Dec 312011
 

Author photo by David Penhale.

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.

dg

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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.

In his breakthrough movie, Mean Streets, Scorsese dramatizes the opposition between virtue and tainted success in the soul of Charlie, the protagonist. Charlie’s moral struggle begins when he is offered a restaurant by his mafioso uncle. It is an item he dearly wants. On other hand he also wants to be a good man. In his voice-over narration at the beginning of the movie — a conversation with himself — Charlie lays out his basic religious beliefs, the beliefs of a Do-It-Yourself Catholic.  “You don’t make up for your sins in the Church, you do it in the streets, you do it at home,” he says. “The rest is bullshit and you know it.” There is never any doubt in the movie about the sincerity of Charlie’s spiritual ambitions, despite his involvement in poolroom brawls, despite his uneasy relations with his epileptic lover Theresa, despite episodes in which he rips off a couple of teenagers looking to buy fireworks and tries to beguile an exotic dancer with a job offer in his new restaurant. At one point, Charlie tells Theresa, “Saint Francis of Assisi had it all down. He knew.”

Can he “make up” for the sin of coveting this restaurant, which he is given only because the previous owner — who commits suicide — has failed to generate enough business to pay off his (presumably usurious) loans to Charlie’s uncle? The offer of the restaurant, which functions in this movie as a symbol of tainted success, or at least the possibility of such success, comes with a heavy price. Charlie’s uncle demands that Charlie stop seeing his friends, the wildly irresponsible Johnny Boy and Theresa.  “Honorable men go with honorable men,” he says, which clearly rules out Johnny Boy, and also Theresa, who is “sick in the head.” Charlie attempts to compromise. “I’ve got to stay away from you and Johnny,” he tells Theresa. “I don’t want to stop seeing you…Just let me get the restaurant first. Then things are going to be easier.”

Such deviousness is hardly the role of a St. Francis, and it’s no wonder that Johnny Boy, fully aware of Charlie’s desire not to jeopardize his chances of getting the restaurant, calls him a “fucking politician.” In the end, however, Charlie refuses to quit entirely on St. Francis. The fate of the characters is unclear after the movie’s violent ending, but it does seem, in the light of that ending, that Charlie has decisively turned his back on the restaurant. What matters about this movie, however, is not its ending but the way in which it has set the terms of the drama in which all of Scorsese’s characters, who do manage to get their hands on the restaurant, so to speak, will become embroiled.

These characters, for one thing, will not be victims. They will not be spiritual depressives, like the characters of Bergman, or neurotics (Woody Allen) or helpless witnesses to existential futility (Antonioni.)  Marie Connelly states the case well in her book, The Films of Martin Scorsese.  “Scorsese’s characters are out hustling, making it in a world that still holds out the possibility of fulfillment of hopes and dreams. Unlike other characters, his do not live lives of ‘quiet desperation.’ His characters are shown from the point of view of the swirling vortex of camera movement punctuated by the beat of contemporary rock music drawing us into their lives.”

In almost all of Scorsese’s movies there is a scene visually confirming worldly success, or at least affirming its promise, usually in the form of certain objects that are almost transcendent in their materialism, objects that seem to validate his characters’ hustle. The materialistic side of Charlie, for example, is established in a scene showing him lovingly tying his tie, with a brand new shirt,  in front of a mirror. The hero of Scorsese’s early feature, Who’s That Knocking on My Door, played by the same actor, Harvey Keitel, also meticulously adjusts his topcoat in a gesture of sartorial satisfaction. A nice car — “That’s the only toy I need,” says its owner — is another symbol of material success in that same movie. Eddie Felsen, the hero of Scorsese’s The Color of Money, his sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, combines fetishism of cars and fetishism of clothes in a scene where, dressed in an expensive topcoat, he gives his protégé, Vincent, a ride in his Cadillac. “It’s been very good to me,” Felsen says of the liquor business. “I mean, you’re sitting in it and I’m wearing it.” (Viewers of The Hustler will recall that Felsen’s nemesis in that picture, the gambler Bert Gordon, bought himself a fancy new car every year to validate his success.)

