Mar 302012
 

Herewith an essay on Mormonism, diverse spiritualities, marriage, and a contemporary quest to repair a damaged heart. Phyllis Barber is a dear friend and former colleague from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s also a Mormon, a product, as she says, of that “all-encompassing culture,” and an adventurous soul. She is the author of seven books: novels, stories and memoirs, including her delightful early reminiscences in  How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir and her most recent book Raw Edges: A Memoir. Lately she has been working on a new collection of essays, entitled Searching for Spirit (from which the essay below is taken), about her twenty-year hiatus from Mormonism when she traveled the world and participated in many religious and spiritual experiences with shamans in Peru and Ecuador, Tibetan Buddhist monks in North India, Baptist congregations in South Carolina and Arkansas, goddess worshipers in the Yucatan, with African American congregations, and diverse megachurches. The theme of Mormonism is interlaced with these narratives as well as the belief in the Mormon teaching of a personal God. As Phyllis says, this her “attempt to come to peace with co-existence and reiterate the idea of religious tolerance—God being found in the faces of strangers.”

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Part One – 1985

My three sons bolt out the side door, late for school, scraping their backpacks against the door frame which is already scarred. I avoid looking at the pile of breakfast dishes. Cold egg yolk. Blackened crumbs. Drowned mini-wheats. I can’t help notice, however, the specks of yesterday’s cake mix, flipped from the wire arms of the electric beater, dotting the kitchen window above the sink. Later for that. Inside the refrigerator where I turn to find inspiration for tonight’s dinner, an amoeba-shaped puddle of grape juice jells on the glass shelf. I close the door covered with magnets and photos of boys with the-orthodontist-needs-to-be-visited teeth. I leave this messy kitchen, this reminder of my ineptitude which will depress me even more if I think about it much longer.

I need to talk to someone. But who wants to listen? Who would I tell anyway? Maybe I should get on my knees and talk to God but I need to move more than I need to stay still. I need to feel my body alive—arms stretching up and out, blood speeding through my veins. Mid-step in the front hall where family and visitors come and go, I’m struck with an idea.

I turn the corner to the family room. It’s filled with furniture, but because I feel compelled to dance, I’m suddenly an Amazon woman. I push the wing chair to the wall. The sofa as well. Now there’s space, enough space, and it feels as though it might be possible, instead of praying to God, that maybe I could dance with Him somehow, that He could take me in His arms. Today. Right now.

I thumb through my stack of albums until I find Prokofiev’s “Concerto No. l for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 10,” lift the record out of the sleeve, and set it on the turntable. Aiming the needle, I find the first groove and wait for the ebb and flow of the orchestra, the in and out. The three beginning chords cause my arms to pimple with goose flesh. I take two steps to the middle of the room and raise my arms above my head in a circle, fingertips touching.

I move, slowly at first, one foot pointed to the right as if I were the most elegant ballerina in the most satin of toe shoes. At first, my right leg lifts poetically, delicately for such a long leg. The other knee bends in a demi-plié. But as the music swarms inside and splits into the tributaries of my veins and vessels and becomes blood, things become more primitive. I stamp the pressing beat into the floor. I bend to one side and then the other, my arms swimming through air. I’m a willow, a genie escaping the bottle, the wind. I’m the scars in the face of the earth opening to receive water that runs heedlessly in spring. I’m light. I’m air. The magic carpet of music carries me places where I can escape—to the Masai Mara I’ve visited on TV, where bare legs of tribal dancers reflect the light of a campfire and beaded hoops circle their necks, or maybe to the Greek islands I’ve seen on travel posters with their red-roofed white houses stark against the cobalt blue sky and water. The music lifts me out of this minute, this hour, this day. I’m dancing to the opening and closing of the heart valves, to the beat of humanity, dancing, giving my all to the air, giving it up to the room. Whirling. Bending. Leaping. Twisting. Twirling and twirling to the beat. Yes. Dancing. Getting close to what God is, I suspect.

After a dizzying finale where the chords build to a climax until there is no more building possible, the release comes. The final chord. The finale. The sound dies away, as if it had never been there. The room still swirls, passing me by even as I stand still, panting, trying to return my breathing to normal once again. I’m dizzy. I steady myself in the middle of the Persian rug and wonder why Prokofiev had to write an end to this concerto. I can hear the tick of the needle on the record in the black space left on the vinyl. I stand quietly until the room stops with me, until the sense of having traveled elsewhere fades away.

I look at this sky blue family room in our home in Salt Lake City where my husband David and I are raising our children—the family pictures on the wall, including one of Geoffrey, our first son who was born with hemophilia and who died at the age of three from a cerebral hemorrhage. I look at his quizzical expression looking back from behind the picture glass. It’s as if he’s asking, “Why, Mama?” I pause, wanting to speak, wanting to answer him, but words have no meaning. Maybe they never did. My eyes shift to the framed copy of David’s and my college graduation diplomas; the Persian carpet with its blue stain where our son, Chris, spilled a bucket of blue paint when he was two; the sandstone hearth where our son, Brad, fell not once, but twice, and split open his head which had to be stitched together in the emergency room. Everything slipstreams in my peripheral vision: the bookcase with its many volumes of books, psychological tomes, religious scriptures, all of which are supposed to have answers; the leather wing chair peppered with the points of darts thrown when I, Mother, wasn’t looking and before I, Mother, hid the darts in a secret place; the wooden floor which I’m supposed to polish once a week with a flat mop and its terry-cloth cover. I, the Mother, stand here looking at the things which verify my place in the world and also at the evidence telling me that I haven’t always been watchful at the helm—I, the Mother who is supposed to make the world all right for her husband and children; I, the Mother, the heart of the home, the protector, the nurturer. I think I should dance again, turn the music loudly before my mind chases me into that place where I feel badly about myself again.

I learned dancing from my father who loved to polka when Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra played on television and at dance festivals sponsored by my church when I was a teenager. We danced the cha cha, tango, and Viennese waltz. At age twenty-one, I danced myself into a Mormon temple marriage and made promises to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth. I gave birth to four sons whom I dressed each Sunday for church meetings. I tried to be a good wife. I canned pears and ground wheat for bread, I taught Relief Society lessons and accompanied singers and violinists on the piano, I bore testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel countless numbers of times. Yet dancing seems to be my real home—the place where I can feel the ecstasy of the Divine, this dancing.

Last night as I twisted and turned in bed with my newfound knowledge that there’s another woman in my husband’s life and with the realization that things are changing in my marriage, which I thought would always be in place and always be there for me, I felt tempted to jump out of bed, open the blinds, and search the night sky for the letter of the law burnished among the stars—a big, pulsing neon sign that said, “Thou Shalt Not Endure to the End.” Except that’s all I know how to do: persist, endure, keep dancing. Things have to work out, don’t they?

Mormons are taught not only to endure to the end, but to persist in the process of perfecting themselves: “As man is now, God once was; As God is now, man may be.” Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of the LDS Church, penned the often-repeated couplet after he heard Joseph Smith’s lecture on this doctrine. I’ve tried for perfection, but maybe I haven’t thought that word through to its logical conclusion. Maybe I haven’t wondered enough about who is the arbiter of perfection.

Perfection. Freedom from fault or defect. Is that possible? Perfection is a nice idea, but that definition makes the idea of becoming like God stifling. It’s tied to shoulds, oughts, and knots that bind, rather than releasing one to live a full life and to dance the dance. Even Brigham Young said, “Let us not narrow ourselves up.”1 Trying to be perfect when the world and David have no intention of complying with my notions of perfection is killing me.

I hear the telephone ringing. I don’t want to leave this room just yet. I want to bring back the music, to keep God here with me, even if he has places to go, things to do, and I, too, have my responsibilities. But, I think, if God is my Father, then I am his daughter. I need to trust that he’ll always be with me somehow, that there will be a next dance.

Ignoring the phone, I think of something William James said in The Varieties of Religious Experience about how a prophet can seem a lonely madman until his doctrine spreads and becomes heresy. But if the doctrine triumphs over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy. The original spring of inspiration dries up and its followers live at second hand in spite of whatever goodness this new religion may foster, stifling the fountain from which it drew its supply of inspiration.

Why am I thinking about William James right now? Do I suspect I’m caught in the web of orthodoxy? Am I inflexible and is my spring dry? Am I living at second hand—unwilling to consider any other options to my parents’ teachings and my Mormon upbringing? But I don’t feel inflexible when I dance. I’m the fountain that bubbles, even the source of this fountain—the water. I raise both arms to the ceiling as if to lift off, hoping I can stretch into the heavens. “Don’t leave me,” I want to call out, though I don’t say that out loud. “I am with you,” I hear him say, though he doesn’t say that out loud either.

Daylight pours through the windows, exchanging the light in this room for that of the day. My hands press flat against each other in front of my heart, “Thanks for the dance,” I whisper. “Thank you,” I think I hear him whisper back. The telephone has stopped ringing. A floorboard creaks beneath my foot. I can hear the refrigerator humming down the hall. Commerce and industry, motherhood, and wifehood, with all of their demands calling again.

 

Part Two – 1991

One particular Bedouin catches my attention. He’s carrying plates away from our feast, preparing for after-dinner entertainment. Omar Sharif, I can’t help but thinking. What else does a first-time-in-Jordan, U.S. citizen know—those molten eyes and their hint of “the Casbah?” Of course, this is my movie-acquired understanding. He could be a thousand things, maybe a Muslim appearing for tourists to make ends meet, to feed his children, maybe the leader of a motorcycle gang, or he could be, plain and simply, a wanderer or a gypsy. But it’s useless to care about definitions this evening as we gather in this tent in the desert, two small groups of tourists wanting a glimpse into the mysterious life of a Bedouin.

One week before this night, my husband David and I had sailed down the Nile hoping to understand a portion of the ancient wisdom of Egypt. But the Sphinx and the gargantuan pharoahs carved into stone were hugely silent. We could only guess with our clichéd bits of Egyptology—King Tutankhamun, Cleopatra, Rameses, Isis, Ra the Sun King—and our memories from our Sunday School Bible studies: Joseph with his coat of many colors, Pharoah’s dreams, Potiphar’s wife, and Moses, of course Moses.

At nights between visits to Luxor, Edfu, Aswan, on board our sailing vessel, our lively crew, their lithe bodies swaying like river reeds, pulled all of us by our hands to the middle of waxed floorboards. Ouds thrummed; doumbeks pounded. And we danced: a lightening of bones and a suspension of time. We turned and swayed on the boat’s deck until I felt lost in my body—released from my neck, no brain to run the show, swept away by the flow of the unconscious in my flesh and in the other dancers. Nepenthe. A release of cares, such as the fact that David’s and my marriage was on its last legs.

At the end of our Nile run, we boarded a tour bus and headed toward the Sinai Peninsula. We were excited to see the place where Moses parted the Red Sea with his staff, found his way through the impenetrable clouds covering Mt. Sinai, and camped out at the top for forty days and nights, all the time waiting for inspiration. On a cold morning at 4:00 a.m., we laced our hiking boots and set out for Mt. Sinai’s summit, hoping to climb back into the Bible before the Bible was the Bible. Just as the sun slipped over the horizon, we reached the top. With a crowd of tourists speaking every conceivable language, we looked for signs of charred ruins of a bush or crumbled bits of stone tablet. But instead, the mystery seemed to be embodied in the purple, fog-like clouds that bubbled out of the crevices and danced in the valleys between the multiple hills below us. The clouds shifted constantly—a cauldron of mist and fog. David and I agreed this was a superb place for anyone to talk to God.

By mid-morning, we were back to our own exodus from Egypt, heading toward Jordan, our tour bus crossing the Sinai Desert. An hour into this leg of our journey, one woman in the group who had fallen victim to the dreaded tourist’s gambu, shouted at the bus driver to stop, then bolted for the door, telling us she’d be right back, don’t interfere. While we waited for her return, someone caught sight of movement on the wind-shaped, sandy horizon. It looked like the rising of three small ships from the sea. Everyone made their guesses of what this was until we could see three Bedouins riding camels, their heads wrapped in scarves, their feet covered in soft leather.

Bedouin—the word with mystical, romantic properties. My lips formed the word again: “Bedouin,” as several of us climbed off the bus, partly to distract the newcomers from our hapless tour mate who’d hidden on the other side of the bus, and partly from curiosity. I held a packet of pencils in hand, something I’d brought to give to children instead of money or sweets. In broken English, one of the Bedouins asked if we needed help. No, we’d be fine, we answered. The wind teased the fringes of the man’s black and white tribal scarf. I stood in the awkward gap after his offer and our “no,” then took a step forward and handed him the pencils. “For your children.” He swooped low from his seat on the camel’s hump, his hand touching mine.

I wanted to stop time at that touch: me in this frame of Bedouins, the desert gypsies whose heads were swathed in bold scarves, the camels with haughty faces and strong smells. But the bus driver had said, “Time to go.” Reluctantly, we said, “Shukran,” and “Ma’assalama,” and climbed back on the bus to drive off in a black belch of exhaust to the shores of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aquba our front door.

The next morning, the gigantic sun rising red on the water, the women decided they needed to blend into this exotic setting somehow. Because I’d studied Middle Eastern dance and had mentioned the joy of moving like a W-O-M-A-N rather than a reluctant maiden, they asked if I’d teach them a dancing lesson, these six women-of-all-sizes. Of course. What else did we have to do in the hours stretching before us? After passing out a paltry collection of scarves gathered from everyone’s private stash, we all stood shoeless in the sand where I demonstrated how they could make a figure eight with their hips, snake their arms, and twirl the scarves in the stiff sea breeze.

“Let your scarf be your guide,” I shouted into the wind. “Follow it. Over your head, behind you, to the side of you. Forget who you think you are. Forget about Me, Me, Me. Surrender to the exotic, to the beautiful, to the unconscious.” And for a moment, everyone danced—children opening their arms to falling stars.

When we stopped to catch our collective breath, the consensus was definite. Yes, we needed to perform for our partners tonight. Yes and yes, those we all loved should see the sylphs of the Nile gliding through the sand by the Red Sea. In preparation, we asked our guides to take us to the bazaar where we could buy jingling coin belts, necklaces, finger cymbals, and, of course, more and more gauzy scarves.

The high anticipation of our performance that night was made complete when we noticed two of our Muslim guides peeking through the splits of palm fronds. But the appearance of the Touring Seductresses of the Sinai was short and sweet. We made a dramatic entrance to the accompaniment of a tinny tape on someone’s boom box, clanking our cheap finger cymbals that weren’t well enough made to ring clearly. We didn’t care about perfection, but we did care about something we suspected was possible. In unison, we began with the step/thrust-hip move we’d practiced that carried us across to “center stage.” Then, each woman took her turn soloing with her scarf, turning on the sand, and stretching her arms and herself toward the night sky. The scarves were magic—the way they made willows out of the women who’d been sitting on a tour bus for too long. The transformation almost happened. We almost made it to something worthy of diva status. But the fifth woman to take her solo—a woman who struggled with her considerable weight—lost confidence in both herself and the dance. She stopped. She dropped one end of her scarf into the sand. We coaxed her to continue. She wrapped her hand in one turn of the other end of the scarf, then she giggled. All six of us dissolved into laughter with her. The spell of the dance evaporated. Poof. But laughter had its magic, too.

Afterwards, everyone was in a glorious party mood. We strolled the beach where light from a crescent moon striped the water and a velvet breeze caressed our skin. Each couple slowly returned to their cabanas in the settling darkness. As David and I walked through our open door, however, the interior space felt sterile after the silky night and the laughter. Silence opened its mouth. We’d been trying too hard to solve our differences, both at home and here in Egypt. Trying to renegotiate the ground rules of marriage, neither side giving ground, we’d lost our way. It seemed that we’d worn each other out after thirty years of marriage and that there was nothing more to say. If only I could have revived the seductress in me and spun a thousand-and-one-nights story to leave him wanting more; if only he could have turned to me and said, “My beloved, you are the Only One for me. There is no other.” On that exotic night, we opted for the sound of the ocean lapping at the shore, and the sight of slanted moonlight on the cement floor.

Where was the mystery of the dance now? The mystery of the dissolving self, that sacred place where petty arguments and obsession with other options were nothing. Why couldn’t we reach across our differences and melt into our dance? Instead, beneath our courteous surfaces, we both clung to our stubbornness, recalcitrance, petulance, “It’s my way or the highway”-ness.

Now, as we sit on cushions in a circle in a Bedouin’s tent in Jordan, I watch the man who has cleared plates tuning his bulbous-backed oud and another one warming the reed on his nay. I feel my blood rising in anticipation of music, sweet music, and maybe dancing.

And then there is music. It sounds much like the recordings my teacher had used in Middle Eastern dance classes. Surprise. Out of the blue, it seems, a thin, high-heeled woman wearing a pink linen pantsuit, a gauzy scarf wrapped around her hips, a dangling necklace of metal beads, and an exotic jingling bracelet to match, a woman not traveling with our group, steps into the center of the temporary dance floor and begins to move in the style of the belly dance. To my eye, she knows almost nothing about the dance, maybe one brief lesson in a bar one night, if that, but she’s definitely making the most of her daring. Though she’s flirtatious enough and the object of much attention, there’s no roundness to the undulation of her hips and stomach, no soul to her dance. She doesn’t understand about giving herself to the music. Seduction without the seduction.

It could be a competitive urge, but I think it’s more about my need to say, “Wait, this isn’t what dancing is all about.” I stand up to join her. David watches me rise to my feet. “Go for it,” he says. He claps his hands in time to the music. “Oompah,” our tour director Shirley says, clapping her hands. “Yes. Oompah!” She’s the one who arranged this evening in the Bedouin tent where we’ve broken bread with these men in scarves and robes, our tour group sitting cross-legged, eating hummus, pita, and skewered lamb with another small tour group from England.

I borrow the scarf hanging around David’s neck—the black and white tribal scarf I bought for him at the market near the Red Sea, the one usually worn with a black cord for keeping. Goddess in pink, move over. Twirling the scarf over my head and behind my hips, I commandeer a major portion of the space provided for dancing. Maybe I’m pushy, rude, and self-obsessed, but I’ve heard the call of the dance. I lose awareness of the woman in the pink pantsuit and everything else, then suddenly, I see that “Omar” is swaying with me, his fingers clapping the palm of his left hand, his sinuous torso reminiscent of carved sand dunes changing shape. I toss the scarf back to David who watches with curiosity.

Omar and I circle each other: boy meets girl, boy circles girl, girl weaves the web as her arms snake through the air. Surprisingly, I feel shy as a country girl fresh from milking a cow—something rural in my ancestral memory carrying me back to the condition of bashfulness. But his eyes don’t leave my face. They instruct me to stay. To be here. Now. This dance is beginning to feel intimate, as though it shouldn’t be watched. But gradually, I raise my eyes to his and meet his gaze which isn’t frightening or boorish but rather direct and unflinching. I can almost feel the back of a fingernail brushing slowly across my cheek.

Maybe, because of his unexpected tenderness, I stay with his gaze. As we dance, our feet became unnecessary. I hear the beat of the hand drum and the exotic melody on the oud—someone making love to the strings. This is not child’s play. This is not the awkward teenager with slumped shoulders hiding her new height, being pushed to the center of the living room floor at a family gathering to demonstrate the latest move from her ballet lesson. This is not the one who laughs nervously, then rushes to sit back down on the sofa between the safe shoulders of her brother and sisters.

This is a call to The Dance. It’s a call to be still inside, to be calm, and to listen to every sound outside of the self. There’s no room for the self here. My body is fluid, all parts working together, and our eyes become something besides eyes, something unsolid, more like slow lava rolling over the lip of a volcano. The pounding of the drum inserts itself with a 7/8 beat that mesmerizes in the way only a 7/8 beat can mesmerize, something so foreign to our multiples-of-two or 3/4 rhythms in the West. The dancing. The drum. The plucked strings expand the sides of the tent until the night comes in to dance with us, its stars slipping beneath the flaps.

Maybe that’s how it was in The Beginning when atoms whirled to spark life into being: the creative magnet exerting its force, the female responding. And for a moment, God isn’t up in the sky. He isn’t sitting on a throne in a faraway heaven. He’s here, looking into my eyes, assuring me of the glory of being a female, the one who brings form to God’s ideas. So many times I’ve hidden in that place where I can’t show myself—a snail so bare and squishable outside its shell. But this night, this Bedouin, this man who’s one sliver of God as I’m one sliver of God, speaks silently that there is nothing beyond, outside, or above this moment. No you. No me. Only the now. Maybe we are making powerful love with each other, even though our fingers don’t intertwine, our hands touch only air, the space between us remains open and yet filled at the same time.

Early in my study of Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movement, I watch and imitate the form as demonstrated by the teacher a thousand times at least. Having learned a lifetime of dance routines, after all, I imitate what I think is being shown: another dance. But one afternoon, after seeing these moves again and again, I suddenly understand I’ve never seen them at all. I’ve been watching the external movement of the teacher’s arms—the positions, the choreography, the curl of the palm of her hand and fingers. What I haven’t seen is how she works from the center of her body, her chi, her life force, her particular vitality.

* * * * *

After the break-up of both my first marriage and a five-year rebound/dead-end romance, I make yeoman efforts to get back on track again. But, like glue on paper, vestiges of sadness still cling to me. When my friend, Joy, invites me to travel with some Park City, Utah, women to Peru for a visit with a shaman, she also invites me to join her and her husband Miles afterward in Ecuador with another group called Eco-Trek. Thus begins my six week journey to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, undertaken not only for the purpose of meeting with shamans from the indigenous tribes of the Andes and of being taught by their 5,000 year old ancient wisdom, but with the subliminal hope of receiving a healing. Maybe shamans can heal me.

After spending a week with a remarkable shaman in Cusco, everything is anti-climactic when I join up with the Eco-Trek group in Quito. As our eight-person group drives up and down dusty roads between the capital city and Otavalo to meet with various shamans, I feel lukewarm about the perfumeros, paleros, and the tabaqueros we visit. I don’t feel connected in the dark rooms where they preside over tables (looking suspiciously like borrowed school desks covered with sacred implements and lighted candles) and wear headdresses of upright parrot feathers. Feeling more like a curious tourist adding notches to her exotic-travel belt, I half-heartedly participate in a group healing one night where all eight of us stand naked in a darkened room on the bottom level of the shaman’s house (situated next to a room where cattle are kept for the night). Using their mouths, the perfumeros spray each of us with flower water. This healing feels more like a dimly-lit, murky, dankest-dungeon dream where nothing emerges into clarity. What am I doing here, sniffing cattle dung and being sprayed with scented water from someone’s mouth? Why are we submitting ourselves to strange healers who don’t know any of us from Adam and whose bankroll will be substantially fatter when we leave? Do I have a center of myself which is mine alone and which recognizes a boundary?

