Feb 272011
 

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The publication last fall of the first of three volumes of Twain’s Autobiography has not only given University of California Press a bestseller but also stirred interest once more in Twain’s other work, so I decided to give The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn another read. What struck me this time through was how much the world of the novel is filled with narrow pieties and superstitions, with shallow sentiment and prejudice, with lack of resolve and general moral and intellectual torpor—and quick turns to violence. The last is related to the former: these are sides of an equation.

“We ain’t burglars. That ain’t no sort of style. We are highwaymen. We stop stages and carriages on the road, with masks on, and kill the people and take their watches and money.”

“Must we always kill the people?”

“Oh, certainly. It’s best. Some authorities think different, but mostly it’s considered best to kill them—except some that you bring to the cave here, and keep them till they’re ransomed.”

Tom Sawyer, early on, defines appropriate conduct for a gang he’s forming, drawing inspiration from what he’s absorbed from the old world and new, their history and sentimental thrillers. What Sawyer conceives in playful boyish aggression, however, either lies latent in the language of the adults—someone should count the number of times words related to killing are dropped—or is at the threshold of erupting at almost every turn, in knife fights and fist fights, in blood feuds and mob lynchings. I missed this in previous readings, how deeply pessimistic Twain is in Huck Finn.

Then again, perhaps his world is not so unfamiliar. For example:

palin-crosshairs

This picture appeared not long ago on Sarah Palin’s Facebook—just before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat, Arizona, was shot.

What I most wanted to look at was the ending, which left me unsatisfied last time through and has been cause for much critical debate over the years. Adam Gopknik recently gave his take in his review of the Autobiography in The New Yorker (November 29, 2010):

One wants to defend the ending (somebody has to, as with O.J. Simpson), but it’s indefensible, callow and dull, and the only explanation is that Twain’s show-biz instincts—Tom Sawyer’s a hit, everyone likes him, that shtick is gold—got the better of him. The ending has the inconsequence of a comedian looking for a way off the stage.

I must confess I’m skeptical of critics who believe they have a better idea of how to write a novel than the author. As for his seemingly objective modern critical standards, I am reminded of Northrup Frye’s remark in Anatomy of Criticism:

Every deliberately constructed hierarchy of values in literature known to me is based on a concealed social, moral, or intellectual analogy.

But the last ten chapters are bizarre. Jim is at last captured and locked up at Aunt Sally’s farm, waiting to be sold, and Tom Sawyer, drawing inspiration from sensational escapes such as that found in The Count of Monte Cristo, plots a complicated scheme to free him that takes weeks to carry out. In the process he subjects Jim to accelerating abuse and throws the farm and town into turmoil, all in the name of “honor.” While Huck and Tom tunnel away, they have Jim create a coat of arms, scratch inscriptions on a rock, and visit him with minor plagues of rats and snakes and spiders, and so on, all for proper effect. Tom even proposes they smuggle in a saw so Jim can cut off his foot to free himself of his shackle when all he needs to do is lift the bedpost and slip off the chain. They could simply have stolen the key to the shed and taken off early on, as Huck suggested. Tom, however, objects:

Work? Why, cert’nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it’s too blame’ simple; there ain’t nothing to it. What’s the good of a plan that ain’t no more trouble than that? It’s as mild as goose-milk. Why, Huck, it wouldn’t make no more talk than breaking into a soap factory.”

Honor, apparently, cannot be bought easily. But this time around it occurred to me that Tom gives the answer not only to the odd ending but also explains the whole novel. Difficulty and stirring things up are not only the book’s purpose but also set the principle that determines its construction. It is also a novel about getting people to talk in a world where sensible talk is difficult.

Part of Twain’s problem is that so much of his material is thematically thin. By thin I mean there just isn’t much to think about and little to dramatize convincingly. What moves most characters is petty and mean, however great their pretensions. The Grangerfords and Shepherdons have been fighting a family feud for years, even though they have forgotten the cause of their dispute. There is scant thematic material to explore here and little else to have the characters do but take shots at each other like soldiers in a well-known video game, which is what they do. The only thematic interest in this section comes from the mawkish, morose pictures by dearly departed Emmeline Grangerford, which set the comic undertone that provides the ironic tension the main action needs.

Of course there is the problem of slavery. Huck has his famous crisis of conscience in Chapter XXXI, where he says:

And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s n—-r that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.

He continues this debate for pages, which is curious because I don’t recall his being that moved elsewhere by matters of church or state. Usually his conscience strikes when someone is about to get hurt. But Twain is only using Huck to stage the debate for us—and there just isn’t much for us to think about. However childish Huck’s thinking, the adult argument he engages is no more sophisticated. I have no idea how this chapter appeared to Reconstruction America, where change was largely nominal, but anyone who has paid much attention to slavery and religion—or any system of values and beliefs—won’t find anything to put the two together. Ultimately, the distance between belief and the practice is so great that it is absurd—and darkly comic. Slavery, or rather our conception of it, is a horribly bad joke, as damning an indictment as any Twain might have made, and the only thing he can do is hammer home that point with repetition until it sinks in, which is what he does in these pages. In lecture halls Twain would repeat a bad joke over and over until the audience finally started laughing.

Something similar happens in the last ten chapters. Jim isn’t being tortured by all of Tom’s abuse, we are. Jim endures it good-naturedly. We are the ones who agonize at Tom’s manipulation of Jim, at the stalls in plot, the twists and inward spirals of his nonsense. We want Jim to be freed and the novel to find moral resolution. Instead we keep getting the fact of Jim’s enslavement thrown at us. But theme is intimately related to plot, and what characters do in a novel’s world depends on its meanings. There has to be a point to climax, some frame of reference for its resolution. Yet slavery does not make moral or intellectual sense, so there’s no coherent way, dramatically or thematically, to wrap the novel up. Incoherence is the concluding thought and resulting climatic effect. Twain gives us the ending the novel requires and leaves us where we need to be.

It is appropriate, I suppose, that the only one who suffers bodily harm is Tom himself, who gets shot in the leg by the pursuing mob once they finally make their escape. But not until the very end does Tom reveal the irony that slaps us all in the face: Jim was freed months ago in Miss Watson’s will. His elaborate scheme was just literary indulgence, maybe some boyish perversion. What are we supposed to make of that? Nothing, except perhaps think about getting slapped and why. What took ten chapters to develop is dismissed in a few quick paragraphs and the novel whisks us away in a “happy ending” where we are not allowed to dwell.

Why should we be?

In so many ways, the main character of Huck Finn is its audience. I can only imagine what kinds of maneuvers Twain had to work with his contemporaries, though the novel gives much indication that they weren’t getting the point. Many modern critics have criticized Twain for demeaning Jim and trivializing slavery—Jane Smiley, for example, in “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts”—but they have the benefits of a more tolerant audience and the experience of over a century of change and reflection, which Twain did not. How superior modern critics are I will have to leave to them to decide, but I will challenge them to define and defend their grounds. I will not dismiss their arguments, however, because their concerns are serious, vital to the fabric of this country, and constantly need airing out. But let’s not reject books or close off discussions—or force a narrow esthetic on writers that constricts what and how they write. (Smiley prefers Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

What kind of ending do we want? If the fog doesn’t fall that night, if they make the turn at Cairo up the Ohio River and into the free states, what would that have resolved? Perhaps we would have had the satisfaction of seeing Jim freed, though he still would have been separated from his family, but that would leave slavery intact below the Mason Dixon and take it out of sight. And it would deflate, I would argue, the overwhelming absurdity of the horrible joke. Better to torture us than give a satisfactory ending. Such an ending would also have further isolated the South from the national debate, not much more settled in the 1880s than at the time of the Civil War. But also Twain’s subject is not just the South, but all our history and our European inheritance—and the whole damned human race—of which slavery was one part. The life Jim finds in the free states would have been different, but not much better.

Or we could have had a tragic ending, more in keeping with reality and the world of the novel, where the currents of the Mississippi inexorably take them to New Orleans and Jim is sold and we are exposed to what the river sheltered them from, the cruelty and hardships of the plantation. But with the ensuing charge of emotions that would be unleashed in this experience, the absurdity would still be lost or consumed. By distancing us in these chapters and playing with our expectations, Twain keeps his argument alive and us in our seats, though squirming. I’m wondering if Brecht’s distancing effect—Verfremdungseffekt—comes into play here, “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer” (from Brecht on Theatre). Also odds are good such a book would not have been published, or if it were, not read, or if read only would have divided the country even more in destructive debate and further isolation.

My point about audience is an esthetic argument, not political. Writing is a matter of pitting one’s stories about the world against those the world tells about itself and seeing what can be figured out.

Everything is fiction. Some of us are just more honest about that fact.

At any rate, Twain would not give up his sense of humor, which not only encourages us to question ourselves but also sustains us, and maybe helps keep us together. Nor would he abandon constructing his novel the way it needed to be written. And maybe he helped lay the groundwork for the novels that eventually followed—read Toni Morrison’s essay “This Amazing, Troubling Book.”

The Freitag triangle

notice twainFrom the front pages of the novel

Actually, what most struck me this time through is how odd the whole book is. There are so many scenes that stall, that could have been compressed, so much that seems merely incidental. Odder than the last chapters is the attention given to who should have been marginal characters, the Duke and King, and they could have been disposed of much sooner. The whole plot does not follow a linear progression built upon character, motive, and social forces, but rests on coincidence and accident—missing the turn at Cairo because of the fog, ending up at Aunt Sally’s after so many weeks rafting down the river—and there are so many scenes that do not connect with others. But plot depends upon a character’s power of action and the coherence of his or her world. In a world where characters have limited range and the world is confused, there can be no clear course of action, no rising climax, and no dramatic resolution. Put differently, if one looks from the distance of Twain’s overarching skepticism, everyone will appear small, their actions inconsequential. In such a novel, such a world, we might as well have a pair of frauds carry us along for the ride and think about what they represent—and make fun of them at our peril.

royalnonesuch

The novel can be explained by a long tradition. Its shallow characters, the satiric cast, the episodic nature of the plot—all of these elements are consistent with the picaresque novel, and Don Quixote is often alluded to, probably an influence. But I still want a principle that explains the logic of its design. I would argue that it is the expectation of a well-made novel faced with its absence that determines Huck Finn‘s construction and sets the tone. It is the ghost of rising climax, hovering everywhere, that gives the novel its form and tension. I also prefer to think of it as a novel looking forward to modern forms and to our condition, the fog of the last hundred years.

Realism is tricky word, subject to interpretation. Much of Huck Finn‘s “realism” comes from ironic deflation of sentimental modes. But it is real in an American sense and it is an American book in its openness and skepticism, in the good nature of characters like Huck and Jim that emerges in spite of all, and most in its love of our language, the dialects which engage and convince us start to finish. And there are moments, even if we can’t relate them to anything or link them together, such as this:

It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

It is not hard to see why Hemingway was so taken by this book or how it influenced him.

The image at the top of this post—as well as the tragedian above—comes from Edward Winsor Kemble’s original illustrations for the novel. The Duke and King have at last been caught, are suitably attired, and are being sensibly escorted out of town.

— Gary Garvin

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Gary

Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.

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Feb 262011
 

Tomb near Chong-Alai, Kyrgyzstan

Here’s a delightful essay, a character study, a study in cross-cultural (mis)communication, and a travel story by Renee Giovarelli. Some of you may have read her “What it’s like living here” piece published earlier on NC, also set in Kyrgyzstan, where Renee often travels for her work. Renee travels the world for an NGO involved in reforming land and property rights. But she also writes urgent, passionate essays about the places she visits. Her essay “The Bad Malaria Shot,” which she presented at her graduate reading in the summer, was a finalist for the Wasafiri 2010 New Writing Prize.

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The Real McCoy

By Renee Giovarelli

When I arrived in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan at that time, and three hours by car from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, my final destination, Sergei Sergeivich Kuzmin stood pressed against the glass window watching me come into customs.   Hundreds of people, also searching the deplaning passengers for the first signs that their loved ones had arrived safely, stood behind him.  He was a master at pushing himself and me to the front of any crowd.  Seeing him, I relaxed.

Sergei

Sergei had been flying into Central Asia from Moscow to interpret for me for five years, ever since I first started working in Kyrgyzstan, which he called Kyrgyzia, the name of the territory when it was part of the Soviet Union and not an independent country.  Broad and short with a large belly and a Charlie Brown head, he brushed his thinning white hair straight back so that his forehead and bushy eyebrows were prominently featured, as was his sizable nose and enormous smile.  Over the past five years, Sergei and I had established a routine, which seldom varied.  Actually, Sergei established the routine and I complied.  I let Sergei guide me around and take charge of everything on my first trip to Kyrgyzstan, the first country stamped in my passport, and it had been impossible to wrestle any control back since.

But this was going to be our last trip–I had to fire him.

It used to be that every country in the former Soviet Union smelled the same when you stepped off the plane—a faint odor of sewage mixed with cooked cabbage and chilled sweat, and clothes that had been worn for several days but don’t exactly smell yet of body odor, burning leaves and dried cow dung.  For me, the differentiation of the Soviet republics was first signaled by the change in smells in the air at night.

On this, my fifteenth trip, it was cool at three in the morning but would soon be hot enough for a sleeveless silk blouse.  I filed out of the plane behind the oil men and World Bank consultants, in front of the missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers–not fitting in with either crowd. I wasn’t a middle-aged male in a white shirt and not an eager, young zealot with a backpack either, but somewhere between the two and slightly disdainful of both.

Continue reading »

Feb 222011
 

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Patrick J Keane smaller

In 1924 the original ms. of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound’s handwritten editorial comments, mysteriously disappeared and did not resurface until 1968. Most of the facts of what happened to the ms. are now known. But here, for the first time, Patrick J. Keane pulls the story together with personal information gleaned from Eliot’s widow that sheds a poignant light on the story of the ms. and Ezra Pound’s last years. Part-literary detective story, part-memoir, part-homage to a glittering past, “Convergences” is a brilliant and highly entertaining excursus on the vagaries of fate and literary genius. Pat Keane is a prolific scholar and a gifted raconteur. Don’t miss his sidelight on Northrop Frye, the story of the beautiful Rosamund and the mischievous trick Pat plays on a nuisance colleague named ______.

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Because of an odd convergence of circumstances, I have, on several brief occasions, been privy to “inside” information regarding modern literature’s most notorious “missing manuscript.” I refer to the sheaf of papers—T. S. Eliot’s original drafts, edited by Ezra Pound—revealing the genesis of The Waste Land, the single most famous poem of the twentieth century. Perhaps, before memory fades altogether, I should record, not for posterity but for a few friends, the various contexts of my personal relationship, however indirect and peripheral, to that celebrated “missing manuscript.”

