Jan 292011
 

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce to Numéro Cinq cult members, ur, readers Domenic Stansberry‘s debut graphic novel Kiss Me, Kill Me, starring my favourite noir anti-hero Dante Mancuso, aka the Pelican (because of his nose). Many of you know Domenic, some have even been lucky enough to have him as a teacher. Domenic won an Edgar Award in 2005 for his novel, The Confession, about a Bay area psychologist accused of murdering his wife. Dante Mancuso is the hero of Domenic’s North Beach Mystery series, the latest of which, Naked Moon, came out last year.

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Jan 292011
 

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Domenic Stansberry is the brilliant Edgar Award-winning author of dark, dark, yes, noir-dark, novels set in the North Beach section of San Francisco. (Naked Moon is his most recent novel, published last year. Click on the image for more information.) His hero is Dante Mancuso, aka the Pelican (because of his nose). I spent a summer reading through the work a couple of years ago and really admired the North Beach series but also loved The Confession, the story of a San Francisco psychologist accused of murdering his wife (the plot twists and surprises are amazing).

Domenic’s “Noir Manifesto” is an essay about crime fiction, the history and metaphysics thereof, literature, politics and art. It’s a fine example of how, if you write knowingly about your passion, you end up writing about the meaning of art in general. This essay first appeared in The New Review of Literature Vol. 1 No. 1, October, 2003, but has not been widely available since then. Now it has found a home at Numéro Cinq,

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In 1982, after the publication of The Prone Gunman, Jean-Patrick Manchette, the great French crime writer, abandoned the genre altogether. Over the previous decade, he had written ten novels, all in the noir fashion: finely-honed, spare books of great originality and shocking violence. These books—which had made him famous as the father of the neo-polar, the New French crime novel—took the old plotlines of noir and recast them into hard-nosed political critiques. But after The Prone Gunman—having taken his style to its limit—Manchette gave it all up.

Manchette’s biographer, Jean-Francois Gérault, implies the reason for the novelist’s silence is there was simply nothing else to say. He had exhausted the genre. And though it is tempting to say that this exhaustion was Manchette’s alone—an artist at the end of his tether—the truth is the dilemma was not unique to Manchette. And is not. For writers of crime fiction find themselves in much the same situation today. With the present exhausted, the past littered with cliché.

Manchette was a socialist, disenchanted by the failure of French radicalism. When he turned to the crime novel in the early ’70’s, he recognized in the form—as Hammett had recognized before him—a reaction against modernism, with its dependence upon literary allusion, formal experimentation, and elevated diction. The crime novel, with its roots in the pulps, was a deliciously sub-literary form, born of the masses, and in that lack of pretension Manchette found a raw determinism that disdained the sentimental humanism of the bourgeois novel and exposed the corruptions and falsities of the established order.

At the time Manchette began working in the form, the crime novel in France had gone stale, dominated by stuffy procedurals that focused on the mechanics of crime solving. Manchette reinvigorated the form, partly by infusing his characters with an existential morality reminiscent of Camus, but also by refusing to romanticize or give purpose to the blunt violence that dominated his fiction.

Manchette’s novels have become available in America only recently, and Ben Ehrenreich, writing for the Village Voice, has been among the reviewers who have helped introduce Manchette to the American audience. Ehrenreich makes particular note of the narrative voice which Manchette uses to depict the noir landscape: how that voice grew increasingly sparse over the years, cinematic and unreflective, until by the time of The Prone Gunman, Manchette’s narrator all but refrains from depicting the interior life of his characters, instead focusing almost entirely on objective reality—a style that takes Hemmingway’s dictum of show-don’t-tell to a level of supreme detachment.

The result, in the end, is a chillingly violent, hard-paced narrative—much like that in Paul Cain’s The Fast One. But unlike Paul Cain, whose strength as a writer is that of primitivist, Manchette moves his characters with deliberate and complex allegorical intent.

The Prone Gunman, in translation by poet James Brook, is perhaps the best of Manchette’s novels. And the bleakest. It takes as its main character a professional assassin, Martin Terrier, who is employed by an American-run intelligence agency known only as the company. After ten years with the company Terrier returns to his home town to re-claim his childhood sweetheart, daughter of a provincial factory owner. With the money he has earned as a political assassin, Terrier hopes to take his lover away with him to an idyllic life. His sweetheart, though, is now an alcoholic housewife who mocks Terrier when he tries to seduce her; moreover, the company has no intentions of letting Terrier loose. The result is a violent chase culminating in a shoot out during which Terrier takes a bullet in the head. The bullet leaves him functional but without desire. In the end, like his father before him, he lives a somnambulist life, working as waiter in a café, and at night blathers unintelligibly in his sleep.

While Manchette’s earlier work engages in barbed political satire—aimed at the left as much as the right—The Prone Gunman portays, as Ehrenreich puts it “a conquered world bereft of choice and hope.” After the book was completed, Manchette was unable to finish another novel, and spent the remainder of his career writing screenplays and translating American crime writers.

In the trajectory of Manchette’s career as a noir writer it is possible to read the trajectory of the genre itself. In many ways, it is a genre frozen in time, or even gone backwards. In fact, if you examine the best seller racks on this side of the Atlantic, it is not hard to argue that the mainstream American crime novel is today, at the turn of the new century, in a state similar to that of its French counterpart in the sixties: weighed down by its conventions, by the expectations of the audience, and by the inelasticity of its publishers. Reduced to irrelevance, a distraction for bored readers in airports and beaches. A mere commodity.

But of course, crime fiction—with is roots in pulp fiction–has always been a commodity. What has really happened is that the darker world of noir has been displaced in the marketplace by a different kind of crime novel: the commercial thriller (more likely on its jacket puffery to announce itself a literary thriller, though in truth that genre all but expired with Graham Greene). And these thrillers, no matter the surface similarities to noir fiction, have aesthetic and political intentions quite the opposite of Manchette and those writers he admired.

The noir tradition in which Manchette was writing had its roots in the vernacular, and focused on the crimes of desire by people hemmed in by social conditions. Noir writers like Dave Goodis, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Hughes, Chester Himes and Charles Williams were social determinists whose work demonstrated considerable empathy for the little guy, the down- and-outer, the outsider who has been pushed out, excluded, trapped. Who then takes hopeless action to escape that trap—and ultimately fails.

In contrast, the primary ethos of the new breed of crime melodramas does not share such concerns. These books are instead much more akin to the old western dime novels—which focused on the rescue of Pollyanna tied to the railroad track. Pollyanna in the contemporary thriller may take on many forms. She may be a beautiful woman threatened by a serial killer. A boy threatened by an abusive father. Or even America itself, threatened by nuclear destruction, or terrorism, or an insane president. These novels may lobby on the behalf of some worthy cause—they may fall on this side or that of the political spectrum—but there is one thing that can be counted upon. The world can be divided neatly into good and evil. And good shall ultimately triumph.

Some may wager this affirmation, however simplistic, a good thing—but such moralizing is antithetical to the genre’s darkest and truest spirits. The purpose of most contemporary thrillers—with their middle class values and insistence upon illumination—is to marshal and subjugate the very impulses which gave birth to the noir sensibility. Their purpose is to destroy the underworld. And by this I do not mean the mere criminal underworld, but rather the underworld of the imagination, the secret realm of the psyche, the darkest realms of Hades that inhabit and animate the individual soul.

The originators of the genre had intentions altogether different.

In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe created his first tale of ratiocination, as he called it: a story in which the detective made use of analysis to solve crimes. This story engendered a raft of imitators, and a whole new genre sprung forth, of which the contemporary manifestation is the crime procedural, with its emphasis on police and judicial process, and the tracking of clues using inductive logic. If we look back at Poe, however, process and logic—indeed the act of analysis itself—are ultimately viewed as further manifestations of the supernatural. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” C. Auguste Dupine’s methods of crime solving, though espousing an attachment to the analytical, ultimately rely on intuitive leaps and non-rational association. And in Poe’s subsequent tale of rationation, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, Dupine’s brilliant analytical solution to the murder of a young woman in Paris is in the end overshadowed by a parallel crime, in a parallel reality—not in exotic Paris, but in everyday New York—in which the system of analysis ultimately fails. For Poe, the rational mind not only exists in service of the supernatural, but has its origins there—and his view of the analytic process emphasizes the paradoxical. As an artist, his interest was never in tying up loose ends. Quite the opposite. His interest was in the fissures, in the cracks between the perceived world and the unperceived—and in establishing lines of communication between those dualities.

The paths the crime story takes away from Poe are multitudinous and intertwined. Overseas to Arthur Doyle, and his drug addicted detective. To the American pulps, where its conventions merge with the dime western and find new manifestation in the work of John Carroll Daly, and later Hammett and Spillane. To the French. To Baudelaire, to Maurice Renard, author of The Hands of Orlac. To the German expressionists, Wiene and Lang, whose influences wend their way from German film, to Hollywood, thence back into American roman noir.

With such diverse influences, the crime novel is in some ways the richest of forms. At the same time, paradoxically, it has over the years become the most codified and conventional, with its numerous sub-genres, each with its own sets of rules and traditions, which writers challenge only at the risk of alienating reader and publisher alike. The result is that crime fiction is no longer the revolutionary medium it once was, but rather propaganda for the status quo. It has, in other words, become almost as conventional as the mainstream literary novel, with its insistence upon character development and the profundities of spiritual transformation.

In such circumstances, it is long past time for an explosion—a sundering of the conventions: Even if we must recognize the impossibility of taking off the shackles without putting them on again—and the fact that this year’s cuffs may admittedly not be at first recognized for what they are, new and glittering as the chains may be.

Over the last three decades, crime writers have sought to transform the genre by changing the face of various elements while leaving the underlying structural conventions intact. By changing the ethnicity and race of the main characters. By making the settings at once more exotic and realistically detailed. By emphasizing realism and logical process, in essence making the crime novel respectable: a kind of laboratory for social study. Such changes—whatever the social merits, or quality of the individual writers—are in the end baroque adornments. A dressing up of the corpse for another run around the block.

It is odd indeed that some of the most recent innovative noirs have been for the most part unclaimed by aficionados of the genre, though well regarded elsewhere. I am here thinking of Denis Johnson’s Angels, a hallucinatory road novel that begins in the Oakland Greyhound depot and ends in the prison death house. Or Paul Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, with its blending of post-modern and noir traditions. Or Haruki Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which melds elements of science fiction and hard boiled noir.

It is tempting to argue that there is no choice now for the writer of crime—if he or she be anything other than a hack, an employee of New York accountants—than to turn the genre conventions upon their various heads. To do so in ways both sacrilegious and savage. Take the old icons and beat them into the dirt. Berate them. There may have been a time when Sherlock Holmes was a vital character—but over the years he has become an insufferable bore, with his pipe, his witticisms, his self-righteousness. And the shades of Marlowe and Sam Spade are on the verge of the same nattering senility.

But structural change, formal experimentation, a willingness to spit in the face of publishers, to disregard unintelligent readers, to kill off your lead character in the middle of a series, to bend the lines between fiction and non-fiction, to blur the lines of genre—or even to take the opposite tack, and be a steadfast loyalist, to work within the dying conventions while all around the house burns—all of these in the end are just tactics, addressing the symptoms but not the cause, doomed to fail if they do not recognize the true nature of the failing.

Because that which has been strangling the genre is the mentality that rationalism and logical must prevail. That order must be restored. That good must triumph.

Such are the assertions of small minds, of mercantilism. It is the jingoism of the day world, of the happy ending, of a material world desperately afraid of its nocturnal counterpart.