“Nice car,” says Vicki, upon being introduced to her future husband Jake La Motta in Raging Bull — what girl doesn’t appreciate a suitor with a hot set of wheels?  Scorsese certainly understands this, but between cars and clothes he seems more fascinated by clothing as a status indicator. The progress of Jimmy Doyle, hero of New York, New York, can be charted by the clothes he wears. At the beginning of the movie, Doyle stands amid the cheering throngs in New York celebrating V-J Day (the entire country enjoying its own tainted success as victor in World War II) dressed in two-toned brown and white shoes, white trousers and a Hawaiian shirt — an outfit he won in a card game. “Do I look like a gentleman in this shirt and these pants to you?” he asks the girl he is inelegantly trying to pick up. (The answer is no.) By contrast, at the end of the picture, Doyle is dressed in a natty dark gray suit (complemented by a pair of black shoes) with white shirt and silver tie. Add a topcoat and an umbrella, and the now successful Doyle is positively dapper.

In general, Scorsese’s gangsters are sharply dressed, if not always in the best of taste. One of the scenes establishing Henry Hill’s tainted success in Goodfellas is the shot of his endless bedroom closet full of suits. In Casino, protagonist Arnold Rothstein, manager of a casino for the mob, is perpetually turned out in matching suit, shirt and tie — red on red, white on white, blue on blue, green on green, cream on cream, lilac on lilac, tangerine on tangerine. “Look at you,” a fellow gangster says at one point. “You’re fucking walking around like John Barrymore. A fucking pink robe and a fucking cigarette holder.”

But there are many other material symbols of tainted success in Scorsese. One of the most notable is the championship belt — “a very rare item,” a pawnbroker tells its owner — won by Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. “I got a nice house, I got three great kids, I got a wonderful, beautiful wife — what more can I ask for?” La Motta tells a reporter in his retirement, sitting by his driveway where two convertibles are parked — but it is this championship belt which radiates talismanic power, the power suited to a winner, and when La Motta literally attacks that belt with a hammer, extracting jewels from it, his fall from grace is graphically demonstrated. (The wife and kids, by contrast, simply drop out of the picture.)

In Casino, the magical object signifying worldly success is the house Rothstein shows his new bride, complete with swimming pool and baby grand piano. This house, plus a chinchilla coat and a drawer full of jewelry, marks his marital covenant with her, in lieu of romantic attachments. (His bride frankly admits that she does not love him, but allows that his house is “great.”) Real estate in another form plays a similar role in The Departed, when the corrupt police officer Colin is shown an apartment in Boston with “a great view of the State House,” by a real estate agent. It’s such a desirable apartment, the agent says, “You move in, you’re upper class by Tuesday.” Colin takes it. He is, after all, a success as a member of an “elite unit” of the Massachusetts State Police, acquiring more and more influence within that unit as the movie progresses. The last scene of the movie shows the view of the State House and the parquet floor across which the blood from Colin’s head oozes. It’s Scorsese’s most succinct and vivid demonstration of the price of tainted success.

The signifiers of tainted success in Scorsese are not always, broadly speaking, material. In Taxi Driver, the hero Travis is hustling for a peculiar kind of success. “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads,” Travis proclaims in his empty apartment. “Here’s the man who would not take it anymore…Here’s the man who would not take it anymore. The man who stood up against the scum, cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.” When Travis fulfills this ambition to “stand up” by fatally shooting a pimp — “the worst sucking scum I’ve ever seen,” Travis says — his success is validated not by material objects but by press clippings.  TAXI DRIVER BATTLES GANGSTERS reads one admiring headline. TAXI HERO TO RECOVER proclaims another. The same form of validation occurs at the end of New York, New York when Francine’s success is shown by a montage of magazines — bearing such names as Screen Idol, Glitter, Stargazer, Fan Club, Photoplay — featuring her face on the cover. It’s the same technique used at the end of King of Comedy, which is why, I think, the latter display of magazine covers is not simply dreamed up by Pupkin.

This affirmation of tainted success via journalism — and news photography in particular — has no direct connection to filthy lucre, but is just as disgusting in Scorsese’s eyes. In The Aviator, photographers are constantly in Howard Hughes’s face — when he unveils a new airplane, when he crash lands and nearly kills himself, when an outraged girlfriend rams his car. These photographers validate celebrity-hood, and in that sense they validate success, but as Kate Hepburn tells Hughes, they are relentless. “When my brother killed himself, there were photographers at the funeral,” she says. “There’s no decency to it.” At best, photographers and journalists miss the point, as in the case of Travis’s press clippings.