The “manuscript” consists of a packet of handwritten and typed pages, drafted by Eliot and sculpted by his friend, who found the shape the poem had been struggling for, and then pronounced it “the justification of our modern experiment.” Pound had from the outset recognized in the pages he had been given an embryonic work of genius—though, even at the 434 lines to which he reduced it, he still thought it, in terms of its density of allusion and demands on the reader, “the longest poem in the English langwidge.”

The poem, pruned by Pound but still uniquely Eliot’s, was published in that annus mirabilis of modernism, 1922, the year which also saw the appearance of Joyce’s Ulysses and Rilke’s Duino Elegies. A week after it was first printed—in mid-October, in both the Criterion and the Dial—the original manuscript and related papers were sent by Eliot as a gift to John Quinn, the wealthy New York attorney, collector, and patron of, among other modernist writers, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and W. B. Yeats. He thought the manuscript “worth preserving in its present form solely,” Eliot wrote Quinn, for the evidence it offered of “the difference” Pound’s criticism had made to the poem. John Quinn died in 1924, and the manuscript, unmentioned in his will, was long presumed to be lost. Like countless others over the years, Eliot himself always wondered what had become of it. Its location, its very existence, was still a mystery when the poet died, in January 1965.

In fact, however, a few people were aware that the manuscript had survived. As the world learned in 1968, the pivotal year in the personal memories recounted here, Quinn had bequeathed it to his sister, Julia Anderson. When she died, in 1934, it had passed to Mrs. Anderson’s daughter, Mary. Though the papers, in storage, were misplaced for some years, Mary and her husband, Thomas Conroy, found them after a prolonged search in the early 1950s. In April 1958, they sold the manuscript, for $18,000, to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. For a decade the acquisition remained private, a secret rigorously kept from the public until October 25, 1968, when the news was released simultaneously with, and to draw attention to, the publication of B. L. Reid’s authorized biography of John Quinn.

A brief advance notice of the revelation had been given to Eliot’s second wife, Valerie. It must have been assumed that she would be delighted by the unexpected news. Instead, the poet’s widow was infuriated to learn that the whereabouts of the “missing” manuscript were known while Eliot was still alive, and, in particular, that the Berg had maintained a Cistercian silence for a decade. Obviously, at some point during the first half of that decade, the author of The Waste Land could and should have been informed, if only to dispel the mystery. As Pound observed in his Preface to the facsimile/transcript edition, edited by Valerie Eliot in 1969, the “occultation” of The Waste Land manuscript, which he aptly described as “pure Henry James,” had been “exasperating to its author.”

Out of belated courtesy, or perhaps to stave off a potential public relations fiasco, John Henderson, Chief of the Research Libraries of the New York Public Library, sent Valerie Eliot a microfilm of the Waste Land papers in the summer of 1968. Apparently, he also arranged to have the manuscript itself (boxed in protective material that would preserve it even if the plane went down in the Atlantic) flown to her in London as a kind of peace offering.

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I learned all this years later, from Valerie Eliot herself. But to return to the summer of 1968: That August, I was in Sligo, Ireland, a student at the Yeats International Summer School. Along with my enthusiasm for Yeats, I bore greetings from one great scholar of Romanticism to another: from one of my current teachers, David Erdman, author of Blake: Prophet Against Empire, to the keynote lecturer at that year’s Yeats gathering, Northrop Frye, at the time the most celebrated literary critic in the world, and the author of an equally formidable study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry. After Frye delivered his magisterial lecture on the imagery of Yeats, entitled “The Top of the Tower,” I was one of those who flocked to the podium. But I stayed at the periphery, too shy to approach the great man. Later that evening, when Frye, followed by a small entourage, entered the dining room of the Imperial Hotel, he noticed me at a table and walked over.

“You wanted to ask me a question this afternoon,” he said. A fundamentally shy man himself, he had been sensitive enough to spot me on the fringe of the crowd after his lecture, and gracious enough to follow up. I stammered out my greeting from Professor Erdman. “How is David?” Frye asked. I assured him he was well, and was amused when Northrop Frye made a comment symmetrical to that of David Erdman. Each declared the other’s Blake study indispensable and each said he would not have been capable of writing the other’s book. Later that evening, Frye’s shyness was confirmed when I noticed him tenderly holding his wife’s hand under the table during a dramatic performance, in a pub, of Brian Merriman’s bawdy 18th-century poem, The Midnight Court. And five years later, he would confirm his graciousness by allowing me to print “The Top of the Tower,” free of any permissions charge, in a collection of criticism on Yeats I edited for a volume in McGraw-Hill’s Contemporary Studies in Literature series.

One other dignitary had noticed me hanging on the periphery following Frye’s lecture. This was Thomas Rice Henn, the Sligo-born author of The Lonely Tower, and at that time the Director of the Yeats Summer School. He asked me about my response to the lecture—“wonderful,” I said—and inquired as to what if anything I had written on Yeats. The next morning I gave him a copy of a paper I was working on for another favorite NYU professor, M. L. Rosenthal. It was on “Her Vision in the Wood,” a rather brutal mythological poem in Yeats’s late sequence, A Woman Young and Old.

That afternoon, he returned the essay to me; said he liked it; and asked if by any chance I was going to Dublin now that the Yeats events had concluded. My original plan had been to return to New York after Sligo, but I’d met Rosamund, a pre-Raphaelite beauty with flaming red hair, who had invited me to Dublin and then to Edinburgh for the International Festival. I had already decided that New York University could wait a week. When I told Dr. Henn that I was going to Dublin, he handed me an envelope. It contained, along with a few hints on protocol, a letter of introduction to Mrs. Yeats.

The following morning, Rosamund and I were on a train headed from Sligo to Dublin. I was reading about a bicycle race in the sports section when Rosamund said, “O my God, Pat. Look at the front page.” The headline was indeed a shocker: the former Georgie Hyde-Lees, the widow of William Butler Yeats, had died! After a moment of frustration that I would now never get to ask the five questions I had prepared, my humanity re-emerged, and I silently wished his widow a happier Afterlife than any her husband had concocted from the spiritual communications they had shared.

We became friendly with others on the train, also going to the Festival. So Rosamund and I gave up our initial thought of attending, or intruding on, the funeral, and went directly to Scotland so as not to miss the Tom Courtenay Hamlet and the fireworks display over Edinburgh Castle. Only many years later would I learn, at first hand, that the death and funeral of Mrs. Yeats also figured in the story of The Waste Land manuscript.

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After the fireworks of Edinburgh and Rosamund, I returned to New York and resumed my graduate school regimen. The yearlong seminar with David Erdman, who had taken over a course that was to have been taught by the ailing E. P. Thompson, was held at the One Fifth Avenue offices of Conor Cruise O’Brien, then the Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at NYU. It was a high-powered affair, with distinguished visitors ranging from O’Brien, to Carl Woodring, to Thompson, who made a two-week visit, italicized in my memory by his moving recitation of lines from Wordsworth’s Prelude. I had become close to Erdman, who, on one occasion that September, took me to the J. P. Morgan Library, where he had arranged with the curator for me to be left alone in a room with the manuscript of Keats’s Endymion, complete with a sealed lock of the poet’s chestnut hair. On a small scale, it was a thoughtful surprise not unrelated to the one that had been presented, as we shall see, by Valerie Eliot to Ezra Pound a month earlier.

On October 24, the seminar participants were invited to spend the next day at David and Virgie Erdman’s house. His permanent position was at SUNY, Stony Brook, and the house was situated at Setauket Point, on a cliff overlooking Long Island Sound. That evening, when I phoned to confirm the directions, David mentioned, in passing, the “exciting news about The Waste Land manuscript.” It was all news to me. Erdman, who was also the Director of Publications at the New York Public Library, had jumped the gun. It would not be until the next morning that a startled literary world would be officially informed in a New York Times headline and lead story that the manuscript of Eliot’s poem, a “lost” manuscript almost as famous as the poem itself, was in fact safely ensconced in the Berg Collection. After we hung up, I spent several minutes in excited reverie. What a secret! Even if it was a secret that, as Horatio reminds Hamlet, “must be shortly known.”

I was mulling over that line, when the phone rang. It was another student in the seminar. ________was a brilliant but arrogant fellow who considered us rivals and who I found rudely condescending toward a re-entry woman in the group, who was not as “up” on theory as he thought she should be. Ostensibly phoning to get directions to the Erdmans’ house, he was mostly curious as to why I had missed a recent seminar meeting. I’d simply been ill, but the imp of the perverse took over. I recalled Hamlet’s response to his friend’s warning that his secret (that he had sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the death intended for him) must be shortly known: “The interim’s mine,” says Hamlet.

And so, with feigned reticence, I remarked to my curious classmate that Erdman had excused me in order to complete a certain task. Careerist alarm bells ringing, he wanted to know what “task.” I really “wasn’t at liberty” to say, I said. This—of course and as intended—piqued his interest. Finally, I let him drag it out of me. “David,” I told him, had asked me to “write an introduction, and supply notes” to the manuscript of The Waste Land, which, I grandly announced, had been in the Berg Collection lo these many years. But I “had to hang up”; I was troubled that I had “already divulged too much,” though I guessed “it was okay” since it was all going to come out the next morning on the front page of the New York Times. As, of course, it did, seeming to confirm my fabrication. Eventually I had pity on him, but I let _________, almost visibly writhing in envy, believe this nonsense for about a week. Best of all, I shared the joke with the woman he had repeatedly made uncomfortable during class discussions.

4

By the time of this little hoax, and of the rather more momentous announcement of the survival of the manuscript of The Waste Land, that packet of papers was back from its trans-Atlantic flight to Valerie Eliot. But it had been in her hands in August, when, as earlier mentioned, Mrs.Yeats had died. Learning that Ezra Pound and his long-time companion, Olga Rudge, would be making the difficult trip from Italy to Dublin to attend the funeral of his old friend’s widow, Valerie Eliot had the happy thought of inviting them to London, to her hotel, where she would have a surprise for the man who had served as the midwife to Eliot’s masterpiece. What happened next I learned some thirty years later—from Mrs. Eliot herself, who told the story to several of us (including, as I recall, Ron Schuchard and Jon Stallworthy) over drinks one evening following lectures at the Yeats Summer School.

After serving tea (Valerie Eliot told us) she had gently led Pound, now 83 and feeble, to a table she’d prepared near a window. On the table lay THE MANUSCRIPT. Mrs. Eliot rejoined Olga Rudge, and the women retreated to a neutral corner, leaving Pound alone with pages he had not laid eyes on since 1922. Looking at them, the old man must have been overwhelmed by memories of that time, and of what had followed….

Back then, 46 years ago, his life had not yet been devastated by the consequences of his monetarily-obsessed, anti-Semitic wartime rants supporting Mussolini and Fascism: radio broadcasts that, monitored by American Military Intelligence, had landed him in a postwar detention camp in Pisa. There he had been, at first, caged—exposed to the elements, but also to the Muse that inspired what became the Pisan Cantos, some of its earliest drafts scribbled on toilet paper by the memory-haunted sixty-year-old prisoner. Transferred to his native country, he had remained locked up, not in a military prison as a traitor, but in Washington D.C.’s St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital, as a madman. In 1948, twenty years prior to the scene in Valerie Eliot’s hotel room, amid fierce political controversy, but strenuously supported by T. S. Eliot, the “lunatic in St. Elizabeth’s” had been awarded the first Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos. His response—“No comment from the bughouse”—would come to seem, in retrospect, prophetic of the public silence that descended on his final decade. Pound would spend a dozen years in St. Elizabeth’s, less despondent than active, and less a help than a hindrance to the family and friends seeking his release. But that release had finally come, the result of a protracted campaign waged by his daughter and by such literary friends as Eliot, Allen Tate, Hemingway, Robert Frost, and Archibald MacLeish, both a poet and former Assistant Director of War Information in the Roosevelt administration.

On his return to Italy in 1958, Pound exhibited his old arrogant recklessness in word and gesture (including a Fascist salute at Naples, caught in a widely-distributed photograph). But there were also deep misgivings. In a telegrammed response to a despairing letter, reassuring his friend that the best of his work would survive, Eliot placed him among “the immortals.” Still, Pound came to doubt the value of everything he had ever done or said. Though that was a depressed man’s excessive judgment, it was one recorded both privately and publicly. His 1966 remark to Daniel Cory, philosopher George Santayana’s former assistant, that he had “botched” The Cantos (“jumbling this and that…into a bag” was “not the way” to make “a work of art”), was transformed into a permanent verdict, registered in the final complete Canto: “the beauty is not the madness/ ‘Tho my errors and wrecks lie about me./ And I am not a demigod,/ I cannot make it cohere.” And yet that Canto (CXVI), confessing “wrong without losing rightness,” and acknowledging that “I cannot make it flow thro’,” ends with one of Pound’s characteristically beautiful invocations of luminous energy: “A little light, like a rushlight/ To lead back to splendour.”

As the Pisan Cantos confirm, Pound never forgot Yeats’s Beardsleyan axiom, “Beauty is difficult.” But beyond aesthetics, Pound’s suffering and repentance were hardly undeserved. In M. L. Rosenthal’s summary: “it was as if” in Ezra Pound “all the beautiful vitality and all the rottenness of our heritage were both at once made manifest.” By 1961, Pound had stopped speaking to outsiders. In 1967, breaking his public silence, Pound repudiated some of the “rottenness,” telling poet Allen Ginsberg that his life and work had ended up a “mess,” and singling out, as his “worst mistake,” the “stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice.” It had been far worse than that,but he said no more. Indeed, in general, he became almost mute: a prolific poet who had paradoxically lost faith in words, especially spoken words. Two years before the Paris Review interview with Ginsberg, he had remarked, “I did not enter into silence, silence captured me.” When he sat down at that table in Valerie Eliot’s hotel room in August 1968, Ezra Pound was famous in literary circles: a pivotal, indispensable figure in the birth of modernism and the author of an enormous, ongoing epic, The Cantos. But in the larger world, beyond literature, he was an object of puzzled curiosity, attributable less to his political notoriety or mental instability than to his later sphinx-like, rarely penetrable public silence….

