Apr 302011
 

Herewith a “What it’s like living here” essay & photos from Liz Blood who has taken an adventurous turn and fled her native Oklahoma City for the exotic wonders and mysteries of South Korea where she is now teaching (Liz and students pictured above). What is unique about this piece is that it’s about discovery and newness, not about a place Liz knows well or loves from habit, but a place in which she cannot even make out the words on the store signs. Everything is new, she feels awkward, nothing is easy. Going out to buy instant noodles at a convenience store is an expedition into the unknown. Liz’s words are fresh and revealing in their honesty and detail.

dg

What It’s Like Living Here,

from Liz Blood in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea

 

Noodles

There are marks everywhere that you don’t understand—on cars, buildings, flyers in your mailbox. Squares, circles, upside down Y’s—sometimes it looks more like a game of Tetris to you than a language.  This makes almost everything a real chore, but none so much as getting a meal. What will you order? How will you order? Are you even sure that’s a restaurant? When you first arrive in South Korea you don’t go out to dinner alone. Instead, you walk down the cold, granite steps of your apartment building, through the air-compressed sliding glass door (which you’re sure came from the set of Star Trek), and head out onto the street for the nearest convenience store.

As you leave your building—which is called Dreamplus, a fact you find funny since you’ve had so few dreams since coming to this country—you consider the sliding glass door and the ease with which it moves. Whooosh. It took you six or seven trips out that door to realize the sensor was above it and that, when the door wouldn’t open, a simple wave of the hand would suffice. All that jumping around and on and off the steps was unnecessary. Perhaps, one of these days, you will move with such ease, act right on cue. Like the door or even the children in your English classes, you will know the proper response.  I’ll have a beer, the pork dumplings, and kim chi soup, please.

But, until then, you simply round your corner in Jigok-dong—the name of your neighborhood, which you say proudly because it is one of the only things you can say properly—and walk into the 7-11 to find a pack of instant noodles. You choose any one of the packages without drawings of shrimp or fish and place the noodles on the counter, not even bothering to listen to the cashier tell you the amount—the register’s screen points outward, the numbers glow neon green. You breathe easy and relish the convenience.

Read the rest of this entry

Apr 282011
 

 

Dear Nick and Chris:

Fuzz from the poplar sticks to the windshield of our Ford. In the courtyard of our building, the birch bursts with pollen and I sneeze when hanging out sheets to dry on our balcony. The sky glows, the days lengthen, you both grow long and lean. A strange time, perhaps, to write you about Christmas, but your father’s gone, and writing this to you fills the hole he’s left.

You’re at an age where you’re interested. You’ve asked how a twenty-year-old man from Siena and a nineteen-year-old art history student from New York met. As an answer I’m writing you about the Christmas of 1977, the first Christmas the two spent together. A bizarre Christmas, with the young woman shut in a monastery—not unlike poor Pia de’ Tolomei in TheDivine Comedy (whom I’ll tell you about later)—while the young man came and went when curfew lifted. In a strange way that Christmas echoes the challenges facing us this spring. We’re here, stuck in Milan, going to school. Your father’s off to Egypt, making a living, returning on short monthly visits.

But you were both born in an advanced age. So before you read about Christmas consider:

In 1977, Siena was a different place from the one you find now. Thirty-odd years ago, no exhaust-belching tour busses clogged the narrow roads. No umbrella-toting guides led tourists up steep Medieval streets. No greasy clouds of McDonald’s fried air hovered in narrow passageways. Back in those days vegetables and fish were sold in the Piazza del Campo. Souvenir shops were few. Iran hadn’t happened. Frost still hobbled relations with Russia. The Red Brigades had assassinated several public figures but were still plotting the murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. In the Siena of that time, Americans were considered an exotic breed from a futuristic, hedonistic place. In that place your mother, me—one of the supposedly advanced, wanton Americans— in 1977 met an Italian on a cobblestoned street near a Renaissance fortress and found that love in a foreign language and culture is anything but easy.

The girl you’ll find in the following collage seems very young, her choice of fancy words an effort to hide a naïveté that today seems antiquated but then was typical of her age and her background. You might find it hard to believe she’s your mother, just a couple years older than you are now.

Reading, reminiscing, reflecting on how conflict was resolved. That’s why history matters. But you know that. Your teachers at school have already told you.

I’m enclosing sixteen excerpts from a journal and class assignments together with old snapshots and this letter:

 

1. The semester is over! Three months have flown by. Segments of time have been consumed yet the waxing moon grows whole again.

Christmas is almost here. Classmates are packing their bags, getting ready to go home and back to their previous lives across the ocean. I’ll miss Elisabeth and Brian, but gloat when considering Rachel’s departure. No more competition from her re: Mauro. I long to say, “I’m staying…you’re going,” but curb the urge. The semester has flown by with an alacrity that’s impossible to comprehend. At the end of the next short term, I will be in her position.

2. During the Christmas holidays, while the Ticci family (my hosts when school’s in session) suns on the beaches of Sicily, I’ll retire to a monastery and embark on a trip to the 13th century and the contemplative life. On Thursday I’ll be locked away behind big iron gates.

The monastic solution to the holidays was Mauro’s idea and I agreed because it’s quite economical to rent a monk’s cell—information my guidebooks neglected to tell me. So while the Ticcis are gone, I’ll pay a pittance to stay at Monastero Ventoso, on the outskirts of Siena.

The Padre Superiore has given me a room by the main entrance. Reserved for stray visitors, it boasts two twin beds—iron bedsteads with old-fashioned mattresses stuffed with wool—a night table with an iron lamp, a high window, a crucifix, a cherry wardrobe, a small desk. A print of the Madonna hangs over the desk.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The Padre has no hotel business on the side. When we met he stressed his convent is a place of prayer and meditation. He said I mustn’t be a disruptive influence. I promised not to disrupt anything. But permission was granted only when Mauro’s parents, well-known members of the parish, vouched for me. I was surprised they went to such lengths considering their feelings for me, the son-stealing American; Mauro said it was nothing, his father made a short phone call.

The Padre will stretch curfew past the usual hour of 8:00 p.m. to allow me to eat dinner elsewhere. At 10:00 p.m. sharp the gates will be locked. If I’m late, I’m out. The gate will be unlocked again at 7 a.m.

Honor and virtue; silence, solitude and prayers; curfews and gates heavily clanging shut. These are the themes I have confronted so far in arranging my new lodgings. Fierce and monumental. Worthy of the Middle Ages. Worthy of Pia de’ Tolomei, the 13th century Sienese noblewoman who perished while locked up in her husband’s castle.

 

2. Dressed up in Christmas finery, Siena bewitches. In Via Montanini two hundred Christmas trees flaunt their red ribbons. The Banchi di Sopra glitters with garlands of green fir and gold pine cones. The Via di Città leading up to the Duomo shimmers with candles and blinking lights. Under these gaudy displays, shop windows—lavishly arrayed in seasonal glitter—beckon. They persuade wallets into emptying their contents for last-minute purchases. I spent too much on gifts for Mauro’s family and now have to wire Mom for more cash.

 

3. I transferred my belongings from the Ticci’s to the monastery with Mauro’s help. Then it was on to Mauro’s home for lunch. I brought his mother a bunch of exuberant pink lilies that had been steamed open in a greenhouse in the hills behind San Remo.

His family, unlike the lilies, acted formal and stiff. Mauro’s mother took the flowers and smiled, but only with the bottom half of her face. His father, after a quick “bon giorno,” disappeared into the far reaches of their home. His grandmother, a small wrinkled lady, frowned when I tried to shake her hand, disapproving of my presence at lunch. Mauro said afterward that back in her day, women needed an engagement ring on their finger before they could meet a young man’s family.

At the table we made conversation:

“So, Mauro, your friend isn’t going home for Christmas?” his mother asked in rapid Italian, figuring I wouldn’t understand.

“I have another semester to go and the fare’s expensive.” I said, answering for myself.

I could have told her I’d had an invitation to go Paris to visit an uncle—expenses paid by the uncle—but decided to stay in Siena because of her son. Instead, I decided not to fan the flames of her dislike and said nothing.

When wine had melted some of the frost in the atmosphere, between the two meat courses of fagiano and cinghiale  (pheasant and wild boar that the head of the family had shot), Mauro’s father told me of his hobby. He opened his weapons cabinet behind the dining room table and showed me his hunting rifles, bullets and knives. Then he took me down the hall to see his boar’s head wall trophy.

Hunting, blood-letting—his favorite past-time. His eyes shone when he told me he especially enjoys hunting wild boar. The dogs, the chase, the kill.

4. It’s lonely in this monastery. And cold. Since curfew I’ve shivered in this bed with the lumpy mattress and thin blankets, reading melancholy stories of Pia de’ Tolomei, the noblewoman Dante relegated to Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. Apparently accused of infidelity and confined to a remote spot in the swamplands of Maremma by her husband, she languished and died there almost 700 years ago.

Like Pia I don’t see anyone, I don’t hear anyone. The monks live in a different section; I’m exiled to the wing near the head office where matters such as interviews with female boarders are conducted.

Tonight the howling of the wind keeps me company.

At least Pia had a maid.

La Pia de’ Tolomei, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

5. On tiptoes, in my flannel nightgown with the lace around the neck, I peer out the tiny window over my bed.

The wind has ceased moaning and groaning and whipping past corners. No lone moto, no car, no pedestrian sputters or clips through the night. No one but me sees that the heavens glow with a majestic full moon that dispels, with its brilliance, the shadows of the sleeping town waiting for Christmas to arrive.

Cypress trees block much of my view but I imagine Siena quietly spread over the hills south of me. Close by are several brick high-rises built in the 60’s. Far off, toward the centro storico stand the black-and-white-striped bell-tower at the Duomo, the brick-and-marble Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo, and the red bell-tower at San Domenico. Three far-off friends.

As I sink down to the mattress I wonder. How many Christmases did Pia linger at her solitary window before she succumbed to loneliness?

This monastery. Pia’s story. Mauro’s hostile parents. They’re casting a pall on the joy of this season.

Snow at the Duomo

6. Today, Christmas, Mauro gave me a small gold ring with a red stone and a card with a sonnet by Pascoli in impossible Italian. Then he said we were fidanzati but that we wouldn’t mention it to anyone right now. They wouldn’t understand. I agreed, but wished he’d stand up to his parents and tell them how he feels about me instead of keeping it a secret.

I gave Mauro a glossy book of New York City with photographs taken by famous photographers of the last twenty years.

He’s never been out of Italy.

He flipped through the photos not speaking. Then he slapped the book shut, coughed and squeezed my hand and said he’d like to visit me in New York some day.

I coughed too and retied the lace on my boot so he couldn’t see my face.

I don’t want to think about leaving. I don’t want to think about impossible visits in New York some day.

When I bought the book, it seemed perfect. Now I wish I’d given him something else.

7. Mauro and I went to visit the Palazzo de’ Tolomei this morning and study it. I’m writing an essay over the holidays for Italian culture class.

Affixed to the side of the austere building hung a small plaque, high up, engraved with two somber, melancholy lines from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy:

Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia:
Siena mi fè; disfecemi Maremma:
Purg. V 133-134

(Remember me who am La Pia; me
Siena, me Maremma, made, unmade….
translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

I’d admired the Tolomei Palace innumerable times, but the building had seemed just another beautiful remnant of Siena’s illustrious past. Now that I’d been reading about one of its inhabitants, it had acquired significance. As I stared up at the diamond-paned windows on the piano nobile with Pia’s sad words echoing round the piazza, I wondered. Pia had been “made” here. She’d been born and grew up within this edifice’s aristocratic walls. Once she had looked out over the square where I was standing. But how and why she’d been “unmade” in Maremma was a mystery that had attracted attention throughout the centuries and would likely never be solved.

In addition to the two lines reproduced on the plaque, Dante writes just two more lines about Pia. In them he alludes to who is responsible for her death: her husband, Nello Pannocchieschi.

salsi colui che ‘nnanellata pria
disposando m’avea con la sua gemma
Purg. V 135-136

(…This in his inmost heart well knoweth
he With whose fair jewel I was ringed and wed ….)

But Dante doesn’t explain why or how Pia dies and what Nello’s role is. No late 13th-century historical records to clear the matter. For centuries scholars have disagreed as to the nature of Pia’s sins. That Dante considered her a sinner up until the very last minute when she repented (but without receiving last rites) thereby saving herself from hell and the Inferno is clear, otherwise she wouldn’t be in Purgatorio. But was she an adulteress? Or was she guilty of some other crime? And was she thrown from a window in a castle in Maremma on Nello’s orders, who some say wanted to marry someone else? Or did she die of illness and solitude?

When I asked his opinion Mauro said he thought she’d cheated, gotten caught, said she was sorry but her husband rightly turned a deaf ear. Instead, I preferred the line of reasoning of one of the most popular legends. According to this version of events, Pia’s husband shut her up in his castle in Maremma because an associate—whose advances Pia had rejected—told Nello she’d been unfaithful but gave false evidence to back the charge. Locked away in swampy, mosquito-ridden Maremma marshlands, Pia got sick with malaria. In the meantime, Nello discovered the lie, returned to release her but instead arrived in time for her funeral.

“I don’t want to finish in the same way,” I said after giving Mauro my opinion. “Expiring on the outskirts of Siena.”

“I knew this Pia trip was going to end up back at the monastery,” he said, frowning. “I thought I was doing you a favor keeping you safe at night.”

Safe at night? Since when was safety in Siena an issue? And then I understood. He didn’t trust me.

“It’s not you I don’t trust,” he said when I asked.  “It’s the men here. This is Italy. You’re American.”

I’m a twentieth-century Pia. And Mauro? He’s a twentieth-century Nello Pannocchieschi.

8. I spent the early morning writing in my cell. My neck was stiff after a bad night in the bumpy bed.

At ten thirty weak sunshine and a watery blue sky beckoned. I put down my pen, stretched, grabbed my coat and began a tour of the gardens.

To one side of the main building stood leafless trees, un-pruned hydrangea bushes replete with last summer’s flowers (though now brown and stiff), a potted lemon tree swathed in plastic to keep it warm on cold nights. I picked a dried rosebud from another bush in need of care.

“Signorina, what are you doing?” asked a voice from behind. I turned. It was the Padre. He frowned at the dead flower in my hand.“This area is off limits. Didn’t I tell you this already? You must stay along the gravel drive to the front gate.”

“But what’s wrong with a little walk? I’ll be quiet.”

“The brothers are in the vegetable garden. You must not disturb them. And please don’t pick anything else.”

“But, it’s dead,” I said.

“It’s not your place to say or to pick,” he said.

Pia de’ Tolomei, by Stefano Ussi

9. Signora Rossi makes wonderful meals every time I’ve been invited.

“I’m sorry if she feels obligated to extra fuss,” I said to Mauro.

“No,” he said. “She can’t help it. It’s her way when we have company.”

Today’s lunch menu consisted of the following:

crostini misti (paté and prosciutto hors d’oeuvres)
gnocchi alla romana  (au gratin dumplings made of semolina wheat),
coniglio e gobbi fritti  (fried rabbit and gobbi—a celery-look-alike from the artichoke family),
crostata all’albicocca (homemade apricot jelly tart),
panforte, panettone and pandoro (Christmas cakes),
ricciarelli  and cavallucci  (Christmas cookies),
espresso caffé,
cognac.

“I always cook like this, doesn’t everybody?” she replied when I complimented her skill and generosity and trouble on my account.

“No!” I said, belching softly into my napkin and unbuttoning the top of my skirt.

Soon after, Mauro and I fell asleep sitting up on the living room sofa. His grandmother found us. She jabbed me in the ribs with her finger and hissed something I didn’t understand at Mauro.

Then she yelled. “Get up!”

His mother came running in.

“What is going on in here! What are you doing?”

10. We are going to Pisa tomorrow for the day. Mauro will come and pick me up at 5 a.m.; the Padre Superiore will open the gates early so that I can get out in time to catch the train.

Such magnanimity in bending the rules! Perhaps he is glad to be freed of my presence for the entire day.

I, too, am happy to be leaving the claustrophobic atmosphere at Monastero Ventoso and the glacial stares of Mauro’s possessive family.

I don’t know how much more of this medieval nightmare I can take.

11. I’m in disgrace. The Padre Superiore called me into the office where he first interviewed me. A blond hair has been found in the spare twin bed in my room. Between the sheets. The sheets, in addition, were wrinkled. Clear evidence that someone has been sleeping in that bed.

“Was it Mauro?” he wanted to know. “Someone else?”

I denied any and all knowledge of any blond-haired persons sleeping in the spare twin.

“By the way,” I wanted to ask when the interrogation wound down, “what were you doing snooping?”

12. The Padre Superiore hauled me in again today for more questioning.

“Signorina,” he began, clearing his throat. “Have you thought about our talk yesterday?”

“Yes, of course I have.”

“Well?”

“How can you be sure there is no explanation other than I’m guilty of some crime? What if someone else used that bed before I got to the monastery?” I thought of Pia and false accusations.

“If you change your mind, please come to see me.” He said, staring at his fingernails.

“Don’t you think you should consider that there may be another explanation?” I said, thinking of Pia and her untold version of events, how she hadn’t been able to defend herself, how defenselessness had caused her demise.

But the Padre answered me with a chilling, “How long did you say you were staying here? Was it until the 10th, after the Epiphany?”

“At the very longest. I may be leaving even sooner, if I can make alternative arrangements.” I bluffed, wondering where I’ll go if he kicks me out.

13. Mauro tried to have curfew extended last night so we could celebrate New Year’s together but the Padre Superiore refused. He intended it as punishment, and perhaps as a moment for me to reflect, repent, recant.

I went to bed at 11 p.m. after drinking a Campari soda I had smuggled in. I felt very sorry for myself.

