Jan 312012


From Douglas Goetsch we have powerful poems of the little world of ordinary people and the delicate filigree of desperate passion that haunts their lives–the woman whose identity seems to lie in her adamant battle against obscure corporate forces hedging existence and a lover who dreams of movie melodrama but can only stifle himself and wait. Goetsch is a newly-minted MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He grew up in Northport, Long Island, taught for years in the New York school system, is the founding editor at Jane Street Press, and has published several poetry collections as well as in immense number of individual poems in many prestigious places including a curious, little known lit mag called The New Yorker.




I was with her, as the list
of stores she’d never set foot in again
lengthened, as she wandered

strip mall parking lots like Lear
in his dwindling of available ports.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit

my weakness to her view
that A&S was a diabolical company,
the very combination of its letters

conjuring recrimination and disgust.
I’d been in the ranks of little soldiers
who jumped the counter and pillaged

customer service, festooning it
with typewriter ribbon and register tape
while she cried, Boys, boys…

fecklessly, like Scarlett O’Hara,
later treating us to sundaes at Carvel—
before boycotting them.

Somewhere in her reading of Ralph Nader
she must have grasped the importance
of summoning the manager,

disheveled little man in bifocals
emerging from his cluttered office
a few steps above the supermarket floor,

his walrus face turning sour
at her ultimatum: sell her
the whole shelf of tomato soup

mislabeled at 2¢ a can, or else
a letter to the Better Business Bureau,
and a picket line of local children—

just ask A&S. This goes out
to the beleaguered store managers
of Suffolk County, Long Island—

after we drove off did you
permit yourself a rolling of the eyes
with your cashiers and stock boys?

Did you go home with extra gratitude
for the wives you’d chosen? And did
you ever think about the child

in the grip of that inconsolable woman,
his hateful eyes peering up at you:
the source of all the world’s problems?





This love makes me think of Cinema Paradiso,
Salvatore standing through the winter
beneath the window of the banker’s daughter
waiting for her heart to thaw; or Benjamin
at the end of The Graduate, screaming
the bride’s name from the back of the church
like a crazed ape, then fending off her family
with the mammoth cross ripped from the wall.
But that kind of thing only works in movies—
in real life I think it’s called stalking.
So while I wait for the life in which you love me
I’ll just admire the trees, standing stoically
all winter, as if they didn’t have veins and pulses,
as if they aren’t gripping the earth for dear life.

—Douglas Goetsch


Douglas Goetsch’s poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Gettysburg Review, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. His newest collection of poems, Nameless Boy, is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Goetsch taught for 21 years in the New York City public school system, then served as artist in residence for two years at the University of Central Oklahoma. Later this spring he’ll be the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Western Kentucky University. He currently serves on the core poetry faculty at the Red Earth low residency MFA program, and is the founding editor of Jane Street Press (janestreet.com/press), which has just published Stephen Dunn’s Falling Backwards into the World.

Jan 302012

“The Orange Bird,” by Gladys Swan, is a sly, knowing, witty, gorgeous story about a so-so painter becoming a true artist. It’s rare in fiction to find a text that conveys the mystery, torture, befuddlement and absolute joy of the moment of transcendence. I think of passages in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, maybe some bits in Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. Gladys Swan, who is herself both a writer and a painter, is very funny, yet very wise. Even her character doesn’t know what’s happening to him or where he’s going. And, as often is the case with an species of grace, art comes to him from a completely unexpected source.

This story is excerpted from Gladys Swan’s new book The Tiger’s Eye: New & Selected Stories, published by Serving House Books. The author photo above was taken by Harlan Mack at the Vermont Studio Center. Gladys is seated on a Harlan Mack work called “The Aftermath”—the photo was taken in Harlan’s studio during an “Open Studio.”



The crate from Spain, long awaited, arrived at the gallery that morning. Mildred was all agog, a kid getting a birthday present, hovering over Mark as he cut the wires and pried up the planks. Carl and Antonia stood by, witnesses of the grand opening. She’d been on pins and needles for months—would the shipment arrive, would Diego come through? This was her baby. She winced as the nails came out, as though Mark might damage something, and it would be hell to pay if he did. He worked loose the lid, took out the packing. A blast of color struck him in the eye. Careful of the baby, he lifted the top canvas and set it up on a chair. The four of them stood back appraising. There it was: a vase of red and yellow flowers like fried eggs, a drape to one side; in the background an amorphous mauve shape next to what could have been a corner of the Alhambra. In front, a lobster, cooked and coral. On the other side, a basket with clusters of grapes spilling out, two apples in the neighborhood, an orange bird behind. As a finishing touch, the surface offered a crackled effect. Breathtakingly awful.

“It’s beyond imagination,” Mildred enthused. “Just look at the color.”

Mark caught Antonia’s eye, but her expression was neutral. “You can certainly see the Spanish touch,” she said. He covered his mouth to avoid some expression of horror, to still the laughter that threatened to double him over. Mildred shot him a glance, dismissed him. If she’d caught his disloyalty, it didn’t matter.

“Well, Diego’s really done me proud,” Mildred said, turning the paintings over to Carl, who did most of the framing. Eleven more lay in the crate, looking as though they’d been cranked out by a machine. “A black frame,” Carl said, “to lock in the color. Or maybe silver.” Carl, expert at measuring and cutting, never had an opinion about anything he was asked to frame. Just so there were no complaints from the customer. Antonia was a different kettle of fish.

“I’m just thrilled,” Mildred said. “It’s so hard to get a still life that’ll go over. People get bored with the same old stuff. I’ve seen too many pumpkins in my time. I’ve got to call the Steens.” She went off to do so at once.

Thrilled. To have hit upon Spanish kitsch instead of the mere domestic species. No doubt offering employment to how many struggling, or maybe not so struggling, Spanish artists.

“Thrilled? She can’t believe that’s art,” Mark said to Antonia after Mildred had left for the bank. It belongs in Wal-mart.”

“Does it matter?” She was a small energetic woman in her fifties, a photographer, who supplemented her income by working part-time in the gallery and by doing weddings. She liked the connection. She and Mildred had been on friendly terms for years. A few prints of her photographs, studies in light and shadow, offering haunting contrasts, hung on the walls, attracting an occasional buyer. To Mark, these were the best work in the gallery. “Believe me, Mildred knows what she’s doing. She’s had to learn the hard way.”

He tried for a title. “‘The Afternoon of the Lobster Quadrille’—how does that grab you?”

“It’s a pretty inert lobster.”

“A more Daliesque approach? ‘The Cornucopia’s Lament.’? ‘Sancho Panza Strikes Again’ or ‘The Persistence of Indigestion’?”

“You haven’t quite caught the essence. It has a certain genius,” Antonia said, cocking her head, as though to capture it more fully. “A genius of badness—that’s hard to come by.”

“I think Mildred’s outdone herself.”

Transcending the typical, the banal, the decorative, this was their bread and butter. Landscapes of houses and trees decked in summer green; seascapes with foam, and sometimes dramatic clouds; the snows of a New England winter—the “yesteryear stuff,” he called it—what would go well in a dining room or over the mantel of a fireplace. Technical skill to the grommet. (”Don’t knock it,” Antonia said. “Considering the way they come out of some of the art schools these days. Can’t draw for shit.”—“I don’t.” he insisted.) Still anybody could have painted them. No character, no signature. Early Motel. Late Professional Building. For the suburban nests of the up and grasping, fine for bank or doctor’s office. It didn’t offend—maybe even convinced people there was a place for art. For artists. For himself—or so he hoped.

He figured he’d hit it lucky when Mildred took him on his first year out of art school. Except for the one or two who’d landed on their feet, who’d somehow gotten connections and were consistently selling their work, most of his buddies had either gone into advertising or some form of computer graphics. A wonderfully talented water colorist was taken on by a greeting-card company. Left to his own devices, he’d managed to cobble together various part-time jobs. For a time, he worked nights in a bakery, after which he threw himself exhausted into bed. Then the gallery job opened up, offering him a glimpse into the art scene and actually allowing him time to paint on his own. For the moment, at least, he felt he was struggling in the right direction. If most of the stuff Mildred sold was nothing he’d ever paint himself, at least he didn’t have to think about it. His work there was varied enough to be interesting: talking to potential buyers, trying to connect them with what they were looking for, whatever it was, or else setting up the shows. These were often the work of artists who combined fabric and flower arrangements, did playful treatments of animals, or water colors of river, lake, and rocky abutment. Occasionally Mildred took in a painter who moved in the direction of abstraction or did something unusual with color. He’d hung a couple of shows that moved toward the pretty good.

So far the only work that genuinely interested him was Antonia’s photographs. When he tried to tell her how good they were, her face reddened, as though he’d discovered a secret that couldn’t bring her any benefit. “I’m very grateful to Mildred,” she’d say, as though her talent was owing to her as well. “She actually has one hanging in her living room.”

Her first years Mildred had taken up young and promising artists and given them shows, even though their work mostly didn’t sell, and more than once she’d been left in the lurch. She hadn’t done that for quite a while, but had subsided into success She had, in fact, hit the jackpot several years back when she’d been the one to handle the contract for the paintings and assorted art objects for a cluster of condominiums going up. A number of artists both in the area and outside had been commissioned to do paintings, even a few sculptures, suitable not only for living and dining rooms, but for bedrooms and hallways. Mildred had made it into a real competition, had worked up a lot of publicity in the papers. Artists had submitted slides for the project, and Mildred had made the selections. They’d filled up the place with beach scenes at sunrise and sunset, flower arrangements, birds in flight. Pinks and peaches, vibrant greens and blues and lavenders going from sultry to misty. The impression apparently, was to make the Midwestern city dweller believe he’d been transported to Florida. “Mildred made a bundle,” Antonia had told him. “Really expanded her collection. You should see that place of hers.”

By all descriptions a real showplace. Expensive woods, stone fireplace. One of the best private art collections she’d seen in the city. Not just prints and ceramics by Matisse and Picasso—the Names—but lithographs by Romare Beardon, paintings by Wayne Thiebault, Alice Neel, Chuck Close, and other notables. Work that took not just money—apparently she had plenty to throw around—but an eye too.

Mildred was a puzzle to him. Her little-kid excitement over the hopelessly bad seesawing with her aim to live with the good stuff. For investment purposes? To show she had class? She knew how to make a buck—you had to give her that. But beyond that? He wanted a way past equivocation, to where their sympathies might join—especially when she said just before the shipment arrived, “Hey, what are you painting these days? I’d like to see your work.”

He was flattered, yet reluctant, at the same time curious to see what her response might be. Actually, he felt pretty good about what he was doing. He hadn’t found an approach that satisfied him; he was still trying to break loose from the school stuff he’d done, mostly abstract expressionist displays with heavy impasto and a lot of surging shapes, work that now struck him as turgid and derivative, whatever praise he might have received. Now he was working into a more figurative mode, trying to use color with more finesse. After a long love affair with the German expressionists, Bonnard had become his idol.

Then she mentioned it again. “When are you going to bring something in? When he did, taking in half a dozen of his recent canvases, Mildred set them up along the wall, regarded them with a critical eye. “You’re working out of the dead stuff,” she told him. “That’s good.” Hardly the enthusiasm that met the Spanish still life, but better than nothing. “Keep moving. Bring some more when you get them done.”

He couldn’t help an occasional fantasy—her giving him a show, inviting him to her house to see her art work . . . . All very unlikely, he told himself.

