Oct 312011
 

Eric FoleyEric Foley

Here’s a lovely, sad Childhood essay by Eric Foley. It’s a meditation on presence and absence, the presence of his sister growing up in Toronto and her sudden death, at the age of 14. It’s a meditation on photography and the strange way photographs carry the mark of absence, of love and loss, even as they record (in snapshots, sometimes double-exposed or damaged) the apparent trivia of family life. What’s the difference between life and a photograph? And what is the meaning of those ghostly images of loved ones now gone? Eric Foley has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. Eric currently attends Guelph University’s Creative Writing MFA program (last summer, he was a student of mine in Guelph’s mentorship program), where he is at work on his first novel, and a memoir about living in Morocco. His poetry and criticism can be found online at influencysalon.ca.

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In photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all along the line. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuse for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value. To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of [the photographer Eugène] Atget, who, around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. —Walter Benjamin

The above quotation is from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” By cult value, Benjamin is referring to the private, ceremonial, spiritual status of the art object, where what matters most is the object’s existence, rather than it being constantly on view. The photograph in the family album or the musty cardboard box in the attic, rather than the framed print on the (facebook) wall. Writing in the 1930’s, Benjamin saw photography and film as “the most serviceable exemplifications” of a new function of art where “absolute emphasis” was placed on the exhibition value of the work. I’m interested in the tension that exists between cult value and exhibition value in relation to photographs taken prior to the existence of the digital realm for essentially private family albums. What happens to these images when they are scanned and disseminated online, for all to see? Who today would allow a picture of themselves to be taken (or to remain undeleted on a camera), without imagining its appearance on Facebook?

As I came to try and make a narrative out of a series of the most resonant photographs from my childhood, perhaps it is no surprise that I kept returning Benjamin, who, in the end, inspired me to use this narrative not only to narrate but also to essay, to attempt to think about the nature of photographs and their use within a family. Here then are a series of the pictures that still obsess me, an album of images for which I “have not yet found the law,” with obligatory captions (right ones or wrong ones, no matter).

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November 16, 1979

An image is not a permanent referent for those complexities of life which are revealed through it; its purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object – it creates a vision of the object instead of serving as a means of knowing it. – Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”

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By a chance double exposure, the first picture taken of me, less than one hour old in my mother’s arms, also contains the last picture taken of her before she became a mother. In the ghosted image snapped one day earlier, she sits with her hands on her lap, hands that push through time to rest on my newborn head. Of course, I’m also in her stomach in that fainter image, more than a week overdue.

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Eleven Days Old

One of the—often unspoken—objections to photography: that it is impossible for the human countenance to be apprehended by a machine. This the sentiment of Delacroix in particular. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

“Look at the camera!” my parents must have said, voices young, soft, and joyous. “Look at Daddy!” My mother’s robed arm propping me up. What am I looking at? It appears to be an otherworldly orb, a gaseous rupture in the surface of the image, but in fact, this rupture inserted itself along my line of vision several months after the shutter was clicked.

In the spring of 1980 my father went on a canoe trip in with his best friend Joe, bringing along his camera, which contained the undeveloped film from my first months of life. Stepping out of the canoe, my father dropped the bag with the camera into the lake. When the pictures were finally developed, they had this milky, bluish cast, as if light were peeling away the surface of the image. My mother was heartbroken.
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Fall, 1980

Over the next several years, my mother would take thousands of pictures, like this one of my father and me in France:

.Or the one that begins this piece, of my brother Andrew and me, which perfectly captures our opposing dispositions. Andrew: carefree, happy-go-lucky, singing away in his own fine world. Me: well, me.

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103 Glenrose

Hopkins describes these obsessive images of objects as things for which he has not “found the law.” They are unfulfilled in meaning, but take up a lot of room in the memory as if in compensation. They seem both gratuitous and inexplicably necessary. – Charles Baxter.

I grew up in Toronto, in a three-story brick house surrounded by oak trees and lilac bushes. A beer commercial had been shot on the property a month before my parents bought it, and for the first few years we lived there, we would gather around the TV excitedly whenever the ad came on to watch three sweaty, blue-jeaned men kick back on our porch with a couple of cold ones.

Jumping through that first-floor window and reversing the camera angle, we can travel ahead seven years in time, to where I sit poised at our newly acquired 1906 Steinway Grand, my father’s dream-come-true..
“Put your hands out like you’re about to play,” my mother instructed, “and look over at me.” So I did. To take this picture, my mother would have had to stand in the entranceway to our living room, which, if we the reverse the angle again, is approximately here:.

.That piñata was one tough mother. Forty minutes of heavy abuse, and it wasn’t even dented. My friends and I exhausted, their parents due to arrive any moment, my father pulled the piñata down and dumped the candy onto the hardwood floor for us to flail over.

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Cottage

In making a portrait, it is not a question only…of reproducing, with a mathematical accuracy, the forms and proportions of the individual; it is necessary also, and above all, to grasp and represent, while justifying and embellishing,…the intentions of nature towards the individual. – Gisela Freund, “La Photographie au point de vue sociologique”

I had better luck with these two:


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My mother snapped these from opposing angles in the living room of my grandparent’s cottage. The first was taken in the summer of 1987, at my sister Kristen’s third birthday party. The piñata hangs from a long wooden beam that at Christmastime held up to twenty-eight stockings at once. In the second image, you can see one of the stockings in my cousin John’s hands.

This picture was taken a few years earlier, from where the piñatas would later hang:

My parents had seen an ad in the paper for dwarf rabbits, and decided to get us one for Christmas. But by the time they went to pick one up, this monstrous creature was all that was left. It hopped around my grandmother’s carpet leaving a trail of brown pellets. Andrew crawled along behind picking up the pellets and putting them into his mouth, thinking they were chocolate-covered raisins. That spring, I forgot to close lid of the rabbit’s cage and the rabbit escaped. My Dad told us it probably got eaten by raccoons. The body was never found.

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Speaking of Cages

Consideration of the image is still a sacred cause today only because the fate of thought and liberty are at stake in it. The visible world, the one that is given to us to see: is it liberty or enslavement? – Marie-Jose Mondzian, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary

Two photographs taken thirty years apart. The first is of my mother on vacation with her family in Florida, 1961. The second one shows my sister Kristen with our new dog Tessa.

We used to go on a canoe trip every summer to Algonquin Park, and I always wished Tessa could come, but she was too hyper, my Dad said. He worried that if she spotted a loon she would go crazy, tip the canoe. I was, however, allowed to bring Tessa along in the form of an image of the two of us together on a t-shirt:


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Rusty

Communications technology reduces the informational merits of painting. At the same time, a new reality unfolds, in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions. One appeals to the lens. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project
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My brother’s favorite pet was a hamster named Rusty. Like our rabbit, Rusty also escaped. One day after school Andrew and I were playing floor hockey in our unfinished basement, when Andrew slapped the ball past me into the furnace room. I went in behind the woodpile to retrieve the ball and there was Rusty: trembling, emaciated. He had been missing for five days. Andrew carried him upstairs and tried to feed him, but the animal was too weak to ingest anything. When my father got home he gave Rusty a series of sugar-water infusions, reviving him for three weeks, after which the hamster passed away. “The shock to Rusty’s system must have been too great,” my father explained.

The above photograph was taken for a series of watercolor portraits my mother commissioned her friend Maureen to do (mine of course featured Tessa and me). In the background of the photo below, taken during one of our theme dinners, Andrew and Rusty’s portrait hangs above the mantle between a framed photograph of Kristen and one of me as a toddler standing beside a baguette. Here is evidence that not all the pictures my mother took were intended solely for our family albums (lined up chronologically in the cupboard behind my father’s left shoulder).

If, when she clicked the shutter, my mother happened to capture an image that made her feel a particular warmth within (and she says she always knew it with that initial click, before the film was developed), something to do with natural lighting, composition, the expression on a face she loved, if all of these combined to preserve a moment she wished to keep on seeing, then the image would be enlarged and placed on more permanent display..


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No House, Hardly a Room

There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. – Benjamin, “The Storyteller”

Going over these photographs, I think of the spaces they were taken in. What, besides pets, died there? A look? An object? A gesture? An idea?

These pictures were taken to preserve moments now past, but in another way they also constitute my past. As I grew, so did the pile of images that related to me, and I regularly went to that cupboard where the albums were kept and pored over them, using them to build the narrative of who I was, where and what I had come from.

I could always count on my mother to fill the plastic pages of those gilded, leatherbound books thick with photos from each year, forming a canon of accepted family imagery, a pictorial narrative that each of us could access at will (and, for the most part, agree upon).

Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—it will be thanked and applauded. – Baudelaire, on the proper use of photography

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Kristen

It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

These pictures of my sister Kristen almost didn’t make it into the canon. They were taken after she had gone into the bathroom, aged three, and given herself a haircut. For years, Andrew and I used these images to tease her. She hated them, wanted them destroyed, at one point even stole them from the family album. I’m surprised they still exist. I’m glad they still exist, because in 1999, at the age of fourteen, Kristen died of meningitis, and our family’s narrative was irrevocably changed. After such an event, every trace of the past gains in significance.


Following Kristen’s death the old canon of images splintered apart, reforming with her at its centre, as my mother disassembled the master albums to make copies of pictures, reassembling them into more than fifty individualized mini-albums for friends and family.

For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

There are photographs from that time, still not held in any album, that are crucial to me. One shows my father kneeling in front of Kristen’s open casket, my two-and-a-half-year-old sister Kathryn in his arms in a green dress, sucking on the nub of a glass bottle filled with apple cider. Another is of the cemetery: it has started to rain, and I’ve just opened a burgundy umbrella, which I’m holding high over my mother’s head. My father and I are looking up at that umbrella as it floats above the crowd of relatives and friends. As I look at the picture now, it occurs to me that it is the only image I have of any of these people looking so sad; an uncomfortable thing to behold, but all the more valuable for that. Also: no one is looking into the camera. Their attention is elsewhere.

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Postscript: Summer, 2002

In the end, we managed to convince our father to let us take Tessa along on a camping trip. She was nearly twelve by this point, her hips going, unlikely to bolt up for a bird or anything else. For the last three days of the trip my father had to carry Tessa, the hair of her hindquarters stained with diarrhea, along the portages. She died not long afterwards, but at least she got to see the Barron Canyon from the belly of a canoe.

The work of art is valuable only in so far as it is vibrated by the reflexes of the future. – André Breton

What reflexes vibrate these photographs? Are they art, or the merely the passing memories of a single family? The above image was taken on the first day of our trip to the Barron Canyon. Andrew and I, now young men, sit behind the stump of the jack pine from Tom Thomson’s iconic painting of Round Lake. The tree has been cut down years before, but a sapling grows from its roots. This picture takes me back to the very first in this series, of my brother and me as children. Many things happened between that earlier photo and this one. Many things happened afterwards, and continue to happen to each of us, every day, and we are all filled with multiple exposures. The hands of time push through to rest upon our heads. A feeling kicks in our stomachs, waiting to be born. But “the true picture of the past flits by,” as Benjamin says, and, at least for now, the images of all those places, times, and events not shared between us will have to remain lost.

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—Eric Foley

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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Continue reading »

Oct 272011
 

Mamá (2008 Spanish short film) from Pablo Sierra on Vimeo.

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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).

Continue reading »

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

Oct 212011
 

Consider the photo of the author skiing in Taos (where she works as a ski instructor when she’s not writing and teaching writing) and then consider the first lines of the first poem—

When we pause at the near edge
of memory or invention and elect
not to venture further, we fail…

—and keep these in mind as you read through this gorgeous selection of poems by an author/skier who, in her maturity, has allowed herself to go over some visionary edge and both lament and glorify the universal desire for being and presence (read “desire” as absence—oh, my goodness, that beautiful lost turquoise metaphor in the first poem and the image later on of the author looking in at the village windows). Leslie Ullman manages to make the cosmic intimate and personal and vice versa.  It’s breathtaking to see a poet writing at this level of daring, elegance, and mastery.

—dg

CONSIDER DESIRE   

When we pause at the near edge
of memory or invention and elect
not to venture further, we fail
to consider that invisible journeys, too,
leave dried mud and grass on our shoes;
that one can dream of waltzing with
a stranger, following every
subtle lead, and wake up happy

or be consoled by a fragrant loaf
mentioned briefly in a poem.
The vast bowl of the desert once held
an ocean we can borrow any time
we cup our minds around it like hands
around spinning clay. Once, I halted
on a winter street when I noticed the turquoise

stone had slipped from the center of my ring.
I reversed my steps and searched for hours,
peering downward for a  bit of sky,
seeing every crevice in the dark pavement
for the first time, every sodden leaf
and twig. I fingered the empty bezel, sky
filling my mind. Luminous. Parachute of blue.

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ALMOST LISTENING

Not revelation shot from the hip
by Fresh-schooled Mind  practicing its aim
on the future, or  fact Administrative
Mind wields like a mallet, never waiting
to see what wing-fragile contours
it might settle around, never accepting or
offering it like a handful of water that holds
its shape even as some leaks between the fingers

the truth, as incipience,
is rarely allowed to slip into the ear of

someone in the street talking rapidly into
an invisible phone as though talking to himself
or to settle beside him in the airport lounge
as he taps money and one-liners into
his keyboard; is rarely glimpsed sideways by
the young mother rushing in shoes that pinch,
after hours of setting plates before others, through a haze
of fumes towards the aluminum glare of the bus

she may miss; is rarely allowed presence
like a word thought before it is spoken

or a note that is less sound than an exhalation
riding the air from another latitude
long after it has signaled, from a burnished
gong, the end of a ritual meditation

or like the thick fur of an animal almost camouflaged
amid dark trees on a moonless night,
a large animal believed to be dangerous
when removed from his world, or when his world
is altered by our presence in it.
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DON’T SLEEP YET

This is what you’ve longed for,
drops tapping the shingles
and the silent flowering of each word
printed on the page before you.
Water pours off the eaves and drips
on the dead leaves outside, and you
are held, held the way wood and glass
were meant to hold you. Keep
the rain. You need the privacy
tomorrow will shred to bits. Blue
rain. Streaked wind. The lamp
pulling the room around it. The book
pulling your life around it. The rain
is trying to tell you a story
of going outside and
coming back in.