Things change, however, when we drive to Quilajalo the next morning. In broad daylight, I shake hands with Alberto Taxo, a shaman living with his wife Elba at a retreat nestled in a valley surrounded by the Imbabura, Mojanda, and Cotacachi mountains. First I see a man dressed in an open-collared, pale blue, long-sleeved shirt, and a turquoise blue pair of cloth pants, no shoes. His long, graying hair is fastened in a pony tail with a hand-woven tie. He has a six-inch mostly white beard and clear blue eyes. I’m reminded of Sunday School paintings of Jesus. Even though sunlight flits through the overhead leaves and casts moving pictures on our faces, light radiates directly from his.

“If you wish to have a healing,” he announces, “please wait in the communal room.” He points to a tall building—a thatched-roof lodge built of thin branches and spindly trunks of trees bound together with hemp rope. The others wait outside—having had their fill of healings for the time being. Five of us file in, remove our shoes, and find a seat on the concrete rim circumscribing the hard-earth-floor-in-the-round, fire pit in the middle. Waiting for Alberto, I pray to whatever God will listen that my sadness will lift. Visualizing, as someone has suggested, I gather my sadness into an imaginary burlap bag with a Spanish label and toss it into the fire with the hope it will be purified. I’ve spent enough time with painful teachers. Bastante.

When Alberto appears near the fire burning in the pit, three large feathers in hand, I shift on my sitz bones, unconsciously looking for a soft spot in this concrete. Through the haze of drifting smoke, I witness the individual healings of four members of our group. I watch the long feathers in Alberto’s right hand tracing patterns in the air and the trance-like state of his face.

When it’s my turn to stand by the fire, Alberto looks at the whole of and the extension of me. We don’t speak. Using his large condor feathers and carefully chosen herbs and incense, he begins a ritualized healing, the same as he’s done with the others, circling and humming at random. Then, he stops. He looks at me more carefully. He squints his eyes.

Setting aside the large feathers on a table made from the sawed-off stump of a tree, he moves directly in front of me. Out of nowhere, it seems, he gathers a handful of barely-there downy feathers similar to fluff from cottonwood trees in early summer. He closes his eyes. He raises his head, chin up. While I stand there in hiking pants, yellow T-shirt, and feet free of hiking socks and boots, he circles one hand in front of my heart. I feel exposed in a way I hadn’t been when I’d stood naked in the dimly-lit room the night before. My toes dig into the hardpack to preserve my posture, my dignity, my mask hiding my frailty.

A cloud uncovers the sun’s face above the spacious room, floats past it, away from it. My eyes lift to catch pieces of light piercing the high ceiling of woven grasses, then squeeze shut as, suddenly, I feel an intense pressure against my chest. The bottled-up sadness trapped inside pushes against my skin and toward the open air where it can run free in every direction. I feel scared. This pressure might swamp my heart. But, then, suddenly, it evaporates, poof—a bubble on the surface of a mud pond. I feel boneless. A rag doll.

chi in place of the stagnant water that has been standing too long. Alberto tosses the baby feathers into the fire, nods to me, and walks toward the open door of the lodge into the day. Except I can’t remember him passing through—this man of breath and Spirit. It’s as if he evaporates into thin air.

* * * * *

The noisy, single-engine plane noses through a barricade of clouds. Bold slashes of blue attempt a takeover of the thick, gauzy skies, but the grayness is winning.

Mira,

Un volcán.”Christine, our group leader who sits in the co-pilot’s seat, translates. All eight members of the Eco-Trek tour group strain forward to catch sight of something in our wildest imaginations we never thought we’d see: massive, roily, dust-filled clouds of darkest gray belching out of the earth’s interior; molten magma embellished with lines of fire oozing over the volcano’s lip. But then, too quickly, it fades in the distance behind us, and the pilot points the plane’s nose downward toward the Miazal Jungle in Ecuador’s Oriente. We sink into a sea of even darker gray clouds, drop into a clearing, skid onto an underwater field-of-grass, and plow through mud. Christine pulls a battered rubber sack toward her, then opens it to a disheveled assortment of black, knee-high, rubber boots.

“Always wear these,” she instructs, sorting them into pairs, handing them out.

Most of our feet slip around in the boots, one size too big, but who’s going to complain when we’re about to cross a terrain with who knows what creatures we might surprise?

“Members of the tribe are here to take you to the village,” she says. “The Shuar were a head-hunting tribe until about thirty years ago, but there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve been coming here for a few years now, and I still have mine.” She smiles a mock-satisfied smile. “But remember. They’re a proud people. It’s an honor for you to be here. Show your utmost respect. I can bring you here because they trust me.”

Recalling scalps from Old West movies, my memory sifts through horrific images of shrunken heads—scalps hanging on a branch on a tree next to a tribal village. Fires. Smoke. Frenzied drums.

“Things have changed,” she says. I laugh nervously to myself, wondering if the medical student next to me is taking silent measure of his neck, too.

“One more thing,” Christine adds. “Women, don’t look directly into the eyes of the men as they’ll mistake that for an invitation to go with them into the jungle for big passion.”

“Big passion!” The five women in the group arch their eyebrows at each other. The men cover their smiles. Big passion on the floor of the jungle in the company of ants and tarantulas?

When we climb down the airplane stairs to greet the tribesmen who are approximately 2/3, if not half, our size, and who crowd around us, these thin, small-boned men, wave their hands and shouting in a language I can’t understand as the tropical foliage creeps toward the airstrip. Tarzan. Swinging vines. Question-mark snakes wrapped around tree branches. Nevertheless, we follow them at a quick clip on grass-covered paths, across a line of cutter ants, into dugout canoes, across two swollen rivers, through thick sawgrasses, until we reach a clearing with a compound—a lodge built of thin branches with a precisely-woven palm leaf roof. The natives show us to our rooms with cement floors, well-brushed corners, and the smell of fumigants keeping insects at bay.

The healing I received from Alberto Taxo is alive in me still. Some unyielding place in myself—some useless fortress wall—has crumbled. And so, after we settle into our rooms, four of us hiking on a well-worn path through the jungle that feels like a sauna and arriving at a clear, shallow, broad river, I can’t help myself.

“Are there any piranha in here?” I ask Christine on a sudden whim.

“No.” She eyes me suspiciously. “Why do you want to know?”

Feeling impulsive, I flop back into the clear water to let the slow current carry me. I’ve always felt at home in this element after taking Red Cross swimming lessons in Lake Mead as a child. A tadpole. A frog. A creature of water. Maybe I want to be re-baptized, to immerse myself from head to toe, to be cleansed by water and celebrate the way I’ve been feeling since Quilajalo.

Through the drops of splashing water, however, Christine looks at me with ill-masked horror on her face. She dives in beside me. Suddenly, remembering she’s responsible for any breaking of the tribal code and that maybe I’ve done just that, I think of stopping time and reversing the action. But we are both in the flow of water, floating next to each other, the sound of running water in our ears. Soon we arrive at a widening of the river, a sandy bank, and the shores of the compound. After searching the bottom of the river with our feet to find a secure place to stand, we both shake off water and push wet hair out of our eyes. Gratefully, she’s kind enough not to berate me in front of the two Shuar staring at us curiously from the edge of the river. Anything could have happened, her effort at silence says. You need to respect where we are. I cringe at the thought of my foolish insensitivity, not only to jungle etiquette, but to the natural elements.

That night, my first gaffe behind me, the eight of us are treated to a traditional dinner at rough-hewn picnic tables set on a cement slab. After dinner, more members of the tribe join the dinner staff to demonstrate the old ways of the Shuar people. “Some of these practices are still continued today,” Christine explains, “though mainly by those wishing to preserve tradition.”

Dressed in wrap-around cloth rather than the bare-breasted jungle wear often seen in National Geographic, the members of the tribe portray how they used to greet each other with a complex choreography of spears and how they entered each others’ homes to drink a brew called chicha. “This is made by the Shuar women from manioc root and saliva, which they spit into the mixture and allow to ferment,” Christine continues. “Chicha was carried with them whenever they went for a visit. And still is.”

Before we are sufficiently prepared to think up a gracious way to decline, two of the women approach our table with half coconut shells full of chicha in hand. Saliva. Fermented saliva. Save me, somebody. Their faces suggest they’re fully expecting our pleasure at sharing a drop of their strange brew. In their honor, members of our tour group pass the shell around and partake of this sour concoction with subtly pinched nostrils.

After the chicha, gratefully, two musicians appear with a guitar and a reed flute. They play music from the Andes (the jungle being an extension of the Andes, Christine tells us). Several of the Shuar men walk up to the women in the group and ask them to dance. When a rather minuscule, older man with bones more appropriate for a bird, approaches me, I remember the caution about eye contact. In the light of four inadequate floodlights shining from each corner of the dance floor, I concentrate on his feet while moving my own, and spend much of our dance together laughing internally about how this protective measure defeats the purpose of dancing. When he asks me to dance again, I can’t deal with counting his toes anymore. Impulsively, I reach across to him with my palms up and gesture for him to clap them. It’s a game I used to play with my sons: 4/4 rhythm, clap your knees, clap your own hands, then trade claps with your partner. At first he’s confused, but after a few more demonstrations, he finally claps my hand back. Then the other. Both of us laugh and hop around in a circle. Except, maybe I’m being a disrespectful tourist by playing loose with the natives. I don’t know all the rules here, except I don’t look into his eyes.

When the party has been cleared away and the Shuar disappear, Christine stops me with an amused expression on her face. “Do you know who you were dancing with?”

“No,” I say, raising my innocent eyebrows.

“That was Whonk. He’s the most powerful shaman in the Shuar tribe.”

“Oh.” I panic. “Really?”

“Really.” She smiles and turns to go to bed, leaving me there to stew in my mental juices. The most powerful shaman? Have I done something irreparably wrong by touching the hands of the shaman? If only I’d known. Maybe I should have been more careful. But maybe, intimidated by his title, position, and power, I’d have kowtowed or bowed, or worse yet, avoided him. What does it mean to be a shaman? Is he sacred? Untouchable?

As I pull down the sheets of my bed and search for insect invaders with my flashlight, I think about the word “sacred.” What does that mean to me? Respect? Awe? Veneration inspired by authority? Is sacred always something external to me—a higher being out there somewhere, a holier place than the one where I’m standing, an intermediary between myself and God? It’s good to be with these shamans. Good to drink chicha even if it is fermented saliva. It’s good to dance with the most powerful shaman. It’s also good I didn’t know Whonk’s position. I’d have worried, always concerned with the sacred code of The Other. But, respect aside, what are the things that matter to me and my integrity? I’m only trying to make meaningful contact with strangers.

The next morning, I see Whonk speaking to our translator. In the daylight, I view him with greater clarity. He seems less old, more agile, his skin more honeyed-chestnut brown. I can see strength in this man with small bones, a different kind of strength, a vitality I hadn’t been able to discern in the dim light on the dance floor. He’s no longer a tiny man, delicate as a bird, but powerful in his serenity, with his chi, with his at-homeness in the world.

“Please tell him he’s a good dancer,” I speak up, emboldened by the beauty of the day. “I enjoyed dancing with him, but tell him I apologize if I seemed disrespectful.”

The translator laughs a belly laugh at what seems to be a mammoth joke. “He was just telling me what a good dancer you are. What a good time he had.”

I look at Whonk, even at his eyes that wrinkle into a smile on his sun-worn face, two missing teeth suddenly evident. I smile my orthodontically-corrected, American materialist smile, but at this point, I’m okay with the way my culture has mandated straight teeth. I’m okay with my place in the cosmic order. He and I clap our hands together one last time and laugh as that’s the best language we can speak. This is my most important healing: to have connected to a holy man, not as an acolyte on bended knee in the presence of a sacred totem, but as a partner in the dance.

When I attend Whonk’s ceremony that night, I decide, for the first time during my six-week trip of visiting shamans, not to participate directly in yet another ceremony for healing. I’m not a woman trying to right herself with the world anymore. In the candlelight in the dark of the Miazal Jungle watching other members of my group participate in the last ritual before we leave The Land of the Condor, I know the whole earth is a holy place, maybe know this for the first time even though I’ve heard it said a thousand times. On this night, listening to the sound of Whonk’s chanting, I feel “sacred” at the center of my being, radiating from my life force, my particular vitality. It is Spirit dancing.

—Phyllis Barber

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Phyllis Barber is the author of seven books, including Raw Edges: A Memoir (The University of Nevada Press, 2010) — a coming-of-age-in-middle-age story. An earlier memoir, How I Got Cultured, was the winner of the Associated Writing Programs Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 1991 as well as the Association for Mormon Letters Award in Autobiography in 1993, and earned her an appearance on the NBC-Today Show in 1997. She has been anthologized extensively, the most recent occasion being Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction (Zarahemla Books, Provo, Utah, 2010). She has published in many literary journals, including Agni Magazine, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Crazyhorse, North American Review, Dialogue, and Sunstone, among others, and is one of the founders of the Writers at Work Conference in Utah. She lives in Denver.

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Mar 292012
 

Horror and fashion are interwoven in Lucrecia Martel’s “Muta,” a commercial and short film hybrid with a subtle and disturbing story that blurs the line between repulsion and beauty.

The clothing company MiuMiu commissioned the piece for a unique short film project called The Women’s Tales. It is difficult to find information on the origins of The Women’s Tales project, but it seems that the founder of MiuMiu, Miuccia Prada (yes, that Prada family), selected Lucrecia Martel for this project after a conversation. Two other younger women directors Zoe Cassavetes (USA, born in 1970) and Giada Colagrande (Italy, born in 1975) have also been selected. The films have been projected during fashion events held by MiuMiu and are being featured on the company’s website.

In her films, Lucrecia Martel likes to make her audience uneasy, thematically, visually and acoustically. In The Holy Girl, for example, her chosen story-line seeks to create discomfort, agitation, and questioning by focusing on a pedophilic predator and his relationship with an adolescent victim-turned-stalker.  Martel’s visual language choices add to this uneasiness through her signature cryptic yet profound qualities. Her keen gaze focuses on details, she directs the camera with precision, and allows us the time, as viewers, to find those telling expressions, minute shapes and textures that she wants to feature in her work. Furthermore, the sounds she uses tell another conflicted and unsettling story as they often originate off-camera or don’t match the image being seen – we can’t help but be disturbed by the collision of the two contrasting senses.  Wear headsets and turn up the sound to truly appreciate the subtle layers of her storytelling.

Martel’s choice of title is interesting. Perhaps in her research, Martel found out that Miuccia Prada had been a mime for the years following her PhD in political science. “Muta” means mute or voiceless in Italian: the characters in this short film do not speak in a manner that is intelligible; they don’t use a comprehensible language and the sounds they produce are not subtitled. What was that mumbling? Did I hear a word? A series of unintelligible and incoherent sounds create constant speculation for the audience. Martel uses all her artistry to create a soundscape that intrigues, often recalling sounds we rarely hear but associating them with something more familiar: the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings as we see a close-up of a long fluttering fake eyelash.

Ultimately, words would be superfluous to an understanding the story. Unlike in this year’s Best Film at the Oscars (The Artist), even facial expressions are not necessary for us to feel something and react to the film.

“Muta” borders on the genres of science fiction and horror, but both in subtle ways. The setting of Martel’s film is a strange yet familiar world where something perhaps apocalyptic has happened, recalling the mutations in the original 1958 The Fly by Kurt Neumann (remade by David Cronenburg in 1986). Has the human race in the future been hybridized through genetic mutations? Is the world inhabited by anonymous leggy creatures recalling stick insects? Regardless, the first and last shots that frame Martel’s film are of buzzing insects above water, at dawn and dusk.  This busyness in the opening scenes contrasts with the stark shots that will follow but will echo the presence of the insects – something inhuman haunts the entire film.

The film is a sort of self-contained drama (used in theatre, the French term “huis clos” captures this much better) that starts with the first scene, as we discover that the setting will be an opulent ship gliding on a river (filmed on a river in Paraguay). This scene is beautifully shot, presenting an idyllic sunrise that in no way warns us of what is to happen. In Spanish and Italian, “muta” comes from the verbs to moult or to mutate, but was also used in the past as a noun to describe a pack of dogs. Indeed the characters in the story act and react like a pack.

Like cockroaches (or praying mantises, given their extra long model legs), they hatch on the boat, unfolding awkwardly, emerging from the concealed wall storage units. Martel speeds up and slows down their actions to make their emergence seem all the more uncomfortable for the models, and uncanny for the spectator.

The beings are dressed in MiuMiu’s beautiful 2011 collection, including the accessories, which are prominently displayed. This was the designer’s only constraint on Martel’s creativity –the use of her clothing collection. Their bodies, as they do strange things like eating paper, seem alien and insect-like. The mysterious hierarchy that governs them dictates that they should fumigate (or sterilize?) certain members of the pack while wearing bulky gas masks. But they also get to enjoy a party where they drink green slimy chemical cocktails. We see them react to situations with base emotions but never really understand why. With the absence of words and facial expression, we must rely on body language to understand the characters.

Martel’s work is also profound in that it captures and parodies the very essence of the fashion industry it is supposed to represent. Faceless models play the characters who only serve as functioning mannequins in a drama that eventually eliminates them from the equation:  the bodies, reduced to hangers for the company’s clothes, disappear at the end of the film, leaving behind the sheaths and adornments that had served them. MiuMiu’s 2011 collection is shown off, central to the story, but eventually discarded. How fickle the fashion world!

Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel (born in 1966) is already a household name for fans of Latin American cinema. She has become the protégée of Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar and has released a dozen shorts and a trilogy of successful feature films: The Swamp (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008). Martel has received awards at many festivals around the world and the last two films were nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The short film Muta (2011) might make her a household name in another circle, that of fashion.

— Sophie Lavoie

Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

Mar 272012
 

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Ilyana Martinez is a Toronto artist and designer who grew up in Pittsburgh and Mexico City. She uses watercolour in untraditional ways, sometimes mixing it with gouache and ink, to make fantastical drawings, full of whimsy and hope. Martinez says that imagination “plays a really big role because I don’t really plan the drawings ahead of time. Occasionally, I’ll begin with a sketch or use diagrams of architecture and plant forms, but mostly it’s memory and imagination. I spend time looking at plants, trees, berries, rocks, but they become slightly altered on paper.” She sees her imagery as “a language I’ve developed for these plants and buildings in my head.”

—Kim Aubrey

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Temporal Relationship

Temporal Relationship

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Hovering Points

Hovering Points

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Strata

Strata

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Symbiosis

Red Sky

Red Sky

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Replica

Replica

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Whorl

Whorl

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—Ilyana Martinez

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Ilyana Martinez graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design in 2002, with a major in Drawing and Painting. Previous studies include a Bachelor of Design at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and an exchange program at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication in the UK. She has been involved in design projects with prominent museums in Canada and abroad, such as The Manitoba Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, and the Glenbow Museum in Canada, and the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City.

Ilyana’s work has been exhibited in galleries around the world. She has won numerous awards and grants for her drawings and paintings, among these an award from the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, an Honourable Mention in Watercolour from the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, and the WO Forsyth Award from the Ontario College of Art & Design. In 2011, she participated in a multidisciplinary art residency in Rudele, Croatia.

Along with Nahum Flores and Erik Jerezano, Martinez is a member of the  Z’otz* collective. Their collaborative work is currently featured in the exhibition Hourglass Continent at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario, March 3 to June 3. The artist photos are by Erik Jerezano.

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Ilyana MartinezPhoto by Erik Jerezano

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Mar 272012
 

 

 

The world is a poem, repetition rules, influence is rhyme. In his self-introduction to his poem Garry Thomas Morse refers to an essay by Robin Blaser. I interviewed Blaser, one of my first radio shows, when I hosted The Book Show on WAMC in Albany, NY, in the mid-90s, just after his amazing collection The Holy Forest came out. Blaser was originally from Idaho, but his poetry evolved out of the San Francisco Renaissance epitomized by Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. But he was also part of a general and often under-acknowledged surge to the north, American writers and artists heading to Canada in the 60s, for political reasons and other. Blaser moved to Vancouver in 1966 where he became an immensely influential figure in Canadian poetry. Black Mountain poetry, the  San Francisco Renaissance, conceptual poetry, surrealism, and even the sound poetry of Ponge have had an amazing second (or third or whatever) incarnation in Canada. Fred Wah, the current Canadian Poet Laureate, is an heir to the movement. He was there in Vancouver, on the scene, when Charles Olson made his famous 1963 visit and read from the Maximus Poems.

Garry Thomas Morse typifies an emergent generation of Canadian poets in the tradition. He’s exciting to read, fun to look at on the page (my son Jonah, 17, discovered a print out of this poem on my desk and charged in saying, “Who wrote this? This is great. He’s got the FONTS talking to each other! Look at this ‘scalar darkness’ line.”). We have here a work that is intimate yet cerebral, aware of itself as typed words on the page, yet exploding into myth. Wonderful to have it, and to have a chance to limn its context.

dg

Garry Thomas Morse: In his Own Words

My lifelong long poem The Untitled (thus far) approaches personal biotext in terms of compositional method, transmuting (or transmutating) quotidian aspects of life into refractions of poetic form in which the continuous lyric is subject to disjunctive fragmentation, for example, in more than one case into operatic fragments. I think it is fair to agree with what has been said, that my poetry has a “tendency toward epic” and is very much informed by the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, and Robin Blaser, to name but a few. As for the compositional structures and ideas of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Mahler, hopefully the reader will on some level perceive them.

Poet Sharon Thesen recently sent me a quote from Robin Blaser’s essay on Charles Olson in The Fire that made her think of my project The Untitled, and this caused me to reflect upon the relationship between the individual and rerum natura:

“What I have noticed in the poetry and poetics of the most important poets is that they are arguing, weaving, and composing a cosmology and an epistemology. There is no epistemological cut-off in our deepest natures, nor in our engagement with life. Nor is the ambition of what is known short on its desire for cosmos. It is this structuring, large and deep in the nature of things, that still thrills us in Hesiod’s struggle for the sense of it….Repeatedly in the history of poetry we find ourselves returning to epic structures….I suggest that great poetry is always after the world–it is a spiritual chase–and that it has never been, in the old, outworn sense, simply subjective or personal.”

The Untitled (91) is something of a parody of much poetic and conceptual praxis, where the “concept” of a city “narrative” breaks down into interweavings of Artaud and Adorno, who as Leonard Bernstein has pointed out, “didn’t get the joke” where Stravinsky was concerned and thought him a demon. I’d say my lyrical demonry bears comparison with Stravinsky’s methodologies, stacking linguistic constructions like so many tritones on top of one another in order to try and resuscitate the lyric mode. And it’s kinda messy.

To paraphrase the lovely and witty dramaturge Lucia Frangione, perhaps this is the only way to tell the pie you’ve made is homemade and not store bought, ie. tidy, angular, and geometric, pretentious or inedible. Real food is thrown together.

I suppose Gustave Mahler’s heart is giving out somewhere in the poem, and so is my Anglo-Jewish grandmother’s in the hospital. By assuming these fragmentary associations, this jumble of repetitive images may live on, in dare I say, the real world.