“Twelve of them,” he said to Antonia. “How in the hell can she sell twelve of those? Impossible.”

“You want to bet on it,” Antonia said, giving a little ironic smile.

“Okay,” he said. “You win, I’ll buy you a beer at Stefanelli’s.”

“If I lose.”

“I’ll buy you a beer anyway.” If he could manage it. Right now he was pressed from all sides—student loans, a car going bad, a nagging weakness in the chest he hadn’t yet taken to a doctor.

She laughed. “You’re on. Only if you win . . . ”

“Trade me one of your photographs for one of my paintings.”

“A deal. You look like you could use some coffee. I’ll make some.” She moved toward the back.

“Thought it was my turn.”

“You can do it next time.”

He was bone tired. He’d stayed up most of the night working on a painting that refused to jell. Tonight he’d take a break, head off to Stefanelli’s and sit around with the old Italian men still in the neighborhood who frequented the place. For some reason he felt more at home with them than with the young guys that hung around. They were no longer trying to prove anything—a relief. Especially if you had everything to prove yourself. It was his only social life, as much as he could afford. As it was, he made barely enough to pay the rent on an apartment in a rundown, blue- collar neighborhood, the living room serving as his studio. He’d rigged up a set of lights so he could work nights after he got home. Usually Mark managed a couple or three hours of painting, but sometimes stayed up till all hours when he really got going. He dared not do it often—he couldn’t risk falling asleep on the job. He lived for his two days off, Sunday and Monday, when he could work uninterruptedly, sleeping late and working all day. He’d lost touch with most of his college friends. When one of them called, he was eager enough to talk on the phone but was vague about future meetings—at least for the time being. To all intents and purposes, he’d gone into hibernation. He had work to do, had to see what was in him.

The first of the Spanish still-lifes sold the next week. It was just what the Steens wanted. He drew a quick sketch of them in the little book he carried in his pocket: a large, hearty woman with graying hair, who wore huge earrings with smiley faces, and her balding mate, who spoke in quick explosive bursts: “Terrific color—light up that north wall come winter, won’t it, hon? Terrific color.”

“I was sure you’d like it,” Mildred said.

Antonia gave him a significant look. Okay, one down. Mildred hung up a second and sold it the same week, this time to a woman who came in with a handsome full-size poodle. The sketches became a series, expanding like a rogues’ gallery. As a preface, he’d written, What do these faces have in common?

After the eleventh had sold, in less than three months, Mark conceded that he owed Antonia a beer. That is, if he could afford it. He’d just gotten his car out of the shop, the eighteen-year-old TransAm he’d taken over from his uncle. Twelve hundred bucks on his credit card, not to mention the interest. The zeros on the bill haunted him. More out of desperation than hope, he decided to ask Mildred if she’d give him a show. His work was taking shape; it had some flashes here and there. If he could sell a few paintings. . . make a small debut. He went back over her responses as though he were counting credits. “Nice color going there.” “The shapes in that one—very organic.” Had anything impressed her?

He approached her at her desk cluttered with catalogs and brochures, the last Spanish still life emphatically occupying the wall just behind. She looked up from a catalog she was examining.

“An exhibit?” he asked.

“Old friend of mine from school,” she said. He drew up to look over her shoulder, while she turned the pages. Mountains, cactus-studded landscapes, horses. Portraits of Hispanics. Nothing new, but genuinely well done. “She’s got something,” he said, leaning forward to read the name. Heather Duncan.

“A lot of talent. She used to do things like you’d see in a dream. I’ve got one in my bedroom. Went out to Santa Fe a few years back. Now they’re selling everything she paints. Yeah,” she said. “She’s finally done it.”

“Some great artists have gone out there to the New Mexico. Such a powerful landscape.”

She didn’t seem to hear him. “All she needs are a few cows’ skulls.”

“You going out for the opening?” he said, feeling some idiotic need to put off what he wanted to ask her.

“Too many things pressing,” she said.

Then she said. “Sit down. There’s something I’ve been thinking about. I just wanted to be sure it was the right moment.”

His heart took a sudden leap, even as the Spanish still life met his eye and the orange bird seemed to stare right through him.

“Can you paint one of these?” she asked him, gesturing toward the painting.

You’ve got to be kidding, he almost blurted out. He was struck dumb. “Nobody’s ever asked me,” he said.

“I’m offering you a chance,” she said. “There are lots of young artists around who could use the money.”

Including himself. “Well, I . . .”

“Of course you can,” she said, suddenly beaming at him. “I know you can—I’ve seen your work. Two hundred apiece,” she said, “plus,” she added indulgently, “an allowance for canvases and paints. I want another twelve of them.”

Enough to get himself out of hock and have a little to float on. Would it be selling his soul? But then, maybe he could actually learn something, improve some of his techniques. Like the apprentices in the old days. The idea was beginning to appeal to him. “I’ll give it a whirl,” he said.

“Good boy,” she said. “I knew you had it in you.”

He spent the next Sunday stretching and gessoing canvases. He’d brought home the still life and hung it up on the wall, where, with the lights on it, it gave off an unholy garish sheen. He planted himself in front of it and tried to figure out the colors. Mix and match. When in doubt, lay on the cadmiums. Orange, red, yellow. After his initial drawing and painting classes, his struggling beginner’s efforts, he hadn’t done any close copying. But he figured he’d go about it the way he’d seen it done in the text books: make a grid, block out the forms, sketch in the details, set up some good background colors. Since this was a production job, he could try laying in the larger areas, moving from one canvas to another. He did the drape, the slab of building, the ambiguous mauve shape, then back to the first, working toward the more challenging objects. The flowers he found monstrously difficult—gaudy, truculent, but somehow elusive, innocent even in their vulgarity. He thought of Mildred. He had to keep the colors clean, pay attention to the parts but not neglect the whole. In its way, it all had to work—flowers, basket, grapes, apples, lobster, bird. As Antonia suggested, there was a certain genius in it. You had to find your way into that, on the terms it demanded. Harder than he thought—more time-consuming than he expected. For when he got through the first, the painting stood inert before his eyes. Still life indeed—nature morte. So what was wrong?

Every night he came home from work and after a quick supper—a sandwich, a can of soup heated up, or a frozen pizza he popped into the oven—he approached the painting with a certain dread, while the rest stood lined up against the wall. For two or three hours he tried to meet it on its own terms. He had to wipe away any trace of a smirk, humble himself; otherwise it wouldn’t yield. Sometimes he wanted to weep with vexation—the damned thing wasn’t worth the effort. Then one night when he’d almost despaired, it all came together. Just like that, as though something had sneaked in when he wasn’t looking. He worked in a frenzy till four in the morning. Then it was finished, sweet Jesus—it was done. He collapsed into bed but couldn’t sleep, fueled awake by a curious sort of excitement, even triumph. When he finally awoke from an exhausted sleep, he had to go immediately to look at the painting. It held, cohered, made a world, out of which the orange bird met his eye with a certain fierce partiality, seemed to follow him around the room, as though he’d somehow claimed it. He couldn’t bear its gaze.

“Perfect,” Mildred said, when he took it in. “Absolutely perfect. Look at this, will you,” she said, calling over Antonia. “I think you’ve even improved on it. Those flowers have a certain subtlety.” She considered. “Maybe with the rest you could give the bird just a few more touches.” He didn’t know whether to laugh or weep.

The subsequent paintings went more quickly. Mildred thought it best that he work from his own copy rather than the original. Let there be a few distinctive touches, so long as the painting had the same impact. He was learning quickly, discovering something from each one. Now that he’d got the colors down, he began to work up a kind of shorthand, laying in some of the areas almost without thinking. He’d got the flowers under control; the grapes had taken on a kind of fullness, as though they might explode into flavor on the palate. The apples, too, more and more appealing, were almost seductive. Now it was the bird that gave him fits. What was it doing there in its orangeness? Was there such a creature? Or a figment of dream caught in a landscape it too found unreal?

Now he painted in his dreams as well as his waking hours, painted endlessly in a kind of Sisyphean labor, so that he was more exhausted when he woke than when he went to sleep. Sometimes he was in an undersea realm, trying to paint a lobster as it disappeared in a mass of undulating bodies and snapping claws. Sometimes he found piles of wormy apples he had to sort through to find the two he needed to paint. And many a night he spent looking for the orange bird, who continually eluded him, at times leaving behind a single glowing feather. The bird challenged him in some uncanny way, and just when he’d given it up, it would appear for an instant, remote and formidable. On one occasion it landed on his shoulder, its voice in his ear, almost a human voice, but so gentle and caressing, it seemed more than human. When he woke, he felt he had gained something of incomparable value, though what he couldn’t have said. When he looked at the painting, the bird confronted him as imperiously as ever, returning only his stare; and could it have uttered a sound, he would have expected a voice harsh as a crow’s. From the finished canvas its eye followed him relentlessly around the room.

He wanted to be rid of its dismaying presence, wanted to be done with the whole ungodly mess. He worked as though under sentence, as though he’d entered a dimension where his dreams were part of the trial. Even as he brought in the canvases one by one, to Mildred’s extravagant praise, he had no sense that he was emerging from his predicament. Then when he brought in the twelfth—they had been selling almost as quickly as he could paint them—she said, “I want a dozen more.”

He broke into a sweat. It’s killing me, he wanted to protest. His mind leapt into consequences and options. She might can him—and anything else he found had the prospect of being worse. “Let me think about it,” he temporized.

“What’s there to think?” she said. “You’ve got it down to a fine science. You don’t have some foolish notion you’re prostituting yourself?” She looked at him in amusement.

What could he say that she’d be willing to hear? That the job had been a stop-gap affair. That he was going stale with the repetition? That he had to give his energy to his own work. “Mildred,” he said, “I’ve done twelve.”

“So you want to bail out, eh? Sick of it—up to the gills with it, eh? Yeah, I’ve seen them, all the little boys and girls who want to do art. Do something original. Burn with a hard gemlike flame—I’ve even given a few of them house room.” She gave a little sniff. “How many go on and do anything worth pissing on? Answer me. One in a thousand, when all’s said and done—maybe one in ten thousand. I know—the rest have their go at it. They paint their little canvases and write their little plays and audition for acting jobs, and scribble out their passionate prose. And you know what? I was among them. Can you feature that? I even won prizes.” For a moment she seemed to dip down into the some memory of herself that brought her to a shrug and a small ironic dismissal.

She looked at him sharply. “And what do you think you’ve got that’s so special? Even if you had the talent, you haven’t got the moxy to . . . ”

“Wait a minute,” he said, blindsided by her attack. What was eating her? “I thought you liked what I was doing.”

“Do you know how many are operating at that level of talent? Dozens. And not a drop more. No, you don’t have it. And if you ever do, it’ll surprise the hell out of both of us.”

“So who the hell are you?”

“I’m trying to do you a favor,” she said. “Save you some grief. Reputations are made in New York,” she said. “How many have got what it takes to hack it there? You may as well paint still lifes. It’ll get you farther than anything else you’ve done.”

It was all he could do to keep from hitting her. Only there was no arguing, no proof to offer. Only the nagging suspicion that she might be right. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll just do that.”

“Twelve more,” she said.

The next week he was fueled by some sort of fever that turned days and nights into one continuous reel of shifting images in his head—all with the intensity of the Spanish still life, but of a reality heightened beyond it. He hardly knew what he was doing. He called in sick, went to bed and slept and sweated for hours. When he woke, wrung out, thirsty beyond belief, he didn’t know day from night. He went to the sink and poured water down his throat until he felt bloated and mopped his face. For a time he sat staring at his hand, as though it were a strange attachment for which he had not yet discovered the use. He felt an overwhelming urge to paint.