Now, too, gazing at the modern world’s most celebrated “lost manuscript,” miraculously restored, he remained silent. The pages before him were filled with his old editorial slashings (the whole 54-line opening section, parts of “The Fire Sermon”), marginal notes, and suggested revisions—except when it came to the fifth and unimprovable final section, which he had marked, “OK from here on I think.” Though its cadences, texture, tics, tonal shifts, and deployment of “different voices” make The Waste Land indisputably the achievement of T. S. Eliot, the author, in grateful tribute to Pound’s skill in liberating the poem from its surrounding husk, had (in 1925) dedicated it to him: il miglior fabbro, “to the finer craftsman.” And there on the table were the very pages that craftsman had read, cut, and annotated all those decades ago. In the intervening years, his friend Yeats had died and, a quarter-century later, his friend Eliot. He had come to London for Eliot’s memorial service that cold January in 1965, and had made a nostalgic side-trip, traveling to Dublin to visit Yeats’s widow (he had been best man at their 1917 wedding). Now, having just come from her graveside, he was confronted even more palpably with his own past, in the form of the graphic proof of his critical role in delivering to the modern world one of its transformative works of art.

The light had grown dimmer in the room. Pound’s face was half turned toward the window. What little the women could see of it seemed expressionless. Finally, after much hesitation, they walked over to him. One laid an affectionate hand on his shoulder, the other asked, “Are you alright, Ezra?” When the old man looked up, they saw them—the tears, streaming from those eyes that had seen so much.

Epilogue

Four years after Valerie Eliot had reunited him with The Waste Land manuscript (which he looked at again, with Valerie Eliot, in the Berg Collection, in June 1969), Ezra Pound would join his old friends and fellow-poets in death. Though intricately and profoundly related personally and poetically, with Pound as the connection, these three major figures of twentieth-century literature were, of course, very different men: differences reflected in their graves and epitaphs.

In “Little Gidding,” the last and best of Four Quartets, and his crowning achievement, Eliot encounters, in a magnificent passage emulating Dante’s terza rima, the Swiftian ghost of W. B. Yeats. The actual Yeats—whose last great poem, completed on his deathbed, is also a Dantesque terza rima evocation of a formidable ghost, that of the epic Irish hero Cuchulain—died in France on the eve of the Second World War. What are believed to be his reinterred bones are buried, under bare Ben Bulben’s head, in the Protestant churchyard in Drumcliff, County Sligo, where an ancestor had once been rector. The imperious epitaph on the poet’s gravestone, “carved at his command,” is famously enigmatic but unmistakably in the heroic mode, at once stoically yet passionately pagan: “Cast a Cold Eye/ On Life, on Death./ Horseman, pass by!”

The ashes of Thomas Stearns Eliot—who shook many of his fellow-modernists by famously and devoutly pronouncing himself “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”—rest in the Parish Church of St. Michael, East Coker, in Somerset, England, the place of origin from which, centuries earlier, his ancestors had emigrated to America. His memorial tablet, petitioning prayer for the repose of his soul, is circumscribed by hopeful words from “East Coker,” the second of Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end…in my end is my beginning.”

In the San Michelle Cemetery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiori, across the water from St. Mark’s Square in Venice, lie the remains of the most deracinated, flamboyant, and certainly the most voluble of the three great poets. Ezra Pound’s end was not at all in his beginning. In his early years of London fame, and again in Paris in the Twenties, the magnanimous Pound was always expansive, both in helping fellow artists and in disseminating his ideas and opinions, whether insightful, idiosyncratic, or “rotten.” In Gertrude Stein’s witty 1933 characterization, Pound was “a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” In his later, chastened years, the pontificator and wartime anti-Semitic propagandist became a reclusive man, penitent and, to repeat the point, almost monastically silent. Appropriately, given his latter distrust of words, his plain headstone is laconically inscribed simply EZRA POUND.

Among those remembered here, there have of course been other deaths. David Erdman and Northrop Frye are gone, as are Mack Rosenthal and Edward Thompson and Conor Cruise O’Brien and T. R. Henn. I have no specific reason to fear that the life of someone who in my memory is forever young has been disrupted by the discourtesy of death, but I have often wondered what became of the flame-haired Rosamund.

As for Valerie Eliot: having rejuvenated T. S. Eliot in life, and later serving as editor of the published version of The Waste Land manuscript and of other posthumous Eliot texts, Mrs. Eliot, now 85, remains as sweet-natured as ever, though her memory has begun to fail. She attended the first two receptions of the Eliot International Summer School, founded in 2009, and modeled on the Yeats Summer School. And she continues to donate, as she has since 1993, ₤15,000 for the annual T. S. Eliot Prize. She can afford to. Eliot’s widow is a wealthy woman thanks to her share of the royalties from Cats, the longest-running musical in theater history. The inspiration for the Trevor Nunn-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But, beyond being her husband’s beneficiary, Valerie Eliot deserves her share of the considerable profits.

It was she who provided what Nunn called the “fulcrum moment.” With the  collaborators at a creative impasse, Valerie Eliot handed them a crumpled sheet of paper on which her late husband had typed eight lines about “Grizzabella, the Glamour Cat,” a fragment that had never made it into Eliot’s published text. These lines—another lost-and-found Eliot manuscript—became, as it were, the catalyst Nunn and Webber were seeking. For what, above all, made Cats the worldwide phenomenon it eventually became was Webber’s composition, on the final night of rehearsals, of the beautiful melody—the “theme” for Grizzabella—that integrates the work. Fused with Nunn’s lyrics, which echo, along with the Grizzabella lines, images from Eliot’s early poems, “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” it became a nocturne so haunting that it has since been recorded hundreds of times. The title of that evocation of the past—germane to my own reminiscences and, more poignantly, to Ezra Pound at that table in 1968, as well as to Valerie Eliot’s present condition—is, of course, Memory.

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Feb 212011
 

Have you heard of the “Environmental Solutions Agency?” Newt Gingrich introduced this idea in a speech back on January 25, 2011, as something that would replace the Environmental Protection Agency and be “first of all, limited.”  Then, about a month later, a couple of U.S. House committees set hearings on the “Energy Tax Prevention Act,” which would strip the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.   Also in January, western Congressmen introduced a bill to remove the wolf from the endangered species list.  It passed: the first time that legislation, rather than science, has determined a species’ inclusion or exclusion.

In all this, there are two items of literary merit. First, look at the words they use: “Environmental Solutions Agency” and “Energy Tax Prevention Act.”  Verbal backflips, if you ask me.  And the wolf bill, in a way, proves the power of the sentence: the bill has only one sentence, which puts an entire species at risk.  When the Endangered Species Act (ESA) came into effect in 1973, it was partly because of the wolf.  At that time, there were only 300 left in the entire nation.

The ESA can also be credited, in large part, to writers (there’s the second literary reason, if you’re keeping track—and the more important one).  In 1959, Peter Matthiessen published Wildlife in America, essentially a call for protection of endangered species.  Three years later, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became a best seller.  Concurrent to these works, Joseph Wood Krutch, Loren Eiseley, and Aldo Leopold were putting out nature writing that pushed a nascent environmental movement forward.

These writers were different than their predecessors, like Thoreau and Muir, who wrote in many ways as conqueror naturalists.  This earlier wave of writers wanted to understand nature on a technical level, strove to set certain bits of it aside for posterity, and always looked at it from a place slightly above and to the side.  Humans, they said, should protect and love nature, but not probably become a part of it (remember, Thoreau regularly went into town to dine with friends while living hermit-style at Walden, and ultimately gave up early on the experiment).

The mid-century writers, on the other hand, saw humans as part of nature.  They sought the passion and emotion that nature brings through personal immersion in it.  They spurred another round of legislation and regulation, this time not centered on large chunks of land set aside as preserves (like the National Parks), but on everyday nature: the air, the water, the plants and animals around us.

The late 60s were a time of upheaval in many arenas, and the environment was no different.  Between 1968 and 1971, the world saw seminal works produced by Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, John Hay, and two by Edward Hoagland.  Between 1970 and 1973, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Policy Act (which created the EPA), the Clean Water Act, and the ESA.  Coincidence?

So, because so many of these environmental advances are under attack right now (and because the perhaps ironically named Newt is trying to redefine the EPA), I thought it might be interesting to look back on that mid-century eco-literary boom.

Included here are life and work profiles of six of these masters: Carson, Krutch, Eiseley, Abbey, Berry, and Hoagland.  I am sure there are other favorites (Peter Matthiessen? Gary Snyder? John Hay?), but let me rule out a few that might be assumed to be part of this group.  Everyone on this list was born between 1893 and 1934 and reached the peak of their writing between the 50s and 70s.  They all experienced the Great Depression in some form, and all saw most of this environmental legislation passed (except Carson, who died rather prematurely in 1964).  Aldo Leopold was too early, Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard too late.  The last two are omitted simply because they probably didn’t affect this particular wave of environmentalism; they were affected BY it.

This group of writers took a diverse approach to the environment. From Eiseley’s mysticism and anthropology to Abbey’s radicalism to Krutch’s childlike curiosity, they manage to touch nearly every taste and temperament. They have certainly touched me, so on the following pages you will see both an analytical as well as a personal journey. This is the origin of today’s “green” thinking, and we are about 50 years farther along (Silent Spring, in fact, turns 50 in 2012). I think its time for another reading.

Proceed to the first essay,  on Loren Eiseley, or return to the Table of Contents.

–Adam Regn Arvidson

Feb 212011
 

A Letter from Italy,

by Natalia Sarkissian

With Jo

Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti-Santo Stefano entrance

My friend Jo’s husband, Francesco Allegretto, has done the photography in the exhibition catalog for a show in Venice, Lino Tagliapietra: Da Murano allo Studio Glass. Opere 1954- 2011. (Showing from February 19-May 22.)

 

They invite me to the opening. Since I’m not usually invited to show openings in Venice by insiders—Jo and Francesco live in Venice and are part of the art scene—I hop on the early morning express train from Milan and go, Numero Cinq press tags clicking around my neck.

Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, Canal Grande facade

Four hours later, after a train ride, a vaporetto ride and a jaunt through town (I quit the ferry at the wrong stop), when I get to the Cavalli-Franchetti palace where Mr. Tagliapietra’s glass is exhibited, I point to my credentials. Nevertheless, the receptionist looks skeptical. I call Jo; Jo leads me into the luxurious rooms of the fifteenth-century palazzo that has been refurbished and renovated in the intervening centuries, stopping here and there, showing me the beautiful pieces she loves.

Near a sumptuous blue piece she stops. “There he is,” she says, pointing.

Read the rest of this entry

Feb 192011
 

Michelle & her brother in the Badlands

Here is Michelle Berry’s “Childhood,” the third in Numéro Cinq‘s new essay series (click on the “NC Childhood Series” tag to see the others), a gorgeous, lively, poignant tale of  a nomadic youth and the bond between a writer and her brother growing up. Very human, achingly real. For the truth is these essays are also about what they do not tell—growing older, looking back through the haze of memory and the struggles of adulthood. Most of you are already familiar with Michelle through her “What it’s like living here” essay earlier published here. I put an hilarious Michelle Berry story in Best Canadian Stories in the days when I still edited that annual anthology. She’s energetic, comic and prolific. A new novel This Book Will Not Save Your Life and a new story collection I Still Don’t Even Know You were both just published last year.

dg

Childhood

By Michelle Berry

 

Robin Hood

A Robin Hood record with a book attached to the sleeve. My brother remembers I coloured all over the record book, red and blue crayon. He still doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have no recollection of it.

“Why,” I ask him, “would I have done that?”

“You were always doing things like that,” he replies.

Like the time he got a Swiss Army knife for a present and, sneaking into a barn in Virginia, climbing the huge bales of hay and jumping down to the floor, my brother tossed me his Swiss Army knife for safe-keeping. I can still see the glint of the metal as it twisted through the air – slow motion – and disappeared in huge mounds of hay.

“I was six years old,” I say. “You should have known better than to throw it to me.”

“Still,” he says. “It was a great knife. We never found it.”

I thought my father rented a metal detector but he has no memory of this. I think we did apologize to the farmer for sneaking into his barn.

I worried for a while that a cow might have eaten the knife in a mouthful of hay, and then I would imagine someone cutting into a steak one day and finding it.

In England

Road Trips

The long road trip of my childhood.

Moving, traveling. There was a lot of both.

I was born in San Francisco, spent my first year in Claygate, England – first word: “hoss,” because they clip-clopped down the street carrying young girls going for a ride – lived in Virgina until I was seven, then Victoria, B.C.. We traveled across the country in a huge moving van, my mother driving the car behind us with our cat, Sassafras. I sang, “Leaving on a jet plane,” with my hand surfing wind out the van because my teenage cousin from New Jersey had taught it to me while she played the guitar. Every day in the van or car we had a new gift to keep us busy – colouring books, puzzles, snacks, mazes. We saw Prairie Dogs in the Badlands standing on their little back feet watching us watching them. Every motel we stayed in had a roadside pool. Once the gas in our U-Haul moving van was siphoned out of the van somewhere in Pennsylvania. Super Bowl this year my husband and father made silly jokes about the Steelers misspelling their name.

Continue reading »

Feb 182011
 

Here’s a lovely, southern “What it’s like living here” piece from poet and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate Cheryl Wilder (who graduated, got married and moved, all in the same year). Cheryl and dg both have an affection for tobacco, though they speak two different languages—what she calls “tobacco barns,” in the North Carolinian manner, dg calls “kilns” (dg grew up on a tobacco farm in Canada; Cheryl used to work for a wonderful North Carolina architect and visionary who published an amazing book of photos of, yes, tobacco barns).

dg

What It’s Like Living Here

by Cheryl Wilder in Raleigh, North Carolina

 

Then

A New Home

You relocated last summer and for the first time in seventeen years you feel at home.

Let’s clarify.

Your son was born thirteen years ago and you never felt more at home than when you went to see him after his birth. He was born at 4:56 a.m. and you’d been awake for twenty hours. After a nap you walked down the hospital hall with three bands cuffing your wrist, a nightgown brushing your calves, and a thin blue sweater around your shoulders. A nurse wheeled your son away from the other newborns and matched one of your bands with his. In the dimly lit nursery you caressed his arm and cheek, watched his chest rise and fall, felt as if you knew him well. The quiet hush of machines lulled you as the rest of the world dripped away. The nurse asked if he was your second child.

Now

No, your first.

“You’re a natural then,” she said.

The best compliment you’d ever received.

