secret of Lost Things (Doubleday/Anchor), was a Booksense Pick, A Barnes and Noble Discover selection, short listed for the Border’s Original Voices Fiction Prize, and nominated for the International Impac Award. A San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and a New York Times Editor’s Choice, foreign rights have been sold in fourteen countries.  Sheridan is currently teaching Moby Dick at The Center for Fiction in Manhattan.

dg
.

Arise and Go Now

By Sheridan Hay

.

Cathleen gave me the money to take on the plane — ten thousand dollars in cash.  I was to take it back to New York and give it to the Polish woman who cleaned her studio apartment.  She took out bundles of American dollars from a yellow padded postbag, the money so fresh and crisp it looked fake — a prop in a movie, or the haul from a bank heist.

“You shouldn’t have all that money in the house,” I told her.  She didn’t lock her door in Clare, and I’d had to ask the neighbor to knock before he wandered in with the newspaper at seven every morning.

“Sure, I’ve no more use for it,” Cathleen said.  “I like giving it away.”

She handed me a packet of cash, more than I’d held in my life, and changed the subject.

“That book on Courbet you bought me, love.  I know you meant well, but I’ve decided I hate Courbet.  The Desperate Man and all that — he’s not authentic.”

“Well, you’d be the one to know all right.”

She smiled.

“I’m more authentic with every passing day,” she said, but a shadow crossed her face, and she lay back on the pillows.

The money was cold in my hand.  I pushed the padded envelope, with more than fifty thousand remaining, back under her bed.  The ten thousand I wrapped in a crumpled plastic grocery bag and stuffed into my purse.

I would take it home to New York, I would do as she asked, and leave her to herself.

Continue reading »

Dec 062011
 

Here’s a lovely, wistful addition to Numéro Cinq‘s amazing collection of Childhood essays. Liz Blood grew up in Oklahoma amongst siblings and dogs. But this essay focuses on the universal passage from innocence to knowledge, the sad realization that idylls of childhood are shadowed by the opaque mysteries of adulthood. You grow up wondering, always, what you didn’t know, didn’t understand, at the time. Liz is a nonfiction student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She teaches English at a school in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea. See her “What it’s like living here” essay published earlier on these pages.

dg

 

Childhood

By Liz Blood

Nixon

A neighborhood black Labrador made puppies with a neighborhood Dalmatian and the litter was up for grabs. My mother piled us—me, eight; Emily, six; Rebecca, four; John, two—into the metallic brown Mercury she drove then and we headed down the street towards the park. I hung my head and arm out the passenger window and, as we rounded the corner to the blonde-brick two-story, I saw him. Nixon—though he didn’t yet have that name—an all black puppy, running nonstop circles around the inside of a small, white wire-fenced pen. If my mother had taken any hints from this rambunctiousness, they were quickly ignored. We squealed in delight at this puppy, and squealed even louder when, after coaxing him onto his back with lots of petting, we discovered of a diamond-shaped tuft of white hair on his chest. This settled it, he was special in our eyes, and we took him home to the backyard.

It’s always been a dog backyard. Before Nixon we had Chevis and Bianca and Goth, but they all were old and soon would need replacing. Nixon was unlike any of those dogs, however. Where they were calm in their old age (the only ages at which I knew them), Nixon continued to act like a puppy long after he no longer looked like one. And I disliked him for this. His tail hurt when it wagged against your leg and it was always wagging. He bounded through the house if we didn’t confine him to the kitchen and, later, he became a chronic fence jumper. I suppose he had neighborhood gallivanting in his blood—after all, that is how he came to be. And even though I wanted to leave the backyard, to go beyond the fence, I couldn’t understand his need to do so. What did Nixon do out there among the wanderers? Did he mingle with the transients who asked for bus money? Did he run with the children on their way home from school? My parents warned if he did it again after so many times, they would not pick him up from the pound. I envisioned doggy gas chambers and wished he would just stay in the yard.

