Aug 022011


The DOW is down 266 points today; America waits for the consumer to spend money so we can get out of the current crisis; the consumer won’t spend money because the debt ceiling deal promises more uncertainty about pensions, medical insurance, and jobs; it’s a merry-go-round spiraling down; and the ancient gods appear as cartoon musclemen in 3D instead of guardians and saviours. In these David Helwig poems, Lady Godiva has joined the Tea Party to protest paying taxes and money distracts us from infinities. There is, perhaps, nothing to do but write comic poems about the current situation, Post-Empire poems, in the current NC jargon of the day. These poems are taken from a 47-page long poem or group of poems called “Seawrack.” David Helwig, as most of you know, is an old friend; he looks like an amiable Old Testament prophet in his author photo. He is an amazingly prolific author of poems, stories, novels and memoir. His book of mystery stories called, appropriately, Mystery Stories, came out last fall. Oberon Press is publishing a novella called Killing McGee this fall (the main character is obsessed with—among many things—the 1868 assassination of  Darcy McGee). And Biblioasis will publish in 2012 a collection of David’s translations of Chekhov stories, one of which appeared on Numéro Cinq last year.



From “Seawrack”

Poems by David Helwig


All men are mortal: this
the philosopher’s first premise.

And second, Socrates is a man.

Outside our bedroom, night rain
comes down, chill, polyrhythmic.


In each ear tickety percussion distracts
us from infinities. Once discovered
a pretty frisson bedecks the edge of use. The muse
tickles herself with feather dusters, lust
whiffling its stroke to court her smallnesses.
Catch trifles sidewise to consequence;
a premise means only its brisk shape.

Is it bearable to the hurt ones,
our sheen of sensation? A blue garden
tinctures the periphery. Skywise
space hollows itself for events. Old pal,
you looked so very brisk that night
when sweet baby came home with a dog
trained to sniff out the truth of flowers.

Seven is chosen the absolute number
for measuring beauty. Listen closely, my clever ones,
your by-names will not be forgotten. Though taste
of cake grow bitter as myrrh and musk,
your sandals shine  deliberate and gold.
And nothing is forsworn, beauty
becomes itself by being nothing else.



The slap of a screen door closing
in nineteen forty-something,

hot August, flies in their hundreds.

Drifts of goldenrod, seasonal, prophetic,
grow tall here in the changing light.


Who was a child
in time’s elisions,
summer, the prime
element sand.

That was. That.
Doorslap. Voices
from unceilinged bed-
room to bedroom.

The thrill, to hook
a cold bright living fish.
Always the secrets.
That. Flies beyond count.

Time’s elisions:
unseen, unheard
some great wheel
turns the sky.



Scrubbing garlic at sunset,
in a bucket of mud-red water,

fat bulbs shedding earth.

Take to the road, night traveller,
maybe never to come back.


Once we knew a song, and how it told the story,
Little Mouse and Felicity setting out
all barefoot through the mud-mush,

around them holy universe a-twirling,
buddy on the old railroad beating time;
they dandled Eve’s sweet apples,

mud-red to the knee as they sang hymns
about the attainable tough-ass farms
with mortgage documents long as bibles.

I’ll feed you spicy buds with sticky fingers
the Little Mouse lined it out
that fox-tailed whistle tune in quavers.

Felicity stood waving on the tracks,
baked seven moon-pies for buddy on the railroad,
and mud was ever with them.

Once we knew a song, and how it told the story,
Little Mouse and Felicity setting out
and coming home with their new hymns

that run downhill like water.



That season here again,
bees scour late-flowering thyme,

sun in retreat, still hot, still bright.

On the porch an open book
exposits biological enigmas


Ha. Ha. Ha. Sudden glory,
writes the son of the angry vicar;
a salutary warning against democracy.
Nota bene: the pope farts like all men,
matter in motion. The king instructed
in mathematics can measure
his royal enormity. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Ha. Ha. Ha. The clown howls
for his dildo-diddle-darling,
waves a mute stuffed penis
at the delighted crowd.
The honeybee queen mates
with her drone at the top of the sky,
rips off his parts. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Ha. Ha. Ha. Long-leggedy
dancers fall to the ground,
subjected. Fat boys in drag
achieve transfiguration,
matter in motion. King Flea
sucks blood in the bush
of the loveliest. Ha. Ha. Ha.



Shorebirds unmoving
like rock, sand, shell; invisible
here now or long gone.



In accord with one accurate word,
or a permission from the high mind
that watches intently the idea
of ourselves joining it here

in proportion, in right proportion
recorded in books bound in calf
shelved in dark lengths
of present time; clock clicks onward.

Beyond the window, the pale daffodil
sky darkens to green, violet, and offers
its blackness for stars as it must
at such a becoming moment.

Within, what has achieved persistence
the abiding-with, what was, is,
what will be the event of quiet mind
in accordance, in order, in this room.



The crickets silent,
frozen to death or hidden
in somewhere somehow.


The cold mood, canine:
a punctuated screech
from monkey mind
distracts it; meanwhile

the flirt and wimble
of the so fleshly
Miss Concinnity dis-
roots all deepness.

Hocus-pocus, the dog-
latin creed broods
over the winsome drumming
of the theologian’s heels.

Bob the urgent surgeon
redesigns the ductwork.
The joker, brindled,
pink, lies standing up.



Wet snow, a north wind,
the poet’s occupation—
reading all weathers.


Lady Godiva, doubly bareback blonde
waves her scrawled sign,
and the citizens keep house

bar Tom the poet, who word-
struck, avid for inklings,
peeps her from toe to temple, bush
silvery, crinkled, lichenous.

Asked for opera, give them the works,
everyness of tricks and trades,
of which, of whom on all the notes,
dancing dogs and the climactic squillo.

A  sad tale’s best for winter.
Lock the doors with the universal key.
NO ADMITTANCE. The forbidden
matches the perfectly desired.

Lay out the tale of Hansel and G.
or Caesar mounting the throne of Egypt
as Jack the neighbour spills the beans
on a mutant township of titans.

Hopping on one foot, gump, gump, gump,
prevents an easy slenderness, while grace
goes toothless and badly bald. Sharp,
the surgeon’s foresight tunes the interlock.



Recall that bedroom,
the stove pipes from the kitchen
cold in the mornings.


The cuckoo-clocks hoot all night
in that tallest of landscapes.
The accidental virgin carries
a clutch of red morning flowers
out of the Schwarzwald.

Beyond the far-sighted, mountains
where birds and animals master
six available languages;
those who arrive achieve
the unlikeliest of wisdoms.

Wotan and the Seven Dwarfs
audition for Hollywood
up on the crags as Windy and Sol
run bounding arpeggios
on lengths of natural horn.

Those who can, do; those
who can’t, sing opera—
the second law of the brothers Grimm.
Each goddess must proclaim herself
free to die of her own disease.

Beyond the white mountains
the cuckoo-clocks gossip hourly
about the private life of demons,
and a translated avian soprano
hangs caged in each hot kitchen.



Socrates is mortal: QED.
The concepts dance like numbers.

Philosophers tell lies about desire

and the wisdom of hairless boys:
to prove the obvious.


In each eye the texture of pelt distracts
us from infinities. The spooks gabble
their old malarkey, wholesaling thrills. The muse
pleases herself with foxtails, fingertips; a humming
electrifies the dapper suit of epidermis.
Exit: he goes out. Wash dark things white.
A conclusion reveals only its own perfection.

Is it still bearable to the lost ones,
our aching gladness? A blue garden
awaits us, spans our path, felicities
of petal, air, twilight. Old dog,
you chewed the bones of so many good things,
after sweet baby showed us her tattooing
all in the language of spice and ecstasis.

Seven is the absolute number
for measuring it all. Listen, my pretty ones,
while I recite the four lovely imperfections. Though truth
grow bitter as the crimsoned and demented,
your toenails will preserve the gloss of silver.
Whatever is forsworn, foregone, beauty
becomes itself still, clamant, ubiquitous.

—David Helwig

Aug 022011


Here are new poems from Melinda Thomsen, a freshly minted MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, but already dazzling and prolific. Melinda Thomsen’s poetry and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Poetry East, Big City Lit, New York Quarterly, Home Planet News, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Alimentum, Heliotrope, and The Same.  Anthologies include Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews and Spring from Gatehouse Press, Great Britain. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook Naming Rights in June 2008. These poems are from her next collection, Field Rations, to be published in October 2011.



From Field Rations

Poems by Melinda Thomsen



Suppertime, December 28, 1944


Every night his mind ticked on
at 1:00 AM while she was fixing supper.
Was it like last time? Biscuits, fried chicken

and bean salad they saved from noon.
She’s sculling water through some peas.
He felt cool air running around his hands

and his stomach pressed against the sink.
Movements of her fingers echoed in his.
His tongue moved around on its own

but what was it saying? His hand drifted
up her leg and across her back, over
and over like the touch of butterflies

that seemed to land on her shoulders.
He was kissing her when the pulsing caress
of her lips answered his, was she there?

Was she stopping to close her eyes?

Read the rest of this entry

Aug 012011

Photo credit: Kate O’Rourke

Here’s a timely (always timely) essay (exhortation) on the art of reviewing from Michael Bryson who has already contributed mightily to these pages (see his stories “Niagara” and “My Life in Television“). Taking Pauline Kael (the late, great New Yorker movie critic) and Susan Sontag (the late, great novelist, memoirist and critic) as his models, he makes a case for articulate, argumentative, critical criticism, the cut and thrust of literary debate, and the healthy expression of superior literary taste (READ: criticism as demolition) as a corrective to the marketplace. For several years Michael edited the magazine The Danforth Review, a lively, inventive online short story journal that went into mothballs in 2009. He is restarting the magazine this fall, getting ready to take submissions (see full bio and details below the post).



Sontag & Kael: Criticism is demolition?

By Michael Bryson

For years I’ve wanted to write an essay about criticism: what is good criticism, what is poor criticism, what frustrates me about criticism, what makes me go, yes, yes, yes.

Increasingly I suspect this essay will never get written.

My mind is unsettled. Sometimes I want critics to be harsher: stop waffling! Sometimes I want critics to be more judicious: stop rushing towards unfounded conclusions! Sometimes I abhor mis-readings; sometimes I’m pleased to be shown an unexpected side of a work. Sometimes I’m keen to read a gender-based analysis; sometimes I just can’t take any more; enough already.

Yes, I’m finicky. I’m not the ideal, consistent reader. I don’t have a still point upon which to ground direction to others about how criticism ought to be done.

As I’ve said before, I write reviews. In my reviews I engage the work; I try to provide evidence-based analysis; I try to recognize that interpretation is dialogic (it’s part of a larger give-and-take process). Reviews need to be able to stand alone, be a unit of communication, transmitting meaning.

But I don’t believe in still point truths, or monologues. But, then, sometimes I do. Every once in a blue moon I enjoy a good polemic blasting.

Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004), a brilliant compare-and-contrast essay on the work of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, has returned me to my unsettled thoughts about criticism.

T.S. Eliot said: “Between the real and the ideal falls the shadow.”

Seligman could be paraphrased: Between provocation and judiciousness lies the graveyard of failed criticism.

Okay, the parallelism is rough. Here’s some real Seligman:

You can’t be a great critic–you can’t even be an interesting critic– without a talent for provocation. An imp of the perverse perches on the shoulder of the critic as she formulates her sentences, a still, small voice will warn her, “Caution! A statement like that is bound to land you in hot water!” And if she’s a genuine critic, her imp will throttle that voice. The aim is to make people think; the means is, much of the time, to make them mad. Judiciousness may be central to all criticism, but judiciousness without provocation of some kind is like nutrition without flavour. Who cares if a boiled turnip is good for you? Through angry responses to something you’ve written can be unpleasant, they’re not nearly so demoralizing as no response. At least they’re evidence–sometimes the only evidence–that the audience has listened (95-6).

Argument is how we learn; argument is how we think (166).

Ninety percent of everything, as Theodore Sturgeon observed, is shit; in criticism, the percentage must be ninety-nine (167).

[Adler] just can’t stand [Kael]. And that’s where criticism begins. Call it sensibility or call it taste, we embrace what we love and trash what we loathe; but the response–the recoil–comes first. In articulating her loathing, Adler gives me a better handle on my love. That makes her a real critic (168).

[Kael] and Sontag were magnificently uncompromised, but their work isn’t bursting with “sympathy and understanding.” Those who can have a moral obligation toward those who can’t, the obligation that Henry James articulated so beautifully when he counseled, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” But criticism–unfortunately for the criticized–isn’t human life. Notwithstanding their many enthusiasms and their palpable delight in praising, Sontag and Kael don’t deserve any rewards for kindness. And that’s as it should be. Niceness, in criticism, is a form of bad faith (186-7).

We’ve all read hatchet jobs by critics who are scandalously inferior to the artists they’re judging. … I’m talking about geniuses, though, not nitwits, and geniuses, almost necessarily, are monsters. There’s something monstrous in the titanic will it takes to produce a world-class oeuvre, not to mention the coldness it takes to pronounce somebody else’s work wanting (187).

Demolition is probably the primary critical task; to be the bad conscience of one’s time, as Nietzsche charged the philosopher, has now become the critic’s responsibility. In any age, and especially in an age driven by hype and wholly given over to, in Sontag’s phrase, “mercantile values,” somebody has to say no (188).

It’s a measure of [Kael’s and Sontag’s] greatness that what we take away from their work isn’t the no but the yes. They fret, they recoil, they prophesy–but their enthusiasms sweep them away. No one can write great criticism without bringing so much passion to the task that she risks making a fool of herself (189).

Passion. Provocation. Demolition. Titanic wills and monstrous somethings. Argument is how we learn, how we think. The bottom line: how to be a great critic.

Seligman doesn’t waffle. He’s not finicky.

He clearly loves his two subjects, but he rages frequently at Sontag and finds numerous occasions to wish Kael had written something different, something better.

Here’s more Seligman:

I hope you don’t think that because I’m crazy about her writing I bought all of her opinions. “Infallible taste is inconceivable,” she wrote; “what could it be measured against?” If Sontag’s taste seems less controversial, surely that’s because she’s allotted most of her criticism to Olympian work. This determination to play the admirer is what, in her view, justifies her claiming she’s not a critic: “I really do think an important job of the critic is to savage this, to say this is garbage, this is terrible, this is pernicious.” So do I, but her distaste for that side of the job doesn’t free her from the mantle of criticism; it just makes her a critic who doesn’t do half her job. … For a critic to address only what she loves is as skewed as it is for her to confront only what she hates (187-8).

