Dec 162012
 

Jonah contributes here the third leg of his High School Romance Triptych. See also his earlier microstory “The I(r)onic Bond: A Chemical Romance”  and his memoir “Talking to a 17-Year-Old Girl, When You are a 16-Year-Old Boy”. To get a complete picture of his peculiar mind, read his epic one-sentence anti-romance “The Eunuch.”

dg

————

This is an excerpt from my grade 12 math notebook. I have no recollection of writing it, but it’s in my hand writing.

…Her brown hair fell lightly on her shoulders as she spoke to us in the library multipurpose room. I passionately copied notes and feigned passionate interest in her revision of cosine curves and inverse functions. Hand up every moment. “Oohs” and “Ahhs” every time she made eye contact with me, communicating my comprehension of her profound mathematical conjectures. I knew I had fallen completely and deeply when she started going over derivatives.

What began as a simple review of Trigonometry had quickly become Calculust.

—Jonah Glover

————————–

Jonah Glover is a freshman at the University of Waterloo, studying Mathematics and Computer Science.

.

 

Dec 142012
 

“Keep the Change” is an exclusive excerpt from William Gillespie’s new novel experimental Keyhole Factory, published in November by Soft Skull Press. The novel is about a virus that comes close to destroying the human species. In “Keep the Change” the text replicates, as it were, into columns, more columns on each page as the virus gets worse (as in, the text replicates as the virus replicates). Gillespie is particular sort of experimental writer; he leans towards the Oulipo school of writerly constraint, as in the author adopts some self-limiting device that (de)forms his or her text. Any form is a source of constraint, but in the Oulipo mode constraint becomes the form. Thus Christian Bök’s book Eunoia consists of five chapters and in each chapter he uses words containing only one vowel. E.g. Chapter A uses words that only contain the vowel a. And Georges Perec’s novel A Void is written without the letter e. In preparing this excerpt for publication, Gillespie showed me another piece from the novel that is written like a musical score (we tried to figure out how we could publish it horizontally — as Gillespie said, “The page breaks are a necessary evil.” — instead of vertically but could not crack the formatting dilemma). It’s useful to point out here that much literary experiment is essential playful, fun. And Gillespie’s novel, despite being about disease and the the near total destruction of mankind, has a (ever so deliciously macabre) hopeful side. As the author says in an interview with John Warner at Inside Higher Ed:

There are methods to the madness, but “play” is a fun description of what I did. Regarding glimmers, I see it as a hopeful story, in that the sudden near-total extinction of mankind offers hope for survival of the ecosystem. My book is ambivalent whether it’s about a virus that kills humans, or about humans as a virus killing the earth.

It’s a great pleasure to present his work on Numéro Cinq (and I owe Philip Graham a beer for bringing William Gillespie to my attention; see Philip’s interview with Gillespie at FictionWriters Review: Zombies Are Not Real: An Interview with William Gillespie).

dg


.

.

.

.

.

.

.

—William Gillespie

——————

William Gillespie has published ten books of fiction and poetry under six different names. He is co-author of the world’s longest literary palindrome (so declared by Paul Braffort of the Oulipo) and an award-winning hypertext novel. He works for the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois.

The story “Keep the Change” is an exclusive excerpt from Gillespie’s new novel Keyhole Factory, published in November by Soft Skull Press.

 

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR KEYHOLE FACTORY

“. . . you would have to go back to Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro to find such a purely poetic take on the unthinkable.” PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY

“. . . stupendous, mind-bending . . .” AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW

“. . . by turns bewildering and gorgeous, maddening and profound . . .” SMILE POLITELY

“. . . stunning . . .” THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN: NOBBIE AWARDS

 

PRAISE FOR WILLIAM GILLESPIE
“I’ve had very, very few superstars. William is a superstar… William’s work is also compelling and accomplished in its heartcraft, feeling for character, wit, and the kind of perverse humility one sees in writers who are smart enough to know how little can be known for certain.”
—David Foster Wallace
“William Gillespie…is one of the wittiest and most original writers in contemporary American literature.”
–Robert Coover
“…his vastly superior linguistic skills, mathematical mind, intelligence and curiosity combine with his energy…to produce writing of a unique richness and playfulness.”
—Lucia Cordell Getsi
“Gillespie works in a contemporary tradition whose foremost practitioners are members of the Oulipo, the Paris-based group of writers and mathematicians founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Gillespie’s poetry can seem as feverishly wrought as some works of Ian Monk and at other times as stylishly refined as some works of Harry Mathews.”
— Doug Nufer, American Book Review
“…a writer who has clearly learned his chops well.”
—Eckhard Gerdes, Context
“…his vastly superior linguistic skills, mathematical mind, intelligence and curiosity combine with his energy…to produce writing of a unique richness and playfulness.”
—Lucia Cordell Getsi
“[Gillespie’s] language here is far from restrained—it is disciplined, wily, animated, resourceful, in turn nonsensical and musical, but supremely vital, dazzling to confront (“read” is not quite the verb), sculpted lines smeary with fingerprints, stunned by the audacity of their own construction.”
—Joseph Dewey, Review of Contemporary Fiction
“His imagination is sharp, raucous, random, and contrarian.”
—Lance Olsen, American Book Review
Dec 132012
 

Here’s a brief, sweet essay/memoir/story — an uncategorizable something, if you will — from my friend/former colleague/now Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea who has a knack for being able to extract meaning out of a glancing contact, the briefest of interactions. When he sent this to me, he was himself somewhat uncertain. Perhaps, after all, it was only an anecdote. But I read it and worried on it (like a dog with a bone — Sydney and I tend to talk about dogs when we meet) and then got excited about the way the text keeps surging. Some secret here, I thought, about the nature of good writing, how the text begins with a stranger barging, by mistake, into the wrong room, then quiets, then surges ahead with an even more unsettling invasion. The pattern keeps repeating. Now “the writer,”  disturbed, can’t forget the interloper. Details emerge: a melancholy story, alcohol, waiting for a daughter. But again the text quiets; the tired writer returns home to his wife, falls asleep, dreams. And in his dream (the text surges again) he meets his daughter and finds a moment of immeasurable peace. The story works by obsession, image and transformation. The stranger is a mythic other, lost, befuddled Everyman insisting on trying to get into a room that is no longer his. At the end, in his dream, “the writer” metaphorically transforms into the stranger and finds his daughter, that image of love and bliss, and feels at peace. Something very beautiful in this sequence, reminiscent of Chekhov.

dg

—-

As the stranger pushed open his door at the Longhorn Motel, the writer noticed the befuddled grin. “Oh, this is the wrong…,” the man muttered, trailing off and backing out. The writer had long hours to wait before he flew back east from Denver, so, seated at the chipped formica table, he’d been trying to rough out a poem. He’d had small success, and so, as if it would help his efforts, he locked the door against further distraction, even benign as this petty mistake.

A few minutes later, though, the knob began to rattle. The writer slid the bolt.  “What’s the matter?” he snapped when he saw the same man standing there. “Can’t you read numbers? One-Oh-Six. That’s me, not you.” The other man didn’t appear to hear. He leaned against the door with one shoulder, holding an ill-sorted bunch of clothes in both hands. “Get the hell out of here!” barked the writer, as now the other started leaning against him. The interloper was younger than the writer, and he wasn’t small, but smaller than the man who belonged in the room, who put both forearms under the other fellow’s chin and shoved him hard enough that he fell outside onto the lot’s asphalt, a plaid pajama top flying one way, a gravy-stained shirt the other, and a sock landing over both eyes like a flimsy beige blindfold. Even masked, his face wore that silly smile. It might have been a comical sight in other circumstances.  The writer relocked his door.

His poem continued to go nowhere at all, so in spite of the time gaping before him, he decided to repack his own clothes. He couldn’t make that little chore last very long, however, and soon he stepped out to grab a styro cup of bitter-end coffee from the office vending machine. Once more he spotted the other man. He was up on his feet now, at the very spot where he’d been knocked down, his odd bundle of garments regathered, the smile still showing, though not directed at anyone or anything in particular, least of all at the one who’d shoved him.

The one who’d shoved him asked the desk clerk. “What the hell’s the story on that guy?”

“Seems like he’s lost,” the clerk answered. “I give him the key to room 124, but he keeps tellin’ me he needs to get into 106.”

“My room,” the writer mused, stressing the obvious.

“I figure he’s drunk as a skunk,” the clerk snarled, tossing his head and turning back to his affairs.

The writer left room 106 and went out for breakfast. He dawdled over his meal for more than an hour at a place called the Country Fare. When he returned to the Longhorn, he found the showroom-clean, white Ford 150 still parked in front of 106, but its owner was nowhere to be seen. He walked back to the motel office. “What became of our friend?” he asked. The clerk said he’d found him in some other room, not 106 and not 124, the room he’d rented.

Apparently, all he could say was, “I’m waiting for my daughter.”

In the end, not knowing what else to do, the clerk called the police. The cops summoned the rescue squad. The author of poems doesn’t know what happened after that because he abruptly left for his flight, much earlier than he needed to. On the way toward the airport in the rental car, seated by the gate, airborne in the plane, and all through the long drive northward to Vermont after touchdown, he couldn’t help feeling rotten about how he’d heaved that poor trespasser onto his backside. He understood how guilt might bother him, and it did; but he couldn’t quite name the other things beyond guilt that he suffered. He tried to console himself, of course. How, after all, could he have known what ailed the other man? How could he know even now?

Yet even these weeks later, he senses the same mix of guilt and whatever else may be. If anything, his troubling state of spirit has strengthened, broadened, as if it will last him lifelong. Maybe at least he can write about it. Maybe he has always written about it in some vague way. Whatever it is.

He remembers arriving home that night dog-tired in body and heart, and, right after supper with his wife, going up to bed; but there’s a more powerful memory, a dream he had some time toward dawn, in which that wife stood with him and the second of their three daughters next to a splendid bonfire. Someone had lit it at the end of their woodlot road. A quiet bliss pervaded the vision, or rather a feeling like the peace that the apostle Paul describes: the one which passeth all understanding. For a moment, still mostly asleep, he arrived at a warming conclusion: that such peace might actually remain in the world even after he left it, and that somehow it might be available to any person in sufficient need of it. Awake, he felt desolate to dismiss the notion as fantasy.

There had been times when the writer needed it for himself, and there would be other times to come. He knew that.

He didn’t think of the smiling man at the Longhorn just then, though later he saw that he might have.

—Sydney Lea

————————————————

——————–

SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was just published by the University of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in  April 2013,  his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Dec 122012
 

These are a scatter of The April Poems, not many, and Leon Rooke has a whole book of them coming out in, well, April, with The Porcupine’s Quill. April is the eponymous heroine of this book, these poems, the words of which Leon channels with oracular aplomb.

April always wrote in a good clear hand:
Grass is first to hold the snow.
Blue lilac on my window did grow.
The girls drove me crazy today,
So did so and so.

April has three daughters who drove her crazy and still do, her past is dubious and fraught, but former admirers dog her with passion.

next time you’re in trouble
breathe deeply and I’ll be on your bumper
like a hurricane.

Rooke writes with a mix of the vernacular, the colloquial, and the intimate informal, salted with speech rhythms from his North Carolina roots and an aphoristic flair that makes every line a surprise and a delight right up to the point, the quintessential Rooke moment, when the words become other than what they seem and he reaches for some extraordinary truthful mystery.

Dear Tate: It is a lie that beautiful words have disappeared. I have myself a trunkful
in the attic, and thousands more buried underground. April has a stash in small jars
in the pantry, falsely labeled Spices. The girls hide theirs in nine teacups in the three
doll houses, No Admittance To Anyone, Many fine words, luminous phrases, died
on the battlefield. Pirates stole many. Coiled serpents, oiled evangelists. The Pentagon
has ten thousand, no food, no water, locked up in distant prisons. In some cities
ebullient words thrive – Moose Jaw, Sioux City – living on chocolate eclairs, butternut
bread, turnips. They are home before dark. They dislike fanfare.

The cover image is from one of Rooke’s own paintings, a sampling of which you can find on the NC Art page.

dg

 

§

39.  April and the Bad Bees

A woman in the laundromat said to April, The bees are truly nasty this year.
April was quite at a loss in what manner to reply, then noticing the speaker
was addressing another woman to her rear, though only because this other woman
replied to the first, Yes, I have never seen them so bad as this year. I do not believe
these are our standard-type bees.  No, these are mating bees, said the first, both
women then settling heavy glances on  April and her triplet daughters occupying
a three-seater pram.  April inserted another quarter in the drier. The women sat in
green plastic chairs, talking away about the nasty copulating practice of these
repugnant bees, being quite explicit, even vulgar, even pornographic, was April’s
thought, not liking either the glances coming her way, as though she personally
was to blame.  They swarm a person, this one woman said, they hold her down
until all have had a go at her, and then they swarm away and do the same
to someone else and no one says a word. Yes, the other said, it is even worse
at my house. They tie us to the beds, they sup on our toes, they regard us as slaves,
even the mites have noticed. Whereupon the women fell silent for some few moments,
content to watch clothes swirling in the driers. April’s triplets whimpered.
Then the one woman said, What I think is that this queen bee business
is a lot of rubbish. No queen in her right mind would permit such appalling
behavior.  You think it is a king, then? asked the second.  Why, of course,
came the rejoinder, some nasty despot king, have you not known them by the
thousands?  The two women at this point rutting a final malevolent glance
upon April, then lifting their wings and flying off into abysmal night.

 

40.  April’s Clunker Car

conked out on a high rise
not that far from Indian Country,
where she knew people. A tow-truck guy,
there in an instant, said he’d noticed her  condition
round about the Tonawanda River
up by Singalong, the best part of three days ago.
April in the cab beside him, he confessed
he’d been on her tail pretty much the whole of her life.
I ought to have married you and not that other party,
he said, not to claim I could have done any better
at the time and not that there’d  been any chance
of getting out of the thing
without losing my kids.
They are doing okay, he said,
about the same as yours.
Nice to see you holding up so well.
Yup, well, here you go, he said,
pulling into a hustling hub,
next time you’re in trouble
breathe deeply and I’ll be on your bumper
like a hurricane.

 

41.  On the Ropes

Love needs new shoes
but is out of work.
Last night love was arrested,
Drunk, Your Honour,
leaning against a lamppost.
Did she resist your advances?
Yes, she did, now you mention it,
plus she spat on my boots,
vile language, too.
Take her to an alley, the judge said,
beat her to a pulp.

Love staggered away blind
hot wires barbed in her breast
some bones broken
and now naked of foot
in fact naked head to toe
bleeding rather a lot.
Not that anyone much looked:
pretty autumnal day
old bruised ugly broad
bent like that.

 

42.  April’s Deep Remorse

has as cause three grown-up daughters
who last night received a lifetime ban
from the Epicure on Queen Street.
They claim innocence: we were meek ravens
with barely a chirp. It was that theatre bunch
settling old scores, flit and flame
and hands up the dress. Troubled Gertrude,
hemlock ear, Cassandra’s bitter tongue:
your mistresses do nothing but eat ice cream
all day! You  would not cross the room
to spit if my very heart was on fire!
Your Master splits His own tongue!
His flaws are greater than the sum of yours!
Seven police cars racked the chains on twelve.
Lady, didn’t I just arrest you? The Epicure
is the latest haunt hobbling April’s troupe.
Not even the Brunswick House
will have them.  We can’t go anywhere.
Devout Muslim, Devine Bastards,
kicked us out. Ratsuck Tim Horton’s too

 

43.  April Affirms She Married Well

I was his pearl of a girl
his twenty-piece orchestra
with perfect legs
his long hedge with naughty blooms
lithesome gypsy curse
spritely gin fizz
his bright sun
bursting
…….every pane

 

44. Thou Beside Me Singing

April’s friend, Tate, wanted to know
where went the lofty rhymes, the shimmering radiance
in a poem’s long ago.  He liked those words cadenced light as a bird,
say one of those that can hold still against raging wind, stop and start
words from an eloquent brain, a humming bird, April thought he meant.
Fancy syllables espaliered onto a page
like a peach tree clutching a drain? Yeah, something like that,
Tate said, but making sense, you know, ordinary sense, like
I don’t have to get out my Ph.D.  Pretty words, like you’re the critic,
where did they go?
………………………………………+
……April always wrote in a good clear hand:
……Grass is first to hold the snow.
……Blue lilac on my window did grow.
……The girls drove me crazy today,
……So did so and so.
………………………………………+
April said to Tate, I keep my best words in a drawstring bag around my neck.
………………………………………+
Those were the days.
She didn’t say when.
………………………………………+
She was ever at us, this intelligent woman poking the hornets’ nest.
………………………………………+
Don’t wake the triplets. They’ll never get back to sleep.
Those girls sleep too much.
If you had to chase them you wouldn’t think so.
I wore myself out chasing you.
Liar, liar, what’s on fire.
………………………………………+
Tate is waiting. Tate, the dolt.
Dear Tate: It is a lie that beautiful words have disappeared. I have myself a trunkful
in the attic, and thousands more buried underground. April has a stash in small jars
in the pantry, falsely labeled Spices. The girls hide theirs in nine teacups in the three
doll houses, No Admittance To Anyone,   Many fine words, luminous phrases, died
on the battlefield. Pirates stole many. Coiled serpents, oiled evangelists. The Pentagon
has ten thousand, no food, no water, locked up in distant prisons. In some cities
ebullient words thrive – Moose Jaw, Sioux City – living on chocolate eclairs, butternut

bread, turnips. They are home before dark. They dislike fanfare.

—Leon Rooke

———————-

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

 

Dec 112012
 

“A Cut” is a very short story, allegorical, if you will, mordant and slyly ironic in the modern mode, representing a clash of values, a clash of the new and the old, with the voice of tradition coming in the words of the teacher trying to keep control of his classroom, inhumanely and blindly reciting the former courtesies in the face of contemporary social realities (chaos and violence). “A Cut” is Catalan writer Quim Monzo‘s second appearance in Numéro Cinq (see his earlier story “Gregor” here). The story is excerpted from Monzo’s collection A Thousand Morons, translated by Peter Bush, and just published by Open Letter Books. See NC Senior Editor Richard Farrell’s review of A Thousand Morons here.

dg

——

Toni dashes into the classroom with a look of terror in his eyes and a gash in his neck. It is a deep, broad cut, spurting blood that is bright crimson rather than red. One would say, on the evidence of a glance, without a proper investigation, that, now that the flesh has opened up, the gash—that in principle should be no more than a millimeter wide—is two to three centimeters across. We might estimate its length at twenty to twenty-five centimeters, given that it starts under his left ear, goes down his neck, and ends level with his chest, slightly to the right of his sternum.

“They attacked me with a broken bottle.”

Blood is seeping down his neck, staining the white shirt of his uniform. His jacket collar is equally soaked in blood.

“Come on, boy. Is this any way to walk into the classroom, Toni?”

“Sir, Ferran and Roger got hold of a broken bottle next to the vending machine, stuck it into me, and . . .”

“How does one enter the classroom, Toni? Is this how one comes into a class? Does one enter any old way? Does one enter without saying ‘Good morning’? Is this what we have taught you at school?”