 

 

THE STORY I NEED

—after a line by Ricardo Molinari

Ah, if only the village were so small
and I could look into others’ windows by
looking into my own cupped hands

to see what steams on their
plates, or read the spines of books
on their shelves, all those lives

to open one at a time, I might hold
the history of civilization a little closer
to my own small history—bread
passed down from the centuries, leather boots
on flagstone, couples’ first words

in the morning—not for the privacies
but as proof of the way buildings hold the countless
small movements of words and bodies
through space, and for the feeling

that I, too, am drying the cups and putting them away
or sitting at the tavern, a chessboard
open between me and the oldest inhabitant

or joining a family at their picnic on the green,
unable to distinguish myself from
the murmuring parents and noisy siblings
gathered around the cheese and pears
they have chosen, in a world

of possibilities, to set on the bright cloth.

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—Leslie Ullman

——————————————

Photo Credit: Peter Lamont

Leslie Ullman is a prize-winning poet, friend, colleague (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) and ski instructor (in Taos). Also a graceful, intelligent presence whenever she is around. She is Professor Emerita at University Texas-El Paso, where she taught for 25 years and started the Bilingual MFA Program. She has published three poetry collections: Natural Histories, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1979; Dreams by No One’s Daughter, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987; and Slow Work Through Sand, co-winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, University of Iowa Press, 1998. Individual poems have appeared in numerous magazine, including Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, Arts & Letters, and Poet Lore. Her essays have been published in Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly, The AWP Writer’s Chronicle, and Numéro Cinq. (Author skiing photo by Peter Lamont.)

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Oct 192011
 

Donald Breckenridge has a story to tell you: He’s a failed-actor-turned-fiction-writer, playwright, literary activist/editor, and wine-seller who’s carving out a life for himself in New York City. Though I’ve never met Donald Breckenridge in the flesh, he’s the guy I’d like to meet for a beer. After reading his brand new novel, This Young Girl Passing (imminent from Autonomedia—see the Publishers Weekly review here; read an excerpt on NC here), it was clear to me that Breckenridge has a self-consciously intentional approach to crafting fiction, and this interview/conversation reiterates the thoughtfulness behind his work. If you haven’t met Donald Breckenridge already, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to him and his work in some small way.

Donald Breckenridge is the author of more than a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein (Red dust, 1998) and the novels 6/2/95 and You Are Here (Starcherone Books, 2009). In addition, he is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of the InTranslation website and editor of the The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (Hanging Loose Press, 2006). He is working on his fourth novel.

Here is what NC Editor Douglas Glover wrote about This Young Girl Passing:

This Young Girl Passing is a deceptively short, dense, ferociously poignant novel of sexual betrayal and despair set in impoverished upstate New York, a Raymond Carver-ish milieu of never-weres and left-behinds. Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. The novel’s triumph though is in its architecture, its skillfully fractured chronology and the deft back and forth between the two main plot lines, two desperate, sad affairs twenty years apart and the hollow echoes in the blast zone of life around them.

—Mary Stein

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Our Endless Past: An Interview with Donald Breckenridge

By Mary Stein

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MCS: Why don’t we start off with a little personal backstory: from thought to fruition, could you describe the gestation period of writing This Young Girl Passing? How did it compare with some of your other works?

DB: I discovered the article that this book is based on in March of ’00. It was a Saturday and I was waiting on the downtown platform at the 77st 6 train station. It was early afternoon and I was going home from my part-time wine shop job in Yorkville. I didn’t have a novel with me and there was a day-old copy of the Times on the bench. I was skimming through the NY section and I was taken immediately. The actual article is only four brief paragraphs but I knew right away that I wanted to write about it.

At the time I was writing my first novel, 6/2/95, which was a year away from being finished, so I cut out the article and put it in a drawer. I thought at the time I would turn it into a play but that didn’t happen for a host of reasons. After finishing, 6/2/95, I took a few months, March of ’01 till July of ’01, approximately, to work myself into an place that I thought would be a good beginning. I really wanted to write a book about child abuse that wasn’t autobiographical, so that’s where I began with Sarah, from her reaction to a shitty home life which is my how and why she became involved with Bill. I have never been even remotely interested in telling the real story of the actual participants in the article, that is absolutely none of my business, the truth really only belongs to the people involved. The article in the Times was simply a sketch and I let my imagination roll out from that point of departure. I began writing the first chapter that August, while my now wife, Johannah Rodgers, and I were staying in Door County, Wisconsin. We were there for 7 weeks and I’d wake up early every morning and work on this conversation that Sarah was having with Robert in the woods and in his father’s car.

All of my books begin in dialog, with a simple conversation between two people, and once that is recorded all the other information, vital or otherwise, is piled on top of that dialog. The novels all begin with dialog and all of them incorporate found news items. The gestation here was very deliberate, in that I wasn’t telling a story that was autobiographical, so I was separating myself from the story while at the same time grounding what was to become Sarah in this wounded and romantic landscape.

MCS: It doesn’t surprise me that you considered making the story into a play. In the novel, dialogue and physical descriptions (which read like stage directions at times) are braided together to create the sentence-level foundation of the novel’s structure. How do you feel your background as a playwright influenced this novel’s form? 

DB: I’m a failed actor, I came to NYC in ’89 to study acting and was thrown out of school after the first semester, however I did meet quite a few truly talented actors in school and a year or so later I founded a theater company with a handful of them, The Open Window Theater, and at first we worked out of a storefront Co-op art gallery, Brand Name Damages, in South Williamsburg where I wrote and mounted my first plays, later we moved to a converted paint factory beneath the Williamsburg Bridge where we continued putting on plays, hosting readings and bands, there was a gallery upstairs as well where local artists would show—Williamsburg was a very different place then. After doing that for a few years I left the company and slowly, really glacially, I began attempting to write fiction, because it became prohibitively expensive for me to mount my plays and I had lost my cast. My earliest attempts were published as the novella, Rockaway Wherein (Red Dust 98) but to answer your question, I’ve always tried to capture the immediacy of watching a performance on the page. That immediacy where the reader is in the moment with the present, as if the reader was watching the characters performing on stage. For an actor all his lines in a script contain cues—when A is to stand up while speaking and how A is to then cross the room with a sullen expression while proclaiming his love for B who is sitting in a chair by the window overlooking the crowded street and is secretly waiting for her lover to emerge from the subway entrance at the end of the block—the actors playing A and B need to internalize all of their objectives and to thoroughly understand what their character’s psychological motives are beneath the lines, what the real motivations are, what moves them across the room and has them proclaiming and or hiding their love. This is of course a very simple example of what Method Acting is, and by making the psychological motives visible in the dialog, and by laying out the surroundings in the dialog as well—which is obviously equally important—I think I’ve brought a heightened present, or at least more urgency, to the page..

MCS: You accomplish a lot with such economical prose. The point of view is prismatic in the sense that the reader is made to understand the motivations and desires of multiple characters—oftentimes simultaneously. It seems that most writers find it challenging enough to convey the motivations of even just one character without compromising the complexity of another. How did you manage this?  

DB: I try to be thorough and I’ve learned to be very careful, and although it has taken a long time, I’ve finally learned how to write slowly and for myself. That was my take-away from This Young Girl Passing; you have absolutely no reason to rush writing, ideally the work will last much longer than the time it took to create, so why rush? The hordes aren’t clamoring at my door. This book took forever and way too many drafts before it became an actual book, and although at times the wait and the rejections were incredibly frustrating—in the end I’m really grateful for the struggle, as clichéd as that sounds. I spend a long time on a single page, they often take weeks to write, and then I’ll go back a few dozen times and spend twice as much time as I really should compressing text and then reintroducing the lines. Also, I tend to get bored with all the tedium that is involved with writing everyday so I’ll introduce new narrative threads within the existing lines, this resuscitates the everyday exploration of what writing a novel should be and enables me to create that prismatic point of view that you mentioned. I’ll then build out of the gaps once I remove the obvious lines and attempt to formulate a stronger foundation for the characters in the scene once the redundant has been purged and purged again.

MCS: Your approach to time and historical context is met with a similar sense of refinement and narrative necessity. One of the defining characteristics of This Young Girl Passing is its back-and-forth movement between a post-Vietnam 1970’s and the late 90‘s (and your earlier novel, You Are Here, also moves through time within the 9/11 era). Yet it manages to avoid the entrapments of sensationalism that threaten to derail narrative. How did you inhabit both these eras in This Young Girl Passing?

DB: When writing out the dialog for chapters I always reach a point when I need to consult the newspaper and check the weather; so I get the light right, so the moon is full or gone on the right night, to make sure it actually snowed enough to be a nuisance, and knowing what the weather was like also helps me dress the characters. I’ll go to the library and check the weather for the day before the chapter, the day of the chapter and the day after, just to be sure. At times the headlines from those dates leak in as well and that helps inform the characters dialog—sometimes it’s necessary but I’m really careful with how I use it—and it also provides the reader with a skeletal time line. However, the people I write about aren’t on the cusp of breaking news, ever, with the exception of Stefanie in You Are Here, who is last seen entering the WTC on the morning of 9/11, my characters are all very marginal and quite content to be so, they might talk about current events but only in passing—like Bill and Sarah in the hotel room talking about Hale Bopp and Heaven’s Gate—headlines are always on the peripheral.

I’m very much into the music and culture of the 70’s, so for me, who was a teenager in the 80’s that decade represents an almost mythical time in America, and my father served in Vietnam so that war was and still is a very real part of my personal history.

MCS: I spied on your Goodreads account, and when it comes to reading, you certainly don’t mire yourself in one literary tradition. You’re the fiction editor of Brooklyn Rail and the co-editor of its InTranslation publication which gives exposure to English translations of new international voices that might otherwise go unrecognized. How does your involvement with Brooklyn Rail impact your writing? 

DB: I’ve always been a ferocious reader since I was very young, and one of the happiest times in my life was when I read a novel a day for a 9-month period of deliberate and blissful unemployment during my mid-twenties. That was just before I began my attempts at fiction. What I’ve found with writing novels is that I cannot read them as avidly as I once did. What the Rail has allowed me to do is to ingest lots of current writing and to support it in a very public way. The work I do on behalf of the Rail and InTranslation doesn’t pay but I see it as a form of literary activism, which is a very nice way to go about doing something that you love.  My work as an editor takes considerable time away from my own writing, obviously, which is at times problematic because I need to work harder at making money in order to survive in NYC, which also takes time away from my own writing, but my work as an editor has given me a greater perspective as to where my writing may or may not fit in this current publishing climate and it has enabled me work with some truly dynamic authors and publishers whom I might never have been in contact with if I’d simply stayed at my desk and toiled away in solitude.

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Where Donald Breckenridge toils away in solitude

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MCS: How do you manage to survive as a writer and literary activist in NYC? What does a “typical day” look like for you (if there is such a thing)? 

DB: No, no such thing as a typical day. If I can get 5 hours in a day on the novel, I know I’ll be able to face the rest of the day, and that no matter what happens it will be a good day. And if I can stay at home and write all day then it has been a fantastic day. I’ll wake up at 5 or 6 and write till 11 or noon and then get started on money work—I sell wine for a small yet prestigious wine importer. The reading and editing I do for the Rail and InTranslation takes place in the late afternoon and into the evening.

MCS: Going back to your voracious reading habits—which writer(s) do you feel have most impacted your craft and/or your approach to writing? Who are you reading now? 

DB: The two most important authors would be the French novelists Claude Simon and Emmanuel Bove. Simon for the multiple layers and textures he brings to the page that make reading his novels (Histoire, The Flanders Road, Conducting Bodies) a nearly visceral, always urgent and wonderfully lucid experience. And Bove (My Friends, A Winter’s Journal, A Man Who Knows) for his precision, emotional honesty and pristine imagery. Also the Japanese novelists Kawabata and Soseki. And the German author, Arno Schmidt who is a tremendous writer, everyone on the planet should read Schmidt! Dalkey Archive just released a really handsome four volume set of collected works that John E Woods has translated over the years, and if you are unfamiliar with Schmidt’s work, Nobodaddy’s Children, which collects three of his early novels is an ideal place to start. And also the Brooklyn-born, Gilbert Sorrentino who is by far my favorite American author. I recently read and really enjoyed Chris Turner’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows that is a truly outstanding book and out from Seagull this month. I am currently reading Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves that Melville House published last year, also, Ahmet Hamid Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, one of the most elegant books that I’ve read in years, Archipelago published that a few years ago and I’m eyeing Ursula Meany Scott’s translation of Wert and the Life Without End by Claude Ollier which was just published by Dalkey Archive.

MCS: Earlier you mentioned thwarting the tedium of writing everyday by introducing narrative threads. Friday, December 19, 1997, is a distinct passage because of its absence of dialogue. Each sentence swivels back and forth between POV to capture the (almost) simultaneous but separate experiences of Mary and Bill. Yet, the reader is rooted in the text largely due to the very idea of “pristine imagery” you just mentioned, and the movement between scenes sustains the momentum of dialogue. While crafting This Young Girl Passing, did you consciously engage with an aesthetic that would interrupt the everyday tedium of writing?

DB: The line by line shifts in that chapter, as it finally exists are so different from a few drafts ago. Initially they had been alternating 4 to 6 sentence long scene blocks containing dramatic dialog that I stripped down in a few drafts. It was this half-formed, cathartic nonsense that I somehow felt obligated to write into the book—it was really terrible, like I was trying to wreck the novel. It works for me now because I dumped all of the false notes, everything shrill and moralistic, and all of that sentimental shit. Creating collages out of my imagery (I hesitate to call it pristine, although I try—perhaps too hard at times) on the page keeps the momentum going and at times it can suspend or stall a reader’s sense of disbelief. I wrote this book to music from the era, watched most of the films advertised in the newspapers from the days the chapters were taken while writing those chapters, studied the history of the era, so not really, other than editing the fiction in the Rail on a monthly basis, putting together the fiction anthology that Hanging Loose published in ’06  and curating a monthly reading series at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library from ’02-’08, my head was always in this book. That is until I couldn’t find a home for it, almost lost my mind, and then wrote You Are Here . This Young Girl Passing didn’t have a publisher until July of 2007, I was shopping around You Are Here, having just finished that. Both books got picked up that summer, which was a huge relief, because I was really dreading having two unpublished novels.

MCS: People who saw me reading your book in public asked me about its title, and I would respond with an imprudent amount of speculative gibberish. I swore that I would never ask this question for an interview, but I’m compelled to ask for this novel in particular—how did you settle on the title This Young Girl Passing? Would you be willing to share any working titles you rejected? 

