Oct 042011


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.



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.


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


Oct 012011

Carrie Cogan


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.



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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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

Sep 302011

Wendy1Author Wendy Voorsanger performing literary art on the playa. Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.



Burning Man is all about radical self-expression.  50,000 free-spirited “burners,” as they’re called, descend upon the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to create a city: an interaction, art, the performance and ultimately the whole Burning Man experience. Many burners labor all year creating stunning art installations and engineering marvels that sit surreally against the stark and eerie landscape of the playa.  Imagine Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inventions on steroids, combined with copious quantities of jet fuel.  See El Pulpo Mecanico. All commercialism is banned; creations are strangely random and come from a place deep within the mysterious subconscious. Check out this list of art on the playa.

img_07201Playa from a Plane. Photo Credit: C. Voorsanger

Surprisingly, there’s lack of literary presence on the playa.  Perhaps the community is too enthralled with the extraordinary visual peculiarities to meditate on the cerebral.  Perhaps the loud house music pumping from art cars and daytime raves might be incompatible for reading.  Every year a unique Burning Man theme guides camps toward a common launching point for communal offerings.  The 2011 theme “Rites of Passage” lent itself to some interesting variations on rites both familiar and fringe, such as beer pong, the Homecoming Dance, getting a tattoo.  The theme seemed a perfect platform to riff off literature in some way, “the first draft,” “first reading,” “first rejection,” “first publication,”—rites for all writers. I searched the playa but couldn’t find much in the way of literature, books, words.  I’d heard about a creative impromptu slam poetry happening in Buddha Camp at the Lotus Dome—Poetry Slam, a wee bit of poetry and spanking.  The description scared me off: This is not some ordinary poetry reading, nor is it your poetry contest with score paddles. But you will be paddled with poetry in this full contact open mic. Curious yet? So are we! Bring a poem, or be a spectator, but  stay away if you have a soft tush.

I did stumble upon a few open mic sessions in the Center Camp tent with poetry readings and spoken word performances.  One woman set up a 1950’s typewriter and composed poems on the spot with a one word prompts.  But really, words were missing from the playa.

img_07287Random Trojan Horse (Exploded and burned on Friday night.)

As an enthusiastic newbie burner, I wanted to embrace the Burning Man tenants, but lacked the engineering skills and pyrotechnics license.  So, I turned to my own art: literature.  I’d created my own radial self expression, writing a chapter of my first novel-in-progress Capturing the Eddy on a Japanese Zentai suit.  I’d chosen a Burning Man-appropriate chapter, entitled—A Coated Spirit.  The idea wasn’t to publicize my writing, (the novel is far from ready for prime time) but to get burners to pause and read. Meditate on the word.  Relish in a beautiful phrase.  Ponder the random sensation a sequence of sentences might stir.  I wanted to get burners to read a “novel-off-the-page,” if you will.  So the second night I pulled on my Zentai suit at sunset and walked out the playa in hopes of inspiring people to read me and enjoy a bit of literature as performance art..

img_07186Writing novel-in-progress on Zentai Suit

Turns out, I fit right in as a random object on  the playa.  I danced  and twirled wearing my  words, as the sun sank low and dust billowed  in the dusk.  When darkness oozed around, I  joined in a larger dance party and burners caught random words on my back while moving languidly to the thumping beat. “What  are you wearing?” one guy asked.  “My novel.  Wanna read me?” Responses were enthusiastic..

img_07713Wearing my words.  Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.

.img_07751Literature on the Playa.  Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.

Later, I caught a ride from an art car taxi through the playa and more people read random strings of words on my shoulders, ankles, and wrists.  I’d offered my creation to the Burning Man community and felt fully accepted and appreciated in my participation.

img_07263Pirate Art Car.

img_07493Dragon Art Car

The question I’m left with is why not more literature as performance art at Burning Man?  I ask my fellow writers: What ideas do you have for adding more a more literary influence to Black Rock City 2012? I’m thinking of something more worthwhile than a poetry slam with paddles.  What about a word labyrinth placed in the desert or signs in a selected solstice sequence that tell a story, or novel chapters embedded in the playa dust discovered randomly?  I’d love to hear ideas from you. What say you fellow writers?

—Wendy Voorsanger


Sep 292011


From last week’s collision in an intersection to this week’s collection of small caught moments in Jane Campion’s series of shorts, Passionless Moments (1983). The series is made up of ten short films co-written by Campion’s then boyfriend Gerard Lee and is narrated by a BBC-type narrator giving the films a scientific or sociological flair (further emphasizing in a perhaps misleading or ironic fashion the importance of these moments). There is, in these shorts, a fetishization of minutiae. Each is smaller and less dramatic than the collision in And the Red Man Went Green. And these are “real” people, flawed and vulnerable; they do not anticipate the camera’s gaze. We catch them at their most vulnerable and unawares.

Taken individually, I feel these are moments that read you back: what small details of our lives have escaped film’s classical three-act structure and drive for catharsis? As Geraldine Bloustien points out in her essay “Jane Campion:Memory, Motif, and Music,” “Classical Hollywood cinema concerns itself with the heightened moments of passion of individuals with whom we identify in some way because of their bravery, humour, innocence, heroic qualities and so on. In traditional feature films and documentaries we are usually introduced to the characters’ backgrounds, motives and problems. However, in Passionless Moments the characters serve only to illustrate some quirky aspect of human nature and relationships.”

These moments cumulatively tempt me to universalize: that it might be the minutiae and /or our “quirky” aspects that connect us to one another, a humanity found in the small, quiet, sometimes embarrassing moments. Though in the actions of Campion’s characters it is difficult not to see something vaguely heroic. I am embarrassed for the boy named Lyndsay Aldridge, his explosive string beans, and his manic running, but I admire his commitment too. I recognize myself in him and don’t want to at the same time. Campion’s oevre is made up of such characters, from her exploration of the author Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, to the complicated relationship at the core of Holy Smoke.

I have to confess that the title of the series confuses me. Are these moments truly passionless? Or is the title ironic? Passionless as in lacking suffering? Or passionless as in suggesting disengagement? In a sense it reminds me of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, an at time dispassionate analysis of desire and passion. These films contain a similar tension / contradiction and perhaps the title participates in that. And I think there’s a similar undecidability to the shorts: what significance do they amount to? To whom do these moments matter?

I heard the writer filmmaker Miranda July introduce a screening of these shorts at the IFC in New York this summer. She said that when she first saw Campion’s shorts she saw a type of filmmaking she could do (my summary). I took this to mean that July felt the films provoked and read her back too. That to watch these “passionless” moments is an invitation to reflect on one’s own moments. I see further evidence in the several “Passionless Moments” shorts on youtube that pay homage. Explore at your own risk. And maybe dare to ponder your own.



Sep 262011

I was almost finished reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when I authorized the application of Garlon to 3300 square feet of vegetation surrounding a new commercial building. Garlon is an herbicide: a chemical officially called triclopyr—a cocktail of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and chlorine arranged in a particular structure that makes it fatal to broad-leaved plants.

I visited the application site after a few days and the plants had already started to wither. Garlon takes a little while to act, but over the course of a week or two, the lambs-quarters and creeping charlie browned and fell to the earth. The company I hired later arrived to mow the whole thing down.

Silent Spring spends an entire chapter (ominously called “Elixirs of Death”) on how exactly the various pesticides and herbicides work. Garlon is more recent, so it doesn’t appear, but it shares many of the chemical properties of the chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates Carson describes. “Elixirs of Death” occurs early in this seminal (some would say THE seminal) environmental work. Carson, an otherwise soft-spoken science writer, sets the book’s tone with the chapter’s title, and with stories like this:

On another occasion two small boys in Wisconsin, cousins, died on the same night. One had been playing in his yard when spray drifted in from an adjoining field where his father was spraying potatoes with parathion; the other had run playfully into the barn after his father and put his hand on the nozzle of the spray equipment.

Dwell on those words for a minute: “had run playfully into the barn after his father.”

Chemical diagram of triclopyr (Garlon)

I am a landscape architect, which means I typically come up with designs for parks, homes, and commercial properties, then leave the maintenance to others. At some level I suppose I understand that a broad array of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are being sprayed on my idealistically created landscapes. But what they do is their business—out of sight, out of mind. On the particular commercial project I mention above, though, I was thrust into a management role due to some contract discrepancies. The responsibility of maintaining the native prairie grasses I had seeded along the building’s main walkway fell to me. I called a prairie expert who told me herbicide would be the best way to get the weeds under control and allow the little bluestem room to grow. I wavered. Then agreed.

Hanging up the phone I was wracked with guilt. Carson’s book has a way of making one feel that way, if one is in any way complicit in the use of pesticides or herbicides. Silent Spring is both fact-packed and heart-wrenching. It leaves a reader feeling emotionally spent, yet unable to find relief in the possibility that the stories are either exaggerated or untrue. And that, of course, was its intended effect.

It’s hard to know exactly where to start a new essay about Carson, since of all the environmental writers in American history, she has been more researched, praised, referenced, essayed, and reprinted than anyone but perhaps Thoreau and John Muir. Certainly of all the writers covered in this series, no one sold more books and no one had a more direct effect on legislation than she did—even though she only wrote four books and succumbed to cancer a mere 18 months after Silent Spring was published, at age 56. If you want biography, read Linda Lear’s excellent and honest Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. If you want homage, go for Courage for the Earth, edited by the venerable Peter Matthiessen. You can find Rachel Carson children’s books and Rachel Carson school curricula. (I’m thinking of starting a line of “what would Rachel do?” bumper stickers and coffee mugs.)

It’s hard to know where to start with Carson because so much has been said already. What I will add is this: Silent Spring struck me in two ways. Foremost, I felt like a direct subject of criticism, because of the Garlon, and the book has made me rethink some of my professional practices, even though it is near 50 years old and wildly out of date factually. I also felt a deep admiration for Carson because she, I believe, deliberately altered her writing style in order to have the desired impact. Silent Spring, in tone, subject, and language choice, is markedly different from her earlier works about the ocean:  Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (a 1951 bestseller), and The Edge of the Sea (1955). Though this earlier trilogy—completed a full seven years before Silent Spring—has notes of warning, it is above all a paean to the sea, in all its glory and poetry. I read The Sea Around Us immediately before delving into Silent Spring, and the contrast was stark.

Indulge me in a side-by-side comparison. To make it a little more apples-to-apples, I’ll look at the same subject: water. Here is Silent Spring:

Here and there we have dramatic evidence of the presence of these chemicals in our streams and even in public water supplies. For example, a sample of drinking water from an orchard area in Pennsylvania, when tested on fish in a laboratory, contained enough insecticide to kill all of the test fish in only four hours….

For the most part this pollution is unseen and invisible, making its presence known when hundreds of thousands of fish die, but more often never detected at all. The chemist who guards water purity has no routine tests for these organic pollutants and no way to remove them.

And The Sea Around Us:

Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulation system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.

You will of course have to give me the benefit of the doubt that I have selected representative samples. Yes, there are glimpses of the critical Carson in the sea trilogy and of the enraptured Carson in Silent Spring (“those woodland sprites the kinglets…the warblers, whose migrating hordes flow through the trees in spring in a multicolored tide of life”). But it’s not a stretch to say that the sea trilogy is poetic while Silent Spring is analytical.

I believe that difference is not just because of the passage of time between the works, nor is it because of the inherently negative subject matter of the later book. As Ann Zwinger writes in her introduction to the 2002 reprint of Silent Spring, after World War II “The public endowed chemists, at work in their starched white coats…with almost divine wisdom. The results of their labors were gilded with the presumption of beneficence. In postwar America, science was god, and science was male.”  Science also stood alone, in philosophical opposition to art and poetry. That dichotomy, which Loren Eiseley and others began to expose in the early 1960s, led to the intense social upheval that pitted “9-to-5-ers” and “hippies” against each other in the decades to come.