Poe’s tales of rationation have thus been oddly misconstrued as an embrasure of the analytic method, though the energy of his tales derives not from the airtight logic of their plots—because they are far from airtight—but from the place where the stories fracture, from the giant fission that drives all narrative. In The Fall of the House of Usher, for example, this fracture takes place, both literally and figuratively, at the moment when the House of Usher itself collapses, disappearing into the tarn. In Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, a similar moment occurs when Ma Santis appears from out of nowhere to rescue Doc McCoy and Carol from their pursuers, but instead ends up sending the jealous lovers on a hellish journey, through piles of excrement and watery caves, to the diabolical kingdom of El Rey. And in Dorothy Hughes’ Ride the Pink Horse, it is the moment when Sailor dances wildly in the square of the Fiesta—then turns and shoots the good cop who meant to do him well. It is through such cracks, such fissures in mere logic—when the perceived world and the unperceived overlap—that the reader sees to the other side, and thus falls into conversation with the underworld. With annihilation, with death itself. It is this conversation that is the ultimate goal of noir. Not redemption. Not social understanding. Not moral edification. And if we abandon this conversation—for the sake of mere morality—we who imagine ourselves practitioners will find ourselves rather like Manchette’s Martin Terrier, no longer the dangerous figures we once were, but rather waiters in a café, suffering from a bullet in the brain. Still able to function perhaps: to take orders. But our words will be inchoate, mere froth, and at night, like Terrier, we shall blather in our dreams.

—Domenic Stansberry

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Jan 282011
 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel, (ca. 1558)

“Once again the pilot in full flight experienced neither giddiness nor any thrill; only the mystery of metal turned to living flesh.” -Antoine de Saint Exupéry,  from Night Flight

Gravity seems to work differently in flight.  Raise a wing to sixty degrees off the horizon and your legs suddenly weigh two times what they do on earth.  Push the nose down, arcing the plane through a parabola in the sky like a collapsing rainbow, and your arms float inside the cockpit.  It’s the defying of gravity which supports flight, the usurpation of barriers, the bending of rules so seemingly rigid on pavement.  In flight, weight becomes positional, depending on forces of acceleration and torque, on the geometry of air; it’s not a fixed concept like it is on the ground.

Icarus, overcome by the joy of flight, lost his bearings and melted his wings before falling into the sea.

Twenty-five years ago, I heard the news of the Challenger disaster in Mr. Gregory’s Algebra II class.  As the shuttle exploded in peaceful blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast, I was studying binary operations. Mr. Gregory quietly announced the news then put on the television and let us watch the coverage.

A little more than two months before, on November 9, 1985, I took my first solo flight in a Cessna-150. After I landed and caught my breath, I felt an instant kinship with other pilots, with those astronauts even, which has never left me. It’s a strange thing, to fly a plane alone.

A deep, pervasive mythology surrounds aviation, a hero-worshiping ethos of austerity, courage and clenched-jaw reticence.  By the time I soloed, such a mythology had already saturated my young boy’s brain.  I took the shuttle tragedy personally. And in an odd way, the loss of the Challenger and her crew cemented that mythology in my mind.  To a sixteen year old boy filled with the desire to fly, there seemed to be a certain nobility about a fiery death.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  I don’t know what I’ll say if one day my son or daughter asks if they can start taking flying lessons.

James Salter, a fighter pilot in the Korean War, describes his first solo flight in his memoir Burning the Days.  Like many fledgling aviators, the day of his first solo began in bleakness. He had just completed a flying lesson and was being shredded by his flight instructor:

“That was terrible.  You rounded out twenty feet in the air.  As far as I can make out, you’re going to kill us both.”  I see him rising up.  He climbs out of the cockpit and stands on the wing.  “You take her up,” he says.

This consent, the words of which I could not even imagine.  Alone in a plane, I do what we had done each time, taxi to the end of that bare spot, turn, and almost mechanically advance the throttle.  I felt at that moment—I will remember always—the thrill of the inachievable.  Reciting to myself, exuberant, immortal, I felt the plane leave the ground and cross hayfields and farms, making a noise like a tremendous, bumbling fly.  I was far out, beyond the reef, nervous but unfrightened, knowing nothing, certain of all, cloth helmet, childish face, sleeve wind-maddened as I held an ecstatic arm out in the slipstream, the exaltation, the godliness, at last!”  (81-82)

The words, “you take her up,” resonate like an incantation for anyone who’s ever flown an airplane alone. They weave an almost mystical web around the memory of that first solo, when the desire for flight, the long-held dream of it, comes face to face with the reality of actually flying the fucking plane alone.  Nothing really prepares you for that moment.  Nothing in life can really top it either.

Salter’s words also remind me of Icarus’ ineffable desire for flight.  My dreams cracked a little as fragments of Challenger rained down into another sea. I still connect those two events in memory, my first solo flight and the Challenger disaster.  For a young boy, the double-barreled blasts of joy and tragedy, of exultation and grief, of confidence and confusion, had a powerful resonance.

Watching plumes of rocket smoke split apart in the Florida sky reminded me not only of the precariousness of flight, but also of the way hope can fall apart.

It seems hardly possible, just the blink of an eye, that a quarter of a century has passed.

—Richard Farrell

Jan 272011
 

Sarah Seltzer is a New Yorker, a Vermont College of Fine Arts student (and a dg Workshop Survivor) and a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to numerous online news sites including Huffington Post and Daily Beast. She’s also a member of the growing NC community—see her entry, “A Short Craft Lecture,”  in the first ever NC Erasure Contest.

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What it’s like living here

By Sarah Seltzer in New York City



Broadway

 

You sit in a brick-oven pizza place on that brief spit of Broadway where the subway roars up onto a rickety rail, then back beneath the earth. It’s November, and damp. For three years, you have been living a happy, cramped existence in an apartment around the corner. You and your husband have heard the 1 train roll by at intervals each day like receding and advancing ocean waves.

But, with help from friends, you have spent the day moving books from this apartment in Morningside Heights to an airier one below it in Harlem, and you’re dirty and exhausted, ready for the ordeal to end. You yawn over your food, spinning dreams about your new home and speaking of nothing., Halfway through the meal, you notice, four tables ahead, forgotten family friends who have known you since you were two months old and their daughter a month further into the world. Their presence makes you think of the things that have faded from your life.

This happens often in the city.  Now you smile and stop at their table, and launch into a game whose parameters you know: grad school plans and publications, marriages and quips about law firms. Inevitably, you will report on the encounter to your friends in the bodega where they’ve been huddled, waiting. You will muse about friendship and why it is lost, when it can be salvaged. You’ll recall the vivid aliveness of a relationship that has become a ghost: lying on a carpet listening to the Beatles or before that, playing pirates in that gnarled tree in Central Park, or after that, smoking a joint in a playground near Stuyvesant town.


Small town

 

Your world feels cramped, the past everywhere, woven into a thick web. You are living in the titular town in a 19th-century British novel. He went to high school with her; his summer job was at her dad’s company; her best friend from Hebrew school was his roommate.

You realize at these moments that you have settled less than two miles from where you grew up, that you haven’t even made it across the bridge to another borough, that you are tightly bound to this span of Upper Manhattan by more than geography–by culture, by comfort, by family, by inertia. You see time change the face of avenues with which you are as intimate as a country girl is with ridges and rivers. You bore people by telling them what used to be here; crack vials in the playgrounds, delis and pizza places as nondescript as they were delicious, blight and character.

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Jan 262011
 

Missing Dad

by Natalia Sarkissian

I can say I lost my father when I was six.

That was the year my parents separated. Although they weren’t divorced until a year or so later, I never spent long chunks of time with him after. I traveled from New York to Morgantown and later to Texas to visit him at Christmas and for two weeks every summer, but I was a kid. Instead of asking questions about his childhood (he grew up in Tehran, the son of well-to-do Russian émigrés) or his work (he was a professor of genetics), I roller skated in the driveway, swam in the pool at the complex or played Barbies in the bedroom with Rhonda, the girl next door. I didn’t know then that illness would cut his promising career and life short. And he never worried me with the fleeting nature of time.

(My father is the boy in the sailor suit, front and center.)

Maybe, if I’d had an inkling.

Maybe, if I’d been older.

I’d have sat next to his recliner in the den in Morgantown or the family room in Texas on at least one of those bi-annual visits and listened.

Dad died in 1978 when he was 45, from complications of multiple sclerosis.

Ever since I’ve lived with regret. What was it like growing up on well-heeled Jordan Avenue, Tehran, in the middle of an extended family of musicians, engineers and dentists? Did he ever go with my grandmother, Babi, when she taught piano to the Shah of Iran’s sister? Did he ever accompany my grandfather, Dida, on the civil works projects Dida oversaw for the Shah? What games did he play with General Norman Schwarzkopf (a classmate) before the General became a general? Who the first girl he ever loved? When did he know he wanted to be a scientist? Did he ever regret coming to live in America?

I will never know the answers.

(My father is center, back row with Norman behind him and to his right.

(My father is in the back row, center. Schwarzkopf is the blond boy to his right.)

But recently, through Numéro Cinq, I met Lynne Quarmby, a professor of cell biology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. We ‘friended’ each other on Facebook, and began to correspond. One day, on a whim, I asked Lynne if she’d ever heard of my father. I’d been thinking of childhood and essays for Numéro Cinq Magazine.

“His name was Igor V. Sarkissian,” I wrote. “Back in the 60s and 70s he was experimenting on hybrid corn and beans (which is about all I know of his work).”

(My father in his lab in the 1960s.)

Lynne said she’d look and see what she could find out. A few days later she sent me this gift:

Dear Natasha,

So far as I can tell, your father published 91 scientific papers (there may be others that my searching did not uncover). He produced a solid body of work, taking a biochemical approach to an important agricultural and intriguing physiological problem. There was a peak of interest in his work in the 70’s (during which time his work was cited 50 or more times per year in the published work of other researchers). As is typical of virtually all scientific papers, the citations tapered off over the years. However, and this is the remarkable thing, his work is still being cited today. The field of biology, including plant genetics is moving so incredibly quickly that the vast majority of papers drop out of sight within a few years. To be cited more than 30 years after publication is a significant accomplishment and your father achieved that with 5 of his papers. Because he worked in an area somewhat distant from my expertise, it is difficult for me to provide a synopsis of his body of work. In lieu of that, I choose to focus on his mostly highly cited work, a 1966 publication – which by the way, has already received a 2011 citation in a review paper (this means that a current expert in the field has commented on the impact of this particular piece of work by your father).   –Lynne

Lynne then reviews my father’s 1966 paper, about hybrid vigor, translating it into laymen’s terms. I won’t summarize the 1966 article here—a future post—but the crux of the matter is this:

I’d had an idea that my father’s work had been important, but I had no idea as to its scope or that it was still generating interest. My father would be proud to know he made an impact.

When he found out, at age 24, that he had multiple sclerosis, he became single-minded, hoping to have enough time to be able to make some kind of contribution. And the fact that he was able to partially do so lessens the sadness I feel for his short and somewhat unlucky life.

–Natalia Sarkissian

Jan 252011
 
Barrett Olson-Glover 1

Journey’s end, back-country in British Columbia

It is an undoubted fact that in the heart of every young Canadian there lurks the impulse to pack up and drive across the country at least once. The road itself, the Trans-Canada Highway, and the immense distances beckon you. DG’s nephew, Barrett Olson-Glover, left Oakville, Ontario, just after Christmas and arrived in Vancouver New Year’s Eve. He was supposed to drive with friends, but his friends lacked the true adventurous spirit of the breed, and they abandoned him. Hence he had to take his trip photos while driving one-handed.  There is just something visceral, no matter how gray, cold and alien the outlook, in photographs of the empty land. Lake Superior is mythic, the Prairies are lunar, and the mountains  exude an air of being party girls who know how good they look (and yes their sheer immensity, catching the light, seems also inhuman). The back-country photos of Barrett (top and bottom of the post) in British Columbia were taken by his boarding friend Dan Robertson.