DB: The title is from the epigraph which is taken from Eugene Ionesco’s Present Past Past Present. Eugene Ionesco is one of my favorite authors. Each one of my novels and the novella, Rockaway Wherein, contains an epigraph from that book. What I tried to say with This Young Girl Passing, ultimately, is that the past we’ve accumulated, and cultivated is the same past we will into our present. We are predetermined to live in a present where the past resonates around us endlessly, and I learned that from reading Eugene Ionesco. The working title for the novel and the title that I shopped around for a few years when this book was a disaster was Arabesques for Sauquoit as I thought that spoke to the way it was written and the location, Sauquoit, where the novel takes place.

MCS: What’s next? 

DB: I’m currently working on my fourth novel. I started it in the winter of ’09 and I have about a 100 manuscript pages that might be ok. It’s been slow as You Are Here came out while I was writing it and that was very distracting. My father got really sick in the spring of ’10 and then he died that September which was really brutal as we were very close. Incidentally, he is buried near the farm where he was raised which is in the same county where This Young Girl Passing takes place. Getting this book ready for publication was also incredibly distracting, in a good way, and that kept me away from the new novel, but now, finally, I can begin again in earnest!

— by Mary Stein and Donald Breckenridge

Oct 142011
 

These are End Times—can there be any doubt?—and in this brilliant, dense essay Patrick J. Keane explains how and why Yeats’s prophetic/apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” has become the byword (and epitaph?) for our world, the modern era, the contemporary predicament. Keane has already published three books on Yeats; he brings an easy erudition and scholarship to the table but also demonstrates a sharp eye for current discourse—wherever an echo of the poem appears, he’s sure to notice and mark it down. We have here also copies of Yeats’s manuscript revisions and Keane’s vivid recreation of the history, influences and states of mind that produced the poem. Yeats was thinking of the slaughter of the Russian Royal Family by the Bolsheviks, but his words reverberate like an ancient premonition.

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

dg

o

Eternal Recurrence: The Permanent Relevance

of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

By Patrick J. Keane

o

Portrait of Yeats:  photo taken by Pirie MacDonald, New York City, 1932

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The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, as I was completing the first draft of this attempt to account for the “permanent relevance” of “The Second Coming,” a friend brought to my attention that morning’s New York Times column by liberal economist Paul Krugman. Addressing what he saw as the failure of the Federal Reserve and of most politicians to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, Krugman lamented, as “a tragedy and an outrage,” predictable Republican opposition to President Obama’s flawed but promising new jobs plan, or indeed to any plan likely to make a dent in unemployment. “These days,” charged Krugman, “the best—or at any rate the alleged wise men and women who are supposed to be looking after the nation’s welfare—lack all conviction, while the worst, as represented by much of the G.O.P., are filled with a passionate intensity. So the unemployed are being abandoned.” Would Yeats, a man of the Right, disown this liberal appropriation of his words? Perhaps not; in 1936, as we shall see, he, too, quoted from this passage to make a point liberals would applaud.

But Yeats’s lines, open to appropriation on a more bipartisan basis than anything going on in contemporary American politics, are also repaired to by those on the Right. Following the uninspiring September 23 Republican presidential debate, and registering both the on-stage meltdown of front-runner Rick Perry and the continued right-wing lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, conservative commentator Bill Kristol was driven to fire off a Weekly Standard “special editorial,” titled simply “Yikes!” Kristol—who, along with many conservatives, wants New Jersey’s “tough-love” governor, Chris Christie, to get into the race—ends by quoting an e-mail from a fellow-Republican equally dismayed by the quality of the debate and the caliber of his party’s declared candidates. Concurring with the e-mailer’s allusion—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”—Kristol couldn’t “help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats didn’t suggest the remedy: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ Sounds like Chris Christie.”

Something even larger than Governor Christie seemed headed our way to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who recently blogged that the U. S. economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Even that is part of a wider concern, again reflected in the apparent need to quote “The Second Coming.” The whole of the poem’s opening movement was posted in August on the website Sapere Aude!, singled out as the best description we have, not of the U. S. economy or the lackluster field of Republican presidential hopefuls, but of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” There was also an illustration of “the widening gyre,” all supplied by one Ahmet C. Toker (whose suggestive surname reminded me that the irrepressible Kevin Smith, by his own admission fueled by cannabis, has been busy writing a 12-issue Batman comic-book series under the general rubric, The Widening Gyre). That Europe, and perhaps the U.S., may be slouching towards something more ominous than a double-dip recession—may, indeed, be spiraling out of control in a widening gyre—was made graphic in the banner headline and blood-red cover of the August 22 issue of Time, which projected nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”


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In addition to those already mentioned in the text, there are many titular allusions to “The Second Coming.” Canadian poet Linda Stitt considered calling her 2003 collection Lacking All Conviction, but chose instead another phrase for her title: Passionate Intensity, from the line of “The Second Coming” that immediately follows. Describing a very different kind of disintegration than that presented by Judge Bork in Slouching Toward Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.

Detective novels, crime fiction, and pop culture in general have drawn liberally on the language of “The Second Coming.” The second of Ronnie Airth’s Inspector John Madden novels is The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2007). H. R. Knight has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle tracking down a demonic monster in Victorian London in his 2005 horror novel, What Rough Beast. Robert B. Parker called the tenth volume in his popular Spenser series The Widening Gyre. I referred in the text to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.

Continue reading »

Oct 132011
 

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Warning: this video contains suggestive animations of fruit, human sacrifice, and some coarse language. “The Island” is a short film by Trevor Anderson, a filmmaker from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Anderson is a self-taught independent filmmaker who is currently in post-production on his tenth short film. His work has screened at countless film festivals around the world, including Sundance, Berlin and Toronto.

I saw “The Island” accidentally the first time, then realized I knew the filmmaker. Once upon a time, we both lived in the basements of lesbian professors in Edmonton. We were an exclusive subculture immortalized in a line from a non-fiction piece by Janice Williamson: “gay boys who live in the basements of dyke professors and wonder about the status quo.”

“The Island” for me is carnivalesque in that Rabelaisian sense of being both outrageous and intolerant of hypocrisy which means here being intolerant of intolerance. The film begins plainly enough in the hinterlands, one man walking against a blank canvas of snow, the starkness of the landscape emphasizing the stark hatred in the “fan mail” the narrator receives. What follows is simply beauty made from ugliness, a massive flight of fancy that describes a utopia of tolerance and celebration and freedom.

The last line troubles things with one of those perfect tugs on the tablecloth. Like Anderson believes too much in an interdependent and connected humanity, one that even includes the ignorant and intolerant, to move permanently to this Rabelaisian island.

At the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, Anderson won the inaugural Lindalee Tracey Award, presented to “an emerging Canadian filmmaker working with passion, humour, a strong sense of social justice and a personal point of view.”

If you like Anderson’s style of autobiodoc filmmaking (a term I’m trying to put into common usage so please pass it on), then please check out the trailer for his last film, “The High Level Bridge” (and if you’re enticed pay the $1.99 to download the full film and support this indie filmmaker). “The High Level Bridge” is a short meditation on the untold history of suicides off of Edmonton’s High Level bridge and concludes with Anderson dropping his camera off the bridge into the icy water below.

Trailer:

Purchase the film at Trevor Anderson: Dirty City Films.

“The High Level Bridge” was  selected for the Sundance Institute’s Art House Project. From Anderson’s website: “In 2005, the Art House Project was created to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Sundance Institute and pay tribute to art house theatres across the USA. Twelve art house theatres from around the country were designated and united as Sundance Institute Art House Project theatres. In 2006, a Sundance Institute 25th Anniversary retrospective series was made available for each of the theatres to show in their local communities. The Sundance Institute Art House Project has since grown to a total of 17 participating theatres nationwide and continues its commitment to expanding the reach of independent cinema across America.”

—RWGray

Oct 112011
 

The Perplexing Other

A Review of Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men

by A. Anupama

 

The Book of Men
By Dorianne Laux
W. W. Norton
96 pages, $24.95
ISBN 978-0-393-07955-5

“It was the title. I admit, I thought that maybe Dorianne Laux was giving us the answer key right here in her new collection of poetry, The Book of Men. I ran to get a copy. Well, I didn’t actually. I downloaded mine on a reading tablet, I admit, which I don’t like to do with poetry books, but I was in a hurry to take a look. Luckily, Laux’s book isn’t the sort of visual poetry that loses some of its elegance in the tablet. Even so, I dislike the way mine breaks a poem on the screen or shifts to landscape when I shift the tablet to the side, as when I lie on the couch to read. It is different, something to get used to, and it reveals my own expectations of the experience of reading as I adjust settings so that it annoys me less, or contemplate upgrading to a newer model. It just added to my experience of Laux’s theme—the struggle to read our perplexing others, to reveal to ourselves our expectations of love and life.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t the “answers” book I had imagined, but rather a place for Laux’s questions to flourish, seeding our own questionings. Some of the poems are personal ones, about past lovers and friends. She also picks out a few of the “gods” of the Sixties, men whose art defined her generation: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Mick Jagger. She takes her attention to them, with questions, requests, awe, and dismay. Her personal reactions and observations are rendered with humor and vulnerable honesty.

In the poem titled “Bob Dylan,” the epigraph is taken from his song “Father of Night,” which is a stark contrast to Laux’s poem. Dylan’s song lyrics are almost hymn-like in their tone of reverence to the Father. Laux’s poem’s Father is asleep on a bench somewhere; he is someone who has abandoned the speaker of the poem, a speaker who says things like “I knew there was no mercy but me.” The image of the ant in the middle of the poem is Laux’s portrait of Dylan:

one, without a leg, limped
in circles, sent two front legs out to stroke
a crooked antenna, a gesture
that looked to me like prayer. I knew
it wasn’t true.

Her doubt sends her “on with my empty plate, / like everyone else, calling, calling.” I considered too, that Laux might have meant the poem to be read as a persona poem, in which case, the ant would be one of the regular folks of Dylan’s songs, and the old man is the Father of that song, but changed into a vagrant “his sack of clothes beneath his matted head.” What a change from the Father in the Dylan song, who builds rainbows, teaches birds to fly. This one is “twitching in dream. One hand clutching / the bald earth, the other waving me down.” It is strange and ambiguous. I wondered when I read this–is this a good thing?  The birds in this poem are not flying. The ants are not praying. But the speaker has gotten down on knees and has noticed the dreaming old man’s waving, beckoning.

The question “is this a good thing?” came up again for me at the end of the poem “The Beatles.” Laux lambasts them with her sarcastic hypothesizing on why the band broke up. Was it love? Was it greed? Was it a damaged sense of reality? Laux’s last stanza suggests an answer:

Maybe they arrived
at a place where nothing seemed real. A field
bigger than love or greed or jealousy.
An open space
where nothing is enough.

If nothing itself could be enough, that’s the answer isn’t it? If nothing is enough, then desire itself is frustrated to the point of annihilating itself—isn’t that a good thing? Or, is desire the only eternal thing for our cultural gods who, by singing from the heart, have gorged themselves with wealth and fame by creating insatiable desire—Beatlemania and the reverence of fans even today? The multiplicity of meanings in Laux’s one-line punch is remarkable for the cascade of new questions it sets off. I found myself examining the post-Beatles activities of its members, mulling over the possibilities of what the answer could be. It brought me up short at the present, with McCartney writing a romantic opera for the New York City Ballet and Starr’s official website displaying a photo of him in a gesture of two fingers up for peace and love. I couldn’t really place a value on the merits or sincerity of these projects. And that seems to be Laux’s brilliant point. Her sarcastic tone evaporates into uncertainty, seeding questions.

The poem “Men” is a deliberately crafted statement, but a statement with subtle lies in it. So the questioning starts again. Laux begins with

It’s tough being a guy, having to be gruff
and buff, the strong silent type, having to laugh
it off—pain, loss, sorrow, betrayal—or leave in a huff

Every line of the poem ends in the “f” sound, except the penultimate line.

Son, brother, husband, lover, father, they are different
from us, except when they fall or stand alone on a wharf.

The word “different” frustrates the pattern of the poem, emphasizing its presence in a way that sets off questions again. There is this doubt. If one were to reverse all the adjectives and metaphors in this poem to make it “easy being a girl,” would the poem say the same thing? And what about the word “lover” in the middle of that same penultimate line? Every other word in the line can only be used to refer to men. The placement makes “they are different” seem ever so slightly like a lie. The final image stating that men and women only seem alike when in suffering or solitude seems ambiguous after that. The question again–is that a good thing?

Interestingly, in the second section of the book, Laux questions her mother, her mother’s friend, her niece, a pregnant mare, Cher, a female neighbor, a female friend, Emily Dickinson–a lot of people who are not men! And there’s a poem about a dog howling at the moon who “has one blind eye, the other one’s looking up.” A poem about gardening, “pulling stones like tumors up,” and another about gold, “Color of JCPenney’s jewelry, trinket / in a Cracker Jack box…” Laux’s collection makes a meandering progress from questioning the gods, to questioning her companions, to questioning the animals and the inanimate objects in our lives. She arrives at the last poem, which is a meditation on trees overlooking water, essentially a nature poem. Here she compacts the questions, so elegantly, in the stark comparison between the pine tree leaning from a cliff over the ocean and the “blossoming cherry growing up over / the shed’s flat roof,” dropping petals into a pond. In this poem, she embraces the passion and desire in human experience at the beginning, and at the end gives us a haunting image of our mortality:

and a few bright petals settle
onto the black pond. They float only a moment
before the moon-colored carp finds them
with his hairy ancient lips, and one by one
carries them down.

The Book of Men as a whole does this, and this final poem mirrors the brilliant movement of the collection from its beginning to end.

Charles Harper Webb’s article about Laux’s poetry in the most recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle (October/November 2011) focuses of the power of her work. Webb offers some insight into technical elements in her poems, but he concludes that the success of her poetry comes from her willingness to allow her personality to blaze strongly in a way that is accessible to the typical reader. The result is that the enduring quality of human emotions illuminates her poetry. I agree, and I would add that she has let her wisdom blaze here in The Book of Men with her willingness to enter into her own questions unwaveringly.