In order to have an affect on the science of the day, and on the general population, Carson needed to adopt an empirical rhetoric, mostly free of the soul-stirring prose that populates her earlier work but would be rapidly discredited in the context of her new subject. In fact, the chemical industry tried to do exactly that, launching a smear campaign that, among other things, labeled Carson a spinster and a madwoman—powerful and damning language in the late 50s. Carson buttoned Silent Spring up tight, leaving no space for the chemical establishment to set a hook and tear it apart.

However, if that had been Carson’s only trick, Silent Spring would stand as an excellent report to Congress, rather than as the “cornerstone of the new environmentalism,” as Peter Matthiessen calls it. Carson’s final book was embraced by an entire generation and many believe it led to not just the domestic ban on DDT application (for which it is best known), but also the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972—all of which directly address environmental pollutants like herbicides and pesticides.

The reason for Silent Spring’s longevity is that laced within the analysis are passages like this:

I know well a stretch of road where nature’s own landscaping has provided a border of alder, viburnum, sweet fern, and juniper with seasonally changing accents of bright flowers, or of fruits hanging in jeweled clusters in the fall…. But the sprayers took over and the miles along that road became something to be traversed quickly, a sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make. But here and there authority had somehow faltered and…there were oases of beauty in the midst of austere and regimented control…. In such places my spirit lifted to the sight of the drifts of white clover or the clouds of purple vetch with here and there the flaming cup of a wood lily.

Or this, in reference to the “explosive power” of nature to reproduce and fill a void:

I think of shore rocks white with barnacles as far as the eye can see, or of the spectacle of passing through an immense school of jellyfish, mile after mile, with seemingly no end to the pulsing, ghostly forms scarcely more substantial than the water itself.

It has been more than a month now since I was complicit in the application of an herbicide. Today the site is a green swath of baby prairie grasses pushing their roots deep into the earth and covering the soil with their stems. Next spring there will be fewer broad-leaved plants and after another year this landscape will not need to be mowed, fertilized, watered, or treated with chemicals of any kind—ever.

My 3300 square feet is infinitesimal compared to the millions of square miles of neighborhoods, forests, and farms that used to be sprayed from airplanes with a mixture of DDT powder and fuel oil (can you imagine?!). And Carson’s last chapter gives me an out: perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t call for outright bans, but rather a careful combination of biological control and chemical use applied where needed and for the right reasons.

She also calls for effective regulation and decision-making through sound science, and that sentiment became the foundation for the EPA and all the environmental legislation passed in the early 1970s.

So if you will indulge me in one more paragraph, I would be remiss in not mentioning current events.

I opened this series by referencing a January 25, 2012, speech by Newt Gingrich in which he proposed elimination of the EPA. He, the few remaining presidential hopefuls, and conservative members of the U.S. Congress have held that line for the past year. The standard phrase, crowed ad nauseum in debates and stump speeches, is that the EPA and the Clean Air and Water Acts are “job-killing” regulations. Gingrich and the other so-called advocates for business and jobs should take a moment to remember life before 1970: fuel oil dropped from airplanes on suburban neighborhoods, chemicals in general use so dangerous that children could die from touching a spray nozzle, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River so polluted it actually caught fire (that was 1969), cities across the nation dumping untreated sewage into local waters (yes, the Clean Water Act regulates government in addition to private business). Conservatives are holding a ridiculous and untenable position that essentially suggests businesses would pay more taxes and hire more people–if only they could pollute.

Carson described the 1950s as “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests…it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half-truth.”

Silent Spring is 50 years old in 2012—election year. As I wrote in the introduction, it’s time for another reading.

Proceed to the next essay, on Joseph Wood Krutch; or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Sep 242011

It probably doesn’t bear reminding, but I will remind you anyway. In the March/April issue of the AWP Writers’ Chronicle, Aleksander Hemon, in an interview with Jeanie Chung, contrasted fiction and memoir and found the latter wanting in some way, even cowardly. Sue William Silverman, my friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a famous practitioner of the art of memoir-writing, wrote a retort which appeared as a letter to the editor and was also reprinted under the title “In Defense of Memoir” on Dinty Moore’s Brevity. Suzanne Farrell Smith wrote a measured summary of the whole story (“Hemon, Silverman, and What Makes Good Writing“) on her blog and pointed out that just months after casting aspersions on the genre in the Chronicle, Hemon published a memoir of his daughter’s illness in The New Yorker. (In the nature of things, he probably did the interview long before he wrote the memoir, but the two came out in ironic proximity.)

Now Sue has contributed a call to the barricades, an inspirational rationale for memoir-writing which, yes, includes a small excursus into her own acts of memoir (and delightful photographs which are a memoir in themselves).

Sue William Silverman is the author of numerous books, essays, and works on craft, and she is a profound influence in the lives of her students (see the recent NC Childhood essay by Kim Aubrey as an example). Her memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction was made into Lifetime television movie. Her first memoir Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction, while her craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir was awarded Honorable Mention in ForeWord Review’s book-of-the-year award.


The Courage to Write and Publish Your Story: Five Reasons Why it’s Important to Write Memoir

By Sue William Silverman



I’m frequently asked why I write memoir. Why reveal intimate details about my life to total strangers? Why put myself, or my family, through the pain—some would even say shame—of telling family secrets? Why not just be quiet, keep personal information to myself?

Here is how I answer:

Growing up, I lived a double life. On the face of it, my family seemed normal, happy. My father had an important career. We lived in nice houses and wore expensive clothes. But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, masking the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud.

Later, as an adult, I continued to live a double life—this time as a sex addict. Again, in public, I appeared normal, with a professional career and a seemingly good marriage. No one knew that the shiny façade hid dark secrets: I cheated on my husband; I was close to emotional and spiritual death.

Before I began to write, I didn’t fully understand the effects of the past on the present. For years, the past appeared in my mind’s eye like faded black-and-white photographs in which no one, especially me, seemed fully alive.

Then I started putting words on the page. Finally, I chose to examine my past. Through this exploration, it was as if I slowly began to awake after living in a state of emotional suspension. I wrote my way into the darkness—not to dwell there—but to shed light on it. My entire life changed, all for the better. I no longer lived a lie.

I encourage you to explore, through writing, your life, as well. Whether your childhood was traumatic or not, whether your current life is in disarray, chances are you have a story to tell. Whether, say, you’re figuring out a divorce, finally coming to terms, perhaps, with an alcoholic mother or an absent father, struggling to repair a relationship with an estranged sibling or battling a physical disease, we write memoir to better understand ourselves, as well as to bring a reader with us on our journeys.

Here are five reasons why your life will be enhanced by writing a memoir, by telling your own story.

Continue reading »

Sep 232011


Writing a War Story

by Richard Farrell


For the better part of two years, I wrote a war story that wouldn’t come together. No matter how hard I tried, the damned thing refused to work.  It’s not that I spent six-hundred days toiling away at the same pages like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, though at times it did feel that way. No, my devotion to this story meandered over those two years. I would chip away at it for a few weeks, abandon it for a while, and then come back to it. I deleted scenes and added new ones. I switched from a first-person narrator to cascading, multiple third-person points of view. I changed the title, the main characters, the setting, the tone. Every so often I sought help, from  my writing group, from workshops and from trusted grad school advisors. The consensus was always the same: the story floundered.

But I couldn’t let it go.

I was writing about the firebombing of Tokyo, a particularly horrific incendiary attack by U.S. bombers in March of 1945. The ensuing firestorm was more grisly, more deadly even, than the atomic bombs that were later dropped. It is estimated that over 100,000 people died in a single night. Shadows of the dead were burned into sidewalks. Downtown Tokyo was obliterated.  Many consider it to be the deadliest day in history. The target of the attack was not Japan’s munitions factories, electrical grids or coke ovens; it was not enemy harbors or troops or barracks; the target was the citizenry of Tokyo, non-combatants, women and children.

Mother and daughter after raid on Tokyo. (Note: This famous photo is often associated with atomic attacks. Either way, the impact is obvious.)

Almost as troubling as the stark reality of this raid is the fact that the firebombing of Tokyo rarely warrants more than a footnote in the history books. I was (and am) both fascinated and terrified by the casual way we forget these things.

Still, these were only facts, and none of them made for a good war story. I wanted to understand why.

 In Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story,” he writes:

A war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of the story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

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Sep 222011


Ruth Meehan’s And the Red Man Went Green brings the chaos and potential of one day down to a single moment crossing a street. Though it’s not ostensibly about a kiss, the narrative has much in common with Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss,” in which a young soldier is accidentally kissed by a woman, sending a shudder of changes through his plain life.

The director Richard LaGravanese also found inspiration in Chekhov’s short story for the key moment when his protagonist in the film Living Out Loud (starring Holly Hunter–the movie was originally called The Kiss) is surprised out of the grief she is suffering at the loss of her twenty-year relationship.

Each of these stories touches on sudden moments when strangers are accidentally and sometimes unconsciously there for one another.

>Meehan is an Irish writer / director and she has shot several short films. And the Red Man . . . is her second short and it did well at festivals, winning the Special Jury prize a the Tehran film Festival and the Prix Canal+ at Brest.

If you enjoy Meehan’s very short film, you can see another by her (based on a true story about an adventurous cat) here:



Sep 192011

leslie-ullman_09Leslie Ullman. Photo by Jamie Clifford.

The beginning of craft is in reading. And herewith NC presents a gorgeous essay by Leslie Ullman on reading poetry, on poetic “centers” and “dark stars,” about the nature of lyric and the links between poetry and love. The heart of the essay is in Leslie’s deft and expansive analyses of poems by Adrienne Rich, James Tate, Mary Oliver, James Wright, and William Stafford, the whole vectoring toward a lovely line from a Rich poem: “a house lit by the friction of your mind” which is as good a summation of the contemporary lyric poem as any I have seen.

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, and The AWP Writer’s Chronicle. In addition to working for Vermont College of the Fine Arts, Leslie is a certified ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley. The essay originally appeared in Southern Indiana Review, Spring, 2001.



A “Dark Star” Passes Through It

By Leslie Ullman


An inspired, well-made poem is all muscle, all linked movement and harmonious gestures, efficient and lovely as a snake moving across rocks or blacktop or water before it disappears into tall grass. Break this good poem down, and one can see it as a construct of images, phrases, observations, maybe even statements—gestures which have practical uses and varying levels of energy when taken one at a time. Often these gestures are indeed taken one at a time, in workshops or in classrooms at any level, where “understanding” the poem is a more graspable and thus a more settled-for goal than feeling the poem. Start discussing feeling, and one is in that no-man’s land where the boundaries between one’s private experience of the poem and the intentions of the poem can blur. Language becomes untrustworthy. Perception becomes suspect. It is one thing to watch a snake move and imagine its slipperiness, and another to pick it up with an ungloved hand and then sustain and communicate to someone else the sensations of smooth muscle against the palm–at least in the arena of a workshop or literature class, where the task is to find usable terms and defend a point of view in the midst of peers and teachers. But in private, one might well pick up the snake, find one’s hand and arm moving in a dance with its body and feel the marvelous interlocking of its sinews and scales, the dry smoothness of it, not a slipperiness at all.

My first experience of the quietly electrifying  impact a poem can have occurred when I was sitting alone on a dock one summer before my junior year in college. Since then, I have sought ways to honor what can scarcely be described about a well-made and deeply inspired poem–the vatic sureness, the textured play of utterance and silence, the sense of inevitability or urgency from which a poem seems to arise, the resonance some images have, the way the last line reverberates in the reader’s mind and sends her back into the poem again and again only to find each reading richer than the last. In graduate school I was introduced to the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist and philosopher of science who understood reverberation as the operative word for describing the dynamics of literary expression, emphasizing the wealth of association and memory touched off in the reader, often a recognition of something deeply buried within herself, as part of a literary work’s own properties and realm of intentions. Bachelard helped me take seriously the sensations that arise from inspired reading, the literal twinges in the gut that tell me when I have encountered a particularly important image or passage even before my head tells me why it’s important. A few years later,  a conversation with my then-colleague James Ragan helped me begin to find a vocabulary for including and then using sensation as a starting point for grasping the whole of a poem, its deft and muscular movement, in a way that might appeal to readers at any level of experience.