I should walk out, but after paying rent here and buying Christmas presents, I have no money left for a hotel. Mom’s cable hasn’t yet arrived.

14. “What to do about the monastery?” I asked Mauro as we walked in circles around the Castello di Belcaro, an exquisite spot outside Siena where tradition has it nobles once holed up to escape outbursts of the plague.

“What did he say exactly?”

“He said there was a short blond hair in the spare bed.”

“Mine.” Mauro swallowed. “Who do you suppose inspected the linen?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe things will die down.”

“He’s a bloodhound, after a scent. He’s not going to give up.”

“Funny isn’t it? ” said Mauro.

“Ridiculous.”

“You were late,” Mauro said, tugging at my hand, “it was your fault.”

I hadn’t woken up in time to catch the early train to Pisa and was not waiting by the front gate like we had arranged.

“But you were the one who breached the walls,” I said. He’d come to my room and had thrown rocks at my window—a misdemeanor. Then, when I opened it, he’d climbed in—a more serious offense. While I finished drying my hair, he’d sat on the twin bed—definitely a felony. And then the rumpling began. A crime of such gigantic proportions that if brought to the Padre’s attention he would lock us up and throw the key into the murky depths of the goldfish pond out back.

“Try telling him all we did was cuddle for a minute before running for the later train. He’d never believe it.”

“You’re right, as a matter of fact, I almost don’t believe it,” agreed Mauro.

15. Entering the Padre Superiore’s study, I found him writing at his desk.

Sinking back in his chair, he studied me. “You have something to say?” he asked.

“I’ll be leaving tomorrow, on the 6th, four days earlier than planned,” I said. “I wonder if I could have a refund on my rent? I’m broke.”

“You want a refund. I’d be glad to give you a refund. But first, is there nothing else? Isn’t something weighing you down?”

“No. I have nothing to say except that I’ll never forget my stay here.”

“It will be hard for us to forget you, as well.” He took his glasses off and put them on the desk. “We had you stay here as a favor to the Rossi family. I’m considering telling them what has happened. What will they think?”

I bit my lip. I wanted my money back. But on the other hand, I didn’t need it back that badly. Mauro said he’d help me out until my funds from home arrived.

“You’d be too late,” I said. “Mauro has already told them. Signor Rossi found it distasteful that someone scrutinized my sheets. But we all had a good laugh. He knows we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Later I told Mauro. We were sitting in his white sedan in a dusky lane near an abandoned school with shattered windows and a missing door where nuns once taught. Rumor has it they abandoned their newborn babies in the woods beyond.

“It was a stroke of brilliance to tell him you’d already ‘confessed’ to your parents, don’t you think? But, suppose I exaggerated too much? And he wants to tell your parents his side of the story?”

“He won’t. His best course is to keep a low profile. And then, even if he does talk to my father, what is the worst that can happen?”

“Your parents will be sorry that they went out of their way.”

“No, they won’t because they know I was home every night.”

“Vindicated only because you have an alibi. Not because anyone believes me.”

“By tomorrow at this time, the monastery will be a closed chapter. It was a bad choice. But it’s almost over.”

“Thank god,” I said, exhaling.

“You know, I’ve been thinking.” He leaned across the seat and brushed my bangs out of my eyes.

I waited for a while and then he told me. He wants his parents to know how he feels about me. That this affair isn’t some boyish infatuation.

I wondered about his change of heart. Had Pia and her unspoken thoughts and words affected him?  Had the mystery of her life and death—one without truth and trust—swayed him? Had the monastery showed him that he should speak up?

Somehow—although he didn’t say—I figured this were so.

16. It’s a holiday, the Epiphany, and here’s mine:

Skip living in Medieval establishments such as castles and monasteries.

Pia died a lonely death in one, I was embarrassed and humiliated in one.

No wonder the guidebooks don’t recommend them.

Albergo Castellini—a modest two-star—will do. Mauro’s lending me the money. I’ll pay him back when Mom’s cable comes through.

He says not to worry. He doesn’t want the money. He says he’s hoping to see me smiling again.

Right now I’m waiting by the front gate at Monastero Ventoso. It’s 8:25 a.m. and he’s late, but only by 25 minutes. He’ll be along soon, as soon as he’s through telling his parents.

Boys, your father came along right before lunch. He took me to his parents’. We had a multi-course meal—your grandmother’s way of expressing emotion—and then another, after that. And then many more.

Since then we’ve faced difficult challenges—we’ve done some climbing so to speak. Most of our climbs have been without guides. The air’s been thin, the water’s been scarce, the sun’s been hot, we twisted our ankles, skinned our knees and once ended up badly dehydrated, but somehow we’ve always reached a scrap of shade.

We’re climbing again, all four of us. Your father’s on one side of the Mediterranean. We’re stuck on the other.

But we’ll make it. We can say we love each other.

Your father texted me a minute ago. Here’s what he’s typed in this new, poetic language he’s learning:

“Sabah Al Khair Habibti.” 

It means ‘good morning, my beloved.’

After thirty-odd springs together, I think ‘good morning, my beloved’ sounds incredibly fine.

                                                                                     –Love, Mom

–by Natalia Sarkissian

Apr 272011
 

Tucked away in the pages of Numéro Cinq are skillfully told stories that pull us inside. The best of these hold us tight and whisper things that haunt our thoughts, urging us to care more deeply. Robert Semeniuk tells such stories with his photographs. He has been a photojournalist and human & environmental rights activist for 3 decades. I met Robert and his wife, musician Ruta Yawney on Bowen Island a few months ago and today I am honored to introduce you to Robert’s work. Each of the images shown here is excerpted from a story. These particular stories about the Inuit of arctic Canada, preventable blindness in Ethiopia, war affected children, and AIDS in Botswana are elaborated in image and word on Robert’s webpage.

— lynne quarmby

Five Photographs

By Robert Semeniuk

 

Tea time on the cariboo hunt

Gaza boys playing ‘Arab & Jews’

Continue reading »

Apr 262011
 

Herewith a gorgeous and protean reading of Joseph Conrad’s story “Youth” by the noted Dutch maritime historian and scholar J. N. F. M. à Campo. “Poiesis of the Past” is a special paper, prepared and delivered as a farewell address, which thus contains personal as well as scholarly and critical perspectives, which, yes, accumulates critical vectors not always available to the pure literary critic and thus reaches beyond the conventional approach. Joep à Campo teaches World History and Historical Research Methods at the Faculty of History and Arts of the Erasmus Universiteit, Rotterdam. He received his PhD degree cum laude in 1992 (Rijksuniversiteit Leiden). His dissertation has been published in English as Engines of Empire, Steamshipping and State Formation in Colonial Indonesia (Hilversum 2002). He has published widely on research methods, historical consciousness, economic, maritime and cultural history. His current research topics are Maritime History of Indonesia, Memo-history, Conradian studies, and Tango studies. NC has the great privilege of publishing this paper due to the good offices of our mutual friend, Haijo Westra, of the University of Calgary (see his essay on dg’s novel Elle here).

dg

 

POIESIS OF THE PAST

A historian’s reading of the short story ‘Youth, a narrative’ by Joseph Conrad

By J.N.F.M. à Campo

 

clip_image002

Farewell paper for the Center for Historical Culture

ErasmusSchool of History, Culture and Communication

18 January 2011


Foreword: a personal note

… and I remember my youth and the feeling
that will never come back any more …

Joseph Conrad, Youth: a narrative

The closing of my academic duties is an appropriate opportunity for looking back on my lifelong engagement with history. As a mirror of my reflections I have chosen the short story Youth: a narrative written by Joseph Conrad, pseudonym of Joseph Korzeniowski, in 1898. It offers an opportunity to overlook some central themes in my work, and also to hark back to some formative experiences in my own childhood.

I was born and raised in the roman-catholic countryside of Southern Limburg in the after war years amidst deserted weapons and recurrent stories of the war, the content and flavour however varying according to the temperament of the narrators.[1] There was a stark contrast between the rural and industrial sectors in the region, where natural hills contrasted with mine deposits, and where the traditional countryside was interspersed with modern mining villages, called colonies, inhabited by migrants from all Europe. At the age of six I migrated to the IJsselmeer polder, and the change from the luxuriant hillside to the chilly plain below sea level was felt as a real break. For days on end I roamed the reclaimed bottom of the sea and stuffed my trousers-pockets with clay pipe bowls lost by former Zuiderzee fishermen, daydreaming of the flat bottomed vessels that once had sailed above my head, over the past as a bygone yet nearby world. The sense of loss was as captivating as the sense of innovation. Memorable were the frequent trips to the encapsulated former islet of Schokland, nearby ultra-orthodox fishing-villages like Urk, with their old houses and inhabitants in traditional costume, or to Staphorst where children were literally tightened on leashes against the dangers of the modern world.

As a showcase of post war economic innovation, the polder was set up as a social project for national integration based on planned denominational segregation (verzuiling) of settlers from all over the country. It accentuated the contrast between old and new land, tradition and modernity, historical growth and social malleability. Just like the native surroundings, the new setting provided many incentives for social diversities and historical consciousness. History also intruded from the outside. The most exiting images were exotic glimpses from Indonesia, which were gleaned from disparate sources ranging from visiting missionaries to picture books with wonderful colour-plates. At the local gymnasium I became acquainted with mythic, narrating and analytic history as exemplified by Homeros, Herodotus and Thucydides respectively. From the interest in the canonized history in school, however, I was much detracted by Sam Cooke’s 1960 hit ‘Don’t know much about history … But I do know that I love you …’

Gradually the relevance of history for contemporary problems dawned upon me. History popped up in discussions about the cold war and its fire-blazes overseas, decolonization and deconfessionalisation. It became clear that historical imagery is not just carefree musing, but is involved in mental maps, social attitudes and political choices, – that history does matter indeed. The present was experienced as history. That background became the motivation for studying political science and modern history and the moving spirit of my academic activities.

My research focused on the maritime history of Indonesia, as a meeting ground of eastern and western history. While I was dedicated to an academic attitude and writing format of solidly fact-based history, I intermittently turned towards the fiction of Joseph Conrad, in particular his stories set in the Eastern seas. It proved inspirational because of its critical stance towards common contemporary historiography, and it helped balancing fact and fiction, romance and reality, documentation and imagination. As an academic historian, however, I felt puzzled, challenged, even provoked by his assertion that artful fiction is ‘nearer truth’ than academic historiography. Before addressing this statement, I want to summarize and discuss a historical reading of one of his short stories, Youth: a narrative, first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1898. It was included as the first story in the 1902 volume Youth, a Narrative; and Two Other Stories, the other stories being Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether, featuring maturity and old age, respectively.[2]

clip_image004

Continue reading »

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. This experience has been elaborated in my research report on historical consciousness in: De Nieuwste Tijd 10 (2000) p. 87-114.
  2. Ian Watt (1979, 133-34) maintains that the ‘relatively slight’ story – relative to Heart of Darkness – owes its success to the ‘relative simplicity of its story, characters, and theme’. While appreciating its charm, he regards Marlow’s romantisation of ‘youth’ and its confirmation by the audience just trite rhetoric. Jocelyn Baines (1993, 73) called the story ‘a gorgeously romantic evocation of the impact of the East’. Richard Ambrosini (1991, 80) regarded the tale just a ‘nostalgic song of lost youth, a wistful regret for the passing of time’ and thus they have skipped its significance as critical discourse.
Apr 192011
 

Last month Prairie Schooner announced its annual literary awards, and Nance Van Winckel, who has already appeared on the pages of Numéro Cinq several times for her poetry, video art, photocollages and off the page pho-toems, won the Edward Stanley Award for nine poems that appeared in the magazine’s summer issue. It’s a huge pleasure to offer here three of the prize-winning poems. Nance is one of my favourite co-workshop-leaders at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a hip lady with a wry sense of humour and knowing grace. —dg

 

Three Edward Stanley Award-Winning Poems

By Nance Van Winckel

 

You Might Remember Her From Earlier

Sawing into my September mind, one step
and I’m on the crowded path, shoving
toward the vortex. Information in the place
of grief. Trafficking in it. The shirt had
a name, but the man didn’t. Girl, that’s
one lousy anti-Lazarusian report.

The boss wants newer news. Scrubbed
news. In fewer picas. Enter the underground,
pass through the turnstile, everyone trying
to say they told me so. Part of a horde
on pause in a train, I sat under my book’s
black awning. How I loved those cold mornings
of the early pages—turning up
the marble hallways of the vast B.C.

 

Negotiable Instruments

Work For Food, his sign says, so we
put him in our truck & truck him
to the building, condemned, & give him
a sledgehammer & a ham-on-rye & ditto
the same unto ourselves whose butt tattoos
read Work Will Make Us Free & we three
fall upon the struts & joists, we beat back
& swing low, we dig out & haul ass
so rubble is again as it’s always been
the rule of the world, until he whom
we carried with us we may carry away
& refeed and high five & bid adieu so he
may turn his sign at last to the flipside
that tells us to Have a Blessed Day.

 

The Red Line

The Mommy says her Little Man eats, page

by page, whatever romance she’s reading.

Eats headlines and bugs from the yard.

The train rattles around us

and every time the doors blow apart, Little Man leans

to lick the breeze. He leaves no unturned stone

uneaten. Everything’s fire-roasted, taste-

tested. What amplification

he gives space when his mouth opens. He may be

one part per trillion of the world,

but he plans to ingest the other

999.9 billion. He has

the stomach for it, for all us scarfed and hatted,

stuck in a paragraph of dashed hopes.

As the stops yank us in or push

us out, he sees me and nibbles

at my grudge. Little cloud in Little Man’s eye

is all that finally puts him to sleep,

and sleep on him is just too terrible

a beauty to behold. For even

asleep, Little Man punches the Mommy’s breast,

sure it’ll never empty, sure

he’ll always stay a bee

upon the white flower.



—Nance Van Winckel

(Post Design by Mahtem Shiferraw)

Apr 152011
 


Herewith an excerpt from Juan José Saer‘s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington translated by Steve Dolph and recently published by Open Letter Books.  Two friends walk stroll an Argentine city, relishing tales of a wild party neither of them attended (one cannot escape the allegorical parallel with Latin American colonial self-deprecation). They reminisce about the past, expose their anxieties, jump proleptically into a future filled with repressive violence. (See Richard Farrell’s review here.) In this flashback scene, the main character, Angel Leto, has gone away to the countryside with his mother. Leto is returning home on a Sunday evening to discover his father’s body. In their absence, Leto’s father has committed suicide.

