May 302012

Steve Dolph is the translator of Juan José Saer‘s novels The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and Scars, both published by Open Letter Books. He is currently at work on a translation of Saer’s posthumously published novel, La Grande. Dolph is a scholar in the highest sense of the word. His passion and dedication to his work are contagious. Saer (1937-2005) was a celebrated Argentine novelist and writer. He moved to Paris in 1968 and became a lecturer at the University of Rennes. He wrote numerous novels and short story collections as well as critical studies on literature. Dolph’s grasp of Saer’s work is expansive, and his passion for the preservation of world literature through translation is, in  a word, noble.  Our conversations opened a window for me into the gruelling, precise and often unacknowledged work of translators, men and women who toil away like monks locked in an abbey, preserving and passing along the gift that is the world’s collection of stories. It was a rare privilege to have spent time talking with Steve Dolph, and it is a distinct pleasure to introduce him to Numéro Cínq.

See also the NC reviews of Scars and The Sixty-Five Years of Washington; also an excerpt from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from Scars.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell:  How did you come to work on literary translations? Was this something you sought out or did it just happen through the course of your studies?

Steven Dolph: During my master’s program in creative writing at Temple, I took a translation class with Lawrence Venuti, the translator and scholar. That class was incredibly energizing and inspiring. It was a half a dozen students from various disciplines, no one focused exclusively on translation, if I remember correctly. We read a good amount of canonical translation theory, then workshopped translations-in-progress, not only from a formalistic perspective typical of creative writing workshops, but also based out of the theory we were reading. We read the translations, in fact, as theory, an approach that was at first shocking. Like most writing students, I think, I had always understood theory and literature to be distinct practices, and overlapping them seemed pretty scandalous. Frankly, I was less than prepared to read and write in that way, and I did pretty poorly in the class. But it was my first real exposure to comparative literature, and it stuck in a big way. After that class, I couldn’t really do anything else. It was at that time that I started working on the poetry of Néstor Perlongher, a project I stuck with for quite a while.

RF: It seems like most of the translators I know are poets, though I don’t know why that is. Are you a poet?

SD:  I’m not a poet. I studied fiction at Temple.

RF: Are you still writing fiction?

SD: I stopped writing. I never felt the enthusiasm for writing that I felt for translation. I’m back in grad school now, at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m getting a Ph.D. in Hispanic studies.  It’s a five year program. I hope to write about translation of Latin American literature. I’ve always thought of translation as a critical practice, and I’m trying to develop that sensibility.

RF:  Your work with translating Saer’s novels must be intensely time consuming. Could you walk us through a typical ‘day in the life’ of working on the translation of a novel?

SD: On a good day I’ll spend six to eight hours at the computer. It’s hard to measure production by the day or the week, because I’ve always squeezed it in, early in the morning before work or class, or on the weekend. In any case, the farther along, the slower it goes. Sometimes I’ll spend an entire morning on a single paragraph, or less. That has to do not only with the nature of Saer’s prose, which is difficult, but also the nature of the work in general. I’m always thinking in terms of capturing equivalences between Spanish and English, and if I’m translating a passage on, say, the description of a river, I may spend an entire morning reading sections of Huck Finn just to remind myself what writing the river sounds like in English.

RF: Do you work directly with the original works? I know that some translators use native speakers to do an initial translation, a literal translation, before going in and turning the ‘rough’ translation into something with more nuanced (poetic) language.

SD: I do translate directly from the original. That said, I rely on the help of informants— friends who either know Saer’s work better than I do, or who have a deep fluency in Spanish, which I don’t have, or who have a particular familiarity with some aspect of the English vocabulary: doctors, lawyers, mothers, scientists, horsemen, and so on. I’d be lost without these people.

RF: I wonder if you might expand a bit on who your ‘informants’ are.

SD:  Sure. One is Sergio Chejfec, who is a contemporary Argentine novelist and a professor of writing at NYU.  He’s a big fan of Saer, and he reached out to me and offered to help .  It helps to have other people who know the work, who really know the work as it was first written.

With Saer especially, there is a certain style, a certain sensibility that his prose follows. There’s a lot of parataxis in his writing, and a certain openness of meaning in his lines, or double meaning, inversions, and so on. Some of these things can be lost on me when I first read through it. A lot of the humor is there.  The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, for example, plays with a lot paraphrase and hearsay. So I would check on sentences that I couldn’t quite get a handle on. It helped to have people who were more familiar with his language to guide me.

 RF:  How did you come to work with Saer’s novels. I imagine you must be under contract before you begin. Perhaps not?

SD: The Saer translations, a three-book contract, were offered to me by Open Letter after I submitted a sample. This was back in 2008. I should mention, while we’re talking about the press, the amazing editorial work of E. J. Van Lanen, the editor at Open Letter. He’s been so fantastic to work with, and some of the real gems have come from his suggestions. In fact, many of the passages that have been quoted in reviews have been directly inspired by if not literally copied verbatim from his suggestions.

 RF:  How much contextual/historical research do you have to do with a writer’s work in order to render the best translation?

SD: For me, lots. Lots and lots. Before translating the first Saer book, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, I read quite a bit of Argentine history, especially the history of the Peronist regime, the coup, and the military dictatorship that followed: from 1940 to 1990, basically. I also read some of the literature that was being made at that time. That period, though, was one of the most productive, in terms of the novel, in the history of Latin America, and arguably anywhere, so I barely scratched the surface. I’m trying to focus some more attention on that these days. I also read a bit of what Saer was reading as he wrote the first book, in particular the French nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet and so on. Finally, for tone and affect, I read some history of rhetoric, and narration theory. The Sixty-Five Years is concerned, primarily, with the nature of storytelling, and Saer slides between close, colloquial speech and detached, critical prose. I tried to recreate that balance. I also read The Chicago Manual of Style like a novel, and had the idea of a parody of that style always close in mind. All that said, I don’t know if my research made the translation better in any way. After I started working, I read everything of Saer’s that had already been translated, mostly by Margaret Jull Costa and Helen Lane, to get a sense of what Saer already sounded like in English. I read a few interviews on line.

I came to see The Sixty-Five Years of Washington as a novel about storytelling, about Argentina’s Dirty War and about the memory of trauma.  The more I read the book, the more I came to appreciate it. Saer was so intent on rendering the Santa Fe region of Argentina, the region around the Paraná River.  So a lot of the early research involved gathering a sense of the history, of the language, and referring to the previous translations.  I tried to look at how those translations handled his idiosyncratic use of the language.

 RF: I know that you founded a literary journal on translation. Could you talk about that journal and how it works?

SD: As I was finishing the master’s program in writing, I got the naïve idea that I wanted to start a journal of literature in translation, focusing primarily on the voice of the translator. We would publish brief translation excerpts alongside the originals and translator introductions. Brandon Holmquest, who’s an editor at Asymptote now, said he would edit the thing with me, and it ran in print and online for three years and five issues. We wanted, basically, to publish a journal in which literature and criticism held equal footing, and where translators could speak more than just anecdotally about their craft.

RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?

SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.

RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?

SD:  The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence.  It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.

RF: You mentioned linguistic colonialism. Is this about dominant languages and how this affects the work of translators?

SD: Are you asking, is the translation of a literary text a neutral agent?  A good portion of translators might not want to think about that question too much.

Translations are always informed by the ideologies that are implicit in the language community, from the way language is used, to its ideological undercurrents. Translators can be aware of or ignore these relationships. A translator has to find ways to address this issue, especially when these dominant languages move in to displace minority languages.

 RF:  I’m imaging that to translate a novel-length work, you must enter into a very deep relationship with the book. I’m also imagining that this could have negative effects, too. You must reach a point of exhaustion after a while. Do you ever just get sick of the pace of it?

SD: Never sick of it, no. Nor exhausted, really. A negative effect, though, is that with such an intense focus on producing a good structure, rhythm, and sound for individual sentences, it’s often easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees. Then again, this focus has made my reading of other books that much more enjoyable. I pay much more attention than in the past to the ways that rhythm and syntax in prose are employed to create effect. I’m also now constantly on the lookout for interesting or startling language use in the world around me. I think the positive effects offset the negative ones, definitely.

RF: There must be work that is still in need of translation or in need of fresh translations. Who do you want to see brought back to life?

SD: That list is infinite. Something I’d really like to work on, and which has been neglected here for the most part, would be the black novels—hard core pulp detective writing—from Argentina since the 60s. Borges had his hands all the way in that mess. And Ricardo Piglia, more recently, has been working out of that tradition. What’s between those two writers needs a second look.

RF:  What projects are you working on now?

SD: Right now I’m working through the last of three books for Open Letter Books, Saer’s posthumous novel La Grande, which should be out next year.

RF: I know this is beyond the scope of strict translation, but in Scars, the character of the judge is translating into Spanish Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This must have been a fun moment for you while translating!

SD: Not to sound sentimental, but that was the most heartwarming part to translate. That section was a metaphor for the way practices are invisible, how the product stands at the front and the producer is behind a screen.  Despite his cynicism, despite his nihilistic view of society, his relationship to the work shows a deep care and attention, though he understood the futility of the work—the novel had been translated  so many times.

Then you read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and you see the way the book discusses appearances and the aesthetic practice and how the book calls this into question. And the content of what the Judge was translating, it made him seem so alive.  We only get a little bit at a time, but the moments when he is working, that is the person he is when he’s most alive.

Steve Dolph is currently a doctoral student in Hispanic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  He previously translated Juan José Saer’s novel, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, part of a three-book contract with Open Letter Books. He founded the journal Calque, which focuses on literature in translation. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

May 292012

Herewith, an excerpt from Juan José Saer’s novel Scars (originally published in Argentina in 1969). Open Letter Books has released a new English translation from Steve Dolph. Saer, who died in 2005, is considered one of Argentina’s most important writers, alongside Juan Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Saer was a prolific writer of novels, stories and criticism. For much of his life, he lived and worked in France, and the theme of exile is prevalent in his writing. Saer also blurred genres, a technique especially prevalent in Scars. With equal dexterity, he blends the influence of Dashiell Hammet with that of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Scars might well be read as four linked novellas. In each of the four sections of the book, a different narrator recounts the events surrounding a brutal murder which takes place on the streets of Santa Fe, a small city along the Parana River in northeastern Argentina.  In the section excerpted below, the second in the book, the narrator is Sergio, a non-practicing lawyer who writes occasional essays (“Professor Nietzsche and Clark Kent”)  but who mostly gambles. Sergio’s obsession is baccarat. His entire existence seems centered around the system he has worked out for playing at the baccarat table. It’s not so much about winning or losing to Sergio, but about being in the game, about being at the table when the cards are dealt.  “In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me.” Sergio gambles with a mad fever. Watching him at the tables, your heart races as he throws down the last of savings. You feel that gambler’s high when he goes on a winning streak. You shout at the pages, trying to talk sense into this philosopher-madman as he puts up the mortgage on his house in order to have one more night of baccarat. “Every bet is desperate because we gamble for one single motive: to see.”

–Richard Farrell



Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined. Once in a while it could change, but it felt more solid than the crazy mayhem of the dice in the shaker, better than the blind senselessness of their flight before they came to rest on the green felt. My heart would tumble more than the dice when I shook the cup and turned it over the table. You can’t bet on chaos. And not because you can’t win, but because it’s not you who wins, but the chaos that allows it.

In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me. That’s what I felt whenever I shook the dice. In baccarat, my eyes could follow every movement the dealers made as they shuffled the cards and reinserted them into the shoe. First they would spread them out over the table, and then stack them in piles organized in three or four rows. They’d combine all the piles into a single column, two hundred and sixty cards, five decks in all, and drop them into the shoe. Then the game would start. First you had to think about the cards in the shoe. In baccarat, when the player is dealt a five—made up of a face card and a five, a three and a two, a nine and a six, or any other combination—he can choose whether or not to hit in order to improve his score. If the player hits, the entire makeup of the shoe changes. Before, I said that in baccarat I had a predetermined past. But it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future. Objectively speaking, the cards in the shoe are actually a past. For me, ignorant of their arrangement, they become the present and then the past as they are dealt, two at a time. At that point they become the future. And the player’s decision when he lands a five—hitting or standing—changes the cards. But the present is necessary for that change to take place.

So the dealer’s shoe, its cards arranged in a way that could be completely reorganized by a subjective decision to take a single card, is at once a predetermined past and a predetermined future, and at once determined and changeable according to the player’s decision to hit on five or stand.

Every hand was the present, but with the shoe there in the middle of the table both the past and the future were also the present. The three coincided. All three overlapped on the table. Once played, the two cards from that hand moved to a pile of cards face up next to the shoe, the cards that had been used in previous hands. They formed, in this way, another past. Several relative pasts were thus formed: the past of the discards piled face up next to the shoe; the past in the shoe, which was also the future; and the pasts of the rearrangements suffered by the shoe according to the gambler’s decision to hit on five or stand.

Several futures coincided as well: the future of the shoe as initially arranged, as well as every future determined by the player’s decisions to hit on five or stand. Because the decision to hit was always present, always future, until the decision to hit, standing, you could say, was also a rearrangement.

Every hand was thus a kind of bridge, a crossroads where distinct pasts and futures were exchanged, and where, at its center, all the presents were collected: the present of the current hand, momentary, transitory; the present of the past of the pile of discarded hands; the present of the past of the shoe as it had been arranged initially; the present of the past of the shoe, now that, objectively speaking, the shoe was both a determined past and a determined future, and at once a past and a future from which rearrangement could be dealt.

And with each hand the different pasts and futures would coalesce and intermingle: for example, the first four cards dealt, two to the player and two to the banker—which could reach as many as six each if the player and the banker failed to reach the minimum score (four)—belonged to the past, or the future, of the dealer’s shoe: they originated from the two hundred and sixty cards stacked up inside the shoe and nowhere else. And the pile of cards face up next to the shoe consisted of cards that had originated in the shoe, and which had briefly been the deal—that absolute, coalesced present, which my eyes had seen on the table. A narrow relationship, therefore, unified all the states.

Also present were the precedent chaos, the coincident chaos, and the future chaos. The three coincided, actively or potentially. The precedent chaos coincided with the organization suffered by the cards in the shoe, and rematerialized as the coincident chaos represented by the cards that were piled face up next to the shoe, which it coincided with. And this chaos would undergo a transformation similar to the first—when the dealers shuffled the cards, organized them into several even piles, and combined them, ultimately, into a single column of two hundred and sixty cards before dropping them into the shoe. The precedent chaos was present in this act, as the organization of the shoe was determined by it. The future chaos, at once active and potential since it took shape from the chaos of the cards piled face up next to the shoe—and therefore consisted partly of this chaos and could only come from it—would ultimately be indistinguishable from this—the precedent—chaos and from the coincident chaos, since chaos is in itself indistinguishable and essentially singular. Each chaos was also the future chaos, and the arrangement of the cards and the transitory present of the deal were also part of the future chaos, since they would soon become it. And the three mutually coincident states of chaos, meanwhile, were coincident with the arrangement of the shoe, the present of the deal, and all the intersections of the past and the future that had been, were, or would be coalesced in it.

Each time the shoe resets, having passed through the original chaos in which the dealers’ distracted hands spread the cards in random piles over the table, a new arrangement is produced. As many possibilities for its arrangement exist as there are possibilities for arrangement among the two hundred and sixty cards, each one a fragment of the original chaos submitted to an organization by the reflexive movements of the dealers’ hands. As I see it, no arrangement could be identical to another, and even if in two of the arrangements the cards fell in the same order, the first arrangement still wouldn’t be the same as the second, and for this reason: it would be, in effect, another. On the other hand, it wouldn’t seem the same. There wouldn’t be a way to verify it. The task—a tedious and hopeless waste of time—would be dismaying from the start. And in any case, only the initial arrangement would resemble the other’s. Which is to say, only a given pathway or portion of the process could resemble a pathway or portion of the process of the other arrangement.

Because the other pathways or parts wouldn’t be the same. For that to happen, the following similarities would have to occur: first, the way the dealers shuffled would have to be exactly the same both times, and the way the cards were arranged would have to turn out exactly as before. A five of diamonds that appears in the shoe between a three of diamonds and an eight of clubs would need to come to occupy this location by the same itinerary as before—above a four of spades and a king of diamonds, under a queen of clubs, between an ace of hearts and a two of hearts, for example—something which, of course, is impossible to verify.