Over the years I have played with the notion of a poem’s “center” in so many contexts as a teacher, and thus have made it so deeply my own, that I can no longer determine how much of what I have to say on this matter originates with me or with Jim. But I can say that the basic idea came from him, and that when he introduced it to me, a light went on in my head and has stayed on ever since. Jim said, if I remember correctly, that every poem has a “center,” a line or group of lines, which reveal the heart of the poem but should not be confused with theme or content. Rather, they are lines with a particular sort of energy, almost always a heightened energy, and one way to identify them is to imagine that when the writer drafted these particular lines, she could feel the force and trajectory of the finished poem even if many details still needed to be worked out—that the poem from that time forward held mystery and  potential completeness for the writer and would indeed be worth finishing. I loved this. To enter a poem in the skin of the writer, to feel the itch of important lines without quite yet knowing what they meant–this seemed an engaging and intuitively accurate way to be a reader.

I soon discovered that one cannot identify a poem’s center without dwelling within each of a poem’s gestures—each image, each transition, each close-up or wide-angle view—without, in other words, feeling the weave of the entire texture, its larger and smaller variations. This is not the work of intellect or analysis. Imagine being blindfolded, learning the layout of a room by groping your way along its walls and furnishings, letting your sense of touch replace your eyes and yield the landscape of the room in a visceral, intimate way. This is what happens when one reads a poem with the intent of identifying its center. The center derives its energy from how it works in its relation to other moments in the poem. To feel the center of a poem, one has to have felt the significance of all of the poem’s moments, moments of lesser as well as greater intensity that nevertheless are crucial to the poem’s structure and cumulative power. This is what picking up the snake—not the devious Edenic archetype, but the lovely work of nature—is all about.

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Sep 162011



Five years ago today Sion Dayson moved to Paris, the last move, so far, in a peripatetic existence. This essay is Sion’s contribution to Numéro Cinq‘s What It’s Like Living Here series, a vivid, intelligent meditation not so much on place but on the deeper implications of belonging, of identity and strangeness.

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Six Sentences (Volume 3) and the anthologies Sounds of this House and Strangers in Paris: New Writing Inspired by the City of Light. In 2007 she won a Barbara Deming Award for Fiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel. It recently placed as a Semifinalist in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition (novel-in-progress category). You can read more of her experiences in Paris at her blog, paris (im)perfect, and find out about all of her work at siondayson.com.



An Alien Feeling

By Sion Dayson


When I was a baby, I had a nanny named Josephine who came from the Dominican Republic. My family lived in New York then – the mythic New York of the ‘70s that I would love to have known.

Josephine spoke to me in Spanish, long before I could understand or form words. There’s no doubt, however, that this early exposure stayed with me. When I started studying Spanish formally in junior high school, the language came easily, my accent hardly noticeable. Vocabulary stuck like scotch tape.


Cara K., my best friend, took French classes and I teased her endlessly for it.

“What good will French ever do you?” I ridiculed.

In fact, I charged anyone who chose not to learn Spanish as elitist. By that point we lived in North Carolina where the Latino population was exploding. Spanish was not only useful, but to me, completely beautiful.

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Sep 142011

Read this as a lament, a keen. It was written, to start with, for Numéro Cinq’s series of “Childhood” essays. But this is no island idyll. It’s not even poignant; that’s too mild a word.  It is sad beyond sad. It is a trip to the heart of darkness. It is also beautiful and rich and generous to that which deserves generosity. In places it makes for nearly unbearable reading. And yet it demands to be read. Years ago, I took a chance on an unknown writer and included one of Kim’s stories in the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories which I edited at the time. In the intervening years she has proved out my intuition, growing deeper, more complex, more heartbreakingly open.

Kim lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (she chronicled her move there from Toronto for NC with two lovely “What it’s like living here” pieces).  She is a writer and artist who grew up in Bermuda and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her watercolours have been exhibited in galleries, and her writing has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The New Quarterly, Room, Event, upstreet and other journals. She recently completed a memoir, The Girl in the Blue Leotard. She is a Founding Member and Editor of Red Claw Press and leads an annual retreat to Bermuda for writers and artists. 



I was born and grew up in Bermuda where my father was born and grew up, and a few generations of Aubreys before him. Photos show me as a baby, sitting in a laundry basket full of oranges, fruit as bright, round and juicy as the world must have seemed back then.

Next to the plump oranges, I looked pale and thin. My parents worried I wasn’t gaining enough weight. My father bought me goat’s milk and fussed over me, helping me to sleep by bouncing me in his arms every evening when he returned home from selling jewellery in his shop on Queen Street.

Kim in the orange grove

As a toddler, I was so slight that my mother had to cross the straps of my overalls twice—first on my back, then across my chest. When a big wind rushed in from the Atlantic, she held onto me so I wouldn’t blow away. I loved how the wind pushed against my face, pressing my mouth open, promising to take me someplace new. But I loved the island too—the oranges dangling from their leafy ceiling, the crabgrass tickling my feet, the warm Bermuda earth, red-orange with iron.

When I was six or seven, my parents rented “Rocky Ridge,” a blue bungalow on a cliff overlooking Harrington Sound, where my mother taught me and my brothers, E.R. and Mark, how to swim. We’d run across our backyard to the grey limestone steps, which led down to the sea through a hollowed-out cave, its sandy walls the colour of cream. We’d rub our fingers against the crumbling limestone, stare at the small holes that seemed drilled into it, looking for the creatures that had burrowed there. Sunlight filtered through the cave, cast arcing shadows over its bright surface, enticing us to follow it out into a world of light and water.

Aubrey house with the orange trees

The cave opened onto a long narrow dock stretching out over the blue-green sound. If you stared down from the end of the dock, you might see bright fish or dark sea rays. If you looked out across the sound, you’d notice that it was encircled by land, sheltered, enclosed. But we seldom looked out; we ran for the steps leading down into the clear water where purple sea urchins raised their spikes from the sandy bottom, and shiny sea cucumbers lay waiting for us to squeeze the water out of them.

My mother taught my father to swim too, even though he’d spent his whole life on an island surrounded by water and she’d grown up in a small town in Maine at least an hour from the coast. She’d learned to swim in the cool waters of Great Pond where her aunt and uncle had built a log cabin, while my father had avoided the beach, afraid of the bullying surf that could send you sprawling under, push water up your nose and salt into your eyes.

South Shore Bermuda

The sound could be calm and glassy, or gentle waves could hold you floating. Only in a storm did the water leap up and fly against the limestone cliff, swamping the dock and filling the cave, washing away more sand from its soft walls. Sometimes, the waves would blast up over our house, and once we found a trumpet fish stranded on the driveway out front. My mother flung it over the cliff, back into the water before it could begin to stink.

Trumpet fish are long and thin. They camouflage themselves by standing on their noses amongst strands of like-coloured coral, or swimming with schools of like-coloured smaller fish on which they prey.

Sometimes, my brothers and I fished off the dock. Once I caught a squirrelfish—orange-red with a big dark eye. Squirrelfish usually hide in the reef, emerging at night, protecting themselves by raising the spines on their backs and croaking when threatened. I don’t remember if my squirrelfish made any noise. I kept it in a pail of water for a while, then dumped it back into the sea.

On Good Friday, we flew kites. My father taught us to make them out of tissue paper and oleander or fennel sticks, starting with the traditional diamond shape formed from a cross of two sticks, its flight meant to reflect Christ’s rise to heaven. We nicked slots in the ends of the sticks with a penknife, and threaded twine through the nicks, pulling it tight and knotting it, then covered this skeleton of stick and twine with different shades of tissue paper. One year, my mother could find only white paper, so to brighten my kite, I pasted on oleander petals and cherry leaves. They fell off when the wind stole the kite into the sky.

The whole island flew kites. Good Friday afternoon, the sky filled with their bright shapes and colours. Every March, a radio and TV ad campaign reminded kite flyers about the dangers of power lines, and every Easter on our way to church, my brothers and I would lean out the car windows and laugh to see all the kites stuck in the lines, or on the branches of trees.

In our backyard with its fence marking the edge of the cliff, my father would hold up the kite while I clutched its ball of twine, waiting for the wind from the sound to rustle the taut tissue paper bound within its frame of sticks and string. “Now,” he’d call, and I’d rush forward across the lawn, my kite rising into the air behind me as I hurried to let out more string, the ball of twine flipping in my hand, the kite straining against its narrow lead. Its tail, made from torn-off bits of rag my mother had knotted together, gave it ballast, weighting the kite so the wind wouldn’t toss it around and crush it. I stopped running as the wind lifted the kite higher. Its tail streamed out behind, anchoring it to the clouds.

On Guy Fawkes’ night in November, my father and his younger brothers, Dennis and Peter, set off fireworks on our back lawn near the cliff’s edge. Rockets and fountains burst and shrieked into the night sky. My brothers and I ran around in circles laughing and shouting. When our uncles lit the Catherine’s Wheel, we stopped and clung to our mother, watching the great circle of fire spin and hiss, flinging sparks into the cool damp air.

In the distance, other people’s fireworks cast brief bright shapes against the dark as we waited for Dennis to bring out the Guy. It was made from an old jacket and pants stuffed with newspaper, its head a brown paper bag, also stuffed, topped with a straw hat. I stared at its face, drawn with black marker. Its slit eyes and wide grin leered back at me like a malicious Frankenstein’s monster. I half hoped half feared the fire might spark it into life.

My father, Dennis and Peter built a small bonfire from dry sticks and crumpled paper, lit with several matches. Once the fire caught, spreading through the kindling, they mounted the Guy on top, and we watched the flames burst out from inside his dark pants and shiny jacket, consume his mean face and feed on his crackling hat. Soon the guy was one enormous flame eating away at the dark, launching flakes of ash into the sky.

One night in September, I’d learned that my mind could float free of my body, flying up like a kite or a piece of ash. My parents had gone out to dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday, leaving my brothers and me with our teen-aged uncle, Peter. Outside, the wind tapped tree branches against the living-room window. Inside, I practiced the pliés I’d learned in ballet class that afternoon, holding my back straight, bending my knees, then rising onto my toes. The reflection of my head bobbed up and down in the darkening window. I was not yet eight and had only begun learning ballet a couple of weeks ago. E.R. was six, and Mark, who had just started nursery school, was four.

For the past year, Peter had been molesting us in the basement of his house where our parents sent us to play on Sunday afternoons, while they sat and drank tea with our grandparents. In that shadowy basement, Peter terrified and shamed us into secrecy, keeping our parents ignorant of what was happening.

If they’d told us he would be baby-sitting, I’d probably have spent the day chewing my fingernails and getting a stomachache, even though I hadn’t believed that he would hurt us in our own house. The familiar ordinariness of the wood-encased TV set, the living-room carpet we sat on to watch cartoons, the purple couch where my parents usually relaxed in the evening seemed to offer a protective spell. Besides, a summer spent visiting our New England grandparents, swimming in cool dark lakes, and picking blueberries in the woods of Maine had already begun to wash out my memories of that basement, making them less vivid, as if those things had happened to three other children.