Continue reading »

Dec 052011
 

 

 

 

 ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— John Keats

Chlamydomonas is my favorite “model organism.” It is a small green alga that is one of a handful of unlikely organisms that serve science by acting as proxies for the human body. Scientists don’t pick so-called model organisms for exceptional evolutionary achievement and there is no scientific catwalk of gorgeous creatures. Some scientists do exclaim over the beauty of these creatures, but really. Pond scum? Writhing white round worms? Slime mold? The truth is, model organisms are a haphazard lot that scientists select from the teeming crowds because of quirks that make them useful for laboratory research. They are useful and as we work with them we come to know them.

 

Thank Evolution

Life on Earth emerged relatively soon (0.7 billion years) after our Solar System formed and it has been evolving ever since (i.e. for 3.8 billion years). Because all of life on Earth shares fundamental biochemical pathways, it is likely that we are all descended from a common ancestor – presumably the most robust of the emergent life forms.  This commonality means that studies of almost any organism can shed light on the others.

In this Tree of Life diagram the centre represents the last common ancestor of all life on earth. Pink are the eukaryotes (plants, animals and fungi); blue are the bacteria and green are the archea. Humans are second from the rightmost edge of the pink segment. The species included in this illustration are those whose genomes have been sequenced. (Courtesy of FD Ciccarelli).

 

When word gets out that an organism is well suited to a particular type of experiment other scientists interested in related problems begin using this species for their work. Over time, we learn a great deal about the organism and along the way we develop an array of experimental tools to study it. With the application of these tools, the organism expands its repertoire of usefulness to science. In other words, a few assets and a great deal of happenstance get the ball rolling. As our knowledge of an organism and our skill in working with it increase, the organism becomes established as a model.

.

Microscopic Models

E. coli, the infamous gut microbe variants of which can wreak havoc with human health, grows rapidly and is one of the easiest beasts to study in the lab. It and a few other bacteria serve as models for understanding microbial-based pathogenesis. They also serve as tools for the experimental dissection of fundamental biochemical processes. From these studies we have learned that although bacteria are small, they are surprisingly sophisticated and are by no means simpler versions of us. They branched off early and have taken a different evolutionary path than us. Because of this divergence, E. coli is of limited use as a model organism for understanding how human cells work.

 

Electron microscopic image of E. coli  courtesy of MediaWiki

We tend to think of ourselves as more highly evolved than, well, everything else. This is a strange idea given that every living thing has an evolutionary history as long as ours. We confuse evolutionary longevity with complexity. While we are no more highly evolved than any other being on Earth, we are arguably the most complex beings in an evolutionary lineage that specializes in complexity, a lineage we call the eukaryotes.

Around two billion years ago, by a process that seems to have involved some early cells engulfing other early cells and them all coming to live in peaceful co-existence, the eukaryotic lineage was born. These larger and considerably more complex cells, containing what have since become nuclei and mitochondria, allowed a blossoming of innovation, including complex multicellularity.

YouTube Preview Image

Under conditions of starvation, free living single cells of the slime mold Dictyostelium crawl towards one another. Eventually they aggregate into a slug-like creature that crawls around for a bit. Cells that find themselves in different parts of the slug differentiate into specialized types and together the community of cells (organism?) forms a base, a stalk and a fruiting body to launch spores (towards the end of this clip you can see the base and stalk on the left, the fruiting body filled with hopeful spores is just off screen to the left)..

Yeast

Fungi, plants, and animals, we are all eukaryotes.  We are certainly different from one another, yet we are related closely enough that our genes are sometimes interchangeable. In a dramatic demonstration of this fact, Paul Nurse and Melanie Lee used a human gene to replace an essential gene in a single-celled fungus, a variety of yeast that is used in Africa to brew beer. [1]

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the budding yeast, is another microscopic fungus, the predominant yeast that we have been using for brewing and baking for something like 10,000 years. Like the fission yeast used by Nurse, the budding yeast grows rapidly and we are adept at manipulating its growth and life cycle in the lab. Yeast is a strikingly good model organism for a growing array of cellular processes, including cell division.

