Dec 312010

Here, yes, oh yes, two New Year’s poems by David Helwig, lines from which should be repeated at midnight and can/should be burned into your minds henceforth: “…every one of the dead lived, and every instant of their time rang like this, ours, now.”

David’s work has graced these pages from nearly the beginning (nigh on a year now–the NC first anniversary is January 11), including his poems “La Rentrée” and “Stars” and his lovely translation of Chekhov’s short story “About Love.” I am never sure whether or not to reintroduce people here again and again. Many of you know who David is–old friend, prolific writer of everything, Order of Canada, founding editor of Best Canadian Stories, new dog owner, generous contributor to Numéro Cinq. The rest of you read the new poems and look at his earlier pieces. These poems happen to coincide with the very recent arrival in my mail box of David’s latest book, a collection called Mystery Stories.

Happy New Year!



Impromptus for the New Year: December 2010
By David Helwig


In a brilliant patchwork of greens, moss, lichen, leaf
shed brightness on the damply haunted winter day.
Thin black twigs prick the dimly opalescent sky
over a gloom of woods where the roaming black dog

yips and flushes a snowshoe hare, white in phase with
the cycle of the year’s darkening, useless pale
winter fur in desperate flight across the un-
seasonable snowless landscape, grey trunks, branches,

conifers hung with grey-green strands of old man’s beard.
A sodden winter too is an incarnation,
where tremors of time occur, scant, slack, offering
what is least likely to burn, a flame in damp wood.

All vision shivers in the accidental gaps
of early twilight on this narrow long path,
as the black dog races out of sight. Silence, like
a pause in music, offers stillness and resolve.

We have posed calendars against infinity,
the major and minor scales and counterpoint,
that law of two remaining two, being one.
It is said that the wise travel to map their return.

Detail defies the approach of incoherence,
like our numbering of days. Moss, trees, lichen
recite a winter creed: every one of the dead lived,
and every instant of their time rang like this, ours, now.


Morning sunlight falls on the eventual snow,
and the dog stirs, black upon white, in the maze
of thin spruce, the path tracked and retracked by the night’s
dance of hares, and my old legs climb over a fallen trunk.

How many generations long is a long life?
Do we count by decades or some definition
of attitude? Has love a new way of being?
You are, she said, better at questions than answers.

Blown snow and bright ice, the young trees bend low
under the weight of it. A fox has left fresh tracks.
To be wild is to be hungry, short-lived, cold, wet,
breeding desperately to salvage the species.

Ask the young to explain. The lively black puppy
leads me through the new snow of her world, obeys,
though she can outrun me on any footing.
The cold wind sings in the bright air all around us.

—David Helwig

Dec 302010

Numéro Cinq‘s own prize-winning rondeau writer Anna Maria Johnson (and current VCFA student) preached a sermon a week ago last Sunday and posted the text on her blog The Martian (at the top of which is the photo of her amazing novel-in-a-box). I was under the impression the sermon was a dying form and now they seem to be cropping up everywhere. This one is lovely. Have a read and compare with sermons by John Ekman and Hilary Mullins on NC. The sermon is a nonfiction form, obviously meant to be delivered as a speech, thus often brimming with rhetorical devices, recursive structures and memorable sentences. A sermon is also organically structured around a theme and a set of biblical quotations, one from the New Testament and one from the Old Testament (device of inter-textual reference). Contrast with the related form of the VCFA graduate lecture of which there are examples in the NC Student Resources section.


On Sunday I preached my first full-length sermon. In celebration of Advent, Community Mennonite Church asked me to speak about Mary the mother of Jesus. The texts were from Luke 1: 26-56 and Micah 5:2-5a.

via Meditation on Mary, for Advent | The Martian.

And here is a link to a post about the first recorded sermon in America.

Dec 292010


Here’s a lovely, exotic What it’s like living here essay from Renee Giovarelli who graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer. Renee travels the world for an NGO involved in reforming land and property rights. But she also writes urgent, passionate essays about the places she visits. Her essay “The Bad Malaria Shot,” which she presented at her graduate reading in the summer, was a finalist for the Wasafiri 2010 New Writing Prize. Renee is one of those students I’ll always regret not having had the privilege of working with.


What it’s like living here

from Renee Giovarelli in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan


The Apartment

I don’t notice what it’s like living here when I’m here.  I sit down to write about place, and I only recall conversations.

I’m at a small wooden blue built-in table in someone else’s apartment kitchen.  The kitchen is small but bright, full of the high-desert sun.  Sitting here, writing, with no kids, no husband, no groceries to buy, bills to pay, dogs to feed and walk, bird cages to clean, I am a different person.  I will only live in this apartment for three weeks.  But while I’m here, I will work, I will write, and I will spend time with friends.  I will not juggle anything else—only those three things.

When I come to Bishkek to work, I live in someone else’s apartment—never the same apartment, it depends on who, in the network of friends and relatives of my co-workers, needs the money.  This time I’m on the fifth floor of a Soviet-style building, which could be any building in the city—no elevators, uneven stairs, the smell of cooking mutton in the stairwell.

For these three weeks, the owner and her family have moved in with a relative in the same complex–one building over.  There are three buildings, all five stories high, all facing a common yard.  The yard is dirt with a swing-set and a few benches.

“It’s not going to be that clean,” Zina says.  “They’re Kyrgyz.”

Zina’s Kyrgyz but she calls herself a marginal.  She blames the uncleanliness on the Kyrgyz’ nomadic ways.  Zina is my interpreter and friend.  She found this apartment for me.  The apartment belongs to someone she knows, but the connection is never made clear.  I will pay forty dollars a night to stay here, and after three weeks, the owner will have enough money to take care of her large extended family for months.  The owner will owe Zina a favor—the Kyrgyz accounting system Zina calls it.

Continue reading »

Dec 232010

I discovered Dawn Raffel through her stories in The Brooklyn Rail. But then I heard her read at The Brooklyn Rail anniversary reading and that sealed the deal. Here is a piece from her memoir in vignettes, The Secret Life of Objects. She has a short story collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (see the amazing book video at the bottom of the post) just out with Dzanc Books earlier this year, and she is also the author of Carrying the Body and In the Year of Long Division. It’s a pleasure to be able to present her work to NC readers.

(The photo was taken by Bill Hayward, part of his Bad Behavior project. Coincidentally, Bill took the author photo for my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. The Bad Behavior project, as I understand it, consisted of giving subjects—artists of various sorts all—a huge sheet of backdrop paper and a bucket of black paint and letting them act out. The results were/are amazing. See above. See some of the photos on his web site, or buy the book. Hell, buy everyone’s book! It’s Christmas.)


from The Secret Life of Objects

(A Memoir in Vignettes)

By Dawn Raffel


The Moonstone Ring


My future husband bought the ring in India in 1981 with the idea that he would give it to the woman he married.  Besides, he said, when he presented me with the ring in 1984, it was only $15. The ring is silver with a moonstone flanked by blue gems. It was not my engagement ring—that was a quarter-carat perfect diamond. Anyway, the moonstone ring was too large. My fingers at the time were a child-sized four.