dg

from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

By Juan José Saer

Translated by Steve Dolph

They’ve left behind the wide, residential section of the street and are now walking down a narrow, treeless sidewalk where more and more frequently the windows and doors of businesses sit open. Bringing the stem of the unlit pipe to his lips, the Mathematician distractedly starts stroking them with the tip, its bowl hidden in his closed hand. He doesn’t say anything now. Above his eyebrows, on his smooth forehead, his skin wrinkles a little, into horizontal furrows, and be–tween the two little blonde brushes appear two oblique fissures, forming a vertex at the bridge of his nose. Leto, meanwhile, remembers: Isabel, the past year, Lopecito, the wake, the closed casket, etc.—and five days before all that, that is, before the wake, Lopecito, etc. no?—as we were, or rather I, yours truly, no?, was saying: green wheat, already so tall, from the bus window. He has left Rosario Norte an hour before, with his mother. They’re on their way to Andino, to his maternal grandparents’ house, to spend the weekend. It’s a Friday in late spring. They left Rosario at 1:00. When they leave behind the San Lorenzo industrial complex, the land fills with tall green wheat, fields of flax, and, sometimes, yellow sunflowers right up to the shoulders of the road. Every once in a while they pass a farmhouse, with its windmill and eucalyptus, which interrupts, as they say, the fields, the same way stations divide the scant towns in two like a river or a railroad would in other places in the world. A parallel dirt path separates, in the country, the geometrical grains from the road—and on that path, every once in a while, a solitary carriage travels, hardworking and unreal, which the bus, as slow as it is, leaves behind with ease. He, helpful and enthusiastic, went along to the station. That man who, ever since Leto has had use of his reason, has always been silent, distant, shut away with his unsuspected chimeras in his radio workshop, for the last month or so seems to have broken the bell jar that separated him from the outside world, and has come with them, seeming euphoric, close, warm, and open. Leto observes him at a distance, incredulous. At first the change was so sudden that, in his skepticism, he was sure it was some kind of joke, or a tactical transformation, but his persistence and his conviction to the role were so intense that Leto’s initial incredulity was replaced with doubt—is he? would he?—all that, no?, telling himself at the same time, but from then on without concrete ideas or words and almost without realizing it, though not only his mind but also his whole body are for some reason saturated with those senses that more and more resemble the shudder or the silent beating or the contraction of nerves, temples, veins, muscles, telling himself, he would say, but in that way, no?, that if it was a comedy the intended audience was Leto himself, because for Isabel, Lopecito, and the rest, who were convinced in advance, no persuasion was necessary—he, Leto no?—the only one who suspected that the man had something up his sleeve, that the man had realized—and decided I was the last obstacle to demolish before his magical circle could finally close, the straggler he had to force in before sealing, hermetically, from the inside, the capsule, and launching it into the interstellar space of his own delirium, Leto thinks, this time with clear and well-formed thoughts, walking, next to the Mathematician, always to the south, on the shady sidewalk, where, more and more frequently, the windows and doors of businesses are open. On a bright, warm, and calm November afternoon, the bus drives past rectangles of blue flax, of yellow sunflowers and green wheat, leaving behind, slow and regular, the repetitive uprights of the telegraph poles, while Leto, sitting next to the window, candidly observes Isabel who, in the seat ahead of him, calmly and serenely flips through the latest issue of Ms & Mrs. The comedy that Leto, after several weeks, has convinced himself is real, produces a tranquilizing and at the same time euphoric effect in Isabel, inasmuch as her old phantasms of marital bliss, upward mobility, sexual satisfaction, economic stability, familial harmony, religious tranquility, and physical well-being have seemed, in recent weeks, to have found their long-awaited substantiation, de–spite the resistance of a hostile world. Isabel’s attention, detached from the intense perfection of the land, is fixed on the page—a weight-loss plan? the horoscope? an interesting recipe? the opinions of a movie star? sentimental correspondence? Leto doesn’t wonder anymore, feeling nonetheless, indifferently, definitively perhaps, the abyss that separates them. The magazine, elevated almost to her chest, lets him see the belly which, under a modest skirt, ends at the vertex that the crossing muscles form with the pubis—he was in there, for nine months, and then funneled out, fell into the world. What should he feel? First of all, the ubiquitous mother, the amazing plain, fascinates him just then more than his own; the vast world, so indifferent, nevertheless seems more familiar than the one he was raised in at home. His coldness isn’t quite hatred—still, the censure he himself ignores, buried for a long time, feeling now that it’s too late to want them to have been different, makes him see his own feelings as though they were controlled remotely by others, an older and distinct species—not hatred, no, but instead a sort of quiet and curious outrage that makes him observe them constantly to see how far they’ll go, with the wild hope that, after so much time, with laughter and a shift in pose, they will finally say: Okay, that’s enough, show’s over, time to start being our real selves. He, the kind and helpful man, has gone with them to the bus station, in Rosario Norte, has given the impression, for the last month, of being something else, not his real self, but still very different—his concentrated detachment has become lightheartedness; his distracted indifference, friendly attention; his limp and depressive inertia regarding his family and work, enthusiasm and projects. The day before, he came out of the workshop with his eyes tired from connecting so many thin cables and adjusting so many tiny screws, and while he helped Isabel get dinner ready and set the table, he told Leto that next week, when they came back home, they would go fishing together; they would cross the river on a canoe with Lopecito and camp on the island for a couple of days. He even rang up Lopecito who, of course, sounded excited. And in Rosario Norte, just as they were getting on the bus, he, that man, reminded him: on Wednesday, at the latest, because Lopecito was busy Monday and Tuesday, they would row to the island. In fact, Leto has to put effort into showing that he finds the outing as attractive as Lopecito and his father seem to, but the slightly irked, wary curiosity these altered people inspire allows him to give himself over, to persist, with the same affected detachment one would use to observe the behavior of a colony of laboratory mushrooms, in acting out the different scenes of the comedy, hoping to finally unravel the heart of the plot and its characters. Many years later he will understand, from the overwhelming evidence, that the so-called human soul never had, or will ever have, what they call substance or essence, that what they call character, style, personality, are nothing but senseless replications, and that their own subject—the body where they manifest—is the one most starved of their nature, that what others call life is a series of a posteriori recognitions of the places where a blind, in–comprehensible, ceaseless drift deposits, in spite of themselves, the eminent individuals who, after having been dragged through it, begin to elaborate systems that pretend to explain it; but for now, having just turned twenty, he still believes that problems have solutions, situations outcomes, individuals personality, and actions logic. Leto observes, with some pleasure, the countryside through the window. Every ten or fifteen kilometers the bus stops at a station for a few minutes to drop off or pick up bags of mail, travelers, the ticket taker, the shopkeepers returning from their restocking trips to Rosario, the packets of newspapers and magazines, the passengers going from one town to another, few compared to those coming from Rosario, as though contact among those towns were prohibited and it was only possible for them to connect by way of the abstract and distant city, those towns on the plains, squared off like the country, regularly and strictly consisting of two rows of houses, most of unplastered brick, four blocks long, one on each side of the highway and separated—each row of houses, no?—from the bus station by a wire fence, a windmill, and a wide dirt street—and on the ends of the four blocks, two lateral streets that close the quadrilateral and rise slightly at the shoulder, towns that are, to put it one way, like a miserly concession from the plains to roughen, at brief and regular intervals, its simplistic, monotonous geometry. To Leto those towns are childhood—that is, in his case, the coming and going by train or by bus, the vacations, in winter or summer, at his grandparents’ house, his grandfather’s general store with its big, dark shelves, the colored fabrics, patterned with flowers, stripes, polka dots, blocks, or with little black and white flowers, stacked on top of each other and lined up diagonally in the cases, the carefully situated yellow bags of sod, the logo and the letters of the brand repeated on several rows, the pyramids of identical cans of preserves, piled up at the back of the store, the bins of caramels, the rows of cigarette packs organized by brand, the ones with blonde tobacco on the left side of the case, with black tobacco in the middle, toscanos, toscanitos, matches, loose tobacco, and rolling paper on the right, the big bins of sugar, of lentils, of garbanzos, of noodles, the rows of dried cod, stiff and covered with rock salt, the harvesting bags smelling of leather and oil, the bottles of wine, by type, by brand, by size, the glass cases with toiletries, the cooler, the scales, the wood countertop, smooth, dark, and weathered, the calendars and the cardboard advertisements with pictures of movie stars, of soccer teams, funny or artistic drawings, the shoeboxes, the kerosene cans and cooking alcohol in the storeroom, next to rows of detergent, flour, salt, oil, and above all, the boxes of Quaker Oats with the drawing of a man holding a smaller box of Quaker Oats with a smaller man holding an even smaller box of Quaker Oats with an even smaller man holding, no?, an even smaller, no?, to infinity, no?, like . . . no?, childhood, we were saying, or rather yours truly was saying, or rather, that is to say, no?, childhood: internal construction and external wandering, convalescence of nothing, corporeal truth versus social fiction, hope of pleasure versus generalized deception, just like that thing on Sundays, the pursuit, torture, and murder of grasshoppers and frogs between the trees in the back yard, the terrifying nights under the crucifix hanging on the headboard with dried olive branches from the last Palm Sunday, the white nightgowns of his aunts, cousins, grandmother, his uncles drinking cold beer under the trees, the afternoon, the whistles of the express passing through town and filling it with fear, the childhood Leto is already starting to tell himself, without words or concepts—not even with images or representations, no?—Isn’t what I had expected. It’s still not what I think it should be like. This can’t be all there is.

Ultimately, as they say, and to say it a second time, though it’s always the Same, no?, every thing. He even rang up the man he calls his best friend, Lopecito, to suggest going fishing on the island the following week. And Leto, on the bus, is willing to let himself be carried along, with a somewhat uneasy sense of calm, through those warm and beautiful spring days, to the following Wednesday, on the island near Rosario. That anticipation saturates the entire weekend: arriving in the town, crossing the streets and the bus station, passing the windmill, arriving at his grandparents’ house, the dinner, the evening walk through the town, the croaking of the frogs, the intermittent song of the crickets that has always attended, and no doubt preceded, the human night, the intermittent, phosphorescent glow of the fireflies, the smell of the paradise trees, the family gathering on Saturday with the relatives who have been arriving from nearby towns in cars or on the bus, the organized abundance, formed by identical objects repeated over and over in the store, the night spent under the crucifix, the mass, the cookout at noon on Sunday, the women’s flower-patterned dresses, the walk around the station with the cousins, and more than anything else, the perfect hour on the plains, the afternoon, and also, every once in a while, in little outbursts to someone in the family, Isabel’s foolish declarations of her marital bliss, her upward mobility, her sexual satisfaction, her economic stability, her familial harmony, her religious tranquility, her physical well-being, which he lets run on like background noise whose fictitiousness intrigues him less than its obstinate and emphatic repetition. That insistence betrays her uncertainty, the same way that, on Sunday night when the bus arrives at Rosario Norte, the thing she murmurs, slightly distracted, Hopefully he hasn’t made anything for dinner because I could pop after everything we ate in Andino,could be translated, Leto thinks, into a way of saying the opposite, because the fact of him waiting with a warm dinner would help dispel the uncertainty that’s working on her and which is of such a curious nature—when it manifests itself externally, it always appears to be the opposite.

The man is not at the station, It’s good he didn’t come, murmurs Isabel, after scrutinizing the walkway and the entrance. It’s good he didn’t come because anyway we don’t have suitcases and the train leaves us a block away. Leto, who after so many years has become an expert in the art of pretending he hasn’t heard anything, or of responding, almost inaudibly, with vague monosyllables, to every irrational, or, as he refers to them privately, false bottom argument laid out by Isabel, turns the conversation to fresh eggs, their bouquet of flowers, the greasy chorizos just made at the farm stand and plied on them in the town.

Slowly they leave the train, walking away from the palm trees lining the avenue to enter the dark, tree-lined block that separates them from their house. Isabel isn’t, Leto thinks, in any hurry to get there, as if through some physical inertia her body, contrary to her reason, were trying to express things more truthfully. Twice in a single block she stops for several minutes to talk with neighbors who, sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk near their front doors, or leaning out a window, have come out to enjoy the cool night, while Leto, keeping a polite distance, with the basket of eggs and chorizo in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other hand, asks himself if she isn’t trying to gain time so that he, who she supposes innocent of machinations and exempted from her intuition, will overtake her and get home first—and all of this in spite of the fact that, to the outside world, they are just a mother and son, a silent twenty-year-old young man, coming back, respectable, straightforward, and a little tired, from a weekend in the country, neighborhood people, apparently the husband is an electrician who works on televisions and doesn’t mix much with the neighbors, the boy studies accounting, and she’s still pretty even though she’s around forty, the men more or less silent and withdrawn, while she sometimes maybe has the habit of talking too much, like she can’t stop, or she’s trying to hide, to cover up, with words, deep dark fissures which her words, despite her intentions, open at their multiple, secret edges. But she doesn’t give up. Leto waits, patiently, or a little callously, rather, at every stop, and when they get to the house, which is dark, silent, and lifeless, and he slides the key in the lock, and turns it, he feels again, coming through the door, the trail of the snake, the indefinite but distinct presence of the scorpion, whose signs, weakened in the previous weeks, have returned, unequivocal and palpable. When he turns on the light, this presence draws him, sucks him, slowly, toward the bedroom, and when he sees the man sprawled on the floor, his skull shattered by the gunshot, the revolver still in his hand, the floor, walls, and furniture splattered with blood, with chunks of brain, hair, bone shards, he says to himself, calmly and coldly, So that’s what this was. Specifically, this meaning the days, the nights, the time, the body, the world, the thick beating life, how the man, in his little electrical workshop, had dismantled them, detaching and separating them into separate pieces, colored cables, copper wires, gold screws, spreading them over the table to inspect them one at a time, neutral and merciless, limiting himself to reaching what he no doubt considered objective conclusions, and later, during uniform and meticulous hours, putting everything back together according to the indisputable logic of his delirium. To achieve his goals he had to construct the comedy, setting a stage, the visible universe, and making all of his so-called loved ones take part, modifying the plot sometimes to convince the most reticent, as had been happening for the previous weeks with Leto, whose mistrust had forced him to make appearances outside his “workshop,” transforming his personality slightly and preparing, with Lopecito’s unconditional support, when he swallowed whole the supposed week of fishing on the island, for Leto, his reticence becoming hope, to fall, on his return from the country Sunday night, from an even higher rung. Put briefly, and by the man himself, no doubt to himself, and no doubt without words as well, more or less like this: When I say dance, everyone dances. No excuses.

Two or three days later the autopsy reveals that he shot himself on Friday at around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, meaning that he said goodbye with a grin at the station, reminding him before he left that on Wednesday they would cross to the island with Lopecito, then, still grinning, boarded the train back to their neighborhood, walked the block between the train stop and the house at a calm and regular pace, and no doubt without losing his grin entered the house, crossed the hallway, shut himself in the bedroom, and without hesitating or losing the fixed, vindictive grin, blew his brains out.

—I call that an insolent suicide, said César Rey, a few months later, at the bar Montecarlo, in the city, while they watched the sun, through the window, rising into a cold autumn dawn. And Rey can speak with authority because the day before, in fact, he had gotten a hotel room, intending to slit his wrists, but at the decisive moment he had suddenly changed his mind, and after leaving the hotel, he had run into Leto at the arcade’s bar, where they proceeded to go on a bender.

—The insolent suicide, says Leto, shaking his head. Isabel and Lo–pecito were left stupefied by the event—in the director’s absence they no longer knew exactly what role they played in the comedy—but Leto himself thinks he has known how to conserve enough cold blood to keep him from the path of the gunshot, though the suspicion of having been the primary target for the last few weeks could be, without his realizing it, proof of the opposite.

The insolent suicide, he thinks, discreetly watching the Mathematician, whose eyebrows indicate a laborious reflection that Leto cannot know, and is not interested in knowing, but which is more or less the following: Where does instinct come from? Does it belong to the individual or the species? Is there continuity between individuals? Does the latter individual take over the instinct from the point where the former left it or does he reconstruct, from zero, the whole process from the start? Is it substance, energy, reflex? What is our idea of instinct? How was it first formed? By whom? Where? As opposed to what? What, in a living thing, isn’t instinct? And then, forgetting Noca, Noca’s horse, instinct, the images he has built up thanks to Botón’s story on the ferry, the previous Saturday, on the upper deck, images of Washington’s birthday at Basso’s ranch, which he didn’t attend but will remember for the rest of his life, the other questions, always stirring, underground, and sometimes rising to the surface, suddenly, that follow us, form us, lead us, allow us to be, the old questions first brought up in the African dawn, heard in Babylon and asked again in Thebes, in Asia Minor, on the banks of the Yellow River, which sparkled in the Scandinavian snows, the solilo–quy in Arabia, in New Guinea, in Königsberg, in Mato Grosso, and in Tenochtitlán, questions whose response is exaltation, is death, suffering, insanity, and which stir in every blink, every heartbeat, every premonition—who planted the seed of the world? what are the internal and the external? what are birth and death? is there a single object or many? what is the I? what is the general and the particular? what is repetition? what am I doing here?—that is to say, no?—the Mathematician, or someone else, somewhere else or at some other time, again, though there is only one, only one, which is always the same Place, and always, as we were saying, once and for all, the same Time.

—Juan José Saer; translated by Steve Dolph

Apr 152011
 

Elegant Uncertainty

A review of Juan Jose Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

By Richard Farrell



The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
By Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books
ISBN-13:978-1-934824-20-7

To be clear: the soul, as they call it, is not translucent, it seems, but murky.
—Juan José Saer

WHEN IS THE LAST TIME you went on a good walk with a friend? Cell phones off, eyes fixed on the path in front, minds alert and the conversation buzzing?  A good walk opens the ears and the heart to storytelling, creating a sacred space in between two individuals as they make their way.  Juan José Saer invites us on such a walk in The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.  But, reader be warned: this is no ordinary stroll and this is no ordinary novel.

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington follows Angel Leto and “the Mathematician” as they walk through the city center of Santa Fe, Argentina. “Suppose it’s October,” the narrator begins, “October or November, let’s say, in 1960 or 1961, October, maybe the fourteenth or sixteenth, or the twenty-second or twenty-third—the twenty-third of October in 1961 let’s say—what’s the difference.”  This uncertain narrator interrupts frequently and becomes a third protagonist in the novel as he narrates the journey, conversation and thoughts of the characters and supplies ongoing, humorous commentary.  The conversation quickly turns to the sixty-fifth birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, a party which neither man attended.  Washington is an elusive character; we don’t know much about him.  He writes lectures on the Colastine Indians (“Location, Lineage, Langauge & Logic”); he was arrested once, and avoided prison by going to a mental hospital; he throws wild birthday parties for his younger friends. The Mathematician heard his version of the party a week earlier from one of the attendees, Botón, as the two men rode a ferry.  Leto hears his version from the Mathematician.  The reader, of course, hears all of these accounts from the narrator. The party attracted les enfants terribles of Argentina, young artists, poets and political activists ready to disrobe, fight and snort coke into the wee hours of the morning. You want to be at this party, but, like Leto and the Mathematician, you can’t attend, so you must be willing to accept a re-telling (hyphenated emphasis intended throughout) of the event as the men stroll through the city.

This device of re-telling is crucial. By not going directly at the events the way a traditional narrative might, Saer creates distance between the characters in the novel and the dramatic action.  This recursive structure forces us to question the very idea of what happened at this party, and, on a deeper level, what is happening in the novel. Saer challenges the notions of verisimilitude and truth.  And with this technique, the re-telling of the events at the party mimics our reading of the novel itself (of any novel, really), by recreating a version of reality through the description of events not directly experienced by the characters or the reader.  Saer seems to be jack-hammering at the foundations of storytelling.

Continue reading »

Apr 142011
 

Johannah Rodgers is a brilliantly witty, protean experimental author/artist and culture critic. Please take the time to visit her web site (click on her name) and marvel at some of the work on display there. See especially her little book 10 Things You Need To Know About Writing, her drawings of places, her word drawings, and her provocative and idiosyncratic “Highly Subjective Recommended Reading Lists.” Rodgers is the author of the book, sentences, a collection of short stories, essays, and drawings, published by Red Dust, the chapbooks, “The Coop Articles: Dispatches from the Park Slope Food Coop 2004-2007” and “necessary fictions,” published by Sona Books, and numerous short stories, essays, and reviews, which have appeared in Fence, Bookforum, Fiction, CHAIN Arts, Tantalum, Pierogi Press, and The Brooklyn Rail, where she is a contributing editor.  She lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches writing and literature courses at The City University of New York, where she is an Assistant Professor in English at The New York City College of Technology.

The excerpt here published is from her futuristic, hypertext novel DNA.

dg

 

from DNA

By Johannah Rodgers

“For does not society modify Man, according to the conditions in which he lives and acts, into men as manifold as the species in Zoology?”

— Honore de Balzac, Introduction to the Comedie Humaine

February __, 2075

I have identified four individuals in a ten block radius with whom I share the same genetic code.  I will begin profiling each based on the information  collected to date, as well as through direct observation to determine which are the best candidates for complete identity theft.