All the more interesting, then, when Scorsese himself becomes a photojournalist of sorts in The Last Waltz, his cinematic tribute to The Band. In this documentary Scorsese displays the same sensibility and the same obsessions — including his interest in tainted success — that he brings to many of his films. The success-establishing scene in this movie, for example, is the shot, early in the film, of the long line-ups of fans waiting to buy tickets to the concert. This shot functions in the same way as shots of Henry Hill’s bedroom closet or press clippings do in other movies. After this introduction, the discovery of a hint of corruption in The Band’s success is not long in coming.

That discovery begins when Scorsese, in his interviews with the members of The Band, elicits a sense of innocence lost. One of the band members, Garth Hudson, evokes an idyllic period, in the early days of The Band’s existence, before their fame, when they all lived in Woodstock, N.Y. “We got to like it, just being able to chop wood or hit your thumb with a hammer,” Hudson recalls. “We would be concerned with fixing the tape recorder and fixing the screen door, you know. Stuff like that. Getting the songs together.”

Then came the years on the road, with ever-growing fame, and a different set of rewards. Scorsese delicately raises the subject of groupies and Band member Richard Manuel displays a roguish, slightly goofy grin. “I love ‘em.That’s probably why we’ve been on the road,” he says. He pauses. “Not that I don’t like the music.”

This is reassuring news. We wouldn’t want the music to be forgotten. At the same time we are aware that things have changed since Woodstock days, when music was everything. Hudson still clings to some notion of virtue and the performance of music by recalling old jazz musicians in New York who were “the greatest priests” and healers, but the last word is Scorsese’s, and he chooses to end the movie with a curious tableau of The Band playing the melody to the English Renaissance tune “Greensleeves,” about a prostitute.

Some equivalent of Woodstock days, some authenticity, is the flip side of tainted success in Scorsese. It’s not necessary for a character to have explicit religious concerns, like Charlie in Mean Streets — indeed, explicit spirituality drops off the horizon after Mean Streets. (With the striking exception, of course, of Scorsese’s films about Jesus and the Dalai Lama.) But characters still need to remain in contact with something real, something that is not “bullshit,” in Charlie’s words.

A striking instance is The Color of Money, a movie that would seem to be totally devoted to “bullshit,” in the form of successful hustling, and to the naked materialism of its rewards. “It ain’t about pool,” Felsen tells his protégé. “It ain’t about sex, it ain’t about love, it’s about money.” When Vince takes pity on a sucker, Felsen reads him the riot act. “You never ease off on someone like that,” he says. “Not when there’s money involved.” In pursuit of money, Felsen himself not only sets up hustles but also manipulates Vincent and neglects his own lover. “Do you understand me?” Felsen says to Vince and his girlfriend. “We’re business people.”

It’s a funny business, to be sure. “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,” is its credo. Under the circumstances it is hard to say which is the purer example of tainted success — the success of the sucker who wins a pool game in the process of being strung along by the loser of that game (the hustler), or the triumph of the hustler who walks away with all the money he can extract from the sucker. Yet this is not the last word, either. Even Felsen, at the end of the day, wants to define himself as a great pool player rather than a great hustler or a great businessman. After he beats Vince at the pool table, in what seems to be a genuine contest between the two men, Felsen is dismayed when Vince subsequently reveals that he “dumped” — that he let Felsen win. Felsen pleads with Vince’s girlfriend near the end of the movie, “I want his best game.” There is no doubt about the sincerity of his plea. It is about pool, after all.

This clinging to a measure of authenticity in a corrupt world can seem senseless, as in Jake La Motta’s taunt to Sugar Ray Robinson after the latter has beaten him to a pulp in the ring — “You never got me down,” proclaims the pulverized La Motta, while an unsettled Sugar Ray stares at him in disbelief — or Arnold Rothstein’s insistence on placing his fate in the hands of his prostitute wife, because, as he says, “When you love someone you’ve got to trust them. There is no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that is yours. Otherwise, what’s the point?” These points of honor do seem senseless — but La Motta must be able to see himself, despite everything, as a man who does not give up or surrender, and Rothstein must be able to see himself as a man who knows the value of trust and lives by it. If they lose this ability, then, as Rothstein says, what is the point?