—Garry Morse

—Garry Thomas Morse

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Garry Thomas Morse has had two books of poetry published by LINEbooks, Transversals for Orpheus (2006) and Streams (2007), one collection of fiction, Death in Vancouver (2009), published by Talonbooks, and two books of poetry published by Talonbooks, After Jack (2010) and Discovery Passages (2011), finalist for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry and finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Morse is recipient of the 2008 City of Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award for Emerging Artist and has twice been selected as runner-up for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry.

 

 

 

Mar 262012
 

Herewith an excerpt, a chapter called “The Raid” from Eugene K. Garber’s novel O Amazonas Escuro (Swank Books), an ebullient parody, a philosophical inquiry, and a tale of revenge set in the jungles of the Amazon but written, yes, strangely and beautifully, in legal outline form adapted from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (which book I studied to an unhealthy degree as a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, so I feel on familiar ground though I don’t suppose many other people will). Welcome to the eccentric and startling refractions of Gene Garber’s mental/literary universe, an assemblage, as it were, of the author’s obsessions: oral storytelling, myth and Western philosophy. We are here in the literary tradition of Coover, Barthelme, Hawkes and Gass, the four horsemen of American experiment (called variously metafiction, postmodern, & other equally limiting and not altogether helpful epithets). Of his work, Gene has said, “Readers may be interested in my passionate and perhaps curious fascination with the tale (as opposed to the realistic short story) and especially with tales that make metaphysical probes. The crux of the matter is, I suppose, that I am more interested in myth than history, more arrested by archetype than individual—an aesthetic position fraught with terrible dangers.”

Gene Garber is an old friend, a former colleague, even, briefly, I guess, my boss, when I hosted The Book Show at WAMC in Albany, when the show was sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute (this was some time before the last Ice Age, if I recall correctly). He started life in Alabama but  is now a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, and will INSIST on spending his winters in Key West. His 1981 collection, Metaphysical Tales received the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. His collection The Historian received the Triquarterly William Goyen Prize. He is also the chief author of Eroica, a fascinating multi-artist hypermedia work in progress.

dg

 

 

Prologue

The ethnographer K lives with the Roirúa-peo in their woshana, a circular compound with reed walls and thatched roof, near the east bank of the upper Negro, which joins the Solimões at Manaus in Brazil to form the Amazon. His careful reports have earned him great credit among anthropologists who favor the etic (objective) analysis of culture. Among those who favor the emic (interior) experience of culture the tenacity of K’s claims have earned him the paradoxical position of an invaluable archenemy.

The Raid

1. The world is all that is the case.

1.1 K is an accomplished linguist.

1.2 K has constructed a grammar and lexicon of the language of the Roirúa-peo. Colleagues attest that his phonetic transcriptions are ear perfect. Consequently, his exchanges with tribal members are free of significant distortions. Nevertheless, his dialogues with Korakama are difficult. Korakama is the tribe’s mystery man. The story is that he was born from an anaconda and grew up with monkeys. Then he went downriver among many peo and even non-humans. One day he walked into the woshana. His body had been painted with beautiful designs by Yara, the river goddess. Nobody touched him.

2. The facts in logical space are the world.

2.1 Korakama is a master rhetorician.

2.2 Korakama keeps his arguments near his hammock in cubby holes only he can see. He takes them out carefully, rubs them until they shine and puts them under his tongue. K’s knowledge of rhetoric is limited. He believes in logos, not ethos or pathos; logic, not topoi and commonplaces. Etic. Korakama’s cubby holes constitute a myriad of topoi, each cubby stuffed with luminous propositions, red, green, blue, and many compounds. “You cannot give your dead free to the Mureka-peo,” he tells the Roirúa-peo tribesmen. His words fly to their ears like darts feathered with blue toucan plumes. “The ghosts of Pydora and Rwoto and Sinaw and Mismuo are crying out to be released by payment of blood. Do you not hear them?”

“Eyo cototo! Eyo cototo!”

3. The way a picture attaches itself to reality is by reaching directly into it.

3.1 Korakama has three pots of rhetorical colors—red, green, and blue.

3.2 Korakama mixes the colors and throws them into the ears and eyes of the tribesmen before they can blink and then he paints. “You who pulled the spears out, did you not follow with your eyes the red life running out? Did you not see their ash after the pyre, gray and without life? Did you not see their wives fall down weeping? What kind of men see their brothers’ smoke go up into the sky and lie in their hammocks doing nothing? Soon you will be blind as grubs. You will not see the spear points come over the woshana wall or the Mureka-peo take your wives.” Korakama’s words are even more dazzling than the figures painted on his body.

4. It is said that God cannot create anything contrary to the laws of logic.

4.1 K asks Korakama if the gods have created more than one world.

4.11 “This is a question only a non-human can ask.”

4.12 K understands why he is a non-human among the Roirúa-peo. He is ghastly white. Hair grows on his body as on a monkey’s. His skin stinks. His fecal matter breeds green flies.

4.13 “I must ask the question anyway.”

“There are many worlds, but we do not know them because we live in this one.”

“Have you ever seen another world?”

“Yes.”

“Was it like this one?”

“Yes, only upside down. The river flows to the mountain and the rain falls up.”

“Do you know anybody that lives there?”

“No. They are the ones that walk on their heads.”

“Then the Mureka-peo live with you in this world.”

“Yes, but they kill us. We must kill four of them and take three women.”

“Why do you want women of the men who kill you?”

“The women will not kill us. If they do not work we will rape them and kill them.”

5. An audio tape, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound-waves all stand to one another in the same relationship that holds between language and the world.

5.1 K tapes all important conversations.

5.11 K listens to the tape of Korakama telling about the other world he has visited. Meanwhile, out in the center of the woshana men are pounding their chests and shouting angrily. Then suddenly they are quiet, struck motionless in various bellicose postures. Bowakawo is in the center of the woshana holding a spear up high. Korakama is standing by his hammock. K understands it is he that has created this tableau vivant of war.

5.12 “Why did you make the men stop still?”

“I did not do it. The spirit did it.”

“What spirit?”

“Listen.” Slowly the tribesmen begin to move one by one. The music of war rises and throws a loud mantel of sound over the woshana—pounding of chests, humming and hunhing, thrashing of spears. Then from its concealment behind Korakama’s back comes a machete. He slaps the flat of the blade against his thigh.

“Where did you get the machete?”

Korakama laughs. His teeth are yellow. “From some non-humans. I traded a woman, good and young.”

6. In order to judge a logical proposition we have to station ourselves outside logic, that is to say, outside the world.

6.1 K goes on the raid with his camcorder.

6.11 K will not carry a spear or kill any Mureka-peo or take any women. K will station himself outside the world of the raid. He will record it. Then he will judge the logic of its propositions. Etic.

6.12 There are twenty men, some armed with spears, some with bows and arrows. Bowakawo leads. Korakama is in the rear just ahead of K and just behind Rosowara the shaman, who brings his hollow reeds and a supply of ebene. When the time comes he will blow it into the noses of the warriors so they can call up Hekura.

Before K begins to record, he looks through the optical zoom of the camcorder at the backs of the warriors as they course the jungle floor. There is a lighted green border that frames the field and defines the world K is not in. Etic.

7. If a god creates a world in which certain propositions are true, then by that very act he creates a world in which all the propositions that follow from them are true. Similarly, he could not create a world in which a proposition was true without creating all of its objects.

7.1 If bloody visits and reprisals are part of an ongoing protein war, as K believes, then they will continue indefinitely unless an abundance of protein is found or the technology for acquiring protein is radically improved or the consumers of protein are vastly reduced by, say, an even more virulent form of malaria than that which regularly afflicts the peoples of the upper Amazon.

7.11 Suddenly there is a shout at the head of the column of warriors, which then veers off into the forest. Bowakawo has spotted a fallen tree now rotted and punky and full of grubs. The warriors, digging with spears and arrows, pluck out the grubs, pull off their heads and entrails, and eat them voraciously.

7.12 Korakama gives a grub to K. “Even a non-human will like grubs.”

K eats the decapitated and eviscerated grub, which is still wriggling. It tastes creamy and sweet, something like a raw oyster. “Very good, Korakama. And now that you have enough to eat, you will not have to kill any Mureka-peo.”

Korakama smiles. “I know that non-humans have Hekura that give them speech that does not mean anything.” He laughs raucously. Milky white grub juice spills from the corners of his mouth and lands precisely in the middle of a coil of red paint that spirals around his navel.

8. Free will consists in the impossibility of knowing actions that still lie in the future, which we could know only if causality were an inner necessity like logic.

8.1 “Will you say to Bowakawo that it is not necessary to kill and kidnap Mureka-peo?”

“No, because this is begun right. If a thing begun right is stopped, your penis dies.” Korakama grimaces. “The penises of non-humans are different. You can go back now and have women in the manioc garden while we are gone, but do not take them into your hammock. That is different.”

K shakes his head. “I do not want women.”

“Now you like boys but you will soon want women. This is the way of non-humans that come to the river.”

“What will the judgment be if one of your warriors is killed?”

“They will say it is a bad raid. But I cannot know that time.”

“Do you think it would be better not to go into a time you do not know?”

8.11 “I will tell you something of time but I do not believe a non-human can know it.”

“Tell me.”

“Once everything was gray. A god that was a woman bled and color came. Then time was a river without banks. You could go anywhere in it without bumping into anything. Then things got divided. Eels and anacondas and men in canoes came and cut the water apart. Time had banks and falls and swiftness. Gray mists came and hid dangers. You could die no matter how fast you ran. That is how it is now. Only Rosowara can go into the old time but not long. He can see it only a little way. You say one of our warriors can be killed. Rosowara can not see that in this time of divided waters. We must do it.”

9. How can all-embracing logic, which mirrors the world, use such peculiar crochets and contrivances? Because they are all connected with one another in an infinitely fine network, the great mirror.

9.1 K knows that the path from the woshana of the Roirúa-peo to the woshana of the Mureka-peo is virtually a straight line, like a well executed argument.

9.11 After the feast of grubs the warriors do not reassemble in a column to resume their march. They burst apart slobbering grub milk, laughing wildly as if they had ebene in their nostrils. They fan out into the forest yelping like dogs. A warrior spots a monkey and gives the call to action. “Eyo cototo! Eyo cototo!” Others come running. A swarm of arrows flies up at the monkey, which falls to the ground dead. The creature is held up triumphantly by the tail. It is the size of a human infant.

9.2 All of this K records in his camcorder, neatly framed in luminous green brackets. When the exultant clamor at last subsides, the warriors gather up their spent arrows from the forest floor. Several are lodged in the tree. A nimble young man climbs up and frees them. Some of the arrows are particularly valuable. They were shot at the moon in eclipse and gathered in the morning, their accuracy guaranteed.

9.21 K will plumb the logical connection between the raid and these seemingly curious diversions, grubs and monkey—no doubt closely related to the logic of protein.

9.22 Before dark they come to a lagoon where a loosely packed school of small piranhas swim in desultory circles. An older warrior pricks his wrist with his spear and drops blood into the water. A sudden alertness electrifies the fish and propels them into an atrocious thrashing. Korakama leaps forward with his machete and slices through the roiled mass. Within moments the water becomes a vortex of cannibalistic red so bright it spills over the green brackets in K’s camcorder.

9.23 K will plumb the logic of these discursions—grub, monkey, and fish.

9.24 Shortly after nightfall the party of warriors reaches the woshana of the Mureka-peo. Quietly they surround the manioc garden and lie in wait. The underbrush is sparse. Each warrior must choose and arrange his cover carefully. Bowakawo inspects each covert, occasionally directing Korakama to cut with his machete some foliage to improve concealment. Then all settle down.

10. If there would be a logic even if there were no world, how then could there be a logic given that there is a world?

10.1 K knows that in a matter of a few hours much blood will be spilled.

10.11 The logic of grubs is protein.

10.12 The logic of the monkey is rehearsal.

10.13 The logic of piranhas is blood.

11. Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

11.1 It is not the job of the ethnographer to anticipate but to observe. Etic.

11.11 K looks through the green frame of his camcorder. All is dark, the top of the Mureka-peo woshana a barely perceptible shadow against the black forest. All is quiet, supper inside the woshana done, the people asleep in their hammocks.

11.12 K recoils from blood. When he sees it, the tastes of salt and metal suffuse his mouth.

11.13 K falls into a dream state though it was his intention to stay awake all night. In the dream he climbs toward the future as if the intervening hours were a wall woven of bamboo and palmettos. He tries to pull the passing hour down off the wall by its tail, but its prehensile fingers and toes are too strong for his hands, which are slick with blood. It continues to climb.

12. How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.

12.1 Just before dawn Rosowara goes quietly around with his hollow reed and blows ebene into the nostrils of all but K, who waves him away.

12.2 The sun slices into the manioc garden.

12.3 The Mureka-peo men and women come to empty their bowels and to complete trysts that are not permitted in their hammocks.

12.4 K looks through the green frame of his camcorder.

12.41 K’s nostrils, all unwilled, betray the impartiality of the recorder.

12.411 The odor of feces is rank and vegetal.

12.412 The odor of semen is rich and pungent.

12.413 The odor of blood is like corroded iron.

12.5 The spears are sharp and draw howls and blood. The arrows are piercing and draw shrieks and blood. But there is nothing in the garden like Korakama’s machete. A head severed from its body does not howl.

12.6 Korakama and Bowakawo are true to the plan. When four men lie dead and three women are chosen to be taken away, the rest are allowed to escape back to the woshana. And then the Roirúa-peo warriors and their captives run like river rapids. The women are struck across the mouth and understand they must run silently.

12.7 The forest floor streams across the green brackets of K’s camcorder like a rampaging river of earth and grass. He turns it off, slings it over his shoulder, and keeps running. Rosowara runs ahead of him. K’s shod feet are clumsy. He cannot keep up with the barefoot coursers. He stumbles and falls to his knees. The odor of decayed vegetation rises immediately and offends his nostrils. A thick welling of salt rises in his mouth. He has bitten his tongue. Far ahead the Roirúa-peo warriors take up their shout of triumph. They have no thought of him. Soon they will pour through the gate of the woshana amid cries of exaltation. Korakama will sever the air with his machete.

K must get up and run. Warriors of the Mureka-peo may be in pursuit. He rises to his feet but staggers, weakened by revulsion. He slogs slowly toward the woshana like a leaden drunk. As he approaches the manioc garden, light lances his eyes. He squints and slogs on. It seems long minutes before the gateway of the woshana opens before him like a carious mouth mumbling reeds and dust. Though he is grimed and stinking he must steady himself and stand erect as though he were human. He will walk with a certain insouciance, as though he has merely stopped by the way to snack on some grubs.

13. It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that the world exists.

14. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

—Eugene Garber

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Mar 242012
 

 

 

Herewith a selection of images, mandalas from Laura Catherine Brown‘s notebooks. They say something about art and form, stillness within change, and the riot of variation that can proliferate from simple structures. Laura is an old friend, a former student from the time I used to teach novels at the New York State Writers Institute in the summers in Saratoga Springs. In those days, she was working on what became her first published novel Quickening, a stern and lovely book about a girl coming of age in impoverished upstate New York. Here also is a meditation on writing, process, faith and Buddha.

dg

§

 

So you start something new and it seems good! It has life, freshness, vitality. Sentences flow. Some scenes make you laugh aloud! You hate to put the work aside when life requires you to. You leave your desk reluctantly and, even then, you dwell on the piece of writing like a new love; engrossed in the characters, their associates, certain sentences that you turn and turn again in your mind. You notice how your daily life offers rich, unique material to funnel into this new narrative. It unfolds like a dream sequence, constantly. Siblings materialize for the protagonist, friends and colleagues with backgrounds, dossiers, furies and desires. Internal and external conflicts weave through your thoughts. Plotlines reveal themselves like half-blazed trails and you rush headlong, first here then there, branching off, doubling back, circling around, an eager and breathless explorer.

This state of love-filled delight and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing possibilities is known in Buddhism as “bright faith.” Bright faith, Sharon Salzburg says eloquently, is not blind faith. It is the beginning. And in the beginning we have the opportunity to surrender cynicism, apathy, inertia; and propel ourselves forward into the creative unknown.

The rush of energy and creativity that surrounds a new work is like bright faith: powerful, exalting, euphoric. Until one morning, out of nowhere, you sit at your desk and the shimmering gold dust of your faith dissolves into ash. The trails are lost and you are lost and you find yourself not in a fertile forest but a wasteland so vast you can’t discern earth from sky. You are cut adrift. The gravitational pull of language’s bubbling magma, the metaphors and phrases and names and situations you thought you were inventing have all vanished. There is no escape from the dismal facts on the ground where you still have your day job. And laundry piles up. A broken light fixture in the kitchen dims your whole apartment. Your bathtub won’t drain. And your recently completed novel, a completion marked by circuitous struggles through brambles and detours and steep falls off unseen cliffs, the novel you once, long ago, had the same bright faith in as this new work, is a moribund shell of its ancient potential. A carcass preserved in amber, it passes ever so slowly from one publishing house to another, with an ever so slow drain of polite rejections sucking away your self esteem.

What do you do when it seems that something you’ve grown to rely on has died? When yoga causes injury and tendonitis and writing, too, causes inflammation and muscle spasm and you still have to earn a living, what do you do? Wash your face, brush your teeth and greet the world with aplomb? Put on the mask of cheerful sane persona and play the role. That old platitude? Be glad you have a job to earn a living in. Be glad you’re breathing and the sky is clear and be glad the mewling cats are hungry for if they were not hungry it would signal they were sick. Offer gratitude to your family and your friends. Give thanks for your hands that can lift and drop a question on your plate. Is it working yet? Can you feel it?

Doesn’t matter.

Return to that narrative you once thought had life and attend to the comatose prose that just last week seemed to sparkle and dance. When the energy has died, when faith has worn away, when doubt threatens to destroy what you have built, and futility is the operative word, it becomes obvious that bright faith was insufficient. Hard work must follow, hard work and the disillusion, disenchantment, examination and exploration that come with “verifying faith.” You open the document and begin to tinker, perhaps to sink deeper into what you once thought you had a handle on. Sometimes the practice of writing alone must suffice, faith in action, faith that the dull, pedestrian, meaningless paragraphs will eventually yield up magic. And perhaps this faith in action will lead you to “abiding faith,” through fits and starts and hesitations, through despair and dark nights, not only to a more profound understanding of the craft, the practice, the pain and bliss of writing, but also to your own true connection, woven into the tapestry of literature past and present. One can always try. And try. And try. And try.

—Laura Catherine Brown

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Laura Catherine Brown’s first novel, Quickening, was published by Random House Inc. in 2000. Her shorter pieces have appeared in two anthologies, Before: The Big Book on Parenting, from Overlook Press and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater with Seal Press. In addition to being a writer of fiction, Laura taught creative writing as an adjunct professor at Manhattanville College for over two years. She has been earning a living as a graphic designer since 1990 when she received her B.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts. She is also a dedicated yoga instructor and practitioner, having studied a variety of styles and traditions of Hatha Yoga for over twenty years.

Mar 232012
 

Carnival is an ancient tradition, the time when the world is up-ended, the powerful serve the poor, the genders transpose, and animals dance with humans, a subversive and ecstatic ritual that is both hysterically comic (don’t miss the phallic pitcher photo below) and healing. But by inverting what are often highly stressed social polarities, carnival also exposes the wounds it’s meant to salve. Diane Lefer, who makes a habit of inserting herself and her art into the uncomfortable rifts in our cultural discourse, has just been to Bolivia where she participated in a deeply joyful yet disturbing version of carnival, the Día de las comadres, a holiday when men are supposed to celebrate their female co-workers. In this surprising and ribald  essay, with typical honesty, Diane lays herself open to the ambiguities of her experience — an ebullient and apparently liberated female sexuality, hidden violence, and her own mysterious and troubled reactions to the event.

Diane Lefer is, yes, an old friend of mine. She was once a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I interviewed her when I hosted The Book Show, my weekly literary interview radio slot at WAMC in Albany, NY. And she has contributed multiples times — plays, stories, and essays — to NC. See her professional bio below essay, including the new book coming out soon.

dg


What does the survivor of violence need in order to heal?

Because I know many survivors of so many kinds of violence, it’s a question I often ask myself. I’ve begun asking it as well in the arts-based workshops I’ve developed to boost reading and writing skills while promoting social justice. In Colombia, a word that came up over and over again was “justice.” In the US, people often say “a voice.” In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the word was “love.”

And though I arrived in Cochabamba with some trepidation, I felt immediately loved and embraced. I’d been invited by Edson Quezada, the founder and director of the nonprofit organization Educar es fiesta, to share my techniques. But the invitation had come because I was supposed to be collaborating with Argentinean theatre artist Silvana Gariboldi. A dispute over gas fields closed the border between Argentina and Bolivia. Silvana couldn’t cross. I ended up in Bolivia alone.

Edson Quezada, known to all as Queso (or Cheese, from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded Educar es fiesta just over ten years ago based on the conviction that training in the arts is training for life, that happiness is a child’s birthright and that learning must go hand-in-hand with joy.

The teaching artists and facilitators in the program have taught circus and theatre arts to hundreds of young people living in difficult circumstances while offering support to families in crisis. The organization earns money through sales of tickets to their shows and receives some grant support from Caritas, an Australian organization and — this blew my mind — the foreign aid program of Liechtenstein.

Educar es fiesta works in three locations: a circus tent (where I offered writing workshops to kids sprawled out on the floor); a southern neighborhood, home to Quechua-speaking migrants from the rural areas, where a boy was proud to point out my home — Los Angeles — on a globe; Educar es fiesta had been invited to use the headquarters of the agricultural workers’ union, but we were displaced when a middle school was — oops — suddenly demolished to make way for a new highway. We scrambled to set up a new location. (It’s all about improvisation).

Edson had warned me to bring a sleeping bag; I would be living in the office. But by the time I arrived, a camp bed had turned up and the room that usually stores musical instruments, masks, and art supplies had been turned into my bedroom.

I liked life in the office. During the day, cows and sheep wandered the neighborhood grazing in the parks and the shrubs in front of the houses. It was quiet at night. In the morning, I could fix myself a cup of coca tea and wait for the team to arrive. Bolivians aren’t much for shaking hands. Instead every person who walked in the door greeted me (and each other) each day with a hug and a kiss.

The children in the program get hugs and kisses too, something that is, unfortunately, forbidden in the United States.

Doña Ceci told me her brother lives in Miami which is where her niece and nephew have been raised. “They are very strange children. Very cold,” she said. “They don’t let you hug or kiss them.” When she asked her brother about it, he said, “It’s what they teach them in school.” Ceci works full-time as does her husband but they have trouble making ends meet. In spite of this, she said, “I’m glad my children are growing up here instead of there.”

It’s not that members of the Educar es fiesta team are unaware of the sexual abuse of children, and they know that some of the kids who come to them are survivors. They are never alone in a room with a child but there is no prohibition against warmth and affection.

