Feb 282012
 

And so the world has accelerated to the point that one gets left behind in one’s own life. We’ve learned to play catch-up with our digital shadows. As opposed to forging ahead, more and more we feel ourselves getting carried along. This may occur against our will. The best protest we can manage is to clot the dataflow. But even this is an unwinnable war. — Noah Gataveckas

Last time Noah Gataveckas appeared on NC he was burning books. Here now, with pleasure, is Noah channeling Marshall McLuhan in an excerpt from his Symposium: A Philosophical Mash-up, a work-in-progress Noah describes as “a postmodern textbook/encyclopaedia of philosophy, discussing the issues of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, etc., in a semi-systematic manner. The twist that makes it ‘postmodern’ is that it ‘simulates’ various rhetorical styles of philosophy-writing in doing so (e.g. Platonic dialogues, Thomist theology, Pascalian pensees, the Hegelian System, Nietzschean polemics, Wittgensteinian Tractatus-style lists, etc.). It is an attempt to show the poetry in philosophy. It tries to synthesize research with original composition, but doesn’t use footnotes. Instead, it relies on sections I’ve called ‘Metawords’ that ‘simulate’ conversations between various thinkers over the years, relying on their actual statements, juxtaposed in such a way that it creates a ‘symposium’ of ideas, flowing naturally from one to the next. (I got the idea from the way that DJs are said to ‘mash-up’ multiple songs into a single flow, regardless of source or genre.)”

dg

§

 

I wish to speak to you about the nature of media.

How do I intend to do this? Through a medium.

That is: I speak, you read/listen. We meet at the nexus of the text.

That is: a formal structure that conditions where and how me and my message are reproduced and represented. For texts are bundles of codes, systems, formulas, alphabets. None of which you or I have any say in creating—except when we do, which is never. Therefore we speak only in inherited languages, on public phones through community trunks.

You might state: ‘But what difference does it make? Either way the speech gets spoken.’

The point is not what gets spoken, but the way.

That is: if you want to listen to what I have to say, you have no choice but to perceive me in this given fashion. And that means I’m immediately assimilated into your past memories and experiences with this immediate medium.

This, of course, is what you – yes, you, the reader/listener – are undergoing right now as you read/hear me write/speak.

The point is that a series of implicit, unnoticed bodily rituals and unconscious expectations are built in toyour perception of me and my message. As such, they can play a distortive role, depending on what you have come to expect from this sort of visual/auditory medium.

Not to mention the medium itself—which, by the way, is my message. Due to the internal apparatus contained within the machine—built into its very fibre—which reconfigures the dimensions of how you and I communicate—which distorts the ratios of how you and I experience language and thought—the bureaucracy of knowledge that is technology—along these lines do me and my message get distorted, too.

Because of this I must necessarily lie. But it also means that I can’t but tell the truth.

This distortion – some of which is a natural result of your personal exposure to the medium, some of which is due strictly to the formal structure of the medium – determines your evaluation of what I say and what it’s worth. Perhaps even more than what I actually say and what it’s actually worth.

If you were to hear me on the radio, see me on TV, read me in a book, and talk to me in person, I would come off alarmist, crazy, cryptic, and intense, respectively. Yet I am all/none of these characteristics.

What I say transcends truth and lies. It exists in a third category. It is elevated above falsity, yet stuck below truth. How is this possible, you ask?

The answer: medium is magic.

But here’s the important question: is this me more real than that me? Where is a message most true: on radio, on TV, in print, or in person? The new world disorder cannot be denied. Truth has become fragmented, fractured, outsourced to automated processes and foreign interests. If you or I are going to make any sense of the situation, we’ll have to extend our theorizing to include those objects that are in the real world which emanate ourselves back to us, like pre-emptive mirrors. Technology acts as if it built us—it pulls us in every direction at once—we are extended ever-so-slightly outside of ourselves…

Media are the extensions of humanity. The psyche has blown up into a multitude of self-regulating information systems. Caught in the skynet of cyberspace, society reorganizes its thoughts and feelings to fit within the virtual schema. It upgrades to Life 2.0. Our public discourse now consist of tweets, txts, bells, beeps, and blue teeth. Everyone is interrupted by the internet. The public mind now hangs in the air like a new dimension, adding social and symbolic depth to the fabric of space-time, distorting humanity’s experience of reality in strange new ways. Idealism coexists simultaneously on top of materialism.

And so the world has accelerated to the point that one gets left behind in one’s own life. We’ve learned to play catch-up with our digital shadows. As opposed to forging ahead, more and more we feel ourselves getting carried along. This may occur against our will. The best protest we can manage is to clot the dataflow. But even this is an unwinnable war. Either tune in or drop out; that is to say, go native, like so many Doomers are planning to do by the time peak oil rolls around. But they will learn that there is no turning off in the age of eternal daylight and twentyfour-hour news broadcasts. Our lives are at the whim of the integrated system.

The new norm for consciousness is distortion. We are always getting blown in one way or another by the prevailing winds of the media landscape. We resist—and we get stretched to new extremes. We seem to have lost our sense of rationality, and now blow tattered in the breeze…

The eyes look through the television, the ears hear through the stereo, the mind thinks through the printed word. All three senses are combined when processed through the computer screen. A new ontological sphere is opened up in this supermedium. All it takes is participation on the part of the audience and, in return, they are taken to another world consisting of its own physics and logic(s). A second life awaits inside the experience machine.

If our senses were outsourced to different media, then what of the mind? Its dissemination goes back to the dawn of civilization. Knowledge was outsourced to libraries, memories to keepsakes and photo albums, character to fashion and accessorizing, anxieties and fears to religions and superstitions, and emotions to the theatre, music, and poetry. Now we are always outside of ourselves. The mind’s little driver has developed schizophrenia.

We live in the age of extended minds. It no longer makes sense to say that the mind is hidden from view. It is now available for public consumption, as advertised on Facebook, MySpace, Youtube, etc. We now enter the noösphere: the mind has projected past our bodies, taking on a material reality that transcends private cognition.

Our technologies do more and more of the thinking for us. Soon enough we won’t have to think for ourselves. This faculty will be outsourced, just like our abilities to sense and feel and know have already been turned into audiovisual technologies and token narratives and online encyclopaedias. Download to the hard drive, register, install, and activate—iThink will manage all cognitions automatically, leaving you free to play solitaire.

The past is trauma. The future is inevitable. The present is all we have, and all we have is a remote control to flip between channels. All flicker and flash. But it doesn’t matter that there’s 57 channels and nothing on—we still watch. (We find the static comforting, like a laugh track.) The rule of the 21st century is that we’re plugged in from birth unto retirement and beyond. ’Til death do we logout…

Dedicated to Marshall McLuhan

—Noah Gataveckas

———————————————

Noah was born in Oakville, Ontario, in 1985, and educated at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. After moving to Toronto to work as a DJ in the entertainment district, he rediscovered his love of reading and writing. He is the author of poetry (“Silence”, “The King of the River”), journalism (“Hijacked: The Posthumous Reinscription of a Socialist in Canadian Consciousness,” “Digital Theft in a Digital World”), polemic (“Why Occupy? An Approach to Finance Capital”), theatre (Five Star), and a book-in-progress entitled Symposium: A Philosophical Mash-up. He lives and works in Toronto.

Feb 282012
 

 

Over the last decade David Helwig has published a number of books, ranging from novellas  such as The Stand-In and Killing McGee to the longer narratives in his story collection Mystery Stories. All these explore the possibilities of middle length narrative forms. “The Road,” another of these continuing explorations, comes from David’s new book, Simon Says. Simon Says is made up of seven stories in dialogue that take place at moments throughout the life of one man, Simon McAlmond (1935-2010). They present his life through the complex texture of dramatic speech in which nothing is merely told in narrative form, but a great deal is overheard. What is said by Simon, to Simon, and about Simon creates a subtle and complex portrait of a life; the reader is set to learn by observation, to draw conclusions that are never forced.

David is an old friend and an amazingly prolific author of poems, translations, stories, novels and a memoir. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His book publication list is as long as your arm. He founded the annual Best Canadian Stories which he edited for years. Biblioasis will publish in 2012 a collection of David’s translations of Chekhov stories, one of which appeared on Numéro Cinq. See also his poems on NC here and here and here and here! His new fiction book, Simon Says, from which this story is taken, will be published later this year by Oberon Press.

dg

§

 

The Road

(1985)

We should go back.

Fuck off, Simon.

This is crazy, Janice. It’s pitch dark. You’ve already fallen down once.

I’ll have a black eye and my face will be covered with bruises, and I’ll tell everyone that you hit me.

Don’t be ridiculous.

And everyone will believe it, Simon.

No they won’t.

You have a reputation.

Not for that.

You have such a reputation. You remember that concert at the university you took me to last year. When I went off to the toilet. I just wanted to be alone. Sometimes it was like that when I was with you. I felt so crazy I couldn’t stand anyone to look at me. And while I was sitting in my little cubical, just letting myself be quiet, two girls came in, you know, chattering, and the one said to the other, ‘So what else are you going to do this year while you’re writing your thesis?’ and the other one said, ‘I’m going to have an affair with Simon McAlmond.’ I started to shiver, like I was freezing. I couldn’t come out until I knew they were gone. Then I thought I should have opened the door, so I could see who she was. Who was going to have an affair with you. I knew ever since then I couldn’t stand it any more.

People talk. It doesn’t mean anything.

They know if anyone gives you a look, you’ll look right back.

Let’s stop this now, my love, and go back to the cottage.

I’m not your love. So just fuck off, Simon. Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off.

You really think we’re going to walk all the way to the city?

Well, the battery on my car is dead, and yours is trapped there in that little narrow driveway, so what else can I do?

You should have remembered to turn the car lights off.

Well I didn’t. Stupid Janice. I had things on my mind. I finally worked up the courage.

In the morning we can get your car started.

Go back if you want. I’m not.

This is crazy, you know. You’re going to trip and break that long elegant neck.

Crazy Janice. Well it’s better than going back to the cottage and letting you get me into bed. I’m never doing that again. It’s over.

Some things are never over.

That’s what you’re going to tell me. Kiss me on the eyes. Run your hands through my hair.

Some stories end and some stories don’t.

You and me I suppose?

That’s right.

Bullshit, Simon.

No.

If you thought that you should have stopped passing your dick around the community.

You said ‘Leave your wife,’ so I left my wife. What else is it you want?

You were with Catherine last week.

We have children. I visit them.

Until three in the morning.

You’re making that up.

No. I have evidence. I have reliable testimony.

You have your own jealous suspicions.

I have spies, Simon. They watch you and report to me.

Private detectives, I suppose.

Very private. And they do it just for me.

I greatly hope all this nonsense isn’t true.

It’s true, Simon Dippydick. I have you watched.

And just who would do this watching and besetting? I suppose they hide behind trees and garbage bins.

Henry.

Who’s Henry?

Cerise’s son. She brings him into the store to move boxes of books and tidy the back room. He adores me.

Who doesn’t? I’m sure that’s why half the customers come to the bookstore. All the men who claim they want you to tell them about the newest John Irving or Tom Wolfe or Margaret Atwood, and they really just want you to talk to them.

Henry’s very loyal, Simon. He’s my little horny robot. I used to notice how he’d bump into me sometimes, sort of by accident, out in the stock room, and I’d just smile and send him out for coffee. I knew what he was doing and I let him, and now he’ll do whatever I want.

You’re trying to convince me that you sent some pathetic juvenile out to dog my footsteps.

He’s very good at it. He makes notes.

And as a reward you permit him to cop a feel now and then in the storeroom.

Don’t be crude. He thinks I’m beautiful.

You are.

Oh you say so. You always say so. It’s part of your technique.

We all think you’re beautiful. Every man you pass on the street.

Except the ones who think I’m ugly.

You just tripped again.

How do you know?

I could hear.

I didn’t fall down.

You could.

So? It’s dark.

Watch your step, and stay in the middle of the road.

Just leave me alone.

This is dangerous, Janice, walking along here in the dark. Apart from being insane. We should go back.

My first boyfriend thought I was kind of ugly. ‘You’ve got a really weird face,’ he used to say.

Why did you bother with him?

He was very popular, and I was this misfit who studied dance and couldn’t talk to anybody. I liked it that he paid attention to me. I thought he was cute. He said the way I wagged my tail when I walked gave him a big hard-on.

All that dance training.

Muscular ass.

What about your husband?

What about him?

Did he think you were beautiful?

For a while. Then he kind of lost interest. That was when I started dance classes again. And then he moved to Dawson City and I didn’t.

I’ve often wondered whether beautiful girls become dancers or whether dancing teaches them how to be beautiful.

So have you had sex with a lot of dancers, Simon Dippydick?

Only you.

So you say.

The truth.

How far is it to the highway?

Another couple of miles.

How far is that in kilometres?

Three and a third.

Do you remember the night we spent in a motel somewhere up here? We didn’t sleep. Hardly at all. When you first got me and you were showing off.

I don’t remember.

You must.

No.

Really?

Dreams are like that.

You think it was a dream? Seems like it now. Long hot night. Do you think this is a dream, the two of us stumbling along on a dark road through the woods, you begging me to forgive you?

I haven’t begged you to forgive me.

Why not?

There’s no reason.

So easy to forget. Oh so easy.

Watch your step, the hill’s getting steeper.

I don’t care if I fall down again. Just more evidence that you abused me. Threw me on the ground and dragged me over the stones.

Why do you say those things?

Because that’s what you do, you abuse me. You can’t keep your eyes off other women. We walk into a room, and it’s like we’re in a brothel, and you’re checking out the selection.  ‘Is she to your taste sir, or would you like something a little more plump and comfy? More heft in the bosom?’ Can’t keep your eyes off them. Or your hands either. ‘What are you going to do this term?’ they all say. ‘Oh, I’m going to have an affair with Simon McAlmond.’

There’s been nobody else for two years.

Except your wife, and probably a couple of late afternoon quickies with obliging undergraduates.

While you’re in the back room letting Henry fondle you.

I don’t let him go that far.

There’s been nobody else.

I’m going to quit the bookstore anyway. I don’t need him anymore.

You’ve been there what? Four years?

I’m tired of working for Cerise.

It’s not a bad job.

I know just what I’m going to do. I’m going back to school and become a dental hygienist. They make good money, you know, and they’re in demand. Everyone is obsessed with perfect teeth. Imagine me bending over some sweet-looking young thing, her mouth’s wide open, and I push aside that dainty pink tongue, to scrape away the gumbo, and whenever I want to, if she makes me mad, looks like some girl you’d like, I scrape a little too hard, so it hurts her. ‘Just another couple of minutes,’ I say, and go back to tormenting her. Poking away at the sensitive places. Or it’s a big guy with tobacco breath and a thick red tongue who thinks he can handle pain, until I find an exposed root and go to work on it. I see the panic in his eyes as he lies flat out in the chair, me safe behind my white mask, my rubber gloves. And I imagine it’s you.

The first time I saw you, I thought to myself, ‘She is so very lovely, but she might be a little strange.’

You couldn’t wait to get me into bed. You thought I’d be so hot.

That’s right.

Simon! What’s that noise?

A bird.

Scared me half to death.

A whip-poor-will.

A what?

Whip-poor-will. That’s the sound they make.

What’s it doing out here in the night?

They’re night birds.

They’re damn loud.

Yes. You don’t hear them all that often.

There he is again. ‘Whip-poor-will.’

They’re members of the goatsucker family.

You’re lying.

No.

Goatsuckers?

Yes.

Go suck a goat, Simon.

They fly above the trees at night, eating insects. Huge open mouths. I suppose that’s how they got the name.

Go suck a goat. Oh ouch, ouch . . . damn.

What?

I twisted my ankle.

We really have to go back.

Far enough now that there’s no point.

It’s not that far.

No, Simon, you reach a certain place and you can’t go back. I learned that when I finally quit dancing.

Maybe.

Your children never liked me, did they?

They don’t really know you.

I’ve been around for quite a while.

But you hardly ever see them.

Kind of spoiled. That’s what I thought the day we went to that movie with them, that Indiana Jones thing. Spoiled brats. Especially Lorna.

As are you, my love. A spoiled brat.

I’m not, and I’m not your love, not any more, Simon. It’s finished.

So you tell me.

I came all the way out here to say it, and I did.

Yes.

And I’m not spoiled. I pay my way. I wanted Henry to spy on you so I let him bump up against me in the back room

Very romantic.

I know what’s fair. And you don’t.

You don’t think I pay my share.

That`s just money. You always pay the bill in restaurants. But that just makes me feel like a whore.

You keep changing your rules. What I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do.

There are no rules.

No?

You think you have rules. You think you have all kinds of rules.

I try to have certain standards.

Standards.

Yes.

What about the sex standard? Am I good?

Yes.

Am I the best you ever had in your life?

Probably.

No other girl gives it like I do.

True.

But you don’t care enough to say so.

I’m sure I have.

No, you just take me to Toronto to nice restaurants and pay the bill, and we shack up in some classy hotel. Or we go to Montreal and you offer me hand-made leather boots. At first I liked being your whore, but now I don’t.

It seems I can’t do anything right.

God, I’d like to have you in the dentist chair. I would put that steel tool so far into the sensitive roots of your teeth that you’d scream and beg and cry like a baby.

Why?

Because you sneak off and screw your wife.

Your friend Henry is a liar. He tells you what he thinks you want to hear.

You never loved me, not once.

So what am I doing out here on this dangerous steep rocky road through the Laurentian Shield in the middle of the night, stumbling along with you while you try to walk all the way back to the city? Which you will never be able to do. And which is insufferably stupid.

So I’m stupid. I was never smart enough for you, was I Simon? Not like those little university geniuses in their lace panties.

I didn’t say you were unintelligent. I said you were being stupid.

And you think I’m a weakling.

No, I just think it’s twenty miles or more and your feet will give out.

What about yours, Simple Simon?

I’m sure they’ll give out too.

Well why don’t you just go back now?

Because I don’t want to drive along here in the morning and find you lying on the road wounded or dead.

You could handle it. You have that boy scout emergency pack in the trunk of your car. You can deal with anything.

That’s for winter.

If we’re talking about stupid, what about that plastic case with the folding shovel and the candle and matches and a chocolate bar.

Prepared on the best advice.

So stupid.

Whatever you say.

Maybe when I get to the highway I’ll hitch-hike.

It’s two o’clock in the morning. There won’t be anybody on the road.

There’s always somebody.

Not somebody you should be accepting a ride with.

You mean it might be some big bad man who expects little Janice to put out in exchange for the ride. Well little Janice is prepared to take down her pants in those emergency circumstances. Better than going to some motel and letting you put the moves on me.

Maybe we should stop talking for a while.

So stop. I don’t care. Turn around and go back to your cottage and settle in there for the winter.

We’re selling the cottage.

Why?

Splitting things up. It seemed simplest.

So where will you take your women?

I’ll take them to Toronto, and we’ll shack up in some classy hotel.

And you’ll give them the whole routine.

Probably.

‘Oh you’re so beautiful, and you’re so unusual  .  .  . take off your clothes’

Perhaps.

Oh fuck you, Simon. Go back to your cottage and jerk off. Phone the next girl on your list. Do whatever you want, but leave me alone.

Out here at night in the dark.

Yes.

I don’t think I can leave you here in the middle of the woods.

Well you have to leave me somewhere. You have to listen to me and understand that. You have to leave me somewhere, even if you truly think I’m the most beautiful woman in the world.

When we get to the village I’ll get two separate units in the motel, and in the morning we’ll find a garage and get your car going.

Don’t be so helpful. Just go.

In the morning.

Oh fuck off, Simon. Just fuck off.

—David Helwig

—————————————————–

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 272012
 

Strauss

Darin Strauss is an American writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of three novels and one book-length memoir. Strauss is married to the journalist Susannah Meadows, and together, they are the proud (and busy) parents of twin, four-year-old boys.

Strauss’ 2010 memoir, Half a Life, won the 2011 National Book Critics Award and was excerpted in GQ and NPR’s This American Life. Half a Life chronicles the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident in which Strauss was the driver. His car struck and killed a young girl whose bicycle swerved into the road. Cleared of any wrong-doing in the accident, Strauss writes about the effect of this traumatic event which haunted him for twenty years. Hailed as a “masterpiece” and as a “memoir in its finest form,” the book has garnered critical acclaim and was named ‘Best Book of the Year’ by NPR, Amazon.com and others.

Chang and Eng, Strauss’ first book, was published in 2000. The novel, which tells a fictional story of the famous real-life conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, met with widespread critical acclaim. Set in Siam and antebellum North Carolina, Chang and Eng bravely explores the concept of self and other through the lives of the eponymous Siamese Twins, who came to the United States, became farmers, husbands and fathers. Strauss’ unflinching exploration of the twins’ story, told from the point of view of Eng, won many major literary awards and is currently being optioned for a movie. After Stauss’ second novel, The Real McCoy, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship. His third novel, More Than It Hurts You, was published by PenguinPutnam in 2008.