YouTube Preview Image
Dividing yeast cells courtsey of the Salmon Lab, University of North Carolina

.

Yeast has proven itself so useful that hundreds of independent laboratories from around the world use it as a model organism. These scientists have developed sophisticated technologies that allow them to probe deep into the workings of cellular processes such as cell growth and division.

Cell growth and division may look simple, but consider what is being accomplished:  cells grow and divide in just the right balance to maintain cell size within a limited range – too much division with not enough growth produces wee cells and vice versa. Cells must be able to assess their own size and then divide with exquisite precision.  Cell division is not initiated until each strand of DNA is completely copied once and only once. Each daughter cell receives precisely one copy of each chromosome along with a share of mitochondria and other essential organelles. The more we learn about the molecular machines that control and execute these feats, the more stunning it all becomes. The mysteries are deeper with every layer that is pulled back.   And the relevance to humans is unambiguous: cancer is cell division control gone awry.

YouTube Preview Image

Dance of the chromosomes: vertebrate cell division

As useful as yeast continues to be, there are some questions for which yeast is of no use at all. We tend to think of evolution as a process of acquiring ever more fancy ways of doing more and doing it better, but often it goes the other way. When conditions change, structures that previously served a purpose may no longer be of any use. Because it costs energy to build structures, individuals with a mutation that prevent the structures from being built can put the saved energy into other things – breeding being an eternal favorite. Such was the case in the deep caves of Mexico where light does not penetrate. After generations in complete darkness, a fish known as the Mexican cave Tetra no longer has eyes.

Like the eyeless Mexican Tetra, yeast is a bit weird in that it is a stripped down little creature. Over evolutionary time, yeast has lost some features, presumably because the cells have adapted to environmental niches where these features are of no use.  Among the attributes that yeast lost are cilia, small hair-like structures that protrude from the surface of the cell.

How do we know that one lineage (e.g. yeast) lost something (cilia) as opposed to the possibility that the thing never developed in that lineage to begin with? We know because cilia appear in all major branches of the eukaryotes and in each case they are fundamentally the same, built from the same complex array of molecules assembled in the same way by the same molecular machinery.  The last common ancestor of plants, animals and fungi was a single-celled organism with cilia.

.

How I Met Chlamydomonas

Chlamydomonas is a unicellular organism that has some of the attributes that recommend yeast, with the bonus that it has retained its cilia. This microscopic green alga is found worldwide living in soils, ponds and even on snow. All they need is light, water and a few minerals – they grow well in a flask of fertilized water on a windowsill. Specific cellular traits have made Chlamydomonas a valuable model for energy capture (photosynthesis of crop plants, biofuels and artificial leaves), cellular stress responses, mechanisms of evolution, and an array of human genetic diseases. Although I now use Chlamydomonas as a model organism to study the biology of cilia, that is not where my relationship with this cell began.

I first met Chlamydomonas in 1988 when I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation research in genetics and biochemistry at the University of Connecticut. I was part of a team trying to understand how the leaves of the majestic Rain Tree fold up at night (to conserve water) and unfurl in the morning (to capture sunlight).[2]

At night the cells on the inside of each tiny elbow of the leaf shrivel while those on the outside expand, causing the elbow to bend and the leaves to fold. Each morning the process reverses, the elbows straighten and the leaves unfold. We were interested in how these cellular shape changes were controlled by a circadian clock.  Sapling trees kept in the dark for days at a time continue to fold and unfold their leaves in time with the changing light outside.