—A. Anupama

Oct 102011
 

Ben_Woodard

Here’s a poignant, playful little piece, a variation, as it were, in the old sense of the word, a school exercise (think: Bach’s Goldberg Variations) that caught the wind under its wings and took off and now glows with wit, imagination, and feeling. The story is based on the writing exercise at the end of the essay “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders. As such it is genetically related to the two stories by Casper Martin also published on Numéro Cinq. All three are based on the same algorithm (form), but all three develop along startlingly divergent lines. There is a lesson here about the zen of form; and my delight is both as a reader and as a teacher—it’s amazingly cheering to see a student suddenly achieve lift-off and create a self-sustaining world.

dg

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Old boy, I’m certain that you know all, but I need to address you today because I believe I’ve finally gone on and lost the last of my marbles. Have you listened to my thoughts of late? Are you aware that I’ve contemplated murder?

May, May. It’s true.

Well murder may be too strong a word. Of course, I could never kill May. Not with my bare hands or with a weapon. And yet every time we’re parked up on a big hill and I’m helping her into her wheelchair, a piece of me wants to present her with a little push, to watch her roll away.

I know this is wrong, old boy, and I worry I’ll surely go to Hell for such feelings. The truth is, though, my existence crumbled the day May’s hips confined her to that chair. My devotion to her care has rendered me a servant, nothing more. She has grown cruel and demanding, a gray curmudgeon. And, yes, there was a time when I loved my May more than I’ve ever loved anyone else; and, yes, we once shared happiness. But those years have long passed. At eighty-four, old boy, I assure you Joe and May are mainly together out of habit. Two wrinkled roommates. Nothing else.

I think about pushing her, and I say to myself: How much time do I have left on this Earth, anyway?

She zips down that hill, and I think: Now I can live.

At an age when I should be forgetting, why do you, the Almighty, keep my mind nimble?

I’m so packed with misfortune. Joe, you can’t be thinking these things.

We stop for ice cream after her doctor’s appointment. As I taxi her toward a picnic table, I contemplate my sick vision. My grip on the back of the chair loosens. It feels nice to see May roll on her own, a cone in each hand, with no knowledge of her would-be doom.

“I just let you go,” I say, grabbing the handles.

May holds up the two cones. “Which one was yours, Joe?”

“Did you hear me?” I ask, parking her and taking the butterscotch. “I said I let go of your wheelchair, May. On a hill and everything.”

“You forgot napkins,” May says. “I’ll drip all over my new slacks. Go get us some napkins, will you?”

I hobble over to the window—Joe’s no spring chicken, old boy! It takes me time to move—and pull a handful of napkins from the dispenser. My twisted thoughts make me want to weep.

“What’s this about letting go of my chair?” May asks.

I say, “I’ve considered letting you roll down a hill. A big, tall hill.”

She takes a bite of ice cream and chews until it melts in her mouth. “If you did that,” she says, “everything we share would be gone with me.”

“That’s true, dear,” I say.

We eat our cones in silence after this, old boy. I watch the cars zoom down on the road and May admires the flowers sprouting along the edge of the parking lot.

No ice cream drips on May’s slacks.

As I help her into the passenger seat, May laughs. “I’m imagining myself rolling down a steep hill, Joe,” she says. “My hair in the wind, my saggy skin pulled back. Oh, what a sight that would be.”

“You’re right,” I reply.

May buckles her seatbelt. “Good thing you’re a moral Christian man, Joe,” she says.

Collapsing the wheelchair and wedging it into the trunk, my arms tremble. The effort leaves my heart thumping and my brow moist.

Joe, take a few deep breaths.

The next day, old boy, I help May out of bed in my usual way. I wake her, bathe her, feed her, dress her, and pull her pants up for her after she finishes on the toilet. At lunch, I fetch her a sandwich and a glass of milk. As you’re aware, we eat most of our meals in the television room, so we can watch our game shows and news programs.

“You haven’t thought about poisoning my food, too, have you, Joe?” May asks, peeling back the top slice of bread.

“Of course not,” I answer.

She takes a bite. “Of course not,” she repeats. “How silly of me. Then you’d have to do something with the body.”

I carry my sandwich plate from the kitchen and ease in next to May.

“It was a harebrained thought,” I say, “nothing more. A flight of fancy. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

May says, “It’s best to keep the victim in the dark so she doesn’t suspect anything.”

Remain calm, Joe.

“You’re acting cruel,” I say. “As if you never had a single off-putting thought in our marriage.”

May replies, “We all have fantasies. But fantasies don’t usually end with a corpse. I’m not the one thinking about murder, Joe. Boy, had I known you felt such passion for violence…”

“Passion for violence? Come now,” I sputter back.

“I’m surprised I’ve made it this long, to be perfectly honest,” she says.

Try to hold your tongue, Joe. Oh, old boy. Sometimes I can’t contain myself.

“Would you stop, please?” I shout back to May. “Would you please let it go?” My breath fires out in short bursts. I can feel the wetness forming in my eyes. “Don’t you see how my entire life has been dedicated to you? Don’t you see these things?”

“Oh, Joe,” May says. She drops one of her wrinkled paws onto my forearm. “Oh, my little Joe.”

I take refuge in the basement. Quiet here. May can’t reach me. She doesn’t like it when I leave her like this, but I need some time. Her badgering has worked me over.

I ask you, old boy, architect of Joe’s body and channel of his blood, why did you fill my head with such terrible thoughts? May is my wife! We have shared our lives for over sixty years! I cannot harm her, can I? Even if our love has faded, even if I welcome death as an alternative to being her nursemaid, even if I only have a few years left in the tank, I must remain faithful to my marriage vows, right?

And yet I meditate on that brief moment at the ice cream stand, of letting go, and a chill runs up my aching, bowed back. The air tasted sweet, old boy. It may have only lasted a second, but I remember the flavor of syrup caressing Joe’s dulled tongue as he inhaled. It sounds crazy, I know. Freedom rang over those two, maybe three steps across the pavement. And here I am, crouched in our dank basement, sitting on a folding chair. To my right lean a small lamp, my spy novels, my mysteries, my adventure stories, my magazines, my letters, and my empty flask. This nook is all I have left. In this great big world, the only place Joe can call his own, free from interference, is a musty, pathetic chair in the basement.

Death may point his cold, bony finger at me tomorrow. Then again, you may allow me to hold on another year or two. And I wonder if this is how I want to be found. A dead man already underground?

None of these things should be taking place, but they are.

May’s screaming. I can’t recall drifting off, and mounting the top step, I find her splayed on the kitchen floor. I notice that the sun has set. The entire house is dim. The edge of my existence is so very near.

“See what happens when you abandon me,” she yells.

I yank her chair over to her side. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “Are you hurt?”

“I believe I’ve torn my slacks, Joe,” she snaps. “If you were here, I wouldn’t have had to do this on my own.”

With my help, she crawls back into the wheelchair.

I say, “How did this happen?”

She waves me off. “How do you think this happened? My wheels went out from under me when I tried to get some crackers out of the cupboard. You may be able to get by on ice cream cones and sandwiches, but I need supper.”

“I was downstairs,” I say.

May shakes. “I need to eat to get my strength back. When you decide to roll me down that hill, I’d like to think I’d have enough muscle to stop you.”

I open the cupboard and hand May the box of Saltines. “It was a harebrained thought,” I answer.

“Harebrained or not, a stiff breeze would send me to my maker,” she nods. “I wouldn’t blame you for doing it, Joe. Not one bit. I see how tired you are. I know how long it’s been since you went out to play cards. Don’t think I don’t notice these things.”

“Oh, no, no, no, no,” I say, wheeling her to the kitchen table. Steady, Joe. “Please don’t talk that way, dear. I wouldn’t ever do such a thing.”

May shrugs. “I notice these things,” she says.

I microwave a frozen pizza. Vegetable. I keep my eyes on the glowing door. Maybe radiation will do us both in. The whir of the machine is loud enough that I don’t notice the change in May’s temperament until it clicks off.

She’s laughing.

“All my wrinkles, my saggy skin, pulled back by the wind,” she says.

I smile. “Your hair flopping about,” I add in.

“What a sight I’d be,” she says.

You send me a message in a dream, old boy.

It’s winter and I’m with May atop a mountain. We’re outfitted in skis and our regular clothes; only we’re not cold. May’s hips are better, too, because she stands without any help. Hooting and hollering, she kicks up powder. Joe loiters at the summit and watches her disappear into the white. She’s nothing more than a pinprick in the distance; then she’s not even that.

There’s something in me that won’t let my legs crest the slope. It surprises me to know that a part of me still fears death. No offense, old boy. Nobody lasts forever, but some of us try our best to think otherwise.

May reappears by my side, smiling. “It isn’t bad at all,” she says. “We could go together if you’re afraid.”

I wake from this dream and look over the nightstand at May in her bed. She wheezes in her sleep. Her hair catches the moonlight.

She might enjoy a push too much, I think. Then I consider sharing the chair with her. Perhaps, in this fog, I’m trying to justify my sinful thoughts.

Joe is so packed with misfortune.

You allot us a quiet morning, old boy. Gratefulness from both May and I.

We drive to the park to feed the ducks.

“I dreamed of mountains last night,” I say.

May wipes her nose with a tissue. A bag of bread heels crinkles on her lap. We circle the tennis courts and pass the gardens with their young flowers. Joe and May. They’ve seen so many flowers bloom.

I say, “I won’t roll you down a hill, May.”

“You’ve announced this so many times,” she replies, “you sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.”

I push her up the slope toward the duck pond. “I don’t want to give you the satisfaction.”

May nods, “You’re a moral Christian man.”

One of her wheels squeaks as we reach the ducks. The chair complains. It is ready to stop. May removes the bread heels with her shaky hands and begins to break them up on her lap.

She says, “I could roll myself if I wanted. Nobody says you need to push me.”

These words should not be said, but here they are. I lose my breath! This is something new. I’ve never thought that May could let herself go.

But why? Why would she want to leave Joe?

Sorrow fills my heart. I feel heavy, rooted.

The ducks swarm and bite at each other for dominance.

“But you’re a moral Christian woman, May,” I whisper.

“Moral or not, I can’t stop picturing myself lost in the wind,” May replies. Is that a whimsical tone I hear?

I latch onto the handles of her wheelchair. “But everything we share would be gone,” I add. “You’ve said so yourself.”

“Did I? My, Joe, that memory of yours is better than mine.” May laughs.

“I won’t let you do it,” I announce. All of a sudden, our wedding day floods my mind. Old boy, you make me remember the vacation to Niagara Falls. Decades roll by as I inhale and as I breathe out. My eyes fill.

May reaches up and pats my hand. She says, “Oh, my little Joe.”

We empty the bread onto the ground and I walk us back to the car. May slides into her seat and waits for me to stuff the wheelchair in the trunk.

I start the engine but do not drive.

May says, “You know, we could go together if you’re afraid.”

“You said the same thing in my dream,” I confess.

“Is that so?”

“You held my hand,” I add.

May nods. “We could find the biggest hill in town,” she suggests. “I could sit on your lap and we could feel the wind together.”

Old boy, I look up at the sky and see a pair of cardinals fly by. They mate for life, you know. Oh, of course you know. You made them, after all. Just like you made Joe and May.

“Which hill should we drive to?” I ask.

 —Benjamin Woodard

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Oct 072011
 

McElroyJoseph McElroy (Photo by Peter Chin)

Stanley Elkin describes Joseph McElroy’s fiction as “the mazy coil of an educated, complex vision,”[1] and “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne” (excerpted from his collection Night Soul and Other Stories) exemplifies what Elkin’s talking about.  At one level, this story is busy with phantom characters and the narrator’s cycling behavior and chaotic psychology.  And at another, it’s rich with allusions to literature and lore, taking on the slight flavor of a nineteenth century Gothic horror, which is not in McElroy’s other stories, but makes for an apt addition here because of the setting.  For me, the knot of confusion over invention at the heart of this story is as playful as it is unsettling—“I made him up out of what I knew, and I assumed he was too authentic to have time to make me up.”

—Jason DeYoung (who reviews McElroy new story collection here)

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He was not to be confused with my new friends or my old. He was there before I found him and he did not care about being discovered. I knew him by a thing he did. He threw boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne. If he heard any of my questions, he kept them to himself. Perhaps we were there to be alone, I in Paris, he in the Bois that sometimes excludes the Paris it is part of.

But what makes you think Paris will still be there when you arrive? inquires a timeless brass plate embedded in the lunch table and engraved with an accented French name. Well, I’m in Paris, after all; that was obvious even before I sat down with my friend who invited me to meet him here, though the immortal name I put my finger on, that frankly I don’t quite place, might have been instead that of the burly American who’s also, I’m told, here somewhere staring in brass off a table—far-flung American name once commonly coupled with Paris itself. So now, like a memorial bench in a park, a table bears his name, that fighter who once clued us all in that you make it up out of what you know, or words to that effect. His pen (or sharpened pencil) had more clout even than his knuckles.

What is the name of that famous burly writer who lunched at this consequently famous restaurant? Out there past the brass plaques and dark wood surfaces and the warm glass and the conversation, the city doesn’t happen to answer. Not a student descending from a bus; not a woman hurrying by with two shopping bags like buckets; not a man in the street I’ve seen in many quarters carrying under his arm a very long loaf of bread and once or twice wearing a motorbike helmet. He is probably not the man my French friends patiently hear me describe, who is my man in the Bois whose very face suggests the projectiles he carries in a bag, a cloth bag I didn’t have to make up, to contain those projectiles in the settled November light of late afternoon in the Bois when I begin my run.

Which man? The man with the bagful of boomerangs, wooden boomerangs one by one, old and nicked and scraped and shaped smooth to the uses of their flight, one or two taped like the business end of a hockey stick. When I arrived, coming down the dirt path toward a great open green, and broke into my jog, he was there. And he was there when I wound my way back three or four miles later, in later light, around me the old cognates of trees, of dusk, of leaves, crackling under foot. Yet, veering down hedged paths, past thickets where dogs appear, and piney spaces with signs that say WALK, to surprise a parked car where no car can drive, and across the large, turned-over earth of bridle paths, and around an unexpected chilly pond they call a sea, a lake, that has hidden away for this year its water lilies, I could sometimes lose myself with the deliberateness of the pilgrim runner whose destination is unknown and known precisely as his sanctuary is the act of running itself. So I find I am beside the children’s zoo, or so close to some mute lawn girdled by traffic thinking its way home that I can plot my peripheral position sensing I am near both the Russian Embassy and the Counterfeit Museum. Or I can’t see Eiffel’s highly original wind-stressed “tree” anywhere, whereas here’s a racecourse that I know, so now I must be running in the other direction toward Boulevard Anatole France and the soccer stadium. But I am still meditating the famed water jumps of the other racecourse, and turning back in search of the Porte d’Auteuil Metro, I breathe the smoke of small fires men and boys feed near the great beech trees.