I took the ring to be sized. During the three days it was at the jeweler’s, the 400-square foot apartment my future husband and I had just bought together in Chelsea was burglarized, and my jewelry, including the few pieces I owned that had belonged to my grandmother, was stolen. All I had left was my engagement ring, which was on my hand, and the moonstone ring in the shop.

In a few months, I also had a wedding band, and over the years my husband bought me jewelry, in part to make up for what I had lost. I rarely wore the moonstone—even properly sized, it seemed too big, too serious. Years went by; we moved from one apartment to another and out of Manhattan and had children.  The diamond fell out of my engagement ring, never to be found, though the kids had a field day looking for it, pulling the cushions off furniture, sifting through the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. I took off that ring with its empty prongs and thought about wearing the moonstone in its stead but by now, my knuckles had thickened and the ring was too small. So I returned it to the jeweler to be made bigger, only to be told it could not be sized again without destroying it.

The ring sat in my top drawer for more than a decade.  During this time, a man in our small town opened a jewelry booth inside the liquor and soda store across from the takeout pizza joint, and I would occasionally browse while I waited for the kids’ slices to heat. One day I was looking at a pair of earrings when someone dropped off a ring to be sized. “Do you do that?” I said. “Sometimes,” he said. I brought in the moonstone-and-blue-gem ring and he looked at it and said he thought he could enlarge it, despite what the more established jeweler had told me. Sure enough, he did.

So now, 29 years after my husband brought the ring from India, I wear it next to my wedding band. Those sapphires, the jeweler said, with some surprise, are real. The band slides over my knuckle and the ring fits fine.

—Dawn Raffel

See another  excerpt in The Brooklyn Rail.

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Dec 212010


Once upon a time, sermons were a vibrant literary form, not to be forgotten.  This is a Christmas sermon delivered by my friend Rev. John Ekman (we once or twice went downhill skiing together, now we meet at the gym from time to time) five years ago at his church in Saratoga Springs, New York. John often  preaches from “extended notes” or thought points, but this Christmas sermon is the full written out version (for an example of the thought points alone, see a second sermon which I have appended below).

I use “extended notes,”…what you received is what I would call FULL text. Some preachers go from memory…I can do that for a short piece but not for 12-15 minutes. I usually go on the shorter side: “The mind can not absorb what the butt cannot tolerate.” Other preachers would read their sermon from a text like I have sent you. And others (that would be me) use notes where “the unnecessary words” have been taken out and the speaker is left to supply verbs/adjectives, etc. My method allows me to take a quick look at a “section” and then make eye contact with the congregation as I have then “re-memorized” a short script.  I’ll send you an e.g. and you can pretty much tell what I am saying just by looking at key words and supplying your own connectors.

John’s text reads as a kind of poetic argument. His mix of typographical emphasis and parentheticals is rhetorical, meant to be spoken; it reminds me of the essays of the Black Mountain poet Charles Olson (see “On Projective Verse”). John’s message is earthy, comic and highly political, but political in the way the Old Testament prophets were political, critics of their own culture and time, critics of the effete and useless rich and their shallow piety. His socially engaged Christianity seems a far cry from the family values Christianity we hear about on Fox-News.

For another example of a sermon at NC, see Hilary Mullins “Hear My Call“.


We Feed Horses in the Hopes that the Lowly Sparrows Might (eventually) Benefit.”

(Luke 1: 47-55, Is. 61:1-4, 8-11.)

A sermon by the Rev. John Ekman, Presbyterian/New England Congregational Church, Saratoga Springs


I.                 Folks who run ad campaigns know that they’ve got to change the message and rework the images, or in the case of the lottery alter the game in order to keep interest up. Failure to update for public consumption means death to the product. Buick tried this with “It’s not your mother’s Buick.” [Of course it--still--was your mother’s Buick!] The NYS lottery has gone with King Kong. I guess there’s not much marketing value in the Lion King.

II.               In matters of our faith story there is a danger (actually a severe danger) that by growing so familiar with the Biblical images the message loses its power to change and transform us. The meaning of the story becomes lost in the mundane commonality. “Frankly: we’ve  {just} heard THAT story too many times.”

III.             The FACT is that our biblical faith is pretty radical stuff. In fact the Bible ought to come with a warning, “Dangerous to your sense of well being and comfort.” The Bible should say, “Use with caution. Drink plenty of water if you believe you’ve ingested too much of this product.” The Bible story should be toxic to our common assumptions and it should actually alter our understandings of life.

IV.             Take Mary’s song in Luke. The Magnificat, when set to music is a wonderfully artistic creation. BUT look at the words! Radical. Totally disquieting and discomforting. If you live in poverty in the third world you can find solace and hope. We, you—I—the very comfortable—should be dismayed!

“Pull down princes from their thrones. Exalt the lowly. The hungry go away full…the full empty.” OUCH! There are lots of refugees along the Gulf Coast or in Darfur or in Gaza who will have trouble putting food on the table. What are we planning for Christmas dinner?  “Please pass the stuffing—again.”

When we actually read the text and really seek to comprehend the meaning, the lovely notes of the Magnificat should fade into unabridged message of terror.

V.               Let’s move on to Isaiah. Surely, we say, it cannot be worse than Mary’s song? Jesus got into big trouble reading this passage in his home town. I reckon if you’re a prophet you ought to be from somewhere else! Isaiah’s story says:  “Gods spirit is upon me. Good news to the poor. I mend the brokenhearted. I free the captives. I hate robbery. I love justice. I despise all wrong. This is the year of the Lord’s favor.”

VI.             Actually the year of Jubilee (or the year of the Lord’s favor) never did happen as Biblically stated. It was too radical!   Supposedly the year of Jubilee was a time when all debts were to be cancelled…the land returned to the original owners…and the entire society would start over again. The slate would be cleaned. Life, hope, opportunity and promise would all be renewed. Jesus said, “This time is now!” That’s radical stuff!!

For us this should be another Biblical OUCH! In the year of Jubilee your credit card debt would be cancelled—I guess that is good news for lots of Americans. But it is only momentary good news! The Biblical finger is always pointing (back) at us. Let’s face it, our comfort pretty much comes at the expense and discomfort of others!

We like cheap lettuce. Our salads come on the backs of underpaid, illegal, stoop labor. [If we do not understand that practical lettuce growing business truth…we aren’t paying attention.]