February __, 2075

I can’t say that I completely dislike myself, but there are times when I wonder whether I shouldn’t be something more than I am.  These moments then lead me to speculate that it is not what I’ve done, but who I am that is the problem.  And, based on the statistical overview of those in my common gene pool, i.e., all of those individuals conceived from sperm A51326 and egg C84327, I am, in all five categories of comparison—total net worth, happiness index, number of children, square feet of living space, professional recognition—clearly well below average.  Why this would be when we share 99.9 percent of the same biochemistry can only be attributed to non-biological factors.  In other words, “nurture” issues, i.e., how we were raised, which has led to some slight differential in the various choices that each one of us has made over time, resulting in, ultimately, who we are now.  What all of this means is that it is purely for reasons of chance that I am who I am today, as opposed to, someone else, i.e., one of those who are, to borrow from the clinic-approved language, my “code partners.”

Continue reading »

Apr 122011
 

Here’s the first in a series of science essays from NC’s resident scientist (also painter, author, musician, mountain woman), Simon Fraser University gene biologist Lynne Quarmby, who promises to lead us into that fierce nexus of mystery, art, literature, beauty and science. Lynne has already contributed aphorisms, a “What it’s like living here” piece and paintings to the pages of NC. It seems only fitting that she now extend our reach into the laboratory, into the cell and atom. Lynne wrote her own short intro to the series. DG could do no better.

dg

It’s amazing all
this motion going
on and
water can lie still
in glasses and the gas
can in the
garage doesn’t rattle.

—AR Ammons

Have you ever watched a sunset and reminded yourself that you are standing on a ball that is spinning and that you are flying backwards away from the sun? It totally changes the experience. Try flying into a “sunrise”-– that’s really wild. On the evolutionary timescale, it has been the blink of an eye since Copernicus realized — and Galileo observed — that we have day and night because we live on a spinning world that orbits the Sun. We’re still trying to get used to the idea.

Our direct sensory experience of the world evolved with us; in our hearts the world is what our sensory organs tell us it is. Our senses are superbly effective for helping us function in the everyday world—that’s why we’re still here—so it’s understandable that when science reveals something counter-intuitive or paradoxical, we have difficulty integrating the new ideas into our worldview. But if we can recognize and acknowledge that our direct biological senses, as wonderful as they are, give us only a tightly pinched and cloudy view of the world, then we open ourselves to unimagined beauty.

From where I view the spinning world—as a cell biologist—I see our experience of the world expanding so much that what it means to be human is changing as profoundly as it did when Copernicus and Galileo bumped Earth out of the centre of the Universe. Our intellectual peripheral vision has picked up on the shift, but as usual, our spirits and souls are lagging behind, as though they fear that there isn’t a place for them. —LQ

Stem Cells and the Fountain of Youth

By Lynne Quarmby

 

I hope I die before I get old
—Pete Townshend (from “My Generation”)

In some societies the aged are venerated, in none are they envied. The inevitable decay of our bodies and minds is something we prefer not to contemplate. There is nothing appealing about decreased mobility, loss of muscle and bone mass, reduced immune function, decreasing liver, kidney and brain function, decline in ability to respond to stress and an increasing susceptibility to stroke, heart attack, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders. A dollop of increased wisdom seems meager compensation.

Everyday we are witness to the inevitability of decay; our buildings and roads crumble, landscapes erode and holes appear in our socks. It is something we know more deeply as we grow older: if we manage to dodge the proverbial bus, our bodies will decay until one day we die. The idea of reversing this decay goes entirely against our experiential knowledge of the world. Yet time and again the tools of science reveal that the world is not as it seems. We are learning that ageing is not simply the inevitable decay we’ve assumed it to be.

Our bodies are not static structures. The cells lining our intestine turn over approximately every five days. Similarly, our skin cells last on average two weeks, our blood cells a few months and the cells in our liver turn over approximately once/year. The average age of our muscles is estimated at 15 years. Cells of the heart are longer lived, but they too turn over. There is a large variation in the lifetime of our brain cells: Olfactory neurons are short-lived, but the neurons of our visual and cerebral cortices may be the ones we were born with. The average age of the cells in an adult has been estimated to be something like 10 years.

Old cells die and new ones are born. The dying cells are those that have done specialized service (filtering urine, absorbing glucose, detoxifying drugs, secreting milk, engulfing bacteria, detecting odors, and so on). At the end of their life span cells undergo a process known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and housekeeping cells clear the debris away. New cells go through a program of specialization (known as differentiation) and assume the duties of the old cells.

The new cells are born from adult stem cells that reside in special niches in every tissue. Stem cells can divide indefinitely and with each division one of the daughters replaces the stem cell and the other becomes a progenitor for the differentiated cells of the tissue. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to produce any cell in the body – that is how we develop from sacs of cells – but so far as we know, adult stem cells are restricted in the variety of cells they can produce.

About five years ago scientists discovered that adding extra copies of a specific set of genes could convert differentiated adult cells (from your skin, for example) back into pluripotent stem cells – called iPSCs for induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. These cells earned the name “pluripotent” because their daughters can be enticed (by various combinations of hormones) to become any of a wide variety of differentiated cell types. iPSCs were big news medically because they suggested the possibility of grow-your-own replacements for diseased or damaged tissues. The original iPSCs caused cancer (in mice) and while it isn’t clear yet whether we will be able to overcome all of the problems that are hindering the use of iPSCs in tissue regeneration, these cells have already become hugely valuable for research. Ageing is one of the research areas that is benefitting from iPSCs.

Continue reading »

Apr 112011
 

Joe David Bellamy is the legendary founding editor of the magazine Fiction International, at one time champion of all that was new and bold in American writing. He is also a former president of both the AWP and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and he served as Director of the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s. A prolific author in his own right, Bellamy won the Editors’ Book Award for his novel Suzi Sinzinnati,and his collection of short fiction, Atomic Love, was an AWP Award Series Selection. His other books includeAtomic Love, Literary Luxuries, and The New Fiction. His essays, fiction and poetry have been published in: The Atlantic, The Nation, Harper’s, Narrative, Paris Review, Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and some seventy others. It’s a pleasure and privilege to present here the opening chapters of his just published family memoir Kindred Spirits.

dg

 


Beulah Pearl Bellamy

 

The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

After the death of my mother made me an orphan in middle age—my father had died twenty-four years earlier—I developed a sudden interest in genealogy that was close to an obsession. I realized, fairly quickly, that this obsession was probably a certain form of bereavement, but that did not lessen its intensity. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the feeling that my mother’s life and the immediate past of my whole extended family was in danger of being lost forever, as the far past was already lost. I was perhaps the first person in my lineage, a lineage that was undoubtedly ancient—as ancient as everyone else who is alive today—with the opportunity to discover whatever past was there, and I felt I had to take a stand about it. In spite of all the usual distractions, I was simply going to do it. I felt it as an important responsibility.

I was not interested in genealogy in order to prove that I was somebody, the legitimate heir to the English throne perhaps, or a descendant of the Pilgrims. The fact is I had come from a rather large extended family, and now—with the death of my mother—most of them were gone. I remembered them all vividly, mostly with affection, but no doubt I was feeling lonely. I had had children of my own, a daughter and a son, but they were out of the nest starting their own families now, living far away. I wanted to reclaim the sense of having a family once again.

Who were we anyway? We were, I supposed, an ordinary middle class family from the American Midwest, a family of white people, vaguely English (or Irish, I thought) with a little bit of German and Swiss from my mother’s side. We were basically standard whitebread Americans, just plain folks, people somehow without ethnicity or real history, yet people who had been lucky and privileged enough that, in the latter part of the twentieth century, we had been taught to feel a little bit guilty about being so white and so bland, so lacking in any specific cultural identity, as if we had reached whatever middling level of economic security we had attained through almost no effort at all, simply because we were white and ordinary.

In a tangible sense, I didn’t know who we were. I felt we needed to identify ourselves more clearly and fully, find out where we came from, when and under what circumstances we arrived in the places we called home, and pass this information on to future generations of descendants. This information was perishable, after all—some of it had surely perished already. It would be ignorant and careless of me not to do what I could to find out what was left and make it permanent, if possible—put it on a CD or bury it somewhere deep in the bowels of the Library of Congress—so that it might survive. Of course, I wouldn’t have minded if my ancestors all turned out to be decent and accomplished. But if there were horse thieves or worse, I wanted to know that too. I was determined to be ruthless—I wanted to know the truth, even if it might be unpleasant.

The last time I saw my mother, about two months before she died suddenly from a heart attack in 1998, we had spent an afternoon going through boxes of old photographs from her attic, many of which she had inherited from her own mother. She had pictures of herself as a child that I had never seen before—she was an adorable little girl—and as a ravishingly beautiful young woman, or so she seemed to me. At one point, marveling at the pictures, I blurted out something about her having been “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and I felt at the time that I probably should not have said it in spite of the fact that she seemed pleased and I felt it was true. It seemed a little silly and self-indulgent saying something like that to this sweet, wizened 79-year-old woman with age-spots on her forehead who was hardly a beauty of any kind at the time. What immoderately well-loved son does not believe his mother is beautiful? Still, after she died, I was more grateful that I had made that one rash statement than anything else I may have said that day.

She showed me pictures that afternoon that amazed me. For the first time in my life, I saw a photograph of my great grandmother, Hannah Siple, my mother’s mother’s mother. She was so far away in time; she had died long before I was born, and her life had been tragically sad. But I felt so close to her at that moment. Her life had made my life possible. I was certain we would have been close friends, if only because she resembled my mother so completely. I don’t quite know how to express this, but I wanted to speak to Hannah Siple. I wanted to be able to tell her that her misery had not been entirely in vain, that life she had set in motion had gone on and was going on still. That photograph of Hannah Siple was a revelation for me and led to a search for many other photographs—as many as I could find of all my missing family members.

Why did it take me so long to learn about Hannah Siple’s life and to come to a point in my own life that I could focus on her and come to include her in my idea of the family I had inherited? My family, like so many others, seemed to accept the tacit conviction that there was no way to know, finally, who our ancestors were. If our immediate relatives could not tell us about them, we assumed we would never know. When they did try to tell us what little they remembered, perhaps we were too young and preoccupied to listen.

Perhaps our ancestors had been so engaged in simply living their lives, of hacking their way through the wilderness, they forgot their history—or they never knew it—or they died before they could pass it on. It takes only one lost generation to engender oblivion. Perhaps because so many of them were living on the very edge of civilization, without the resources of civilization—including, in some cases, literacy itself—and perhaps suffering too from a kind of permanent homesickness, having left behind their own extended families—they let it slide away. Americans are, after all, the offspring of banished peoples—revolutionaries, renegades, rebels, and rabble-rousers—nonconformists, adventurers, indentured servants, slaves, religious fanatics, the offspring of murdered martyrs, and opportunists—the dispossessed from every corner of the world. Certainly my ancestors were exactly that sort of people—people, in some cases, who might have wanted to forget their pasts.

Or—as in the case of Rolla and Harriet, my mother’s parents—each inherited lovely, thick family histories, Rolla Zutavern for his mother’s family, the Spaldings, Harriet for her father’s family, the Kagys. There is evidence that they did read these genealogies. But perhaps, for them, the contents of these volumes seemed a little abstract and musty, something very far away. And the family histories they did inherit, though valuable, were hardly perfect. The Kagy genealogy listed my grandmother (the owner of the book when I discovered it) as dying when she was nine days old! Actually, she lived to be 89. The Spalding genealogy listed Mercy Mary Adams as if she were just any little Adams hausfrau who happened to marry a Spalding, and it said nothing about her incredible lineage (more about that to come)—because her lineage was not known to the collator (or to anyone else in the family).

Perhaps there are any number of plausible excuses for the muddle we had gotten into as a people apparently without a knowable past. But now all that has changed.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my sudden interest in genealogy coincided with a revolution, and that revolution is even bigger than the popular phenomenon that struck in the late seventies with Alex Haley’s Roots. Twenty years after Roots, family history hit the internet. All over the world, websites were launching, and they still are. The Mormons, with their enormous repository of genealogical data kept safe inside the Granite Mountain Vault in Utah—nuclear-bomb-proof and climate-controlled—were about to go on-line. Then they did!

Suddenly, through the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) at familysearch.org, it was possible to access information on more than a billion-and-a-half of the seven to eight billion humans who ever lived on the planet and who left names or records behind. Suddenly there was the U.S. Genweb Project, which made it possible to access a great many county birth/death/marriage/ probate/land and court records from almost any county in the U.S. in the comfort of your home via the internet. Suddenly there was Ancestry.com for census information and for archived family histories on-line. Suddenly the vast record holdings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society were available on the internet.

Suddenly it was possible to join a user group on-line where everyone involved was a cousin you never knew you had and the avowed purpose was to discover more about your common ancestors. Suddenly everyone and his uncle had a family history site on the web that listed the several trees within that family—with regular updates as new information was discovered and recorded. According to several sources, genealogy is now the second most popular subject area on the internet after pornography!—and if you try to access the LDS site on a Sunday afternoon, you will find out just how true this is. You can almost feel their huge servers straining under the torrent of hits.

With the help of the access to multiple worlds of knowledge made possible by the internet and the computer, genealogy might become the human equivalent of the genome project or constructing the first replica of the DNA molecule. Instead of looking at the two or three immediate generations of a family or a person—only those living or those whom the living remember—what if we could stand back at some greater distance from the teeming, then lost, lives within a family and examine ten generations or twenty generations or thirty generations? Not just one line of twenty or thirty generations but multiple lines or every single line—the whole picture. What giant patterns might emerge? What genetic tendencies might become clearer? If one could accomplish such a study within one’s own family, what better path to greater self-knowledge could one possibly find? What better way to understand one’s own inclinations and aptitudes?

What I am here to report is that such a thing is now possible, and I have done it—with unexpected results. It is a humbling experience to uncover and then to understand and to come to terms with the hundreds, the thousands, whose lives preceded one’s own. I started out by wondering how I could have made the choices I did that defined my modest life in my peculiar field, given that my immediate ancestors seemed so unlikely—and so unlike me. I ended up seeing exactly why I had made so many of the decisions that defined my life. I wish I had known sooner just where I came from. It might have made the choices easier.

Of course, it is one thing to find out and prove the names of one’s ancestors, and quite another to learn something worth knowing about the lives they lived. The names themselves seem valuable to me, and I still want to find more of them; but the names have little interest to anyone not in the immediate family, and sometimes not even to them. But the lives—if they can be learned—can be revelations. To discover the lives, if possible, became my goal; and what an enormous effort it took.

It’s true—one of the pleasures of genealogy is in solving mysteries—in finding where all the bodies are buried—and another is the purely clerical enjoyment in the working out of a gigantic crossword puzzle, filling in all the little boxes. But these are boxes that count for all time once you get them right, and the satisfaction of resurrecting some long forgotten soul, whose life was absolutely necessary to your own, and restoring them to their rightful place in the historical record, is gratifying.

Of course, some of what one finds out there is not all it seems—even the Mormon researchers are fallible. Their belief in the importance of the family and the sheer grandeur of their vision is admirable, and the work they have done to preserve records is an incalculable service to humankind. But their genealogy program is, after all, an arm of their missionary effort. Each church member is admonished to seek out his ancestors in order to perform various religious rites that will assure all can meet again in the Celestial Kingdom. Such motives coupled with the fact that even the uneducated among them must perform the same rituals may not be the best prescription for accuracy. Some observers are simply suspicious of any motivation that is not purely scientific.

Genealogical research is like any other research—its quality depends upon the experience, intelligence, care, and unbiased attitude of the researchers.

There are other good reasons why, up until now, genealogy has had a dubious reputation—somewhere between pseudo-science and fanaticism. In the early part of the 20th century in America many fraudulent genealogies were prepared for the nouveau riche who wished to prove they were descended from European aristocracy. If you could afford to pay a “genealogist,” you could receive impressive “proof” of such descent, and the Mormons had nothing at all to do with it. Unfortunately, some of these fictitious trees are still in circulation, and their presence, like bad science, mucks up the whole and sullies the reputation of the enterprise

Also, there is the age-old problem of paternal descent. Even if one finds good evidence from the record that so-in-so’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. So-in-So, how could anyone ever know with certainty it was true? You could be relatively certain that the child’s mother was actually the correct mother—if the record said so. But what about the father? Certainly you could never know that part with scientific exactitude. Therefore, why bother? Genealogy seemed to its detractors nothing more than an excuse for self-deception, wishful thinking, or self-aggrandizement. But now we have DNA testing! A father’s link to the next generation can be proven scientifically.

Even with the immense resources the internet makes possible—and the many breakthroughs and leads it may generate—there comes a time when there are no new sites to find, no one with good information you haven’t already talked to, and every new FamilyTreeMaker CD is just another dead end. You are in terra incognita, and that is when you are on your own and you have to start doing the original research yourself—traveling long days to distant courthouses and libraries, filling out National Archives forms and waiting for weeks for some tiny tidbit, making dopey phone calls to bewildered elderly cousins residing in nursing homes. And that is when you find out just how full of holes, lies, and not-so-inspired suppositions everything else you have found up until then may have been. It turns out there is an incredible lot of junk on the internet too—and sometimes in people’s recollections.

Nevertheless, in a few short years of working in the new world of information access and internet genealogy—plus taking my research to several remote courthouses in Virginia, to the LDS Library in Salt Lake City and the Daughters of the American Revolution Library in Washington, DC, to family reunions, to Jamestown, to Plymouth Rock, to the New York Public Library, to FamilyTreeDNA.com, to ancient houses and graveyards, including the site of the oldest brick house in America—I can now say with absolute surety: I know more than I ever thought I would know about my family and its history. In fact, I know more about my family than any member of my family has ever known before in the history of the world—and more than all but a handful of contemporaries have ever known about any family. I’ve located over 2000 direct ancestors and tens of thousands of others, and I know their names and, for some, I know about their lives.