I savoured this book. I didn’t want it to end. I wish I could say one of my well-read friends recommended it to me, but the truth is, I picked it up off a used book table at a sale my employer was having to raise funds for charity.

Chance, in other words, introduced me to Seligman (and a Google search has pointed me–grateful–to more of his work). Kael and Sontag, of course, I was somewhat familiar with. My bookshelf includes Kael’s collected movie columns, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies (1996), and Sontag’s canonical Against Interpretation (1966) and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (2008).

Here’s part of the entry of December 19, 1948, the year Sontag turned 15:

There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few:

The Counterfeiters – Gide
The Immortalist – Gide
Laccadio’s Adventures – Gide
Corydon – Gide
Tar – Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within – Ludwig Lewisohn
Sanctuary – William Faulkner
Ester Waters – George Moore
Diary of a Writer – Dostoyevsky
Against the Gran – Huysmans
The Disciple – Paul Bourget
Sanin – Mikhail Artsybashev
Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trombo
The Forsyte Saga – Galsworthy
The Egoist – George Meredith
Diana of the Crossways – George Meridith
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel – George Meridith

poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heinie, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire plays of Synge, O’Neill, Calderon, Shaw, Hellman… [This list goes on for another five pages, and more than a hundred titles are mentioned.]

… Poetry must be: exact, intense, concrete, significant, rhythmical, formal, complex

… Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence …

… Language is not only an instrument but an end in itself …

Kael is not so easily quoted. Let’s just note that her selected/collected weighs in at 1291 pages.

Both of these women, Seligman notes, were lightning rods for adversaries. Both also became major critics before the late-1960s expansion of feminism.

Titanic wills? Here’s the quotation chosen for the back cover of Reborn: “I intend to do everything… to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters!”

Nothing was going to hold Sontag back, and nothing did. What Seligman finds in her criticism, however, are swells of contradiction and intense sophistication to both hide and reveal herself. She was gay, but for a long time didn’t say so. She identified with the North Vietnamese, but then broke with the ideological left in the 1980s.

On February 6, 1982, Sontag gave a speech at a Town Hall in Manhattan at what was supposed to be an evening of left-wing solidarity. She said:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who ready only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Over boos and catcalls, she neared the end of her speech:

Communism is fascism–successful fascism, if you will. … I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies–especially when their populations are moved to revolt–but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Uproar. Accusations of betrayal. Surprise from Sontag that the reaction was so vocal.

Seligman uses the example to reinforce that this is what great critics do; they get our attention and make us think. He asks:

Would Sontag’s detractors have been happier if she’d gazed with fiery eyes into the crowd of the Town Hall and declared, ‘Communism resembles fascism’? Oh, God, some of them probably would have. But Sontag has too much pride in her craft to let her language turn into mush (95).

A similar example from Kael, from a 1992 interview with The Oxford American:

OA: I’ve heard a few people say that they have stopped reading you because you have made them feel stupid at times for liking something they shouldn’t. Have you ever–

Kael: Tough (140).

Yes, tough. Good answer. But what I didn’t find in Seligman was a way to separate the geniuses from the nitwits.

If the geniuses are “monstrous,” what are the nitwits? Evil?

If 99% of criticism is shit, what are 99% of critics? Pigs?

And what of the process of reviewing, criticizing, and dialoguing? What of give-and-take? What of that thing superficially called the literary community?

If demolition is “probably the primary critical task,” what of community building? And how much weight should be give that “probably”?

The further I get from the book, the more my finickiness returns.

Yes, demolition is a legitimate PART of the critical process, but the primary task? Isn’t the primary task to know thyself and to be aware of your own biases? And to present a strong (not mushy!) argument (evience-based) that acknowledges the biases? And always, I’ll say it again, to acknowledge that argument is dialogic? That no single argument can dominate and end the debate?

In December 2010, the New York Times ran a series on “Why Criticism Matters.”

The Times introduced the series as follows:

We live in the age of opinion — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down. This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption.

 But where does it leave the serious critic, one not interested, say, in tabulating the number of “Brooklyn novelists” who receive attention each year in publications like this one (data possibly more useful to real estate agents and sociologists than to readers)? Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?

At the time, I started to make notes to provide my own response to this series, but I couldn’t complete it. My wife, then, was in the middle of four months of chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. While thinking through questions about literature is part of what sustains me (I have my own titanic will and youthful journals, though they’re nowhere near as intense as Sontag’s), my life-energy was needed elsewhere.

Life/art: it’s a separation rife with unintended consequences.

Anger, Seligman notes, can be a source of great criticism. I distrust my anger. I have written out of anger and later regretted it, though even in reflection I usually think my impulse was true. And the result, pace Seligman, if often more interesting.

I was angry at the Times series. It didn’t go deep enough, I thought. It didn’t provide me with what I felt I needed out of it. Which was what, exactly? I can’t recreate that now. I was in a unique situation then, one what swelled with fear and an intense need to live simply one day at a time.

The situation reinforced my natural impatience for stupidity.

I wanted to write an essay: “Why I hate social media.” But I don’t hate social media. I hate that people post banalities. I don’t care that you’ve just crossed the street, brushed your teeth, or are meeting your friends at the art gallery.

I’m okay with receiving links to YouTube videos, sharing one of your favourite songs from the 1990s, but, please, not twenty times a day.

What I wish more people did, is write reviews, write commentary, write analysis. Don’t just send witticisms about Toronto’s Ford brothers (yes, you’re clever; and Atwood may well make a good mayor), provide argument.

Argument, as Seligman says, is how we learn. Argument is thought.

Go deeper. Compare and contrast. Risk being wrong. Risk contradicting yourself. Risk offending someone.

Risk alienating your friends.

It will make you more interesting.

Please. Please. Pretty please.

Thank you.

—Michael Bryson


Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. It’s a book about, well, angels and shit. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. In fall, 2011 TDR will once again be accepting fiction submissions. He blogs at the Underground Book Club. He has new fiction forthcoming in The New Quarterly (Fall 2011) and new fiction (“The Places You’ll Go”) recently online at Urban Graffiti. He co-parents a daughter and a son. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months ago. She has survived the disease, the treatment, and a lot else besides.

Jul 292011


Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me, Theoretical Killings, and most recently The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. His essays have been published widely and his piece, “Auscultation” was selected for the forthcoming 2011 Best American Essays.

His latest work of memoir/criticism/personal essay (we’ll get to the issue of genre in the interview), The Day After The Day After, delves deeply into Kansas culture, Cold War paranoia, and Church’s own psyche, primarily using the mostly-forgotten Eighties scare-flick The Day After, which was filmed in our shared hometown, Lawrence, Kansas.

We went to the same high school in Kansas – I was a sophomore when Church was a senior – but didn’t know each other. I later met Church through his writing when Patrick Madden introduced me to his work. I’d written my own piece that mentioned my own memories of The Day After, and Madden must have wondered what kind of hold this film had on an entire generation of Kansans.

The movie’s effects on the youth of Lawrence at the time were intense and twofold. First, anyone who remembers seeing the film will remember the sheer dread of watching the fictional town of Lawrence blown to smithereens and permanently irradiated in the movie. But second, the reality of the movie’s filming left a permanent impression on an entire generation of Lawrencians, as the entire town was involved. Children were dressed up as radiation victims, the downtown was temporarily “demolished,” and a college town that considers itself a shining light of progressive values in the nation’s most conservative state was asked by the film crew to act as downhome and traditional as possible to fit the fiction of the movie’s narrative.

The Day After The Day After is a meditation on this confluence of fiction and nonfiction, giving fictional characters from the film an almost mythical significance in his own understanding of the world. I began my interview with Church with this thin line between fiction and nonfiction in mind.

– John Proctor


The Day After the Memoir: An Interview with Steven Church

By John Proctor


JP – One paragraph from The Day After The Day After in particular gave me a deeper understanding of my relationship to Kansas and my relationship to my own work as a nonfiction writer:

“The Kansas I know is like a long novel I finished years ago, a novel of which I remember every word. It was a great story, filled with wonderful characters and compelling plotlines, but it was epic and psychologically cumbersome and, in many ways, mostly fiction.” (180)

SC – Glad you liked that. It took me a while to reach that understanding of home. I think those lines came pretty late in the writing/revision process. It probably took writing the book to realize what I wanted to say about Kansas. Some people in Lawrence didn’t appreciate my “negative” view of home, even questioning whether I’d made up stuff about the Days of Rage,  firebombings, etc. Thing is, I don’t see it as negative, just honest. Lawrence has an underbelly and if it’s going to be a character in my book, I have to make it a well-rounded character, have to expose that belly.



JP – To me, at least if we’re speaking of the book on a macro level, Danny Dahlberg  seems a logical starting point, as his ghost permeates all four parts of the book, most notably in the “Dahlberg Variations” that serve as interludes from the main narrative and allow you to do some things outside the limitations of your own point of view and story. Perhaps I’ll allow you to describe who Danny Dahlberg is, and how you used him in the text.

SC – Interestingly enough those were some of the first sections I wrote for the book, long ago, mostly just playing around. He is, obviously, a significant character in the film, if only because of the metaphorical significance of his being blinded by the blast [Which can be seen at the 1:10 mark of the nuclear attack scene below – JP]. And he becomes for me both a kind of blind oracle, a Tiresias figure, and an alternate self. I used him initially as a kind of experiment, a fictional device designed to allow me to explore the extreme edges of one’s reactions to the film. And I guess that’s a big part of my process, at least in my first three books, that use of fiction to essay or explore certain ideas. Probably some of that comes from my training in fiction writing.

Continue reading »

Jul 282011

In Search of the Author, Barthes Be Damned: A Review of The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda,

by Richard Farrell

The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda
Mercé Rodoreda
Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1-934824-31-3

I have a confession to make: Until I began reading The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda, I’d never heard of her. I knew nothing of her literary reputation, was unaware of her most celebrated novel (The Time of the Doves), and had read little (if any) Catalan literature before. This left me feeling both ignorant and eager. It reminded me again of the narrow and somewhat xenophobic breadth of my reading. How much time had I wasted watching television instead of studying world literature? But I was excited, too. It felt like standing on the edge of a literary terra incognita, encountering an unknown writer from a far-flung corner of Spain without any notions of style, taste or theme. This is something of a rare treat in an over-marketed, hyper-publicized world where books and writers are pre-determined for success and sales. Some of the best writing simply can’t be found on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. And here I was, poised to encounter a writer without context, without anything to influence me beyond words printed on the page.

I wondered how many of the thirty stories in this collection I could read this way. Could I trust only what was written? Could I render a fair judgment solely based on my reading? How long would it take before I went scrambling to figure out who Mercé Rodoreda was?

I’ll spare you the suspense. It took exactly four. Four stories before I went searching for more. Four stories before I leaned back on biography, criticism, and that missing context of someone else’s conclusions. Four stories before I reconstructed the narrative of the author. If you listen closely, you can hear Roland Barthes rolling over in his grave.

My need for context—historical, cultural, biographical—says much more about me as a reader than it does about Rodoreda’s work. It highlights the wobbly and tenuous integrity of my own mind. And this worries me. To have become so addicted to someone else’s opinion, to rely blindly on the vetting process of culture, to turn the meaning structure over to the ‘experts’, these are most troubling signs. But I’m a product of a post-literate, ADHD world, a mainlining junkie of shortcuts, useless data and recycled opinions. Someone else judges which writers are worthy of my time, which books I should read, which thoughts I should think.

Barthes, in his famous essay “Death of the Author,” objected to this type of thinking, calling it “the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.”(1) Guilty as charged. I could beat myself up all day, but here’s the thing: In this case, the context really did help.

When I went back and read those first four stories a second time, then continued reading the rest, armed with some background about Rodoreda and about why her work mattered, I appreciated them more. It forced me to read her differently, with a keener sensitivity to what was happening in these stories. Context helped.

Born in Barcelona in 1908, Rodoreda’s literary light flared early. She established a promising writing career in the male dominated Spanish literary scene of the 1930’s. Before the war, she published novels and stories and was a member of a prominent literary circle in Barcelona (The Sabadell Group). But history quickly extinguished that flickering light of her early fame. As the brutal Spanish Civil War swept across the country in 1936, Rodoreda worked briefly for the Catalan government before the Fascists’ oppression of non-Castilian culture forced her to flee. She moved to Paris, but it wasn’t long before another war encroached. As the Nazis marched toward the city in the late spring of 1942, Rodoreda found herself again on the run. In what must have seemed a cruel joke of history, she evacuated, this time south toward the city of Orleans under booming German artillery shells. (One of the stories in this collection, “Orleans, Three Kilometers” is a fictional account of this evacuation.) Eventually, she ended up in Geneva where she settled safely within the shelter of Swiss neutrality, but utterly cut off from her language and culture. She remained in Switzerland until the mid 1960’s, when she returned to Spain and stayed until her death in 1983.

Picasso’s “Guernica”

>Geraldine Cleary Nichols, in “Exile, Gender, and Mercé  Rodoreda,”(2) describes Rodoreda as a ‘double outsider,’ cast out because she was both a female writer in a dominantly male world and a Catalan writer exiled to places where her native language was exotic. Nichols compares Rodoreda with Rosa Chacel, another exiled Spanish writer but one who wrote in traditional (Castilian) Spanish. Chacel also left Spain during the Civil War but went to South America where she was able to keep writing and publishing. Rodoreda’s exile stopped her writing altogether for almost twenty years. Nichols described it this way: “As a Catalan outside of Spain, Rodoreda was cut off from her language and her audience in way that Chacel was not.”  Even in exile, a Spanish language writer (no less an English language writer: Joyce, Hemmingway, Eliot, et. al.) retained a broad audience; almost half the world speaks the language. But to write in Catalan, in that beautiful amalgam of French and Spanish, was to be a rare thing. Separated entirely from her community, she shut down.