When the children are gone, life in the office can become more . . . well, adult.

February 16 was Día de las comadres in Bolivia which meant that all over town, male workers had to celebrate their female colleagues. In the Educar es fiesta office, the men (some in drag) offered us serenades and humor raunchy enough to be considered sexual harassment in the US. They danced with us. Then they cooked and served a great lunch — and cleaned up afterwards.

Día de las comadres is also Girls Night Out. Jimena and Alejandra — two of the teaching artists — belong to an all-female folkloric group. They invited me along on their gig at a family restaurant which that night should have lost its presumed PG rating.

More than a dozen large women of a certain age (hmmm,  like my age?) drank pitcher after pitcher of chibcha, the local alcohol. We danced in a circle and then snaked out into the pouring rain and back while the waitress circulated from table to table, flipping up her apron to reveal a mighty long strap-on. My friends sang in Spanish and in Quechua and played traditional music on drums and sampoña pan-pipes. The restaurant owner sashayed through the crowd carrying a huge boy doll to which she had attached pubic hair, balls, a correspondingly huge dick complete with semen dribbling from the tip, and a sign reading 1 boliviano la tocadita. (14 cents for a little touch). She also put a male-organ-enhanced cap on my head. First time in my life I’ve danced the night away with a penis bobbing from my forehead.

Sorry, no one got photos. (At least none we are willing to share).

“Is Día de las comadres always observed this way?” I asked one of the musicians.

“It’s not my way,” she answered.

In the morning, back at the office, Hernán said it probably had more to do with the excesses and role reversals of Carnaval which was about to begin. “It’s an unfortunate part of our culture, of our machismo,” he said.

“But it makes fun of machismo,” I argued.

“Do you think a woman who’s been assaulted finds it funny?” he asked.

Much as I would like brutality to be rendered ridiculous — because looking ridiculous is surely something the ultra-macho will wish to avoid — and much as I had enjoyed laughing, I was confronted once again with my question: What does the survivor need?

“On our day — día de los compadres — I didn’t like what the women did to us either,”  he added.

*

The whole city shut down tight for a two-day holiday so I holed up in the office with potatoes, hominy, cheese, bread, hot sauce, peaches, and about a pound of llama meat while I worked on the pedagogical guide the program requested — step-by-step instructions of everything I presented in the workshops and discussions, including Objectives, Methodology, and Outcomes for each exercise. Yikes! just the kind of structure I´d managed to avoid all my life. (Though maybe once I translate it into English, I’ll actually find it useful at home). Willmer will have to correct the Spanish and add the accent marks I couldn’t seem to find on the keyboard, which presented its own challenge since the arrangement varies from the English keyboard and the letters were missing from several of the keys. And I imagine we’ll have some conversations via email when he discovers I couldn’t always distinguish between Objectives and Outcomes. (Willmer also tried to teach me how to eat a salteña without dripping gravy all over myself and the immediate vicinity).

One of the women came to check up on me.

So I asked her, “Día de los compadres. What did you do to the men?”

“We made them drink from a pitcher.”

It took some prompting, but the pitcher came out of hiding.

“Can I take a picture?”

“No!”

“Please.”

“OK. But I don’t want to be in it.”

“Please.”

“OK. But promise you’ll never show it to anyone.”

“Please. People will enjoy it.”

“OK. But you have to do something to block out my face.”

We laughed together.

But Hernán’s objection wouldn’t go away.  Would this picture be amusing to someone who has lived through the horror of rape?

So I’m still asking what the survivor needs.

Maybe laughter isn’t the answer. But surely the day when she’s able to laugh again, she’ll know how far she’s traveled on the road to healing.

—Diane Lefer

——————

Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” and a play God’s Flea.

 

 

Mar 222012
 

Two boys get caught in their after school games and one goes missing in Jamie Travis’s dark comedy, thriller, fairy tale short film “The Armoire.”

Style is everything here: comforting and creepy, lurid and glorious, torn out of the pages of a design magazine coveted by the average Stepford Wife. Each room is a peculiar study in a new colour. The clothes in the boy’s armoire are perfectly spaced. The house is a paradigm of cleanliness and tidiness, like an exhibit of a home rather than an actual home. As a result, the world seems made up of surfaces competing to camouflage or cover something. This meticulous set design is coupled with a mise-en-scene that Ion Magazine described as “handled with the meticulousness of a serial killer.” No matter how innocent the protagonist Aaron might seem, his home sweet home is disturbing.

This subtle anxiety means we’re somewhat prepared when 11-year-old Aaron’s friend Tony goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek and only a hypnosis session can jog Aaron’s memory of the twisted events that unraveled after school that day and the real game the two boys played.

The gorgeousness of the film aside, the film might rest a little too (un)easily on the queer friendship between the two boys. Similar to Hitchcock’s Rope and other Hollywood thrillers, “The Armoire” brings together queerness and death and this might be too easy a source for sexual difference and fear. At the same time, there’s an almost earnest truthfulness to this corrupt innocence in the boys, how they play games to slowly unlatch the armoire, the symbolic repository of all that is repressed between them.

Travis describes “The Armoire” (2009) as the finale of his Saddest Children in the World trilogy that includes his two earlier films “Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come Home to Dinner” (2003) and “The Saddest Boy in the World” (2006). “Anderson Children” is the first short film in the trilogy and Travis’s website describes it as “The ‘gloriously surreal’ story of three seven year-olds forced to endure their mother’s culinary abuses.” About it, Film Threat writes that “This is the kind of film Tim Burton wishes he could make. Kind of touching, kind of morbid and totally original.”

“Saddest Boy” followed and the Toronto Sun responded by describing Travis as “one of the most original voices in Canadian cinema.” US audiences can see the other two films in the trilogy on Fandor.

In addition to the Saddest Children in the World trilogy, Travis has completed another trio of shorts called The Patterns Trilogy, has directed music videos and commercials and his first feature film For a Good Time, Call . . . comes out this year.

— R. W. Gray

Mar 212012
 

Kate Reuther

 

.

A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR. He orders a beer and tries to pay with a five-dollar bill.

“You can’t use that here,” the bartender says.

“Why not?” the man says.

“Because this is a singles bar.”

“Very funny,” the man says, reaching for the glass.

*

A man walks into a bar.  He sits down next to a blonde with a Pomeranian dog on the next stool.  The man waves at the bartender who keeps polishing the taps.

“Does your dog bite?” the man asks.

“Never,” the blonde answers.

The man reaches out to pet the dog and the dog bites him.  Hard.

“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” the man says, wrapping his hand in a dirty dishtowel.

“He doesn’t,” the blonde replies.  “That isn’t my dog.”

The man kicks the counter so the pint glasses ring.  “Can I get a fucking beer over here?”

*

A man walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm.  He places the asphalt on the stool beside him and flexes his red, ragged hands.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender says.

“A beer please, and one for the road.”

The bartender’s eyes flick to the clock on the wall.

“What?” the man says.  “You’re not open?”

“I thought you were back at work,” the bartender says.

“I’m on break,” the man says.  “Jesus, you’re worse than my wife.”

“Just take it easy today,” the bartender says, plunking down two frosty bottles.

“Yes, dear,” the man says.

*

A man walks into a bar and orders twelve shots of tequila.

“Go home, man,” the bartender says.  “Your wife’s been calling every fifteen minutes.”

“I said twelve shots!” the man repeats.  “Line ‘em up!”

The bartender starts pouring and the man pounds them as fast as he can.  He doesn’t even taste the tequila anymore, although his eyes begin to water.

“Maybe you should slow down,” the bartender says.  Most days he would argue that a man’s life is his own to do with as he pleases, but in this case there is the crying wife.  Pregnant too.  “Let me call you a cab.”

The man sways and knocks back another shot.  “You’d be drinking too if you had what I have.”

“What’s that?” the bartender asks.  Suffering follows this man like a hungry dog.

The man slurps the twelfth, amber glass.  “Fifty cents.”

*

A man walks into a bar carrying a duck.

“Get that pig out of here!” the bartender shouts.

“It’s not a pig, you idiot!” the man replies.  He staggers a little, although he’s only had two or three.  The problem is the duck, which is surprisingly heavy.

The bartender reaches for the baseball bat under the counter.  “I was talking to the duck.”

“I think we better go,” the duck says.

“I’ve got money today,” the man says, fumbling for his wallet.  He splays it open with his free left hand.  “Twenty bucks.”

The bartender grabs the wallet from the man’s outstretched fingers, extracts the Jackson, and tosses it back empty.  The duck catches it in his beak.

“I’m gonna be nice and say this covers the mess you made last night,” the bartender says.

“But what about now?” the man says.  “Just one beer?”

“Get the fuck out of here, pig,” the bartender says, patting the bat against his palm.

“Did you see that?” the man shouts.  The other bar patrons stare decisively at their coasters.  “He robbed me.  You’re all witnesses!”

“Let’s just go,” the duck says through a mouthful of leather.

*

A man walks into a bar and orders a beer.  It’s early, quiet — the air still smells of fresh Lysol over old piss.

“Nice shirt,” a voice chirps to his right.

The man turns, ready to bark that it’s a uniform, that he has to wear it or the manager will dock his pay, and a man’s got to earn for his wife and future child, even if it requires stuffing his gut into a lime-green Cellular Circus polo, but then he realizes there’s no one else sitting at the bar.  He’s alone with the dishwasher-hot glasses and the fresh bowl of peanuts.

The man takes a long swig from his beer.  He holds the cool bottle against his forehead.

“Nice pants,” the voice says.

The man swivels around on his stool, making the metal shriek.  He looks left and right, behind him, under the seat, in back of the bar, but the only other customer, a giraffe, is busy feeding quarters into the cigarette dispenser.  The man reaches for his beer with a shaking hand.

“Nice shoes,” the voice says.

“Shit,” the man says, knocking over his beer.  The puddle rushes towards the edge of the bar and dribbles onto the man’s shoes, which are, in fact, cheap, imitation-leather penny-loafers, minus the pennies.  When he takes them off at night, his socks are sweat-wet and brown.

“Everything all right?” the bartender says, coming over with a dirty towel.

“There’s this voice,” the man whispers.  “It keeps making comments about my appearance.”

“Oh, that’s the nuts,” the bartender says, gesturing towards the plastic dish.  “They’re complimentary.”

“Shit, if I wanted to talk to nuts, I could do that at home,” the man says.

“We were just trying to be nice,” the nuts say.

“So you were lying?” the man says.  “You don’t like my shirt?”  He grabs a handful from the bowl.  The salt stings the cuts on his palms.

“It’s a very bright green,” the nuts say.

The man raises his fist towards his open mouth.

“Please,” the nuts say.  “Don’t.”

“Say something nice about my teeth,” the man says, crunching the nuts between his molars.  “Tell me about my beautiful tongue.”

*

A man walks into a bar with an alligator under his arm.  Or rather, he tucks the spiky tail under his arm and drags the heavy, gray body behind him.

“Do you. . . .  do you serve lawyers here?” the man asks.  He can’t catch his breath.  He misses the asphalt and the duck which, compared to the alligator, were light, compact, and good conversationalists.  Maybe he can devise a harness for transporting the alligator.  Maybe he can borrow the stroller until the baby is born.

“I’m sorry, man, but you’ll have to leave,” the bartender says.  “Jacket and tie required.”

“Jacket and tie?” the man says.  “Since when?”

“Since always,” the bartender says, hooking a thumb at a party of tuxedoed chickens shooting pool.  A red hen makes a tough bank shot and the chickens cluck appreciatively.

“I’ll be right back,” the man says, heading for the door.

The alligator hisses.

“Hey, you can’t leave that lyin’ there!” the bartender says, but the man is already crossing the road.  He rips open the door of his station wagon and dives into the backseat, hideously festooned with Cellular Circus coupons, empty beer cans, penguins, moldy sandwiches, newts, tinfoil, and ragged pieces of string.  Finally he finds the jumper cables, tangled around the ribcage of a lawyer’s skeleton.

The man walks back into the bar, the jumper cables looped around his neck.  The alligator is lurking underneath the pool table amidst a spray of white feathers.

“Do you serve lawyers here?” the man asks the bartender again.  One of the metal claws on the jumper cables is crusty with battery acid.  The man wonders what would happen if he licked it.

“I’m good,” the alligator mumbles.

“Shut up,” the man says.  “I wasn’t talking to you.”  He was only supposed to stop for one drink, then he could still be home early, like he promised his wife.  Right about now she’ll be setting out the placemats, whisking some sauce with orange peel or capers, sweating and humming and rushing around in their little shit-brown kitchen where none of the cabinets close all the way.  He’ll be late, maybe just a little, but then he’ll trip over the welcome mat, and she’ll start crying.  A Niagara Falls of tears and him in the barrel.  The man will take her in his tired arms and tell her what she wants to hear: that he’s finally got the drinking out of his system, that he’s ready to come home early, to put together the crib, to throw his dirty clothes in the hamper, to help her choose a baby name.  And his wife will sigh and mash her face into his lime-green chest, anointing his shoulder with her slippery snot.  He can bear her weeping but not her forgiveness.

The alligator belches.

The bartender looks the man up and down – his waxy shoes, his bandaged hands, his dirty polo, his neck hung low by dirty cables.  Rumor has it that Cellular Circus finally fired him after he came back from “lunch break” and tried to lick a lesbian Eskimo.

“You can have one drink,” the bartender declares, setting a glass under the tap, “but don’t start anything.”

“Why would you say that?” the man asks.  “I’m one of your best customers.”

The phone behind the bar rings.

“I’m not here,” the man says.  “You haven’t seen me.”

*

A man walks into a bar carrying a goldfish, a parrot, a baby kangaroo, and a fifteen-inch pianist.  The bar is loud and crowded, with a rabbi, a priest, and a nun reenacting the highlights from their softball victory, a party of polar bears blowing their bonuses on top-shelf single malt, and Shakespeare’s here tonight, punching hair-metal songs into the jukebox.

The man shouts, “Can I get a…” but then his feet slip out from under him and he smacks down on his tailbone in an unseen puddle of vomit.  The goldfish, the parrot, the baby kangaroo, and the fifteen-inch pianist go flying.

“Can somebody give me a hand?” the man says, struggling to his knees, but no one moves.  The man is bad luck, they agree, the type who will eventually insult a tribe of hungry cannibals, or leap from a plane wearing a book-bag instead of a parachute, and even if he survives there is the matter of the weeping wife, who still loves him despite the lies and debt and the moldering-liver smell.

“A beer,” the man says, finally heaving himself onto an empty stool.  His soggy pants squelch against the cracked leather.  “Keep ‘em coming.”

The bartender, a pony, coughs and pours.

“Busy tonight?” the man asks, squeezing his trembling hands together as in prayer.

The pony nods his extensive face but does not reply, only stares at the floor with wet eyes.  The man knows he ought to inquire as to the pony’s sadness, but he really isn’t interested, besieged as he is by his own problems, and what’s more, there is a fresh beer sitting before him.  The man drinks.

“Water,” the goldfish gasps from underneath a stool.

Each sip of beer is a reprieve, the jaggedness made smooth, the broken made whole again.  The man wants to be a better man, and three sips into his beer he can see the possibility of change: first thing in the morning, a new résumé, then a new job.  He’ll clean out his car, buy salad greens and yogurt, replace the Brita filter, fix the kitchen cabinet doors.  He’ll even change the way he talks to his wife.  It’s important, when the baby comes, that their voices be soft, tender, with rounded corners.

There is a knock at the door.

The bar patrons look up from their drinks, confused, because the door isn’t locked, is it?

“Honey?” calls a voice from outside.  “Are you in there?”

The man hunches his shoulders and ducks his head, a humiliated gargoyle.

“Sweetheart?” she says again.  “Baby, it’s me.”

The man grinds his teeth on the edge of his glass.  Why is his wife here?  He’s not even late yet, not very.  And now the rabbi, the priest, and the nun have put down their mitts and are staring at him with those sanctimonious eyes.  It’s only a beer.  A man should be allowed to have one beer, to relax a little with his friends.  His wife is so absolutist about everything.  A more reasonable solution would be to cut back, to limit his drinking to one or two a night, except for special occasions.  She can’t really expect him to stop entirely, can she?  With all that he’s carrying?

Knock-knock.

His wife moves away from the bar door and begins pacing in front of the frosted window, shadow arms cradling a shadow basketball-belly.  “Have a little faith in me,” the man always says, and she does, she still does.  She has faith that her husband is going to come striding out of that bar any minute now.  “Just settling my tab,” he’ll say.  “These roses are for you.”

The pony coughs.

“You sick?” the parrot asks, extracting a cigarette from an abandoned pack.

The pony shakes his head.  “No, I’m just….”

Hinge-squeals cut through the bartender’s answer as the door swings open.  The man closes his eyes.  He feels the blood rising in his neck, like hot rain in a clogged gutter.  If only he could stab himself with a fork, cut off his head with a guillotine, anything rather than face this humiliation.

The bar is silent except for someone’s slow jingling steps.

The man opens his eyes.  It is not his wife; it is a cowboy.  The cowboy is so muscular, he cannot rest his arms at his sides; they perch like mug handles above the painful shine of his belt buckle.

“Howdy,” the cowboy says.  But suddenly he is falling, his boots skidding left then right then up, like a newborn colt, and finally the seat of his hard-creased blue jeans lands in the vomit puddle.

“I just did that,” the man says, smiling for once.  His misery may not love company, but it does enjoy her rare moments of attention.

The cowboy stands.  He picks his hat off the floor.  He removes a piece of partially digested carrot from the brim and places the hat back on his head.  Then he grabs the man by his polo collar and tosses him against the side of the pool table.

“No, wait,” the man says, “you got the wrong idea…”

The cowboy does not wait.  He cocks his alligator boot and releases it into the man’s stomach.  The cowboy kicks him carefully, methodically, stepping back between blows to gauge the distance and effect.  The man feels the rotten apple that is his body crumble and break.  It does not hurt.  Not yet.  What bothers him is the bar patrons’ unwillingness to help.  Where are the friends who say, “Break it up, break it up,” who wedge between the fighters like spatulas?

Knock-knock.

Kick.  Kick.

“Have mercy,” the man croaks.  “I’ve got a family.”

The cowboy spits, grabs the man by the ankles, and begins swinging his body in a circle like a hammer.  This room has spun for the man many times before, but never so quickly.  It is beautiful, almost, the kaleidoscope of gold taps, turquoise feathers, white fur, black habit, waxed wood, window shadows, and glass.  The man’s loafers slip off.  The air cools his wet socks.

The cowboy lets go and the man arcs through space, an Olympic record surely, if not for the light bulb above the pool table, which his head shatters, and then the less permeable jukebox.  On impact, it whines, shudders, and begins playing Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got (‘Till It’s Gone).”

“Honey?” his wife says from outside the door.

The man is bloody, shattered, and thirsty.  He cries.  He is a man who walks into bars.  A nothing.  A drunk.

“Hey,” the pony says, “why the long face?”

The bar patrons begin to laugh.  The fifteen-inch pianist gasps and wheezes and clutches his gut.  The cowboy stamps his foot so hard his spurs ring.  Shakespeare pees in his pants a little.  The goldfish, dead, does not laugh.  But the rest of them, once they’ve started, cannot quit their rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions.

“Stop it,” the man says.

They don’t stop.  They laugh harder.

Twenty-five chuckling Polacks march in from the back room, all carrying a single stepladder.  They approach the broken light bulb.

“Darling, come home,” his wife pleads and pounds.

The baby kangaroo snarfs his beer.

“It’s not funny!” the man cries.  “It’s not funny at all.”

—Kate Reuther

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Kate Reuther‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review, Brain Child, Salamander, and The Ledge.  She is a graduate of Yale and the Vermont College MFA in Fiction program.  A life-long New Yorker, she lives in Washington Heights with her husband and two boys.

Mar 202012
 

A gifted poet, playwright, screen writer and legendary performer of his own material, Gary Moore recently retired from his day job as dean at Vermont College of Fine Arts and now sips ambrosia on the beach on the Blessed Isle of Puerto Rico and looks at the ocean which has become his muse and companion. He is sorely missed, irreplaceable, but, we firmly believe, has gone to a better place.

Gary’s play Burning in China, directed by Academy Award nominee Caleb Deschanel, was one of the hits of last year’s New York International Fringe Festival, where its two-week run was sold out after it was featured in both The New Yorker and The New York TimesBurning in China made its way to New York through a series of over twenty other presentations from San Diego to Istanbul.  His bi-lingual rap opera The Great Emancipator Meets the Monkey King, produced in Shanghai in 1988, introduced rap music to the People’s Republic of China.  His fully-scored verse drama Beaver Falls was produced by the much-honored regional company Lost Nation Theater and won the Artist Fellowship of the Vermont Arts Council.  His script for the documentary film Valley Forge, narrated by Henry Fonda, was honored when that film won awards at three foreign film festivals along with the Golden Eagle, the highest artistic award of the U.S. State Department.

You can see his earlier contributions to Numéro Cinq here and here.

dg

 

THE LONELY OCEAN

I saw a stream once lonely as a stick-thin child
And rivers can be downright grown-up lonely
The way you’ve seen them in the wilds of northern valleys
Where the craggy green haunts their silent turns
And a lake, my god, a lake longing like a mirror
With mountains between it and any others of its kind
Consigned to distance the way the blind are
Whose lives compel them to faith and hope
But the ocean, the ocean – there is nothing so lonely
You can’t see the ocean without a broken heart
Or you might but only if it’s not your ocean
The one that like you has no like and no mate
That invites but forewarns you
As if it were your soul vast flat and gray
Willing but not able to hide all you’ve done
Spreading itself the way that first woman did
Set forth in me and you’ll touch all there is
Before it swallows the sun at the end of the day
In that distance no one can see beyond

 

YOUR OCEAN

It’s true that the ocean comes in just for you
The way you need it to now that you’re alone
The white rollers spelling your name in code
That only you read and know as it disappears
Because there’s no need for names when you plunge in her waters
Through the foam whose infinite nimble fingers
Edge the blue that they used to make goddesses of
The ones who live within you still
Changing robes before mirrors in the wind’s white rooms
Knowing the surf crashes and whispers to get what it wants
Because they’ve always done the same
Although now that your name’s gone there’s no language here
None that we find on our maps of going
Or even on that map of return you learn in her belly
From which only heroes ever emerge
Always glistening in the hands of the spirits inside you
Who smile at each other as they give you to the world

 

COMING HOME TO THE WAVES

When I was somebody the waves came sliding
Rising from forces pushing forward to shore
Never giving a damn
Or maybe they were laughing spilling shining foam
What the hell did I know?
Or crying so deep their bellies might break
As if they’d just washed Christ at the crucifixion
It was all so beyond me when I was someone
And it’s no different now
Still that rhythm you can count on
Though it’s never the same
Like something a guy who’s lost in the world
Finds to come home to
Not the wife you adore with her hair in her eyes
And her housecoat open
But the waves, not one of whom anyone’s ever seen in town
Coming in again and again
And spreading themselves on the shore

—Gary Moore

————————————————-

Mar 192012
 

Basara_Svetislav

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The following excerpt is from Svetislav Basara’s novel, The Cyclist Conspiracy, his second to be made available in English. The novel is translated from the Serbian by Randall A. Major and published by Open Letter Books. Basara has published more than 20 works and has earned every major Serbian literary award, including the prestigious NIN Prize. The Cyclist Conspiracy is a collection of apocryphal texts dedicated to the secret of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross, a mystical sect whose members gather in their dreams and spend their waking lives riding bicycles, creating havoc, altering the course of human events, and meditating on the form of the bicycle. This excerpt follows one unwitting member, L. Loentze, as he is initiated into the Order and introduced to his new post as the chief architect of the Evangelical’s Grand Insane Asylum.