But most often, I ended where the boomerang-thrower was working his way into the declining light. And passed him, because that was my way back to the Metro. He began low, he aimed each of those bonelike, L-shaped, end-over-end handles along some plane of air as if with his exacting eyes he must pass it under a very low bridge out there before it could swoop upward and slice around and back, a tilted loop whose moving point he kept before him pivoting his body with grim wonder and familiarity. As I came near, I would not stop running but I might turn my head, my shoulders, my torso, to try to follow the flight of the boomerang. More than once I felt it behind me, palely revolving, silent as a glider and beyond needing light to cross the private sky of the Bois, which for all its clarity of slope and logical forest is its own shadow and contagion within a metropolis of illuminations balconied, reflected, glimmering, windowed in the frames of casements. More than once I saw the boomerang land near its intent owner, wood against earth. Sometimes he seemed to be launching the whole bagful before proceeding to retrieve. What was his method? He would pick one boomerang up with another or with his foot. One afternoon I must have been early, I was leaving as he arrived; I wanted to know how he started doing this, because we had boomerangs in Brooklyn Heights before the War in a dead-end street looking out from a city cliff to the docks and New York Harbor and the Statue, and we hurled our pre-plastic boomerangs out over the street that ran below that cliff and thought of nothing, not people below, not the windows of apartment houses. I looked this foreign boomerang-thrower in the eye, his the angular face of a hunter looking out for danger, a blue knitted cap, old blue sweatshirt with the hood back like mine. What was he doing off work at four? The things in the bag were alive, their imaginary kite strings resilient.

I come from a city also great, also both beautiful and dark, its people also both abrupt and not distant; and I wanted to (as Baudelaire says) “accost” this boomerang man. However, I could not find the French for what I had to say, remembering that at least in my own language I would know better what I had to say when I began to say it. I had lost one of his boomerangs in the dusk once, but the man himself seemed not to have lost it, although I never saw it land and I heard a sound in the trees near my head.

The French for all I wanted to say, I found in a dream, and there, I think, it stayed. I lived, during those first weeks, alone, consciously located between the light and darkness of living with someone. This person, sometimes mythical, later materialized as if she had never gone away, perhaps because I was the one who had gone. But in those weeks before American Thanksgiving, reaching toward Frost’s “darkest evening of the year,” dreams found their way to my new door and, unlike the daytime clients of the rare stamp dealer (though his metal plate ENTREZ SANS FRAPPER was all I knew of them or him, apart from what I knew of the subject matter of his business, not to mention a slow leak from a water-pressure valve in my kitchen which I heard nothing from him about), my dreams were by contrast both inside my apartment before I knew it and outside knocking like an unknown neighbor in the middle of the night.

At least once during my first dreams, the man with the boomerangs threw them all so that they did not come back. Two French friends of mine said he sounded a little crazy (the way in the United States they say that some poor person is “harmless”). A private citizen was how I took him, a survivor-craftsman testing the air. The boomerangs I dreamt were not some American dream’s disposable weapons; my twilight companion’s resources proved renewable, his boomerangs reusably old and known; this wasn’t some Apache spilling the blood of vowels F. Scott Fitzgerald rendered out of Rimbaud, but a native true to the wood from which the aboriginal implements were cut. I made him up out of what I knew, and I assumed he was too authentic to have time to make me up.

The phone rang and I went out to meet a friend. I checked the Mont-St.-Michel tides and saw a French child on a train wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt. I came out of the Chartres cathedral and went back inside. I returned to the Jeu de Paume to hear American spoken without hesitation or apology and, from within that temple of light and color, to view through my favorite window the gray spirit of the riverbank—its founded harmonies of palace and avenue, whose foreground proved to be where those water lilies hang, safe-locked in the sister temple of this tennis court, where my three-dimensional fellow wanderers, refusing to disappear into the “Moulin de la Galette” we’re all admiring, crowd about me as if I were my mind. Here, what went up must come down—downstairs, I mean. “What gains admission must find exit,” they say with justice.

But what goes out—does it come back? I cannot help the signs and symbols; they are as actual as the knocking on my Montmartre door at the moment of my dream when at last I completed the invention of the man with the bagful of boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne. It was more urgent even than a phone ringing in the middle of the night, that knock at my front door—was it the concierge?—and I must wake from my dream just when I have at last found the French with which to accost the person I have made up. The stamp dealer went home eight hours ago. Who can it be at the door? Well, you can’t always choose your time to make the acquaintance of a neighbor. I’m out of bed, croaking, “J’arrive, j’arrive” (pleased to recall the more accurate English), walking half in my sleep through someone else’s curtain-insulated rooms to ask in French, “Who’s there? What is it?” only to realize I have heard no more knocks, and to suspect that they were not here upon this front door in the pitch-black hall but back in that bedroom where I left the dream. What a way to gain entrance to an apartment! Knock on the door at three in the morning until you rouse your prey, then express such concern over the nightmare yells and cries he did not even know were coming out of his sleep, that helplessly he opens the door to thank you.

But that was a New York dream. I found the light; I sat on my bed and remembered hearing the French I needed in order to address the boomerang-thrower, only in my dream fluency to pass to a stage in which he spoke to me. Till all the interference in my solitary situation left me in that empty apartment, and the sounds of knocking that had brought me stumbling through rooms I hardly knew faded from me with the French I had found but now lost, though not its sense. For the boomerang man from the Bois had told me what I could not have learned had I not already known it: that if it was worth telling, it was worth keeping secret, how he shied those pieces of himself down into the late autumn, his aim at some distance from him, his boomerangs quarrying not prey but chance which was to cast that old and various loop beyond routine success, dreaming the while of a point where at its outward limit the path’s momentum paused upon a crest of stillness and by the logic of our lunatic hope did not return. In this way, although he will not hear me, he is still there when I go, and here when I come back.

Yet if this is unbelievable, I tried something more down-to-earth. One cold afternoon I spoke; I approached the man and said in French that I had not seen a boomerang thrown “since” thirty years. He answered. He had been throwing them that long and longer, he said. I asked if he had hunted with them. He looked me up and down, his eyebrows raised, his forehead wrinkled. He had not, he said. And were these the same old boomerangs he had always used? Only this one, he said, raising the one in his hand. Speaking for all of us, I asked if his aim was accurate, though not having the French noun for “aim” (which proves to be but), I asked if, when he threw (lancé) he was toujours exact. In English, then, he said, “American?” We smiled briefly; we nodded. “You jog,” he said slowly, “I throw boomerangs.”

“I used to throw a boomerang as a child,” I said in French.

He was looking downrange, shaking the boomerang in his hand downward at arm’s length, first one big shake, then a series of diminishing shakes. “Moi aussi,” I heard him say.

Like a knife-thrower pointing at his target, he launched his toy. Like a passerby, I continued on my way.

—Joseph McElroy, from Night Soul and Other Stories, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “Joe McElroy Introduction,” Stanley Elkin, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1990, Vol. X, No. 1, page 7.
Oct 072011
 

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Immersed in Mystery

Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul and Other Stories

Reviewed by Jason DeYoung

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Night Soul and Other Stories
By Joseph McElroy
296 pages, Dalkey Archive Press, $14.95
ISBN-10 1564786021
ISBN-13 9781564786029

Night Soul and Other Stories  comprises twelve short stories, each dynamic, powerful, and original. But be forewarned, these stories are not coin-operated narratives that payoff with an oh-so-satisfying clear resolution. No, these stories are more like sophisticated, homemade devices, buzzing and wooly with wires, transmitting a multiplicity of signals—patterns of meaning that confuse as they compound.  Often harried by warped syntax, convoluted time, and the chaos of the narrator’s (or character’s) mind at work, they’re not typical well-made short stories. McElroy will not tolerate the prejudice that fiction needs to bow to Clarity. He is the type of writer who will ask, Why can’t a story be an expanding fractal-like mediation on the mysteries of a single event or question?  And then asks, why stop there?  In short, McElroy’s fiction is difficult.

Joseph McElroy is a long-standing member of the Society of Fat Books (a phrase used by William Vollman).  His masterpiece is Women and Men, a novel that clocks in at over a thousand pages, and he is often compared to William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and, more recently, David Foster Wallace. Night Soul is McElroy’s first collection, and the stories date from early in his career up to the present, allowing a thirty-year perspective on his writing.  Though the chronology of when these stories were written isn’t made clear in Night Soul (aptly McElroy-ian), you can see how he has stayed focused and interested in certain concepts, or how he replays a technique to different effect. Throughout the collection there are stories that dovetail thematically and share variations on plot and image.

Most of the central characters are lonely men, at a point of transition.  Their lives are often times inverted from those around them, and this eccentricity informs (deforms?) their personalities—“[D]id it matter who he was, going to work when others are going home?” McElroy’s character asks in “Silk, or the Woman with the Bike.”  In the same story, the main character says, “I’m in materials,” which is another commonality these characters share—their deep interest in things. They obsess with wood, plastics, bicycles, canoes, and the everyday detritus of living.  A character in “Silk” maintains a list of things found on the floors of subway cars. These men, however, present tidily enough to the outside.  They enjoy working, which helps ground them in a world they find incomprehensible.

Over and over characters grasp for meaning, but invariably it slips away. In the story “Character,” for instance, the narrator retells a boyhood summer during which he holes up in a toolshed, where he carves a whaleboat. At the beginning, the narrator warns us that this “isn’t a story maybe” and “part of something else.”  And he’s right.  The real story is that his father, a famous anti-war activist, might have to serve jail time, and the boy’s mother is cheating on the father with one the family’s neighbors. Instead of following this action, we follow the boy’s frictional encounters—as they relate to his carving—with the reality outside the toolshed. When alone he is certain the carving is a whaleboat, over which he works and worries the wood, rhapsodizing descriptions of it.  When a dull-witted neighbor interrupts the boy’s whittling, it becomes a “hunk of wood…wasn’t a boat any more.”  When he talks to his father about it, the boy doesn’t know what the carving is or will be, but he recognizes its power: “In my palms I was making more than a boat. I think now, What could be more than a boat or more than me? I felt what I was making must be more than a boat. Or must turn into more. I was stuck, and responsible, and doomed, but excellent, no more than I deserved.” When the neighbor’s daughter visits, it transforms into a “pretty amazing little hull.”  Finally, when the mother’s lover looks at it, he say there is “hard and soft maple, both of them hardwood….[the model boat] was the soft variety.”  The boy’s meaning, or its potential meaning, is dispelled by the lover calling the boat what it is. And this outcome reminds me of a Gilbert Sorrentino story in which the narrator decries we’re surrounded by optical illusions (“Pastilles,” The Moon in Its Flight).

The characters’ search for meaning is generally sought in parallel to their desire for human connection.  And language, they believe, is the key to connection. We see this in the title story. A father begins to note of his infant’s babbling. Every eh, uh, gree, ih becomes important to him. He yearns to communicate with the child.  It becomes almost a duty.  McElroy writes: “He is going to know his son’s language.  It is a son’s language.  You can do that much.”  In another story, “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne,” the narrator desires to communicate with a boomerang thrower in the famous Pairs garden.  He wants to ask the thrower how he got started, but he doesn’t “possess” the French to “accost” the thrower. Instead of learning French in any kind of reasonable way, he dreams (invents) a second thrower, one he can practice his French on. He invents a fiction to confront his reality—a kind of test-drive for how to handle real-life.  And in the dream, he finds the “French with which to accost the person” he’s made up just as someone knocks at his door and wakes him. The stilted conversation the narrator eventually has with the actual thrower is rather dull and inconclusive.

And “inconclusive” might be the most accurate words to describe these stories.  They are troubling and unsettling in their inconclusiveness, which is the overall take away from this book; if Night Soul is united by anything, it’s by its message that life is uncertainty. In an interview (available on YouTube) McElroy defines difficult as “corrugated and complex, perhaps a more adequate image of the life we’re living.”  Elsewhere he writes: “Writing isthinking. Getting somewhere. Even into ignorance.” (“Socrates on the Beach: Thought and Thing“—this is a must read for writers, by the way.)  And he portrays this particular vision throughout Night Soul. In “The Unknown Kid” a daughter asks her father repeatedly why he bothered to have her.  She receives only a mildly satisfying answer. The father, meanwhile, is puzzled by his daughter’s homework: “math where you didn’t really get right or wrong answers.”  In “No Man’s Land,” one of the more political stories in the collection, the puttering lead character constantly wonders, “what is my job.”  Uncertainty takes hold in the punctuation of “Mister X.”  Many sentences tie up with a baffling “(?).”—“Plavix against heart attack and stroke (?).”  And a few of these stories read like the monologue of a person in distress, re-explaining or over-explaining an event, but they can’t quite find the will to shut up about it, mainly because they keep discovering that the more they talk, the more words they use, the more their meaning doesn’t exist when it comes in contact with reality.  As one character says: “All this really happened, and I am trying to get it right.”

This is not to say that the book isn’t playful or darkly humorous. In “Mister X,” a punctured bike tire sends the main character to an acupuncturist.  “Annals of Plagiary” tells the transactional nature of language as a hydrologist’s (inaccurate) flourish of metaphor in a report written early in his career becomes the inspiration for a mixed media artist’s riverside “installation” of garbage.  And in “Particles of Difference,” McElory sets up a conflict between Vic and Flyet, who “buzzes” be let in Vic’s apartment, but he’s “not somebody you let inside your house.”  I don’t know if it’s a stretch to conjecture whether McElroy was inspired by the Victor flytraps but I love thinking that he was.

McElroy’s writing is big. The prose in Night Soul is stuffed to the point of exploding with insights and minutiae that showcase both a meticulous eye and an encyclopedic mind.  These stories contain multitudes.  Dipping into this collection is like putting one’s ear up to a radio that’s slipping its station.  You hear nitwit rock, nattering wonks, scratchy Mussorgsky and then something in between; you sense something odd and beguiling in the mix of static, words, and music. Of course, it’s gone before you can make heads-or-tails out of it. I know it sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not.  I really enjoyed these stories for their challenge and for all their strangeness, which inspires. They have what Viktor Shklovsky says art should have—texts that makes the familiar strange, which allows the reader to experience the world afresh.  “The shock of the new.”  And though I often felt like Homer watching Twin Peaks while I reading Night Soul, I’m okay, happy even, to put my ear up to the radio speaker and immerse myself in the mystery of what I’m hearing.