Rodoreda explained her exile this way: “Writing Catalan in a foreign country is the same as hoping for flowers to bloom at the North Pole.”(3)

The stories in this collection were all published long after the war and after the two decade long silence which marked the time she spent away from her native soil. They are quiet and subtle, socio-psychological tales short on verbal pyrotechnics and long on character development. They sketch images of brooding lives, the outsider, the downtrodden, often living far from home. They hark back to the spirit of the great Russian writers of a century before her, Gogol and Dostoevsky. The word modest comes to mind. Not modest in scope or ambition, but modest in the rendering. Modest in the old-fashion sense of the word: humble, thoughtful, stories which seem to beg your pardon for taking the time to read them. These are stories best read on a Sunday afternoon train ride through the rolling Spanish hill country, a café con leche steaming next to you as white villages pass your window. They whisper about the horrors of the war but eschew bloodshed and scenes of battle. They offer poverty and crushing despair by presenting characters filled with hopes and dreams. They break your heart by making your root for the underdog who doesn’t stand a chance in hell.

One of the first stories in the collection, “Threaded Needle,” tells of a seamstress, Maria Lluïsa, who stitches a bridal gown for a fat bride-to-be that she’ll never meet. It will take her thirty-six hours to complete the gown, but Maria Lluïsa will charge for forty-two. She mocks the bride-to-be’s taste and dress size. “I wonder what she’s like? Blond? Brunette? She only knew the woman’s size: forty-eight. She must look like a sack of potatoes.”  There’s humor here, a cutting tongue and a street-savvy sensibility, traits which helped ensure survival during the ruthless Civil War. (The war is only mentioned once in this story, understatement being a frequently deployed technique.). But there’s also sadness and dreams of a better life. “She loved her job for many reasons; it allowed her a glimpse of a world of luxury, and because her hands worked mechanically, she could dream.”  Maria Lluïsa imagines starting her own company, one where she will actually meet the brides, where she will be the boss and treat her employees fairly.

In addition to her work, Maria Lluïsa tends to her sick old cousin, a priest who has promised her his fortune after he dies. (The priest never actually appears in scene, but only in Maria Lluïsa’s thoughts and memories.) They were childhood friends, and she once dreamed of marrying him, but now she fantasizes about poisoning him. “He wouldn’t suffer at all. It would really be for his own good.”  Rodoreda juxtaposes the images of murder and love and ties them together in the object of the wedding dress. At the climactic moment in the story, Maria Lluïsa holds the dress up in front of her:

She glanced down at the bridal nightgown. I wonder how it would look on me. She stood in front of the mirror on the wardrobe and tried it on. She was thin, and the nightgown was much too large for her. She tied it at the waist, held out the skirt with both hands, and spun around.

>If I had married my cousin, I would have made myself a white, white nightgown. Just like this one.

Notice the subtle tones, the muted images, the controlled pacing. Most of the emotion in this small scene comes from the repetition of the word ‘white.’ For Rodoreda, this is equivalent to a scream. A murderous fantasy, crushing poverty, and the humiliation of dreaming of a better life coalesce into image of the wedding dress she sews for the fat bride, beautiful and profane, elegant and sad.

Throughout this book, we are given little hint of a better life awaiting the characters. Instead, only the warming light of Rodoreda’s having noticed them shines. She sanctifies their dreary destinies by writing down their stories.

The most remarkable thing about Rodoreda’s biography, apart from the altogether mundane madness that was universal across Europe during the war years, is that for two decades, her writing went dark. A twenty year hiatus from writing splits her career right in its prime. What should have been, by all rights, her most productive years is shrouded in a mysterious silence.

It’s not surprising, then, that the characters which populate her stories are like echoes of that time, voices crying out across that mute chasm of war, exile and isolation. Meager lives shackled to powerful forces and grander destinies. They wander landscapes like lost souls, with their ineffable longings, powerless against the mighty forces of politics and power which repressed.

One of the longest stories (and my personal favorite) in the collection is “Carnival.” It tells of a chance encounter and unrequited love in the streets of Barcelona the night after a huge festival. Titania is heading home after and encounters Pere, a boy who immediately and hopelessly falls in love with her. He becomes her knight-errant, determined to see her safely home through rain, muggers and the drunks of Barcelona. But in pure Quixotic fashion, everything he does turns out wrong.

“The wind’s bringing us the scent of gardenia, isn’t it?” Titania says to Pere. She spots her favorite flowers in a nearby yard. “If I could have just one,” she says. Pere, of course, climbs over a fence to retrieve gardenias for her. He snags flowers out of the garden but a dog barks and chases him. As he scrambles back over the fence, he rips his trousers. He presents the gift to his beloved but is forced to admit that the costume he has just torn is rented. “These aren’t gardenias” Titania says to him. “They have no scent at all.”

Pere tells her that he dreams of becoming a poet, of leaving the city and travelling the world. Titania tells him she has a married lover and that she is moving to Paris in the morning. Later, she tells him that these things aren’t true. For her this courtship is a game, but for Pere, it matters on a much more existential level, a glimpse of a better life he will never have. Rain falls and their costumes begin to disintegrate. Two men rob them in the street, shoving Pere to the ground and taking Titania away from him. His one chance for a memorable evening is being crushed by the universe. They begin to shed their masks and tell each other the truth: that he is no longer studying and that he supports his family. “‘I wanted to make this evening…I don’t know how to explain…a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, to keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry.’”

With undertones of Joyce’s “Araby,” these young characters wander through the dizzying, nighttime city streets, trapped by love and shattered desires and the mystery of the life that awaits them. The story ends when Titania closes the door to her house, Pere left on the street to ponder the meaning of it all.

The boy stood for a moment before the house, hesitating, suddenly feeling restored to the night, the street, to his most naked reality, as if the sound of the door banging had cut him off from another world. He had nothing left, only that silken touch on his fingertips, perhaps a bit of golden dust, the kind butterflies leave. I’ve fallen madly in love, he thought. Slowly he began walking beneath the trees. A gust of wind stirred the leaves around him. He felt the cold nipping the back of his thighs and instinctively felt for the rip. He started to walk faster.

“What will they say when I return the costume?”

A stray dog spotted him from a distance, ran over, and started following him. An alarm clock rang on the opposite side of the street, disconsolate, as if trying to awaken a corpse.


Open Letter Books has produced an expansive collection of Rodoreda’s stories here. The first twenty are pulled from her earliest collection, Twenty-Two Stories, published from Geneva in 1958. (One wonders why only two stories were omitted.) The remaining ten come from two later collections and express a wider range of style. She leaves behind the strict realism of the early work and flirts with different techniques and structures. In “Paralysis,” an unreliable narrator recounts a trip to the doctor in a vertiginous stream of consciousness style. “It Seemed Like Silk” tells of a woman who visits a local cemetery. Since she can’t afford the train fare to visit the actual grave of her dead lover, she picks a gravestone at random and imagines it to be his. An angel descends and takes her inside his wings. In the Kafkaesque “Salamander,” an adulterous woman is burned at the stake, but as the flames begin to singe her body, she transforms into a salamander. The salamander/narrator spends the rest of the story wandering around in the village and spying on her accusers. The collection is ambitious and comprehensive. It provides the reader with an extensive sampling of Rodoreda’s short fiction with a vast array of styles and themes.

Barthes said that writing begins when “the author enters into his own death.”  I’m not going to argue with many of the wonderful points that he makes in his criticism. His post-structuralist line of reasoning that says story should reign, not biography, and this makes sense. Yet reading a collection such as this, some half a century after the stories in it were penned, leaves a contemporary reader at a disadvantage. Maybe some writers do benefit from context. Even if this means that as a reader, I’ve lost the ability to wander in the wilderness without only my wits to guide me.  These stories mattered more once I understood where they came from.

In 1983, Gabriel Garcia Marquez published an essay in El País titled: “Do You Know Who Mercé Rodoreda Was?”(4) Marquez wrote the essay a week after Rodoreda died in Girona, Spain. He was saddened to find that such an important writer’s death was barely mentioned in the Spanish press and was ignored entirely by the international community. He implied (maybe even implored) that if we understood who she was and why her work mattered, we’d return to appreciate her work anew. In spite of widespread critical acclaim, she was often forgotten in her homeland. “Apparently few people outside of Catalonia,” Marquez wrote, “know just who this invisible woman was who wrote some wonderful and enduring novels in a splendid Catalan rarely found in contemporary literature.” Her anonymity puzzled Marquez because he believed Mercé  Rodoreda to be one of Spain’s most important writers.

That it took nearly forty years after the death of the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, for Rodoreda’s work to be recognized by a wider audience reminds us how minority cultures and voices are continuously shaped by the echoes of great violence and repression. It also reminds that Rodoreda’s reemergence is a tentative thing. It begs the question: how many other unknown, marginalized writers have been squelched? Without context, without the author resurrected, these marginalized voices may remain silenced and these stories lost for good.

—Richard Farrell


1. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.”

2. Nichols, Geraldine Cleary. “Exile, Gender, and Merce Rodoreda.” MLN, Vol 101, No. 2. March, 1986, (pp. 405-416).

3. ibid, p. 417

4. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. “Do You Know Who Merce Rodoreda Was?” Trans. by David Draper Clark. World Literature Today, Vol. 81, No. 3, May-Jun 2007.

Jul 272011

Photo by Emmanuel Albert


In this amazing story, Mark Anthony Jarman tells the tale of Custer’s Last Stand in a way it’s never been told before–surreal, phantasmagoric, funny and horrid all at once. I put this story in Best Canadian Stories when I was editor of that estimable annual collection. And you can also find it in his collection My White Planet. Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Mark has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planet, and nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and lives in a very large house fronting the Saint John River. His story “The December Astronauts (or Moonbase Horse Code)” appears in Numéro Cinq’s Best of Vol. 1. See also his interview with NC Contributor Mary Stein here.


Winter Coat, Winter Count (Assiniboia Death Trip)

By Mark Anthony Jarman


Each man is fain to pluck his means, as it were, out of his neighbour’s throat.

—Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth


She buttons up her tiny sweater, not knowing I study her.  She is vanishing like a bridge in fog.  Crow Jane is not a ghost, but I know now she will haunt me.  I want to see her unbutton the same garment for me.  Nothing stays the same in fashions.


The bridge vanishes in fog and I discover we are fretful devices wrapped in such thin skin.  Or we are ghosts on river ice.  What’s the difference?  Inside the erect palisades of Fort Robinson Crazy Horse sings his death song; Crazy Horse lies on his red blanket on the floor.  Have you met?


My good friend Private Gentles runs Crazy Horse through with a bayonet and now ostrich feathers are in vogue on our ladies hats.

To our hats we also add veilings, side combs, pompadour pins.


Her kind sad face by the icy shore, her long wrists.  Does she have any feelings for me?  I think she does, but I cannot be sure.

Did you see me in the bakery? she asks me.

I thought our paths would cross, she says.


Louis David Riel swings over the shop’s mannequins.  See the fine glass display cases, our high ceilings of slotted tongue and groove, see the snipers on the high ground, tied into trees like hanged men, and our poor young shop-girl run off her feet.

Hat boxes, invoices. O Miss! O Miss!

The bullet passes my head.  You missed!

Continue reading »

Jul 232011


In the tradition of J. R. Ackerley”s My Dog Tulip and Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” Patrick Keane’s “Rintrah” is a gorgeously jubilant, poignant, mysterious paean to the lifelong companionship of a pet. Patrick Keane is a great friend, a brilliant raconteur, an eminent scholar, and, yes, a lover of cats. This is his second contribution to the pages of Numéro Cinq; see his essay on the “lost” Waste Land manuscript here. But first, read “Rintrah.”



By Patrick J. Keane


In researching a book I recently wrote on Emily Dickinson, I came across a letter, written in the autumn of 1858, which has become controversial. Overwhelmed by the world of mutability in which she found herself, she seemed to equate the death-by-frost of flowers in her garden with the death of a servant’s “little girl through scarlet fever.” I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who imagines people saying of her, “she cared much more for her roses” than for human “victims of cruelty and injustice.” But the comparison was unfair. Emily wasn’t being insensitive or callous. In addressing “Democratic Death,” she was really expressing the communion and equality of all living things that come to dust.

The life and death memorialized here span a near quarter-century that began with the end of my marriage and includes the pain-filled final years and death of my mother. Along with the ending of another long relationship, these losses affected me deeply and, though they are not front-and-center in what follows, they are an implicit part of my recounting of the adventures of Rintrah. Since Rintrah was “just a cat,” the love, admiration, and sense of loss expressed may seem excessive. But love is not restricted to our human relationships. Emily Dickinson herself, who anguished over the loss of so many close to her, was devastated by the death in January 1866 of Carlo, her beloved dog and constant companion. Anyone who has had a similar experience with a cherished animal will understand both her love and her mourning for what can never return.



I didn’t know then, and never found out afterward, where he came from. And, though I wish I could take the credit, I didn’t give him his wonderful name. One of my students did. We had just begun William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when the kitten walked into the classroom. I almost said “strode” because, from the first instant, he displayed complete self-assurance. For all his confidence, he was small, not much beyond weaning. But his front paws seemed large (I later discovered he had six claws on each); and he already possessed a kind of majesty and grace. He even seemed aware that he was beautifully colored: a white mask and underbelly, tawny coat and ears, with that same soft amber surrounding a white star-shape between his gold-green eyes.

He took the measure of the room, then proceeded to stroll among the desks. At the end of his tour, he returned to the front, looked me over, leapt effortlessly to the chair, then to the desk. A student filled a paper saucer with water and placed it near him. The kitten nosed it, then took a few diffident sips. I petted him and he permitted me, despite the affront to his dignity, to pick him up and display him, tummy exposed, to an appreciative audience. The work we had been reading prior to this mysterious visitation opens with a poem that begins, “Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air.” The kitten’s boldness and color inspired one of the students to propose Rintrah for a name.

Continue reading »

Jul 222011


The poets special to us, poets that we can turn to again and again, both for provocative thought and solace, gift us with bodies of work—progressions through which we can experience their personal journeys. When Jack Myers died in November 2009, he left us The Memory of Water (New Issues Poetry & Prose, Western Michigan University) the closing chapter of his journey.  Jack’s long illness kept him from compiling the manuscript in accordance with a new title and concept. In consultation with his widow, Thea Temple, who knows his inclinations and wishes better than anyone, I tried to refine and organize this final book in a way that would please him.

Please him, yes, and honor him. Without fanfare, overlooked between West and East Coast publishing, he produced some of the most valuable poetry of his generation. He showed me just how insignificant the career and ego issues of poetry really are. He showed me that to write seriously is to live seriously, and with an abiding, ever-deepening attention to the past and an increasing sense of responsibility for the future.