—Taylor Davis-Van Atta

§

 

L. Loentze: The Madness of Architecture–The Architecture of Madness

1.

When, huffing and puffing, the messenger of the Grand Master delivered the orders for me to write a paper dedicated to the study of space, I remembered a few details of a letter which I was sent many years ago by Dr. Çulaba Çulabi. In spite of that, I found myself in a dilemma. I knew that a generalized, practically undefined topic does not demand exactness or credibility, that the goal of research is purely subjective and that it will lead me in quite a different direction, revealing things to me that I do not want to find out, just as the appearance of Dr. Çulabi sent my life in a direction I was not expecting, at a time when I still ran a very profitable engineering office, had a lovely house, and respectable friends with whom I played tennis on Sundays. Dr. Çulabi showed up one day in my studio. He said that he, Çulabi, was a representative of the IMPEX COMMERCE Company; he had heard praises of my work and wanted to hire me for a big job that his company had taken over. If I thought his name was strange, the job he proposed to me was even stranger. Namely, with a deadline of ten months, I was to draw up the plans for a Circular Psychoanalytic Center with 15,000 offices; then the plans for the interior of Napoleon’s study (in 450 copies), and finally a plan for the torture chamber of the Holy Inquisition, complete with the devices for torture. I said that it was a really big job and that I had to think about it. Çulabi had nothing against it. His rather strange appearance did not fill me with confidence. I checked the business records of the IMPEX Company and I found out that it was reputable, and also that Çulabi was indeed a representative of the company.

The next time Çulabi visited me, I told him that I would accept the job. I offered him some cognac (which he refused) and coffee (which he accepted), and then we got down to signing the contracts. That was the last time I saw Dr. Çulabi in the waking world. But that same evening when I fell asleep, I dreamed of him in an unfamiliar town; he was standing under the eaves in front of a dilapidated house, and he was obviously waiting for someone because he kept glancing at his watch. When I approached him, he said that I was late. He took me into an empty tavern (I remember that it said EVROPA in peeling black letters above the door), he offered me a seat, and then he talked to me for a long time about Byzantium, bicycles, real and false eternity, and I remember that I was horribly bored in my dream. He also told me that the contract we signed in reality was really important, but that I had been hired because of a much more important job, for the repair of a cathedral that had been damaged during the war by some Nazi commandos. Then he told me that, from that night onward, I was a member of a certain sect, the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross. I argued with him and said that no one recognizes contracts made in dreams, and that I had no intention whatsoever of being a member of any kind of sect. Çulabi smiled mysteriously. “It isn’t up to you,” he said. “You don’t choose, you’re chosen. But you just don’t get it, I see. So, tomorrow you’ll break two timepieces.”

When I awoke, I remembered the dream in detail and laughed: a dream is just a dream. Still, I was upset, and I could not figure out why. In front of my office, I looked at my watch. It had stopped. I tore it off my hand and – beside myself with anger – slammed it down on the sidewalk, remembering Çulabi’s threat in my dream at that very instant. I went into a nearby bar, drank two cognacs, gathered my thoughts and went to my office. For a while everything was all right. Concentrating on my work, I forgot all about the dream and the broken watch. However, the wall clock began to chime twelve. Seven, eight, nine . . . I counted silently, attempting to overcome the rage that was growing in me. I did not manage; I grabbed an ashtray from the desk and flung it. The glass on the clock broke, the pendulum stopped swinging. My fellow workers looked at me like I was a madman, which I was to some extent. I mumbled a few words of apology, said that I was not feeling well, that I was nervous and exhausted, and I left the office. Later, when I had come to my senses, I called my doctor on the telephone, described what had happened to me (saying nothing of the dream), and he recommended a certain Dr. Schtürner to me, a reputable psychiatrist, a student of Carl Gustav Jung. He also told me not to worry, that my spiritual health was all right, and that the whole thing was most likely the consequence of psychological exhaustion.

The next day, I did not go to my office. I had an appointment with Dr. Schtürner at eleven in the morning. I was rather upset because that night I dreamed Çulabi in that same town; he was leaning against a linden tree (in full bloom), laughing out loud and saying nothing. I thought that, regardless of the financial consequences, I should break the contract with IMPEX COMMERCE, but I changed my mind: that would be a sure sign that I had gone completely mad; I cannot break contracts with customers just be­­cause I am dreaming their representatives. But I decided to tell Dr. Schtürner everything.

“Yes,” Dr. Schtürner told me a while later in his office, “such things do happen. However, there is no cause for alarm. Dreams are a practically unstudied area. The unconscious knows much more than the conscious. For the unconscious, temporal-spatial limitations do not play any kind of role. And you see, preoccupied by work and social obligations, you have very little time for yourself, and that is being expressed in your unconscious processes. Your dream, as I interpret it, is a warning. The nervous tension that forced you to behave uncontrollably has been reduced by the very fact that you faced it, because you, if I may say so, dulled its edge by thinking about the dream.”

Dr. Schtürner asked me to tell him one of my typical dreams, a dream that I had often and which remained most clearly in my mind. I told him that I do not have such dreams, but the doctor insisted; everybody, he said, has such a dream, you just have to relax and you will remember. Lying on the couch in Dr. Schtürner’s office, I tried to remember such a dream and in the end I did, but that was a dream that I had not had in years:

In the company of a woman I don’t know, I am walking down a village road. For some reason, her company makes me feel uncomfortable, like the unpleasant company of unfamiliar people. I look at her from the corner of my eye to check, and become certain that I have never seen her before. I try as hard as I can to get rid of her. I turn left and right, but she follows in my footsteps. Then I come up with an excuse – I’ve forgotten something – and go back the way we came. I arrive in a village which, obviously, rests on a cliff above the sea which I cannot see, but I hear the murmur of the waves. And there, in the narrow village square, I see an older woman whom I recognize to be the elderly figure of my mother. She has her back turned to the sea and she is crying. I approach her, and the voices of people who I cannot see are saying that “she was thrown out of her home in her old age” and that “no one takes care of her.” At that moment, not far from me, I see that unfamiliar woman who I tricked. She is watching me, more in pity than as an accusation, but I am overcome with anger and I say: Get out her out of here. Then I shout: Get out her out of here!

Doctor Schtürner carefully noted down the dream, with the comment that it was interesting; he recommended that I not go to work for a while and made an appointment for the next day at the same time. But that night, I dreamt Çulabi again. “Loentze, Loentze, it will do you no good to resist. You’re working against yourself. Because you’re not listening to me.” I jumped up out of my sleep all covered in sweat, overwhelmed by an undefined fear. Then I comforted myself with Doctor Schtürner’s remarks. I’m just exhausted, I thought, my unconscious is warning me, I will get some rest and everything will be all right. I took two pills to calm my nerves, read for a little while and quickly sank into a dream with no one in it.

“You see,” Dr. Schtürner told me the next day, “your dream is completely clear and is full of unambiguous symbols. You say the area is by the sea, but that you cannot see the sea. You hear the murmur of the waves. The sea is, you might know this, a symbol of the unconscious. You don’t dare to look at the sea (into the unconscious), but you are still aware that it exists. Beside you is a woman you don’t know. Are you sure that you have really never seen her in real life?”

“Quite sure,” I said.

“An unknown woman in a dream, that is a symbol of the anima. It represents your soul which you are obviously neglecting. As I mentioned yesterday, you are too busy in the waking world and therefore your internal world is disturbed. The anima is trying to get closer to you, but you don’t want it to. And why you don’t want it to becomes clear in the next episode of the dream: the one where you encounter your mother in her ripe old age.”

I wondered how all of that was related.

“You don’t have a father?” Dr. Schtürner asked with a lot of tactfulness in his voice.

“No,” I said. “I was born out of wedlock. My mother never told me anything about my father, and I never dared to ask.”

“There you have it. By nature, you have an affinity for mysticism; if I may so, you are poetically inclined. However, the fact that you grew up without a father caused you to choose an extroverted, almost exact profession in which you have affirmed yourself as a successful man. In other words: you had to be both father and son for yourself. That is the explanation of your dream: an unresolved Oedipus complex. You don’t have a father. The day when you confronted the Sphinx, when you symbolically came to the conflict between your corporality and spirituality, you wanted to marry your mother. But the myth is incomplete: you don’t have a father and you don’t know who you should kill. So, your tragedy – symbolically, of course – is not complete, it has not been lived through to the end, you have been left without catharsis. This can be interpreted from the fact that your mother, very old, is standing with her back turned to the sea. She is no longer expecting anyone.”

I hardly managed to say anything out of my amazement.

“And what should I do?” I asked.

“Listen to what Çulabi is telling you. Your problem can be solved only in dreams.”

 

 2.

 At the time, of course, I could not have guessed that Dr. Schtürner was also a member of the Order of Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross and that the whole thing had been prepared even before I was born. That night, I was not afraid of my dreams. I fell asleep fairly early; Çulabi still had not come. I waited for him in the gloomy tavern, this time it was full of people talking in a language I did not recognize, probably a Slavic one. When Çulabi arrived, I told him to tell me about my father. Who is he? Where is he? How can I find him?

“Your father died recently,” Çulabi told me. “For reasons which would not be clear to you now, we won’t talk about why he never came to see you. But you should know this: your father was an exceptional man. You can be proud of him. His name is Joseph Kowalsky.”

“Kowalsky?”

“Yes,” said Çulabi. “Kowalsky is your father. In a way, I am sort of replacing him, so I will always be around at the beginning. And you really will need help, just as I did and many others before me. Because some things are just hard to understand . . .”

That it really was like that, I found out the next night when Çulabi, via indescribable nightmares, led me close to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. The shining astral structure was damaged by emanations of the nasty thoughts of the members of the Traumeinsatz, a unit formed by the Third Reich with the goal of destroying the Order of the Evangelical Bicyclists. As if hypnotized, I stared at the building, a magnificent house of worship which is not built like earthly churches of brick and stone (of which the Tower of Babylon was also built) but of the yearning for unification with the primordial light, a yearning that itself became light.

“This is why you studied architecture,” Çulabi told me. “Your task is to repair the Cathedral and, fulfilling your age-old dream, to make it even more beautiful. But before that . . . Before that you have to finish one more job, up there, in the waking world . . .”

The task was banal. Senseless. At least I thought so in the be­­ginning. To Bajina Bašta, a nondescript town in the heart of the Balkans, I was supposed to take two small documents, A Tale of My Kingdom and A History of Two-Wheelers; further, I was to hide those documents in a pile of magazines where they would await their future finder and reader. However, residing in that little town during that foggy autumn, I realized that I had gotten onto the trail of my task: I was not supposed to do any kind of study of space; I was to write a paper on the organization of a space in which, in one place, all of the evil of this world could be gathered so that it could be systematized and systematically destroyed. After three months of work, I made the Outline for the Project of the Universal Insane Asylum.

On the pages which follow, I present the results of my work.

—Svetislav Basara

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Mar 192012
 

The Cyclist Conspiracy is a defiantly unique and adventurous creation whose roots cannot be so easily traced. The novel is a collection of found texts—memoirs, manifestos, scholarly papers, historical archives, tales, poems, lists, maps, drawings—dedicated to the secret of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross, a mystical sect whose members gather in their dreams and spend their waking lives riding bicycles, smashing clocks, creating havoc, and meditating on the form of the velocipede. —Taylor Davis-Van Atta

 

The Cyclist Conspiracy
(Fama o biciklistima by Prosveta, 1988)
Open Letter Books, 2012
Translated from the Serbian by Randall A. Major

Chinese Letter
(Kinesko Pismo by Vidici, 1984)
Dalkey Archive Press, 2004
Translated from the Serbian by Ana Lučič

Svetislav Basara belongs to a tradition of modernist writers out of Serbia and the former Yugoslavia that includes Danilo Kiš, Dubravka Ugrešić, Oskar Davičo, and Ivo Andrić. The enfant terrible of contemporary Serbian literature and culture, Basara has won every major Serbian literary award, including the NIN Prize for his novel Uspon i pad Parkinsonove bolesti (The Rise and Fall of Parkinson’s Disease), yet he is little-known outside of Serbia and to date only two of his twenty-plus works have been translated into English—the novel Chinese Letter and, just published by Open Letter Books, The Cyclist Conspiracy.

Politically and socially active (he has worked within the marginalized Christian Democratic Party of Serbia and has served as Serbian ambassador to Cyprus), Basara holds no pretensions of adhering to real world activities in his fiction, yet he manages to write exclusively about the anxieties of the modern age with inventiveness, conviction, and a playful touch. “It’s the same with people as with money,” he once said in an interview, “the more of something there is, the less valuable it is. Hyperinflation of humanity. Fatigue. The crisis of meaning…. Nothing exists except for selling and buying.” This may seem a grim, if justified, outlook, even coming from a man who describes himself as “feeling averagely awful,” but Basara carries a lighthearted comic touch to his fiction that echoes the likes of Flann O’Brien, Beckett, and Queneau: against a backdrop of permanent pessimism, Basara, like his characters, seeks solace in the absurd, laughter amid the despair. Pausing for a moment, Basara added to the above statement: “But none of this is so bad.”

Basara does not consider himself a part of any national or international literary movement, but his literary influences are obvious—Kafka, Beckett, Borges, Ionesco, Queneau—and he routinely makes explicit reference to their work in his novels: it is not unusual for a Basara narrator to break from a scene—or what passes for a “scene” in his novels, which can be read as collections of pathological monologues—to pay sudden and undue homage to an oblique literary reference. Nearing a paranoiac fever pitch toward the end of Chinese Letter, the narrator Fritz breaks his own line of thought to proclaim, “This coffee is conspiring against me! I have a box of coffee on which it says FRANCK KAKA. Quite an ordinary box. But this is a perfidious anagram: FRANCK KAFA. It means—‘The Trial.’ Why quotes? It’s enough to say the trial. I hope it’s clear to me what I wanted to say.” Far from an anomalous passage, these lines exhibit not only the manic temperament and intense kinetic energy that is typical of Basara’s writing, but also the explicit referencing and stylistic mimicry that feed the mania. Such passages hold no narrative or structural purpose; their only purpose is to introduce to the surrounding text, apropos of nothing, textual moments of literary history so the two, like the meeting of creatures from different geologic eras that nonetheless share genealogic roots, may hold a brief and bizarre bit of dialog with one another. Basara’s prose writhes with literary history and his characters tend to have obsessive relationships with a certain literary heritage. As one might imagine, much is lost in Basara’s self-referential fictive worlds and it is not always clear to anyone what is trying to be said, but this is all quite fitting within the context Basara’s grappling with modern psychological anxieties and (mis)communication.

In Chinese Letter, the narrator—a man who calls himself Fritz but is sometimes Salajdin Bejs or something else entirely—is given the task by two anonymous thugs to write “100 pages or so” of his “story,” a task that serves no purpose and, if not completed, holds no certain consequences. “Nobody told me what I should write about,” Fritz says, “but they gave me a deadline. They said: ‘We’ll be back soon.’” The account Fritz produces of his attempt to complete this statement is, of course, the novel itself, which runs a lean 100 or so pages. The utter senselessness of the imposition forces Fritz to confront the existential absurdity of what it means to be a witness to one’s own behavior and existence. Chinese Letter is an existential novel that directly and unapologetically traces over Kafka and Ionesco, a book not distinctly inventive in terms of its major conceit, but acutely attuned to its own genealogic history.

Ostensibly an account of Fritz’s daily activities—his “story”—the novel quickly becomes an act of psychological self-assessment. Like a Thomas Bernhard novel, it’s not the reportage (the activities, observations, epiphanies, etc.) that matters so much as the digressions, leaps, and discursive prose: it’s through our observation of the telling of Fritz’s story that we come to a deeper understanding of the structure of his mind and a stronger appreciation of his emotional state. His observations about the world around him are quite unimportant (even when Fritz stresses their importance): they are merely information collected by his outward senses, while the truest expression of his self is revealed only in the direction, often circuitous, of his maundering, which is unknowable to his outward senses and, seemingly, to his conscious self.

With nothing much happening in his life (and thus nothing to write about), Fritz arrives in the novel paranoid, afraid of the consequences of not completing his statement. He turns inward, immediately running into a most discomforting thought, his fear of death and—even more frightening—the prospect of living amid the constant certainty of death. “There is no use beating around the bush. I have to face an unpleasant fact. I will soon die,” Fritz writes very early on. “Death is standing next to me, always ready, and I’m afraid. My life is nothing but a fear of death and finding the ways of making this fear less unbearable. And one more thing: my life is a constant digression from the subject. My job is not to die but to write.” Here Basara is telling the reader, in black and white, how to read the book, and what immediately follows this passage is the first in a series of digressions that help form the structure of the novel, each digression also serving to heighten Fritz’s pathology as he scrambles to avoid the most unavoidable truth. For Fritz—as is typical for the self-observant observer (see: Bernhard)—laughter and despair are intractably linked. His digressions are typically very funny. (His first is a pathological discussion of the conspiracy of cancers, cirrhosis, tuberculosis, and billions of bacteria to stop the functioning of his organs.) They are often singular chunks of prose in which an idea or word is isolated and chewed at, murdered out of all meaning, Basara’s obsessive repetition pushed so far that the idea/word/image in question takes on new meaning that is completely divorced from its “real world” connotation, becoming at once funny and disturbing. This relentless repetition also brings us closer and closer to Fritz’s state of high anxiety as we experience him losing his language and thereby losing his mind.

As the novel progresses, Fritz, who must return and return again to his desk to complete his statement, writes increasingly bizarre digressive texts in his effort to fill up the pages and finish his task: one night at a bar he meets—or, more likely, invents—a girl not named Luna (or at least in all likelihood her name is not Luna) whom he decides is his savior; then his neighbor (her name is probably Moira) cuts her veins open in an attempt to gain his attention and affection; his sister marries, then divorces, a man he calls “the mongoloid”; finally, his mother is kidnapped by white slave merchants, only to be returned safely home later that afternoon. These texts hold no common narrative links; they are merely stations on Fritz’s cyclical mental route and they look stranger and more disturbing every time we pass by. It is these serial digressions and Basara’s repetition of language that help the novel take on the form of the fugue: variations on the theme of Fritz’s obsession. The structure of the novel is the structure of Fritz’s pathology. Yes, Fritz’s writings (the novel) are clearly pathological but they also seem to shield him from a larger pathology. Forced to write this statement, his writings bring him into a tango with death from which he cannot extract himself. He cannot stop writing since it is the act of writing that is keeping him alive, his only guard against absolute apathy and monotony, which is to say, a state of living death. His mental wanderings (not what he says, but how he tells it) betray his humanity, reveal him as a thin fleshy strip marking the boundary, as he puts it, “between ‘I’ and ‘Nothingness.’ ” In this way, the account he produces—the novel we hold in our hands, in all its fractured madness—becomes a most earnest and, at times, touching statement for being.

Fritz’s absurdist ramblings echo with perfect pitch those that have come before. It is a bold undertaking to write in such naked homage to the likes of Ionesco. Basara not only does this, but then draws attention to what he is doing. (Not only is Fritz a self-observant observer, the novel itself is conscious of its self-consciousness.) Back home from his psychiatrist’s office, trying to fill up pages and avoid death in all its forms, Fritz writes, “I lay down on the bed, without taking my coat off, and decided to read. I read backwards the whole of Don Quixote because this seemed a more human way of reading this book. First Don Quixote dies, and then Sancho Panza’s adventures follow, and then people in the book read the chapters that are coming… and only at the very end he is reading the dusty books that inspired him to perform heroic deeds for which he died a long time ago.” Directly following this passage, Fritz begins writing his own story in reverse (away, away from death!), his attempt to subvert history, searching, like a nostalgic Quixote, for meaning and salvation in the past.

There are moments in Basara of such stark and inexorable loneliness. By the end of Chinese Letter, we have a mad narrator similar to that in Krasznahorkai’s great novel War & War, a man who exclaims: “Believe me when I say, as I said before, he said, that the whole thing is unreadable, insane!!!” Such is Fritz’s statement (the novel): an unbeautiful, broken, intensely personal missive meant for nobody in particular. By the end, we can confirm what we may have suspected from the start: that the anonymous forces charging Fritz with his task have emerged, seemingly without reason or purpose, from within our narrator himself and that his “statement” is a madman’s transcendent vision of existence in an intolerably senseless world.

Chinese Letter, which is Basara’s first novel, charges forever forward, headlong, packed with delightful language and playful prose. A heightened focus on the sentence imbues Basara’s prose with affirmations and negations of existence—his sentences writhe, breathe, which, makes rare moments of boilerplate (lifeless) existentialism all the more glaring. With Chinese Letter Basara has tapped into the most powerful fictional engine: a self-observing observer who is riddled by doubt. But unlike a Kafka or Bernhard narrator, Fritz is created not by his situation but by the author himself, which is to say that the self-consciousness of the novel is not always put to best use. Fritz’s task is self-imposed, not an inherent flaw of the novel, but it does at times limit Basara’s ability to transcend now-tired tropes of the existentialist novel.

The Cyclist Conspiracy, on the other hand, is a defiantly unique and adventurous creation whose roots cannot be so easily traced. The novel is a collection of found texts—memoirs, manifestos, scholarly papers, historical archives, tales, poems, lists, maps, drawings—dedicated to the secret of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross, a mystical sect whose members gather in their dreams and spend their waking lives riding bicycles, smashing clocks, creating havoc, and meditating on the form of the velocipede. With one “S.B.” as the “editor” of this collection, the apocryphal texts span several centuries and detail the exploits of these mystics, who are deployed to various, often pivotal, moments in human history to exert their considerable influence over human affairs and subvert psychological, philosophical, political, and theological systems. Considered by many Serbian critics to be Basara’s best work—and one of the ten best Serbian novels to be written in the past quarter century—The Cyclist Conspiracy is definitely a more ambitious novel than his debut.