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Heading north to go west over the Great Lakes

First glimpse of Lake Superior

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Jan 242011
 

Lynne Quarmby is a gene biologist who  runs a research lab at Simon Fraser University and lives in West Vancouver; she’s also a painter (see five water colours earlier posted on NC), a musician and a big-time outdoorswoman. DG briefly attended Simon Fraser in the summer of 1969 as a graduate student in philosophy. That summer he won the British Columbia 5,000m track championship, climbed the Lions (the twin snowy peaks you can see in the distance from downtown Vancouver), and went to San Francisco and hung out on Haight and Ashberry (where nothing much happened). Lynne’s “What it’s like living here” essay reminds him of the past (although it was summer and it didn’t rain much, and he lived on campus on top of Burnaby Mountain and didn’t have to commute). Vancouver really is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, with English Bay out in front and the beaches and the ships and the great bridges and the snowy mountains just behind.

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Rain

The one thing everyone seems to know about Vancouver is that it rains. It’s true. It is raining now, as I look from my 4th floor apartment in West Vancouver across English Bay to Kitsilano. The glow of streetlights at 11 am this January 7 morning emphasizes the daytime darkness and feeds the sense that the soft rain will continue unrelenting for weeks to come, socked-in, drizzling, misty, foggy, dark and wet. When days are this dark melancholy seeps in – you’ve been forgetting to dose with vitamin D to compensate for the lack of sunlight (and thinking too much about the lack of research funding). But Vancouver is a coy place. It relents, the clouds thin and lift and you thrill to the spectrum of grays – oyster, pearly, mousy, leaden, silver. It’s 3 pm and the continuously changing light makes it difficult to stay focused on the lecture that needs to be written.  I relent and head out for a walk, knowing that I will be up late working.


 

Balcony in the sun

The Sun

2 PM Saturday, January 8. I sit outside, soaking up sunshine. The surprise arrival of this sunny day demands attention. The sun shines directly onto my building, and because the heat is absorbed by and radiates from the concrete building, my balcony is warm. I’ve eaten lunch outside in my shirtsleeves, absorbing the warmth, absorbed by the view of sky & sea. I watch the freighters at anchor as they swing with the flow of the tide. One steams into port for its turn at the docks. The seagulls cry. A lone kayaker paddles up the coast. I am watching through a curtain of rain. At this moment I am the pot of gold at the end of someone’s rainbow. I look across the bay to the city – whose rainbow?  I close my eyes and focus on the warmth of the winter sun. I breathe deeply and slowly, savoring the air – cleaner than we deserve, refreshed daily by the mountains and the sea breezes. It is all too much, and soon it will be gone again. How long can I sit here absorbing paradise? About 30 minutes. If you were here perhaps we’d sit for a while longer.

The Lions from Sky Train



The Forests and the Mountains and the Sea

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve driven the 15 minutes up the mountain directly behind my apartment. The open area around the parking lot is a zoo. Families with sleds, tubes, dogs, and kids running wild  – everyone is manic with the sunshine. We all act as though the sun never shines in the winter, that this is remarkable, spectacular, something to write home about. And it is, even though it isn’t really all that unusual. It is my first ski of the winter and I feel awkward as I set out cross-country into the forest. Within 500 meters I find a deep quiet and feel the peace.  I try to ski high enough for a view across the ocean as we roll away from the sun, but I am too slow.


 

Cypress Mountain

The Commute

West Vancouver is a small town; a city distinct from Vancouver. Here I walk the seawall to wherever I need to go – yesterday 0.5 Km west to the village of Dundarave where I picked up a roll of quarters for the laundry. Frequently I see seals, but on this walk I saw a sea otter. Later I took my backpack and walked east 1 Km to the village of Ambleside to buy groceries from Mitra’s, a Persian market. There was a heron fishing in the intertidal. There are usually bright scooters, occasionally bald eagles, and always seagulls. Last week I watched a seagull swallow a starfish. Perhaps next weekend I will walk a little further to the sailing club to ask about kayak rentals. During the week I leave this idyllic community and commute to Simon Fraser University where I am a professor of Cell Biology.

Although it takes twice as long as driving, I commute by public transit. I take a bus over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, through Stanley Park into the city (by which we mean downtown Vancouver) where I disembark to a chorus of “thank you” “thanks” “have a good day” – riders here acknowledge the driver as they exit the bus. Buses that pass you by because they are out of service or full announce “Sorry” on their destination screens.   From downtown I take the sky train out of the city. Twenty-five years after Expo ’86, riding the sky train still feels futuristic.  It is a clear day and Mt Baker, a large (inactive?) volcano about 100 Km southeast in Washington State, hangs in the sky like a rock & ice metaphor for our big brother to the south – always there even when we don’t see it. Out the north window, although small & distant the snow capped coastal range captures my attention. The people-watching is fabulous, but the listening isn’t. It helps to have a great set of headphones – every commute is a movie and I get to choose the sound track.

Bookclub Dessert

Lemon meringue pie
Bus with standing room only
Serve “transit rider parfait”

Lion’s Gate Bridge and Stanley Park from the seawall in front of my apartment




The University on Top of Burnaby Mountain

Tuesday January 11. This morning I delivered a 2-hour lecture to ~70 Molecular Biology & Biochemistry majors on how cilia – those tiny rod-like structures that protrude from the surface of almost every cell in your body – function as cellular antennae. In particular, I was reviewing for the students some recently published data that (almost) reveals how urine flow through the collecting ducts of the kidney causes cilia to bend and send signals to keep the cells small. When this flow-induced signalling pathway is defective, as it is in patients with Polycystic Kidney Disease, the control of cell size and division is disrupted and ducts bellow into cysts. We work through the evidence to decide whether there is causality behind an intriguing correlation.

After lecture I stop by my lab. We are feeling a little lowly these days because last week we learned that my application for the renewal of the federal grant that funds our research was not successful. The application scored in the “excellent” category but research dollars are short.  The reviewers raved about the proposal, but they want more preliminary data to demonstrate that our ideas are on the right track. I’ve had to give notice to three people. Today I have only 30 minutes to spend in the lab because I am on the examining committee for a thesis defense this afternoon. When I get to the lab I find everyone waiting expectantly. There is excitement because Laura has obtained a new result.

Laura loading gel

Laura is a self-confident third year graduate student who isn’t yet sure whether a life in science is worth the sacrifices. She prepares a slide for me and we go to the microscope. She doesn’t tell me which sample is the control but the result is so clear that it is obvious. All through the thesis defense I jot notes. This new data is a big boost for the renewal application and I am trying to decide how it affects where to put our efforts over the next six weeks. It is important to only do experiments that can give us informative results before the application is due; it is also important to do the key experiments. Which key experiments are most likely to work and to work quickly?

Wednesday, January 12. SFU gets a snow day while the rest of the city goes to work. More commonly we go to work like everyone else and then get stranded on the mountain when the roads close. I make sure I have snow boots with me so I can walk the 45 min down the trail into the rainy lowlands and catch a bus home.


The Future

Friday, January 14 the rain is back in spades. In the evening I decide to go for a swim – in the summer that would mean the ocean, but tonight I pull up the hood on my raincoat and head across the road to the Aquatic Centre.  It feels good to be in the bright light, listening to families splashing in the play area next to where I swim lengths. As I leave the Aquatic Centre, Brenda is arriving. A fellow resident of Surfside Towers, Brenda is in her 50’s, or maybe 40’s – it’s difficult to tell. She is about 5’2” and has puffy features with small squinty eyes. Brenda speaks in a mumbling nasal voice, but her manner is caring and gentle. I learn that she swims every Friday night. She tells me about the sauna and the steam room – I’d missed those. After running home through the rain, I arrive at our building at the same time as Steve who is returning from an event at the Legion. He is a tall man in his 70’s with a dignified carriage and a gracious manner. Tonight he is in uniform with medals on his chest. At first Steve doesn’t recognize me (we’d met at the Christmas party). Then he sees that I’ve been swimming. He tells me that Brenda swims every Friday night. On our way up in the elevator he pushes “G.” It is nice, he explains, for people coming home in the evening to have the elevator waiting.

Shades of gray from my balcony

Tomorrow I will take the ferry to visit friends on Bowen Island. I’ll break my mostly vegetarian routine to share a meal of wild venison.  We’ll talk of recent shows we’ve seen in the city – whenever Bela Fleck or Chick Corea comes to town we’ll all be there. We may try out the new Sauna they’ve built of driftwood.

—Lynne Quarmby

Jan 212011
 

Editor’s Note (Jan 13, 2012): Amanda Jernigan’s book Groundwork, from which these poems were excerpted, was named one of the top five poetry books of 2011 by NPR.

Amanda Jernigan writes poems that make your brain fizz with their rhetorical flourish, the chops and changes of her lines, their dense, active language, their allusiveness, and their brawny intelligence. She writes out of what she calls a scholarly aesthetic, a formal and referential rootedness in tradition and wide-reading. Besides poems, she writes essays and plays. She is a contributing editor at The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes & Queries. With her partner, the artist John Haney, she has produced limited-edition books and broadsides under the imprint Daubers Press. Her work has been published and performed in Canada, the United States, and Germany, and is featured in the online archive of the Poetry Foundation. The dog’s name is Ruby. The photos are by John Haney.

These  five poems are from Amanda’s first collection Groundwork: poems, published by the exciting Canadian literary press Biblioasis in fall, 2011.

Groundwork comprises three poetic sequences, the first situated on and around an archaeological dig in modern-day Tunisia, the second situated in and out of a distinctly heterodox Garden of Eden, the third testing the waters of Homer’s Odyssey as a medium for the working-out of the relationship between artist and traveller. Written over a period of eight years, alongside other, unconnected lyrics, these poems represent stages in the development of a poet’s thinking about language and place; at the same time, they form a series of parallel meditations on past, present, and the mythological constructs with which we seek to join them. —Amanda Jernigan

 

 

Five poems from the sequence “First Principals”

From Groundwork

By Amanda Jernigan

 

Aubade

The time, if time it was, would ripen
in its own sweet time. One thought of dawn.
One felt that things were shaping up,
somehow, that it was getting on.

Day broke. Upon the waters broke
in waves on waves unbreaking and
night fell, unveiling in its wake
one perfect whitened rib of land.

I slept, and while I slept I dreamed,
a breaking wave, a flowering tree,
and all of one accord I seemed.
I woke, and you divided me.
.

§

.

The Birds of Paradise

Adam and Eve and Pinchme
went down to the river to bathe.
Adam and Eve were drowned.
Who do you think was saved?

Between her pills, his poisons,
the water in which we bathe
is less than pure: I rather doubt
that even I’ll be saved.

My pet canary, William, died.
But, I am reassured,
there is a factory upstream
to replicate the bird

in polyvinyl chloride: moving
parts, a voice-box cheep —
with proven nightengalish means
of putting one to sleep.

Do I wake or sleep? Indeed,
the answer is the same.
Ask Finnegan. In fact, ask me,
if you can guess my name.

.

§

.