This book is a family saga, and the saga of many, many families. It is not just about finding one’s great grandmother. It’s also about finding her great grandmother, and hers, and hers, and hers—back into time farther than you could have imagined—and grandfathers and great great great grandfathers too—with a degree of accuracy never before achieved. The acquisition and salvage of these lost generations is now attainable.

 

A Magical Relationship

My parents near the time of their elopement in 1938

Sometimes the barest genealogical details seem to suggest a story. I started to appreciate that when I first came across my relation to the Bulkeley family in 16th-century England.

Frances Bulkeley, born in 1568, had died in 1610 at age 42, and her sister Sarah Bulkeley, born in 1580, had died a year later at age 31. Yet both had lived long enough, according to the record, to bear children who outlived them, who carried on and bore children of their own. I immediately started to wonder what might have caused these sisters to die so young; perhaps they had died in childbirth or from the plague. I imagined that Sarah, the younger sister, who was my father’s ancestor, must have been devastated when Frances died and probably had no inkling that she would be dead herself within a year.

I imagined the sisters as very close—I imagined that Frances, who was twelve years older than Sarah, had been like a mother to her; and I imagined Sarah grieving for her, in particular, for that reason, grieving more than the others and grieving for a longer time.

I felt lucky to have scraped by myself, because if Sarah had not married Mr. Oliver St. John in 1597 and given birth to a son in London in 1604, I would not be here today to tell about it. I felt astonished to realize that I had had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. But, of course, everyone who is alive today had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. Of course they did.

The day I discovered the Bulkeley sisters was a red letter day at the LDS site. The line I was following went all the way back to 1300 with incredibly detailed documentation. The Bulkeley sisters were descendants of William De Bulkeley, born after 1300, and Maude Davenport, daughter of Sir John Davenport and Margery Brereton. Sir John Davenport and Lady Margery sounded like the kind of people I wouldn’t mind claiming as members of my family, even if they did live seven hundred years ago.

In 1938, my father, a direct descendant of Sir John Davenport and, later, of Sarah Bulkeley, turned down a humped back country road near Bloomville, Ohio. He was a lonely, divorced 30-year-old vacuum cleaner salesman from the Ohio River town of Portsmouth, a branch manager with a new car and a rakish reddish mustache. He turned in the driveway at my grandmother’s farm and knocked on the door. While he was attempting to sell my grandmother an Airway vacuum cleaner, he noticed my mother’s picture in a gilt frame on top of the piano and he said, without hesitation, that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

My grandmother informed him that the woman was not a woman at all but only her eldest daughter Beulah, who was not yet twenty years old. My father replied that her daughter had the loveliest eyes he had ever seen on a human face, including any movie star she would care to name. She might not realize it yet, he said, but her daughter was indeed a woman. Half an hour later, my grandmother bought the vacuum cleaner.

My father was an affable, persuasive man who was not above flattery, but he seldom lied about his true feelings. A few weeks later he stopped by unexpectedly at the Zutavern farm—to see how the vacuum cleaner was performing, he said. My 19-year-old mother, who had returned from college in the meantime, was on the phone when he walked into the room, accepting a blind date. After she hung up, he said spontaneously: “It’s really too bad you accepted that date because I was going to ask you out myself.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I can break it.” There was a kind of instant recognition between them that the attraction they felt for each other was serious.

After they had been out a few times, my father tried to coax my mother to return with him to his hotel room. But she wouldn’t go. My father said it was very discouraging to him that she didn’t trust him. My mother said: “Oh, I trust you, Jim, but my mother always told me that I should never do anything that might have the appearance of evil.” (I never heard her say anything even faintly like this again.) Two weeks later, they eloped!

My parents were deeply, romantically, in love their whole lives together; and they stayed in love for the better part of four decades—until my father died—and, of course she never stopped loving him after he was gone. They held hands in public like teenagers, even in their sixties.

Now here comes the scary part of the story. One day while I was working on my mother’s Spalding line, I found that Benjamin Spalding, her gggggg grandfather had married a woman named Olive Farwell, born in 1647 in Concord, Massachusetts. Olive’s father was Henry Farwell, an Englishman, and her mother was named Olive Welby, born in 1604 in England. Olive Welby was the daughter of Richard Welby and Frances Bulkeley.

When I hit upon the name Frances Bulkeley, it didn’t register at first. I had been plowing through hundreds of names, and I remembered that I had seen the name Bulkeley, a possible precursor of “Buckley,” before. But it had been a while since I had been working on my father’s line, and I was not sure where I had seen it.

The truth came to me in the middle of the night, and I got out of bed to compare the genealogical lines on my various print-outs. The connection caused the hair to stand up on my arms and on the back of my neck as if a chilly wind had blown in through an open window. My father was a direct descendant of Sarah Bulkeley, who died in 1611. My mother was a direct descendant of her sister Frances Bulkeley, who died in 1610, and who, I imagined, had been so deeply mourned by her younger sister Sarah.

In other words, roughly 400 years earlier, two daughters of Rev. Edward Bulkeley and Olive Irby, Frances (1568-1610) and Sarah (1580-1611), married, gave birth, and died in England. Their respective descendants were born, grew up, moved from place to place, married into several different families, had children, and died. Roughly 375 years after their births, my father (Sarah’s gggggggggg grandson) married my mother (Frances’ ggggggggg granddaughter). Need I add that, during their lifetimes, my parents had absolutely no idea about this connection, though, had they known, I think it would have delighted them.

If it is true that—in some respects—we are born to fulfill the unrealized dreams of our ancestors, then was there something of Sarah’s longing to be reunited with her departed sister Frances in my father’s love of my mother? and something of Frances’ almost maternal love for Sarah in her love for him? Who can say?

—Joe David Bellamy

Praise for Kindred Spirits

 

“It’s easy to understand the temptations of genealogy, the apparent promise of being able to locate oneself in space and time, acquiring, if one is lucky, a bona fide sliver of something like divine perspective. What’s remarkable about Kindred Spirits is Joe David Bellamy’s ability to make a private quest into a work of fascination and suspense for his readers.”

—Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Bestselling author

“Kindred Spirits is a wise, wild ride, written with wit and energy and charm, and packed with stories that read like fiction. By the last page you’ll have read a surprising history of America, and you’ll have a new notion of just how eerily connected we all are.”

—Josephine  Humphreys, author of Nowhere Else on Earth

“I really enjoyed this book! Joe David Bellamy’s Kindred Spirits is so engaging, charmingly inclusive, and skillfully and tenderly spooned out, there is real comfort here in the universal message that many of us may quite possibly be at least cousins.

An exceptional and compelling new breed of memoir, history lesson, genealogy tutorial, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, personal meditation, and fireside seat-gripper, Kindred Spirits is rich with stunners and head-spinners that both entertain and leave the reader pondering the nature of chance and destiny that inform all of our origin tales. It will be hard to read this and not decide you are related to Joe David Bellamy.”

—Steve Amick, author of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake and Nothing But a Smile

Apr 102011
 

A little Hydrogen atom wanted to become attached to a Chlorine atom, but he didn’t have the courage to talk to her. On the other side, Chlorine really liked Hydrogen, but she couldn’t talk to him either. Finally Chlorine decided that she would dress up as another Hydrogen atom because of how comfortable Hydrogen is hanging out with itself. That night Hydrogen came up with the scheme of dressing up like Chlorine, because he knew that she loved to chill with other Chlorine atoms. The two both figured that the next day they’d see the other and become happily diatomic.

During the day neither of them could find the other. Hydrogen and Chlorine were both very sad.

But, after school, Hydrogen forgot he was pretending to be Chlorine, and he saw another Hydrogen atom that he really wanted to hang out with. So he ran over to the lone atom — who turned out to be Chlorine in disguise! He asked if they could bond, and Chlorine, forgetting that she wasn’t actually Hydrogen, decided she wouldn’t mind hanging out with this Chlorine molecule.

That night while the two shared some electrons, they laughed about their Ironic Bond[1].

Jonah Glover

—————————————

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Editor’s Note: For the chemistry-impaired “an ionic bond is a type of chemical bond formed through an electrostatic attraction between two oppositely charged ions.” See the Wikipedia article here. Actually, H and Cl share electrons to form a covalent bond, which is ironic.
Apr 092011
 

David Rivard is an immensely talented, award-winning poet and another old friend from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The first time I visited the fabulous Hope Cemetery in Barre, VT, I went along with David Rivard and Francois Camoin, Francois taking book jacket photos amid the extravagant folk art granite headstones (granite cars, soccer balls, lovers). It’s a huge pleasure to use Numéro Cinq to reach back in time and capture those moments. Here are four gorgeous poems from David’s new poetry book Otherwise  Elsewhere, just published a couple of months ago by Graywolf Press. Including Otherwise Elswhere, David is the author of five books of poetry. The others are Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1996 and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque.  His poems and essays appear in the American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Poetry London, and other magazines.  In 2006, he was awarded the O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching.  Among his other awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ranieri Foundation, and the NEA.  He teaches in the University of New Hampshire MFA program.

See also Ron Slate’s review of Otherwise Elsewhere at At the Seawall and Ryan Sanford Smith’s review  at White Walls/Black Ink. Here is a David Rivard interview at Agni and a short David Rivard essay on writing that originally appeared American Poetry  Review.

dg

Four Poems from Otherwise Elsewhere

By David Rivard



Note to Myself

Having survived self-
esteem (both low & high), like
surfacing

out of a to-do
list for civil war
in the heart—

Having
been a back-stabber (when said
back was my own), or

lucky Darwinian
holder of
the Ace of Spades,

in my mind—
Getting to see myself
as a green midge

or
as a pine tree looming like
a fetching samurai

at the edge
of a meadow—I get a little
tired–& strangely

everywhere I go
seems one
step closer to wherever I

thought
I was when I left for
wherever I thought

I wanted to be.
Given the round
ranginess of earth, always

thinking of myself—tho
that’s it for me now. Enough. No
more, thank you. No, really.

 

Working Black

The part of Stockholm I saw at 22, I saw as an employee & thief
more or less—an American sweating in clogs & kitchen whites—
booster of those clogs from a Gamla Stan stall, a shoplifter
of Icelandic sweaters, book thief—Gravity’s Rainbow, Justine
I worked day-shifts as scullery boy for Claes & Eva at the restaurant
Hos Oss, pot scrubber, peeler of turnips & potatoes, blade sharpener—
“working black” the Swedes said, meaning for most foreigners
off-the-books &untaxed, the welfare state scammed, meaning
for others that you had vanished, you were a Vera or a Paulo
or Damishi who had fled from your home in some southern dictatorship
fearful that you might be “disappeared,” so perhaps you no longer
existed anymore, or didn’t deserve to. “If people believe,”
Berndt had said, “it’s only because they wish for themselves to see,”
tho the chef was speaking of having had the dead appear to him
as bewildering presences, travelers trapped on the blank screen
of his broken television, souls stored in a paranormal peepshow.
Meanwhile I mopped tiles or whisked a bowl of whipped cream
as the middle-management of Gulf Oil drifted over
from a nearby office tower for pea soup & thick pancakes & jam
every Thursday lunch—there was a sad gentility & boredom
sunk deep in the witch-hazel faces of these sober businessmen,
far from the tripping & mobilizations of dumbstruck America
1975. Faces unlike my own bearded & baffled face.
What is the taste of raw potato in a steamy northern kitchen?—
the iron earthiness of your mother & father outgrown, left behind.

 

It

“Anodyne lingerie” was Amy Dryansky’s
way of describing it. “The sufferers of giganticism
are out in the fog with their mallets,” wrote
David Blair. Meaning what Snyder meant perhaps
by “spring-water in the green creek is clear,”
a crib from Han Shan. Meaning otherwise
“trouble no more,” as sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
or “now it’s your turn, mister!”—as any babysitter might say—
even if it is unquestionably true that no one should ever
promise anything so vague & huge—a youngish
woman with a macaroon talking to a toddler,
her voice the galvanic bath it all floats in. It. All of it.
“Solitude, my mother, tell me my life again,”
wrote the uncle of Czeslaw Milosz last time he saw it.
A blissful state of mind, or an anxiety attack. It
has a need to be called by its rightful name
or explained because it can’t see itself clearly,
plus is terribly changeful. In any case, “Grazie” is
still the best way to say goodbye to it. And it wasn’t fooled
when my brother referred to it as a “piece of cake.”
Perhaps the best advice ever given about it can be found
in these lines by a sadly late & formerly high-wattage
earthling: “When you come to something,” he said,
“stop to let it pass, so you can see what else is there.”
“It’s murder,” my doctor likes to say, & it is,
but it still wants you to love it back. My mother
dealt with it by telling the four of us, me, my
brother & two sisters, “go ahead, do whatever
you want.” By which she meant we should do
exactly what she thought best. As if that should
have put it to rest. Thankfully, it did not. Grazie.

 

What We Call Childhood

What we call childhood isn’t
what a child would call it—
so she doesn’t
speak of how she was the most sensitive girl in the convent school kindergarten
or that the god who was a panhandler
wore a fly’s face
and that whenever he dawdled beneath the striped
awning of the shop selling cut-rate shoes & her class
had to walk by him as it happened
on the way to the public library
she would cling to her teacher then & cry
steered off by the old nun’s fingers, she doesn’t mention
why her bedspread changed to blue
each July, the sky lighter blue, the screen door green,
her stepfather’s beach house having been rehabbed under the influence of sea light,
sea light & contractor kickbacks,
she doesn’t say she was
a girl by the first week of 6th grade summer vacation well-known
as a primitive freelancer whenever she rode her old 3-speed English racer
handless downhill to the anchorage;
none of it gets talked about, certainly
not the angora sweater
and the Chinatown bracelets
or those evenings
3 winters later when she danced in front of her bedroom mirror
with headphones on & always inside of the sight lines
because she was wearing blue mascara
and somehow that
had given her the idea to break into the empty summer cottages
with her rustbelt boyfriend; she doesn’t even
say she liked how her legs got long
in a kick-pleat skirt but hated her dark hair
for curling if it threatened rain—
and likewise
her whole childhood, it’s all kept in play,
so no one will ever feel free to tell her what it was worth,
not even on that autumn moor
where against all odds a narrow sandy road
gleams at midnight.

—David Rivard

Apr 082011
 

lynne_tillman_by_david_shankbone

Editor’s Note (Jan 17, 2012): Lynne Tillman’s story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, from which this story was excerpted at NC last spring, was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly.

Here’s a sly, witty, fiercely intelligent, sexy, hilarious, knowing, playful and wise short story, “The Substitute,” from Lynne Tillman’s brand new collection Someday This Will Be Funny (May 1 pub. date). Lynne is an old acquaintance, “friend” would be a bit presumptuous; though we have known each other and corresponded sympathetically now and then since 1992 when I reviewed her sly, witty, fiercely intelligent, hilarious, knowing, playful and wise novel Cast in Doubt for the Washington Post Book World. Of that book, I wrote in part: “…Lynne Tillman writes with such élan, such spirited delight and comic intelligence that it is difficult to take anything but pleasure….” Believe me, this woman has some moves.

Lynne is the Writer-in-Residency at the University at Albany. She has published five novels, three story collections and a book of essays. Mirabile dictu, her current publisher, Red Lemonade, is simultaneously bringing  four Lynne Tillman novels back into print: Haunted Houses (1986), Motion Sickness (1991), Cast in Doubt (1992) and No Lease on Life (1998). This is amazing, a coup, and a sign that somehow publishing lives, nurtured by innovators and risk takers. Richard Eoin Nash, the man behind Red Lemonade, describes the imprint as “a pilot for a massively ambitious program, to create a new platform (part webapp, part business process) for independent publishing, combining the best of editorial judgment and publicity moxie with community input into acquisition and promotion, and combining the tradition publisher/retailer process with digital publishing and limited editions. That’s called Cursor and that’s the platform powering Red Lemonade.”

Read Lynne’s story, buy the books (stock up before the next recession), check out Cursor and Red Lemonade. Read about Lynne on Slate; read an interview in BOMB, another interview in The Millions. More recently, an excellent interview and collection of links .

dg

tillman-book-cover

.

She watched his heart have a small fit under his black T-shirt. Its unsteady rhythm was a bridge between them. Lost in the possibilities he offered her, she studied his thin face, aquiline nose, tobacco-yellow fingers. In the moment, which swallowed her whole, she admired his need to smoke. She wouldn’t always, but not being able to stop meant something, now. Certain damage was sexy, a few sinuous scars. He’d be willing, eager maybe, to exist with her in the margins.

She’d set the terms. Ride, nurse on danger, take acceptable or necessary risks. Maybe there’d be one night at a luscious border, where they’d thrum on thrill, ecstatically unsure, or one long day into one long night, when they’d say everything and nothing and basely have their way with each other. She wasn’t primitive but had an idea of it—to live for and in her senses. She’d tell him this. Then they’d vanish, disappear without regret. She was astonished at how adolescence malingered in every cell of her mature body.

Helen met Rex on the train. She taught interior design to art students in a small college in a nearby city. He taught painting. She liked it that he sometimes smelled like a painter, which was old-fashioned, though he wasn’t; he told her he erased traces of the hand (she liked hands), used acrylics, didn’t leave his mark and yet left it, too. Still, tobacco, chemicals, alcohol, a certain raw body odor, all the storied ingredients, reminded her of lofts and studios and herself in them twenty years before, late at night, time dissolving.

Between Rex and her, one look established furtive interest, and with a fleeting, insubstantial communication they betrayed that and themselves. They were intrigued dogs sniffing each other’s tempting genitals and asses. Being an animal contented her lately, and she sometimes compared her behavior with wild and domestic ones. Reason, she told an indignant friend with relish, was too great a price to pay daily.