The book is ostensibly an anthology tracing the Evangelical Bicyclists’ influence on human history, and the exploits of these anarchists bring a sense of play to the surface text, but the really interesting thing is Basara’s endlessly inventive use of a single, commonplace concept (the bicycle), which is the organizing principle behind the work. With nearly every text, Basara reimagines the bicycle (it is presented as a constellation, as the shape of a woman’s soul, as the Holy Spirit (if viewed from above); now it’s dissected and presented as an assemblage of ancient symbols) and with each successive text (each recurrence of the image) a mythology builds until, somewhere mid-novel, the Bicycle stands amid a slew of contradictory texts: an unknowable, baffling centerpiece that has had all its previous meaning torn away, an old invention made new, like the novel form itself in Basara’s hands. Not the relentless linguistic progression of Chinese Letter, The Cyclist Conspiracy is nonetheless highly structured and highly stylized.

The organizing principle of Conspiracy is somewhat similar to that of Chinese Letter, but instead of a series of digressions that implicate a central concern, The Cyclist Conspiracy places the image at the heart, around which Barasa constructs a variety of texts, each a different form, always returning to the idea of the velocipede in bizarre ways and meanwhile having created space in which to show off his stylistic dexterity. The novel, in fact, is all artifice. As members of the Order traipse about history on their bikes making a mess of things (“We wanted to prove that a logical system can be built into any sort of nonsense,” boasts one member), so Basara proves it possible to subvert the “conventional” novel form in order to create a complex work that is beautiful in its meaningless madness.

Included in the Order of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross are many famous figures, including Sigmund Freud (he also makes a cameo in Chinese Letter), Eugène Ionesco, Jozef Škvorecki, Bohumil Hrabal, George W. Bush, and Steven Hawking, among many others whose lives are all falsified to fit the needs of the novel—and most are further still altered as the novel evolves and progresses. Their histories are often not even consistent with their falsified versions posited by Basara earlier in the novel! Historical events are likewise exaggerated or totally fabricated. Anything with a “real world” equivalent is intentionally misrepresented in the novel; history is rewritten to serve a higher cause. “This chronicle should be accepted by the reader as a mystification,” reports one member, “because the reason for the existence of our Order is indeed the spreading of mystifications and the causing of disturbances.” Basara mocks our need to seek out cause-and-effect rationales that explain our collective narrative, our history—rationales that are logical, digestible, easily retained, and that are almost always false to one degree or another. (The act of creating and repeating such stories is another kind of system.) Basara has no interest in portraying history as it happened or positing any new version of events, but rather in subverting the method we use for telling and retelling it. There is a larger truth conveyed in his work: the novel ends with a series of documents that outline the Order’s master plan to build a Grand Insane Asylum that will house 20 million people (some of them characters in the novel). The absurd idea, meticulously spelled out for us by one of Basara’s madmen, step by step, is a hilarious capstone to the novel that perfectly captures the modern despair and madness that underlies such a plan and makes this one unsettlingly familiar, if not conceivable.

Given our modern age of bad information, willful deceit and ignorance of those in power (and would-be power), there is solace in being reminded that this is not a new contagion. It seems it is a natural impulse of us to misinform, corrupt, and sicken our collective being. (We’re reminded of Basara “feeling averagely awful.”) When challenged, those who spread the sickness call their challengers blasphemous heretics, and they populate Basara’s fictive world as well. For Basara’s characters, even their names—convenient marks of identity—are fickle, deceitful, ultimately useless. What is great about Basara’s fiction is that, like any truly new advent, it arrives as if detached from any world outside its own, yet simultaneously it proves an organic outgrowth from the most hidden recesses of our reality.

These are introductory notes to an author who is a major force in contemporary European literature. Thanks to a small number of English-language presses doing the heavy lifting, we will hopefully hear more from him in the near future.

—Taylor Davis-Van Atta

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Taylor Davis-Van Atta is the founder and editor of Music & Literature, a brand new arts magazine dedicated to publishing critical literature on neglected composers and writers from around the world. The magazine debuts in print May 2012. Issue One features Hubert Selby, Jr., Micheline Aharonian Marcom, and the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and includes previously unpublished work by these featured artists as well as Stig Sæterbakken, Paul Vangelisti, Shushan Avagyan and many others.

Mar 162012
 

 

Naguib Mahfouz Café

1. The Cairo Souk

Last summer I was in Cairo, where my husband goes on business, and took the opportunity to investigate the Khan el-Khalili souk and the neighboring El-Gamaleyya district, a medieval Islamic section of the city celebrated in the work of the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. My second day in the city, I toured the Sultan Qala’un funerary complex with its polychrome mosaics and then on to the Naguib Mahfouz Café where Mahfouz had sat, the manager assured me, drinking tea, observing and writing. Now a plush restaurant operated by Oberoi hotels, the Café caters to the wealthy tourist and, as a result, has been emptied of the characters that would have appealed to Mahfouz.

2. Hotel: Poolside

Later, poolside at my hotel, I began to read Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, the first volume of the 1500-page Cairo Trilogy (1957-1959), the saga of three generations of the Abd Al-Jawad family. The section of Cairo where I’d just spent the day unfolded on the pages before me — its enigmatic views, shadowed arches, spindly minarets, latticed balconies. 

The novel paints a claustrophobic picture of a middle-class Egyptian family set against the backdrop of World War I and the First Egyptian Revolution (1919), a time when Egypt was struggling to overthrow foreign (British) occupation. Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd Al-Jawad, the forty-five-year-old despotic head of his family, demands blind obedience from his wife, Amina, and their five children. Inside his home, he enforces strict rules of Muslim piety; yet outside, he indulges all manner of indiscretion. Amina’s submission and her later clumsy attempt at emancipation from her philandering husband form the main plot line of the novel.

Hence, in the opening pages of Palace Walk, Mahfouz places thirty-nine-year-old Amina, married at fourteen and sequestered behind the walls of her house ever since, inside a latticework balcony. It’s midnight, Amina has just woken as she does every night to wait for her husband to return home from his evening out with friends, to help him out of his clothes, to wash his feet and otherwise serve him:

“She seemed to be in a hurry as she wrapped her veil about her and headed for the door to the balcony. Opening it, she stood there, turning her face right and left while she peeked out through the tiny, round openings of latticework panels that protected her from being seen from the street. (Palace Walk, London: Black Swan, 1994, 2)

Mahfouz depicts the street but filtered through Amina’s eyes; she has been indoors for twenty-five years, an experience that has deformed her ability to comprehend what she sees, and the landscape reflects this:

 

To her left the street appeared narrow and twisting. It was enveloped in a gloom that was thicker overhead where the windows of the sleeping houses looked down, and less noticeable at street level because of the light coming from the hand carts and from the vapor lamps of the coffeehouses and the shops that stayed open until dawn. To her right, the street was engulfed in darkness. There was nothing to attract the eye except the minarets of the ancient seminaries of Qala’un and Barquq, which loomed up like ghostly giants enjoying a night out by the light of the gleaming stars. It was a view that had grown on her over a quarter of a century. She never tired of it. The view had been a companion for her in solitude and a friend in her loneliness during a long period when she was deprived of friends and companions before her children were born, when for most of the day and night she had been the sole occupant of this large house with its two stories of spacious rooms with high ceilings, its dusty courtyard and deep well. (2)

Not only does the landscape envelop her, but it acts upon her, crushing and eluding her. She gazes at it with love, but she can’t know and experience it. She’s confined, rendered dependent and fearful.

As a result, Amina looks for solace in prayer:

When she was left alone, her only defense was reciting the opening prayer of the Qur’an, sura one hundred and twelve, about the absolute supremacy of God, or rushing to the latticework screen at the window to peer anxiously through it at the lights of the carts and the coffeehouses, listening carefully for a laugh or cough to help her regain her composure…true peace of mind she would not achieve until her husband returned from his evening’s entertainment. (3-4)

Only once, when she was younger, did she complain:

It had occurred to her once, during the first year she lived with him, to venture a polite objection to his repeated nights out. His response had been to seize her by the ears and tell her peremptorily in a loud voice, “I’m a man. I’m the one who commands and forbids. I will not accept any criticism of my behavior. All I ask of you is to obey me. Don’t force me to discipline you…. She learned from this, and from the other lessons that followed to adapt to everything…in order to escape the glare of his wrathful eye…she had no regrets at all about reconciling herself to a type of security based on surrender. (4)

3. The Souk: Revisited in Person and on the Page

The next day I went back to the souk so I could take more photos. I told my guide, Fahdi, about Mahfouz and asked what he thought about latticework balconies and veils. About to answer, he was interrupted when his phone rang. I could hear a woman’s voice through the receiver. She was agitated. Fahdi shot me an embarrassed glance, and then clicked the phone shut. “My son is acting up,” he said.

Then he answered my question. His wife doesn’t live under lock and key, but a woman should wear veils, especially once she’s married. Shortly thereafter, as we traversed the goldseller’s street, a young woman with her child on her hip shouted after us. Fahdi translated. “She wants you to put on a scarf,” he said.

In Mahfouz’s fiction, tradition doesn’t only constrain the women; men too are firmly grasped. In Palace Walk, Amina’s husband, Abd Al-Jawad feels compelled to act with solemnity in front of his family. Crossing the threshold of his home, he stifles the smiles and laughter he freely bestows elsewhere; this he does to safeguard his dignity and authority. He ascends the staircase toward his bedroom long after his children have gone to bed; no one except Amina knows he has been out carousing. He signals his arrival by beating the steps with his stick. The sharp sound spurs Amina to action, she holds a lamp over “her master’s” head so he can see where to walk.

But unlike Amina, Abd Al-Jawad may come and go at will. As he sits in his bedchamber allowing his wife to serve him, he reflects on the evening he has just spent in the company of others.

Fishawy Café, another Mahfouz favorite

It was nothing for him to journey a long way, to the outskirts of Cairo, in order to hear a renowned male vocalist like al-Hamuli, Muhammad Uthman, or al-Manilawi, wherever he resided. Thus their tunes found shelter in his hospitable soul, like nightingales in a leafy tree. He loved song with both his soul and his body. (10)

Sidewalk Shisha, Cigarettes & Tea, Khan El Khalili

This momentary return to the world outside often produces the tendency in Abd Al-Jawad to be kind to Amina; he confesses his innermost thoughts, or speaks to her about the war (WWI) or the revolution, “thus making her feel, if only for the moment, that she was not just his servant but also a partner in his life.”

 To the world outside, Abd Al-Jawad is charming and fun, very much involved in the life around him. He owns a bustling grocery store that opens on a busy street in the heart of the souk. This store represents an aspect of his public persona; its openness, fullness and bustle clash with the rigidity of the domestic landscape and his private demeanor. Noise from the endless flow of passersby, hand and horse carts, singing vendors chanting about their tomatoes, doesn’t interfere with Abd Al-Jawad’s concentration as he reviews his ledger. Instead, the landscape operates on him, increasing his equanimity. Friends and customers freely enter, stop to visit. He receives his share of respect and esteem but above all else is loved “for the charm of his personality more than for any of his many other fine characteristics.” The store also provides a haven in which Abd Al-Jawad meets his lovers:

He was bent over his ledgers when he heard a pair of high-heeled shoes tapping across the threshold of the store. He naturally raised his eyes with interest and saw a woman whose hefty body was enveloped in a wrap. A white forehead and eyes decorated with kohl could be seen above her veil. He smiled to welcome a person for whom he had been waiting a long time…the electricity was hidden and silent but needed only a touch to make it shine, glow and burst into flame. He seemed to be expecting this visit which was an answer to whispered hopes and suppressed dreams. (390)

But he is not infatuated with women for themselves, rather:

He was infatuated with feminine beauty in all its flesh, coquetry, and elegance…tens of [his] women had all possessed at least some of these characteristics. (390)

Nor is he wracked with guilt:

At times he recognizes what he is doing is wrong, but he cannot imagine viewing life in any other fashion than the way it appears to him. (413)

4. Hotel: Poolside, 2

Later at the hotel pool I watched a man taking pictures of a pretty girl in a headscarf. She sat on a lounge chair, stood under a palm, leaned against a column near the hotel’s in-house shisha stand, changing outfits twice. I wondered if she were modeling for a publication. Perhaps she was on her honeymoon.

I ran into her an hour later in the ladies’ room. Her scarf lay on the counter. Her curly black hair was twisted into a sweaty knot at the top of her head. She doused her red face with cool water, then stared at me in the mirror. “I’m so hot,” she said in perfect English. “I like your hair.”

5. The Souk Again: The Mosques of Al Husayn and Al-Azhar

The next day, on my way to the Mosque of Al Husayn, the holiest shrine in Islamic Cairo where the prophet’s grandson’s head is said to be buried, I asked Fahdi about the girl.

“She must have been a rich girl from Jordan,” he said.

We parked near the square and Fahdi left me by the women’s gate while he went to the men’s entrance with my husband. I twisted a scarf around my head.

Leaving my shoes in a cubbyhole at the door, I slipped into hooded, floor-length robe I was handed. Women sat against the walls, holding children, listening to the sermon piped in from the men’s section. Others formed a line at a doorway leading to the interior; through the arch I could see the top of a large, elaborate silver sarcophagus.

Midway through Palace Walk, while Abd Al-Jawad is away on an overnight business trip to Port Said, Amina’s children suggest she make a covert visit to this holy place, a place she has always longed to visit. With her children watching, her face lights up; she contemplates the trek and what it signifies:

The Mosque of Al Husayn, Women’s Entrance

It was as though an earthquake had shaken a land that had never experienced one before. She did not understand how her heart could answer this appeal, how her eyes could look beyond the limits of what was allowed, or how she could consider the adventure possible and even tempting, no—irresistible. Of course, since it was such a sacred pilgrimage, a visit to the shrine of al-Husayn appeared a powerful excuse for the radical leap her will was making, but that was not the only factor influencing her soul. Deep inside her, imprisoned currents yearning for release responded to this call in the same way that eager, aggressive instincts answer the call for a war proclaimed to be in defense of freedom and peace. She said in trembling voice,” A visit to the shrine of al-Husayn is something my heart has wished for all my life … but … your father?” (165)

Her children convince her to go; her youngest son Kamal escorts her. She marvels at the streets and shops she passes along the way, her heart beating faster as she and her son draw ever nearer:

The Tomb of Al Husayn

They walked around the outside of the mosque until they reached the green door. They entered, surrounded by a crowd of women visitors…. She proceeded to devour the place with greedy, curious eyes: the walls, ceiling, pillars, carpets, chandeliers, pulpit, and the mihrab niches indicating the direction of Mecca…. The slow moving flow of women carried them along until they found themselves near the tomb itself. How often she had longed to visit this site, as though yearning for a dream that could never be achieved on this earth. (167)

But on her way home, feelings of guilt submerge Amina’s joyful elation; she faints in the crowded street and breaks her collarbone. When her husband discovers what she has done, he banishes her. An outcast, she languishes at her mother’s, shamed as a chastised wife. She realizes that her dream of change and freedom was one that ‘could never be achieved on earth,’ a lament that echoes the wider political struggle of the time with early twentieth-century Egyptians despairing to be freed of foreign domination.

After she has despaired of ever returning, one day she is summoned home. Friends and neighbors have intervened on her behalf. Her husband forgives her and she is allowed to resume her old life. Blissfully content, she resumes her lawful demeanor within the confining walls of her dwelling, having attained nothing lasting.

In a parallel action later in the novel Abd Al-Jawad attends a mosque for Friday prayers and comes face to face with his transgressions.

Al Ahzar Mosque

The sermon directed his attention toward his own sins, sweeping aside all other considerations. He found himself directly confronted by them. They were given such terrifying vividness by the penetrating and resonant voice of the preacher that al-Sayyid Ahmad imagined he was singling him out and screaming into his ears at the top of his voice. He would not have been surprised to hear the preacher address him by name: Ahmad, restrain yourself from evil. Cleanse yourself of fornication and wine. Repent and return to God your Lord. (412-413)

But such considerations do not produce any sort of long-lasting change for him either; Abd Al-Jawad asks for pardon, forgiveness and mercy but never repentance; he cannot imagine life flowing any differently than the way it does. Quitting the mosque, he resumes his old ways.

Al Azhar, Studying the Qu’ran

Standing in line, thinking about the book, quietly observing and snapping a few discrete pictures, I reached the banister surrounding the tomb of Al Husayn. Beyond, I could see my husband and Fahdi, far away on the men’s side. They waved to me. I waved back.

6. Coda

By establishing a system of oppositions from which his characters are unable to escape, Mahfouz increases their conflict and fragmentation. From a historical point of view, the portrait of the Abd Al-Jawad family is an accurate depiction of the late 19th, early 20th -century Egyptian middle class engaged in a struggle for independence that has lasted in many ways until the present time.

But times have changed and absolute subservience of wives to their husbands has largely been replaced by a position of near equality. Mahfouz charts the developments of the Egyptian marriage relationship in the two successive volumes of the Trilogy: Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. Nevertheless, a hidden life of repression still governs both men and women. Women may drive cars and vote, but many still wear veils; these seem to function in a manner similar to the latticework balconies wives once hid behind.

Tahrir Square, Near the Egyptian Museum

Winding through the alleys of Cairo, below spiky minarets and through shadows redolent of dust and decay, Mahfouz’s words rang in my ears. We emerged into Tahrir Square, the heart of Egypt’s Arab Spring. In the throng of men, I could see Amina’s great granddaughters, in veils, protesting.

 –Natalia Sarkissian

Mar 152012
 

No matter how cliché it sounds, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has complete relevance here. In this instance, though, don’t judge a film by its title. The zombie genre itself has, unfortunately, become a little stale and I understand the eye-rolling that may fall upon one when reading this title. That being said, I urge you to abandon any preconceptions you may have as Chris Russell’s “Zombie in a Penguin Suit” is a wonderfully directed visual tale. The end of humanity has never looked so beautiful.

It becomes clear early on in the film how the protagonist ended up being a zombie in a penguin suit. What’s more interesting though is how it makes us feel to see a lovable penguin mascot, cartoony and intended to entertain children, spewing blood and tearing the faces off humans with its teeth is jarring. Caught between a sort of Disney playful tale and the nightmare of a horror film, we are left with a peculiar combination of both – somewhere indefinable. Sigmund Freud describes something that is familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time as the uncanny. The penguin mascot, for us, is something familiar but his murderous rampage, at least I hope, is not.

Along with this, perhaps the penguin figure reminds us of a childhood stuffed animal, representing something innocent and familiar, but then we see it bloodied and decaying from the inside and this puts us again in a hybrid, indefinable, and uncomfortable state.

While most modern zombie films pride themselves on quick pacing and action sequences, Russell takes the opposite, slow burning route and the results are stunning. The music is gorgeous; the soft piano keys with the haunting violin serve as the apocalypse’s backdrop. This, combined with the slower pace, solemnizes and sentimentalizes the event, making the terror and destruction of the world feel nearly elegant.

But the film doesn’t rest on aesthetics and encourages sympathy for the shuffling penguin as he roams aimlessly through a chaotic and then sometimes empty world. The crucifixion sequence really hammers in this idea as we see exactly what humans are capable of when faced with an unknown phenomenon and their own fear. At the end of the film, when the zombie stumbles into a still populated suburbia, it’s as if the humans have become the invaders of the zombie world and are now the enemy. Through forcing us to identify with an outsider and reflect on the destructive nature of humanity, the film refreshes the zombie genre.

Be sure to stick around for the credits. There is a quick clip of who the penguin mascot was before he became a zombie mascot and this further adds a haunting yet humanizing element to the overall story. But the film doesn’t quite end there and moves from humanizing him during the credits to absurdly penguinizing him in the last shot after the credits so watch to the last frame.

— Jon Dewar

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

Mar 132012
 

Nance Van Winckel is on a roll. Two new books are coming next year (poems and stories). But much of her attention these days is focused on her pho-toems, collage art or off-the-page poems, if you will, or combinations of poetry, found and altered poetry, graffiti, ads, signage, and, well, walls. Photos and poems. Here’s what she wrote when she sent them: “So I thought I’d send you a couple of these altered ads, things I’m doing now for, Numéro Cinq. After I alter the text of the ads, it seems to me they need some place to live, so I stick ’em on walls.” Nance makes it sound easyand casual, but the images themselves are spectacular, surprising, expansive, witty and charged with a mysterious interaction of language and space. NC has published earlier pho-toems and a short pho-toem video. And here also is an interview about pho-toems Nance did with Diane Lockward.

 

NANCE1

 

NANCE2

 

Nance3

—Nance Van Winckel

——————————————————

Nance Van Winckel will have two new books out in 2013. Pacific Walkers, her sixth collection of poems, is due out from U. of Washington Press, and Boneland, her fourth book of linked stories, will appear with U. of Oklahoma Press. She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships, an Isherwood Fiction Fellowship and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. New poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She has new short fiction in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, and Kenyon Review. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her primary interest lately is Poetry-Off-the-Page, and she has had work in several juried art shows of her “pho-toems” (photo-collage with text). A solo show of this work opened in January at the Robert Graves Gallery in Wenatchee, Washington; examples may be viewed at:  http://photoemsbynancevanwinckel.zenfolio.com/

Mar 132012
 

Herewith a lovely, trenchant, hilarious, smelly essay on writing narrative poems, growing up, mothers and sons, and skunks. Some of the delights: the essay is in part a dialogue with a friend and hence the deceptively intimate and casual throw of the long sentences which accrete heft and wisdom from underneath, as it were, slyly and with mysterious suspense. Lovely to read. Also, of course, the unforgettable image of Sydney Lea, naked, slewing down a muddy, dark forest road in a truck, holding a shotgun out the window as he steers one-handed and tries to shoot a skunk. Of the inception of this essay, Syd wrote to me:

“My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals — see attachment); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Apparently, Numéro Cinq is just the place.

Sydney Lea is the Poet Laureate of Vermont, a prolific author of poems, essays, and fiction, a former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (where, one wintry eve in Noble Lounge—and I believe I have mentioned this before, becoming garrulous and repetitive in my old age—Syd gave the finest reading I have ever witnessed), and an old friend.

dg

 §

 

Many, many years ago I wrote a poem called “The Feud.” It got a little acclaim, several commentators applauding my reimportation of elements that most poetry had for some while ceded to fiction: character, plot, setting, dialogue – values of that sort.

In fact I hadn’t set out with any agenda in mind. I’d come to poetry late in life by most people’s standards, having been a conventional academic into my mid-thirties, and I didn’t know much about contemporary poetry. (I’m not yet sure such a thing is entirely knowable, at least to me.) So I wasn’t looking to be idiosyncratic or aesthetically inventive. I merely wanted to tell a tale, and when I did, for some reason it presented itself in blank verse.

“The Feud” is a long poem, some seventeen typescript pages, so it may appear surprising that it came to me intact in less than an hour. I never stopped my fingers on the keyboard, wrote as if possessed. Thereafter, such revisions as I did on the poem were very minimal: I remember excising a single stanza of the many, and changing a handful of words here and there. But that was about all.