Adam at the Altar

The name shall answer to the beast
………………………..without a moment’s staying:
fish and fowl — and flesh, not least —
………………………..all honour-and-obeying.
But save your ‘wilt thou’, parish priest:
………………………..for she goes without saying.
.

§
.

Soliloquy

All make-believe amounting to pretending
to the throne, I banished Eve, and Adam,
loath to go it on his own, went after.
That year the grapes fermented on the vine,
the fields lay fallow. I thought I’d take a stab
at beekeeping, but years have passed: you almost
wouldn’t know there was a garden here. The streams,
uninterrupted, flow from Eden as they always did.
The apple trees, untended, go to crab.
.

§
.

Refrain

Imagine it, Adam: old woman and grey,
I found myself walking again in the garden,
the trees in full fruit as they were on that day.
Therein lies the question: again, did I eat?
Again. It was as we remembered. More sweet.
.




—Amanda Jernigan


See also “Adam’s Prayer,” “Bats,” and “Lullaby.”

Jan 202011
 

Here is the first in a new series of Numéro Cinq essays called “Childhood.” The idea is for writers to evoke the place, time and ethos of their childhood in words and pictures, not childhood in general but a particular childhood, not their children’s childhood but their own. Steven Axelrod has been writing on and for NC almost from the beginning. He’s a very witty and loquacious participant in NC contests and a fine observer of the world in his own Open Salon.com column. He wrote a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece about Nantucket. I had often heard him talking about his father, and so it seemed appropriate to ask someone like Steve, for whom childhood was so important, to write about his childhood. As a point of entry, it’s helpful to know that Steve’s father was George Axelrod who wrote the play The Seven Year Itch and the screenplays for such movies as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate, and How to Murder your Wife.

dg

Childhood

By Steven Axelrod


 

 

 

Dog Days

For years I wanted a dog desperately. Wandering the stacks of the New York Society Library on 79th street, I discovered the works of Albert Payson Terhune, and with a boyish, single- minded passion, shared his love for a succession of collies and hunting dogs in books like Lad: a Dog, Buff: a Collie and Lochinvar Luck. Terhune is largely forgotten now, possibly because he really didn’t seem to like people very much. His works introduced me to a number of racial epithets which my Mom used as teaching tools, to explore the fascinating world of human bigotry. “’Chink’ is what people call the Chinese, so they can feel superior to them,” she informed me. “It’s fun to feel superior to other people, especially when you’re not.”

She was stubborn on the subject of dogs, though, knowing full well that the bulk of the care and feeding of any pet would fall on her. And of course we lived in an apartment, not the ideal environment for a herding animal; but Central Park was just three blocks away.

 

I actually found my dog in the park during a dreary Sunday softball game with a bunch of kids I didn’t like, a group I didn’t want to be part of, the uncool group at school. But during a long, dreamy session in the outfield (even in this crowd, I played deep left), I struck up a conversation with a lady walking a collie. Someone scored a homerun during our conversation, but the dog was due to have pups in a few months, and the lady took my number. She called me when the litter arrived. Even at age nine, I was much better at chatting up interesting strangers than I was at baseball, where I achieved a rare incompetence trifecta: I couldn’t hit, throw or catch. I could run all right, but I preferred not to.

The images release themselves, out of order, seemingly at random: my collie darting back and forth ecstatic in his first Central Park snowfall, taking a bite from a drift and leaping away, barking loud enough to wake up all of Fifth Avenue; and his snout, pressed to the rear window of the car that took him away two years later, when my allergies made keeping him impossible. And the counselor at camp that summer, who built a splendid impossible tower of tooth-picks and threw it into the final bonfire, the flames torching it all at once, the sudden light blinding, the heat intense, the crackle deafening and the column of smoke rising like a cobra from a basket, its hood dispersing against the high clear stars.

Continue reading »

Jan 172011
 


Here’s Gwen Mullins writing about life in Chattanooga (where once I spent a dramatic couple of hours wandering along Missionary Ridge and imagining the amazing battle that took place there–I’d just driven up from Americus and the Andersonville prison camp: part of my Civil War pilgrimage). Gwen is a former student of mine, just graduated at the winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a fiction writer, but with this graceful essay and her recent contribution to NC on story plot, you can see she as dab hand at nonfiction as well, a woman of letters.

dg

Your whole life

You have lived your whole life here. Your life entire spent within thirty (fewer, really) miles of country along the kissing corners of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama. The Tri-State, they call it here. Or Tri-County, for the hospital.

You have traveled a little, but only a little. Some places stand out as bright, clear spots outlined in black in your place memories: San Francisco, Miami, Venice, New York City, New Orleans, Anchorage. Places that seemed exotic but are not. You long to visit other places: Nantucket, Kyrgyzstan, Milan, Edmonton, Indianapolis, Cupertino. You tell yourself you can read about them and in reading, you will be there.



Scenic City

This place, the Tennessee Valley, is overwhelmingly green. Neither bright nor dark, but only green. Green for long stretches of spring, summer, and into autumn. Until recently, even the winters were green. And the rivers run brownly green through the green hills you call mountains.
See Rock City! You’ve seen the signs. This advertising genius of Garnet Carter and Clark Byers resulted in 900 painted barn roofs by the 1950s. You‘ve seen Rock City. Better sights come from the bridges, from Raccoon Mountain (the mountain with TVA generators jammed deep in its belly), from all the forest parks. They call Chattanooga the Scenic City because it is. You avoid Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway, Rock City, the Delta Queen riverboat, Point Park – anything that charges admission. You love Chickamauga Battlefield, Cloudland Canyon, Missionary Ridge, your own backyard and front lawn.You can buy See Rock City!-barn-shaped birdhouses painted in red and black in the souvenir shops across from the Choo-Choo. Yes, there really is a Choo-Choo, only now it’s a Holiday Inn. You remember how in Italy they all seemed to know the Glenn Miller song, how they would begin, “Track Twenty Ni-ine” in their lovely accented English. You wonder at the power of song, of words that transport, that tie the world together.

The old freight depot houses your husband’s office. It is LEED certified, green in the new sense. Yesterday he turned in his notice, so you suppose it’s not his office anymore. You are proud that your city has the first LEED-certified movie theatre, The Majestic. This is part of the downtown revitalization, the focus on the new green. You agree when some people call it gentrification, but you love the new restaurants.
You avoid eye contact with the Jamaican man with the dreadlocks and tangled gray beard who sometimes sleeps in the engine building where the electric buses now spend the night. He sells perfumes and bent metal figurines, and if you ask, other things.

You tell visitors that the Walnut Street Bridge is the longest pedestrian-only bridge in the United States. You are pretty sure this is true. On this bridge families stroll, cyclists bike, athletes run, photographers frame shots, but no vagrants dwell. From here you can see the other bridges, the Tennessee River, the aquarium, the art museum. You love the way the wind whips your hair on this bridge, how it’s always a little cooler here than the rest of the town.

You know, as does everyone, the best fried chicken is on MLK across from the university at a joint called “Champy’s.” You love that the city schools and churches hold fish fries under canopies in parking lots every Saturday in summer to raise money for choir trips and cheerleaders’ uniforms. Down the street a ways from Champy’s is a bleak building with a red-lettered sign that says, “Memo’s” and underneath that, “Chopped Wieners, Pit Bar-B-Q.” This sign has always amused you, but this is not a part of town where you stop.


Heritage

You flinch and are quick to defend when others who do not wish to lay claim to this land call it backward, or racist, or ignorant, or poor. And then a waitress asks you who your infant daughter’s father is even while she sits between you and your husband. She asks because your daughter’s skin is more mocha than cream.

And then you stop at the gas station in Marion County next to Big Daddy’s Fireworks Warehouse, and you note the Confederate flags for sale, the barefoot two-year-old wearing a heavy diaper and chugging steadily from a clear bottle of greenish soda while his young mother buys four dollars in lottery tickets and three dollars of gas.

You walk among the azaleas on the Cumberland Trail on Signal Mountain (which is not really a mountain, but a big hill and a town who whose inhabitants named it Mountain) and remember how your small, bent grandmother, the one you called “Nanny,” put her thumbprint in the middle of each biscuit so it would rise. You try not to remember the words she used to describe her new neighbors when they moved in across the street. You think instead of how she would hold your hand and point at the hang gliders drifting on the currents and you cried out for the joy of flight. You did not know the story of Icarus then, and your grandmother never did.

You smirk that school children (except perhaps those from Sand Mountain just across the Alabama state line) are no longer required to go to the moving diorama called the “Confederama” as a “history” field trip. They have re-named the attraction but are fooling no one. You hear they are shutting down due to tax issues and you are glad.

And sometimes you walk through the cemetery next to the university. Half of the cemetery is Jewish, the other half Confederate. Both are peaceful, both are green.


This is just what you do

You surround yourself with funny, smart people who eat sushi (because that’s a sign of progressiveness here) and start to think that this world used to be divided by color but now it is all just green, and beautiful, and it is a world where you are happy to bring up your children.

You smile, greet, and nod at strangers, and they smile back. You make gravy with the pan drippings from pork sausage blended with flour, salt, and milk. And just a little black pepper. You press your thumb in the center of biscuits so they will rise properly. You pull to the side of the road for funeral processions and wait until they pass. This is just what you do here.

Your spouse who grew up in Newark tells you other places are not so green or so welcoming. You stop thinking how much you want to leave this place, so you buy a bigger house and its associated mortgage. You plan to travel, you even take some of the trips you have planned. You think about going to one of the eleven Protestant churches within two miles of your home. You admire the view from your veranda.

And the cost of living is low. You know this because your New York and Miami relatives (your husband’s relatives, actually, since your family all lives here) have told you how much their tiny condominiums cost and marvel at your square footage. You are pleased and embarrassed, as if you chose to live here for the expense savings.


Your whole life, so far

You remember the progressiveness is a veneer, and you accept that the men (except for your husband, whom you always remember is not from around here) wait for you to exit the elevator first because you have a uterus. You are, after all, the boss of many of these men, and that is, for here, progressive enough.

You encourage your daughter to consider universities in Chicago or Ithaca. You try not to analyze the feeling that settles on you when she applies to schools in Nashville. Are you disappointed? Are you relieved? You remind yourself that your life is not hers, that her life will not be yours. She will leave this place, or maybe you will.

You reprimand your son for talking like a redneck, or, when the mood strikes him, like a gangster. You do not examine what you mean by terms like “redneck” and “gangster.”

You try not to flinch when your short stories are compared to Flannery O’Connor’s not because they are good, but rather because they are occasionally southern and you are female. You do not point out the irreverence inherent in them. Flannery was, above all, a godly woman.

You finally admit your deep weakness for sad, old country ballads, and you think of writing one before realizing you already are. You see the hills you call mountains everywhere you go, hemming you in, holding you up. You cannot escape the sound of the train’s whistle. You are bathed in green.

— Gwen Mullins

Jan 162011
 

Pierre Joris. Photo by Joseph Mastantuono

 

Pierre Joris is a poet and translator who teaches at the University at Albany-State University of New York. I got to know him in the mid-1990s when I taught graduate creative writing students at the university and did a weekly radio show called The Book Show (two years, over 80 interviews with famous and infamous writers from Europe, Canada and the United States) at WAMC, the Albany Public Radio affiliate. One of my  interviews was devoted to Pierre who is not just a poet and teacher but a protean dynamo of translation, theory, criticism, editing, and international literary promotion. One of his many accomplishments is the massive multi-volume Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry which he co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg. In 2005 he won the PEN Poetry in Translation prize. Later this year ‘Exile is My Trade:’ The Habib Tengour Reader, edited, translated & introduced by Pierre Joris will be published by Black Widow Press.