He seized a canvas he had primed and set it on the easel. From the wall where the model hung the orange bird hunched as though it were shivering in its feathers. He hardly glanced at it. He could have painted the whole thing from memory. He had grown into habit and laid in the colors he’d used a dozen times before. No sweat. Then as he surveyed the pulsating blobs of color on his palette, he was seized by something equivalent to the fever that had taken him before, and from that point on he painted like a man possessed.

Whatever object he shaped with his brush took on a life its form could hardly contain. From the grapes, a bursting fullness—within each a small universe exploding into being. The apples rolled from their position lethal with temptation as the lobster moved in, straight from the sea, in its claw a wriggling frog with a human face. Beneath his hand, the drape and backdrop turned to rocks and trees, an original garden writhing with copulating human and animal forms. Monkeys swung from the vines. He struggled for order amid the riot of color and movement. Before he collapsed altogether, the eye of the orange bird caught his and wouldn’t release his gaze, as though they had made some sort of pact. It looked ready to take off for some other dimension.

He woke early, for the first time in days breathing easily. It took him a while to remember where he was or to collect any of the pieces of the previous days . He had no idea how long the fever had engulfed him. His head was cool, and he felt as though a sweet breeze was playing around him. He remembered he’d been painting. It was only six, he saw from his watch, of whatever day was dawning. He slipped on his clothes, stepped outside to breathe the air. Then he went back in, turned on the lights and stood in front of the painting. He couldn’t believe it. Someone else had painted it, not himself at all—taking inspiration from some source that lay beyond him. Well, he thought. Well. For all its madcap flourishes, it seemed more real than anything he’d painted before.

When Mildred arrived at the gallery, he was ready for her. As she walked in the door, he stood naked but for a hastily devised loin cloth, his hair matted and falling into his face—holding up the painting.

It required a moment for her to take him in. “What is this, some kind of joke? Look, I’ve got things to do. Are you out of your mind or what?”

“Number thirteen,” he said. “The lucky number.” He danced around the room with it. “I changed a few things.”

Suddenly there were monkeys everywhere, cavorting through the gallery hanging from the fixtures, crapping on the floor, monkeys somersaulting, hanging by their tails. The orange bird had risen from immobility and was flapping around the room. He saw in the middle Mildred’s face forming The Scream, best painted by Munch, the clock melting down the wall, courtesy of Dali, the chair she stood in front of suddenly grabbing her and closing around her ankles, thanks to Remedios Varo. The copulating figures tumbled through the gallery, while the red and yellow flowers grew gigantic as cabbages. “Get out, get out,” she yelled at him. Naked through the gallery he streaked, blowing her a kiss. Naked into the alley, monkeys clamoring around him.

—Gladys Swan


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, and others. Her paintings have been used for the covers of three of her books and for those of other writers and literary magazines.

She has received a Lilly Endowment Open Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship to Yugoslavia, as well as a Lawrence Foundation Award for fiction and a Tate Prize for poetry.

Jan 272012



This was only a few years back, snow fell and fell and blinding winds heaped huge drifts around my old house and at night it seemed some furious kingdom of darkness had descended on us, our sedate world overtaken and altered permanently.

The problem is that our old-timer team has a hockey game, a game miles away in a country arena.  Do we go out on a night like this?  The few vehicles visible are spaced out in hesitant convoys, roads looking terrible and blurry and the ditch beckons.

Coach phones with the word, the game is on and he will pick me up at the usual time.  We may be the only old timer team with a coach.

We drive back-roads and loopy hills and hollows where sawmills once buzzed beside rivers and now the mills are gone.  Coach is a good driver and we make it to the old sheet-metal arena that smells of chicken fries and our goalie’s Tiger Balm and, a bonus, we win the game and, another bonus, Darcy invites us afterward to his garage, to his iron stove and beer and deer sausage sizzling.  He played pro for Montreal and Ottawa and has some good stories.  He played pro, but we are bringing him down to our level.  We stay up late and devour all of his victuals as the storm rages.

Continue reading »

Jan 262012


The title first drew me to Alicia Duffy’s “The Most Beautiful Man in the World.” It reminded me of the title to one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” Obviously I have a predilection for superlatives, but that’s where the similarities in the stories end.

What draws me back to this short film time and again is its simplicity. Duffy’s short film is breath-catchingly unnerving. The film follows a young girl through one of those disturbingly familiar, oppressively boring, days of summer. The TV’s desperate pleas for attention, the mother’s phone chatter in the background, even the dog’s endless panting, all draw attention to this young girl’s isolation and loneliness. But she remains unattended and ignored.

It’s a simple film, almost entirely visually told, with only one overt line of dialogue: “That’s my dog.” Nothing significant happens. No confrontations, no abuse. But it ripples and thrums with threat. And, as wrong as it is, it contains the possibility that the tedium and boredom of this day might end, that someone might pay attention to her.

It’s a small plot, the film turning full circle back to the living room floor, the dog, the blare of the inattentive television. It might seem like nothing has changed, except for one thing: it’s a tiny shot, the flash back to the field with the man standing shirtless in the tall grass, but it’s all we need to know that however inappropriate, the attention she received in the field has cut through the boredom, the malaise of the endless summer day.

Duffy went on to make a feature film in 2010, All Good Children:

“After the death of their mother, Irish youngsters Dara and Eoin are moved to France to stay with their aunt. There, the boys befriend a local English family and the impressionable Dara falls under the spell of their young daughter Bella. But when she begins to pull away, Dara’s feelings for her start to get out of hand.” —imdb

— R. W. Gray


Jan 252012

Adeena Karasick is a one-woman semantic explosion. She writes in the spirit of verbal play and experiment and RIOT out of Gertrude Stein and bpNichol, among others (spoken word, rap, Black Mountain). And how can you NOT like a poem that admits its own “unraveling” and bills itself as an “asterisk taker” and contains lines like “oh, just lick its/ ideological infrastructure” and dances between contemporary cultural filigree and theoretical/philosophical references (“ontic gap”)? See below, a video of Adeena reading from the beginning of the poem. The images scattered through the poem were made in collaboration with Blaine Speigel. The whole poem, called “This Poem,” will be published as a book this fall by the great and storied Vancouver publisher Talonbooks.

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. All her work is marked with an urban, Jewish, feminist aesthetic that continually challenges linguistic habits and normative modes of meaning production. Engaged with the art of combination and turbulence of thought, it is a testament to the creative and regenerative power of language and its infinite possibilities for pushing meaning to the limits of its semantic boundaries.

Her writing has been described as “electricity in language” (Nicole Brossard), “plural, cascading, exuberant in its cross-fertilization of punning and knowing, theatre and theory” (Charles Bernstein) “a tour de force of linguistic doublespeak” (Globe and Mail) and “opens up the possibilities of reading” (Vancouver Courier).  She is Professor of Global Literature at St. John’s University in New York.

Composed in the style of Facebook updates or extended tweets, This Poem is an ironic investigation of contemporary culture and the technomediatic saturated world we’re enmeshed in. Mashing up the lexicons of Gertrude Stein, Loius Zukofsky, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, the contemporary financial meltdown, semiotic theory, Lady Gaga, Jacques Derrida and Flickr streams, “This Poem” a self-reflexive romp through the shards, fragments of post-consumerist culture. Both celebrating and poking fun at contradictory trends, threads, webbed networks of information and desire, and the language of the ‘ordinary”, it opens itself with rawness and immediacy to the otherness of daily carnage.

A deeply satiric archive of fragments, updates, analysis, aggregates, treatise, advice, precepts, echoes, questions, erupting in a voluminous luminous text of concomitance. divergence, dis/integration and desire.

A serial poem that textually proceeds in the tradition of such poets as George Oppen, bpNichol,  Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer committed to the shape of a life lived with the lyric irony of textuality; taking on the search for definition punctuated with strong incursions of eros, pleasure, terror and social networking. —AK


This Poem

By Adeena Karasick


Part II


And in the rapturous apertures
of perspicacity (purse capacity),

of its bootstrap boobietrap of ear-tickling
hyper-inflated speculative frenzy

This Poem just wants a “happy ending”

like a ring-a-ding swinger
foursquare tech ticker, fecund licker

elbowing its way through a persnickety
kwik-pic sticky dictic,

and wants to lick you immeasurably,
your vesicles and crevasses, lick the lips of your
pixilated proxy, paroxysms of purring tragedy

wants you to smack it
up against its inky-vexed lexis,
mixological excess, slide down
its rumpy pumpy amped-up optates,
jacked clad cock of the walk ecto-flecked vectors


Continue reading »

Jan 242012



In the fall of 1993, I went to Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky on a college class trip. We barely knew each other: young design students immersing ourselves in the nuance of the landscape for a week or so. This was the first of what would be four years of design studios together; the first overnights of a fall tradition that continues to this day. Yes, we still reconvene, now with families in tow, every year in the fall, to reminisce about college and time since, to talk about our careers, some of which have remained firmly anchored in design, some of which have transformed over the years.

The trip included a single overnight expedition (that’s perhaps too grand a term for it) down into one of the deep river-cut valleys that lace that part of Kentucky. We set off in the morning mist on a flat trail, which soon began to descend beneath the plateau. It got cooler as we dropped into the valley and soon we could hear the limpid trickle of the fall-docile creek.

You know what this essay is about, since you’ve presumably read the title, and if you know anything about Wendell Berry, you know where this is going. These wooded cuts are his place.

Finally from the crease of the ravine I am following there begins to come the trickling and splashing of water.  There is a great restfulness in the sounds these small streams make; they are going down as fast as they can, but their sounds seem leisurely and idle, as if produced like gemstones with the greatest patience and care.

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Jan 232012

Okay—I think if you cross Aristophanes with Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco, you might end up with something like Lynn Coady’s irreverent fringe play Mark. Or, if you cross tag-team wrestling with the Battle of the Sexes—the play actually has a club called the “slap-stick” and a very large phallus. Mark is a delight and a lovely addition to Numéro Cinq‘s growing collection of plays and screenplays, a section of the magazine that is unique as far as I can tell.

Lynn Coady‘s is an amazing novelist, also deservedly popular. Her fiction has been garnering acclaim since her first novel, Strange Heaven, was published and was nominated for the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction when she was 28. Strange Heaven was followed up by a best-selling short story collection, Play the Monster Blind (2000) as well as the award-winning novels Saints of Big Harbour (2002) and Mean Boy 2006). Lynn Coady grew up on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia and now lives in Edmonton. Her most recent novel is The Antagonist, which was short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize. Mark will be published with another of Lynn’s one-act plays called Skydiving by Scirocco Drama later this year. Mark ran at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in the summer of 2009 in a production directed by Rob Appleford. The photographs herein are rehearsal photos from that production.




By Lynn Coady






One JUDGE, hooded


Actors: Bradley Bishop & Tom Blazejewicz



Two large plinth-boxes, DSL and DSR, two stools DSR, one stool UCS with two GONGS on either side, with a single MALLET and a SLAP-STICK on either side of the stool.

The DRUMMER enters with DRUM: louche, Upper East Side, too cool to be in this play. He ambles to a DSR stools and sets up


Enter Two WOMEN from SR, one bearing BASKET: they are dressed in canvas shifts tied at the waist with a rope. High Energy! Rite-of-Springy pirouettes! Rose petals! Prom dance excitement! They settle at the DSL plinth-box.