Also: every player dealt the five would have to choose the same in every case in each of the arrangements. Bearing in mind that there are players who tend to stand, and players who tend to hit sometimes and other times not, and players who tend to follow their gut when the cards are turned over, the possibility of repetition becomes practically impossible.

Finally: the pile of cards face up next to the shoe would have to be a arranged in the same way as the pile formed by the discarded hands of the previous arrangement. But that arrangement, because no one controls it, is impossible to verify.

In baccarat, ultimately, repetition is impossible.

— Juan José Saer (English translation by Steve Dolph)


Juan José Saer (1937-2005) was a celebrated Argentine novelist and writer. He moved to Paris in 1968 and became a lecturer at the University of Rennes. He wrote numerous novels and short story collections as well as critical studies on literature. Winner of Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize, several of Saer’s novels have been (or will soon be) translated by Open Letter Books.

See also Richard Farrell’s review of Scars here, also his review The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from that novel here. Read an interview with Steve Dolph, Saer’s translator.

May 292012

“There’s only genre—the novel. It took years to discover this. There’s only three things in literature: perception, language, and form. Literature gives form, through language, to specific perceptions. And that’s it. The only possible form is narration, because the substance of perception is time.” – Juan José Saer

Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books

A good novel does much more than communicate the events of a story. A good novel also reflects on itself. It dabbles a bit in theory, considers genre and rediscovers form. The well-written book, what John Gardner once called the ‘serious novel,’ borrows from the traditions of the past and gestures toward the future, often in destabilizing ways. A good novel refuses simplistic labeling because it relentlessly stalks the nature of things and, in so doing, it helps resuscitate the very reason we read (and write) in the first place: to render some insight into the ineffable, to close the gap between perception and thought, to diminish the emptiness between the world we experience and the world we feel.

Though built with the bricks and mortar of fiction—point of view, plot, character, theme, etc. — the very best novels are always interrogating themselves.  They challenge. They provoke. They unsettle and confound. They ask questions about meaning rather than answering them. The reader willing to accept such books will often finish in a state of uncertainty, perplexed about what has just happened, about what has been read, about what it all means. But a door has opened in the reader’s mind, a nagging doubt exists that can only relieved over time, if at all, because the best books are always inviting us back, demanding to be reread, to be experienced again and again.

Juan José Saer’s novel Scars might well qualify as such as work. Set in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina, the novel is divided into four long sections, each narrated by a different character. Holding these disparate parts together are the events of May 1, Workers Day, a day when Luis Fiore, his wife and young daughter go duck hunting. It’s almost wintertime in the southern hemisphere, and a steady cool rain makes the hunting trip more dread than delight. Fiore and his wife argue all day, but Fiore bags two ducks anyway. He drives back into town, drops his daughter off at home and then stops in at a local pub with his wife. Inside the dingy bar, the ongoing argument between Fiore and his wife — an unnamed character with the mildly derogatory moniker Gringa—escalates. Fiore steps outside, points his shotgun in his wife’s face and pulls the trigger.

Part bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part Robbe-Grillet existentialist romp through a South American landscape, Scars refuses to be any one thing. The easiest comparison of its structure is with the game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). In the game, as in the novel, a single event is recounted by various witnesses, each with his own version. As the game and the novel unfold, the various perceptions skew the seemingly objective facts. What has been witnessed changes. As Joyce does with his theory of parallax, Saer shakes the reader’s sense of certainty. What is true? What really happened? It all depends on the position and inclination of the observer.

The novel’s opening section, titled “February, March, April, May, June,” introduces Angel, a young reporter for La Region, the local newspaper. Angel’s main responsibility is writing the weather headlines, a job he performs without actually checking the meteorology reports. “No Change in Sight,” he writes day after day. (Saer’s dry and subtle sense of humor peeks out often in the novel.) Angel lives with his young mother, a woman who struts around their small apartment in various stages of undress, more roommate than matriarch. While she goes out dancing, Angel rummages through her underwear drawer then masturbates in his room. Oedipal conflicts aside, Angel and his mother primarily argue over gin. In a brutal yet comedic scene, Angel beats the woman ruthlessly for polishing off his last bottle and not replacing it. “It’s my bottle. You drank my bottle,” he says, and then he proceeds to knock her senseless. This is truly one of the great dysfunctional relationships in literature.

But Angel is no mere brute. He reads Faulkner, Kafka, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Mann and Ian Fleming. A street-kid, raised by that promiscuous, alcoholic excuse for a mother, he survives by possessing an indomitable spirit and wit. You can’t help but root for him, out there in that big bad world. And at times, Saer’s world is both big and bad. The misery, layered thick in this novel, can make for a grim ambience. But Saer also works hard to tease out the inconsistencies, baffling us with magnificent bursts of light amidst such darkness.

Though sexually attracted to women, Angel is also the occasional lover of a ruthless judge named Ernesto (more on him below.)  After the murder and Fiore’s suicide (spoiler alert: at the inquest, Fiore jumps from the window of the courthouse in front of Angel and the judge), Saer provides one last spellbinding twist in this opening section, a twist pulled straight out of nineteenth century St. Petersburg. Angel falls into a feverish fugue state, reminiscent of Raskolnikov’s post-homicidal fever in Crime and Punishment. Wandering around the streets of Santa Fe, Angel runs into his double, a man alike in appearance, dress and action. In a lovely passage, Saer describes the moment of recognition.

It was a young man, wearing a raincoat that looked familiar. It was exactly like mine. He was coming right at me, and we stopped a half meter apart, directly under the streetlight. I tried not to look him in the face, because I had already guessed who it was. Finally I looked up and met his eyes. I saw my own face. He looked so much like me that I started wondering whether I myself was there, facing him, my flesh and bones really holding together the weak gaze I had fixed on him. Our circles had never overlapped so much, and I realized there was no reason to worry that he was living a life forbidden to me, a richer, more exalted life. Whatever his circle—that space set aside for him, which his consciousness drifted through like a wandering, flickering light—it wasn’t so different from mine that he could help but look at me through the May rain with a terrified face, marked by the fresh scars from the first wounds of disbelief and recognition.

So much for the opening act.


“The singular aspect of the game is its complexity,” Sergio Escalante says, describing the game of baccarat in the book’s second section. Conjuring another character from Dostoevsky — this time Alexi Ivanovich from The Gambler — Sergio is an inveterate gambler. He gambles and wins, gambles and loses, gambles and gets arrested. He gambles away his money, his friends’ money, his fourteen-year-old housecleaner’s money. Sergio gambles with a monomaniacal passion. The forays into philosophy on baccarat make up the richest writing in the book. Sergio is the consciousness of the novel. Saer’s ruminations about the game are thoughtful, elegant and unsettling. Though the subject appears to be baccarat, he might as well be talking about the novel, or about life itself.  “It (baccarat) precludes all rational behavior, and I’m forced to move through its internal confines with the groping, blind lurch of my imagination and my emotion, where the only perception available to me passes before my eyes in a quick flash, when it’s no longer useful because I’ve already had to bet blind, and then disappears.”

If Sergio is the consciousness of the novel, then the judge, Ernesto, is the book’s demonic soul. He suffers from metastatic misanthropy. Ernesto appears in the third section, and though he represents the system of justice, he hates people — all people, good and bad, guilty and innocent. He shows up late for work, shuffles his schedule around to suit his whims, and refers to other people as gorillas. There’s almost nothing human left in him. He would be utterly vile except for one thing: Ernesto is translating Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. From within the rubble of his miserable existence rises Ernesto’s work. The translation of Wilde beats like a thready pulse, barely circulating his humanity. It’s not much to go on, but the translation sections complicate the reader’s reaction.

This raises an interesting question: Is Saer evangelizing some form of literary salvation? Is he saying that even the worst among us might be saved by books? Consider that the only character who is not literary in taste or inclination is Fiore, who kills his wife, jumps out a window and orphans his only daughter. Maybe he should have read more?

Saer did much of his writing in Parisian exile. He renders his homeland with precise details and images as only an estranged citizen could, at times producing a landscape so precise, so accurate, that the technique becomes, well, awkward, in, yes,  that Robbe-Grillet sort of way. A reader (like me) unfamiliar with the city of Santa Fe and the Littoral region of Argentina is left to wonder why he writes multiple passages in the Ernesto section with the monotonous certainty of a GPS navigation system. “I cross the intersection of still on 25 de Mayo to the south, and everything is left behind. On the next corner I turn right, travel a block, then turn left onto San Martin to the south.” The exile yearns for home, so he recreates the world he left behind even in the most mundane details, in the left and right turns of his characters as they travel from one place to another. Saer is remaking the map of his home.

The novel closes with thirty-three pages from Fiore’s point of view. This section covers only the span of one day, the day of the hunting trip and the murder.  We don’t travel too deeply inside the murderer’s consciousness. He mostly narrates the events in a detached dramatic soliloquy. But we feel his agony. We see the pressure mounting.  All day his wife badgers him, relentless in her infliction of misery, to the point of  literally shining a flashlight in his eyes as she berates him over and over again.

— Turn off that flashlight right now, I say

— Turn off that flashlight, Gringa, or I’m going to shoot you, I say.

She laughs. I cock back the hammer, ready to pull the trigger—the metallic sound is heard clearly over her laughter, which for its part is the only other sound in the total silence—and the light turns off. But the laughter continues. It turns into a cough. And then into her clear voice, which echoes in the darkness.

— Help me pick up all this dogshit, she says.

Life has indeed become a pile of dog shit for Fiore. By the time he pulls the trigger, we are simply relieved to be done with this menacing woman. And yet Fiore loves his wife. She is not without her charms. Her pain and extreme anxiety emanate like the beams of the flashlight which she uses to torment her husband. “And I realize I’ve only erased part of it,” Fiore says at the end of the book, “not everything, and there’s still something left to erase so it’s all erased forever.”

The wounds in this novel run deep. Each character is scarred in his or her own way, and the novel ends without any indication that they may ever heal. The haunting image of Fiore’s orphaned daughter lingers long after the final page. In one brutal act, the little girl lost both her parents. What world awaits her? What horrible scars have been inflicted upon her?  “In this respect, all the bets in baccarat are bets of desperation,” Sergio says. “Hope is an edifying but useless accessory.” A sobering truth, perhaps, but it’s an earned one, a conclusion that resists simple formulas and summary. There are no easy answers in Scars. There aren’t even easy questions.

—Richard Farrell


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

See also Richard Farrell’s review of Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from that novel here.

May 272012


You try to tell people what it’s like living here, but you’re not sure you know. You’ve lived here nearly your whole life, and you’re numb to this place. You have to push yourself to see it. — Jennifer McGuiggan

 Town & Country: Part 1

You tell people that this small town, situated thirty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is the last bastion of suburbia before the routes go rural. You live in a thirty-year-old subdivision of single family homes and townhouses. One way in, same way out. No one drives by your house unless he’s headed to or from one of your neighbors’ houses. The well-tended lawns reach right up to the curb, no sidewalks needed in this quiet maze of streets. Yet even in all of this deliberate, manicured space you notice bits of the wild popping up close to the ground: purple crocus and green onion peeking out from the undergrowth in spring; yellow dandelions gone downy white polka-dotting the yards by mid-summer; crackly piles of jeweled leaves lining the curbs in autumn; and bleached twigs littering the mulched beds in winter.

Two minutes from your front door stand a dozen cows, and sometimes one lone goat, in the field next to St. Emma Monastery, where a handful of Benedictine nuns live out their days. People use the parking lot between the monastery and the cow field as a sort of informal, unmanned swap meet. They leave all kinds of junk there, sometimes with a sign that says “Free,” but more often with the simple assumption of freedom. Recently there was a small cardboard box of old Christmas cookie tins and a large, upholstered chair with carved wooden legs and arms, castoff seating for one. Every day for nearly two weeks you spotted the chair’s orange, mustard, and cream flowers as you drove past. Now you look for new treasures to pop up—and for the cop who sometimes sits in the parking lot waiting for anyone to break the 45-mph speed limit.

If you drive five minutes more down the road, you’ll be bobbing along in farm country: rolling hills, corn fields, metal silos, the occasional sheep. On Sundays you drive along the sweetly winding backroads to Bardine’s Country Smokehouse, where you can buy fresh chicken breasts, all manner of beef and pork, and more varieties of sausage than you knew there were names for. The folks at Bardine’s wear shirts that read “Nice to meat you” across the back, and they’re always happy to answer your questions and cut your meat to order. Blue ribbons, award plaques, and glossy photos of prize-winning pigs line the walls. There are cows and a barn out back of the store. When you ask if the chickens are their own too, the woman behind the counter says they come from Michigan. You wonder why there aren’t more locally available birds.

Along the way to Bardine’s you pass more fields of cows and try not to think about their sisters, whom you’re about to see splayed out, red and naked, in the display cases. It’s hard to be a vegetarian in this part of southwestern Pennsylvania, but you give it a try every few months. Going out to eat is your undoing, since most non-meat options here are limited to pasta with soggy vegetables. You have to drive thirty minutes for the nearest Indian restaurant, and thirty more past that to find Thai food, both good options for meat-free meals. But your real downfall is bacon, which you sometimes pick up at Bardine’s with a twinge of guilt, placing it on the counter alongside one of those Michigan chicken breasts. Most weeks you can’t bring yourself to buy the beef.

If you time the Sunday trip just right you can catch part of “A Prairie Home Companion” on NPR. Garrison Keillor’s molasses voice makes the country way of life sound so lovely, so vivid, so very nice. You listen because it fits the landscape, and because for those fifteen minutes each way, Garrison and his guests charm you into thinking that you’re cozy at home in these green, green hills, even though you know in your heart you’re not really a country girl.

Town & Country: Part 2

If you come out your front door, drive past the cows and the nuns, and keep going for ten minutes in the opposite direction of Bardine’s, you’ll run into the sad asphalt of highways, big box stores, and strip malls saturated with fast food. But if you want to avoid all that (and you do, unless you need groceries), you can be smack-dab downtown in five minutes. Here in the county seat, “smack-dab downtown” amounts to just a few streets’ worth of small-town city. The big draws, for you, are the library and the post office, which face each other across Pennsylvania Avenue. You occasionally treat yourself to a red velvet with cream cheese icing at the cupcake shop that recently opened around the corner, evidence that all good trends come to those who wait, even in small town America. More often, you stop by the coffee shop just down the street. They make a decent latte, and the vibe is funky, with angry, edgy art that you don’t really like, but that you appreciate just for existing in this little town. You hear that they’re planning to stay open until 9:00 on Friday and Saturday nights. This is good news, since the one or two other cafés that manage to stay in business here close by 6:00 p.m. during the week and 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. There aren’t many places to go in this town after business hours unless you fancy one of the many bars: sports, dive, biker, or—the newest addition—the county’s first hookah bar, which opened last year in the strip behind the mall, sandwiched somewhere between Buffalo Wild Wings and Hallmark. But let’s face it, you’re not much of a bar girl.


This should be a college town, but it’s not quite that. Within a ten-mile radius sit four colleges and universities, albeit small ones. You’re well past college age, but you wonder where all the students are, where they go and what they do. Where are the late night caffeine-and-study haunts? The street musicians? Where’s the diversity? More to the point, where are all the young people? And by young people you don’t mean the 2.5 kids for every family on your street. There’s a sizable under-18 demographic in this town, rivaled only by the over-65 population. In 2007 U.S. News & World Report named Greensburg one of the best places to retire. From hookah bars to bingo nights, what’s a girl like you to do?

To be fair, there does seem to be a mini-Renaissance subtly taking shape here: cupcakes, evening coffee shop hours, flavored tobacco, even a few locally-owned, independent restaurants to combat the fluorescent chains along the highway. One of them features a menu of local and sometimes organic offerings, including meat from Bardine’s. (You think again about that Michigan chicken. Does five-hundred miles count as local in the world of food?) You’re really trying to be a small-town girl.

The In-between

As a teenager you had a boyfriend who loved living here, touting its ideal location halfway between the mountains and the city, forty-five minutes either way, he said. He was technically correct, but fifteen years later you’re still not buying it. It’s not the math or the mileage that’s wrong, just everything else. The problem is that neither the mountains nor the city on either side of this small town satisfy you. The Laurel Highlands to the east aren’t much when it comes to mountains, just Appalachia’s afterthought foothills. Pretty enough, sure, but nothing that catches your breath.