Tengour is an Algerian poet, novelist and ethnologist, a post-colonial, surrealist, and self-described mestizo writer who has lived, worked and studied in Algeria and Paris. As Pierre Joris writes, Tengour is “one of the Maghreb’s most forceful and visionary francophone poetic voices of the post-colonial era. The work has the desire and intelligence to be epic, or at least to invent narrative possibilities beyond the strictures of the Western / French lyric tradition, in which his colonial childhood had schooled him.” Few of Tengour’s works are available in English, but a Joris translation of the narrative poem “The Old Man of the Mountain” was published in 4X1: Works by Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey, and Habib Tengour by Pete Monaco & Sharul Ladue (a former student of mine) at Inconundrum Press (which was subsequently taken over by another former student and NC community member Nina Alvarez). Herewith I am pleased to present two new Tengour works translated by Pierre Joris.

dg

 

“Five Movements of the Soul” and “Hodgepodge”

By Habib Tengour

Translated by Pierre Joris

2 Sections from: Etats de chose suivi de Fatras.

 

 

Five Movements of the Soul (new version)


Gray this voice

goes to earth

worried

oh

has sung

has taken

body of evocation






In silence
at
threshold



at a loss

to stretch



stone                                river
a door



clear

this did not last

Continue reading »

Jan 152011
 

I’ve known Michelle Berry for years, in a way. I’ve only actually met her once in person. But I put an hilarious Michelle Berry story in Best Canadian Stories in the days when I still edited that annual anthology, and I have been a fan of her work since. She’s energetic, comic and prolific, with a list of books as long as your arm. 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. Michelle lives in Peterborough, Ontario, where I spent a couple of years in the Triassic (eons ago). I worked on the local newspaper, the Examiner, first as a general reporter, then as sports editor (this is, of course, why I am indisputably qualified to edit Numéro Cinq). I had my first short story published in the venerable Canadian literary magazine The Tamarack Review while I was working in Peterborough. A murder I covered as a reporter (and many of the settings) made it into my first novel Precious (the character Blythe Aschroft is very, very loosely based on moi). So it’s a special pleasure in all ways to offer Michelle’s “What it’s like living here” piece. I remember this place fondly. I can’t count the number of times I’d be working late in the newsroom, and a group of us would head out to watch the lift lock (okay, maybe the town wasn’t that exciting in those days) in the moonlight with a couple of beers and a burger.

dg

.

What’s it like living here….

Good question.

Where is here?

In Canada? Specifically in Peterborough, in Ontario? In my squished, laughably-compact home office? Or in my head? I live in all of these places. The inside of my head is often stormier than Peterborough — although not so much in the summer. And, although my mind should be as vast, if not vaster, than Canada, it often feels as full of things-needing-completion as my cork-board, calendar-strewn office. My mother says that keeping up with my schedule (two really active kids, writing-in-process) is like trying to catch a train. From my perspective, it sometimes feels more like getting hit by a train.

Outside my second-floor office window there is a tree. A gorgeous, immense, old tree. I’m not sure what kind it is—oak? yes, an oak—and it doesn’t really matter because it’s a magical thing. Over 200 years old, this tree takes four adults to wrap our arms around its trunk. Because it has insignificant leaves, this tree isn’t as beautiful in summer as it is in the winter when it’s bare and stark against a cold sky. It sometimes looks like the tree from Poltergeist, the tree that sucked the little boy into the gory insides, the one that bashed through his window in the storm. It’s an incredibly inspiring and dramatic tree. A perfect view across from which to write.

Peterborough is a town about 2 hours North East of Toronto. Population 78,000 or so (probably more since we got a Costco. A chicken or egg thing—Costco brings people or people bring Costco? I don’t know. I’m not a member. They won’t even let me in the front door.). So, let’s say population 80,000. A sleepy town? Perhaps. But you should see our new Mall, Lansdowne Place. It’s a sight. Now we only have to drive forty minutes down highway 115 to Oshawa for The Bay. We’ve got every other store you’d want right here.

Peterborough is not only about the shopping. It’s about the lift locks. And the summer. Peterborough County is cottage country. All the rich Toronto folk drive through on the way to cottages that are so big they need cleaning staff. Boats going through the locks are even bigger than the cottages.

I’m not jealous or anything. Honestly.

Who needs to clean two houses?

I live near the downtown. Near enough so I can walk when I go out for dinner. Which I rarely do. I’m not sure why. Laziness, I guess. And lack of money. And the wine is cheaper in my kitchen. I live in an area called The Old West End which is made up of mostly young families in big, beautiful, old houses. I have two porches in the front of my house — one off my second floor office, one off the living room. I sit on these porches in three seasons as much as I can. I watch the kids play on the street, or the people walking their dogs. I read. Or just stare. At the tree, mostly. Sometimes I feel as if I’m in a 1950’s sitcom – Leave it To Beaver – the neighbours all calling back and forth across the street, coming over clutching snacks and wine, or coffee, joining me on my porch. It’s idyllic. Small townish. And makes me nervous. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. How is it possible that my eleven year old can play flashlight tag in the hot summer evenings until way past dark, running back and forth between people’s back yards (with their permission even!), or my 14 year old can hop the back fence to her friend’s house still wearing her pj’s late on a Saturday morning. Isn’t this 2011? It feels a lot like my late 1970’s childhood in Victoria, B.C.. My mother sits on my front porch and comments through the laughter of a street full of hockey players or basketball players, that it feels like her childhood too.

We live a forty minute drive from the lot where we park our car, get into our Boston Whaler, and boat five minutes to our small cottage on an island on Upper Stoney Lake. If we’ve gone up for the weekend and it starts to rain, we head home. No need to be slaves to the weather. We watch the sun set from our bedroom window, hear the deer snorting in the bushes, listen (of course – this is Canada) to the loons’ cry, the sound of speed boats drifts on the wind on the lower side of the lake.

In the winter we build an ice rink in our back yard. Kids come over to skate, impromptu hockey games start up and end and start up again. Twinkle lights dot the fence, a spot-light for night skating, a few Christmas lights on the clothesline. My seventy-year young parents skated on Christmas morning this year, my mom used a hockey stick as support to propel her along. I can watch the rink from my kitchen, stirring a sauce, boiling noodles, sipping wine. I can see the dog jumping onto the ice, sliding, the kids shouting at him to get off, laughing when he skids into the boards.

This city is full of paths. Old railway tracks turned into walking trails. Jackson Park and the Rotary Trail, paths that take you great distances through forests and beside rivers and lakes and canals, up past the Trent University. I’ve seen huge snapping turtles on the paths. There are bear warnings every so often. Mostly there are a motley series of dogs – big ones, little ones, ones wearing coats or boots. Once I saw a dog in sunglasses. And another time I saw someone walking a ferret on a leash. You can X-country ski on these paths. You can bike all the way to Lakefield where you can fill up on ice cream at Hamblin’s and then turn around and bike back.

Peterborough’s downtown core is typical of southern Ontario towns – two one-way streets, George and Water. Rows of stores, some out of business, boarded up, others thriving. We have a clock tower, a movie theatre, an amazing jewelry store and a few really great coffee places. Among other things, of course. Like restaurants: Japanese, Cajun, Belgian, Korean, Mexican.

A Santa Claus parade winds its way down George Street every year and you can show up right when it starts and still get a good spot to see everything. There are floats and dogs and clowns and the occasional truck which, for no reason at all, is part of the parade. A local motorcycle shop has a wild float that blasts music and lets off huge bursts of smoke and noise. One year a group of men danced down the street wearing purple and we still don’t know who or what they represented.

The thing about this city is the people. We aren’t stuck in traffic all the time, our houses are fairly inexpensive, there are spaces in the local sports leagues and the piano teacher has free days in her schedule. So we’re generally a happy folk. People have parties and get-togethers and go for walks and travel together. One family rents the local arena for a holiday skate every year and the whole neighbourhood shows up. Stress is here, of course, but it is comparably less than, say, Toronto where I lived for seventeen years. I haven’t had a conversation about directions, about how to easily avoid traffic and get from one place to the other, since I’ve moved to Peterborough. That’s not saying it isn’t a bitch to get around in the summer. The cottagers move their traffic jams here along with their swimsuits. But my husband likes to tell his Toronto-family that his commute to work takes only four minutes every day, no matter what.

I know what is going to happen, though. This happened to my parents. My kids will move. No sane high school graduate would want to stay in Peterborough. My children will move to Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal. They will go off to school, maybe start families, elsewhere. I’ll probably follow them. My parents followed me. It took them twenty years and I had to move away from Toronto before they would do it, but eventually they came. What’s interesting about this place, however, is that these kids seem to come back after they’ve started their own families. We have many friends who grew up in Peterborough, who moved away, but then came back to raise their children the way they were raised. To spend winter weekends at Devil’s Elbow ski hill, racing, or summers at the cottage. To spend Fall and Spring biking the paths.

Every time I sit on my front porch it’s inevitable that cars will drive by the big tree and then stop, back up. People will get out of their cars to stare at it. They walk up to it. Touch it. Wrap their arms around it. They take pictures. My neighbour jokes about putting a little money-bin on a post by the tree with a sign that says, “Save the Tree.” He wants to see how much money he can collect. But it makes us all proud to watch the cars slow down, to watch these people stare in awe at this tree. Because it’s so old. Because it’s steady and strong. Because it weathers all weather. And no matter how busy my mind is, this tree always reminds me to stop for a minute to admire it.

I’ve been told that this tree will last another hundred years.

Which is good. Because when it falls, it’ll hit our house.

—Michelle Berry

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Jan 132011
 

Jeanie Chung is a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and one of dg’s former students. She was a dream of a student and a dog lover, so she and dg had things to talk about besides writing (see current dog in group photo at bottom of essay). Jeanie’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in upstreet, Madison Review, Stymie and elsewhere. Her author interviews have been published in Writer’s Chronicle and Rain Taxi online; her interview with Aleksandar Hemon will be out in Writer’s Chronicle this spring. She used to be a sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Now she is working on a novel-in-stories based on her experiences covering high school and college basketball. See also her essay in Drunken Boat.

What It’s Like Living Here

from Jeanie Chung in Chicago


Part 1: The second city

Welcome to Chicago. We’re so happy you’ll be staying for a while. You see, so many people view us as nothing more than an airport, a place to change planes between coasts. We used to have the nation’s busiest airport, though now it’s No. 2.

Yes, it seems we’re always No. 2. It’s even our nickname: the Second City. We don’t mind. Second is just fine for us, thank you. In fact, we prefer it. We wear our runner-up status like a sensible winter coat. Sure, it’s puffy and ugly, but screw you: we’re warm. You can see our second-city pride in our malapropism-spouting mayor, our crystalline lake — filtered by invasive zebra mussels! —  that coastal visitors take pains to point out is lovely, but does not smell like the ocean or have tides like the ocean, but they guess that’s OK because, my goodness, who would have thought that such an interesting, vibrant city could exist in the Midwest, of all places? Our embrace — well, the embrace of some us — of a baseball team whose unofficial motto is a cheerful, “Wait ’til next year!” We could be the capitol of Flyover Country, but really, that title should go to a city in Iowa or Nebraska. We’re too big to be properly insignificant.

