Oct 282011
 

At the Confluence

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Hurricane Irene did surprising and catastrophic things to Vermont, surprising because, well, Vermont is inland, far from the storm-whipped coasts, far from, say, New Orleans. You don’t get a storm surge in Vermont. But when a storm like Irene hits, all the topographic beauties of the place turn to its detriment. The rain washes straight down the mountainsides into the narrow, deep valleys. Creeks and rivers that were nothing but shallow meanders through deep cobble beds, mostly dry at that time of year, fill up with alarming suddenness. The rivers rage down the valleys, demolishing roads, buildings, towns. Hilary Mullins is an old friend from her days as a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts when she used to hang out in Francois Camoin’s room on the third floor of Noble Hall just down the corridor from dg who also tended to hang out in Francois’ room a lot (it was a hospitable place, a cross between a Paris salon and a homeless shelter). Hilary lives in Bethel, Vermont, where she reads, writes, teaches, sermonizes and runs a window-cleaning business. She was, yes, at home when Hurricane Irene hit, and this is her story—a What It’s Like Living Here essay with a twist. (The photos are a group effort; credits to Janet Hayward Burnham, Dan Thorington, Bill Gibson.)

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Hurricane Irene—What It Was Like

From Hilary Mullins in Bethel, Vermont

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Everyone in Bethel knew the hurricane was coming–we knew all about it. We knew the forecasters were saying it could be significant, and we knew why: August had been rainy, and we already had plenty of water in the ground. So we knew we didn’t need any more, particularly not in the quantity that a hurricane might bring. We also knew there was supposed to be high wind. So we stacked our yard chairs, tossed more rounds of wood on the tarps covering our woodpiles, and brought our animals in.

But at first when Irene arrived–not as a hurricane but as a tropical storm–she didn’t seem so significant after all. The rain started Saturday night, and yes, it came steady, but around here, we’ve all seen rain like that before. And we know rain. There’d be some wash-outs, we knew that: roads where the gravel would be eaten and maybe some pavement too. And maybe some people’s houses would be threatened. Because that does happen more often now: a thunder storm hits, leaving a flash flood in one area.

But even though we knew all this, even though we knew the land here is all ridges and river valley, brooks and streams pouring down from everywhere to merge, uniting in the White River that runs through our village, we didn’t know. We didn’t know the power of what was running at the level of our feet–or what could happen if all those little waters—not just some here or there–began to rise. Which on the 28th of August they did.
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Oct 272011
 

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.In this Halloween edition of Numéro Cinq at the Movies, we have Andres Muschietti’s Mama (2008). Turn the lights out, turn the sound up, put some headsets on, and enjoy.

The plot is simple and yet leaves gobs of story unexplored, haunting the plot we do get: two children are tormented by a terrifying mother; we never find out the origins of this terror and we don’t find out what becomes of the children. This tip of the iceberg approach to storytelling gives the piece a depth that makes it even more terrifying for all the unimaginable horrors we are left to imagine.

What’s scary here is firstly archetypal and secondly uncanny. Mama is the archetypal bad mother that lurks behind the good mother archetype, waiting to consume, torment, and dismember instead of nurture. Like the one daughter, we are drawn to the figure of Mama, because she promises to fulfill the maternal role, but soon we understand their trepidation. This mother is not up for baking cookies.

She’s also uncanny here thanks to a couple of very successful horror techniques. Mama, though human in form and thus familiar, is unfamiliar because of her movements. The head tilted to the side, the contorting, jerking motions of her limbs and the speed of her movements are all unfamiliar. Similar effects were used in the horror film the The Ring when the monstrous young girl climbs out of the television. To achieve this effect they shot the actress in reverse with exaggerated movements so that when they played the footage forward her gestures seemed insect like and inhuman. This is Freud’s Uncanny: both familiar and unfamiliar and disturbing all around.

When this short film came out three years ago it created so much of a buzz that Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro – known for his popular Hellboy type fare and his more art house type horror films like Pan’s Labyrinth – decided to take Muschietti under his producing / mentoring wing and turn the film into a feature-length terror. Del Toro similarly mentored / produced the The Orphanage (2007).

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Oct 252011
 

Blanca Castellón’s poems are starkly honest. Her tenacious pursuit of the unknowable results in work that illuminates a resolute but permeable humanity. Through an intently economic use of language, her writing strikes chords by casting familiar images into new light. With vicious yet softly abstracted lines such as, “Nostalgia brings its thorns to the back of the eye until I am left blind,” I am reminded of the magnetic existentialism of René Char. These wonderful translations come to NC through the extensive work of the poet J.P. Dancing Bear.

Blanca Castellón is a Nicaraguan poet born in Managua. In 2000 she received the International Award from the Institute of Modernists. She is the Vice President of the International Poetry Festival of Granada and the Nicaraguan Writers Association. Her books include, Love of the Spirit (1995), Float (1998), Opposite Shore (2000), and Games of Elisa (2005).