A man must define himself as something. Scorsese’s Howard Hughes, in the course of unsavory relationships with young girls and involvement in the corruption of military contracts, never loses sight of his self-definition as aviator. That is what he is, and no one can take this away from him. A vague sense of the male imperative of self-definition lies behind the comment made by the hero of Who’s That Knocking On My Door to his girlfriend. “Everyone should like westerns,” he says. This curious statement clearly has something to do with the protagonist’s notion of the western hero. What can that notion be? Robert Warshow articulated it most clearly in a 1949 essay on the western. The western hero, wrote Warshow, in an essay republished in his 1962 collection, The Immediate Experience, “fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is, and he must live in a world that permits that statement.”  Scorsese’s Hughes is a businessman, but he is not really interested in corporate empire building. He is interested in stating what he is, and that thing is not a businessman but an aviator. Scorsese’s Felsen may insist that he is a businessman, but when the pressure builds within him to state what he is, that something is a pool player.

The western hero is also a figure for whom love is notoriously an irrelevance, a reality Scorsese confronts in a number of his movies. “This is the most important thing to me besides you, you understand?” says Jimmy Doyle to his wife Francie, referring to his saxophone. “If I can’t do this, then I’m no good for you and I’m no good for anybody.” (The symbol of his authenticity seems to be the scene in which he uninhibitedly plays this saxophone in a Harlem nightclub.) The equally talented Francie, a singer, seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards her art — it does not define her quite so urgently. Yet New York, New York is one of Scorsese’s most interesting pictures precisely because it does portray a marital union of equals, in which love and self-definition should presumably co-exist. Certainly Francie is never in danger of becoming an irrelevance. When she starts making compromises with her art it undermines her husband’s self-definition. “You got everything, man,” he tells her. “You got it easy and I got nothing.”

In the end both settle for tainted successes. Echoing Charlie’s desire for a restaurant in Mean Streets, and answering his own complaint that he has “nothing,” Doyle becomes owner of a restaurant/night club — a classy joint, but Doyle is no longer the sax player who “blows a barrel full of tenor.” Francie goes Hollywood and stars in a sentimentalized version of her own career and marriage in a movie entitled Happy Endings, which Doyle aptly calls Sappy Endings.

The sluggish and rather forced quality of the movie — whatever spark it possesses comes not from music or sexual tension but from Doyle’s obnoxious qualities, which De Niro, in his fashion, plays all too well — is an indication of how uneasy Scorsese is with romance. Behind romance lies domesticity, and his men are too restless for domesticity, no matter how enticing home and hearth might sometimes appear. Jesus’s yearning for a happy family life with Mary Magdalen is literally The Last Temptation of Christ. He rejects it, of course.

 In portraying this search for authenticity via some skill, art, talent or hustle, it is very difficult to escape the male point of view. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese gives us a female point of view, which is very instructive. His heroine, Alice Hyatt, goes on the road in pursuit of a career as a chanteuse. It’s not a promising pursuit. There is no reason to suppose she is any more talented than Rupert Pupkin, and unlike Pupkin, she is unwilling to enact some desperate gambit in order to succeed. Eventually she gives up and accepts happiness in the arms of David, a solid character. In some remarks on this film, Scorsese has indicated he views the ending as an unfortunate reversion to domesticity on Alice’s part, but few viewers will feel that Alice has made a huge mistake in embracing Kris Kristofferson. It’s not as if she has a promising career up her sleeve. There is no success, tainted or otherwise, for Alice, but not a sappy ending either. It’s just not the kind of ending Scorsese can imagine for his male protagonists.

Why is it so difficult in this world for a man to attain a success untainted by sacrifice of his integrity? For a Catholic like Scorsese, the answer is no mystery — we are fallen beings, in a fallen world. Scorsese’s work dramatizes, more than the work of any other American director, the anguished complaint of St. Paul: “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” It may be the case, given lapsed Catholic Scorsese’s own comments about his reprobate status, that he views his own body of work as a tainted success, purchased at the price of his immortal soul.