We speak over the phone. I reach him early in the morning and he asks if I can call him back. He is getting his boys ready for school. We talk amidst the street noise of rush hour New York, as Strauss goes for his morning walk through Brooklyn. At one point, I reluctantly offer up that I’m a Patriots fan. His New York Giants have recently defeated my favorite team for the second time in a Super Bowl. He is gracious in victory. I tell him that my son cried for fifteen minutes after the game and he says that I’m the second person who has mentioned this phenomenon. Being a parent changes the way we enjoy sports, in addition to how we live our lives. He is generous and quick with his responses. Once again, I’m reminded that even the most successful writers, and Strauss is clearly one of these, retain a sense of wonder and humility at the practice.

 

Richard Farrell (RF): Is there a spiritual tradition from which your write? How do ideas of spirituality and religion affect how you approach your work?

Darin Strauss (DS): I don’t know about that one. I’m not a fully LAPSED Jew. I do believe. But I don’t go to temple and I don’t speak Hebrew. I’m a very secular person. I suppose the closest I come to a true spiritual tradition might be the literary tradition. For me, there’s something almost liturgically intense in the best writing. Someone like Tolstoy or Bellow. People like that created texts that have an important gravity; they pull on my brain the way the Talmud would pull on another Jewish person’s brain. I think Tolstoy is the best writer we have ever had. I’m sure he wouldn’t be impressed by someone like me saying that – big whoop, right? — but for me, there is something spiritual about being engaged with reading a work of literature like that.

RF: You wrote three novels before Half a Life was published. Beyond the thematic material, can you talk about the process of writing non-fiction compared to writing fiction?

DS: I find in memoir it is harder to make a coherent whole—I mean an artful structure. The great and  popular writer David Lipsky helped me significantly in structuring the book. I was lost with it. He said do this and change that–he actually did some real stuff in there for me. The material in the memoir was so close to me personally I couldn’t see it. Ask any sea captain: When you are too close to something, it’s hard to get perspective.

In fiction writing, the difficult stuff is testing to see if what you’re writing is believable. For the memoir, that problem vanishes: it’s the truth you’re working with. I just had to figure out how to make the structure of it work.

A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t just write a novel about what had happened? I chose to do it as CNF because for me, fiction has a kind of narrative playfulness about it. There has to be fun involved in fiction, even if its fun played out in a serious way. There’s a gamesmanship to it. All fiction writing involves intellectual play, in other words. I didn’t feel like I could do that with the memoir. It would have been disrespectful to the memory of the girl who died. The thematic and textual art-making in fiction would’ve disrespected the actual events of an actual life.

RF: You’ve talked about being sensitive to critics and reviewers. Does that, for lack of a better word, anxiety, ever work its way into your writing? I suppose what I’m asking is, does your sensitivity make you defensive at all?

DS: I can wall off certain demons. I do read reviews. I mean if I’m going to be reviewed in the New York Times or the Washington Post, I’m not strong enough not to read the review. But it does affect you. You become sensitive to the slights. But I’m good at walling that part of myself off when I write. The reviews don’t get in there, into that place where I’m writing.

Maybe if there was a bad review that seemed to understand my writing—that got at the very specific flaws I know are there—that would bother me more. I think most writers—most of us non-genius writers –know deep down what our flaws are. But I haven’t had a bad review that focused on what I feel are the secret, weak parts of my work. I haven’t had a critic that made a point that could make me think to be a better writer.

RF: I want to ask you about writing sex scenes. I’m thinking specifically about the scene in Chang and Eng where the conjoined twins have sex for the first time to their new brides. I found this scene (really two back to back scenes) highly erotic (and well written). Rather than being turned off by the oddness of the situation, I found myself identifying with Eng in a very personal way. Besides accepting a compliment to your writing, can you talk about how you approach sex scenes, or scenes of physical intimacy in your writing?

DS: (Laughs and points out my inadvertent pun on ‘back to back’) I knew that was going to be one of the main questions of the book. How were they able to father 21 children? I knew I had to address how they had sex and that it was going to be essential.

Sex scenes always create a problem. And they have to serve the story. You can’t just stop in the middle of a scene and forget everything—just for a little textual thrill. I mean, it’s best not to be merely prurient about it. Here’s an analog to sex-scene writing. I think of a scene where a character walks into an ice cream shop. You have describe things that matter, but you can’t stop the forward motion of your story just to have a six-page description of the sprinkles and the cone. How the sprinkles and the cone move your story along, how they affect your particular characters in ways that are particular to them—that’s a good scene.

For that sex part in Chang & Eng, I focused on the conflict between those two men and the trouble with having your brother constantly with you. There was no intimacy, nothing was ever private. But I also wanted to conceive the sex scene as something that could get at what was special about this thematic material and this plot. So I made Eng in love with his sister-in-law. But he could never tell her or touch her because the woman’s husband—his brother—was always with her. The sex was an extension—or an elucidation—of the problem.

RF: Do you have (or did you) other writers you modeled yourself after? Who and how did you escape that influence? How did you get out of its way.

DS: I’m always picking up new influences. You certainly don’t stop being influenced. Zadie Smith said something like, ‘A writer should approach the library the way an eater approaches the buffet table.’ Like: I’ll take from this, from that, and also from that. That cobbled-together meal ends up—if you have enough various dishes in there, in various quantities—being something unique to you.

The writers influential to me include Tolstoy, Nabokov, Lorrie Moore, Martin Amis, John Cheever, Isaac Babel, V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett isn’t read much anymore but he was a great writer and a critic who kept writing late into his eighties. David Foster Wallace too, and Roth. A dash of Updike, a touch of Chekhov.

So I’m always reading and being influenced. I don’t think that ever stops.

RF: How important is voice to you in writing?

DS: It’s important. If there’s a morality in writing, it’s in the voice or the style. Nabokov made that point, and lived it, too. I try to see what other writers do, and to figure out how to do it myself.

Nabokov was great at compressing metaphors. David Lipsky teaches his students to look at what Nabokov does with metaphors and try to find ways to use that. Or David Foster Wallace, and how well he uses incredible modifiers to jazz up the prose.

But, to get less craft-lessony for a second. When I read Tolstoy, it’s a chance to take a ride in the brain of a genius for a few weeks. That’s the part that movies and TV can’t get at, because you are always watching the pictures with your own eyes, and having your own observations. Which I’m guessing are limited than Tolstoy’s. But if you read Tolstoy, you really are existing in his brain, getting the full strength of his thoughts. I think of it like brain vitamins.

RF: My last interview was with Anthony Doerr. He also has twin boys. I hope it’s not something in the well water. How has being a parent effected your writing?

DS: (Laughs) It’s made me have less time to write! My third book was about someone harming a child. But now when I get to a place in a book, maybe it’s harder to go to the cruel places. But I don’t think it’s affected my writing in a negative way, beyond having less time.

RF: In Half a Life you say, “Things don’t go away. They become you. The trailing consequence of further days and hours. No freedom from the past or future.” James Joyce wrote that “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” How does writing help this? Does writing about the events offer a glimpse of freedom or only soften prison of the past?

DS: That was an allusion to a T. S. Eliot quote. But writing does help; it has been helpful for me. I used to subscribe to what William Gass said, that if you write well it cannot be cathartic, because you are working too hard. But after writing the memoir, I have to say that either Gass was wrong, or I didn’t do it well. Because it was completely cathartic. It has helped me smooth over the psychic bumps which accumulated from the accident. It helped me heal. I didn’t want to be a self-help book author, but I guess if you write well about these kind of things, the book can be self-helpful, in a way.

RF: What are you working on now?

DS: David Lipsky and I are collaborating on a young adult adventure series. I’m also working on a new novel that’s a mix of everything I’ve done to this point. The book is contemporary and historical and even a mix of fiction and non-fiction.

RF: In your opinion, can writing be taught? Also, and I think these questions are related, is it perseverance or talent?

DS: I think this whole argument, writing can’t be taught, is ridiculous. Yes, few people are super-brilliant writers once they graduate. Is that really a useful expectation, though? You don’t graduate from law school and instantly become Clarence Darrow! Does that disqualify law school? If you do not graduate among the top one percent of lawyers in the world, did law school fail you?

Does an MFA make you, magically, Philip Roth? No. It’s not a practical degree, but I tell students that if you really want an MFA, go where you can afford to go. Go to a school where you can get money to attend.

I also think you need to go to school where the writers you like teach. The economic truth of writing is that you’ll likely have to teach, even if you do publish your books. Even the incredibly successful writers, for the most part, teach. Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safron Foer and Zadie Smith all teach—in fact, they’ve all taught with me at NYU.

But if you can’t afford it, don’t go. You won’t just be able to hang a shingle on your door when you graduate and start making money. But, certainly, yes, writing can be taught. You will improve, you will—if you work hard in grad school—get closer to the last limits of your potential. If you go into it with that expectation, and you know there are no guarantees, and you still want to go, and can afford to go, and end up getting into a good program, then do it.

RF: Keith Lee Morris once wrote, “A father is anyone with answers to the questions that keep you awake at night.” I interviewed him and asked him this question. I’m now going to ask you: Do you think this is the writer’s task, to answer the questions that keep us awake at night? (Interviewer’s Note: Morris, in his answer, talks about exploring and not having all the answers. I didn’t want to give him a bad rap on this one!)

DS: No! It’s a nice line. It sure sounds good. Here’s a plainer one. A father is someone whose sperm helps create a child. I don’t know—I don’t have many answers.

The truth is, fiction writers shouldn’t have too many answers. Debate team captains have answers. Literature is its own way of thinking about things, as Milan Kundera said. Stories that purport to have an answer are not fiction; they’re propaganda. It’s an easy thing to say the answers. Literature transcends answers. Its job is not to tell you what’s right or wrong, but to show how everything is a little bit of both.

—Richard Farrell

Feb 242012
 

Here is an intricate, fascinating, insightful essay by the redoubtable and poetically  explosive Adeena Karasick about the work of her fellow Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith and its theoretical basis in the esoteric mysticism of the Kabbalah. On several counts this is not as much of a stretch as it might seem at first. Much modern literary criticism and critical theory has evolved out of an attitude to text that derives from biblical hermeneutics, the ancient Hebrew art of textual interpretation. But the contemporary avant garde application of the ancient ideas is unusual and even surprising in terms of the popular, and often unthoughtful, way of envisioning poetry and creation. In fact the Kabbalists suggest that creativity is impossible and that what goes for creation is the endless reordering and reframing of what already exists (this applies to the world and to words). Hence the tendency of some Conceptual poetry to use quotation or repurposed texts. Here, for example, is a video of Kenny Goldsmith reading at the White House last year — reading Brooklyn Bridge traffic reports. Goldsmith himself is an amiable and protean character, a tireless and enthusiastic author/performer and poetic impresario. He founded UbuWeb, a trove of avant garde work and poetics, and teaches poetry and edits PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania.

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The totality of the Tzimtzum is [formed of] the letters.[1]

According to the major Kabbalistic texts (Etz Chaim, The Bahir and the Zohar), the most crucial doctrine in Lurianic Kabbalah (13th C. Jewish mysticism) is called tzimtzum[2] (the secret doctrine of how the world was formed through contraction, condensation, framing). Before the world as we know it existed, all that was, was excessive, undifferentiated matter; not “nothing” but a “nothingness that contained everything”. And, in order to create the world; there had to be a contraction or withdrawal, a concentration of matter into itself. “Information” was folded, invaginated, producing a series of frames, brackets, borders, pockets, parameters.  And, the world was not so much created, but Un-created; formed not ex-nihilo (out of nothing), but yesh m’yesh (“something from something”); from that which always already existed.

Conceptual Poetry, as practiced by Kenny Goldsmith, Rob Fitterman, Vanessa Place championed by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff uncannily follows a similar traject of thought. It too engages in a process of framing; a bracketing or parenthesizing of the mass cultural glut of information so that it can be re-viewed from a new angle; provides an additional attentional field that  (say in the case of weather reports, radio broadcasts, jury transcriptions or repurposed song lyrics), potentially rekindles interest in a narrative that might not hold interest.”[3]

As outlined in “Flarf is Dionysus, Conceptual Writing is Apollo,” Goldsmith categorizes Conceptual writing as that which has been “grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry”. Stating later, “with so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead let’s just process what exists. And “process what exists” is uncannily reminiscent of the Kabbalistic tenet that everything that exists has merely been condensed, contracted, re-formed from that which was always already there[4]

And what is always-already there is language. For Kabbalists, the world was engraved and established with forty-two letters”[5], “by the forms of expression: numbers, letters and words”[6] whose “end is in their beginning and…their beginning in their end”[7]. Through 42 letters that were always already there; that expand and contract and are infinitely reframed. And they believe our only occupation, is to engage in a continuous act of permuting and combining the letters, and through that re-form the world.  For, according to the tenets of Kabbalistic hermeneutics, it is impossible to “create”. So, Goldsmith’s insistence on “uncreativity as creative practice” is commensurate with a holy practice dating back to the 2nd century.[8]

For the Kabbalists, the world came into being through tzimtzum, a continual process of contraction and expansion; a superfluity of spiraling systems, frames, constructs, diffusions. Space was created out of itself.  In Goldsmith’s, Day, he retypes the Friday September 1st, 2000 issue of the New York Times, from left to right, ignoring distinctions between articles and advertisements, stock quotes and editorials. Poetry is created from itself. What might have been seen as mundane information not only gets elevated to “art”, highlighting how everything around us is erupting with meaning and context. But, this cataloguing of information with no distinction between advertisements, articles, is also very similar to how the text of the Torah has no vowels and no punctuation. Just as in Goldsmith’s text there is no indication of where one letter, poem article or editorial begins and an advertisement ends, in the Torah nothing indicates the rhythm or transition from one sentence to another; periods and commas are completely absent. Nothing interrupts the flow of words except perhaps, blank spaces, empty gaps (which are not really empty but are seen as “ventiliation holes”[9] which energize the text.

This constant flow of expanding and contracting text is also very interesting because it showcases how the absent presence of a “grand conductor” is always pulsing through the text. Even where subjectivity is ostensibly obliterated, through seemingly banal information, Goldsmith’s absent present subjectivity inadvertently becomes a deconstructed self reflexive mediation as he silently intervenes or insinuates himself through the choices and positioning of his project. And therefore it is impossible to assert (even in the most radical non-subjective practice), within his texts, there is no place empty of him[10]

Thus it’s safe to say, that for both Kabbalistic hermeneutics and Conceptual Poetics, there must be self-withdrawal before any “creative” process can happen. There has to be a process of strategic containment, a constructive de-construction which brings into focus that which appears as a free-flowing amorphous flux of subjectivity[11]; there must be a continual process of constructing and re-constructing borders, laws, mirrors, screens, walls; as we wade through a caterwaulery of lolling scrolls brawling sprawls of extracted maculates bracketed tracks, hacked fractures, there always has to be a framing, a bracketing off to enable visibility, recognition, identity, where language and history and subjectivity are continually renegotiated.

So, whether it’s the “Metropolitan Forecast” of  9/11 or the shots of JFK, the 13 hr. cataloguing of his own bodily movements in Fidget , weather reports from 1010 WINS radio in NYC for a year  (in Year), or every word spoken during the course of a week in Soliloquy[12], taking these socio-political and historically rooted and emotionally drenched audio texts and decontextualizing them, not only subjectivity, but (through Day Week Month Year), time is renegotiated; as contemporaneous, disjunctive, coexistent and synchronic; and everything erupts as a text of refracted maculate stacked fractals celebrating the cracked vernacular of every locable vocable  polysignatory sign stroked curvy glossy saucier, and with all its (gossipy slanderous humiliating, humbling and profound) UN-CREATIVE splendor, in an act of mimetic mutation, functions as a simulacra of “the UNcreation of the world”.

But what’s important to note, is that though “managing” or palimpsesting all that’s been stolen, lifted, pilfered, reprocessed, neither Conceptual Poetry or Kabbalistic hermeneutics is advocating an “abolition of history” or a mockery of history, but through its radical particularity, through its infinite retelling of the minutia of daily life history is simultaneously salvaged and re-formed, parracidically reproduced.

And this all eerily commensurate with Kabbalistic thinking, where “creation” is continually re-enacted through repetitious enunciation of Torah.  (For Jews, you have to read and re-read the parsha[13] every week. Bits of Torah are strewn on your head bound to your arms, on your doorposts. And passages are repeated multiple times daily). And through this repetition, the past is palimpsestically re-passed, surpassed in an irrepresentable present non present or resonant present that continually escapes itself.  And with every articulation, the world is continually un-created; and meaning unveils itself as a system of borders, frames, mirrors, screens, laws; an ever-spiraling space where “Origin” is unlocatable; where everything is a re-typed transcription of a transcription, translation of a translation, a construct of perpetual recurrence.

Take Goldsmith’s 1992, Head Citations[14] which consists of salvaged lines from pop songs – glistening I-Tunes’ malapropisms that have been retranslated, misheard, reworked. As Craig Dworkin writes, it’s “a book of earrors and close listing”

Line 176: Hark the hair lipped angels sing
Line 92: Become a come a come a come a comedian
Line 233: If I can’t have you, I don’t want this ugly baby
Line 297.1: Janey’s got some gum
Line 159:  Take another little piece of may hot dog, baby
Line 353:  Little red corset, baby you’re much too fat
Line 391 “Whoa! Here she comes, she’s a bad reader
Line 403.1 Massage in a Brothel… yeah
Line 549: Three Car Family – I got all my sisters with me

What you get here is a compiling and reframing of recognizable lyrics. A deconstructed re-visioning where what SEEMS creative, because of “the unavoidable presence of words within words (or in this case the haunting of words layered within the traces residue of words within words) in fact “contests the notion of writing as a creativity proposing instead an indeterminate extra-intentional differential production,”[15] a sub productive sliding and slipping of meaning between the forces and intensities distributed through the texts syntactic economy, between the pulsional incidents of disposable pop culture — and speaks to the continuous process of mistranslation that goes on in every moment of our lives.

Thus, what is being called for then is a re-visioning of what has historically been seen as “Creative” and divorce it from any notion of  “originary thinking”. In Kabbalistic terms, it’s glorifying not so much “The World of Creation” (Olam haBryiah)  but “The World of Formation” (Olam ha’Yetzirah)[16] where all is recycled, reprocessed, repurposed. MADE NEW. A world where everything is re-sculpted from what is already there.

So, whether taking Steinian punctuation or vulgar, idiosyncratic rhymes : “frisbee, fuck me, funky, geegee, germ-free, goatee, gnarly!, grody!, Gucci, HD” (No. 105, 1992)  or words ending in r sounds: “vagina diner Wynona Ryder” (No. 109, 1993), transcribed masturbatory scenes, radio broadcasts or stock quotes, like the gobsmacked sucked splendor of abecedary sliders, the syrup of  an edgy sprecht squeegie effigy, Goldsmith shows us that all that glitters is Gold(smith). Is worth its weight in []. And as he files, solders, saws, forges and castes[17], splays his goldsmith eggs, with his art of gold, it’s the dawning of a gold[smith] age of folded goldies and goodies gilded from what is already there.

Taking from what is always already there, in his 2000 Fidget, Goldsmith continues this transcriptive practice by cataloguing every physical gesture over a 13 hour period. And with an OCDish accumulative gesture, combining a “legendary”, mythical, complex, variable, consanguinity, he archives and compiles, defamiliarizing the familiar, making it strange by its very recognizibility.  And, if according to 13th Kabbalist, Abraham Abulafia, the combinations of the letters reference the construction of the body, its limbs and its organs (“all of the limbs of  [the] body are combined one with the other”), the body and the body of writing is re-created in the image of as Goldsmith clenches thrusts shifts pulses folds grasps hugs pops swallows mouths, and as licks lips licks lick tongue licks lips[18] (Fidget 19:00 and 21:00), he reminds us yet again of the relation of body to language and how the body must be acknowledged as a semiological function, a living text of lips pressed cross-kissed creased cryptic schize, a sanguine text that replenishes and re-creates itself, as an ever-accumulative orgiastic dome zone of floating podiums in a bodacious fur-lined purloined raging plagiary of collaborative rapture.

And voyeuristically, becomes a countersignative act for the reader, a promise of memory of repetition, a unit of cultural knowledge virally replicating itself — reminding us to play inside the lexical excess, the flirty flexicon of fixity mixes, a nexus of synnexes, annexes, diexis of lexically-sugared circuits showing us that even in the intricate cataloguing of the minutiae of daily life, it must be acknowledged there is no presence or absence (or even relevance), but reveling / roving valence, chains of supplements with endless signifying potential. Because presence is relational and there is no fixed, locatable Truth, [[[[everything]]]] is haunted by repetition, substitutions, frames, borders, laws, flaws, fluidly flirting with the ghost of the ghost of the simulacra of “yesterday’s news”.