Continue reading »

Dec 202010

C. M. Mayo is a former-student-turned-old-friend. We met years ago when I taught at the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute at Skidmore College. She was working on a story collection called Sky over El Nido which eventually won the 1999 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is a tremendous story writer, a travel writer, a translator, editor and novelist as well as an indefatigable teacher of writing. She is from northern California but has lived much of her adult life in Mexico and Washington. A visionary publisher, she started her own magazine, Tameme, specializing in translation of writing in English into Spanish and vice versa, an amazing cross-border cultural and literary project.  This excerpt is from her historical novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, named a Best Book of 2009 by the Library Journal. Based on a true story, the novel focuses on the heartbreak and tragedy of a half-Mexican, half-American toddler adopted by Mexico’s childless Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota. Maximilian was a hapless Austrian archduke parachuted into Mexico in the 1860s to stop the endless series of revolving-door governments, revolutions and social chaos. Even as things begin to go badly, Maximilian refuses to give the child back to his parents. Eventually, Carlota goes mad, and Maximilian is shot by firing squad. And the child…? Read the book.


from The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

By C. M. Mayo


March 4, 1866:  RÍO FRÍO

The Belgians had enjoyed their visit to Mexico City immensely. Although it had not gone unremarked (feathers had been ruffled) that Maximilian had remained in Cuernavaca, and that certain senior French officers had not attended the entertainments, in all, they judged their mission a success. They were proud of Charlotte— their own princess— “swan of our Old World gifted to the New,” as one of their members toasted her, after having imbibed a few too many cups of champagne (and made some tasteless remarks about ‘our ginger-colored protegés.’) Also, they had seen an exotic land; they’d had a true-blue adventure and their steamer trunks and valises were crammed with the souvenirs to prove it. Of the delegation, no single member was more satisfied, more inspired, more, well, overflowing with joie de vivre about the whole thing than Baron Frédéric Victor d’Huart.

An intimate friend and officier d’ordonnance of Charlotte’s brother, Philippe, Duke of Flanders, Baron d’Huart might have been described as dashing had he not developed a paunch and double chin. Since departing Ostend in late January, he had been unable to follow his regime of fencing and hunting. The crossing had been brutal. For days, frigid gales had tossed the ship like a firkin in a tub; some feared they’d be shipwrecked off the Azores. Unlike the others, confined to their cabins with nausea, Baron d’Huart, who often joked that he must have had Viking blood, had gone on eating and drinking without pause.

By the time they docked in Veracruz, he had consumed prodigious quantities of foie gras, bonbons, and champagne. And in Mexico, well, was there anything more delicious than a humble taco of beans with this marvelous sprig of an herb called the epazote? And he indulged in the candies— dulces de cacahuates, the cigar-shaped camotes, lime-skins stuffed with sugared lard, and the almond nougat “buttons” soaked in honey— baskets of candies had been left in his quarters, replenished each day. At the farewell dinner at Chapultepec Castle, under his cummerbund, he’d had to leave the waist of his trousers undone.

The round of balls and dinners had been intense. All of the Belgians, and especially Baron d’Huart, had been limp with relief to finally get out of court dress: the coats bristling with decorations and epaulettes, the clanking swords, the hats with feathers. This morning, for this first leg of the journey home, he’d thrown on his roomiest breeches and favorite deer-skin jacket.

He is riding up top with the driver, who wears a sombrero with the circumference of a buggy-wheel. Baron d’Huart had started out wearing his sombrero— a loosely woven one, not so big as the driver’s but the biggest they had in that labyrinth of an Aztec market— but once the coach had climbed to altitude and the air turned chilly, he’d exchanged it for the poppy-red cap he wore for grouse hunting in the autumn.

It is late; their coach has just departed from the inn at Río Frío. The sun having fallen behind the trees, the road is bathed in the blue shadow of the brief, disconcertingly brief Mexican twilight. Baron d’Huart throws his shoulders back and fills his lungs with the pine-scented air.

Que fresco,” How fresh, he says, eager to practice his Spanish on his companion.

The driver, throwing his lash, makes no reply.

Continue reading »

Dec 182010

Darryl Whetter is a poet, story writer, essayist, novelist, scholar and book reviewer—a man of letters. He’s also a politician—ran as a Green Party candidate in the last Canadian federal election. He has published a story collection, A Sharp Tooth in the Fur, and a novel, The Push & the Pull, of which dg wrote: “Darryl Whetter’s The Push & the Pull is a brash, vibrant, melancholy, sexy, and finally uplifting book about a mesmerizing father, the son who can’t tear himself away, and the women who make them grow up. Whetter is intoxicated with language. He writes like a dream in a quick, urbane, and witty style. His women are gorgeous independent creatures; his men are large and infuriating; and when love happens it’s explosive, passionate, and grand. A lovely first novel.” These poems are from a new manuscript (others have been published, see links at the bottom) that orbits around the grand themes of evolution, plate tectonics, the slow rhythms of geological change, and the vast throw of history from the beginning of things.


Six Poems

By Darryl Whetter


Spiral Jetty


art lost, fed
into the land,
a basalt fiddlehead
curled into Utah’s ruddy
Great Salt Lake.
a whirlpool of rock stopped
in salt water so algae-dense,
the colour of blood one year,
rosé the next

a 1500’ coil of entropy,
nearly 7000 tons
of indifferent rock
laid in a drought.
loaders and dump trucks
the size of (brief) dinosaurs

then water levels rose again,
reclaimed your boiling
curve, made it a briny Brigadoon,
unseen Atlantis of the salts.
an intentional fossil

or John Cage’s
Organ2/ASLSP (as slow as possible)
a constant drone
half hum half
squeal in patient
German air. art
slid into the time capsule
now Joggins. with the wide
stage of your rock
beach and mud flats, the wet
curtain of your twice daily tides
you can offer
intertidal art to the world,
make a fossil
among the found

Continue reading »

Dec 172010

Here’s a fine poem (with appropriate photo accompaniment) by Vermont College of Fine Arts Dean Gary Moore, poet & playwright, colleague & friend. Gary’s play Burning in China, about his experience teaching in China at the time of the Tiananmen massacre, had a two-week soldout run the New York Theater Workshop’s 4th Street Theater in August. He taught in the first ever VCFA Stage & Screenwriting Conference last summer. It’s a pleasure to publish his work here.



By Gary Moore

To walk home singing to the stars
Their tipsy light not enough to show the way
But more than I need to know I’ve got to belt it
Cry it
Break it open and pour all that love up so high
Up so high Oh my girls in hoop skirts
That no human can down it
And look: the fires tiny and grand standing far in the dark
The way they called us as children
Charged our hearts with our lovers on bridges at night
Lit our orphan’s cold way from our mother’s dead hand
And now heedlessly whirling their immovable waltzes
Bright with blessings we give them to give us again and again
They say, Make it home lover, make it home and come back
The way we will tomorrow
Scattered in the black and ashine with immortal light

—Gary Moore

Dec 162010

Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Robin Oliveira, former dg student, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and author of the novel My Name is Mary Sutter. See Robin’s amazing book tour diary published earlier on these pages.