We were testing the hypothesis that a particular biochemical pathway was involved in coupling the cellular shape changes to the circadian clock. The work involved growing sapling trees in large light-controlled growth chambers, harvesting the tiny elbows and incubating them in small vials of radioactive fertilizer, where they would continue to bend and stretch even while detached from the plant. After the elbows had taken up and incorporated the radioactivity into their cells, we would carefully dissect the inside of the elbow away from the outside of the elbow, freezing each section of tissue on dry ice, grinding with a mortar and pedestal, and then conducting biochemical analysis of the material. It was slow, painstaking work and we were not getting clear answers.

At the time we didn’t even know whether the biochemical pathway of interest was used to regulate activity in cells in the plant lineage. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of model organisms, but as an oceanography student I had worked with single-celled algae.

I soon started growing my first Chlamydomonas cells and it was love at first sight – they are green, they are beautiful and using them for this project was a way of bringing together my long-time fascination with algae and my new interest in biochemistry.

.

Getting To Know My Organism

Eventually I got the experiments working and determined that the biochemical pathway we were looking for was present in Chlamydomonas. I was getting to know my organism. After learning how to grow it and how to manipulate it for experiments, the next step was to see if our pathway controlled any of the behaviours of this tiny alga.

I surveyed three behaviours: phototaxis, mating and deflagellation. Phototaxis is directed movement in response to light:  Chlamydomonas cells swim towards dim light and away from bright light. Mating is, yes, sex. Chlamydomonas comes in two mating types, plus and minus – male and female, just like us (as it were). Flagella[3] on cells of opposite mating type stick to one another, bringing the cells together for fusion. The third behaviour, deflagellation, is a stress response wherein Chlamydomonas jettisons its flagella, to grow new ones later when the stress has passed.

YouTube Preview Image


Phototaxis and mating are both complex behaviours. I didn’t find any evidence that our biochemical pathway was involved in either, but then, I didn’t know the organism well enough to finesse the experiments. Thankfully, deflagellation was simple: shock the cells with a chemical treatment and the flagella would pop off.  I was lucky and discovered that our biochemical pathway kicked into high gear during deflagellation.

Excited by the biochemistry, I detoured into postdoctoral research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where I studied the molecular pathways by which mammalian cells respond to hormones. But I pined for Chlamydomonas. Eventually I established my own lab at Emory University specifically focused on the problem of how and why Chlamydomonas cells deflagellate.

.

Intimacy

One particular memory stands out from those early years in my own lab when I was getting to know my organism more intimately. It was late in the evening and no one else was around. While waiting for an experiment, I was occupying myself by sitting at the microscope watching Chlamydomonas.

Under the microscope you can see the cell wall for which Chlamydomonas is named. “Chlamys” is Greek for “a shoulder draped cloak.” That night I happened upon a mother cell wall containing the daughters from a recent cell division. I saw the evidence of three divisions in rapid succession: eight Chlamydomonas daughter cells still encased in their mother’s cell wall. Over the next hour and a half I watched as the daughters grew flagella and started waving them about within the confined womb. Eventually, they managed to rip a hole in the wall and one by one I watched the cells emerge and swim away.

The cilia that protrude from almost all of the cells in the human body are essentially the same as those of Chlamydomonas. Some of our cells, such as those lining our respiratory tracts and the ventricles of our brains, are topped with a cluster of motile cilia that serve to move fluids – mucus and cerebral-spinal fluid, respectively. Primarily because of experiments on Chlamydomonas scientists are beginning to understand the molecular machines that generate this beautiful form of motility.

Cilia of mouse brain ependymal cells maintaining flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Movie courtesy of Karl Lechtreck, University of Georgia.

The cells that make up most of our tissues – brain, liver, kidney, muscles, skin – have only one, very small and non-motile, cilium.  Until recently, scientists ignored these relatively pathetic looking little structures with no assigned function, considering them to be vestiges of our evolutionary past. A little over a decade ago, Chlamydomonas researchers seeking to understand how cilia are built made discoveries that have lead to a revolution in our thinking about ‘vestigial’ cilia.