To the west, Pittsburgh keeps trying to shrug off its old blue collar, Steel Town image with new biotech firms and glossy marketing initiatives. But beneath the progress and the gloss, it’s the same old gritty city, the same squashed-voweled accents of the local “Yinzer” dialect, the longstanding adoration of Primanti Brothers sandwiches with their french fries and coleslaw piled high atop the meat and cheese, as though the sandwich itself were in a hurry for you to eat it. You’re just far enough outside of the city to be disconnected from the art scene that you hear is buzzing. People who live closer in think you live out in the sticks, and maybe you do (think of all those cows). You once went to an evening event in the city and someone asked if you were driving “all the way” back home that same night. One hour by car is a world away.

The city offers plenty to do. There’s the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Opera, and the Pittsburgh Public Theater, but looming above all of these are the Pittsburgh Steelers. Football reigns supreme here in the capital city of “Steeler Nation,” a geographically amorphous land populated with just as many women as men. You don’t really care about football, which is considered unnatural and blasphemous in these parts. This somewhat frivolous outcast status serves as the symbol for all the ways you don’t feel at home here. You daydream about cities like Portland, Oregon, cities with good public transportation, public recycling bins, and bicycle culture. Places where you—wearing a dress over your jeans and with small swatch of pink hair—aren’t the most outrageous hipster on the scene. You wonder if this makes you a snob in some way. (You fear that it does.)

Land and Sky

Pittsburgh’s three rivers notwithstanding, this is a landlocked pocket of earth. Lake Erie grazes the top of the state three hours to your north, but that’s not local, even if it is closer than those Michigan chickens. And this is the crux of your discontent: You are an ocean girl. You daydream about it the way you used to daydream about your old love who lived across the continent and then across the Atlantic. All of this land maroons you from your true self.

But all of this land is why you love the sky so much: It’s the closest thing you have to the sea and the only thing that seems to change much around here. On good days you watch the currents of the sky, the tide of blue and white and grey ebbing and flowing. But even the sky stays the same for too many days on end here, with more cloudy days than the Pacific Northwest, which, incidentally, is where you’d like to live—between the evergreen mountains and wild seashore. On winter days, when slate grey skies fit over these pale winter lawns like a too-tight skullcap, you feel claustrophobic inside and out, cabin fever that has nothing to do with walls.

Still, the sky is your saving grace. Late in the afternoon, when tentative patches of blue sometimes peek through the cloud lid, you go out for a walk. Every day around this time a fat hound dog cries with an alarming and mournful insistence. On one of your walks you see the dog and its owner. The hound snuffles in circles for all it’s worth, hot on the trail of something along the cold asphalt, braying every few seconds in a plea or an announcement or some triumph, you can’t be sure which.

These feeble splotches of color in the anemic sky remind you that above the colorless canvas that you can see is a wide space of blue that you cannot. Of course, above that lurks the cold dark of space, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is this: The sky is out there. This is how you feel in general: Things are out there, somewhere. Beyond the grey sky; beyond this solidly middle class, suburban development; beyond this small town creviced between the city and the foothills; beyond the farmland and rolling hills; thirty-five miles from urban culture, three-hundred miles from the nearest shoreline, and two-thousand-six-hundred-seventy-four from that beach you love the most on the Oregon coast.

When you force yourself to look at this place where you’ve lived for 35 of your 36 years, you can’t help but wonder what “home” really means. Is it where you hang your hat? Where you lay your head? Or is it, to mix the metaphors, where you hang your head? Even as you think about moving across the country, you push yourself to see this place you call home. You notice the pleasing contrast of brown branches against the whiteout sky, the melancholy music of the hound dog, the sinewy energy of angry art on coffee shop walls. As winter ends, warmer weather creeps back in, the sky blooms into a soft blue, and each spring you notice more purple crocus pushing their way up through the dry sticks of last year’s growth.


   — Jennifer McGuiggan


Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan lives in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and longs for the sea. To soothe her wanderlust she is working on a collection of essays set at seashores around the world. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2009 she curated and published Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories, a collaborative collection of prose, poetry, and photography celebrating women in creative community. Visit her in The Word Cellar, where she writes about everything from navigating the writing life to venturing into the world of roller derby.

This is the 38th “What It’s Like Living Here” on NC. See the complete collection here.


May 252012

Johan Renck’s music video for The Knife’s “Pass This On” throws us into one of the most uncomfortable football award banquets ever, complete with three of my favourite things: drag queens, The Knife’s infectious song, and awkward straight boy dancing.

Renck works to build an aesthetics of discomfort here. The film finds the painful, rumpus room décor, the apathetic-to-the-point-of-aggressive blank faces of the audience, the drag queen’s Xanadu-esque outfit, and the lyrics she sings about preying on another girl’s brother (“I’m in love with your brother / What’s his name? / I thought I’d come by to see him again”). Terribly awkward. All of it. Made more awkward, not less, with the plethora of awkward dances the drag queen’s performance inspires. Most striking visually is the young blond man’s earnest courtship dance: to desire in Renck’s uncomfortable world is to be beauteous and a fool at the same time.

This aesthetics of discomfort recurs in Renck’s other works and is particularly similar in his video for Madonna’s “Hung Up.”

The lighting has all the florescent ambiance of a coroner’s autopsy theatre and the room’s pale blue floor and fake wood paneling scream sad basement from the ‘70s where sad things will happen. Madonna’s outfit and hair might have been designed and styled by the same perversely retro stylists who worked on the drag queen in “Pass This On.”

The difference between the two videos is that Renck permits Madonna to escape to beauty in the segments where she dances with beautiful young dancers in a night club (though Renck throws her back on the floor in the basement in the very last shot). For “Pass This On,” however, Renck doesn’t let the footballers or the drag queen find the exits in their rumpus room hell.

Through the first half of “Pass This On,” much of the discomfort comes from the juxtaposition of a drag queen performer with an unsympathetic audience. This fancy fish out of water tale then courts our expectations that, washed up here, the fish is in danger. Who booked her for this event and how badly is this going to end?

I am all for dance as the panacea to most social conflicts, but the film nicely resists that. Certainly, the men get up and dance instead of resorting to violence or panic at the sight of the drag queen, but the aesthetic of discomfort does not ease, helped in part by that glorious bad straight boy dancing, but ultimately secured by the film’s resistance to Broadway show tune resolutions: the last shot is of a young woman watching all the dancing footballers, the old men, and the drag queen with the same apathy the chorus of faces showed at the beginning. She is immune to this panacea. She won’t let this song and dance go full flash mob. Renck won’t let the film escape the aesthetics of discomfort.

Renck’s penchant for discomfort is perhaps at its most extreme in his “Mobile Movies: Self Portrait,” where he chronicles a solitary evening in a sparse apartment.

Sure, he pees on the toilet seat, but he does clean it up. This painful visual honesty is most realized in the low shot which starts with his naked butt and then holds on him as he awkwardly puts on his underwear and socks. Throughout this he angles himself towards the left of the screen and this suggests the presence of a mirror off screen. The self-consciousness, the awkwardness of him dressing, are vulnerable and disarming. We see him seeing himself, and we wonder what he sees. Again with the aesthetics of discomfort, the ambivalent desiring gaze.

Terribly talented Canadian director Xavier Dolan chose The Knife’s song for a sort of dervish subtext in his gorgeous second film Les Amours Imaginaires (a title terribly translated by –I am assuming – the film distribution company as Heartbeats).

The clip is in French, but the translation of their dialogue appears below the video frame. The awkwardness from Renck’s video is mirrored here as son and mother sexy dance at his birthday party while his two would-be suitors watch on.  There’s a similar thread of discomfort running through the rest of Dolan’s film, too, in the awkward documentary footage where random eccentric characters discuss their most obsessive loves and in the mise en scene that frames lovers talking in bed like awkward portraits. Desire, for Dolan’s film, is awkward and uncomfortable, built on unresolvable distances.

Reading this sense of desire and awkwardness back to Renck’s music videos, we can perhaps see that desire, too, plays a part in the music video worlds orbiting the drag queen and Madonna. The aesthetic of discomfort is not just about wanting to get away from anxiety provoking interiors and awkward social situations. There is something desirable about these worlds, too. And even something desirable about the discomfort itself. This, it seems, is at the core of Renck’s films. This discomforting desire that the drag queen passes on to the young man, that the young man passes on to the other men, that is held in the gaze of the young woman at the end of the video. Pass it on.

— R W Gray

May 252012

Tess Fragoulis

Herewith a strange and lurid scene from the bar life — gangsters, music, and a quasi-ritual violence — in Piraeus, after the ravaging of Smyrna during the 1922 Greco-Turkish war (one of the many Greco-Turkish wars) in Tess Fragoulis’s brand new novel The Goodtime Girl (Cormorant Books). The scene is foreign, surprising because it lets the reader see, in its details, the mix of cultural history in the land that is often called the cradle of Western civilization while, at the same time, letting us know that gangsters are kind of like gangsters wherever they are — strutting cockerels with a peculiar sense of social harmony — whether they inhabit Isaac Babel’s Odessa or Mario Puzo’s Las Vegas. Tess Fragoulis, the author of two previous books, the novel Ariadne’s Dream and a story collection called Stories to Hide from Your Mother, writes and teaches teaches in Montreal.




You strut up to me
with a double-edged blade
Who’s your business with wise-guy,
what debts must be paid?

It was early evening and the taverna was empty except for a few members of the band escaping their wives, and a gang of codgers who wouldn’t last past eleven. They were playing endless hands of kseri, drinking retsina and reminiscing about the good old days when the taverna was their territory and no one came in without a brick of hashish as an offering. Now they were harmless granddads, coughing with every inhale of the narghile and gossiping about the preening young manghites with as much indulgence as disdain. Kivelli liked the taverna at this time of day, before the atmosphere was choked with grudges and bravado. She sat by herself, drinking coffee and waiting for the air to shift, for the old men to cede their places to the young.

To pass the time, she turned her little white cup onto its saucer and watched the muddy grounds ooze out the side while her future was being etched on the inner walls in lacy patterns. Barba Yannis claimed he could read palms, though everyone knew it was just an excuse to hold women’s hands and make predictions that gave him some sort of advantage. He’d already taken turns with Kiki and Lola, as well as several of the other girls because they liked what he saw in their future. He didn’t read cups, however, which was the territory of old ladies with black dresses and headscarves, their evil eyes usually aimed in his direction. As Kivelli peered into the cup’s miniature abyss at something that might have been a flower or a fallen sun, she sensed someone behind her and looked over her shoulder.

A short, skinny man Kivelli hadn’t seen before stood there, erect as a post, his nervous blinking the only sign he was alive. He wore an impeccable grey serge suit with a burgundy bow tie, and a black fedora pulled down over his forehead and ears, which made him look as if he had something to hide. He smelled familiar, however, of lemon verbena and fine tobacco, like her sleek-haired suitors in Smyrna, though he was nowhere near as handsome with his flaccid skin and thin, pale lips. When his mouth began to move, Kivelli couldn’t hear his words over the din of old men nattering and musicians fooling around with their instruments. She narrowed her eyes and cupped a hand by her ear.

“I am the Smyrniot,” the man repeated testily and paused a moment, waiting for a reaction. So many guys had adopted that nickname since the Catastrophe — whether they’d come from the city or a nearby village — it had become meaningless. Kivelli studied his grim face, but it told her nothing. He wasn’t distinct enough to be remembered. Even now, standing before her, her memory resisted him.

“What can I do for you?” she asked, not impolitely, but not graciously either. He threw her a sharp look that in the past might have frightened her, but now only made her more defiant. She compressed her lips and folded her arms over her chest, her eyes hard as diamonds. If he really wanted trouble, she could call the Cucumber. For a few uncomfortable seconds, they looked each other over with equal doubt. But before either could make a move, Barba Yannis rushed over and slapped the Smyrniot on the back, then shook his hand vigorously. Kivelli had seen that happy dog look on her boss’s face before: he was both impressed and slightly unnerved by the presence of the man he called Panayotis.

“What brings you here, my friend?” he asked Panayotis the Smyrniot, who pulled on the brim of his hat until his eyes all but disappeared. With an almost imperceptible tilt of his chin, he pointed in Kivelli’s direction. Barba Yannis looked as thrilled as Kyria Effie had on the day he’d arrived with his proposition. “You should be very flattered, girlie.” He then winked at the Smyrniot. “Don’t ask about the hole I found her in …” And with that he left, blissfully unaware that his taverna was just a different type of hole.

The Smyrniot looked left and right, as if plotting his escape. He was becoming more agitated by the minute; he fiddled with something in his pocket Kivelli hoped was neither a wedding ring nor a pistol. Barba Yannis was sitting with the old men, whispering and staring and whispering some more. There was a rumble of laughter, and someone began plucking a baglama, yowling between notes.

When the Smyrniot spoke again, he lowered his voice as if he feared being caught in an indiscretion. “Miss Kivelli,” he began, his words tentative, forced. “I have a song for you. Come to my house tomorrow afternoon if you want to try it on for size.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her, then scurried out of the taverna without waiting for her reply, or pulling on the narghile, or talking to anyone else — not even Barba Yannis. His address was outside the neighbourhood, over the bridge and up Castella Hill, in a better part of Piraeus. Kivelli stared at the piece of paper in her hand, then crumpled it and stuffed it in her coffee cup. The place was starting to fill up, and it was time for her to disappear into the storeroom so she could later make her entrance. Barba Yannis hurried over, his eyebrows twitching eagerly.

“What did he say, what did he want from you?” He wiped his forehead with a white handkerchief edged with pink embroidery.

“Who knows … something about a song … to each his own.” Barba Yannis looked at her as if she’d fallen on her head.

“Are you crazy? The Smyrniot wants to give you a song and you flick him off like lice? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know who he is?” This was the first time he’d ever scolded her, and the strain soaked his handkerchief with sweat.

Kivelli admitted she didn’t know, and she didn’t care either. As far as she was concerned, he was one of a dozen newborn Smyrniots, and nobody to her. Barba Yannis plucked the crumpled, coffee-stained paper out of the cup, smoothed its wrinkles against the table. He held it at arm’s length to read it, then pressed it into her hand. “You go there and apologize, Miss Kivelli, or don’t bother showing up tomorrow night. I have no room here for women who live on the moon.” He then spelled it out for her and walked off to tell the other musicians, who had a good laugh at her expense.

This Smyrniot was Panayotis “The Smyrniot” Doukas, one of the most renowned musicians in Smyrna. Kivelli had heard his name and had danced to his music at balls and private functions where his orchestra played, but had certainly never met him. His were not the circles she travelled in, neither there nor here. The band hardly ever played his songs at the taverna; they weren’t raw or hard enough for the regular crowd, even when the lyrics were about hashish and prison and heartbreak. The music raised a different spirit — too happy, too romantic, even in its melancholy. Kivelli knew a few of his hits — “Maria, Stop Your Nagging,” and “Someone’s Stolen the Wine” — and sang them on request when one of her compatriots who could afford it was in the audience, which was not very often. They had their own clubs where they tried to recreate what they had lost, places named after Smyrna’s richest neighbourhoods — Bella Vista, Cordelio, Bournova. The mere thought of going there made Kivelli as sick as bad wine.

But now that she knew who the Smyrniot was, she was curious to hear what kind of song he thought was cut to her measure, and to find out how he knew, since she’d never seen him at the taverna. Though, admittedly, he could have been lurking in a smoky corner all along, testing and assessing her, or standing right under her nose, unremarkable and easily forgotten.

There was still this night to live through, however, and tomorrow seemed a thousand years away, during which the sun might be extinguished once and for all, if not for her, then for someone else. This had become a given since the Cucumber’s gang had taken up residence at the taverna. Notoriety had to be fed with flesh and blood, or it went somewhere else. So incidents of the kind that were never reported to the police escalated, and it was left to the manghes to sort things out, using their own code, imposing their own sentence.

At around two in the morning, a young swag from the neighbourhood sauntered in, high as Jupiter. Crazy Manos dropped in on most nights to flirt with the girls, exchange barbs with the guys. He was lean-faced and handsome, with dark blond hair and the green eyes of a wildcat, wary and always halfway shut. Rumour had it that he slept with ten women a day and stole from them all, which was how he could afford his fine suits and enough hashish to keep him flying most of the time. He collected his allowance throughout the day in exchange for a kiss on the forehead, and blew it all by dawn. Kivelli hoped it was worth it, but she had her doubts.