For a complete list of “What it’s like living here” texts, click here.


What it’s like living here

By Robin Oliveira on Cougar Mountain, just outside Seattle

You live on Cougar Mountain, the first mountain on the right as you leave Seattle. The children—your reason for moving to the mountain—have moved out, and yet you cling to the house in which you raised them, unable to let go of the memories. Cougar Mountain hovers between wilderness and civilization. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to yapping coyotes surrounding and terrifying some poor mammal they then eat. Before they die, the animals cry, a sound so human you leap from your bed and peer out the window. Black bears sprawl on the hillside behind your house, watching passing cars. Startled deer wander in the former meadows houses now occupy. They seem puzzled, these animals, incapable of altering their patterns in the face of encroachment. One day, on a bike ride, you gut out the steep climb from Puget Sound to the top of Magnolia, a hill long ago urbanized. A cougar has been spotted in the park, where for days, the fields of tawny grass camouflage him. You wonder what ancient memory has led him back into the city. You are sad when the park rangers capture the animal. Where do they take it? You don’t know. Maybe to your mountain, where the historical society exhibits pictures of the old days, when men hunted cougar for sport, then hung them upside down and posed beside them. Another day, flames shoot above the red cedar and Douglas fir behind your house. You turn on all the hoses and water the roof while your husband and neighbor attempt to douse the advancing fire. The flames lick thirty feet high; you breathe smoke; embers fall onto your shoulders and into your hair. Then the fire trucks arrive and unleash a spray of white foam that in two minutes extinguishes the blaze.

Now that the children are gone, you have all day every day to work. In your office, you turn on a sun light to ward off S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, which struck you down about the middle of the nineties, fifteen years into your interment under the drizzly menace that is the Pacific Northwest sky. With the fake sunlight bathing your retinas, you write. Ten thousand luxes a day are the prescription for your well-being—about thirty minutes worth—but you indulge and keep the light on all day. When the real sun breaks from behind the clouds, you play hooky. Microsoft money has littered the mountain with mansions of ridiculous dimension, but you climb on the paths above them, through preserved corridors of wilderness, where it is still possible to meet a cougar or a lone coyote, so you carry a stick. You climb until you see the fingerling glacial lakes that strike northward and the snow-topped Cascade Mountains, coolly indigo against the eastern sky. To the west, the Olympic Mountains shimmer jagged against the western horizon. If you had a pair of binoculars, you could see the Space Needle floating beneath them.

Continue reading »

Dec 152010

The travels of Tuor and Voronwë will soon be accompanied by appropriate music

Things have quieted down in the production process, but only in the figurative sense.  Our main focus right now is the film’s score, which is being worked on by many talented folks.  Oh, and I’m working on it, too.

The film includes many scenes of conversation, some poetics, and long crawls of travelogue, all of which flow together into (hopefully) a sort of symphony of visuals where you never see the same set twice.  My brother and I came up with a goal on the audio side of this cinematic multiverse: about 90% of the movie’s soundtrack should sound like one varying piece of music.  Anna Pauline Kenzie, our resident opera singer who also acts in the film, came up with an excellent song she’s been recording over the course of a month (despite completely losing her voice for the better part of two weeks), and our costume expert, Jen Wicks, wrote a song in Quenya (a form of High Elvish created by Tolkien) and recorded a few demos with her own equipment.  As of now, these two pieces act as our leitmotifs for the film’s score.

Listen to Jen’s song, “Alamenë,” below.


Andrew, Kate Chappell and myself in August 2010

My cousin, Andrew Busone, a multi-talented musician best known for playing in New York City punk band Tied For Last, is also skilled on the keyboard, and will be putting together a few tracks for the film’s non-vocal score.  Laura McCoy, a fellow VCFA graduate, will be providing the flute tracks.  Vermont’s own Red Heart the Ticker also agreed to contribute a nice ambient traveling song.

While editing the rough cut, Philip would sometimes put on music from other artists to help us get a feel for what sort of sound we wanted in the background of a certain scene.  Quite often, I’d say, “Just turn off the music; you can’t hear the dialogue,” but many times we struck gold with this technique.  A certain scene involves a duo of travelers making their way across a narrow bridge that spans a swamp, with an unknown figure awaiting them on the other side.  We need apprehension, suspense, and music you’d imagine playing if a swamp had its own soundtrack.

The challenge of creating the film’s tunes is a journey which parallels, in some ways, the journey of creating the film itself.  It doesn’t involve as much standing out in the cold, driving fifty miles or sustaining open wounds, but sometimes I wonder how close we’ll come.

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Dec 152010


Herewith a novella by my old friend Christopher Noel. Chris was teaching at Vermont College when I arrived (eons ago). He was something of a young legend  with a dramatic and melancholy past who could move an audience to tears or laughter when he read. In my mind, he will always be part of that place, especially Noble Lounge, packed with students and faculty, the condensation dripping off the windows, winter outside, and Chris. It’s a pleasure to publish his work here and remind us all of old times.


Doctor White’s Monkey

By Christopher Noel

This is my last word on the subject. I guess you could call it a kind of affidavit, if what I witnessed so long ago still falls under the category of crime.

Today is Maggie’s birthday−she’d have been sixty-five−and my daughters have stepped away briefly from their own lives and families to travel here; for the first time in years, it’s just the three of us. We’re having a quiet day, forced inside by rain, eating well, talking about the distant past, trying to conjure their mother, getting distracted by our pleasure in the now. We don’t even look at old photos, because that routine has felt played out long since. To celebrate their arrival last night, I made a vegetable beef stew, very ambitious cooking for me, and now we’re emptying that pot for lunch. Freya and I sip red wine, but Justine, pregnant with her third child, only water.

“So, Dad, you going to jump right on that report this afternoon?” Freya asks me, winking broadly and reaching for a slice of rye bread. “Or should we throw you in the Homework Slammer?” She wears her brown hair clipped short these days, and last spring she and her husband finally went for Lasik surgery, so she looks more different than ever from her twin, who keeps her signature blue-framed glasses and hair halfway down her back.

How constantly surprising they are to me, my girls, and I don’t mean because of their beauty and their gifts, though I confess I’ve never quite gotten used to all that, either, and must hand all credit to one Margaret Ellen Hutchins. I mean instead their immunity to self-pity; I also mean their perfect knowledge of me and the light touch with which they apply it. If I become, for instance, as I often do, maudlin and self-indulgent about my past and my solitary lot in life, one of them will laugh, “Grind it finer, Dad. Grind it finer,” while the other will beam a compassionate silence that lets me hear more clearly my own sorry tone. They’ll both look at me in a way, from a particular angle, that rules out pity at the same time as it takes my troubles more seriously, strikes nearer my center, than pity ever could. They are simply with me, these women, more than anyone else on Earth. More even than Maggie, my once and only wife, who has not merely faded over time, which I expected, but has continued to fade, gaining momentum.