Certainly Scorsese seems to have lost interest in his earlier theme of redemption, exemplified by movies such as Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Whether the redemption of Jake La Motta is convincing or not, the ending of the movie certainly nudges the reader to drop the Pharisee attitude and look at La Motta’s life through supernatural lens — to see La Motta as the unlikely recipient of grace. Latterly, there seems to be no such attempt on Scorsese’s part. The overtly religious movies he has made — The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundin — may have actually hastened his retreat from the realms of theology because of the failure of either his Christ or his Dalai Lama to emerge as vibrant characters or because of his own failure to overcome the extremely difficult narrative challenges presented by these movies. They call for a degree of sincerity that Scorsese can’t provide — they aren’t his stories and he has only so much leeway to make them his own. How much more excited Scorsese is in dealing with the character of Howard Hughes. There’s a man — an artist demanding perfection at whatever cost, a maverick, a daredevil — close to his own heart. The screen bristles with life and tension every time Hughes appears. But Scorsese can’t redeem him. Hughes demolishes his enemies at a Congressional hearing and proves he is an aviator one last time with the successful flight of the Spruce Goose, but neither of these triumphs wards off the madness waiting to overwhelm him.

 His recent concert film Shine A Light, has a dismal effect on the viewer. Scorsese clearly admires the Rolling Stones as a supreme example of hustle, which is why their music is so often heard on the sound track of his movies. But the spark has long since gone out of this particular hustle. Asked recently by an interviewer, “Are you amazed, surprised, delighted that the Stones have lasted this long?” their first manager Andrew Loog Oldham replied, “I wasn’t aware they had lasted this long.” Watching this movie, Oldham would have no grounds for changing his mind. Certainly in this concert movie there is none of the emotional resonance of The Last Waltz, which evokes a complete narrative arc from Woodstock days to the death of the Band. The Rolling Stones never had a Woodstock period of chopping wood and fixing screen doors and writing songs, and it appears they will never bid farewell to public performances while they are physically capable of walking on stage. In the rock solid wall of this dogged careerism and unrelenting appetite for adulation, there is no place for redemption to catch hold. In one of the cleverer moments of the film, Mick Jagger bursts out of a side door to sing “Sympathy for the Devil” with his off-key “woo woos.” Scorsese lights that space behind the door a lurid red, as if Jagger is just emerging from some kind of cheesy inferno. It’s a playful touch, but not entirely a joke to the director whose character Charlie, in Mean Streets, muses on the eternal flames of hell.

An interesting question is whether Scorsese has dropped this theme of redemption because of an intellectual or emotional change in his own makeup, or whether he has dropped it because he has perceived, with his highly sensitive antennae, something increasingly dark in the American landscape.

—Philip Marchand

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Philip Marchand was born and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and attended the University of Toronto, where he obtained a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature. Afterwards he spent several years as a free lance magazine writer in Canada. A collection of his 1970s journalism was published in 1976 under the title of Just Looking, Thank You: An Amused Observer’s Views of Canadian Lifestyles, by Macmillan of Canada.  An unsympathetic critic termed the book the poor man’s Tom Wolfe and he may have been right. The author is not sure he wants you to look it up if you are so inclined.

A more credible book was his 1989 biography entitled Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. A slightly revised edition, with a foreword by the late Neal Postman, was published by MIT Press in 1998. It is still in print for all I know. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer called it “delightfully readable.”

Marchand has also written a crime novel, the 1994 Deadly Spirits. Again, the author is not sure he wants you to look it up. It’s okay, but not great.

Finally McClelland & Stewart published Marchand’s  Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America in 2005. (An American edition was published by Praeger in 2007.) This is a great book and you really should read it. It’s a mixture of travel, memoir and history.

From 1989 to 2008 Marchand was books columnist for the Toronto Star. He currently writes a weekly book review column for the National Post.

He is married and lives in Toronto.

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—Philip Marchand (himself)

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

 

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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
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On Cheetah’s Speed

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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
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The In-Between Generation

A Review of Kazushi Hosaka’s Novel Plainsong

By Brianna Berbenuik

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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
 

Capture

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

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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.