When Peter yelled, “Stop that jumping!” and lunged after me, I froze at first, then dashed towards the hallway where the bathroom door had a lock. The TV shouted ads from its corner, the wind rattled the windows, and the walls seemed to blur as if suddenly plunged under water. Peter grabbed my arm, clamped my legs between his, pushed my face against his belly. The fibers of his shirt scratched my eyelids. I tried to scream, tried to bite him through his shirt. He gripped my mouth with one hand, forcing me to breathe through my nose, while his other hand crept up my bare leg and into the bottom of my leotard. At first, his fingers tickled, making me feel warm and shivery, then they jabbed into my flesh, sending a sharp pain up through my whole body and into my head. I tried to scream again, tried to bite his hand, but it was pressed too tightly against my mouth. My head felt light and spinny, throat dry and empty.

I learned how to run while standing still, to run until I lifted from the ground and the wind carried me up, a ballast of fear anchoring me to the ceiling. I learned how to pretend something shameful wasn’t happening, and how to clean up the evidence afterwards. Sitting in the bathtub behind a locked door, I washed streaks of blood from my thighs, learned to let the water run until all the pink had swirled away.

The next day, my brothers told my mother that Peter had shown us his penis. I told her I didn’t want him to babysit ever again. I had no words for what had happened. When we visited our grandparents, my mother and father no longer sent us to the basement to play with Peter. My brothers and I forgot what he had done to us. Memory swirled away like a pink stain in water.

Every Good Friday, we flew kites, making them as bright and beautiful as we could, multi-hued hexagons or octagons, borrowing their colours from the hibiscus, the oranges, the cherry leaves, and the clear waters of the sound. We flew kites, cheered when we managed to launch them and they didn’t get caught on a shrub, or drag our spirits to the ground. We flew kites, watching them rise unblemished into the blue, their spokes like outstretched arms, watching them shrink into distant sparks of light, longing to follow, to lift off from the red earth and climb the sky.

—Kim Aubrey

Sep 122011

A Anupama2

A. Anupama contributes five poems translated from the anthology of classical Tamil poems known as the Kuruntokai (pro-nounced Kurundohay), gorgeously symbolic love poems that work within a strict formal structure. Strange and beautiful they are, a revelation of an ancient culture and tradition to which we have as a guide, also, a lovely essay by the translator who uses, yes, Ludwig Wittgenstein as an entry point into her own considerable cultural heritage. The essay is a delight, not the least because it lays bare some of the structures of the poems and thus does what good criticism should always do–help us read more deeply.



On Translating from Kuruntokai


Wittgenstein wrote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This wasn’t exactly the reason I set about learning and translating Tamil, the language of my south Indian heritage, but I admit that I liked the idea of pushing back the limits.  In my work of distilling English in my poetry, I had begun to notice my many refusals to use foreign words and syntactic differences, which often correspond to my thoughts stemming from Indian philosophy. I turned to learning my mother tongue and attempting translations with the hope of finding a door through which I might reconcile these two movements in my own writing.

I didn’t have to look hard to find a compelling doorway. A.K. Ramanujan’s translations of Kuruntokai, an anthology of love poems from the Cankam era of Tamil poetry, illuminate the beauty of both languages. Reading this work was not only an opportunity for me to walk into Tamil with a brilliant guide, it represented a chance to roam in the genius of a community of poets and scholars in ancient India.

Cankam (pronounced “Sangam”) means community, and the poems in Kuruntokai are a formal genre called akam written by many different poets based on a common poetic language of five landscapes, with corresponding symbolism in the specific plants, animals, bodies of water, occupations, seasons, and more in each. These poems revolve around a love affair with a cast of five speakers: the heroine (in Tamil, talaivi) and hero (talaivan), her friend, her mother, and his mistress.  Each poem is a short monologue or half of a dialogue, part of an unfolding drama, but is self-contained, a glistening snapshot of a particular moment.

The simplicity of the verses in the translations is deceptive. I was amazed to find allusions and symmetry working together to create a trapdoor in each poem. As I worked on my own translations from the original Tamil, I found poetic devices like parallel feet in symmetric opposition representing the dichotomy of the senses and the mind. An example of this is verse 237, where the hero speaks about his heart setting out boldly to embrace his lover at the start of the second line of the poem and then speaks of his mind as hardly daring to think at the end of line 7. These are set symmetrically around the center of the poem: the image of the dark ocean and the words referring to the obstacle between the two lovers. Symmetry presents a different meaning from the literal sense of the hero’s monologue, in which it is the distance and the forests that are the obstacles. The symmetry suggests more than the literal sense of the words, creating a superimposition of meanings so that the reader’s understanding can shift away from the expected storyline, the bold heart and distracted mind, and see something more. Another set of parallels occurs even closer to the center of this poem, amplifying the effect: the image of arms clasping is set opposite the word for circling or echoing. In both cases, the references are ambiguous. The first one suggests that the heart, lacking arms, can’t embrace his lover. The other one could refer to the waves of the ocean or to the deadly tigers. The effect demonstrates the futility of trying to comprehend this sort of circling inward with one’s head-on logic. (I’m grateful, or I might have spent a lot more time trying to figure out the Tamil metrics looking for more clues.)

Sometimes the image or word in the geometric center of the poem is a hinge point or a clue. In verse 36, the central foot of the poem is about the inseparable intimacy of the two lovers. Interestingly, this word is a partial rhyme for mÀõai and for the usual Tamil word for elephant, which is not used in this poem. The effect here is that the conscious statement of the heroine is contradicted by the very way she is making her statement. The elephant is in the room, even though she denies it by her words. On another level, the deeper intelligence, sleeping under the surface, is the point here.

Sometimes the poem seems to flow backwards, with images at the beginning of the poem only making sense at the end. Throwing the reader back to the beginning of the poem seems to be one of the reasons for this device, as in verse 46. The original doesn’t begin with any mention of the lover. Ramanujan reordered this poem in his translation (and I followed him in mine) so that the heroine’s suggestion wouldn’t be lost in the poem in English. The original poem unfolds from the opening image of the wings like faded waterlilies and ends with the statement that her lover has left for another land. When the reader skips back to the beginning, automatically because of the surprise of the revelation at the end, the image of those limp brown wings suggests that no one is really going anywhere. This device superimposes that suggestion over the heroine’s suggestion that her lover will return to her, as the sparrows return to their nests, because he can’t escape the loneliness of life without her. This sort of set up, with no escape through the ends of the poem, forces the reader to circumambulate the center of the poem, where the image of the sparrows playing in the dust of dried cow dung is the trapdoor’s hinge. In traditional Indian villages, dried cow dung is used as fuel.

The mysteriousness of these love poems is even more striking because they were compiled during the legendary gatherings of Tamil poets and scholars roughly a thousand years ago. I wondered, why love poems? Why landscapes and flowers? I went to philosophy texts for those answers. (Thanks Wittgenstein!) The commentary in Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali explains: “The senses can grasp only sense objects, but not vice versa; the mind can perceive the senses, but not vice versa; and the purusa [soul] can perceive the mind, but not vice versa.” So one conclusion is that the love poetry of Kuruntokai and the other akam poems of the Cankam era mean to stand firmly among the sense objects of the world and point absolutely in the direction of the soul, transcending the limits of this world.

A.K. Ramanujan’s books Poems of Love and War and The Interior Landscape offer a fascinating discussion of Tamil akam poetry. I also consulted Robert Butler’s translation, which includes informative footnotes on the language, flora and fauna, and traditional commentaries on the verses. I’m grateful to B. Jeyaganesh and my mother, who offered literal translations and discussion. None of us are scholars on these poems or on ancient Tamil, so I can only claim that these translations are my attempt to make guideposts, in contemporary American poetry-ese, pointing to the sublime trapdoors embedded in these poems. These guideposts have helped me to find my own poems, too, by inspiring a sequence based on the landscapes and poetic devices of akam poetry. Pushing away the limits of my language has expanded my world a bit; thanks, Wittgenstein.

—A. Anupama


Translations from Kuruntokai, Ancient Indian Love Poetry


Poem from the purple-flowered hills

Talaivi says to her friend—

He swore “my heart is true.
I’ll never leave you.”

My lover from the hills,
where the manai creepers
sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants
asleep among the boulders,
promised this on that day
when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me.

Why cry, my dear friend?

Kuruntokai, verse 36


Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees

Talaivi says—

Don’t you think they have sparrows
wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies,
bathing in the dung dust in the village streets
before pecking grain from the yards
and returning to their chicks in the eaves,
common as evening loneliness?

Kuruntokai, verse 46


Poem from the jasmine-filled woods

Talaivi says—

The rains have come and gone.
The millet grew and now is stubble
nibbled by stags while jasmine blossoms flourish
alongside, their buds unfolding to show white petals
like a wildcat’s smile.
Evening comes, scented with jasmine
bringing bees to the buds,
but see, he hasn’t come,
he who left for other riches.

Okkur Macatti
Kuruntokai, verse 220


Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says to her friend—

My heart aches, my heart aches!
My eyelids burn from holding back these hot tears.
My love, who alone comforts me, is called unworthy
by even the moon. My heart aches.

Kamancer Kulattar
Kuruntokai, verse 4


Poem from the desert road

Talaivan says—

Fearlessly, my heart has departed
to embrace my beloved.
If its arms are too slack to hold her
what use is it?
The distances between us stretch long.
Must I think of the many forests
where deadly tigers rise up roaring
like the waves of the dark ocean
standing between us? I don’t dare.

Allur Nanmulla
Kuruntokai, verse 237


—Translated by A. Anupama


A. Anupama holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her career has spanned molecular biology, legal publishing, and orthopedic surgery textbooks in her search for beauty, truth, and the marrow of life. Her book Kali Sutra: Poems was a semi-finalist for Tupelo Press’s 2011 First or Second Book of Poetry Award. She lives in Nyack, New York.

Sep 082011

Erika Dreifus and her favourite reader

In keeping with the memories of dark times we share this week, here is a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on writing stories after 9/11. Erika Dreifus casts an intelligently inquiring eye over the issues of politics in writing, political correctness, what used to be called the ethics of appropriation—in general the swirl of thoughts and inhibitions that somehow got in the way of writing about massive public tragedy in America. This essay was written just two years after that sunny September day. One wonders if things have changed, if these concerns still roil the conscience of young writers trying to grapple with the unspeakable or if they have learned to hear Albert Camus’ stern admonition, quoted by Erika below, “to forge themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.”

Erika Dreifus has published stories with connections to 9/11 in The Healing Muse, Midstream, and Mississippi Review Online, among others. Her story collection, Quiet Americans, was published by Last Light Studio in 2011. Erika is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review, and she serves on the editorial advisory board of J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She also publishes her own amazing online writing resource site, Practicing  Writing.This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the “Why Write?” Conference held at Columbia University in New York City, 28-29 March 2003. The essay was published originally in Queen’s Quarterly 111/1 (Spring 2004). DG is grateful to Philip Graham for drawing his attention to Erika’s work.


Having previously earned a PhD in Modern French history, I was in my first semester of a low-residency MFA program in creative writing in September 2001. Before I left for work on Tuesday, September 11 (I was teaching at Harvard at the time, and I had a full day of interviewing freshmen interested in my seminar on historical fiction slated), I submitted a new short story for my online workshop (2 other students) and instructor’s review. So fiction-writing will, for me, remain inextricably linked with the events of that day.

I was born in Brooklyn, and although I’d been living in Massachusetts for many years, most of my nearest and dearest were in the metropolitan NYC area that day. The following semester, I found that 9/11 was creeping into several of the stories I was submitting to my workshop. I was shocked by some of the reactions that this work received, and I was flummoxed further by discussions I found elsewhere. I welcomed any and every opportunity to explore all of this. Hence, my interest in calls for papers and conferences, and my need to think through all of these issues in writing.