Read the rest of this post

Feb 172011
 

For your delectation here is an ever-so-slightly Kafkaesque fable of globalization and corporate America, dry, tongue-in-cheek, and ambiguously erotic (the eros of the business-meeting, the power-mongering and seduction of the job interview that isn’t). Michael Bryson is a Toronto short story writer, reviewer, critic, and blogger. He used to publish and edit The Danforth Review, an online magazine. Now he blogs at The Underground Book Club.  This story is from his 2010 collection How Many Girlfriends. The photo of Michael was taken by his wife, Kate O’Rourke, who writes about her cancer treatment at Auntie Cake’s Shop (some good news there—read the latest). See also Michael’s story “My Life in Television” earlier published on NC.

dg

Niagara

By Michael Bryson

Things are breaking up out there
High water everywhere

– Bob Dylan

Life is a carnival
Believe it or not

– The Band

The boutiques full of soapstone carvings, plastic Mountie hats and paperweights stamped with 3D images of Horseshoe Falls would soon fill with tourists. The cash registers would ring loud. Camera-toting seniors would crowd behind the steel railing and complain about the water-laden air. The arcades would swell with teenagers and buses would line up side-by-side in the parking lot above the Falls.

But on this day, the rushing swell of water fell into cakes of ice; tulips peeked warily through the flowerbeds. The parking lot wasn’t half-full.

In the near-empty lower level of the casino, Lloyd ordered ribs and rice in the Hard Rock Café. He ordered an Alabama Slammer, sipped the sweet drink and watched a bar-screen video of John Lennon in New York City, circa 1975. Lennon in his green army jacket with the red star pinned to the lapel. Working class hero. Lennon about to begin five years of house husbandry. About to retreat from revolution and rock and roll. It struck Lloyd that he was older now than Lennon was then. Everything Lennon was known for he’d already done, except die. Half-an-hour earlier, Lloyd had lost five dollars, his limit, in a slot machine. Five dollars at twenty-five cents a credit gave him twenty credits. He played one credit at a time and won back none.

Lloyd lived in a small condo downtown Toronto that he rented with his long-time partner, Sarah. He told friends that now and again they spoke of marriage and children, but they weren’t looking for more. Sarah worked as a loan officer for a trust company and spent her spare time making pottery. His life was work, home, paycheque, bills: a simple existence regulated by the impulses of global capitalism. Watching Lennon on the television in the bar, he thought that he had arrived at a stable place himself well beyond revolution and rock and roll. Beyond cosmic shifts, transformation.

From his hotel room window, Lloyd could see the Falls sparkling behind beams of coloured lights. Earlier in the day he’d stood with his hands on the iron railing only feet from the falling water. He’d looked into the storm below and felt small. Uncertain. The Falls, unchanged; its bowl of thunder and cloud of mist, ever-changing.

Continue reading »

Feb 162011
 

Ocean Beach Pier

 

And if California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will…

-Warren Zevon

 

No Bad Days

A popular bumper sticker here reads “No Bad Days.” These words, scribbled in white, tiki-style letters with an accompanying copse of swaying palm trees, seem to capture a pervasive San Diego ethos. Bathed in incessant sunshine and aquamarine skies, it’s easy to believe in such a concept: that there could, conceivably, be no bad days.

But No Bad Days demands a fulltime attitude adjustment to keep up with its endless-summer cheeriness. No Bad Days implies lithe bodies, salt-spray hair and a fountain-of-youth refusal to grow old. It demands that you smile at strangers, sport flip-flops year round,  and stuff board shorts and towels in the trunk, just in case. It constructs a dream landscape built on breakfast burritos, noontime margaritas and PCH kisses against a backdrop of spinnakers and sunsets. No Bad Days proffers paradise as if it was a tangible thing, a widely available commodity cast in bright ceramic tiles forever walling-off real life. A place where complexity reduces itself to surf reports and the nearest tamale stand.

But nothing is that simple, not even here. The false front of No Bad Days crumbles upon even the most elementary examination. Still, it’s an easy first-glance impression of life in San Diego.

Sunshine

The glorious contradiction of San Diego is the weather. Carbon-copy perfect days roll off with such an unerring consistency, such a dress-parade precision of seventy-two and sunny, that you soon begin to take them for granted. You stop noticing Christmas Eve rounds of golf, shorts in January, the last time you made your children wear jackets to school. You begin to believe that a daytime high of 61 degrees constitutes a cold front or that three hours of light drizzle equals a storm. You become so spoiled by the spectacle of beautiful weather that it stops being spectacular. I don’t know how this happens, but it does.

San Diego sunrise from my bedroom.

I grew up in central Massachusetts—a geeky, weather-obsessed kid fascinated by clouds. In summer I studied cumulonimbus giants towering above a northwestern horizon of sugar maples. I learned to read the clouds and the silver-backs of maple leaves, able (I told myself) to predict the likelihood of electrical storms as well as any meteorologist. I listened for the subtle sounds of winter storms, how icy stratus clouds acted like an echo chamber in the night sky, creating a certain pitched whirl from Beechcraft turboprops droning overhead, a haunting sound that seemed to forecast coming snow. Risking the wrath of the winter-weary reader, I hesitantly say that, at times, I wish for something other than relentless paradise. I long for dramatic weather here, for lightning, sleet, or a good old-fashioned Alberta Clipper to numb my finger tips.

The closest I get to that old feeling is when scorching Santa Ana winds howl down from the mountains. Sometimes, when the windows rattle at night, it feels a bit more like home.

There is an underside to our empyrean climate, a manic assuredness that sets in among the inhabitants, as if we San Diegans have forgotten how to endure nature, like we’ve crossed into some middle-zone paralysis of comfort and leisure. We think our weather, like our television set, operates on remote control and that we can simply pay extra for premium days. Perhaps we’ve lost some primal skill-set that folks in places like Worcester retain.

It’s also possible that the contradiction is only within me, some curmudgeonly itch that can’t be scratched by seventy-two and sunny. Perhaps my longing for occluded fronts and Nor’easters holds me back from partaking in No Bad Days—there’s always someone who wants to rain on the parade. But even after living here, off and on, for ten years, most days I feel like a polar bear swimming laps in a frosty pool at the San Diego Zoo, wondering when I’ll return to my real home, some place with gray skies, snow and rain, where a beautiful day still feels like a gift, like an unexpected moment of grace. It’s hard to notice grace when it constantly surrounds you.

I realize that this logic smacks of survivor’s guilt, the paroled New Englander unable to forget incessant winters, or hazy, hot and humid days, or the rich canvases of turbulent clouds. That young boy believed he was standing guard against rough weather like a sentry. In San Diego, the sentry sleeps.

But then I look out the window and see golden sunshine, off-shore breezes rippling through palm fronds, and I recognize the absurdity of my longing.

 

Point LomaPoint Loma

Sand

We live on Point Loma, a four-mile hilly peninsula that juts into the Pacific like a vestigial tail from the body of the contiguous United States. Four-hundred foot sandstone cliffs tumble toward the sea on one side and the bay on the other. Hiking trails along the aptly named Sunset Cliffs fill with gawkers waiting to spy the green flash or sea lions frolicking in the surf. On the bay side, warships glide past the Cabrillo Lighthouse at the end of the point, heading out for extended deployments, or coming back from the same.

The small community of Ocean Beach where we rent a house is an eclectic blend of families, retirees, surfers, homeless and medicinal marijuana devotees, all coexisting in a weird, welcoming balance. OB stands in stark contrast to the cookie-cutter San Diego suburbs where we used to live; it still feels like “Old California,” whatever the hell that means. I suppose it means that you can be a full-time surf bum here, a student, a homeless vet with a cardboard sign along the road, or a bio-tech engineer with a No Bad Days sticker on your S-class Mercedes. OB, like many beach towns, fights a losing battle with gentrification, as multi-million dollar homes crowd out surf-shacks.

Ocean Beach SunsetOcean Beach Sunset

Greasy spoons abound in OB’s small commercial district: Hodad’s sells thick, meaty burgers for less than ten bucks in an open air café; South Beach is legendary for its fish tacos. Newbreak Coffee is my weekend hideout, a beachfront shop where they don’t yet enforce the ‘no shoes, no shirts, no service’ policy in spite of a sign in the window. Try rolling into Starbucks with sandy feet.

Shorelines

It seems impossible not to obsess on real estate living in San Diego. You scrap for every over-priced square foot. Neighbors’ walls are so close that with a good stretch from your bedroom window, it’s possible to flush their toilets. You learn to live with less here, and to pay a lot more for it. What you give up in back yards and privacy you recoup in sunshine.

We rent a small house less than a mile from the beach. Neither of my kids enjoys the year-round chilly surf yet. My daughter Maggie prefers to gather lemons and oranges from trees in our backyard in order to sell fifty-cent cupfuls of freshly-squeezed on the sidewalk. Maureen, my wife, makes killer guacamole from our two avocado trees. Five year-old Tom cares for none of it; he wants only endless games of tackle football with me in the front yard. He will have no memory of diving into snow banks for Nerf touchdowns, but I have no memories of citrus trees, so perhaps it’s a wash.  Snow is exotic to my children; they shiver in a stiff breeze. They’ve only lived in California and Andalucía. Sunshine and waves seem their birthright. Maureen grew up in Michigan but can’t imagine living in the cold anymore. Apparently only I worry about the limitations of paradise.

Estuaries

The San Diego River forms the northern limit of OB and Pt. Loma. Homeless people shelter beneath the many bridges which cross the river into Mission Bay and Mission Beach. I imagine San Diego a good place to live if you’re homeless, but this logic falls into a No Bad Days way of thinking. It’s simplistic and naïve. The complexity of their problems eludes me, but I admit to being more likely to part with a buck or two on a rare rainy day. Ocean Beach has always been considered ‘homeless-friendly.’  This is a good thing. Not every community out here is.

The San Diego River, though reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, still cuts through the heart of the eighth largest city in America. It offers an urban sanctuary to thousands of birds and a colony of wild cats. Scores of the birds feed in a tidal estuary: osprey, pelicans, egrets, terns and the majestic Great Blue Heron nibble in sandy bottoms of tide-pushed sloughs. The river, so woefully damaged by a century’s worth of human diversion and manipulation, steadfastly refuses to die, and in a final, defiant act, it feeds and protects the marginalized: cats, fowl, and humans without homes.

Undertow

Before moving here, I’d heard that California was a car culture. I used to think this meant that Californians were more ‘into’ their cars than other places—bikinied blondes soaping up low riders, GTO’s and little deuce coups. What it means, in practical terms, is that we spend more time in our cars than we should. San Diego lacks effective rail systems, and the county sprawls. Our communities are scattered like distant organs and connected by a vascular system of freeways—massive ten lane arteries that wreak havoc on the greater body and soul when they clog. I’ve learned to stash books in my car, in case all progress stops. Three hour traffic jams are rare, but have happened here.

If our freeways are the vascular system, then San Diego’s skeleton is the military. Within a ten-mile radius of my house, there are seven separate commands. Navy-trained dolphins practice detecting explosives on the bottom of ships. SEALs train on the golden beaches of Coronado Island. Fighter jets rumble in the sky, launched from the airfields of Miramar and North Island. Nuclear powered aircraft carriers, massive cities unto themselves, moor quietly along the harbor when not deployed. Guided missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines and shallow draft amphibious assault ships sail in and out of the bay. Distant booms from howitzers at Camp Pendleton, some forty miles north of the city, sometimes rumble the earth.

Maureen has been on active duty for almost fourteen years, though so far she’s managed to avoid deploying to a combat zone. We are hoping to keep that streak going.

Marine Corps Recruit DepotMarine Corps Recruit Depot

The closest base to me is the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. There, young recruits endure thirteen weeks of dehumanizing boot-camp designed to press the men for the horror of war. (Female recruits train only in South Carolina.) At the end of their training, I see these newly minted PFC’s, red and gold chevrons blazing on their olive sleeves, proudly linked arm-in-arm with mothers and girlfriends. Their ramrod straight postures and starched uniforms betray no weaknesses as they enjoy a lull between the hell of training and the much greater hell of combat.

Sometimes, I see these Marines again, at the military hospital where my wife works as a physician. Many of these young men come home battered, dismembered, limbs gone, bodies scarred and burned. One of the great crimes of these recent wars was the decision to shield the public from the casualties. An unspeakable horror hits me each time I see these “Wounded Warriors,” often waiting in line with my daughter at the base McDonald’s, trying to explain to her why some young kid has high-tech prosthetic devices in place of legs, his hair still shaved high and tight.

Desperados Under the Eaves

I do wonder what life would be like without bad days? That bumper sticker ineloquently fumbles toward a utopia, but it also masks a sunshine-induced, willful ignorance. No Bad Days epitomizes a beach culture of paradise and boat drinks, but hides a switching-off of the heart, a refusal to empathize with people who might, in fact, be having bad days. It turns a dream into a blind-eyed arrogance and makes paradise seem possible, but only for the elect.

San Diego is a beautiful place. My wife and I want to raise our children here, but I don’t want them to be fooled into mistaking the dream for reality. What will ultimately make San Diego home for me? I don’t know for sure, but it will certainly include good days and bad ones.

It rained last night and has been showering this morning. San Diego is beautiful when it rains, as rare as those days are. The beaches clear out. You can find yourself almost entirely alone on Sunset Cliffs or down along the San Diego River. The city seems to slow a little when the sun takes a break, and I prefer it that way.

—Richard Farrell

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Rich Farrell and family

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

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Feb 152011
 

Here are three poems by three friends, Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe, & Mary Shartle, all three part of “the Greenfield Crowd,” a disparate and rowdy group of writers, painters, cellists and cross-country skiers loosely based in Greenfield, NY (though Marilyn McCabe actually lives in Saratoga Springs). Laura Von Rosk and Naton Leslie, who have both appeared on these pages, are part of the group. These three women in particular have combined their talents since 1998 and have produced multiple chapbooks of poetry together, including Notes from the Fire Tower: Three Poets in the  Adirondacks and Glacial Erratica: Three Poets in the Adirondacks, Part Two which won the Adirondack Center for Writing best poetry book award two years in a row. These poems come from their new collection Winterberry, Pine (30 Acre Woods Publications, 2010).

Marilyn McCabe is already familiar to NC readers. We published her Rilke translations earlier on these pages. She has published work in, among others, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Hunger Mountain. Elaine Handley has published in, among others, Dos Passos Review and Connecticut River Review. And Mary Shartle has appeared in Blueline and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review.

dg

 

A Poem by Elaine Handley


GroundHog Day



Demeter sits at the kitchen window
chain smoking, staring at empty maple and birch.
She imagines the smoke as rage leaving her body.