It is my hope that this book will offer Jack’s many fans an enactment of the tensions and energies flowing through his last years. I hope, too, that it will welcome many new readers into an appreciation of the whole of his poetry, which is a remarkably consistent and brilliant body of work.

—Mark Cox

From The Memory of Water

Poems by Jack Myers



Doggies’ Day Out

— Because we are also what we have lost.
…………………from the movie Amores Perros

The door to the world opens
and my dog and I take a walk.
He’s tiny so he has to trot
to keep up, much like me.
With his wolf’s heart he listens,
sniffs, and pisses on each mailbox,
even after his ambition, like mine,
is long out of ammunition.

There’s nothing dangerous here,
I laugh at him. A little old lady groomer
pinned a pretty pink bow on his head
where it floats like a clichéd thought.
He doesn’t understand humiliation
because he and his image of himself
are so solidly in coincidence he sees things
in black and white, literally. He asks
am I welcome here or not?

To him the old man sweeping the sunset
behind the hills comes directly from
the default archetypal forest of his heart
where discretion and attack play leap frog
over bogs of sleep. We are brothers
with the wilderness gone out of us.
The world once beyond the end
of my thumb and his black nose
is now inside us. Everything we’ve lived
is now part of us, and this new forgetting
and confusion is the beginning of giving
it all back, becoming everything, the whole
unspooling ribbon and blur is itself a thing
of beauty. I pin a pink bow on it. It goes
through me in one long continuous shock
of recognition though it’s only a walk around the block.


Dark Matter

I’ve lived my life as if I were my wife
packing for a trip— I’ll need this and that
and I can’t possibly do without that!

But now I’m about
what can be done without.
I just need a thin valise.

There’s no place on earth
where I can’t unpack in a flash
down to a final spark of consciousness.

No place where I can’t enter
the joyless rapture
of almost remembering

I’ll need this and I’ll need that,
hoping to weigh less than silence,
lighter than light.


I’d like to leave
an imprint
on the world
lighter than
I’d formerly meant.
Just a scent,
not the thud
of the thing
steaming on a plate.

Instead of “I told you so!”
let my epitaph be
the glance, the edge,
the mist. The delicately
attenuated swirl
of an innuendo
instead of the thunderhead.

The rain that fell
when I was ambitious
seemed conspiringly rushed
in my way. But the same rain
today tastes of here and now
because of where it’s been.

I’d like to be gentle
with small, great things.
They are larger
than what we think
we came here for.
I’d like to be an eye of light
that opens the air
and burns beyond ambition,
like the sun that can’t see us
and is beyond our human reach,
yet is in us trillions of times over.

—Jack Myers


Mark Cox teaches in the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and in the Vermont College MFA Program. His books are Smoulder (David R. Godine), and Natural Causes and Thirty-seven Years from the Stone, both published in the Pitt Poetry Series.

Jul 202011


When I first met the young Vancouver writer Ben Johnstone, he was a teenage political activist wearing sneakers held together with red duct tape. One of his protest activities was a hunger strike in support of Amnesty International. In recent years Ben’s political engagement includes a study of the ways in which art and entertainment bounce off one another and influence how people think and live. Ben has a B.A. in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia. He is a musician and an aspiring screenwriter. It is my pleasure to introduce Ben to Numéro Cinq. This is his first published story.

— Lynne Quarmby


The Plumber’s Dream

by Ben Johnstone


“It was weird, everything was flat.”

“Like a desert?”

“No, horizontally flat.  No depth.  But actually, I think at one point I was in a desert.  But the desert also had no depth.”

“OK, continue.”

“And I was me, I think, but I had this big belly.”

“With no depth?”

“Yeah, and it felt like I had a moustache.”

“That would not look good.”

“So anyway, I just appeared there and then I was running along and I kept finding all this money, these huge gold coins.  But as soon as I touched them they would disappear.  But somehow, it still felt good.  So I kept doing it.  And even though I had this big belly and even though I was really short, I could jump pretty high.  And so I was jumping for these coins, even though I didn’t know why I wanted them.  And it was hard to control how high I jumped and sometimes I would hit things with my head and more coins would appear. And even though it really hurt, I would keep hitting my head against these bricks to get the coins.”

“That just disappeared, but made you inexplicably happy.”

Continue reading »

Jul 202011

Brianna Berbenuik likes to shoot guns and track nuclear disasters. She’s a 20-something misanthropist and student of Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She 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. All of the above can be deemed occasionally unsafe for work. In this provocative essay, Brianna manages to get Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Gore Vidal on the same page and make sense of that collision. It’s an essay about culture, about the end of one culture and the coming of the new and the message loops that whirl in the space between. (See her essay on Tyler Durden and the Fight Club Identity Crisis here,)



People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.
People are afraid to merge.
Disappear here.

This refrain appears throughout Ellis’s seminal work Less than Zero; to put it simply: a novel about a group of entitled and privileged white kids doing drugs and fucking in the 1980’s. Certainly it is about much more, and it is a paranoid, dubious novel of mounting suspicion and tension with no heroics and no payoff.

Everybody suffers, even the rich and privileged. They just have the resources to hide it, or get high enough to forget or become apathetic.

You’d think that reading about poor little rich LA kids would be annoying, enraging and most of all, boring. (Although if you’re like me and follow White Whine on tumblr, you might actually think the opposite.)

But it’s not boring — not when Ellis is behind the novel.

Last year he released the follow-up to Less than Zero, a novel titled Imperial Bedrooms. It’s been a long time coming since in between his first novel and Imperial Bedrooms Ellis wrote classics like The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho, rising to prolific and cult status in the popular culture of North America. Imperial Bedrooms follows Less than Zero‘s “protagonist” Clay who is now all grown up and successful. Coinciding with the release of this novel, Ellis coined the ideas of “Empire” and “Post-Empire”.

It’s no secret that American essayist, author, playwright/screenwriter and political activist Gore Vidal heavily influenced these ideas. Even the title of Imperial Bedrooms is likely influenced by Vidal, who wrote a book called Imperial America and said, “The empire is collapsing.” You don’t really need to be acquainted with Vidal’s ideas in order to understand Empire and Post-Empire, though. Vidal more or less elucidates the concepts in a socio-political light. Ellis does it in a much more interesting way: through pop culture.

Ellis places Empire America circa 1945-2005. Empire is essentially complete delusion: misguided ideas and inordinate investment in the power of celebrity; patronizing political correctness that actually covers up insidious oppression and hides truly damaging opinions. An overall denial of the ultimate frailty and delicateness of human existence. An attitude of self-righteousness and indestructibility, hiding behind politically correct outrage.

The Empire is collapsing.

Ellis has really only elucidated the ideas of Empire and Post-Empire via example. Things that are Post-Empire, according to Ellis? Twilight, Jersey Shore, Charlie Sheen’s breakdown, Tracy Morgan saying he’d kill his son if his son turned out to be gay.

Empire? The Hills, R.E.M., and everyone’s outraged reactions to the emerging Post-Empire zeitgeist. I haven’t read it anywhere explicitly, but I’m pretty sure we can file Oprah under Empire, too. Maybe founding her own channel is a last-ditch attempt to keep the crumbling Empire from entirely collapsing.

Ellis’s twitter account is largely devoted to calling out Empire attitude vs. Post-Empire manifestations in pop culture. Calling out things for being Empire is the new, biting insult – insinuating over-sensitivity, being ‘behind the times’ and generally taking oneself much too seriously.

Empire is ego: ego in the sense that all the arrogance of oneself is in seriousness rather than satire.

So if Empire can loosely be defined as having a stick up one’s ass, what is Post-Empire?

Post-Empire is a new kind of realism. Calling bullshit as it is, stripping celebrity of its bulletproof myths, candidness, breakdowns, testing “politically correct” boundaries, irony, offensiveness in the face of a reserved attitude that hides insidious cultural uptightness for the last 60 years.

You may have noticed recently the internet exploding with “socially conscious youth” calling out establishments previously thought of as benevolent and beneficial as inherently racist and oppressive horseshit. This is Post Empire. Really believing “Multiculturalism” actually means colour blindness and equality is so very Empire.

North America is crumbling and it is denial vs. realism. Entitlement complexes everywhere are being challenged. The indoctrinated children of Empire do not like this. It might be worth noting that Empire children are largely made up of baby boomers, who are now, as a collective generation, being blamed for shitting on the most recent generation’s chances at the American Dream. Or to put it more succinctly, lying about the American Dream, and becoming a generation of greedy liars who killed their grandchildren to feed themselves. It’s a harsh depiction but this is how Post-Empire eyes might see it.

Ellis has boiled down these concepts into useable, and I’d like to say palatable terms – and these terms are coined for and owned by the masses. This is not academic theory with complex ideologies that must be distilled in condescending pablum form for consumption of the uneducated. Hell no – Empire and Post-Empire are the observances of those who can’t or haven’t accessed the Ivory tower; these concepts come from “the bottom up.” And academic arrogance? That is so fucking Empire.

And when I say “uneducated,” I don’t mean stupid. I mean simply those who haven’t gone through the motions of paying for a post-secondary education. In a lot of ways not paying through the nose for education in this economic climate is far more intelligent and utilitarian than doing so. In a lot of ways not entering college or university is Post-Empire. In so many ways, Post-Empire is about street smarts, not book learnedness.

Ellis isn’t the first author to conceptualize the “fall of America,” but he is one of the few who feel that it’s deserved. I have often heard Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club, Choke, Survivor and a short story called “Guts” that has made people pass out and vomit at readings) compared to Ellis. They both do similar things with the grotesque, but I find Ellis a much more elegant and minimalist author, whereas Palahniuk is less refined and more up-front about the gross stuff. Ellis instead builds to near-poignant moments of profound disgust. The difference between the two is simple: while Ellis dissects the grotesque with precision in his writing; Palahniuk hangs it from a tree and guts it.

Not to say one is superior to the other – Palahniuk was recently named the most likely heir to Vonnegut’s throne, and I can see why. He has the same penchant for short, truthful quips that are audacious, hilarious and true.

In Choke, Mrs. Mancini, says:

“We’ve taken the world apart … but we have no idea what to do with the pieces … My generation, all of our making fun of things isn’t making the world any better. We’ve spent so much time judging what other people created that we’ve created very, very little of our own. I used rebellion as a way to hide out. We use criticism as fake participation.”

If you’re like me and come from a liberal education background, and even if you don’t, that statement should give you the chills. You should feel accused, you should feel like a fraud, and you should feel utterly useless. If you don’t, maybe you’re in denial. The thing is, there is no way you are not somehow participating in this attitude.

But once you get over that, you’re Post-Empire. We don’t have to do anything, just sit back, grab a beer or some fine wine, maybe some drugs if that’s your preference, and watch it all crumble. The greatest show on earth is getting our asses handed to us by ourselves.

And here’s the thing about Ellis and Palahniuk: they both give the distinct impression that the decline of the Western, First-World way of life is absolutely deserved. They both force readers to look at what we have done with no sympathy for what has led us here, just the facts. Just the horrifying truth of our greedy, ego-obsessed selves digging our own hole with fervor.

We brought ourselves to this point, and now everything we held so dear is being shown as nothing but illusion perpetuated over the last six plus decades. And guess what? We’re pissed. We are in the Post-Empire now, and there is no going back.

The most chilling part is that neither author nor the concepts of Empire and Post-Empire give us a solution. This is simply the way things are and we don’t really have a choice.  We’re left cut loose to figure it out for ourselves because nobody is going to save us from this one. Don’t bother looking to God – he died with the Empire.

In the end of Less than Zero, Clay narrates the final lines; perhaps as a prophet of the Post-Empire era that, at the time, the world was gearing up to enter.

“The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.”

People are afraid to merge. Disappear here.

We’re all fucked now.

It’s Post-Empire, baby. Grab a seat and enjoy the show.

—Brianna Berbenuik

Jul 192011

While salivating my way through the most recent issue of Creative Nonfiction (the “food issue”), I encountered a discussion (some might say THE discussion) that continues to define (plague?) creative nonfiction writing in general.  I am of course referring to the issue of accuracy.  The old argument goes like this: on one hand, this is NON-fiction, so everything must be accurate, wholly accurate, and verifiable.  On the other, this is CREATIVE, so bending, slanting, embellishing is just fine as long as the spirit of truth is upheld.

This debate is not engaged directly in the pages of issue 41, but rears its head in two places.  There is this, in an interview with Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic, former editor at Gourmet, and nonfiction writer:

You can’t [make things up in a memoir] but you can combine things… Certainly in “Tender at the Bone,” for instance, the best story is the one about my brother Bob’s engagement party.  It’s a wonderful story, all true, but it’s really two parties conflated into one….. Nothing in there is made up, but it makes a much better story put all together in one place.  I think one of the great things you get to do with memoir is selectively cherry-pick your memories.

Continue reading »

Jul 192011

Editor’s Note: Sharon McCartney’s poem “Katahdin” (below) has been selected by Carmine Starnino for inclusion in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012. The series advisory editor is Molly Peacock.

Sharon McCartney is an old friend, one of the Fredericton, New Brunswick (the centre of the universe—let’s be clear), literati, also a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, also a prolific, prize-winning poet. These are poems about the body and transcendence, about the contradictions of love, about flying yet being buckled down—the normative tensions we all feel, in spades. Sharon is the author of For and Against (2010, Goose Lane Editions), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007, Nightwood Editions), Karenin Sings the Blues (2003, Goose Lane Editions) and Under the Abdominal Wall (1999, Anvil Press). In 2008, she received the Acorn/Plantos People’s Prize for poetry for The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s lovely to have her poems grace these pages. (Author Photo by Gabriel Jarman)


Antiques Road Show, Kathadin & Other Poems By Sharon McCartney.

Antiques Roadshow, Katahdin & Other Poem

By Sharon McCartney



The dog’s crushed mien, ears underslung, brow
low, as if he anticipates a cuffing, so mortified
by his unbidden inner turmoil, intestines bubbling.
He refuses his meat, corkscrews his torso, nose to ass,
as if to ask, Why? What does this mean? Or simply
to snap away the itching chigger of ignition. But
the root’s too deep, the inbound cysts redoubling
in subdermal subterfuge, his bowel’s womb warmth.
Poor sad thing. Empathy won’t cheer him, but I do
know how it feels, pain without meaning. Nowhere
to look but within. Whatever the cause, the impurity’s
source, he took it in, bad river water, morsel of carrion,
just as we all ingest delusion, denial, self-deceit,
the insalubrities that corrupt our gut and send us lurching,
chest-clutched, to the nausea of defeat, unmasked,
that demon in the mirror who points a digit and laughs.