“Good morning,” says Toni, putting his right hand over the gash to try to staunch the flow of blood.

“Generally speaking, habits have been degenerating, and you are not to blame, I know. We are also to blame, in institutions that are unable to offer an education that shapes character with a proper sense of discipline and duty. But society is also to blame, and all the many parents who demand that school provides the authority they are incapable of wielding. You, Toni, are but a sample, a grain of sand from the interminable beach of universal disorder. Where is the discipline of yesteryear? Where are the sacrifice and effort? Where are the basics of education and civility we have inculcated into you day after day, from the moment you entered this institution? I know that many other educational institutions practice a much laxer form of education, and that, as it is impossible to totally isolate each individual, and being aware of the tendency of the youth to mingle and fraternize, I know, for all these reasons, that, however much our institution strives to educate you in exemplary fashion, if we are the only ones inculcating any norms, you have too great an opportunity to be polluted by the lax mores of others.”

“Sir, I’m soaked in blood.”

“So I see. And I can also see the dreadful mess you are leaving on the parquet. Not to mention your shirt and your jacket. You know by now that I like your uniforms to always be spotless. But we will leave that for tomorrow. Now go to reception and ask Mr. Manolo for a mop and a bucket of water and try not to splatter blood all down the corridor, as you will have to clean that too.”

—Quim Monzo

––––––––––––––––

Quim Monzo is an award-winning Barcelona based writer. He has written novels, story collections, essays and journalism. His short story collection, A Thousand Morons, translated from Catalan by Peter Bush, is available from Open Letter. Bush’s sharp and flawless translation brings together 19 stories and shorter fictions from one of Catalonia’s leading writers. Monzo’s short story “Gregor” can be read here at Numéro Cinq.

 

Dec 102012
 

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

My Irish Italian upbringing means I have been raised to understand Christmas as a dark, chaotic, cacophony of strife and love: my grandmother’s idea of Christmas nostalgia was to one year read a letter she had written on Christmas thirty years before, incidentally the year the neighbour had shot himself in his basement. Dark. So my choices for Numéro Cinq at the Movies Christmas editions have been dark.

But it would be insensitive not to recognize that this Christmas / holiday season seems to be in danger of being preempted by sadness, pain, and tragedy. This December is already too dark for many. So I am offering two installments of Numéro Cinq at the Movies: a dark or a light, and you can choose just as you choose your turkey meat.

What follows here is the light. But I encourage you to see the dark as well.

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray


In Ekaterina Vorobyeva’s “Entire World is Mine” a small boy wanders through a snow-filled, winter day, filling time before his mother gets home. There are no subtitles but they are unnecessary, the story’s matter is perfectly visual and relatable.

There’s melancholy to this boy’s solitary day, certainly. But there’s also pleasure generated by a string of sensations and subtle cues: his bare fingers on ice, then run under water to warm them, hot needles piercing the coldness away. The taste of juice. The lamp pushing away the growing dark. It’s a child’s world, both simple and large, everything important in the universe caught in a series of small sensory moments.

This style of focusing on small moments of sensation is a great way of representing the simple concentration and focus of children in visual storytelling. In Alicia Duffy’s “The Most Beautiful Man in the World,” it is the sounds of the TV, the dog breathing, the crickets in the grass.

And in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, the protagonist who is essentially an adult child full of wonder, it is her simple sensory pleasures that are represented the same way: she likes dipping her hand in bins of grains, cracking creme brûlée with a spoon, and, skipping rocks at St Martin’s canal.

There’s something Proustian in this largeness contained in small things, something akin to petites madeleines or mother kisses at bedtime. It’s about remembrance and bodily memory. In “Entire World is Mine,” when the boy puts his hand under the water he could just be washing. Only my own memory of wet frozen fingers under hot water makes me remember and imagine the boy’s fingers must feel needled as they warm up suddenly.

Film stories about children told this way offer the opportunity for us to be more present, more aware of the sensations of the moment. We can guess that this boy is waiting for his mother to come home and this is confirmed by how he calls out to her when she comes through the door. But this isn’t a story about a reunion or absence even. The boy’s ability to fill his moments with living encourage us to do the same. And in the chaos of this coldest, darkest month of the year maybe this is the perfect reminder.

–R.W. Gray

Dec 102012
 

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

My Irish Italian upbringing means I have been raised to understand Christmas as a dark, chaotic, cacophony of strife and love: my grandmother’s idea of Christmas nostalgia was to one year read a letter she had written on Christmas thirty years before, incidentally the year the neighbour had shot himself in his basement. Dark. So my choices for Numéro Cinq at the Movies Christmas editions have been dark.

But it would be insensitive not to recognize that this Christmas / holiday season seems to be in danger of being preempted by sadness, pain, and tragedy. This December is already too dark for many. So I am offering two installments of Numéro Cinq at the Movies: a dark or a light, and you can choose just as you choose your turkey meat.

What follows here is the dark. But I encourage you to see the light as well.

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray


YouTube Preview Image

In Andreas Pasvantis’s “December,” we are taken on a terrifying journey of kidnapping and trauma, with a festive finale. All the aesthetics are decidedly horror-ific: the low camera angles, the washed out lighting, the dirty focus, the constant Dutch tilt shots (so the POV seems horizontal or lying down) all build our anxiety. The point of view shots limit what we can see and alter focus so we are inescapably in the action but do not know who we are.

The action is sudden and unexpected: we are attacked with an axe, dragged, covered up, sold into what will certainly be more horror, complete with a chainsaw attack. And what builds our feeling of helplessness is not just that the action comes at us, it’s that we are seen by the people in the film. We are attacked and looked at directly, and this coupling of violence and seeing establishes that we are in a world without compassion.

All along this chain of violence lies the question “how badly will this end?” We are decidedly in the horror genre so we are aware from the start that the ending will be bloody. The last shot is absurdly festive, though, full of beaming faces smiling at us. This scene is perhaps even more violent than the ones before it because all the violences that preceded it build to this insensitive holiday moment. A series of acts of violence and pain that culminate in a festival of insensitivity and smiles.

Holiday movies routinely play off this central tension; the anxiety of the holidays serves both comedy (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) and horror (Black Christmas). I think, though, there’s a more thematic interest here, too. The holiday occurs not long after the darkest day of the year, the lights and gay apparel used to cloak what otherwise might be the most lifeless days of the calendar year. That which is repressed will rise up. This, I suppose, is why we also eat our way through the holidays, to cover up the eventual return of the repressed and stave off the cold and dark waiting outside.

In “December,” we are guided to see the glee and yuletide smiles with a sort of irony; we have seen all the horrors that this holiday scene represses. And because of the use of point of view shots it is our trauma that is covered up with decorations and awful sweaters. But there’s something reassuring about this irony, like finding surprise rum in your eggnog. And this recognition of darkness underlying the holiday lets a little of it out and makes room for the light.

–R. W. Gray

Dec 102012
 

 

Are there no longer any ants in Barcelona? Have they exterminated them all? Have they gone into hiding? Have they migrated to the suburbs?

—Quim Monzo

A Thousand Morons
Quim Monzo
Translated by Peter Bush
111 Pages; $10.35
Open Letter
ISBN-13: 978-1-934824-41-2

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote that when we lose the relationship between the real and the map, between the referential thing and the simulation of it, we enter a strange, confusing space, something he called a second order simulacrum.“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality; a hyperreal.”

Innovation and technology have brought abundant wealth and convenience into the world, but at what cost? We gorge on steady diets of advertising, steroid-fed athletes, and derivatives of something un-ironically called reality TV. (Even the joke is lost now, reality TV no longer being oxymoronic, perhaps only moronic). Our food is more abundant and readily available than ever, but it is also pre-processed and genetically modified. We connect instantly with friends and family across vast distances, but our online presence has robbed of us of privacy and silence.

Entire libraries of books can be carried around in our hip pockets, yet who has time to read? The ever-accelerating human narrative seems to be squeezing out nuance and complexity in favor of 140 character messages with hashtags and 3 million followers, but no actual person ever at the end of it all. Could Donald Barthelme have been right when he wrote that fragments were the only trustworthy form?

Surely we still need important voices crying out from the margins. The very best of our poets and writers always hover just inside Plato’s allegorical cave, somehow still able to witness and report that the culture of the hyperreal is an increasingly spurious one, not built from shadows of real beings dancing in front of the fire, but, more and more, from shadows of the shadows themselves.

The Catalan author Quim (pronounced “keem”) Monzo might well qualify as one of those voices. His fiction has been called surreal, hyperrealist, and highly original. He has written stories, novels, essays and translations throughout his long career, and he has worked as a journalist for various Barcelona newspapers. His brand-new-in-English story collection, A Thousand Morons, just published by Open Letter Books, wonderfully translated by Peter Bush, is filled with a dazzling lineup of stories, many of them awhirl in the transitional spaces between tradition and modernity.

Its characters and the places they inhabit are often nameless, shapeless, entities; many are merely pronouns, wandering through half-familiar territories. It might be one mark of the hyperreal world that proper names have become redundant: “The boy is walking down the street with a rucksack full of fliers hanging over his shoulder on a single strap and a roll of sticky tape in one hand.” Thus begins Monzo’s short story “The Boy and the Woman.”  Does it matter what we call the boy? Have we all been likewise reduced in our over-crowded world? Even the slightly misanthropic title of Monzo’s book serves as a gentle (if playful) accusation, though it could’ve been more damning: Monzo could’ve titled it 7 Billion Morons and been done.

Written at the intersection of old and new, A Thousand Morons pulses with the current of time running through its sentences. In old age homes, mothers and fathers rot away and wish only for death. In refigured fairy tales, the prince rapes the sleeping maiden. There’s a certain madness about it all, with perverse gestures of love, misguided fools and ophthalmologists who can’t see. At every turn, absurdity and contradictions abound, as do humor, wit, and an enchanting spectacle of language. The sand shifts beneath your feet, and leaves you unsteady, shaken, wondering what it all means. The world is changing, Monzo seems to be saying, stand back and watch it with me.

In “Things Aren’t What They Used to Be,” Marta remembers her childhood, when, “though they had a television, her father, mother and nine siblings sat around the table at suppertime and nobody dreamed of asking for the television to be switched on.” Later, when she’s a mother herself, Marta regrets the way television has come to saturate her family life. Dinners pass in silence, her son and husband watching the news or Formula One races at the table. But before long, “Marta had begun to wax nostalgic even for those times, when she, her husband and their kid spent the night in front of the television.” The husband and father now lock themselves away with their computers, leaving Marta to miss the good old days when they at least occupied the same space, even one backlit by the television’s flickering blue lights. In two just two pages, Monzo creates an atmospheric tension about the rapidly changing world, making it humorous and heartbreaking at the same time.

But Quim Monzo is no Luddite; he’s not so much lamenting the passing of tradition as he is dissecting it and leaving its corpse on the table for us to examine. In some cases, he seems to willfully bid a fond farewell to the old ways. In “The Cut,” a boy enters a classroom with a gaping, bleeding wound in his neck. While he pleads with his teacher for help, the teacher upbraids the injured boy:

“Generally speaking, habits have been degenerating, and you are not to blame, I know. We are also to blame, in institutions that are unable to offer an education that shapes character with a proper sense of discipline and duty. But society is also to blame, and all the many parents who demand that school provides the authority they are incapable of wielding. You, Toni, are but a sample, a grain of sand from the interminable beach of universal disorder. Where is the discipline of yesteryear? Where are the sacrifice and effort? Where are the basics of education and civility we have inculcated into you day after day, from the moment you entered this institution?”

All these words while the blood pools around the boy’s feet. Absurdity abounds, past, present and future.

Monzo’s ability to reconfigure and challenge allows him to pack a literary punch with brutal efficiency. In the 150-word story “Next Month’s Blood,” the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and proclaims God’s intention to impregnate the young woman. But Mary refuses the holy annunciation: “’What do you mean no?’ asked the archangel at a loss. Mary didn’t backtrack: ‘No way. I don’t agree. I won’t have this son.’” Putting aside the humorous, contemporary dialogue between the two, the story reflects not only the changing role of women in the world, but the rejection of the hegemony of the Church, as well as some sort of weird empowerment and demystification of the Madonna, one of the most iconic figures in all of Spain.

 

A Thousand Morons is divided into two sections. The first section contains seven traditional length stories, and the second is made up of twelve shorter stories, what might be called ‘flash fiction’ pieces, some less than a page in length. Throughout both sections, Monzo interrogates the changing landscape of storytelling itself.

In “Thirty Lines,” an unnamed narrator explores how to tell a story using only thirty lines of prose. “It’s like asking a marathon runner to run a hundred meters with dignity,” the narrator says, even as he writes. But by the end, he accomplishes this ungainly task of compression, and the narrator (and presumably Monzo behind him) defeats the assignment by turning the task against itself:

He has only seven to go to reach thirty. But, after he has registered that insight—plus this one—even less remain: six. Good God! He is incapable of having a thought and not typing it, so each new one eats up a new line and that means by line twenty-six he realizes he is only four lines from the end and hasn’t succeeded in focusing the story, perhaps because—and he has suspected this for a long time—he has nothing to say, and although he manages to hide this fact by dint of writing pages and yet more pages, this damned short story makes it quite clear, and explains why he sighs when he reaches line twenty-nine and, with a not entirely justified feeling of failure, puts the final stop on the thirtieth.

Monzo’s spare prose leaves little room for context. Explanations and motivations remain elusive. Yet there are echoes of wisdom, and the absurd becomes more than just whimsical commentary on the world. In the opening story, “Mr. Beneset,” Mr. Beneset’s son arrives at an old age home to visit his ailing father. He walks into the room only to discover his father putting on “black and cream lingerie, the sort the French call culottes and the English French knickers.” What’s most startling about this set up is that Monzo provides no details, no clues to the reasons for what’s happening.  We don’t know if the father has simply lost his mind or if he’s been cross-dressing his whole life. The son makes no comment about the odd behavior. Mr. Beneset puts on tights, a skirt, applies his makeup and then heads out to the backyard where the other residents of the old age house “gawp vacantly” at the two men.

But perhaps the quiet wisdom of the story rests on the way love is offered without stipulation, even while the other residents gape at the strange old man. At the end of the visit, as Mr. Beneset and his son say their goodbyes, “they kiss each other, the son turns around, walks away, stops by the door, turns around, waves goodbye to his father, closes the door and uses the handkerchief to remove the lipstick the kiss left on his cheek.”  Is this not a nearly perfect example of love?

By toying with expectations, by working against logic, Monzo creates sharp instabilities in his stories. We are enchanted, confused, even a bit angry at ourselves for not understanding. At times, we can’t help but wonder if we have suddenly become one of the thousand morons.

If there is a shortcoming to this book, it’s that Monzo’s characters often feel overly disembodied. There’s a frigidness about them, a parchment paper quality that makes them dry and brittle. It’s hard to feel compassion or empathy, but then again, that might be exactly the point. Monzo’s characters reflect the contemporary zeitgeist, an age when men and women will drive by and honk if your car breaks down on the side of the road. But their derision is not borne out of cruelty so much as it is out of conviction of certainty about their world. They wish you no harm as you stand there on the side of the road waiting for help; they simply expect you’ll have a cell phone and already have called for a tow truck.

Almost fifty years ago, John Barth wrote about the literature of exhaustion. Today, we flirt not just with exhausted literature, but with the literature of the comatose, the persistent vegetative state that is becoming our civilization, dominated by media moguls peddling pop culture, best sellers and Pepsi Cola across vast, global landscapes with little regard for anything besides profitability. A Thousand Morons was originally published in 1997, just as the twenty-first century was about to dawn, as the new millenium’s Everyman was about to rise from his bed, stretch his arms and head off for work. Except he wasn’t a man anymore, he was an IP address, and he wasn’t heading for the office, but for the local Starbucks, and whether he was in Mumbai or Manhattan, Cairo or Kuala Lumpur, the menu remained the same (and in English). He ordered his venti  frappuccino — words  themselves now part of the hyperreal lexicon — sat down at his wireless hot spot and connected to the world. Except he couldn’t connect to anyone real, only to a host of other disembodied, genderless abstractions, avatars lost in cyberspace, that ever- accelerating multiverse of 4G networks, pre-packaged apps and unlimited texting.

Monzo indicts us all, participants in our own demise, as we drift further and further away from the things which anchor us to the ground. We are being crowded out, Monzo says, most poignantly in “Shiatsu” the final story in the collection “It’s a great bar,” the story opens, “a favorite in the neighborhood, with maybe the finest ham in Barcelona, and hocks—done in the oven with onion, tomato, pepper, white wine, and cognac—of the highest quality.” Three men are enjoying breakfast at the bar, until they forced to leave by a crowd of newcomers. These loud, jovial people appear to be outsiders. Under their arms, they carry (ironically) folders from the “Institute for traditional Chinese medicine.” One by one, the original three men in the café give up their seats and are squeezed out by these newcomers, until only one of the original three remains. The newcomers (for some reason, I picture them as hipsters, in skinny jeans and carrying the latest version of the latest smartphone) are eyeing this last man’s table, hoping he’ll leave too. He endures for a while, but they are bumping past him at the bar:

But soon the accidental knocks become deliberate and increasingly outrageous, and so they pile on the pressure—now he hears them pushing to shouts of ‘Come on, altogether,: wow, wow, wow!’—he gets up and pays. As he is going into the street to the gleeful victory cries of the throng inside, he has to move aside yet again because three more individuals sweep in with their folders from the institute for traditional Chinese medicine, masters now of the whole of that bar they have finally succeeded in making their very own.

How odd that the men in the bar yield to the crowd so passively. How quickly they are replaced and vanquished, though perhaps this has always been the way. Out with the old, so the saying goes.

In Barcelona, where ham cures on the hook above the bar, ordering a plate of jamon y queso means that the diner sits just inches from the kneecap of the sacrificed animal. Try putting a meat grinder in the deli aisle of your local Trader Joe’s and see how quickly the store empties out. It’s not that Monzo possesses some exotic birthright which helps him stay in better touch with the world. He simply understands the clash between the real and the simulacrum, and is thus able to dramatize it in his stories. Monzo reminds us that there is a cost to all this change, and if  contemporary culture represents a buffet table for the hyperrealist, then A Thousand Morons is like a literary tapas bar, offering up its small plates with distinctive flavors, but hardly enough to fill the belly.

Perhaps it helps that Monzo is homeported in a place where cultures and languages collide. Barcelona: The city where the writer can probe the battle between tradition and change right there in the streets. Barcelona: Where Gaudi’s surreal cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, rises out of a modern skyline like some twisted anachronism, half-old, half-new, the church still under construction some hundred and forty years after it began. Barcelona: The dreamscape city, an amalgam of the real and the hyperreal, of fiction and truth.

Monzo’s strange delicacies reflect the geography and history of the city itself as much as they do the plight of contemporary humanity, full of absurdity and humor, heartbreak and despair, and, in the end, full, too, of beauty.

—Richard Farrell
——————————————

Richard Farrell earned my B.S. in History at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and an M.F.A. at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. In 2011, his essay, “Accidental Pugilism” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year In Ink.  He is a full-time freelance writer, editor and a faculty member at the River Pretty Writers Workshop in Tecumseh, MO. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and two children.

Dec 072012
 

 

Ian Fleming & the first James Bond, Sean Connery

The newest James Bond movie, Skyfall, opened last month while the press and the blogosphere celebrated the 50th anniversary of the film franchise. Cover stories blossomed describing the various James Bond actors, from Sean Connery and Roger Moore to the newest incarnation of Ian Fleming’s hero, Daniel Craig, along with Bond’s girls, from Ursula Andress to Berenice Marlohe, and Bond’s high-tech toys, from exploding briefcases to invisible cars. Nostalgia buffs of a certain age recall the Mad Magazine Man from U.N.C.L.E. parody where Sean Connery showed up at the end to brusquely inform Robert Vaughan (As Napoleon Solo) that he got more girls in one movie than Solo got in a whole season of the knock-off spy drama. We recall our chagrin when George Lazenby took over for an ungrateful Sean Connery (Bond was constricting his talents) and ruined what might have been the best of film of them all, On her Majesty’s Secret Service.

 “This never happened to the other guy” Lazenby remarked with cheeky meta panache after getting beaten up in the opening action sequence.

You said it, fella.

Despite my own fondness for many of the movies  — they were a family Christmas day tradition for most of my childhood and my favorite part may have been the end of each one where a final note in the credits said  “The end … but James Bond will be back …” – someone has to say it: we’re all celebrating the wrong anniversary.

The correct one: April 13th, 1953. Yes, we’re still five months away from the crucial date, the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ian Fleming’s very first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Fleming has become the forgotten man as the hoopla about his character’s ongoing life in the cinema ramps up. Most people seem to regard Fleming as a hack with a taste for fine liquor and high tech gimmicks. He liked to drink, no question about it, and the famous “shaken but not stirred” prescription for the perfect martini first appeared in Diamonds are Forever, published in 1956. But the obsession with “Q branch” and elaborate weaponry was entirely the product of Hollywood.

This lovely moment in From Russia with Love makes the point with typical brio. Bond, headed for Belgrade on the old Orient Express, finds himself at the mercy of SMERSH agent Donovan “Red” Grant, played in the film by Robert Shaw. In the book, there is no fancy exploding briefcase or any other gimmick to save Bond. Fleming notes this, with ironic regret: “He puffed away at his cigarette. If only it had been a trick one – magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man’s face! If only his service went in for those explosive toys!”

Ian Fleming’s Bond books in general, though fanciful and romantic when compared with the works of John LeCarré or Len Deighton, seem almost mundane next to the continuously escalating madcap extravagance of the films, which lapsed into self-parody for more than a decade in the seventies and early eighties (still ruefully known as “The Roger Moore Years”).

Fleming’s James Bond was grounded and practical, a sybarite but also an ascetic, equally fond of sea-island cotton shirts and cold showers.  And he had an imagination, which no film has ever managed to portray and no film-maker seems to have noticed.

Here, in Diamonds are Forever, Bond witnesses the villain’s death, Jack Spang — Mafioso and international diamond smugggler  — crashing in a disabled helicopter:  “Yes. There he was. Only about a thousand feet up now, engine roaring and the great blades whirring uselessly as the tangle of metal pitched and yawed down the sky in long drunken staggers.”  Fleming captures the scene vividly, through Bond’s merciless camera-eye:

Bond could imagine the narrow cockpit, the big man holding on with one hand and wrenching at the controls with the other as he watched the needle of the altimeter dip down through the hundreds. And there would be the red glare of terror in the eyes, and the hundred thousand pound pocketful of diamonds would be just so much dead weight, and the gun which had been a strong right arm since boyhood would be no comfort.

About the possibility of a similar fate befalling him, Bond allows himself a few typically hard-nosed philosophical musings, in flight over the Caribbean early on in Live and Let Die:

No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment is in love and skimps his job, way back in London, Idlewild, Gander, Montreal; when those or many things happen, then the little warm room with propellers in front falls straight down into the sea or onto the land, heavier than air, fallible, vain. And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane’s fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea.  Which is anyway their destiny, so why worry? You are linked to the ground mechanic’s careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon, who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death.

Fleming was the first writer I encountered, reading for pleasure, who made me realize that the hero in a book could have an inner life, that the book itself could have a vivid sense of place and a unique sensibility. In other words, Fleming was my introduction to literature. I must add, by way of explanation that I was ten years old at the time and my primary reading, outside of Spider Man comic books, consisted of Albert Payson Terhune dog fiction and the Hardy Boys.  Formulaic as those stories were, they led me to Fleming and Fleming led me directly to Chandler and Hammett, and from there to Hemingway and Camus and beyond.  I learned my first lessons in fine writing from the way Fleming He sprinkled his prose with little  grace notes of description –  the sea  ‘lisping’ on the flat sand, the ‘straight white feather’ of a fishing boat’s wake, viewed from above.

Fleming was a world traveler and he made his settings come alive in a way that some more serious authors might envy.  One of the last of the books, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, begins this way:

It was one of those summers when it seemed that the summer would never end.

The five-mile promenade of Royale-les-Eaux , backed by trim lawns emblazoned at intervals with tri-color beds of salvia, alyssum and lobelia, was bright with flags and, on the longest beach in the north of France, the gay bathing tents still marched prettily down to the tide line in big-money making battalions.

And here is the view of Istanbul from a shabby hotel window, soon after Bond arrives in the city, in From Russia with Love:

Bond got out of bed, drew back the heavy red plush curtains and leant on the iron balustrade and looked out over one of the most famous views in the world – on his right the still waters of the Golden Horn, on his left the dancing waves  of the unsheltered waters of the Bosphorous, and, in between, the tumbling roofs, soaring minarets and crouch mosque of Pera. After all, his choice had been good. The view made up for many bedbugs and much discomfort.

In most of these places, Bond encounters men who become his friends — generally the same kind of man: shrewd, tough adrenaline junkies, with firm dry handshakes and few illusions.  From Darko Kerim, the head the Secret Service’s Istanbul Station, a cheerful cynic who treats spying in the Balkans as a teeming family business, to Corsican gangster Marc-Ange Draco, who briefly becomes Bond’s father-in-law, to Jamaica bone-fisherman Quarrel, and sturdy self-effacing CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond has a knack for finding kindred spirits. But Bond is a dangerous man to know: most of his allies and companions fall by the way-side, shot, stabbed to death or in Leiter’s case, half eaten by carnivorous fish. Fleming had a streak of sadism and a taste for cruelty, tempered by the essential decency of his much battered, imperfect, hero who often bungles every attempt but the final one.

Fleming’s estate in Jamaica & his study

Fleming himself seems like the icon of an extinct brand of personal style, from his mysterious history with MI6  to Goldeneye, the sprawling beach estate in Jamaica where he wrote most of his books, to the ever present cigarette in its long holder, he possessed a level of personal style that modern thriller writers don’t even aspire to. This was a man who claimed to have seen every sunrise in his adult life, who remarked “I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them,”  and dismissed Sean Connery with a tart “I’m looking for Commander James Bond, not an overgrown stunt man.”

The James Bond movies relentlessly update the character and his world with the cold war dissolving into the war on terror, new actors taking over the role, the gadgets and gizmos becoming ever grander, the tech ever higher, the tropes and traps more topical. The villains use parkour and iPads now; the text has replaced the cable. This is necessary in the big-ticket Hollywood that feeds the international film market, where everything must take place in the immediate, indeed the imperative, present tense.

But the charm of Fleming’s novels is the precise reverse of this passion for the up-to-date. Moldering on the used book store shelf, or awkwardly clustered in the cloud-based queue of my Kindle e-reader, they remain unapologetically documents of their own time, endearing period pieces from an era that baby-boomers like myself regard with a fierce wounding nostalgia.

It was our parents’ time, a time of cars with fins, telephones with rotary dials, when America was still the most powerful nation on earth, riding the storm surge of power and wealth from World War II. Yes there were cracks and fractures in that world, but they were easy to ignore. Everyone smoked and nobody cared. Nothing was fading away, nothing was running out, and no listened to Rachel Carson.

Our fathers wore blocked hats parties and drank from flasks of rye at football games; and our mothers gave big cocktail parties and joined the PTA. We protested and demonstrated and smoked weed and ended the war in View Nam and brought down the President.

Heady times.

Who could have guessed that our swaggering parents would get lung cancer from the smoking and cirhossis from the booze, and that we would become the safety first, rules-making, no-kid-rides-a-bike-without-body-armor scared of its own shadow generation, about to drag the world into insolvency with our collective Medicare and Social Security costs?

What did faded movie star Norma Desmond say in Sunset Boulevard ? “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Well, it’s the whole world that’s shriveling now. We live in a diminished, attenuated world, one that seems to be running down like a hand cranked sewing machine. There are too many people, and too little of everything else – food, water, oil, education, breathing space. There was a kind of power moving through the world that Ian Fleming inhabited, like the immense pulses of energy that move through the Pacific from the great Aleutian storms, creating the giant waves that break in Hawaii and the Northern coast of California. That energy has drained from the world somehow. We’re all sitting in inflatable rafts in swimming pools, our new world tiny and tame and chlorinated. The power surging through Fleming’s mid- twentieth century made his success and charisma and swagger possible. It might not have created his stature but it gave him a place to stand.

Okay it was all an illusion, but it was a grand illusion and I miss it and I feel the touch of it on my shoulder every time James Bond lights one of those hand- made cigarettes from Morland’s with the three gold rings above the filter.

That time is gone and Fleming is gone, but the books remain, still more substantial and enduring than the movies they inspired, still wildly inventive  and engrossing, still deliciously preposterous, still as quirky and eccentric as the man who wrote them, sixty years on and still counting.

—Steven Axelrod

—————————–

Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, where he has been a contributor and contest winner, his work has appeared at Salon.com and The GoodMen Project, as well various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp.  A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.

Dec 062012
 

Herewith a sequence of tiny beautiful woodcuts from Saratoga Springs artist/poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski, a friend for years who, yes, can remember vividly my sons as little boys, furtively writing her secret notes in the library and running up to deliver them (I am ever grateful for such memories). We have not just the woodcuts themselves but a multi-media cross-pollination event. The woodcuts are inspired by a W. B. Yeats poem (“The Two Trees”) and the poem has inspired other artists (Loreena McKennitt). You put them together and you have an experience that is aural, visual and intellectual, which is one of the lovely things about Internet publishing. And beyond that I love the artist’s own words, her heart-of-the-matter reflection on the repetitive, obsessive, persistent nature of the creative mind.

dg

 ————–

These very small works, the largest of which measures four by five inches, are woodblocks. The series is titled and inspired by Yeats’ poem The Two Trees.”[1] Singer, songwriter Loreena McKennitt recorded a haunting version of this piece. Because we humans are prone to fear and creatures of habit, some would argue that we struggle with “the same problem” our entire lives. With one step forward, two steps back, we rewrite the same story. Or write the same poem. Paint the same painting. Enter the same relationship. Start the same job. In the film The Last Temptation of Christ, the Girl Angel/Satan says to Jesus, “There is only one woman in the world. One woman, with many faces.”

 YouTube Preview Image

As an artist and poet, I process my “ravens of unresting thought” through my work, and I find this metaphor of The Two Trees particularly meaningful. Yeats begins, “Beloved gaze in thine own heart,” suggesting that relationship, indeed all emotions, all answers are rooted there. Perhaps the other is often a mirror. Expand this notion to include the possibility that only in deeply knowing ourselves can we completely engage in relationship. I am not suggesting by this that we become narcissistic. Far from it. Yeats closes with, “Gaze no more in the bitter glass.” More often relationship (to ourselves, others, and our creative work) requires an emptying, an opening. Surrender. An entire abandonment of the self.

Multi-color woodblock prints are typically made by carving, inking, and printing a separate block of wood for each color. In a “reduction print,” (those shown) only one block is used. The artist must print the entire edition in the first color, then re-carve the same block for the second color and print over those first impressions, etc. etc. for the complete number of colors the work will contain. The most challenging and freeing aspect of this technique is that the artist can never reprint the edition; can never go back to a previous version of the work; can never correct or rethink an action taken. For this reason it is also referred to as the “lost block” technique. Because printmaking is such a physical, painstaking, sequential, subtractive, and meditative process, for me it becomes a balm, much like writing. And although it may seem as if the “problem” is repeated over and over, I believe what Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice…”

— Mary Kathryn Jablonski

.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

 

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

 

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski

———————–

A gallerist in Saratoga Springs, visual artist and poet, Mary Kathryn Jablonski is the author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008), and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. She recently completed her first book-length collection of poems and two additional chapbook manuscripts. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The Two Trees

    by William Butler Yeats

    BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart,
    The holy tree is growing there;
    From joy the holy branches start,
    And all the trembling flowers they bear.
    The changing colours of its fruit
    Have dowered the stars with merry light;
    The surety of its hidden root
    Has planted quiet in the night;
    The shaking of its leafy head
    Has given the waves their melody,
    And made my lips and music wed,
    Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
    There the Loves a circle go,
    The flaming circle of our days,
    Gyring, spiring to and fro
    In those great ignorant leafy ways;
    Remembering all that shaken hair
    And how the wingèd sandals dart,
    Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
    Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

    Gaze no more in the bitter glass
    The demons, with their subtle guile,
    Lift up before us when they pass,
    Or only gaze a little while;
    For there a fatal image grows
    That the stormy night receives,
    Roots half hidden under snows,
    Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
    For all things turn to barrenness
    In the dim glass the demons hold,
    The glass of outer weariness,
    Made when God slept in times of old.
    There, through the broken branches, go
    The ravens of unresting thought;
    Flying, crying, to and fro,
    Cruel claw and hungry throat,
    Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
    And shake their ragged wings; alas!
    Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
    Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

    “The Two Trees” is reprinted from The Rose. W.B. Yeats. 1893.

Dec 052012
 

 

George Singleton lives in South Carolina and teaches at South Carolina Governor’s School For The Arts & Humanities. He is the author of two novels—Work Shirts for Madmen and Novel—one book of writing advice, and five books of short stories, including The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Drowning in Gruel, and Stray Decorum. In 2009 Singleton was a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2011 he was awarded the Hillsdale Award for Fiction by The Fellowship of Southern Writers.

It was a real treat to talk to George Singleton, a writer I’ve admired since early 2004, when the friend I was with at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, Tennessee, put a copy of The Half-Mammals of Dixie in my hand and told me how great it was. I sat there in the store and read “It Itches, Y’all,” a story about a kid whose life is ruined after staring in an educational video on the prevention of head lice.  His life-ruining line: “It itches, y’all.”

While talking to Singleton, he reminded me of what another Southern writer, Harry Crews, once said, “Stories [is] everything and everything [is] stories… It a way of saying who [you are] in the world.” George doesn’t have answers to questions—he has stories, stories to illustrate the question and dramatize it. From everything to his stray dogs to his Whitmanian list of items on his desk, George Singleton is the real deal—modest, funny, individualistic—a writer hell bent on preventing you from becoming a rhinoceros.

 

Jason DeYoung (JD): Let’s talk about how Stray Decorum came about.

George Singleton (GS): I have to go all the way back to about 2005 or 2006.  I had this copyeditor who was great, but he had to go off for a while.  He subcontracted my manuscript out to an eighty-five-year old woman who used to work at The New Yorker.  So, she sends back my manuscript—this was for a novel called Work Shirts for Madmen—and she had really changed a lot, especially the voice. One of the big things she changed was when one of the characters said something like, “I only want to go home and take a nap.”  She’d change it to, “I want only to go home and take a nap.”  She kept changing that “only” word—I didn’t realize how often I used it, and evidently incorrectly. And she wrote about the third time I’d used it: “Do you people in the South not know this rule of grammar?”  So then next time she marked it, I wrote “I want only to kill you,” off in the margins.

Well, as I was correcting her corrections, I’d been writing stet. stet. stet. forever.  [Stet being an editorial term for “let it stand.”]  And I mean forever. A bunch of them.  Like if I’d written, “I ain’t got no money.” She’d corrected it to “I have no money.” (Sighs) I’d write: “stet.”

And so I decided to write a bunch of stories about this character named Stet.  And I wrote like fifty of them, and about thirty-five came out in magazines, and I got a collection together, and I sent them to my agent—about 450 pages of short stories.  She said,  “No one is going to publish this.  (And, by the way, George, I don’t even want to try to sell another collection of yours until you write a novel I like.)”  So, I said, “You’ve never liked anything I’ve written, so I break up with you.”

Now I’ve got a new agent—her name is Kit Ward. And she said, “No one is going to print 450 pages of short stories. But you’ve got all these dog stories.” And I said, “I’ve already written a God-damn dog-story book, you know, called Why Dogs Chase Cars.”  And she said, “You can write another one, you idiot.”

So, she’s the one who got Stray Decorum together. And then next year No Cover Available will be coming out, which will be the rest of the stories.

JD: Let’s talk about opening paragraphs. In your story “I Think I Have What Sharon’s Got,”—one of my favorites—you start with what amounts to a page-length paragraph, in which you smash together about eight or ten topics. How do you think about opening paragraphs?

GS: Sometimes, when I’m starting off a story, and I don’t really know what I’m going to write, I’ll just start writing real fast, like a 500-word sentence or something, just to see what comes out of my walnut-size brain. A lot things will show up.  And then I go back, in that 500-word sentence, and say, “Okay, where’s the main conflict?”

What I want to do, most of the time—and it’s kind of cheating—is just get some of that journalistic who, what, where, how, why into the first paragraph, so that the reader will say “I see the direction of this story, and I’m comfortable with that.”  Normally, I do a reader-friendly first paragraph.  Except “I Think I Have What Sharon’s Got” doesn’t follow that model. (Laughs)

JD: I’ve been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works.  In it he talk about how music is often written sonically for the particular space—a club, a cathedral, a car stereo.  Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write, a particular place you have in mind for that reader to be in—including perhaps a particular “head space”?

GS: The reader I have in mind is probably me. And I’m just writing, thinking this may not get pass the vacuum.

I’m not sure there are a whole lot of people out there—and I hope there aren’t—who are like me. So, my reader, in my mind, is a liberal, probably a democrat, probably scratching his or her head, going what the hell is going on in America—this doesn’t make any sense.

You know, I went to see a production of this play, The Crucible. And I thought, this is what’s going on right now in America: People caught up in a fervor. Reminds me of Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, where everyone is turning into rhinoceroses.  Why can’t we step back and say, “This doesn’t really make any sense.” The reader I’m looking for is that person: the one who is stepping back saying, “This world isn’t making a whole lot of sense.”

JD: And how do you think about structure and building a story?  What’s your “habit of art”?

GS: Consciously I don’t sit down and think, “okay, word 4,000, I need a climax.” Normally, what I’m doing is in my opening paragraph is trying to get the reader accustomed to the water’s temperature and then I usually start off with some dialogue between two characters, and that causes some kind of action, some kind of conflict going on. And then I just kind of see where it goes.  Rarely do I know where it’s going to go, except I usually have a vague sense of the ending.  For instance, if I start a story off in a used car lot, it’s either going to end in a used car lot, or with the characters talking about a used car lot, or driving pass a used car lot.

JD: So, how much revision do you do?

GS: I sort of rewrite the whole time, rereading what I wrote the day before, and then rewriting as I reread.  And then I’ll send it off to a magazine. And the editor will say, “I love the beginning but the ending sucks.” And I’ll send it to another magazine, and they’ll say, “Hated the beginning, but I loved the ending.” And then I’ll go, “You sons of bitches.” And then I might tinker with it some more.

JD: You’ve published five books of short stories and two novels, are you still being influenced by writers you read? And, if so, who are the most recent?

GS: Yeah, of course. When I read a short story and go “God-damn, I wish I’d thought of that,” that’s my highest compliment.  I read like crazy. Just finished a collection by Dan Chaon, and went, “These are great stories.” I’m reading an advance readers’ copy of Jamie Quatro’s new book, I Want To Show You More, and I keep saying, “God almighty, that’s a great story” after I finish one. I read a book of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan called Pulphead, which has a great voice.  But also my buddies like Ron Rash and Tom Franklin.  I read a lot of people who aren’t similar to me. They’re kind of darker, more gothic, and usually not very comedic.  Lewis Nordan is just great.

JD: While we’re on books, what book or books are you an evangelist for?

GS: The Complete Flannery O’Connor I reread over and over.  And, oddly enough, John Cheever, who from a technical point of view is just brilliant.  A lot of times, I’ll ask while writing, How am I going to go from point A to point C?”  And how I do it is a section break, and how Cheever does it is just seamless. But there’s a bunch more—William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver—and they all, in a way, feed me well.

JD: Some of your best stories, in my opinion, are about fathers and sons, and in these stories the father is usually off-kilter somehow.  I’m thinking here of “The First to Look Away” and “Perfect Attendance” in Stray Decorum but also some stories in previous collections.  What is it with fathers and sons?

GS: When I was about forty years old, I wrote my very first dad-and-lad story, and The Atlantic took it. And I went, Jesus Christ, why hadn’t I written any of these stories before?  They’re so easy. I can dip into the well of my childhood since my father was kind of eccentric.  My father died when I was twenty-four, and he had gone through a shitload. He’d had cancer in 1960 when he was thirty-five, he’d fallen forty-five feet into the hold of a Merchant Marine ship when he was thirty-eight, breaking his hip and back and a number of other bones.  He was a morphine addict. He was an alcoholic.  He had all these artificial hip operations.  And he was kind of nuts—in a good way, though. He made sure I met people in different stations in life. We were a lower-middle class family. So, I don’t have to use much imagination to remember these feelings of a kid—a little bit embarrassed by his father, a little bit curious about what his father is doing—which makes the dad-and-lad stories easy to write and fun.

JD: In “Perfect Attendance” the father gives his son several pieces of advice, one of which is “always have a dog with you…get a stray… don’t go buying some kind of fancy pedigree.”  Is this good advice?

GS: That’s probably just autobiographical. (Laughs) In my experience, stray dogs—and I’ve had a zillion—have been loyal, smart, and not finicky. They’ll eat anything. They’ll eat the worst dog food—George Jones Dog Food or whatever.  Also, it makes me feel better about myself for taking in a stray instead of buying some thousand dollar spaniel. Strays have just been good.  Like us, they seem to be animals who are doing the best with what they’ve got.

JD: You talk about rifle writers and shotgun writers in Pep Talks—which are you? Is one better?

SG: Not sure either’s better.  I’m a shotgun writer because I’m just writing story after story. If I were a baseball player, I’d be a solid .250 hitter.  A rifle writer will bat .500, but it takes a long time. I’m not going to spend six months writing a story, which I think is crazy.

JD: In Pep Talks you tell your reader to keep certain items on their desk—an Allen wrench to remind yourself to tighten up sentences; a picture of a chimpanzee to remind yourself to proofread; a whetstone to remind yourself to keep your wits sharp.  What’s on your desk?

GS: (Laughs) I’ve got my father’s first artificial hip.  I’ve got something called a Cherokee marble that I found in the Reedy River.  My father’s old pocket watch.  I’ve got something… (Laughs) Oh, man, I shouldn’t tell you this. Okay, this comes from a printing press, and it’s from where you put the letters up, and this thing is called a butt plug, and an Allen wrench goes into it to hold the frame onto a printing press. I have a mouthpiece to a tuba I found on Kure Beach. My old stopwatch. A knife. But you know what I’m missing? My grappling hook. I think my dog sitter stole it. Let’s see… A baseball signed by Charlie O’Brien, saying “catch you later,” which kind a cracks me up.  Old feathers.  A Playboy Mansion swizzle stick. An old cat’s paw. A bunch of dog chews for when the dogs come back here.  I have an arrowhead.  My zippo lighter, pens, a dictionary, my father’s other (second) artificial hip—he had a lot of artificial hip operations. I’ve got the top off of something called Begonia Salad that I got in Kentucky—I think they meant baloney salad.  Up above me I have a Howard Finster plywood cutout of Santa Claus, and on it, it says “Santa in the kids’ world. He only teaches kids to be good. He is just another toy.” I don’t know what that means. (Laughs) Is that enough?

JD: Yeah, thanks. I heard that for The Half-Mammals of Dixie you hung around flea markets. Were there places you hung around for this collection?  There are a lot of original bar scenes in this book.

GS: No, not really.  I don’t go to bars anymore, like in town.  If I’m out of town, I’ll go to a bar.  So, I try to get out of town four or five times a week. (Laughs)

No, these stories just kind of came to me.  It’s funny you should mention that about the flea markets, because I’m kind of out of ideas, and have been thinking I should go hang out in bars. But basically I get ideas in Wal-mart, K-Mart, Bi-Lo, which is the closest grocery store. I’ll just walk through there, pick up on the odd things people are saying, and I’ll go, “Oh, I’ve got to go home and write.”

JD: You’ve written and talked about how literary fiction doesn’t sell well.  Why do you think the figures for literary fiction stink?

GS: I don’t know, but I came across this guy the other day who has this novel out, and it’s a detective novel (and I’m not going to say his name or anything).  It’s the worst written thing in the world, and this guy was telling me how to write. He said, “What you want to do is take out all of your adverbs”—which I don’t use that often—“and you only want to say ‘said’ when writing dialogue.”  And then I looked in his book, and everything was “he sputtered,” “he opined,” nothing was like “he said.” So, what the guy was telling me he didn’t do himself. And this book of his is selling well.

My only theory on this… my only analogy is that people in the United States eat a lot more baloney than they do filet mignon, but that doesn’t mean baloney is good for you.  For some reason, people read and eat a lot of baloney.  And I know that sounds highfalutin, and I feel bad about it, but sometimes I just go “Good God, what are these people buying?!” And it’s bad.  And it’s going to get worse because all the independent bookstores are dying off, the newspapers are dying off along with their book review pages. There’s just going to be people going into a big chain outfit and buying whatever they see on that big stand, saying “I’m a big rhinoceros and I’m going to do what all the other rhinoceroses are doing, etc.”

JD: I’m going to ask forgiveness for this next question in advance. You have a lot of scamers in your fiction—at times it seems everyone is on the make.  Is fiction writing a kind of scam?

GS: (Laughs) Man, that’s a good question. (Pause) I guess in a way it is.  You’re trying to put something out there in the world; you’re trying to say, “Hey, this is something you need to read.” Just in the same way, like in an info-commercial, you’re saying, this is a pill you need to take, or this is a chair you need to sit in. In a weird way, it is.  It’s like holding a Tupperware party.  And I’m saying, buy this book, because this is going to be more laughs than you’re going to have otherwise.  Man, I’ve never thought out it like that. Geez, thanks a lot. I’m going to commit suicide—I’ve been a prick all my life. (Laughs)

JD: I didn’t mean to make you re-think your life. But it reminds me of what Annie Proulx says, “I try to make the stories I write interesting and entertaining. I don’t write to inspire social change.”

GS: What I think is that there’s a weird continuum.  If you had a big spectrum, you’d have entertainment on one end and knowledge on the other end, and somewhere in the middle you have what I’m trying to do.  I’m trying to make you laugh and teach something about humans.  I’m trying to get in that middle area.

—George Singleton and Jason DeYoung

 

 

Dec 042012
 

In George Singleton’s new sly collection of short stories, Stray Decorum, strays take human form—from a paranoid gambler to a kinky sociologist, from a braless hippie to a down-on-his-luck basket weaver and other manner of humans in between—especially those we love and fight.  With his fathers and wives, inventors and barflies, Singleton reminds us over and over that not just the lesser animals can be strays, but we too can be just as shiftless and discarded as the wooly mutt digging in the garbage.   —Jason DeYoung

Stray Decorum
George Singleton
171 pages
Dzanc Press, 2012
$15.95

“Your good, heroic characters are mixed-breed, lovable, loyal mutts adopted from The Humane Society. Your antagonists are AKC-registered purebreds with all the quirks, limitations, and personality flaws inherent to such inbreeding.”[1] Such is George Singleton’s aphoristic writing advice. Such are Singleton’s sympathies for strays.

What’s a stray? A domestic animal wandering at large or lost, right?  In George Singleton’s new sly collection of short stories, Stray Decorum, strays take human form—from a paranoid gambler to a kinky sociologist, from a braless hippie to a down-on-his-luck basket weaver and other manner of humans in between—especially those we love and fight.  With his fathers and wives, inventors and barflies, Singleton reminds us over and over that not just the lesser animals can be strays, but we too can be just as shiftless and discarded as the wooly mutt digging in the garbage.  And what of the actual dogs in this collection? They are all strays, beasts without pedigree, sired by men without direction, raised by women of grit.

George Singleton has published a total of eight books—two novels, five collections of stories, and one book of writing advice. While his novels make for outstanding reading and his book on writing is one of the funniest how-tos I’ve read, it’s Singleton’s short fiction that always leaves a mark on me.  Most of the stories in Stray Decorum were originally published in such journals as The Georgia Review, Oxford American, and Ninth Letter. Stray Decorum is the first half of a longer series of short stories, and Dzanc Press plans to publish the second half in 2014 in a book titled No Cover Available.

Although born in Anaheim, California, George Singleton was raised in Greenwood, South Carolina, and he is a Southern writer who understands his rural characters well: “For the record, I would rather be in a bar with a possible gun toter on the loose than with a drifter book critic.”  And his fiction brings to mind the work of Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin, and William Gay.

Singleton graduated from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, with a degree in philosophy and attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for his MFA.  He currently teaches at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.  In 2009, he was a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2011 he was awarded the Hillsdale Award for Fiction by The Fellowship of Southern Writers. (By the way, you can go here to hear Singleton tell his Rube-Goldberg-like beginnings as a writer.)

Stray Decorum leads off with a story called “Vaccination.”  Here are the opening few sentences:

My dog Tapeworm Johnson needed legitimate veterinary attention.  It had been two years since she received annual shots. I read somewhere that an older dog can overdose on all these vaccinations, and I have found—I share this information with every dog owner I meet—that if you keep your pet away from rabid foxes, raccoons, skunks, bats, and people whose eyes rotate crazy in their sockets, then the chances of your dog foaming at the mouth diminish drastically. I also believe that dogs don’t need microchips embedded beneath their shoulder blades…

Wry, opinionated, suspicious first person narrators dominate this collection (though there are a few stories in the third person). Within these stories the reader is secluded with a narrator who is convinced of certain concepts or views that are askew from those around him.  Most of the time, their world-view derives from isolation, as in “Vaccination,” the narrator’s only companion is his dog, Tapeworm Johnson.  Of course, the madcap conflict of the story comes from him meeting another isolated, off-kilter person: “What should a divorced basket weaver do when tempted by a microchip-believing hippie woman intent on drinking before noon?”

With his narrative sensibilities grounded in Samuel Becket and the Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, many of George Singleton’s stories are predicated on absurd themes and he locates his narrative pathos beneath the humor in human misery. In “Durkheim Looking Down,” a pair of couples try to hide their proclivities and eccentricities from each other, only to have their deepest fears revealed during one drunken night—spoiler, the couple that wear the no-bark collars to bed turn out to be the normal ones. Absurdity takes fuller shape in “The First to Look Away,” when a father conscripts his son’s fifth grade class to dig a moat around the family’s log cabin.  He tells his son’s teacher that the children are there to “dry mine” for rubies. The Mao-quoting school principal cheers the children from the moat’s edge: “‘To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses.’”  Digging disinters several of the father’s childhood dogs, and as the father grieves afresh for his losses, his son sees his father’s humanity for the first time.

Excess absurdity gets toned back in some of these stories, and we see Singleton’s talent and sensitivity for writing finely textured works about human misfortune and spirit. In “What Are The Odds?,” the narrator goes out searching for his missing dog sitter who has stolen his social security card and driver’s license.  Unemployed, addicted to playing the lottery, unhappily married the narrator wonders, “What are the odds of someone wanting to steal my life?” And in “Perfect Attendance,” the best story in the collection, a boy who has never missed a day of school his whole life takes a second look at his loser father and the podunk community he grew up in and realizes that perhaps they are not as bad as his mother would have him believe, that always doing “right” and getting your pats on the head aren’t what living is about.

For all of its deadpan humor, non-sequiturs, and oddities, Stray Decorum is overall a collection about feeling that often-overwhelming desire to be accepted and understood.  And the final story in the collection, “Humans Being,” may contain the best paragraph in the whole book that clearly defines the stray’s vision:

I could see, for once, in the future, where I’d drive around in my truck with this great dog who would be loyal and trusting. We’d cruise around the entire country, erasing what young men and women thought necessary to exclaim, or about their territory, or unrequited love. I would tell Tennessee to stay on the bench seat, and she would. We’d go through drive-through windows and I’d buy her hamburgers without onions or condiments, plain hot dogs, the occasional stand of French fires.  I envisioned our taking a vacation together and driving to the coast where she could chase gulls and dig for whatever mollusks relished living underground.

Here, we get the humor and compassion that defines Singleton’s fiction. In this story the narrator’s wife has left him, and he’s living in a house full of his ex-brother-in-law’s stuff.  He is without. Not shelter, per se, but loyal companionship.  In the story, a woman comes to his house under the pretenses of looking for her runaway dog, but she is really there to get something that belongs to her from the boxes filling the narrator’s home.  The dog returns, but it’s clear that she has no strong love for this animal. The narrator sees something of himself in this dog who has the “eyes of a good nun, of a grieving Appalachian widow, of a disappointed vintner.”  He trades the woman her gold panning equipment for this downtrodden pooch.  It’s a symbolic trade—wealth for loyalty.  He fantasizes early in the story something like this could happen between him and the woman, but as she reminds him in a sentence that takes on double meaning—“It’s you and me against the Humans.”  And that is what binds these stories together: the restless need we feel for wanting to be found.  The wisdom of this collection is that we can find a home amongst the strays.

—Jason DeYoung

—————————

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds, George Singleton. Writer’s Digest Books. 2008.
Dec 032012
 

Sharon McCartney doing CrossFit workout

Editor’s Note: Sharon McCartney’s poem “Deadlift” has been selected for Best Canadian Poetry 2013 by editors Molly Peacock and Sue Goyette.

Sharon McCartney‘s last contribution to Numéro Cinq was reprinted in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 and now she looks for a repeat with a stunning poetic sequence that makes a metaphor out of weightlifting and love. I thought of a lot of puns I could use in this introduction: Sharon McCartney’s poems are muscular, explosive, sinewy, lean — but then I thought, Stop. These are beautiful touching poems replete with incisive perceptions about the relationship of love and pain, about the struggle of life. The Greeks called it agon. The Greeks saw no distinction between athleticism, art, philosophy, politics and love. They didn’t compartmentalize the way we do. Sharon tries here to reconnect art, emotion and the body.

I have only one small personal comment.  Would you LOOK at how much weight that girl is lifting! Go, Sharon!

dg

———-

Double Unders

As in love, it’s important to loosen the grip,
not to resist, to harden into clumsy condemnation.
If you think too much, you’ll stiffen and trip.
Flicking the silver cable faster, through two
revolutions rather than one. Forget the details.
Banish pedestrian mores. Embrace the higher
leap beyond petrification to delimitation, forgiving
the forgiveable, his petty flirtations. Outpace the
orderly, grasping mind. Allow the larger rhythms,
spontaneity, to flow. We’re liquid after all, flux,
especially now, this escalation roping a blue Nile
of salt-licked sweat from my candescent brow.

.

Deadlift

Lift that dead weight, my sister’s suffering,
the abominable pain of a teenager’s cancer,
how she longed to die, lobbing obsolete toys
at the obsidian-flowered bedroom walls, her
knobby fists on the chic white shag, and me,
ten years her junior, five or six, witnessing
the recurrent melees, squad cars in the driveway,
sedative syringes, a night ambulance strobing
the red windows. Our stone-faced mother so
calm under her beehive. An obligatory facade.
Lift my father sobbing beside the green Chevy,
not so much raising the plates as pushing the
floor away, slowly, patiently, shoulders slung
back, chest up. The pity, my mother’s burden,
a grief so poisonous it had to remain hidden.
How hard it is even now to forgive my sister.
Once called the “health lift,” hitting the glutes,
hamstrings, quads and core. Lock out tight
and straight at the top, loopy-eyed, vertiginous,
every cell in your body about to pop and
then drop the bar, a cold cadaver clattering.

 

.

Rest and Recovery

Fatigue disguises itself as need, saying work harder,
don’t give in. An intramuscular discontent, achiness,
disrupted slumber, eyes wide at 3 a.m., that brittle,
burnt, racing-pulse aftermath of excess adrenalin.

What is it in us that resists what we ultimately
require? The overtired infant startles awake,
wailing, after just two hours. My sad friend,
whose marriage implodes, is online instantly
pursuing another.

                               Reaching the furthest for what
we need the least. The closer I cleaved to him,
the lonelier I became. More squats and deeper,
more intervals and faster, until something
fractures, a scapula, a heart.

 

Skullcrusher

The bicep’s the starlet, pouty sex-pot, Bardot
or Loren lounging in limousines, but if colossal
arms are what you want, the tricep’s your man,
tuxedo-clad, blasé, smoking behind a pillar.
The larger of the two muscles, yet elusive,
easily over-looked, downstage, its horseshoe
cocked out of sight. To work it, think backwards.
Push, not pull. A subtle, focussed movement,
lacking the curl’s sideshow bombast. Or lie
on the bench, face up, a dumbbell socketed in
your palm, elbow raised, and lower the weight
to your brow, the tricep dragging. It’s your stay,
your guy wire, invisible block and tackle that
snags the heft, preserving your skull. Painful,
yes, and vaguely frightening, yet worthwhile,
like unveiling a shadow, the televangelist’s
sordid sex habits, the financier’s Ponzi scheme.
Behind the bicep’s facile he doesn’t love me
lurks the tricep’s harder truth: I don’t love him.

.

Poet Sharon McCartney

.

Hard Ass

150 Smith machine squats over an hour, sets of 10,
alternating with biceps and triceps, not too much
weight, but as low as possible on the declension,
and, on the upthrust, envisioning Atlas, Pythagoras,
even that pea pod in grade 8 science, how it shoved
the crust of loam aside as it unfurled. Stiff-legged
deadlifts. Walking lunges with 15 lb. dumbbells,
spine erect, each bruised knee smacking the floor.
Hamstring curls, the glute machine’s equine kick-
back, finishing it off with the lying bridge, a 30 lb.
plate on my hips, lifted and held to a count of 20,
10 times, 2 sets, the goal being overload, quaking,
tearing and scarring, and, in the end (pardon me),
an ass like rock, monolithic, enduring as hatred,
that unseen core of silence that remains unswayed,
undeceived, beyond hypocrisy or triviality. The
unshaken ground beneath me, the darkness that I
fall back on, the depth that elevates, propels me
through the salt-dappled double doors of the 24/7
gym into the light and strength of each damned day.

.

Poet Sharon McCartney

— Sharon McCartney

———————

Sharon McCartney 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. Her poem, “Katahdin,” which appeared in Numéro Cinq in July 2011 was selected to appear in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 (Tightrope Books). These poems are from a new book to be published in the Spring of 2013 by Palimpsest Press.

The pictures are all courtesy of the good people at Crossfit Fredericton.

Dec 022012
 

Herewith stunning and mysteriously timeless photos of the Vermont College of Fine Arts green, College Hall, and Alumni Hall, caught with a smartphone camera by John Solaperto who renders the familiar strange and other-worldly, out of time. He doesn’t just snap a photograph; he completely alters our perception not only by the common techniques of framing and point of view but also by his canny and original use of black-and-white and a photo app that makes new things look old. As John aptly points out, the photos look like they date from the 1920s, but they were taken last winter. I don’t know — this stuff knocks me out; I love how art twists the neurons in my brain, and these photos do that. And, frankly, I just warm to a real, down to earth photographer who doesn’t make a fetish out of gear and renders the world beautiful with whatever comes to hand.

John is an old friend from many a VCFA residency. Some of you know him as an amiable, intense, helpful presence at lectures and public occasions. It’s a pleasure to discover his art.

dg

—–

There’s an adage among photographers that “your best camera is the one you have with you.” My experience with the camera on my smart phone over the past two or three years has really driven that home for me. I’ve limited myself to only two camera apps, but there are dozens available.

I’m particularly taken with one called Hipstamatic, which lets me choose a lens and film combination that produces a black and white image with enough pixels that I can make a decent inkjet print at approximately 6”x6”.

The configuration with which I’m shooting produces an image in a square format. The camera is set up so I can’t see the entire scene in my viewfinder. Such a configuration adds an element of chance that I like. It’s an image capture process reminiscent of the plastic cameras popular in the 1980s and 90s that used 2”x2” black and white film. One must make a lot of images to get something usable in terms of content, tone, and sharpness. This particular series of images has a rather specific target audience, namely those associated and familiar with the Vermont College of Fine Arts community. I’d like to think, however, that they also have the potential to engage a wider audience of viewers in visual narratives more specific to the context of their personal life experiences.

The two images of skaters at ground level were shot late in the day on a rather cold Sunday afternoon in late winter. They were chosen from nearly 200 exposures, made as I walked around the rink on the college green. Besides the action of the figures, the photo has a certain quality of light that I find engaging. College Hall, functioning as a backdrop, adds to the nostalgic, period quality of these images. They look as though they could have just as easily been captured in 1912.

The aerial images of skaters were shot a few days later from a second floor window of College Hall. I was aware of the figures but thought of them as secondary to the composition of the other elements of the scene, i.e. the flag, sky, tree, and light post. As it turned out, the interaction of the figures with each other provides an even stronger visual interest  than the interaction of the figure with the other compositional elements. As a photographer, I feel that the image of the child with outstretched arms was an especially wonderful gift.

The aerial shot devoid of figures is included here as related to, but not really part of, the “skater series.” It was shot from the highest window I could reach in College Hall. While speaking with a colleague, I noticed the long, thin cloud or patch of fog moving rather quickly from south to north, just below the horizon. My colleague very graciously allowed me to open her office window to shoot. Of the 30 or so exposures I made to get this image, most had some part of College Hall’s architecture intruding into the composition. The one included here does not.

The night image of College Hall is an experiment in pushing the limits of available light. I think that the overall quality of light in the image, the footprints in the snow, and the diagonal motion created between the Christmas lights on the portion of the lamp post along the left edge of the image and the face in the clock tower, as well as the light in the doorway below the tower and the lamp post that lines up with the window in the center of the image, all work together to form a strong composition. The overall effect is eerie but pleasing.

All of these images represent the study of alternating patterns of light and dark tonalities. They’ve been edited with software, but not in a manner that is inconsistent with traditional dark room practice, i.e. I have made just basic tonal adjustments in all photos, and in some cases, I’ve done a lot of dodging & burning.

—John Solaperto

————————————————–

John Solaperto is a digital photographer and vocalist from Worcester, MA. He currently lives and works in Worcester, MA with his daughter and two grandsons. He is the Learning Resource Manager for the Applied Arts Program at Quinsigamond Community College and teaches Digital Photography in an adjunct capacity, evenings and online. He also spends approximately 12 weeks a year in Montpelier, VT serving as a media coordinator for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ two MFA in Writing programs and its Visual Arts program. He has an undergraduate degree from Clark University’s Studio Art Program (1993) and an MFA from VCFA’s MFA-V program (1995).

 

Nov 302012
 

Brooklyn Rail Fiction Editor Donald Breckenridge

 

This is very cool, very strange. Also very exciting. It’s the opening of Donald Breckenridge’s new novel (so new it is yet to be named), an opening that amounts to a prose translation of Jean Rouch‘s short film Gare du Nord. The film splits into two parts. The first part is a young married couple quarreling over the dissolution of their relationship; they are tired of each other, disappointed in their mistakes, tired of their lives. In the second half of the film, the wife meets a handsome brooding fellow who offers transcendence, offers her the chance to run away into a life of adventure. But she’s too, what?, bourgeois, timid, polite to take him up. His response is to climb the bars of a railway bridge and jump to his death. Thus, in an even shorter form, I have replicated Breckenridge’s summary.

But what is going on? A novel disguised as a summary of a film? A quotation, as it were? A meta-commentary, or a work of art based on a work of art or in dialogue with a work of art? And the story itself is iconic, presenting the enormous ennui of modern life in the pressure cooker of a young marriage. But then the young man in the suit offers liberation. Is he a con, is he the devil, is he an angel? And the girl can’t contemplate running away from the life that is grinding her down. She hurries back into the trap. She doesn’t trust freedom — well who would trust a man you had just met, who talks crazily about adventure, who looks too good in that suit? What is she going to do now? I give you here also the movie. And it’s in French without subtitles. The message loop Breckenridge creates is convoluted and mysterious and yet firmly within a novel-writing tradition starting with Cervantes who, after all, wrote a great novel about a man trying to imitate another book.

First, for your delectation, we have the film, in two parts, and then the novel.

dg

.

YouTube Preview Image

.

YouTube Preview Image

.

The film begins with a panoramic shot of the skyline above the 10th Arrondissement in Paris and is accompanied by the drone of jackhammers. The camera pans the horizontal jib of a large red crane suspended above a construction site then lingers on a young woman watering the flower box on a narrow windowsill overlooking the site. The interior scene opens with the young woman, attractive with shoulder length dark hair and wearing a yellow bathrobe, having breakfast with her husband who is dressed in orange pajamas. The husband is heavyset with tousled hair. He has the gruff demeanor of someone who did not get enough sleep. Breakfast consists of soft-boiled eggs, a baguette with butter and two bowls of black coffee. Their conversation is warm while recounting a weekend outing with friends, although he yawns through some of his lines, then grows contentious as they discuss the grind of the workweek. She wants to know why he thinks her desire to travel is so ridiculous. He says that it isn’t ridiculous. She wants to know why he thinks her fantasies about escaping their everyday existence are so unrealistic. He assures her that there is nothing ridiculous or unrealistic about wanting to travel then adds that millions of young married couples around the world have found themselves working for meager salaries at entry-level positions in large corporations while living in small apartments. She reproaches him for what she perceives to be his condescending attitude then insists that they are trapped in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment in a dull part of the city, which is clearly ruining her life and destroying whatever chances she has of ever being happy. He is visibly annoyed by her proclamations. Their morning routine is poisoned by a festering resentment as the alternating volley of diminished expectations begins in earnest. They move through the apartment exchanging insults. The casual resignation the actors employ while delivering their lines conveys the impression that the melodramatics on display are as much a part of the couple’s daily routine as brushing their hair and teeth every morning before leaving for work. While shaving, the husband inquires, over the muffled drone of jackhammers from the nearby construction site, as to why he is entirely to blame for their current financial predicament. She sarcastically compares the crane looming outside their bedroom window to the Eiffel Tower. While stepping into a knee length skirt, the wife declares, that this passionless marriage is the ultimate source of her unhappiness. Didn’t she known exactly what she was getting into before they married? What an ungrateful oaf she has had the misfortune of marrying—lazy, unlucky, a real slob. He claims that if he had known she was this shrill and superficial he would have never married her. She says that this stifling middle class existence, having to live in this tiny apartment and her horrible position in an airless office are to blame for making her shrill and miserable. He says that she has never been interested in resolving their conflicts, and yes, her unrealistic expectations feed a boundless narcissism, this constant fighting is nothing more than a selfish and destructive form of entertainment. The future looks grim, and she is now running late for a job that she despises. While buttoning up her blouse she tells him that they are finished. And how, the husband demands, is he to blame for that. She slaps him, after making the bed, and then walks out. The husband follows her out the front door and down the hall where he is willing to give up a little ground—you’ve blown this out of proportion but maybe we have taken things too far. She refuses to reconcile and leaves him standing before the cage-like lift, repeatedly calling after her, as she descends through the building. The splice leading into the second part of Jean Rouch’s short film, Gare du Nord, is hidden in darkness. She passes quickly through the lobby and into a Parisian spring morning circa ’64. The 16-millimeter camera follows over her left shoulder as the morning sun highlights the dark green velvet ribbon in her auburn hair. The sound of her heels moving rapidly along the pavement accompanied by that of passing traffic. While crossing the street she is nearly hit by a car. A tall man in a black suit appears and apologizes for almost running her down. She is going to be very late for work. Can he give her a lift? She politely refuses. The man abandons his sports car in the intersection and follows her up the street. He is a handsome, Belmondo-type, with the somber demeanor of an undertaker or a down on his luck aristocrat. Although she says she has no time to talk, she engages him in an earnest conversation while walking up the street. The man says modern society has driven him to despair and claims to be seriously contemplating suicide. His confession doesn’t shock her. He presents her with a highly implausible invitation—run away with me and we will live an extraordinary life of adventure, a life of unlimited love and endless freedom. He insists that they will never worry about money or be dragged down by the banalities of everyday existence. She is bemused by his offer and inquires as to how such a life with him would be possible. He quietly assures her that his family possesses vast wealth—serenely adding that having a lot of money is meaningless when you don’t have someone to share your life with. Fleeting temptation crosses her expression before she politely refuses. When she claims that they don’t even know each other it’s implied that anyone this impulsive is clearly unstable, and yet she confesses her desire to travel, then relates her fantasy of just getting on a plane one day to start over again somewhere else as another person. They are walking along an overpass. There is the sound of a commuter train rushing below. The man tries to convince her to run away with him. She graciously refuses. And now he is seriously threatening to kill himself at the count of ten if she doesn’t accompany him. She apologizes for saying no, and begs him to stop, because what he wants from her is simply impossible. They continue walking as he calmly counts up to nine. At ten he climbs the railing of the overpass. She pleads with him to stop as he jumps to his death. The long distance shot of the screaming woman pulls back to reveal a motionless body lying face-up on the tracks. A loud train-whistle echoes her screams as the film ends.

— Donald Breckenridge

——————————————-

Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein, and the novels 6/2/95, You Are Here and This Young Girl Passing. He is working on his fourth novel and editing a second Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology.

Nov 122012
 

Numéro Cinq is honoured to publish here a wonderfully informal yet riveting and eminently astute (also frank and even funny — that orgasm/musk ox thing) interview with the poet and former Poet Laureate of the United States Donald Hall. The subect matter leaps from sexuality to ageing to metrics to ambition and old friends now gone — just what you might expect from an elderly but seriously ALIVE poet. Anne Loecher is a wonderful interviewer — she holds a poetry MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives not so far away, so she still drops in now and then at residencies which is always a delight. She also knows how to shape an interview, give it an emotional plot, a rare thing.

dg

On an early afternoon in early May I arrived at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire to interview Donald Hall. Hall, born in 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut and raised in suburban Hamden, summers at Eagle Pond, home of his maternal grandparents and place of his mother’s upbringing.  Eagle Pond operated as a farm for generations, up until his grandparents’ time. Rows of bright daffodils lined the driveway, planted there by Hall’s late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, daffodils being among her favorites.

Hall published his first poem at age sixteen, graduated from Harvard in 1951 and earned a B. Litt. degree from the University of Oxford in 1953. He subsequently served fellowships at Stanford and Harvard, and in 1958 began his teaching career at the University of Michigan, where he met Kenyon, who was a student of his.

In 1975, Hall left his tenured position at Michigan with Kenyon so both could dedicate themselves to writing fulltime. After nearly twenty years together on the farm, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia, and died in 1995. Hall has remained at Eagle Pond since, continuing to write.

Across his writing career, Hall has published numerous books of poetry, prose, literary essays, sportswriting, and children’s fiction,  and amassed a lengthy list of honors and awards including the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Edna St Vincent Millay Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships (1963–64, 1972–73), the Caldecott Award (1980), the Sarah Josepha Hale Award (1983), Poet Laureate of New Hampshire (1984-89), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1987), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1988), the National Book Critics Circle Award (1989), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry (1989), and the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver Medal (1990). He has been nominated for the National Book Award on three separate occasions (1956, 1979 and 1993), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement (1994) and appointed U.S. Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate (2006). Most recently, Hall was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2010.  Writing in a pre-interview email that he might tire out during our chat “If there is one thing I’m constantly aware of – it is that I am old!” – Hall was energetic and animated as we discussed the topics of posterity, reputation, and the conclusion of his poetry writing career.

—Anne Loecher

———

INT:   I’ve been considering the careers of several poets who have drifted in and out of popularity. I wanted to ask you about posterity, obscurity, popularity, and how you feel about it with regard to your own work and reputation.

DH: I have seen so many people become famous, and disappear. If I live to be 300, I’ll see some of them come back. I mentioned Archie MacLeish, who was my teacher. I have doubt that Archie will come back, although he won three Pulitzers.

There were famous young poets when I was at college – Wilbur, Lowell and Roethke. Dick Wilbur is alive at 91, and in January he had a wonderful poem in The New Yorker.

I wrote Dick about the prosody of his poem. The second line has a caesura, after two syllables, the second after four syllables, then after six syllables, after eight syllables. I asked how many people would recognize that metric.

But, there’s William J. Smith, who is older than Dick and lives in the same town as Dick. Back around 1950, Smith was famous as a poet. I don’t think I’ve heard his name out loud since 1970.

Have you ever looked in the list of Pulitzer winners? I think they begin in 1932 or so. See how many names you recognize. There are many I don’t recognize, and you won’t recognize because of your youth.

INT: I’m not so youthful!

DH: Reputations go up and down.

INT:  You’ve talked about The Back Chamber being your last collection of poetry. Did you know it would be, as you were writing it?

DH: Toward the end of the volume, the last two poems that I started for it both began in 2008. I did well over a hundred drafts, and I realized that this was the end. I felt it coming.

INT:  The Back Chamber does not hold back from addressing sexuality, alongside ageing.

DH:  Poetry is sex. And the engine of poetry is the mouth. Not the eye, not the ear. The ear and the eye are perfectly fine, but poetry originates in the mouth. Obviously the mouth is used in sex, beginning with the kiss.

The spirit that infuses me in reading a poet of beautiful sounds, like Keats, is sexual feeling. My poems had a lot of personal sexual feeling well into my seventies, but then I think the testosterone diminished. I felt the horniness going away, for two or three years. I rubbed testosterone into my chest, and it came back for awhile. That’s when I worked on later poems. But the cream diminished in its powers so I stopped.

There was an early poem that Janey (Kenyon) always liked — “The Long River.” I wrote it when she was eight years old. It’s the first poem I ever wrote which began without any notion of where it was going to go.

The Long River

The musk ox smells
in his long head
my boat coming. When
I feel him there,
intent, heavy,

the oars make wings
in the white night,
and deep woods are close
on either side
where trees darken.

I rode past towns
in their black sleep
to come here. I passed
the northern grass
and cold mountains.

The musk ox moves
when the boat stops,
in hard thickets. Now
the wood is dark
with old pleasures.

It’s about orgasm. It’s not about a musk ox. But musk ox is there because it is “SK, KS”. Actually, there’s a kind of meter to this poem, which I’ve never used elsewhere. In English verse, you’re counting volume when you’re talking about stress, or you’re talking about greater volume. “Con-tent” is iambic, and “con-tent” is trochaic. But in English, rather than Greek verse, which the Latins learned to imitate, it was the length of the vowel, not the length of the syllable you counted. In this one, it’s – short, long, long, long/ short, short, long, long/ short, long, long, short, long/ and, short, long, short, long/ and then  short, long, long short.

There are a few lines when it doesn’t really work. I first had “the musk ox in his long head” and I was captivated, and kept going. And toward the end, working on it, or even after I’d finished it, I figured out what it was about. People have not used a sexual word to describe it, but found it sensual.

INT: Was that the first experience you had of moving through a poem without knowing what it was really going to be about?

DH:  When I wrote a poem in my early twenties, I had to know what I was writing about before I started. Stupid: one of the poems from that time came from a definite idea, and it’s there. What the poem’s really about is something I never understood for years. Five years after I wrote it, somebody wrote an article about me, and explained to me what I really meant. It’s called “The Sleeping Giant,” which is the name of a hill, near where I grew up in Connecticut. I had the thought, that if a little kid believed it really was a sleeping giant, it would be pretty scary. Then he’d grow up and know it wasn’t. It was a poem, I thought in my head, about illusion and reality.

The Sleeping Giant (A Hill, so Named, in Hamden, Connecticut)

The whole day long, under the walking sun
That poised an eye on me from its high floor,
Holding my toy beside the clapboard house
I looked for him, the summer I was four.

I was afraid the waking arm would break
From the loose earth and rub against his eyes
A fist of trees, and the whole country tremble
In the exultant labor of his rise;

Then he with giant steps in the small streets
Would stagger, cutting off the sky, to seize
The roofs from house and home because we had
Covered his shape with dirt and planted trees;

And then kneel down and rip with fingernails
A trench to pour the enemy Atlantic
Into our basin, and the water rush,
With the streets full and all the voices frantic.

That was the summer I expected him.
Later the high and watchful sun instead
Walked low behind the house, and school began,
And winter pulled a sheet over his head.

People reading the poem in the New Yorker liked it best among my poems.  I was jealous for my other poems. Then someone wrote an essay, saying that I had written many poems about fathers and sons, but the best one was “The Sleeping Giant.”  It had not occurred to me. It was classically Freudian. When you are a baby, an enormous figure stands over you, not handing you a breast. It’s scary because it’s big. When I read the essay, I was stunned, and I agreed. I hadn’t known what I was writing about. I think that the people who preferred it to other poems didn’t know what it was about any more than I did. It communicated. It’s mysterious, how you can communicate by images, to another person. You can’t do it on purpose.

But, on purpose, you can write something in which you don’t know what’s happening. You can always cross out and throw it away. But that part of poetry – the part where you write things down, that feel right, but you don’t know why they’re right – left me as I got older. I was about eighty. As I said, it’s testosterone. (I tell that to a lot of people, and they want to look away.

INT: I understand that. I write about loss, but I wonder, as I say that, what I would find within my poems if I looked more closely?

DH: A great deal of poetry is about loss, love and death. Death is loss. My poetry has been called elegiac. I can be praising the old farm life, but then something is gone. The praise is love, the elegy is less, in the same poem.

INT: Regarding the issue of posterity, again, in your new poem “Poetry and Ambition” from The Back Chamber there’s a line “…If no one will ever read him again, what the fuck?”’

DH: Nobody will ever know about future reputation.  I began writing very young, with ambition. I certainly wanted to be a great poet. In my day, or my generation, there were so many of us. At Harvard, weirdly enough, I knew Adrienne Rich. We double dated. We got to be good friends, later, not at that time. Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch; I’m missing some. We had the notion – and I wrote of it in an essay called “Poetry and Ambition” – that there was no point in writing unless you were going to be a great poet. It took me some time before I realized that nobody ever knows how they will seem in the future.

Ambition begins when you want to publish a poem in a magazine. Well, I did that when I was sixteen. And then, you wish that you could be published in the New Yorker. Then, you want a book. Then you want a second book, then you want a selected poems. It could certainly all be called ‘careerism. It can also be called ambition, and an eagerness to get better.

My father was the elder son of a self-made man who went only through the fifth grade, and worked for ten cents an hour, then was successful with his dairy business. And my father, being the elder son, could never do anything right. He was beaten down his whole life, which was short. He could never do anything right, and he was discouraged.

My mother came from this place – New Hampshire, where I live. In rural places, women worked as many hours a day as men did. Good God, my grandmother made soap. She churned butter. There was Monday washing, Tuesday drying, Wednesday baking. And at night time – do you see there, in the middle of the ceiling? In every room, there are lights in the middle of the ceiling. Do you know why?  There would be a table in the middle of the room, and a great, big kerosene lamp, and the whole family would be around it at night, the single source of light. My grandfather would read books, not good ones, but books. And as the women talked; they were darning socks, they were tatting, or knitting. They never stopped. That was the way people lived.

So my mother then moved in 1927 to the Connecticut suburbs, where women didn’t work. No married woman was allowed to work. She wanted to ‘pass’. Her New Hampshire accent stayed with her – she said ‘Coker Coler’. She wanted to be a suburban wife, like everybody else, she grew up the oldest sister of three girls. She was the oldest sister to the universe. She was full of ambition. None of it had anywhere to go. So it went to me.

I was an only child. She was ambitious for me, and always pushing. When I started sending poems to magazines at fourteen, they would come back with printed slips. My mother would say, “Oh, there’s a rejection today, Donnie,”   That was the beginning of my career.

When my first book came out, it was reviewed everywhere, instantly, reviews that praised it. And it’s no good. There are two poems in that book, one called “My Son, My Executioner” and “The Sleeping Giant” which I told you about. After the first reviews of praise, there was a second wave, responding to the first wave, that tended to be negative. Some of the negative reviews were certainly right, and they had me walking up and down.

All through my life I have written and published poems which I thought were good and which turned out to be terrible. And it’s hard to believe why I thought they were good at all. Some have held up for me.

INT: Is it possible that it’s a matter of your tastes having changed?

DH:  Oh, it’s also being dumb about your stuff! There was one time I remember sending poems to Alice Quinn, who was the editor at the New Yorker. I had one poem that I was afraid was no good, and I almost did not send it to her. I decided at the last minute – what did I know? It’s called “Affirmation.”  She took it, and published it about a week later. And people all over the country wrote me about it and told me they’d cut it out and put in on their refrigerators, and so on.

INT: What do you think of that poem now?

DH: I was kind of shocked, and convinced that it must be some good. I think that there are two opinions about the ending of it. I thought that one direction was obvious. And then most people took it the opposite of what I thought I’d said. And so many people took it the opposite of what I thought, that I decided it must have been one of those occasions where I was writing with the wrong idea of what I was writing. It begins:

“To grow old is to lose everything.”

I don’t think I was seventy when I wrote that. I’m eighty-three! It’s funny to read. What did I know?

Affirmation

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

When I wrote it, I thought when I said, “it is fitting and delicious to lose everything” that my sarcasm was obvious, and that it was all in the one direction, of a lamentation. And then I discovered that people took the word “affirm” as a positive, the reversal of what I thought I had said.

INT:  That’s how I understood it. I didn’t understand it as sarcastic at all. So, if you can never know, does it also mean you can never know if your poem is good?

DH: I guess I’m saying so. A friend to wrote me about it, believing “affirmation” as positive, and telling me I was all wrong, I was sentimental, to be affirmative, because really, only the negative was true. That’s really what I thought I was writing, and that’s why I thought it wasn’t good. Who knows?

INT:  You make some pretty striking points about ageing in your recent essay “Out the Window.”

DH:  In almost any poem that I care for, there has to be a contradiction. If there’s ‘north’ in the poem, there has to be ‘south’ in the poem, or it’s no good. Oppositions. This was a snowy winter, and I kept sitting in this chair, looking out at the birds. I was writing about looking, thinking ahead to spring and the flowers, and it was all very lyrical. I thought: this essay doesn’t have any counter-motion in it, any north to go with its south. Then I went to Washington, and that fucker said, “Did we have a nice din-din?”  I’m so grateful to the idiot. It’s what I needed. That condescension is totally other than the pleasant lyricism of looking out the window. And I think it  made the essay. People say – did you bop him? I didn’t get mad. I was grateful. To Linda he says “Did you have a good lunch?” and he leans down to me and says “Did we have a nice din-din?”

INT: Are you working on more essays now?

DH:  I’m going to do a book of essays. I’ve got a wonderful one I’ve just finished, I think, which is about smoking, when everybody quit. Playboy bought it.

The first essay in the book will be “Out the Window” which was all about being old. The others all will include aging. There’s another one I’m trying to write about poetry readings, where I find it hard to climb up to the stage. I have to sit down when I read now.

INT: When I was driving up here, I noticed the stone fence, and the cemetery down the road. So beautiful. Are there any family members buried there?

DH: No. It is beautiful, this is Wilmot. That graveyard was the beginning of East Wilmot. They were going to build a church – I think it was Methodist – and they started their graveyard before they had built the church. But New Hampshire shrunk. The population was at its greatest about 1855. It went way down, and it’s up again, but it’s all southern commuters to Boston. Early, it was single farms, every quarter of a mile, and pasture land up the mountain. The population dwindled, and East Wilmot never happened. About a mile farther down, there’s another graveyard, and on the right, there’s another church, the South Danbury church. In the South Danbury graveyard, I have a great grandfather and great grandmother. He fought in the Civil War and died in 1927.

When Jane and I were first here, we loved our place so much that we knew we’d stay here forever and that’s why we bought a graveyard plot. It was a positive, not a negative – love and death, this is where we’ll be. She died right in there (motioning to the back bedroom), and I will die in the same bed. My kids and doctor know that.

Five miles the other way, there is another old cemetery right next to the road, where I have great-great-greats. A little farther there’s a big cemetery, begun early in the nineteenth century, holding my great grandparents as well as Jane. There’s Jane Kenyon, 1947 – 1995, and then Donald Hall, 1928 – _,  in a plot at the edge of the cemetery with the great trees above it.

———————–

Anne Loecher is a former Creative Director and copywriter who fled Madison Avenue advertising to work in non-profit communications. Having recently completed her MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she is currently revising her poetry manuscript and writing her first screenplay. She lives in Maple Corner, Vermont (yes, that’s really the name of the town) with her husband, teenage daughter, her OCD beagle and ADD cat.

 

 

Nov 112012
 

The riddle is an ancient and persistent literary form. In Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar Viktor Shklovksy writes about riddles:

Hegel wrote in his Lectures on Fine Art that “the riddle belongs to conscious symbolism.” What is the riddle’s answer? It is derivation of meaning. According to Hegel, the riddle consists of “individual traits of character and properties drawn from the otherwise known external world and, as in nature and in externality generally, lying there scattered outside one another, they are associated together in a disparate and therefore striking way. As a result they lack a subject embracing them together [as predicates] into a unity . . .” This disparity of signs hinders the immediate solution as to which whole they all belong to.
 In veiling the whole, the riddle forces us to rearrange the signs of a given object, thus showing the possibility of diversity, the possibility to combine the previously irreconcilable in new semantic arrangements.

Herewith we have a shrewd, clever, witty and expansive essay on the riddles and riddle poems in (mostly) Western literature from The Book of Exeter to Harry Potter and J. R. R. Tolkien and Emily Dickinson. It’s partly a highly suggestive craft essay and partly an informal history of ideas, also a refreshing sort of literary criticism, the kind that takes a long and inquisitive look at the words on the page.

Julie Larios is a friend, an esteemed colleague in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program and a gifted poet whose work has already graced these pages more than once (here and here). It is always a huge pleasure to have her back.

dg

—–

I’m not much of a “main highway” kind of person when it comes to thinking about the craft of writing.  I go down lots of sides streets, I let my mind wander. Sometimes even a side street feels too wide. And I’ve been thinking lately about a small alley named “Riddles,” a deceptive short cut (sometimes filled with broken bottles and garbage cans) between one street and the next. I have the feeling deception is important. “Most felicitous sayings rely…on a capacity to deceive beforehand…” said Aristotle. “We have even more obviously learned something,” he said, “ if things are the opposite of what we thought they were, and the mind seems to say to itself, ‘How true. I was mistaken.’”

Riddles are all about questioning our own grasp of the world by questioning the nature of things, casting a new light – thereby casting new shadows –  and I believe that thinking in riddle-mode can help us be better writers. After all, don’t riddles follow the pattern of all great works of literature by asking large questions of us like “Who am I?” and “Are things what they appear to be?” and – perhaps the most important question of all – “When is a door not a door?”  Ah, yes, one of the great questions of Western literature.  It has survived the test of time, as has its existential answer – “When it’s ajar.”

I remember the first time I heard this riddle, I was in Mrs. Frizzy’s second-grade class at Booksin Elementary, standing outside the cafeteria in the lunch line.  A boy named Dickie, who was in line in front of me, turned and asked, “When is a door not a door?”

I repeated the riddle out loud. “When is a door not a door?”

Dickie waited as I turned the riddle over and over in my head. Well, I thought, maybe it’s not a door if it’s like a –what do you call it? – one of those swinging things you see in the movies; cowboys push through them when they walk into an old-time saloon, like Gary Cooper did in High Noon, or maybe John Wayne in something?You know, not a door but like shutters on hinges.  I didn’t say that, because it didn’t seem to me like Dickie was waiting for that particular answer.  So I repeated the riddle with more emphasis.

When is a door not a door?”

Dickie looked annoyed, so I gave him what he was waiting for: “I don’t know.”

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.

What?” I asked, which is actually a good question the first time you hear a riddle like that.

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.

A jar?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Dickie, snickering.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie repeated.

“What do you mean, when it’s a jar?” I asked.

“Ajar,” Dickie said.

I said nothing.

“Ajar,” Dickie said again.

“Oh,” I said, as if I understood. And that was that.

I think it was my father who explained the answer to me. I bet my mother groaned, but my father probably thought it was funny, and I was left at 7 ½ years of age wondering about the world of discomfort and flat-out deception that the English language might inflict on me for years to come.

And that was my introduction to riddles. I didn’t like them. They weren’t funny. They made me feel stupid. I don’t remember ever telling them to my friends. I don’t think I ever checked a riddle book out of the library. Some people groan when they hear punning riddles, other people laugh. For a long time, I didn’t laugh, I groaned.  Now, if I’ve never heard the riddle before, I usually laugh and groan.

“What’s black and white and “red” all over?” Answer, of course, a newspaper – black and white and “read”– r-e-a-d-  all over.  

This category of riddle is also called “Shrewd Questions.” The riddle of the Sphinx is a shrewd question in an answer-this-or-you-die way. Basic shrewd questions and punning riddles are the riddle forms most children are exposed to, and I think it’s fair to say some of these shrewd questions are shrewder than others.

What did one wall say to the other wall? (Meet you in the corner.)

What birds are always unhappy? (Bluebirds.)

How do you make a lemon drop? (Hold a lemon up and let it go.)

If there were no food left in the city, what would you eat? (A traffic jam.)

I particularly like that last one.  It turns the word “jam” so steeply and suddenly on its head that the reader thinks immediately, “Traffic jam – what a strange phrase.” Anything that slows us down and makes us hear language in a fresh way is alright by me, though I didn’t believe that when I was seven.

I do remember liking the following shrewd-question” riddle, even when I was young: What flies but has no wings?  The answer –most of us know this – is Time. That riddle is elegant – it moves away from goofy wordplay and into the territory of poetry. Emily Dickinson, whose poems were sometimes riddles and sometimes what appear to be their opposites – definitions –  knew this when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” To turn that definition into a riddle, all you do is reverse it – “What has feathers and perches in the soul?” One answer could be Hope. That’s the kind of riddle I’m interested in.

Listen to the lovely beginning of this “riddle” by Ms. Dickinson:

She sweeps with many-colored Brooms—
And leaves the Shreds behind –
Oh, Housewife// in the Evening West –
Come back, and dust the Pond.

Who is the Housewife in the Evening West with her many colored Brooms? She’s the sunset. Dickinson’s poetry is full of definitions and riddles. What house has no door? “Doom,” Dickinson answers.

At the very least, riddles help us understand that definitions are elastic, as is identity itself, and language is delicious and strange, not to be taken for granted. As a creative writing teacher, I like encouraging fiction writers to taste them – words – once in awhile. Like blueberries, they are good for you, full of antioxidants.  It’s a fine approach, slowing down and thinking about word sounds, word choices, and how language either flows or gets tangled into traffic “jams,” or – and this is a shame – how it loses its luster and becomes dull, rusted out by cliches.   I believe we write better fiction when we balance forward motion (plot) with attention to language.  And I could justify studying riddles that way, hoping they would be seen as evidence of the nutritional value of wordplay.  Acquire a taste for wordplay and see where it takes your prose. If it takes you too far, step back – no need to go overboard, and certainly no need to go beyond wordplay and overwrite the thing, no reason for your language to get fancier than the story requires it to be.

But I‘m actually more interested in how our minds use language as a way to organize the world – that is, the way the mind searches for stability by creating categories and classifications, and the way it makes meaning. I’m quite serious in saying that the study of riddles – their long history, their presence in nearly every culture of the world in every age, their subversive nature – affects our mode of thinking. Riddles interrupt our human inclination to stash things in well-defined cubby holes, to insist upon order and to find “solutions” to things that puzzle us. Riddles ask us sometimes to live comfortably without firm solutions. At their best they can teach us to think metaphorically, to find fresh ways to say things, to think about indirection as a writing strategy, to build a tolerance for alternative meanings and contradictory truths, to turn away from infallibility and learn to live with our own stupidities, and to question assumptions – something every writer, not to mention every good citizen in a participatory democracy, should know how to do. For example, here’s a riddle which is not poetry but which I do like:

A bus driver was heading down a street in Colorado. He went right past a stop sign without stopping, he turned left where there was a “No Left Turn” sign and he went the wrong way on a one-way street past a cop car. Still – he didn’t break any traffic laws and didn’t get a ticket. Why not?

(Because he was walking.)

Our assumptions are wrong from the beginning, and the person who framed this riddle understood how to manipulate the reader into believing one thing (a bus driver only drives) while many alternative things about a bus driver are true – for example, a bus driver can walk. Riddles obstruct our desire to pigeon-hole people, objects and events, and to keep things neatly organized in categories. They make us rethink our assumptions.

I’m interested in that. I’m interested in the interruption of assumptions as a technique of fiction. We lead people to believe something, based on the preconceptions they come into the story with. Then we turn those preconceptions on their head, and we take our readers someplace unexpected. Neither our characters nor our readers have to go where stereotypes, clichés and assumptions push them – they don’t have to file things into orderly little categories like “bus driver” or “walker” or – more irritatingly – “bad guy” or “good guy.” Characters can be more complicated, readers can be asked to leave their assumptions behind. And as both readers and writers, we can say, as Aristotle wants us to say when we learn something new about the way the world works, “How true. I was mistaken.”

Sure, there’s a level of discomfort associated with admitting we are fallible. But being convinced of our infallibility will ultimately make us miserable (along with our readers, our spouses or partners, and our children) due to a little thing called hubris. Believing as an author that you have a lesson to teach, that you know the truth, that you are infallible, can be lethal to your storytelling.  For starters, it usually produces boring stories.  It also assumes your readers are children in need of guidance – not bad if they are children (after all, five-years-olds are probably not quite ready to be knocked senseless by the blurred line between good and evil) but not great if they’re young adults and fully-grown adults.

One solution to being boring and pedantic is getting into a riddling frame of mind – admitting that answers are hard, that tricks are played, that situations and people are not always what they appear to be, that the “right” answer sometimes proves to be wrong, that we’re not the only ones who head one way and then have to circle back or start over in order to understand.

I grew up thinking riddles were only puns and plays on words. I moved from the typical groan to a kind of bemused admiration for the best punning riddles, and lately I’ve felt true affection even for the worst ones. Especially for the worst ones, actually. But punning riddles and “shrewd questions” are only a small part of the whole idea of riddles.

I took several classes at the University of Washington with the poet Richard Kenney, whose delight in word play, proverbs, charms, curses and blessings was infectious. He mentioned in passing one day that his favorite riddle was a medieval one, traced back to the 1300’s: Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window.

I’d never heard a riddle like that, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was a riddle, yes, but it was also mystery and a story, and it was also poetry. Who or what was going around the house? Why more than once? Who did that white glove belong to, why was it at the window, what was happening? Could I conjure up a narrative to stand alongside this riddle? A girl who is pushed…is it sorrow that spins her round and round, is there something of herself she leaves behind? Something that says, “I was here”? Or something that asks “I was here, but who was I?”

Professor Kenney told us one answer to that riddle, of course. What was swirling around the house was snow, and it left a white glove – a small drift – at the window.  But he wasn’t as interested in answers as he was in questions.  He believed, as Samuel Coleridge did, that “In a complex enigma, the greatest ingenuity is not always shown by [the person] who first gives the complete solution.”

I thought about that riddle – Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window – as I went to sleep that night. Along with all the other questions I had, I began to think about another person – the one inside the house, looking out.  What is that person doing or what is happening to that person? I loved how far I could take this riddle, loved feeling haunted by it, loved trying to make sense of it and loved its changing perspective.  Good poetry makes you do that, makes you wonder. Wondering was what I enjoyed, not the “solution.” And the riddle didn’t say, “Snow is like someone going around and around the house and leaving an accumulation at the window frame that is similar to a white glove.” And it didn’t say “Snow IS a white glove at the window frame.” Those imply a more direct approach to metaphor and simile. I’m interested in the leap – the method to the madness– and in what we don’t see.

The snow riddle’s method is indirection – another term for “sleight of hand” – the trick of magicians and con men who convince their audiences to pay attention to one hand while the other hand is hiding the card up the sleeve.  Indirection is what Archibald MacLeish was talking about in his poem “Ars Poetica” when he said that for “all the history of grief” you could substitute “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”  This ability to direct attention somewhere else – to describe something by describing something else – is the key component of poetry. Taken larger, and sustained a bit longer, it becomes T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative. Basically, it boils down to this: You turn the reader’s gaze to something clear, physical and observable, in order to understand something deep, emotional and invisible. Grief exists, yes, but it’s an emotion, an abstraction, while an empty doorway is touchable and real – much more powerful for a writer to use, because it gives us an image rather than something ephemeral or intellectual.  What we encourage our readers to do, when we use this strategy, is to think about convergences: “How and where does this touchable object intersect with that emotion or idea?” But we don’t ask the question directly. We simply turn to the physical world and evoke it. We let readers understand, either immediately or later, on closer reading, that we directed their attention to this other thing for a reason. This is the point at which the writer makes a leap of trust –we trust our readers to notice and to make meaning.

One reason we use indirection is because it’s more subtle. No one wants, hopefully, to hit a reader over the head with a 2×4 to get a message across. We don’t say, “Hey, that maple leaf, it’s grief, get it?” Instead we want the reader to intuit that when a character turns to look at something – let’s say it’s a bird flying – the bird stands in physically for an invisible desire. Perhaps the character wants “to fly,” to break out of his or her oppressive world.  The repeated trope of the flying bird becomes an objective correlative, triggering this convergence automatically. Granted, a bird standing in for freedom is a cliché; writers should be able to come up with something fresher than that.  But cultivating a riddling frame of mind helps us turn from blatant telling to subtle showing, via correlatives – things that correlate –  and that’s an important tool for our writing toolbox.

At the heart of riddle-making are the concepts of correlation and equivalency. A equals B. That sounds more like basic math than story, doesn’t it? But math is not the opposite of story, because math, like much of human behavior, is about patterns. Metaphorical-thinking is also a matter of patterns and convergences – A and B overlap and intersect like harmonies in music.  Or, in chemistry, A and B exhibit the same properties when reacting to C.  Or maybe it’s alchemy – base metal (the story’s bones) turn into gold (the story’s beauty.) By thinking of a story that way, I can create a riddle:

Bones in my body, that’s how I stand.
Beauty as I move, my sleight of hand.  
Who am I?

Does my riddle-poem have an answer? Well, one answer could be “a good story.”  Her bones and her body are structure and plot – without them, she can’t stand.  The beauty and sleight of hand are language and metaphor – without them, there’s no magic, no elegance, no “liquefaction of her clothes” to borrow a phrase from the poet Robert Herrick.

You can notice freshness of thought in something as simple as a Mother Goose rhyme describing a candle: Little Nanny Etticote in a white petticoat and a red nose. The longer she stands, the shorter she grows. In this ditty is the most basic of all lessons about writing: “Say it new.”

After taking Rick Kenney’s class, I started collecting “Who Am I?” riddles. I love the idea of identity being hidden behind the mask of metaphor.  It’s a little exciting, a little creepy, a little Carnivalesque. Reality with some slippage into the dream-world, that’s what the language of many riddles is like. Here for example:

Always old, sometimes new, never sad, sometimes blue. Never empty, sometimes full,
never pushes, always pulls. Who am I?

One answer is “the moon,” which is old, yes, but sometimes we see a “new” moon, we see a blue/sad moon though never a blue/blue one.  How lovely, in this case, to find identity in contradiction. Not a bad thing for people to think about, that contradictory things can both be true.  There’s the moon, a large stone in the sky, supposedly dead and cold.  And yet, it glows, it pulls.  That feels like something to put into a story, a very human story, something that turns to the sun and says, “Did you do that?”

In my hunt for “Who Am I?” riddles, I found a huge encyclopedia of Indian Literature offering up these three Punjabi riddles:

I’m the son who can climb to the roof before his mother is born. (Smoke)  

See her coming, see her going, thinner than water, sweeter than sugar. (Sleep) 

Tied in a blue cloth, a handful of rice -  lost in the daylight, found at night. (Stars in the night sky.)  

Compare that last riddle to one from the Aztec culture in Mexico, transcribed by early Spanish explorers – same answer, but it goes like this: A blue calabash sprinkled with toasted kernels of corn.

Here is a lovely riddle from the Congo: Who am I that when I fall, I make no noise?   (Night.) To me, that feels like the beginning of a story. It encompasses the Zen idea of satori which, by means of a koan – a kind of riddle –  produces first, hesitation, then, self-revelation.

It’s curious how the Western mind puts objects and people into well-defined hierarchies of classification,  just as pre-determined as those used in museums of natural history. The famous cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker calls categories “fuzzy similarity clusters” and the key there might be the word “fuzzy.” The edges are not always as well defined as we want them to be. When is a door not a door? If we think too rigidly, in “unfuzzy” similarity clusters (in this case doors) we can’t come up with solutions. The more determined we are to sort things according to the closed cluster we assume they are in, the more we fail.  If something is a door, it can’t NOT be a door, right? If something is a son, it can’t be smoke, can it?  Well, what if we learn to think of fire as a mother? Is smoke her son? We’re re-clustering when we try to understand the relationship of fire and smoke to mothers and sons. George Lakoff, who knows a thing or two about metaphor, says that putting things in categories is a “bad habit” left over from the days of Aristotle. Lakoff says “pristine categories are a fiction.” So if we want to move over from Aristotelian territory into a landscape where categories are fuzzy, maybe we need to change the way we think and the way we use language. As the wonderful poet Richard Wilbur said, riddles are the “confounders of categories.” Deception is not only the riddle’s method but the riddle’s glory.

The language of literary riddles can cross over into a dream-world in the same way charms, incantations, curses and blessings do, as opposed to punning riddles where much of what confuses us and makes us hesitate is a trick. Many of the great writers of fantasy, interested in the dream-world, have been interested in riddles. That’s because one essential question of fairy tales, legendary quests or shape-shifting is “Who am I?” Looking at the Harry Potter series, an extended journey where Harry moves from innocence to self-knowledge, we see a world filled with riddles, including at the most unsubtle level, Lord Voldemart’s original name, Tom Riddle. Likewise J.R.R. Tolkien, whose characters Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit engage in a riddle duel, using along with traditional folk riddles some examples written by Tolkein, like the following about the wind: Voiceless it cries,/  Wingless flutters, / Toothless bites, / Mouthless mutters. And this, whose solution is Time: This thing all things devours: / Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; / Gnaws iron, bites steel; / Grinds hard stones to meal;/ Slays king, ruins town, / And beats high mountains down.

Imagine yourself as a twelve-year old again, reading The Hobbit for the first time, trying to figure out the answers to those riddles.  The more committed you are to finding a single solution, the more you must learn how to de-code, looking for words that block you and send your thinking into the orderly, tidy world of classifications and categories, rather than into the messier poetic world of overlapping meanings and metaphors.

De-coding is a valuable thing – nothing wrong with looking for the trick that’s being played on you. But it’s a familiar undertaking, and it treats storytelling as if it were a standardized test.  Find the right answer, fill in the bubble. The thinker who stands outside the box and see alternatives that are equally interesting or plausible traditionally does the worst on that kind of test.  Do we want always to encourage the decoding approach? Stories are not information, there are not right answers. A story haunts us not because it can be decoded but because it can’t. Not quite, anyway.

This is another thing the lowly riddle reminds us of: Good readers – and the good editors and good critics who judge them – don’t always want the most easily de-coded narrative. They often want something innovative. They don’t always want to know exactly how the story is built and where the story is going; they want surprise, whether in structure, language or plot.   As Emily Dickinson said: The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise —/ Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday’s surprise —

Some riddles, like some very good stories I know, are not meant to offer solutions; they’re only shaped to make us wonder.   Part of the pleasure derived from them is in the hesitation they produce – that “satori” I mentioned. Hesitation, failure of the author to spell it all out, drives readers who want easy answers crazy. What on earth are those bears about in Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels?? Lanagan wants us to hesitate – she expects us to make a guess, she wants us to make our own meaning from her story. Some riddlers and storytellers take such a lot of pleasure in the hesitation that they offer no answers at all. “How is a raven like a writing desk?” is one of the riddles Lewis Carroll posed in Alice in Wonderland, and it’s never actually been “solved.” Carroll did come up with an answer, but it was after the fact; he never intended the riddle to have an answer, and the one he made up later is pure nonsense. Northrop Frye, in his essay Charms and Riddles, says that Carroll’s riddle tactic was often to overwhelm sense with sound. I think that’s true, and not all of us want to overwhelm sense with sound, at least not all the time, though you’ve got to admit “Jabberwocky” is a lot of fun.

If we look up the word “riddle” in the Oxford English Dictionary, we can trace it back to the Old English root “rede” – meaning counsel, opinion, or conjecture. We come back again to the idea of interpretation. If riddles with no firm answers, and fiction open to interpretation and conjecture, can move us toward actively making meaning, that’s got to be a good thing, right? Most of us would be proud to help our readers do that. One of my students recently shared a quotation with me by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus: “Writers are people who can make riddles out of answers.” If that idea appeals to you, you are in a riddling frame of mind.

And what if the answers to the riddles are lost? For over a thousand years, people have been offering up solutions (the answers have disappeared) to riddles in The Exeter Book, written between 960 and 990 A.D. by Benedictine monks. Some answers seem guessable: A wonder on the wave / water became bone. Could it be ice on a lake? Possibly. Some are more difficult:

I was locked in a narrow nest,  / My beak bound below the water
In a dark dive; the sea surged / Where my wings work – my body quickened
From the clutch of wave and wandering wood. / Born black, streaked white, I rise
from the womb of waves on the wind’s back,  / Sailing over seals’ bath. Who am I?

Bright people, many of them doctoral candidates working hard, have guessed at the solution over the centuries: Maybe it’s an anchor, a bubble, a barnacle goose, a water-lily, a baptism…? We just don’t know. Besides, dissertations notwithstanding, aren’t we better off swimming in that lovely poem and not knowing the answer?

With literary riddles, we sometimes learn to let go and say, “There might not be an answer I understand,” or “There might be more than one answer.” If you can be comfortable with that, then you’ve learned a very large and important lesson for writers, which John Keats described as “negative capability” – the ability to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s another lesson riddles can teach us – to live in uncertainty, to shrug and say, “I’m not sure I can come up with anything more than my own answer.” What we give our readers is not a possible answer, and not even a partial answer, but wonder.

Overwhelmingly, English teachers unfamiliar with poetry present it to their students as a process of decoding and finding an answer. “Here’s a poem; let’s decode it, let’s figure out the solution to the riddle.” That’s not bad exercise, actually – certain muscles build up. But one problem about this approach is that readers want the solutions to come fast. It’s a fast world, there should be fast answers. That’s a problem, because the best riddles (the best stories) don’t have easy answers – the reader works to make meaning.  The biggest problem is when a teacher says, “There’s only one right answer to this riddle – one proper interpretation of its meaning.” Admitting to alternative interpretations, admitting there might be NO answer, understanding that the joy is in the wondering, is essential in the classroom.  And it’s just as essential when it comes to the fiction we write.

It’s especially important to get into a riddling frame of mind for writers who are vulnerable to the super-virus called didacticism. If you have learned to live with uncertainty (that is, no single answer to the Big Riddles) it is very, very hard to be pedantic. We may offer up a scenario or a guess, but remaining open-minded is vital to being a good writer. There are so many ways people deal with adversity and try to live meaningful lives and make good choices in this world. Writers tell stories about the choices people make, and the changes those choices provoke, and the end-product is empathy. We don’t want to be “right,” necessarily – I don’t like to think of myself as a judge, coming down with the gavel and startling everyone in the courtroom. The economist Daniel Kahneman theorizes that people have two different systems for processing input – System 1 is the knee-jerk brain, the one that makes fast and easy choices based on biases and assumptions. System 2 is thoughtful and open to new perspectives and new information. I want to write a good poem or tell a good story that is filtered in by System 2.

After all, the effort to make meaning is often more valuable to us than what particular meaning we make. As writers, we present people with the stories that will help them pick up cues, think about behavior, think about complications, assumptions, categories and – bottom line – will encourage them to take all that System-2 thinking and make meaning with it. We give readers compelling situations and complicated characters. We give them a well-shaped story arc. We do it, hopefully, with some attention to well-crafted prose. That’s our part of the job. Then we let go. Our readers make meaning. And good for them for doing it.  A little work, a little lost sleep as they try to puzzle out their particular perspective on a story – isn’t that a good thing? It’s just as valuable as saying, “I’ve written a book that will tell you the answer about the right way to live in the world. I know who the bad guys are. I know who the good guys are, I know the solution to the riddle.” If you find yourself in that frame of mind as you write, feeling wise, feeling certain, feeling smug, get up from your desk and take a walk. Relax, come back later, when you remember that you don’t really know much.

So, I’ve been thinking about thinking. As I said, I go down not just side streets but narrow alleys when it comes to wondering how fiction and poetry work. For a moment, let’s allow  the vista open up on Heraclitus, the 5th-century B. C. Greek writer known as “the father of the riddle.” He came up with the idea of “logos,” which has at its core the idea of flux. In flux, the nature of things is not fixed and everything is in process. Heraclitus famously suggested that you can’t step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly moving and changing.  He also suggested that despite attempts to understand our world, “Things keep their secrets.” I like that idea. I find that satisfying because it humbles me. It encourages me to write poems, not teach people lessons. It allows me – and my readers – to guess. As Northrop Frye once said, “Guessing is an integral part of the poetic experience.”  And as Emily Dickinson once wrote to her sister-in-law, “’In a life that stopped guessing, you and I should not feel at home.”

So, here we are, embracing the common riddle. Riddles are common to all language groups, all cultures, all parts of the world from all periods of time. How is that possible? Why do riddles in cultures with no contact share motifs and have, more often than coincidence can explain, near-identical phrasing and similar patterns of musicality?

Well, it has something to do with the nature of a world in flux and the phenomena of synchronicity. The riddle scholar Craig Williamson says, “All things shift in the body of nature and the mind of man. But the flow, the form and movement, remains. As the mind shifts, it shapes meaning. When is an iceberg a witch-warrior? When it curses and slaughters ships.”

This synchronic system – of patterns, events and objects that mirror each other and that are grouped not by cause and effect, but by similarity of meaning – sits on the opposite end of the seesaw from Causality – Cause and effect – the stuff we are told drives plot. Now we’ve entered the world of Carl Jung and Sir James Frazer and Joseph Campbell. The books they’ve written belong on our shelves as much as any traditional how-to books about fiction, because they offer writers examples of a different way to organize the world – possibly more ancient, more a part of the dream-world, shared by other cultures. How exciting a tool is that in our writing? Jung believed that synchronicity shared something with the idea of the “intervention of grace,” a kind of spiritual awakening, and you can’t get much bigger than that.

Maybe the vista has gotten a bit too Big and Grand now. I’ve arrived at the doorstep of what I sometimes point out to my students as a BPM, a Big Poetry Moment. At those dangerous and inflated moments, when spiritual awakening is accompanied by the call of trumpets, crashing waves, fluttering flags, sunsets, rainbows and a grandmother’s tears,  I usually ask students to step away from the vehicle, put down their weapons and take a deep breath. Instead of talking anymore about these large ideas, I want to leave you with two riddles  -  the first from The Real Mother Goose:

In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

The second is by children’s author Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Sliver of moon / slice of a star. / Rhinestone in / a jelly jar.

If we can learn to think that a firefly is a rhinestone in a jelly jar, learn to think of the golden apple of an egg yolk and the marble walls of an eggshell, our stories will be richer and deeper.  Next time you put your head on your pillow, listen – can you hear night falling? Can you imagine a girl who, like the night, makes no noise as she stumbles in her life from daylight into darkness? A girl who asks, like the best riddles, “Who am I?” I think you can. After all, you’re a story-teller.  Train yourself to listen carefully, see if you hear the wind muttering without a mouth. When you can hear it, that’s when you sit down to write.

—Julie Larios

——————————————–

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

Nov 112012
 

Artist Photo by Marianne Barcellona

China Marks began her art career as a sculptor but now she has gravitated to some strange,  dreamy half-world between drawing and sewing and poetry; the fabric, the stitching, the colours, the words and the images create an interplay that seems to let her imagination loose in a  gorgeously witty explosion of ideas. You look at a Marks “drawing” and automatically your mind goes to Marc Chagall or Heironymous Bosch; the world of her picture-scapes is busy and populous with little plots (for want of a better word) — whimsical, anarchic. And everything is in some state of metamorphosis; her birdfeeder takes on human features, her birds turn part-human, everyone talks (the birds talk in, what? — I asked Marks and she wrote back: “It’s calligraphic Japanese writing, which when I found it felt very birdish, somewhere between a chirp and a scratch scratch scratch. Though I don’t know what it means, I took care to keep it right-side up. And I’m sure someone will tell me what it means soon enough.” I like that word “birdish.” Even the words, the message, are in a state of flux and play; the words themselves become images. Marks’s media are fabric and thread — you can see pictures of her sewing machine on her web site. Wonderful to have her here.

dg

I buy patterned and printed fabrics all the time, whatever appeals to me, usually no more than a yard of any one fabric, sometimes just half a yard, to use in my work. People also give me pieces of fabric that they think I might be able to use, and sometimes I do. Two or three months months ago, an old friend arrived at my studio with a souvenir tea towel of “Irish linen,” brightly printed with an unlikely assortment of birds at a bird feeder, wonderful, right up my alley! At the time, I was working on a one-of-a-kind ten-page book as well as a drawing associated with the book, but in mid-September, after I’d finished that, I started cutting up the tea towel, which proved to be very difficult to work with, fraying even at a glance, but worth all the trouble. Deciding to use the bird feeder whole, as a kind of weird head talking a blue streak, of course, was just the beginning of it.

—China Marks

 

The Drawing

 

 Photo by D. James Dee

Details

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

—China Marks

————————————–

China Marks was born and educated in Kansas City, MO, earning a BFA in Sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute. A Fulbright-Hayes fellowship took her Katmandu, Nepal, where she spent sixteen months constructing a major installation out of local materials. On her return to the United States, she was awarded a graduate fellowship by the Danforth Foundation. In 1976, having received an MFA in Sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis, China moved east to make art. She has received numerous grants and awards, including three fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a Mid-Atlantic Arts fellowship, two George Sugarman Foundation grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, most recently in 2011, when she was also named a Gregory Millard Fellow. Since 1999 China Marks has lived and worked in Long Island City, a block and a half from the East River. Her work is shown in galleries and museums in the United States and Europe.

Nov 092012
 

—Author Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

I have known Elise Levine since 1994 when my co-editor Maggie Helwig and I included three of Elise’s stories in our annual anthology Coming Attractions (now edited, by the way, by Mark Anthony Jarman who has appeared often on these pages). Oh, she can write! She has a hip, dark, extravagant flair for language, an alienated edge, a way of making the bourgeois world look, oh, so dull. In other words, she makes you stand up straight and look at yourself. Her story “Angel: starts: It was midnight, Angel, and I’ll never forget. We did it in the doorways up and down Church Street, my back against rotting wood or my hamstrings hurting, crouched down on grey concrete, the club where I’d cruised you receding as we twisted down alleyways and across half-empty parking lots. And then a decade later, actually 2005, I put an Elise Levine story in Best Canadian Stories. She is that good that you are always curious about what she is doing NOW. And so just so you know, here is a video poem, an example of what she is doing NOW, where her questing mind is taking her. City street sounds, pigeon wings, hand-held video, the words coming in bursts or sound and image, the strange beautiful “no, about, no” turning your toward home.

dg

I’ve always been attracted to hybrid literary forms, little monsters like the prose poem, the lyric novel — the way they embody neologism and thus the desire to transform, transfer, mutate. The video poem offers yet another opportunity to ironize and complicate. Layering audio tracks, images and text amplifies the words, creates larger resonances.

—Elise Levine

Late

 —Elise Levine

————————–

Elise Levine is the author of the story collection Driving Men Mad and the novel Requests & Dedications. Her work has also appeared in publications including Joyland, Sententia, Hotel Amerika, Gargoyle, Coming Attractions, Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Anthology, and Prairie Schooner. A graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College, she is currently an Assistant Professor in the MFA in Creative Writing Program and the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, DC.

Nov 082012
 

A record snowstorm buried eastern Pennsylvania in December of 2010. While the snow piled up, Ian Thomas, on break from the University of Missouri, slipped back into familiar routines. He slept late, hung out with high school friends, watched football games with his father and helped decorate the Christmas tree with his mother. Ian passed the days scribbling in a notebook. Flopped on a couch as the Philadelphia suburbs disappeared under almost two-feet of fresh powder, Ian wrote out the draft of a short story. He titled this story “The Freak Circuit” and, for the first time, he expressed a desire to seek publication for his work.

This short story also was the last one he ever wrote. Less than two months later, Ian Thomas was dead.

“The Freak Circuit” is a 12-page story about an exceptionally talented high school basketball player named Tim. Though a highly touted recruit, Tim houses a debilitating secret: he is a closeted gay teen on the verge of entering the world of high power, big money athletics, where few (if any) openly gay male athletes exist. Told in one nearly breathless paragraph, with images that tumble and cascade at a breakneck pace, so much of the story looks outward, gazing into distant campuses, into a coming athletic career that seems certain for success and destined for heartbreak. Tim dribbles and shoots, imagining World War II battles and the skinny red-haired boy he once kissed at a frat party in Tennessee. Everything hinges on possibilities. Where will he go to school? Which coach will he play for? How will he hide his homosexuality? The story pivots like a point guard, calculating, choosing. There are doors to open, opportunities to explore, peril at every turn. Precariously balanced between hope and despair, Tim is at once blessed and cursed:

Tim is outside again, thinking about the Battle of Iwo Jima while pounding a deep orange Wilson basketball into the backyard patio’s cracked, uneven stone surface, bounce, bounce, concentrating deeply, thinking of February 1945 while calculating the days until the ball will become smoothed out and useless, its thousands of tiny hills flattened by four hours a day, bounce, six days a week, by gravity and by patio. He’s under strict and emphatic direction from his high school head coach, an aging, wool-haired basketball lifer who can smell, in one’s sweat, the difference between the assigned four hours of home practice and three and a half. Tim thinks about Tennessee and closes his eyes.

In January, Ian returned to school and started sending out “The Freak Circuit.” He submitted to twenty magazines. Ian’s roommate, Dan Cornfield, tells me that most days Ian was a typical college student. He dressed up in black and gold and went to basketball games at the Mizzou Arena. He attended class, went to parties, and played video games at home.

“He never did homework,” Dan says. “If I was trying to study, he’d pester me until I gave in and stopped.”

Ian also suffered from depression and could spiral into darkness. Locked in his room, he would skip class and go days without eating. His friends and family knew about his about his struggles with rage and sadness. And his pain would have been doubly saturated at college, where all around the perception was that life thrummed along. Ian didn’t resemble the tall, lean and muscular ideal that our campus culture demands from its youth. At less than five-and-a-half feet tall and stocky in stature, Ian wore his hair thick and curly, adding bulk and height to his frame. His face was round and his eyes were dark. More often than not, he wore an Eagles’ jersey or a Phillies’ cap. He survived on his wit and a biting sense of humor. Most times, it was enough to keep him going. But when he slid into the darkness, the isolation must have been debilitating, extreme, feeding on itself.

Ian must have felt a part of his own freak circuit.

On January 26th 2011, less than three weeks before his death, Ian submitted the “The Freak Circuit” to upstreet magazine. Most national literary magazines receive hundreds if not thousands of submissions during a cycle. The odds of a story rising through the slush pile and being published are astronomically low. Vivian Dorsel’s magazine is no exception. For its seventh issue, upstreet received 1,119 fiction submissions. From this lot, they would publish only six stories. This means that a submitted story stood far less than a one out of a hundred chance of being accepted. Like many magazines, upstreet selects only the very best stories from its submissions pile. Like many magazines, upstreet is a non-profit. The recompense for the successful author, chosen against these astronomical odds, is two free copies of the magazine. (I should point out that I am the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet, but I did not play any part in the editorial decisions with fiction submissions. I first read “The Freak Circuit” in October of 2011.)

At upstreet, “The Freak Circuit” moved quickly up through the slush pile. On February 2nd, a fiction reader forwarded the story to the fiction editor with a positive recommendation. On February 9th, the fiction editor read the story and also recommended it. She sent the story back to Dorsel for a final decision. Five days before his death, Ian’s short story was sitting in the front of the magazine’s editor and publisher, awaiting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote for publication.

Maureen Stanton, Ian’s writing professor and mentor at Missouri, tells me that Ian was considering graduate school; she says that he was eager to begin sending work out, even ready to start receiving rejection letters. She describes Ian as one of the most gifted students she’s ever taught.  “I’d seen him that Thursday before he died,” Stanton says. “He was excited about summer writing workshops and applying to MFA programs. He’d stopped by my office to pick up a copy of a magazine I’d saved for him with a list of the best workshops and we chatted for about 20 minutes. I wish I’d had more time to talk to him.”

At times, Stanton’s praise for Ian might be misconstrued as eulogistic. The glowing terms she uses—words like visionary, charming, poetic, extraordinary—outshine the complex reality of any twenty-one-year-old undergrad with a non-existent publication record and middling grades. But the more we talk, the more Stanton’s sincerity seems unforced.

 “His voice was lyrical and poetic,” Stanton tells me.  “He had an extraordinary command of vocabulary, the rhythm of sentences. He could explode ideas—break them open and challenge.”

Stanton also talks candidly about Ian’s struggles with depression, his self-centeredness, his sensitivity to criticism. A bad workshop could send him spiraling back into dark places. In the privacy of Stanton’s office, he would be harsh on other student writing. He could be cavalier in class, opinionated, hard to manage.

He thinks about Henry VIII very quickly before thinking about Ray Allen and How to Line Up the Perfect Three Pointer, The Pro Way©, the way Ray taught him at the elite camp in Boston, bounce, he spreads his feet about a foot apart and lines them up directly parallel to his shoulders like he’s supposed to, but he remembers how, at that same camp, he missed fifteen of twenty three-pointers the Ray Allen Pro Way© (and failed to hit the rim on seven), so he squats lower than he should and jumps higher than he should with his feet where they shouldn’t be, all pressed together with the right side of his left shoe’s toe resting on the toe of the left and the ball sails in.

At 6:45 in the morning on Valentine’s Day, the phone rang in the suburban Philadelphia home of Linda and John Thomas. Linda answered. On the other end of the phone, Ian’s friend, Chris, told Linda that her son had been rushed to an emergency room in Columbia. Ian was still alive, but he was intubated and had already coded once. For a while, in the stillness of their kitchen, Ian’s parents held out hope that their son might pull through. The next phone call obliterated that hope.

So much of the future is assumptive. We assume the sun will rise tomorrow, that our children will grow up and go to college, that hard work will pay off. But often, those assumptions rest upon the frailest of armatures.

During the many times I speak with Ian’s father, I never directly ask him how Ian died. John Thomas refers his son’s death as an accident. John also candidly talks about his son’s depression.

John flew to Missouri on Wednesday, February 17th, two days after Ian’s death.  He talks about the open friendliness of Midwesterners. He speaks of this quality as if it were due to some fact of geography, and not by the grim reality that John had gone there to retrieve his son’s body. Ian’s mother, too grief-stricken to consider travelling, stayed home in Pennsylvania.

Ian’s roommate, Dan, describes the days following Ian’s death:

“Our apartment was just full of people,” Dan says. “My mom drove down from Chicago to be with us. My brother was sleeping on the couch. People just kept showing up. We had more brownies and cookies than we could eat.”

A lingering note of innocence tinges Dan’s voice. The shock, the disbelief, the sheer magnitude of losing a close friend at twenty-one is still settling in almost a year after the fact. He tells me that after a few days, his roommates cleared everyone out of their apartment. They wanted to be alone when Ian’s dad arrived on Wednesday.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Dan says. “None of us did. There were these long pauses. The whole time, Mr. Thomas tried to make us feel comfortable.”

John met Ian’s college friends for the first time on that trip. He would also meet Maureen Stanton. People gathered, cried, told stories, and shared laughs. On Friday, John packed up the last of his son’s belongings. He collected Ian’s clothes, books and notebooks. He packed up his laptop and, for the very last time, stripped his son’s bed. Then John flew back home with Ian.

He thinks of the peculiar way his stomach burned and twisted and ached and how he nearly soiled his compression underwear under his black mesh shorts when that huge black center at the Mississippi elite camp looked Tim in the eye and said you know, white boy, you shoot like a fucking faggot, how he almost burst into powder at that moment, how he almost booked his own last minute flight home, back to the safe dull colorless center of Pennsylvania, how he nearly collected every basketball and every piece of equipment he owned and every signed jersey and every letter of interest from every big-time American basketball university and every framed photo of NBA stars and neatly piled all of it in the middle of the cracked stone patio and burned it, doused the spot in lighter fluid and burned it to fucking hell. Bounce. He thinks about the eerie exhibitionism of this whole freak circuit, his leisurely (borderline immoral) little traipse from university to university, how they can all see through him (probably), how his coaches and maybe even his own father are carving what Tim thought Tim was into a 21st- century kind of bearded lady.

On February 23rd, nine days after Ian’s death, upstreet’s editor, Vivian Dorsel, read “The Freak Circuit” and decided to take it for publication. She sent a congratulatory email to Ian.

Dorsel then waited over two weeks for Ian’s reply, which never came. On March 7th she sent another email, but there was still no response. Two days later she did a Google search and found an Ian Thomas on the University of Missouri website. Ian was listed as an English major, a senior, a staff writer on the student newspaper. She found his university email address and contacted him yet again: “If you are the Ian Thomas who submitted a story to upstreet in January,” Dorsel wrote, “please get in touch with me. I have sent you two messages and you haven’t responded.”

Later that same day, Dorsel called the university’s English department. They passed her on to an undergraduate advisor who provided Ian’s home phone number and address in Pennsylvania. No one at the university told her that Ian Thomas was dead.

Dorsel’s pursuit of this story seems paradoxically single-minded. Why did she care so much? Aren’t editors, with a thousand stories to wade through, cold and unyielding? Editors read until the first mistake, or so goes the old adage.  Dorsel describes her interest in “The Freak Circuit” this way:

What struck me about “The Freak Circuit” was the voice, which I found intense, compelling, and consistent throughout. William Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, spoke of “…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” I think Ian’s story is an example of what Faulkner was talking about, and it is a very sophisticated and well written piece of work for someone so young; I also thought the ending was perfect, which is rare. I was so convinced it was right for upstreet that I was not willing to give up until I had exhausted every possibility. When I was laying out number seven, I decided to lead the issue with “The Freak Circuit.” It just seemed like the right thing to do.

On the evening of March 9th, Dorsel called Ian’s parents at their home. John Thomas answered and informed her that Ian was dead. He also told her that he wanted upstreet to go ahead and publish the story. It would mean a great deal, he said, to see his son’s story in print.

Over the course of several months, Johan Thomas and I exchange a flurry of emails. I also talk with John Thomas twice on the phone. The first time is on Halloween, eight months after burying his son. It is a gray Monday in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, where John and his wife, Linda, live. The Philadelphia suburb has just received its first dusting of snow, a full six weeks before winter officially begins. When John and I finish talking, I will drive beneath San Diego’s seventy-five degree blue skies to pick up my kids at their school. We will come home, have an early dinner, and go out trick-or-treating.

John puffs on a cigarette as we speak. He and I are, for all intents and purposes, strangers. In the background, I hear voices from a television. I picture a living room, a recliner, a smoldering ashtray. We talk for almost two hours.

“He was born a writer,” John says with a father’s recalcitrant pride. “He wanted to write since he was three.”

John is a youth crisis counselor, but hasn’t worked since the summer, when his hospital was all but destroyed by Hurricane Irene. Repairs at the hospital are on-going, but he doesn’t know when he is expected back at work.

“Sometimes I think it would have been easier,” John says, “if we’d had more kids. But who knows?”

It’s difficult not to wonder about the suffering imposed on people like John Thomas and his wife, the Job-like quality of their despair and the bare-knuckled perseverance in the face of it.

John is also a craftsman. He makes stained glass windows and sells them at trade shows and craft fairs. Only in the last few days, more than eight months after his son’s death, has John returned to his studio and begun working again.

“It’s a destructive art,” John says of working in stained glass. “You’re always cutting and breaking and splintering things.  You’re always covered in shards of glass.”

We talk about simple things, about sports, the Mummer’s parade in Philly, cheese steaks, the Phillies and the Eagles. He tells me about Ian’s decision to switch majors at Missouri, from journalism to creative writing. John dallies in the banal before stepping over into the abysmal horror of what has happened.

“Everything gets filtered through it,” he says.  “But what can you do?”

The University of Missouri lost eleven students during the 2010-2011 academic year. This number seems staggeringly high. What was happening in Columbia to cause so many young people to die? This is only one of the many questions which will never be answered for me. When talking to John Thomas, I realize how little I will ever know of Ian, or of the particular pain that his death has brought.

“There is no name for this,” John says. “For this kind of grief, when a parent loses a child.”

Thinking too much too closely, holding it all too close to his body. He thinks of Tennessee, the funny long shape of it on the huge map in his room, the boy who kissed him in the orange. Tim takes two more steps backwards and launches his deep orange ball towards the black rim with that shot, that unique hurricane of elbows and limbs mashed together, and watches it slip through the net without making a sound, without even a little swish.

John and I speak again in January. He tells me that the holidays were brutal, that the time since Thanksgiving has been especially grim. He and his wife didn’t celebrate. They didn’t even put up a Christmas tree.

He tells me that Ian never had a curfew, never had a bedtime. John is trying to paint a picture for me, a picture in words and anecdotes, of his son. He tries his best to make the image real.

Again, the conversation swings wildly, from seemingly normal chit chat to raw grief. John switches in and out of the most emotional topics quickly. The conversation turns back and forth, from stories of Ian’s struggles with math assignments to his lingering battle with depression. John tells me about his son’s eagerness to receive rejection letters.

“He figured that it was part of the job. That getting rejected would make him a real writer. He didn’t want to be a writer,” John says, stressing the indefinite article.  “He wanted to be the writer.”

John also tells me that Ian ripped out “The Freak Circuit” in no time. Only a year earlier, Ian was home over winter break, lounging around on the couch as the snow fell, writing in a notebook.

“He just was playing around with it,” he says.  “He didn’t even write fiction most of the time. Who knew it would end up getting published?”

John concludes our conversation by asking me to throw a ball with my son, a mundane acts which suddenly explodes with significance.

“I miss him,” John says. “He was a good kid.”

At Ian’s elementary school, his parents have established a writing award in their son’s name. Etched into the plaque for the award are the famous words of Maya Angelou: “The bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, the bird sings because it has a song.”

Perhaps those who knew Ian can seek and find solace in this, in the gesture of young writers being touched by Ian’s memory and in the words of a poet who speaks to the ineffable mystery of life and death. Angelou also wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

At least Ian’s story gets told. “The Freak Circuit” defies the odds. This speaks to Ian’s abilities and his devotion to writing. It also speaks to the dedication of people like Dorsel and Stanton who championed the work of a young writer still taking his tentative first steps.

But these conclusions are hollow and arc toward sentimentality. I have no doubt that John Thomas, Dan Cornfield and Maureen Stanton and everyone else who knew Ian would happily trade every one of his words, published and unpublished, for a few more days with him.

If I find any possible conclusion, it might be in the twenty-five pages of “The Wellbutrin Diaries.” This long essay, written by Ian the autumn before he died, traces a season in the life of Ian Thomas. It was written in Stanton’s non-fiction seminar and it is Stanton who sends it to me. In places angry, in places broken and shattered, in places sublime, the diary is an intimate look into the mind of a young writer whose talent and passion seemed to grow the more I searched.

If there is to be an epitaph for Ian Thomas, it must be through his words. If there is to be even the hint of an answer for his family and friends, it must gesture out from that darkness, the darkness of depression, from the struggle of a young man trying to create something beautiful.  Ian’s words once announced a certain talent, a raw voice which spoke with clarity and wisdom, cut down long before that voice could sing. If there is to be a conclusion, it must belong to Ian:

One day, though, it will happen. Simplicity will win, or at least tie. I will write—and think—like my mind is at peace. Shit, maybe even it will be. I can see it manifested and it looks like this: I’m on a boat, in the middle of a pond, in the middle of the night. The water is still, and the moon is casting an ivory glow over me as I row, as I maneuver into silence. I see it like it’s in front of me right now. My thoughts will be short, and they will be happy, and I know, for however long the ride lasts, I’m in the right place, on the right planet, in the center of the right universe. For good. I’ll make my own kind of comfort. And I’ll think (no, I’ll know). It’s all just that easy.

— Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell earned my B.S. in History at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and an M.F.A. at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. In 2011, his essay “Accidental Pugilism” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year In Ink.  He is a full-time freelance writer, editor and a faculty member at the River Pretty Writers Workshop in Tecumseh, MO. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and two children.