Crazy Manos was a bit of a show-off. He strutted around the room, glass of wine in hand, laughing uncontrollably and flashing his new double-edged dagger with the polished deer stag handle. He slid it through his fingers, ran it over the insides of his wrists and hefted it between his hands. He was also throwing his weight around with the girls in the corner, but from their scowls and waving hands, Kivelli could tell they were not enjoying his attentions. Narella left the table and went to speak with Barba Yannis, who consulted a few of his buddies and then called over Mortis, the taverna’s only waiter.

The older manghes had nothing against Crazy Manos. They admired his looks, his luck with the ladies and his fancy blade. They’d all been young and high and crazy once. He was one of them, but there was no bigger anathema than a guy who called attention to himself for no good reason. If you took out your sword, you’d better be ready to use it. They tried to ignore him at first, but this only encouraged his strutting. When Mortis refused to bring him more wine, Crazy Manos stood on a chair and smashed the empty glass on the floor, then began laughing like a maniac. One by one the instruments stopped playing, Kivelli stopped singing, the men stopped talking and even the girls’ gasps were soundless. A group of Barba Yannis’s tightest friends surrounded Crazy Manos, who cursed and spat like the devil as they dragged him outside. Barba Yannis signalled the band to start playing again, but Kivelli could still hear the shouting and swearing through the thick wooden door.

After two or three songs the manghes returned, wiping their hands on their trousers, tucking in their shirttails, looking neither happy nor angry nor proud. They had done what was necessary because they’d been provoked. They took their places at their tables as if nothing had happened, resumed their conversations as if they’d never been interrupted. That was that, Kivelli thought, and after a few more songs she too had forgotten the scuffle, though the broken glass still lay on the floor, twinkling like ice that would never melt.

Then Crazy Manos stumbled back in. Blood running from his nose and mouth stained his white shirt, both his eyes were blackened, swollen, his jacket was ripped and his hat had been crushed. This did not make him look ugly, just wilder. Before anyone could stop him, he ran to the front of the room with his dagger between his teeth and began dancing like a woman, clapping his hands above his head and shimmying his hips. He waggled his tongue at Kivelli as the same group of manghes carried him out again. But within two or three songs, Crazy Manos was back, as defiant as ever, blowing kisses and offering wine to everyone in the house. Those must have been powerful drugs coursing through his body. Corpse-raising drugs. A lesser mangha would have crawled home to die in his mother’s lap.

The rest of the night was punctuated by this back and forth, this in and out and in again. When Crazy Manos did not crawl back on his hands and knees after the final bout, Kivelli was sure they’d killed him, and she felt bad for a moment. He was a young guy trying to have some fun, a handsome mangha, just a little bit reckless.

After the taverna closed and the broken glass was swept up, Kivelli searched for Barba Yannis, but he was nowhere to be found. All she wanted was to get paid so she could go home and consider the Smyrniot’s invitation, the memory of which had been almost entirely wiped out by the night’s main event. If it disappeared by morning, she would be relieved of the decision, though she was not certain how much longer she could bear the brutishness of the taverna. Narella walked over and said she’d seen Barba Yannis leave by himself, and that she too was waiting for him because they had their own bills to settle. “He read my palm and paid me a visit at Kyria Effie’s,” she confessed sheepishly. She’d hoped to make Crazy Manos jealous, to get back at him for his philandering, but things had gone too far. She wiped away a tear. Narella had a soft spot for that little butcher.

Just then Barba Yannis returned. He and Mortis were holding Crazy Manos up by the armpits, helping him to a table near the back. Narella ran to him, threw her arms around his neck. Crazy Manos cursed, but didn’t push her away. He was a sorry sight, his pretty face puffed up like that of a drowned man, his fine threads dark with blood and dirt. But there he sat, holding hands with Narella and drinking the cup of coffee Barba Yannis himself had brought him, while Mortis dusted off his jacket with a white cloth.

 — Tess Fragoulis


Tess Fragoulis is the author of Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp, 1997), which was nominated for the QWF First Book Prize; Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown, 2001), which was long-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award; and is the editor of Musings, an anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature (Vehicule, 2004). Her latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, is published by Cormorant Books in Canada, and will be published in Greek by Psichogios Publications in Greece in 2013. She has also written for newspapers, magazines and television. She lives in Montreal and teaches writing part-time at Concordia University.

See also:


May 232012

Here are some luscious photographs of Paris, not your tourist Paris, but the Paris streets, and not just the Paris streets but a selection of photos that are in many ways a homage to the history of Parisian street photography, that is, photographs with a particularity, an edge, derived from history and impersonation. These are from the Montreal poet/novelist Mark Lavorato (see his poem in the last issue) who started taking pictures as a moment of research for a new novel. He impersonated a 1920s Parisian street photographer who would be a character in his book, and, Lo! he became a photographer himself.



I was researching my third novel, Burning-In (forthcoming), in which one of my characters is a photographer in the 1920s. What I soon learned in my research is that the art of street photography came before the advent of photojournalism. This was astounding to me; that the art aspect of photography came well before its utility.

I picked up a camera and took to the streets to learn about how my protagonist would feel as a street photographer, and I found that, surprisingly, it was me, and not my protagonist, who was doing all the feeling. So I dove into street photography with all the fascination and intensity of someone discovering a new and rich medium.

— Mark Lavorato



— Mark Lavorato


Mark Lavorato is the author of three novels, VeracityBelieving Cedric, and the forthcoming Burning-In. His first collection of poetry, Wayworn Wooden Floors, had just been published. One of the poems from that book was published in a previous issue of Numéro Cinq. Mark lives in Montreal and is currently seeking galleries to exhibit his work.


May 162012


Christina Hutchings is a Bermudian artist and architect who does painting & sculpture or sculpture & painting or something that is in between painting & sculpture, using a variety of media, collage, and found objects to create art in three dimensions. Hutchings describes how her experience as an architect has helped to shape her thinking as an artist: “In the architectural design process, the idea is represented as a diagram, the diagram drives the organization of spaces in plan, section and elevation. I am in love with this way of working.”

But she combines this process with “a more intuitive approach—something in the studio catches [my] eye, one thing follows another and the piece seems to make itself.”

“When I begin a piece,” she says, “I think of it [both] as a painting and as an object…The frame defines a space in which to work and provides a boundary either to respect, or disregard with extensions and additions. At some point the pieces will be stacked one on top of another. And I will think of them as a stack of sketchbooks.

“The fact that Bermuda is a small British island situated in the Atlantic Ocean is a major influence. I cannot help but think of a lifeboat situation. I am surprised by what has inspired me: … school images, life boats, ships, rigging, buoys and channel markers, transistor radio broadcasts of Gemini space capsule launches, submarines, lines of rope, nautical charts, flags, undersea cables, shipping routes, a ride on the ferry.”

—Kim Aubrey


High Tide, gouache,coloured pencil and conte on wood 100″ x 70″, 2010


Camera, gouache on paper, gouache on wood and electrical tape 24″ x 22″ varies, 2011


Coordinates, ink and pencil on vellum with Color-aid paper 10″ x 10″, 2010


Yes No, oil on paper, gouache on paper, string and ruler 12.75″ x 16.75″, 2010


Henry’s Office, pencil, foam core, tracing paper, painted vellum and cardboard mounted on board 12.75″ x 16.75″, 2011


Site Plan, gouache on paper cup and grid paper 12.75″ x 16.75″, 2006-2012


Classroom, gouache on paper, and gouache on paper mounted on wood 12.75″ x 16.75″, 2011


Book Cover, oil on paper and acrylic on hinged wood panel 12.75″ x 29″ varies, 2011-2012


Book Jacket, gouache on paper, charcoal on paper mounted on wood 22″ x 22″ varies, 2004-2012


Sunday Night, wind gage, barograph paper, painted paper mounted on board 12.75″ x 16.75″, 2010


Gemini Capsule, gouache on paper cup mounted on painted paper 12.75″ x 16.75″, 2006-2011


Walled Garden, gouache on paper, electrical tape on board and painted kite sticks 12.75″ x 16.75″, 2011


Christina Hutchings was born and grew up in Bermuda, but lived and worked in New York City as an architect and designer for many years before returning to the island to live in 2008. She holds a BFA in Painting from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and a Master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Virginia. Christina has received visual arts fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, The Edward Albee Foundation and others. She has exhibited her work in galleries in the U.S. and Bermuda, and her work was selected for inclusion in the Bermuda Biennial in 2010 and 2012. A number of her paintings have been purchased for the Bermuda National Gallery’s Permanent Collection.

Photos of Christina’s artwork were taken by Ann Spurling.

May 142012

Part of the genius of Zona is Dyer’s skill at taking art and turning it on himself and his reader to reveal the exquisite longing of the heart. Dyer does what all great writers do: he makes you interested in his subject matter, he makes you excited to learn more.          — Jason DeYoung

Geoff Dyer
Pantheon, 2012
$24.00, 228 pages

Geoff Dyer is a British-born essayist and novelist. While he has written a number of smart novels—probably his best being Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi—his nonfiction (written mostly as book-length essays) is thought of as especially original and brilliant. Dyer’s broad intelligence and charm make the work addictive. He has a gift for putting oddly diverse cultural touchstones—Hakim Bey to Wordsworth, Thievery Corporation to Miguel De Unamuno—together with his own offbeat insights to create keys to contemporary culture (and personal understanding).

In a recent Bookforum interview Dyer was asked if was fair to say that his work is written in part “against clichés of genre, clichés of convention.” Here’s what he said:

Oh, indeed. Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve drifted away from fiction as a reader as well as a writer…[S]ome novels can actually be conceived at the level of cliché. The whole idea of what we want from a novel sometimes is for it to conform to a very familiar set of conventions.

Dyer’s nonfiction often falls within two categories. While he has written books on serious subjects such as The Missing of the Somme (about World War I) and the Ongoing Moment (about documentary photography), he also has a cannon of playful and irreverent books such as Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (a collection of travel writings) and Out of Sheer Rage (a quasi-memoir devoted to Dyer’s own desire to write a “sober academic study” of D. H. Lawrence —he never does; he just writes one about wanting to write one).

Zona­—a book devoted to writing a gloss on Stalker, a ’70 Russian art-house film—seems to belong somewhere in that whimsical column. With his trademark wit and whine, Dyer humorously summarizes the rather humorless Stalker, lovingly interpreting it through a combination of autobiography, literary theory, and cultural criticism, opening up a rather difficult film so that even non-cinéastes can find pleasure and meaning in it.

Stalker, released in 1979, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s sixth full-length movie, and it’s loosely based on Roadside Picnic, a science fiction novel written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.  As the opening caption of Stalker sets things up: something has happened—a meteorite crash or alien visitation(?)—which has led to the creation of the Zone, a place “troops where sent in and never returned.” The boundaries of the Zone are now outlined with barbed wire and cinderblock walls and militarized.  The movie depicts an illegal expedition lead by the eponymous Stalker who guides two characters simply known as Writer and Professor into the Zone.

Somewhere within the Zone there is a room that that will fulfill your most deeply held wish. The Writer and the Professor want to go to this room.  The Professor and Writer both want something like greatness. Writer, in particular, wants inspiration, and Dyer can’t help but identify with him:

[Writer] is washed up. Finished. Maybe by going to the Zone he’ll be rejuvenated. Man, I know how he feels.  I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action—not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take—if I was capable of writing anything else? In my way I’m going to the Room—following these three to the Room—to save myself

Reading Zona is not unlike being with a friend who talks excitedly over movies. The actual pages are often halved with the top half occupied by Dyer’s “take by take” summary and with the bottom occupied with an abundance of footnotes—which cannot be dismissed and have equal prominence. In Zona, Dyer keeps hitting the metaphorical pause button to tell about his childhood, the movie, his insights into it, its history, Tarkovsky himself, or share bits of cinematic-lore, such as how Mick Jagger remarked that Godard was such a “fucking twat,” speaking of the experience with the filmmaker on the documentary Sympathy for the Devil.  It’s all very noteworthy and compelling.  As Dyer writes: “In a sense this book is a catalogue or compendium of proposals for potentially interesting studies.”

After a journey through a landscape that is “completely weird and completely ordinary,” the three characters arrive at the Room’s door. At the entrance, Stalker tells Writer and Professor to think back over their entire life. Writer seems to be the one who’ll enter first.  But he stops.  He cannot go.  Why?  Donno. Even Tarkovsky confesses in a 1980 interview that he didn’t know why*. In fact, neither Writer nor Professor can enter the room. (Note: I’m not spoiling the movie here.)

For Tarkovsky the existence of the Room “serves solely as pretext to revealing the personalities of the three protagonists.” And as a person who is following these three characters in the movie, Dyer stands at the door, too.  Unable to make a decision whether to enter, Dyer meditates on desire, faith and belief: “Is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret?”  Is this why Writer and Professor cannot enter the Room, since they will have to face their true selves? As Tarkovsky puts it: the Room fulfills “a hidden vision lying deep within the heart of each person” because they don’t ask the Room for what they want, the Room will just know.  At the Room’s threshold, Dyer bares his own desires and begins to question their validity.

There is such sincerity and allure in Dyer’s prose that the reader ends up following him to the Room as well, and his interpretation of the film leaves a lasting impact. As the author questions his wants, you can’t help but to question the faith you have in your own desires, and if obtaining them will make you happy. And this is part of the genius of Zona, Dyer’s skill at taking art and turning it on himself and his reader to reveal the exquisite longing of the heart.

Dyer does what all great writers do: he makes you interested in his subject matter, he makes you excited to learn more.  Tarkovsky is a difficult filmmaker—in pacing and in image—and his films demand thoughtful viewing and patience, something that’s becoming increasingly more difficult—even for Dyer—because of our diminishing attention span. But he laments, “a lot of what’s being shown on the world’s screens—television, cinemas, computers—is fit only for morons.” I cannot say whether it’s a good idea to see Stalker first or read Zona first.  I saw the movie before reading Zona, and it helped me to hold the thread of Dyer’s synopsis while reading the footnotes.  But I wonder what it would be like to experience the book without knowing the movie, experiencing Zona as “book” instead of something like companion piece, because there’s something so dreamy in how Dyer describes his personal vision and experience of watching Stalker, and entering his Zone, a “place of refuge and sanctuary. A sanctuary…from cliché.”

— Review by Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.

*All quotations by Andre Tarkovsky come from Andre Tarkovsky: Interviews, ed. by John Gianvito, University Press of Mississippi, 2006.


May 122012

For you aural delectation on this sunny weekend (at least here it’s sunny) NC offers a delightful, whimsical, lilting, sunny, multi-ethnic  jazz piano & ensemble performance, “La Danse,” from my old friend Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius and the group Heard. I have known Elizabeth, yea, these 15 years and more, ever since she lived in the walk-up apartment on Broadway in Saratoga Springs and was my boys’ first piano teacher. Eventually she moved out of town to a rambling house in Middle Grove where she hosted huge bonfire and potluck parties with masses of friends, children and dogs. Then she moved again, to Troy, NY, (no more piano lessons) and got married and had a daughter — but we’ve always kept in touch and she performs in the area constantly. Elizabeth was an inspirational teacher and certainly had a profound effect on  Jonah who has played in half-a-dozen bands and still composes. But she always had her own art and it was pleasant, after lessons, to talk about plans and projects.

Her first CD (Shade Songs) cover featured a painting by another NC friend and contributor Laura Von Rosk (see Laura’s paintings and her photo essays from Antarctica on Numéro Cinq — NC sometimes seem less like a magazine than a family). Eventually, the group Heard formed around her and there have been four more CDs, the latest being the marvelous Karibu of which “La Danse” is part.

If you’re in the area or feel like jetting in, Elizabeth and Heard will be performing at the legendary Saratoga Springs coffee house Caffe Lena on Friday May 25th, 8pm. It be well worth the trip.



La Danse from Karibu (click the player and listen)


La Danse began as a piano sketch inspired by working with modern dancers at Skidmore College, then enjoyed a stint as a string quartet. Now it’s created a new life for itself in this version, with lyrics by Zorkie Nelson (drums/vocals) in Ga,
This is truly a piece of ours that highlights our many influences–you can hear the Cotton Club in Jonathan Greene’s clarinet, you can hear Ravel in the writing, and Ghana throughout, in the marimba-like gyil, drums, bells and shakers.
— Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius




The original repertoire of Heard is the work of composer-arranger-pianist Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius who brings a wide array of styles — jazz, classical and world music — into her captivating soundscape. Her inspirations come from her diverse experiences and interests and are often drawn from the raw and powerful sources that nature provides. Heard’s dynamic and eclectic lineup of musicians gives Elizabeth a multitude of talents and textures to compose for, and to perform with.