Reminding us also that this framing serves as a kind of circumcision. For the engraving of a boundary is essentially producing cuts, scissions, severs a space between letters, words sentences, semialogical slips, stanzas. This caesura, this introduction of the voice into the body of the text, this hermeneutic cut, (that in Kabbalistic terms brings meaning into the word) is the inaugural cut that symbolically replicates the cutting off and into of society for a Jewish male[19]. Thus, as a text of mappable gaps fissures, parsed play plumed plaise-laced plummets, in the polyplaited plundering of peeling ink, in the pulsing summits of syntactic wounds, Goldsmith’s cuts that bind become a socio-political gendered and religious complex of both tradition and radical transition, which acknowledges both its heredity and errantly heretical hermeneutic.

So, like how with the fusing of the avant garde impulse of the last century with the technologies of the present, the future is always arriving from itself, in an excess of excess of transcriptions, translations, “in a nonhistory of absolute beginnings”[20]. Conceptual Poetry then, as that which celebrates the “unoriginal,” the “uncreative,” mirrors a Kabbalistic hermeneutic; references not an ontology but a “hauntology”, a discourse of traces ellipses markings and echoes. Posits an origin which is never an origin[21], but that which is always a phantomatic projection, introjection, wandering in exilic trajection; where information is not so much written but reprocessed,[22] moved from one vessel to another, one frame to another; where the “poem”, a polysemous repurposer for words to be poured into, flow out of.

So, whether a polychromatic chronicling or syllabic counting, between promise and promiscuity; the amassed miscues of ever-shifting portals, perspectives, peeking through a countersignative, re-combinatory praxis, Conceptual Poetry is itself a repurposing of Kabbalistic discourse, honoring and glorifying all that is Uncreative, unoriginal (championing a poetics not of reformation but reframe-ation; animation inflammation, appropriation, expropriation, functioning between iterable modalities, forces and dependencies; between the aleatoric and the calculable, between chance and necessity, saluting all utterance; all the letters, tropes, and orthographic expletives, markings and silences, salience; all that has been deemed unworthy unpoetic and disposable – to be archived, ornamented and admired; celebrated in the fold of translation.

—Adeena Karasick

————————————–

Adeena Karasick  is an internationally acclaimed and award winning poet, media-artist and author of seven books of poetry and poetic theory: Amuse Bouche: Tasty Treats for the Mouth (Talonbooks 2009), The House That Hijack Built (Talonbooks, 2004), The Arugula Fugues (Zasterle Press, 2001), Dyssemia Sleaze (Talonbooks, Spring 2000), Genrecide (Talonbooks, 1996), Mêmewars (Talonbooks, 1994), and The Empress Has No Closure (Talonbooks, 1992), as well as 4 videopoems regularly showcased at International Film Festivals. “The Un-creation of the Wor(l)d: Conceptual Writing as Kabbalistic Trope” was debuted at North of Invention: A Festival of Canadian Poetry, Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Peri ha-Arez, (Jerusalem, 1969), fol. 9a. Cited in Moshe Idel “Reification of Language in Jewish Mysticism”, in Mysticism and Language, ed. Steven Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.62.
  2. As described by Hayyim Vital in Es Hayyim 42:I 896-c, “The world consisted of primal chaos (Tohu) hylic matter; an amorphous mass” and there [was] nothing outside of it. Basically, tzimtzum (which was alluded to in the 13th century texts and fleshed out more comprehensively in the 16th and 17th centuries) refers to the process of making a limit from the limitless infinite. Or as Vital expresses it in Derush’al ‘Olam ha-Atzilut , “when the Supernal emanator wanted to create this world, which is physical, he constricted his presence…for previously Ein-Sof filled everything” (Liqqutim Hadashim, ed. D. Toutitou, Jerusalem 1985, p.17). Particularly, it’s a theory of emanationism: the condensation of light (or information) through a progressive chain of successive emanations [disseminations] (Tanya, p.834), a superfluity of systems, frames, constructs, diffusions enabling the world to be revealed.
  3. Much like how Charles Bernstein speaks of Brecht’s use of the interruptive supplement in Artifice of Absorption – noting that framing devices situate the reader at an alternate vantage point. Or in other words, the light was thickened and sweetened in a manner it may be [newly] comprehended. (Liqqutei Haqdamot ha-Quabbala, MS Oxford, Bodleian Library 1663, fol. 174a)
  4. In fact the Zohar speaks of the Torah as being a blueprint to the world. Further implying that even before the world as we know it, there was a prototype . Further according to the Bahir, the world was always already in perpetual recurrence.

    Rabbi Berachiah said:/What is the meaning of verse (Genesis 1:3), And G-d said, “Let there be light”, and there was light”? Why does the verse not say, And it was so”?// What is this like? A king had a beautiful object. He put it away until he had a place for it, and then he put it there.// It is therefore written, “Let there be light, and there was light.” This indicates that it already existed.”

  5. Zohar II:151b, trans. Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon (New York: Soncino Press, 1984).
  6. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Formation, attributed to Rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph, trans. Knut Stenring, intro. Arthur Edward Waite (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970), p.17. Instead of using the Hebrew word for create, the  Sefer Yetzirah,  employs the architectural terms, `haqaq‘ and `hasab‘ which mean `engrave‘ or `hew‘.
  7. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Formation, p.18.
  8. Haunted by his own cultural history, he carries the specter trace, weight of that. And, with every transcription (whether overtly political social or personal), he is enacting a cultural translation
  9. See Marc-Alain Ouaknin, The Burnt Book and also Hank Lazar’s Portions (Lavender Ink, New Orleans, 2009).
  10. Thus, between socio-linguistic subjectivities, Goldsmith puts into praxis a “life-writing”, a “biomythography” or an “auto-bio-thanato-hetero-graphical opus”– a “circumfessional” that makes truth, and lives inside a hermeneutic of re-inscription, translation and obsessive production.
  11. But knowing that all positions are overdetermined by historical, political, philosophical and phantasmatic structures that in principle can never be fully controlled or made explicit. There HAS to be this constriction for any kind of illumination. For the light (or information or meaning) OVERFLOWS because it has been restricted.
  12. Kenny Goldsmith, Soliloquy (Granary Books, New York, 2001).
  13. (pl. parashiot) Most commonly, parashah means “portion” and refers to the portion of Torah read on a particular Sabbath. There are 54 portions. Each parashah is named for its opening (or first distinguishing) word. But, parashah, also translates as “transition” and refers to the blank spaces between text. And according to Marc-Alain Ouaknin, “these blank spaces provide a sort of ventilation (The Burnt Book, p.33)
  14. Kenny Goldsmith, Head Citations, The Figures, MA, 2002.
  15. Steve McCaffery, North of Intention: Critical writings 1973-1986 (Roof Books, New York, 1986),  p.201-221.
  16. According to Kabbalistic theory, the universe consists of four worlds: Emanation (Atzilut), Creation (Beriah), Formation (Yetzirah) and Making (Asirah).
  17. The Conceptual Poet like an alchemist, not so much turning base metals into gold but reprocessing gold. And even John Donne acknowledged that “the kabbalists were the anatomists of words, and have a theologicall alchimy to draw soveraigne tinctures and spirits from plain and grosse literall matter and observe in every variety some great mystick signification”.
  18. See Kenny Goldsmith, Fidget, 19:00 and 21:00. (Coach house Books, Toronto, 2000).
  19. For more on this see Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mysteries of the Kabbalah, Trans. J. Baron, new York, 2000, p.320-1, Elliot Wolfson, “Divine Suffering” in Suffering Religion and Jacques Derrida, “Shibbolet” in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge, Routledge, NY, 1992.
  20. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, p.80.
  21. An origin which is never an origin because  “origin” comes from “ergh” which is to flow and “errare” which is both to wander and to err, to mistranslate, by its very definition can never be static.
  22.   And as such, is seen as “the ghost of the ghost of the specter-spirit, simulacrum of simulacra without end”. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), p.126.
Feb 232012
 

A late entry for Valentine’s Day, Nicholas Humphries’s “The One That Got Away” tackles unrequited love and nostalgia in some fresh and unexpected ways.  Much of the reason this film works is due to Shane Kolmansberger’s portrayal of the puppy dog romantic protagonist who is searching for someone who will last more than a night. Without this simple, relatable, romantic desire, we might not otherwise stay with what becomes a challenging protagonist.

Humphries’s films are intent on feeling, but not in subtle ways. Linda Williams in her essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, Excess” calls these bodily or “gross” genres as they are concerned with excess physical experiences. What becomes particularly fascinating in “The One That Got Away” and Humphries’s other works is how he brings about collisions, jamming together genres and physical experiences.

To avoid spoiling your experience of the film, watch it first and then read the interview with Humphries below.

RWG: What inspired the idea for the short?

NH: My own relationships (or at least the search for them).

RWG: For you, what is the work about?

NH: For me it’s about how lonely being different can feel but how that makes it so special when you finally find someone that gets you.

RWG: How did the film do? How did audiences respond?

NH: When it screened at a film festival in Hollywood there was a woman shouting at the girls on screen. Things like, “Don’t go with him! Don’t do it!” To the audience it was distracting but her enthusiasm was the greatest gift. It also won a Tabloid Witch. They called it “Woody Allen with a touch of Norman Bates.” For my first short as a writer / director, it was a huge honor.

RWG: Several of your shorts are dark romances? Do you see a through line in your work?

NH: Horror and romance I think are just the two things that make me feel the most when I’m watching a movie so I guess they pop up in my work a lot. They also both create exciting emotions we don’t get to feel every day.

RWG: Do you think the horror and romance genres have things in common?

NH: I think they both evoke addictive emotions. Also, desire is kind of a horrible thing to feel. The very nature of desire requires there be an obstacle in the way of getting what you need. It’s painful to have to sustain long term.

RWG: What are you working on now?

NH: I’m currently in post-production on my first feature. It’s about a couple that head to a cabin in the woods with their pals for a party before they get married. Only one in the group survives. Horror and romance again, I guess. You can find out more at deathdouspartmovie.com

RWG: How do you feel about the film now?

NH: I’ve gone on to direct some larger things but as this was my first (and such a personal story) I think it will always hold a weird and special place in my heart.

— R. W. Gray

Feb 222012
 

Sexual life belongs almost entirely to that “invisible part” of our existence—I’d say it constitutes our “third life,” along with the daily, conscious one, and with the one we conduct in our dreams. So, what particularly tantalized me while working on the book was to examine precisely how that massive, dark, and powerful mainstream of history affects, quite surreptitiously, people’s most unconscious behavior, words and gestures produced in bed. — Oksana Zabuzhko

Oksana Zabuzhko
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex
Translated by Halyna Hyrn
AmazonCrossing, 2011
164pp; $13.95

Since the it was first published in 1996, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex has become one of the most controversial and best-selling novels in Ukraine in the last twenty years. Oksana Zabuzhko is a poetic genius (and she is foremost a poet), and Fieldwork reads as if it were one long poem.  The novel is not divided into conventional chapters. Instead serpentine, run-on sentences fluidly slide into side-thoughts contained in brackets and small passages of verse, so the reader enters and re-enters the book in an endless series of apparently chaotic yet somehow seamless stream-of-consciousness thoughts.

Fieldwork, finally published in English last year by AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s new in-house translation imprint, has largely been heralded as an autobiographical novel by critics, though Zabuzhko maintains it is anything but autobiography.  The protagonist, a clever, highly talented and nameless poet, does echo Zabuzhko herself (for example, the poet narrator travels from Ukraine to America as Zabuzhko has done), but that’s where the similarities end.  On the surface, the plot is very simple: the narrator tells the story of her recently ended relationship with a Ukrainian artist.  However the text becomes more complex, swells and spreads like a bruise, as the poet delves into the abuse she suffered as well as the love she felt during the relationship. She struggles to come to terms with her complex grief, and as she does so she begins to unravel also the intricacies of her Ukrainian identity. The history of the affair is mapped out in the context of the history of the Ukraine, and the cartography of cultural influence and identity is perhaps more clearly revealed than the successes and failings of the relationship itself.

Zabuzhko blends the art of writing a novel with the art of poetry in a manner reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s also poetic novel Coming Through Slaughter. The unconventional form of the poetic novel may turn off some readers as it is more intensely intimate, difficult, captivating and implicating than the popular conventionally realistic novel. Experiencing Fieldwork is not an exercise in reading for entertainment but rather reading for discovery, reading for a sensual feeling of pain and proximity, and reading to learn about and hold the immediacy of contemporary Ukrainian culture and language and its historic burdens.

Zabuzhko has said, “…poets are and will always remain the guardians of a language, which every society tries to contaminate with lies of its own. Unlike novelists, who may be pigeonholed as opinion-makers, poets are seldom interviewed by media on political and moral issues, yet in the end it’s they who remain responsible for the very human capacity to opine. They keep our language alive.”

Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is about keeping a language and culture alive — one the narrator desperately tries to revive, to heal as if it is a diseased body.  The ramifications of the state of Ukrainian culture play out on the narrator’s body, a fractured body – pieces of her immediate self are referred to in the third person; her own body, read as metaphor for her country, is like a strange, alien “other” that she must try to revive over and over despite the history and trauma that encroach on her and try to consume her.

To read Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is to be constricted and devoured by a serpent.  Beautiful, shining scales and the soft, rippling muscle of the snake surround you, slide against your skin, light refracting like off gasoline on water, and suddenly the crushing weight of remembered cultural history is upon you and unbearable, and you can feel yourself collapsing into it, devoured by it, and truly becoming a part of it — Ukrainian history and cultural identity eats you alive, because after all, “Ukrainian choice is a choice between nonexistence and an existence that kills you.”

Ukraine has a long history of being divided and re-united again and again. Parts of modern-day Ukraine were once considered, by turns, Russian and Polish and German. Ukrainian language after the demise of Soviet rule was nearly dead — a complication for many when, after independence, it was suddenly made the official language once more. Ukraine has been called “the bloodlands,” the slaughterfield between Hitler and Stalin in WWII. More recently it has become known as a radiated wasteland after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

As a woman born into a Soviet-ruled Ukraine and who watched the fall of the USSR and the birth of Ukrainian independence, Zabuzhko’s undertaking in analyzing what it means to be Ukrainian through her novel is both excruciating and stunning. The analysis is largely accomplished via metaphor; the narrator’s overriding concern is her tumultuous, passionate and abusive relationship and her final escape from her Ukrainian male lover. Her narrative style is unconventional — Zabuzhko slides between first, second and third person narratives throughout, a tactic that echoes the fragmented self and fragmented identity of every Ukrainian. The three points of view also mirror the id, ego, and superego of Freudian psychology — and this is a psychological novel.

Zabuzhko is highly aware of this psychological aspect, the dark and repressed parts of Ukrainian history and identity, and yet she is equally aware of a the transformative potential.  Culture, after all, is always subject to change even when burdened with the weight of a past.  In an interview with Ruth O’Callaghan in Poetry Review, Zabuzhko said :

I argue that telling the truth — bringing to the spotlight of people’s consciousness what’s been previously in shadow, whatever it may be — has been, and will always be, a risky job, for as long as human society exists: if only because, in pronouncing certain truths for the first time, you inevitably attack the whole set of psychological, mental, and verbal stereotypes which were disguising it.

Of course, many Ukrainian critics have vilified Zabuzhko for her assault on the subconscious dark side of Ukrainian identity, but others all but canonized her. Fieldwork has been called a Ukrainain Feminist Bible (Zabuzkho has been called the Ukrainain Sylvia Plath). But Zabuzhko herself has said she prefers to not differentiate her readers along gender lines.  Her approach in the novel, although undeniably from the perspective of a woman and certainly bleeding with feminist thought, is broader in scope. “What I attacked,” she once said, “was, basically, a system of social lies extending to the point of mental rape, and affecting both men and women.”

The narrator’s abusive love affair reflects the abusive nature of historical cultural norms and imposed values in Ukraine. It symbolizes a generation’s struggle to free itself from the past, to forge its own identity, and yet hold onto the best parts of the former identity, the traditions and historical moments that made independence worth fighting for despite years of being suspended between wars, languages, identities, and hostile neighbours that would crush, assimilate or extinguish them. Thus the narrator reflects on the tenderness and love that was present in her relationship as much as the painful parts, the destructive parts, and the unbearable and everlasting scars that remain.

So much of the novel is frantically looking for an exit, some way to escape a collective cultural past by turns shameful and exhilarating. Zabuzhko’s narrator, like the reader, ultimately discovers a home in her culture and language despite its lethality:

…obviously her mother tongue was the most nutritious, most healing to the senses: velvety marigold, or no, cherry (juice on lips)? strawberry blond (smell of hair)? …it’s always like that, the minute you peer more closely the whole thing disintegrates into tiny pieces and there’s no putting it back together; she hungered for her language terribly, physically, like a thirsty man for water, just to hear it — living  and full-bodied with that ringing intonation like a babbling brook at at distance…

The way language is described here — as sensual nourishment, as healing, and yet fragmented and longed for — is typical of the novel as a whole. The longing for something loved and dangerous is at the book’s core. And yet are not all cultural identities like this?  Do they not all have their destructive, oppressive and damaging histories that we must embrace and attempt to transform?

Fieldword opens a wound within the reader.  Suddenly, the historical trauma passed down from generation to generation becomes clear and inescapable.  Although the word “Gulag” is only used twice, in one of the small snippets of poetry peppered throughout the novel, the vast system of Stalinist concentration camps is present, quiet and ghost-like, throughout the narrative.

We are all from the camps.  That heritage will be with us for a hundred years.

And, though the crux of the novel is Ukrainian identity, the book is not exclusively about being Ukrainian. It’s about being on your knees under the weight of any culture.  The narrator wryly observes the same struggle in America. “… the Great American Depression from which it seems that about 70 percent of the population suffers, running to psychiatrists, gulping down Prozac, each nation goes crazy in its own way…”

This is a novel that digests its reader; you feel as if you are becoming fluid — dissolved into something at once more complete and yet more disjointed. The novel consumes you until it is fat with you, until you become subsumed in its pain and sensuality and it is about to burst with you (and not the other way around) — because it is rich with poetry and consciousness and what it means to be human. The effect is not pleasant completely, it is intense, a half-surrender to something, a journey or a quest for a meaning you can’t find and don’t understand.

—Brianna Berbenuik

See also Oksana Zabuzhko in an interview with Halyna Hryn for AGNI Online.

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Brianna Berbenuik is a 20-something misanthropist and student of Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She is an avid fan of kitschy pop-culture, terrible Nic Cage movies, the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, and Freud. You can find her at Love & Darkness & My Side-Arm on her twitter account where she goes by ukrainiak47. She wishes to express her gratitude to the poet Olga Pressitch and Serhy Yekelchyk, who both teach at the University of Victoria in the Department of Slavic Studies. for their tutelage and passion about Ukrainian history, language and culture. “Without their courses I wouldn’t have a grip on half of what I do when it came to this particular review, and Olga is the reason I wanted to read the novel in the first place.”  Also the book you see in the photo, the bottom one, called Ukraine, is a comprehensive history written by Serhy.

Born in the Western Ukrainian city of Lutsk in 1960, into a Ukraine under the rule of the USSR, Oksana Zabuzhko grew up Kyiv and went on to study philosophy at Shevchenko University, graduating in 1992 (a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union).  She spent time in America teaching at Penn State University and won a Fulbright Scholarship in 1994.  She has lectured in the United States on Ukrainian culture at Harvard and the University of Pittsburg.

Halyna Hryn is a lecturer in Ukrainain Culture and Language at Yale University since 1996.

Feb 212012
 

Gladys Swan recently showed her chops on NC with a gorgeous short story called “The Orange Bird” about a the process of learning to paint, to become an artist. The story is deftly comic and yet magical and limns the mysterious underground processes by which the work itself can transform the craftsman into an artist. So it seemed only fitting that we should also look at some of Gladys Swan’s paintings. These are mostly oils on paper 22′ by 30′ or small oils on canvas or linen, 8′ x 10′. Also one water color. The painting “Movements of Horses and Men” is in the 33rd annual exhibit of Paper in Particular, at Columbia College in Columbia, MO. Entries come from around the country and are judged by an outside judge. This is Gladys’s first national show. It opened February 8th.

A writer for most of her career, Gladys Swan has had a long love affair with the visual arts. She has done work in both ceramics and enjoys doing both figurative and abstract paintings. She was the first writer to be awarded a residency in painting at the Vermont Studio Center since its inception, and has returned a number of times to paint. She has also been a Guest Writer there. She has had individual shows at the Boone County Historical Society in Columbia, Missouri–“Imagined Landscapes,” and at Stephens College, “Paintings, Pottery, Poetry.” Several of her paintings have been published in or used as cover art for literary magazines, for three of her books, and for books by other writers.

Author photo by Gerik Parmele,  Columbia Daily Tribune.