—Erika Dreifus



 By Erika Dreifus


I noticed an announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It publicized a forthcoming panel at St Edward ‘s University in Austin, Texas, that would examine “Artistic Response to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks.” The announcement provided contact information. I sent e-mails to St Edward’s University. I could not attend the panel. But I wanted to know more.

I wanted to know more because “artistic response” to crisis in the public sphere – especially literary response to national and global trauma – has long fascinated me. From my undergraduate explorations of the intellectuel engagé to my own current work writing fiction I have not escaped the precedents, predicaments, and larger purposes surrounding “response.”

After September 11, 2001, these issues resonated in theory and practice. Sometimes it has seemed that I’ve spent nearly equal time, since then, writing fiction and arguing about it.

I’ve argued with colleagues and teachers, who objected to even the most carefully crafted allusions to the attacks in my fiction. Most surprising were the comments of one workshop classmate. Responding to one story I’d written six months after September 11, he wrote that while he, a Southerner, probably couldn’t understand “how you Northerners are dealing with [September 11], it really did have an effect on everyone. And personally, I am not ready to read short stories referring to [itl yet.”

After I’d recovered from seeing myself and my subject – rather than the actual work – faulted, I continued reading: “I feel like there should be some sort of grace period before it is ok to use that in fiction. It just doesn’t feel right. Like you’re trying to capitalize on that emotion … “

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Sep 062011


At the Duomo with the Giraffes


Siena’s Palio: A Medieval Horserace Turns Viral

Text and Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian


Twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th, after a three-hour parade in Renaissance costume has unfolded, jockeys representing ten of Siena’s seventeen factions challenge each other in the Piazza del Campo. They race for a handmade banner—a palio—and for the honor its possession confers. This is the Palio, Siena’s famous horserace, dating from the Middle Ages.


Rai Television films the event


Piazza del Campo, August 2011


At each bi-annual showing, a hundred thousand bystanders from around the globe jam bleachers, balconies, rooftops, windows and the center of the shell-shaped piazza, cheering one faction or another.

Behind the 400 Euro Seats on the Piazza del Campo



Watching from the Piazza


Jockeys line their skittish horses between two ropes stretched across the track. When the rincorsa–the last horse–enters, the rope drops the racers tear away.




The jockeys careen around the Piazza perimeter three times at break-neck speed. Frequently horses crash into mattress-covered barriers at the right-hand curves of San Martino or the Casato.


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Sep 032011

Numéro Cinq marks the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center with the publication of this achingly poignant, sweetly human story by Philip Graham. In the year following the 9/11 attacks, Philip, as is his nature, twice traveled from his home in Illinois to New York to work as a volunteer near Ground Zero, in a part of the city that had always been shadowed by those mighty towers. Now there is only a shadow of a shadow, the city skyline permanently characterized by the absent profile, those absent lives. Out of that volunteer experience, this text evolved. Philip is a poet of ordinary life, the heroic quotidian of work, family, relationship and memory that is our common lot, and so his homage to 9/11 is built by the accretion of  over-lapping points of view, all leading inexorably to 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when the first jet struck the towers. Naturally, the people he writes about are not thinking about tragedy and death. They are thinking mostly about ordinary problems—and loved ones and beauty. And the last sentence ends without a period, consciousness interrupted by what the reader always knows is coming.

Philip Graham and I have been friends for nearly 20 years. He is also a colleague at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon.  In the fall of 2012 Braided Worlds, the second volume of a memoir of Africa (co-written with Alma Gottlieb) will be published by the University of Chicago Press.  He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor.  He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  “8:46,” an excerpt from a novella-in-progress, was originally published in 2007 in the Los Angeles Review (issue #4). His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at www.philipgraham.net.




By Philip Graham


7:16  Jian keeps a steady pace along the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, taking in a morning sky that couldn’t be clearer, bluer, and as always she loves how the filigree of the bridge’s cable wires divides the New York skyline into little segments that change as she walks. At this rate, she’ll make it to her office near the top of the South Tower in no time, maybe thirty-five minutes. On a day like today, the views will be glorious.

She can feel the vibrations of the cars cruising along the roadway beneath her and the hum of their passing fills her ears—the bridge seems alive. Jian still can’t get over this route she takes each morning from her one-bedroom walkup to work, because the first time she’d really noticed the World Trade Center was during that party her mother and father had dragged her to, for the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nearly twenty years ago.

They had rented a boat with some neighborhood friends for a floating party on the East River, the ideal spot to take in the promised fireworks display, but even so Jian didn’t want to be there. The whole outing was just one half of the same old pattern—one month, a visit to the Buddhist temple on Mott Street; the next, a trip to the Statue of Liberty. After this latest American Family Experience, Jian hoped the following Chinese Family Experience would at least be a Sunday feast of dim sum.

Jian hadn’t cared for the light rocking of the boat or the long long wait for the fireworks. “Hey, give us a smile,” her mother insisted, offering a wide grin as an example. Jian did her best to comply; after all, there was another adopted Chinese girl on the boat, the one with an American name. Stacy. It didn’t matter that Stacy’d been invited to keep Jian company and it didn’t matter that she wore a party dress as goofy as her name—Stacy was okay. Together they’d be able to weather all the grownup talk until the fireworks started, probably a million years from now.

The sun had set but still the light of day lingered, still no fireworks. Then, a silky whoosh, a burst in the sky, and a barrage began that was more impressive than any 4th of July Jian had ever seen: a roaring blaze of colors and patterns like the images of an enormous, angry kaleidoscope, and all of it echoed in the water as if flames floated on the waves. The same reflected patterns lit the windows of the skyscrapers bordering the river, even the twin towers looming behind them, the pinwheel bursts and flares coursing and scattering across those buildings’ glass facades. Finally, yellow-white filaments of fireworks shot from the length of the bridge’s causeway in an arc over the water—the Brooklyn Bridge had suddenly become a remarkable waterfall of light pouring down into the river, and from all the boats around her Jian could hear cries of awe echoing her own.

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Aug 282011


Here’s a terse, direct, almost telegraphic tale of South Africa, race, danger, immaculate whiteness and denial. It’s haunting, disturbing—reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee himself. Dawn Promislow is another hugely promising writer dg discovered when he read her fine first collection Jewels (the collection from which this story is taken) while jurying for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Of this book, Jim Bartley wrote in the Globe and Mail:

At their best, the stories have a compression of description and a simplicity of narrative arc that can indeed be jewel-like in lucidity. The real strength of the collection is its success at bridging the polarities of race and class that so distress its liberal white folks, characters whose pained awareness of the brutally enforced otherness of black lives forms the spine of many stories.

Between and within stories, Promislow shifts us repeatedly from white households to the lives of the servants who do their dull and dirty work. We’re admitted to both worlds, yet the essential otherness of the black world remains intact, never allowing us to forget the entrenched privilege distorting the white viewpoint. The deadlocked society of apartheid is strikingly rendered.

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa, but has lived in Toronto since 1987. Jewels and Other Stories was published by Tsar Books in 2010. One of the collection’s stories was short-listed for UK-based Wasafiri‘s New Writing Prize 2009, while the title story was anthologized in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5. Jewels and Other Stories will be launched in South Africa next month (September). It has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award 2011. You can read an interview with Dawn Promislow here at Open Book Ontario and another one here at Rob McLennan’s Blog. And here is another review of the book.




A Short Story by Dawn Promislow


The grapefruit was sharp in my mouth when I read the report. I was on the terrace, the morning sun filtering through the trees – a hot, still day it would be. It was one of those reports we read all the time, back then. Attempted sabotage of power plant. Et cetera. I got tired of it. I turned to the theatre listings – I was to book tickets for a play.

And then I went in to dress. There was my face, wan in the morning light, I remember it, that day.

My husband mentioned it a few days later. He said there was a colleague’s friend who needed somewhere to stay – a few weeks, that was all. Someone involved in the recent attempt. He’d stay in the garden room, there was a bathroom there, we’d not need to see him. Is this necessary Howard, I said. It’s necessary, yes, he said, you know it’s necessary. We had had someone else like this stay once, in that room. My husband was not afraid; I was not either. He thought the police would never touch him. I told the servants a man from Howard’s work would be in the room for a few weeks. They weren’t much interested, of course. I told them not to bother him, he’d take care of the room himself.

A few days later he came home with my husband. He shook my hand. Thank you, thank you, he said. I’ll be moving on soon. It’ll be alright, my husband said, it’ll be fine. The three of us had a drink. It was a strange time, then.

And then I forgot about it. Or I tried to forget about it. I never saw him. Howard said he had books with him. He was a university professor, before. At night, very late, he had visitors, the servants told me that. The visitors came in cars, headlights pooling in the darkness, they let themselves in at the side gate, I never heard them. My husband assured me, again, he’d be gone soon.

I had my own preoccupations. The children, both, finally away at university. I was free. I was working, then, on my series –  the white series. You’ve seen it. It was before then that I  started it.

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Aug 262011

Ben Evans is the executive editor of the arts review Fogged Clarity and a contributing writer for The Huffington Post’s Arts Section. A fascinating real-time study in new media, Fogged Clarity’s editorial vision showcases emotionally forward poetry, fiction, art, music, and interviews to thousands of monthly visitors.

So it’s no surprise that Ben’s own poems scrutinize experience, perception, and consciousness with resonate undertones of vulnerability and the all too human need to seek. There is an omnipresent “now” in his poems, suggestive perhaps of that perpetually slipping vantage point many of us attempt to understand through writing.

Ben’s work has appeared in Sugar House Review, Gargoyle, and Illya’s Honey, among other journals and newspapers.  He is currently studying poetry under Garrett Hongo at the University of Oregon. We are excited to feature his poems here on Numéro Cinq.

—Martin Balgach


“Couplets (in Meditation of Self-Defeat)” and “Western Tenet”

Poems by Benjamin Evans


Couplets (in Meditation of Self-Defeat)

A pitch through time zones
this gambit made for a home

that edified panic and hard hours
as some lesson or encased flower

to be smelled on that rare occasion
of freedom, that 10-minute kingdom

I could crack when my mind resigned
its clumsy adherence to myths and signs.

That is what one longs for: bondage?
More headaches unsoothed by coffee mug adages?

Yes. The passion dance shakes curated frailty,
sweet haven of doubt.  Earth, the ailing,

will have.  Fold in on oneself and wait
for sanction. Breathe air of those not sated.

Where the heart is: home.  Take it on the road,
hide it in bars and tins and bottles and float

the same streets you faltered.  Never get up;
never, never get up.  Self-inflict the glorified glut,

that was your first and only haunt.  Chant the doggerels
of life everlasting where want is a tempestuous curl

stretched and springing, always springing, back
to the tight coil of madness—night and its bluest black.


Western Tenet

Across the echo stretch of Omaha a copper hook
of moon floods the scarce wonder of my middle country.

The absent thrill of periphery, the fusing of pairs
for substance, are things I was never taught.

Close the windows, flick the radio, keep going.
Joni trumpets the pitch, billows in the lyric of night.

Music, its spastic thrall, embers in Wyoming
but the morning has a pale and clinical hum.

I carry quiet in blurred sight, but carry nonetheless,
widowed from phantom and the most harrowing charges.

Sleep is the name that burns white in Cheyenne, but this
is not travel, it is intent—A yawned song so that they may

speak my son’s name.  Lazy turbines churn above small
rivers where I pause to swim in tiny reclamations of

purchase.  Until, finally a desert, where I am
allowed soft thrashes beneath a moon, now whole.


Hear the tenured moan of the philistine, learning hard amidst
strength and excuse.  Listen to cellos played and cracked clean

on a sore I-80 numbed by twilight—that wraith, that diamond,
that twisting distillation that precedes a cold glean of utterances.

Stitching great gaps in the black line behind, there is nothing left
to be cleansed but the tailor himself.  The frivolous absolution needed to

close the windows, flick the radio, keep going.