Elizabeth received her formal musical training at the University of Washington and Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where she studied ethnomusicology, piano performance and composition with Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto, trombonist Julian Priester and Big Band leader/trumpet player Jim Knapp, as well as with Nigerian Juju musician IK Dairo.

In addition to teaching composition and piano privately, she has been an adjunct professor for 12 years in the Dance Department at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, where she works as a dance musician and composer-in-residence. Her collaborations with dancers have also led her to work with the NYC-based Mark Morris, Jose Limon, and Doug Varone Companies, and the NYC Ballet, and with Saratoga Springs’ TangoFusion. Her work with the Capital-District based Ellen Sinopoli Modern Dance Company has led to numerous Arts-in-Education Residencies in regional elementary schools. Elizabeth has also played keyboard and percussion with the Brazilian group The Berkshire Bateria for eight years, as well as with vocalist/songwriter Joy Adler.

May 102012

Eddie White and Ari Gibson’s “The Cat Piano” delightfullycombines the innocence of animation with the bleak mysteries of film noir, creating a hybrid genre as our expectations of animation’s typical child-like subject matter are interwoven with noir’s darkness and moral ambiguity. What starts off as playful, fun animation with ferociously witty anthropomorphic cats, quickly turns into a tale of despair, corruption, and vengeance.

The story opens with a lonely cat poet recounting his dreary past. He takes us through the crowded urban landscape, filled with bars and nightclubs as musical cats lounge about. We are also introduced to the angelic obsession of this poet’s alienated mind, the soprano siren in white fur.

Things seem splendid as these cats relish in breezy jazz and musical beats, but there is an underlying evil that creeps in and, before they know it, the voices that bring them such joy begin to vanish one by one. The poet quickly transforms into detective mode and makes a terrifying discovery, the blueprints for perhaps the most detestable creation ever conceived: the cat piano. Before he can warn the soprano in white of these dangers, she disappears. Searching for her, the poet descends into madness on his quest for vengeance.

“The Cat Piano” is narrated by the multi-talented Nick Cave, mostly known for his work as front man of the band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and for his musical scores of the films The Assassination of Jesse James and The Road. His narration plays off the double meaning of words in a fascinating and playful way, giving this short a significant amount of replay value. His voice adds a flush and sophisticated warmth to the noir underbelly and switches to a treacherous rasp during the short’s darker, almost black moments.

As with most film noir, the short is notable for its harsh contrasts in lighting, made even more substantial by the beautiful animation. The low-key lighting and shadow patterns are exceptional, directing our eyes specifically towards the terror, fear, and heartache the protagonist experiences. Most of the colors are overwhelmingly black and blue, adding atmosphere, mood, and foreshadowing the darkness that looms over this underground world. Green is used to represent the sickness of loneliness brought on by the soprano in white’s disappearance. And a red tint is added in the scenes where the poet reveals his violent and aggressive side in his quest for revenge.

There are several similarities between this short and David Lynch’s feature film Blue Velvet. After being love stricken by a female with a beautiful voice, both protagonists begin to discover hidden secrets in their respective, seemingly happy settings (a white picket fence suburbia in Blue Velvet and a fresh underground music scene in “The Cat Piano”). As they dig deeper into increasingly haunting mysteries, they both horrifically discover the corruption and darkness that exists all around them and within others.

The endings of both films are relatively happy, but with a more monotone revelation as it’s uncertain if either of the protagonists will be able to return to the naivety of their former selves. Their innocence has been forever corrupted and lost.

“The Cat Piano” is a great film noir crime thriller with captivating characters, bold visuals, and spine tingling mysteries. It pushes our comfort zones by blending the innocence typically associated with animation and film noir’s characteristic darkness and gloomy tone. On a larger level this mixing of genres mirrors the protagonist’s loss of innocence, his turn to his darker self. Like him, once you know the cat piano, you cannot walk away unscathed.

–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.

May 102012

Here’s a poem by Mark Lavorato, not about Nature so much as about Being, about the surprising thereness of our mysterious collisions with the wild, that sudden glimpse into the eyes of a startled animal, the eyes looking into your eyes. Unforgettable are lines like

and with two bounds of flaming grace

it slipped through a slot in the long grass
the candle flame of its tail doused
into a thin wick of shadow

I read herein faint echoes of D. H. Lawrence and also reminders of an American poet, Robert Wrigley, whose nature poems I admire greatly. Mark Lavorato is a Montreal writer (poems, novels, also he takes photographs and composes music). This poem is from his new book Wayworn Wooden Floors, due out imminently with Porcupine’s Quill.





A true story: Found a fox once
bright coil rusting in the spring grass

looked like it’d died in its sleep
its nose drowned in the fur of its tail

so I crouched down to touch
the still-glowing embers of its pelt

when, with a wild and frozen start, it woke up
I will never forget the electric green

of its eyes fixed to mine, and the
rushing sense that I was looking

into something I’d been scanning for
for miles or years or fathoms

and had found at precisely the moment
I wasn’t prepared to, butterfly net in the closet

My need to swallow splintered the exchange
and with two bounds of flaming grace

it slipped through a slot in the long grass
the candle flame of its tail doused
into a thin wick of shadow

Must have stayed there an hour
wondering if he’d come back

— Mark Lavorato


Mark Lavorato is the author of three novels, Veracity (2007), Believing Cedric (2011), and Burning-In (forthcoming). His first collection of poetry, Wayworn Wooden Floors, is published by the Porcupine’s Quill (2012). Mark lives in Montreal, where he also does work as a photographer and composer.

May 082012

This is a follow to the Christmas murder story Jean-Marie Saporito wrote about in her first “Letter from Taos” in January — intimate, intense, minimalist memoir, Chekhov crossed with Barry Hannah but telling the truth, with a female sensibility that is sassy, unafraid of her own peccadilloes and desires. What was wonderful in the earlier piece and still holds here is Jean-Marie’s ability to create a dense weave of narrative vectors: murder, femme fatale, sobering up, a cowboy lover, an indiscretion, and the words of historical cowgirls. Jean-Marie is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she received her MFA. She lives in Taos. For her first “letter” she wrote, “If you want, you can add to my bio that I’m dating a cowboy. You know what a cowboy is? A man who can handle cows — ride, rope, herd. I’m learning a lot.”



I saw the femme fatale of the Christmas murder at my friend’s party. Let’s call her T. to protect what little may be left of her privacy. The papers had graciously kept her anonymous. T. is 17, a child I’ve known since my son and she were in kindergarten. I had heard that the girl had hid in the closet and listened while Charles shot Dylan and that she’d since sobered up. So when I saw T. at this intimate party of recovering women junkies and drunks, I knew, without asking, she was the girl who’d hid in the closet that night.

At this party we played a raucous game of Cowgirls Ride the Trail of Truth. This board game, which the hostess, M., created several years ago, is a version of Truth or Dare, only the dare is to tell the truth. On the front of the cards are quotes from cowgirls like R.C. Jonas (1904) — “To have courage is to have the life you want.” On the cards’ backs are different categories of questions — family and friends, experience and history, sex and body.

My turn from the sex and body category — “What would you do if you woke up one morning and discovered you had a penis instead of a vagina?”

“Fuck the first girl I could!” someone shouted, another, “Masturbate!” We screeched and laughed at our unseemliness. I noticed T. smiling.

I left the party to see my cowboy. We fought over my admitted indiscretion with another man. My cowboy had a violent past, now many years behind him. Still, I considered the game I was playing.

On Valentine’s day, at a burlesque show at the local solar station bar, I saw T.’s mother. I was there with friends, having refused to see my cowboy lover. Maintaining the pretense of T.’s anonymity, I mentioned to her mother that I had seen her daughter recently, that she is such a sweet girl, that she remembered me. I didn’t have the courage to tell T.’s mother I don’t think the Christmas murder was her daughter’s fault. Instead of taking her hand and lamenting motherhood’s travails, I pretended that nothing had happened, and smiled, commenting on the show and the sweet bits of cake we were eating.

A few days later, my cowboy gave me my Valentine’s presents — jewelry, flowers, and a box of condoms.

From the cowgirl, Kathy Willow (1881): “Everything has a meaning, but sometimes I just can’t figure out what it is.”

 —Jean-Marie Saporito


May 072012

I spent the summer of 1968 in Freiburg. Martin Heidegger was still alive, living in a retreat in the Black Forest in an odor of disrepute on account of his Nazi sympathies during the war. I had a fantasy that I would meet him hiking in the woods. I never met him. I did meet Friedrich Von Hayek, the great economist, but he was easy; he had an office at the university and I walked in one day with a mutual acquaintance and shook his hand. My brush with history, my personal relationship with the god of Paul Ryan and the austerity-cats of the  Republican right.

Heidegger is a particularly difficult philosopher to read because he thought he was inventing a new language to talk about the thing he couldn’t talk about. You can’t tell sometimes if he is being mysteriously impenetrable or just impenetrable as in opaque. He had a vast nostalgia for Being which he thought of as something we couldn’t access by perception or thought. This vast nostalgia seems sometimes to have been more felt than reasoned; he was of that generation who still mourned the passing of the Greek gods. He also slept around a lot and had a more or less open marriage with his wife, Elfride. Somehow his nostalgia for a thing you can’t reach and his many love affairs seem comically and humanly self-contradictory. He is ripe for literature.

Enter Leon Rooke.

Leon Rooke is an old and dear friend. He was in my head long before I met him because of his books, Shakespeare’s Dog in particular in those days, a novel that has stuck with me as a license and an inspiration — William Shakespeare as observed by his dog (who is telling the story), a brilliant book, a tour de force of point of view construction, an example of how literature thrives by making things strange. I put Leon in Best Canadian Stories regularly (as often as Alice Munro) over the decade I edited that anthology. I’ve reviewed his books at least a half-dozen times. I wrote an essay about his (also brilliant, eerie, and wonderful) novel, A Good Baby, which you can find in my book of essays, Attack of the Copula Spiders. Rooke was born in North Carolina but lives in Toronto. He has an actor’s voice and presence and is an amazing performer of his own work. He’s also a painter — we have been lucky enough to publish images of four of his paintings on NC.

In “Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat” Leon Rooke gives us Heidegger with his pants down (metaphorically), straining to compose the impenetrable prose of Being and Time while shuttling to and from his lover’s house and fending off the jealous and passive-aggressive intrusions of his long-suffering wife (I have inserted photographs of the real Heidegger and Elfride below).  All this is relayed through someone named Floss, another one of those odd point of view inventions Rooke is so good at. In this case, Floss might be a philosophy student reading Being and Time in a library or he might be Heidegger, or rather, I think, Heidegger’s Being (which we might have called his Soul in the old days). Heidegger, of course, can’t know Floss, but Floss knows everything about Heidegger. And when the story is done, Floss trundles home to his wife and kids (being Heidegger’s Being is like a job). And, of course, it’s very late and I might have got this wrong.

As far as I know, no animals were harmed during the composition of this story (despite what happens to the poor cat).





Lights that flickered, curtain at a certain pitch in the summoning, the rendezvous with Frau Blochmann now concluded, Heidegger clamps his trouser legs and bicycles home.

Floss withholds opinion on the Master’s affair with the eminent colleague, which he knows will continue another few decades. What he wonders is what Elfride will say when the philosopher king comes through the door. That Jewish bitch again? Or will she say nothing, having just dispatched her doctor friend through that very door. This love business is a bit tiring, is Floss’s thought. Get back to work, he tells Heidegger. Not that such is required. After swallowing a bit of Elfride’s tasty stew Heidegger will be at his desk. Being and Time, thinks Floss, page 355. Quote, Resoluteness, by its ontological essence, is always the resoluteness of some factical Dasein at a particular time.

Floss, in his cramped library carrel, has no argument with that. Well and good. Floss and resoluteness and Heidegger, Floss believes, are one and the same.

They are together, he and the Freiburg sage, working the deep trench.

Heidegger now writes, quote, The essence of Dasein as an entity is its existence.

Without entity, no essence: well and good, remarks Floss to himself. Particles afloat in space, what purpose they?

Quote, The existential indefiniteness of resoluteness never makes itself definite except in a resolution. Page 346.

Here Floss wants to say Hold the phone. Floss wants to put his foot down.

Floss’s mind is rapidly scribbling notes to himself. These notes are scratching like a dog inside Floss’s brain. Hold the phone is but one of the dog’s bones.

Floss’s index finger is rapidly scanning the lines, speed-reading Heidegger as the master composes. Are not he and Heidegger that close?  Are they not twinned with respect to Being and Time? Are they not brothers?

Floss can quote aloud, at any time, Floss can, any one of Heidegger’s current or future thoughts. The text is spread open on the desk for company only.

Photographic. That’s what Floss’s mind is.

Never mind that he has scribbled into his notebook the erroneous page reference. His hand did. Floss’s mind knows the difference.

Not 346. 355. Floss has jumped ahead. He always knows where Heidegger is going; often he arrives at the destination while the King of Thought is still clearing his throat.

Quote, Only by authentically Being-their-Selves in resoluteness can people authentically be with one another.

Ah! Floss thinks. Let’s not get too, you know, personal. Like.

In Floss’s view this statement is another Hold the phone. This is Heidegger fighting a headwind.

That someone has just this moment walked into Heidegger’s study is radiantly clear to Floss. Being with one another is an untypical Heidegger sentiment. The Master has been thwarted in his goals. Ergo, the line’s impurity.

Who is the culprit this time?

Excited, Floss thumps his knees.

Elfride, of course.

This is Heidegger being influenced by Elfride. This is the wife calling the tune. It is Elfride saying, If you are going to be with me, then be…with me.

Floss can see Elfride hovering over the great man’s shoulders. He can see her whisking dandruff from the great man’s shoulder with a tough whisk broom.

—Don’t mind me, Elfride is saying.

Heidegger doesn’t like any of this. Naturally, he doesn’t. Her very presence fills him with distaste. She has destroyed his flow of pure thought. Be with one another? How has that monstrous phrasing got onto his page?

Four a.m.  Heidegger never sleeps, that explains him. But must Elfride do her dusting at this hour?

Floss thinks not. Floss thinks Elfride must have something up her sleeve.

—Dearest soul, the great man says — can’t you go away? Can’t you leave the room and quietly close the door?

—You know what happens if I don’t dust, don’t you? Elfride says.

Heidegger doesn’t know what happens if Elfride doesn’t dust. He is pretty certain Elfride means to tell him.

—Can’t you make a guess. Oh, go ahead. Go out on a limb.

Heidegger is thinking he has always been out on that limb. He was out there first on the limb with the Jesuits when he was a boy, then with Husserl, the so-called father of phenomenology; he was out on the limb with Elfride, then with Hannah, then with Elfride and Hannah jointly. And don’t forget colleague Blochmann. Occasionally the Stray Other. Now he is back on the limb with Elfride. Elfride is dusting the limb.

—I do not intend to engage in your theatrics, dearest soul, he says.  I intend to sit here and work on this passage on page 355 until I get it right.

—It’s right, dear one, Elfride says. I’m here to tell you it is already right.  You get it any righter, then I won’t know what to do with myself.

Floss, hearing this exchange, leans back in his tight carrel chair. He crosses his arms over his chest. He closes his eyes.

“Don’t let me interrupt you,” Floss says.

Heidegger spins his head. Elfride ignores Floss. Floss is a pest; he pops in at inconvenient times; otherwise, he is nothing to Elfride.

—Keep out of this, Floss, she says.

Heidegger sighs. These sighs are magnificent. They express his full contempt of those who would make the philosopher’s already impossible task that much more difficult.