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A Map of the InvisibleA Map of the Invisible

 

Movements of Horses and Men  jpgMovements of Horses and Men

 

Color StoryColor Story

 

Tree Spaces  1  jpgTree Spaces 1

 

Tree Spaces 2 Tree Spaces 2

—Gladys Swan

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Gladys Swan is both a writer and a visual artist.  She has published two novels, Carnival for the Gods in the Vintage Contemporaries Series, and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, nominated by LSU Press for the PEN Faulkner and PEN West awards. News from the Volcano, a novella and stories, set mostly in New Mexico, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.  The Tiger’s Eye: New & Selected Stories is the most recent of her seven collections of short fiction and has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award.  Her stories have been selected for various anthologies, including Best of the West.  Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in the Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review , Chelsea, Ohio Review, New Letters, Southwest Review, Hunger Mountain, Hotel Amerika, Numéro Cinq, and others.

Feb 202012
 

Editor’s Note: As of this writing (November 24, 2013), The Headmaster’s Wife is on the cusp of publication. Advance reviews have been stellar. “Nothing is what it appears in this brilliant story of a life gone awry…” says Publisher’s Weekly. The Library Journal, in a starred review, called it “a riveting psychological novel about loss and the terrible mistakes and compromises one can make in love and marriage. Essential for fans of literary fiction.” You can pre-order the book here.

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Thomas Christopher Greene is President of Vermont College of Fine Arts and he remembers being in workshop with me, oh, these many years ago, before his three published novels, before he became a president. He is perhaps unique amongst novelists for his skill as an artist and his masterly and adventurous approach to college administration (one has to admit that engineering the self-buy-out of a tiny Vermont art college based, initially, on three MFA programs, is a bit adventurous). It is thus a particular pleasure to publish here a section of his new novel The Headmaster’s Wife. The passage needs practically no introduction except to say that we’re in Vermont and one character is the headmaster of a boarding school and the other character is a student and inappropriate things are done and said. The passage comes about half-way through the book and what you notice especially is how it works as a dramatic entity, beginning with anticipation, developing through conflict, and rising furiously toward a crashing climax. It is often forgotten that every element of a novel, every segment of the larger action, must also be an action in itself, dramatic and whole, and that a good novel must be built out of a succession of such passages and the rhythmic rise and fall of anticipation-conflict-climax. 

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In the open fields of campus the winter wind sweeps across with great fury and small cyclones of snow get picked up by it and spin in the air for a moment before settling back down. The wind in this part of Vermont starts all the way up on the plains of Quebec and marches south with the river until it reaches the mountains and blows back onto itself. The students pull their coats tight on days like this and walk with their heads down from building to building.  It is a cruel wind and on this day, the day after Russell Hurley has left school, Arthur braces against it but not nearly as much as he braces against the coming of Betsy Pappas, which is as inevitable as winter. She will come. He just does not know when.

Arthur considers what he will tell her. All he can do, he imagines, is to plead with her, to give her logic. Russell Hurley determines his own fate, he’ll say. You have to understand, the powers of Head of School are not fully what you imagine. There are things he can control and then things he does not.  Sometimes events are larger than any Head of school. They enter the vast stream that is the history of Lancaster, and in those cases, it is precedent that matters.

He considers all these arguments, though when she finally shows up, outside his house after dinner and before study hall, there is no argument for him to make. Betsy, as is her wont, creates the terms.

He is on the front walk. A yellowish light comes off the porch of the white house and shines on the snow. The night has lifted and the sky is bright and star-flecked. The air is cold and he has come outside as if anticipating her arrival, and sure enough, here she is. She marches down the walk with that sense of ownership that he has grown to love about her. When she reaches him, she lets him have it, as he suspects she would.

If she finds it odd that he is outside wearing only a dress shirt and chinos, she does not comment, and he does not offer anything. The chilly air feels good to Arthur and as he listens to her, it’s as if he is watching this scene from a distance, as if it is happening to someone else.

She says she knows he was the one who planted the alcohol. She says she is prepared to let everyone know that.  She says she will tell the world how venal he is, that he is evil incarnate.  She actually says that, evil incarnate. Then she says she will tell the world he has been fucking her.

When he gathers himself from her onslaught, grateful suddenly for the deeply cold night and the stiff wind that has picked up and gathered their voices in its embrace, he summons all the coldness he can and says to her, “Who will believe you?”

She whirls as if to walk away, and in that moment the long bangs she has, the ones she is always pushing behind her, fall out. She kicks her head back and the hair moves with her in the dark. He says it again, “Who will believe you?”

She comes at him then and he is unprepared for her violence. She strikes him in the chest first and then her fists are in his face. He steps back and moves away from her.

“Betsy,” he says, “Please. Think.”

 They stand in the wan porch light looking at each other. Her face breaks his heart; he finds it impossibly pretty. He is struck by the thought that one of the things he loves about it is its lack of symmetry. Her lidded eyes are different sizes, her nose slightly off-center, her half-moon Slavic features.

Too often symmetry is synonymous with beauty and it occurs to him that if people are not symmetrical on the inside than why should they be on the outside?

That perhaps everyone has it wrong: beauty should be found in things that don’t match, not those that do.

Betsy stands in front of him breathing hard. He cannot help it he smiles at her. This is the last thing he should do. She is a wild animal in front of him, all heart and bravado and liquid breathing sentience. He knows she will come at him again and when she does, he is ready for her. He wraps her in his arms.

She struggles against him. Her rage is palpable and kinetic. He feels it in her slender arms and he whispers to her, “Quit it, will you? Just quit it.”

She thrashes in his arms but he just holds her tighter. He lifts her off the ground like a child, and she squirms but he has her arms fully pinned and like this, he backs the two of them toward the front door of the house. If anyone were to happen by, they would make quite the odd sight. The headmaster with a student in his arms, clearly holding her against her will, as if she’s some spastic child who needs to be restrained.

The door is slightly ajar and when he pushes his back against it, it gives way and he falls backward into his front hallway.  Betsy lands on top of him.

She scrambles toward her feet and is on her way to the door.  He does not hesitate and when he tackles her, it is with no small measure of force. He is on top of her now, and her face is pressed into the Persian carpet. “Let me go,” she says, and he knows in this moment that this is the one thing he cannot ever give her. He will not let her go; he cannot let her go; and while part of it is pure self-preservation and instinct: the narrow selfish reason of not having his entire career tossed aside over these indiscretions, that only captures a portion of what he feels.

For the larger truth reveals itself to Arthur while lying on top of Betsy Pappas in the long hallway of this house a Winthrop has resided in for close to eighty years. She stops struggling underneath him and for a moment there is just his weight on her body, her face turned to the side, the labored sounds of their breathing coming together. And he knows then that what he wants for her is that most unreachable of human desires. He wants her to be immortal; as immortal as the great Russian novelists; as immortal as this grand old school built to endure on the flatlands of Vermont alongside the Connecticut river.

And sometimes, he thinks, the only path to immortality, paradoxically, is to die, for isn’t a life lived with nothing in your heart a greater form of death? Why does breathing and walking matter if you have died inside?

It means nothing if all you have built crumbles the moment you cannot have that thing you covet the most.

Arthur stands up and looks down at Betsy. She is crumpled on the floor, and her breathing is ragged. His heart goes out to her, and he thinks, what have I done?  I have hurt the only person I have ever loved, the only one who ever understood me. When did I become a monster?

And as he thinks this, he can no longer look at her. She shifts a little where she is on the floor, her legs twitching. She looks like she is asleep, and he hopes for this, that she is sleeping. He turns away. He suddenly has an urge to sit, and he thinks of the living room and the fireplace. Maybe he will make a fire, though this is an odd impulse. Then again his head feels foggy. He leaves her there on the floor, enters the living room and as soon as he does, he hears the sound of the front door closing and this jolts him back to the moment and he charges into the foyer to discover that Betsy is no longer there.

His heartbeat is in his ears as he rushes out into the cold winter night. The campus is deserted with evening study hall and coming out of his house he assumes she will run toward her dorm, toward home, and he rounds the back of his house and above him the sky is full of the great arc of stars and the snowy fields are draped in their white light and he scans them for any sign of her.

At first he doesn’t see her and it is as if he is alone, with only the lights from the girls dorm in the distance showing him there is even a school here. But then, halfway across the soccer field, he suddenly makes her out, her silhouette darker than the night around her, and he breaks into a run.

Normally he would not have a chance to catch her, his tired legs no match for her youth.  But in the fall inside he must have hurt her, for he can see as he runs down the slope of the hill that she is walking funny, lurching forward as if with a bad limp.  The wind is icy on his face and his fingers are cold as he runs. His chest aches with each labored inhalation of frigid air.

He closes on her.  She is near the final small hill that will lead her down to the cluster of girls dorms when she hears him behind her and turns her head and sees him coming toward her and for a moment he sees her try to break into a run but it is no use for she cannot. Instead she turns and waits for him and when he runs up to her, he says, “Betsy, please, I am sorry. I am sorry for everything.”

She stares at him but doesn’t speak. The look on her face is pained. He looks over her head for a moment and he becomes aware of the world arcing away from them, of the spin that grounds them on the earth, that glues them to this tiny patch of snow-covered field.

“I love you,” he says. “I love you more than you can ever know.”

“You hurt me,” she says.

“I know. I am sick about it. Really.”

She turns then and continues toward her dorm and this time he doesn’t try to stop her, but instead falls in line next to her. He says to her, “I need one more thing from you.”

“No more things,” she says. “I have nothing else to give you.”

“Please just walk with me for a moment. Hear me out. Please. Just a walk.”

“Where?”

He thinks for a moment. There is only one place that makes sense to him now, a place where their words will be met silently by the soft lapping of icy water.

“To the river,” he says. “We can talk there.”

To his surprise, she acquiesces. They trudge slowly down the small hill, past the dorms where girls study on beds and at their desks and faculty grade papers in their dorm apartment. They come out to the floodplain behind the dorms and the river is in front of them now and it is dark here as there is no moon and the shadows of the buildings have muted the starlight. They reach the snowy riverbank and they can see across to where the other bank rises sharply to the dark, barren fields of New Hampshire. Looking down he can see where the water flows in places and where it is still, covered with a light tarp of gray ice.

For a moment they don’t speak and he looks up and studies the infinite stars.

He says to her, “You know what I love about stars?” When she doesn’t say anything, he answers his own question. “The thing I love about stars is that we cannot tell with the naked eye which ones are alive and well, and which ones have already died but have not told us yet.”

“You wanted me to come here so you could tell me about stars?”

“No,” he says. “No, I wanted to tell you…”

He didn’t finish the sentence because next to him Betsy is gone. He has a sense of movement to his right and then she is airborne, and his mind puzzles over what he is seeing, until he realizes she has jumped into the frozen river. When she hits the ice, the sound is strangely beautiful. The ice is thin and it cracks immediately on impact. It is like glass breaking—no, more subtle than that—it crumples underneath her like the crust on a crème brulée from a fork’s pressure, and then there is the sound of the water spilling up around her, pulling her down to the bottom of the river.

—Thomas Christopher Greene

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Thomas Christopher Greene is the author of the novels Mirror Lake (Simon & Schuster, 2003), I’ll Never Be Long Gone (Harper/Collins, 2005), and Envious Moon (Harper/Collins, 2007). His fiction has been translated into eleven languages and published throughout the United Kingdom by Random House. Tom is a native of Worcester, Massachusetts. His first novel, Mirror Lake, made the Waterstone’s List of 30 Gems to be rediscovered, alongside the works of Carver, Vonnegut, Saramago, and others. He is a graduate of Hobart College, where he was the Milton Haight Turk Scholar. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College in 1996. In addition to his writing life, Tom has been a college administrator for 16 years, serving on the president’s cabinet at Norwich University, where he was the director of public affairs. He has also been a professor of writing and literature, the director of an MFA program, and a press secretary for a national presidential campaign.  He currently lives in Montpelier, Vermont, with his wife and daughter. He is the founding president of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Feb 172012
 

Marilyn McCabe has a new book of poems —Perpetual Motion— just out in the Word Works Hilary Tham Capital Collection selected by Gray Jacobik. But today we feature another of her gorgeous translation and performance pieces. It became something of a tradition for French composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to set lyric poems by their poetry contemporaries to mélodies for solo voice and piano. Inspired by the poetry of the likes of Verlaine and Baudelaire, composers from Berlioz to Saint-Saens created these musical settings, attempting to “translate,” in a way, the lyric into a musical format that created a form greater than the two elements. This time Marilyn sings a little surrealist poem by the highly eccentric (he abandoned surrealism, eventually, for communism and revered Joseph Stalin) French poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952), set to music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

See also Marilyn McCabe Sings (& Translates) a Guillaume Apollinaire Poem and Marilyn McCabe Translates (& Sings) a Paul-Armand Silvestre Poem. Marilyn’s chapbook Rugged Means of Grace was published by Finishing Line Press, 2011. She earned an MFA in poetry at New England College.

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Click the player and listen to Marilyn’s voice while you read the poem.

 

Une Ruine Coquille Vide
By Paul Éluard

Une ruine coquille vide
Pleure dans son tablier.
Les enfant qui jouent autour d’elle
Font moins de bruit que des mouches.

La ruine s’en va à tâtons
Chercher ses vaches dans un pré.
J’ai vu le jour, je vois cela
Sans en avoir honte.

 Il est minuit comme une fleche
Dans un coeur à la portée
Des folâtres lueurs nocturnes
Qui contredisent le sommeil.

 

A Ruined Empty Shell
Translated by Marilyn McCabe

A ruined empty shell
weeps in her apron.
The children who play around her
make less noise than the flies.

She goes groping
to search for cows in a meadow.
I saw the day; I see it here
without shame.

It is midnight like an arrow
in the heart open
to the folly of night’s gleams
that deny sleep.

—Translated and sung by Marilyn McCabe

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Feb 162012
 

Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 is the story of Chow, a writer and Casanova in 1960s Hong Kong who writes a science fiction serial titled “2046” that he publishes in a newspaper. Several of the women Chow has known, loved, resisted, and spurned appear as androids in the vast, glittering, futuristic yet nostalgic science fiction serial he writes. Chow connects these two narratives and so writing and desire, space and time, imbricate and refer back to him.

When the protagonist of Chow’s serial, Tak, proclaims his love to one of these androids and asks her to leave with him, she does not respond until many hours later when she is alone. Critics like Mitsuda and Martin read this delay as the absence of emotion, as a cold, embittered detachment. Against this, the delay the androids experience does not negate the emotional response. They are not impervious to emotion, just slow to express. This delay is a precondition for the preservation of desire, and, ultimately, this delay refers back to Chow’s originary unrequited desire and the secret he will never know.

2046 opens with Tak, the protagonist of Chow’s serial, a man on a train traveling through a futuristic cityscape. He wonders how long it will take him to leave 2046, a place, he explains, where people go to “recapture lost memories . . . [ where] nothing ever changes . . . Nobody knows if that’s true . . . because nobody’s ever come back . . . except me.” Tak, then, is a man who is trying to escape memory and, it seems, is choosing or desires forgetfulness. He confesses that he has chosen this path because 2046 didn’t give him what he wanted:

“I once fell in love with someone. After a while, she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there. But I couldn’t find her. I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not. But I never found out. Maybe her answer was like a secret . . . that no one else would ever know.”

Tak the traveler is seeking to leave 2046 and choose forgetfulness, but he cannot give up on the lost beloved’s answer, one he describes as a secret “no one else would ever know.” It is unknowable, but he fantasizes that it might mean she answered him back.

“unshareable secrets”

When Tak, in order to keep warm on the train, embraces one of the android attendants and finds he desires her, he seeks escape, forgetfulness and answers. All this distills down to one luminous desire: to tell a secret. He explains this to the android: “Before . . . when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain, find a tree and carve a hole in it, and whisper the secret into the hole, then cover it over with mud. That way, nobody else would ever discover it.” His android responds by making a circle with thumb and forefinger, holding it out to him.

She offers, “I’ll be your tree. Tell me, and nobody else will ever know.” But as Tak tries to tell the secret to her outstretched hand, the android keeps moving the tree, the witness, teasing. Until the site of listening becomes her mouth. A kiss.

“secrets as questions”

For Tak, the secret he seeks to tell and the android he seeks to tell it to are related: “I once fell in love with someone. I couldn’t stop wondering whether she loved me or not. I found an android that looked just like her. I thought the android might give me the answer.” For Tak, the secret is a two part question: first, does the android know the secret of this other woman’s desire, this woman she resembles; second, does the android desire him back. The android promises the return of the secret, the possibility that the unknowable will become known, the unrequited might become requited.

But when he asks the android to leave with him, he discovers that the android does not respond. The conductor of the train explains that, “When [androids have] served on so many long journeys, fatigue begins to set in. For example, they might want to laugh, but the smile would be slow to come. They might want to cry, but the tear wouldn’t well up until the next day. This one is failing fast. I think you’d better give up.” The declaration given in the moment of the kiss, the secret given to the tree, receives no immediate response, but still holds the promise of a delay.

“literary intentions”

To understand the meaning behind this delay, we need to look at how Tak is a protagonist in a work of fiction called “2046” created by the true protagonist of the film, Mr. Chow. Chow writes this fiction at first for Miss Wang, the daughter of his landlord who he finds next door in the room numbered “2046.”

When he meets her she is heartbroken, longing for her Japanese lover. Chow says he writes the fiction to explain for her the perspective of the Japanese man she loves:

She was always asking if there was anything at all that never changed. I could see what was on her mind. I promised to write a story for her based on my observation. Something to show her what her boyfriend was thinking. . . . So I began imagining myself as a Japanese man . . . on a train for 2046 . . . falling for an android with delayed reaction.

Tak, then, is both a version of Miss Wang’s Japanese lover (which Wong indexes by having the two roles played by the same actor), but he’s also a literary avatar for Chow, enabling him to get closer to her, to pose as her beloved.

“the delay of letters”

The delay that occurs between the android and Tak mirrors two obstacles between Miss Wang and her Japanese lover in 1960s Hong Kong. It is, perhaps most obviously, the delayed communication between the two lovers who have to communicate via letters because Miss Wang’s father has forbidden their love. The act of letter writing involves a delay we are barely familiar with in an era in which we can text message the beloved and he or she receives our words in mere seconds. The Japanese lover expresses sentiment on the page one day and Miss Wang receives and experiences an emotional response weeks later. Letters can bridge the lovers and overcome distance but only by creating a delay where the beloved waits to respond.

This delay then is a question of waiting and waiting is about desire. Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse meditates on this waiting and connects it to desire: “Am I in love? – Yes, since I’m waiting.”

“delay and waiting”

Barthes adds a small tale about the lover and waiting:

A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.” But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away (40).

Similarly, Anne Carson in Eros: the Bittersweet points out that “A space must be maintained or desire ends” (26). Miss Wang’s letters from her Japanese beloved, and by extension the android’s delay in responding to Tak’s declaration of love, on one level signify separation, distance in time and space, but on another create and perpetuate desire. Waiting is the point.

In addition to the space between Miss Wang and her Japanese lover and the time it takes for their words to reach one another, other obstacles of time and space interrupt, contribute to the train of desire. Because even their correspondence has been forbidden by her father, Miss Wang asks Chow to intercede, to help by sending her letters and by letting the Japanese lover write to her via Chow’s address so her father won’t know. Miss Wang and her lover’s words and letters must traverse Chow as agent, as constituent, as conduit. The amorous epistle is further delayed.

“delay and translation”

This delay is exacerbated by the space between languages and the difficulties of translation. When the Japanese lover asked Miss Wang to go with him, her response was delayed much the same way the android’s response to Tak is delayed. When Chow first meets Miss Wang she is in the room next door, the room suitably numbered ‘2046,’ pacing and rehearsing the response she never gave:

“Let’s go . . . I’ll go with you . . .I understand” she repeats over and over in Japanese. The specter of language difference emphasizes the possibility of miscommunication and mistranslation between lover and beloved.

“the lover’s discourse”

So even if the letters could arrive directly, immediately, without delay, there would be the problem of language for the lover. As Barthes asserts in the opening to A Lover’s Discourse, “the lover’s discourse is of an extreme solitude . . . it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority” (1). Miss Wang’s delay, her inability to respond to the Japanese lover might too have been an effect of this obstacle for the lover seeking to declare love. All declarations of love in 2046 then are part of a system of delays and inescapable obstacles. The lover has to wait, for this is what makes him or her a lover.

For Chow, though, this delay that he imagines and writes into the serial fiction called “2046” is partly a representation of his own growing interest in Miss Wang and her apparent indifference. When in the serial fiction Tak rhetorically asks the conductor on the train, “Who’d ever fall for an android?” the conductor replies, “Who can say? Events can creep up on you without you ever noticing. It can happen to anyone.” This is precisely what Chow himself confesses in the voice over that frames Tak on the futuristic train when he realizes he is falling for Miss Wang: “Feelings can creep up on you unawares. I knew that, but did she?”