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Jason DeYoung lives in Washington, DC.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The FiddlebackLos Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Harpur Palate, and Numéro Cinq, among others.

James McElroy author photo by Peter Chin.

Oct 062011
 

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At the core of Miranda July (writer) and Miguel Arteta’s (director) short film “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?” is the title question. It is repeatedly asked by a man standing on a street corner (John C. Reilly) to strangers who pass by, but we never find out why he’s asking the question or what he intends to do with the information he collects. All we know about him is that he has a burning question, three orange trees, and a wife trying to get rid of oranges. None of this matters. The question’s profundity disarms and obscures all else.

That burning question supersedes the simplicity of the film, supersedes the film itself in the way the it poses the question to the audience, too. The youtubification of this film led to a spate of vloggers asking themselves and others the same question in a sort of viral existential awakening, or, at times, mass despair. Certainly, though, the question hails us if we dare to let it. Are you the favorite person of anybody? It’s difficult not to get caught in the musical chairs of the query. And won’t most of us end up on the floor?

But to dwell on the question this way is perhaps to identify too strongly with Miranda July’s character. Mike White’s character doesn’t seem compelled or bothered. He has no delusions of grandeur, but does have a girlfriend and is bringing her an orange or two – he leaves almost elated.  So what of the oranges? On a certain level, the film seems too simple to contain metaphor. But then there are oranges. Are they consolation? Are they payment for pain inflicted, or are they the very point of existence? Much depends on a bag of oranges.

What intrigues me here more though is the intimate story around the story.  How Miranda July had just finished shooting Me and You and Everyone We Know and had nothing to do until the editor came back with a rough cut – a peculiar waiting. So she wrote these sketches. Showed them to Arteta who she was dating at the time. Arteta rushed them to shoot and cast July, Mike White (the writer of Chuck & Buck, which Arteta directed) and Chuy Chavez (July’s DP on Me and You and Everyone We Know).

Arteta, in an interview in Wholphin confesses what the script meant to him:  “When I read it, it hit me hard for the first time: I wasn’t going to be [July’s] favorite person for too much longer. I was having doubts about us and the script felt like a warning . . .  I said ‘Let’s shoot this, right away’ – knowing that working together was something I would always cherish”

In her Wholphin interview, July confesses she was excited to just act. It was something she committed herself to so strongly that when she walked away from John C. Reilly, exiting her scene with him, and no one called cut, she just kept on walking. “I walked practically to the next neighborhood before anyone noticed I was gone.”  These are the interstitial stories I believe imbue films.

After the death of French filmmaker Jacques Demy and the decaying of the prints of his early film Umbrellas of Cherbourg, his filmmaker wife Agnes Varda oversaw the re-colorization of the film. The result is lurid, gaudy, and gorgeous. Walls aren’t just walls, they leap out in shades of eggplant and lime. Varda was ostensibly realizing Demy’s original vision for the film’s color, but there’s something else that imbues the film. Call me overly romantic but I read each color, each frame, as part of a love letter to her deceased husband.

What imbues “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?” for me is the tension between July’s never ending take where she walks off the set and away. . . and Arteta’s manic intent to make the film and collaborate while they still had time. A letting go and a holding on. This bittersweetness stains the film for me.

Romanticism aside, this is simply a film I wish I’d made. With one location and only four actors this is one of the simplest short films I’ve seen. Made for  $150 (for apparently coffee, bagels, tape and a transfer to HD), the simple style and simple content let the film’s principle dramatic question do the work.

The film appears in Issue #1 of Wholphin, the McSweeney‘s DVD magazine, available here:

http://store.mcsweeneys.net/index.cfm/fuseaction/catalog.list/object_id/4F541504-D8B3-44BE-9DAC-32B0B4554215/Wholphin.cfm

In their own words:

“Wholphin is a quarterly DVD magazine featuring short films, documentaries, animation, and instructional videos that have not, for whatever reason, found wide release. Recent issues of Wholphin have included films by Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Miranda July, Miguel Arteta, Errol Morris, and Steven Soderbergh, and performances from John C. Reilly, Selma Blair, Patton Oswalt, Andy Richter, a monkey-faced eel, and many others.”

—RWGray

Oct 052011
 

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Mucking Up the Landscape: Poetic Tendencies in Prose

by Mary Stein

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There’s a certain trend I’ve noticed among some essays and craft books on writing fiction: It hints at the idea of a beleaguered prose writer, imprisoned at her desk—a person who narrates rather than directly experiences life for the sake of fiction, a person held hostage by the endless pursuit of the right-hand margin. It’s an idea of the prose writer as sacrificial lamb for the god that is verisimilitude. Prose and its process can be intoned with a sense of drudgery—particularly in comparison to poetry. In “Rhyming Action,” Charles Baxter jokes, “Prose writers have to spend hours and hours in chairs, facing paper, adding one brick to another brick, piling on the great heap of endless observations, going through the addled inventory of all the items they’ve laboriously paid attention to, and it makes them surly—all this dawn-until-dusk sitting for the sake of substantial books that you could prop open a door with … Fiction writers get resentful, watching poets calling it quits at 9:30am.”

Now of course I don’t agree with the literal assessment of this statement—I know poets who work at least until 10:00, maybe 10:30 in the morning. (Poets must forgive me, I have to believe this farce exists, otherwise I’ll never have anything to aspire to.) But there’s something about the spirit behind the statement, the implicit (or, I suppose, explicit) idea of drudgery inherent to the prose-writing process leading to an implicit drudgery of prose itself—an idea that the reader is led through a corridor of scenes, narratives, backstory, interior and summary to get somewhere. In an interview with Lydia Davis, Sara Manguso asks, “How do you know a story’s a story?” Davis says, “I would say a story has to have a bit of narrative, if only ‘she says,’ and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader. But, of course, it is not a narrative poem. It is flatter, rhythmically different from a poem, and less elliptical.” This is interesting coming from Lydia Davis considering her prose often slants toward all these poetic tendencies—elliptical movement, a poetic attention to rhythm, and a use of language that certainly doesn’t flatline by any means. In fact, many of Davis’s stories exemplify how poetic attention to syntax creates resonant effects in prose.

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Eileen Myles is one example of a poet crossover. Her self proclaimed “poet’s novel,” Inferno, explores the confluence of poetry and prose. In her critical essay on novel writing, “Long and Social,” Myles says, “Poets should write novels en masse and reinvent the form and really muck up the landscape.” Although I don’t intend to discuss murky genre distinctions, if genres paralyze or constrict your writing process, I’d say forget about them or invent your own—at least while you’re writing.

I want to consider how these same poetic elements might help the reader engage with the text: regardless of genre, the manipulation of or play with syntax can demand a reader to become conscious of his or her interaction with the work. I want to examine how some fiction writers use syntax to amplify image patterns and create rhythm in order to motivate narrative movement—to muck up the landscape of prose.

Continue reading »

Oct 042011
 

rickmartin-current

Curious and maze-like story behind this delightful essay about an atypical Mennonite childhood in southern Ontario: Rick Martin lives in Kitchener, Ontario (it used to be Berlin, Ontario, but was renamed after a famous English general—Lord Kitchener—during the First World War). He lives next door to dg’s old friends Dwight and Kathy Storring. Long ago in the Triassic or, maybe, the Cretaceous, Kathy was a reporter at the Peterborough Examiner while Dwight took photos and dg was the sports editor (yes, yes, we all have a secret, sordid past). Kathy showed Numéro Cinq to Rick and Rick got inspired by the NC Childhood series to write his own story. Kathy showed Rick’s essay to dg, and here we are. (Accept this is a peek into the byzantine editorial apparatus behind NC—if you want to get published here, it helps to move next door to the Storrings.)

Rick Martin  is a technical documentation and training consultant. He has taught technical and business writing at the University of Waterloo and York University. He has had dozens of technical manuals published and has written numerous essays and poems for his own pleasure and the enjoyment of family and friends.

dg

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rick_2yrs-260x300Two years old.

“What is a true story? Is there any such thing?”  Margaret Laurence, The Diviners

I was a shy child and bewildered by almost everything around me.

My mother and father were born into horse-and-buggy Mennonite families in Waterloo County, Ontario. My father’s family were regular Old Orders, who eventually moved to the more modern Conference (or “red-brick”) Mennonite church so that my grandfather could have a truck to haul his produce to the Kitchener market. My mother’s family belonged to the more extreme Dave Martin Mennonite sect (founded by her grandfather), and when my grandparents were born again and joined the small Plymouth Brethren congregation in Hawkesville, they were completely shunned by their family and friends.

My father was a long-distance truck driver, so he was often absent. My parents’ first child died in his crib when he was four months old, so there was always a ghost in our lives. When I was 18 months old, my little sister was born several months premature and lived in an incubator at the hospital in Kitchener for months. With no means of transportation to the city and no one else to look after my older brother and me, my mother was stuck at our rented farmhouse near St Clements, unable to care for her fragile new baby.

dad-1958Dad in 1958.

When I was still quite young, my mother, on the verge of mental collapse, had a spectacular conversion, in which Jesus appeared to her in a vision and assured her she was saved and going to heaven. This experience gave her strength to carry on through the adversities of near blindness from a childhood eye infection, too many kids (there were soon 5 of us), poverty, and a mostly absent husband who, she was convinced, was not saved: Dad drank and smoked and swore, had an explosive temper, and didn’t much like going to church.

When I was 5, my dad was transferred to Sault Ste Marie, 500 miles from family, friends, and any sense of security we had. We lived in a rented farmhouse about 5 miles west of the city for the first year, then bought an unfinished 3-bedroom house in a barely developed subdivision on the eastern fringes of town: gravel roads, no municipal water or sewers, roadside ditches, and no bus service for the first few years. Because my mother couldn’t see well enough to drive a car, we were stuck in the neighbourhood except on the weekends, when Dad was home.

rick-and-sibsRick and siblings.

With her fundamentalist mixture of Dave Martin Mennonite and Plymouth Brethren beliefs, fed by radio preachers like Theodore H. Epp, my mother thought that TV, movies, card-playing, and dancing were all worldly, if not sinful. We grew up believing that everyone around us was a heathen, headed for hell, intent on tempting us into lives of sin. We could play with neighbourhood kids, but we understood they were different than us, and we shouldn’t get too close to them (in the summer, my mother held Daily Vacation Bible Schools in our yard, in an effort to convert our friends).

I knew, from the time I was conscious, that I was a sinner, headed for hell unless I accepted Jesus as my saviour. And I knew—from my mother’s and grandparents’ experience—that such a conversion was dramatic, that when you were saved, you knew it. Jesus never appeared to me, despite my nightly pleading, and I was never able to find the assurance that he lived in my heart.

Dad, of course, was a worry. I was pretty sure he wasn’t saved, and I knew he was in constant danger: fellow drivers were periodically killed in spectacular crashes, skewered by steel against some rock-cut on the winding road to Toronto. We prayed on our knees for his safety and his salvation, among other things, every night before bed.

And we believed in the Rapture, that Christ could appear at any moment and sweep true believers up into heaven, leaving the unsaved to a horrible stint with the anti-Christ. This was a concept invented by the founder of the Brethren, John Darby.

rick_4yrs-206x300Four years old.

In many ways, the east end of Sault Ste Marie was a wonderful place to be a child. Just a block south of our house, on the other side of Chambers Avenue, there was bush all the way to the St Mary’s River, and on the other side of highway 17, a half mile north of us, it was bush pretty much all the way to James Bay.

The neighbourhood was all young families with lots of kids and not a lot of discipline. We ran wild, exploring and building tree-forts. We played baseball in empty lots and kick-the-can and hockey on the streets. At night, there were hide-and-seek games that ranged across the whole block of back yards.

We’d take day-long hikes back into the bush on the other side of the highway, cutting across the Indian Reserve and getting lost in the meanderings of the Root River. We built rafts in the drainage ditches and ponds down towards the river. We rode our bikes down to Belleview Park in the city and 7 miles out to Hiawatha Park to go swimming. In winter, we would hang onto the rear bumpers of cars and slide along behind them until they got going too fast and we rolled off into the snowbanks.

Mom often didn’t have a clue where we were or what we were doing; she just prayed constantly that we’d all get home safe and sound for supper.

going-to-churchGoing to church.

Every Sunday, there were three services at Bethel Bible Chapel on North Street: 9:30 Breaking of Bread, 11:00 Family Bible Hour with a sermon for the parents upstairs and Sunday School for the kids in the basement, and 7:00 Gospel Hour. We rarely went to the first service, but almost always to the other two. If Dad was too tired, Mom would arrange for someone else to take the rest of us.

It was at Sunday School, we understood, that we could make real friends: these were Christian people, unlike our neighbours in the east end. So Sundays were the high point of the week. Often I would be invited to a friend’s place for the afternoon, between services. I soon realized that not all Brethren families were like ours. Most of them had much nicer homes and furniture and toys than we did, some of them had TVs, and many of them had a happy, easy-going, fun-loving approach to life. A few of the kids, whose parents had invited me, were selfish and nasty and treated me like dogshit on their shoes.

We’d often have Sunday School friends come home with us, too. Dad was the cook on Sundays, and he usually made a big mid-day meal of roast beef or pork and mashed potatoes and gravy and tossed salad. After dinner, we’d often go for a drive and a hike at Gros Cap or somewhere along the Lake Superior shore. I was always sad when the Sunday evening service was over and we’d pile into the car for the drive home to another week of school and neighbourhood friends.

mom-readingReading as a group activity.

Mom read stories to us every night before we said our prayers, things like The Five Little Peppers. It seemed our house was full of reading material (especially compared to those of our neighbours): the Bible, of course, but also novels, magazines, and newspapers. Mom was always reading, with her book held close to her nose, and—when he was at home and awake and not fixing something—Dad was often in his easy chair reading the Family Herald or National Geographic or some trucking journal. I can remember starting to learn to read, identifying letters and words, sitting on Dad’s lap while he read the newspaper.

At first, most of our reading material other than newspapers was religious in nature. Every Sunday, we got little pamphlets from Sunday School, and every Christmas our Sunday School teachers gave us story books and, later, novels with blatantly evangelistic aims. But when we got access to school and city libraries, we read the Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton’s several series, the Swallows and Amazons books, and all sorts of stuff: pretty much anything we could get our hands on. Eventually, in high school, I graduated to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Kesey.

christmasChristmas.