Elfride, normally the most anchored of women, is subject to flights of fancy. Now she’s whisking her broom at vacant air. She has even given that vacancy a name: Time Being. There was a time, Floss recalls, when Elfride was more besotted with Heidegger than some now assert is the case. It is all that Hannah’s work. Months before Elfride and her future husband met Elfride had carried in her pockets notes destined for the magician of Frieburg. Don’t deny it. Yesterday I saw you looking at me. Or: Last week I blocked the doorway and without a word you swept by me. Or: I beseech you. Love me. She still retains these undelivered disintegrating missives under lock and key in a wooden chest buried beneath the floor.  They prove her love.  They prove her love existed prior to his. This makes her proud. Not even the great can be first in every regard. These notes will be published after her death. The instructions are contained in a sealed envelope affixed with her granddaughter’s name. Not in this envelope or in the locked chest is the narrative describing the gypsy fortune teller’s role in their haunted lives. Well, are not all lives haunted, Floss, who has never loved, reminds himself.The gypsy said to Elfride, On the first rainy afternoon, following your economics class, stand beneath the first blooming tree your steps venture upon. The lover meant for you will appear. Cold rain dripped, afterwards she caught a cold that endured through many weeks, and periodically through each wheeling year, this existing as nothing because love’s astonishing light penetrated the drooping boughs and stormed her heart. Heidegger, under a black umbrella, indeed appeared.  Through wet lashes he imagined he saw a dying tree where nothing had stood days before.

—You. What is your name?

—Elfride Petrie.

—Why are you standing in the rain?

—Waiting for you. I am your fate.

Heidegger believed in fate as he did in Plato, with suspicion, particularly with regard to the monumentally salient question What is truth, but he was impressed. She was also pretty, though with rain pouring over her face he would reserve opinion on that. Yet when this schoolgirl fitted her body against his, his heart which was three quarters stone fragmented and certain sounds issued from his mouth never until that moment heard by himself or by any other.  Fortunately only children on a dilapidated school bus, there to witness ancient Marburg splendours, were present, and they were too distracted to absorb any image of the historic coupling. This was because rain had become sleet, sleet had become snow, which in minutes had blanketed the lovers, flakes ascending and descending a second and third time, and then repeatedly, in abstract harmony with their movement.  Floss, who was there and could have sought the better view had he been that kind of person, was mostly concerned with Heidegger’s black umbrella which gusting wind ripped into sundry pieces, the cloth flitting hither and yon like unruly crows, if crows were ever to attempt flight in such weather.

Heidegger has put down his writing pen. He is leaning back in his chair. He is crossing his arms over his chest. He fits his tongue beneath the upper lip; he can see clearly his thick Fuhrer’s moustache. The sighting gives him strength, although he distinctly prefers his own. He is reminded that theirs is a nation-building task. The moustache renews him in the impossible goal.

He sighs anew, leaning further back. He closes his eyes.

His sighs now, however, are obviously feigned. They exist merely as an admonishment to his wife. Feigned, they express his resignation. His disappointment with married–the assailed– life. The sighs are meant to convey to Elfride that he has given up.  How can he work with a loudmouth duster in the room, chattering non-stop?

Gone from his head is that trail he was tracking re resoluteness.

But that quickly does his mind seize again upon the trail. His shoe soles hit the floor. His burden has lifted. The pen flies into his hand. Once more he is at work. He is already scribbling again.

He is scribbling, Floss thinks, quote, The resolution is precisely the disclosive projection and determination of what is factically possible at the time.

Hold the phone, Floss is thinking. The projection is termed disclosive only because the thought has just this second revealed itself to the sage. Ditto, factically.

But Heidegger is breaking his pen’s point underlining this significant line. It is imperative that the line be printed in the italic. If the line is not set in the italic then readers fifty years from now, speedreaders like that dunderhead Floss, will fly right by it. They will be blind to its pertinence, as he himself is blind to the dust, the dandruff–as he would wish to be blind to Elfride’s galling presence.

—That’s good, Martin, Elfride says.  I love that factically possible line. It makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Indeed one of them in the room is sweating, though it isn’t Elfride. Heidegger is sweating because writing a new philosophy, bringing the axe to old traditional philosophical walls — that, mein Fuhrer, is hard work. Plus, there’s the other problem: the window, the cat. How hot and stuffy this room is. If he raises the window, he will be wasting heat. Heat the Volk must not waste. Only a Jew saboteur would waste the nation’s heat. So he is stymied on that front. Yet — and now he is getting to the essence of the situation — yet if he raises the window, the simple solution sans heat, the loathsome cat which always plops itself down on the sill, will come in. Thus, he keeps the window shut. He sweats.

Architects, he thinks, truly are a repellent tribe. They can get nothing right.

Floss swings in his chair. His shoe soles strike the floor. He sees Elfride poised. Resolute Elfride is ever on the job.

—Were you saying something, darling? says Elfride. It isn’t the architects, it’s me. Don’t blame the architects for your stinginess. Blame the war. Or better yet, yes, blame me.

She parades curvaceously around the sage’s desk.

—Although of course, she says, you would be perfectly justified if you blamed the cat.  I’m with you there. I hate that cat.  That cat is the ugliest creature I, for one, have ever seen. Are you for two — if I may phrase the question so? — in thinking that cat is the most frightful creature ever to walk on four legs?

—Three, Heidegger says. If we are to speak of the cat, then let’s speak precisely. The cat has but three legitimate legs. The fourth, as you can distinctly see, is so foreshortened as to scarcely exist.

Foreshortened? says Elfride. Do you mean to say the leg in question existed that way in the womb? Perhaps in the very exchange of seed?  Oh, I think surely not foreshortened, because I clearly remember that leg was perfectly normal until you crushed it when you caught the cat coming through your window.

Heidegger lowers his head. He kneads his brow. He is thinking, I have stayed up all night for this?

He is thinking, Hannah, thank God, was not a chatterbox. Her head was on my chest whenever I spoke.

—Yes, darling, Elfride is saying. As much as I despise the creature, it is criminal what you have done to that cat. You all but pressed that cat flat. Martin, I hardly know what to say. I hardly do. I am speechless, listening to your infirmity on the subject of that cat.

Floss sees the philosopher’s eyes narrowing. He sees him looking with utter hatred at this wholesome, proud, meandering wife. Heidegger’s defence collapses. Elfride has described the scene exactly as it occurred.

—It was an accident, Floss says.

—It was purely accidental, Heidegger says.

Elfride snubs this excuse. She whisks it away with  her broom.

Floss has his attention elsewhere.  He is focusing on the sleeping cat. The cat, to his eyes, has altered itself somehow. That the cat suffers deformity is true enough. But it is no longer the bony, undernourished cat. The cat has been eating. It has found food somewhere. The cat is fat.

As for Heidegger, already he is scribbling again. Quote, When what we call “accidents” befall from the with-world and the environment, they can be-fall only from resoluteness.

Floss forsakes his study of the cat. Hold the phone, he says. Hold the phone. Hello, hello. Bravo, my friend.

But Elfride’s broom is stabbing the air.

—You could kill the cat, Elfride is saying. Yes, my lamb, you could finish the job. Then you could raise your window, if only for a moment. Surely not a great deal of our precious heat would escape if you raised your window for one mere moment. Our war resources would not be sorely depleted.  Fresh air, Martin!  Glorious health!  With the window open, even so little as a tidge, you would not be forced to wrestle there in heavy sweat. You could be comfortable. Surely your work would go better if you were comfortable. Kill the cat, my good soul. With the cat dead, your Being and Time will be concluded in nothing flat.

—Enough, Elfride. Enough!

—Shall I kill the cat for you, Martin? I would be happy to kill the atrocious cat if you tell me you believe I should, and can morally justify my performing the act. Issue the cleansing command.  Think! She is only a cat.

—She? That cat is female?

Oh master, groans Floss.

—Yes, and rather resolute, by the look of her.

Heidegger sinks low into his chair. He hoods his eyes.

—Are you done, Elfride? Dearest soul.


—Yes, done. If you are not done, Elfride, then I am leaving my desk. I am leaving my house. I will walk this night all the way to my cabin in Todtnauberg, if that is what it takes to be quit of your tongue.

Floss, at his desk gnawing a fingernail, allows himself a smile. The sage is tempting fate with this mention of the cabin, of Todtnauberg. He has stepped with both feet into Elfride’s trap.

—Todtnauberg? Elfride says. Your cabin?  But, darling, the cabin is mine. True. I gave it to you. But quit my tongue?  Oh, heavens, you can’t mean I have disturbed you. I rattle on, certainly, but only because I know how much my rattling improves your mood. If I did not rattle, you would go about eternally under your famous black cloud. You would never be able to look anyone in the eye. Your students would hardly hang on to your every word. Oh, I think it is fair to say, Martin, that without me and my tongue, and my Nazi boots, and just possibly the cat’s presence at your window, you would never get your work done. You would never write a line. Most assuredly your opus would never be completed. Fame would elude you. Not a person outside Frieburg would ever have the pleasure of hearing your name. You can admit that to yourself and to me, can you not? I’ll not hold it against you. You do not have to prove yourself to me, not ever. Certainly not the way you had to prove yourself to that schoolgirl, Hannah Arendt. And to take her to my cabin in Todtnauberg to prove it, well, my word!

—So that’s it, is it? That’s what this eternal dusting is all about. This mouth disease. So you can harp night and day on my little Hannah fling.

Little, darling?  What would poor Hannah think if I repeated to her what you have just said? Did you not write to her that she was your life?  Did she not reply that you were her every heartbeat? That your paths would haunt each other until the death?  Oh, I think so, darling. I believe those were the two sweethearts’ very words. ‘My homeland of pure joy.’ Was that not your latest encomium?

Floss applies a handkerchief to his eyes. His eyes are wet. They ever get so each time he sees Hannah and Heidegger together in the cabin at Todtnauberg. Strolling together after class under the singing trees. The decades of love to come. How thrilling it must be, Floss thinks, to possess these loves.

Still. Still, Floss altogether shares Jasper’s view when it comes to that Hannah relationship. Resolute, yes, but messy, messy. Cataclysmic love: Hannah defending him at the French de-Nazification committee hearings: scrambling to hawk his manuscripts to Columbia: through the years never one syllable from the master’s mouth as to the beloved’s own work which he read in secret and secretly believed ephemeral if not deliquescent. Her head ever lowered to his chest.

Elfride is thorough.  Not all has been said:

—Or perhaps the precipitation in your eyes has as cause your forthcoming tart Princess Margot of Saxony-Meiningen. Will your rendezvous signal this time be flashing lights or will it be your shades hanging at a certain depth, as was the case with banal Hannah? Which? Will she hand-copy your every hour’s text, as I do?

Floss is astounded. He is giddy with excitement. He has not heretofore perceived that Elfride’s capacity to see into the future matches his own. He sees her now, as one day she doubtlessly will, hands clasped in an unrecognized lap, confused by the vague sense of warfare between aching joints, an old woman of 92 awaiting death in a caretaker home. Will she see her two sons on Russian soil, prisoners of war? Has she yet seen the Delphic oracle rescuing from rubble manuscripts housed in what previously was a Messkirch bank? Hiding them in a cave?

Not at the moment, in any case. At the moment what both Elfride and Floss are seeing is the Master frantically bicycling 16 miles to Todtnauburg, flinging off his clothes, now dressed only in an absurd Tyrolean cap, Elfride, Hannah, the Princess, and scores of other women panting in pursuit, flinging off theirs. For Floss, madness promotes the vision. For Elfride, a confirmation of enduring love.

A thousand letters, cards, over the decades, informing Elfride where his Divineship is, not one suggesting who he is with. What a challenge this marital devotion, these conjugal splits. Send in your party membership, dearest soul, thinks Floss. In resoluteness is strength.

“Get back to the cat,” Floss tells Elfride. Forget Hannah. The cat, after all, has meaning; it is both a real and a symbolic cat. In light of the great man’s post-war silence on the issue of certain atrocities, personal betrayals, I could tolerate additional intimate details re his treatment of the cat.”

—Shoo, shoo, says Elfride. Stop harassing me.

Heidegger is distracted. Once more, Elfride is communicating with vacant air. But perhaps this is good. Perhaps her nasty obsession with Hannah has for the moment exhausted itself.  Elfride, he thinks, with her everlasting can of worms. Essence of spite. Why can’t my two great loves, my sprites, be friends? I must see to that, however imbecilic it may appear.

He looks at the cat, asleep on the window sill. Even curved like that, one can see the leg’s deformity. The crippled spine. The cat should be killed. It is doing that cat no favor to let it live.

He would give Elfride the order. He would say to her, Elfride, kill the cat! Do it now.

But he and she are locked in this struggle. They are irresolute. The cat, if it is to die, must die under Elfride’s own initiative. If he were to give the order, the cat would ever survive intact in his memory. Whereas, if she killed it outright, slicing its throat with a knife from the kitchen or beheading it with the hatchet on a woodblock in the back yard or merely trampling it to death, then the cat would be gone forever. It would disappear totally and entirely from his mind and from the world. Its essence would have been annihilated, its entity denied.

He thinks: what Elfride is hoping is that the weather will get extremely cold this winter — Frieburg under ice, the cat stiff as a rock in the freeze. Certainly there is not the remotest chance that she will allow the cat inside the house.

Unless she does so in punishment of me. Unless she does so out of revenge for my taking Hannah to Todtnauberg. Such a stupid impulse, despite its having led to excruciating reward.

One, it had led Hannah out of drabness. It had transformed her overnight into a bewildered passionate vehicle of sex. Wrought, her mind had unloosened, her brain cells uncoiled.

God forgive me the moments I even have wondered she wasn’t the better thinker than me.

Heidegger is close to tears.  The shame of this.

—Oh, she’s bright, Martin, Elfride says. I have never denied you her brightness. But — she snaps her fingers — she isn’t you.

Floss leans back in his chair. He removes his glasses, polishes them. Elfride’s face is flushed. Always, with that flushed face, any wild remark is apt to burst from her mouth. He wants his glasses clean, that he may see her clean, when next she speaks.

“Tip the scales, Elfride,” Floss says. “Show the great man how bright you are.”

—Martin, darling, Elfride says. She is laughing. —Look what I am doing!

Martin has been cleaning his glasses.

Floss, putting on his glasses, sees Heidegger putting on his.

As for Elfride, Elfride is at the study window. She is poking the cat with a stick. Heidegger keeps the stick there for that very purpose.  Enter a line in Being and Time, then jump up and poke the cat. Enter another, poke the cat.  Day after day, poke the perfectly stupid, ever returning cat. That is how his opus is being written: Elfride’s dusting, Eflride’s interventions — but whenever alone he has been poking the cat.

So Floss figures. Floss has figured it out. Just as he has figured out — flipping the pages, speed-reading the familiar text — the nature of the breeze. He must wipe his fingertips of glycerine, that’s how much speed he needs. He has learned the dark secrets of this book.  Floss knows precisely each line, each phrase, where Heidegger has got up, flung himself across the room, picked up his stick — tortured the cat.

But today, to Floss’s mind, there is something different about this cat.

“A moment, Elfride. Consider. In my view, that’s a pregnant cat.”

But Elfride is in action. Elfride has the stick. She is poking the cat.

-Da!(poke) Da!(poke) Da!(poke) Da!

The cat is squalling; it is meowing, hissing. Clawing the glass. It can’t get in, it can’t get out.

Heidegger, cannot, will not, look. He turns his back to this scene. He claps hands over his ears. Elfride is capable, reliable.  When the deed is done she will dispose of the corpse. He need never be appraised of the how or where. Philosophy need not concern itself with a being’s single specific fate. It has steered fathomless circles since the Greeks established the course. Well done, Greeks. Now those old walls must crumble. With certain exceptions, work to date has been rubbish in the wind. The ground is soggy, diseased, repellent: it releases a fetid odour. Original thought is now required. Already the cat’s presence, Elfride’s resoluteness, is slipping from his mind. The pen flies into his hand; it flies across the page. Quote, ‘Irresoluteness’ merely expresses that phenomenon which we have interpreted as a Being-surrendered to the way in which things have been prevalently interpreted by the “they”. Sweat pours down his cheeks. He pauses.  He wonders if he may permit himself a footnote excluding Plato, Holderlin, Nietzsche from this “they”. Probably so. Why promote their cause?

He works on. He is unaware that Elfride’s Da! Da! Da! has catapulted into shrieks. Something about the cat. Something about something inside the cat. Let her deal with the matter. The cat is a household problem. That’s what marriage is for. For wives to deal with them.

Floss isn’t fooled. He knows Heidegger’s deeper thought: This wife, this hellcat, distorts the providence of being.

“Do you wish to whack the cat, Martin.”  Elfride is whacking with each shriek.

Floss cannot sit still in his chair. His every nerve is shot. He cannot witness any more of this. He is shouting at Elfride, “Put down the stick! Filthy Hun, put down the stick!

Already she has dropped the stick. Blood has splattered on the carpet, on her lovely night-dress. Her hands are covering her face. On the sill the dying cat is wrenching its body one way and another. Gore is leaking from the torn fur. Blood pools on the window sill. A slimy wedge of kitten protrudes beneath the crooked tail.