RJF: Much of your writing explores the motif of heterosexual male relationships. Specifically, the friendships between men. I think this is a rare thing to write about. Hemingway did this, of course, but you explore this territory with a more overt emotional compass. What is it about this male dynamic that is so interesting to you?

KLM: That’s interesting. I’ve never been asked that before. I’d say that some of it comes from my own experience. I’ve had the same set of half a dozen male friends since middle school. After I get off the phone, I’m calling one of them. We’ve been friends since I was, I guess, thirteen. His wife was just recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I call him every week to check in. So I guess this comes through in my writing from this sort of personal experience and this strong group of friends. And we all make the trek back home every year, to our small town in Idaho. I have guy friends that are writers, too. Steve Almond, Brock Clarke. So I guess, on reflection, that those kinds of long-term close friendships are important and they make their way into my writing.

RJF: Following up on this topic: What rituals exist for the contemporary male? You write a lot about bars, dart games, dog races, etc. Your male characters have this ‘lovable loser’ quality—they’re always getting drunk and stoned and getting into trouble, but you test them, too. Do you think that men today have lost some sense of the sacred ritual or the passage from boyhood to manhood?

KLM: Like the Hemingway thing, bullfights and war? Hunting, fishing, sports, sexual encounters? Those are the kind of standard coming of age rituals, I suppose. But I think my characters tend not to participate in rituals. Take Luke Rivers (the protagonist in The Greyhound God). When he was young, he went through a lot—the death of family members, a psychological breakdown, being in a mental hospital. So at a time when he would have been experiencing the traditional coming of age rituals, he was experiencing other things. He has this close bond with his wife, and while he goes through the ‘buddy stuff’ in the bars and at the track, his experiences are not typical. Even his friendships are atypical. He’s exploring his identity in the novel.

Typically characters I identify with have difficulty with rituals. They don’t see themselves as going through the traditional rites of passage.

Another example would be the character Deeder in my short story “Ayudame.” He was based on a friend of mine I grew up with, a working class, blue collar guy, but I crosscut him with another friend who had always dreamed of opening a record shop. And I wondered what it would be like for this character who never stopped dreaming of that record shop, who still felt that he should have been born in the 1960s. I guess I think about the different ways to create male characters who don’t go through the typical “coming of age” scenarios.

You called them ‘lovable losers.’ I grew up in northern Idaho. I went to school in the second-lowest funded district in the second lowest-funded state in the country at the time. A lot of those guys I knew didn’t even make it into high school. They just dropped out after eighth grade and disappeared. So I’m writing about people that are familiar to me. I’m actually uncomfortable around writers a lot of the time, you know? Guys with PhD’s and professors. It’s just not where I came from.

And I’ve been lucky. A lot of my friends have embraced my writing. Even if they aren’t readers or if normally they’d be reading books I’d hate, they still read all of my stories and books.

RJF: In your story collection, Call it What you Want, you refer to two types of stories. You have your traditional, realist stories and a type you call “dream stories.” Do these two types of writing inform each other as you go?

KLM: They do inform one another. Even in the ‘dream stories’ you’ll find the same types of characters at the center. And I think, because of my immersion in the dream stories, my realist stories aim at a language that is different. If you look at the end of “Ayudame” you’ll see that. The sentences become long and lyrical. So maybe the dream stories are a way of getting at the more lyrical writing. Something about me wanting to write those types of sentences.

RJF: I’m going to quote you back to yourself here. In The Greyhound God, you write this about fathers: “A father is anyone with answers to the questions that keep you awake at night.” Do you think this is the writer’s task, to answer the questions that keep us awake at night?

KLM: (Laughs) Well, it’s a lofty ambition. I meet a lot of writers who don’t want any meaning at all attributed to their stories. Maybe this is a result of the post-modern era. Authors won’t take ownership of their message. There’s a sense that, as a group, we don’t have that kind of influence anymore. If you take the most    famous writer in America, if Stephen King died tomorrow, they wouldn’t turn out in the streets like they did in Paris when Victor Hugo died. So things have changed.