Leg Press

Nearly prone, heels pushing ceilingward,
then ceding to gravity, to fear, knees descending
to sternum, a worthwhile grind in the hamstring.
The new pain is all self-inflicted, like gouging
a wound, a willingness to suffer and in that
extremity, transcendence, freeing oneself from
triviality. The bodybuilder says, pain is weakness
leaving the body. Each day a different muscle group,
yet always seeking symmetry, balance. He knows
it’s not what you lift, how many pounds, but how
you lift it, that the range of movement is what
quickens the muscle to consciousness. The bulge
of the quadricep surfacing like that awful awareness:
my love did not have to die, but I had to kill it.

Reverse Fly

Gravity’s the man beneath me, anchoring
me to the up-tilted bench, seductive, sweat-
beaded embrace that engages the rhomboid,
the rear delt. Not the weight, itself, but the force
that bestows weightiness, disheveled hombre
whose romantic fantasy feeds me, who would
drag me down if I did not resist, 17.5 lbs. in
each fist, straining back and away. Gravity’s
that urgency, the abyss of desire, divine madness
somewhere within that makes me not only gasp
for his illicit kiss in the dark, husk to husk, back
to wall, but also to beat him off, to disever.
Not the struggle, but the strength unearthed,
molten matter of nickel and iron inwardly spinning,
adamant and unrelenting, endless and unfathomable.


Why couldn’t I love him? He was all good morning
beautiful and you deserve to be spoiled, bringing me coffee
in bed, balancing the cups in that prissy way. Why couldn’t
I ignore that? His air of resignation, slumped behind the wheel,
always just under the speed limit, docile yes officer at the border.
Nothing on him to give those in authority what they want.
To my, this isn’t going anywhere, he said, well, I like what I see.
His respect for social order, corporations, the business section.
Not rights, but responsibilities. His regret for the years I spent
smoking dope. A whiz with engines, quadratics, but not overly
analytical. Something about beer, pizza and women, he said.
And mountains, escorting me to the top of Katahdin, a mile
high, on a lucent autumn day, a small Gore-Texed crowd
dazzled at the summit, taking in Chimney Pond, the knife
edge. But all I wanted to do was get back down.

First Flight in Five Years

No need for fear, nor hope, flight’s
timelessness coursing through me,
humming with the engine’s overture,
acceleration fueling euphoria as I dare
myself to look down, all of the paralytic
restrictions of the past, my anxiety of
incompleteness, grasping, as far away
now as the frost-heaved tarmac below,
wings tilting, banking, that wonky view
imparting a new perspective. Free of the
binary logic of groundedness, the be or
not be, pull and release. Yes, I’m buckled
in, book on my lap, as caged as the flock
of finches stowed, oddly, in the cramped
aft of this commuter aircraft, but I’m also
out there, aloft in the thin air, the updraft
of ambiguity, delimitation, giving in and
giving up and the transcendence of that,
birdsong, enginesong, dermis and hull,
indivisible as we ascend and turn.

Antiques Roadshow

But for his pearl buttons, he’s a dead-ringer
for my long-gone father, silver mop swept back,
comfortable paunch, blue hint of bemusement
in the iris. Arrives with an old Indian blanket
he’s slung over the back of a rocker forever.
Says it belonged to Kit Carson once. Dignified
in his discomposure, shifting on his toes.
He’s pleased to tell the story, his link to immortals,
but too proud to grasp. The appraiser’s apoplectic,
choking, his voice cracking, “Did you see my face?”
It’s a Ute “first phase” chief’s wearing blanket,
the purest form of Navajo weaving. Priceless
in its simplicity, yet the bidding would start
at half a million. More if the Carson link’s proven.
It’s like glimpsing my father crying in the garage
so many years ago to see this man’s unconcealed
confoundment. Overwhelmed, he confesses,
“There’s never been any wealth in the family.”
Now there is and all he can do is weep.

—Sharon McCartney

Jul 182011

Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (© Jarek Tuszynski / Wikimedia Commons)


  Chatting with ET: Dialogue between The Actual and The Possible

By Lynne Quarmby


Yet, while science attempts to describe nature and to distinguish between dream and reality, it should not be forgotten that human beings probably call as much for dream as for reality.

— François Jacob, The Possible and The Actual, 1982


Ancient Greeks knew that unicorns were exotic animals observed in India. Even by 1600 it is unclear whether translators of the King James Version of the Bible were thinking of creatures real or allegorical when they wrote “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn” (Numbers 23:22).  Either way, while the translators were writing about unicorns, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, among other transgressions, his belief in extraterrestrials.

In 1967, Roger Patterson filmed a female Sasquatch walking across a clearing in a northern California forest. The 16 mm footage remains the only evidence we have of this presumed intelligent and elusive ape, all other reports of sightings have proved to be hoaxes. Patterson toured Sasquatch country, from northern California to British Columbia, showing the film and telling his story. I was ten years old when my father and I sat in those folding chairs, believers.



The other day I called my father to ask him if he still believed in Sasquatch. “No,” he said. “I think if they were real we would have more evidence by now.” That is pretty much how I feel too, but we could be wrong.

The B.C. Scientific Cryptozoology Club lists 212 “cryptid” mammals – the Sasquatch is one of 36 putative primates. Club founder Paul LeBlond is a respected scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada – he was also one of my professors when I was an Oceanography student. Paul’s avocation is the search for scientific evidence of cryptids and when it comes to Sasquatch, he remains open to the possibility of their existence.

What of extraterrestrials? The soul-stirring wonder and awe of a clear, dark star-filled sky has fuelled the creation of a fantastic diversity of fictional extraterrestrials. Might there actually be something out there?  In the race to be real, one thing ET has over Sasquatch is more room to hide.

Beyond the vastness of space and the depth of our desire for company, there are growing scientific reasons to be optimistic about finding extraterrestrial life. Ongoing work on the emergence of life on Earth indicates that life may be a common phenomenon in our universe. Last month NASA announced unexpected observations of a potential new cradle of life in our solar system. Data from the Kepler space telescope has begun to arrive and as summer progresses we are discovering that our universe is littered with planets.  These are exciting times. Living generations may witness the discovery of extraterrestrial life – are we ready for that?

Continue reading »

Jul 152011


The rant comes easily to nonfiction writers—especially environmental and nature writers.  Most feel the need to write about nature either out of pure love for the natural world or out of concern for its well-being.  Inherently, the writer will offer opinions on who is at fault for perceived ills and what we should be doing about it.

Earlier in this series of essays on nature writing in America, I have noted that Edward Abbey rants plentifully (I even admit that I often feel he’s kicking me in the butt).  The targets of Abbey’s criticism are very specific, beginning with the National Park Service and certain corporations and extending in some cases to specific individuals associated with projects he hates.

Not so with Edward Hoagland.  In my previous piece on Hoagland, I mentioned how this author’s early works hooked me hard and how I wasn’t entirely sure why.  Curious, I looked more closely, comparing his early work to the most recent collection, Sex and the River Styx.  Beginning in The Courage of Turtles and on up through the big compendium Hoagland on Nature, the writing is nearly devoid of finger-pointing.  I didn’t notice it at first because I clearly understood Hoagland’s message about caring for the natural world without throwing humanity out with the pond-water, as it were.  But a careful reading brings no villains—characters, yes, even characters acting in ways Hoagland seems to want us all to avoid, but there is never any specific criticism, like Abbey lofts at the Corps of Engineers or Loren Eiseley levels (more softly) at academia.

How does he do this?  In this installment, I’m taking a short break from the regular personal-reflections-on-a-mid-century-environmental-writer format to provide a craft essay.  And like any good craft essay (especially one to be read on-line), I will narrow my scope—to one work.

  Continue reading »

Jul 142011


I met Eliot Wilson one evening during a coffee house open poetry reading in Lafayette, Colorado. Sitting beside one another on a tattered couch, our conversations seamlessly leapt from writing to our favorite local restaurants to a lighthearted (okay, playfully sharp-tongued) running commentary of any poems that weren’t quite resonating with us that night.

Fast forward four years and I’ve come to know Eliot as a friend and vital contemporary poet who is the author of The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go, published by Cleveland State Poetry Press. He has received a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, a Bush Foundation Fellowship, the Hill-Kohn Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Robert Winner Prize from the Poetry Society of America. He currently teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.

Eliot is a worldly thinker whose writing offers a seemingly effortless lyrical grace woven with historical, political, and cultural awareness as well as substantive introspection, evocative cynicism, unique wit, and often laugh-out-loud humor. His work is purposeful in that it shows us a distilled individuality, albeit imagegistic, sullen, comic, or all these things, conjointly. These are smart, wild, vivid pieces—enjoy!

-Martin Balgach


Three Poems From Eliot Khalil Wilson


Wedding Vows

…and I’d like to add that I will mind like a dog.  I will wear whatever you like.  I will go wingtip.  No more white socks.  A necktie stitched to my throat, turtlenecks in August. New York gray or black, only colors that dogs can see.   I will know of squash, vermouth, and wedges.   I will do all the grilling because I love it so.  I will drive the wagon, man the bar, weed-whack compulsively.  I will make money, the bed, never a to do.

I will build like an Egyptian, a two-mile pier complex, a five-story deck.  I will listen like a bat, attend to the birth of sounds in the back of your throat. I will remember like an Indian elephant, recall requests made of me in a previous life.  Your date of birth will be carved in the palm of my hand.  I will make good. I will do right.  I will sleep on the pegboard on the wall in the garage.

I’ll have a tongue like a sperm whale, eyes like a harp seal, biceps like a fiddler crab.  I will have gold coins, gold rings, stiff gold hair like shredded wheat.  I will be golden at receptions, gold in your pocket, Paganini in your pants. Money will climb over the house like ivy.  Excellent credit will be my white whale.  I will always. I will everyday. I will nail the seat down.  I will let you pretend I am your father.

I will be a priapic automatic teller machine, never down, never a usage fee, a stock prophet, a para-mutual seer, tractable, worshipful no matter what.  I will always want to. I won’t notice what you don’t point out.  I will entertain your friends, say how your love saved me. I will convince them.  I will talk, really talk, to them.  Deep meanings will be toothpicked and passed around.

I will need zero maintenance. I will be a utility or a railroad.  There will be no breakdowns or disconnections. I will allow you lovers, Moroccan teenagers and Turkish men.  I will adopt them. I will not cry.  I will respond to grief by earning more. My sweat will smell like drug money, like white bread baking. I will be as clean as a Mormon, wholesome like Iowa.  I will lead.  I will be a star, a rock, like Rock Hudson.

. Continue reading »

Jul 132011


The Sky is Red at Bordeaux: Photographs

by Natalia Sarkissian


At sunset, the sky shines red over Bordeaux, the city and its châteaux.


Right Bank


In the afternoon, the sun gleams golden.



Planes fill with wine-drenched tourists from Japan and China—just off the bus from château-touring and Bordeaux-tasting, on their way home via Paris. The cabin fills with their boozy breath. They snooze and dream of arrivals and beginnings and tastings, not of endings and leaving. Their heads bob gently, right, left, then against their headrests as the plane flies off.


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Jul 112011

On March 3, 2005, four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were ambushed and murdered near Mayerthorpe, Alberta, north of Edmonton. I remember reading and reading through the reports I found on the Internet, at first mystified by how the massacre took place and then just shocked at the diabolical killing field the policemen had inadvertently walked into. Years before, in 1992, Marina Endicott, an old friend, a novelist and poet, settled with her Mountie husband, Peter Ormshaw (also a poet and journalist), on his first posting in Mayerthorpe. Luckily, they were long gone when the massacre took place. But the impact was huge. Marina’s essay “How to Talk About Mayerthorpe” is in the 2011 PEN Anthology, Finding the Words. The poems published here—“The Policeman’s Wife, some letters”—were short-listed for the CBC Literary Awards in 2006. Marina’s novel Good to a Fault was a finalist for the 2008 Giller Prize, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Canada/Caribbean, and was a Canada Reads book in 2010. Her new novel, The Little Shadows, about a sister act touring the prairies in early vaudeville, will be published this September.



I desired my dust to be mingled with yours.
Ezra Pound, “The River Merchant’s Wife, a letter”


What you taste like

Tears, blood.
Water from our own well, best known,
a coddled egg in a china cup.
You taste of yourself, golden
current runs through you.
You taste of me, of beets, plums,
blue plums in a spilling pile.
A gold bead held in my mouth,
a gelatin pearl, it will melt.
Light spills between gold curtains
in a separate room, a yellow room.
A saint over the door.

St Peter’s Abbey, Muenster, 1991
Continue reading »

Jul 112011

My First Job

by Steven Axelrod

Salesmen Wanted

It was the summer of 1971 and Manhattan was molten in the summer heat. The air wavered over the softening asphalt and walking the furnace streets I felt like I’d been dipped in grease and dredged in grit. My girlfriend Marian and I were living in my Mom’s apartment on 82nd Street, looking for jobs. I’d been turned down everywhere.

It shouldn’t have been my first job, anyway: a nineteen year old should have some kind of résumé, even if it’s only delivering pizza or babysitting. But my summers had always been devoted to leisure. At least I did my school reading and kept my room clean.  It was my mother’s idea. She figured I’d be working most of my life and wanted me to look back fondly on these sun-dappled, unstressed months between school years, when I had nothing to do but dawdle and dream. I was grateful for that, but those years were emphatically over.

Still, I couldn’t find a job and the newspapers were no help. The New York Times ran plenty of ads for medical technicians and school superintendents,  and ‘systems technicians’, but I couldn’t imagine even faking a résumé for any of them.

So I was ready on a humid Thursday morning, when I saw the ad for “Encyclopedia Salesmen Wanted”. Marian was just as desperate, so we went down to the office together.