Never mind. Soon, reaching towards sixty, Heidegger will be out on the hinterlands with young and old, digging trenches to delay the advancing enemy. Floss hurriedly assembles his books. He hitches the backpack over one arm. Rushes down the stairs. The library is exceptionally well lit. Fluorescent tubes quiver and spit. In the entire building no other individual is stirring. The universe is silent. Dawn has arrived, an ascending quilt. His own cat will be crying. His cat will be saying, Why have you not been here to let me purr in your lap? What have you been doing? His wife and children will be in tears. Where have you been? Who are you? (Dearest soul), resolute being, explain yourself.

— Leon Rooke


Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.


May 052012

Bruce Hiscock is an intrepid artist, outdoorsman, and children’s book author, also house-builder, tree-lopper (I have photos of the two of us with chainsaws among the trees), and an old friend, part of the Greenfield Crowd, friends, writers and cross-country skiers who live more or less in Greenfield, New York (see also NC contributions by Nate Leslie, Marilyn McCabe, Mary Shartle and Elaine Handle). Bruce lives in a house he built and is still building himself in the side of a hill in the woods in Porter Corners on Ballou Road. We often call it the Hobbit House — bare log beams, the old sleeping loft where the kids gather at the annual Christmas party, the gorgeous windows looking out onto the trees. Bruce is an amazing writer and illustrator. My boys got regular doses of Bruce Hiscock during our bedtime reading sessions, books like The Big Tree, The Big Rock,  Coyote and Badger, and When Will It Snow? In part, I love these books because I would see them grow in Bruce’s drawing and painting studio. And his notebooks and travel journals are works of art in their own right. Here we have a taste of Bruce, an awesome little essay on the un-awesomeness of awesome and a little self-healing lesson for those of us who are awesomely challenged.



This past year I attended three weddings. The happy couples were all in their twenties, and there were many young people in attendance, along with elders, and a sprinkling of children. I love weddings, and I was pleased to see that the participants had written their own vows.  In the most recent nuptials, the wedding of my nephew on the snow near Lake Tahoe, I especially liked the phrase “in sickness, real or imagined” inserted into the bride’s pledge of devotion. Such language gives me hope that English is still alive and well amongst the younger crowd.

Weddings provide a perfect opportunity to observe how the “texting generation” communicates when they actually meet in person. Although I have never heard a groom say, “OMG, Baby. That was a BFD.” after the service, I am alert to the possibility. As a person of age, I try to note the catch words of the day, having seen: cool, right on, far out, rad, and similar expressions come and go. Currently a single word comes up with unparalleled frequency. Whole flocks of people rely on it as the only adjective for positive feelings. And that word is awesome.

Awesome is a perfectly good word. In the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, a voluminous research tool that pre-dates Wikipedia, oh best beloved) awesome is defined, in its original context, as full of awe, profoundly reverential. The earliest appearance in print, according to the OED, was in 1598 by Richard Bernard, an English clergyman and religious writer. Translating the Latin poet, Terence, he wrote, ”Wise and wittie, in due place awsome, ….” Bernard was somewhat of a non-conformist, advocating a joyful approach to life which seems to have put him at odds with church doctrines of the day. Perhaps that is why he chose to use the word awsome (the early spelling), moving him light years ahead of his time. Incidentally, his daughter, Mary, married Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. I wonder if awsome was used liberally at their celebrations.

Change is natural to language. Words are a fluid device of communication and often adapt to the era, taking on different levels of meaning as the years go by. The OED tells us that awesome is now used in a trivial sense as an adjective meaning marvelous, excellent, etc., as in a New Yorker cartoon caption. “Third grade? Third grade is awesome.”

Whether one approves of these changes or not is inconsequential. Language rolls on regardless of personal preference. And so I bear no more resentment to the change than I do to the person who backed into the door of my Subaru. These things happen.  What I do object to is the excessive use of the word. When describing a bridal gown, a toast by the best man, or even the wedding night, must they all be awesome?

And so, like the campaign to combat obesity, I am proposing a method to slim down the use of awesome. I feel this is important for the health and sanity of America. It could go global, but right now I’m not concerned with that. Of course, an individual could just vow to use the word less often. But such resolutions, while made with the best intentions, like tax reform or home exercise programs, usually fail. That is why I have devised the following pro-active approach.

The Proposal—

If you catch yourself using awesome in, say, every other sentence, you are in need of serious help. The first thing you must do is admit your language deficiency. This is best carried out in a group or family setting where you rise and say, “Hi, my name is ____________, and I am an awesome addict.” Oops, let’s rephrase that to, “I am addicted to awesome.”  You work it out.

Next, take a sheet of paper and write Alternatives to Awesome at the top. Now begin thinking. This is an important part of the cure. Go easy on yourself at first; remember the adjectival part of your brain has probably atrophied from disuse. Start with a few simple words, like terrific or nice. Later, as your ability to utilize language becomes more facile, try to think in shades of meaning. Arrange words in categories like Truly Wonderful or Pretty Good. This will help you differentiate an actual range of values in your vocabulary. I could suggest more adjectives to you, but that would defeat the process. Really, you must do the work yourself.

Even after you have developed a satisfactory list of new words you may find yourself unable to recall them when engaged conversation. This is normal, like forgetting the name of favorite movie or your mother-in-law. To remedy this, try taping a mini version of your list to the face of your wrist watch. Then, you can appear to be nonchalantly checking the time while you review the possibilities. If you do not wear a wrist watch, and are so inclined, tattooing on the forearm is an acceptable substitute.

Remember, healing takes time. Setting up a five year plan is not unreasonable. If you can decrease your use of the A word by 20 percent each year, you will be in fine fettle as you enter middle age and new words come along. It was a never a goal to completely eliminate this word from the general vocabulary, but like a person who has a problem with alcohol, it is probably best that you abstain completely. Good luck, and may the great Thesaurus be with you.

—Bruce Hiscock


Bruce Hiscock is the author/illustrator of many natural history books for children. His stories, like The Big Rock and The Big Tree, are based on real subjects and contain enough information to enlighten grade school kids as well as adults, at least some adults. These books, among others, have been designated as Outstanding Science Trade Books by the Children’s Book Council. Journeys in the Arctic form the basis of several works, including most recently, Ookpik- the Travels of a Snowy Owl, a finalist for the Charlotte Award of New York State. Over the course of his life, he has worked as a research chemist, toy maker, college professor, and drug tester of race horses. He graduated from the University of Michigan, B.S. 1962, and Cornell University, Ph.D. 1966. Bruce lives in Porter Corners, NY, at the edge of the wild, in a house he built by hand using the native rocks and trees.


May 032012

Isabella Rossellini’s “Noah’s Ark” begins with her asking “How did Noah do it? How did he manage to organize all animals into couples?” The Bible then appears like a children’s pop up book, heralding a campy scientific quest to understand this conflict between the multifaceted forms of copulation in nature and the limiting way Noah – and we perhaps by human extension – might see it through our blinding goggles.

“Seduce Me” continues the work Rossellini did with “Green Porno,” her three season web series produced with The Sundance Channel. Each of the original under-two-minute shorts explores the sexual or mating habits of various creatures. Rossellini spends development time researching the scientific basis of the work and in the later Green Porno films even collaborated with Argentinian scientist Claudio Campagna.

“Noah’s Ark” takes this exploration of creature sexuality a step further by focusing on the tension between the biblical narrative of Noah’s attempt to collect animals two by two and the biological reality of several animals in the world that do not submit to the one-male-one-female logic of Noah’s collection.

This conflict first illustrates how our ideas of sexuality anthropomorphize other creatures, assuming they must pair male and female for procreation the way humans do, a narcissistic turn where we look to the world of animals expecting to find our more heteronormative selves or to differentiate ourselves from animals. Here we dream up what we think is “natural” or what is “civilized.” Even those of us who might find in nature the reassuring example of black swans are playing the same narcissistic game. What does it mean that we seek ourselves in nature? What does it mean when we don’t find ourselves?

In the case of Rossellini’s work, what we have is a rupture, a representation of all we might choose not to see because it doesn’t reflect us back. How can we fathom sexual identity, as it is with the snails, as something decided by where you are in the pile of creatures reproducing? Or maybe our imagination is just limited for lack of effort or experimentation?

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Rossellini is candid about her reasons for telling these stories this way: “I think that if you know how incredibly mysterious and varied and eccentric and strange and fascinating nature is, you hopefully will take care of it. I mean, I hope. I don’t know how to dictate that. But I try to convey my emotion when I see animals, which is that somehow animals strike me as funny. And then also infinitely mysterious and scandalous at times.”

All of the “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me” films use a cartoony, campy paper aesthetic for the creatures, the costumes and the sets. This aesthetic and Rossellini’s willingness to cross dress as various creatures in copulation playfully moves us past our limited perspective on sexuality and into what is hidden or unknown about the animal kingdom’s sexual habits. She de-naturalizes human sexuality. In the face of the many varied ways creatures copulate, the heteronormative missionary position looks boring, a tad unimaginative, and maybe even unnatural. Through Rossellini’s imagination we are invited to laugh at these limitations. A laughter, perhaps, tinged with regret that we don’t have the dating options of the hermaphroditic earthworm, especially one as fetching as Isabella Rossellini.

— R. W. Gray

May 032012

Here’s a terse, compelling little fictional tour de force by Martha Petersen, her first published story. It starts and ends, with practically no context or backfill, in the super-heated Arizona desert at night in July and stays tightly focused on a man and a woman in the cab of a truck, both runaways, both strangers to one another — the man has a gun. Repressed violence, desperation and an aura of intense (but not explicit) eroticism explode off the page. The dialogue is immaculate — obsessive, repetitive, dramatic and full of implication. Wonderful to read.



JONATHAN RAKED HIS FINGERS in the sand, and pushed air out from his chest as hard as he could. He found his t-shirt and wiped his hands off. He stood. The ankle was tender, but he could put a little weight on it. A sprain probably, but there would be no more running tonight.

A pickup shot by him and up the road a little way. The brake lights came on, it screeched to the side off the asphalt, then circled around and came back toward him. Someone inside put on the blinker, crossed the center line and turned back around. The truck skidded to a stop just ahead of him.

Jonathan felt inside his pocket and found his gun. He pulled it out and wrapped his t-shirt around it. He limped toward the pickup, fingers on the gun, ready for anything. The passenger window was down. Accordion music was playing.

“Are you getting in or what?”

Jonathan stopped still. If it had been any other kind of person, he would have climbed right in. But it was a girl’s voice.

He leaned in the window. “Just a phone. You got a phone? I need to make a call.”

“A dead one, that’s it,” she said.

He thought about things for a minute, but there was no other choice. There was no other way to get where he was going. “I’m going to Henderson,” he said. He opened the door and pulled himself into the truck. The ceiling light was dim, but Jonathan could tell that this girl belonged anywhere else but out here in the cactus and dust, at night and in the middle of the Nevada desert. She had light hair pasted to her cheeks, a delicate curve to her jaw and chin, a thin neck. The cap she wore shadowed her eyes and most of her face.

Jonathan placed his t-shirt, with the pistol inside, on the floor between his feet. He was suddenly aware of what he must look like, filthy, smelly, shirtless. He sucked in his stomach. His legs stuck against the vinyl seat. “Too damn hot,” he said.

“It’s July,” the girl said. She let off the clutch and the pickup lurched and then caught, and jerked out onto the highway. Jonathan watched in the rearview mirror at the road behind them. It looked the same as the road ahead. The desert was like that, letting you think you were getting somewhere, when really you were always staying in the same place.

The girl flipped the station from the accordion music, to pop music that had been popular when Jonathan was young, to someone talking in Spanish. She stopped it there. “Nothing on out here,” she said.

“When we get to Henderson, just drop me anywhere,” Jonathan said, over the wind and the radio.

“I’m not going to Henderson,” she said back. “I’m driving by.” She sipped on a Coke through a straw. “Want a drink? You look thirsty.”

Jonathan picked up the cup and pinched the lid to take it off.

“Don’t worry about that,” the girl said. “Drink from the straw. It’s all right. Go ahead.”

He did what she said. He sucked it down. The soda was warm and watery, and it burned his throat, and there was nothing in the world Jonathan wanted more. He pulled off the lid and gulped, spilling some of it on his chest. He emptied it all the way to the bottom, then placed the cup back in the holder.

“Sorry, it’s gone,” he said. “I spilled it.”

The girl had a package of candy worms on the seat next to her. She picked one up and put it between her lips and sucked on it. It slipped into her mouth. “What’s your name anyway?” she said through pieces of gummy worm.

Jonathan shifted in his seat, pushed on his ankle, which made him wince. “I’m Jake. My name’s Jake. Where is it you said you’re going?”

“I’m running away, Jake.” The girl slurped down another worm. She drifted off to the right, then pulled the wheel over and bumped along the center line. When she’d straightened out, she said, “You won’t tell anyone, right?”

Jonathan grabbed onto a handle above his window. “How about letting me drive?”

“It’s all right, Jake. Where I’m from it’s hotter than here. In Wellton it’s more than a hundred degrees at night.”

“I’ve never heard of the place.” Jonathan felt his ankle swelling. He needed ice and a stretchy bandage. His needed to wash his hands, to get the dirt out of the cuts. “You like it there?”

“I guess it’s nice if you like dirt and sweat. That’s about all there is there, that and lettuce farms in the winter. That’s why I’m running away. I don’t like lettuce.”

They were flying by sand hills. The black land spread all around them and the glow off the road looked like slick oil. Both the windows were open, and a hot, dirty breeze blew in. Jonathan wondered what Laurie was doing now, whether she was sleeping or had called the police. She imagined them finding his car on the side of the road, calling it in, coming after him. He had to get to Henderson.

Jonathan twitched the foot that didn’t hurt. “You can drop me at the next gas station. There’s a few coming up soon I think. They’re everywhere. I’m sure there’s one coming up.” Jonathan scanned the road ahead, but there was nothing. The only lights that blinked through the dust were the moon and the stars.

The last sign he’d seen said Henderson 210. That was before his car broke down. By his best guess, they had another 130 miles or so left to go. Less than that for a gas station. The girl kept speeding up, then slowing down, like she hadn’t figured out how to keep her foot steady on the gas pedal. “It’s 55 here,” Jonathan said. “It’s not the interstate here. Over there it’s 75, but not here. Pull over and I’ll drive.”

“That’s all right, Jake. I’ve got it. I’ve got my boyfriend in Reno, and after I get him we’re going to California, all the way down the Pacific Highway.”

The blared Spanish. Three people on there now, and sounds in the background like gongs. “Do you understand this stuff?” Jonathan pointed at the radio.

“What stuff?”


“Do I look like I speak Spanish?” One of the girl’s straps slipped down her small and white shoulder. The lights from the dash outlined the curve of her collarbone.

The girl drove to the side, across the line. She braked to a hard stop. “I got to pee,” she said. “Don’t look.” She took the keys with her.

He opened his door and pulled himself out. In the distance he saw, just barely, an orange glow. Henderson. His friend. A place to rest.

“Don’t look!” the girl called from behind a cactus.

Jonathan put a little weight on his ankle. The pain exploded up his leg. He couldn’t drive, even if he got the keys. This stick shift took two feet, which he didn’t have.

She was done, and she walked back to the truck, zipping her shorts.

Jonathan pulled himself back in. “I’ll drive,” he said.

“Aww, Jake, that’s all right. I’m not allowed to let other people drive the truck.” She rattled the keys in her hand. They both sat there, not moving.

Jonathan felt very thirsty. His leg throbbed.

“Did you look?” she asked.

“Let’s go. Please. I’ve got people in Henderson to help me. I need to get to a phone. See, I hurt myself.”

“You wanted to look, didn’t you?” The girl flipped her cap onto the dashboard. The keys were still in her hand.

“What’s your name again?” he asked.

“I can’t tell you, Jake, because then you might tell someone that I’m running away. Back in Wellton, there’s things going on that shouldn’t be. So this morning, I took these keys here, and now I’ve left that place forever.” She brought out some lip balm that smelled like bubble gum. “After I get my boyfriend in Reno, me and him are going to go down the Pacific Highway. Did I say that Jake?  We’ll go down it, then we’ll stop in Chula Vista. Or maybe Tijuana. Want some?” She held out the lip balm.

Jonathan said no thanks.