Enter Two MEN, from SL, one bearing BASKET: they are dressed in canvas jockstraps tied to a rope around their waists, with canvas sweatbands around their heads. Macho strut! WWF Smackdown! Calisthenics! Dynamic Tension Stretches! High Fives! They set up at the DSR plinth-box.


Enter JUDGE, hobbling on the supporting arm of the ATTENDANT. The JUDGE is slowly led to the UCS stool. The ATTENDANT puts the MALLET in the JUDGE’S palsied hand and picks up the SLAP-STICK.  The ATTENDANT wears a silver WHISTLE around his neck.

The JUDGE bangs the DSL GONG (henceforth known as the WOMEN’S GONG) ONCE.

The WOMEN pull out a GARLAND from their BASKET which is placed on the head of BELINDA.

Much girlish excitement.

The JUDGE bangs the DSR GONG (henceforth known as the MEN’S GONG) ONCE.

The MEN pull out a large PHALLUS with a hook on the base from their BASKET.  DEXTER  hooks the PHALLUS on his belt. Much macho celebration and admiration of length/width/tumescence.

The ATTENDANT cuts the frivolity short with a loud THWACK of the SLAP-STICK on his open palm.

Both teams get ready to rumble. BATTLE FARFARE from the DRUMMER..

Another THWACK! FANFARE stops.

BELINDA and DEXTER approach each other CS and begin to circle each other menacingly in a clockwise direction, looking for an opening.

Continue reading »

Jan 232012


Here’s a brand new “What it’s like living here” essay from Liam Volke in Victoria, British Columbia. (He’s Gabrielle Volke’s brother—staunch readers will remember her lovely interview with dg, published in October, 2010, at NC.) Liam is freshly graduated from the University of Victoria’s Theatre program with a BFA in Acting. He lives and acts and writes poetry in Victoria. His poetry has been published in the CBC Poetry Anthology, 2007. He blogs at The Tower of Babble.



What It’s Like Living Here

from Liam Volke in Victoria, British Columbia


University of Victoria


In Victoria, among the aged flower children and retired English folk, a river of young blood surges through its heart and pools around a green ring.

In your first year as a student, life was wrapped within and around the Ring Road of the university campus. You saw maple leaves for the first time. You tasted independence: in Rez, with other under-aged drinkers. You lost your first love. Here is where you thought you’d reinvent yourself.

The classes for your Acting major are all in the Fine Arts section of the campus, a modest trio of white, brown and grey brick buildings facing a paved circular courtyard with a single evergreen in the centre. This section seems quarantined from the rest, placed outside the Ring (inside is the stronghold of Sciences and Humanities). “Theatre? We have a theatre?!” they say. We’re a big deal abroad, you tell yourself.

Most of the trees here keep their leaves, so at first you suspected you were in paradise. The rain was a welcome change from the snow that browns and greys with the dust and gravel of hometown Calgary. You told yourself you would always love the rain. You told yourself a lot of things.

Continue reading »

Jan 202012


The Parkinson’s Diaries

By Steven Axelrod



Leaving the Breakers: Escape from Assisted Living


My mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease ten years ago. Still ambulatory in her late eighties, she was now living in a retirement community in Long Beach, California, on the fifth floor of a beautifully restored hotel from the golden era of Hollywood called The Breakers. The ceiling of the lobby floated twenty feet above the marble floor, with intricately worked plaster panels that put the tin ceilings of Greenwich Village cafes to shame. The peaked red tile of its roofs and turrets lent it a Mission revival feeling, and the top floor restaurant, the Sky Room, earned its name with a spectacular panorama of the harbor, while retaining  a heady whisper of old time movie glamour. The staff was charming and helpful, the suites themselves were spacious and sunny, sparked with period detail in the moldings and baseboards, with high ceilings and water views. The dining room was spacious and congenial, the other residents friendly and patient. You couldn’t ask for a more pleasant and professional assisted living arrangement.

And I hated it, with every fiber of my being.

I hated the way the impeccably courteous, and hard-working staff treated my mother and the other residents as a separate, feeble race, inferior but privileged like hemophiliac dwarf royalty, simultaneously catered to and patronized, deferred to and dismissed. I hated the smell in the hallways, some tragic perfume of disinfectant and decay – the sense, so much like the sense you get in a hospital, of a world where human volition and dignity have been sacrificed to the mechanisms of medical technology and routine.

I also hated the dining hall food, tasteless and generic as if the management actually calibrated how many of the residents had no working taste-buds left and arranged the meal preparations accordingly. I hated the weak coffee and the fuzzy sausages, and the cardboard pancakes, the sense that the particular texture of life, the look and feel and taste of things, didn’t really matter any more.

Continue reading »

Jan 192012


Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis” tells the story of a moment of confusion between two lovers, Francine and Thomas (played by Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon) where, briefly, the man thinks things are over and the relationship flashes before his eyes. The voice-over addresses the beloved in the second person, a love letter the audience intercepts, and the breathless montage recounts the varied history of these two lovers. It’s a love story of all the small moments, the screams, the tears, the laughs, the repetition of days.

It’s an excessive discourse that recalls other excessive expressions of passion: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. And yet, in its passion and direct address, its lovely claustrophobia, maybe more accurately Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses.

The film is intimate, excessive, and yet made up of an abundance of small moments that on their own might be insignificant. It’s the repetition of these small moments that makes up the pattern of the couple’s days, the accumulation of memories that shapes the intimacy here. As their history flashes by, the repetitions layer like a palimpsest, the images becoming part of a larger passionate body. “I see you,” says Thomas at the end of the film, as though this were only possible through the crisis and remembering he has just experienced.

Such passionate expression requires a talented hand. It’s difficult to distill so much dramatic history down into a short film without lapsing into melodrama or without drama turning into comedy. Tykwer seems to meta-comment on this here with the film within the film, the cheesy pimp and prostitute story that Francine stars in. When she calls Thomas back to figure out why he hung up, Francine asks him, “How are you supposed to say [it]  . . . without sounding completely melodramatic?”

Their story avoids melodrama through montage and the pure adrenalin of the piece. This is in a sense the polar opposite of the Wong Kar Wai offering a few weeks ago: where Wong lingers and hangs all granite gravity on an image in slow motion, Tykwer races past images like a water slide of vodka.

“Faubourg Saint-Denis” is one of the eighteen short films featured in Paris, je t’aime, an anthology of short films by several significant directors, each set in a different arrondissement of Paris. Other directors in the project include Gus Van Sant, Richard LaGravenese, The Cohen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alexander Payne.

Tykwer has masterly told passionate tales before, matching star-struck and tortured romances with a sort of fairy tale sensibility: the questions of fate, free will and running in Run Lola Run; the innocence and violence of The Princess and the Warrior; the dark, damaged passion of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Tykwer, with The Matrix’s Wachowskis,  is adapting and directing David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas for the big screen (it’s listed as currently in post production).

—R. W. Gray


Jan 182012

In this brief, trenchant memoir, Jean-Marie Saporito combines four elements—an ancient native religious rite, a fatal shooting, a mink coat, and a cowboy—and contrives a haunting and mysterious effect in a style as terse as Hemingway. Jean-Marie is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she received her MFA. She lives in Taos, New Mexico. She wrote, “If you want, you can add to my bio that I’m dating a cowboy. You know what a cowboy is? A man who can handle cows — ride, rope, herd. I’m learning a lot.”



Letter from Taos: Too Horrible, Too Beautiful

By Jean-Marie Saporito


On Christmas Eve, The Procession of the Virgin, a Tiwa tradition, takes place at the Pueblo. After Vespers in the San Geronimo Church, The Virgin, a statue with dark hair and Indian looking features, is paraded through the Pueblo’s plaza, amidst firing rifles (real bullets) and two-story high bonfires. I attended Vespers and then the spirit moved me to follow the Natives out of the Church, and join in the procession. Yes, I was wearing my mink coat. I sang what must have been prayers, along with the Tiwa choir. Hundreds of people from Taos, along with tourists, gathered to witness the procession, the massive bonfires, the drums and singing.

Several hours later, early Christmas morning, my son’s friend, the drummer in their teen-age band, shot and killed another boy. I say boy — the dead boy was 21, and Charles is 19. Charles will be tried as an adult. The cause of the shooting was a girl. When my son got the call or more likely the text from one of his friends, I was skiing at our ski valley with my cowboy lover, whose kisses I was avoiding, because of his entanglement with another woman.

Continue reading »

Jan 172012

We all know the excitement of discovering a hitherto unknown (to us) writer “who dazzles and beguiles.” This happened to Halifax author Ian Colford when he read Jesus Hardwell’s story collection Easy Living. But instead of just looking Hardwell up on the web and leaving it at that, Ian went after the man, tracked him down and interviewed him and wrote this beguiling profile/review/interview (dare I add: detective story). Would that we could all have this level of response to a book.


My Search for Jesus Hardwell

By Ian Colford



It is a still mid-morning, the ides of July, and hot as Hades.  Detective weather, I tell myself, craving a beer. I reconnoiter. There’s not much to see. The house is ordinary: a modest bungalow on a tidy corner lot in a residential section of Guelph, Ontario.  The lawn is healthy, the shrubbery tended with a meticulous hand.  Not a blind pig in sight, not even a hooker.  In other words, not what I expected.  I know, William Burroughs wore a three-piece suit; but this grass looks vacuumed.  Where’s the topiary?  I’m half relieved, half disappointed.

What am I doing here?

It started with a book.

Continue reading »

Jan 162012


Robert Vivian is a good friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a Nebraska native, and a former baseball player (a fact that I find endlessly fascinating—Nebraska and baseball: some echo of the American epic in those words). He is a prolific writer of superb meditative essays and a fine novelist, also a playwright and poet. Of the second novel in his The Tall Grass Trilogy, I wrote: “Robert Vivian’s Lamb Bright Saviors is a brave and profoundly moving novel of faith and forgiveness. A closely-observed novel of voices, it speaks the tongues of America’s impoverished underbelly and reveals, amid the squalor, mystery, goodness and salvation.” Robert Vivian teaches at Alma College in Michigan. He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy (The Mover Of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom) and the essay collections Cold Snap As Yearning and The Least Cricket Of Evening. His next novel, Water And Abandon, will be out this fall.



A Few Thoughts On The Meditative Essay

By Robert Vivian


The meditative essay hinges on stillness, on a moment delicately teased out of the cogs of time to live in the timeless present: it is not interested much in opinions or even ideas, preferring instead to live in the realm of pondering and contemplation (though the aforementioned may be used as initiating sparks). Its primary focus is not the self, though it uses the self and all that it has to give as a kind of booster rocket that, once the prose reaches certain insights, is jettisoned or spent, much like shuttles that are launched into outer space as we see those burning hoops fall back into the pearly clouds after they have done their proper work of achieving escape velocity. The meditative essay is comfortable and downright friendly with paradox and has no real axe to grind: it’s too intent on paying attention to what bids it keenest focus and delight, be it a button, a homeless woman, the changing of the seasons, or the prevalence of roadkill in a certain area. It is not concerned with hierarchy or competition or anything that goes by the name of ambition or force and draws attention to itself only for the music of its cadences and what these cadences reveal, which are very often surprising to its practitioners, so much so that this same quality of surprise is the meditative essay’s own intrinsic and unshatterable reward.