Continue reading »

Jan 122011
 

Gwen Mullins and her son Ben, Montpelier, January 2011

This is Gwen Mullins’ graduate lecture, delivered at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Gwen does a  fine job of laying out the theory and craft and then doing close textual analysis to show how the theory of plot works in practice. Readers are always having a difficult time parsing plot and separating it from ancillary material and devices, but Gwen goes a step beyond simply analyzing the plot by showing how some of the ancillary devices work in conjunction with plot. Since it’s a lecture, an oral presentation, Gwen actually planned asides (aside from the asides she spoke extemporaneously which were hilarious) and the asides appear herein in italics.

—dg

 

I never planned or desired to deliver a lecture on that most mundane of topics: plot. The very thought of talking about plot smacked of the self-evident, obvious, even amateurish. The word itself is dull. Plot. What could I possibly say about plot that you do not already know? To be honest, I did not actually know what plot was, or even, sometimes, how to see it skillfully threaded through a story I was reading, much less one I was writing. I have read novels and stories and loved them even without ever seeing the plot. Rather than checking my vision, I assumed the plot was missing, of secondary importance, or perhaps even unnecessary. I have heard literary fiction defined as “character-driven” and popular or mainstream fiction defined as “plot-driven.” In the end, I found those descriptions to be unhelpful ways to approach a story. I must begin my graduate school lecture the same way I began my first speech in junior high school, that is, with a definition. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms defines plot as:

the pattern of events and situation in a narrative or dramatic work, as selected and arranged both to emphasize relationships – usually of cause and effect {Here, let me note: Cause and Effect in plot is not like Cause and Effect in, say, physics or certain branches of philosophy. In plot, Cause and Effect may simply mean telling or showing your reader why the character is doing what she is doing … that is, what is the motivation (cause) that is causing the character to act or behave (effect) in such a way — so let me begin again:} Plot is the pattern of events and situation in a narrative or dramatic work, as selected and arranged both to emphasize relationships – usually of cause and effect between incidents and to elicit a particular kind of interest in the reader or audience, such as surprise or suspense …

Aristotle saw plot as more than just the arrangement of incidents: he assigned the plot the most important function in a drama, as a governing principle of development and coherence to which other elements (including character) must be subordinated. He insisted that a plot should have a beginning, middle, and an end, and that its events should form a coherent whole… (Baldick 195-6)

Aristotle

Some important phrases to note in the definition are “selected and arranged” and “a governing principle in which other elements must be subordinated.” In other words, character development is plot. Characters are defined by what they do, and that process of defining, of actions and reactions, grows out of plot. Yes, the writer may not know precisely what will happen and exactly how the characters are going to react until she writes it out, but clearly articulating what a character does, says, or thinks during a series of events pushes the fiction forward so that it gathers momentum and tension. Until I actually read the definition of plot, I thought character development meant rolling around inside the characters’ heads and writing what they saw or remembered. That part is important, sure, but development happens when the characters react to events or ideas or other characters and think and change as a result. In other words, “Shit happens, Susie and Jack handle it, and then it happens again and again until the shit is dealt with or not.” Along the way the reader’s understanding of Susie and Jack has probably changed.

Aristotle has been dead for a while now, so we might assume that plot and the ancient Greek ideas of drama are obsolete. They are not. In his essay, “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise,” in his book, Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing,  Douglas Glover defines a story as

a narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs. B). This conflict needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.

He provides an alternative definition when he writes:

By a story I mean a narrative that extends through a set of articulations, events or event sequences, in which the central conflict is embodied once, and again, and again (three is the critical number here – looking back at the structure of folk tales) such that in these successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.

Aristotle talks about the “beginning, middle, and end;” Glover says “again and again and again.” It seems a successful story involves, at a minimum, a conflict hat trick.

I routinely observe student writers (including myself) demonstrate a reluctance to be too “obvious” about plot. I have news: We are not being too obvious. I have seen my own tendency to focus on characters, descriptions, or background information so much that I can overlook the point of telling a story — things happen. The development of plot is the story. In dissecting a couple of stories by writers I admire, I’ve finally begun to “see” the plot and how the “selected and arranged” development of a story includes characters in conflict rising to climax. I’m going to talk about a couple of short stories. I will provide a summary of each story and then walk through the way they each demonstrate plot point by point.

Tobias Wolff’s story “Bible,” published in The Atlantic and included in the Best American Short Stories 2008, is about a high school English teacher, Maureen, who leaves her friends at a bar to go home alone on a cold Friday night. As the slightly drunk Maureen walks to her car, she searches the faces of the crowd outside a dance club looking for her twenty-something-year-old daughter, Grace, who Maureen hasn’t seen for two years since Grace left college and moved in with one of Maureen’s former colleagues. When Maureen gets to her car, a man comes up behind her and takes her keys. He forces her into the driver’s seat and gets in the car with her. She doesn’t know if he’s going to rob her, rape her, or kill her, but she drives the car. The man directs Maureen to take a turn on a deserted, unplowed road. When she stops the car, the man begins to talk and Maureen figures out that he is the father of Hassan, one of her students whom she is failing for cheating. The man wants his son to become a doctor; Maureen informs the man that Hassan will never be a doctor and she is going to report Hassan for cheating. Maureen asks the man if he is planning to kill her, mocking him by placing his hands on her neck. Maureen realizes the man will not hurt her but she remains angry at being kidnapped even while she begins to feel sorry for the man. She drives back to the parking lot. The man apologizes. Maureen asks how he was going to make her keep her promise (if she had even agreed to make such a promise) not to turn his son in for cheating. The man pulls out a pink Bible he has picked up at Goodwill. She lets the man go and leafs through the Bible while wondering what happened to the long-lost girl who owned it and then the story ends. The story is about 3,000 words and is told from the point of view of third-person narrator, Maureen.

Tobias Wolff

In “Bible” most of the plot occurs in the car, where the two main characters are trapped together by the author. On the second page of this twelve-page story, nine paragraphs into the story text, shit really starts to happen. Maureen gets to her car in the dark lot with no parking attendant, drops her keys, curses, and a man comes up behind her saying, “Don’t curse!” (Wolff 314) The ensuing drama is played out in a series of conflicts between what Maureen wants (A) and what the man wants (B). She wants to escape, stay alive, be safe; he wants her to save his son. Remember Glover’s definition, “a narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs. B). This conflict needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.”

Our Story Begins, by Tobias Wolff, with a version of “Bible” included (entitled “The White Bible” in this collection)

Maureen is approached in the parking lot by a man who demands her keys. The first thing she does is close her eyes. She hands over the keys but resists the order to get in the car. The man half-pushes, half-lifts her into the car. Maureen wants to escape but fails, and this is first in the series of conflicts between A and B which is resolved with Maureen’s failure to escape.

The man orders her to drive, and Maureen thinks about the self-defense classes she took when her husband left and she was alone with her teenage daughter. She cannot make herself fight, and Maureen feels the failure of this inaction in her bones, but this knowledge calms her and she drives. This is the second iteration of conflict; she doesn’t want to drive, but she does anyway. She slows down or speeds up when ordered to do so by the man. When she realizes how cold she is, she turns the heat up. She tells the man she has seventy dollars in her purse and that she can get more. He says, “This is not about money. Drive. Please.” (315) She keeps driving along Frontage Road, remembering picking strawberries with her mother and making out with her boyfriend by the pier. The man tells her to turn into a deserted, unplowed road. Again she obeys, even though she does not know if the man is planning to kill or rape her since it does not appear that he is planning to rob her. The plot in the car is played out through Marlene’s step-by-step growing awareness of who the man is and what he wants from her.

Maureen and the man are still in car as it idles on the deserted road. In a move that becomes a small parallel conflict, Maureen tries to turn the heat down but the man stops her and turns the heat up. She asks what he wants, and he says, “This is not about sex.” (317) His phrasing echoes his prior statement, “This is not about money.” Maureen thinks about running for the road and decides not to. The man tells her he was a doctor in his home country and that she has destroyed his family. Maureen says she does not know who he is or what he’s talking about. He refers to her scornfully as the “the great lady teacher.” (318) And finally Maureen realizes that the man is the father of her student Hassan. In a flashback, we learn Maureen had caught Hassan cheating on an exam after repeating warnings. The man continues to accuse her of hypocrisy, of lying and cheating but showing no mercy on others since she has threatened to turn Hassan in to the principal of the school.

Now that Maureen has placed her kidnapper, her choices change from obeying him to defying him. The plot and character {See how you cannot even separate them out? Is it character development when Maureen decides to turn Hassan in for cheating? Or is it background for the plot? The particular memories Maureen experiences on the drive must have been selected and arranged to meet the demands of the plot – to support, clarify, and help not just the reader but also Maureen learn what she will do next. The choices she makes in reaction to the kidnapping are forms of character development where the character must be “subordinated” to the plot. All of these character choices and reactions taken together constitute plot} okay, so the plot and character grows from Maureen’s new knowledge. Her desire and actions change as result of this knowledge. We know Maureen will reach a tipping point with what she will allow because she has told us during all the driving around that will be how she react. She had acknowledged, “She hated calling people on their offenses … all the rituals of grievance and reproach were distasteful to her, and had always held her back up to a point. Beyond that point she did not spare the lash. But she was always slow to get there.” (Wolff 319) Maureen remembers how she accepted the gambling of her husband, the recklessness of daughter, Hassan’s casual cheating, and then no longer accepted any of these things in turn. She divorces her husband, alienates her daughter, and chooses to turn Hassan in for cheating. Maureen’s interaction with Hassan’s father illustrates the way she behaves when being pushed around or taken for granted. In the story Maureen actually acts the way she always has when confronted with conflict, but it is played out in the car with Hassan’s father as a detailed microcosm of all that has happened before – as live conflict, as plot.

Maureen and Hassan’s father are still in the car, their conflict escalating, clarifying, but still remaining unresolved. Hassan’s father says he will not allow it – “it” being, presumably, the ruin of his son’s academic career by being accused of cheating. He talks of the woman’s place (in the home) and how she should have helped Hassan, not just warned him. He quotes what appears to be scripture and Maureen gets fed up, and the mini-conflict, the one about whether to turn the heat off or on, becomes the turning point in the story. At a deeper level, Hassan’s father wants his son to be successful and unmarred by a black mark on his academic record. At a more immediate level, he wants to stay warm and have the heat left on. The next mini-scene with the heater pares down the essence of the surface conflict.

“I’m turning the heat off,” she said.

“No. Leave it warm.”

But she turned it off anyway, and he made no move to stop her. He looked wary, watching her from his place against the door; he looked cornered, as if she had seized him and forced him to this lonely place. (Wolff 320)

In the next paragraph, the deeper conflict is brought out, and because of the mini-scene with the heater the stage is set for Hassan’s father’s larger conflict to end in a similar fashion. This is Maureen speaking: “‘Okay, doctor,’ she said. ‘You’ve got your parent-teacher conference. What do you want?’” Hassan’s father replies, “You will not report Hassan to Mr. Crespi.” Hassan and Maureen argue about whether or not she will report Hassan to Father Crespi, the principal. Hassan’s father restates that Hassan will be a doctor (remember the father was a doctor in his own country). Maureen states in clear, definitive words that Hassan will never be a doctor. She stares at the man and holds eye contact with him. The scene is the final forward action sequence, the climax of the story. Maureen asks if he had planned to kill her and he remains silent. She questions him – did he have a knife, a gun? Then, in the climactic moment, she places his hands, which he has been rubbing together in the cold car, on her neck. She asks if he planned to strangle her. He did not plan to strangle her and is anxious to remove his hands from her neck.