My older brother was always pursuing some hobby—stamp collecting, oil painting, magic, photography—with a passion that was infectious. I’d always end up doing what he did. I sent money off to some mail-order place in BC to get bags of stamps and bought an album to put them in. I got hold of an old Brownie somewhere. I helped my brother develop our film in the little dark room he carved out amongst the boxes in the tiny attic off our bedroom. But somehow, I could never generate the enthusiasm he had for these activities. It was always a borrowed interest, not strong enough to sustain me.

The one thing I did take up more or less on my own was a fascination with bicycles. I collected old frames and wheels in the annual spring clean-up, and from them I’d assemble strange bikes: I remember one that had a 28-inch front wheel and a 20-inch back wheel. About grade 8, I put together one of the first 10-speeds in town from parts I had lying around, parts I scrounged, and parts I bought at my friend George’s father’s hardware store. I would ride all over town, exploring every neighbourhood, and out into the countryside as far as Island Lake and St Joe’s Island.

I was also infatuated with cars and knew the year, make, and model of almost everything on the road by the time I was 5 or 6. Dad subscribed to Mechanics Illustrated, and I’d avidly read Tom McCahill’s car reviews every month. We would go to the annual Auto Show at the Memorial Gardens, and I’d drool over the new models. I remember the first Mustang I ever saw and the first MGB. I thought I’d gone to heaven when my dad’s friend took me for a ride in the ’66 Dodge Charger he bought with insurance money from the truck he’d crashed on highway 69.

bikeHome built bike.

Our family was always short of money, usually running up a bill at Jean’s Handy Store for bread and milk between pay-cheques. Among other methods of getting cash, we’d pick wild blueberries in the late summer and sell them door-to-door in the neighbourhood for 10 cents a quart.

When he was still pretty young, maybe 10 or 11, my older brother got a paper route, delivering the Toronto Telegram across the whole East Side, and I was conscripted as his helper. The first night was miserably cold and snowing, and we wandered about through the snow drifts looking for addresses on Boundary Road and Trunk Road, a mile or more from home. We split up to find the last few houses, he in one direction and me in the other, and I never did find the one I was looking for. I arrived home what seemed like hours later, freezing and wet and miserable, feeling a failure.

When I was 12 or so, I landed a Sault Star route, and my dad loaned me the $50 to buy a brand new Super Cycle 3-speed, electric blue, with chrome fenders. I had about 50 customers spread along a 3- or 4- mile route that wound through the neighbourhood and ended up at the Husky Truck Stop down the highway at the very edge of town. For awhile, I had several customers across the tracks on the Rankin Reserve. I cleared about 5 dollars per week.

In the summer, I’d strap the paper bag on the back of the bike and race through the route in just over an hour, but in the winter, it was a long, slow slog in the dark, with the bag biting into my skinny shoulder and my hands freezing. When I got home, everyone else would have already finished supper, and I’d eat alone while Mom washed the dishes and my younger sibs dried them and put them away.

One year—1966, I think—as a bonus for signing up new customers, I won a trip to Toronto with a bunch of other carriers and some crusty old newspaper types as chaperons: it was the first time I’d been away from home with strangers. We stayed at the King Edward Hotel. We saw the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings, the first time I’d seen a professional hockey game (no TV, remember). And we went to see the movie Fantastic Voyage. It was the first time I’d ever been in a movie theatre, and my lack of familiarity with the conventions of either film or science fiction rendered the narrative completely unintelligible. The whole weekend was equally surreal and disturbing.

siblings-1963Sunday Afternoon at Grandma’s in Waterloo, 1963.

Mom always put a very high value on education (she and Dad had only gone as far as grade 8), and I did well in school, usually at the top of my class. But there was really little competition, given the sub-working-class character of our neighbourhood, and there was only one other boy, Roger, who did anywhere near as well as I. The other boys were all rough and rowdy, bigger than me and barely literate.

I was lousy at sports and a wimp on the playground. I was always in the Crows in singing class. I had to stand out in the corridor with the Jehovah’s Witnesses when the class sang God Save the Queen and recited The Lord’s Prayer. I had to sit out while they learned to dance in Phys. Ed. and learned about sex in Health. I was entranced by the girls, but afraid to speak to—let alone play with—them. I hung around the edges of things, much like my ghostly eldest brother.

family-reunion-1966Family reunion, 1966.

We often went to my grandparents’ place in Waterloo for our vacations—Christmas, sometimes Easter, and usually a couple weeks in the summer. If my dad couldn’t get off work, Mom would somehow find a ride with somebody who was heading down that way: she and her 5 kids crammed into the back seat for the 10- or 12-hour journey “home.” Our times in Waterloo County were usually a whirlwind of visits with all the relatives. Unlike my siblings, I had no cousins my age, and I wasn’t really close to any of them, but I’d often end up spending a few days in the home of some aunt and uncle I barely knew, homesick and struggling to decipher the strange habits and rhythms of my cousins’ lives.

with-fishDad’s latest catch.

Every summer, Dad would take some time off to go camping. He loved the outdoors, and he loved fishing. We had a big orange canvas tent that we’d pitch at Echo Lake or Twin Lakes on St Joe’s Island. Dad would rent a boat, put his old 5-horse Johnson outboard on it, and go out fishing, taking any of us who were willing to go. My mom and the others would hang around the campsite, reading, paddling in the water, or playing on the beach.

ice-fishingIce fishing.

Dad was not a patient man, and I could never get the hang of casting. I never caught a fish and couldn’t see the point of just sitting in a small boat in the sun all day, bothered by mosquitoes, worried about storm clouds. But it was better than the ice fishing, when we’d be huddled out on Lake Superior in our thin ski jackets and rubber boots and home-knit mittens, freezing as the sun set in the late afternoon behind the rim of ice. In both cases, I endured the misery only for the opportunity to be doing something with Dad.

§

Perhaps it is because they are relatively rare that I remember my times with Dad so vividly. He gave me access to a different world than my mother’s. It was Dad who helped me realize I could fix things. I remember one evening helping him disassemble and repair the coaster brake from one of my bicycles on the back porch. He showed me how the parts went together and where to put the grease (probably Vaseline) and explained how the brake worked. Later, he showed me how to change spark plugs and set the points on his car.

I would sometimes hang around the garages where he worked on the trucks he drove: changing the oil, fixing the brakes, or overhauling an engine. Because he worked for fly-by-night operators during the 60s, most of the garages were awful places, old warehouses with dark puddles in the corners and rats scurrying around in the trash piles. He and the other drivers worked on the trucks under feeble lights, getting me to fetch tools or rags, swearing and laughing, and drinking beer when they took breaks. They were always friendly with me, giving me bottles of Coke and teasing me.

Once in awhile, I was allowed to go on a trip with Dad in his truck. It was wonderful, heading out into the night way up in the cab of that roaring machine, stopping in truck stops for hot hamburger sandwiches, going to places I’d never been before: Hamilton, Windsor, Muskegon, Grand Rapids. But it was also terrifying, being away from the familiar rituals of Mom and home, conscious of the 50 tons of steel or lumber on the trailer behind, worried that Dad would fall asleep or enter a curve too fast. And I always had to pee, but was afraid to tell Dad, to force him to pull over on the soft shoulder of the highway.

§

As it turned out, we got home safely every time. Both Dad and I survived my childhood, perhaps thanks to Mom’s prayerful intervention.

I somehow managed, out of all of this, to cobble together a persona: about grade 6, I adopted the role of class clown, with little respect for rules or authority and with what I thought was a clever and cynical wit. That carried me, not especially happily, through high school.

—Rick Martin

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Oct 012011
 

Carrie Cogan

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Set in New Orleans “The Filthiest of Shiny Things” is a gorgeous excerpt from a novel-in-progress by Carrie Cogan who lives on Salt Spring Island, off the coast of British Columbia, with her husband and two small sons. Carrie earlier contributed a “What It’s Like Living Here” essay to Numéro Cinq. The two photos of New Orleans architectural details were snapped by Sarah Gadola Campbell, her old friend and long ago co-worker at Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop in Jackson Square. Everything Carrie writes is a treat. “The Filthiest of Shiny Things” is also a bit of a tease, not only because of the amazing title, but also because after reading this bit, you’ll want to read the whole thing.

dg

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AS ROSE GETS OLDER she gets more stunted. Shorter, and skittish. Her eyes dart around so much that by afternoon a blink will feel so good she’ll draw it out, stop short on a sidewalk or halfway across the kitchen floor with her lids down, settling into the dark. If pressed–and she moves around enough no one knows what she started as, to ask how she slipped–she’ll trace her deterioration to the years she spent living alone on dry, deserted land, in a shed just bigger than a closet. But she knows she probably wouldn’t have chosen to live there, if she wasn’t stunted already. In that parched isolation she followed lots of bugs, and unlearned some grammar.

Now she’s in a city–the one they call The Crescent City, The City that Never Sleeps–and she speaks properly. She hardly speaks. But when she watches people, she can tell the ones who are chasing or being chased from the ones who are just sitting peacefully inside themselves, settled to the ground like musk beetles to a leaf. Some people, they are flat on their backs flailing in panic, and she can spot this even as they glide along fine.

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She tries tricks–the little ones she can manage–to give her appearance the illusion of moisture. Something called Face Dew, with a bright pink applicator brush. As she spreads the shiny, heavy blots of Face Dew into her cheeks, she envisions a snail inching forward and recoiling across her face. She buys hand cream made for horse hooves, and lip gloss infused with silver glitter.

Down at the Walgreen’s on Canal Street, Rose watches a young black girl reach for a hair gel on the shelves while a kinky strand of her hair, seemingly electric, crackles free from a barrette. Now Rose uses the same product–it is thick as shellac, and smells like a stick of clove doused in gasoline. When she works it through her hair the strands fall heavy and damp, like drenched wool socks dipping a clothesline. She has noticed more than once, upon walking into a store, the way people glance worriedly from her gelled hair to the windowpane, expecting splatters of raindrops on the glass.

All these efforts to look moist–in the city with the wettest air. But Rose still appears on the outside how she feels underneath. Something like rust on a corroded battery. She suspects the landscape where she’d isolated herself–cacti, bones, flint and rusty barbed-wire–was the one that marked her.

People always look surprised when she says her name is Rose.

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Rose has washed dishes all over the country. It whets her appetite. The plates here get filthier than any she’s seen–tourists like their creme brulees creamy and their jambalayas thick. She doesn’t make friends with the cooks, because it feels like she’s changing their diapers. Rose once caught a waitress named Junie picking at a piece of cornbread on a plate waiting to be washed. She’ll say say Hi to Junie. Otherwise she keeps her eyes on the dishes, or–while in transit to the sink–on the water and bits of food speckling the rubber tips of her sneakers into an abstract painting.

A large man, so black he sometimes looks purple, shucks oysters on Sundays, and Rose will step away from the sink to watch that. It’s no safer than juggling swords. His hand never slips and he lays the shells apart as smooth and easy as stepping one leg away from another. Sometimes when she’s watching him she pictures him shucking oysters inside a giant oyster, the shells parted just a slit. In that dark only his eyes, teeth, and the diamond shooting off the knife blade show. He whistles through his teeth and the whistle ricochets off the walls of the shell, becoming in its pearly hollows a cold, spinning wind.

After work her old red motorcycle boots, scuffed grey in places, hit the pavement chuck chuck chuck. And as she tromps she schemes, arranging and re-arranging the delicate details of abduction. But it’s easy to be distracted. Whole blocks go by with her half-drugged on the sights and smells. The wavering flames of gas-lamps, snapping without sound. A carriage horse’s hoof thudding softly into the shit left by some other carriage horse. The beads and vomit decorating naked chests; the unreachable gardens and fountains, framed in wrought iron shadows.

Some people paint their bodies silver, even their eyelashes, and stand comatose on pedestals. For that stillness Rose gives up her coins. One girl is solid white with golden hair and wings, an angel. And when she breaks her perfect freeze to bow she manages to make the bow look stiller than her stillness. People set flowers and 20 dollar bills at her feet. Rose bets she’s an old lady under all that. Still, she drops what change she has. She doesn’t give to the stilted Uncle Sam, or to the escape artist with a megaphone, or to the man who walks barefoot across broken glass, hefting the biggest person from the crowd on his shoulders.

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She wasn’t completely isolated back in the desert. And it wasn’t just the landscape that dried her up into nothing. She blames a boy. He wasn’t technically a boy but he had giant dark eyes that never seemed to blink and a fresh take on things, like he had just arrived in the world. He drove a truck with a bullet-hole in the hub-cap, and tore open her bra with his teeth. So, man. Boy, man. Ghost. When one day his truck wheels failed to crackle the gravel leading to her shed, when one day the silence hollered and kept on getting louder, Rose became one of those people haunted by a living ghost. She despises such people. Crying into their drinks, re-playing the same moldy scenes on an endless loop. Pitiful people, pinned by cobweb shackles. For fifteen years she’s been mute, rather than talk the lovesick crap screaming inside her.

Now her ghost resides seven miles south-west of her apartment, and the air is full of music. Some guy in a red lumber-jack coat sitting on the corner of Dauphine and Ursulines wails a blues song like he’s sliding a knife from his wool picket, setting a heart out on the curb, and stabbing it ruthlessly. He’s just singing. But Rose, she doesn’t collapse. She doesn’t think of the way that boy made perfect sprinkler sounds beside her ear, to cool her off. Or the bits of smashed orange bicycle reflector he stuffed into his pocket. Grubby treasure, he called it, and strung some of it into a mobile he tied above her bed. Rose doesn’t care. I’ve been places way over the sea, the musician cries. She doesn’t falter or flinch. That’s how I know you’ve done forgotten about me. If anything, Rose’s step quickens. The blues pulse her forward with the force of a battle hymn.

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If not for the constant machine sounds and traffic barreling by, Rose might think–by the smell of her apartment–that she lives beside the ocean. She rents a second story in the Bywater, beside a fish factory. The toilet is broken, and that constant gushing inside the bowl could be shoreline. Also the floorboards are rotting, and they give under her feet like sand. One of the workers at the fish factory sings, but the machinery there is so loud it took Rose two weeks to figure out he was singing in French. When she walks out her door each morning, she stops short with her face tilted down, admiring how the pavement sparkles with scales and guts.

She has a time-tested theory about moving into an apartment: unless you drag in a good piece of furniture that first day, or have a good meal, good drug trip, or good fuck in it within that first twenty-four hours, it’s destined to be a miserable space. When she got the keys to this one, she shook all the clothes out of her pack, into the middle of the empty floor, and fell asleep on them. It was light when she went to sleep and light when she awoke, but a day had passed. So she knows there’s no hope for this place.