“I know,” I tell Freya, “I did promise myself I’d write the thing today.” And I promised Professor Claude Estes, historian of science and medicine at the University of Oklahoma. How he dug up my name I’ll never know, but for the past seven years he’s been working on a book that argues for the existence of the White Center, a place that the years have elevated—or demoted—to the status of myth. The professor insists my perspective is indispensable, which I do not doubt. The book’s completion, apparently, awaits only my reluctant chronicle.

“And it’s not exactly procrastination weather,” Justine points out, clinking glasses with Freya and me. She double-palms her swelling belly and yawns, the theoretical notion of procrastination leading smoothly into the concrete tug of an afternoon nap.

In the matter of this project, the girls have surprised me once again. I frankly thought they’d recoil when I finally informed them, this morning, about Estes’s exposé. Instead, the news hit them like a kind of external ratification, as if up till now our experience in Honduras might have been a three-way figment. Freya even held up her wrist to show us the small, pearly scar from the spider monkey attack.

Before she waddles off down the hall to the same bedroom she slept in as a girl, Justine clears away the lunch plates and Freya sets my laptop before me, flips it open, turns it on, announces, “Yes, it’s into the Slammer for you now, Dad. Make it happen. Make us famous!” Then they both cruelly absent themselves, Freya borrowing my car keys with a sly smile and roaring off toward town.

Continue reading »

Dec 142010

 In Minneapolis they just had 17 inches of snow in the last  24 hours, a record. Thus a “What it’s like living here” piece from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis is particularly timely. Perhaps it will be the last communication out of the city til spring. Adam is one of my current VCFA students, a brilliant science/nature writer who has contributed several fine craft essays to NC in the past few months.


What it’s like living here

from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis

Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas other colors are not.  They are psychological spaces; red, for example, presupposing a hearth releasing heat.  All colors bring forth specific associative ideas, tangible or psychological, while blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual nature what is most abstract.

– Yves Klein




You meet a girl.  A local girl.  They all seem to be local girls.  You trudge through the snow between her apartment and yours in the middle of the street, because the sidewalks are unreliable—some already cleared by ambitious homeowners with powerful snowblowers, many still buried in the drifts.  You don’t think it strange anymore when the first snowfall of the year happens in October.  The public radio station devotes a whole hour to discussing the impending event, and listeners call in to ask when the earliest measurable snowfall occurred or what was the most snow the city ever got in October.  You learn that talk about the weather isn’t just small talk here; it is a well-researched discussion, full of personal opinion, documented theses, and bold predictions.  You surprise yourself by enjoying that October snowfall, the way it hangs in the trees still spangled with the yellow and orange of autumn, the way it lays on pumpkin patches like a blanket on a bed of marbles, the way the people immediately commandeer it for their own fun: the making of six-foot snowmen, the strapping on of actual skis to replace the versions with wheels that the die-hards have been training on for weeks, the dangerous racing on sleds down the park hills toward the not-yet-frozen creek.  You marry the girl. You snowshoe with her under the gnarled bur oaks in the park near the house you bought together.  She pauses, smiles, her winter coat bulging at the middle with your first-born. You drive past the lake near your house on the way to pick up the new storm windows you ordered, and you are struck by the blackness of the water—a bottomless void in the white world.

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Dec 132010


My first diagnosed seizure occurred in the cockpit of a Navy T-34C Mentor, on a formation flight over Pensacola, Florida.  I was 23.   Another pilot flew ‘lead’ that day, and I was the ‘wingman,’ which meant I  flew by staring straight at lead’s plane, judging distance and spacing by markers on the other fuselage and by constantly adjusting altitude, airspeed and direction to stay in formation.  We flew tucked in close, less than ten feet away, wingtip to wingtip. We were practicing a ‘turn-away,’ a maneuver where, on signal, the lead would bank sharply away and I would follow instantaneously and  in synch, maintaining tight spacing throughout the manuever.   Lead’s orange wing was so close to my cockpit that it seemed almost reachable.  I don’t remember a signal from the other pilot.   I don’t remember his plane turning away.   All I remember was coming to, his descending wing drifting rapidly away in the hazy sky, and the bellowing voice of my Marine instructor screaming at me over the intercom.  Something about me being ‘fucking nuts.’

(You can read the abstract of my case here, in an article published  by the flight surgeon who diagnosed me upon landing.)

I recently started re-reading The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones, a collection of stories I read during my first semester at VCFA.   The titular story deals with the training of a young Marine during the Vietnam War.  The narrator goes through boot camp in San Diego where he assaults an abusive recruit-classmate with a rifle butt.  The narrator then ships off to Southeast Asia, survives a ferocious battle by faking his own death and receives medals for false heroism while the real hero lies dead on the battlefield. The narrator returns from the war and struggles with reintegrating into post-war civilian life.  We learn that Jones’ narrator suffers from epilepsy (as did Dostoevsky, as Jones himself does) and the story ends with the narrator preparing for an operation on this brain to help alleviate the symptoms of his disease.

The story has an odd structure, with scenes interrupted by historical and philosophical intrusions (about Greek boxers, Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, etc.)   The eponymous pugilist is supposed to be Theogenes, a gladiator and Greek boxer who fought his opponents (to the death) while chained to a stone.

There’s a long passage in Jones’ story about the aura of seizures.  He’s thinking about his own disease and about Dostoevsky.  As a person who’s had epilepsy for almost twenty years and experienced far too many of these auras, I found this passage to be uniquely compelling:

“The peculiar and most distinctive thing about his epilepsy was that in the split second before his fit—in the aura, which is in fact officially part of the attack—Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine.  It was the experience of satori.  Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme.  He said that he wouldn’t trade ten years of his life for this feeling, and I, who have had it, too, would have to agree.  I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it—it becomes slippery and elusive when it gets any distance on you—but I have felt this down to the core of my being.  Yes, God exists!  But then it slides away and I lose it.  I become a doubter.”

In my experience, the aura sneaks up randomly—there are no precursors, no triggers that I can identify.  It feels like the most intense déjà vu imaginable, beginning as this prolonged sense of recurrent action, almost like a vivid memory.  In those weird seconds as the aura passes from something subtle to something more sinister, everything that’s happening—every sight, sound and sensation—seems to have happened before in the exact same order and sequence.  And here’s the kicker for me: the future feels predictable too, as if I know exactly what will happen next.  Then the aura shifts, and rises into a more and more intense, almost crippling feeling as the déjà vu spreads and becomes more pronounced, mixing with darkness, with a sensation of fear and gloominess.  In “The Pugilist at Rest”, Jones describes this as the “typical epileptic aura, which is that of terror and impending doom.”  But these darker sensations blend in delicately for me.  As loopy as this may sound, as I experience the aura, it feels life-altering, epiphanous, expansive and eerie all that the same time.   It’s both terrifying yet inexplicably peaceful.