Remember the dictionary definition of plot? It should have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning occurs in the parking lot with Hassan’s father, and the middle occurs in the car as the A vs. B conflict is played out: she wants to get away (she fails), she wants to escape and to figure out what will happen to her (she stays but figures out who her kidnapper is), and then she gets fed up and is strong against Hassan’s father (she succeeds). Hassan’s father had brought a pink bible he picked up at a thrift store for Maureen to swear on when he thought he could convince her not to tell Father Crespi about Hassan’s cheating. The plot, that conflict between Maureen and Hassan’s father, is bookended by the opening of the story where Maureen is thinking about her own lost daughter. The story closes as Hassan’s father leaves in the dark while Maureen looks at the bible and the inscription and wonders where that girl, the one who owned the bible but also, of course, her lost daughter, has gone.

The lost daughter theme frames the story and ties in with the father and “lost” son story so that the scenes of conflict and discovery in the car are more than a struggle between a teacher and a deluded parent. These side plots (of Maureen and her lost daughter, of Hassan and his father) function not as part of the main plot but rather as resonating devices that give the bones of the plot extra meat and meaning. Without the main plot line that occurs in the car, the parent/child information would have nothing on which to hang. The scenes in the car could stand alone without the information from the ancillary plots. The side plots give weight and resonance to the plot but not structure or forward movement. Perhaps I should mention that I find in my own writing that the spark that begins the story may not end up as essential to the main plot, but rather only a bolstering device or background theme. Realizing that the character must be subordinated to the plot and, when necessary, editing away the fat of background information so that I can see the bones of the plot more clearly, help me ensure I am writing a story instead of a character sketch. I am still working on plot every time I write.

With the Aristotle and Glover explanations in mind, I re-read a story by Ken Smith, my first writing teacher. Smith’s stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including the The Best of Crazyhorse edited by David Jauss. Tim O’Brien once said of Ken Smith:

Ken Smith’s stories are simply wonderful. Without tricks or gimmickry, Smith shows us the world of real things – trees and rivers and animals and human beings caught in crisis. The writing is clear, direct, modest, and always dynamic. What I liked best about these stories is the old-fashioned, or out-of-fashion emphasis on plot. Things happen. Event causes event, and the reader is pulled along by the question: “What next?” For me, at least, this is what story-telling should be. (Decoys, back cover)

This is a gorgeous accolade. I want things to happen in my stories. I did not fall in love with stories because of their beautiful, lyrical sentences; I fell in love with stories because something happened in them that made something happen in me. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some beautiful, lyrical sentences, but if I had to choose what to read next: beautifully drawn sentences or character-rich plot, I’d go with plot almost every time. Of course, I would never make it as a poet.

Ken Smith, 2003

In Ken Smith’s story, “Meat,” originally published in The Atlantic, {Incidentally, I had written a first draft of this lecture before I realized the both of the stories I’d chosen had a number of similarities and were both originally published in The Atlantic. I have since acquired a subscription to The Atlantic. C. Michael Curtis has been (and I believe still is) the fiction editor there for the past 30 years} a widowed old rancher named John Edward Walker sits at his table in the morning listening to gunshots some distance away in the hills. He is sick to his stomach and he knows that no one has any business shooting upcountry but Walker is too old, sick, and tired to go check it out. He remembers finding one of his yearlings butchered along the side of the road a few days previous and the police officer had remarked that it was because of the strikes at the copper mines. Walker has lived on the ranch for over seventy years. In the text of the opening paragraphs, he remembers an incident involving his brothers, his father, and his grandfather who once caught two rustlers stealing a dozen head of cattle. The Walkers had let the rustlers go but had taken back their cattle as well as the rustlers’ horses. This memory is all part of the preamble. Incidentally, this particular technique – that of writing backstory, especially a story within a story, before kicking off into present action — is one that must be used with full awareness and a measure of caution so that the story does not get sidetracked by background information that does not advance the present action of the story or support the plot. Smith makes it work for this particular story since the memory is interesting, relevant (it’s about cattle thieves and the protagonist), and actually tells the reader how the larger story will likely play out without taking any tension away from the main plot. This technique is similar to the one employed by Wolff in “Bible” when Maureen draws on memories of her past and her lost daughter.

The Best of Crazyhorse, edited by David Jauss

The actual plot of “Meat” begins on the sixth page of this fourteen page story. While Walker is sitting at his table with his coffee, two men pull up to the house. Walker goes out to greet them and ask if they had been the ones doing the shooting upcountry. The men, Arnold and Willy, join him at the kitchen table for coffee and Walker talks to them. He likes one of the men but is distrustful of the other. Walker learns that the men have been on strike and Arnold, the one Walker doesn’t like, says they came for meat. Walker goes to the bathroom, contemplates getting his gun, and when he returns the men are drinking whiskey. Arnold knocks Walker down then Walker passes out and wakes up tied to a chair. Walker works his way over to the door where he sees the men load up a fattened steer and drive it to the butchering shed. Walker imagines hungry people walking and driving up to his barn to collect the butchered meat. Walker struggles free, collects his .30-.30, and sights the pick-up where the two men have loaded his meat as the truck is driven up the hill. The truck begins to slide in the fresh snow and Walker hopes they make it. He does not shoot them. Later he sees they have left him enough more than enough beef from the butchered steer to last him through the winter. “Meat” is about 3,500 words and is told in third person from the point of view of John Edward Walker.

I mentioned that both stories originally being published in The Atlantic was one of several similarities I came to see as I fought my way through to seeing the plot lines of these stories. Another is that in each story the protagonist’s conflict comes from a source outside him or herself – a tangible, imminent threat to the physical well-being of the main character. In both stories the protagonist considers taking action (Maureen wants to run; Walker wants to get his gun), acquiesces, and then tries to figure out what the antagonist wants while simultaneously thinking how to defend him or herself. As soon as I understood the essence of plot and recognized that there can be a great deal of story material that is NOT plot, I realized I had picked two variations of the same story. I am not too surprised that I also ended up writing a couple of stories that played on these same themes while actively writing and revising this lecture.

In “Meat,” the plot seems to begin in the third paragraph. After two opening paragraphs that have Walker listening to the shooting upcountry, he decides not to investigate.

If I was any good anymore, he told himself, I’d get my rifle and go see about this. But he was cold, his guts churned and growled and threatened to grow beyond the boundaries of his skin and burst, like the stomach of a cow that had eaten dewy alfalfa. At that moment all he wanted to do was sit and wait for his coffee to cool. (Smith 38)

Rather than pitching forward with the tension introduced by something potentially dangerous going on outside, Smith writes a page of background information regarding illegal cattle slaughtering over the past weeks and then over three pages of a reflective-plot sub-story in which Walker remembers a time when he and his brothers, father, and grandfather captured cattle thieves but let them go free. By “reflective plot sub-story” I mean a fully articulated story that uses the main plot sequence (Walker handling cattle thieves) to tell a story that is made different primarily by virtue of it occurring in the past with different cattle thieves. Rather than come across as redundant, it serves as a mirror and a set up for the main plot. We also saw this in “Bible” where Maureen told us exactly how she would react to being pushed around and then handled the main conflict with Hassan’s father precisely the way she told she would. In “Meat,” the set up, background, and reflective-plot take about four pages of a fourteen story and runs a risk of derailing the tension, but in this case it deepens and enhances, and dare we say it, foreshadows, the plot, as does the mother/lost daughter references in “Bible.”

Angels and Others, by Ken Smith (includes “Meat”)

Regardless, the plot actually begins in earnest in Walker’s kitchen when the two men come to take his cattle. Walker wants to protect himself and his cattle; the two men want to steal meat. Like “Bible,” the story takes off when the protagonist finds himself in a compromised situation trying to figure out what the exterior, threatening force is seeking. After Walker has invited the men into his home for coffee, he talks to them and comes to like one of them, Willy. He realizes the other man, Arnold, is one “who would steal and kill his cattle. If he wasn’t the man who had done it already, he was capable of such things.” (45)

The three men continue to talk, and Arnold, the one Walker distrusts, even acknowledges that they came for meat. Walker brews another pot of coffee, then excuses himself to go to the bathroom. He passes his bedroom and sees his gun leaning in a corner. The first present-action plot point (second if you count the decision to stay inside and drink coffee rather than check out the gunfire upcountry), is revealed when Walker notes, “You could pick that up and go run them off, he told himself. But what would be the reason? You can’t just say, holding men at gunpoint, that they make you nervous and you want them to get.” (46) Walker does not wish to be rude or act strange since the men have not yet done anything to cause him harm, just as Maureen considers but chooses not to run away or act out when she is initially kidnapped.

As it turns out, the situation turns dark soon after Walker returns to the kitchen. The men are drinking whiskey with their coffee and Walker refuses to join them. They knock him down, knock him out, and tie him up. In the A versus B definition, Walker (A) wants to protect himself and his cattle, but the men (B) want meat. So far, Walker has failed to protect himself or it’s not looking good for his cattle.

When Walker begins to come to, he has a vision (at least I think it’s a vision) of hungry people coming by the hundreds for the meat from his cattle and how even if he tried to stop them he could not. Walker rests, then manages to untie himself. Once he has freed himself, he gets his gun and goes to the front porch to sight the men who have loaded the butchered meat into their truck. As Arnold and Willy drive up the steep hill away from Walker’s ranch, he watches the truck knowing he has plenty of time to get off several shots. It has begun to snow, and the truck begins sliding across the hill. One of the men gets out and jumps on the bumper to help the truck gain traction. Walker has the perfect opportunity to take a shot. “How easy, he thought, to kill these men. They had already forgotten about him.” (50) Although it’s too late to protect that particular steer, Walker can kill the men who hurt him and stole from him, maybe even prevent others from doing the same thing. Instead, he hopes they make it up the hill safely, as illustrated by the following passage:

The tires caught and the truck gave a sudden lurch, and the man on the back almost fell.

“Hold on,” he said to himself. “Goddamn it, just hold on.”

In a few seconds he heard the cousins whooping in triumph as the truck eased on up the hill. How easy, he thought, to let them go, to allow them to sit tonight with their grateful wives and children in a warm kitchen, the air dense with the smell of cooking beef. (50)

Walker lets the men go, and the truck makes it up the hill. When Walker tries to uncock the rifle, it goes off and shoots a hole in the porch rail. He realizes they have left him enough butchered beef to last him through winter and that he has been beaten and robbed and all he managed to do was shoot up his own place.

In “Meat,” the true beginning of the plot occurs in the kitchen with Walker, Arnold, and Willy. The middle occurs while Walker is alone in the kitchen and the men are butchering then stealing his steer. The A versus B conflict is played out like this: Walker wants the men to leave his kitchen (they leave, but only after knocking him out and tying him up), Walker wants to protect his steer and himself (he fails), and then the conflict goes interior and Walker has to decide to stop the men or let them go (he lets them go). The plot and the story and the character {remember how I talked about how character and plot could not be separated?} come to climax and reach their full potential at the point when Walker can choose to shoot the men or let them go. Rather than a sickly, mourning old man with more beef than he needs he becomes benevolent, or rather, he comes back to himself as a man with the power of wisdom and kindness. The plot, the conflict between Walker and the men, is mirrored in the reflective, pre-main-plot story of the Walker family dealing with cattle thieves. In that reflective-plot story, even though the Walkers take the thieves’ horses, young Walker is respectful when he hands a hat back to one of the men. The reflective-plot deepens the unveiling of Walker’s character so that the reader knows, even before Walker does in the text of the story, that he will not shoot the men.