Over the past dozen years we have learned that these tiny immotile cilia serve critical roles as cellular antennae, processing centres for the myriad signals that cells are tuned to detect. Signals from the environment and from other cells dictate differentiation into the various cell types that make up the organs of our body. Similar signals that maintain the physiological functioning of the adult. Both developmental and physiological signals are detected and integrated by cilia. Commensurate with the varied and important signals that cilia process, we are now discovering that defects in cilia cause a long list of diseases ranging from too many fingers and toes to obesity to Polycystic Kidney Disease and retinal degeneration.

.

Flies and Worms

Research in both Chlamydomonas and yeast depends upon the study of heredity, or genetics, a tool that is available because of research on another model organism, the fruit fly. Thomas Hunt Morgan followed visible traits of Drosophila melanogaster to discover that genes carried on chromosomes are the basis of heredity. [4]

As with other model organisms, Drosophila became ever more useful to scientists the better they came to know it. Experiments in Drosophila revealed master control genes in charge of establishing whether a leg or an eye would develop and fly researchers were among the first to decipher the language used by cells in a multicellular organism to establish their division of labor.  Drosophila continues to be an important model organism for studies of developmental biology. Because Drosophila exhibits complex behaviours that are controlled by a nervous system and can be dissected genetically, it has also become an important model for behavioural neuroscience.

In his acceptance speech for the shared 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Sydney Brenner said, “Without doubt the fourth winner of the Nobel Prize this year is Caenohabditis elegans; it deserves all of the honor but, of course, it will not be able to share the monetary award.”[5] . Selected for the transparency of its embryo and the limited number of cells in the adult worm (fewer than 1,000) C. elegans is a premier organism for studying the how cells distinguish themselves from one another and live or die to serve the development of complex organ systems.

YouTube Preview Image

Crawling C. elegans courtesy of Bob Goldstein, University of North Carolina.
These are brief introductions to a few of my favorite model organisms, there are many more. Experiments with model organisms continue to help us understand the molecular interactions that underlie cell growth, division and differentiation, the development and physiology of organisms. Can life be distilled into molecular interactions whose chemical properties we can measure and ultimately predict?

YouTube Preview Image

.

A Feeling For The Organism

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) was a botanist and geneticist who studied corn. McClintock discovered genetic recombination, mobile genetic elements, centromeres, telomeres and genetic regulation decades in advance of our molecular understanding of these things. She was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. Recognized with many awards, including the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, this woman of uncontested scientific acumen had something of a spiritual relationship with her organism.

“I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it. I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a real pleasure to know them.”[6]

The mysteries of life remain so numerous and profound that researchers pushing the edges of our understanding are prone to witness strange happenings. Perplexing new observations become new discoveries – after you make sense of them. On the report of some new cellular activity it is not uncommon to hear scientists say, “I saw that too. I just didn’t know what to make of it.” Those with an intimate knowledge of their organism are better equipped to discern important changes and to make the intuitive leaps that turn perplexing observations into new knowledge.

The intuitive knowing that arises from familiarity is entwined with an awareness of kinship, of common origin. We may lose ourselves in pursuit of the specific mysteries of our creature, yet always what we are doing is revealing who we are. From small and specific questions arise big answers.

We grow fond of these quirky distant cousins who at times can be quite disagreeable (ask any cell biology graduate student). And on those rare occasions when our model organisms reveal their secrets and provide us with discoveries, the fondness feels like love.