“promise of reciprocity”

Chow writes a complementary secret into the narrative where the Miss Wang android not only weeps in her cabin on the train, but also goes to a space on the train reserved for secrets.

This circular shaped object with a space in the centre recalls the tree Tak told the android about. So the android not only has a delayed emotional response, she also has her own unknowable secret. This stands as the promise of reciprocity, but, as unknowable, remains forever uncertain.

These two secrets – Tak’s told to the android’s hand, and the android’s told to the futuristic tree on the train – both intertextually reference one originary secret in Wong Kar Wai’s previous film In the Mood for Love.

“the originary secret”

In that film, another character named Chow, also played by Tony Leung, also recalls the mythology of unshareable secrets and at the end of that film he whispers his secret to a hole in some ruins and covers it up.

This secret recalls the first narration of 2046, when Chow’s voice explains why Tak went to 2046: “I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not. But I never found out. Maybe her answer was like a secret . . . that no one else would ever know.” For Chow, then, traveling to and away from 2046 is not just about his growing desire for Miss Wang. It is also about this other unrequited desire, for Mrs Chan, the unobtainable married woman he loved in In the Mood for Love. In an odd and perfect turn, Mrs Chan from also appears in 2046 as an android.

His secret declaration, whispered into the ruins, desires reciprocation, an answer, the possibility that Mrs Chan’s desire was also declared in a secret. Thus, she might still respond, the unrequited might still be requited.

“love letters”

What the delayed response draws attention to, then, is not the android’s delay, something we might analyze in her circuitry, but instead the nature of these secrets. Tak’s declaration, the secret he presses to her as a kiss, and the android’s own secrets whispered into the futuristic tree on the train are in essence love letters.

Barthes points out that “Like desire, the love letter waits for an answer; it implicitly enjoins the other to reply, for without a reply the other’s image changes, becomes other” (158). Here, what is essential, is that the reply not other the beloved for that would in effect end the amorous discourse.

Chow writes “2046” to preserve the possibility of the answer and the beloved’s return. What is at stake here, though, is not reciprocation or the possibility of a requited love so much as it is survival. As Barthes argues about the lover, “language is born of absence: the child has made himself a doll out of a spool, throws it away and picks it up again, miming the mother’s departure and return: a paradigm is created” (16).

“there / gone”

Barthes borrows this metaphor of the child and the spool from Sigmund Freud’s analysis of his grandchild’s “fort / da game” (fort / da translated means “gone” and “there”) where he overheard the child calling out “Fort” and “da” – and interpreted this as negotiating the mother’s absence.

To master “there” and “gone,” the beloved’s absent presence, is core to Chow’s writing act with “2046”. This game, this evocation of the beloved as present though absent, Barthes argues, “postpones the other’s death . . .To manipulate absence is to extend this interval, to delay as long as possible the moment when the other might topple sharply from absence into death” (16).

Chow writes “2046” to keep desire alive, to postpone the perhaps inevitable end of desire and loss of both Mrs Chan and Miss Wang.

“Happy Endings”

This game of absent presence, this preservation of desire becomes most apparent when Miss Wang goes to Japan to be with her Japanese lover. She sends a message back to Chow through her father, asking for him to write a happy ending to “2046.” In the scene that follows, Chow remains frozen, his pen hovering above the page.

The titles tell us he sits there for one, ten, a hundred hours. Chow cannot write a happy ending, not even for Miss Wang. Further, how can he write an ending to a serialized fiction – the very form is about waiting, for the next installment and for the eternally delayed catharsis of an ending. This is what blocks his writing, leaves him paralyzed, the pen hovering over the page. For in essence to write that happy ending would be to foreclose on all his unrequited desires, would sever the myriad connections to his original loss, his original unrequited desire in In the Mood for Love.

In Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, the android Miss Wang’s delay does not indicate an absence of emotion. She must delay and hold the promise of return. To read her lack of a response without the delayed emotion is to miss the point, to not see how the android is in essence programmed to sustain the unrequited love and protect the lover from the possible loss of the beloved. If Miss Wang will ever reciprocate, if Mrs Chan will ever return and love him back, if desire is to continue on its unrequited path always away from oblivion and ending, the eternal delay must go on.

— R. W. Gray

 

Feb 152012
 

 

It comes as a shock to think that I have known Robin Hemley for over thirty years. I didn’t think, honestly, that I was that old. We met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980, across a workshop table, I recall, with the then program director Jack Leggett chairing the proceedings. Robin looked too young to be in graduate school, and he still carries himself, even writes, with a kind of wide-eyed, cheery openness to EVERYTHING that is both charming and compulsively readable. Nowadays he’s achieved that remarkable state of being able to turn almost anything that happens in life into something worth writing about. He is an indefatigable world-traveler, prolific author, inspired teacher, and an amiable friend. Here he is taking a group of American undergraduates to Cuba for a winter course. Academia, life, politics and art merge.

Robin Hemley is the author of ten books of nonfiction and fiction, and the recipients of many awards for both, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes.  His most recent books are A FIELD GUIDE FOR IMMERSION WRITING: MEMOIR, JOURNALISM, AND TRAVEL (University of Georgia Press, 2012) and REPLY ALL: STORIES (Break Away Books, Indiana University Press, 2012).  Indiana University Press is also reissuing his novel THE LAST STUDEBAKER in 2012.  He is also the author of the popular books, TURNING LIFE INTO FICTION (Graywolf Press) and DO-OVER (Little, Brown), and the BBC is currently at work on a feature adaptation of his book INVENTED EDEN: THE ELUSIVE DISPUTED HISTORY OF THE TASADAY (Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press).  He is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, founder of the NonfictioNOW Conference, a senior editor of The Iowa Review, editor of the online magazine DEFUNCT, and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts .

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The eighty-three-year old Cuban poet grasped my arm, whispered, “I love your people.  I feel a spiritual connection to them.”  I didn’t know what to say.  I had just met him.  He had spent a dozen years in New York, much like the Cuban National Hero, Jose Marti, who, before dying in battle against the Spanish in 1895, spent fifteen years in New York.  I had spent a total of two weeks in Cuba, and what was I to say?  To lie?  “Right back atcha, Cuba! I feel a spiritual connection to you, too.”  I didn’t.  But neither did I feel a spiritual connection to my own country. I thought that he and nearly every other Cuban we met idealized the U.S. the way Americans idealize Cuba.  The Columbus Syndrome works both ways. Columbus spent a few days in Cuba and then sailed back and said it was the loveliest place on earth, and certainly my students had an enormous case of Columbus Syndrome.

I and a colleague had brought thirteen undergraduates with us to Havana for a Winter term course, as had, it seemed, nearly every other U.S. university.  A bellman at the Presidente Hotel, Gringo Central, told me there were more Americans now than ever, but “they will all go when Obama loses the election.” True, the restrictions have lessened over the last year, allowing more short-term visits by educators, researchers, and students.

Every day, it seemed a new group from George Mason or Randolph College or American University showed up at the Presidente and we compared notes on our respective itineraries: who was going to visit Che’s grave or the hot springs at Las Terrazas or the beaches of Varadero. Canadians, Brits, Russians, Germans, Chinese, Argentines, Colombians, and Japanese have been coming here for years, but for the throngs of young Americans now legally entering Cuba, the approach is not unlike the hordes of shoppers awaiting a midnight sale at Target on Thanksgiving. And what are they waiting so impatiently to purchase? Authenticity, of course.  It’s what the country trades in when all is blockaded.  Cuba es autentica, the commercial warbles.  Tom Miller, a travel writer and Cuban expert along with us, warned my students never to use the words, “quaint,” “nestle,” or “local” in a travel piece, but his warning was of no use.  Any traveler infatuated with a new country sees nothing but quaint nestling locals.

And that’s not the half of it with Cuba, where a powerful strain of Columbus Syndrome, resistant to any known ideological antigen, infects most American tourists who find their way here legally or not. It’s not just the antiquated American cars from the fifties and sixties, belching smoke and plying the uncongested streets of Havana.  Or the two and three hundred year old buildings, some being restored, some too ruined to save.  It’s also the view from the rooftop of the Presidente Hotel at night – the modest skyline with only one or two signs lit by neon.  My colleague and I had wondered if our students would miss the Internet and Facebook and Skype and their cell phones.  Instead, they worshipped the lack of it.  It’s not the U.S. blockade against Cuba that blocks the Internet, but the Castro government, though nearly everything else seems the result of the blockade, including the cars and the crumbling buildings.

What the elevator operator in the Presidente Hotel said about the U.S. elections is true most likely.  If Obama loses the election, the Blockade will undoubtedly continue at least four years more.  No one, American or Cuban alike, could give me a good reason why the Blockade, in place since 1960, continues, except for the most obvious political reason, that the Blockade serves the interests of a minority of Cuban Americans in Florida.  And there’s too much money being made in the maintenance of the Blockade, (including spending 500 million taxpayer dollars annually on Radio and TV Marti, the latter which is blocked by the Cuban government in any event).  The word I heard most frequently was “inertia.”  The Blockade has been in place so long, no one has the energy or will to end it.

Romney must be a little embarrassed by a 2007 speech on Cuba, which he mistakenly ended with the phrase, “Patria o Muetre!  Venceremos!”  It means “Fatherland or Death, We shall overcome,” a phrase that Castro used for decades to end his speeches, and which my students and I glimpsed occasionally on banners strung across Havana’s streets (Gingrich has had a lot of fun with that Romney gaff).  Our tour guide admitted unabashedly as we passed under one such banner, “It works, growing up with those slogans, seeing them everyday.”  Of course, it works, but blockades and embargoes don’t work, unless we hope to push the blockaded country into war.  When was the last embargo that worked?  In the forties, we wanted Japan to leave China and stop massacring its population.  A noble desire on our part, but not an easy solution.  After we imposed an oil embargo against Japan (at the time, America supplied 80% of Japan’s oil), Japan asked FDR for a summit to discuss the matter, but the U.S. said Japan had to withdraw first from China and instead Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  Go figure.  Why didn’t they just do the right thing and obey us?

Throughout World War Two, comics routinely portrayed Japanese as monkeys, inhuman, not worth a moment’s thought, but now of course, we’re the best of idealizing buddies again.  It could be so again with Cuba.  In his youth, Fidel Castro wrote to FDR addressing him as his good friend and asking him for a ten- dollar bill.  I’m sure he doesn’t give this youthful faux pas a moment’s thought now, and it means nothing because he was a child.  But grown men like Romney and Gingrich should at least be a little realistic when they ask the Castros for something.  They don’t want ten dollars from Raul or Fidel Castro.  They want, in Gingrich’s words to “promote democracy” in Cuba.  They want “free elections.”  Sure, we all do.  We want them in China.  Let’s blockade it.  We want them in Iran.  Let’s embargo it . . . oh, we are?

This just in: Cubans don’t want to drive junker cars.  They’d rather drive new cars, which they now get from China, along with scores of new Chinese busses.  They long to eat Pringles.  But I don’t want them to eat Pringles!  Or Big Macs.  I certainly never want to hear any quaint Cuban locals ordering skinny lattes.  Then all hope for humanity will be lost.  For this reason, I find myself curiously conflicted about the Blockade, on the one hand wondering what good it serves (beyond reasons to do with a small minority of Cuban Americans in Florida).  On the other hand, I was delighted to see so many old American cars so well preserved.  The country seems so real!

During our visit, a rumor spread in the Miami Cuban community that Fidel had died, relayed to me by Tom Miller, who added that such rumors crop up every eighteen months or so.  “Assassination by Twitter.”  I mentioned the rumor later to our Cuban tour guide who assured me it couldn’t be true because if it were, her mother, a well-known journalist, would have been in tears that morning.  Cubans mourning Castro?  Actually mourning him and not in the official North Korean way, in which a family of bears reportedly sobbed by the side of the road upon learning of Kim Jong-Il’s passing? Undoubtedly, few woodland creatures will mourn Castro’s passing, and not many more Americans, but now I wonder if even his passing will signal a change in our policy toward Cuba?

Honestly, ask yourself, don’t you want to visit Cuba before Fidel dies and/or the Blockade ends?  Of course you do.  You want to see Cuba as it exists now, poor and blockaded, but resilient and proud, one of the lone anti-U.S. bastions that’s any fun. If North Koreans had conga lines and made Pyongyang Club Rum, maybe they’d have more visitors, too.  But North Koreans don’t salsa.  At least, the Cubans know how to resist the U.S. with panache.  When the American Interests section, a tall building along Havana’s famous seafront, the Malecon, streamed electronic anti-Castro messages around the building’s rooftop during the Bush administration, Fidel retaliated by erecting over a hundred flagpoles flying enormous flags to block the messages.  The messages are gone now, but the Cuban flags remain, as well as an adjacent plaza, “Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Plaza.” It was here, on January 1st, the anniversary of the “Triumph of the Revolution,” that my students and I listened to a Cuban singer belting out tunes with a string of young women straight out of a USO Show, as one of the savvier of my students remarked, line dancing on a stage before which thousands were gathered, most of them dancing too.  And between sets the enormous anti-imperialist video screens played the latest American music videos.

 —Robin Hemley

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See also Stanley Fogel’s ¿Que Coño Pasa? Snapshots of my Wonderful Cuban Life, a book length essay on living in Cuba published earlier on NC.

Feb 142012
 

Here’s a funny, sad, warm, deft, sweet, generous and human little story, a Valentine’s Day treat about couples and the wars they have to fight together. Not a romantic story, but a story about a couple watching and caring—in the welter of the public sphere and the private when they seek solace and comfort. As I have said before (since this is her second appearance at NC), Connie Gault is an old friend from my early teaching days when I used to migrate from one summer writing program to another across  Canada. For a few lucky summers I taught at the Saskatchewan School of the Arts at an old tuberculosis hospital called Fort San in a dramatic geological trench called the Qu’Appelle Valley cut through the Prairie. That’s where I met Connie Gault. She is a playwright and the author of three books of fiction, including, most recently, Euphoria, which came out in 2009.

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One night we dined with an Amateur Thespian. We had cocktails before dinner in front of a fire flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the park and the lake. I didn’t have to worry about making conversation because the Amateur Thespian was happy to entertain us, although he said he’d come a long way from his theatre days. He sat in silhouette against the sun that was dipping into the lake, and told us all the things he no longer did. Besides no longer acting, he no longer taught high school drama, he no longer golfed on municipal courses, or skied on crowded runs or (I deduced) paid for his own dinner. The Amateur Thespian had become a Professional Consultant in Human Resources. He told us all about his journey from education, where Human Resources techniques were in vogue, all about the workshops he’d attended as a high school drama teacher, and all about seeing where his talents could take him. Intuitively, he’d appreciated the human desire to simplify and he’d understood that his own proclivity to enjoy a little limelight could work for him. Now, as he sat far back in his comfortable leather chair, his head haloed, he didn’t mind telling us it had been a stroke of genius to sell his vision to people with money, not in the relatively restrained arena of education, but out in the wide-open field of business.

“You could be successful, too,” he said. “Anyone can.” There were three perhaps not easy steps. He knew himself. He believed in himself. And his goals were well-defined.

He’d formed a company. His wife became vice-president.

Besides the Amateur Thespian, we were to dine with my husband’s boss and the boss’s friend. They arrived too late for cocktails, she a little out of breath, both shiny from the shower.

The Amateur Thespian had a name: Ted. The boss had a name: Hank. And she, the beautiful friend with the long, sleek, clean arms and legs, the well-defined cleavage and the honey-coloured hair, was Sophie. Alex, my husband, had met Sophie once before. He’d described her as friendly.

Most of the evening, as dinner progressed through its courses, was spent discussing Initials. Initials were Ted’s way of dividing and conquering people.

“I’m a DI,” Hank told us. “Heavy on the D. Sometimes I hate myself. I’m working on the I.”

Sophie was a DS, he said. Apparently it caused her a good deal of internal conflict, although she barely looked up from her squid to acknowledge this.

 Alex, I was told, scored very high on the I scale; that was why they had moved him from the accounting department to Human Resources. As well as an I, he was an S, an almost unheard-of combination for an accountant. Accountants were supposed to be Cs. Mainly Cs. With only a small bit of another Initial.

 “You should have your profile done,”  Hank told me. The test would take no more than twenty minutes. It had two parts, the adaptive and the natural. In the adaptive part you were to choose, by circling a number, what you were most likely to do in a given situation. In the natural part you were to pick what you would least like to do. The thought occurred to me that if going to dinner with your husband’s boss, his friend, and an Amateur Thespian was listed, I would have to lie.

 At any rate, I didn’t have to take the test. Ted could tell I was a CD.

“Good,” I said. “Alex and I cover all the bases.” There were only four Initials. Sophie looked up at that. She and Hank did not, together, cover all the bases, and for all I knew, that might auger ill for them as a couple. Not a C between them.

Finally, as he’d been waiting to be asked and we hadn’t picked up on the cue (perhaps there should have been a P for perceptive on the scale), the AT revealed that he was a DI. Just like the boss. This meant that I was sitting at a table with four other people, and I held the lone C. I just knew C wasn’t trump.

 Most creative people, Ted declared, are Cs. But C didn’t stand for Creative. C was something like “Careful” or “Cautious” or “Conservative”. I probably looked surprised to hear it. Most creative people were C’s, Ted explained, because it took discipline to create. D was not for disciplined. D was for “Dominant”. That was why bosses were Ds. They’d better be. And Amateur Thespians turned Professional Consultants had better be too. I was for “Influencers”. People persons. S meant “Security”. Or maybe “Stability”. Which you might think would put those folks pretty close to being Cs. But you’d be wrong. The profile was different, subtly different. It took a Professional Consultant to see the difference; it took him days sometimes to make the distinction and to make it look easy. Making it look easy was part of the job. If it looked easy, that was because of all the time and expertise he’d invested and besides, if you’d bought his package, you’d paid for it to look easy.

The conversation went like this:

Sophie:     Could someone please pass the HP sauce?

Hank:     That’s her S there. She can’t eat a steak without HP sauce.

Sophie:    (Objecting when he poured the sauce on her plate) I can do that myself.

Hank:     Oh-oh. D.D.D. Boy, it’s a hard combination. See, she’s assertive but she wants me to look after her. But she doesn’t want me to smother her.

Pause.

Sophie: (Mustering her dinner-party skills)  Honey, I wonder what the janitor of our condo would be. He’s so funny.

Ted:     (Eagerly) What’s he like?

Sophie:     Oh, he’s a very creative person, I think. Friendly. And dedicated, you know? He’s not afraid of doing a good job.

Ted:     CI.

Sophie:    (Beautifully serious.) CI. I bet that’s right.

Hank:     (To me.) We have a lot of fun with this. (To my husband.) Don’t we, guy?

Alex:     Yeah.

Hank:     And I’ve noticed a Huge Improvement in the company since we started on this. A Huge Improvement. (To the AT.) Haven’t you noticed a Huge Improvement?

Ted:     I have. I have noticed a Huge Improvement. Even on the phone. Even the difference in talking to people on the phone.

Hank:     That’s your I talking.

Ted:   We need I.

Hank:     (For my husband, via the AT) That’s where this guy comes in.

Ted:     That’s right. (To my husband.) Isn’t it, guy?

Alex:     Yeah.

We went home finally and I had a large scotch while I got ready for bed. I was pleased with myself. I had not drunk too much at dinner. I had not said too much.

Me:     I did okay, didn’t I?

Alex:    Yeah.

Me:     I didn’t drink too much. Or say too much.

Pause.

Me:    Did I?

Alex:    You were fine.

Me:     That’s not just your I talking?

Alex:     Let’s never speak of this again.

I recognized a disparity between my husband’s adaptive (what he wanted to do or thought he should do) and his natural (what he didn’t want to do) inclinations that might cause him some trouble in the future. But I gave his solution a big S for Sensible, downed my scotch and climbed into the sack beside him.

While we lay there staring at the ceiling side by side, I thought about him working in the human resources environment every day now. At one point during dinner, his boss had leaned across the table and said, “How is he at home?” I answered something like: “Uh, I think he’s… happy.”

Boss:     How do you feel about the new job?

Me:        I think it’s great to have a change. He seems to be enjoying it.

Boss:     He’s flying. I see him flying. It’ll be interesting to watch him. See where he lands.

Me:     (With the straightest face I could muster.) I don’t care where he lands as long as the journey is good.

Lying in bed beside my husband, I thought about him spending hours, days, the rest of his working life in human resources. It seemed to me he might have been better off in accounting where the formulas were with numbers. I wondered how he could survive. I wondered how I’d feel if I had a new job and he didn’t respect what I was doing.

To the ceiling I said, “It’s important work. Seeing that people are employed in the right jobs, that their job descriptions are accurate, their salaries fair, their benefits adequate. All of that is very important to those people.”

He rolled over and pulled me to him. I was going to say I threw Caution to the winds and let him Influence me, but the truth is all my levity had fled and I burrowed into him. I’d have buried myself in him if I could.