Outside all that moves are chickadees at the feeder,
only color, winterberries like splatters of fresh blood
in the snarl of grapevines by the shed.

Her husband’s abandoned chamois shirt—frayed
at the cuffs, a hole in one elbow—
provides an odd, familiar comfort these days
so much like the last, the next,
full of his cold emptiness.

It’s been months since Persephone ran off,
stolen by a charming woodchuck, full of pipe
dreams, and she suspects, cruel ways.
“My queen” he called her daughter.
No email, no call, not even a text.  The house
so quiet she can hear the little murmurs
of the sleeping cat.

Some like it hot, she tells herself, thinking
of her daughter, and then the cat,
who inexplicably sleeps under the sizzling woodstove.

On the Today Show that morning, Punxsutawney Phil
was paraded out, fussed over. “What an ass!”
she’d said out loud.  What groundhog comes out
of hibernation early?  Who would willingly give up
the sweet coma of sleep–and for what?
Food hard to find, too much snow, constant cold,
the loneliness.

She pours a bourbon, neat.  It’s her third this morning.
She stubs out the cigarette butt, lights another.
The scald in her throat feels right.
A little blaze flares up in her chest.
For a moment, it almost feels like love.


—Elaine Handley




Continue reading »

Feb 142011
 

Connie Gault

Here’s an exuberant, little jewel of a love story (for V-Day) by Connie Gault, a friend, not of dg’s youth, but of his early teaching days when he used to migrate from one summer writing program to another across  Canada. For a few lucky summers he taught at the Saskatchewan School of the Arts at an old tuberculosis hospital called Fort San in a dramatic geological trench cut through the Prairie called the Qu’Appelle Valley, which is where he met Connie Gault (long winded sentence). She is a playwright and the author of three books of fiction, including, most recently, Euphoria, which came out in 2009. Chief among this story’s charms are the lightness and quirkiness of its language, its humour, its bold shifts of story line and setting, and its humane generosity of spirit. This is a brand new story, never published elsewhere. DG is very pleased to have it here.

dg

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Long ago, so long ago I can only picture myself as the girl I was in early photographs, we lived on rue Rouge. And I wore a blue scarf. It was a square of chiffon, a true sky blue, and Mrs. Waring said to me: You look well in blue, I would never have thought so without the evidence of my eyes. Anyone else I knew would have said I looked good, not well, or more likely would have said nothing at all. I loved the phrase, ‘the evidence of my eyes.’ For weeks I strolled the length of rue Rouge and the streets thereabouts, murmuring to myself: the evidence of my eyes. I was half in love with Mrs. Waring, who wore her ample body blithely, proud of all that belonged to her. Silently I berated my mother for being nothing like Mrs. Waring, for being slender and caring about fashion.

How does it happen that a person, after years of simply living with someone and perhaps taking that partner for granted, falls in love again? Becomes a lover again of the same person? I’d done it many times in a long marriage and it was always a mystery to me. In the plane that brought us home from Paris, I thought of Mrs. Waring and rue Rouge. I was cramped into economy class, sitting between two strangers. One of them was my husband. I was remembering that he had taken my hand as we’d set out to cross a busy street at the Place de la Concorde. He’d guided me through the heavy traffic as it streaked past us, every vehicle shifting lanes and honking. What I remembered was the unexpected warmth of his hand, my trust in his competence to steer us, and my body’s response. Sitting beside me on the flight home, he sighed, his fingers went to his forehead, he plucked at his eyebrow, a nervous habit, and I thought: The world will step on him if it sees that weakness. He half-turned and caught my eye and I flushed, full of paradox. I thought: Paris has done this, and something new in him. There was no answer in his eyes.

In the rue Rouge, there was so much. A church, for one thing, where I sang in the choir. It’s true the choir leader asked me to sing quietly; it’s true I was habitually seriously off-key. But her impartial husband, the crabapple-cheeked minister, made up for her. He thought all singing beautiful.

The church looked medieval, what I called medieval. It had been erected in 1929, of brick that took on the colour of the street’s name in our infrequent rains but otherwise was too pale to deserve the appellation. Still, it possessed a richness no other edifice in the city could match: an octagonal tower. Tower is perhaps an overstatement. Turret might more accurately describe the structure, as it appeared more decorative than functional. I was never inside it. The minister’s office was on the ground floor below it. I do not know who was allowed above, who had the privilege of looking out through the turret’s narrow windows onto the hedges and fences and into the yards and gardens of the houses along rue Rouge.

With such a name to it, we should have lived on a lively street, and it was rumoured that a prostitute inhabited the corner house at the end of the block, but I was never aware of much activity in the vicinity. Often, walking along the sidewalk, I could hear the leaves fall. I almost think it was always autumn on rue Rouge. When I clattered through the dry brown leathery elm leaves, kicking up their autumnal smell in the day’s last and brightest light, I brought housewives stepping up to their living room windows to witness my passing. One lamp was shining in each house, back in the corner of the room, imparting a glow to each woman standing in her picture window. Each alone, in her turn, observed my progress along rue Rouge, in my blue chiffon scarf, tied in a manner to be described only as jaunty, a blue chiffon mist over my bouffant hair, known in those days as a hairdo. I have a photograph of myself taken in that scarf, in that hairdo. Somehow, it seems that I spilled hair dye on the photograph. Or it might be something else. Coca Cola. I spilled something on the photograph, which now I think of as hair dye, maybe because, shortly after that picture was taken, I dyed my brown hair red.

Even when I was young, I cast a critical eye on my own fevers, and a cold side-self sneered at my red hair, at my desire for it. At my small giving in, my self-pleasure. As soon as it was done, I saw that I was – following my mother’s example – trying to improve myself.

Although I said there was so much, I can’t think of another thing on rue Rouge besides the church and the leaves that were always falling or about to fall and the housewives in the picture windows. And once, two blocks from our house, on a day when puddles reflected a sodden sky and the cotoneaster hedges flamed and tattered snow edged the sidewalks, a boy reached out and pinched my breast and then walked past as if he hadn’t. Terrible things happened to him, terrible repercussions, because a week later he pinched the breast of a lawyer’s daughter and she told her father. I could not have discussed the incident with either my father or my pretty, fashionable mother. It was necessary to protect them from the ambiguities of the situation, from the knowledge of an event that they would have viewed as confusing. I told no one, took no part in the gossip or the outrage, never sure I should not feel flattered. Chosen. Perhaps it was my red hair that had made me as good a victim as a lawyer’s daughter.

It’s easy now to see why I was half in love with Mrs. Waring. Unlike my parents and certainly unlike me, she knew what she thought about things. Nothing had ever happened that didn’t have reasons clear to her. I related her assuredness to her colouring, her Danish blondness, her bland blue eyes that took what they saw for evidence.

What did we do in Paris? Just strolled through the streets. Oddly, we seemed to be blocked whenever we tried to do any more. The two art galleries we wanted to visit were closed. The entire Georges Pompidou Centre was being renovated. A strike had shut down the Musee d’Orsay. Yes, we walked about, admiring the luminous rosy sky and not mentioning that it might be caused by pollution. We walked along the Seine, stopped on bridges, observed young people kissing. And didn’t speak of them. We visited bistros we’d visited before. I remember almost nothing of our stay. A week in Paris without memories. One night, in the square outside Notre Dame, I said: “I love you,” and he said: “Look at your shoes.” I was wearing runners with night-light strips, or day-glo strips, whatever they call them, and my feet looked like traffic in the rain.

Afterwards I asked him: “Why were we there, in Paris?”

He said, “I think it was a test.”

“But I didn’t know it was a test,” I said.

He said, “Maybe I wanted you to fail.” Then he said: “Us. I’m sorry, I mean maybe I wanted us to fail.”

This conversation took place at home, in the safety of our home, a few minutes after I had not thrown the moveable furniture through the living room window. Having denied myself that satisfaction. Or having decided it was too wild a gesture for one who’d schooled herself in the expected. I so wanted to heave whatever my eyes fell on, lamps and books and chairs and tables, anything I thought I could lift. Pitch it at the window. Shatter the glass. Let the neighbours see our innards on the lawn. It was all I could think of that would lift the grief that sat like all that furniture on my heart. Instead I cried and yelled silly things. One I remember was: “Why couldn’t you have left me years ago when I was still young?”

I don’t remember the name of the boy who pinched my breast. I knew it then, he went to my school. I can still see his stricken face in the days before he disappeared. No one knew where he went, we were all relieved at his leaving. It was embarrassing to witness his devastation. Didn’t he know what he did was a crime? Didn’t he know that at that tender age pity crushed us?

Of course I will be all right. I don’t want pity and there’s no need to find a crime to fit my punishment. We are, each of us, capable of living on our own. If we only look for it, we can see every one of us has everything we need. As we move forward, the past sustains us.

I do not believe I will always have Paris so I’ve given a French name to the street I’ve been remembering. I don’t think, by renaming the street, I’ve made it or my story less real. On the contrary, for me, the place and the memory are enhanced. Something of that rosy glow so often seen in the Parisian sky, that might or might not be caused by pollution, has brightened my old neighbourhood. And I must admit, this voice in which I’m telling you this story, this is an invented voice. It’s a little accented, a bit French – in my head – I don’t know how it sounds to you. It’s a little like one of those melancholy French songs you might hum if you suddenly found yourself in a pretty slip, staring out a window, if you could suddenly find yourself not one of those small French girls, naïve and lovely in the way their every gesture demonstrates trust, but large-limbed and heavy-lidded, elegant and astute. A Simone Signoret. Anyone who saw you would immediately fall half in love. You would look well in that slip.

—Connie Gault

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Connie Gault is the author of the novel, Euphoria (Coteau Books, 2009), as well as two story collections and numerous plays for stage and radio. Euphoria was awarded the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction and was short-listed for the High Plains Fiction award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book of Canada and the Caribbean.  She is a former fiction editor of grain magazine. Currently, she is on the faculty of the Wired Writing program at the Banff Centre for the Arts.  She lives in Regina.

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Feb 142011
 

I Have a Dream

A Letter from Italy,

by Natalia Sarkissian

 

On Sunday, February 13th, thousands of women and men in 200 piazze across Italy demonstrated against Berlusconi and his excesses.  Late night parties with underage escorts (“Rubygate”).  Questionable political appointments. Etc.

You may have heard.

Another Egypt? Perhaps not quite yet. Berlusconi still has support (although he barely survived two no-confidence votes last December).

We’re All Vertical

In Rome, 500,000 people (according to organizers) attended Sunday’s demonstration in the Piazza del Popolo. Giulia Bongiorno, a member of the Future and Liberty party, was applauded when she said to the crowd, “I’m not here to criticize porno parties in and of themselves, I’m here to criticize them when they’re used by the ruling class to make choices (referring to some political appointees).
Read the rest of this entry

Feb 112011
 




























Here’s a splendid, gritty Texas “Childhood” essay from Brad Green in Denton. You all know what Denton, TX, is like because Brad also contributed a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” essay in December. Brad Green is a prolific author and editor, a uniquely rich, harsh, dry and despairing voice on NC, and he’s about to be a father again as dg types these words.

dg

Childhood

By Brad Green

 

Sloth and Envy

When I was twelve, I had the world’s meanest boil on my ass. Picture the swollen eye of a pissed-off bull, Aztec red and glaring. I’d run my palm with wonder over the furuncle’s tender heat and trace the rising, tight flesh to a pale tip that when brushed made my arms stiffen and toes clench. The day that boil popped was one of the worst of my life.

Hours were spent face down on my bed while the attic fan in our small elbow of a house droned, culling the scent of honeysuckle through my bedroom window. Those bushes were my favorite place in the world at that time. They’d inched up through the clay-cobbled dirt around our trailer in Argyle, Texas, and as they unfurled in the sun, I retreated to their shadow. That crosswork thatch of limbs laid sun-dappled shade under my window and I’d sit on the cool, damp earth, full of breath and light.

Butterflies flooded the air around the vines. The honeysuckle attracted clouds of them, each a fluttering thumbsmear of color. Flying in and around the bushes, the butterflies landed on my arms, tickled paths across my scalp. There was an immediacy to that experience that lifted one beyond the gravity of the skin.

But of course, my hidebound father tolerated none of that woolgathering. One day he thumped his Bible down on my bedside table, opened to Job, his mophandle finger stabbing at the verse. “Unlike him, I believe you done something wrong,” he said. Then he flicked his finger against the back of my thigh near the boil and I bucked on the bed. “You think about what sins brought this upon you.”

Continue reading »

Feb 102011
 


Here is a thoughtful and lucid essay on digital publishing and the decline of the book (what IanColford calls “a near perfect” piece of technology). Ian is a Canadian short story writer who happens to be a librarian at Dalhousie University next door to the University of King’s College in Halifax where my son Jacob goes to school. Ian is the author of a short story collection, Evidence, published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed, Raddall Atlantic Fiction, and ReLit awards. A month ago NC published his short story “Laurianne’s Choice.”

The Author and the eBook

By Ian Colford

We know that eBooks pose huge challenges for publishers, booksellers, librarians, readers. Electronic books render fundamental concepts obsolete. Try to imagine, for instance, how phrases such as “print run” and “out of print” could be applied to eBooks. How do you calculate the number of copies sold of an eBook? eBooks will never hit the used book market…or will they? Can an eBook be remaindered? And, if a library has purchased the first edition of a text in eBook format, what happens to that edition when the second edition comes along? In some fields of study, it can be unhelpful to keep old information around when new information has been produced that supersedes or discredits it. How do you “deselect” an eBook?

It’s probably fair to say that eBooks—as an inevitable byproduct of the internet—have revolutionized pedagogy: that is, the way information is accessed, absorbed, and processed into knowledge. Before digitization, a book had to be read cover to cover in order for the reader to be certain that he or she wasn’t missing something. But with eBooks key phrases and concepts can be searched and specific pages targeted for reading. The rest of the book can be safely ignored. Some vendors have even begun breaking books down into component parts and marketing individual chapters. The root concept of bookness is changing before our eyes. With all these advances in technology, is something being gained or lost? Readers of eBooks, who are saving time by avoiding irrelevant passages, are also less apt to serendipitously happen across surprising or unexpected bits of illumination lurking in unlikely places. Searchable eBooks take chance out of the equation. There is no reason to browse. Readers are not going to visit pages that don’t match their search criteria because they know beyond any doubt that those pages will not yield the information they’re looking for.

Much has been written about the eBook and its impact on students and casual readers, on academic and public library collections. But what of the author? Other than providing raw text that the publisher edits, formats, and then markets, does the author have any role to play once his or her eBook has been published?