J.P. Dancing Bear is author of nine collections of poetry, his most recent being, Inner Cities of Gulls (Salmon Poetry, 2010). He is the editor of the American Poetry Journal and Dream Horse Press. His next book of poems is Family of Marsupial Centaurs due out from Iris Press. He is the host of Out of Our Minds poetry show for public station KKUP and available through podcast or iTunes.

—Martin Balgach

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Three Poems by Blanca Castellón

Translated by J.P. Dancing Bear

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“I WALK DIRECTIONLESS AND GROPING”

In this moment, imposed by distance, I remain silent today, looking back to contemplate the city in ruins.

Nostalgia brings its thorns to the back of the eye until I am left blind, groping for the secret seams of the universe where cracks continue to flourish and no one walks, where the missing populate the soft areas of the unconscious.

As if I flung on a dress of uncertainty, stopped in front of my house and recognized myself at once: I no longer watch, my feelings confirmed by the eternal verses:  I WALK DIRECTIONLESS AND  GROPING.

This is nothing but the enduring image that walks with me always and forever.

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Genuflection

Couch sadness

with your red dress

Lay down in the center of the page

get the attention of seaweed

recognize your knees in the sand.

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The Dead

The dead distill smoke
and pending matters.

They settle in a crown of arteries,
making home around the heart.

The dead are not
so noble in their rest.

They take advantage of free time
in order to interfere with the living.

Practice smiling
because you have life.

Soon they will turn a key
and release the water in your eyes

and make us all cry.

—Blanca Castellón

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Watch and listen to a reading (in Spanish) by Blanca Castellón here

Learn more about J.P. Dancing Bear here

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Oct 242011
 

 

Rational thought. Calm, reasonable, gentle persuasion.  It was this quality of moderation in his writing that most impressed me, for my own inclinations tended toward the opposite, the impatient, the radical, the violent.

That’s how Edward Abbey described Joseph Wood Krutch in an essay that appeared initially in the journal Sage and then featured in Abbey’s 1988 collection One Life at a Time, Please. The piece, called simply “Mr. Krutch” (that’s “krootch” if you’re reading aloud), recounts Abbey’s 1967 interview of Krutch—the last formal interview the latter granted before his death in 1970. The circumstances and content of the interview say much about both men: it took place in the desert burg of Tucson, it resulted from Krutch’s acceptance of Abbey’s simple cold call (Abbey admits to having simply looked up the well-known Krutch in the phone book), and it features a palpable tension as then-debutant Abbey tries to direct the conversation but is instead led along by Krutch.  It’s an excellent read.

Abbey, of course (as described in an earlier installment of this series), is known for his passionate defense of and writing about the desert.  Krutch, perhaps exactly because of that more “reasonable” voice, is far less well known—he is probably the least recognized name among those profiled here—but he also comes to mind mostly because of his desert writings.  That late 60’s interview brought together two men with similar loves at the very moment the environmental movement was in the midst of legislatively changing the world. It is a pivot point on the environmental timeline.

Moving forward, Abbey would publish Desert Solitaire less than a year later in 1968. Within two years, Edward Hoagland and Wendell Berry would be on the scene, the Clean Air and Environmental Policy Acts would become law, the elder desert sage would publish his life compendium, The Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch, and Krutch would die, just two months after the first Earth Day. Moving backward, Krutch published books contemporaneously with Loren Eiseley (whom Krutch admires specifically in the Abbey interview), Rachel Carson, and Peter Mathiessen. Krutch was born in 1893 (the only major mid-century writer to see the turn of the last century), and in fact his writing should have been contemporary to Aldo Leopold (born in 1887), except that Krutch came to nature writing quite late.

Krutch began his writing career as a theater critic and professor at Columbia University.  He wrote biographies of Edgar Allen Poe (1926), Samuel Johnson (1944), and–who else–Thoreau (1948), as well as a book-length thesis critical of science and technology (The Modern Temper, 1929).  The Thoreau book, initially just another biography project, made Krutch take a closer look at environmental topics.  This is from his 1962 autobiography More Lives Than One:

One winter night shortly after I had finished Thoreau I was reading a “nature essay” which pleased me greatly and it suddenly occurred to me for the first time to wonder if I could do something of the sort. I cast about for a subject and decided upon the most conventional of all, namely Spring.

That first essay, “The Day of the Peepers,” led quickly to Krutch’s first nature-focused book, The Twelve Seasons (1949). He was 56 (by contrast Abbey published Desert Solitaire at 41 and had by then already written three novels). Krutch’s most famed volume The Desert Year came out in 1951 (the same year as Rachel Carson’s best-seller The Sea Around Us). The Voice of the Desert expanded on the earlier book in 1954, and travelogues on the Grand Canyon and the Baja Peninsula followed in 1957 and 1961, respectively. Other books, more philosophical in nature, alternated with these environmental tomes, making this an extremely prolific time for Krutch: including the Thoreau biography and his autobiography, 11 books in 14 years.  It was almost as if he was making up for lost time.