 —Connie Gault

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Connie Gault is the author of the novel, Euphoria (Coteau Books, 2009), as well as two story collections and numerous plays for stage and radio. Euphoria was awarded the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction and was short-listed for the High Plains Fiction award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book of Canada and the Caribbean.  She is a former fiction editor of grain magazine. She lives in Regina.

Feb 132012
 

Julianna Baggott, an amazingly prolific and bestselling writer of prose fiction, has published eighteen titles in the last ten years using three pen names: her own, under which she wrote her national-bestselling debut novel Girl Talk, among other titles, and her brand new novel Pure; Bridget Asher, under which she wrote The Pretend Wife, again among other novels; and N.E. Bode, the pen name she uses for her younger readers. She has also published poems in Poetry, American Poetry Review, and other prestigious journals.

Baggott’s poetry collection, This Country of Mothers, published by Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry, at Southern Illinois University Press, in 2001 and about to be released as an e-book, reads like a memoir-in-poems divided into four phases: her own conception and birth, her growth from girlhood into sexual awareness, the birth of her children and her miscarriage, and her end-of-life care-taking for aging parents. Throughout these poems she seems to have plunged beneath the surface of motherhood, through the banal details and her received cultural conceptions, and into the vivid psychological reality of it. Once beneath that surface she fixes herself at a certain depth and voice, maintaining an unvarying distance from her subject. Readers — especially if they are male — might be given the sense of having a privileged, inside view, almost as though she has put a camera lens into her snorkel and taken us along on this dive.

Baggott occasionally turns her view upward, seeing that cultural surface of motherhood, particularly as it is shaped by her Catholic upbringing, from underneath, from her perspective as an actual giver-of-birth. “Maybe if we could see…her face contorted with pain,/the cords of her neck/ taut and blue,/ then we might believe Joseph,/ and how he must have said/ I can see the head;/ it’s glowing.”  Occasionally she turns her gaze downward toward an abyss.  “..was she in love with what she couldn’t have?…Yesterday, a woman belted her children/ into highchairs and lit gasoline-soaked/ dishrags…” But for the most part she keeps it fixed straight ahead, staring into her own experience.

And it is when she is describing her own experience that Baggott seems to take the biggest risks and gets the biggest imaginative payoffs. Here she is describing herself at her own conception: “…I am swelling/ and waiting, a ticking egg, a twisting tail, a/ fly smashing against bright glass.”

The theme of being a vessel that life passes through unifies the three sections as in the poem “First Time,” in which she describes the loss of her virginity: “… I thought of my own/ uterus, tight and small as a pear, the broken/ seal of it, and what could now take root,/ stumped arms, bowed legs, the squalling/mouth and hollow head of a sinful child…” Later in “What I Told the Jehovah’s Witness” she writes, “when I was young and fucking sweetly” and it recalls this image of that vessel of her body as a fruit. Even the birth control pills “rattling in their plastic capsules” are inside wombs.

There is no denying Baggott’s imaginative gifts: the moments of new and strange insights into what it means to be a giver-of-birth come fast and furious.

—Rimas Blekaitis

 

Coming Home at Seventeen

 In his father’s roadster, I remember
our exposed radio-lit bones,
……………………………………our pearly oils
tinged red with blood,
how the car, sealed shut, filled with steam
so like a bathroom pumped with hot shower water
I could only think
of my mother,
………………..rocking me on the tub’s edge,
my throat constricted with midnight croup,
each cough ringing my ribs,
my own voice
………..an animal bark and moan,
until slowly my throat opened again,
my body went slack
…………………………with something near sleep,
my hand a tiny pink star
……………………………..on her sagging breast.
He drove me home past unwashed churches,
seam-rusted silos, a man caught in his headlights,
shoveling a raccoon from the roadside.
At home, I stood in her flower patches,
name-tagged like school children,
white plastic posts marked with laundry pen.
The basement’s bare bulb
…………………………………shined through the window wells;
and the dark house, belly-lit,
seemed to hover
……………………..just above earth like a spaceship.
My father lingered underground,
wide fingertips running over
the greased gears of his clocks.
Through the open upstairs windows,
where curtains billowed like veils,
…………………………………….I could hear my mother
from their bed, calling his name, calling.
I waited for the house to heave from earth
in a whir
…………of clipped grass and shingles,
dust-ruffles and splintered wood.
My father pulled the chain
……………………………on the basement bulb,
and turned on the front porch light—
in the slow dilation of morning
………………………………….it burned
like a golden pear, like fruit on fire.

 

First Pregnancy

I could not believe a child.
Instead, I envisioned a landscape,
an ocean turning in on itself,
a moving mountain, a field

that could fold and unfold,
my body overtaken by a living map.
Even once when her hand appeared
from the other side—

a five-fingered hand print
as clear as a preschooler’s plaster mold—
I could not accept the benediction.
Like Thomas, I am hard-hearted.

I need the body, to watch Jesus
eat the white fish,
pick his teeth with its bones,
my hands caked in his blood.

 

After the Miscarriage

I try not to think that heaven is memory.
The baby knew nothing
………………………..but the dark waters
and enveloping sky of my body,
my blood’s prattle, the solecisms
of my heart,
……………..its own heart
pumping the first sips of blood,
its weightless stirring.
Instead I envision the flowers I now tend like children,
how they bend in the wind, even at night
as we make love, the way they sway darkly lit.
But the baby is always there,
imagine, the size of a thumb, swimming,
lit now from within,
……………………..its body glimmering
beneath shiny skin,
the image not of the bloom’s sheath
left to dry out, frail and crisp,
but the unsteady flower’s head, a ghost,
forever bobbing, dazed above it.
————————————–

Julianna Baggott is the author of 18 books, mostly novels, under her own name as well as pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. Three of her books are collections of poetry, This Country of Mothers (SIU Press, 2001), Lizzie Borden in Love (SIU Press 2006), and Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees (Pleiades Press/LSU Press, 2007), which is a manual on how to write poems written in poems.  Her poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Southern Review, and read on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Her most recent novel, Pure (Hachette 2012), is the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy. She teaches at Florida State University.

The Book Trailer for PURE
www.juliannabaggott.com
The Shared Brain of Baggott, Asher & Bode Blog
www.pure-book.com

Feb 102012
 

 

Man is born a coward (L’homme est né poltron). — Joseph Conrad

It was the end of my plebe year at Annapolis. Fresh off the blade edge of ten brutal months of military indoctrination and relentless hazing, I had volunteered for the Army’s Airborne School in Ft. Benning, Georgia. A hundred of us were going, out of a thousand in my Naval Academy class. We were young men and women of a similar ilk, I suppose. We reasoned that if we could muster the guts to throw ourselves out of a perfectly good airplane five times and earn the coveted silver jump wings—the first of many ribbons and wings that we all dreamed of wearing—we would have passed some midterm on manhood. (I say “manhood” here because that was how it was framed then. We paid only lip service to the language of gender equality, even as women trained by my side.) Jump school represented a shortcut in a way, a tangible though terrifying transition, a leap not just from the belly of a healthy airplane, but also a leap from innocence to experience. A warrior’s test, we were told. As long as you could get out that fucking door and the parachute opened.

This was how I found myself stuffed into the cargo hold of a C-130 Hercules. No part of my nineteen-year-old self wanted to risk my life, yet there I sat, rumbling across a taxiway, a parachute strapped to my back, sardine-canned in with seventy other wannabe heroes, none of us knowing what we were doing.

The pragmatic definition of courage comes late in Webster’s hierarchy, at least in the dictionary I use. The first entries are all listed as obsolete: courage, 1. The heart as the seat of intelligence or feeling; 2. Inclination, intention; 3. A proud and angry temper; high spirit. The contemporary usage, found fourth in this dictionary, defines courage as the mental or moral strength enabling one to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty firmly and resolutely.

Courage descends from the French word for heart, coeur. Even the modern usage of the word retains an echo of its French origins. Courage, after all, exists somewhere south of the intellect. You can’t think your way into bravery. “Heroism feels and never reasons, and therefore is always right,” Emerson tells us. And while courage may share some chromosomes with instinct, it dwells a few rungs higher up the evolutionary ladder than the primitive fight or flight response. Courage also evokes a certain sensibility, an ennobling quality, the ‘moral strength’ aspect of the dictionary definition. We wouldn’t, in most cases, ascribe courage to a brute criminal, even one persevering in the face of danger.

But is courage a destination? Is a person courageous the same way he is, say, smart or beautiful? Can it be attained? At nineteen, strapped into the back of that airplane, I certainly believed this to be so. I needed to believe in its attainment. The alternative made a whole lot of military training and the last year of my life, not to mention the next ten minutes of it, feel unnecessary and cruel.

 There was always the question. Do you have what it takes?

It haunted, that question did. It scrutinized. It seemed the only question that mattered then. Even before Annapolis, I’d been steeped in the mythology of courage. I was a Right Stuff kind of kid, home-schooled on the narratives of courage, maybe even constructing them as I grew. The more valiant the better: Audie Murphy, George Patton, Chuck Yeager, John Glenn. Long before I’d entered the Naval Academy, a place where such tales of valor found an academic and cultural imprimatur, I idolized the lives of the brave. At the same time, I wrestled with my own courage. Do you have what it takes? Comparing my meager life to that of my heroes, I certainly didn’t think so. But I had convinced myself that I might find it, perhaps just on the other side of that C-130 cargo door.

At twelve-hundred feet, the jumpmaster opened the door on the fuselage. Instinctively, all heads turned toward the sudden burst of light. Alabama pine forests rushed by. Red clay roads and green fields blurred past. Through the open door, wind whooshed into the sweltering cargo hold. Some seventy of us were pinned there, nauseated, silent, sweating, packed so tight that even scratching was an impossibility. Sanity and self-preservation shrank into the space between our backs and the parachutes strapped to them, while fear settled into a background hum, far beneath the noise of the plane’s four propellers, beneath the rushing air. All that remained was the choice: to walk through that open door or to face the opprobrium of bond breaking.

I had convinced myself that courage involved standing up, attaching the static line to the metal cable stretched across the cabin of that C-130, a line which would rip my parachute free when my body tumbled out of the plane. I told myself that this test, this shuffling back toward the open door as that awful plane bounced along humid convective currents, was going to prove something. That if I could do it, if I could somehow get out the door, I’d have started down my fear, once and for all.

Do you have what it takes? What if the answer was, however, simply no? What if the test was failed? What then? Does looking at the antonym of courage shed a brighter light on it? Can the cowardly act reveal truth?

When the cruise ship Costa Concordia slammed into a reef off the Italian coast last month, killing fifteen passengers (17 are still missing), the Italian captain abandoned his ship, saving himself and ignoring his duty. The captain was universally excoriated and declared a coward. And while such judgments seem wholly fair given the circumstances, they are also simplistic and unexamined. This man, after all, had spent most of his life at sea. Didn’t such a career speak to some degree of courage?

Perhaps better to turn back a century for some attempt at an answer.

The fictional events in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim bear a striking resemblance to the wreck of the Costa Concordia. Conrad’s fictional steamship, the Patna, is loaded with Arab pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Late one night on the open ocean, the Patna strikes an object and begins to take on water. Though the crowded ship appears to be sinking, no alarm is sounded. The unknowing pilgrims, many of them asleep on the open decks, are left to die. The captain and crew climb into a lifeboat and begin to lower it. The principal character in Conrad’s novel, a young mate named Jim, hesitates on deck. He knows that abandoning the passengers is reprehensible. He knows he has a choice. He can either leap into the lifeboat with the others or die an honorable death onboard the sinking ship. “Eight hundred people and seven boats—and no time. Just think of it,” Jim says. Through Marlow, the narrator (though not technically the point of view character in the novel), the reader experiences the excruciating details of the cowardly act.

The lifeboat is almost down to the sea’s surface. The crew shouts to Jim. “Jump! Oh, jump!” And, almost in spite of himself, Jim jumps into the boat saving himself from certain death, but also condemning himself to a life of inescapable shame.

After they are rescued, the other members of the crew invent a story about the ship’s sinking, though no one actually witnessed it go down. Jim remains silent, neither confirming the story nor denying it. All would be forgotten, the act erased, since no witnesses remain. But to the crew’s great dismay, the Patna has not sunk. When it is towed into port, with the bewildered and angry passengers on deck, a private shame suddenly becomes a public scandal. The rest of the crew scatters, but Jim insists on standing trial. He alone is prepared to face up to what he did.

Peter O’Toole as Lord Jim

Where Conrad’s interrogation of the idea of courage begins, however, is not inside these fictional courts and maritime communities. (Conrad’s imagined world is fully contemporary, mirroring our own hero-worship/scandal mongering media. Just ask Captain Schettino.) The real exploration goes on inside Jim’s mind. For what Conrad creates is at once a terrific yarn of a shipwreck and a meditation on courage.

We learn that Jim has spent a lifetime inventing his heroic double, a mythological version that has projected itself into great adventures, always resolute in the face of peril. But when the call comes, when the question is asked, Do you have what it takes? Jim fails. It’s in the aftermath of that failure where the story takes place. What follows Jim is as much a judgment on that spilt inside himself—between the starkly real person and the self-created but defeated mythological hero—as it is about any guilt he feels over abandoning a boatload of Arab pilgrims. For Jim, the cowardly act is more a betrayal of self than of some code or convention.

“Heroism is an obedience to a secret impulse of an individual’s character,” Emerson says. “Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the soul at war; and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong.”

 Jim’s true battle, his ‘last defiance of falsehood and wrong’, is a battle fought over imaginary heroism. What shatters is Jim’s heroic self-image. In this sense, Lord Jim tells the tale of the universal struggle for courage. For we all imagine ourselves as heroes on the stages of our own lives. We are all courageous unto ourselves, ready and waiting to answer that call. It is only when freed from that burdensome ideal of our created heroism, often through a shocking failure, like Jim‘s, that we can begin to grow in stature and strength. The stains on our character, Conrad seems to be telling us, are actually the strengths of it. We are our weaknesses. The courage to embrace that fact is perhaps the only lasting one we will find.

Cowardly Jim will go on in the course of the second half of the novel to become Lord Jim, ruler, hero and to no small extent, a brave man. Though always the heart of the coward remains beating below. Do you have what it takes? For Jim, no less for most of us, the question fuels the journey far more than any answer could.

Inside the plane that day, the unbearable heat and humidity added texture to terror. Beneath thick layers of camouflage uniforms and forty pounds of gear, my back dripped with sweat. As the first ‘stick’ of jumpers was given the order to “Stand Up!” a young soldier nearest the open door vomited into his lap. Suddenly mixed into the sweltering air along with jet fuel, parachute nylon and body odor was this new aroma, the acrid contents of Fear’s half-digested breakfast.

The first stick stood. Even the emetic one managed to stand. I watched him brush off his soiled uniform and hook up. The first jumpers stood crouched against the open door. A green light came on and the jumpmaster shouted. The first members of our Airborne class shuffled away and disappeared.

If I have witnessed a more uncanny sight than that of bodies falling out of an airplane in flight I don’t know what it is. One moment, a familiar face stands ten feet away inside the cargo hold and the next, he disappears out the door. It was the Rapture reversed, God’s chosen called not up toward paradise but sucked down toward hell.

Again and again, the cargo plane circled the drop zone. The next stick of jumpers stood, shuffled and was gone. After two more four-minute cycles, the number of warm bodies between me and that door had decreased by half.

When my turn came, on the fourth pass if memory serves, I stood on legs that nearly faltered. The command was bellowed, “Hook Up!” I attached my static line to the braided steel cable above my head. I checked my equipment and ran my gloved fingers across the parachute lines of the jumper ahead of me, checking for snares and tangles. I prayed that someone behind me was likewise checking the lines on my back. Another stick of jumpers went out that door as we stood there checking. They disappeared from the dimly lit cabin into the bright Alabama sky, a sight still eerie, but gradually becoming more familiar. By then, the plane was emptying fast.

For Jim, the journey toward some reckoning, toward a salvation of the lost hero, came on the distant island of Patsuan. There, his redeemed courage and romantic ideals of heroism would elevate him to the status of Tuan, or Lord. Jim is given another chance, as most of us are. “One does not die of it,” the character called the Frenchman tells Marlow. One does not die of fear. But when Emerson speaks of “the soul at war” it seems to me that the battleground often lies in the spaces between fear and courage. It is that tension, that pulling apart of the two sides, the imagined hero within and the  fearful self. Courage, if it exists, must exist there, in accepting the flawed real over the idealized mythic.

I jumped that day. My chute opened and I landed intact in the drop zone. I threw myself out that door with little more than a second thought on the sanctity of my own life or on the consequences of risking it. Something else stands out: Everyone jumped that day. And the next, and the next. I know of not a single person who didn’t go out the door. In our entire class, not a single one of us refused the simple command to “Go!” That’s all it took, one simple word. A stranger shouting “Go!” and we went. We threw ourselves out that door. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

I thought wearing silver jump wings on my uniform would proclaim courage. I thought those wings would enable courage to become a steadier partner in my life. But it did not, of course, any more than a lack of wings proclaimed cowardice. Most of us who graduated from jump school probably felt this way, though we rarely betrayed such confidence, even with each other. Gallantry is not a destination. Courage is, at its best, most tenuous. One does not become courageous, anymore than one becomes loving. That question, Do you have what it takes? can never be finally answered. The interrogation remains ongoing. “Yes! Yes! One talks, one talks,” says the Frenchman to Marlow. “This is all very fine; but at the end of reckoning one is no cleverer than the next man—and no more brave.”

—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 memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has published at Hunger Mountain and Numéro Cinq. He has a story forthcoming in the A Year in Ink anthology and 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.

Feb 092012
 

Tristan is a guy who wishes to be more like the movie characters he idolizes. However, rather than trying to mimic the styles of contemporary mainstream superstars such as Will Smith, Johnny Depp, or Natalie Portman, Tristan chooses to embrace the behaviour and groove of Jean Paul Belmondo from Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Breathless. The difference between most fans and Tristan though is that he fully submerses himself in this character. He’s got the style, the slang, and the pretension; the only piece he’s missing is the girl.

Fans and those familiar with Godard’s Breathless will no doubt notice the several references to the classic film. Beyond the similarities in the protagonist’s persona is also the use of jump cuts, the bold romantic visuals, the up-beat music, and of course, the girl, Zazie, who directly resembles Jean Seberg (who plays Patricia in Breathless). In essence, the short puts us into the French New Wave through the eyes of one of its biggest admirers.

The short does a great job of combining both homage to and parody of Godard’s Breathless and the result is something that has a lot of fun with its characters, dialogue, and style. There is much parody and humor in the fact that Tristan, a British guy, who idolizes the American actor John Wayne, but is imitating a French character who in turn emulates an American Hollywood star, Humphrey Bogart. There is also much parody in how the first half of the short plays off the pretentiousness of Tristan and, in a sense, that the pretentiousness of Godard’s classic. Before this becomes slander though, the short takes a turn to fully and sincerely embrace a romantic relationship similar to the one in Breathless. The parody becomes homage not only to what Godard achieved stylistically, but also to the unique and conflicted relationship he was able to create between Michel (Belmondo) and Patricia (Seberg).

Not only is Tristan searching to complete the character he has devoted himself to, but, as we see from the opening frames, he’s also looking for his dream girl. The other struggles Tristan faces come from the constant reminders of, and ties to, his former self. When he’s looking in the mirror, getting into character, his mother phones and interrupts him with a reminder that he has to take his little sister to the cinemas (a scene which has tempted me to create my own John Wayne voice mail message). Tristan is then forced to find a balance between the character he has created for himself and reality. As luck would have it though, it is this trip to the theatre where he not only finds his dream girl, but also finds a girl who shares his taste in film (an important ingredient for all healthy relationships). In keeping with the style of his idol, he attempts to impress her with overly dramatic knock-out punches and foosball.

As we see however, their relationship becomes much more than that. Zazie completes the character Tristan aspires to be, but more importantly she fulfills the key role the real Tristan has been looking for (as he puts it, with her he’s no longer a “fool”). These characters find the best in themselves in recreating a relationship that they perceive is beautiful. They fall in love with one another through film references and, as a result, act more cinematic and playful. By mimicking movie characters, they are more prone to act on their desires and impulses. They don’t let a moment pass by and seize every opportunity that comes their way. In distancing themselves from who they are externally, they readily act on what they feel internally and discover who their true selves are. Tristan and Zazie learn how to become lovers through homage.

This is the first film by director Toby MacDonald. The short has been screened at several film festivals, including the BAFTA’s, and has received numerous awards.

— Jon Dewar

Jon Dewar is a grad student at University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and is working towards a degree in education. He is an avid film fan, interested in both film analysis and filmmaking. Some of his inspirations include directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, and Martin Scorsese. Jon has written numerous screenplays and is working towards eventually producing some of these projects.