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Jul 082011

But we should remember that Shklovsky attributed a deeply humane and benevolent purpose to the virtuosic machinery of literature: he argued that, by unhinging our habits of cognition, literature refreshes human perception, revitalizes the experience of being alive. —Bruce Stone


Bowstring: On the Dissimiliarity of the Similar
By Viktor Shklovsky, Translated by Shushan Avagyan
468 pages, Dalkey Archive Press, $16.95


Viktor Shklovsky’s name has become synonymous with the Russian Formalist movement that he helped to found in the early decades of the 20th century. With a series of landmark papers, he taught generations of readers that, in the art of literature, content simply doesn’t matter. Form, rather, is where it’s at—the defining feature of the literary work and the singular determinant of its status AS art. He showed us that Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for example, is structured as a series of elaborate digressions, which sabotage the narrative momentum—a principle he called retardation. He analyzed Cervantes’ Don Quixote, not to expose its roots in 17th century Spain, but to uncover its concatenating plot, with each of the Don’s new adventures linked tenuously to the preceding, something like a chain of cut-out-paper figures holding hands. He revealed the manner in which Tolstoy rendered familiar concepts, like property ownership, unfamiliar by narrating events from the vantage point of a horse: this technique he dubbed estrangement. For Shklovsky, literary works were not documents of social history or human psychology; they were neither comedies nor tragedies. Instead, they were best understood as language experiments devised to tactically derange our notions of life and of literature. To everyone except writers of fiction and poetry, this position sounds distressingly inhuman, painfully mechanical, regrettably ahistorical, perhaps even philosophically bogus. And indeed, these are some of the very charges that have been leveled against Formalist poetics from the start. But we should remember that Shklovsky attributed a deeply humane and benevolent purpose to the virtuosic machinery of literature: he argued that, by unhinging our habits of cognition, literature refreshes human perception, revitalizes the experience of being alive.

For many North American readers, this is the Shklovsky we know, a Shklovsky we remember, a literary insurrectionist who resides, under lock and key, in a narrow chamber of the past. As it happens, history has contributed to Shklovsky’s temporal incarceration. Born in 1893, Shklovsky’s intellectual coming of age coincided with the sparking of the Soviet revolution, and the Party politics of the era proved hostile to the subversive, cheerfully antisocial poetics of the Formalists. Although Shklovsky lived through both World Wars, endured two periods of punitive exile, and survived into his nineties—working steadily all the while—he essentially disappeared from view. Much of his work sat relatively idle for years, awaiting publication outside the Soviet Union. For all intents and purposes, Shklovsky has remained under intellectual quarantine, marooned on an island gulag, a casualty of Cold-War power politics that essentially retarded the course of his career and limited his role on the world stage of literary criticism and theory.

No longer.

Dalkey Archive Press has undertaken the project of publishing, for the first time in English, much of the maturing Shklovsky’s output: Knight’s Move (2005), Energy of Delusion (2007), Literature and Cinematography (2009), and now Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (2011) have all been published in the last decade. And we greet the arrival of these works with joy, gratitude and some trepidation, as if we were welcoming home a family member long absent due to calamity, presumed dead: an Odysseus, an Elle, a Crusoe.

Bowstring was first published in 1970, and the Shklovsky writing this work bears a passing resemblance to the one we remember. But deep changes have been wrought in the man, and the book reads as a revision, inclining to a recantation, of several of his most influential ideas.  The text is strange: encyclopedic in scope, promiscuous in genre, willfully disjunctive and aphoristic in style, often frustrating and intermittently scintillating. Reading Bowstring isn’t always a thrill ride. However, for anyone interested in the legacy of Formalism—which includes everything that we conceive of as craft instruction in creative writing—the publication of this book is profoundly consequential. It shows us the evolution of Shklovsky’s thought, a momentous instance of theoretical rapprochement, reconciling the Formalist vision with the views of skeptics. Further, in aggregate, the work is a manifesto of sorts—a little wistful, a bit opaque—about the purpose and processes of literature. This alone suggests that readers of every stripe should consult Bowstring. The book allows us to take the measure of latter-day Formalism, and, like all great books, it takes the measure of us.



Shklovsky tells us directly what he’s up to in Bowstring, but he does so haphazardly, often ambushing readers with summations of purpose. In the course of a chapter titled “The Unity of Structures,” he remarks, “I am writing this book to refute the very convincing and ingeniously articulated idea of art censorship carried out by Tolstoy, and to refute his relationship and methods of crossing things out.” Never mind, for the moment, the problem of unpacking the sense of the last clause (his relationship?). Shklovsky doesn’t tell us that he is referring here, presumably, to Tolstoy’s own manifesto, “What is Art?” (1897), in which the writer cites the capacity for emotional communion as the defining feature of literature. Perhaps Shklovsky feels that clarification is unnecessary, but he also chooses not to prosecute this disagreement in a linear and explicit fashion. Rather, Shklovsky counters Tolstoy (whom he reveres, naturally, as an artist and countryman) by indirection; he mounts a cumulative assault that emerges as he careers idiosyncratically through the annals of world literature. In fact, the entire first half of the book feels evasive—it’s hard to follow the thread, despite these nudges from the author. But in the second half of the book, the fireworks start to fly, the cannons boom, and we better understand the rhyme and reason of Bowstring. Very near the end, Shklovsky writes, acknowledging the text’s chaotic nature, “I am trying to remain within the limits of a single work, but the purpose of my book is an attempt to grasp the mobility of the literary work and the multiplicity of its meanings.” We come to see that this is exactly what Shklovsky has wrought.

To capture the “mobility of the literary work,” Shklovsky casts a wide net, touching—at times glancingly—on everything from the epic of Gilgamesh to John Updike’s The Centaur, from Rabelais and Cervantes to Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. He discusses fairy tales and parables, Shakespeare and Pushkin, ancient Hindu sacred narratives, and he also comments on techniques in painting and cinema. On occasion, we’re privy to the jotted marginalia of V.I. Lenin, reading Hegel, and of Tolstoy, on Shakespeare. It’s a dazzling array of material, all of which is relevant to his task, certainly. Yet the sheer variety and abundance of Shklovsky’s interests gives you a taste of the scattershot method of the book. The course of a page might span centuries and continents, and thus, the writer often articulates his conclusions arcanely, and not always convincingly. In Bowstring, you will encounter more one-sentence paragraphs than perhaps in any other work of literary theory since Friedrich Schlegel’s Fragments, and such paragraphs, as a rule, cohere only loosely and implicitly. For example, in a chapter on Shakespeare, one of the book’s weaker moments, Shklovsky says this about Othello:

The astonishing thing for Shakespeare is not that Desdemona fell in love with he Moor, but why the Moor didn’t trust her love. Why did he believe in Iago’s words, blindly accepting the petty rumor and its intended malevolence, yet didn’t believe in simple love?

This new meaning of inequality is Shakespeare’s own discovery.

Shylock is a villain to Shakespeare.

In this run of paragraphs, Shklovsky skips from Othello to The Merchant of Venice to, eventually, Romeo and Juliet, only grazing the evidence that shores up his assessment. To be fair, the surrounding pages help to flesh in some of the support for Shklovky’s conclusions; however, Shklovsky does very little of this explanatory work for the reader. His compositional method is one of willful juxtaposition, strategically withholding the connective tissue that binds the observations together in the manner of a conventional argument.

Astute readers will notice already that the humanistic tenor of Shklovsky’s analysis bears little resemblance to the mechanistic cerebrations of hard-core Formalism (simple love?!). For now, suffice it to say that, with regard to the book’s argumentative armature, Shklovsky knows exactly what he’s doing; he takes the trouble to “lay bare” his chosen device (a phrase Shklovsky coined) as he discusses the technique of cinematic montage, drawing on the work of Sergei Eisenstein. The montage, with its atemporal juxtapositions and its implicit logic, is exactly the figure for Shklovsky’s method in this book. He stacks his observations side by side, rapidly shifting the focus, often requiring readers to infer the connections—rather like a man laying out cards in a game of Solitaire. Conveniently and quite brilliantly, this method reflects the writer’s newfound vision of literature. For example, Shklovsky finds the technique of “vertical montage” at work in Crime and Punishment (he sketches a list of competing thematic conflicts), and he also arrives at the conclusion that what is true of the internal components of a single work is also true of the body of world literature. Near the end of Bowstring, he summarizes his position plainly: “I think that every work of art, as a link in a self-abnegating process, is juxtaposed against other works of art.”

This stylistic agenda yields a work that is disjunctive, sharply contrapuntal, even giddily discontinuous. However, readers are richly compensated for their pains as virtually every page of Bowstring contains a radiant apothegm, a one-sentence koan of arresting power. Of the fairy tale, he writes, for example, “The heroes of folklore are strewn with ashes of sorrow, they are sprinkled with the salt of difficult paths—journeys in the sea.” These accesses of poetry are also evident in the book’s Prologue and Epilogue, passages of terse, descriptive lyricism that disclose, in microcosm, something of the writer’s grand vision:

Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren’t nightingales at all.

They don’t care that they have been exhausted in poetry; they don’t know that they’ve been refuted.

Then spring comes. Trees bloom one after the other, nightingales sing and crows caw.

Someone even heard the blackbirds. They imitate other birds.

The nightingales are still on their way.



Shklovsky’s sympathy for those outmoded nightingales reveals a deep vein in Bowstring, its concern with the persistence of the past. But Shklovsky himself acknowledges that this is hardly new, and in fact, Bowstring ultimately proffers conclusions that seem eerily familiar. For example, Shklovsky cites Heraclitus, offering a glimpse of his position regarding the interpretation of individual works: Many readers “do not understand how that which differs from itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.” Here, we feel the resonance of Bowstring’s title: the power, the beauty, the functionality and the very existence of literary works depend upon conflict and contradiction, a tension between opposing elements. And later, Shklovsky writes, “Let me remind you of this book’s subject: it is trying to prove that at the basis of every artistic work, every stage in artistic construction, lie similar principles of revealing the contradictions, that the artistic processes of various epochs and nations are universal in this phenomenon and hence comprehensible to us.” This premise sounds a lot like party-line New Criticism, the British and American critical movement most closely linked to Formalism both historically and ideologically. In “The Language of Paradox,” Cleanth Brooks outlines a virtually identical set of conclusions about literary structures and their universality; he argues that irreducible contradiction (or paradox) is the structural principle that organizes all great works of art. Shklovsky and Brooks are unlikely bedfellows, even now, and Shklovsky does add some new wrinkles to this theoretical position. But since Shklovsky never cites Brooks, or references New Critics, it remains possible that he’s simply unaware of the proximity of their vantage points.

What’s new in Shklovsky stems from the remnants of his rehabilitated Formalism and his emphasis on genre conventions. Shklovsky argues, albeit obliquely, that art evolves through a process of generic mutation: genre conventions eventually grow stale, and new writers explode those conventions through a process of comparative juxtaposition. And this is the upshot of Bowstring’s subtitle, On the Dissimilarity of the Similar: new works of art preserve the outmoded genre conventions, even as they subvert them—“The similar turns out to be dissimilar.” Perhaps the clearest snapshot of Shklovsky’s revised interpretive method arrives in his analysis of Alexander Pushkin’s short poem “I Loved You Once.” Shklovsky offers a long quotation from Roman Jakobson’s Formalist reading of the poem, a paragraph dense with linguistic jargon that says virtually nothing about the poem’s ostensible content. To this interpretation Shklovsky remarks, “It seems that this analysis didn’t bring the poem any closer to the reader.” And Shklovsky goes on to show how the poetic “content” inevitably bleeds into Jakobson’s analysis, ultimately leading Shklovsky to deal more fully with the poem’s theme, its content, and its relation to matters of form and technique. He notes the way the love poem draws on the conventions of classical rhetoric to find its form, producing an unusual combination, a linguistic fusion of the public and the private, the impersonal and the personal, the high and the low, the old and the new. Shklovsky summarizes his assessment: “The poet’s forceful, imageless and as if unfinished address to the woman is an example of a unique negative form, which in this instance becomes especially powerful.”

In Bowstring, Shklovsky seriously modifies, and in some cases disavows, many of the core principles that constitute Formalist theory. Of the one-time divorcing of form and content, Shklovsky now writes, “We mustn’t separate the plot-evental structure of the work from its verbal structure. They don’t coincide but they are correlated.” Elsewhere, he puts the matter more bluntly: “A long time ago I declared something rashly. I said that a work of art is the ‘sum total of its devices.’ I said it so long ago that I can only remember the refutation.” What is this if not a direct recantation of the traditional Formalist distinction between fabula (plot-evental structure, or content) and suzhet (verbal structure, or form)? It’s a little like Prometheus renouncing the gift of fire.

Similarly, Shklovsky speaks of “the notion of estrangement,” a central tenet of Formalist theory, as if it belonged to another time: “There used to be an old term—ostranenie or estrangement.” Granted, he doesn’t turn fully or consistently apostate on this or other points. For example, he still considers the literary character—and the writer him or herself—as a “person out of place,” a person with a strained perception of the world, alienated from the ordinary, essentially estranged. And old-school Formalism still informs his analyses; at one point, he describes the plot structures of “realist” narratives as approximating a “dashed line”—that is, containing gaps in the chronology to omit irrelevant intervals (very few narratives are strictly continuous). And he sounds very much like his old self, paraphrasing his insights in “The Resurrection of the Word” (1914), when he remarks on the artistic project of poets like Pushkin, “It’s true, they use only words, but those are extraordinary words that are felt through the mouth, that renew thought and disrupt the sclerosis of concepts.” The similar and the dissimilar coexist here, too.

However, Shklovsky discusses very candidly the faulty premises on which he had founded his interpretive house. On the matter of defamiliarization, or estrangement, which he had said restores the sensation of life, he writes, “I should have asked myself: what exactly are you going to estrange if art doesn’t express the conditions of reality? Sterne, Tolstoy were trying to return the sensation of what?” In this regard, Bowstring is truly jaw-dropping. Shklovsky reflects on his early work and renders an unequivocal verdict: first-wave Formalism was terminally, almost comically, flawed.



In large part, the recuperation of fabula and the modification of estrangement require Shklovsky to account for the historicity of literary texts, their relations to their immediate historical contexts. And this he does. He discusses Don Quixote, in part, as a period piece: “the difference between the actions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is social.” Elsewhere, he invokes (repeatedly) a quote from Albert Einstein that asserts the primacy of experience over language, as if we can know the world and its phenomena firsthand, unmediated by words and forms. These are huge, perhaps heretical, concessions from a card-carrying Formalist, and though Shklovsky consistently writes, in this fashion, with hat in hand, his heart sometimes appears to be elsewhere, not engaged in the work. He often deals with history in the most cursory and brittle fashion, offering sweeping generalizations about places and eras. Even so, it seems that, in the English-speaking world, Formalism can never really be the same in the wake of Bowstring’s publication.