—Benjamin Evans

Read an interview with Ben Evans in the Sonora Review

Aug 252011

Dan Wilcox is an Albany, New York, poet, photographer and social activist. That’s him in the photo above (with the sign) at a pro-union rally in February. This the second set of author photos Dan Wilcox has published on Numéro Cinq (see the first flight here). The Arts Center of the Capital District will have an exhibit “From the World’s Largest Collection of Photos of Unknown Poets” by Dan Wilcox from September 10 thru October 15. The exhibit, all black & white prints from film, will include photos of Albany poets Tom Nattell, Mary Panza, & others, as well as Allen Ginsberg, William Kennedy, Anne Waldman & Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Arts Center is at 265 River St. in Troy, NY, should any of you happen to be in the vicinity.

Dan has just released a new chapbook called Poeming the Prompt using poems he wrote last November in response to the Poem-a-Day challenge on Writer’s Digest Poetic Asides Blog. This little book, including his “Top Tips for Anxiety-Free Writing from Prompts,” is published by Dan’s own imprint, A.P.D. (albany’s poetic device, another pleasant day, another poeming day, etc.). He is the host of the Third Thursday Poetry Night at the Social Justice Center in Albany and a member of the poetry performance group “3 Guys from Albany.” He has been a featured reader at all the important poetry venues in the Capital District & throughout the Hudson Valley and is an active member of Veterans for Peace. His poems have been published in Out of the Catskills, Post Traumatic Press 2007, Chronogram, Poetica and in numerous small press journals and anthologies, on the internet, as broadsides & in self-published chapbooks.t, A.P.D. (albany’s poetic device, another pleasant day, etc.). .


Jean Valentine, Jayne Cortez, Gary Soto, Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders & More

Photos by Dan Wilcox


Jean Valentine, with Edward Schwarzchild & Tomas Urayoan Noel, New York State Writers Institute, Albany, NY  — November, 2010


Jayne Cortez with Denardo Coleman, Sanctuary for Independent Media, Troy, NY  — October, 2010

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Aug 242011


It’s a pleasure to herald the return to these pages of Julie Larios, a friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, also part of the NC community from way back (not that NC really goes that far back, of course). These poems have a dark even macabre edge to them; the felicity of  line and phrase creates a tension with the darkness; as in life, the darkness sneaks up on you. The first poem, “A Diminished Thing,” is also a kind of structural pun. Each line “diminishes” the last word in the line above it (recommended, commended, mended, mend, men, me….).  The title is a nod to a phrase in Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird.” This is Julie’s second appearance at Numéro Cinq—see “On Reading the Poems of Someone Buried in Poet’s Corner.

Julie Larios has had poems appear in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, the Georgia Review, Field, and Margie, among others. Her libretto for a penny opera titled All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed was recently performed as part of the VOX series by the New York City Opera. She has published four poetry picture books for children, and she teaches at the Vermont  College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program.



A Diminished Thing

It was easy. Many recommended
me. I was praised, I was commended
for my durability, that is, I mended
fast and often. To mend
is a fine skill, all the broken men
told me.


Pincushion Doll

That matte skin
is what bothers people most —

she’s like a ghost
with no shine, all bisque,

in need of a brisk walk
to bring the peaches to her cheeks.

But since she has no legs,
that begs the question.

Below the waist
she’s chaste, all ballast,

filled with sawdust, not a model
for anybody’s body.

The striped fan in her hands
meant to be elegant

is simply sad. Half a woman
is a bad idea.

Girl, you better tremble.
You better pray

you’ll find a way to walk,
you better have hip sockets,

knees that bend,
a bottom half at bedtime.

Otherwise, someone
will stick a pin in

and there’ll be nothing.
No cry. You’ll become

a shy lady with buttons
in a basket on your head,

a pocket for a bodkin,
a thimble, scissors,

a spool of dark thread
fastened to your back.

—Julie Larios


Aug 232011


Here’s a fierce and pyrotechnic little diversion on the subjects of capitalism, masculinity, violence, movies, Space Monkeys, Tyler Durden, and Fight Club, movie and novel, from Brianna Berbenuik, a 20-something misanthropist and student of Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Brianna is an avid fan of kitschy pop-culture, terrible Nic Cage movies, the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, and Freud. You can find her at Love & Darkness & My Side-Arm. She is no mean hand with an AK47, and her last contribution to Numéro Cinq went viral, as they say, when Bret Easton Ellis read it, liked it and tweeted it around the world (it was about, um, Bret Easton Ellis).



We’re the All-Singing, All-Dancing Crap of the World, or:

You’re Doing It Wrong – The Fight Club Identity Crisis

By Brianna Berbenuik


Missing the point is pretty standard fare in life. People tend to get so pumped up about Fight Club that they miss a lot about the movie. Mainly that the “Space Monkeys” are the worst fucking part.

(Although I will admit that watching Jared Leto get his face beat to pulp is kind of excellent. Maybe even better than watching Christian Bale axe him to death in the film adaptation of American Psycho.)

Fight Club is one of those movies that pretty much everyone in the Western world has seen, and a novel that most people have read (and claimed to have read prior to the film — PRO TIP: Fight Club the novel is exactly like the movie, except for alterations to like, two scenes. So no, having “read the novel” doesn’t give you any fucking cred).

So most people think that is what is being criticized, and overlook the inherent satire within the bounds of Fight Club and Project Mayhem – it is set up within the film to look like a legitimate alternative to the capitalist machine, but it is being skewered just as much as capitalism is.

Thing is, people get really fixated on the ideology of the movie, and fail to distinguish that there are two separate things going on:

1) The obvious critique and satirization of a Capitalist society, and how it is inherently repressive and one must find solace ‘outside the system’ and

2) The satirization of masculinity, and critique of masculine violence as a “positive” venue or positive manifestation of nihilist philosophy.

There are a lot of people who genuinely believe that starting violent all-male “clubs” and committing acts of terrorism are actually being touted as a solution in the Fight Club world. A hell of a lot of fight clubs began springing up after the release of the movie – a cult phenomenon. Cult is a descriptor here for a reason. The “inside joke” about Fight Club is that if you worship the general philosophy and take it legitimately seriously, you’ve entirely bypassed the point and become exactly what the movie is satirizing. Quoting Fight Club excessively does not make you edgy or intelligent (“Sticking feathers up your ass does not make you a chicken”), it just proves that you’ll fall for anything that seems remotely cool and anti-establishment. Plus, Fight Club quotes are so quippy and simple – they really elucidate nothing deeper. Durden’s one-liners (and they are abundant) are like easy-to-digest commandments that everyone clings to as profound. Funny thing about profound stuff – once it saturates the mainstream, it tends to lose its kick.

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Aug 222011


Danila Botha was born in Johannesburg and lives in  Toronto. I discovered her while I was reading books for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award earlier this year, specifically her delightful first story collection Got No Secrets. These two stories are brand new, stories written in a gutsy, head-on, colloquial style about love, sex and mis-connection among the urban 20-somethings she knows so well. Her characters are all compulsively themselves, driven, probably always, to make a mess of things, but vulnerable, full of desire, and often touchingly witty.


These stories are part of a collection of short stories, with a little poetry included that is called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known. I had this idea a few years ago to write a collection of stories that focused on the romantic and personal relationships that I, and people I was close to had experienced. I’m only in the process of completing it now, mainly I think because I needed more time to reflect on what I’d been through recently (a divorce, the loss of a friend of many years, a big break up) It’s been genuinely therapeutic to write, and in some ways, more personal than my other two books. I was influenced the most by other short story writers and poets for this collection. Aryn Kyle’s Boys and Girls Like Me and You, Jami Attenberg’s Instant Love, Amy Jones’ What Boys Like, Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once, Lynn Crosbie (I think I reread all of her books) and the South African poet Rene Bohnen (and her book Spoorsny) were probably my biggest influences. I also listened a lot to the singer-songwriters Simon Wilcox and Amy Correia, who describe the ins and outs of relationships in a way that is so very literary and precise. —Danila Botha


Two Stories Not-Exactly-About Love

By Danila Botha


The Other Other

I ride the streetcar with my headphones on. I pick the loudest stuff on there: Bikini Kill, Ramones live, Metallica. I silently will the blast in my ears to blunt the thoughts in my brain. I will myself to look like a normal passenger, not some fruitcake on the verge of an anxiety attack. I get off the streetcar and navigate my way through a packed Queen East neighborhood. There’s a sidewalk full of people speaking languages I can’t identify. I make my best guesses: Arabic? Punjabi? Turkish? Cantonese? There’s a high rise apartment building that looks a pile of cement blocks. Wet laundry hangs from the balconies, flowered bed sheets and bathroom towels hang in the windows.  There’s a club with a cherry neon sign that says XXX girls. A sign underneath it in gold script reads, Lap Dances: More Bang For Your Buck. There are tv screen-sized photos of the girls in the glass window of the doorway. I find myself studying them as I stand there having a smoke. Blondes and brunettes, one redhead. Three line bios with their names and origins. Yuki is from Japan. Claudia is from Trinidad. They’re wearing lingerie or bikinis, little triangles of lace or cotton, open legs, eyes on the prize. I look closer and see some cellulite, some stretch marks, on Kelly’s (a blonde from Norway) thighs. Striking but reassuringly not perfect. A more streamlined version of some of the girls I’ve seen at university, the kind with rhinestone playboy bunnies dangling off metal studs in their bellybuttons. These girls are the real deal; sex is just a transaction to them.

There’s a 24-hour McDonald’s and a 7-11. A Coffee Crime with homeless types hanging around outside, spare a quarter, miss? I really can’t, I say, I have to take the subway, and I forgot to get a transfer. Like they care what my reason is.

It hits me like a wave: Get a lap dance, drink a Grape Crush Slurpee. Just be normal and have sex. Just do it already.

An ad for Trojans on the subway says Double Her Ecstasy. I wonder if it’ll be as good as everyone says. I chew my cuticles. In two days I bit my nails down to the quick. I knock my flip-flops together. My knees vibrate involuntarily. I try a panic attack prevention technique my therapist taught me. I look around and focus on an object. I describe it slowly in my head. This is a newspaper. It’s grey and black and white. The headline says War on Terrorism. There is a picture of George Bush, debris where the twin towers once stood. The oxygen flows more smoothly into my lungs again. I uncurl my hands from the fists they have formed.

If I decide finally to have sex today, all this worry will be over.

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Aug 202011

1976-montreal-star-deskThis is the copyediting desk (the rim) at the Montreal Star in 1976, probably just before 8 a.m., the paper has been put to bed and we’re just hanging around. I am across the desk on the left. Peter Leney with the long hair is next to me, The gray-haired gent is Walter Christopherson, the copy boss. Barry Johnson would normally be seated on my right, but most of the sub-editors appear to have momentarily disappeared.

I just discovered this obituary from the Vancouver Province. I worked as a copyeditor (we called them sub-editors) at the Montreal Star in 1975 and 1976. We worked the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., putting the paper to bed around 6 or so, then often adjourning to a bar across the street for a morning drink. Barry Johnson, a handsome, florid-faced old-hand, usually sat to my right on the rim, no doubt placed there to keep the new boy out of trouble. He had been trained as an air force pilot, but he knew his grammar and punctuation inside out and could amalgamate a dozen wire-service reports into a gorgeous 10-para story with nothing but a steel ruler, a ballpoint pen and a gluepot (these were the old days, let me tell you). He had stories to tell: how he got his nickname Precious, his career as a foreign correspondent, his sideline in the movies (spaghetti Westerns in Italy, a part in a TV mini-series on Casanova in France), his rather hasty escape from Greece in obscure and unseemly circumstances. Barry was a legend, a man bigger than life, but his star was falling, age was creeping on him. Sitting next to him as the newspaper technology changed around us (we were dinosaurs of several varieties), I was always in a spin, in awe and yet aware of the ache of loss, time moving on. I soaked up his stories, while at the same time incubating an idea for my first (published) novel Precious.