Feb 082012
 

Patrick J. Keane pens here a gorgeous, dense, trenchant memoir that manages to combine literature, childhood, horrid illness, aging, God, death, and friendship. All memoirs are tragic in that they serve only what is gone. But the trick with a memoir is to do what Pat does here and fill it with feisty, vivid, ebullient life, with caring for friends, with loyalty, so much so that we forget the underlying premise, that all this is passing. I’ve already read and reread this essay. It makes me think better of myself, reminds me of my friends, brings up memories of youth.

dg

 

1

February 1, 2012: the scene, Skidmore College’s Surrey Inn in Saratoga Springs. This event, arranged by Salmagundi’s Marc Woodworth, was one that actually deserved to be labeled unique. A celebration of William Kennedy’s new novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, the evening combined readings from the book with reenactments of the novel’s lavish use of piano music and song. Marc had asked me to read a passage as part of the festivities, and I had come over happily from Syracuse to participate.

There was much to celebrate. This book had been a long time gestating and it was not an easy birth, coming almost nine years after Roscoe, one of the best novels in the great Albany Cycle that had begun with Legs. A few years back, after delivering the first of a series of daylong readings from Moby Dick as part of a Melville celebration in Albany, Bill had taken my friend Pernille and me to the flat on Dove Street where, in 1931, Jack “Legs” Diamond had been gunned down, shot through the head. Now, though they lived in a large house outside Albany, Bill and his wife Dana maintained the flat for evenings in town, and as a memento of the most glamorous of all Prohibition gangsters.

The new novel, when it finally appeared, was even more pulsing with life than Legs, a vitality all the more remarkable considering that Bill, having recently overcome serious medical problems, is now in his eighties. Then, too, Skidmore and Saratoga owed much to Bill Kennedy, whose generosity with a portion of his MacArthur Award had made possible the New York State Writers Institute, its month-long summer program based at Skidmore. Appropriately, the atmosphere in the Surrey was festive, with most of those present dressed as if we were in the Floridita bar in Havana, where Hemingway famously held court. In one scene of the opening section of the novel, set in revolutionary Cuba, the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, converses with Papa and witnesses him punch out an annoying tourist: a Floridita scene reenacted as part of the Surrey celebration.

The passage Marc assigned me was one I might well have chosen myself: part of the day-long meandering of George Quinn, Dan’s father, now a victim of dementia, but whose selective memory constitutes a mini-history of Kennedy’s beloved Albany. It is the day following the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, and Albany is trembling on the verge of a full-scale race riot. Oblivious to most of what is happening around him, George wanders through the streets, a disoriented Odysseus or Poldy Bloom. Principal among those he encounters is an old flame, Vivian, who, getting him off the dangerous streets, invites him back to her flat with nostalgia and romance on her mind. She tells him about the time, long ago, when he took her dancing, and the trolley ride back from Electric Park to Albany. They have another drink, and they dance again, this time waltzing in place. Only waveringly certain of her name, he says, “Let me call you sweetheart.” “You can do that,” she responds. He sings to her; he touches her breast, kisses her mouth. “There’s something about a kiss,” he concludes, “that you can’t get anyplace else.”

After the readings and the music, I spoke for awhile with old friends, Bob Boyers, the founder of Salmagundi, and his beautiful wife Peggy, whom I first knew as a Skidmore student and who is now a distinguished poet. I made a date for breakfast with Bill and Dana, once a dancer and still a stunner. And then I turned on my cell phone and stopped smiling as I listened to a voice mail that changed my plans for the evening.

There would be further festivities back at Marc’s house: a variation on a familiar theme, the exodus of writers performing at Skidmore back to the home of Don and Judy McCormack to talk, drink, and laugh for hours. This night I was staying with other friends, Dick and Ann Haggerty. They had come to the Kennedy celebration, but left after the main event, assuming that I would be going on to Marc’s with the other “performers.”  But after playing and replaying the voice mail, I decided to skip the extension of the evening. Though it was a couple of miles to Dick and Ann’s house on the outskirts of Saratoga, and the wind had made the night cold, I felt the need to be alone, and to walk.

.

2

The message on my cell phone was from Jim Cerasoli, one of my two closest boyhood friends. We had gone through much together growing up in the Bronx, including getting into what a 45th Precinct policeman once referred to, alliteratively enough, as “a shitload more than our share” of trouble. We were part of a large crowd, twenty or so boys and girls. All the guys in the crowd, except Jimmy and I, had married the girls we grew up with. He and I had married outside the crowd, and we were the only ones to get divorced. A lesson there. We are all now in our early seventies, and for many years now, we have gotten together in the Bronx or Long Island at least once a year. More recently, though that may soon end, it has been twice a year: a change prompted by a terrible accident that had befallen one of us, my other closest friend, Warren Cheesman, and Jimmy’s being stricken with a particularly cruel form of terminal cancer, multiple myeloma.

As the long-retired Borough Engineer of the Bronx, Jimmy has excellent medical coverage and he’s needed it. Since the first diagnosis some five years back, he has survived a long and often excruciating ordeal of marrow transplants and blood transfusions. His physical strength has always been remarkable. I was with him the first time he ever picked up a barbell. He was about 15 and he amazed a group of older guys by military pressing his own bodyweight. He was as quick as he was strong. None of us had ever seen him lose a fight; in fact, it seemed unimaginable. But, to judge from the message he had left on my phone, he felt he was finally losing this one.

The message was somewhat rambling. Jimmy had been compelled to attend a Democratic political event he’d organized and the voice mail was unusually frank since it was late and he’d obviously had plenty to drink at the affair. No wonder. His doctor had just informed him that he now needed a prescription that would cost $8,000 a week. No matter what insurance he had, that seemed off the charts. On a few occasions in the past, Jimmy had expressed guilt about being a burden on the health care system. Why should he get treatment that most could simply not afford? I’d always urged him not to feel that way as long as the quality of his life was as good as it seemed to be. At times, when he said he’d accomplished what he’d wanted to, and no longer had any “project” worth living for, I’d chastised him with the example of Warren, who had struggled through a long, painful, and necessarily incomplete rehabilitation, yet continued to make the most of his life despite ever-diminishing physical capabilities. Jimmy agreed. But now, the voice mail suggested, given the slow but inexorable progress of multiple myeloma, and faced with this almost prohibitively expensive drug, he had reached a crossroads.

Aside from its final expression of love, and the characteristic admixture of humor and self-deprecation, the message was, obviously, deeply disturbing. I had felt certain for some time that Jimmy had no intention of letting the cancer play out to its end. If he felt the final stage coming on, he would simply choose to stop taking any medications, old or new, accelerating the inevitable rather than submit to slow deterioration, the horrible endgame of multiple myeloma. Had he reached that point? It was far too late to call him, but as I walked the dark Saratoga streets, I reminisced about our long journey together, including a walk on a similarly windy night almost sixty years earlier.

It was a melodramatically stormy evening, and we were walking through a wooded area in a then rural section of the Bronx. We were engaged, with all the seriousness of fourteen-year olds, in a cosmological-theological conversation: a discussion that has gone on ever since, often centering on the infinitude of the universe, the mystery of origins and endings, and on a crucial double-question: “Does God exist and, if so, does he care?” When I expressed religious doubts, Jimmy pointed toward a tree shaking in the wind. “Tell that tree you don’t believe in God,” he challenged. I found I couldn’t.

We have come a long way since then. We’ve both had bouts with cancer, mine as nothing compared to his; and we have both become unbelievers, evolving if not progressing from the Catholicism of our boyhood. Unable to square the traditional concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God with the challenges presented by evolutionary biology and by the sheer amount of suffering in the world, much of it undeserved, I have become an agnostic. Jim, a science-minded engineer conversant with the workings of quantum mechanics, has also pursued an amateur but scholarly interest in the Bible. The result is that he is, and has been for some time, an atheist: a conviction unaffected by the fact that he knows he is dying of an incurable disease. Though perhaps no one can be utterly fearless in the face of death, Jimmy is freer of that fear than anyone I’ve ever known. As a philosophic materialist, he has taken to heart the argument of Lucretius in On the Nature of Things: after death “we shall not feel because we shall not be.”

When I talked to him the next morning, he was, marginally, less despondent, and, as always, funny. But, as William James famously says in Varieties of Religious Experience, no matter how we ignore death, try to forget about it, or even laugh in its face, “still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.” I felt that image vividly at the end of the exuberant event honoring Bill Kennedy, and even more on that chilly walk back to Dick and Ann’s.

.

3

The next morning, before breakfast with Bill and Dana, and after talking to Jimmy on the phone, I found myself flooded by memories of our crowd growing up in the Bronx. Those thoughts, in turn, triggered recollection of a more recent Bronx adventure—this one part of the aftermath of another event honoring Bill Kennedy.

This was the First Annual Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, a glorious affair held at the Manhattan Club. New York City’s Irish community was out in full force. After a gregarious open bar, I found myself sitting for the speeches between the actor Gabriel Byrne and the playwright John Patrick Shanley, unmistakably born and bred in the Bronx. I had just seen the film version of his play Doubt –starring Meryl Streep, who had also played a lead in the film of Bill Kennedy’s prize-winning novel, Ironweed.  I mentioned to Shanley that my mother loved his Moonstruck, and would have enjoyed the scene in Doubt set in Parkchester, where she had lived for years. When I congratulated Byrne on his performance in Miller’s Crossing, he insisted that “the dialogue the Coen Brothers had written” for that film was “so good that a trained seal could have delivered the lines.” I doubted it, but appreciated the self-effacing wit.

Understandably, Bill was deeply touched by the O’Neill Award. After his warm and funny acceptance speech, and a few more rounds of communal drinks, he whispered to me: “Pat, I haven’t had a bite to eat all day. Dana, Brendan, and I are going around the corner to Gallagher’s for a steak. Don’t say anything, just slip out quietly and join us.” After a few necessary farewells, I went to the checkroom and discreetly retrieved my raincoat, a garment bag and a satchel. I had come down to New York on Amtrak, not only for the Kennedy honors, but to spend a week in the Bronx with family and to attend one of our now biannual crowd reunions. I lugged my goods to Gallagher’s, and settled in for drinks and laughs with Bill, his wife, and their son. We were soon joined by others.

The next two hours were so convivial that I forgot that I had to make the last Express Bus to the Bronx. I offered apologies for what became a sudden departure and headed across town at full tilt. I thought I’d be able to make it, but hadn’t calculated on the extra minutes I’d need, burdened as I was with two bags. I got to Madison Avenue just in time to watch the last bus to Throgs Neck disappearing in the rainy mist. No cab would take me to the Bronx. That left me with a single option: the last bus to the Bronx, headed, as I recall, to Morris Park Avenue. I clambered aboard and asked the driver to drop me off anywhere in the Bronx where he thought I’d be likeliest to get a cab to Throgs Neck.

He may have taken my “anywhere” literally. Whether through mistake or malice, he deposited me in a section that resembled nothing so much as the desolate postwar setting for The Third Man. There I was, at 1am in the morning, hauling two bags, rigged out in a suit and London Fog raincoat, and carrying about $1,000 in cash in my wallet. No cabs, no cars, no lights, no stores open. Having grown up in the Bronx, I shrewdly recognized this as a less than ideal situation. To add to the absurdity, it began to drizzle more heavily, and the wind picked up, whipping my raincoat like a defeated flag.

I set off walking, another of the nocturnal trudges that seem to have become a motif in these reminiscences. I walked for several blocks, the drizzle turning to rain, the mist thickening. It was beginning to approximate a scene on the fells, with the Hound of the Baskervilles looming in the wings. Finally, I glimpsed lights haloing what appeared to be a door. As I approached, a voluptuous young woman beckoned me in. What I at first took to be a brothel turned out to be a tavern. In retrospect, I detect a resemblance to the scene I was assigned to read at the Surrey Inn celebration.  Just as Vivian had saved George Quinn from the dangerous streets of Albany by inviting him into her flat, this buxom beauty had saved me from the potentially dangerous streets of a rundown section of the Bronx, shrouded in windblown rain and mist, and altogether unfamiliar to me.

I went in. The place was warm, colorfully lit and packed, the customers primarily Puerto Rican, and exuding good spirits. The crowd was young: attractive women, amply breasted and with even bigger hair, accompanied by dates, most of them with tattooed, impressively muscled arms. I shuffled to the bar, dragging my luggage, wet and seriously overdressed for the occasion. I might as well have been an alien, a man from Mars blown in by the night wind. I smiled at the lovely bartender, tattooed but decidedly female, wiped the rain off my face and ordered a beer.

As I was sipping it, a distinguished looking fellow who turned out, unsurprisingly, to be the owner came up to me and engaged me in conversation. We retreated to a corner, and kept talking. He got the next round. We continued talking. By the time we’d shared several more beers, we knew a good deal about each other. I asked him at one point how he managed to maintain such good order in a crowded bar in an obviously tough neighborhood. I don’t know if he’d read Elmore Leonard’s novel or seen the film version of Get Shorty, but he said, as Travolta does in the movie, “Look in my eyes.” When I did, the warm blue turned to ice; an impressive transition.

But it was only with the arrival of closing time that I got the full measure of the man.  As his patrons filed out, they invariably offered their farewells with a mixture of affection and respect. I thought for a moment that my new friend must be connected. But, growing up in the East Bronx and working at Breezy Point Beach Club to put myself through Fordham, I’d seen plenty of gangsters. None of the Bronx loansharks or bookies I knew had anything resembling this guy’s class. And only one of my members at the beach—a charismatic guy who used the cabana owned by Joe Profacci, and who turned out to be that don’s main button man—had the commanding presence of this fellow. But my beach club member, charming in a Legs Diamond sort of way, was a professional killer. The man I’d just spent two hours with was a tough-love entrepreneur who respected his customers: a man who knew how to run a bar offering a convivial atmosphere, a clean well-lighted place and a safe oasis in a rough neighborhood. He was treated accordingly.

When the time came to leave, my new friend got me a cab and had my bags carried out by an employee who refused the tip I offered. I got to my aunt’s house in the early hours, having thoroughly enjoyed two events in the one evening, the second of which might have ended very differently. I could imagine the headline: “Retired professor and active buffoon found mugged and murdered in the mean streets of the Bronx.” If Hemingway, tossing back a daiquiri at the Floradita, had come across the headline, he might have remembered the frozen carcass of his leopard on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and added, “no one knows what the lunatic was seeking in that neighborhood.” The next day, when I saw Jimmy, I told him the story. He laughed—as did Bill Kennedy when I repeated it to him a few weeks later at the urging of my friend Judy McCormack.

 

4

Oddly and quite innocently, Bill Kennedy figures in both these juxtapositions. The recent Surrey Inn celebration will always be darkened for me by the voice mail from Jimmy; the Eugene O’Neill presentation by the potentially dangerous, but finally delightful and Kennedy-esque, aftermath in the Bronx. But then, when one gives it more than a moment’s thought, all the adventures and joys of life seem circumscribed by darkness and threat, with death the ultimate reality surrounding—haunting and enhancing—the transience of life. That explains, not only the mingling of vitality and nostalgia at the heart of William Kennedy’s life-affirming novels, but of much else in literature and life.

Art is long, life short, but in life as in art, we are moved by chiaroscuro, the play of light and darkness. Aside from scholars, who now reads the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Venerable Bede? But there is a reason men and women have remembered for more than a thousand years Bede’s vivid comparison of human life to the “swift flight of a sparrow,” coming out of rain and snow, to fly through the king’s festive and fire-lit banquet chamber, only to quickly disappear out “the other door.” While the bird is within, he is “safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space” of warmth and light, “he immediately vanishes out of sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or of what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.”

As I, along with my friends, come ever nearer to that other door, I become more and more acutely conscious that, for all my reading and experience, I am as utterly ignorant as I was when Jimmy made me stare at that tree shaking in the wind more than half a century ago. One of the few things I am sure of is the strength of the bonds established all those years ago in the Bronx. As I was typing these thoughts (I am not making this up), an e-mail arrived from Warren Cheesman. Knowing that Jimmy rarely reads e-mails, he was responding to my sharing with him and with two other of our lifelong friends, John and Elsbet Wallace, this latest news about Jimmy. Like Elsbet, Warren was crying when he responded, but, along with offering to contribute substantially to alleviating the cost of any medication, he pointed out that Jimmy was part of the “experiment” offered by this new medication. Beyond that, he wanted me to tell Jimmy that “the longer he can endure, the greater his contribution to the world, and to us, his friends.” However dark it may seem, however cold the night wind and all that it portends, there’s something about gathering around a communal fire, and, especially, about true love and friendship, that you can’t get anyplace else.

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

Feb 072012
 

Nights caught in small cold moments of crystallized fire. Winters here about temporary shelter, the unmittened hands of friends, and accidental warm bodies. Strung lights across the darkness. This is how we find our way.

He and I walk in the dark woods. We call out and point at the constellations. We each know only four. A short game. But it makes sense of the darkness, our breaths rising, converging, in the air above us, our gloved hands pointing, reaching, like children too small to grab the lowest branch. Round the corner, dip in the tree line, sudden fire of the moon rising, hanging burnt orange.

He tells me how his mother brought oranges home box by box from the grocery store, each orange in its small green paper nest. Satsuma, Clementine, Tangerine, Owari, Tangor.  Each sounding like a country he might someday visit. Early morning, his mother at the kitchen counter peeling his father’s oranges for his lunch, so he could eat them later without the citric acid from the peels stripping the machine grease from his hands. How she saved him from black oranges. Love in the small lunch-box gestures.

I tell him how in my town I knew a boy who worked at the grocery store who had been bitten by a tarantula that had been accidentally packed or stowed away in a case of bananas. I still think about that tarantula so far from the warm, so far from home. Did he get to see snow? After that, I opened each box of oranges my mother brought home carefully, wondering what exotic things might come along with them. What stows away, escapes, what bites you and your greedy hands.

I tell him, too, of that Christmas when my mother told my brother and I how the oranges had vitamin C, which would make us grow up big and strong. How when she was out shoveling snow off the steps, we took turns eating an orange and then lifting the end of the couch. She was right, we decided with each lift. Soon we would lift the trailer. Soon we would tear it from its blocks and roll it to another town, one with more oranges. And we would be gods. Orange gods. But how instead we spent the next day fighting for the toilet.

A conversation beneath this conversation glowers between us. The erratic space between our hands as we walk. How, later, on the wide bare bed, he will explain that an orange is a question of distance: from tree to hand that picks it, from hand to box, from box to home, to hand, to mouth, to tongue. Says we are all reaching for the branch. Even oranges.

I explain how oranges, mandarins, offer themselves up, shuck peels, let segments fall away from one another, like a too eager lover naked at the foot of a bed waiting. They are always waiting.

And other aches of time. Time between each segment placed on a tongue. Span of time before bodies can no longer keep one another warm so the duvet has to be retrieved from the hardwood floor.

For now, though, we walk deeper into the woods, the soldier, bare trees reaching for the stars. But once you’ve seen an orange, you can’t help but see oranges everywhere. In the darkness, each star caught in the wide blackness might be an orange gloaming there instead of a planet. Celestial bodies, the hurtling rotations and orbits of great oranges, galaxies just spilled boxes out of reach.

I want to quote Neruda. Something about his lover’s “orange laughter.” But I can’t remember how it goes. So we walk on, a waltz of bumping shoulders, the quiet hum of the star flung, mandarin sky.

— R. W. Gray

 

R. W. Gray is a writer with commitment issues when it comes to form. He has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals and in the anthologies Seminal, And Baby Makes More, Queering the Way, and Quickies 1 and 2.  His first collection of short stories, Crisp, was published by NeWest Press (2010). Ten of his short scripts have been produced and the most recent, “alice & huck,” won awards at festivals in New Orleans, Beverley Hills, and Honolulu. He currently is a professor of film and screenwriting at University of New Brunswick. He is also senior editor at the helm of Numero Cinq’s NC at the Movies.

 

Feb 052012
 

 

Mary Ruefle is a vastly brilliant poet who seems mainly to function in life at the level of the oracular. She is an old friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, which makes me one of the lucky ones. You watch Mary read or listen to one of her lectures and think, Oh, right! That’s what I am supposed to be doing with my life. Art! Poetry! Books! Her restless intelligence and passion for text has led her from poetry to erasure books to these little assemblage poems, texts snipped from old books combined with antique postcards picked up at the secondhand bookstores she haunts. These are very strange objects, doubly inspired by absence (or nostalgia), words that once meant something else in a different context and images of forgotten places and people, and by ironic juxtaposition. Detritus & irony. She mailed me a large stack of these; I offer here the ones I liked the best.

 dg

Moonlight Memoroes

 

Camels

 

Insects

 

strangely

 

Fivefold

 

old woman

 

Atheism

 

Narrative

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MARY RUEFLE‘s latest book is Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010), which won the William Carlos Williams Award. Her many publications include A Little White Shadow (2006), a book of erasures; Tristimania (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2003), Among the Musk Ox People (2002); Apparition Hill (2001); Cold Pluto (2001); Post Meridian (2000); Cold Pluto (1996); The Adamant (1989), winner of the 1988 Iowa Poetry Prize; Life Without Speaking (1987); and Memling’s Veil (1982). Also a book of prose, The Most of It (2008), and a comic book, Go Home and Go To Bed (Pilot Books/Orange Table Comics, 2007). A collection of her lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey – all of which were given at VCFA over the years – will be published by Wave in the fall of 2012. She has won many awards for her work, including an NEA, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim, and an Award in Literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. She also makes one-of-a-kind erasure books, which have been exhibited in museums and galleries. Mary lives in southern Vermont.