Victor Hugo’s Funeral Procession

But I do mean something when I write. I’m trying to get across an idea, even if I’m sometimes not entirely sure what that idea is. I’m exploring, too, while I’m telling a story. I’m certainly looking to find answers for myself when I write, so if I happen to answer some questions for someone else, then great. Part of the process is sharing ideas. Some writers think of a story as art. Like a story is the same thing as a painting. For me, a book is a form of communication. It’s a conversation.

RJF: Someone once asked Graham Swift what the essence of storytelling was. He replied that a story is “the relation of something strange.” He talked about overhearing a guy in a bar tell a story and that guy’s urge to relate the strange. He said he wanted to remember that guy in the bar when he wrote stories, that he wanted to be in that bar, too. Here’s the longer part of his response: “It begins with strangeness, it takes us out of ourselves but back to ourselves. It offers compassion.” Since so many of your stories are bar stories, I’m wondering how you think about Swift’s answer.

KLM: I hadn’t thought about stories that way before. But bars are fascinating. There’s nowhere else where you get people from all different walks of life coming together. And everyone’s there for the same reason, to have a drink and maybe to talk. So a lot of my stories are set in bars because the possibilities between people are so fascinating. But I think, even in the opening stages of a story, familiarity is just as important as strangeness. Think about it, if a total stranger walks up to you and starts talking, you’ll probably go the other way. If someone sits down with a strange story, you need to be interested in the person before you’ll be interested in his story

There has to be something familiar in a story. Until something is familiar in a character, we probably don’t want to hear what they have to say. We don’t want someone’s back-story until we are interested in him. So the element of the familiar matters. The strangeness has to come out of the familiar first for it to matter. I’d say it goes from familiarity to strangeness and then back again.

RJF: Here’s a more personal question. When did you first realize that you were going to be a writer?

KLM: It was later for me. I was in my twenties and I’d dropped out of college. I thought about acting for a while. I acted in some community theater, but I realized I sucked as an actor. I was acting in some locally written plays, and some of them were pretty bad, and I started thinking, damn, I could do as well as that. So I first started by writing plays. And I started reading more fiction, but I was well into my twenties. Back in middle school and high school, my teachers always told me I had talent as a writer, but I didn’t get serious about it until I was much older.

RJF: Was there an important person who influenced you to pursue it more seriously?

KLM: I suppose it was my parents first, who instilled in me the notion that I was responsible to do something, to not just be a bum. And I was well on my way to being a bum for a while.

The usual suspects, of course—my professors and writing teachers at The University of Idaho and UNC-Greensboro. But I can think of some less obvious examples, too. There was a guy in New Orleans who owned a bookstore. It was just a hole-in-the-wall shop, with books stacked from the floor to the ceiling. All these great books, literature, history, philosophy. I’d walk in and ask him what to read and he’d point me to a bunch of books, then I’d go back and tell him what I liked and didn’t like, and he’d suggest more. So I read a lot of good books because of him.

One person for sure had a big influence. I was dating a girl at the University of Idaho and I was writing short stories. I wasn’t in college then, but she took some of the stories to her English professor to read without me knowing it. He asked her to bring me in, to come and see him. He told me I needed to get back in school and get some formal guidance. He didn’t have to do that. I was nobody to him, and he took the time to call me in off the street. Walter Hesford. I’ll always be grateful to him. And as a professor now, it really taught me that you can’t ignore anybody. You never know who’s out there.

RJF: This is a weird question but I’m going to ask it anyway. Are there places you won’t go in your writing? Are there topics, for one reason or another, that you won’t touch?

KLM: I know I’m supposed to say, ‘no,’ right? But I’ll try to answer this.

I’m really reluctant to write about people that will be hurt if they recognized themselves. I’ll radically alter plots and characters to avoid that. So I shy away from material if it’s too close to someone. Other than that, probably not.

I do feel like I’ll write a story then go back and look at it and if I don’t like a character or a situation, I won’t send it out. I don’t always know where a story’s going when I’m writing it, so when it’s finished, I’ll sometimes decide that what comes out is too negative, that there’s absolutely nothing hopeful that the story has to offer, and for that reason I’ll dismiss it. If I can’t see anything in there that I would want to read about, I don’t want to force anyone else to read it.