It lives most abundantly—thank goodness—in what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “post-critical naïveté”—a term he coined that, according to Thomas Berry in his forward to Thomas Merton’s lovely book When The Trees Say Nothing, “brings together the response of both innocence and experience as we pass through the unfolding events of these times.” But the meditative essay is also a very elusive creature, as elusive as anything, perhaps, in any genre. Why is it elusive, and what do I mean here by elusive? Because the meditative essay cannot be willed or forced and certainly not argued into existence; it comes, like Keats says about writing good poems, like leaves to a tree—that is, the meditative essay comes organically, holistically, though of course not without the patient practice and observance of its creator. More than anything, the meditative essay is like a shy wild animal that will bolt at the slightest sign of undue ego or aggression, though it may occasionally use tiny bits of these to furnish its lair. When the meditative essay is fully and truly itself, we know its author so intimately that we swap souls with her or him: it is a consummately intimate form of exchange, as tender as a confiding lover propped up on his or her elbow in bed after lovemaking. Fear is not in its nature, nor is blame or accusation; indeed, intimacy may be its single-most distinguishing characteristic, the way it takes us into the heart, mind and soul of its author.

Continue reading »

Jan 152012

Poems from Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Micrograms

Translated by Joshua Beckman and Alejandro de Acosta


Newly released from Wave Books, Micrograms, by the Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade, pays meta-homage to the brief yet visceral impact of the microgram. Featuring a meditative body of short works translated by Joshua Beckman and Alejandro de Acosta, the collection also includes Andrade’s hermeneutical “Genealogy” of the microgram that serves as a primer to the form while simultaneously providing a substantive look at Andrade’s innately philosophical consciousness. In Andrade’s words, “The microgram is but the Spanish epigram deprived of its subjective hue. Better: an essentially graphical, pictorial epigram. Through its discovery of the deep reality of the object (its secret attitude) it arrives at a refined emotional style.”

As we learn in the translators’ introduction, Andrade was a world traveler who believed in a universal human solidarity that transcended borders and united him to all men. Evidenced in his introduction and his poetry, Andrade was also a tireless observer of the natural world who remained committed to illuminating the metaphysical through an examination of the miniscule. Micrograms, with Zen-like clarity, offers earthly, object-centric writing that informs our perceptions and emotions with refreshing brevity.

Jorge Carrera Andrade (1902-1978) was born in Quito, Ecuador, and was a diplomat as well as a poet, essayist and journalist. His distinguished literary career comprises a wide range of work, including editing, translation, criticism, and poetry. William Carlos Williams described Carrera Andrade’s images as “so extraordinarily clear, so connected to the primitive I imagine I am … participating in a vision already lost to the world.”

I have included a sampling of Andrade’s poems below along with one of the translators’ reinterpretation of Andrade’s Japanese to Spanish translation of Basho.

Martin Balgach


tiny measuring tape
with which God measures the field.

  Continue reading »

Jan 132012

Anthony Doerr

In his 2007 memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, American writer Anthony Doerr describes his desire to see snow falling through the oculus of the Pantheon. “If it ever begins to snow, we should run to the Pantheon, because to see snowflakes drifting through the hole at the top of the dome is to change your life forever.” At the time, Doerr is living in Rome with his wife and twin boys after winning the Rome Prize, a prestigious award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. The Academy has provided him with a fully funded year in Rome, a studio, a place in a community of artists, and uninterrupted time to write, travel, read and think. Winter passes without snow and spring arrives in Italy. Doerr’s wife, Shauna, comforts him over the missed opportunity: “Sometimes, she says, the things we don’t see are more beautiful than anything else.”

Those of who have had the good privilege to read Anthony Doerr are fortunate.  Through his words, we have, indeed, seen the snow falling through the ancient dome. Crackling with beauty, intelligence, lyrical prose, heartbreaking characters and a rarefied wisdom, Doerr’s work challenges many of the basic traditions of contemporary fiction. His short stories often run unusually long, brushing up against such uneasy labels as novella. He writes about characters from other cultures, other races, other genders. His prose is dense, filled with science and history and more than an ample supply of the magical powders that make good fiction fly off the page. A reader might find herself in the Liberian civil war, on Caribbean beaches, inside memory (literal memory) stored on a computer disc. But it hardly matters. I’ve yet to begin a sentence of his and find myself disappointed.

I reach Doerr in December of 2011. Like in much of the nation, winter has yet to arrive to the Boise foothills. An uneasy tension seems to hang over the unusually dry, warm season. It is raining and chilly here in San Diego, where I am. We talk about the weather, about raising children, about Santa Claus and about trying to keep kids believing in magic and fat guys delivering gifts through chimneys without directly lying to those we love.

The fact that such an accomplished writer can be such a nice damned guy is very reassuring. Doerr retains the humility of a seeker, of a fellow traveler on the road to discovery, even if he is light years further down the path.

Doerr’s describes his process of writing this way (from Four Seasons In Rome): “…A story—a finished piece of writing—is for its reader; it should help its reader refine, perceive, and process the world—the one particular world of the story, which is an invention, a dream. A writer manufactures a dream. And each draft should present a version of that dream that is more precisely rendered and more consistently sustained than the last.”

Anthony Doerr’s short fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the 2010 Story Prize. His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell (RF):   The Paris Review once asked John Gardner this question: How do you name your characters? Is this something you think about as you write?

Anthony Doerr (AD): Names comes to me primarily through research. I’ve found last names on a gravestone and written on the back of a photograph and in the works cited at the end of a scientific paper.  And I’ve found first names in the fiction of other writers or overheard them in conversations.  For my short story “Village 113,” for example, I was reading lots of dry U.N. reports about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, and whenever they would mention an engineer’s name, I would scribble it down. So for Li Qing I ended up simply mixing together two different names.

Right now, I’m writing a novel set in France and Germany during World War II, and am reading, among other things, a book called Voices From the Third Reich.  I’ll pull Uwe from Uwe Köster, who lived through the Hamburg firebombings as a young messenger, and Kühn from Klaus Kühn, who was Hitler Youth flak auxiliary during those same raids—and suddenly I have Uwe Kühn, a new person with at least a remotely plausible name.

That’s got to be a pretty common technique, don’t you think?  Once you have a name and you start spending months with a character, he or she begins to embody the name.  It starts to feel right; it starts to feel as though the character could never have been called anything else.  Like a child, probably.

RF: Can you talk about your earliest influences? Perhaps even the influences before you became a writer, such as the things that drew you toward reading?

AD: Sure. My earliest influence was maybe C.S. Lewis.?  I remember my mother reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me and my brothers; I was probably eight.  And I remember asking her: “How did they make this book?  How did they invent Narnia?”  And she’d always say, “It was just one person who wrote these books.  And he’s dead now.”

Dead!  What?  Dead people could tell stories that still held power over the living?  I had always had a sense that books were like oranges on a tree, that they pre-existed in the world, and humans came along and plucked them.  But now my mother was saying people made them.  One person, one book at a time.  That was a revelation: One weird old guy could use language, the cheapest of materials, and conjure whole worlds with it?  Then he could die and those worlds could still hold sway?

My childhood was very immersive. Very imaginary. I was making up pretty complicated narratives with my toys.  Sometimes I’d write them down. My brothers were older than I was, often doing things without me, and so I learned to make up stories about my Lego guy or G.I. Joe or whatever, and that was probably good training to be a fiction writer.

My kids are seven now, and because they are twins, they very rarely play alone.  Sometimes I worry about that; I feel like one of the best parenting strategies my mother had was to trust me to play by myself with my little toys out in the woods for hours.

I had the usual influences too, like writing for the high school newspaper. I was a history major in college,  and wrote a silly column with a friend for the college paper.  But I always had my eye on the English department. I would write long, lousy stories in notebooks about avalanches and keg parties and dogs that walked across Alaska and show them to nobody.  It felt precocious and impertinent to say to my parents, “I want to be a writer.”  It was hard to even say that to myself.  But that’s what I wanted to do.

RF: You’ve been described by other writers as being ‘scary smart’.  (I’m not naming names!)  How do you balance the intellectual side of writing with the more artistic/emotional parts?

AD: (Laughs) I don’t feel very smart sometimes.  I can feel like a failure all day long. Sometimes writing is like baseball, where you can hit .300 and be considered a good hitter.  What I mean is that I feel lucky if 30% of my sentences end up working out, if 30% of my ideas wind up turning into finished projects, if 30% of my hours can be productive.

When I read, I try to learn as much as I can.  Sure, I also read to escape, to enter other lives, but I also read to learn, and I don’t mean just to learn about extrasolar planets or conditions on slave ships. I mean to learn about the experiences of other people in other years, other eras, other climates.  A book like Moby Dick, for example, is so formally risky because Melville has no problem disrupting his narrative momentum and cramming in whole chapters about the history and techniques of whaling.  Often my students resist those chapters, but I love them: they have that classic duality of good writing: that it both teaches and entertains.

For me, writing fiction is often an excuse to explore curiosities. I get curious about venomous snails or hibernating ladybugs or the construction of dams or orphans during WWII; then I try to pull that information into a human story.

This is probably where I fail the most. I get carried away by the science sometimes, the information, the cool historical stuff, the wonders of the world, and I tend to lose sight of why a reader, in her guts, wants to turn the page: because she wants to learn what will happen next.

RF: I’m thinking of Steven Millhauser. He does this kind of writing, lots of cool, weird facts.  Do you read him?

AD: Oh sure. I haven’t read him much since I was in grad school, but he’s great. I love when he’ll make a story spiral in on itself, building all these crazy, whimsical details until he’s lost sight of narrative altogether, and is just building tiny boxes within tinier boxes.  Love that stuff.

I think of Calvino, too. He’s a writer who sometimes subverts narrative for the sheer glory of invention, playfulness, whimsy.  He was a very important writer to me when I was trying to figure out how to translate my own interests to the page because he seemed to say: yes you can be silly, you could love science and fables at the same time, you can be an intellectual but you can also tell stories.

RF: In “The Caretaker,” which is one of my all-time favorite stories, you build a long story with a very unusual structure.  There are so many distinct parts to it, so many disruptions. You have the Liberian civil war and the long trip to Oregon, the time with the family, the whale hearts, the garden, the survivalist section. I’ve noticed a lot of your stories tend this way.  More than most writers, you blur the line between the short story and the novella.  Sometimes, your work is almost indistinguishably close. Why do you write such long stories? Do you plan it out consciously or does it arise from the inner workings of the story itself.

AD: The latter. They just turn out that way. I probably do too much writing in my stories. Even for shorter stories that I do, I’m writing around a hundred pages, spiraling out long paragraphs that eventually get cut or severely trimmed.  It takes time to learn how much you can get away with not saying. Once you understand what the reader needs to make sense of the story, a lot of the choreography–the “Then they got out of the car and walked up the sidewalk and turned the doorknob and went into the kitchen”—can go.

But the material has to determine the structure.  Take “The Caretaker.” I felt like that section of the journey from Liberia to Oregon could have been a lot longer, and I wondered if the reader would forgive me the shortcuts I had to take, that I basically teleported Joseph to Oregon from Liberia.

One of the things I like to do is to open up spatial tensions in my work. Liberia versus Oregon in “The Caretaker,” for example, or the tension between the palace Joseph is caretaking and his subsistence in the woods around the property.  I played with it a lot in About Grace, in the way I use Alaska and the Caribbean.  The dialectic of those things interest me.  Place a character far away from home and immediately there’s longing implicit in her story.