The tendency to historicize and contextualize is evident not just in Shklovsky’s textual analysis; it’s also woven more thoroughly into the fabric of Bowstring. Among the layers of Shklovsky’s textual montage, he veers twice into biography, narrating the lives and deaths of two colleagues: Boris Eichenbaum, who wrote a famous paper “How Gogol’s Overcoat Is Made,” and Yuri Tynjanov, who wrote the less-well-known Archaists and Innovators. Eichenbaum, we learn, died under absurd circumstances, immediately following the delivery of a lecture that flopped (he expires in his chair in the audience). Tynjanov died progressively of multiple sclerosis, an eerie revelation if we recall Shklovsky’s pronouncements on poetry.

In both cases, the biographies include descriptions of the Petersburg environs, of landscapes and architecture, of the exigencies of politics and war (the Decembrist uprising, the siege of Leningrad), of the city’s evolution over time. And one gets the sense that Shklovsky is here explicitly linking his theory of literature to the convulsions of history: the two domains behave analogously. Of both the literary work and the city of Petersburg, he writes that it is composed of “systems of systems.” And he might be referring both to texts and to people when he writes, “We live simultaneously in multiple temporal realms.” In the same historicizing spirit, Shklovsky frequently slides into autobiography and sketches something of the root causes that led to his revision of Formalist theory: his own experiences as a writer of fiction and memoir seem to have contributed to his change of heart. He confesses, “Back then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion, while at the same time I wrote books that bled, like A Sentimental Journey and ZOO.”

And it is the merging of life and art, history and textuality, that results in one of Bowstring’s most powerful and beautiful passages. Shklovsky begins the chapter “The Road into the Future and the Past (An Unfinished Story)” by summarizing a manuscript that Tolstoy had abandoned. It’s the story of a military man, a major Verein, riding toward his post on a rainy night, his overcoat “reeking of soap from wetness.” Verein envisions his ideal future, a place with “a wife in a white bonnet, children playing in front of the balcony and picking flowers for papa.” At length, Verein nods off and awakes to find himself residing in the future he had imagined. He enters his house where his wife, out of temper, insists on nursing their two-year-old child (who is too old for such nursing). Then, in a startling turn, without segue or comment, Shklovsky leaps from the story to autobiography, writing,

I have lived a long life, I have seen crowds, been on many roads, and I know what a  wet overcoat smells like.

I live simultaneously in the old world and the new.

I have been reading books by Structuralists with interest, difficulty and benefit. I am getting acquainted.

I’m not surprised to appear in the middle of a conversation. Everything is interesting, but forgive the man who has long been absent from theory.

In an instant, we recognize that Tolstoy’s story is an analogue of and proxy for Shklovsky’s own experience. And Shklovsky presses this relation farther; he writes,

Here, as before—forty years later—they are still primarily analyzing the poem; of course now they have applied mathematics to it, as it was expected a long time ago.

They still haven’t weaned the child from the breast and she’s already grown! The weather is pleasant, but everyone is walking dressed up in academic clothes.

The characters and conflicts of Tolstoy’s story supply Shklovsky with a poignant metaphorical vocabulary for describing his own plight as a theorist. The method, here, is less rigidly juxtapositional than searingly prismatic; instead of side-by-side comparison, shimmering palimpsest. And though this chapter concludes, typically, with another rapid and seemingly incongruous turn—as Shklovsky summarizes another tale, this one by Jules Verne—the strategy retains its power. The Verne story illustrates the point that human beings, including literary theorists, are bound to discover that “ideas repeat”; on voyages of discovery, without immediately recognizing the fact, we find ourselves retracing our own footsteps. The past and the present, like texts and contexts, are densely interwoven, impossible to disentangle.



Shklovsky’s ambivalent relationship to time helps to explain a comical turn in Bowstring. In a run of short chapters, he prosecutes, almost fifty years too late, a disagreement with Vladimir Propp on the structures of folkloric narratives. Even so, this impulse to grind old axes leads to perhaps the best sustained analyses in the book, as Shklovsky spars impressively with Mikhail Bakhtin and his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics and Rabelais and His World. Ironically, the same charge that Shklovsky levels against Bakhtin’s work might well be leveled at Bowstring: “Bakhtin possesses the attributes of a discoverer and an inventor, but the scope of his generalizations sometimes turns into a sea, engulfing the already-found specificities.”

In the long view, Bowstring delivers joy and pain in nearly equal measure. Among its many beauties, this book shows us something of Shklovsky’s humanity, a kind of avuncular self-consciousness, given to lapses into faux-naif autocommentary: of one of the book’s long block quotations, Shklovsky observes, “I decided to end the quote at the ellipsis—it’s too long, anyway.” But finally, he arrives at conclusions that, while more sound, seem less riveting than those flawed propositions of his radical youth. (Sometimes being right is simply the less interesting alternative.) It might have been enough for him to conclude, as Tzvetan Todorov does when defending Structuralist poetics against the (posthumous) ire of Henry James, that the distinction between form and content, suzhet and fabula, can be a useful fallacy. It allows us to concentrate our attentions in new ways on literary works, to see new facets of their construction, and perhaps this remains the necessary first step before we can synthesize the two poles once more.

Further, in a long chapter on the failings of Thomas Mann’s monolithic Joseph and His Brothers, Shklovsky seems to break character, disappointing our expectations, as he formulates his criticisms in flimsy terms: he says of one episode that it “is treated rather conventionally. It’s inaccurate. It has been needlessly prolonged and it lacks in emotion.” More broadly, he quibbles, “the descriptions in Mann’s novel are too wordy and the characters are too eloquent”—a statement that he follows, bafflingly, with the assertion “Every epoch has its conventions of representation that must be followed.” This sentence, in isolation, is difficult to reconcile with his argument that those conventions are refreshed through subversion and violation.

Perhaps most distressingly, in the book’s penultimate chapter, titled “Return the Ball into the Game,” Shklovsky stakes out a position that is all too familiar to any fiction writer. He bemoans novelists who would write about novel-writing, poets who would write about composing poems—that is, those who make fabula of suzhet, content of form. Shklovsky compares such writers to the characters in Antonioni’s Blow-Up who play tennis without a ball. These writers, the conventional wisdom goes, sap the life from art. There is wisdom in this injunction, naturally, but coming from Shklovsky, it feels like a confession elicited under bare-bulb duress, a defeatist compromise struck between his revolutionary ideas and the precepts of Socialist art.

In the end, the publication of Bowstring is a major literary event. This book radically alters the legacy of Russian Formalism and contains abundant rewards for anyone with a vested interest in the art of literature. And it’s a testament to Shklovsky’s achievement that his own words, on Mann and his multi-volume boondoggle, best summarize the experience of reading Bowstring: “Sometimes [the book] succeeds, other times it fails. Occasionally it is hard to turn the pages. But the path that Mann chose is the path of a person who carries with him not objects but ideas, who does not want to lose the magnitude of the past.”

—Bruce Stone


Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing here. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

Jul 082011


The Road into the Future and the Past (An Unfinished Story) from Bowstring
By Viktor Shklovsky

Translated by Shushan Avagyan



In July 1856 Lev Tolstoy was “. . . writing a somewhat fantastic story.”

He wrote only eight pages. They are inserted in a folio made of writing paper. Some of the pages contain separately inscribed phrases above the text representing the plan of the story and how it should develop.

The work was abandoned. Let’s turn the pages and go over the typed text.

“. . . Major Verein rode alone in the night on the road from the Belbek mill to the Inkerman position.”

He was returning from a regimental celebration.

It was raining—gently sprinkling, then the drops would get larger, slanting with the wind, falling heavy and fast as though from invisible trees.

“On the road going south, over the horizon, the black sky often lit up with red streaks of lightning and Verein could hear the rumble of gunshots in Sevastopol. Wrapped in his army overcoat, heavy and reeking of soap from wetness, the major sat hunched on the damp warm saddle, pushing relentlessly his wet slippery heels into the sides of the tired bay cavalry horse.”

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Jul 062011

In the shade of the tent

Diane Lefer has contributed a story, a “What it’s like living here” piece, and a play to Numéro Cinq (see the table of contents). She’s an old, old friend, a former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (dg interviewed her when he has his radio show at WAMC in Albany in the mid-1990s). When we posted her play, she was in Colombia teaching writing—she missed the excitement. But here’s a fascinating account of her trip and the place where ideology and art and teaching and practice form a pragmatic nexus. It’s exciting to read, a reminder that there are parts of the world where art is not merely for contemplation and self-expression. I would have called this a telegram from the front lines, but really the front lines are everywhere.



Writing Instruction as a Social Practice:

or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja

by Diane Lefer


Friends and family expressed concern when I said I was going to Colombia. Isn’t it dangerous? So I got a kick out of the tourism video Avianca showed en route: Colombia! The risk is that you won’t want to leave!

Apparently something of the sort happened to Yolanda Consejo Vargas, dancer and theatre artist born in Mexico, and her husband Italian-born director Guido Ripamonti when they found themselves in 2007 in Barrancabermeja, specifically in Comuna 7, which began as a neighborhood of squatters–people who’d been driven out of the countryside by violence, had landed in the city and were struggling to get by. The area was controlled by the guerrilla forces of the ELN. Then rightwing paramilitary death squads swept in, disrupting a Mothers Day celebration in 1998, killing and disappearing civilians, including children, while the Colombian military failed to intervene. The people of Comuna 7 organized, intent on reweaving the social fabric and creating a culture of peace. They set up what they termed an “educational citadel” to keep their kids in school and prepare them for a socially responsible future. Impressed, Yolanda and Guido wanted to be part of it. They moved in. As directors of the Centro Cultural Horizonte, they offer classes in theatre, dance and creative writing. More, they train their students who then go to the primary schools in the most marginalized neighborhood of all as volunteer arts instructors. It was because of Yolanda and Guido that I flew in May to Colombia.

Yolanda with young people from the Cultural Center

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Jul 052011

Matthew Stadler

Publication Studio recently released Matthew Stadler’s fifth novel, Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha.  With this book Stadler challenges our ideas about authorship. The story is a “cover” of another book (ala rock-and-roll cover songs). In this case, Stadler has shoehorned his own creativity into the tightly defined structure of John LeCarré’s 1962 novel,  A Murder of Quality. It is a stunningly original work riding on a classic tale.

Herewith, Numéro Cinq is pleased to bring you chapter one.



Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha

By Matthew Stadler

Chapter 1

The city fills a great bowl in the steep Sierra Madre, the meeting place of three river canyons that the Chichimeca Indians called “the place of the frogs.” There were frogs here, and Chichimeca, for centuries before the arrival of Spanish armies. Today the only frogs are on tee-shirts and the shelves of ticky-tack tourist stands. The Chichimeca have been bred away or simply disappeared into the immensity of the surrounding Mexican countryside. The name survived, altered slightly by the conquerors from “Xuana Huato,” to Guanajuato, a word so serenely Spanish sounding that tour guides must remind the visitor of its Chichimeca origins. It is a mestizo name, a halfbreed, hiding its native blood behind the pleasing sonority of a well-fed Castilian lisp.

The basin holds a colorful patchwork of buildings, all of them forever under construction, four centuries of architecture tossed carelessly together, like so many toys in a spoiled child’s treasure chest. The rim of the canyon is bare, an empty mountainous plain of scrub brush and rock, but below it the city presses up from the depths of the basin, surpassing the busy ring road, the panoramica, to reach the upper limits of the delivery men who hand-carry their heavy canisters of gas and agua into the crowded warrens of houses.

It doesn’t matter what day it is; always, as the late afternoon sun burnishes the ridge of the cerro de Serena to the east, a series of cannon blasts echoes up the steep canyon walls, like rocks skipping on water, plonk plonk plonk plonk, further and further, until with a last dim splash they disappear. Puffs of smoke lift from the houses. It is impossible to tell who is firing the cannon or why, the scene is too closely packed and confusing.

The blasts are followed shortly by the machine gun staccato of hundreds of schoolboys pounding on drums. Dressed in white and green, they’re visible in glimpses as they serpentine their way down the hill into traffic. There is some kind of saint or a dead person laid on a bier with ribbons and candles at the front. Templo de San Francisco’s rough stone towers catch the last sunlight, golden against the blue sky. Birds lift from the plaza, disturbing the trash, and men pulling on long ropes ring the bells of the church. By the entrance to the tunnel, scores of trumpets mew like sick calves as the absent minded boys keep pounding on their drums and traffic pools behind them. It could be any day of the year. There is always a parade, always the fugitive cannon blasts, always the haphazard ranks of boys in their school uniforms raising a holy hell as the day tumbles forward.

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Jul 042011

Almost Independence Day

by Richard Farrell

I can hear them calling, way from Oregon..

I can hear them calling, way from Oregon..

And it’s almost Independence Day

The Fourth of July: I’m uncertain about what this holiday means to me anymore, or if it means anything at all beyond crowds and jammed freeways. But this is no good. This is no good because it’s an attitude which shuts down something deeper, which forgets the simplicity of being young, when the day was un-examined and alive: barbecues and swimming pools, flapping flags and a night sky filled with fireworks. I feel the need to give my own kids something better than a smug dismissal of this holiday, even as my inner-cynic chides and warns that I’m perpetuating the machinery of our commercial culture. How to find a way to embrace the day, to provide my kids (and, no less, myself) a cultural framework, a sense of place and community, beyond simply filling my shopping cart with hamburgers and hot dogs like some living, breathing cliché. Who knows?

I turn toward Van Morrison for help, toward an album I refuse to listen to for eleven months of the year but play it in the days leading up to the Fourth of July, like some self-imposed sacrament against my unwillingness to celebrate the actual holiday.

The song, “Almost Independence Day,” was recorded on the album Saint Dominic’s Preview, when I was only three years-old. I discovered it within my father’s massive record collection. Maybe I was nine when I first heard it, my daughter’s age now. I’m not overstating it if I say that I fell in love with music that day. Ilistened to that album over and over.

“Almost Independence Day” is the last track. The song begins softly, with the plaintive Irish troubadour moaning in tune with his twelve-string guitar across a sparse silence. A Moog synthesizer comes in and imitates foghorns echoing across the San Francisco Bay. The opening instrumental riff continues for more than a minute. The song itself spans just over ten, filled with haunting, repetitive vocals structured like some wild chapter out of Joyce.

Me  my lady, we go steppin’ (we go steppin)

We go steppin’ way out on Chinatown.

All to buy some, Hong Kong silver.

And the wading, rushing river (we go stepping)

We go out on the town tonight.