As a good Puritan, I was suspicious of any poem’s quality if it presented itself do rapidly. But whatever that quality, I now think “The Feud’s” sudden arrival had something to do with its being the first thing I’d written in about half a year after the death by aneurism of my younger brother, an event so shocking of course as to make me wonder among other things why in the world one would bother with mere poetry at all.

I’m now persuaded that the whole story of “The Feud” is allegorical of my relationship with the man who’d died so tragically young, which was both an intimate and often a heatedly adversarial one, and on which I had of course been meditating for that half-year, even when I didn’t know it. In short, I had been doing so much emotional research, for the most part unawares, that when I began composition the material was right at my fingertips.

My narrative involved a speaker and his hostile dealings with a local have-not family named Walker. That speaker is proud unto vain, and is especially given to righteousness: throughout the tale, he contrasts himself with his sad, impoverished counterparts, seeing respectable ideals in himself, and in them no higher aims whatsoever.

I didn’t like my protagonist much, I still don’t, and it took me more than a year after the poem’s completion to recognize why: his self-absorption and quickness to judge were a lot like mine, particularly when I was even younger, and more particularly with respect to my late brother. In our school years, for example, I estimated my roles as accomplished scholar and athlete to be exemplary, looking down on him because he thought them useless charades. And despite my own shortcomings in her eyes, to my hugely imposing mother too I represented the white sheep, he the black.

I look back on that sad period after he died and I understand why I might have had a negative opinion of the person I’d been up until then. It wasn’t only my scores of petty feuds with the younger brother, which seemed so ridiculously petty in the wake of his passing. I can’t list, either, all the ways in which I was a bad husband to a fine woman, how often I fabricated occasions to look down on her too, as well as on colleagues, neighbors, even dear friends and family.

These introductory musings derive from my unexpectedly thinking, when I set about composing an essay on my confrontations with wild animals (and as an inveterate and devoted hunter I have naturally had many), of a passage from “The Feud.” I shortly recalled, and not at all for the first time, the circumstances that engendered those lines.

“The Feud’s” speaker at one point refers to a time when a skunk, reacting to a rush from his house cat, sprayed copiously enough in a shed under his bedroom to awaken him: “The smell was worse than death,” he remembers,

And till the dawn arrived, for hours I felt

the stink was like a judgment: every sin
from when I was a child till then flew back
and played itself again before my eyes.

Now the closest encounter I myself ever had with skunks goes back to a much earlier period, when I was in fact a child. Fourteen years old, I was mowing a patch of meadow at my great uncle’s farm. Suddenly the tractor’s sickle bar decapitated a mother skunk, though it was set high enough to pass over the heads of her three small kits.

I don’t know where on earth I could have gotten the notion, but I somehow believed – given their tininess – the baby skunks too young to spray. I left them tumbling between windrows and ran to the barn for a burlap sack. I’d heard that skunks made good pets, and I figured my mother, whose only sentimentality was for animals, would surely pay to have their musk sacs removed before they became operational.

I hustled back to the field, holding the bag open and reaching for the first kit. In that instant, all three skunks fell quickly into formation and blasted me from less than two feet away.

I won’t speak for others, but I find the distant smell of skunk almost pleasant, wild and woodsy as it is, redolent, particularly, of spring. To be literally soaked in skunk musk is another matter entirely. Child of the 60s, I know what tear gas feels like, but given a choice between the gas and what I experienced on that morning over fifty years ago, I’ll ask for the cops and their canisters.

Choking, blinded, I bumbled to the pond and threw myself in – which of course did no good at all. Since then, women’s douche solution has proven the best antidote for skunk that I know, and we now keep a lot of it on hand for dog-and-skunk emergencies. But I didn’t have this unlikely remedy then. I submitted to a more traditional one: my bachelor great uncle’s wise and wonderful Irish housekeeper (God bless dear Mary Griffin) doused me with tomato juice, tomato paste, even ketchup, which made things not perfect but a lot better. I soaked in a bubbly bathtub through the afternoon, then took shower after shower, and slathered myself with my great uncle’s cologne, By evening, I’d become bearable to Mary – and to myself.

For weeks after, however, when the weather turned very humid or rainy, the odor of skunk came nauseatingly back, and I recall that for whatever reason, yes, “the stink was like a judgment.”

Now let me leap ahead some twenty years, to a time more patently connected to that portion of “The Feud,” when I lived in a drafty yellow farmhouse with my first wife. One August, two or three times a week the same skunk kept waddling into the shed below our bedroom, even after I moved our rubbish can down-cellar. Having struck pay dirt once, it seemed, the beast imagined with persistence he’d get lucky again.

We had a cat named Wendy, good in the house but in many ways half feral. We left her outdoors at night all year round, and in summer would simply let her fend for herself back home after we went to our Maine camp for almost a month. She was always sleek and fat when we returned, having subsisted on the plentiful voles and red squirrels of the remote neighborhood. Wendy charged that skunk each time it came calling, but somehow managed never to get sprayed herself. The stench would rise up, though, and would indeed wake the sleepers above.

One night, an unusually hot and steamy one for upper New England, I lay up there in the buff, on top of the bedclothes. When the smell roused me from my slumber, I swore I’d had enough. Rushing down to my hunting room, I fetched my12-gauge Browning, a handful of shells and a flashlight. Then I ran to the kitchen door that opened onto the shed.

The animal must somehow have sensed danger, because, under a hazy full moon, I saw it bobbing down the dirt road, about to reach the deep woods west of the house. I knew I’d never catch the skunk on foot, so I leapt into my old Chevy pickup and roared after it, leaning out the window, shotgun in hand, ready to blow the creature to kingdom come from behind the wheel, like one of my childhood cowboy heroes shooting at a bad guy from horseback.

Just as I came within range, ready to hit the brakes and fire, I lost control of the truck and fishtailed into those same woods. I miraculously avoided every tree, but, four-wheel drive be damned, I found myself hopelessly stuck in a wetland pothole.

So there was I, buck naked, toting a shotgun, mud to my shins, perhaps a hundred yards from the house. Thank God, I thought, we live in the middle of nowhere and it’s three in the morning. I started walking homeward.

Then I heard the engine. On looking back I saw headlights pointing upward. Unbelievable. Whoever it may have been was climbing the hill a quarter mile behind me and heading my way.  By now I was out in the meadowland, so I couldn’t just dash back into the forest for cover. I stumbled up into a field and lay my naked body on the stubble of lately cut hay, mosquitoes strafing me, astonished at their good fortune.

To make matters worse, the driver of the car – whose identity I’ll never know – had noticed my truck in the woods and, no doubt with the best of intentions, gotten out to inspect the scene of the accident. I heard male voices, though not at such a distance what they were saying.

Jesus, can’t they see there’s no one there? I silently screamed. The would-be Samaritans seemed to be lingering a long, long time, and I was in plain misery there on my painful bed, prey to the vicious insects.

In due course, the vehicle passed, I picked myself up, returned to the house, showered, went back to bed. But I never slept again through those slow early morning hours. Again, “the stink was like a judgment.” I lay there wondering how in hell I had turned out to be such an unadmirable man. Even minor pecadillos, never mind what I considered my more epical sins, seemed monstrous. Even now, I find that insomnia can have ill effects under the best of conditions.

But even now I also wonder why, after those three skunk kits let me have it at fourteen, I’d felt so unlikable.

I do have a tendency – as my wife often reminds me – to what the feel-good parlance of our time names low self-esteem, and although I don’t want to engage in the very psycho-babble I usually mock, I suspect that this self-laceration goes back to a vexed relationship with that same larger-than-life, animal-loving mother.

I was a good student back in the field-mowing days, and better later along – but I never proved good enough for her. An example: our school still used a numbered grading system, and I recall getting a 96 on my English final in tenth grade. I also, and more painfully, recall her asking what had happened to the other four points.  For all I know, she was joking – but I’m pretty sure not.

It was late in her troubled, if quite productive life that she told me something about her own school days, something I now believe to have been crucial, determinative. She was her class valedictorian, and had just been accepted to Radcliffe, about the toniest women’s college going at the time. When she ran with the news to her uncle, the same man whose field I mowed and who was her virtual father, the biological one having died in her fifth year – when she ran in, breathless, to share that report from Radcliffe, the old man looked her in the eye and said five terse words.

Women don’t go to college.

I am sure our great uncle, like anyone, carried his own bag of rocks. My siblings and I have sometimes wondered if he remained unmarried because he was gay, closeted as the times demanded, though there is no way to prove that either way. For whatever reason, he could be gracious and generous in one instant, explosive in the next.

He was at his most daunting, however, when he turned steely. Women don’t go to college. On hearing that pronouncement, my mother must instantly have known there’d be no appeal.

And so, I suspect, she wanted me as firstborn to be her academic vicar. She may well have withheld approval of my scholastic achievements from a belief that I was squandering a gift that had been summarily denied to her. My every accomplishment, then, amounted to relatively little. It seems never to have occurred to her that I was doing the best I could. Who knows? Maybe I wasn’t. But that is a separate story.

After my mother’s death, and after more than a decade of resenting her memory, I wrote her a letter whose first half catalogued all my grievances, and whose second catalogued the things she’d passed on for which I felt grateful. I went to the columbarium where her remains lay, read the letter aloud, then struck a match to it, watching the paper’s ashes fall to earth around her own. For whatever reason, the resentments vanished in that moment.

My feelings about myself have subsequently improved, at however gradual a rate.

Which, oddly, brings me to skunks yet again. I recall a beautiful forenoon in May, and my even more beautiful wife and I enjoying it in Montreal’s botanical gardens. We had gone to that great city for a romantic weekend, and the blue sky, the brilliant sun, and the countless flowers in bud or bloom – all felt precisely in keeping with that mission.

We were near the Japanese-style temple at the heart of the gardens when Robin noticed a rustling in some pachysandra.

“What do you suppose that is?” she asked.

We leaned over together as I parted the leaves. There stood a skunk, back-to, tamping its front feet, its spray-hole distended almost to bursting. Needless to say, we bolted like hares.

As we walked back to the subway, we marveled at our good luck. Once sprayed, we’d never have been allowed on that Métro; we couldn’t have hailed a cab; it was a full five-mile hike back to the hotel, and once we got there, we’d have been barred from it too. What in the world might we have done?

Why that little creature didn’t let us have it I’ll never know. But while we wandered along, giggling like schoolkids, I suddenly realized that I felt not a trace of the old self-loathing.

Perhaps that equanimity came only from not being sprayed by the skunk. And yet there’s still enough of the romantic poet in me to turn that datum around.

I loathe and, largely on behalf of the animals, have always campaigned against the Disneyfied humanization of wildlife. I know that animals are emphatically not, as some inane bumper stickers would have us beklieve, little people in fur coats; so I also know full well how wrong the following notion is on a literal level. Metaphorically, however, it makes perfect sense to me that the skunk failed to spray simply because I’m a different man at seventy than I was at thirty or even fourteen – a man who, in his own eyes at least, has a lot less to feel guilty or inadequate about.

I’ll keep on dreaming that’s so.

—Sydney Lea

—————————————-

SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books). Later this year, the University of Michigan Press will issue A Hundred Himalayas, a sampling from his critical work over four decades. A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife (Skyhorse Publishing), a third volume of outdoor essays, will also be published in 2012, and his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, will follow in 2013 from Four Way Books.

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

Mar 122012
 

John B. Lee is Poet Laureate of Norfolk County on the north shore of Lake Erie where I grew up on a tobacco farm smack in the middle of a geologic formation called the Norfolk Sand Plain. He lives in Port Dover, home of the peculiar fresh water fishing boat called the turtle back (photos provided upon request), also Fred Eaglesmith, the singer, and a bar called The Brig in the basement of which several American interlopers were held captive during the War of 1812 (not an unpleasant prison experience, one imagines, as these things go). John is an old friend and a prolific author of more than 60 books. These poems are part of a forthcoming collection entitled Let Us Be Silent Here (Sanbun Publishers, New Delhi, India, 2012). The poems were translated into Spanish by Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon for a recent reading John gave in Havana, Cuba, and we also have, here, the Spanish versions. But the poems themselves are based on a trip John made to the Holy Land and his reading of Palestinian and Israeli poets. This is a vast message loop–Canada, Israel, India and Cuba–something to get your minds around as you read these poems. But the poems themselves are gorgeous meditations on that thorny, dry land, birthplace of great world religions, refuge for the Holocaust remnant, where the geology is a book of prayer and story blossoms in the ruins.

this is the closest I will ever come
to seeing
through the eyes
of the Messiah
this mask of stars
this moon

John has contributed to Numéro Cinq twice before. See those earlier poems here and here.

dg

 

Book cover detail from The Rooftop, a painting by Israeli poet/artist Helen Bar-Lev

 

 

Linen and Wool

 a poem in honour of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish[1][2]

“you must not wear a garment woven from linen and wool”  — Deuteronomy

I have retted the linen
and carded the wool
of two voices
and my hands are rich
and smooth
with the lanolin
of my work
anointed by the silkening
oil of the seed of the field

and from these
I have fashioned
a garment of sky
for the mind and the soul
imaginary blue
haunted by the absent dazzle
of stars in the dark

and next to my skin
I fasten a shirt of earth
where the heart
falls in green
through green
like the crimson drop
of a peach hooked high
in the sun
let loose from the pull
of a ripening stem
and it plunges and subsides
plunges and subsides
like the soften gone still
of fruit on a bruise

it releases its colour from form
like the fading
of rain on damp loam

this gloaming
inclusion of grey

this wearing away
of the tattering light

this dew
on a web in the heat

unwinding a glistening thought

old memories dream
in dry land

when the water’s the past
in a well

one thirst will empty the cup

another’s a cup
we must fill

 

 

Lino y lana

un poema en honor al poeta israelí Yehuda Amichai y al poeta palestino MahmoudDarwish[1][2]

“No usarás ropas tejidas de lino y lana” — Deuteronomio

He humedecido el lino
y cardado la lana
de dos voces
y mis manos se han vueltofértiles
y suaves
con la lanolina
de mi trabajo
ungidas por el sedoso
aceite de la simiente del campo

y de estas
he confeccionado
un vestido celeste
para la mente y el alma
azul imaginario
hechizado por el resplandor ausente
de las estrellas en la oscuridad

y cerca de mi piel
me abrocho una camisa de tierra
donde el corazón
cae en el verde
a través del verde
como una gota carmesí
de un durazno suspendido alto
en el sol
soltado del tirón
de un tallo que madura
y se desploma y decae
se desploma y decae
como la suavidad aquietada
de la fruta en el cardenal

derrama su color desde la forma
como el desvanecimiento
de la lluvia en la arcilla húmeda

esta inclusión de
gris crepuscular

este desgastarse
de la luz desgarrada

este rocío
en la telaraña del calor

desdoblando un pensamiento resplandeciente

sueño de viejas memorias
en la tierra reseca

cuando el agua es el pasado
en un pozo

una voluntad sedienta vacía la copa

es la copa de otro la
que hemos de llenar

 

 

A Sadder Music: meditation on YadVashem

“the sad music of humanity”
—William Wordsworth

I have entered into this place
of the lost
lost elders, lost children of Europe
with its death-grey
housefly-grey   burnt-ash grey
crematorium
what the cruel past calls
historical
once horror beat in the breast
like a great-winged bird
where its flame-shadow
fell in the blood
and its season’s plunge
was a sea of fire

how is it that we set the lists
in volumes tall as life
and learn where quiet ladders lean
to say the darkness in the names
that burn the pages through
with ink gone into smoke—sing
softly, softly, let’s be silent here—

oh reverent grief
that war is done
those lives
have lined the earth with bones
like rootwork of a thousand-thousand-thousand
wind-broken trees

the soul of man
grimes over
like a lamp of oil
and shame shines through
the tainted light we touch

 

 

Una música más triste: meditaciones sobre YadVashem

“La triste música de la humanidad”
—William Wordsworth

He entrado a este lugar
de los perdidos
los ancianos perdidos, los perdidos hijos de Europa
con su crematorio
gris como la muerte
gris como las moscas   gris de cenizas quemadas
lo que el pasado cruel llama
histórico
una vez que el horror golpeó en el pecho
como un gigantesco pájaro alado
donde su sombra flameada
cayó en la sangre
y el desplome de su época
fue un mar de fuego

como es que fijamos el listado
en volúmenes tan altos como la vida
y comprendemos donde se apoyan las quietas escaleras
para decir la oscuridad en nombres
que queman a través de las páginas
con tinta convertida en humo—cantar
suavemente, suavemente, hagamos silencio aquí

oh la aflicción reverente
por la guerra que ha acabado
esas vidas
han cubierto la tierra de huesos
como el trabajo de raíces de mil millares de millares de
árboles fertilizados por el viento

el alma del hombre
se enturbia toda
como una lámpara de aceite
y la vergüenza resplandece a través de
la luz mancillada que tocamos

 

 

Night Sky Over Jerusalem

this is the closest I will ever come
to seeing
through the eyes
of the Messiah
this mask of stars
this moon
pale as a sickly child
and in the daylight
blue heaven blooms
with those invisible
constellations
subsumed by the sun

my son asks
“why did Christ make no mention
of dinosaurs?”
American critic Harold Bloom
says, “Christ was a mortal
god—and we humans
are immortal animals …”
one Toronto theologian suggests
“Christ’s life is the same
as the life of ancient
Egyptian god Horace
and the Beatitudes are
plagiarized
from mythologies
far older
than the gospels”and I
looking up at Cassiopeia,  at
Orion’s belt
at the inconstant drift of the milky way
with my contemporary
contemplation
of this much-storied universe

consider Aristotle, Copernicus
Galileo, Newton, Einstein
Hawkins, the resonant
music of cosmic strings
living here in these entropics
on this event horizon
my life like a snowflake
falling onto the surface
of a great water
or an ember
briefly breath-crimson in the grey glow
of a larger ash

pull the bow on the arrow of time
from nock to tip
at this motionless moment
the quiver is full
as a clutch of ornamental reeds
and the one wound I make is doubt
and the other
pure belief, and I feel
in the presence of placeless place
and in the absence of timeless time
a common faith
in the sorrowful joy
of letting the arrow      sing

 

 

El cielo nocturno sobre Jerusalén

esto es lo más cerca que alguna vez estaré
de ver
a través de los ojos
del Mesías
esta máscara de estrellas
esta luna
pálida como un niño macilento
y a la luz del día
el cielo azul florece
con esas constelaciones
invisibles
subsumidas por el sol

mi hijo pregunta
“¿por qué Cristo no mencionó
a los dinosaurios?”
el crítico americano Harold Bloom
dice, “Cristo era un dios
mortal—y nosotros los humanos
somos animales inmortales…”
un teólogo de Toronto sugiere
“la vida de Cristo es igual a
la vida del antiguo
dios egipcio Horacio
y las Beatitudes han sido
plagiadas
de mitologías
mucho más antiguas
que los evangelios”
y yo
mirando a Casiopea, al
cinturón de Orión
y la deriva inconstante de la vía láctea
con mi contemplación
contemporánea
de este universo tan celebrado por la historia

considero a Aristóteles, Copérnico
Galileo, Newton, Einstein
Hawkins, la música resonante
de las cuerdas cósmicas
viviendo ahí en los entrópicos
sobre este evento de horizonte
mi vida como un copo de nieve
cayendo hacia la superficie
de un agua magna
o una pavesa
brevemente alentada hasta el carmesí en el fulgor gris
de una ceniza más vasta

tiro del arco en la flecha del tiempo
desde la muesca hasta la punta
en este momento detenido
el carcaj está lleno
como un puñado de cañas ornamentales
y la única herida que hago es dudar
y la otra
creencia pura, y siento
en la presencia del lugar sin lugares
y en la ausencia del tiempo sin tiempo
una fe común
en el júbilo triste
de dejar a la flecha    cantar

 

 

In the City of Megiddo

 “in the city you didn’t find the city”
—Mahmoud Darwish from “Hoopoe”
 

I stand in the slipping heap
on the rocky berm
of a seven-thousand
year old excavation
and evidence is everywhere
that we vanish when we die
as in ashes
as in dust
on the sun-blackened stone
not one scrap
of bone, nor tool
to thrill the tell
the shovel turns
its voice on basalt
broken from a broken wall
imagine here
a house, and here        a well
wherein the water’s ghost
descends
beyond the darkest dark
to dry the falling cup

and yet, see here
they lived—
these ancient people
of a former time

they loved and thrived
and bore their children
out of hope
they worked the fields
and flailed the grain       and died
to keep their store
as heroes die and die again
in endless war

the sun
improves my shadow
with a sharp-edged light
what drums I hear
are of my living heart
please take my word
that I was here
and thought of you
as dry wells
think on rain

 

 

En la ciudad de Megiddo

“en la ciudad no encontraste la ciudad”
—Mahmoud Darwish de “Hoopoe”

estoy parado en el cúmulo resbaloso
sobre el borde rocoso
de una excavación de
siete mil años de antigüedad
y las evidencias están por todas partes
de que nos desvanecemos al morir
bien en cenizas
bien en polvo
sobre la roca ennegrecida por el sol
ningún pedacito
de hueso, ni de utensilios
que haga el relato emocionante
la pala devuelve
su voz sobre el basalto
roto de una rota pared
imaginen aquí
una casa, y aquí    un pozo
en el que el fantasma del agua
desciende
más allá de la oscuridad más oscura
para enjugar la copa que cae

y sin embargo, miren aquí
vivieron ellos—
estos antiguos
de un tiempo remoto

amaron y prosperaron
y parieron a sus hijos
desde la esperanza
trabajaron los campos
trillaron el grano    y murieron
por mantener sus provisiones
como héroes murieron y murieron otra vez
en una guerra sin final

el sol
perfecciona mi sombra
con una luz afilada
los tambores que escucho
son los de mi corazón viviente
por favor reciban mis palabras
de que estuve aquí
y pensé en ustedes
como los pozos secos
piensan en la lluvia

 —John B. Lee & Dr. Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon

——————————————————-

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books.  His most recent book, Let Us Be Silent Here, is forthcoming from Sanbun Publishers in New Delhi, India.  He is currently working on a memoir of his life in hockey. Under the working title, You Can Always Eat the Dogs: the hockeyness of ordinary men, it is forthcoming from Black Moss Press in the summer/fall of 2012.  Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he was also recently appointed Poet Laureate of Norfolk County where he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the south coast of Lake Erie.  A recipient of over seventy prestigious international awards for his writing, the poems taken from Let Us Be Silent Here, were inspired by an eighteen day journey through Israel and Jordan.  He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba, a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin.  A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador.  He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010).  Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingiual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. … the poetry of Yehuda Amachai is a challenge to me, because we write about the same place.  … so we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land?  Who loves it more? Who writes it better?  — Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian
  2. “the linsey-woolsey of our being together…”  is  from a poem by Jehuda Amichai inspired by the concept of ‘shatnez’
  3. … la poesía de YehudaAmachai es un reto para mí, porque escribimos acerca del mismo lugar. …así que tenemos una competencia: ¿quién es el dueño de la lengua de esta tierra? ¿Quién la quiere más? ¿Quién escribe acerca de ella major? — Mahmoud Darwish, palestino
  4. “la tela de dril de estar juntos…”  — de un poema de JehudaAmichai inspirado por el concepto de ‘shatnez’
Mar 092012
 

When I was a child, I always dreamed of being taken away by an ambulance, and when there was one nearby, I’d cross my fingers and whisper: “Let it be me, let it be me,” but it never was me, the ambulances were always moving away from me, I could tell by the sirens. Now I hear ambulance sirens in the distance again, they should be coming to get me because I’m wearing clean underwear and will be dying soon. But no, there’s someone else in the ambulance instead, someone who is no longer responsible for their destiny. — The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, Kjersti Skomsvold

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am
Kjersti Skomsvold
Translated by Kerri A. Pierce
Dalkey Archive Press
$17.95

And maybe all we want in life is a sorrow so big that it forces us to become ourselves before we die.