It took me writing and re-writing this lecture to begin to see the plot in these and other stories. That conflict, that A versus B tension, was not, prior to this exploration, apparent to me in well-written stories. Rich, good stories have so many distractions – sub-plot, description, dialogue, reflective plots – that I struggle seeing the bones of the story for the other wonderful stuff that add to the story’s meaning and beauty. That struggle with identifying plot reflects itself in my own stories as meandering structure, meandering to the extent that I tend to shy away just when the story has the potential to become interesting, to become a story. Of course, now that I have put together a graduate school lecture on plot, of all things, it seems really simple. Plot – how can a writer overlook that? And then I try to write again, or I read a story and wonder how that writer managed to convey what she did, and A versus B doesn’t seem so simple anymore, so here I am, trying to explain it to you so that it makes sense to me.

—Gwen Mullins

 

Jan 102011
 

Contributor’s Note:  DG and Lucy requested that I put up the speech I delivered at graduation during the recent residency at VCFA.  The last time I gave a speech was at my 8th grade graduation, so, needless to say, the tension was riding high.  That being said, the speaker was (is) aware of the fact that the poet in attendance was Matthew Dickman, not Michael, and was playing off a joke which began early in residency.  My entire time at VCFA can be summed up in one word: humbling.  I failed to mention that anywhere in this address, but it should have been said. —Richard Farrell

DG adds: This was perhaps the finest graduation speech I’ve heard at Vermont College. Rhetorically deft, comic, heartfelt and inclusive. There was barely a dry eye in the house. The phrase “non-commencement commencement address” is, I think, what VCFA President Tom Greene called it.


Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing

Graduation, January, 2011

By Richard Farrell

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I wanted to write a graduation speech about the war on language, about the struggle we face every day as writers.   But my friends wouldn’t let me.  They told me to talk about living in a dorm again, about softball games and swimming holes and cafeteria food.

I wanted to talk about the real fears we face going forward as writers.  But my friends told me to celebrate this moment.  They told me to talk about the surprise birthday party we once threw for Gary Lawrence when it wasn’t his birthday.  How we bought him a cake and sang to him.  And how Gary had no idea what the hell we were doing, but how he smiled and blew out the candles anyway.

I wanted to remind you of the difficulties of finding work, about the strength we would need to make it in the writing world.  But they said to tell you the story of how terrified we were at our first student reading, how shaky our voices were.  But how we persevered, with dry lips and racing hearts,  and how proud we were of each other when we finished.

I wanted to frame our experiences here at Vermont College as a proving ground, and to tell you that we were crusaders ready to sweep out across the world in defense of language.  But my friends wouldn’t let me.  They told me to talk about the wine we drank in Dewey Hall, the conversations till dawn.  How we wrote erasure poems on potato chip bags and formed facebook groups and sent each other text messages and long emails between packets.   How we helped each other navigate through our doubts and believe in our words.

I wanted to talk about how scared we were as we approached graduation and how we wondered what we would do next, but my friends told me to talk instead about the laughter we shared at Charlie O’s, about New Year’s Eve in Montpelier, the fourth of July, about dinner at Sarducci’s and conversations on the porch of the Martin house.   They told me to talk about joy.

I wanted to quote Toni Morrison and Shakespeare and convince you of our earnestness.  They told me to tell you the story of our class readings at each residency, how we listened to each other’s poems and stories for hours, never once calling time on a reader who went too long.   And how nowhere else in our lives was this possible.

I wanted to speak about our resolve going forward, how we would rise up to the challenges of the world of publishing.  But they told me to talk about the friendships we’ve formed, about the dysfunctional family we became over the course of these ten day retreats from our lives.

I wanted to talk about how College Hall was built on the ruins of a Civil War hospital.  How it was a place of healing, but my friends told me not to talk about our wounds.  That pain was not nearly as important as laughter.   Not today.

I wanted to discuss writing, but they told me not to.  They reminded me that we almost never speak about writing itself.   That while we talk all the time when we’re here, it’s never about our own process.  They told me to celebrate our accomplishments, not dwell on the ineffable.

I wanted to make this speech about language, but they said that never could happen.  This experience, who we are as a class and who we want to be as writers, is not just about the words, but also about bonds between us.   We may write in a vacuum, but we formed a community here, one  without assumptions or judgments.  Well, maybe with a little judgment.  Did you see Michael Dickman dancing the other night?    

I wanted to close this speech with a metaphor of a soldier returning to battle, but they laughed at that and told me to lighten up.   Then, last night, Michael Bogan gave me a great piece of advice.  He told me to tell a personal story instead, something about what Vermont College has meant to me and to let that represent our collective experience.  So here it is.

Before each reading I delivered here, I had a friend who listened to me rehearse my words.  Danielle and I would go off to a quiet dorm room or find a bench in the shade of College Hall, and no matter how awkward my story was, no matter how tentative and unseemly, she helped me reshape the story until it was better.   She would never allow me to fall flat on my face.  And after I finished, I would do the same for her story.  And as much as any craft book or workshop  or packet letter, it was her friendship that made me a better writer.  And how we have all found those people here.  In our classmates and in our teachers.  And how such people are rare.

I wanted to write a graduation speech but I couldn’t.  Not until I turned it over to my classmates and they wrote it for me, perhaps not the words, but the spirit behind the words.

We can’t encapsulate what Vermont College means in 3 pages.  We can only tell you that it has changed more than just our writing.  It has changed our lives.

—Richard Farrell

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Jan 082011
 

Herewith a lovely story by Ian Colford, 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. This is the first new piece of fiction on NC in the New Year, an auspicious beginning. Enjoy.

dg

Laurianne’s Choice

by Ian Colford

I hadn’t seen her since last winter. But I had heard the rumours. So I was not surprised that Laurianne looked tired, maybe even ill. The change was dramatic. After our drinks came I asked why it had taken her so long to return my calls. She explained that she had become involved with someone.

She met Peter Raffin at the home of her best friend Megan. Peter was manager of the large speciality bookstore where Megan worked, and Megan had invited Laurianne for dinner along with a group of her co-workers, ten guests in all. Megan introduced Laurianne and Peter to each other and then left them alone. Peter began flirting with her immediately. He said she had beautiful skin, hair, and lips. It was a warm evening in midsummer. She’d worn a flimsy halter top with spaghetti straps and she enjoyed feeling that his eyes were roaming over her body. He was a year or two older than her. Laurianne guessed he was thirty.

The small room was crowded and after only a few minutes he had manoeuvred her into a corner. Nobody seemed to notice them. They discussed things that didn’t matter but couldn’t take their eyes off one another. Laurianne noticed his hands and imagined them on her skin, and as if he’d read her mind he lifted one hand and gently caressed her shoulder, then let his fingers linger on her upper arm. When Megan announced that she was serving dinner Peter gave Laurianne an earnest look and whispered that they didn’t have to stay, that he would take her to a restaurant. In response she crept by him and found a place at the table between two women.

The food was marvellous and the conversation lively and absorbing, but Laurianne could not concentrate. Her attention drifted and she fell silent, conscious of Peter at the other end of the table. Though undeniably intelligent and witty, the two women bored her. For some reason tonight Megan’s jokes seemed mean-spirited, her laughter uncouth. But the worst of it was seeing how much Peter enjoyed talking with the attractive young woman on his right and the bearded man on his left. He smiled and laughed and not once did he glance her way. Laurianne knew he was married. How obvious it was: in his upright posture, in the way he held his wineglass not by the stem, but cradled in his hand by the bowl, in the way his eyes flitted cautiously toward the young woman’s breasts and stayed there, held rapt by the deep shadow of her cleavage. She wondered where his wife could be on a night such as this, and then, with faint horror, studied the women seated around the table. But no, he had cornered her, pointedly ignored all the other guests for her sake. And when she recalled that everyone here was either a friend of Megan’s or a co-worker, she breathed easier knowing his wife was not present.

After dinner there was time for more drinks and conversation. Laurianne toyed with the idea of leaving early, before anything could happen, but instead found herself mapping a path through the room so she could get to the spot closest to Peter before anyone else. As it turned out, the girl who had sat next to him at dinner was married to the man with the beard. When Peter settled into the sofa Laurianne curled up on the floor at his feet. Again there was laughter and conversation, but Laurianne was distracted by Peter’s hand, which tentatively explored her neck and back, alternately massaging and caressing. She shifted closer to him, pressed her breast against his leg, and they remained like this through drinks and coffee.

It was after midnight when the party broke up. As she stood in the doorway saying goodbye to Megan a breathless panic swept over her because she couldn’t see Peter. Then, emerging from the hallway where the bathroom was, he caught her eye. A tacit understanding passed between them. She would wait for him outside.

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Jan 032011
 

Dear DG,

Not too long ago, during a lull in the month-long rains that frizzed our hair, soaked our shoes and dampened our moods, one Saturday this fall I found myself in Sestri Levante, a town not far from Genoa, reading a book, enjoying the sun. Sometimes, when you relax in the sun reading a book you’re not much invested in, a loud voice, a sharp slap, or an acute whine attracts your attention. Attention attracted, you stare. Then you fish for paper, you dig for your cellphone, and you write and snap pictures, recording the play:

14:20

“Fede, Zitto! Shut up. You want a smack?” asks his mother, a round woman in her mid forties. Dressed in black stretch pants and a black sweatshirt, she sprawls on the beach ringing the Bay of Silence, a sandy crescent on the Eastern side of the peninsula of Sestri Levante. An unseasonably hot sun shines over the terracotta roofs of the pink-and-yellow ex-fishermen’s homes that stand as a backdrop to the water.

The woman in black is in Sestri on a day trip with shopping and picnicking her twin objectives. Piles of bags from Sottovento (a clothing shop), Top 2000 (a shoe store), Tosi (a bakery specializing in pizza and focaccia), Marco’s (a fruit vendor), as well as her accent (Milanese), attest to her transient status. Next to her, sharing her towel, lies her husband, also in black. Nearby, Fede in jeans, a sweatshirt, a cap and a bandana, digs in the sand with his red shovel. His older brother, outfitted in an identical manner, buries his own feet in the sand.

The four glisten like sunning beetles on fine white granules.

“But Mamma, why? Why can she go in the water?” Fede asks, squinting, pointing toward the horizon.

“Because her ball rolled in.” The woman sighs, not looking up from Chi? gossip magazine.  She’s reading a back issue about the American émigré showgirl, Heather Parisi, who recently gave birth to twins at age fifty.

“No it didn’t,” says Fede, flipping his shovel, flinging sand on his father, “she doesn’t have a ball.”

“Watch it, stupido,” says his father. He raises himself to an elbow, spits out some granules and brushes off his shoulders.

“I’m not stupido,” says Fede.

“Oh,” says Fede’s mother, lowering her magazine, shading her eyes with her hand. “You mean that lady.”

“Yes, mamma, that lady.”

“Because she wants to go for a swim.”

“Me too. I’m boiling!”

“Shut up Fede! I’ll ring you like a bell if you don’t stop nagging. Have a tangerine?” She fishes one out of the bag of fruit, but Fede doesn’t take it.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Fede,” says his father. “It’s Autumn. Take your bandana off if you want, or roll up your pants.”

Zitto, Giorgio! Shut up, will you? I’m handling this,” the woman says, peeling the tangerine, burying the peel in a shallow hole in the sand, and chewing. “Besides. There’s a breeze. Without his bandana he’ll get sick. You want him to get sick?”

“Can’t I take off my jeans and my sweatshirt? Like those kids?” Fede points to some boys playing soccer.

“Absolutely not. It’s Autumn. The summer’s long over.” Tilting her head, his mother frowns.

“These tangerines were a rip off.” She spits out a seed. “Look Fede. Those kids are foreign. See? Their red hair? Besides you can’t run around in your underpants.”

“Why, mamma, why?”

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