With regard to this issue I enjoy a dual perspective, being both a librarian and an author. My book of short fiction was published in 2008. I’ll admit that it is inexpressibly satisfying to watch someone walk away carrying a signed copy of your book, presumably with the intention of either giving it as a gift or sitting down with it in a comfortable chair and delving into its pages.

This brings us—predictably enough—to the book as tangible object. My ideas on this topic are neither new nor particularly unique, but I will put them down here as a preface to what I really want to say.

Authors and their books have been inextricably linked for centuries, a pairing—much like mother and child—that’s as unavoidable as it is unconditional. Authors write books, watch them go through the editorial process (not without trepidation), and breathe a sigh of relief when they finally make it into the hands of readers, hopefully intact. The words, the story, the ideas contained between the covers of a book reflect directly back upon the author—they are the tools the author uses to express him- or herself and to show us something of what it means to be human, in precisely the same way that an artist uses paint and a dancer uses movement. Stories and ideas issue from the author and reveal aspects of the author as a human being; and yet, strangely enough, by giving expression to these stories and ideas and sending them out there for others to read and critique, the author also cuts himself off from them.

This is because the book, once it is sprung upon the world, assumes an independent existence that has nothing do to with the author. In ways that are simultaneously reassuring and frightening, a book takes on a life of its own and moves beyond the author’s sphere of influence. Once the book is in the hands of a reader, it belongs to the reader, not the author. The reader is a free agent who can make whatever he or she wishes of the words and ideas found within its pages. There is no need for the reader to know or care anything about the author in order to gain insight or enjoyment from, or be puzzled, confused, or irritated by, an author’s work. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that with regard to the act of reading, the author is a needless and irrelevant distraction.

Continue reading »

Feb 092011
 

Karen Mulhallen

Here are three achingly poignant yet transgressive poems frommy old friend Karen Mulhallen, yes, dear friend, extraordinary woman-of-letters, poet, Blake scholar, and publisher and editor of the amazing Toronto-based literary magazine Descant (this summer’s issue marks the magazine’s 40th anniversary). Karen has published close to a dozen books of poems, the latest, her selected poems entitled Acquainted With Absence, published in 2009, was edited and introduced by dg (see poems from that book published earlier on NC). These new poems are from Karen’s forthcoming collection, The Pillow Books (forthcoming 2011 with Black Moss Press).

dg

February/Raise High The Red Lantern

He is coming. Raise it high
My red lantern burns in the bright light of day
disappearing in the glare of the sun.

in the evening the lantern of the Other Wife
bursts through the darkness.
Her light more brilliant than any other lantern.

I am the Daylight Wife.
Take my light.

Continue reading »

Feb 052011
 

 

Whirlpool I (Above and Below)

A whirlpool dyad: one we see from above, the other we view from the side.

In the same way, I present to you two views of the artist’s mind: one as seen “from above” in an artist’s statement, and second, from the side—a visual mind-map of influences on this photo-series (Steven created this map using node software).

Whirlpools

“Like our own bodies, whirlpools take the molecules of the material world and organize them into temporary dynamic systems. For me, these abstract images of whirlpools on the Shenandoah River, North Fork serve as metaphors for the energy, beauty and brevity of life.”—Steven David Johnson

Continue reading »

Feb 052011
 

 

Here’s a story from Jess Row’s imminent story collection Nobody Ever Gets Lost, a book so imminent, so brand new, that it’s due to be released next week. The book launch will be at McNally Jackson bookstore, 52 Prince St, NYC, on Wednesday, February 16th at 7pm. If you get a cab, you can still make it. Jess is a colleague and friend, a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a comrade-in-arms in the twice-yearly residency carnival, a prodigious intellect, and a generous teacher.

dg

 

Lives of the Saints

By Jess Row

 

It’s because you’re a woman that you don’t want me to die, Tayari says.

On their way home, the 6 train sidling its slow way through the South Bronx, she has her head in his lap, her long gangly legs splayed out over three seats, fingers hooked into his dreadlocks. She likes to feel them brushing her face: to take the cowrie shells between her teeth and threaten to crack them like sunflower seeds. By habit or dramatic instinct he speaks without looking at her, staring down his smoky reflection in the opposite window as it flickers in and out of view, as if hypnotized by the repetition: so many intermittent identical versions of himself.

Fuck you, she says.

No, I’m serious. There’s a whole theory that explains it. Women and men perfectly complement each other. Numerologically. It’s the ideal balance of energies. The difference between prime numbers and all the other numbers.

She nestles her cheek against his sweatshirt and feels the packages crackling underneath. I’m dating the Scarecrow, she thinks: all rustle, no heart. Or was it the Tin Man with the heart, and the Scarecrow with the brain? She could never keep them separate, those two inanimates.

Listen, she says, you got the kind for heavy flow, right?

Baby. It’s not shopping, it’s stealing.

Last time you were pissed when I got regular M&M’s instead of peanut butter.

He gives her a look, as if to say, don’t tell me what matters.

Continue reading »

Feb 042011
 

It’s a great pleasure to present here four poems from William Olsen’s new collection, his fifth book of poems, Sand Theory, forthcoming in April with Northwestern University Press/Triquarterly.  Bill is a colleague and and a friend from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program where we both teach, yes, and where we meet up roughly twice a year in an atmosphere of intense literary camaraderie that somehow combines the ethos of a Left Bank cafe and a New York subway station at rush hour. For years we have listened to each other read in the College Hall Chapel or Noble Lounge, watched the new books come out, observed each other working with students — Vermont College constructs relationships that are like lightning bolts, distant flashes of brilliance, brief, poignant, and indelible, which is also how I think of Bill Olsen’s poems.

dg

I can tell you, simply, that the Leelenau Peninsula is a place I go to not only to write but to write about. I used the old fashioned “en plein air” method at first with many of these: you go outside, you write down what you see in a notebook, and you go home and try to put down the right words for what blew you away out of your own confined life.   I think in these poems I was trying just for a few looks at the natural world, how the mind always has and still can find inclusive models for itself in its surroundings.  Which in this case are striking “original”– nothing like the Michigan Dunes, their relative youth (3000 yrs), the youth of the glacial lakes (some 800 years old).  Or how their stability is destabilized and re-stabilized  every season.   I think that nature poems, or eco-poetics, are often politically driven, and that is great. I just wanted in these to preserve what it is like to look at places and things while they’re still around. — William Olsen

 

Four Poems from Sand Theory

By William Olsen




.

You


The hills the lakes the shorelines only
three thousand years old. Some faces
have this same settled freshness every time.
Few voices do. I have been trying to walk
out of my body all my life. The flesh
doesn’t belong to itself. Not a breath
we can understand so why this trust?
Understanding itself is a shape-shifter.
Even if I must accept your mortality,
I stay in love like nowhere else I stay.
.

.

Dune Grass


It is what sand would look like if it could just
escape itself and grasp the diffuse and clump around
pilings like stumps of teeth ground by tide,
risen to whatever inhuman trial it is

to have threadbare wind for a coat and a body
that has no eyes and no face to love,
bent in scarcely rooted supplication.
When have we not seen it praying

in its own loose unison of piety,
in its strength to waver and stay put and outreturn
the hulking one-time-only beachfront condos—
I’ll worship something that would return to all this.

Repeatedly this need to be somewhere real again
comes upon land with features that never settle,
this treasure so openly fragile it’s beginning
to dawn on me that we should all be singing—

no place like this anywhere in the world,
even the ground one stands on taken up,
what it means to escape damnation and holiness
and be forever risen into being used

right here at my glowing naked toes.
We walk right over all this we love the sight of
that in it we can love our transience,
our hills, their lakes no older than our species,

as it turns out earth never belonged to itself,
till even despondency seems hopeful evasion.
So why this trust, this sudden drop from bluff
to lake where sky resides and spars of buried trees

are disinterred from dunes, the beached hulls
of ghost barns are open houses, bare rafters
almost fallen in on their blessed ghost cows?
Why do ears settle on lone islets of seething birches,

tremblings near an even vaster trembling?
For however much I meant to find a human likeness
down on its knees, its hands churched together,
there’s more room than ever for the booming distances

and sand enough for wind to blow beyond
all of us who abandoned, betrayed, trampled repeatedly
haywire paths, shown nothing new, no, this,
right here where there is no dogma or heresy,

shimmering just a little above the earth,
in its strength to waver and yet stay put
lifted by sun and rain into being used,
hanging on and letting us come and go.

.

.

Lake Leelanau Goes Still One Day in Fall


The ear wants what it hears to rain in language,
The rain wants images to puddle, flow,
Canoe, thrust paddles through lacustrine looking glass,

Shudder, touched, smoothed beyond sigh
Once flow wins back clarity, that afterlife
That wears its while with absolute unconcern,

Ripples ironed out by transparent cease,
The oldest memoir of language, fluidity
Liquefying sadness, its concentric rings,

The lovely roundness of those spoken vowels,
The vegetal phonemes alive in meadows,
In rooted reveries that obliterate ideals,

Here where fishes fly and clouds congress
With pebble-cobbled bottom worlds
Stocking sky with crappies, trout, and bass,

Undulations leveling to bluest pupil,
Lappings lulled to inaudible lullaby,
Glide of last spring’s goslings grown to geese,

Windexed cessation of windrow waves,
Glacial sorrows melted, the bewilderments,
Even the slightest, even the most garrulous

Frog’s gargoyle consonants gobbled up,
Gutter-mouthed gutturals, gusts and gales
Gone to glaze, an aimless, amiable gaze,

The furies flatlined to catoptromancy,
Calm and compromise materialized,
Leavetaking leaves loosened from leasehold

Mirrored, and carried by their own reflections.

.

.

Good Night


I left an office lamp alive for ghosts,
let go any hope
so easily

and tried to sleep.
But sleep left me on
like a night-light.

Some passing car
would be seen on its way,
some lasting meteor

anyone can see
forever fall,
some moon like an unsent letter,

some long-distance glance
stare from the bottom of the deepest
fare-thee-well.

Dear self, please say the sun.
The sun sets.
Say the moon,

the moon rises.
All these years
don’t bring it an inch closer,

no telephone back to childhood either.
All America,
good night,

sleep tight,
but not yet.
A few stars have no distance,

their arrangement is lenient,
a moon sawn in half,
that half hanging on,

a cleaver over every waker and sleeper,
what on earth can I do,
waves lapping out lake

good and all alone,
where are they going,
what have I done?

Through the trees
their audible transparence,
each wave

always the first and
ever the last,
a few boat lights rocking,

wide awake is motion,
all’s to come and the ordinary wait
is a vast devotion but first,

Sleep, bless
any dreams
with merciful instruction.



— William Olsen


A Note on the Author: William Olsen is Professor of Creative Writing at Western Michigan University and a member of the poetry faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Avenue of Vanishing, Trouble Lights, and Vision of a Storm Cloud, all published by Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books.

These poems were all published previously: “You” in Poetry Northwest, “Lake Leelanau Goes Still One Day in Fall” in Gettysburg Review, “Dune Grass” in Dunes Review, and “Goodbye” in Little Review.



Praise for Sand Theory

“With each book, William Olsen’s work centers more intensely upon ordinary experience.  And with each book Olsen’s work becomes at once more empathetic and more visionary.  The real world in Sand Theory is not a world of mere appearances.  It is real.  Temporality makes it so, as does mortality.  And yet Olsen maintains a permeable boundary beyond which is what?  The eternal?  The spiritual?  Whatever name one chooses, its illuminations shines through these poems.”—Stuart Dybek

“Sand Theory is a book of poems that sound as if they belong to the life after this (and I am reminded of Rilke’s musing that one should be given a day and a room, after death, in which to write) and as such  the book does not belong to a singular voice (astonishing as it is) but to the very idea of voice, what it means, and meant, and  why this trust; so  when this book gives good advice about hanging on, or ‘merciful instructions’ for letting go, know it is a  book that is talking you back to life, as it leaves you breathless.” —Mary Ruefle

“To walk into Bill Olsen’s poems is to enter a mind so weirdly curious, you can’t be released to sadness, not yet: it’s just too surprising.  But this book–half microscope, half telescope–shadows grief, our shared and ordinary life where an old neighbor obsessively gathers twigs to wish back the tree, where the moon is regularly ‘sawn in half,’ where sprinklers give off ‘little wet speeches.’  What else?  It’s brilliantly instead and odd.” —Marianne Boruch



See also  In Praise of Darkness, an Exchange with David Wojahn,




(Post design by Mahtem Shiferraw)


Feb 032011
 

haijo-sailingHaijo Westra sailing on the Strait of Juan de Fuca

 Adam-Westra1Adam Westra

Here is an amazingly perceptive essay about dg’s novel Elle, written by a University of Calgary classics professor, Haijo Westra, and his son, Adam, who is currently living in Berlin while pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the Université de Montreal (NC readers will remember Adam’s earlier contribution to the magazine here). Haijo sent dg an earlier version of this essay cold three or four years ago, just to try it out on the author. Subsequently it was published in French (“Elle de Douglas Glover: Une satire ménippéene,” by Haijo Westra and Adam Westra, Littoral, Numéro 5, autumne 2010). What is really impressive, if not to say brilliant, about this essay is the intuition that Elle follows the ancient model of the Menippean satire, which, in fact, it does—hard to credit, yes, in this day and age, but dg was thinking of Menippean satire, mixed form, and so on when he wrote the novel. No one has ever noticed this before (while dg’s apparent post-modernism is often remarked upon). Actually, these formal ideas lurk behind much of his fiction after the first two novels. It took a classics professor and a Kant philosopher to notice this (thus the currents of literary criticism can always do with a bit of refreshment from the ancient past). It’s a great pleasure to give the English version of this essay a home at Numéro Cinq.

Haijo Westra teaches Latin and Greek at the University of Calgary. Adam Westra is now working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy in Montreal and Berlin on the role of analogy in philosophical thinking, with a particular emphasis on Kant. (Coincidentally, or not, dg wrote a chapter on Kant’s use of analogy in his thesis at the University of Edinburgh.)

dg

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The tradition

The report of a French woman, identified as Marguerite de la Roque, abandoned on an uninhabited island of the Harrington Harbour Archipelago in 1542, has only the slightest basis in fact.[1] Yet the story of how she was caught in flagrante delicto with her lover and how she was subsequently marooned by her Calvinist uncle, Sieur de Roberval, the leader of the first expedition to bring permanent settlers to Canada, and how she (barely) survived for three summers and two winters, spoke to the European imagination from the sixteenth century on. It is a story of passion, involving transgression of social boundaries, punishment, expulsion, and exile. It is a story of colonization, turning into a trial of survival and a threatening loss of identity through colonization in reverse by a dystopia of screeching birds and polar bears. It is also a story of gender about a young woman both victim and hero, and of gender role inversion, as she outlives her lover and takes over the traditional role of the (male) hunter. In Douglas Glover’s prize-winning novel Elle, translated under the title Le pas de l’ourse, the situation of the protagonist in between Europe and Canada becomes the locus for the exploration of the contemporary crisis of identity.