Her imagination was her best feature. It embellished her visible parts, and altogether they concocted longing in Rex. She could see it; she could have him. She couldn’t have her analyst. She held Dr Kaye in her mind, where she frolicked furiously in delayed gratification. But Rex, this man beside her—she could see the hairs on his arms quiver—engaged her fantastic self, an action figure.

Rex’s hands fooled with his cigarette pack. Her analyst didn’t smoke, at least not with her, and she didn’t imagine he smoked at home, with his wife, whose office was next door, she discovered, unwittingly, not ever having considered that the woman in the adjoining office was more than a colleague. Cottage industry, she remarked in her session. Dr Kaye seemed amused. Maybe because she hadn’t been curious about the relationship or because it took her so long to catch on. That meant more than what she said, she supposed.

Rex’s hands weren’t well-shaped, beautiful. If she concentrated on them . . . But she wondered: would they stir me, anyway. She shut her eyes. She liked talking with her eyes shut, though she couldn’t see her analyst’s face. Dr Kaye wore a long tie today. It hung down over his fly and obscured the trouser pouch for his penis.

When she first saw him, she was relieved to find him avuncular, not handsome like her father. Men grew on trees, there were so many of them, they dropped to the ground and rotted, most of them. Dr. Kaye hesitated before speaking. She imagined his face darkening when she said things like that. Whatever, she said and smiled again at the ceiling. I like men. I’m just pulling your leg. She could see the bottoms of his trousers.

When she approached him on the train, Rex had a near-smirk on his lips, just because she was near. She liked his lips, they were lopsided. If he didn’t speak, she could imagine his tongue. He might push for something to happen, actually, and that was exciting. Her heart sped up as Rex glanced sideways at her, from under his . . . liquid hazel eyes. She squirmed, happily. Hovering at the edge tantalized her. The heart did race and skip; it fibrillated, her mother had died of that. What do you feel about your mother now? Dr. Kaye asked. But aren’t you my mother now?

They flirted, she and Rex, the new, new man with a dog’s name. Did it matter what he looked like naked? They hadn’t lied to each other. Unless by omission. But then their moments were lived by omission. Looking at him staring out the window, as if he were thinking of things other than her, she started a sentence, then let the next word slide back into her mouth like a sucking candy. Rex held his breath. She blushed. This was really too precious to consummate.

Dr. Kaye seemed involved in the idea. He had shaved closely that morning, and his aftershave came to her in tart waves. She inhaled him. She—Ms. Vaughn, to him—weighed whether she would tell him anything about Rex, a little, or everything. With Rex, she wasn’t under any agreement. She measured her words for herself and for him, and she told him just enough. He was the libertine lover, Dr Kaye the demanding one. With him, she drew out her tales, like Scheherazade.

First, Dr. Kaye, she offered, her eyes on the ceiling, it was the way he looked at me, he was gobbling me up, taking me inside him. I liked that. Why did I like that? Because I hate myself, you know that. Then she laughed. Later, she went on, I pretended I didn’t see him staring at me. Then I stopped pretending. In her next session, she continued: He wanted to take my hand, because his finger fluttered over my wrist, and his unwillingness, no, inability, I don’t know about will, I had a boyfriend named Will, he was impotent, did I tell you? His reluctance made me . . . wet. She sat up once and stared at Dr. Kaye, daring him. But he was well-trained, an obedient dog, and he listened neatly.

Rex was sloppy with heat. Their unstable hearts could be a gift to Dr. Kaye. Or a substitute, for a substitute. She trembled, bringing their story—hers—to Dr. Kaye in installments, four times a week. It was better than a good dream, whose heady vapors were similar to her ambiguous, unlived relationships. Not falling was better, she explained to Dr. Kaye; having what they wanted was ordinary and would destroy them or be nothing, not falling, not losing, not dying was better. Why do you think that? he asked. This nothing that was almost everything gave her hope. Illusion was truth in a different guise, true in another dimension. Dr. Kaye wanted to know what she felt about Rex. I don’t know—we’re borderline characters, she said. Liminal, like you and me.

And, she went on, her hands folded on her stomach, he and I went into the toilet . . . of the train . . . and fooled around. She laughed. I was in a train crash once . . . But the toilet smelled . . . Like your aftershave, she thought, but didn’t say. Say everything, say everything impossible.

Looking at Rex reading a book, his skin flushed, overheated in tiny red florets, Helen wondered when the romance would become misshapen. Her need could flaunt itself. She wanted that, really, and trusted to her strangeness and his eccentricity for its acceptance. Or, lust could be checked like excess baggage at the door. They’d have a cerebral affair.

But their near-accidental meetings sweetened her days and nights. They were sweeter even than chocolate melting in her mouth. Dark chocolate helped her sleep. She had a strange metabolism. How could she sleep—Rex was the latest hero who had come to save her, to fight for her. If he didn’t play on her playground, with her rules, he was less safe than Dr. Kaye. But Rex was as smart, almost, as she was; he knew how to entice her. She might go further than she planned.

Dr. Kaye’s couch was a deep red, nearly purple, she noted more than once. Lying on it, Helen told him she liked Rex more than him. She hoped for an unguarded response. Why is that? he asked, somberly. Because he delivers, like the pizza man—remember the one who got murdered, some boys did it. They were bored, they didn’t know what to do with themselves, so they ordered a pizza and killed the guy who brought it. The poor guy. Everyone wants to be excited. Don’t you? She heard Dr Kaye’s weight shift in his chair. So, she went on, Rex told me I’m beautiful, amazing, and I don’t believe him, and it reminded me of when Charles—that lawyer I was doing some work for—said, out of nowhere, I was, and then that his wife and baby were going away, and would I spend the week with him, and it would be over when his wife came back—we were walking in Central Park—and I said no, and I never saw him again.

One night, Rex and she took the train home together. When they arrived at Grand Central, they decided to have a drink, for the first time. The station, its ceiling a starry night sky, had been restored to its former grandeur, and Helen felt that way, too. In a commuter bar, they did MTV humpy dancing, wet-kissed, put their hands on each other, and got thrown out. Lust was messy, gaudy. Neverneverland, never was better, if she could convince Rex. How hot is cool? they repeated to each other, after their bar imbroglio.

Helen liked waiting, wanting, and being wanted more. It’s all so typical, she told Dr. Kaye, and he wanted her to go on. She felt him hanging on her words. Tell me more, he said. The bar was dark, of course, crowded, Rex’s eyes were smoky, and everything in him was concentrated in them, they were like headlights, he’d been in a car accident once and showed me his scar, at his neck, and then I kissed him there, and I told him about my brother’s suicide, and about you, and he was jealous, he doesn’t want me to talk about him, us, he thinks it’ll destroy the magic, probably . . . stupid . . . it is magic . . . and he wanted me then, and there . . . But she thought: Never with Rex, never give myself, just give this to you, my doctor. She announced, suddenly: I won’t squander anything anymore.

The urge to give herself was weirdly compelling, written into her like the ridiculous, implausible vows in a marriage contract. Dr. Kaye might feel differently about marriage, or other things, but he wouldn’t tell her. He contained himself astutely and grew fuller, fatter. He looked larger every week. The mystery was that he was always available for their time-bound encounters, in which thwarted love was still love. It was what you did with your limits that mattered. She imagined she interested him.

Listening to her stories, Dr. Kaye encouraged her, and she felt alive. She could do with her body what she wanted, everyone knew that; the body was just a fleshy vehicle of consequences. Her mind was virtual—free, even, to make false separations. She could lie to herself, to him; she believed in what she said, whatever it was. So did he. To Dr. Kaye, there was truth in fantasy. Her half-lies and contradictions were really inconsequential to anyone but herself. He might admit that.

But the next day, on the train, Rex pressed her silently. His thin face was as sharp as a steak knife. He wouldn’t give her what she wanted: he didn’t look at her with greedy passion. There was a little death around the corner, waiting for her. She had to give him something, feed his fire or lose it and him.

So she would visit his studio, see his work, she might succumb, Helen informed her analyst. She described how she’d enter his place and be overwhelmed by sensations that had nothing to do with the present. In another time, with another man, with other men, this had happened before, so her senses would awaken to colors, smells, and sounds that were familiar. Soon she would be naked with him on a rough wool blanket thrown hastily over a cot. Her skin would be irritated by the wool, and she would discover his body and find it wonderful or not. He would devour her. He would say, I’ve never felt this way before. Or, you make me feel insane. She wouldn’t like his work and would feel herself moving away from him. Already seen, it was in a way obscene, and ordinary. She calmly explained what shouldn’t be seen, and why, and, as she did, found an old cave to enter.

Dr. Kaye didn’t seem to appreciate her reluctance. Or if he did, in his subtle way he appeared to want her to have the experience, anyway. She knew she would go, then, to Rex’s studio, and announced on the train that she’d be there Saturday night—date night, Rex said. He looked at her again, that way. But she knew it would hasten the end, like a death sentence for promise. Recently, Helen had awaited Timothy McVeigh’s execution with terror, but it had come and gone. No one mentioned him anymore. Others were being killed—just a few injections, put them to sleep, stop their breathing, and it’s done, they’re gone. Things die so easily, she said. Then she listened to Dr. Kaye breathe.

Saturday night Helen rang the bell on Rex’s Williamsburg studio. All around her, singles and couples wandered on a mission to have fun. Soon they’d go home, and the streets would be empty. Rex greeted her with a drink—a Mojito—which he knew she loved. His studio was bare, except for his work and books, even austere, and it was clean. The sweet, thick rum numbed her, and she prepared for the worst and the best. There was no in-between.

His paintings were, in a way, pictures of pictures. Unexpectedly, she responded to them, because they appreciated the distance between things. Then, without much talk, they had sex. She wasn’t sure why, but resisting was harder. Rex adored her, her body, he was nimble and smelled like wet sand. He came, finally, but she didn’t want to or couldn’t. She held something back. Rex was bothered, and her head felt as if it had split apart. But it didn’t matter in some way she couldn’t explain to Dr. Kaye. She heard him move in his chair. She worried that he wasn’t interested. Maybe her stories exhausted him. Rex called her every day. She wondered if she should find another man, one she couldn’t have.

—Lynne Tillman

.
.

Apr 072011
 


Herewith the inaugural instance of a new Numéro Cinq series, the NC Interviews. Our first interviewee is my old friend Mark Anthony Jarman and our first interviewer is contributor Mary Stein. Mark and I knew each other at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the beginning of the 1980s. A long friendship with legs—last September, late one night (maybe early morning), Mark and I sat in his backyard with my publisher Susanne Alexander, drinking beer under the stars in Fredericton, New Brunswick, like old times. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Mark has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planet, and nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and lives in a very large house fronting the Saint John River. His story “The December Astronauts (or Moonbase Horse Code)” appears in Numéro Cinq’s Best of Vol. 1.

dg

Mixes and Collisions: A Numéro Cinq Interview with Mark Anthony Jarman

By Mary Stein

 

MCS: Why don’t you start by telling me a little about your relationship to writing poetry versus writing prose. It seems it’s been decades since you’ve published a collection of poetry. Have you continued to write poetry since Killing the Swan, or does your prose writing satisfy your poetic impulses?

MAJ: After I published Killing the Swan, I had the feeling it had gone into a vacuum, and decided to put the same images and ideas into prose if I could manage.  There are things in poetry you can do that you can’t in an essay or story, but I feel it’s a very good influence on the latter in terms of editing, compression, attention to language, imagery, odd juxtapositions, implication, developing an eye and ear, etc.  I also feel there is too much weak poetry around and I don’t want to add to it; perhaps the government could pay us to not write poetry rather than fund more.  Great poetry is great, I was influenced by Eliot, Richard Hugo, Denis Johnson, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, and had good teachers, PK Page, Phyllis Webb, but a lot of poetry strikes me as pointless.  Maybe I’ve been to too many bad readings.

MCS: In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter writes, “Fiction writers get resentful, watching poets calling it quits at 9:30 a.m.” Do you ever lapse into moments of “poet envy” or does the fiction writer’s tireless pursuit of the right-hand margin suit you?

 

MAJ: I do torment the poets I know, teasing them that they can whip off a poem before breakfast whereas a story rarely happens quickly.

Continue reading »

Apr 062011
 

It’s a pleasure to introduce Cynthia Newberry Martin’s lovely contribution to the Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essay series. Cynthia is an author, a current Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student and publisher of the terrific writing blog Catching Days, one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love,” where among other delightful things she has a terrific series of posts called “How We Spend Our Days” in which well known writers give readers the lowdown on a typical working day. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in Contrary Magazine, Storyglossia and Six Sentences, among other places. She has been an NC supporter from the very beginning and has contributed also to our “What it’s like living here” series.

dg

Childhood

by Cynthia Newberry Martin

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her…That there is some line running through her body like a wick.”

–Mary Gordon, The Rest of Life



It’s 1962

You’re four. You’re living in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 20th, you stand by your parent’s bed, just taller than the mattress. You stare at your mother. She turns you toward the TV. Look, she says. You’ll want to remember this. That’s John Glenn in a space ship, going around the earth.

You’re five. It’s your first day of kindergarten at Spring Street Elementary School. You wait with the other kids under the awning. The principal rings the bell. You line up. At recess, you ask a girl her name. Dee, she says. You will be best friends until seventh grade when you switch to a private school because your parents say desegregation and busing are going to change things. You play troll dolls at Dee’s house after school. Her grandparents are there, but not her mother who is divorced and works. Henry’s mother comes to the classroom to give puppet shows in French. You love the sound and the magic of the words. Sixteen years later you will major in French and Linguistics. It’s Sunday, June 3rd, and everyone is quiet. Even outside you have to be quiet. Across the street are cars. Miss May’s sister died in the plane crash. In Paris.  Hundreds of people from Atlanta are dead. Your parents will never let you fly on a chartered flight. You will see the cross when you fly into Orly Airport five years later and again ten years after that.

Continue reading »

Apr 042011
 

Here is a gorgeously bittersweet new poem by Sydney Lea whose ninth collection of poems, Young of the Year, has just been published by Four Way Books. Syd is an old friend from my early Vermont College of Fine Arts days (see my introduction to his fine essay “Weathers and Places” published earlier on NC). I also interviewed him when I had my radio show, The Book Show out of WAMC, the Albany, NY, public radio station. Somewhere in the Black Hole of a crawl space accessed through my sons’ bedroom there is a box of tapes I saved from that show. I always mean to dig out the interview and replay it—lovely talk of dogs, birds, hunting and nature. Syd tells me he wrote this poem after watching the movie Away from Her which is based on an Alice Munro short story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The movie stars Julie Christie and the Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent whom I have always admired, especially his great and underrated movie The Rowdyman. Pinsent plays the bereaved husband of a woman who suffers from dementia, forgets him and, in a mysteriously touching reversal, finds new love in the home where she is kept. In my mind, Sydney Lea and Alice Munro have a great deal in common; they are both achieved artists in whose hands even the most difficult things are elaborated with force, delicacy and apparent ease. Syd’s poem captures beautifully the wistful mystery of lost memory and love, the strange turn (just sailing away, it seems) of the long-loved one into the open sea.

dg

Forever

By Sydney Lea

 

She wonders if it’s cliché to think of the husband
with whom she’s lived for decades,
most of which she’d call, all things considered,
a pleasure — if it’s cliché to imagine her partner
a ship at the lip of a clouded horizon.

In fact he’s sailed the whole way over.
And then she wonders why she should wonder this,
why it would make any difference, trite or fresh?
And what does she know about ships?
Early on, as they sat one morning together,

he felt in his pocket for his car keys,
held them up against the kitchen’s skylight,
whispering “Bullet. Bullet.”
It passed, they embraced, both a little uneasy,
but he left for work as always.

For what seems to her now quite a while they kept it away,
that morning, unmentioned, conspired into absence.
After all, there seemed nothing
that either could do about it then, and nothing
of course to be done today.

What does she know about ships, about sailors?
No, nothing either,
though once as a girl she was carried out on a bay
in a rich friend’s yacht. The cold white spray
flew gunwale to gunwale. And there’s more she remembers:

they all could have slept in the boat’s tidy cabin
in comfort, if that had been part of the outing’s plan.
And the tiller wheel was made of such dark lovely wood,
and everything else on board
showed some sort of glass or some bright brass fitting

and the life-rings that hung on the taffrail
were stenciled Claire C., the name of the boat.
It all made her feel she could never want anything more
when it came to beauty. That gleam. That air.
He had beauty as well.

back when he was the young man she chose
to live and sleep with ever after.
They made children together. They said they were blessed.
The beauty, which changed of course with the decades, was nonetheless
beauty. She still supposes it so,

though it swamps her soul
to watch him sink out of reach, unheeding.
Why can’t she call him up? Why can’t she call him to her?
Her mind shifts back to her girlfriend’s father,
who kept inspecting a tiny crack in the sleek sloop’s hull,

no matter his pretty wife’s counsel
that he relax, that he live for this day
of wheeling seabirds, foam and speed,
sharp-edged, slam-bang clouds,
heady squeaks and snaps from mast and mainsail.

The husband worried, the husband
insisted it might be only a matter of time
before that inconspicuous fissure turned into much more.
He was looking for something to do about it there
and then — as of course he couldn’t.

He said he hated to think of his treasure,
his own Claire C., beyond recall, to imagine the day
when off it might be
— he used the cliché —
to Davy Jones’s locker with her. Forever.

—Sydney Lea

Apr 032011
 

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D.