But it’s not planned that way. I can’t just sit down and write a 9,000 word story for a magazine for $500.  It’s seven months of my life, and  I never quite know how long it will be or what structure it will take.  I guess I could say that I’m drawn to certain lengths, both in reading and writing.  I’m not a big reader of short-short stories, for example, and I agree with Poe who said that undue brevity can fail a reader.  Here’s Poe: “A poem too brief may produce a vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity of effort–without a certain duration or repetition of purpose–the soul is never deeply moved. There must be the dropping of the water upon the rock.”  I feel like, in a short story, I’m not dropping water on the rock unless I’m pushing past some sort of moveable threshold: maybe 3,000 words?  You need time to establish a certain level of repetition, to establish a pattern, and then deviate from it.

RF: In the epigraph of Memory Wall, Luis Buñuel says “Life without memory is no life at all.”  Clearly all of these stories deal with memory, many of them, like the title story, deal with it overtly. But so much of a character’s memory must happen off the page.  How do you go about creating memories for your characters?  Are you ruminating a long time before a character gets on the page or are you writing drafts and finding the memories that way?

AD: The latter.  Characters are made and at the start of their lives they are lumpy and soft pieces of clay.  I form them through trial and error.   I ask myself: what could her life be if this happened in her past?  Should I invent a situation in her past that made her how she is now?  And do I need to present that in scene or summary to my reader?  But you can paralyze yourself with too much of this.  So often, the situation in a story will present the need for a memory, and then you spend a couple days inventing the memory.  And then, more often than not, you realize you don’t need to include it at all.

What I love about reading a short story is that a writer can spend days and weeks and months ruminating on her characters and their places and problems.  Maybe she spends years on it, honing them, trying to invent their pasts, guess at their futures. So a writer spends a year of her life on something and a reader gets to drink it down in an hour or two.  That’s a great gift of concentrated time, the ultimate milkshake.

RF: You were quite successful while still a relatively young writer.  Did you pass through a period of bad writing?  If so, when was it?

AD:  Writing can always be changed, improved, deepened, sharpened; that’s the beauty of what we do.    So when I was first starting out, I don’t know if I was in a period of bad writing; it was more like I just didn’t yet know how to get my writing ready for a stranger to read it.  In the beginning of a person’s attempts to write books, it’s more about learning to recognize what’s weak, what’s relying on false truths, what’s cliche, and repairing it before asking someone to be generous enough to read it.

RF: Another quirk of what I might call Anthony Doerr’s writing style is that you inhabit characters that are wildly different than you are.  I assume from your author photos that you are a white, male American writer, yet your stories are filled with Liberian refugees, Chinese villagers, South African men and women, teenage girls, blind shell collectors.  How did you learn to give yourself permission to be so versatile?

AD: When I get that question I usually ask myself why I read.  I read to enter the life of someone else, to leave myself and enter other selves.  I read to feel less alone–David Foster Wallace said something like that.  So I believe that the human experience can be communicated, can be shared.  I can go read Madame Bovary and in a couple of paragraphs I get to become a randy housewife in 1856.  That’s a miracle, isn’t it?

So I think that some human commonalities are shared. Things like loss, heartbreak, love.  These things happen everywhere. They happen in Iran, Vietnam, Ohio. So yes, it is a risk; I run the risk of not beginning to understand the subjects I’m interested in.  But I’m not going to write about some bald white Idahoan in a supermarket all the time. There are things about being a bald white Idahoan in a supermarket that interest me too, but not all the time. I’m drawn to discovery.

This can often be confusing for a young writer. So often, they’re told to write what they know.  Fundamentally, the things they want to write about they already know all too well: feeling lonely, feeling scared, feeling inadequate.  That doesn’t mean they can’t write about a lonely, scared, inadequate person on a space station in 2641.  The trappings of a person can be researched. If you want to write about a violin maker in 1743, you can do it with a lot of research and care.

RF:  Could you talk about travelling and how it has influenced you as a writer?  You make reference in Four Seasons in Rome to Viktor Shklovsky and the concept of defamiliarizaiton. Does living and writing abroad help you do this?

AD: Ah! Making the stones stony again!  What Shklovsky is talking about is estrangement, right, the way our homes, our lives, become invisible to us over time, and that the role of art is to make those things strange to us again.  When we become encrusted with habit, we stop noticing things.  But art breaks through that encrustation.  That’s what he’s saying, roughly.  That’s why my favorite novels can do things like show me a bald white Idahoan, and show me him in a new way.

So by travelling, I’m forced to see things new again: even very simple things, like how people get water, how they get to work, how they think about ambition.  But travel can also work against what I’m trying to do. I recently went to Ecuador for a New York Times piece I was writing. It was easy to take notes there, to come home and write 3,000 words from those notes. But it disrupted the work I was doing on my novel. In my fiction I was trying to conjure February and mist and gray oceans and hedgerows and instead I’m standing in primary forest in a plastic rain poncho with butterflies flapping past me.  But here’s what I tell myself: it all goes into the pot.  I take journals wherever I go and I fill them with crappy sentences I’ll never show anyone but I can still, maybe, use those sentences—or at least those memories—in the future.  And who knows, maybe someday I’ll go back to them and write about Ecuador. The images will still be there.

RF: How are your twins?

AD: (Laughs) They’re great, Rich.  Thanks for asking. They’re seven now.

(We proceed to talk about kids, Christmas and how fast they grow.  I tell him a story about visiting the Sistine Chapel when my son was two. My wife was pushing him in a stroller and he screamed for the entire time. Doerr and his wife lived in Rome for a year just after their twin boys were born. We talk about Santa Claus.)

AD: Does your daughter still believe in Santa? (She says she does.)  Did you ever have to tell a straight lie to your kids about it? (I answer that I’m not sure.) I love that children retain the power to want to believe.

 RF:  Is writing difficult for you?  Is it hard work?

AD: I have great days sometimes, mornings or evenings when it’s going well. Sometimes when you’re writing well, you look up and it’s noon and your leg is asleep and you’re hungry because you forgot to eat.  Those are great days, days that feel short because you’ve been dreaming all day.

But sure, it’s not easy.  It’s like working out. I know that’s a trite analogy, but it’s effective. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is go outside and run, but then you do it, and you’re a few miles in and it’s snowing but your body is warm and you just feel alive.

RF: Was there a particular writer or artist or teacher who most influenced your writing?

AD: Andrea Barrett, who I didn’t meet until recently. Her collection, Ship Fever, had science and history and good writing, and I thought, “You can do this?”  You can write short stories and novellas and be responsibly accurate about science and history and still be creative?  Rick Bass, too.  I still haven’t met him.  His story collection, The Watch, blended magic and love and setting and the natural world and he got away with it and it rang a bell in my soul because those were all the things I wanted to do.  Alice Munro, too, and how she deals with time; that she could take on time scales much larger than a single day in her stories showed me that I could try that too.  You have to give yourself permission to try these things and when you see older, accomplished, hugely passionate writers doing it, it helps so much.

RF: You say that a writer manufactures dreams. What dreams can we look forward to next?

AD: I’m working a novel that’s seven years in the making. It’s about a German boy and a French girl in World War II and how their lives intersect, though that intersection happens very late in the book. It has to do with radio, too: how radio was employed both as a tool of control and resistance.  Mostly I want to conjure a time when it was a miracle to hear the voice of a stranger in our homes, in our ears.  Nowadays we’re bombarded by electronic messages, of course.  It’s to the point where my house can seem too quiet if my kids are outside and my wife is away; I feel like I have to turn on the radio, just to keep me company.

Anyway, among the thousand challenges this book presents is this: Can I tell the story about how a boy got sucked into the Hitler Youth, made some bad decisions that led to terrible, unforgivable consequences, and still make the boy an empathetic character?

RF:  In Four Seasons in Rome, you describe a writing this way: “But to write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss.” It’s such a nice description.  What gives you the confidence to take the next step?

AD: Some days, it’s not there.  But here’s the thing: when those voices are loudest, those critical voices which are telling you not to do something, often that’s when the story is really about to takeoff. Because that means you’re standing on the edge of something dangerous.

Take “Memory Wall,” for example.  I was writing a long story about whales and Alzheimer’s and it was a mess.  And when McSweeney’s asked for a story set in the near future, I had the idea to put memories on cartridges. That was a ridiculous idea; that’s when the voices started getting loud, saying, “Don’t do that, that’s science fiction, that’s silly, that’s a gimmick.”  Thankfully I had grown up enough to know that that was the sign that said, Try it.

So you have to train yourself to shut out the voices.  Writing is tough. It’s easy to question what it is you’re doing. I have friends with a fair degree of stability in their life, in jobs they’ve had for maybe two decades now, mostly on autopilot, making good money. I have some good friends out on the golf course right now as we speak!  You can get locked into that way of thinking, of worrying about what you don’t have. You have to come back down from that and tell yourself: I am doing what I love to do, I am blessed,  my family is healthy, and I’m healthy, and I need to keep challenging myself because who knows how much time any of us has left on Earth?

—December 2011


Jan 132012


Herewith, an excerpt from Anthony Doerr’s award-winning short story, “The Deep.”  Recipient of the prestigious Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in 2011, “The Deep” is included in the paperback edition of Doerr’s 2010 Story Prize winning  collection Memory Wall.

Born with a heart defect in the early days of last century, Tom is told he will not live past the age of eighteen. His concerned mother protects him at every turn. ‘Go slow’ his mother says. But Tom discovers life in the midst of fainting spells and industrial collapse, falling in love with the beautiful, red-haired Ruby Hornaday, a girl who dreams of diving on the ocean floors. Set against the salt mines of Depression era Detroit, the reader is transported in time and space in this heartbreaking story of love, hardship and the irrepressible human spirit.

Listen to a reading of “The Deep” by the actor Damian Lewis at the 2011 Oxford Literary Festival.  Read an Richard Farrell’s interview of Anthony Doerr on Numéro Cinq.

—Richard Farrell


 From “The Deep”

Tom is born in 1914 in Detroit, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, underinsulated boardinghouse populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.

Tom is four when he starts fainting. He’ll be rounding a corner, breathing hard, and the lights will go out. Mother will carry him indoors, set him on the armchair, and send someone for the doctor.

Atrial septal defect. Hole in the heart. The doctor says blood sloshes from the left side to the right side. His heart will have to do three times the work. Lifespan of sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky. Best if he doesn’t get excited.

Mother trains her voice into a whisper. Here you go, there you are, sweet little Tomcat. She moves Tom’s cot into an upstairs closet—no bright lights, no loud noises. Mornings she serves him a glass of buttermilk, then points him to the brooms or steel wool. Go slow,she’ll murmur. He scrubs the coal stove, sweeps the marble stoop. Every so often he peers up from his work and watches the face of the oldest boarder, Mr. Weems, as he troops downstairs, a fifty-year-old man hooded against the cold, off to descend in an elevator a thousand feet underground. Tom imagines his descent, sporadic and dim lights passing and receding, cables rattling, a half dozen other miners squeezed into the cage beside him, each thinking his own thoughts, men’s thoughts, sinking down into that city beneath the city where mules stand waiting and oil lamps burn in the walls and glittering rooms of salt recede into vast arcades beyond the farthest reaches of the light.

Sixteen, thinks Tom. Eighteen if I’m lucky.