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Jul 012011


Here is another first for Numéro Cinq: A full length film script from R. W. Gray (who earlier appeared on these pages as the author of the stunning short story “Crisp”). Not only do we have the original film script for Alice & Huck (who else publishes movie scripts these days?) but we also have an excerpt from the movie, teaser and fan videos. This is a wonderful chance for readers to compare script and the made movie (you can get the complete DVD here; the IMDB movie page is here), a chance to see words embodied in the actors’ gestures and words (a transformation of text to stage that is always a mystery to me). Alice and Huck is a delightful, whimsically romantic love story of close encounters, near misses and second chances.

Robert Gray was born and raised on the northwest coast of BC, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. He is the author of two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Frederiction.



What is Alice & Huck about?


Alice & Huck Fan Video

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Jun 292011

This is an essay about rakes—human and otherwise—about words, definitions, art, 18th century London, paper, printmaking and William Hogarth. It’s an essay that shows what you can do via the simple art of meditation (with a little repetition thrown in), or it demonstrates how a word has tentacles that stretch far and wide into the culture at large, into history, into the inner reaches of human existence. It has a lovely zen feel AND it has pictures.

Susan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays, which won the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award and was longlisted for the BC National Award for Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals in Canada and the U.S., including The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, and The Utne Reader. A two-time winner of the Event creative nonfiction contest, she also won the inaugural Edna Award for Nonfiction from TNQ and the Brenda Ueland Prose Prize for Literary Nonfiction from Water~Stone (Minnesota).  She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

“A Rake’s Progress” is slated to appear in Slice Me Some Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Nonfiction, edited by Luanne Armstrong and Zoe Landale (to be published by Wolsak and Wynn later this summer).



A Rake’s Progress

By Susan Olding



As a child, I hated the rake. I hated the way its tines caught the long grass. I hated the blisters it raised on my hands. I hated bagging. The leaves clumped in slimy piles. The piles hid fallen apples, pocked with wormholes, soft with rot. Why did I have to rake, while my friends’ voices rang in some happy outdoor game, or while my book lay open near the fireplace? Was it my idea to plant so many trees? The rake was taller than I was. We made ungainly dance partners. Reluctant to lead, I wrenched the thing around; stiff and obtuse, it stuttered behind or scraped against my shoes. If I complained enough, my mother might relieve me of my duties. I’d slink away, guilty in the knowledge that I’d bought my sloth at the expense of her sore back.


I used a fan rake. The kind whose tines spread wide as a peacock’s tail. But rakes come in dozens of varieties. There are rakes made of steel, aluminium, bamboo, and rubber. Adjustable rakes, crescent-shaped rakes, snaggle-tooth rakes, thatch-removing rakes, rock rakes that look like pitchforks, double-fans that hinge like jaws. There are rakes designed to smooth, rakes designed to gather, rakes designed to disturb the dirt.


British printmaker William Hogarth didn’t have to dig to discover the dirt of 18th century London. His satirical eye raked the city, gathering its sins at a glance. The streets of the poor and the parlours of the wealthy alike provided compost for his imagination. Often described as the father of sequential art, Hogarth called his pictures his “stage,” and he loved to dramatize the moral issues of his day. His most famous series, “A Rake’s Progress,” depicts the rise, decline, and fall of one Tom Rakewell, n’er-do-well son of a miserly merchant. The thought of a parent’s sore back would never have stopped profligate Tom. In the series’ first plate, he is fitted for fine clothes before the earth has been raked smooth across his father’s burial plot.


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Jun 272011

I first met Katie Vibert a year ago when she sent me an email, out of the blue, about a project some of her students at the CEGEP de Sept-Îles in Quebec had just completed—a series of gorgeous banners depicting North Shore (the north shore of the St. Lawrence) artists and historical figures. There was I, bigger than life, on the college facade (this, of course, is in honour of my novel Elle which is set on the North Shore, even has a scene set on the beach in Sept-Îles). Now Katie has a show of her own work which reflects the both place and history–the North Shore, the Montagnais, new technologies. It’s a startling, vibrant exhibition.



Sculpture by  Canadian artist, Katie Vibert, on view in Val-d’Or, Quebec from June 3 – July 17, 2011.

Icônes Nordiques Exhibition Installation

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Jun 262011

María Jesús Hernáez Lerena on Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland


What is a self? What is a short story? Those questions intersect at the moment of writing and the moment of reading but mostly at some pre-conscious level. There is however a growing mass of short story theory, research into the nexus of philosophy, psychology, genre and form. María Jesús Hernáez Lerena (see complete bio at the bottom of the essay) is a prolific Spanish scholar, critic and theoretician (also dg’s friend and a startlingly intelligent interpreter of his work). It’s a great pleasure to reprint here María’s essay (first appeared in the Journal of English Studies, full citation below) on Carol Shield‘s great novel The Stone Diaries (winner of the 1993 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award). Though the subject is a novel, the essay itself deals with novel and short story as distinct genres and examines the ways they each deploys personal consciousness (the theoretical cousin of “point of view”). Dense with reference and argument, the essay is intricate and perceptive—a good “reading” of a text always opens up a wider world. And, as often is the case with scholarly work, it has not been easily available to the general reading public (who might actually be hungry for such information). You can use this essay (and bibliography) as a jumping off point to explore short story and narrative theory (as usual, dg could not get the footnotes to work as “jumps” in WordPress; you’ll just have to scroll down and back).

Though she teaches at the Universidad de la Rioja, María will shortly be flying to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for a summer of research (hence we get the second photograph inside of a month taken on Signal Hill—St. John’s is the Paris of the North; everyone goes there.)



 Narrative Genres and THE ADMINISTRATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS: The Case of Daisy Goodwill’s Rebellion

By María Jesús Hernáez Lerena


ABSTRACT. The Stone Diaries (1993), a novel by Carol Shields, examines the strategies characters use to render their selves accountable: they turn life into an ensemble made up of historical, scientific, novelistic or biographical discourse. In contrast, Daisy Goodwill, who is the subject-matter of this fictional autobiography,  remains close to the epistemology of the short story, whose potential has been described by critics as a challenge to knowledge or synthesis (Cortázar 1973; Bayley 1988; Leitch 1989, May 1994; Trussler 1996). There seems to be agreement that the only condition of coherence necessary for the short story is a pointing to the evasion of meaning in life, also that the genre allies itself to the way in which the past is attached to our memory (Kosinski 1978; Hallet 1998; Lohafer 199; Wolff 2000). This essay will analyze the implications of its protagonist’s stance with a view to pinning down some of the ideological grounds of the novel and of the short story in their approach to the question of identity.



[H]ow are we to understand the project of telling a life story
where it must be organized in terms of what is anomalous,
difficult, and resistant to narration?
(Gilmore 2001: 33)

This article deals with the question of how we articulate our consciousness by focusing on the proposals of two major narrative genres: the novel and the short story. One of society’s demands upon the individual is precisely self-articulation, the creation of an identity of one’s own made manifest by an exercise in verbalization. This task is performed through the adscription of meaning to a sequence of incidents and emotions, that is, through the making of a story. Thus, the psychological structures we use to make sense of ourselves seem to put us unavoidably in a narrative dimension; we read ourselves as characters in a story.[1] The interplay between storyness and personal biographical composition will be the object of this study.

Carol Shields

The finality of a life story is knowledge, or at least, intelligibility, a goal reached thanks to certain formulaic beliefs which allow us to connect events within a sequential pattern of progress which—we imagine—moves us towards the future and diminishes the chaos of existence. We like to believe that experience leads to maturation, that the cause-effect binomial organizes our life and explains the conditions of our present situation, that the passing of time brings about learning (intellectual, emotional, ethical). These assumptions, which no degree of postmodernism will be ever able to uproot, act like joints which help interpret the succession of occurrences in one’s life—or in a character’s life—as the dramatization of the efforts towards self-understanding, a path sanctified with the aura of redemption. These ethical dynamics of narrative is grounded in the religious precedent of sacrifice followed by reward. It is the metaphor of life as a river or as a journey which starts as blankness or as confusion and achieves its climax in an adjustment of perception (an awareness of wrongness) or in a more satisfactory appreciation of the relationship between a person and his/her world. However, not all narrative genres share the same joints or the same sense of finality.  Indeed, the short story has been often defined as contrary to the ingrained idea that stories have to make transitions plausible or intelligible. In its search for truth in the clash of experiences which do not cohere, the short story shows ample disregard for other genres such as the novel or the biography, which often equate reality with a slow display of psychological interiors. Aspirations toward knowledge also fare differently in both genres: whereas the short story is said to have constituted itself in its challenge to knowledge and has a penchant for situations that cannot be rationalized (Leitch 1989: 133; Trussler 1996: 560), the novel has historically sought the “expropriation” of life’s mystery (May 1994: 135); it evidences a will to dissect the machinery of connections at play in an individual’s existence. Our culture has made us mainly inheritors to the legacy of the novel, a form of discourse which reveals life as an ongoing pattern connecting the past to the future. The novel’s appearance as a life-long companion is firmly rooted in a sense of biographical time: its embodiment of learned ideas of self as history makes it possible to envision life as a path that is psychologically self-sustaining.[2]

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Jun 252011


Another Numéro Cinq first: This time Marilyn McCabe sings and translates a poem by the turn-of-the-century French poet Guillaume Apollinaire but not simultaneously. Marilyn is an old friend (we last ran into each other helping to pour concrete at a friend’s house in Porter Corners, NY, a couple of weeks ago), a poet, translator and essayist who has already appeared twice on NC. But now you get to hear her sing! It’s a treat, eerie and beautiful.


It became something of a tradition for French composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to set lyric poems by their poetry contemporaries to mélodies for solo voice and piano. Inspired by the poetry of the likes of Verlaine and Baudelaire, composers from Berlioz to Saint-Saens created these musical settings, attempting to “translate,” in a way, the lyric into a musical format that created a form greater than the two elements.

I’m preparing a concert of some these art songs, and as part of my preparation, I’m doing translations of the poems. Here is a funny little poem by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) set to music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

—Marilyn McCabe


L’hotel by Guillaume Apollinaire, Music by Poulenc

Performed (& Translated) by Marilyn McCabe


Click the button to play Marilyn McCabe singing “L’hotel.”



Ma chambre a la forme d’une cage,
Le soleil passe son bras par la fenêtre.
Mais moi qui veux fumer pour faire des mirages,
J’allume au feu du jour ma cigarette,
Je ne veux pas travailler — je veux fumer.


The Hotel

My room is like a cage.
The sun hangs its arms through the bars.
But I, I want to smoke,
to curl shapes in the air;
I light my cigarette
on the day’s fire.
I do not want to work —
I want to smoke.

—Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s poetry chapbook Rugged Means of Grace is due out from Finishing Line Press any minute now. Her poetry has appeared in magazines such as Painted Bride Quarterly, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Numéro Cinq. Her recent collaborative poetry chapbook with Elaine Handley and Mary Sanders Shartle won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Best Poetry Book award for 2010. A Marilyn McCabe essay appeared in Hunger Mountain. She took classical voice lessons for ten years and performs classical or jazz concerts whenever the mood strikes.

Jun 242011

The Immortality of the Crab

By John Proctor


…and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock
in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency
is to refuse to face things as long as possible
by retiring into an infantile dream…
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

It’s 3AM, I must be lonely.
—Matchbox 20

Two days a week between mid-June and mid-October, I wake up at 3:00am without an alarm clock, thinking about crabs. I get dressed in the dark while my wife sleeps and feel my heart beating, hands twitching, mouth grinning involuntarily. I walk out to my car, where my traps, handlines, and bucket are already packed, and I head out to the sea, thinking about blue crabs. I drive toward the end of the earth and then walk out with my equipment, where the sea meets me at the edge of the pier. Sometimes a lighthouse searches in the distance; most times I see black islands shadow the water in the twilight; a few times I notice the dockside lights of boats whose captains beat me to the water. The morning mistral’s brisk song chills even the hottest midsummer night. On the pier I am all alone with the sea, surrounded by millions of ravenous blue crabs.

From November to June, I dream about blue crabs. Sometimes I’m back in Kansas fishing for catfish in the Wakarusa River where I spent so much time as a kid. I’m walking along the cliff overlooking the river, with the wild heather and cattails up to my armpits. I look down into the water from the edge where the grass meets the red clay, and I can see everything. Below the surface, huge flatheads are curled up in their red clay mudholes, or in the hollows of submerged tree stumps. And all along the edge of the river I see thousands of turquoise claws, all busy at work – good little members of the working poor, snapping up stray shiners, collecting detritus in the mud, and building fortresses from everything they find. Sometimes I’m so far up that I can see the Wakarusa River flowing into the sea, disregarding – and this is the great thing about dreams – that crabs and catfish generally don’t coexist, especially in Kansas. What’s important is the work they do, the order they make from the chaos. I don’t even try to catch them – I just watch, as the crabs and the catfish build their homes in the muddy water.


*                              *                              *


In  one of my favorite scenes from the ‘90s sitcom Mad About You, Helen Hunt walks in on Paul Reiser, and he’s sitting comfortably in his chair, doing – well, nothing.  He’s staring off into space, and she asks him for help with some random chore. “I’m busy,” he tells her. She does a double take, and then asks incredulously what he’s busy doing. “I’m working,” he replies. She asks him what he’s working on. “I’m thinking.” He’s a filmmaker, a profession only slightly less physically lazy than writing, if only because of the heavy equipment. In this scene, Paul’s thinking is rather heavy. “I’m developing ideas,” he says. “The less it looks like I’m doing, the harder I’m actually working.”

There is a Spanish expression for Paul’s labor – pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo, or thinking about the immortality of the crab. Basically, if you’re standing around doing nothing and someone asks you what you’re doing, instead of admitting you’re not doing much of anything, simply tell that person you’re thinking about the immortality of the crab. And thinking, done well, is hard work.

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Jun 212011


Selling Tea on the Nile


Egypt After the Revolution, Part II:

Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian




I’ve just returned from a second trip to Cairo. In the two months since my last visit, the mood  has noticeably lightened. This time, I found no tanks patrolling Tahrir Square; the military had disappeared. Instead, the police force was back on duty. Protests were staged, but these were tiny and orderly. While dissatisfaction with the lack of a significant overhaul exists, for the most part, Egyptians keep it in check. They are waiting for the elections in September. They’re hopeful that with a new President, a new direction will be charted. And, in the meantime, they’re living.


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