Years later, the Star shut down and Barry went through a bad patch. He ended up in Toronto, unemployed, scrambling. My book was out. I didn’t know if Barry knew how much he had influenced me. An old friend from my newspaper days (we worked at the Peterborough Examiner and the Montreal Star together), Mal Aird, arranged for us to meet at the Spadina Tavern. It was a stirring thing, handing Barry a copy of the book. It meant a lot to me; clearly it meant a lot to him. Now both he and Mal are dead. Time eats her children.



Former Province reporter and copy editor Barry Johnson died peacefully in hospital after a long illness Saturday night, with his wife and sister at his side.

He was 74.

Johnson, who was known as “Precious” to his many friends, had a long career in Canadian newspapers, with stops at the Montreal Gazette, Montreal Star, Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald.

The former jet pilot jumped into journalism in the 1950s after a stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His writing career also took him to London, Greece and Rome.

“He’s been everywhere,” his sister Patricia Holland recalled Sunday.

Regarded by many as a lovable scoundrel, Johnson inspired Douglas Glover’s 1984 murder mystery Precious, the tale of “a boozy, burned-out reporter with an embarrassing nickname and a penchant for getting into trouble,” according to Glover’s website.

via Barry Johnson: A precious one gone.

But see also Barry Johnson obituary with more life details here.


From Precious:

I stayed where I was a few minutes longer to see the hands lock down the last plates, hear the warning bells, and watch the freshly folded newspapers flooding off the line. Twenty years had fled. I hadn’t listened to Uncle Dorsey. When I got out of the air force, I had my wings and a ticket to a gold mine. In the early sixties airlines were offering a million bucks, fifty grand a year, to ex-servicemen who wanted to fly passenger jets. But the thought of turning into a glorified bus driver at the age of twenty-five chilled me. And somehow I thought the money would always be there.

On a whim I took a job covering the police beat for a small city daily not unlike the Star-Leader. Inside of a month I was hooked on the steady rhythmic surge of the deadline, dropping Dexedrine tablets and working eighty-hour weeks, drifting through my free Sundays in the company of chain-smoking, liverish veterans, their hoarse endless talk echoing in my ears and dreams. I got married; I got divorced. The years accumulated like spent butts in an ashtray. When I finally pulled my nose out of the rat race long enough to grasp the situation, when I finally realized Dorsey had been right all along, it was too late to change and too late to kick.

Twenty years.

But, as the French say, even the most beautiful woman cannot give more than she has.

Aug 202011

Here’s a charming romantic comedy that turns on the presence of an eccentric cimbalom player named Lazlo. Julie Marden is a violinist and she writes fiction about musicians, with verve and wry touch of comedy. She’s one of dg’s former students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she has already contributed mightily to Numéro Cinq—see especially her lovely essay on the use of thematic passages in Chekhov’s short stories.

Right now, in addition to performing with various professional orchestras, she teaches chamber music to children at the Tufts Community Music School in Medford, MA, tutors Boston area children in reading and math (through the “No Child Left Behind” program), and teaches academic writing skills at an on-line college.  On the side, she also performs in amateur theater productions: Clytaemnestra in Euripides’ Elektra (in ancient Greek), Puck, Hippolyta, and Snout in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”  Hermione in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” and Elena in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”  She lives with her daughter Nora, their dog Gracie and a cat Panther in Concord, Massachusetts and Walpole, New Hampshire.




By Julie Marden


When Jeff first recognized Nina’s voice, he was relieved he hadn’t answered the phone. He’d just walked into his two-room Washington Heights apartment, carrying a package of unassembled moving boxes. Nina was leaving a message, offering him a weekend job playing principal percussion in a college orchestra in Vermont.

“The piece we need you for is Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite . . .  rehearsals Thursday and Friday evenings, dress rehearsal Saturday morning and the concert Saturday night . . .  pays three hundred dollars plus hotel room . . . it would be great see you again, Jeff, how are you?  Please let me know right away if you can do this.  The concert’s in ten days. I’ll have to keep calling people if I don’t hear from you soon.”

Jeff leaned the flattened boxes against the wall. He hadn’t seen Nina in over a decade, but her breezy, lyrical voice hadn’t changed.  Fourteen, fifteen years ago, they’d been students at the New England Conservatory of Music.  They’d never so much as made out, but Jeff remembered her thick red hair, sonorous viola playing, and a forwardness that had sometimes puzzled him.

He took a beer from the fridge and brought it to the sofa.  He wouldn’t take the job. Three hundred dollars to drive three hundred miles to play with an amateur, student orchestra.  No wonder he was moving, leaving music altogether.   In his twenties, Jeff had gone to conservatory hoping to win a job in a full-time, first-rate orchestra, like the Boston or Chicago Symphony. But he’d never won a job with any full-time, professional orchestra.  Now, thirty-seven, he lived hand-to-mouth, job-to-job: a club-date here, a recording session there, the occasional freelance gig, a handful of private students. He wasn’t starving, but he’d had enough.  In less than two weeks, he was moving back to Hammond, Indiana to live and work with his widower father, who ran the tool and die company that Jeff’s grandfather had started in 1942.

Jeff finished his beer and set the can on the coffee table, next to his answering machine. The room was dim. The red light on the answering machine was still blinking.  Jeff reached over and erased Nina’s message.

By Sunday afternoon, most of the moving boxes were assembled and packed. One remained open, though, parked by the fridge, filling with last minute objects like the fake-copper-rimmed clock Jeff had once found in his parents’ attic and brought to his first apartment in Boston.  He’d just removed it from the wall by the stove and was lowering it into the box, next to a framed, bubble-wrapped photograph of his mother. The phone rang.   Jeff was sure his father was calling. He reached to answer, glancing habitually above the stove, only to see empty air and a circle of clean white paint where the clock had just been. He forgot to speak.

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Aug 192011

There is a mystery, nature’s shadow, that haunts our relationship with our pets. So often they are the reservoirs of the love, pity and dreams of connection for which we are not allowed an outlet in our ordinary lives. The fierce intensity of this relationship is easy fodder for satire, but the utter strangeness of the attachment subverts easy criticism. There is something exceedingly human about our love for small, furry non-humans. Human beings use language, make art and keep pets. Go figure.

Karen Mulhallen is an old and dear friend. DG and his sons have stayed at the cottage in Irondale and the house on Markham Street. We knew Lucy (pictured with Karen in the accompanying photograph; NB dg’s dog is named Lucy, too) and Starlight and Dawn and Dusk, the whole menagerie and their successors. So these poems have a special, personal importance. Karen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar and a professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto. DG edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence. Her most recent collection, The Pillow Books, will be published by Black Moss Press this fall (see cover at the bottom of this post; see also three poems from this book published on NC in February).

The current poems published below are from an even newer book, Domestic Love, of which Karen writes: “It is about our relationship to domestic animals, cats dogs etc. The history of visual art is so rich in human interactions with their pets. And there are some wonderful prose and poetry books which also explore this. I thought, having written so many things which include pets it was time to devote an entire book to our relationship with these creatures with whom we are so privileged to share our lives.”



Poems from Domestic Love

By Karen Muhallen


May on the Haliburton Road Number 23
No Exit

A fallen bird’s egg, broken blue
white stars of snow drops
masses of trilliums dog-toothed yellow
violets pendulous bells, the deep yellow fuzz of dandelions
moss, spikes and fur, acid green softness
violets deep
myrtle light
sky blue cumulus puffs
a few threads of cirrus
beaver pond a blue eye trees at far shore
waterlily pads in the morning gold
dried pods of rushes ellipse of pond
milk weed
verticals and horizontals of fallen trees
wind, hardwood
scrub with elder flower pods
white birch
lake caught from elevation

No Exit Road
hump, rise and fall and then fall no more.
Over the quiet a bird calls,
a plane leaves a stream a double wake,
alone on the lake one power boat
time and it passage
from light to dark.
The fox crosses as the sun rises from right to left
taking gold on his tale

Six in the morning and no one on the lake,
gold spreads
shore approaches shore
bird calls and calls again,
chorus begins.
The birch tree is white, luminous white against the even
morning light which spreads
down the hill to the eastern shore.
Every sapling, every green branch

Gold becomes greener, hill becomes
clearer, bird song

I lift my eyes to the hills whence
cometh my peace, comforts do increase,
gold moves off from shore becomes
dark mirror moves toward
the south. North becomes day
gold takes the lake, silver
birches spread their limbs, tall
white. Birdsong becomes even, continuous
No exit from Road 23.

The fox crosses down as the sun rises right to left
taking the gold on his tail
road and trees are dark, the black top smooth
then the city spires arise
on the road a small mound of dead fox.
One option, no exit,
out out brief candle.

Once there was a carpet,
..there was a road,
..there was a woman;
..and nobody loved as much as she,
..but me I loved him more…


Spitz of the Cimelia

It was a misty early morning when the boy first saw the shadow
move from the stand of willows behind the burnt red of the
dogwoods near the pond’s edge across the grass toward his
bedroom window.

Not yet nine o’clock and not a school day and he blinked the sleep
from his eyes and looked again
but there was nothing there.

The mist never lifted that morning, the sky was an even light grey,
and the trees, black willows
arms stood dark but blurry in the density of the watery air.

All night the sound of the rain had entered his dreams,
and this morning there was still a drip drip drip from the trees
and the roofs of the farm buildings lying low on the land,

not far from the quaking bog.
The birds began their commotion despite the grey of the morning,
and one of the farm cats, a male, the large orange tabby

began to yowl near the back door.
All early winter they would leave their wet mittens
and soaked boots on the small side porch.

Gradually a boot or a mitten would disappear from the heap, and
throughout that early winter morning departures for school would
become moments of crisis, one child or another

hopping on mismatched footgear down the lane to the school bus.
He was only seven, going on eight, his brother was five and in
kindergarten, one older sister, only a year older,

and at home a little sister, a toddler.

One late spring day, when the day lilies were just in bloom, we
were out in the woods playing and stopped to eat our lunches,
peanut butter sandwiches. Out of the brush streaked a comet of
white fluff

and the sandwich was gone. He was ready.
After that we went to the woods to see him, and we always
took him his own lunch of peanut butter sandwiches.

And we were not afraid, though he was a wild dog.
A wolverine, perchance.
A good dog, as Beowulf might say.

As the bog flowers began to appear, pitchers opening to swallow
the first insects of summer, he led us deeper and deeper into the
woods and one day showed us his cache,

his cimelia
of all the lost boots and mittens.
He was aerialist, master of the woods and grasses,
leaping in the air to catch a field mouse,

all summer he was our companion in the woods and the vly
but  each day with us he moved closer and closer to the house
and then he began to sleep out on the porch until winter came.

As cold deepened he moved inside
usually slept next to my bed, the lower bunk.
He would not be in the same room as my father,

nor any other person over six feet tall
even though my father fed him most of the time.
Table scraps, never dog food.

He refused dog food.

We were four, but he hung out with me most of the time
because I did the most  things a feral dog would be interested in-—
woodsy things.

His name was Duffy, but I don’t remember how he got it.
He was a whitish spitz, sort of a cross between a Finnish spitz
and the yappy cotton candy dogs you see.

Canis pomeranus,  according to Linnaeus, not nearly so big
as a Siberian husky, or one of those Asian Chow-Chows
but his tail curled up and he had a thick coat and small ears.

Spitze are wolves of course, but he never barked like a wolf.
And if he were in touch with his ancestors he wouldn’t say.
He did not like cats, but he was otherwise purely virtuous.

The quaking bogs were our playgrounds.
The one nearest to Oneonata is completely closed over by moss,
with no trees until you get right to the edge.