—Anthony Doerr


Jan 112012

Denise Evans Durkin writes poems that glow with a gentle melancholy (all memory is tinged with melancholy) unexpectedly laced with joy and wonder. They are wonderful to read, not just for their warm humanity, but for their loving attention to detail, details that seem to accrete spirit and luminescence as the poems develop. She was raised in Brooklyn and lives in Putnam County, New York, with her husband. She wishes me to note that the poem “Letter to My Sister from Bellevue’s Prison Ward” includes a line from Gil Scott Heron’s “Dirty Low-Down.”  These are her first published poems.


………(circa 1979)

The girl downstairs waits mostly. Sitting on her luggage
by the cattails, side of the road. Embroidered each star
on the velvet pillow of sky — they glitter
through the pin-pricks.

She waits, lonesome as the notions in her felted sewing box —
mismatched buttons, thimbles and threads in bright
remembered colors — bobbins and hat pins —
good things going away.

She’s there in the spaces where the dime store and
the pay phones used to be. The cart that sold ice-cream and
hot waffles. Relics.

Seeping cold. Click, drag, stop — over
imperfect stones. Her gradual world — ohms build
between receiver and vintage turntable on the dresser
in the bedroom she has not visited in thirty years.
Glass & leaves falling. Dust falling down in the hush —


Letter to My Sister from Bellevue’s Prison Ward

Traveling up from blue-black dreaming
those first pin-pricks of pale blue light give such sudden joy.

Once at a farm I saw eggs that color blue; the class learned
about farms, about far-off things and places where people
know their food, know their land and don’t live like we do.

Do you remember when we used to sing it?
Said I wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder who put those ideas in your head?
You closed your eyes when you sang back up; we got it right.

Mornings are my best time — even the doctors agree — when I wake
full of hope, and my hope is the color of morning, and my eyes

the color of the sea and I know all that the seas know.

A thrum of bees where my heart should be when my eyes flutter
open mother your face dissolving in the water swirling in the silver bowl —

were you here in your white nurses’ shoes? I thought I saw you
in your white dress adjusting the tubes that feed me, that dispense
the medicines, checking my bandages, and my restraints I thought
I felt all the little red lights on the living machines
silver mechanical fireflies that blink and glow redder
through the gauze of my forgetting pieces of what I thought was
my life and I can no longer remember how I got here —
I watch your white shoes walk away squeaking on the tiled floor.

Don’t think I don’t know nothing but the sea stays around
long enough to get old — and all I do in here is imagine
this gossamer daylight everyday — all just going by —


Come September

This morning the darkness is thicker — like spider’s webs
spun especially for the heavy snow they know is coming.
Crickets sing in the perpetual twilight of the field beyond my patio —
my small wilderness — where even now leaves are falling.
The vine wound up around that oak; some of its leaves
are already red. This is how I measure time: by leaves
changing color, by feeling the dew clinging to grass,
to wildflowers, waiting for the late summer sun.

The day you left draws nearer now.
Noted on my calendar, of course, but I don’t need reminders.
This is how you return to me: in the small twigs I pick up
for kindling, in the rain battering my old house,
beating the glass skylight, letting me know everything
is the way it’s supposed to be. I walk my solitude
past the fading clapboard and the weeds, deer at dusk
and whitecaps on the lake. These are what you left me.


Fall Notebook: Prayer & Dream

Inside a deep longing I dream alone by the sea.
Wooden table laid ready with black beans, rice and cornbread.
I imagine an indigo sky and wild horses.

Here I dream closer to the weather, to the light, to any decision.
Angel, how long is this bridge?

Over my heart on a lanyard of silver stars, my tiny imagined locket
opens into a mansion where my necessary delights reside.
These rooms full of one wish: for the sisters who
look in on me when darkness falls, who brush sweet almond oil
into my skin, my hair. Lord, my needs are small.

Mother returns in firelight, starshine, moonlight — her fingers
touching the top of my head, reminder that everything is what it is.

Deep cobalt sky and then the moon laying on its cold blessing —


………spoken by my mother

Rootworker they call them in the Carolinas where I was married far from Georgia
where I was born and raised — farther still from these misty Coney Island streets
strewn with blown paper, dirt and sand.

Across the street from the Mount Zion Baptist Church where I sing in the choir,
collect tithing baskets and light white votives at sunset, my sisters wait at the bus stop —

old women with knitting in their straw totes, they nod without looking for me —
like they know I’m in here —

and they do. They know rootworkers are never welcome in this church or any other —
unnecessary anyway with the devil in the first pew every Sunday loudly singing
hymns he knows much better than my choir ladies in their cloches tipped down
on one side threaded with beads like bits of sea glass keeping close together
moving in tune as they file down into the pews, careful
not to touch him whom they have always known.

Lord, I am your child, walking and talking right, gone to the river and
baptized into the ease of your arms, my heavenly home.

Choir leader of my church under this indigo sky —
vesper-quiet in here with this cross and these candles
constant flame of love in my heart —

ruler of this elemental kitchen magic
my sisters call me Soothsayer
and I know what I know.

—Denise Evans Durkin


Jan 102012

Here are a selection of stunning landscape paintings from Anne Diggory’s solo exhibition Turbulence, currently on display at the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York (January 3rd – 28th). Not only do we get the paintings, but for Numéro Cinq Anne added reference photos and images of early versions of work and works-in-progress, delivering an amazingly revealing glimpse into the artist’s process and the provenance of these lovely paintings.

Anne Diggory has a BA in Studio Art from Yale and an MFA from the University of Indiana. We have been friends for years in the Saratoga Springs, NY, demimonde. She has been featured in Adirondack Life, American Artist Magazine, and The NY Times. She is known for her combination of accurate detail with expressive painting and strong abstract structure – an outgrowth of education at Yale and Indiana University and many years of exploring and painting the natural world. Her painting locations include the Adirondacks, the Hudson River Valley , Alaska and Arizona. A current series based on Lake George vistas was inspired by her research on John Frederick Kensett for an article that will shortly be submitted to the Metropolitan Museum Journal.

Diggory shows regularly at the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York City. She recently had solo exhibitions at Fairleigh Dickenson University and Suffolk County Community College, Selden, NY. Those two shows focused on her hybird works that combine photography and painting in a multi-layered process.

Her work is included in many public and private collections including the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, the Yale Art Gallery, and DePauw University.  Recent commissions include several large murals for the Adirondack Trust Company in Saratoga Springs (one is a 22 foot high mural of a waterfall), a collaborative commission of art work for the Saratoga Springs Train Station and a large interactive public artwork for the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Here is the text of the Blue Mountain Gallery press release for the show:

Shifting surfaces of waters and skies inspired the artworks for Anne Diggory’s solo exhibition, Turbulence, at the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York City that runs January 3rd – 28th,, 2012.  The exhibition includes motifs from the Adirondacks, the shores of Long Island and South Carolina as well as scattered tabletop arrangements.  Diggory’s preference for images featuring dynamic instability extends to her choice of medium in many works that combine sections of photography and painting in a multi-layered process. Further disruptions, slightly tempered by stable horizons, occur with deep spaces, off-kilter compositions and irregular perimeters that energize the work.

The artwork in the exhibition is mainly from the past year and a half. The title “Turbulence” is both a reference to the imagery and a reference to the process of making art, which involves disturbing the surface of the canvas or paper.




Paintings by Anne Diggory


The Water Improvisation Series

While all representational painting is of necessity an invention in order to create illusion out of paint on a flat surface, some of these images are more fictional than others. Some started as plein air paintings that selectively used elements within a motif and were then finished in the studio.  The larger works and those with photographs inserted were started in the studio based on smaller works or photographs I had taken. The Water Improvisation series began with water-like patterns of paint and were developed from a well-informed imagination.

Cross Currents

  Continue reading »

Jan 092012

Herewith a gorgeous story from Dave Margoshes, who has contributed already two poems–“Theology” and “Becoming a Writer“–to these pages. I have long admired his work; I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I edited that estimable annual collection (over a decade of editing). “A Bargain” is excerpted from the author’s new collection A Book of Great Worth to be published by Coteau Books in April. A Book of Great Worth is a collection of linked stories based loosely on Dave Margoshes’ father. The title story was actually published in Best Canadian Stories, but in 1996, just before I took over.

Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan writer whose work has appeared widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies, including six times in the Best Canadian Stories volumes. He was a finalist for the Journey Prize, Canada’s premier short story award, in 2009. He’s published over a dozen books, including Bix’s Trumpet and Other Stories, which was named Saskatchewan Book of the Year in 2007. He’s been fiction editor of the literary magazines Grain and Dandelion, and was literary editor at Coteau Books for several years. He lives on a farm outside Saskatoon.


 A Bargain

by Dave Margoshes


My father used to say that my mother was the one in the family who wore the pants. As he said it, he would invariably be wearing pants himself, either the pants of his suit or one of the Sears catalogue blue jeans my mother ordered for him, and she would be wearing one of her many flower-printed skirts, so the remark was surely meant to be ironic, though at the time, and until I went off to college and learned its delicious meaning, irony was a concept I was unfamiliar with, and what my father said was merely puzzling. The closest my mother ever came to wearing pants was the voluminous denim culottes she put on to tend her garden in the summer. Beyond those, and the one-piece swimsuit she wore when we went to the beach, I never saw her out of a skirt or dress, though she would occasionally walk around the house in her slip for a while after coming home from work. She was never embarrassed to be dressed that way in front of me, and so I in turn was never embarrassed to see her.

I think what my father meant by the remark was that my mother made all the big decisions in their life together. Another of his favourite remarks – again, ironically – was that he made the big decisions, on war and peace, world hunger, the economy and other weighty matters, while my mother contented herself with the small decisions, those related to the family and household, things like spending money, feeding and clothing them and the children, what movie to go to and so on. My father also often said that he and my mother did everything around the house together, with him doing the physical labour and my mother “supervising,” if it was something to do with the outside, and her doing the work and him supervising if it was inside – chores like the dishes and the laundry. All of these comments – conveyed in a joking voice but with a serious undertone – related to my father’s often-expressed grievance that my mother was “bossy.”

It was true that she almost always got her way. But not always. My father liked a drink now and then, meaning several times a day, I don’t know how many. She would have liked him not to drink at all. His concession to her was to rarely drink his preferred rye whisky in her presence – never at home, but he would let his guard down and have one or two at family gatherings where liquor was flowing. “I’m just doing this to be polite,” he would say, a little too loudly but usually with a wink, and the uncles would smile. But he kept a flask in the glove compartment of his car, a bottle in the bottom drawer of his desk at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where he worked as a reporter and columnist, and during the course of his day he made occasional stops at barrooms where he was a familiar customer. At home, at night, usually seated at the kitchen table in his undershirt, he would have a glass or two of sherry or port, usually the cheapest brands. My mother bought it for him, and that’s what he specified, the cheapest, which, I imagine, also appealed to her own sense of frugality. This was her concession to him, these fortified wines, “a gentleman’s drink,” he would say when he unscrewed the bottle, as if to imply it was no drink at all then, and didn’t count.

Although I was a witness to them all through my growing up, this to-ing and fro-ing, these nuances of their life together, it wasn’t until I was grown and involved in a relationship of my own that I came to understand the delicate balance they had constructed and maintained. Well, not understand, but begin to.