I feel no panic in these moments, just dread and calm mixed together in an unmixable cocktail of lucid emotions that take over, then, almost as quickly, let go.

One of the more vivid of these auras happened to me about two years ago.  I was running on a deserted road in Spain (where I was living at the time).  The run felt normal and I ran that road a lot.  Nothing seemed off-kilter or indicative of any somatic disturbance.  Then I noticed the beauty of the trees along the road.  This sounds like bad poetry, I know, but that was my first sensation: “Man, those trees look beautiful.”  And the sun shone brilliantly, and the sky appeared crisp and bluer than I’d ever seen it.  The asphalt road bent around to my right and a guard rail separated the road from a low wash filled with reeds.  The moment felt dreamy, but entirely sensuous too. Like hyper-reality.  Seconds later, overcome by an intense emotional feeling of having lived through this exact experience before—the trees, the reeds, blue sky, sunshine, pavement and the curving guard rails—a wave of physical symptoms hijacked my body.  My knees went weak.  I began to sweat, then my body went cold,  then started sweating again.  I felt nauseated and light-headed.  I knelt down along the side of the road and tried to shake it off.  There was the oddest feeling  that something dramatic was about to happen, something almost indescribably sad but predestined, too.  Jones’ dread and doom here.  Then the aura simply receded.  The sensations passed completely in a minute or less, and all that lingered was a slippery sense of uncertainty over what had just taken place.  I even managed to finish my run.  As if nothing had really happened.

I would not, like Dostoevsky or Jones, trade ten years of my life to re-experience these auras.  Though I agree about their ‘slipperiness’, their ‘elusiveness with distance’, I’ve experienced them enough times that I do not long for repeat performances.   The auras I’ve experienced (and the seizures that sometimes follow) have not triggered any great religious awakenings in me.  I heard no voices of the gods, saw no window into heaven or hell. To my knowledge, I’ve never been accused of being possessed by a devil.

And I’ve been lucky.  Medication seems to manage my symptoms quite well.  And while it hurt intensely to be told at twenty-three that I would never fly again, I can look back at that moment (even at the screaming, cursing Marine instructor!) and feel thankful that my seizure happened when it did, and not out at sea or on final approach into the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier.

A long time ago, I read all of Dostoevsky’s works.  I became obsessed with his novels and stories and the critical work on him.  I’m proud to say that I even managed to read all 5 volumes of Joseph Frank’s incredible biography of the Russian author.  Few writers have a more compelling life story than Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.   He suffered intense anxiety over his epilepsy, constantly afraid that it would strike him at any moment.  These were the days when epileptics were closely associated with mental patients, whereas now there seems to be a more clinical, medical sensibility about the disease (as, quite fortunately, there is about most types of mental illness).  Epileptics were shunned from polite society and confined to mental hospitals.  I imagine Dostoevsky worried that his disease would ruin his writing career.  Of course, his disease went almost untreated in the nineteenth century.  For Dostoevsky though, the attacks were often portals into his fiction.  This has never been the case with me.  I’ve never even written about the sensation before now.

Epilepsy has been called the “Sacred Disease.”  It’s long been associated with demonic possessions and spiritual visions.  Paul of Tarsus was said to have suffered a seizure on the road to Damascus which he took as a religious vision.  Muhammad may have suffered seizures; Joan of Arc, Joseph Smith.  I imagine that a religiously inclined person might feel some ineffable divinity in those moments.  I do not, but I can’t fully convey or describe what they do feel like.

I didn’t get up this morning to write about any of this.  I wanted to offer up some of what I’d been reading and seek suggestions from others on NC about good reads for the upcoming holidays.  Funny how these things work.  Toward the end of Jones’s story, he says this:

Good and evil are only illusions.  Still, I cannot help but wonder sometimes if my vision of the Supreme Reality was any more real than the demons visited upon schizophrenics and madmen.  Has it all been just a stupid neurochemical event?  Is there no God at all?  The human heart rebels against this.

-Richard Farrell

(All quotes are from The Pugilist At Rest, by Thom Jones, 1993)

Dec 112010

The Author

(Photo and makeup by Jonah Glover)

Jonah hasn’t been himself lately. I don’t know what’s up. Maybe he’s a little tense about school. (No animals were harmed or mistreated in the production of this photo.)


Dec 102010

Here’s a fine “What it’s like living here” piece from Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate Glenn Arnold who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where it goes to -40 in the winter and there’s more oil than in Texas. Glenn took the photos of himself and the art gallery. His son Craig Arnold shot the street view, the refinery and the gorgeous cityscape down the valley.



Merge Right (or Left)

I’m on my way to see the play Studies in Motion, the true story of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who more than a century ago tried to stop time through experimental photography, but couldn’t stop the tragic entropy of his own marriage.  As I sit in my car, alone again, waiting to merge in a construction zone, I remember the essence of an old joke. An Edmontonian stuck in traffic comments to his friend that it’s a nice place to live, and will be even nicer when it’s finished.  This frustrating and seemingly endless road construction hints at a deeper truth.  The city is always building, always inventing itself, but it’s never clear what it’s trying to become.  There is always progress, but what is the goal?

The city is confused, juggling multiple and conflicting personalities.  Edmonton is isolated and extreme.  It is the northernmost, major city on the continent, and on a map, it sits apart from the other Canadian cities that huddle around the American border.  My life has been filled with long, contemplative hours behind the wheel, the endless patchwork of farmland and prairie mesmerizing me as I try to get somewhere, maybe to see her, maybe someone else.  This sense of isolation is fed by the severe climate: temperatures typically range between -40C and +30C.  People here have a sense of grim survival, gladly spreading their blankets on the flattened grass in Hawrelak Park in July, battling mosquito mobs, just to absorb a little of the solar radiation that will be such a rare commodity later in the year.  In deep winter, the sun is a weak orange orb, low in the sky, limping across the horizon for barely seven hours a day.  In my days as a cubicle drone, sunlight was only a vague dream.  Now it’s a little better: my office has a window that provides me a thin hope that I might survive the coming darkness.

Continue reading »

Dec 102010

This is a stellar first for Numéro Cinq, a full-length original novella by Toronto writer Mike Barnes. DG published three work-in-progress excerpts from Mike last month (see the introduction there for more information and links). In conversation at that time, the existence of this novella came up and dg offered to publish it. The novella’s structure includes footnotes and photographs. The footnotes were difficult to lay out. Normally, they would have come at the bottom of the page, but on NC they would have appeared at the end of the text. That would have meant tedious scrolling back and forth. And the footnotes are essential, carry a kind of subplot. So we ended up by including the footnotes as boxed texts just where they are tagged in the text. DG hopes this works and that you can find your way. Mike Barnes is the author of stories, novels, poems and a gorgeous memoir about his own descent into madness and recovery. This novella, too, deals with madness. It is an intricately structured rendering of madness and memory, a mix of hallucination and dense, concrete realism, which only makes the phantasmagoria of illusion all the more poignant. This is an amazing work—supremely intelligent, cooly self-analytical, eerie, melancholy, revelatory and terrifying.