Arthur Stabler has surveyed the various literary treatments of the legend of Marguerite in literature from the sixteenth to the twentiethcenturies.[2] Since Glover has woven many of the motifs of earlier versions into his novel and uses the tradition to link his nameless main character Elle intertextually with Marguerite as well as to redefine her in opposition to her legend, I will review them briefly with an eye to the role of the female protagonist in other genres, before analysing the novel Elle as a Menippean satire and positing the suitability of this Centaur-like genre of inversion for Glover’s novel and the appropriateness of the North Shore as a site for examining the contemporary crisis of identity.

The first version of the story is by Queen Marguerite de Navarre in her Heptameron (1558), a woman’s answer to Boccaccio’s Decameron.[3] In Stabler’s summary, the Queen of Navarre, a Protestant sympathizer and an early feminist, has the abandoned woman survive through God’s mercy as well as her greater ability to survive the rigors of an uncouth diet. She even takes over and uses her dead husband’s gun (arquebus) to defend his grave against the wild animals, so his body will not become carrion meat. At the same time, in spirit, she lives an angelic life of prayer and meditation while reading the New Testament, all of which makes a great impression on her rescuers and on the ladies of La Rochelle, who send their daughters to her upon her return to France to teach them to read and write, in which honourable profession Marguerite spends the rest of her life. The Queen of Navarre turns the story into an exemplary tale of fidelity, Protestant devotion, and hardiness, as well as a triumph of a literate identity over the dispiriting nature of the wilds, turning the main character into a self-employed professional woman who was clearly strengthened by her experiences and acquired an identity and fame along with a profession. (In Elle she conducts a letter-writing business for illiterate merchants: 196). This first elaboration is an exemplary tale in which Marguerite is not a wanton delivering herself to sexual passion, but instead a faithful married wife, who saves her craftsman-husband’s life by a plea to have his death sentence commuted to being marooned, voluntarily joining him in his exile. This treatment of the story inscribes itself in the narrative tradition of examples of virtuous women, the ancient, medieval, and early modern answer to the denigration of womanhood.[4] As such, it is quite different qua genre and social milieu and outcome from subsequent elaborations of the story.  Glover actually has Elle comment on this version in a self-conscious protest against her own legend: “I became the parable of the pious wife … who shoots bears with an arquebus”.[5]

In 1570/72, a second version appeared, written by Nicholas de Belleforest in the form of an histoire tragique[6], an extremely popular genre at the time, with its own requirements for character and action. Marguerite is cast as a beautiful, spirited, and passionate young noblewoman, curious to see foreign lands, who falls in love during the journey with a young gentleman, lusty and hale, who wins her affection by writing verses and playing the lute (Elle observes that Canada is a place inimical to literature and books: 42-43). After appropriate resistance and agonized reflection the young lady finally consents to an informal wedding ceremony and is persuaded by her lover that they are man and wife in the eyes of God. De Roberval finds out and tricks both of them by marooning them on the “Isle of Spirits” off the East Coast, thickly wooded and inhabited only by wild beasts. Marguerite’s tears and laments fail to sway her cruel relative’s heart and she is left lamenting her loss not unlike Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, the model of the  woman abandoned by her lover in classical literature, most famously in the Roman poet Catullus, poem  64. Glover actually uses a different story from classical antiquity, namely that of Iphigenia (32-33) sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, for the greater ‘good’ of the expedition to retrieve Helen from Troy, to point to the epic theme of revenge: De Roberval, like Agamemnon, “must have known that this would come back to haunt him” (33; 198-201). In Belleforest’s version, the lovers’ initial stay on the island is idyllic but the child that is born, as well as her lover, die within a year. She is reduced to inhuman appearance and worries about being eaten by wild animals when she expires, a recurring motif of atavistic horror in the tradition. Finally rescued after two years, she is told by her rescuers that her cruel relative has perished.

The differences with the Queen of Navarre’s version set the tone for subsequent treatments. From this point on, Marguerite is a noblewoman, a requirement of the genre of the histoire tragique, as is the courtship, seduction, and transgressive sexuality, and the generally operatic character of the tale. Yet Marguerite is not a mere victim. She is characterized by Belleforest as unusually brave, begging her relative to take her on the expedition. Her passionate nature makes her yield to her lover’s seduction, yet in the end she is more vigorous than him. (It is Elle who pursues her tennis-playing lover Richard in France: 20). After his death, hunting is her only pleasure; hunting, then, is related to aristocratic leisure as well as survival. The motif of Marguerite killing bears with a large gun in this version became very influential. The image of the armed female hunter inscribes itself in the traditional topos of the upside-down world, combining an exotic setting with a temporary inversion of European norms, rules, and gender roles. Canada has this effect on European culture and cosmology (58, 67).

The third version, by André Thevet, dates from 1575, expanded in 1586.[7] Thevet was a cosmographer and reports the story as fact, explicitly naming Marguerite for the first time and claiming as his sources both Marguerite and her uncle, the Sieur de Roberval. In Thevet the love interest takes on an even more trangressive character with the introduction of a Norman maid, Damienne, a cunning bawd who holds watch while the lovers disport themselves onboard ship, turning Belleforest’s genteel operatic tale into a fabliau or a bawdy farce. She is clearly the model of Glover’s Bastienne (39), a name that also occurs in the legend.[8] There is a woodcut in Thevet’s Cosmographie depicting Marguerite as holding an arquebus over two dead bears.[9] She is said to have killed three of them in the Cosmographie, four in the Grand Insulaire after the death of her husband, child, and maid. She is rescued after two years and five months by Breton fishermen, but at this point she is seized by a desire not to leave the place where her dear ones had died; back in France, she wishes she were still in Canada.[10] Glover explicitly borrows this detail (115) suggestive of a first, problematic Canadian identity expressed as nostalgia for the place of exile and loss, a recurring motif (157, 164, 176, 190) used to define a strange and equivocal attraction to Canada as the “Land of the Dead”(167), or as “a place that teaches us yearning and grief” (164), or as a version of the myth of the “Fortunate Isles” where St. Brendan’s companion asks to be left behind alone (157), or as an incomprehensible attraction to a savage place, or as a form of melancholy affecting old Canada hands (176). Glover also invokes the explorer Jacques Cartier’s characterization of the North Shore of the St Lawrence as the accursed, infertile land of exile God gave to Cain (159), east of Eden (Gen. 4.1-16).[11] As a character in the novel, Cartier is unable to textualize his memoirs of Canada on account of a similar melancholy.[12]

Subsequent literary treatments come in a variety of genres: as an exemplary tale by the seventeenth-century Dutch Calvinist Jacob Cats who presents Marguerite’s plight as the just rewards of premarital sex;[13] as an eighteenth-century French novella by Feutry; and as part of a nineteenth-century collection of tales about shipwreck and adaptation under the title Les vrais Robinsons, adding the detail that Marguerite returned mad to France.[14] Feutry writes about a young woman with a charming face, a sensitive soul, and a firm spirit by the name of Elise who is adaptable and hardy and who learns to hunt and whose daughter is raised in Rousseau-esque fashion. Together mother and daughter develop a “superior philosophy of life” due to their unconventional experience outside the artificial constraints of society.[15]

The first Canadian version is in the form of a dramatic monologue delivered by Marguerite who has retired to a convent, written by an Irishman, George Martin (1887).[16] Initially, the lovers are depicted sentimentally as living in an earthly paradise, where the wild beasts do not attack them, “…as if they felt/Love’s universal breathing melt / Their savage instincts”.[17] Out of necessity, Marguerite learns to hunt; the theme of gender inversion is intensified through her disguise as a male naval officer designed by her uncle -unsuccessfully- to keep her out of trouble, as she was “volatile and gay”.  The association of the female with a weapon almost seems to call for transvestism to reify the gender inversion.[18]

The first dramatic treatment in Canadian literature by John Hunter-Duvar (1888)[19] has Marguerite rescued by a Native woman, the first time a Native person enters the story, clearly as a cultural intermediary and saviour, since she also averts a massacre of Sieur de Roberval’s men because of her love for the unlovable Roberval, a construction suggestive of Elle’s rescue by Itslk, the Inuit hunter. However, the native man’s encounter with Elle and their cohabitation is presented by Glover as a manifestation of the destructiveness of European contact for native culture.

Finally, in 1899, the first, full-length treatment appears in a Canadian historical novel by Thomas G. Marquis.[20] During the winter, a she-bear and her cub arrive on the island riding on an ice berg. The mother bear is shot by Marguerite and her male companion but the cub is tamed.  When madness threatens the lonely Marguerite, she finds comfort in her pet bear, François, who is abandoned and returns to his natural ways instantly by killing a seal when Marguerite is rescued.

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Glover, Atwood, Engel: Of  bears in novels

As Glover indicates in his Author’s Note (8), these earlier versions brutally summarized here were known to him from Stabler’s book. Taken together, they present the encounter with the New World as a complete inability to come to terms with the natural environment other than through the ultimate imposition of European firearms. Nature is a place to die in and the essential task of the European in this savage land is to survive until rescued and returned to Europe, a quintessentially Canadian motif identified by Margaret Atwood in her guide to the Canadian literary imagination, Survival.  Emblematic is the relationship with wild animals, either as mortal threat or as superficially domesticated pet in the story of Marguerite. In the literature of the second half of the twentieth century this opposition of culture versus nature changes, most notably in Atwood’s Surfacing and in Marian Engel’s Bear.[21] There are several obvious reasons: the return to nature and the prominence of the Great Mother myth in the sixties and seventies; the importance of Jungian ideas in Canadian literature, in particular the role of animus and anima manifesting as animals, as in Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy; and the inclusion of Native mythology where the boundary between human and animal, nature and culture, is more fluid, with myths of women disappearing into the forest to have children with a bear or other (totemic) animals.[22] Atwood’s protagonist, rejecting a failing marriage and the return to city life, is imagined as taking on some of the physical characteristics of a she-bear at the end of the cottage season; Engel’s main character even tries to initiate sexual contact with a captive bear, only to be sharply reminded of species boundaries and her place outside nature. In Elle one finds the most far-reaching identification of the female protagonist with the bear, but with a very different emphasis and outcome, introducing a new, post-colonial phase in the reception of the story. Glover uses the motif of theriomorphism to thematize the problem of identity and loss of the self (165, 167) through an imagined process of colonization in reverse, of a European woman, the anonymous Elle, by Canada.

Initially, Elle is saved from starvation by a starving old she-bear that  collapses on top of her (94), like a deus ex natura. In clear opposition to the tradition, she never kills a bear (181), and her lover’s arquebus remains “rusty and useless” (69). From the first encounter Elle identifies with this old mother bear that is skin and bones like herself. She talks to it like a companion, an alter ego. Behind Elle’s identification lie the humanoid appearance and habits of bears, which make them actors in Native mythology, where bears and humans take on each other’s shape. In Glover’s novel this identification is profoundly ambivalent. At its best, the mythical co-existence of human and bear encompasses a spiritual world of wisdom (93) and a vision of the ultimate oneness of humans and nature; eventually it becomes a nightmarish obsession for Elle, a loss of self. Yet, initially the bear is a saviour. Elle even takes shelter from the cold inside the gutted stomach[23] of the bear and is so reborn as it were to the Native hunter who has been following the bear on a vision quest (93). To him, the white woman has acquired the polar bear’s power. She now dresses in the bear’s skin and dreams of a bear lover (95). By contrast, her uncle, de Roberval, has grown terrified of bears (140). Yet her bear-ness becomes a dangerous obsession of which she has to be ‘cured’ (120, 145) by an old Native shaman, whose own identity switches back and forth from human to she-bear, both self and other, both cure and disease. Elle becomes a changeling herself with physical symptoms of bear-ness:  barely recognizable, she is ‘rescued’ by a European ship of fools who relate her appearance to the character dressed as a bear in a charivari, an inversion ritual of medieval Europe (161: hence the Lords of Misrule, 107). She is returned to France and builds a camp outdoors together with a Native Canadian girl, Comes Winter, brought to Brittany by the explorer Jacques Cartier.  Elle dreams and pines for Canada while walking the captive bear brought back from Canada as a cub, equated with her lost child (167), on a leash, dog-like. Leon, the dog that went to Canada with her, has shed his domesticity and refused to leave Canada, but the wild bear, brought to France, is pathetic in its domestication, bondage and decay, an image of the colonized self. Elle is said to have returned “infected with savagery” (183); physically and mentally she is in an in-between place, “in a state of being neither one nor the other” (167). Conversely, the Native girl, Comes Winter, has become “infected with Christianity” (183) and is thoroughly alienated from her own culture, a condition reified by the mortal European disease she has contracted. All three of them are exiles, alienated from their homelands, Elle doubly so.[24] Comparing colonization with lovemaking (119), Glover suggests the intensity of the relationship between Old and New Worlds as well as the inevitability of human isolation and alienation (108).  Glover refuses, however, a possible reading of the novel as an allegory of the (failed) ascent of the soul to mystic union (116). The locus for the discovery of this permanent alienation is Canada, the “Land of the Dead”, but also the land that signifies but itself (134), that is pure otherness, since both nature and culture connote.  The status of the bear, from salvation to obsession to captivity, marks Elle’s passages as she moves from Canada back to France. The gothic ending of the novel suggests an ultimate redressing of the balance between captive nature and savage culture in a final, violent act of revenge against de Roberval in which Elle becomes indistinguishable from the captive bear.