— Lynne Quarmby

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Lee, M. G. & Nurse, P. Complementation used to clone a human homologue of the fission yeast cell cycle control gene cdc2. Nature 327, 31-35 (1987). For this and other discoveries Nurse shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. The Rain Tree, native from the Yucatan Pennisula to Brazil, and naturalized around the tropical world, is known by many names: Monkey Pod; Mimosa; Saman; Coco, French, or Cow Tamarind.  To scientists it is Samanea saman.
  3. In Chlamydomonas the cilia are called flagella simply because way-back-when scientists did not appreciate that they were the same structure. Bacterial flagella are something entirely different.
  4. This discovery won Morgan the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
  5. Sydney Brenner, Robert Horvitz, and John Sulston shared the prize “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.”
  6. From A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller, 1983. (p. 198)
Dec 022011
 

Keith Lee Morris has been compared to Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. He explores the world of bars and racetracks, of working class men on the edge and families struggling to stay afloat. In the dark corners of small-town taverns, his writing unhinges us. It takes us to places that are so familiar yet so startlingly strange in their portrayal, that it’s easy to forget you are actually reading a story and not sitting in the bar and watching it unfold. This is not to say that his work is entirely in the realist tradition. His more experimental work deals with the story in uncanny ways, and pushes back against strict verisimilitude. And his writing blends the best of both styles into a narrative that is at once compelling, sad, funny and utterly honest. To read Morris is to journey into the dark places of existence, to open your heart to sadness, to root for the underdog even when he doesn’t stand a chance. But you feel comfortable taking that journey because Morris is such a certain guide.

We spoke over the phone. Morris was in his office in South Carolina. His answers were sharp and enthusiastic. He spoke of writing, of teaching, of growing up in Idaho. For much of the interview, it felt more like we were sitting in a bar and having this conversation.

Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. He has published two novels, The Greyhound God (University of Nevada Press, 2003) and The Dart League King (Tin House Press, 2008), and two collections of stories, The Best Seats in the House and Other Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2004) and his most recent work, Call it What You Want (Tin House Press, 2010).

–Richard Farrell

…And Make Mine A Double:

An Interview With Keith Lee Morris

By Richard Farrell

.

Richard Farrell (RJF): The Paris Review once asked William Maxwell this question: Do your best sentences come from the air or as a product of much working and reworking?

Keith Lee Morris (KLM): (Laughs, then answers without much pause.) I’ll say both. Or maybe I’ll say they come from the air more often. When the writing just seems to happen on its own, that’s when I feel I’m at my best.  But maybe it has to do with the fact that if you write enough, over and over, it becomes more automatic.  In that sense, it’s the product of hard work.  I suppose it’s like playing football. Tom Brady has thrown thousands of passes, so that it looks like it’s happening with ease.  But it’s because he’s done it so many times that it looks so easy. When I’m writing well, it’s like being in that zone, where I’m not conscious of what I’m doing. It’s the bad sentences that I go back and rework.  And maybe by working on them over and over that they get better.

I have whole stories that I almost don’t remember writing. I’m inside the scene itself, and the characters are talking and I’m not aware of it, I’m just trying to keep up. And when you’ve done this so many times, it just happens.

RJF: I once read an essay (sadly I can’t remember the title or the author) that said in short stories, a character doesn’t necessarily go through change like the traditional method says. But rather, something happens in the life of the character after which nothing can ever be the same.  So even if the character hasn’t come to something like an epiphany, even if the character isn’t yet aware of change, the life of the character is forever affected. Noting can be the same.  Do you agree with this?

KLM: Most rules don’t make sense in writing fiction. If someone tells me a rule to follow, it just goads me into trying to break it.  So I disagree that a story has to contain a change by which the character is forever changed in order for the story to be effective.  The reader has to feel the possibility of change.

Look at The Great Gatsby. One of the arguments goes, Who is the main character?  Is it Gatsby? If you buy into the argument of necessary change, then Gatsby can’t be the main character, because he is fixed. He doesn’t change at all.  Daisy, Daisy, Daisy—he’s like a broken record.  If it was really Gatsby’s story, the novel wouldn’t work. Even after he is shot and killed, the reader has the sense that change was never going to occur.  But up until that point, you think it might.  So I think that change matters, whether it’s internal or external, and it might not happen in the story, but it exists as a possibility.  Part of what makes the novel work, too, of course, is that Nick Carroway does change significantly.

Continue reading »