Ideas of Reference

A Novella by Mike Barnes

(Ideas of Reference)

Food in dreams appears to be the same as food when awake, but the sleepers are asleep, and receive no nourishment.  —St. Augustine, Confessions Book III

On a spring afternoon in 2007, I was lying on the couch in my living room reading Simon Schama’s Power of Art. This chapter was an essay on Picasso’s Guernica. As I read Schama’s account of the German planes appearing in the sky over the Spanish town on April 26 1937, something caused me to look up from the book. The objects of the living room, clearly outlined in the spring light, seemed altered somehow, stark yet dubious along their edges. Not quite familiar, either as themselves or as an arrangement of objects. I had a sense of items poised in a museum, absorbing my attention while contriving to escape it utterly. Clear and hunkered as they were, I couldn’t quite see them. I realized the date was April 26 2007. The same day as the Guernica attack, exactly seventy years later.

The bombers had appeared in the sky at 4 p.m. I looked at the homemade wooden clock on the end table. Hand-sawed and painted yellow-green, it has the shape of a tall, slim house with no windows and, at its base, a little red door askew on its hinges. The hour hand had dropped below the eave on the right, two thirds of its way toward the crooked little door. The big hand pointed straight up into the peak of the tall roof. It was 4 p.m.

For a long instant, like the sustained vibrations of a musical chord, past and present collapsed together like the two ends of an accordioned paper figure. Or more than two: the moment thronged with splintery harmonics. Stretched out, the two sequences–the destruction of a town, which became the subject of a famous painting, which became the subject of an essay; and (reversing things) my reading of the essay about the painting about the destroyed town–were separated by the innumerable twists and folds of seven decades. Then somehow, with a speed that gave me vertigo, they shut up tight together, without a wafer of space between them.

They overlaid each other like clear transparencies. That was part of the vertigo. As if the intervening seventy years had suddenly gone sheer and negligible. Like wandering (I was looking at the house-clock again) in a building made of glass. A glass construction polished to such speckless transparency that things that ordinary walls and floors and ceilings would keep at a distance could suddenly loom, merge and blend.

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Dec 092010

In the last years of his life, Rilke wrote hundreds of poems in French. Not widely translated, they continue his meditations on and imaginings about the things of the world but in the fresh expression of this adopted language. Marilyn McCabe is poet and essayist and an old friend, part of “the Greenfield Crowd,” a disparate and rowdy group of writers, painters, cellists and cross-country skiers loosely based in Greenfield, NY (though Marilyn actually lives in Saratoga Springs). Laura Von Rosk and Naton Leslie, who have both appeared on these pages, are part of the group. Marilyn has published widely, including an essay in VCFA’s own magazine Hunger Mountain. With Elaine Handley and Mary Shartle (two more members of the Greenfield Crowd), she published a collection called Three Poets on Themes of Love, Death, and Sex. It’s a great pleasure to be able to introduce her here.

from Vergers (Orchards)

Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated from French by Marilyn McCabe


Ce soir mon coeur fait chanter
des anges qui se souviennent….
Une voix, presque mienne,
par trop de silence tentée,

monte et se decide
à ne plus revenir;
tender et intrépide,
à quoi va-t-elle s’unir?

Tonight my heart makes sing
the angels who are remembering….
A voice, close to mine,
lured by too much silence,

rises and decides
to never return;
intrepid and tender,
with what will it unite?

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Dec 082010

This is Mary Stein’s critical thesis, hot of the press, as she says. It’s part critical essay, part personal essay, one writer’s adventure in the art of reading as much as an exploration of the technique of absence in Amy Hempel’s stories. Would that all readers could be as curious, open, intelligent and humble. Would that we could all have such readers.


This essay was really selfishly motivated––I was basically just trying to figure out why I had been so obsessed with Amy Hempel, and now I have a 30-page half-answer to that question. I also like to think I belong to the “reality” camp, and while writing this, it was clear the essay experienced a crisis of identity, and I had resigned myself to a mildewy fate in the basement in College Hall. More than anything, I just wanted to figure out a thing or two about artful craft and about my own creative process…

—Mary Stein


Another Way to Fill an Empty Room: The Voice of Amy Hempel’s Aesthetic

By Mary Stein


“Here’s a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband’s bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.”

(“Nashville Gone to Ashes,” 20)

One may not notice the loneliness of an empty room until you place a small desk and chair in its corner.

Amy Hempel’s words are the desk and chair that sit in the corner of an empty room.

It is no secret that Hempel’s stories rely heavily on aesthetics. For Hempel, construction is of utmost importance: She intends her stories to start from and arrive at a particular destination, approaching each story with knowledge of its final line. In her stories, what is not present becomes just as important––if not more important––as that which shows up on the page.

Return for a moment to the image of a room sparsely populated with furniture: In the emptiness of a room, a reader may view herself in relationship to the space that surrounds her. (I called the room “lonely,” whereas the narrator of Doris Lessing’s story, “To Room Nineteen,” may have called it “salvation”). If that same room is filled with objects and people and pictures and doors to other rooms, a reader will be more likely to view all these objects in relationship to one another. Regardless, the role of the reader in relationship to a story is clearly important as it is with any text. We are entering some Bertolt Brecht territory of the relationship between the roles of the audience (readership) and the art (text)––how a reader becomes an inextricable part of what she observes, diminishing the possibility of pure objectivity. Of course, we don’t read stories in hopes of objectivity. But the risk of using economic prose to write narratives as spacious as Hempel’s is that these stories will more likely foster speculation: There is literally more room for a reader to project his or her own interpretive slant on a story.

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Dec 072010

I met Russell Working years ago when he was at Yaddo, the art retreat just across town from where I live. Now Russell is coming to teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In fact, we’re running a workshop together during the winter residency (and Rich Farrell will be there for his last VCFA workshop).  Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. This story is taken from his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize). I wrote a blurb that went like this: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.



By Russell Working

Every life, Dr. Tamara Rudyakova believed, is determined by a few fateful moments comprising but a blip of one’s allotted years on this planet. At such times the entire future hangs on the decisions one makes; everything else is mere consequence.