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Jan 082012

“Let’s start by making ourselves unfamiliar,” Laura Behr begins one poem, and she does, continuously through her poems that are filled with sudden leaps, surprising twists, non sequiturs, surrealistically tinged phrases—anything to let us see the world and our relationships in it anew. Laura has been a private student of mine for a few years now, starting after we met at the Iowa Summer Writers’ Festival. To be honest, when she began I wasn’t enthusiastic about the work but she is a voracious reader and reviser, and she has become one of my favorite all time students. I look forward to every poem she sends and shake my head in wonder at the new ways she finds to see herself, all of us, in the world. She’s the kind of original that makes us more original ourselves.

—Richard Jackson


Cave Diving With Einstein

Poems by Laura Behr


Reflections on Magritte’s Painting The Therapist: You Are My Suitcase


Let’s start by making ourselves unfamiliar.
Listening, to the puzzles of silence. Travelling
as far as we can go. We’ll form an Optimists Club.
Rewriting ordinary things: a straw hat, reed cane,
the red blanket. I can see every third page is missing,
so you can wear the blanket first.  Later, I’ll try it on
for you and invite you into my lap. I want you
to look into my bird cage. If you’d like I’ll turn
and show you my dove-heart, and you can sit
on the heart-ledge of my cage cooing, and keeping
my dove-heart company. Sky and water open the illusion.
Every particle of yellow sand, atoms of myself sitting
resolutely on the beach, the darkness of a midnight-blue sky,
my Sunday hat, meld with every particle of you
collecting inside my portrait. Bring your Lindy Hop,
and uncover me in the quiet music of waves. Breathing in
the scent of sand pines. Stop and rest with me in these
exotic blues of children’s books and imagination.
We’ll lose our bearings, mixing up horizon-lines and dreams,
falling open to each other, learning to love in solitude.
We’ll need a pair of carrier pigeons, trained to carry messages
written in invisible ink. Let’s wash away the old answers,
letting the horizon form a new tracing-line decoding the cipher
between us leading on to the future. Sit with me. The future
of the thing, sees for us without a face, with its well-trained heart
and finds itself in balance, if mystery lifts her veil. The weight
of things, two birds: one free, the other caged by a lover’s cross,
as primal navels open insides first to love all bird-cage heart.

On the Banks of the Cedar River Finding a Rare Igneous Rock


All he wants. A soul’s weight. Washed up
from a century’s flood. Not the rock he pressed
into nameless hands long ago. The felt how
of living. His words bent by gravity and time.
Her name long forgotten.  Smooth, black,
almost volcanic. The world outside is not enough.
Pressing his rock into her small hand at recess.
He imagines her now. Her face, nameless.
And every word exchanged transgresses memory.
Working things through as the world wakes.
At the mercy of one task. He wants to be
a time traveler. The best day of his life could be
in the future. Stripping down.  Jump and crossing over.
Freed by the river’s forward moving questions.
The chaos seems insurmountable. Time moves truth
into view. Where to go from here? A still quiet moment
poses in dark woods. He wants to go back, capturing stars
hanging above the silent pines. Falling back
into night’s silver lining, as its spirited double-helix hums
an incantation in star-speak counter measures.
And even his affection for living can’t hold him safe
enough to see his own ignorance. He wishes he had
been smarter, moved faster. A regret. Still, the future
is alive with a promise which marks the things he carries
of her into infinity. Uncharted in shadows, he wants.
The world’s beauty, recovering eyes that wonder.
Silent, in a moment that doubts the mystery. Its haunting
stripped and smitten as words lose meaning slipping
into ambivalence. A perfect set of magnets, and closeness
enough to touch fingers and toes. That is all he wants.
Eternity, reliving what has yet to be lived.


Owen Meany at the Alamo


A few stone buildings, a neatly trimmed lawn,
a nice place to take a picture. A reason
to take off a hat. None of it changes the ending.
It’s happening now, expected signs and all the rest.
A home for missionaries and Indians,
a freak storm hits in shirt-sleeve weather.
If you dare ask what will kill you. The ghosts
will tell you. Or ask how you know
what you don’t know. Be willing to do something.
Act like a baby or a fallen star. Both roles have merit.
When life isn’t so beautiful it’s hard
to put into words. Faith isn’t pure
or sure of itself or of you.  It’s a word born and blurred,
in veils and regret.  It proves itself against
the disorder.  Blow it up, you can’t leave it undefended.
How do you hold happiness? It’s the oddest things,
the unexpected turn of a moment you don’t see coming
but you see, and there are no survivors. Practice.
Living with what is missing, an arm,
a father, it’s a no win argument, chosen, human.
Faith in faith means walking, not figuring it out.
A hero is only a street light away.


Cave Diving with Einstein


Two minutes underwater and the last thing
you see is the pale gray shadow of clouds
falling down to uncover angels dancing
within the electric blue glow. Eternity is blue,
holy as the first touch of skin radiating light
thru deep black waters. Within its light lies
the weight of everything that we cannot say.
And, waiting on the lap of gods for a second wind
or a kiss, as ghosts walk, as rain falls clearing the air,
we laugh. Dreaming of love’s savages warm
and expecting summer rains. Suppose the earth
above us is the illusion. Water rushes, siphoning silt
thru a slit in the rocks. Grounded by live oaks
and scrub jays the sandy path above is the netherworld.
The Harrier hawk mid-flight and lost is a Firebird,
his feather tips are your hands. Will you believe
with me in implausible things? A turbulent
storm-tossed sea. Electric blue spheres of light.
Enwombing us, in the binding intensity of heat.
Gravity healing and unruly, shifts its boundaries
and leaning in forces jumps of spiritual force
that spread out and over the tides to woo us away.
Facing the whiteness of surf light, looking into
the blue-sky water, I watch as the shadow borders
of ordinary life disappear. Entering with you
into dimly lit worlds, hidden below a glassy surface,
I hold my breath. Listening for the strange music
of a seashell over a roar of waves, the music tells stories
of our very natures and of places beyond this, where
things are truer than real. Waiting to see this murky
dreamscape with the soul’s eye, we uncover in the quiet
music of waves the taste of salt on tongues, the scent
of ambergris and an ever growing feeling of buoyancy.
Sometimes, when we talk about things the light seems
to go away from us, as lightening over the sea
follows the wind. We almost always need more
than we can ask for and so we don’t ask for anything.
And though we can make anything out of light,
darkness into tender night, we cannot make
things un-happen. This is what makes all the rest
so hard. Even as night is grave, waves erase.
The way it used to be. The way you want it to be now.



This Land Who Could Know


Smelling of cigarettes, you ask me
to turn my bones into a beaded necklace
for Timordee bartering. It’s not that easy.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to tell you
what I felt that night, I didn’t know how
to tell you. Splayed out like a broken cross,
my chest rising and falling like fire coils inside a star
or a wave of slaked breath crosses, a catch of longing
wanting more. I was willing to be with you, asking
nothing, taking what comes. Pretending with you,
this can go on forever. There was only one star
in the sky, the moon hidden by a navy haze.
I took that as permission, the moon’s illusion
of what counts. I was older than I’d ever be,
commanding the star to reverse. Giving myself away,
learning the business of love, stuck in the past
where anything worth knowing looms contented
and even the future doesn’t know everything.
Where everything beautiful is a trick. If you knew
anything, you’d know how to run your hand
up my thigh, running your hand over my why not,
until practiced eyes leave off unexpectantly and pass
over truth. But it’s not that easy. Neither of us can say
when it started or how long it took the wind to carve
an arch thru the flagstone wall. I walked thru at the place
where truth pleads for a way to betray or to put up
with each other and the world. It felt like an invitation.
I can’t remember the beginning. So ask
a different question. I remember wavering
and waiting for you in dangerous moments
with empty hands. I remember trying all night
to convince the light to mold itself into an apology.
Wanting to hear, All is forgiven. Learning instead
what goes unsaid never gives fair warning. Today,
the lavender sky takes the light away with you,
all tangled purple-heart. And I can see in the secret goings
of stars the advantages of losing. The night looked
into me to speak. My eyes stripped and final,
a reason to love is destination enough. A lasting solo.
What comes after? All that exists is love’s simple intent.
More than anything precious a cooing then sleep.

—Laura Behr


Laura Behr lives in Montgomery, Alabama. She is a psychotherapist, a partner in a business consulting group advising business and its leaders on mental health and preventative wellness from a combined Neuroscience, CBT, and Psychoanalytic framework, and the mother of two girls. She has published in The Café Review.

Jan 052012

EDITOR’S NOTE: Utne Reader, The Best of the Alternative Press, reprinted Sion Dayson’s excellent essay “Life Lessons in Père Lachaise Cemetery” in its July/August, 2012, issue. This is terrific recognition for Sion’s work and for the magazine. Congratulations all around. Raise a glass of Talisker, everyone.

See all of Sion’s work on NC here.



Life Lessons in Père Lachaise

By Sion Dayson

Stunned to stillness
by beauty
we remember who we
are and why we are here…

In the immense
everything spins with

 —From “Winter Solstice” by Rebecca Parker

For the past three and a half years, I’ve lived a ten-minute walk from Père Lachaise, the famed Parisian cemetery that’s home to many historic luminaries – everyone from Abelard to Chopin, Edith Piaf to Marcel Proust.

In recent weeks, talk has centered on writer Oscar Wilde; his tomb now stands encircled by thick glass, a barrier aimed to protect the stone from endless admirers’ kisses. (Of course people have already started leaving their lipstick prints on the Plexiglas instead).

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Jan 022012

To begin the New Year at Numéro Cinq, here’s a terrific addition to our growing collection of literary craft essays from Erin Stagg. In “The Mind’s Eye—Character Thought in Fiction,” Erin gives a terse, clear explanation of some of the basic techniques of character thought using a gorgeous Lorrie Moore short story as her example quarry.

Erin Stagg is a freshly-minted graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. She grew up in Taos, New Mexico, studied Spanish at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and now lives in New Zealand where she teaches skiing in the winter and works in retail in the summer. She was awarded the 2002 Wellesley College Johanna Mankiewicz Davis Prize for Prose Fiction. Her short fiction has also appeared in The Battered Suitcase.



The Mind’s Eye – Character Thought in Fiction

By Erin Stagg


Character thought is text in the story that tells the reader what is going on inside the character’s mind. When I started looking for it in other writers’ work I suddenly realized that good writers are constantly weaving their characters’ consciousness into their stories. They write it into their stories using the techniques of narrative inscription, direct indication, free indirect discourse and imaginative reconstruction, all of which we will look at in depth. We will also look at how character thought functions in fiction as backfill, motive and thematic interpretation.

I was astounded at the sheer volume and density of character thought as well as a bit embarrassed that I had never really noticed it before. It’s everywhere. Flannery O’Connor begins “A Good Man is Hard to Find” inside her main character’s mind, telling the reader what that character wants: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.” (O’Connor, 9) Jane Austen’s Emma is constantly thinking her way through what happens in the novel Emma and reflecting upon it:

Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world.

James Joyce uses it in “The Dead.” Here is a section from the final scene. The character thought is in bold.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. (Joyce, 160)

 Good writers insert character thought into every story and novel – characters think their way through stories. And it’s important here to realize, because I know some of you are thinking that character thought is telling and we should not tell, that character thought is not telling at all. In his essay “Notes on Novel Structure” Doug Glover writes, “Thought is action.” (75) Thinking is something characters do. Not only that, but it drives a story forward by giving every action and reaction a motive. Writers use it to give their characters a past, an imagination and the ability to interpret what is happening to them. In other words good writers use character thought to flesh out the bare bones of the plot and fill their characters with the semblance of life.

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