RJF: My editor here at Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover, was also my advisor in grad school. His nickname was “The Shredder” and he was insistent that his students think deeply in terms of structure. He said a lot of new writers, even in an MFA program, don’t understand structure. So it’s for him that I ask you this: How do you think structure in writing?

KLM: I had a professor like that in grad school, too. Michael Parker. He really focused on structure and the integrity of language, the integrity of the story as a whole. He forced me to recognize things that I hadn’t been thinking about. To this day, I have this little Michael Parker running around in my head, making me pay attention to structure, both at the sentence and the story level.

But to be honest, I couldn’t care less about structure. Yet of course I’m aware of it. When I wrote The Dart League King, I was experimenting a lot with structure. And as a writing teacher, I force my students to pay attention to it. Paying attention to structure is important, but it’s not structure that I’m interested in.. It’s a precursor to or a byproduct of what I write. In itself, it’s not what I’m interested in. Writers write for different reasons, and I think all writers have parts of the process that they submit to grudgingly.

I know a lot of writers who just love writing sentences, and they have to be forced to think in terms of plot. But I want to write stories—I’m interested primarily in narrative and the ideas contained in narrative. You have to consider structure as part of how to create a story, though—and if structure is one of your weaknesses as a writer, it’s your responsibility to shore up the weaknesses in order to get the material out there.

—Richard Farrell & Keith Lee Morris

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Richard Farrell is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq where he has published memoir, craft essays and book reviews. He is the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” appeared in the most recent Hunger Mountain Menagerie and has been nominated for a Puschcart Prize. He lives in San Diego, CA and is currently at work on a collection of short stories.

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Dec 022011
 

Keith Lee Morris’ short story “Ayudame” is a tale of friendship, failed dreams, and possibly a sliver of salvation. Morris has written two novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, as well as two collections of short stories.  “Ayudame” comes from his collection Call It What You Want, available from Tin House Books. The story originally appeared in Third Coast magazine.  Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. (Read an interview with Keith Lee Morris on Numéro Cinq. )

—Richard Farrell

Ayudame

By Keith Lee Morris

 

Douglas “Deeder” Mumphrey was wakened from a dream of the record shop in Haight-Ashbury by his ten-year-old daughter, Grace, who was, surprisingly enough, standing by the side of the bed dressed and ready for school. It was Deeder’s turn, not his wife’s, to get Grace ready for her car pool ride, that much seemed sure, based on the fact that Grace stood by his side of the bed, not Theresa’s, and based on her serious and rather tired expression, which said several things to Deeder, such as “Dad’s lazy,” and “Dad’s forgetful,” and “Dad had too many beers last night,” and “I had to make my own breakfast,” all of which were true, more or less, not to say that the various truths contained in the expression didn’t annoy the hell out of Deeder, because they did, because why the hell should a ten-year-old girl be right about so many things when he himself, Deeder, a forty-one-year-old man, was rarely right about anything.

Deeder glanced over at his wife, her hair in the band she wore to keep it out of her face while she slept, soft snores coming from her puffed-out lips, and he was reminded of the argument they’d had the night before and he wondered how she could sometimes look like such a peaceful, easygoing person, and then he whispered “Sorry” to Grace and dragged himself out of bed, still smelling somewhere in the back of his head the incense he burned in his record store, the one he never had, back there in the Summer of Love when he was just born.

In the kitchen he brewed a pot of coffee and ran through a couple of spelling words with Grace to see if she was ready for her test, which she semi-was, not for lack of effort, but Grace wasn’t much of a speller. Rapture, censure, preacher, adventure–three out of four. Her forte was personal grooming–he marveled now at the way she’d managed to pick out the blouse, the pants, the matching socks all by herself, the way she looked so neat, her straight blond hair brushed just so.

There was Mrs. Adkins, pulling into the drive. He waved out the window, hoping she couldn’t see he was in his boxers. He made Grace give him a kiss on the cheek. “You stink, Dad,” she said. He watched her set her pack carefully in the back of the Adkins’ Aerostar, watched her climb in, smoothing her pant legs under her to keep them from wrinkling. Monterey Pop, the family’s black Lab, was lying with his head on his paws over by the sofa, wagging his tail slightly. Deeder poured some more food in his bowl and watched him come over and eat.

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