Abbey describes Krutch’s style exactly right. The quote above from More Lives Than One is a perfect example of the lilting, matter-of-fact, discover-as-you-go tone of Krutch’s nature writing. (How ironic it is, by the way, that Krutch’s autobiography is called More Lives Than One and Abbey’s last essay collection is called One Life At a Time, Please.) Though I think Krutch’s language matures a bit through his career, that by-golly sense of wonder is always present—tempered, though, by hints of the intelligentsia of which Krutch can easily be considered a member.

Some examples: first from “Don’t Expect Too Much from a Frog” (1953):

The whole philosophy of frogs, all the wisdom they have accumulated in millions of years of experience, is expressed in that urrr-unk uttered with an air which seems to suggest that the speaker feels it to be completely adequate. The comment does not seem very passionate or very aspiring, but it is contented and not cynical. Frogs have considered life and found it, if not exactly ecstatic, at least quite pleasant and satisfactory.

“Urrr-unk” and “feels it to be completely adequate” are delightfully opposing semantic poles.

And from “Journey in Time,” part of the 1958 Grand Canyon book:

As soon as nature has made a mountain, she seems to regret it and she begins to tear it down.  Then, once she has torn it down, she makes another—perhaps, as here, precisely where the former mountain had once towered.  Speed the action up as in those movies of an opening flower, and the landscape of the earth would seem as insubstantial and as phantasmagorical as the cloudscape of a thundery afternoon.

The first sentence here is decidedly low-brow, but then comes “phantasmagorical” and “cloudscape.” Even Krutch’s essay and book chapter titles are a little aw-shucks. The first four chapters of The Desert Year are “Why I Came,” “What It Looks Like, “How to See It,” and “How Some Others Live Here.”

To use a thrice removed quote, Mark Tredinnick, in his unique exploration of writers’ home landscapes, The Land’s Wild Music (Trinity University Press, 2005), pulls this Krutch gem from Frank Stewart’s A Natural History of Nature Writing (Island, 1995): “[Nature writing is] experience with the natural world, as opposed, for example, to science writing, which is knowledge about the natural world.” Krutch happily admits to being a novice. In the essay called “On Being an Amateur Naturalist” he says, tongue-in-cheek, “I think I know more about plant life than any other drama critic, and more about the theater than any botanist.” That humility is a refreshing departure, and one that lets the reader feel ignorant without shame. A recurring story in The Desert Year sees Krutch trying to discover why bats always spiral a certain direction when exiting a cave. He writes to scientists and even imagines himself gaining some recognition in scientific circles for raising this apparently never-before-asked question. He wonders if they go the other way in Australia. He envisions some non-verbal compact among the bats, to eliminate traffic accidents.

For to Krutch, the bats are sentient and are possessed of personalities. So are the spiders and the birds and even the saguaro cactus. This belief sets Krutch apart from the other writers of his time, hearkening back to a more romantic notion of nature found often in the writings of John James Audubon and, at times, John Muir.  Tredinnick in The Land’s Wild Music goes so far as to put Krutch in a box with Leopold, Henry Beston, and Carson, while the opposite box has Abbey, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and “all the other Thoreaus of the baby boom” (ugh! a group Thoreau reference–see my rant about Hoagland, here).  This belief also set him against the prevailing science of his day, which relied on dissection to study living things and considered all plants and animals mere machines governed by instinct and natural selection.  Krutch’s writing believes in the real lives being lived in the natural world: the joy, the sorrow, the patience, the humor.

For instance, in The Desert Year, he watches courting lizards:

When I first noticed this pair the male had just made a direct, crude approach toward the female and she, quite properly resenting this matter-of-factness, scurried away as from an enemy about to devour her. The male stopped disappointed; shrugged his lizard shoulders; started off in the opposite direction; and was then obviously surprised to discover he was being followed at a discreet distance….

Besides the advances and retreats which are the essential features of all courtships, this one consisted principally of poetical speeches or amorous arias, though I could not be sure which since the sounds were completely inaudible to me, at least through the window…. [The] lady would listen intently, move a little closer, and then edge away again when her suitor approached to ask what effect his eloquence had produced.

Ahh, the rigors of flirtation, and life, for all creatures, not just we humans.

The other day I hiked with my youngest son Mason for the first time in a state park. He is six months old and was strapped to my chest, contentedly looking up at the silver maples.  A small woodpecker exploring along the trunks caught my eye. Soon the bird flew to different branch where another woodpecker was already tapping. As the first bird arrived, the resident woodpecker pecked aggressively in his direction, spread his own wings wide, and called out a series of shrill staccato tones. The interloper followed suit and the two danced on the branch, arms outstretched, beaks threatening.

I imagined what they might be saying to each other—or, rather, what Joseph Wood Krutch might imagine them saying to each other. I am sure he would have exactly the right dialog.

Proceed to the next essay, on Wendell Berry; or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson