Apr 272012

My grandmother’s house was next thing to a museum warehouse, crowded with antiques and heirlooms. Every object had a story, a genealogy and a book of memories attached. At the drop of a hat, my grandmother would recite provenance and price, and tell the stories attached to the silver water jug, the diamond-glass breakfront, the drop-leaf table. My mother does the same today. Always to me, this seemed like a mysterious form of female knowledge, a special sort of lore — a distant male cousin was a collector, but collecting doesn’t derive from the same impulse, the impulse to meld object and memory.

Dawn Raffel has the gene, she could have been a blood relative. The short essays or vignettes in her gorgeous illustrated memoir The Secret Life of Objects wrap translucent memories, character and an appreciation of tactile beauty around a litany of possessions — in the following essays excerpted from the book, an Oriental rug and pottery seconds (or a moonstone ring in an essay published earlier on NC). The objects function psychologically as mnemonic devices; they function structurally to motivate narrative; and they function aesthetically as symbols — they are an ancient form of knowledge, deftly resurrected and deployed in a contemporary setting. They remind us that memory is absence, that the ultimate meaning of the objects is their capacity to temporarily contain some vestige of what has been left behind, the melancholy texture of life lived —  beautiful and achingly poignant.

The Secret Life of Objects is forthcoming in June with Jaded Ibis Productions.

Dawn hosts a discussion page at her web site. She hopes readers will take the opportunity of posting their own objects there.

And there will be a book party in New York on June 13. Watch her web page for more information.




The Rug

My maternal grandmother liked elegant old things and she would go to auctions to find them—end tables and porcelain urns and pretty rugs and lamps. By the time my grandparents were moving from the apartment where they’d raised my mother and uncle to a one-bedroom, my grandmother had amassed a collection of real Oriental rugs that she couldn’t take with her.

My mother didn’t want them. She liked everything modern: white leather, white carpet, chrome and glass. And so the only rug that stayed in the family was a tiny oriental rectangle that sat under my grandmother’s tea cart at the mouth of her galley kitchen. The cart was used to hold dishes to be brought to the little eating nook or to wheel demi glasses of tomato juice with lemon out to the metal folding table set up in the living room for Thanksgiving dinner.

My grandmother loved to cook and bake—from that cramped kitchen emerged paprika chicken with mushrooms and rice, lamb chops with jelly, key lime pie, lemon meringue, pineapple strudel, sponge cake and chocolate cake, layered and frosted and studded with walnuts. She would feed us and fuss, and each time we said goodbye, tears welled in her eyes. Sometimes she would mail us food she’d made.

My mother put cooking in the same box as old furniture and religious ritual—something oppressive, from a generation where women were subservient. She liked to remind me that her own grandmother had died of a heart attack while standing in a hot kitchen making Rosh Hashana dinner. She would point out her mother’s ankles swelling over the tops of her shoes as she stood at the counter chopping nuts or over the burner boiling dumplings. My mother wanted out with the old—the old country ways, old habits, obligations, dark and heavy furnishings, things that looked traditional or, worse, antique. Still, after my grandmother died and my grandfather moved out to California, my mother brought home that tiny rug, and she often lamented that she’d let the others go. She brought home her mother’s monogrammed purses (her own initials, always, not those of some designer), her gloves, her pinned hats. Her glassware and dishes, although they were heavily chipped. Her ornate gold watch, which my mother never wore (“After I die,” my mother said, “take it to New York and sell it.”  But my sister wanted it, although she never wears it either.) I believe those rugs were the only things she had given away and wished she’d had back. The sole remaining one went in my mother’s downstairs bathroom—there really wasn’t any other place for it in her white/glass/chrome suburban townhouse. It got threadbare.

Emptying my mother’s desk and dresser drawers after her death, I found notes everywhere, addressed to me and to my sister, having to do with what she wanted done with her possessions. Some of these notes must have been 20 years old, judging by the faded ink and by the fact that they referred to people long deceased as if they were alive. Some were more recent. All where handwritten. One of them instructed me to take the Oriental rug.

I had given that rug no thought at all and had no idea what to do with it. But here was my mother, dead, and still talking to me. I didn’t dare leave it, didn’t dare give it away. Right now the rug is under the desk in the office where I write.





When the children were small, almost every night when the weather was good, or simply good enough, I used to meet three other women in the park. We met around 7, after work. Our husbands were working later than we were—two were chefs in restaurant kitchens half the night. Exhausted from babies and toddlers and jobs and laundry and dishes that did not end, we’d heave our kids into the baby swings and push them and push them and pull them out—Brendan’s toddler cowboy boots would catch in the swing’s leg holes—and help them up ladders and into and out of wide plastic tunnels and chase them as they chased after fireflies across the open lawn. These weren’t the alpha moms who would soon appear in town, angling their $800 strollers into the new Starbucks. We dressed in sweats and leggings and oversized Ts. No one worked in publishing, as I did, or trafficked in words. These were women who, had my children been born in an ever so slightly different time or place, I would never have met: a chef, a chef, a caterer/potter. I think they saved my life.

We’d stay until well after darkness fell in the park or else leave to get what might have been the world’s worst pizza (fake cheese, tasteless—but the owner tolerated, with minimal dirty looks, our noise and detritus). One Christmas eve, two of the women, with their husbands, who were, for once, not working in restaurants, converged at our house. (Imagine the pressure of cooking for that many professional chefs—in an act of cowardice, I let my husband do it.) The five kids under six didn’t last long at the table, seized as they were by the kind of anticipatory frenzy that is usually only possible in the very young. I’m sure there was a great mess and that we were dead tired but what I remember are the children shrieking in delight. I also remember the other two women, trained in restaurant kitchens, converging on mine like a SWAT team; I have never seen anyone deep-clean anything so fast.

What happened in the following year was school. Boys played with boys, and girls with girls. We had homework now, and sensible bedtimes. C, the potter, moved farther than walking distance, to a house where she had her own kiln. Little by little, the park nights stopped.

The other three women are now divorced. K left town. T, I see rarely—we wave when we pass. Every so often, though, I hang out with C, the potter whose skinny boy is now a well-built, tall young man. We lost a mutual friend last year, at 50, to cancer, a woman whose son is the same age as ours. C still throws in her kiln-equipped basement—bowls, vases, and dishes that she sells in Manhattan. I’ve bought several of her graceful blue and green serving pieces. But C knows the ones I like best are the $5 seconds—the ones she can’t sell in stores: The glaze has dripped and bubbled, the clay shows in patches, the color, when baked, turned wonderfully strange. Perfection is sometimes the enemy of good. Besides, I like a lucky accident.

— Dawn Raffel


Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.

“The Rug” was previously published at The Milan Review.




Apr 262012

What begins as a saccharine, over-caffeinated children’s animation whips itself into an orgiastic frenzy of creative impulses gone wrong in This Is It Collective’s “Don’t’ Hug Me I’m Scared.” Directed by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, “Don’t Hug Me” subverts the children’s genre expectations and in its transgressions plays with the perhaps imaginary line between creation and destruction.

The pairing of creation and destruction is commonplace. It has mythic faces in figures like the Hindu goddess Kali who Alice Landry points out “characterizes destruction or letting go of the past to make room for a more purposeful present and future. She stands for the concept of Mother Nature as not only a potent, destructive force but also a force that cleanses away the old to allow room for new, fertile ground.” Separate from art or material objects we might covet or seek to possess, in nature we see no line. We , most of us, don’t look at the sandy beach as the ravaged remains of rocks, the rocks as crushed mountains. What is, just is.

But in the realm of art, we invest in the line between creation and destruction. Something of this seems connected to the nature of creativity. I once saw a documentary about a sculptress – I believe it was Louise Bourgeois – who had an assistant whose major job was to follow the sculptress around and remove the sculptures once she was finished with them. If he did not, she would come back to the piece and nudge it off the table, watch it fall and shatter on the concrete floor, experience pleasure at seeing what she created now destroyed.

But when does the creation of the art end and its destruction begin? How did her assistant know when to remove the art?

This is the question the father in the play “Six Degrees of Separation” also ponders: “I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’”

Louise Bourgeois was aware of her place between these two forces, something she sought to understand through many years of therapy. Christopher Turner in The Guardian connects this creative / destructive complementary to Freud: “But, ultimately, Bourgeois felt that analysis had little to offer the artist. ‘The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment,’ Bourgeois wrote in ‘Freud’s Toys,’ as if in frustration with the process to which she submitted for so many years, ‘to be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure.’ Lowenfeld [her therapist] had died four years earlier, ending her analysis but evidently not her pain, which continued to fuel her work. In his essay ‘Dostoevesky and Parricide’ (1926), Freud himself admitted: ‘Before the problem of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.’ Bourgeois and Freud both see these impulses as irreconcilably something part of the artistic process.

In “Don’t Hug Me,” in the wake of the destruction and mayhem, the narrative voice suggests “Now let’s all agree to never be creative again.” This is surely ironic. Though there can be no greater truth than the film’s assertion that “green is not a creative colour.”

This Is It Collective is a group 13 filmmakers who, in their own words, come “from a background of design and animation . . . and continue to build upon their collective voice that they have developed.” Their shorts have appeared on England’s Channel 4 and received more than 2.5 million views on line for their self-funded projects.

– R. W. Gray

Apr 252012


My father and I used to go to the movies together. I am thinking about the time when I was nine and we saw The Pink Panther Strikes Again. I am thinking about the antics of Peter Sellers as the French detective Clouseau and of his ambushing major domo Cato, played by the actor Burt Kwouk. Pure hilarity ensued each and every time the bungling Chief Inspector returned to his Parisian apartment. Bedecked in a tweed trilby hat and trench coat, the mustachioed Clouseau would enter his flat en garde, stalking the seemingly empty rooms poised for battle with an unseen foe. When at last Cato sprang from the shadows, a veritable tsunami of destruction followed as the two men wrestled for primacy. Bookcases and chandeliers fell. Porcelain teacups crashed and shattered. Their combat moved from room to room, overturning china cabinets, snapping tables in half. In slow-motion action, a bed frame crumpled under the weight of the mock-pugilists, now poised like lovers on top of another. Then, at the height of this pitch-perfect bedlam, with uncanny comedic timing, Clouseau’s telephone rang. All pandemonium ceased. On screen, swirling plaster streamers—the aftermath of pitched battle—fell from the ceiling like snow.

Clouseau stood and collected himself. He pulled his silk robe straight, smoothed over his rubble-laden hair in an attempt to restore dignity, and searched for the ringing phone in the fallout of his once pristine bachelor pad. As he picked up the receiver, its fuse-like cord dangling into the debris, Clouseau snapped his heels and popped to attention. This was the movie’s call to action. And Clouseau, in a voice brimming with exaggerated confidence and a buttery French accent, accepted it. But before the scene shifted, in a climactic masterstroke of comedic genius, the incompetent but charmed detective took a final swat—a death-blow sucker punch—at the unsuspecting Cato, rendering the hapless servant unconscious or worse.


This ritualistic gag between Clouseau and Cato never failed to satisfy. It never failed to elicit anything short of guffawing appreciation from my father and me. In no small way, the film oriented my relationship with my father, a tunneling of inside jokes based on the shared experience of watching a movie together. Those tunnels remain open to this day, shored up like a vast catacomb of oft-quoted lines resurrected again and again across time and distance.

Thomas Wolfe, the lyrical and lanky Southern author, once wrote of seeking “the great, forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven.”  For my father and me, the movies, especially comedies, offered up a private language—an argot of quips, bawdy put-downs and one-liners—which provided us a flickering glimpse into Wolfe’s paradise. Whatever threadbare conversation we’ve sustained over the years, so much of it has been held together by the patchwork of the movies we once watched.  We have recycled laughter and eschewed life’s complex realities in favor of roustabouts’ banter.

“Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?” Wolfe asks in Look Homeward Angel. “Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?” How much easier it is to dwell in laughter than to ponder such questions.

In my mind, it was a Saturday, at the start of those glorious two weeks of winter vacation. The theater sat at the intersection of Southbridge Street and Main Street in downtown Worcester. Constructed in 1904, in the very infancy of moving pictures, the building first opened as a performing arts center in the already decaying heart of the once vibrant mill town. In 1967, two years before I was born, the theater became a Cineplex. For the next thirty years, it showed movies on the silver screen before closing and falling into disrepair, only to be remodeled and reopened as a performance theater again in the last few years. I might have held my father’s hand as we walked through the lobby that day. Surely we stopped for popcorn and Cokes at the snack bar.

Stepping inside the cinema’s massive interior, lined with ornate plaster work and red-velour carpets—hints of a more formal past—it felt like the opening act of a dream. I remember the balcony seats and brass railings, the way the air smelled of butter and boot soles, licorice and lemonade. I remember feeling contained by the place, enveloped by its grand ceiling, its massive chandelier which dimmed as the giant screen slowly emerged from behind the parting ceiling-to-floor red curtains.  It was unlike any movie theater I’ve ever seen since.

In his short story “Behind the Blue Curtain,” Steven Millhauser describes the near-holy ritual of a boy going to see a movie with his father. “On Saturday afternoons in summer my father took me to the movies. All morning long I waited for him to come down from his study, frowning at the bowl of his pipe and slapping the stairs with his slipper-moccasins, as though the glossy dark bowl, the slippers, the waiting itself were a necessary part of my long-drawn-out passage into the realm of the dark.” Though my memory is wintry, and though my father wore Converse instead of moccasins, and smoked cigars instead of a pipe, Millhauser perfectly captures a young boy’s fascination. The occult memories of such a day linger, a spectacle right up there with trips to Fenway Park and Christmas Eve Mass.


That December day, my father told me we were going to visit a priest after the movie. Even then, this struck me as odd. Dad wasn’t a churchgoer. He attended only under pressure, usually from my mother. The original Christmas Catholic, he never spoke about his beliefs. On those rare, rafter-shaking occasions when I saw him in the pews, he looked uncomfortable there, acting in a role he wasn’t meant to play. Why on earth would he be taking me to visit a priest?

After the movie, we emerged from the dark theater to a world transformed. A thick blanket of snow had fallen in the two hours since we entered. White powder covered gray sidewalks and swirled in the air. If there is a more purely magical event in life than that of a sudden snowstorm, I’ve yet to find it.

We walked along Worcester’s busy Main Street and the movie echoed in my head. Clouseau had again defied the odds, defeated arch criminals and laser death rays. He emerged the hero, riding a wave of dumb luck and opportunistic incompetence. His certainty buoyed me as we headed toward the rectory at St. Paul’s Cathedral, as though my life too could be organized along these lines, with laughter, bon temps and predictable outcomes.

It was only a short walk from the theater’s lobby, a block down Main then left on the now-snowy Chatham Street to the cathedral. A layer of snow coated the ground. Steam rose from grates on the street. From a nearby restaurant came the thick smell of frying food, a carnival smell, a delicious odor somewhere between fresh donuts and golden French fries. It made your mouth water, made you want to rush inside and order everything on whatever menu promised such delight. Life seemed, in that blissful moment, archetypically divine.

Dad and I crossed the street, stepping though slush trails from passing cars, and reached the gate of the rectory at St. Paul’s. I must have been thinking of Christmas presents. I must’ve been anticipating the bounty of two weeks off from the trenches of fourth grade. The snow had coated everything by then, an inch at least, maybe more. The snow fell as big flakes and varnished the ground in a heavenly white. That warm, greasy-spoon smell was so strong that my stomach roiled with anticipation.

Then, just before my father rang the rectory doorbell, I saw something that has stayed with me for almost thirty years.

A man was in the alley adjacent to and behind the movie theater. The man’s dark clothes were tattered and layered thick. Everything about his face looked strange somehow, like Clouseau in the wrong costume, his disguise gone grotesquely awry. The man’s hair was wild, long and filthy. The exposed parts of his skin—his face, his fingers, the back of his neck—flushed red from the cold. Snow dusted his shoulders. He stood hunched over, perhaps sheltering himself from the cold, or perhaps the posture was just a result of life on the streets.

I watched him for a while, standing next to my father who saw him too. We were waiting for the priest to buzz us into the rectory. The man moved between one trash can and another, always carefully replacing the lids as he went and bowing, almost as if in prayer. It seemed such an oddly polite gesture, almost gentle. What was he doing? The realization seemed to come slowly, but the entire moment couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. The man’s soiled hands were rummaging through trash cans. Lifting the silver lids and diving in, he pulled out food wrappers and placed them to his mouth.

He was eating the trash.

The diffuse, savory air suddenly went sour in my stomach. I wanted to run. I wanted to run away from everything, from my father, from the rectory we were about to enter, from the snowy Worcester streets and from this abject misery. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move.

It was as though I’d been ambushed. As though something sinister had jumped out of the shadows and knocked me down. I wasn’t prepared for it. I hadn’t entered this scene the way Clouseau would have, en garde, ready for the attack. I wasn’t engaged in mock-battle with my faithful manservant. I wasn’t play-fighting on a mirthful stage.  It was as though the script had been rewritten, the farce between Clouseau and Cato had suddenly turned, as though their combat had turned deadly and their play-violence had become macabre. It was as though Clouseau was thrust onto the scene of an actual crime and his incompetence revealed.

In a single flash, the laughter stopped. There would never be a one-liner to make this image go away. In front of me was a man eating trash. It pierced my soul.

Of course I felt none of this then. I felt only a tug, the merest pinprick of sorrow and pity that could just as easily have passed and been forgotten. How could the boy I was that snowy day know that he would carry this feeling for the rest of his life?

The rectory door opened and we stepped inside. The man eating trash disappeared.

As I think back on this day, I wonder if it was real. I wonder if the events really happened the way I’ve reconstructed it. I want to ask my father about it. I want to ask him if he remembers the movie, if he remembers the man on the street. I want to ask him why we went to visit a priest that day thirty-five years ago.

“Do you remember the time we went to see that Pink Panther movie?” I ask. I live on the opposite coast now, but we talk several times a week.  “Do you remember when we went and visited that priest?”

My father laughs.  He has been drinking. I hear the way his words seem to lean in his voice, as if they are holding on to some invisible rail, about to stumble off the edge of a cliff. I can tell within the first eight seconds of any conversation with my father how much he’s had to drink.

“Father Mahan,” he says.  He knows exactly what I’m talking about, even after all this time. “He was a good guy.”

“How did you know him, Dad?” I ask.  I’m careful not to delve into the real questions, into why in the world we would have gone to the cathedral that day when my father never went to church.

“Oh, he was a nice man,” my father says. His voice pitches higher under the strain of memory and the distilled sugarcane vapors of his now-preferred Puerto Rican rum. “He was just a good guy. I’d take you there after the movies and I’d have a drink with him.”

There is something bumbling about my father’s memory, made maudlin by years of hard-drinking and the ravages of time. I only remember going to the rectory that one time, though my dad speaks of it as if it was yesterday. The narrative of his memory often doesn’t match my own but the salience of those experiences remains undiminished.

He tells me that Father Mahan was killed in a car wreck a while back, but we don’t dwell for long in these somber places. We never do.

“I’d take you there sometimes,” he says.  “After the movies. I’d have a few beers with him. He was a nice man.”

My dad laughs, but his laughter suffuses with sadness. “He was such a nice man,” my father says again.

His voice drifts. Rather than digging deeper, rather than pressing about the priest, rather than asking him about the man I saw that day, I steer the conversation back to our script. I won’t allow my father’s boozy sadness to leach into my own loneliness. These are long-standing rules. I realize, somewhat reluctantly, that I am as much responsible for maintaining them as he is. I’m not going to ask him about the man in the alley. I’m not going to reveal myself to my father. Instead, I return to what has sustained us.

“Does your dog bite?” I say, quoting Clouseau.

Our ritual of repeating lines can be maddening at times, but it also acts as a salve. Decades ago, when we watched the movies we now quote, they were happier times, before my parents split up, while my dad was still young and athletic and the future still hopeful. What has passed in the intervening years is simply life: pain, sorrow, estrangement, divorce, death—happy things, too, but far less comedic than what we must have expected that day. What we share now, what we hold like some sort of tentative cease-fire, is a mise-en-scène dialectic. Our conversations are heavily scripted. There is hardly an ad-libbed line anymore.  We have developed an unwavering system of keeping the peace, of never dredging too deep. I work as hard at it as he does, never leading the scene astray. When it gets too heavy, too emotional, when it teeters on the edge, like it is now, we go back to the cue cards.

“That is not my dog,” my father says in perfect Clouseau echolalia.

We’ve got a million of ‘em.


Inside, the rectory was warm and bright. Amidst crucifixes and grim oil paintings of saints and countless depictions of Christ’s all-too familiar suffering, Father Mahan shook my hand and smiled at me. I remember him being a big man, with red hair and a ruddy face. We stayed longer than felt comfortable. I want to say that my dad and the priest shared a beer, but I don’t remember. I doubt they spoke of spiritual matters. My father was certainly not one to open up, especially not to a priest.

How such a triangle ever existed—my faithless father, that Irish priest and the homeless man—remains an utter mystery to me. The day re-forms as but the thinnest shell around a glimpse of a vast and unknowing emptiness. There is a haunted divide between what I feel and what I know. Then, like now, I must have wanted to ask my father about what I’d seen.  I must have wanted to ask the priest. I must have wanted one of those men to put a context on what I’d witnessed, to frame it for me, in a way that reassembled my cracked world. Surely these men knew. Surely they could offer an explanation. If only I had asked. But I was terrified of giving voice to what I felt. I was probably terrified of even feeling it.

On the phone, I don’t ask my father about the man eating trash. I don’t ask him why he visited the priest that day. It seems enough to share the simpler memories, of the movie, of a few lines, though sometimes I wonder what would happen if I could step past my doubt and fear. My failure has always been silence. I feel that deeply.

Decades have passed. Peter Sellers has died and The Pink Panther has been remade with Steve Martin. Father Mahan is dead. My father survived a bout of cancer and heart surgery and has begun to encounter the rocky shoals of an old age. I, too, am a father now, constructing memories with my own kids, wondering what they will take away into their lives. Almost certainly that man rummaging through the garbage cans has died. Almost certainly he is buried in some Potter’s field, or perhaps, on a more hopeful note, he was reclaimed by family, a lost son brought home, and, at last, restored to some dignity in death.

Comedy is festooned with deep truths. We laugh, often to avoid crying. We pepper our consciousness with simple-minded heroes like Chief Inspector Clouseau in order to shut out the grimmer realities of what wanders along at the margins of our lives. It is one way of coping.

My father and I forged a deep bond that day at the movies. We acquired vocabulary for the common language which we continue to speak. Though the gaps between us have widened, the connections remain strong, sustained by revisiting the various films we once watched together. The movies revealed a world at once marvelous and impossible, ridiculous and haunted. In time, as it must, the sublime slapstick gave way to more harrowing realities. The laughter from those memories remains a less lyrical though no-less vital descendant of Wolfe’s homeward looking angel. We are only offered glimpses into the mystery, flickering frames viewed from the balcony of an old theater, but they have to suffice. Soon, the final credits will roll, the lights will come up and it will be time to go. But for now, we enjoy the laughter.

—Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has been published at Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” (which first appeared on Numéro Cinq in a slightly different form) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He lives in San Diego with his wife and children.

Apr 242012


Gorgeous, mysterious, eerie, disturbing, melancholy — look at the photos and read the essay by Jack Hodgins, eminent Canadian novelist, already a contributor to NC, and wonderful friend. The top three photos were taken by Jack’s son Tyler, the artist who conceived this project. He freezes live-sized ice images of sleeping homeless people and then cracks them out of the mold and trucks them to various locations around Victoria, British Columbia, where he lives. They melt, of course, or they get knocked off their park benches and break — one just disappeared the next day. There are two effects. One is political/social: the images are meant to draw attention to the plight of homeless people; do we really just wish them to disappear as the ice images do? The other effect is aesthetic: the beautiful, transitory, fleeting, evaporating image with the light describing strange and changing patterns through its translucent surface. The great purpose of art is to startle us into seeing something fresh and real. I look at these images and feel that telltale stirring in the back of my neck.

The second set of photos below show the work in progress — Jack Hodgins, the white-haired gent, and his three children, Tyler, the artist (in the brown jacket), Gavin and Shannon, fighting the blue homeless ice man out of his mold in Tyler’s driveway. (Other family members were standing just out of camera range. The photos were taken by Heidi, Tyler’s wife.) Given NC’s propensity to nepotism, this is a quintessential NC moment — the whole family making art together. It warms my ancient, shriveled, dessicated heart no end.

There is a helpful news video post about the sculptures here. For a full explanation see www.tylerhodgins.ca. The entire project was sponsored by the Art Galley of Greater Victoria.


Once we’d raised the homeless man from the freezer, a thin slick of whitish condensation began immediately to form on his bright blue surface. Like the others, he weighed nearly three hundred pounds, which meant that raising him had required a pair of sturdy straps and a chain pulley attached to the ceiling joists above.

He had frozen in the asleep-on-a-bench position, his knees pulled up, his head resting on his hands, though of course we could see this clearly only after my son had used a sturdy pry bar to free him from the thick rubber mould.

As soon as we’d shifted him onto a plywood stretcher, the four of us carried him  across the driveway and slid him into the back of a borrowed van. Then we drove him down through town to the city’s main park, where we carried him across the grass, past a clump of blooming daffodils, and laid him out on a green slatted bench that looked out over the passing traffic. Those who came close enough would be able to see, in this light, the distinct track of the sleeping bag zipper this person had fallen asleep in.

Perhaps they would also notice that this person’s face is without features. He — or perhaps she — is essentially faceless.

Because the early-spring sun was weak that morning, there was a chance the frozen person would take a few days to melt entirely. Unless, that is, vandals attacked and dismembered him first, as had apparently been done to the previous week’s “Sleeping Bag.” Of course it was possible that someone with a powerful need to sit, or to rest her tired legs, would push him off the end of the bench and onto the long grass, where he would continue the process of melting in two or three separate pieces.

Of course a few passers-by slowed, and muttered amongst themselves, but did not come close, and moved on as soon as they were aware of being noticed. Only a child came up close enough to examine, perhaps to marvel. He did not say what he was thinking. We couldn’t hear what he reported to his grandmother, who remained at a distance. Clearly it was time for us to leave this blue person to sleep in peace and the city residents to observe or ignore as they pleased.

We all knew, though we hadn’t yet said it aloud, that we would find an excuse to drive by and check on “our frozen one,” our own “Sleeping Bag” the following day.

Most of our son’s successful public art works have been large structures of stainless steel, made to last “forever.” In contrast, none of the ice persons set out on a bench each Saturday for thirteen weeks has lasted more than a day or so. One had been moved down to sit in a puddle, gradually turning the muddy water blue; an orange one had almost certainly been tossed into the harbour, and another had disappeared altogether after little more than an hour. (Taken home perhaps? A trophy in the family freezer, a joke, to shock someone sent downstairs to bring up a roast?) That they vanished so quickly  – melting or otherwise — is a reminder of our ability to allow the breathing homeless amongst us to fade rapidly from our awareness and altogether disappear.


The project was sponsored by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, encouraged by the city’s Coalition to End Homelessness, the Community Social Planning Council, and The Centre for Addiction Research of BC — and permitted by the city council. Ironically, though the city’s permit was for benches only (for safety reasons), the living breathing homeless would be arrested if they were to stretch out to sleep on those same benches, day or night.

Different friends or relatives were invited to help move and install “Sleeping Bag” for each of the thirteen Saturdays. This had been the immediate family’s turn. Apparently each crew had had its own way of reacting to the job. I’m fairly certain that most felt a little as though they were participating in something sombre, very much like a funeral, though there was also good reason for considering this a setting free, a rescue, even a sort of resurrection. And this was spring after all, and Easter weekend – our turn chosen for when all members of the family would be in town.

—Jack Hodgins


Jack Hodgins’s novels and story collections include: Spit Delaney’s Island, The Invention of the World, Innocent Cities, Broken Ground,  and  Damage  Done by the Storm, amongst others.  A Passion for Narrative (a guide to writing fiction) is used in classrooms and writing groups across Canada and Australia. His fiction has won the Governor General’s Award, the Canada-Australia Prize, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Butler Book Award amongst others. He has given readings, talks, and workshops in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and several European countries. In 2006 he was awarded both the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in British Columbia. In 2010 the Governor General awarded him an Order of Canada. He and his wife Dianne live in Victoria where, until recently, Hodgins taught the writing of fiction at the University of Victoria. His latest novel, The Master of Happy Endings was published in 2010.  His website: www.jackhodgins.ca

Tyler Hodgins graduated in 1990 from The Victoria College of Art diploma program, and was made an Honorary Associate of the college in 1993. He has exhibited widely, and has work in public and private collections in Canada and the United States. He lives in Victoria with his wife and three children. Tyler’s work is primarily sculptural, and includes video, photography, installation works and public art. Studio based projects focus on themes of home, language, repetition/reproduction, and chance. In 1999 he was a member of the design team for public art on Broad Street in Victoria, and in 2009-2010 was on the steering committee for a new Public Art Policy for the City of Victoria. He has been short listed for numerous public art competitions, and has completed three public commissions, “Rings” for the District of Saanich, “Topography” for Victoria, and “Gateway” for the Gateway Theatre in Richmond. “Glass Half Full” will be completed for The City of Victoria during the summer of 2011. His website: www.tylerhodgins.ca

Apr 222012

“There’ll be no plot,” Andrzej Stasiuk writes in Dukla, “with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.”

Andrzej Stasiuk
Dukla, $13.95
Dalkey Archive, 2011
184 pages
Translated by Bill Johnston

“There’ll be no plot,” Andrzej Stasiuk writes in Dukla, “with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.” Rigorous and striving in his efforts to communicate a personal and complex vision, Stasiuk’s doesn’t dither with plots in the traditional sense. Read slowly and taken intimately, however, Dukla teaches one how to see. With delicate and precise prose, Stasiuk’s narrator seeks a “resurrection” of his experiences, experiences that at once seem universal but all take place on a small stage—in a small town, in a creek bed, in a roadside ditch.  With a narrator drawn to light and with just about every paragraph brimming with glowing descriptions of things high and low, I often thought of Allen Ginsburg’s “Footnote to Howl” while reading Dukla and wondered if its narrator knew it—“Holy… everything is holy.”

One of Poland most acclaimed writers and winner of the NIKE, Poland’s most prestigious literary prize, Andrzej Stasiuk is best known for his travel essays, but he has also written fiction, literary criticism, and journalism. After Stasiuk was dismissed from secondary school, he got involved with a pacifist movement and then spent time in the Polish military, from which he deserted.  For leaving his military post, Stasiuk spent one and a half years in prison, where he wrote his first book The Walls of Hebron (1992), a collection of short stories. Dukla was published in Poland in 1997, and Dalkey Archive Press published Bill Johnson’s translation of it in 2011.

Dukla is broken into three sections.  The first is a ten-page, predawn travelogue across central Poland; second is the title novella; and the third is a collection of eighteen sketches related predominately to nature. Because of its genre-defying mixture and lingering, lyrical prose which edges often into poetry, Dukla reminds me of William Vollmann’s The Atlas or Péter Nádas’s Fire & Knowledge.  The title novella, Dukla, is one part modern travel piece to Dukla, a small Polish resort town on the Hel Peninsula of the Carpathians, describing its sights and its people.  The other parts are cobbled philosophical and metaphysical insights regarding the workings of the mind, time and space; and the narrator’s memoir of childhood experiences in Dukla.  The narrator seems particularly driven to revisit his past—as it relates to a first love he had in Dukla—and to visit the tomb of Maria Amalia, an eighteenth-century ruler of Poland, perhaps because it’s Dukla’s centerpiece of culture.

As in the quotation I open with, Dukla’s makes no effort at standard narrative structure. Stasiuk reconfirms multiple times that “there won’t be any plot.” For Stasiuk common plot is for the middle mind, terror given a name, it “offers protection from madness.”  His writing seeks perception without artificiality, which in turn creates the delight in reading Dukla. He as thrown off the artifices that protects from madness, and in achingly sincere and hyper-lucid prose Stasiuk’s lays bare his thoughts and perceptions.  The guiding structure in Dukla rests with his metaphysical ideas, repeated insights, and a desire to write, notably about light:

I always wanted to write a book about light. I never could find anything else more reminiscent of eternity. I never was able to imagine things that don’t exist. That always seemed a waste of time to me, just like the stubborn search for the Unknown, when only ever ends up looking like an assemblage of old, familiar things in slightly souped-up form. Events and objects either come to an end, or perish, or collapse under their own weight, and if I observe them and describe them it’s only because they refract the brightness, shape it, and give it a form that we’re capable of comprehending.

The narrator never explicitly says that Dukla is the book he “always wanted to write,” but given the attentiveness to light and darkness throughout the book, one can guess that writing about light is what he’s doing.

The tension in Dukla is between the narrator’s imagination and reality.  Reality is very messy for the narrator, which leads him to want to write about light, as he says elsewhere in the book:

For a long time now it’s seemed to me that the only thing worth describing is light, its variations and its eternal nature. Actions interest me to a much lesser degree.  I don’t remember them very well.  They arrange themselves in random sequences that break off without reason and begin without cause, only to snap unexpectedly once again. The mind is skilled at patching up, tacking, putting things in order, but I’m not the smartest guy in the world and I don’t trust the mind, just like a country bumpkin doesn’t trust city folks, because for them everything always arranges itself in neat, deft, illusory series of deductions and proofs.  So, light.

He derides the imagination saying that “the imagination is incapable of inventing anything,” it’s “powerless,” and “doesn’t actually exist.”  Yet there is an unresolved contradiction in the book.  As the narrator lets slip early on: “Light can’t be described, all that can be done is to keep imagining it afresh.”  This tension between Stasiuk perceived reality and imagination textures the book, distorting the text into a fata morgana of the narrator’s devotion to the image—that is, of what he actually sees—and the spiritual imagining of what he experiences.  An example of this is best captured in the novella’s most memorable scene, a moment when “the imagined mingled with the real.” The narrator remembers when he was a child visiting Dukla in the summertime and falling in love with a very tan girl.   At a party he watches her dance and then begins to “feel” himself entering her:

I felt myself entering into her body, not in the banal, sexual sense, but literally slipping into her taut brown skin; my hands filled her arms all the say to the fingertips, which I wiggled as if putting on gloves, and my face moved in the warmth of her smooth insides and became her face, and eventually my tongue became the inside of her tongue, and the same happened with everything else, with the red kingdom of tendons and muscles and white strips of fat, and in the end she was entirely pulled over me, and I was wearing her to the furthest recesses of fingernails and hair.

Another important instant such as this occurs toward the end of the novella, in which the narrator imagines a resurrection of Maria Amalia from her tomb only to have this vision vanish as another woman (a real person, not a phantom) enters the church. These magical, imagined(?) events are then put into juxtaposition with the clear observations of reality, sights which seem remarkable in their fidelity, as in his observation of this family:

In the dark shelter that resembled a ruined arcade there was a family sitting and waiting for their bus. No one was talking.  The children copied the stoical gravity of their parents.  The only thing moving were the little girl’s legs, which swung rhythmically above the ground in their white stockings and shiny red shoes with golden buckles.  In the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, in the stillness of the bus station, this motion brought to mind the helpless pendulum of a toy clock unable to cope with the burden of time. The girl had slipped her hands under her thighs and was sitting on the. The glistening red weights of her feet were rocking in an absolute vacuum.  Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging.  It was pure movement in an ideal, purified space.  Her mother was staring emptily ahead. A yellow frill bubbled under her dark blue top. The father was leaning forward, his arms resting on his spread knees, and he too was peering into the depths of the day, toward the meeting point of all human gazes that have encountered no resistance on their path.  The woman straightened her hands where they lay in her lap and said, “Sit still.”  The girl froze immediately.  Now all of them were gazing into the navel of the afternoon emptiness, and it was all I could do to tear myself from that motionless slumber.

Dukla’s meditative quality lends itself to quoting large chunks, and I want to share another favorite image from the book.  Here the narrator, now a 36-year-old man, has found the shower he watched the tan girl bathe in twenty years before when he was a child:

I went into the last stall and closed the plastic shower curtain behind me.  Just like before, the sun was shining through the narrow horizontal window. The cracked tiles gleamed like semitransparent gold. It looked as though something lay behind them, that another world began there.  The place smelled of wet wall and of the sadness of somewhere where so many strangers had stood naked….Greasy water had pooled in the drain, with a white flake of soap and a clump of hair.

One of the gifts of Dukla is that it contains multitudes—often times you start to wonder what it is you’re actually reading—and this review could have been easily crafted to highlight its philosophical aspects or its lyricism or the narrator’s obsession with time—“the present is weakest of all, it spoils and disintegrates faster than anything.”  But Stasiuk’s precise use of images and sensory details, his eye for “clumps” of hair in the drain, these specific and well-defined observations for the things in the world, and how he makes them glow with their “own light,” is what seems strongest in the collection. Read slowly, his prose gives measured respect to space and genuine witness.  He allocates as much attention to the image of the tanned girl—who “among the famer’s daughters [of Dukla] this barefoot vagabond looked like the child of kings”—as to the detritus in the public bathroom—“dust, cobwebs, scraps of newspaper, broken glass, disintegrating red oddments of iron, rubble, and dried shit.”  Isn’t what we value almost as interesting as what we throw away? Stasuik thinks so. Holy. Everything is holy.

As with the novella, the eighteen sketches that conclude the book overflow with a preponderance of captivating images. These sketches, however, take a clear-eyed view of nature both its allure and—most often—its moments of cruelty.  Stasiuk always makes note of the kind of light and the time of day or year that illuminates these “landscapes [that] breath death.” In the “Rite of Spring,” Stasiuk narrates the epic struggle of spawning frogs—a sign spring has arrived.  In “Crayfish,” Stasiuk and his friend save crayfish from a drying creek-bed under a sky that had “burned itself a mirror.” Moving them is in vain because later the second stream eventually dries up, too.  And in my favorite of these short pieces, “Green Lacewings,” Stasiuk describes “gold-bugs,” which “in the evening, when we lit candles, these scarcely visible [bugs] would flutter from dark corners, from crevices in the wooden walls, and speed toward the flames, till in a final flare even their outline was lost.”  Taken together these short pieces written in radiant prose tally a zero sum, silhouetting the pointlessness to life, that even we (humans) cannot escape nature. A dusky point of view to be sure, but somehow Stasiuk conveys beauty, whether it’s in the pale hue of an upturn frog’s belly—its choked-up guts “unraveling” from its mouth; or the “luciferous shimmer” of frost. (And now I hear Wordsworth’s admonition about “getting and spending.”)

Dukla is a communion. Throughout the book there is a theme of the narrator trying to enter things, or become part of something, whether it’s ingesting sand or entering the flesh of another person or stumbling into an area where wolves killed a doe.  Over and over we read that the narrator is trying to reconcile and become one with his world through words. As the narrator says while walking though Dukla, “I decided to describe everything.”  The resort town of Dukla and the ditch where the frogs are spawning and the early morning drive through Poland is everything, and “everything suggests that the soul is a fiction of the mind, which is trying to use it to equal the visible world.”  The word dukla in Polish means an exploratory mineshaft, and Stasiuk has gone deep into his own thoughts and memories, and tried to communicate what is real in light and dark. It is a wondrous and mysterious vision, and represents one author’s serious effort to enter his world—hallowed, real and imagined.

–Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Corium, The Los Angles Review, The Fiddleback, and New Orleans Review. His story “The Funeral Bill” will appear in the 2012 edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories. He is an assistant fiction editor for upstreet.

Apr 222012

“Rite of Spring” is an essay from Andrzej Stasiuk‘s Dukla, translated from the original Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Dalkey Archive Press late last year (see NC’s review here).  Short, precise and lyrical, “Rite of Spring” captures Stasiuk’s clear-eyed view of his landscapes—brilliantly alive and cruel. As often the case in Dukla, Stasiuk meditates on image, light, and color to produce stunning insights and metaphors. “Rite of Spring” comes near the end of Dukla, and is part of a series of short essays on nature and its dominance.

–Jason DeYoung


Rite of Spring


 When the frogs come out from beneath the earth and set off in search of standing water, it’s a sign that winter has grown weak. White tongues of snow still lie in dark gullies, but their days are numbered. The streams are bursting with water, its animated, mo­notonous sound can be heard even through the walls of the house. Of the four elements, only earth has no voice of its own.

But this was supposed to be about the frogs, not the elements. So then, they crawl out of their hiding places and make their way to ditches and puddles, to stagnant, warmer water. Their bodies look like clods of glistening clay. If the day is sunny the meadow comes to life: dozens, hundreds of frogs moving up the slope. Actually it can barely be seen, for the color of their skin matches the dull hue of last year’s grass. The eye catches only light and motion. They’re still cold and half asleep, so they hop slowly, with long rests between bursts of effort. When the sun is shining at a particular angle, their journey is a series of brief flashes. They light up and go out again like will-o’-the-wisps in the middle of the day. But even now they join into pairs. Frogs’ blood, as everyone knows, has the same tem­perature as the rest of the world, so as they push through patches of shadow on a clear but frost-sprinkled early morning, it’s quite possible that red ice is flowing in their veins. Yet even now, one is seeking another, and they cling to each other in their strange two-headed, eight-legged way that makes Tosia call out: “Look! One frog’s carrying the other one!”


All this is happening in a roadside ditch. The sun warms the water all day long, it’s only in the late afternoon that the leafless willows cast an irregular network of shadows. There’s no outflow here, it’s sheltered from the wind, no stream runs into it, yet the surface of the water is dense with life. It’s like the back of a great snake: it shimmers and coruscates, reflecting the light; the cold gleam slithers, melts away, divides, and does not come to a rest even for a moment.

To begin with it’s only the frogs. Some are dark brown, almost black, with tiger stripes on their pale yellow legs. Others are bigger, the color of dusty fired clay—the ones in the water turn slightly red, take on warmer tones, and you can tell they’re made of flesh.

 Pairs join into foursomes, lone frogs adhere to couples, then there are eights, dozens, frog-balls appear with untold numbers of legs. They look like bizarre animals from the beginning of time, when the familiar forms of life had not yet been established, and the material expression of existence was still an experiment.

Soon frogspawn appears. At first it’s clear as condensed water, then there’s more and more of it and it acquires a luminous dark blue sheen. The water disappears completely, the inert shapeless substance reaches all the way to the bottom of the ditch, and when the frogs are startled by the shadow of an approaching human they dive in clumsily and only with effort. The substance, slimy and mercuric in its weight and its inertness, pushes them back to the surface. All this is accompanied by a sound that recalls an underwater rumbling of the belly.


When everything is over, the sky remains blue across its whole breadth. The surface of the water is equally still. The frogs have left, all that remains is the spawn and the bodies of those that didn’t survive. They float up on their backs, they have white bel­lies, while pale pink filaments of intestine unravel from their mouths like some delicate species of water plant. This is the sign that spring has now arrived.

— Andrzej Stasiuk from his book Dukla, translated by Bill Johnston