/
Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Harper, 416 pp., $25.99
ISBN 9780061707803

John Gardner’s lovely On Becoming a Novelist claims that readers have two big incentives to get through long blocks of prose: story and/or argument. In Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan (PhD) and Cacilda Jethá (MD) offer a little of the former and plenty of the latter. With kilos of scientific homework, not home-wrecking confessions, they tell the polyamorous story of human evolution as an argument for contemporary tolerance for open relationships and other strategies for more sexual-social-spiritual contentment and less work for divorce lawyers.

Those of us who teach know that few lessons are as powerful as Thomas Kuhn’s revelatory paradigm shift. Ryan and Jethá start their polyamorous argument in a double bind: Western culture has been so thoroughly and punitively mired in the monogamy paradigm that even the scientists (from Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould) who should be helping create an accurate reflection of open human sexuality often misinterpret, misrepresent or misguide us with physiological and historical evidence that should be a clear argument for some divisions of sex, love and family. To their credit, Ryan and Jethá (a couple) turn this challenge into a key opportunity for this measured, informed account of human sexual mutability. This wake of human intellectual development and the social management of knowledge (plus 65 pages of notes and references) make Sex at Dawn much more than a martini-soaked argument for a key party.

Taccola’s Piston, 15th century

The antagonists of the Sex at Dawn story are (recent, proprietary) monogamy, close-mindedness and unwise policy. Its various protagonists are human and (other) primate anatomy, evolutionary survival, wide-eyed history, and brave honesty. In emphasizing that humans, our closest primate relatives, and proto-humans are physiologically hard-wired for polyamory, Ryan and Jethá make a historical and biological argument, not a revolutionary one. With fact after fact they demonstrate that we almost always have been polyamorous and are physically if not evolutionarily equipped to be so. Citing past precedent and current failure, their argument is much more palpable and significant than any proselytizing campaign. Sex at Dawn doesn’t argue that we should convert to polyamory; it argues that we almost always have been polyamorous and should be again given our current failure at monogamy. Their citation of Schopenhauer’s 1851 essay “On Women” gains additional relevance as we consider contemporary divorce rates, what American literature profs Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott call The Porning of America, and the global sex trade: “In London alone there are 80000 prostitutes [in 1851!]. Then what are these women who have come too quickly to this most terrible end but human sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?”

Ryan and Jethá’s attention to human sexual anatomy is crucial to their argument that if we want healthier bodies, relationships, and societies we should revert to polyamory. Their comparisons to other primate genitalia and sexual behaviour foreground that theirs is an argument from science, nothing faddish like ‘alternative lifestyles.’ A handy diagram summarizes their repeat and varied attention to the large penis and testicle size of polyamorous humans, bonobos, and chimps (where males aren’t too much bigger than females) compared to polygynous gorillas, where males tower over females to fight off other males then impregnate multiple females with their (relatively) miniscule penis and testicles [truck size joke anyone?]. Gibbons are monogamous and equally sized between the sexes, but they also don’t shag very often and don’t, unlike randy humans and bonobos, ever copulate facing each other. The testicle size issue is illuminating. Male gorillas fight to be the one inseminator of multiple females, so they have put their evolutionary work into arm and chest strength and have “kidney-bean sized” testicles buried up in their bodies. The primate playahs (humans, chimps and bonobos) have evolved sizeable testicles to frequently produce large volumes of ejaculate so their sperm, not their arms, compete within females who have multiple partners.

Vanessa Woods’s public image of the high-empathy bonobo.

Ryan and Jethá’s attention to male and female anatomy is illuminating [oh the back-pumping male penis; oh the attacking acids in the first spurt of male ejaculate], and they augment it with genuine curiosity and intellectual history. In a truly remarkable connection they observe the intellectual taint of biases and reception chronology shared between our current (misinformed) monogamy paradigm and the massive research preference for chimps over bonobos. Genetically, humans are equally similar to combative (and horny) chimps and cooperative (and really horny) bonobos. However, chimps were discovered and brought into comparative research earlier, and various lasting comparisons were cast. Their quotation of Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape is a cri de coeur for the social improvement, not just sexual adaptation, Ryan and Jethá advocate:

I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!

As a (rational and compassionate) argument, Sex at Dawn draws as much evidence from history and anthropology as it does from anatomy. In a forthcoming book of poems about evolution, I use a corporeal dramatization of planetary evolution to illustrate the same evolutionary timeline so central to the Sex at Dawn argument. Stretch your arms wide and imagine the creation of Earth at your right fingertips. For the vast majority of planetary history, past your left shoulder, only bacteria existed. Sex didn’t evolve until past your left elbow, as complex plants began to reproduce sexually. Dinosaurs roamed around in the palm of your hand and humans arrived in just the end of your fingernail. Ryan and Jethá treat that fingernail paring forensically and anthropologically, stressing that the vast majority of proto-human and human evolution was spent pre-agriculturally in hunter-gatherer tribes. Nomads who needed to band together to survive were evolutionarily rewarded for cooperation and sharing. The vast majority of human history was spent sharing food, genes and child-rearing. Ryan and Jethá compare early humans and twentieth-century hunter-gatherer tribes in which rotating sexual partners meant any man could be the father of various children and therefore all men provided for all children. Later they contrast that cooperative child rearing with the high divorce rates and the very large fraction of single-parent families in contemporary America, citing studies which show that single-parent children under-perform on “every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success.” As Ryan points out in one of his two stimulating appearances on Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, only with the very recent human switch to agriculture did humans shun cooperative, communal ownership (and polyamory) for private ownership of land, seeds and their heirs (through monogamous marriage).

How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock. From the Melusine, 15th century.

While the thoroughness, variety and balance of Ryan and Jethá’s case are crucial to demonstrating what to many will still be a radical thesis, the abundance of evidence actually becomes a rhetorical challenge. Admittedly, logic and organizational ease do favour a loosely chronological development from proto-humans to (racier) later chapters on the West’s policing of the female orgasm. In general, the first half is more anthropological and the second, much more gripping half, is anatomical. Readers interested in—forgive me—hard persuasion may appreciate anthropological example after example, but there’s a risk of losing sight of the argumentative forest for its evidentiary trees. References to South American tribes, remote Chinese communities and enlightened Indian provinces are important reminders that divisions between sex and love are healthy and that human behaviour, not just anatomy and bonobos, favour multiple sexual partners. Nonetheless, chapter after chapter of anthropology may prevent readers from getting to the later, better chapters. Without Sex at Dawn, who would know that “By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes”? The argumentative foreplay is great. For a while.

—Darryl Whetter

/

Photo: Nicole Dixon

Darryl Whetter’s latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel of bicycling and bisexuality. In April 2012, he will release a debut book of poems about evolution (including the evolution of sex). He’s also at work on a novel about polyamory.

/

Apr 022011
 

Kate Reuther is a former student of mine, a lovely writer. Between packets we used to exchange childcare horror stories, taking comfort in being wry and witty about stress and everyday domestic catastrophe. All our children seemed to have survived, so it can’t have been that bad. Now I just remember the camaraderie of those emails. This is an atypical “What it’s like living here” piece. It’s what Kate calls (apparently this is a new word, perhaps not an entirely new form) a charticle. Apparently, she tells me, there are also listicles, although I haven’t seen one yet. Kate is one of those rare creatures who enjoys teaching middle school.  She is a graduate of Yale and the Vermont College MFA in Fiction program.  Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review, Brain Child, Salamander, and The Ledge.  A life-long New Yorker, she lives in Washington Heights with her husband and two boys.

dg

.

REASONS TO GO REASONS TO STAY
To live here is to constantly question my own sanity and I have lived here my entire life. It’s not possible to leave anymore.  I am permanently warped.  I am ruined for anywhere else.
The subway — the pee-soaked man sharing my bench, the garbage heat, the windy grit in my eyes, the milky plaster leaks, the rat tunnels, the crush of sticky skin,  the “Fuck you looking at?” The subway — ancient engine of democracy and speed, dog-eared paperbacks, roving Mariachis, warm stranger’s shoulder, rocking me home after three gin and tonics.
I worry about the children, what this soot and hurry and perpetual tightness are doing to their brains.  When they want to run, they run in a circle through the kitchen, past the table, past the television, and back into the kitchen.  “Light feet!” I yell.  They do not know what it’s like to run under an emerald canopy, or through a field, wheat without end, opening and opening and opening…. There are no children running through fields in the countryside.  There are children playing Halo in finished basements.  There are children drinking Malibu rum in the backseats of Dodge Durangos.   There are children smoking Marlboro Lights in Chick-fil-A parking lots.  There are children texting each other: MEET U @ MANIC PANIC.  My boys are better off.
Green — When I unexpectedly find myself before a windowpane of trees or an undulating mountain range or even just a square of lawn, the clamp inside my chest eases open.  Right now the only green I see are desiccated Christmas trees planted in dirty snow banks. I get my green in concentrated doses, Central Park doses, friend’s sister’s East Hampton’s house for the weekend doses.  And I appreciate green more this way, sighing like a character from a musical when the wind plays with with the winking leaves in the afternoon sun.  If I lived with trees all the time, they would look like work, like a mess to dig out of gutters, all wet and black and rotten.
The possibility, no probability, of a washer and dryer inside my own home. My parents failed to get out. When my mom got pregnant, they bought a house at the end of a dirt road inside a primordial pine forest in Warren, N.J.  Every morning, my mother would waddle along my father’s crunchy tire tracks, sighing tearily in the shards of sunlight.  No neighbors.  She would have liked to make her excursion into a loop-walk rather than an out-and-back but the intersecting pavement was miles away and the woods were featureless, like black crosshatches.  No elves.  My mother walked until she reached the splintery remains of an orange plastic cone, abandoned in the run-off ditch, then she turned around, walked back to the house, and got back into bed.
The endless schlep – sweating inside of a matted, down coat, lugging a stroller up a metal staircase, bags banging my shins, bags bruising my hips, bags inside of bags in case I buy something and I need another bag.  Sometimes I turn the bags upside down in the front hall of our apartment and litter the carpet with my burden: one mitten, a travel size bottle of Purell, a Ziploc bag of baby-wipes, a half-knitted scarf, an uncapped Cherry Chapstick, an aluminum water bottle (the earth!), a Ziploc bag of Pirate Booty, a Lawrence Block mystery, two chewed pieces of gum, a Lego alligator, a Ziploc bag of apple slices (brown), a plastic water bottle (the earth!), a wooden J train.  If I lived elsewhere, I would leave it all in my car. Where is “elsewhere” anyway?  Not Westchester or Long Island or Connecticut – I’d be bored out of my mind.  Not DC – bunch of wonks.  Not LA – traffic.  Yes, there is a middle, a big ocean-less middle, I’d get lost driving from the placeless place to placeless place to my women’s book club at Panera Bread.  I need my feet on a grid, landmarks in the sky.  And fuck Boston.
Scott – He is always so bruised, hunched, angry, disappointed, TIRED.  If he can’t make it here, there is something wrong with this place. Scott – He likes his supergeek job, his Muay Thai muscles, his Banh Mi bread, his collaborators from the land of jazz and gin.  Scott is digging into the city wearing purple Air Force Ones.
People are jealous because I pay only $317 a month to park my car in a garage. “New York City. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.”
Adventure!! A new color to the sky, new minerals in the tap water, new slang for soda pop and sandwiches, new tax codes, new friendly debates about the best route home. I’d still be the same anxious, angry person, only disoriented, lonely, and hungry.
It will happen again. It happens everywhere.
My sons running naked on a beach. When I find a local like me, I want to run my tongue up under his jaw line, taste the brack of blacktop and cloudy hot dog water.  “Do you remember ‘The G-Spot Deli’ on 86th and Amsterdam?”  “Yeah, what were they thinking?”
My mother said, “Never hang your purse from the hook on the back of the toilet stall door; robbers will reach over and snatch it while you have your pants down.” My mother said, “If you feel scared, go where there are people.”
There’s no nobility in pointless suffering.  Arrogance is a lousy reward. When I look at the sun through my closed eyelids, I see a ridge of red skyline.  I think it’s the West Side, as viewed from the reservoir, my fingers gripping the old chain link, my thighs pink and goose-bumped in the February cold.
Bruce Ratner Mariano Rivera
A porch, preferably a wraparound porch, with a pink jasmine bush, a string hammock and a weathered red stool we use as a table for iced tea.  Glass pitcher.  Plenty of ice. How much space do human animals really need?  Isn’t this better?  Isn’t this enough?
I could spend my whole life debating this and never leave. I could never leave.

.

—Kate Reuther

.
.

Apr 012011
 

 

Sometimes I imagine getting a verbal ass-whoopin’ from Edward Abbey.  I find it best to picture him half-naked and sunburned, next to some beat-up pick-up truck parked precariously halfway off the side of a gravel road.  There’s not a single tree in sight.  His beard is dusty and his thick hair snarled from a days-long sojourn down by some unnamed creek in a copse of cottonwoods.  I detect the faint smells of bacon and tobacco, with a touch of permeating campfire smokiness.

As I sit there in my shiny black Jetta, prescription sunglasses on my face and REI gear in the trunk and backseat, I listen attentively to the tirade.  Maybe I get one like this, from near the end of Abbey’s most famous work, Desert Solitaire (1968):

Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood!  Why not?  Jesus Christ… roll that window down!  You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it….  Turn that motor off.  Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs!

Despite the fact that I don’t have “dugs” or varicose veins (yet), and even though I like to consider myself just a smidge closer to nature than most of the folks Abbey rails about in Desert Solitaire, I need this kind of dressing down from time to time.  I may not agree completely with everything Abbey wrote, but he was mostly right—abrasive, but mostly right.  That delicate, tenuous, and sometimes counterproductive balance is the hallmark of Abbey’s life and writings.

Desert Solitaire centers on Abbey’s several summers as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument.  When it was published in 1968, Abbey had already written three novels, but this was his first foray into nonfiction.  It firmly established him as a cult figure among environmentalists with a radical streak, and was followed by more than fifteen other works, including, most notably, the 1975 novel The Monkeywrench Gang.  His writing is often credited with inspiring a new wave of 1980s environmental groups that took the battle for nature from the courtroom and hearing room (a la the Sierra Club) to the treetops and logging roads and dams (a la Earth First!).

Desert Solitaire is an early hint at this kind of activism.  One evening, after being visited at his dilapidated ranger’s trailer by a survey crew marking a new paved road into Arches, Abbey walks out into the desert and removes all the surveying stakes and flags.  But that is the single act of civil disobedience he performs in the book.  Of course he dreams of blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam when he reaches the end of his rafting trip down the then-unimpounded Colorado River, but most often Abbey focuses on the simple pleasures of being outside.

In many passages his rants become paeans.  Pieces of petrified wood are “agatized rainbows in rock.” Rainstorms come down “not softly not gently, with no quality of mercy but like heavy water in buckets…drumming on my hat like hailstones and running in a waterfall off the brim.” Ample praise is reserved for the humble campfire:

One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West.

And the noontime sun is:

like a drug.  The light is psychadelic, the dry electric air narcotic.

The book as a whole dances in a point-counterpoint between the beauty of nature and the threats brought by humans, specifically by the United States Government and the National Park Service.  In the chapter entitled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” Abbey rails against improvements—roads, visitor centers, etc.—being made in what he feels should be mostly inaccessible, immersion-in-nature sanctuaries.

Why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate…the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?

These improvements, underway during Abbey’s Arches summers in the late 1950s, were collectively known as Mission 66, a massive National Parks infrastructure program spearheaded by landscape architect and Park Service Director Conrad Wirth.  The goal was to improve visitor knowledge of and access to the parks in time for the 50th anniversary of the service, in 1966.  Mission 66 did change the face of the parks, from the mostly rustic, dirt-road, wood-and-stone character which Abbey experienced at Arches to the full-service, restrooms-and-vending machines vibe at the main visitor centers today.  The Park Service’s chief landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint pushed for contemporary design in the parks—a legacy that includes the spiraling, concrete, seemingly Jetsons-inspired Clingman’s Dome observation tower in Smoky Mountain National Park and the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Studio and sporting an abstract bas-relief metal skin.

Abbey was dead-on prophetic with some of his specific fears, as listed in Desert Solitaire.  The geological formation called the Waterpocket Fold was incorporated into Capitol Reef National Park in 1970 (though it remains roadless, so whether its incorporation is a bad thing can be debated). Glen Canyon Dam did flood Cataract Canyon, create the rapidly silting Lake Powell, and make Rainbow Arch easily accessible to the motorboating masses.  And yes, the surveyors did reset their stakes and pave the road into Arches National Monument (which became a full-fledged National Park in 1971).

I once took an Abbey-lite but still slightly ill-advised hike off the end of that paved Arches road, in the heat of midday with very little water.  I was there from Indiana with college landscape architecture classmates.  We parked at the Devils Garden Trailhead and hiked out to Landscape Arch.  Stunned by the impossibility of the rock vaulting through the hot air, my friend Mark and I decided to head farther out along the trail.  Our colleagues returned to the vans to relax.  It was about 3 miles one way to Double O Arch and we had a few hours. On that quick hike we experienced the complete isolation and stillness and thirst and sun-scorch that Abbey describes throughout Desert Solitaire.

And here we come back to the almost-right-ness—for me—of Edward Abbey.  The Mission 66 version of the National Parks is the one I grew up with.  For five summers in high school and college, I would arrive with my church youth group at the Wrightian Beaver Creek Visitor Center to plan our hikes for the week.  In college, I climbed the Clingman’s Dome tower with a few close friends escaping the flatness of Indiana.  In every case (including my Arches hike), I watched people sort themselves by desire and ability.  Some, yes, would stay in their cars, as Abbey says, “like sardines in a can,” while others would venture a few miles on the well-trodden paths, while still others would heft their packs and disappear for a week, or more.

In fact, I studied landscape architecture, initially, because I wanted to design National Parks.  Though now I design different things, I still feel strongly that everyone should be able to access nature.  So, though I agree with Abbey that we shouldn’t pave over the parks and wilderness areas, I also believe that giving people encounters with nature is important to the eventual preservation of wilderness.  If Thoreau said, famously, and if Abbey echoes that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” then I say: in education and experience is the preservation of wildness.