Case in point: a few minutes’ conversation with a child beggar one Saturday in late August of 2002, midway through Tamara’s third decade, or “halfway to the grave,” as a colleague had cheerfully toasted her on her birthday last month. There was a whiff of golden autumn in the air, when the trees yellow on the hills of Vladivostok and whitecaps blossom on the Sea of Japan and the weather, in this gap between the summer typhoons and late October snowfalls, is on its best behavior all year. That afternoon, Tamara was hobbling across the Vtoraya Rechka market, where the produce of the dachas crowded the stalls: onions and carrots and bunches of dill and filthy potatoes the size of a child’s fist. An outdoor market is not an easy place to negotiate on crutches on a busy Saturday. She carried her purchases in a daypack slung from her breast to keep thieves from raiding it from behind as she queued, and other shoppers thumped her crutches with their duffel bags as she sculled through the throng. A butcher with an ax hacked a frozen side of beef into pieces, and a flying chip of bone nearly blinded her.

She was halted by the scent of muskmelon. Nearby, a Korean farmer sat on a stool beside a pyramid of cantaloupes buzzing with gnats. From one of them he gouged out a wedge for a woman to sample. Tamara could almost taste the hot sweet summer flesh of the fruit. Perhaps she could fit a cantaloupe in her pack, but did she really want to lug it, along with everything else, up the hill and five flights of stairs to her apartment on Kirova? So she stood there for a moment and simply savored the smell, reluctant to surrender the associations of youth, of a time when she was able to walk without crutches, of the collective farm where in Soviet times university students had been compelled to help with the harvest and where she had made love, for the first time, to her ex-husband, Filipp, then a fellow medical student. But then, having detained her, fate drew her gaze toward a small boy sitting by the entrance to the corrugated steel building that housed the clothing market.

Strange to say, his face alone set her heart pounding. He had longlashed eyes, pursed lips, an upturned nose, and ears that were pinched inward at the top. He appeared to be a rather small five, and in his jeans and Star Wars T-shirt, he was as grubby as the homeless Roma and Tajiks who passed through the city every summer. Yet with his blond hair, sunburnt face, and blue-gray eyes, he had the same Petersburg complexion as Tamara herself. Propped beside him was a cardboard sign decorated with an icon of an infant Christ and the Mother of God, along with the words, “in the name of Christ, kind people, spare some change for an orphan.” The boy had aroused the pity of other shoppers, it seemed, for he had accumulated a small pile of coins and ruble notes in a candy box, to the envy of a babushka panhandler nearby, who cursed him and told him to go find another place to beg, this was her spot. But he ignored her, his attention was elsewhere. A few meters away, a woman was selling pit bull puppies from a cardboard box, and the boy was riling them by tossing pebbles at them while their mistress was preoccupied chatting with a friend. He threw with his left hand. His right hand was hidden in his pocket, but even before he pulled it out, Tamara knew with a sickening prescience what she would see: his thumb and forefinger were missing. Nevertheless, she gasped when he reached to collect a pebble in his three remaining digits and transferred it to his left hand.

Continue reading »

Dec 052010

Diane Schoemperlen is a good friend, a novelist, short story writer, editor, and winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (1998) and the Writers’ Trust of Canada Marian Engel Award for an author in mid-career (2007). In 1995 dg and Diane edited the annual Coming Attractions story collection for Oberon Press in Ottawa. Technically inventive and exuberant, Diane structured her first novel, In the Language of Love, on the hundred words of the Standard Word Association Test.  She writes poignant, emotionally articulate fictions which yet have a foot in the camp of experiment and formal play. The story published here appeared in Best Canadian Stories (edited by John Metcalf, Oberon Press, 2008) without the collages under the title “Fifteen Restless Nights.” This is the first time the text and visual elements have appeared together the way they were intended. They make a welcome addition to NC’s growing collection of off the page and hybrid works. And it’s a huge pleasure to introduce Diane to the NC community.



On Making Collages

My interest in collage as an art form began twenty years ago when I was working on my first novel, In the Language of Love (1994). I chose to make my main character in that book a collage artist and, in doing research on the art of collage, I became more and more interested in creating some myself. I began with relatively simple pieces, hung them on my own walls, and gave them away to friends. I actually sold a few too. It was not a big leap then for a writer to think of putting collages in her next book. I had become very interested in the interaction between visual art and the written word, the different parts of the creative brain involved in creating the two art forms, and the similarities between collage and my written work. So my next book, Forms of Devotion (1998), was a collection of short stories illustrated with black and white pictures that were actually images from earlier centuries that had since gone into the public domain. This book went on to win the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction that year. In the following years, I published several other books, none with illustrations, but for all that time I was collecting all kinds of things that might someday be used in more complex collages. To be honest, what held me back from actually making the collages was my anxiety over what my agent and my editor were bound to say about the impossibility of actually publishing them. Finally I put aside my anxiety on that front and decided to do them anyway, without worrying about whether or not they would ever be published.

As with the stories in Forms of Devotion, sometimes the story came first and other times the pictures. In this particular case, I had the story first and created the collages later. The entire process of putting them together is done by the old-fashioned cut-and-paste method, one little bit at a time. This is very labour-intensive and more than a little time-consuming, but it is immensely satisfying. I don’t use PhotoShop or anything like that. The computer is important in the process though, as I use my scanner to copy anything that I want to preserve in its original state, and also to resize anything that doesn’t fit in the spot where I want to put it. The computer also allows me to reproduce anything on a transparency when I want to use that for a special effect. Some of the paper bits and pieces in the collages were purchased expressly for this purpose, while others were found by accident or searched out on purpose. I have also incorporated some three-dimensional objects, such as eyelets, sequins, stars, fancy paper clips, an actual watch face, and a piece of old jewellery. I also use felt pens, coloured pencils, and rubber stamps. I am especially fond of maps, both new and old, and have used these as the backgrounds for each piece.

—Diane Schoemperlen


I Am a Motel

by Diane Schoemperlen




All day driving west. The highway liquefies in waves of heat, dissolving over and over at the horizon.


Pull in.


Check in.


Unlock the door.

Half the window is blocked by an air conditioner that generates more noise than relief.


Royal blue bedspread shiny and slippery.

Blood-red carpet matted and stiff. Leave your shoes on. Sleep in your socks so your bare feet never have to touch it.

A pattern of cigarette burns on the carpet between the two blue beds. Try to discern shapes in them the way (in another lifetime) you used to make shapes in the clouds.

Running away from home.

In fact, there was no running at all: no thudding of feet on concrete, no ducking behind hedges and parked cars, no leaping over white picket fences, no sweat dripping down forehead or torso, no grasping, no grunting, no vicious dogs drooling and panting in hot pursuit.

There was only the smooth steady purr of the car engine.

There was only the cryptic message stamped across the bottom of the mirror: Objects Are Closer Than They Appear.

There was only driving and caffeine and smoking and singing along with the car radio.

There was only ending up here.


Nobody knows where you are.

Stare intently at the phone anyway, willing it to ring.

Here you are nowhere.

Here you are no one.

You thought you would like this more than you do.

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