Feb 032012
 

I met Samantha Bernstein in 2009. She had just completed research for her Master’s thesis on youth movements, epistolary narratives, and autobiographical literature. She told me she was writing a memoir. Then she casually confided that she was the youngest child of Irving Layton, the legendary and leonine poet who shook up the conservative Canadian literary scene in the 50s and 60s. Layton described himself as a “hot-blooded Jew cavorting in the Canadian drawing room, kicking out the windows to allow fresh air to enter.”  Leonard Cohen once said, “There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us.”

Tightrope Books will publish Samantha’s memoir, Here We Are Among the Living, later this spring. Quill and Quire calls it “a confrontational coming of age story.” The book is composed of email exchanges—the epistolary mode; because, as Samantha explains, “writing letters to friends is a vital part of many people’s development, and because of the form’s association with self-reflection and social criticism.” The excerpts that follow are, in Sam’s words, “the clearest contemplations” on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. “I think that even if for middle-class people like me politics always are in some way aesthetics,” she explains, “our predilections can help us better understand the world, and live more ethically.”  Of course, literary inheritance is an important part of this, for as Sam admits, “Irving is hovering ’round here:  coming to terms with his belief in the poet as prophet, this frighteningly powerful faith in art that governed his life.  Coming to believe that creativity need not be tied to destructiveness in the way it was for him.”

You can also read Samantha Bernstein’s gripping short story “The Neighbour” at The Broken Pencil’s “Deathmatch V; read it and vote before February 5th.

— Cheryl Cowdy

.

We’ve All Gone to Look For America…

(from Here We Are Among the Living, Tightrope Books, Spring 2012)

By Samantha Bernstein

.

.

We’ve All Gone to Look For America…

10/ 15/ 2002

Dear Eshe,

Tonight when I came home from taking Joe to the airport Mom was yelling into the phone, at Baba of course.  Okay, so?  You always were miserable, so you’re still miserable.  I’m very sorry, Mother.  Tse maisse frum drek, e medaf lecken de finger. (The world is a bowl of shit and you have to lick your fingers: a favorite expression of Baba’s grandmother.)  That’s right, Mother, if all you do is sit and worry, then you’re going to feel sick.  Mom rolling her eyes on the couch amid a sea of newspapers, TV on silent.  Walking in was like being pushed from a height in a dream, my futility ringing in my ears as I plummet.  For six days when Joe was here I felt young, beholden to no one; suspended in the melancholy peace of his eyes I was just a long-haired kid with a car and a pack of smokes, music blaring and adventure everywhere.  I imagine that’s what it felt like to be young in the Sixties.  When being young was what was going on, and your jeans, weed, music all signaled freedom, all meant infinite possibility, radical choice, the indescribable magnitude of Right Now.

In that spirit, Joe and I hopped into the car on Friday night and, to Mom’s distress, headed for Detroit (Oh, you have to go look at the poor people?  Smiling rueful love as we nodded and laughed.  Oh well, she said, Joe’s with you, you’ll be okay).  So off we went to find the ghost of America’s golden years, though we got lost on the outskirts of Buffalo, where the all-night gas station clerk laughed at me and said the fastest way to Detroit was back through Canada.  But we didn’t mind covering a lot of road.  I drove as long as I could stay awake through the subdivision-sown fields, Joe horrified and fascinated by the size, the immense pre-fab impermanence of millennial Ohio.  On a dark misty patch of highway, a deer appeared and we watched its beautiful, terrified head vanish into the bushes at the back of a strip mall.

Approaching Detroit, Joe balanced his torso out the sunroof and took pictures of the skyline:  the city ahead, and to the north a pile of mangled industrial shit that looked like the steel skeletons of a thousand dinosaurs.  We parked beneath an empty building – a miniature castle – and started walking.  I got a shot of Joe by a boarded-up garage that someone had spray-painted, in green, WITH OPEN EYES I.  If I were going to get a tattoo, I said to him, That’s what I’d get.  The sun very white reflecting off the dirty building, Joe squinting at me, legs apart, hips slightly askew, a portrait of suspended motion as always.

I took another shot of Joe standing in the middle of a six-lane road by a steaming sewer grate because we thought it would be iconic, but the street was too sunny and leafy for what we had in mind.  Still, it looked as sad as we expected as we got to the heart of downtown.  Everywhere garbage, boarded-up department stores, forsaken restaurants, ornate hotels ghostly as sacked palaces, the tattered remains of awnings flapping from their rails.  The sunshine making strangely sweet the dirty bricks and flaking gilt shop-signs, we had our flitting visions of post-war American families congregating outside diners on a morning much like this one:  ladies in hats entering department stores, bright, chrome-rimmed cars rolling down the streets, a war just won, factories a continuous hum except on Sundays.  You can still feel what it must have been like.  American cities seem to have changed less, there’s a thicker residue of decades past; downtown Toronto feels so deliberately polished in places.  Scrubbed so meaninglessly clean.

What is the meaning of looking at dirt, that’s a question.  Driving home at twilight, looking at the ragged fields I wondered what stories I am always looking for in dereliction.  History, sure, but there’s something else, too, and less disinterested.  The desire to look feels cruel, like taking pleasure in pain; but is wanting not to look more ethical?

Anyway, my dear Eshe, it was good to be on the move again, even for two days, what with that post-trip travel bug still gnawing at my gut.  Though it’s excellent to be in school, learning new things.  I’ve had moments taking notes on maquiladoras or discussing the causes of bi-polar disorder that I am so completely happy I actually smile to myself.  Just being a proper student, taking in facts, ideas.

We missed you at Thanksgiving.  We did a colossal thing, must have had forty people over the course of the night.  It was a little maddening at times – for awhile people were constantly coming and going, there were plates, bags, shoes everywhere, the phone unceasing with people needing buzzing up.  Of course it was a buffet, people perched on sofa arms, cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the kitchen counter, but that was rather satisfying – it seemed people were eating for hours, in every corner of the apartment.  As usual the preparations were all stress and horror at how much everything costs, Mom harrumphing into the fridge wishing she lived in a big house with a big proper fridge, muttering about how when Baba had the house there were two fridges but she had to go and sell it….  But when people arrive Mom is rosy-cheeked and beaming, perfectly in her element bearing massive trays of turkey, ladling out steaming sweet potatoes.  A basic, primal thing, to feed and be fed.  The ritual of shared food.  I’ve always particularly liked Thanksgiving; Mom first decided to do Thanksgiving dinner when I was maybe nine, and I remember being so excited, making little place cards for everyone, acting the cheery sprite of a child I wasn’t by nature but desired to be.  Which I suppose means I was naturally that way in some sense, but I had to work at it; at least, I remember pondering the lives of Pollyanna and Josephine March, those lessons in feminine virtue, in gaining strength through hardship.  I realized it made me and others happy when I emulated them, bustling around in a little apron, humming a little tune, arranging gourds in a basket or tidying the house.

Though I always knew, giving thanks at the laden table, that it wasn’t the same as in olden times; that bounty meant something different since I had never known real scarcity.  We’d bought this food like we’d buy anything else, from the ever-full supermarket; there were no winter stores being put by, no cellar full of pickles and preserves for the lean months.  Arranging store-bought gourds in the wicker cornucopia I adored, I knew that image – food tumbling from a cornucopia – had become purely representative for us, not quite false but fundamentally unmoored from the original meaning.  Nonetheless it always made sense to me to take the opportunity of Thanksgiving to thank the earth for what we have, though I’ve never so much as harvested a tomato.  So that is what we did.  Mom’s work friends talking shop on the couch as Bri carved her tofurkey, Flo gave Joe a back-rub, and Ty rolled joints and hollered gleefully about anatomy.  Wonderful Franceszka washing dishes, insisting Mom sit down, putting things to order in her bossy, smiling way.  A properly modern, haphazard celebration.

 Tell me when you’re coming home for American Thanksgiving, maybe I can pick you up from the bus.

Love always,

Sam.

                                    *****************************

The Truth of Beauty

06/ 05/ 2003

Dear Joe,

Hooray for New Beginnings!  I think social work is going to be perfect for you; you’ll be mired in all the hard-living stories you could ask for while trying to do some good in the world.  Though I understand your concern that it could all be aesthetics – your draw to people on the skids, the desire to enter into their troubles and tragedies.  I’ve always wondered about the same thing in myself – why on earth did I love to watch World Vision ads when I was four years old?  What drew me to those swollen bellies and tin shacks?  I remember trying to explain to Mom when I was about seven, saying, It helps me remember how fortunate I am; but even then I knew it wasn’t the whole truth, was aware of something unsettling in my interest that I couldn’t pin to words.  It’s a kind of voyeurism, of course, and guilt at having the luxury of wanting to look in.  But also a sense of being something I could not understand, part of a world I didn’t understand.  What can we do?  That was where my first instincts, my childhood desires took me, and ultimately there’s no way to say why I found poor people interesting and not rich ones, no more for me than for you.  Of course there are reasons – you can and should analyze your desire to help the underprivileged – but in the end it will still boil down to the fact that you and I and people like us are compelled by the powerless, the people getting gored by the bull of life rather than doing the goring.

What makes it disquieting is that we’re not alone in our curiosity; lots of people want to know how dirty life can get.  I remember when Trainspotting came out, watching fascinated as those emaciated, sexy junkies revealed the scummy lives of poor Scottish kids – that’s when I first noticed people’s fascination with the poverty and violence we’re supposed to fear.  How to know where the moral aspects of the impulse to look give way to the immoral?

Surely, knowing which forms to file in which offices to procure basic necessities like food and shelter – being able to convince people to fill out those forms – must be a good and true use of the interest in others’ pain.  I have no such certainty about my ability to justify my early compulsion toward Ethiopian famine victims.  How does it help the Iraqis for me to envision their bombed-out homes, their dead children?  And yet I’d rather do that than see Paris Hilton’s titties, or take a TV tour around Jude Law’s home; those images are not compelling, but a shot of an Afghani man drinking from a shit-encrusted puddle is.  It feels like looking is a charm against blindness – like if I stare hard at what threatens my tidy white middle-class life, I’ll ward off the cataract of righteous self-interest.

Speaking of aesthetics, and of having no fucking idea why we do the things we do, I’ve been accepted into the Creative Writing program!  (Part Two of the process:  there’s an introductory year, then you apply for the full-on program.)  At first I was very sure I’d be accepted – there can’t be that many people all that serious about writing anyway.  But then I started thinking, only 25 people out of more than 100 get in; there might be people in the other classes that are way better than me.  But now my worries are over; I got the letter yesterday.  So it looks like Mom was right, and York is the place for me.  Why study creative writing?  Who knows.  Possibly very silly, possibly a familial tic, possibly all sorts of things.  Nonetheless I’m very excited.

Indicating other forms of progress, good old Chrétien, that savvy crook, has allowed some law to lapse because of a medical marijuana case; so at the moment, pot is in legal limbo.  Not that this affects in any way my behavior, but it does give me a little smile to know, when I walk down the street with my joint, that there’s nothing anyone can say about it.  Mom is very funny; she still doesn’t really believe I won’t get busted.  She cannot get past the fear that if the cops see you with some dope, they’ll throw you in the paddy-wagon like they used to do in her Yorkville days.  We were discussing this walking through Yorkville in fact, headed to Baba’s apartment earlier today.  Watching the Porsche parade, the Botoxed and bejeweled passengers glistening in the sunshine.

Every Saturday night! she said.  Every Saturday night there they’d be at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville, herding the hippies into the paddy-wagon.

            Oh the times they are a-changing.

            Maybe so, she said, But I still think it’s best to be careful.

I blew smoke toward a tanned middle-aged man with a thick gold bracelet, who caught a whiff and walked past us with a twinkle in his eye.

What irony, Mom said, That I’ve always loved this neighborhood, and your grandmother who never gave two shits about it is the one living here.

Well, I reminded her, It was an excellent deal for what she needed, this apartment.

Yeah well, remind your grandmother of that when she starts going on about wanting to move.  This place isn’t fancy enough for her, she has to be at the Renaissance. She can’t afford to live there, those are like million and some dollar apartments.  But I constantly have to hear about how this place, this Yorkville apartment, isn’t good enough.  As if I were going to move her again, after what I went through getting her out of the house.  I don’t even want to think about it.  Look what a pretty day.  This is where the Mynah Bird used to be (pointing at a brick structure probably built in the eighties.)  There used to be girls, go-go dancers, in cages outside.  Can you believe it?

I thought of Mom on this street thirty years ago, wearing sandals and panhandling.  (“Panhandling!  she said to me recently.  You see, I wanted out of my parents’ house so badly I was prepared to panhandle in the street.  I asked her why she didn’t get a job.  I got a job, she said, My father fired me for being late.  No, I said, A real job, like a shit job, any job.  I don’t know, she said, That’s a very logical question.)

What fascinates me, I told her, happy to turn the conversation away from Baba, Is that a lot of the same people are here now as then.  The same people who were here forty years ago barefoot and stoned are who’s in these cars.

Maybe so, said Mom vaguely.  I hadn’t changed the topic as well as I might have.  I knew she was contemplating the wealth by which we were surrounded, wondering how she’d missed out on her piece of the pie; wondering, too, what happened to her generation, that this is what it became.

And I flicked my roach into the gutter wishing I could defile this whole carnival, sink it like a tent.

xo

                                           *******************************

Howl, or Robert Johnson Blues

 03 / 10 / 2005

 My dearest dearest Joe,

you know what fucks me up?  “Howl” fucks me up.  The first time I read it, I cried over its beauty, over the intensity of this era I missed.  I just re-read it now, and cried because no work of literature will ever unify people like that again.  Imagine what it was like in that room in San Francisco, this wild gay Jew making gorgeousness of a generation’s gore.  His hearers “digging” that this poem, this moment of the poem’s arrival holds the possibility of changing art, and perhaps society, forever.

We have no certainty like that of our ancestors.

Today my half-brother was informing me about New Spain.  As often happens, our conversation has left me feeling young and stupid – run down, as Ginsberg said, by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.  David reads so much, provides example after example to prove that everything I think about the world is simply ridiculous.  Predictable bourgeois lefty bullshit I’ll grow out of in ten years; less.

We went to see Capote, which begat a good discussion about writing and ethics.  From the theatre we went to some swish bar in Yorkville where David is clearly a regular.  Walking over we were arguing about Hotel Rwanda, which we had debated seeing but the timing didn’t work.  He thinks it’s grand they’ve made a movie of it; I think it’s perfectly indicative of our twisted culture that we’d do sweet fuck-all about the genocide, and then appease our consciences by watching a movie about it.  Oh the heroism, the good one man can do.  Let us applaud him.

David said, Well would you rather it was just not an issue?  You might appreciate this film as a kind of progress, because historically people haven’t really given a fuck about the death of people in some far-off country.  And maybe, Samantha, maybe if enough people go see Hotel fucking Rwanda, next time there’s a genocide about to happen, people will step up and call for intervention if that’s what you want.  Not that it’s necessarily a good idea – you might remember, for instance, what happened when the States tried to intervene in Somalia, which was a different situation but you see what I mean.  Or the intervention in Bosnia which the Administration was given so much flack for.  But at least you can’t say they were idle.

Are the options really bomb the shit out of a country or let it destroy itself?

Well that’s a whole other issue.  We’re talking about Rwanda and if what you want is for people to give a shit, Samantha, then here you are, people give a shit.

It’s not a sign of people giving a shit.  It’s a sign that people feel bad about not giving a shit.  And not just about things in far-off countries we can’t really affect, but about stuff in our own society.  People are stepping over homeless people to line up for Hotel Rwanda so they can bury that twinge of guilt they had stepping over a person.

I was happy walking through the narrow Yorkville streets having this rancorous conversation with my brother.  He was waving his arms and smiling belligerently as he made his points, always seeming a little like he was taking the piss out of me but always eloquent, delightedly ignoring the stares of the neighborhood’s patrons.  Settled on the bar’s heated patio he bought the drinks and told me about Cortes and those two brothers whose name starts with a P.  Who conquered the whole of Central and South America by sheer will, brawn, fearlessness and ruthlessness.  You see Samantha, he said, That’s what human beings have always done, that’s how this world we now enjoy was built.  You have to respect what’s been accomplished, even if you despise the means.  Humans are violent animals.  So you want a world with no more genocide well, sweetheart, I hope you get it but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

My mind is a petrified havoc of images.  I think I opened Ginsberg to read someone who cares desperately – thought he might remind me of the potential good in looking hard, even with reverence, at awfulness.

But what do I see?

Empathy – the word keeps surfacing in my brain like a water wing.  This clumsily bobbing hope that there is a moral purpose to these visions of people suffering which crowd my brain during political conversations.  That to feel sadness and anger for the fates of others – to refuse consolatory resolutions – is part of believing we can lessen our travesties.  I hold these hopes even as I know my mind is reproducing images created to inform me about the world, and my place in it.  As one who watches, who is informed; who is learning what my brother knows, that This Is How The World Works.

I feel there is something wrong with David’s explanations, something defensive and predictable in his proclamations about humanity – but my feeling itself seems defensive and predictable.

Michael says if I can believe in anything, I must believe in love; the drawing toward.  And I want to, unequivocally, but then too love can seem a lousy trick, a crossroads deal:  You shall know beauty and make it live, tend it chained to a bone jutting from your plot on this mass grave.

We can trick the devil, though; win out on the bargain.  Chained to ugliness, we sometimes carve the bone beautifully – make it a flute.  Stare at our compulsions and hypocrisies until they can be wrought into instruments that conjure our better selves.

xo, Sweet Joe

 — Samantha Bernstein

Feb 022012
 

It’s a simple story. One made stronger for the particulars: cowboy boots, a Band-aid, or the ice on a boat’s bumper. Though these details are evocative, Ang Lee’s “The Chosen” gets most of its charm from the odd couple at the centre: Clive Owen’s James Bond / Transporter type driver who helps people and the small Dalai Lama-esque boy he has to transport to safety.

In many ways, the sweet simpleness of the dramatic connection between these two characters and the action genre that surrounds them sum up the polarities in Lee’s film career. His early films were melodramas like Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet. Though Taiwanese born and educated, he has made some of the most provocative films about America (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Taking Woodstock) but more recently traversed into the action genre with his remake of Hulk (which he makes reference to in “The Chosen” with the boy’s choice of Band-aid). He is currently working on an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi which should, too, bring together Lee’s various and sometimes contradictory interests.

The contradictory interests mean that Lee makes genre choices his own. Car chases in movies, like sword fights, are for me bathroom breaks or chances to get popcorn. On the odd occasion they’re done well (The Bourne Supremacy) they are almost too stressful to manage. In Lee’s film, the car chase becomes a courtly dance, where cars don’t collide, but almost politely duck in and around one another (while this politeness is, nicely, undermined by the intermittent machine gun fire).

Driving is a the centre of Lee’s film because “The Chosen” is part of the BMW films project “The Hire,” a fascinating collision between the short film genre and the commercial market.

Initially under the purview of David Fincher’s production company, BMW funded a total of 8 short films, each featuring a different well-known director and well-known actors. The directors chosen were John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, Guy Ritchie, Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Woo, Joe Carnahan, and Tony Scott. Each of the films feature Clive Owen as a driver who attempts to help people.

The project came about in 2000 when “BMW had a window of opportunity when it could do something purely for the sake of branding—sans release of a new vehicle—to deliver a unique message in an increasingly crowded luxury/performance car market.” BMW’s market research showed that “Roughly 85% of BMW purchasers used the Internet before purchasing a BMW.” A marketing department without a new product and an interested internet audience then fueled the creation of “The Hire.”

The project was an immense success: “By 2002 BMW sales were up 17 percent, while some of its competitors, such as Volkswagen and General Motors, floundered. By June 2003 more than 45 million people had viewed the films, overshooting the original goal of reaching 2 million viewers. ‘‘The Hire’’ garnered numerous ad industry awards. The campaign’s final spot, ‘‘Beat the Devil,’’ aired November 21, 2002.” — Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Among the other seven films are some great films too. Guy Ritchie’s foray (“Star”) has he and his then wife Madonna making fun of her diva reputation. Wong Kar Wai departs from his  typically melancholic or bittersweet films (see the NC intro to “There’s Only One Sun”) with”The Follow” which has a dark playfulness to it. Most of the films are still available on the web.

–R. W. Gray