And Abbey would be happy to know that the Park Service has begun managing even larger crowds by (gasp!) restricting automobile access.  Most of the Grand Canyon’s south rim road is closed to private vehicles, and portions of Yosemite Valley are also bike and bus only.  Abbey suggests these specific ideas in his “Polemic” chapter.

As to Abbey’s context in the mid-century environmental movement (and the other writers profiled in this series of essays), Desert Solitaire came out the same year the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed, and four years after the Wilderness Act.  Both of these laws preserve, as roadless and undeveloped, certain American land- and water-scapes, including many of the rivers Abbey lists in his book as under threat.  Abbey arrived on the heels of Loren Eiseley (from whom he could not be more different—in demeanor and prose style), Rachel Carson, and Joseph Wood Krutch (whom Abbey admired greatly and was the last person to formally interview). Abbey is regularly referred to as the “desert Thoreau,” but comparisons to John Muir are more apt.  Both men are associated closely with the National Parks (Muir with their inception in the late 1800s and Abbey with their ongoing preservation in the face of development in the 1950s and 1960s) and both were profoundly affected by their failures to stave off dam construction (Muir with Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Abbey with Glen Canyon). This latter similarity is brought to light in the recent essay collection Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, a slightly later, along with Wendell Berry, contemporary of Abbey’s.

Perhaps most notable in this context is Abbey’s activism, or rather his tacit support of extreme environmentalism.  He associated with Earth First!, the group that pioneered the tree-sit and once unrolled a massive image of a crack down the face of the Glen Canyon Dam. This direct-action aspect of the environmental movement still makes occasional headlines today, as activists harass whaling boats and blockade logging roads.  In fact, Abbey’s very prose reinforces this in-your-face stance.  Desert Solitaire, like Muir’s writings but unlike Thoreau’s and Eiseley’s, speaks directly to the reader (see the example at the top of this essay), often with provocative language deliberately designed to incite feelings of some kind.

As I write this, a long Minnesota winter—the longest winter I can remember—is (hopefully) melting into the rivers.  In addition to reading Desert Solitaire, I recently watched, thanks to Oscar buzz, the movie 127 Hours, which traces Aron Ralston’s famous desert ordeal (days spent trapped in a canyon; amputation of his arm with a pocketknife), a story more intense but remarkably similar to Abbey’s experience in the chapter called “Havasu.”  I also watched, thanks to my toddler son’s tastes, the animated movie Cars, about a sleek modern racecar stuck in a small Route 66 desert town bypassed by Interstate 40 (“see how the old road moves with the land,” says Sally Carrera, the lady Porsche soured on big-city life, “while the interstate cuts right through”).  These three stories juxtaposed evocatively with each other and contrasted with the horrid weather outside.

I realized I was in a rut.  Previously so diligent about getting my son Ethan outside no matter the weather, I had begun hustling him to the car in the morning for the drive to day care, then into the house at the end of the day.  I had initiated Friday night movie night instead of moonlight walks around the lake.  I was moving into my “sardine can” and taking my son with me.

On the whole, Abbey is farther into the wilderness world (and the extremist world) than I am.  Nevertheless, I like to be lectured by him, from time to time, in my mind’s-eye, as it is always beneficial to be ranted at by someone who doesn’t exactly share your beliefs—someone who can catch your interest with some common feeling, then challenge you.

Desert Solitaire is entertaining and beautiful front to back, both during the natural history descriptions and during the rants.  It gives me the inspiration to get outside, right along with the requisite kick in the pants.  From now on, when I find myself driving too much, sitting inside too much, or standing by while commercial interests encroach on the limited wilderness we have left, I’ll conjure Desert Ed.  I’ll picture myself at the side of some nowhere road, with Ethan strapped into his expensive car seat and Edward Abbey boring his eyes into mine, saying something like:

How dare you imprison your little children in your goddamned upholstered horseless hearse?  Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk—walk—WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!

Proceed to the next essay, Edward Hoagland, who, 40 years after his seminal The Courage of Turtles, has just published his 21st book: a melancholy essay collection called Sex and the River Styx), or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Mar 282011
 

.
Okay, brace yourselves. The dog has cancer of the penis. The dog’s name is Scruffles. (The goat in the photo is not in the story.) There is a mythic carnival ride called the Wonder Wheel. A friend runs over a woman’s leg while driving drunk and ends up in an L.A. jail. Rip Van Winkle is here. And those mushrooms. Trinie Dalton gets the conventional short story by the neck and gives it a shake. She has written and/or edited five books, and her fiction includes Wide Eyed (Akashic), Sweet Tomb (Madras Press), and the forthcoming Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). “Escape Mushroom Style” will be in Baby Geisha and was previously published in the #6 issue of an Australian journal called The Lifted Brow.

dg

The animal hospital looked out upon the Wonder Wheel, an antique ferris wheel constructed of enough metal to build four skyscrapers. Plate glass windows in the waiting room gave the office, where Scruffles and I awaited a meeting with a soft tissue surgeon, an airy feel. But carnival views don’t make cancer fun. I stroked Scruffles, panting at my side with a golf ball-sized tumor hanging off his dong. Snake skinned ladies, men with gorilla wives, fire-breathers, poodles riding tricycles, elephantitis—it had all gone down here on Coney Island. Penis tumors were probably old hat. Made sense that a polluted beach would be a mutant culture hub. The world’s oldest roller coaster loomed three blocks away. Was this vet going to be Siamese twins? Suddenly, it was moronic instead of ironic that I had considered administering dog cancer treatment at a facility bordering a decrepit amusement park. It was more moronic that I lived nearby.

“Scruffles?” I asked, scratching his woolly, red left ear. “Will you feel like a freak if we operate?”

Scruffles wagged his tail. Any question involving upped intonation at the end of the phrase produces in him a hope for fish.

I kept this appointment because I needed a surgeon’s opinion.

The receptionist called us in. The doctor was not a Siamese twin but rather an emaciated man whose head reminded me of a calavera azucar, a Day of the Dead sugar skull. He groped my dog in a twitchy way and recommended something horrible.

“I’m not removing anything except the tumor,” I vowed, petting Scruffles as I committed to keeping his body intact.

“He’ll die,” the surgeon said. Who was he to issue the death sentence?

I slammed the office door on the way out.

Soft tissue surgeons are too obsessed with slicing to know what you do and don’t cut. It’s just not right. Amputating a dog’s penis is ludicrous, I fumed in the taxi home. Scruffs panted, which I took as agreement. What would I tell people when they ask where my dog’s organ went?

A week later, I left Scruff at home with three chew toys and took the train instead to ride the Wonder Wheel, whose cars, every quarter rotation, swing out on railings to the edge of the wheel’s circumference. These cages, called the Danglers, dangle you over the boardwalk like a hooked worm being lowered into a lake of big mouth bass. My brother and I, swinging every two minutes, questioned how long our corroded cage would hold. We needed a meaningful conversation during our limited time together, while he visited. Today, we cried a lot. Privacy was non-existent in this city, and we needed some. At least on the Wonder Wheel we had a car to ourselves.

“We’re breaking up,” he said, of him and his girlfriend. Tears welled.

“Don’t amputate,” I said, meaning, don’t cut her out of your life. “It’s not an ending, just a change.”

Break ups or terminal illness, what’s worse? Why compare? This was our discussion as our car teetered above skeeball players and kids ramming bumper cars. The toxic Atlantic was on the left, and the veterinary hospital lurked right. From up here, New York was semi-manageable, as microscopic as the toadstool world I prefer to live in.

“That’s where they told me Scruffles had four weeks to live,” I pointed down at the speck of an animal hospital, starting to cry. Wind whisked away my tears.

“That’s some sad, salty rain,” I said of my tears melodramatically falling on people below.

“Forget that vet,” Lolly said. I nicknamed him Lolly when we were kids, because he had a big head on a skinny body, like a lollipop. “Scruff’s a survivor.”

“You’ll live too,” I said.

“Have you tried natural remedies?” Lolly asked. We gripped the bars sealing our metal cage and swung.

“Next week I take Scruffles to the herbalist,” I said.

I have over a thousand mushroom photos under my belt. Last time I counted I was nearing four digits, so I began excursions to Rip Van Winkle’s home turf, the clove where Irving’s character allegedly fell asleep. Downy, purple Cortinarius, a favorite fungus, grows under hemlock between blue slate outcroppings there. I may be approaching twelve hundred shots. I take road trips to my hideaway hills upstate after heavy rains. I’ve collaged my images, written amateur essays, and attended lectures at the natural history museum about how genetic mushroom identification is outmoding Linnean taxonomic charts common to field guides. The mycological society recently performed a play there riffing on Doctor Faustus, in which nerds portrayed mushroom collectors haunting Faust, who sold his soul for a lifetime supply of morels. Now, that’s Coney.

Coney is the word I use to describe the grotesque and twisted, something so disturbing its funny. Something New York, something convoluted, something ill-flowering, like a wart. A friend who just returned from China was telling me over a shrimp salad dinner that markets in Beijing sell grubs-on-a-stick. That’s Coney. He handed me a menu he’d lifted from this Beijing restaurant called Escape Mushroom Style that listed fifteen pages of mushroom-based dishes—our collective reverie—minus one page of various sheep dick entrees. Coney.

I used to peddle organic produce at health food conventions. Frequently, my booth was across from the reishi booth, always the most sparsely attended table. Littered with finger-like, brown, red, and orange striated conchs alongside pamphlets printed in Mandarin, the reishi table was considered by most to be mysterious and sketchy.

“Is that a mushroom cult?” people whispered as I fluffed up kale bundles.

Reishi contains anti-cancer agents, and is a detoxifier that has been used in tea, powder, and extract form for thousands of years. It’s a preventative. I was confused about why people avoided eye contact with the reishi promoters, as if looking at or thinking about cancer cure would promote neoplasmic growth. Aversion to disease and the oddities surrounding it is weak. One cannot stay well without facing illness. Camped next to these mushroom enthusiasts for days straight, I read their literature, heard the miracle tales, and thanked Coney I didn’t have cancer. Chinese medicine is righteous. I stored the mushroom’s healing potential in the back of my mind, like a chestnut.

It was during this healthy period that I selected Scruffles from a box of barking pups. His spotted paws won me over. A proud new pet owner, I headed to the local new age bookstore and bought pet books with wolf covers, to study canine acupuncture and flower remedies. At the time, I lived three thousand miles away. For over ten years now, Lolly and I have taken turns parenting this dignified canine.

Thursday after the Wonder Wheel tears, I took Scruffles to a Chinese herbalist in Manhattan. She had long, black hair, and her hands and arms were ringed with silver and copper jewelry. She smelled friendly, like bok choy fried in ylang ylang.

“He looks really well otherwise,” she said. I inhaled her positivism as I would a fresh chanterelle.

“How long does he have?” I asked, grasping my tissue just in case.

“Years if the herbs work,” she said. “But you must remove that tumor soon.”

“Tuesday,” I said, committing to a date. She was the doctor to trust.

We left with a sack of herbal tinctures, a list of foods Scruffles could eat, and recipes for his home-cooked meals. Scruffles and I now eat the same stew: poultry laced with turmeric, sea salt, carrots, and other “cooling” veggies. Twice daily he gets syringes full of serums, multi-vitamins disguised as cheese powder, and Indian rhubarb extract alternating with aloe vera juice poured into his purified water. Bad tap water may have caused all this. When Scruffles was young, I put citrine and smoky quartz crystals in his water bowl, at least, and hoped for the best. Nowadays, I dose both of us with everything because it can’t hurt. We are on a permanent wellness kick.

I mediate trauma in unproductive ways. I twiddle my fingers, or apply lipstick only to immediately remove it. I cook food and forget to eat it. After deciding against radiation, which meant thousands of dollars and a month of anesthetizing the dog several times per week, all my dreams cropped up stinkhorn. Those putrid mushrooms that I most detest because they look like dog dicks, sprouted out of Scruffles’ coat, appeared in salads and stir-fries I ate. Came out in the tap with the water.

Years ago, when I toured the Kew Gardens mycology archive, the director opened one of Charles Darwin’s herbals and displayed a 150-year old stinkhorn. He told me that Darwin’s daughter considered it pornographic. Cancer is Coney porno. I couldn’t translate these stinkhorn visions. I hoped the visions meant that Scruffles’ pain was transferring into me. Healing is exorcism, a withdrawal and transference of the unwanted. I wanted to be the medicine woman who could kill, neutralize, and dissipate my dog’s mutating cells. Step one was to physically remove the growth; step two was to escape the Coney.

Two weeks after the procedure, Scruffles and I drove north to the foot of the mountain where Van Winkle passed out on ale. I called Lolly on cellular from the rock Rip might have napped on and explained a theory.

“Tie some feathers in your hair,” I said. “Crow, eagle…anything but pigeon. The feathers will fortify you.”

“You’re regressing,” Lolly said. “I haven’t heard these mystical hippie theories since you were a vegetarian ten years ago.”

“Look,” I said. “Feathers can’t hurt. Put them on your dashboard if you can’t bear wearing them.”

There’s a comical scene in I Love You Alice B. Toklas, when Peter Sellers shows up in a fringed leather jacket for his conservative brother’s tuxedo wedding. He’s covered in feathers, and the movie is one big happy ending from there.

“We’re talking on cell phones,” Lolly said. “Feathers are retro.”

“Is Rip Van Winkle too retro for you?” I asked.

I considered chucking my phone into the stream running five feet over where Scruff was drinking. A woodpecker hacked at an elm tree. I’d have to email everyone for their numbers again, plus I couldn’t talk to Lolly. The golden handcuffs.

“Your cell phone is probably giving you cancer right now,” Lolly said.

“Luddite,” I said.

“Aren’t you the Luddite, avoiding the city? Call me when you forgive civilization,” Lolly said. “I’ll be at the bar with my scotch on the rocks.”

I didn’t lodge in a tee pee. I shacked up in a Catskills dive motel. A junky walked laps around the building, and whole families manned lawn chairs on the motel room porches. A pimp ran girls between his grass green sedan and his room. I had mushroom guides sprawled out on the bed, where Scruff and I watched M*A*S*H reruns.

“Feeling okay?” I asked him, petting him beside me on the bed. Every time I looked at him my eyes went automatically to his shaved crotch, and I felt nasty. His six-inch, stapled incision looked clean and was healing properly.

Scruffles smiled and hung his tongue out. He was tired from hiking. I refilled his bowl of water and set it beside him.

Next morning, we headed out early. We didn’t see Rip as I’d hoped but it was a breezy autumn day, and planks crossed wet meadows to preserve plant life. Mushrooms sprouted on every dead tree trunk: oysters, maitake, sulfur shelf. Scruffles peed on rocks as we bushwhacked up a ravine. We shared turkey sandwiches again in that special hemlock grove.

My cell phone sounded so out of place. West coast: I answered.

“Will you accept a collect call from L.A. County Jail?” an operator asked.

Lolly was drunk driving, hit a fire hydrant and a lady at a bus stop. Luckily, only her leg was broken.

“How do you run over a leg?” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” Lolly said. “She has a leg cast. I need five grand,” Lolly said.

“That’s my feather money,” I said. “I want to show Scruffles a good time instead of radiation.”

“I’m in prison!” Lolly said.

“Give me a minute to think,” I said. Scruff’s ears were perked up, ready to think too.

“Good boy,” I said. “Find some money.” Mr. Van Winkle’s buried treasure?

Money-wiring plans were made, and I folded my phone shut, slid it into my pocket. Coney phone. The woods and the city are the same some days. If bad news was bricks, I’d live in a fortress.

Scruffles licked my calf. I threw some rocks and packed it up.

On the path back, Scruffles located a shiny polypore whose skin actually reflected sunlight. It was a brown-red conch with ochre stripes edging its rim. Reishi? Different from the brown, whose velvetine skin you can carve pictures into. I snapped it off the tree trunk and carefully put it in my pack to shoot and I.D. later.

The nearest Catskills bail bonds place was across from Kozy Kitchen, a Coney diner decorated with baskets of silk flowers and gingham fabrics. I wired all the cash I had in the world and planted myself in a booth for coffee. Scruffles was tied up outside. Cranked on caffeine, I then wandered down the block to the scented candle shop, to soothe myself with the smell of beeswax until Lolly called with release news. My sibling is loveable but he gets sailor-style drunk. One D.U.I. ago, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into some park’s tennis courts. I get jealous of people who rest assured that if they go unconscious someone will be there to help. Scruffles would rescue me, if he could.

The dog and I stopped for one more overnighter on the way back to Coney. I was broke now, and I wanted to show Scruffles one last good time. He wags his tail at motel room doors and stares at their doorknobs until I let him in. Then he jumps on the bed and readies himself for television. Knowing he truly appreciates my meager gifts brings me joy. I charged the motel on my credit card just to get this reaction out of my dog, which must say something bizarre about me.

“You’re blocking the view,” I said, on the king size with Scruffles as the sun set, watching nature documentaries. During commercials, we took turns with the remote; he can change channels if he paws it hard enough. How will I face life without this guy? I took the polypore out to identify it. It was glossier than Ganoderma applanatum, the reishi I knew. Soft, corky, flat, zoned, red-varnished cap with white to dull brown pores…in its stalked form, this is the ancient Chinese ‘mushroom of immortality,’ also called the ‘herb of spiritual potency.’ Red reishi, or Ling Chih: Ganoderma lucidum. An even better anti-cancer.

“You found Ling Chih,” I said. “Good dog.”

Scruffles licked his chops. Coneylicious. Fortified for impending night, it was back to the city in the morning with red reishi and my Frankenweenie.

—Trinie Dalton

.
.