                                                                        –– Kjersti A. Skomsvold

Norwegian writer, Kjersti Skomsvold, is no stranger to solitude. Skomsvold sequestered herself in her parents’ basement, recovering from an illness that removed her from the comforts of the daily routine of university life, abandoning her plans to become a computer engineer. During her two-year stint of solitude, Skomsvold endeavored to write fiction for the first time, crafting what became the complex and refined interior landscape of her aging protagonist and quiet heroine, Mathea Martinsen. Mathea’s first person account of her own journey through solitude became Skomsvold’s debut novel, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am.

Frankly, the success of Kjersti Skomsvold’s debut novel gives any writer who has ever toiled away at fiction another reason to cry in her beer: The Faster I Walk was not only Skomsvold’s first attempt at fiction (let alone a novel), but also received Norway’s Tarjei Vesaas First Book Prize. The novel was originally published in Norwegian in 2009; Dalkey Archive Press released Kerri Pierce’s English translation in the fall of 2011.

The novel introduces its reader to Mathea floundering in the aftermath of the death of her husband, Epsilon (a nickname used more often than his given name, Niels). Epsilon was the only person who seemed to know Mathea existed; to the rest of the world, she is all but invisible. “[Epsilon] must’ve been born with some superhuman power that made it possible to notice me. The fact that we ended up together is thanks to him rather than me.” To say Mathea leads a quiet existence is an epic understatement––-she has spent almost her entire life waiting for Epsilon to retire. “When Epsilon was at work and I was alone in the house, I didn’t do much of anything … now that I think about it, I didn’t do nearly enough, and nothing mattered anyway.”

But the quiet exterior life is deceptive. Mathea’s voice is nothing short of a combustion engine. Each of Skomsvold’s sentences is electric, rejecting the role of a mind at peace in solitude. The humor and vitality of Mathea’s voice propels the narrative, repelling any automatic sympathies. Mathea is intelligent, death-obsessed, and neurotic and her voice reflects as much.

I remember reading somewhere that the total number of people alive on earth today is greater than the total number of people who have died throughout all time, and I wonder when the opposite will be true, when there will be more dead people than living, because if that were the case, then at least I could be helping to tip the scale in favor of the dead. It would be nice to make a difference.

Mathea’s solitude is rooted in social anxiety and agoraphobia. Confined in her apartment and within her own thoughts, Mathea spends the majority of her time knitting ear warmers, baking meringues or buns and obsessing over social interactions. Now, without Epsilon’s attention, Mathea’s solitude becomes even more oppressive, and she decides to wrench herself away from the self-imposed hermitage of solitude in attempt to leave her mark in the world, hoping somehow to reconcile herself with her own invisibility before she dies. “I’m wishing I could save what little I have left of my life until I know exactly what to do with it.”

A rash of inept and slyly comic social failures ensues. She buries a time capsule at night so no one will see her, but it’s unearthed in order to plant a flag for her housing co-op; she braces herself against going to the store to buy jam, but the clerk doesn’t notice her anyway; she plans to attend a cleaning party with her co-op but loses the courage; she attends a gathering at a senior social center but remains unseen as the hostess accidentally raffles off Mathea’s coat.

But the heart of the story exists within memory where Mathea’s storytelling cracks open to reveal themes of death, pain and obsession. As Mathea rifles through an inventory of memories of her life with Epsilon, she reveals a quiet–-–almost evasive–-–tension between the two of them. Their early affection slowly unravels in part due to their shared sorrow over their inability to have a child, a situation exacerbated when a couple with a baby moves next door. And there are hints that Mathea’s reclusiveness had infected Epsilon, inciting his own despondency. “One day, Epsilon didn’t come home after work. From the kitchen window I’d seen him enter the building, and I’d counted the number of steps he had to take to get to the fourth floor. Finally, I went to the peephole. He was standing right between our door and June’s mother’s, just staring at the stairs.” Skomsvold employs great narrative restraint, artfully revealing the immensity of Mathea’s sorrow without Mathea ever directly acknowledging it herself.

The energy of Skomsvold’s prose compensates for the deceptive languor of Mathea’s remarkably unremarkable life. While she continues to fail at making any impact on her exterior environment, her thoughts, at times erratic, at times endearing, are always probing, intelligent and searching. Skomsvold laces Mathea’s narration with epigrams and self-conscious rhymes—as though the narrator is trying to keep herself entertained. “Every joyful hour in life is paid for with strife. Despite its depressing sentiment, at least this one rhymes” or “I don’t know any better, I’m almost a hundred, just a stone’s throw away, but acting like I was born yesterday. That sort of rhymes.”

Skomsvold uses Mathea’s macabre anticipation of her own death to motivate and intensify her use of this device, especially in the embedded drafts of Mathea’s comic self-obituary (she is writing this through the novel). “‘MATHEA MARTINESEN -–– deeply loved, dearly missed’ I write at the top of a page and underline it. ‘You were always loving, gentle, and kind, you departed this work before your time, with future achievements waiting in line.’”

The simplicity of Skomsvold’s prose veneers Mathea’s stratified consciousness. Apparently minor details are always resurfacing as signs and metaphors of the inner ferment. In one scene, Mathea’s neighbor comes over unannounced and spackles mysterious fork holes in a wall. The fork holes are perplexing. Only later does Mathea reveal their significance, as evidence of an old argument with Epsilon. “Then I walked up to him, grabbed the fork out of his hands, and threw it as hard as I could against the wall. I just couldn’t throw it hard enough.”

In another passage, Mathea is mysteriously drawn to a stranger randomly holding a banana. “… I’m afraid anything I say will ruin the moment. I whistle a bit and try to ignore the banana he’s holding in one hand.” Later, the banana burgeons hilariously into a psycho-spiritual symbol:

It says that even though the banana plant looks like a tree, it’s really just a big plant that has flowers without sex organs and fruit without seeds. Therefore, the banana doesn’t undergo fertilization and plays no role in the plants formation, and when the banana plant has lot its fruit, it dies. It was the meaninglessness of this cycle that made Buddha love the banana plant, which he believed symbolized the hopelessness of all earthly endeavors. … and wasn’t it the Buddha who also said that everything is suffering, and I think that if I’d been religious, I would’ve been a Buddhist, and if I’d been a fruit, I would’ve been a banana.

In yet another passage, Mathea references the tongue as a symbol of attachment. “… I always kiss kiss with [my tongue] because then I know it’s there, the only muscle in the body that’s just attached at one end, a fact I don’t like to think about. It reminds me of everything I’ve lost.” It doesn’t end there -–– throughout Mathea’s narration the existential underpinnings of her solitude begin resurface again and again as she attempts to make meaning of her life.

Mathea’s laconic voice is laced with absurdity and humor, buoying the ironic gravitas of her existential ruminations. The tonal dissonance is the pillar of the novel’s complexity. Skomsvold threads Mathea’s narrative with spiritual, philosophical and mathematical concepts of major thinkers from Schopenhauer, Descartes, HC Andersen, and the Buddha to the Norwegian novelist (one of Skomsvold’s literary forerunners) Knut Hamsun. The title itself is a reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity. But despite the litany of reference, The Faster I Walk self-presents with disarming humility and wry deprecation. As Mathea says, “But sometimes you have to give meaning to meaningless things. That’s usually how it is.”

Eventually Mathea reconciles herself to her solitude without fanfare, but her presence is incandescent. She remains invisible in Skomsvold’s fictional universe––but in no way does Mathea remain invisible in the minds of her readers. Long after the story ends the language continues to coalesce the voice of solitude.

—Mary Stein

——————————————

Minnesota native, Mary Stein, currently lives and writes in Minneapolis. She’s a contributor to Numéro Cinq and her fiction has appeared in Caketrain.

Mar 082012
 

In honour of International Woman’s Day, Numéro Cinq presents Erika Janunger’s Weightless, a short film about women in rooms they make their own. The film features two women, one in a bedroom, another in a living room, each defying gravity. The technical trick is basic, the camera tilted and the room set decorated so as to create the optical illusion that the women are climbing the walls, “weightless” with perhaps longing, or distraction, or with emotion that exceeds the rooms they rise up in.

Films with such visual tricks can rely too heavily on the device, or lack substance to do anything evocative with the trick. But here the juxtaposition of the two women, linked by their weightlessness, connected through gestures and, towards the end of the film, by the play with lighting, alludes to a narrative possibility, that they are rising in rooms for one another, or that they are connected in their struggle for and against weightlessness.

And each of the rooms seems to play further with a Virginia Woolfian exploration of room and identity, the one woman and her library of books lifting off and flinging to the wall, the other pressed against a watery, mirroring surface. On the one hand, reading, on the other identity, and together, through the juxtaposition of the two women and their two rooms, the link created between them. Reading and seeing the self are linked.

Narratively, Janunger explores weightlessness through the two women and their rooms first subtly and then more dramatically with the crescendo of the piece. From the moment the women first show signs of lifting off, the film creates a desire for them to ascend, to rise up, to gain flight. That they don’t, that they remain surprisingly earthbound, flavours the piece bittersweet, more about lost potential than catharsis. And the crescendo, then, as a complement of tensions, rising, but doomed to gravity.

And the bouquet of lights that frames the film, a fistful pressed against a wall, resists interpretation. These clusters are cut together with images of a singular light then lights yearning right but restrained left, swinging between floor and ceiling.

These two images of light, pressed up against the wall, unbearably close, and then unable to reach, tantalus held in mid air, underscore the two women’s struggles with and against gravity throughout the film. From beginning to end They cannot leave their separate rooms, or escape this unresolvable tension of collision and the unreachable.

— R.W Gray

Mar 072012
 

Genni Sittway3

Here is a brief, sweet, melancholy memoir of Italy by my Italian-Canadian-singer-composer-writer friend Genni Gunn who lives in Vancouver but has a foot, a hand, a heart, still in southern Italy. She last appeared on these pages with an excerpt from her novel Solitaria which was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize.

dg

§

I’m in a rented car, at a railway crossing on the outskirts of Rutigliano, in southern Italy, when the train passes and the squeal of its wheels on metal transports me to a time before my birth, to a 1940 night sky in Locorotondo, where from her room my aunt Ida watched trains emerge and disappear into the railroad cutting in front of my grandparents’ house.

It’s May 2007, and I’ve spent the last month at the bedside of this aunt who, over the past five years, has told me her life story so often, I have begun to appropriate it, weeping and laughing in all the right places, mouthing the words right along with her. Ida is the guardian of our family stories, our oral historian. She claims absolute knowledge of everyone – despite my mother’s objections – and will recite particulars from all our lives, in dramatic arcs, complete with dialogue – mythologies which are difficult to prove or disprove.

I have been taking daily drives into the countryside to escape the weight of her past which, for the most part, Ida recounts in tragic, melodramatic tones, ending in maudlin, self-pitying sentences such as, “Oh how I’ve suffered!” and “I have worn out my threshold of pain.” During these afternoon drives, I can breathe deeply, unencumbered by her reproach which feels directed at me, even though her stories occurred decades before my birth.

Locorotondo from casello

I cross the tracks, and continue along the highway. At either side, rows upon rows of vines spread their arms beneath the mammoth nets that protect the grapes from hail, like prisoners praying for rescue, their legs tied, their heads back, faces to the merciless sun. As I drive on, the sky darkens with thunderclouds, and a surge of excitement – a memory – presses against my temples. I follow it to Locorotondo, tracing the map in my aunt’s head, the map of a young girl walking to school in the morning snow, flanked by her two brothers, Pippi and Alberto, all of them in paper-thin shoes and rough hand-knitted sweaters, all of them happy, carefree, Ida tells me, in a way she’s never felt since.

I approach the town from the north, drive up into it, up up past the school where Ida spent that year teaching small children, past the overlook at the park where old men on benches stare at the sprawling valley below.

My grandparents moved here in July of 1940, a month after Mussolini declared war on the Allied Forces. As a trackman, and also because of his difficult nature, Nonno had been relocated so often, his seven children – of whom Ida was the eldest – were dizzy with disruptions, unable to make friends, and weary of strangers, who constituted everyone outside the family. It explains, perhaps, Ida’s melancholy, her persistent memory, although she attributes it to Fridays – the day of her birth – which she tells me is unlucky, because it’s the day Christ died. A day of superstitions, she says, a small ironic smile curling her lips. Back then, people did not shop on Fridays or begin new projects or sign contracts or plan feasts. On Fridays, she tells me, people did not marry, nor did they baptize their children. If a man shaved on a Friday, he would be betrayed by his wife, or he would become widowed at an early age, and he who cut his nails on this day, would have to gather them on Judgement Day. One did not go visiting, send gifts, nor buy clothes, and if the first day of the year was a Friday, there would be wars, tempests and a thousand other natural disasters. Furthermore, she tells me triumphantly, children born on Fridays can expect to cry often during their lives – and this Ida has proven to be true.

Locorotondo Casello 72

My grandparents’ Casello Ferrovia #72 – the trackman’s hut – is situated next to a railway crossing, the tracks of which wind below the hill, two kilometres from Locorotondo, in the Valle d’Itria, a karstic depression, not actually a valley, but a firmament of green hills and vales studded with over 20,000 trulli – the white conical ancient dwellings – and with limestone farmhouses. Locorotondo – round place, as the name suggests – is one of numerous marvellous towns found throughout southern Italy, built on hilltops, and fortified by immense walls and towers. Inside are medieval cities, all wonderfully preserved. From the highways at night, these towns look magical, lit up and round like multiple nativity scenes. In the daytime, Locorotondo rises four hundred metres above sea level, one of three natural balconies that surround the valley, and from which one can admire the Mediterranean brush, an indigenous vegetation that includes groves of Macedonian, bay and holm oak, laurel, myrtle, hawthorn, lentisk, wild olives and black orchids. Nowadays, this valley is a patchwork of stone stitching an infinite number of handkerchiefs of red earth, dominated by vineyards and country estates. When my grandparents lived there all those years ago, however, they knew nothing of castles or monuments, didn’t realize those oaks were 800 years old. All they saw was a pervading green, stone walls built without mortar, fields of red poppies and yellow daisies. And at night, outside their window, the town appeared suspended in darkness.

It takes several tries before I can decipher how to reach the casello. I have to return to the lookout, to fix my memory – my aunt’s memory – on the green on green, forget the new developments, the villas, and the asphalt roads which slice through the valley, and concentrate on the wild brush, the faint chugging of a steam engine in my head. Finally, I spy a dirt trail that circles to the right, and following it, soon find myself in Ida’s youth, surrounded by small limestone walls covered in lichen, fields of forage swaying, and bunches of red poppies growing amongst the rock. I follow the railway tracks directly to their casello which stands exactly as it did when she was young – red, its number plainly visible. I park the car and walk on the two-foot path beside the tracks, around the circular waist-high wall to the front. On these paths, Nonno rode his bicycle to work, and each morning, the children walked to the station more than a kilometre away, to catch the train for school. On this path, in the cutting which rises high above my head, my aunt learned about the earth, about rocks, stratification, about fossils visible in the limestone. They seemed wider back then, she tells me later, welcoming, these paths which led them into the world outside the family, paths which in memory have expanded both in size and significance.

The casello itself is changed and yet the same. One of the windows has been bricked in, and against the wooden door is a padlocked steel grate. At the back, the oven gapes like a yawn in the afternoon sun. I lean my head in and close my eyes, imagining the children’s mouths watering, breathing in the distant scent of Nonna’s bread on Mondays. They were allowed only one slice a day, “until the war ends,” Nonno said, and the children dreamt of loaves of bread. They had so little, even their dreams were small. It seemed a marvellous childhood, Ida tells me, we were dying of hunger, we had fleas so large we had to smash them with hammers, we had mosquitoes that ate us raw, and yet everything felt normal at the time. We had bread, and a house to live in, and we were very fortunate. As well, because we didn’t know anyone who was wealthy, we had no comparisons to make. Not like now, with TV, where everyone knows how the wealthy of the world live.

I walk around the small circular yard surrounded by stone where for one summer, Nonno grew tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes and onions, where Ida planted geraniums between the rocks. None of this is evident now, the earth reclaimed by nature’s wild grasses and flowers. Everything dwarfed by age, but I have only to close my eyes, and the casello is vivid with their nine lives, with their perfect happiness constructed inside my head.

Across the tracks from the casello, a small road leads up and over a rise. I follow it, past the abandoned trulli where decades ago lived a young woman who grew red roses – flowers my aunt had never seen before – past a carrozzeria – a fairly recent car graveyard surrounded by a chain link fence, past wild trees of cherry, almond, fig and hazelnut, past the sprawling sculptures of flowering cactuses, imagining the taste of fichi d’India – prickly pears – of my own youth, past swishing biada and gold lichen on the white white walls, heading for the end of the road, toward a story my aunt has told and retold so often that I feel as if I, too, am part of that November evening in 1940, after supper, when Nonno and Nonna heard the sound of thunder in the distance. Nonna crossed herself and cast a worried look toward the smallest child, Alberto, who sat at the table drawing. He had been born during a thunderstorm, and she believed that babies born during a thunderstorm have a lifelong tendency to tremble, that they fear things will collapse on them, that their sparkling eyes cannot hold another’s gaze, that they have brilliant ideas and thoughts but cannot articulate them because they will always be thinking about thunder and the possibility of the earth breaking open and swallowing them whole.

The thunder continued, but sounded strange – at times like a punctuation, other times drawn out. “It’s a bombing,” Nonno said suddenly. “Get the boys up.”

Nonna and Ida quickly awakened all the children and together they ran up the hill to the top from which they could see the lights of the port of Taranto on the Adriatic coast, with its arsenal and shipyards, chemical works, iron and steel foundries and food‑processing factories. In the darkness, the thirty kilometres of verdant fields in front of them disappeared. Mario who read newspapers every day, told them that the entire Italian fleet was harboured there, and that Taranto was impenetrable, with its shoreline cannons and its metal nets under water, so that even submarines could not reach the ships.

But even as he said this, aeroplanes swirled in the sky like a flock of pelicans over a school of fish, and dropped hundreds of torpedoes and flares into the harbour. The Italian cannons fired back non-stop. Projectiles flew hundreds of metres into the air. The sky was ablaze, the air thick with thunderclaps. Every now and then, a deafening blast echoed underfoot, the sky brightened into an artificial dawn and they knew a ship had exploded. In that 1940 darkness, those spectacular, recurring bombings seemed like fireworks. The boys stared with shiny, bright eyes; they were childish enough to be fascinated by the idea of war, and fortunately too young to join. They hollered and sprang in the air, feverish with excitement, arms out, fists punching the sky. This, despite the fact that since the war had begun, Nonno had been listing the horrors, using his and his brothers’ experiences in WW I as examples – a completely unsuccessful tactic, given that unperturbed, the boys continued to construct guns and canons from which they launched pieces of wood and pine cones against imaginary foes which often included their siblings.

In the following day’s newspaper, they read, “Last night, a large number of British enemy torpedoes attacked the port of Taranto, extensively damaging numerous ships of our military fleet.” They were stunned. Hadn’t they been told Taranto was impenetrable? Wasn’t Italy going to become a superpower? Of course, they didn’t realize what the state-controlled papers did not say: that all the ships had been sunk.

My aunt went outside and crossed the tracks to the little country chapel across from the casello, opened the gate and knelt in front of the Madonna and Child frescoed onto the back wall. She understood nothing of politics – it seems impossible now to think that while atrocities proliferated around them, the family existed in a pocket of staggering ignorance. Ida says they were so poor and so hungry, for them the war was a phenomenon occurring in a distant parallel universe that had nothing to do with their inside world of babies and children, where the dangers far outweighed any external imminent one – Pippi could step on a rusty nail; Alberto could drink stagnant water and contract typhoid; Bruno could succumb to pneumonia; Bianca could slide under the rails of a train. They were constantly vigil. Living, itself, was a danger.

Outdoor chapel Locorotondo

In that little chapel, my aunt prayed for everyone: for all the sailors who surely had been killed, for all their wives and children, for the British soldiers who had dropped the bombs, for their wives and children who would have to live with the knowledge of these deaths, for her siblings who seemed unbearably vulnerable, and for her mother and father who, she suddenly understood, couldn’t protect them from unspeakable evil.

I leave the hilltop, and walk back to the casello, past the country chapel that, with the exception of a locked iron gate, has remained exactly as my aunt described it, back to my air-conditioned car, imagining the sound of thunder, thinking how fortunate we are to never have witnessed war in our comfortable houses in Canada, to never have had to cower in our beds, expecting the sound of sirens.

I hear a train and quickly move off the tracks, experiencing a small moment of fear, like Ida must have – worried about the children, overly sensitive, overly morbid, always searching for the dark side of things.

The train is a pathetic old thing, four wagons only, all dirty and graffitied. I watch it turn the bend in the cutting, thinking how unlike what my aunt remembers, this decrepit train hobbling along, anachronistic in the wealthy landscape, the villas and superhighways nearby. I think how sad Nonno would have felt to see it, for surely it would have diminished him to witness its uselessness. And I think of my aunt, and for a moment, I feel the depth of her sorrow, her premonition that everything is gone, and that her awareness sprung of that night in 1940 was merely the beginning of a long line of disillusionments that would populate the rest of her life.

—Genni Gunn

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GENNI GUNN’s nine books include three novels – Solitaria (long-listed for the Giller Prize), Tracing Iris and Thrice Upon a Time; two story collections – Hungers and On the Road; two poetry collections – Faceless and Mating in Captivity; and two poetry collections by Dacia Maraini in translation Devour Me Too, and Travelling in the Gait of a Fox. Her opera Alternate Visions (music by John Oliver) was produced in Montreal in 2007. Her works have been translated into several languages, and have been finalists for the Commonwealth Prize, the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award, the John Glassco Translation award, and the Premio Internationale Diego Valeri for Translation. She lives in Vancouver. This memoir, without the lovely photos, was published by Wolsak and Wynn in Slice me some truth: An anthology of Canadian Creative Nonfiction, September, 2011.

Genni Ngapali beach2