In the first weeks she draped some of the beads she’d found along the gutters–dice, camels and fleur-de-lis–around the nails in the walls. But they looked too pathetically hopeful–like lawn ornaments in dead grass. She is grateful to whoever left the nails behind, because depending on the light they flash or give a dot of tar black in the familiar places and her eyes automatically travel to them, as they would to paintings.

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Inside the Quarter, behind a fence of wire diamonds, looms a large brick elementary school: Bishop Acadamy. If she’s in the area Rose consults her watch–an old Mickey Mouse one repaired, in the split leather strap, with silver duct tape. The children spill out into the schoolyard for recess at 12:20. If she arrives even a minute early, she gets to witness the transformation of the absolutely still asphalt bombarded by flailing limbs and screeches. The students remind Rose of ocean: they spill out the door fast and roaring, then seem to slow and murmur as they spread out to the far reaches of the yard. They sizzle quietly in the peripheries, like sea-foam. She lifts one hand above her eyes against the glare, scanning through the heads of hair, searching.

After passing so many half-naked people in the Quarter, the student uniform of plaid skirts or shorts, white shirts, and black neckties lend a surreal feel to the scene, like Rose has stumbled into an Opera.

One afternoon a short man with bleached hair and mirrored sunglasses sidles up to her. An undercover cop? A parent? Or a plotting child-snatcher, like her? He curls one hand around the fence, the other around a go-cup.

“Which one is yours?” she says curtly. When he turns to her she spots a shrunken image of herself in his lenses. Leering at him with her frazzled hair. A wolf.

“None,” he says. It takes just one word to reveal a southern drawl. His lips stretch out, impossibly slowly, into a smile. “I was just trying to remember what that was like.”

“Oh,” says Rose. “Recess, you mean?”

“Yes Ma’am,” he says. He takes a sip from his cup, which could be water but for the swizzle stick and lime wedge floating in it. “I figure it’s something you either like or don’t, and I was just trying to remember if I did.”

“My son doesn’t, usually,” Rose says. “Or he doesn’t like the idea of it. I think he actually has a good time during recess.”

The man takes his hand from the fence and pushes his sunglasses to the top of his head. Rose takes this to be a gallant and old-fashioned gesture, this show of eyes to prove that he’s listening. They gleam blue, a little wetter than they should, which makes Rose wonder if he’s lying and does remember his childhood after all. The possibility makes her like him ferociously.

“He’s kind of a loner, see, so he stresses over group games.” She gushes. “But on the other hand, once he’s out there’s much more space between him and other people.”

“Which one is he?”

Rose was hoping he would ask.

“Just there,” she says. He’s the whitest in the crowd–almost pale-blue. He’s over in the corner on one knee, sorting through gravel. They can’t see his freckles from here. His hair is sticking up where it shouldn’t, styled like only the wind would’ve done it. Alexander, he’s called. She’s pretty sure never Alex or Zander. If he got glasses, Rose thinks, by the next day the kids wouldn’t be able to remember him without glasses. He would be difficult to lure away. Harder than Ryder, the one Rose is going to take. Rose hasn’t seen Ryder in his schoolyard yet, but she assumes he talks to all sorts of people. Still, she suspects she’d have a better time with Alexander. She’d want to keep a tally of what he said.

“He looks like you.” The stranger, her new best friend, the confidant she’ll never see again, says.

“Really?” Rose is smiling, her lips up close to the fence.

“Yeah. You’ve both got that really smart look, like you just woke up.”

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Rose remembers all kinds of crazy things from her childhood as she’s washing dishes. It’s not like tea leaf readings, not that the soap suds drift and bond into visible images. Maybe it’s the sloshing of her hands repeatedly into the warm water, dipping her right back into the womb, into baby baths. Or the flashes hypnotize her–the light bouncing off of soap suds, silverware, spanning bellies of plates in the drying rack. As a toddler she hoarded the filthiest of shiny things, mistaking them for treasure. She remembers her mother feeding this fervor, carefully twisting off the tabs from her beer cans or gingerly handing over the cellophane from inside her cigarette packs. You be very, very careful with this. On the other hand, her mother once handed Rose a thick envelope with a small sparkling seal embedded into it. The square flashed silver from a distance, but up close revealed a spectrum of colors, pale blue green yellow and pink–all those you’d see in a dragonfly wing. It’s a hollowgram, Rose murmured. Her mother laughed and said sweepstakes were for suckers.

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A few times weekly Rose takes the streetcar uptown, and walks two blocks to her ghost’s house. A towering three-story white house beside a cemetery that would stand out as monstrous were it not sandwiched between similar houses. It has gables and wrought iron balconies–and from the faint, constant whirring she suspects it also has an elevator, or a pool.

The boy Rose loved lived in a trailer and tacked polaroid photographs to the walls with chewing gum. Now he’s married to a famous pop star: skinny, with long shiny yellow hair and a white smile. Rose isn’t sure the radio would play her if she were homely. She’s right in tune, but her songs repeat the chorus at least three more times than they should, and always end on it. Her lyrics sometimes allude to being haunted, but her voice stays smooth and so never seems to agree.

The lyrics in his wife’s songs are nothing like the perfect sentences the boy had scrawled in his letters. Now those were songs. Astounding details of the every day noted in a crazy mix of capital and little letters Most of the pages he sent were penciled faintly, so that even as she clutched them, freshly-salvaged from the tin jaws of the mailbox, Rose would sense her letters–they were hers! They had her name at the top of them!–disappearing. Reading those letters felt like looking into a mirror and seeing, beyond your face, a faraway bird dipping and soaring and somersaulting end over end through gaudy blue sky. There is so much beauty in the world, his letters said without saying. And you’re facing it. You’re it the most. Because you see it.

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Rose perches in the cemetery, at the fence-line, where she can see his house from a part in the hedges. The hedges are otherwise packed tightly together; just this one break, where a child or a spirit or a mourner mad with grief broke through. No one ever sits on the front porch chairs, or on the ones on the higher balcony. They’re just there for parades, Rose supposes. All the empty porches and balconies in the neighborhood seem strange coming from the Bywater, where bodies lounges on every stoop, stair, or plot of sidewalk.

The house is so still. Rose has no way of knowing, by staring at the house, if anyone is inside. They might have been out of town for weeks. How boring is architecture? She thinks. So private and unmoving. So unlike the human face that has me standing here, staring at a house. Even the memory of a face is like dancing, dancing on fire, compared to this line of still white houses. Rose sighs, and turns around. The tombs too are massive, impenetrable. The head of a flower–pink, with crispy brown edges, as though it has been set in an oven and timed just so–lies quivering atop one, impossibly fragile.

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Sundays, the restaurant spills outside to a patio with tower-high bloody marys and oysters on the half-shell. Rose is on her break, sipping the dregs of the kitchen coffee. Chewing on the grinds. And watching the oyster shells fly. She knows customers don’t like seeing the person who has to wash up after them–it’s like being told goodbye before they’ve even ordered. So she stays over to the side, in the shadows.

The oyster shucker pauses, raises a bottle of orange pop to his lips. The lump in his neck bounces five times on one sip. Crush, the bottle says. In big puffy letters, more inflated than crushed.

“Hey,” says a voice beside her, “You don’t have a light, do you?” Rose is dismayed she didn’t see Junie coming, in her bright green-and-white checkered waitress uniform with the starched white half apron in the middle. She shakes her head.

Junie sighs. “I guess it’d be bad policy to ask him,” she says, nodding towards the oyster shucker. “Seeing as his hands are busy.”

She slouches back against the wall and holds the cigarette up, squinting at the tip of it. Rose can’t tell if Junie’s honey-colored hair is dry or greasy because she always has it in braids. Today the braids are pinned up into curls on either side of her head, Princess Leia style. Her lips are pillows of bright red, the kind of brightest red that makes you think before she approached you were watching a black-and-white world without knowing it. She probably puts powder on her lips first, so the lipstick will stay. Rose read about that in a magazine.

“Those bloody marys have whole salad bars in them,” Junie says. “But I guess you know that.”

Rose shakes her head again. “Most of the bloody mary glasses come back empty.” They are slippery to wash: long diamonds with many sides and thin bases.

“Well, let’s see. They have olives, and celery, and artichoke hearts, and marinated mushrooms, and dilly beans, and those tiny corn-on the-cobs that don’t taste like corn.”

“All that?” Rose says.

Junie nods. “I have to constantly reassure people they’re not lacking vodka.”

Junie lifts the cigarette to her mouth, inhales as though it were lit. When she pulls it away the end blazes crimson. She is pretty, Rose realizes suddenly. If you look past the plaid uniform, past the clumsy and distracted way Junie moves. She remembers thinking once, as she saw Junie stepping across the restaurant with a tray of dishes, in that jerky and spacey way: She looks like someone who is bird-watching. Someone who might trip over her own feet and bust the binoculars around her neck. But now, up close, Junie looks regal, like someone who should glide. She has good cheekbones–twin diagonal pillows that add gleam and shadow and dale, a whole landscape, to her face. And perfect skin, like she drinks twelve cups of water every day. If this were the movies, Rose thinks. Junie would pull out a cigarette and five different men would appear out of nowhere to light it. Why are you working here, she wonders. But it’s not a question Rose would ask, since it’s a question she would hate to be asked.

“So ends my break,” Junie says. She reaches into a pocket beneath her apron and pulls out a cigarette box, carefully feeding in this one with the stained tip. “I’m trying to quit anyway.”

“Good luck there,” Rose says. She saw how delicately Junie treated that unlit cigarette.

“New Orleans is the shits for trying to quit things. Do you find that?”

Rose gulps, and looks down. Beside her shoe is a stray oyster, naked and leaking. So much of the litter on these streets looks like it’s alive, she thinks. Alive, or newly dissected out of someone.

“I do,” she manages.

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Rose knows if she spends a couple hours with his son–the youngest one, who looked almost Three in the internet photo–she will get over her ghost. The boy has his father’s huge dark eyes and his mother’s silk-yellow hair. They will eat sundaes at the ice cream parlor she passes on her way to work, their long spoons clinking against the deep tear-drop dishes she sees dangling in a long line above the counter (sparkling, because all dishes look well-washed if you hang them high). Dada this, he will say, between mouthfuls of ice cream, Mama this. Dada Mama do this, Dada Mama say this. Brother Other Brother Sister Dada Mama Doggie together in House. Rose feels certain, hearing this toddler talk about his family, that she will get it then. She will suddenly and thoroughly understand, in a way she can’t seem to otherwise, that the boy from her past is gone from her. She can finally put the past in the past.

If only his family lived in the suburbs somewhere, in a simple house without a fence or alarms. Maybe she wouldn’t have to borrow the boy. She could peek into their yellow-lit windows one dinner hour, watching them all interact around a table, and have the same yearned-for epiphany. Your locks and alarms, your shutters and massive square footage, she whispers. They’ve made your house dangerous.

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The daiquiri shops are a skewed sort of laundry-mat. Pitch dark laundry-mats, so you can never see if your clothes got clean. Laundry-mats with frozen drinks instead of clothes spinning in the line of silver dryers. And the background radio music suddenly shifts to loud metal in the later hours, to distract potential re-orderers within from the fact that they’re drunk.

Rose wouldn’t mind working in one. The new people, the tourists–some from places where you have to drive a long ways to get bottles of alcohol you can’t open in public–they can’t hide their glee. They think they’re dreaming. Here you go, she might shout, over the music, and wave her hand down the line of whirring colors. Dispensing the dream. Here is a 180 proof drink resembling the Icee of your childhood, as big around as a trash can, in so many more flavors than cherry and cola. Take it out into the heat with you. Walk with it. Meet the cop’s eyes as you take a long draw on the straw.

Initially Rose tried all the flavors, but she found the High-Octane made stuff that wasn’t moving dance real pretty, and froze all the pretty people she saw dancing to slow-mo. So she sticks with that. As a bonus it gives her lips a nice application of dark red.

Junie orders the Blue Hawaiian. She turns at the register and says something Rose can’t hear, smiles. She reminds Rose of Day of the Dead decor: big white skeletal teeth sandwiched between cheekbones, which are sandwiched between braids.

“You got the small,” Junie says, when they are back on the street.

Rose has to be careful. She wouldn’t want to moan heartbreak. Or boast revenge. She doesn’t want Junie to have a single glimpse into her. And yet, and yet. She wouldn’t mind a friend like Junie. Junie’s the kind of bug who could lug an entire dead rat away, millimeter by millimeter.

“I’ve broken my wrist a few times,” she lies. She nods at Junie’s cup. “That size could snap it.”

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When Rose collapses down on her single mattress, in the triangle of floor cast white by street-light, she weakens. Her mother made her pray before she fell asleep, and Rose still hears her voice, prompting. What are you thankful for? What did you do that you’re sorry for? The mere memory of her mother’s voice dissolves her plotting warrior and she writhes, flopping, twisting the tail of her long white undershirt. It was her ghost’s shirt once, so it almost reaches her knees. The hole just beneath the left armpit has spread enough she sometimes wakes up with her elbow, caught inside it.

She worries into the dark that when she snatches his son after school, and takes him for ice cream, he’ll order pistachio. And just because his dad always did, as stupid as that–Rose will fall in love with him. She worries time will go all funny when they’re together, the way it had when she was with his dad, so that the minutes won’t slide into each other but stand apart in magical chunks, unrelated. She worries this boy will already have the same slanted take on things his dad did, which made everyone afterwards sound so sickeningly predictably. Then she’ll have to keep him. Just to stop his beautiful observations from that day repeating in She’ll have to keep him so her ghost can know what it is to be haunted.

And what if? Humans walk by her window all night, laughing and singing, cursing or vomiting, and Rose begs silently for their sounds to carry her firmly into the present, into this room in this city. She focuses sharply on the geometry of the window-frame, then of the perfect shadow it casts, but her worry seeps everything blurry and yanks her backwards through time into this one what if.

What if this boy is somehow the living re-incarnation of the child she aborted when they were together?

(The baby-that-never-was is sleeping deeply, drawing her down with it. She closes her eyes to better see it. Tiny, damp and stunned, snatching breaths so big they make its translucent red chest bubble out and in, out and in, like the throat of a frog.)

With her eyelids lowered Rose practices saying the name out-loud, so it will sound casual. It has to sound like she just now heard it. Ryder, she says. Hi Ryder, she says. I’m Rose.

—Carrie Cogan