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Genre

The introduction of a thinly disguised Rabelais as Elle’s partner in the second half of the novel invites reflection on its generic structure and how this relates to its content. In Bakhtin’s analysis, the work of Rabelais is associated in particular with the carnivalesque impulse in ritual and literature and with Menippean satire as a basis for the novel as a literary mode.[25] Little remains of the work of Menippus (second half of the third century C.E.) who received a unanimously bad press in antiquity as a philosopher who went over the top by mocking philosophy and its claim to truth – too much of a mad dog, even for his fellow Cynics, who aimed at shocking their audience by questioning conventional moral assumptions in their diatribes. Menippus drove this critique to its ultimate conclusion by making it nihilistic and self-parodic. In the second century C.E., the Greek satirist Lucian actually casts Menippus as a character in his dialogue Bis Accusatus (The Double Indictment)[26] in order to define the genre as a biting satire and as a comic mixture of literary elements, “like a Centaur”. The ambiguous state of the Centaurs in between humans and animals is emblematic of Elle’s situation. In classical mythology the wise Chiron is a teacher of natural medicine and a helper of heroes, but the other Centaurs run wild.[27] At the same time, Glover’s novel is strongly reminiscent of the genre as analyzed by Bakhtin, presented below in its reformulation by Anne Payne.[28] As the genre and Glover’s novel are fond of catalogues (86, 105, 196)[29] or ‘anatomies’ as Frye would call them, I shall use this device to try and ‘capture’ some of the elements of  the novel. Ultimately, the generic form has significant bearing on the interpretation of the novel.

Generally, Menippean satire is characterised as a mixed bag, a potpourri or farrago. The Latin satura (not to be confused with Greek satyr) actually refers to stuffed sausage. These terms all connote an unconventional mixture of genre, style and tone, and an absolute absence of inhibition on freedom of speech, the Cynic ideal of parrhesia. Classical and neo-classical theory of genre was highly hierarchical, so the combination of comedy and philosophy, high and low style and serious and burlesque was a shocker.[30]

Paraphrasing Bakhtin, Payne notes the following[31] specifics of Menippean satire:

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1. Character

There is often an investigation of unusual psychic states: insanity, split personalities, unrestrained daydreaming, strange dreams, suicidal thoughts. These phenomena destroy the epic-tragic integrity of man and his fate; in him the possibilities of another man and another life are revealed; he loses his “finalizedness” and singleness of meaning.  He ceases to coincide with himself …. [T]hese traits … afford a new vision of man.  The dialogical attitude of man to himself also destroys his “finalizedness.”

With a change of gender, we have the precise situation of Elle. The state of mind invoked on almost every second page is that of the dream, along with nightmare, vision, obsession/possession and madness. Occasionally Elle contemplates death as an escape from the Canadian condition. There is no return to her unreformed French-ness after her return to France: she has become permanently split between Old and New, both bear and woman, permanently double. The narrative takes the form of a dialogue of the main character with herself, constantly examining alternative or opposite positions, echoing the split personality and the double point of view. This affords a “new”, essentially tragic view of “man” as permanently alienated, inauthentic selfhood.  Not mentioned by Payne is the characteristic of the fumbling, bumbling author/main character of Menippean satire, who learns basic things about existence the hard way, allowing for survival lessons in the wild and making the Canadian setting an existential one, both physically and symbolically. Dream visions are typical in which the main character is transported from everyday reality to an exotic location (heaven or hell) and so obtains a glimpse of other worlds and ultimate realities. Elle becomes a dreamer as she acquires her second, Canadian self; for her, as for Native people, dreams are real (139)

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2. Subject Matter and Plot

[Menippean satire] is characterized by extraordinary freedom of invention in philosophy and plot …. The purpose of the fantastic is “to create extraordinary situations in which to provoke and test a philosophical idea”.

The extraordinary setting of Elle allows for an almost continuous series of reflections on her existential situation, i.e. alienation through colonization in reverse. This condition is explored through the drastic motif of theriomorphism as well as through a continuous, obsessive dialogue of the self with the self. Her ironic wit (131) and self-mockery, recurring features of Menippean satire, are symptoms of that divided self. The philosophical problem of the self is approached semiotically. Canada is said to signify only itself (134): it does not connote, i.e. it is empty of any association whatever and therefore constitutes utter emptiness/otherness. Similarly, Elle in the end has no home, no self, no soul (167). Her existence has lost all meaning.  In literary terms, hers is an anti-quest, her return is that of the anti-hero (167). In fact, “instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other” (167). Her counterpart is the Native hunter on the ever smaller ice floe drifting across the Atlantic towards Europe, never to reach it. She is said to be “infected with otherness” (157), reified by the physical symptoms that correspond with bearishness: hirsuteness, polythelia or supernumerary nipples, and claw-like hands (117).  There is slippage from the mythical to the medical and vice-versa in Elle’s metamorphosis. Conversely, the New World has been infected by the Old (166). Linguistically, she is a “garbled translation” (147), culturally an exile (159), outsider (151) and intruder (162) in not one but two cultures. Menippean satire likes to confront two irreconcilable points of view, here an interminable dialectic of Old and New Worlds (141-2, 167, 178, 193-4), and is in effect aporetic: there is no comforting, mediatory solution, no compromise.

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3. Genre, Style and Tone

“Menippean satire is frequently an organic combination of free fantasy, symbolism, and mystical religious elements with … extreme, crude underworld naturalism.”

The combination of theology with the sensual and the bawdy is evident from the first episode of the novel. Philosophical reflection is combined with elements of fantasy, fabliau and farce: the ridiculous and the sublime meet and clash. Elle’s dream journey into Native myth, magic and religion has its own bearish symbols and feverish mystic visions. Her bear-ness is an equivocal symbol of divinity, difference, and even the inauthentic self (144, 147).  Learned reflections and references alternate with low life observations. Characteristically, there is display of learning and a ridicule of it in the same breath. Rabelais is a fountain of encyclopaedic knowledge (a favourite butt of Menippean satire) but he treats knowledge as a game and a joke: he is the rhetorician of ironic reversal (173, 179).

European literacy is confronted with Native orality as an expression of knowledge. Books are valued intellectually and erotically (30, 31, 33, 59, 65) but eaten for physical sustenance in Canada (42). Generically, Glover’s Elle has elements of the writer’s diary, travelogue, exploration narrative, philosophical tract, religious broadsheet, satire, encyclopaedia, allegory and myth.  The novel presents a version of a myth, and at the same time, provides a self-conscious commentary on that myth: therefore, it combines, in Frye’s terms, both first and second-phase writing.[32] The procédé is to break all formal conventions of literary expression as well as the entire aesthetic canon of classicism, and to deny grand narratives and unequivocal solutions. There is no idealisation of nature in Elle. The story of Elle, her extreme dislocation correlated with utter alienation of the self, finds an appropriate and convincing expression in Menippean satire, a genre that mocks conventional answers to fundamental questions.  It is also essentially rebellious, as is Elle (and Rabelais), “a headstrong girl” and a heretic, and characterized by a total freedom of speech, the parrhesia of the Cynics who deliberately affected a savage life style, living on the margins of society, in a barrel and dressed in rags or animal skins, in order to point out their fellow citizens’ hypocrisies, biting the bourgeois like the dogs after which they were named.  The broad humour and burlesque serve to turn the world upside-down in carnivalesque fashion, to shock the public out of its comfortable assumptions through inversion (62, 66, 67, 77, 115), a process that characterizes the New World. The Old World is based on a dream of order which is undone in the New (107). The setting of the novel, Quebec’s North Shore, is the crucial site where the crisis of contemporary identity is examined through the imagined experience of the first European woman settler in a landscape where the problems of human existence manifest themselves as starkly as the features of the natural environment. The North Shore represents Canada metonymously as well as the archetypal experience of Canada as a place that signifies only itself. , the scene of confrontation of a human being with total Otherness, where the drama (and the comedy) of the search for identity is enacted to this day. In Glover’s words: “The Côte-Nord is part of the country of my imagination.”[33]

—Haijo Westra & Adam Westra

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In his Author’s Note (Douglas Glover, Elle: A Novel [Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2003] 8 ) Glover states that he first came across the story in the history of New France by Francis Parkman, who gives the version by Nicolas Thevet (see below, n. 7). It is reproduced by Samuel Eliot Morison in The Parkman Reader (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1955) 82-84. Although the earliest versions by Marguerite de Navarre (see below, n. 3) and Thevet differ significantly, the report is held to be historical: see the entry “La Roque, Marguerite de”, in Dictionnaire Biographique du Canada, vol. 1 (Montréal:  Université Laval, 1966) 437.  The island is variously called Ile de la Demoiselle or Ile des Démons.
  2. Arthur P. Stabler, The Legend of Marguerite de Roberval (Seattle: Washington State University, 1972).
  3. Simone de Reyff, Marguerite de Navarre: Heptameron (Paris: Flammarion, 1982) 458-460; Stabler, Legend 3-4.
  4. Cf. Emily Wilson, “Loves Unseen”, TLS 22 & 29 August  2008, p. 12.
  5. Elle, p. 114. All subsequent references to the novel will be given in the body of the text in parentheses.
  6. Stabler, Legend, 5-11; for the genre of the histoire tragique see ibid.  p. 6, n. 5; see also his “The Histoires Tragiques of François Belleforest: A General Critique, With Special Reference to the Non-Bandello Group”, diss. University of Virginia, 1958.
  7. Stabler, Legend, 11-24; 37. For Thevet’s sources of the story of Marguerite, see Roger Schlesinger and Arthur P. Stabler, André Thevet’s North America: A Sixteenth-Century View (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986) xxii-xxiii.
  8. Stabler, Legend, p. 37.
  9. Stabler, Legend,  213.
  10. Stabler, Legend, 17.
  11. Robert Melançon,  « Terre de Cain, Age d’Or, prodigues du Saguenay : représentations du Nouveau Monde dans les voyages de Jacques Cartier » , Studies in Canadian Literature / Etudes en Littérature Canadienne 4 (1979) 22-34.
  12. The account of Cartier’s third voyage is no longer extant: see Schlesinger and Stabler, North America, xxxvii.
  13. Cf. Donald Haks, Huwelijk en gezin in Holland in de 17de en 18de eeuw (Utrecht : HES Uitgevers, 1985),  70-72.
  14. Stabler, Legend, 33-42.
  15. Stabler, Legend, 42-45
  16. D.W.S. Ryan, ed.  The Legend of Marguerite by George Martin (St. John’s: Jesperson’s, 1995).
  17. Stabler, Legend, 45-49, here p. 47.
  18. Similarly, in the Memoir of a Basque Lieutenant Nun Transvestite in the New World of 1599 by Catalina de Erauso, the female protagonist is associated with a sword that is unsheathed at every possible (and impossible) opportunity.
  19. John Hunter-Duvar, De Roberval, A Drama; also The Emigration of the fairies and The Triumph of constancy, a romaunt (St. John, N.B. 1888; rpt. Toronto: J & A. MacMillan, 1980); Stabler, Legend,  49-52.
  20. Thomas G. Marquis, Marguerite de Roberval (c. 1899; Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1986) ; Stabler, Legend,  52-57.
  21. In Shirley Barrie’s play, I Am Marguerite (Toronto: Playwrights Union of Canada, 1996), she shoots three bears and kills a deer with a knife.  Anne Hébert’s play, L’ île de la demoiselle, in La cage, suivie de L’ile de la demoiselle (Montréal: Boréal, 1990), features the screeching birds of the legend as told by Thevet and adds a black raven which Marguerite would like to kill in order to adorn herself with its feathers (p. 229).
  22. See Gary Snider, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990) 155-61 for a version of this myth that thematizes the problems of cross-species co-habitation.  See also Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders, The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985) and Stith Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature, rev. ed., vol. 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1955), p. 461, # B 601.1 and p. 465, #B 632.
  23. This is turning into a peculiarly Canadian motif: see the opening scene in Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing.
  24. Double displacement (in England and Nigeria) is the theme of  The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2005)
  25. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. R.W. Rotsel (N.p.: Ardis, 1973)  87-113.
  26. A.M. Harmon, Lucian, vol. 3 (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University and William Heinemann, 1921, rpt. 1969)  84-151.
  27. Geoffrey Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1973) 152-162.
  28. F. Anne Payne, Chaucer and Menippean Satire (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981)  3-37 is the best short introduction to the genre.  See Joel C. Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1993) for late antiquity and W. Scott Blanchard, Scholars’ Bedlam: Menippean Satire in the Renaissance (Lewisburg, London and Toronto: Bucknell University Press and Associated University Press, 1995).
  29. Cf. Bruce Stone, “Douglas Glover”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 24 (2004) 1-55, at p. 46.
  30. Blanchard, Scholars’ Bedlam, 33-36: Dryden did not approve.
  31. See Payne, Menippean Satire, 7-9 for the next three quotes and  Bakhtin, Problems, 92-97.
  32. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press Canada, 1982) 5-16.
  33. See the epilogue, “Elle, Sept-Iles, 2003, pp. 203-205, and  http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2010/06/10/gens-dici-gens-de-paroles/
Feb 022011
 

photo by Eliza Grace Johnson

Here’s a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” essay from NC contributor Anna Maria Johnson and her husband, the photographer Steven David Johnson. Anna Maria Johnson is a writer, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student, and a lovely artist in her own right. She was a co-winner of  the NC Rondeau Writing Contest last year, and who can ever forget her amazing Novel-in-a-Box Contest entry? This essay is Anna Maria’s first post on Numéro Cinq as an official Contributor—we hope for many more like it. And it’s also the first time we’ve had a husband and wife team work together. It’s a wonderful addition to the growing Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” series.

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What It’s Like Living Here–Cootes Store, Virginia

Text by Anna Maria Johnson, photos by Steven David Johnson

(Author’s Note: The locals pronounce this place “Cootes’s Store,” though the green road sign omits the possessive.)


At home on the Shenandoah River, North Fork

Home.  What’s it mean?   By age twenty-one, I’d lived in twenty-one places and thought home was a place I’d never find.

John Denver’s song “Country Roads” refers to western Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River.  This northwest corner of Virginia is where I now live, along the river’s North Fork, which runs parallel to Route 259, my road.  When I travel alone, I sing the old folksong, “O Shenandoah,” and ache to be home.

Home, for me, is family: a husband and two daughters.  But increasingly, “home” is becoming a specific 2.3-acre plot of land with dilapidated sheds, gardens, woods, meadow, and a white farmhouse with a front porch.

Our farmhouse. Its wood plank bedroom ceilings, steep stairs, foot-thick walls, and hand-made plank doors with old-fashioned latches hint at the log cabin our house used to be—and still is, beneath its vinyl-sided exterior and dry-walled interior.  The bathroom, an aging plumber told us, was installed only in the late 1960s or 70s; he remembers doing it.  The back kitchen was probably added then.

My husband, Steven, wanders down to the river nearly every day to photograph his friends—mink, herons, deer, cattle, water snakes, starlings, swallows, kingfisher, and once, three otters.

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