In the middle it’s like being on the sea on a huge underinflated
air mattress. Its border is all cattails, large sausage spikes rising up
nine feet, rushes with their rounded stems and small yellow

flowers. Thick mats of sedges in circular mounds moving out from
the shore of the bog, their sharp edges cut us as we played, and the
bulrushes protruded from the watery bits of the bog.

The part I didn’t tell is the one instance a dog ever talked to me.
I was ten, just about to turn eleven, and out by a stream
on our farm, the sky was a very deep blue above the cumulus

clouds but their bottom edges were slate grey and threatening,
suddenly I thought he was there with me, saying goodbye.
Though neither his presence nor his talking was finite

or organical, as Blake would say.
And I never saw nor heard of him again.


Elegy for Starlight

Like a flight of geese you came through a February blizzard
A small black white and bronze mass of carapace
with bright blue eyes

I warmed you by the fire as they departed.
Home, home at last.

If I were to write the chronicle of your life
staving off the maw of Father Time

devouring always his young hostages to fortune
it would be to begin now, one year after your passing

while grief is fresh, but tears
have ceased, or so I would believe.

This morning the far western shore
replicates, duplicates itself

in the glass of water.
You are my Pangaea;
I your Gondwanaland.

And now to put an end
to all my journeying

open the window
let the warm love in.

This morning at last
the lake is glass on the far side
ripples nearby, light mist rising.

This Sunday morning
just before departure

the lake at last gave back
that quiet I had sought

the mist had gone;
it was now sheer glass

so smooth a passing motorboat
made scarce a mark  or sound

to the west someone was gently
tapping, hanging perhaps a

picture of the mind or of the
thumbnail fawn toad

that hopped across my path
as I ascended to depart.


A Delight of Pigs
Overcomes Household Stigma

Singularity being the Mark of Cain in human society,
the only solution is the acquisition of a household of warm fur

Markham Street Household of large-haired warm females
language not confined but defined by barking growling hissing
chattering whistling and cooing.

Steady diets of fish and organic vegetables for Miss Lucy.
Steady diets of organic greens, melons and good books
for all other inhabitants.

Collage being the ultimate post-modern art form, democratic
and encouraging of viewer participation invites you to enter
Markham Street interactive space and play with the pigs
Dawn and Dusk

who being toupees on eight feet are easily distinguished
by colouring, Dawn of course having an orange face
and her sister a puff of smoke as light falls.

To bury one’s face in a guinea pig’s back is to smell
a meadow of wild flowers on a warm summer day

The story of how Dawn and Dusk came to live in a corner
of the dining room will have to wait for another episode of
How the House Turns

but it should be stated that Dawn and Dusk, aka the Little Girls,
prefer the corner of the dining room to the great outdoors,
to their antique carved wood Rajasthan dovecote in the garden,

to the kitchen and the living room, and might
even prefer the dining room to the grasslands of Peru
where their ancestors roamed free and mucky
for most of their organic filled green grass lives.

For Dawn and Dusk, the fly in the proverbial ointment
is the giant: ‘Pssst, Sis here comes the Giant’.
The giant like the pigs is warm blooded with immense

circular green and yellow hands off which tumble lettuces, alfalfa sprouts, melons, green peppers, apples, sliced green grapes,
coriander, swiss chard, and in spring and in summer

the sweetest of fresh grasses, lemon balm and parsley.
Before Dawn and Dusk came to live in their two-storey palace condominium, it was the home of Starlight.

Starlight had blue eyes, huge testicles, and a little penis
which only appeared when his belly was gently pressed.
Starlight took tea regularly with the giant,

and the giant white fuzzy called Miss Lucy.
In the evening, he lay on the white sofa with the giants
and he smiled, and sometimes contently pooed and peed

on whomever he lay upon. The white sofa
was Starlight’s favourite corner of the universe
because it also came with a big book

which the giant of the large hands held up conveniently
for him to chew. His favourite book was The History of Reading,
though he also had a nibble on Through The Looking Glass Wood.

Alas, Starlight passed over, much to the sorrow
and the continuing depression of the giants,
but the chewed corner of his favourite book remains.

—Karen Mulhallen

Aug 182011


Ian Colford is an author and librarian (not a bad side occupation for a writer) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has had stories and commentary published in about 20 different print and online literary journals including “Laurianne’s Choice” in Numéro Cinq. His 2008 story collection, Evidence, was shortlisted for several prizes, among them the Thomas Raddall, the Danuta Gleed and the ReLit. It won the Margaret and John Savage Award for best first book. 

The Crimes of Hector Tomás is a novel the action of which takes place in an unnamed South American country during a period of political turmoil in the 1960s. Hector is fifteen. He has committed an assault, and rather than risk his arrest his parents are sending him away to live with his aunt and uncle on their farm in Envigado. For a number of months his father’s behaviour had aroused Hector’s suspicions, and the assault was motivated by Hector’s jealousy of another boy, Jorge, on whom his father had been lavishing attention. Nadia is Hector’s girlfriend. Hector’s brother Carlos is also mentioned. A few years earlier Carlos became involved with a resistance group. One night he was abducted by armed thugs. He has not been seen since. Parts of the novel were composed at writing retreats in the US (Yaddo) and Scotland (Hawthornden Castle).



From The Crimes of Hector Tomás

By Ian Colford


The rickety train skirted the mountains, passing villages that were no more than clusters of huts and shanties, occasionally winding its way up into the hills and chugging laboriously across a high plain. There were frequent stops. Hector could hear and see, in the warmth of greetings and in the eyes of children trying to sell plastic Virgin Marys, molasses drops, and dried figs to the passengers, that the train’s arrival was a momentous event for the people who inhabited these parts.

Progress was slow. He had plenty of time to drift from one sweltering compartment to another, to watch the ocean pass by on his right and the mountains on his left.

His belongings filled a single small valise: clothes, toiletries, a deck of cards, a few prized superhero comic books: The Flash, Spiderman. He wore his only pair of shoes, which still bore traces of Jorgé’s blood. The lazy swaying of the train made him restless and he did not like the way his traveling companions looked at him—sullenly, as if he represented all that was troublesome in their lives. The soldiers in particular, of which there were many, seemed annoyed by his presence. He did not trust any of these people and when he roamed from one compartment to another he carried the valise with him. He took it with him to the toilet. He saw how the other passengers watched him and knew they did not trust him either, and for the first time in his life he began to suspect that the black hair and swarthy complexion he had inherited from his mother’s family marked him in some way. The man who examined his ticket did so with a wary frown, as if he could hardly believe there wasn’t some trick being played on him. Sitting by the window half dozing, Hector inadvertently met the glance of a young mother, and at the moment of contact she gathered her baby close to her breast as if to protect her from the evil eye. What did they think? That he was dangerous? A murderer? Many people had black hair and skin darkened by the sun. It did not mean they were murderers. He smiled at the woman with the baby, but she lifted her chin and did not smile back. A few moments later she stood, collected her things, and left the compartment.

The landscape was parched. The sun beat down without mercy and Hector recalled the geography lesson in which his teacher had told the class that certain regions of the country had not seen a drop of rain for a hundred years. In some areas people working the fields paused and stared as if mystified, watching the train pass them by. Hunched and motionless, they seemed like stumps from huge felled trees. Oxen and goats huddled behind sun-flayed wooden fences had a look of doomed resignation about them.

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Aug 122011



What It’s Like Living Here,

by Allison Kaufman in Connecticut

Living by the Numbers 

Seven days.  You check your watch constantly.  You live and die by the ping of the calendar on your phone.  Realize that there is slight irony in the fact that you are writing of this place with only seven days left before there are seven states between you and this desk.  Seven being the magic number, not in the lucky sort of way.  Seven being the number of days that you work twenty-four hours.  Seven being the number of blocks there are in the daily schedule.
It’s only been three years.  You’ve done everything you can.  You repeat this mantra.

You’ve been a parent now for three years.  Not biologically, but in dorms.  You sleep in an apartment that is likely larger than any you will ever own.  There are 10-foot ceilings, a handrail that snakes around the living room, and a kitchen whose appliances and cabinetry are older than you are.  You install pendant lighting.  You paint (Nantucket Grey).



Your charges in your first year were 16 junior and senior girls.  Your toughest disciplinary issue was dealing with a girl who left a douchebag (literally) with a bow on it in front of a neighbor’s room.  You fought laughter while scolding the seventeen-year-olds.  You noted that there were only 4 years separating you from them.  You wished you had thought of the douchebag gift your senior year of college; a roommate of yours, the one you and your friends called Sandy Vagina, could have used a wakeup call.
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Aug 082011


Sheryl Luna’s poems are brimming with sincerity—and they seem to elucidate the actual while reveling in the cosmic. Her work offers a palpable humanity, stemming in part from her multi-cultural heritage that she simultaneously strives to reconcile and illuminate. Having known Sheryl over the years, I remain impressed by her unwavering self-examination and emotional tenacity.

Widely accomplished as a poet, critic, and teacher, her credentials are also noteworthy: Sheryl Luna won the inaugural Andres Montoya Poetry Prize for emerging Latino/a poets, and her first collection Pity the Drowned Horses was published by University of Notre Dame Press. She has received fellowships at Ragdale, Yaddo and the Anderson Center. She also received the 2008 Alfredo del Moral Foundation award, funded by Sandra Cisneros. Poems have appeared in Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Amherst Review and others. She is also a Canto Mundo fellow. She blogs at Dialectical Migrations and writes a review column for the El Paso Times.

It is certainly a pleasure to have Sheryl’s work here on Numéro Cinq.

—Martin Balgach


Four Poems
By Sheryl Luna




If you try to ruin me,
saddle me with man-made
doubt, I’ll gallop past large pines.

Aspen will bleed fall as I run
forgotten trails, seeking
a sunlit path.

My sway back will sweat slick.

Arctic and blazing,
I’ll grow wild,
rear up and kick.

If you try to break me,
remember, I’m a maverick
on a mad run.

Corral me?
Herd me?

A lasso burns my thick neck.
I thump, trot, and kick.

Use me like property?
Cage me and blame me?

I’m hard-hoofed, snickered trouble.

Just when you think you’ve won,
I’ll buck.


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Aug 072011

Illustration by Frank Fiorentino


My Owls

Essay by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

In the stories I’ve been writing lately, all set in and around my neighbourhood, a great many animals have arrived as if in the Eden of my mind, they are a necessity. They are not always kindly creatures. And they are there in the created neighbourhood of my stories even when they are not necessarily in my actual neighbourhood. And even when they are something like the animals that can be found in my actual neighbourhood, they are certainly not real in the way they enter the space of the stories, which can be both violent and inexplicable.

Yet, there are animals in my neighbourhood.

Over the May 24th weekend — a sacred Canadian long weekend — a Screech Owl was spotted in a Linden tree on my street.

It was neighbour # 82 who noticed the owl in his front yard tree and told me about it — actually, stupidly showed me the owl in his tree. He can be forgiven, as he did not know what havoc my imagination would play with this knowledge. The story should start here but this was, in fact, the second central problem, now I see, in retrospect.

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Aug 032011


Line Up

Tahrir Square, August 2011

Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian

Since the last time I wrote about Egypt after the Revolution, just a month ago, the atmosphere has changed. The military police are back in Tahrir Square after several recent protests became violent. Tanks have once again been deployed. And in the side streets, vans and more police sit, at the ready. It’s Ramadan, and according to local newspapers, “this year it will be more political than previous ones.”

Today, August 3, history is being made. Today Hosni Mubarak has been flown in from Sharm el Sheikh. His trial is set to begin. Today, armed with my camera and accompanied by my driver and my husband, I went to Tahrir Square. In addition to the police, we found others there, like us, gathering, waiting. Wondering what is to be.


Bridge over the Nile at dawn


On our way with Mohammed

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