“You ever been to Tijuana? Where I’m from is pretty close to there, so you’d think I would’ve been. But nope. This is the first time. We’re going to live on the beach. What do you think about that, Jake?”

The girl scooted toward him, turned her face up. The moon was at the top of the sky, and he could see her full face. She was younger than he’d thought. She might have been fourteen years old. She was not attractive. Her eyes were outlined in black, and her face was hawkish, in the way skinny girls’ faces are of that age. The straps of her shirt had slid down both her shoulders. If Jonathan looked, he could’ve seen straight down her chest. She was small and lost, and Jonathan could do whatever he chose with her.

He thought about his wife and what he’d done. His ankle was most likely broken, he was sure of that now, out in the middle of this desert, and he didn’t know what to do. His eyes watered.

“Please,” he said. “Just drive. See up there? That’s where I need to go. And when you drop me off, you need to turn right around and go home.”

She started the truck and they jerked forward, back onto the road. The lights ahead burned the atmosphere. It was because they were getting close that Jonathan decided to put his shirt on. He grabbed his t-shirt from the floor, and the pistol, which he’d nearly forgotten about, dropped in his lap. He snatched it up quickly.

The girl was driving fast, and when she saw the gun, she jerked the wheel and threw both her hands up. She screamed out Jesus’ name. The back of the pickup yanked to the side, pushed itself out in front, and then they were hurtling toward cholla with those needles, which shone like silver hypodermics. He wondered if the police would put it all together once they found the pickup with him inside. They’d tell his wife he was just another one of those guys who’d found a girl to run away with. Just before they rolled the first time, Jonathan watched the lights of Henderson pass across the windshield and thought how beautiful they were, a halo of orange against the blue night.

— Martha Petersen


Martha Petersen lives in Tucson with her husband and four children. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Summa Cum Laude, in creative writing and is currently attending Vermont College of Fine Arts as a graduate student in fiction. She plays classical piano and, over the years, has had a series of jobs including graphic artist and accountant and many others. “The Lights of Henderson” is her first publication.

May 012012

I first heard Jordan Smith read poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980 (or thereabouts) when we were both students in the MFA program. He was one of the poetry stars, at that time writing a series of poems on historical themes — yes, they were that striking, I still remember them (when I don’t remember much else). He went on to teach at Union College in Schenectady, win fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and publish six books of poetry including An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press) and Lucky Seven (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book, just out, is The Light in the Film  (University of Tampa Press).  It’s an immense pleasure to publish on these pages five new poems by Jordan Smith — beautiful dense poems that jam words and thoughts and quotations together, halt and reverse the vectors of meaning, and exude a light autumnal air of loss and fatality wrapped now and then in a sly bit of humor.

……The cemetery deed from the Twenties
Was filed neatly with my father’s will, signed
By his father’s father. I go to prepare a place,
The pastor read. Her black coat swirled. Dirt
In a wedge on my thumb. No frost on the flowers yet,
The caretaker said, though it’s so late. I shook
His hand. Come back, he said, now that you’ve been.

The photo of Jordan and Malie Smith above was taken by Evan Smith.



A Poster of Steve Earle in Lerwick
— for Hugh Jenkins

In a grocery store window. The rain drives straight down
The glass, and no one’s on the glazed stone streets.  I buy
A couple of sweaters I couldn’t get anywhere else,
And a meal I could, and in the Shetland Times Bookstore
A Penguin edition of a saga about the earls of places like this.
It was brutal for years, the croft families scraping potatoes
Or barley from a little storm-raked soil, the men gone for months
In the sixareens for the offshore fishing, then salting
The catch to pay the laird his tax on a house that wasn’t theirs
In perpetuity and by divine right a bailiff enforced, so of course
It’s beautiful, this place people fled so as not to wreck themselves
In labor, and to sing of it you’d need a voice that calls
Us home, all of us, and not like sheep at shearing time, and not
To dwell on a cliff edge that was a mountain once, an earth
That was an earth, before history’s mantra of theft took another
Turn, and left us well enough alone, a tuft of wool on a stone fence.



Reading Another Swedish Mystery
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun…
                        — Tomas Transtromer, After a Death

We can go on skis. The body is always a little further
Than the snow, wandering a little further than sight. The snow
Is a cliff’s edge, the sound of skis a stalking. The detective
Drives a fine car, a necessary car though the suburbs,
Through the security of the state. He knows what we were promised,
How little we understand, how we undervalue it. He knows
Too little, too little for now. And somewhere, don’t ask yet,
The killer watches a dvd, or perhaps records one, a kind
Of documentarian. Is it cause or effect; is it ritual or enactment?
A grouse drums. The detective drums on his steering wheel.
In the intervals, consciousness seeks its level. Plumb and centered,
The man with the knife clicks Record.



Mr. Berryman in Ireland

The pictures in that Time-Life photo shoot,
Serious, kindly listening in the pub, the wild
Love of it, gestures rendering reason moot,
Embraces, his daughter helped through the stile
In the sheep fence and over wood and stone,
Such self-approving joy. For which, atone,

Atone. In the ruined chapel on Inish More
I built a little cairn upon the altar
As others had, as if I’d no more quarrels
With god or stone or self, as if I’d faltered
Happily into repentance, caught in the cant
Of going in fear of getting what I want.

The worst, he said, is the best gift.
On the Galway train, I want this calm of post-
Post-confessional, post-sabbatical thrift
Of heart, a solitary pint, a toast
To no one much. He interrupts. His songs,
Unquiet, grave brief lives. Art’s long.



On the Suicides at the NY/Canada Border

Yes, they step in the same river twice.
They present their bad passports, their reasons, their distracted evasions.
No, they will not be staying long, they tell the customs agents.
There are a thousand islands where they might reconsider,
Some with ruined castles, some with cabins that might have cramped Thoreau.
They stumble at the questions about age and destination. They swear allegiance
Too easily to our anger and our pity; they profess to honor
The deserters from the unjust war. They’ve had enough of fighting.
They imagine a city of bistros, accordions, tables on the sidewalks,
But it is under snow. They are safe. No tourist will mistake them for a compatriot.
In the bar, the old violinist plays a song that’s not sad enough,
And they share his panic as the notes fall off pitch. His fingers are stiff;
They share his suffering. They forgive his dissonance.
They forgive the fog, the geese that pass so loudly overhead.
They are in a position to forgive all imperfection, all transience, to forgive even us,
Burdened with our snapshots and souvenirs, who will not join them,
Not yet, at the café of good intentions and unmeant consequences
Where they have fallen—is it sleep?—into and despite of our sorrow.



The Burial of the Dead

The caretaker said there were five places left
In the family plot. My wife and I traded glances:
That’s one problem solved for our heirs and assignees.
A few minutes later I was kneeling, dirt caught
On my jacket sleeve and watchband as I placed
The urns, my mother’s, my father’s, in one grave.
It was windy now; October. The pastor read
Her sure and certain. What more could there be?
What solemn music? In high school band I played
William Byrd’s The Burial of the Dead. Sonorous,
And sad, and simple and tricky to make it so, not
Just the usual baroque complications.  The drive
From the interstate was all uphill on smaller
And smaller roads. My youngest son put a flower
On the grave; no one told him to. He knew.
The strife is o’er, the battle won. On every side,
Millers, Launts, Chamberlains, St. Johns. Kin.
No one told me to feel at home or offered a hand.
Not yet. The cemetery deed from the Twenties
Was filed neatly with my father’s will, signed
By his father’s father. I go to prepare a place,
The pastor read. Her black coat swirled. Dirt
In a wedge on my thumb. No frost on the flowers yet,
The caretaker said, though it’s so late. I shook
His hand. Come back, he said, now that you’ve been.

— Jordan Smith

Jordan Smith’s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” will be in the forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

May 012012

Mateo 5


I live halfway between the Road of the Kings and the Avenue of the Fleas in San Mateo, California.  Situated on a peninsula seventeen miles south of San Francisco, San Mateo isn’t a young town at all—it was settled by the Spanish long before many other places in America.  In 1776 Captain Juan Bautista de Anza came from Spain searching for the inlet to the San Francisco Bay; for nearly 200 years it had remained hidden to European explorers sailing up and down the Pacific coast in summer fog.  Anza and his scouting party camped here along a river, naming it San Mateo (after Saint Matthew, the Jewish tax collector-turned-apostle who later spread the word of God in far-flung nations). Anza befriended the native Ohlone Indians living here.

“I found in our camp nearly all the men of the village, very friendly, content, and joyful, putting themselves out to serve us in every way, a circumstance which I have noted in all the natives seen [in California] up to now.” —Captain Juan Bautista de Anza’s Journal, March 29, 1776.

San Mateo1California State Registered Historical Landmark No. 47, DeAnza Camp. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

My neighborhood, just two blocks from that original Anza camp, would no longer be recognizable to those early Spanish settlers or Ohlone Indians.  What was once a hilly serpentine grassland dappled with stately oak and bay laurel trees, is now organized into wide streets named after Spanish locales (Castillian, Sevilla, Avila, Aragon) and prestigious eastern colleges (Harvard, Cornell, Fordham).  The grizzly bear, elk, and pronghorn antelope no longer roam, the wide-open space covered with rows of Spanish and Mexican revival houses.  The oaks and their meaty acorns, once prized by the Ohlone, now feed only the black squirrels skittering between the yards.  The San Mateo Creek where Anza made camp is no longer wide and flowing with salmon and trout, but slowed and stunted by a large dam three miles upstream.  The dam holds back the water from the Crystal Springs Reservoir filled with Yosemite snowmelt delivered via a sophisticated system of pipes originating 176 miles to the east.

Crystal SpringsCrystal Springs Reservoir at low level. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

The front yards in my neighborhood aren’t fussy or fancy but welcoming. Small green lawns are edged symmetrically and blown neat.  Plenty of perfectly placed native grasses sit alongside drought-tolerant plants such as yucca palm, flowering sage, rosemary, and fruit trees (lemon, orange, fig) designed to look as casual and natural as California itself.

casa1Spanish and Mexican influences in San Mateo. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

I find the people here in San Mateo friendly and open, much like Anza found the Ohlone back in 1776.  Perhaps it’s because of the mild climate, warm sunshine and blue sky.  Or maybe it’s the boundless ocean nearby, 12 miles west over the ridge.  Or the delicious evening fog that rolls in at night; nobody has air conditioning—we just open our windows.  Whatever the reason, the town exudes a convivial energy.  Neighbors smile and wave and take in my trashcan without asking.  They put my paper on our porch and ask about my day.  I often find myself on the sidewalk long after the sun goes down chatting with neighbors while the kids kick balls in the middle of the street.  San Mateo has a trusting sort of warmth that doesn’t require years to earn.

I like to think the Ohlone spirits inhabit us, teach us how to live, appreciate our land and each other.  I imagine their bones scattered deep beneath my home. I imagine them wandering the hills in the midnight fog wraithlike, their pacific whisperings coming through my window as a sea breeze as I sleep.  But then I also imagine the ghosts of the Spanish buried alongside the Ohlone and figure they have something to say, too.  And I wonder how much of our culture is simply a lingering imprint of those who came before.

“Indian Maidens” at the San Mateo post office. Relief sculpture carved in wood by Zygmund Sazevitch, 1935 Treasury Relief Art Project. Photo credit: Wendy Voorsanger

To outsiders, San Mateo might seem like an irritatingly superficial, “laid back” place.  I’ll admit, I enjoy my superficial pleasantries, not always taking the time to dig beyond surface connections with people.  And I do often hang out in nature; our Bay Ridge and Peninsula open space district encompasses over 60,000 acres in 26 wilderness preserves.  But most people in San Mateo don’t really fit into that familiar “laid back” Californian caricature.  Being relaxed is just an image we carefully cultivated, consciously or subconsciously.  In fact, on the contrary, San Mateo is a diverse mix of locals and transplants from around the country (and the world), mixed together into an insanely intense stew of over-achievers and perfectionists.


 A Reconstitution

I grew up in Sacramento and came to the Bay Area twenty-five years ago looking for opportunity among the numerous Silicon Valley start-ups.  I clung to the culture of achievement here because of my deep-seated need to repair the fabric fraying around me growing up amidst the crazy 1970’s California counter-culture of dissolving structures (family and society), mind-altering substances, and latch-key responsibilities.  My plan was to do better than my parents, harness all that freedom and possibility, not squander it.  Perhaps others came here to escape the confining strictures and suffocating class-based impediments in the places they left. In San Mateo we all seem to be trying to build and rebuild our lives into something more meaningful through intense work, innovation, over-achievement.

Here in San Mateo, it doesn’t matter where you come from.  What matters here are your ideas.  Your intelligence.  Your work ethic. What do you bring to the table?  What is your value add?  Did you start a company?  Launch an IPO? Get your PHD?  Fund a mind-blowing technology? Volunteer with an indigenous tribe in a remote location?  Invent a life-saving drug?  Run a marathon?  Start a non-profit?  Living in San Mateo offers an extraordinary geographical opportunity for innovation—it’s equidistant between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.  We’re ideally situated to work in any one of the high-tech companies nearby (Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Yelp, Pixar, Yahoo, Genentech, Apple, etc.) or in other industries that serve the technology industry like venture capital and merger and acquisition law.


Our Statistics

According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the area has:

    • The highest economic productivity in the nation—almost twice the U.S. average
    • The most highly educated workforce in the nation, with the highest percentage of residents with graduate and professional degrees
    • The nation’s largest concentration of national laboratories, corporate and independent research laboratories, and leading research universities
    • The largest number of top-ten ranked graduate programs in business, law, medicine and engineering in the nation
    • The highest density of venture capital firms in the world
    • The most technology Fortune 500 companies
    • The highest internet penetration of any U.S. region
    • The highest level of patent generation in the nation, with more patents generated per employee than any other major metropolitan area.


 Living In a Culture on Steroids

To me, living in San Mateo feels like living in an achievement culture on steroids.  There’s a drive for perfection, or a drive to get as close to it as possible.  It’s the common denominator among us—this drive for perfection—whether or not we admit it to ourselves.  Or to each other.

Our local schools offer parent education lectures entitled: “Inspiring Innovating Thinkers,” “Sports Parenting: Inspiring a Win-Win Attitude,” “Resilience and Optimism in Your Child,” and “The Art of Imperfect Parenting.”  Moms and Dads attend these lectures equally.  We read books like Making Marriage Meaningful and The Secrets to a Dynamic and Fulfilling Marriage to ensure that we don’t fall short like our parents.  We’re trying to become our better selves.  We’re striving for perfection, while juggling parenting, marriages, and careers.  When we blunder, we call it “a learning opportunity.”

San Mateo is a town catering to people who live healthy; there are six gyms and four yoga studios within a four-block radius from my house offering yoga, the Bar Method, Pilates, Zumba, Interval Cycling and Skinny Jeans classes.  There’s also Junior Gym to get the little ones started early.  Here in San Mateo, we hike, run, swim, road bike, mountain bike, kite board, paddleboard, and surf.  We complete marathons and 48-hour team relays for charity.  We drink SuperFood, do seasonal cleanses, cut out carbs, and eat organic goji berries, flax seed, and dried seaweed.  Most people I know don’t spend hours on the golf course each weekend talking business over scotch (too old-school exclusive and slow).  Instead, after hours networking is done while biking up Crystal Springs Road in tight pelotons on custom bikes wearing coordinated bibs and jerseys; cyclists then track and compare achievements (route, distance, speed, elevation, power, time) using a Strava iPhone APP and celebrating their King of the Mountain (KOM) wins with Racer 5 microbrews.

ConradCraig Chinn and Conrad Voorsanger chat in the neighborhood before a ride. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

Our children are swept up into the achievement culture around them. They play soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and volleyball.  They fence, rock climb, dance, swim and dive.  They play the trumpet, harp, guitar, and drums. They sing and attend chess club, art class, and robotics clubs.  They learn Mandarin, Spanish, and French. They take extra classes outside of school in math and writing at places like Kumon, Sylvan, The Reading Clinic, Academic Springboard and The Tutoring Center.  They enter in math competitions, spelling bees, geography bees, and science fairs.  They’ve mastered all things computer science and gadget-related, and have moved on to App programming and hacking.  We keep them on task with family-coordinated online calendars updated from our Smartphones.

We’re obsessively concerned about the environment, driving hybrid cars and using canvas bags at the grocery store.  We walk, ride bikes, and use the carpool lane or public transit (CalTrain or Bart).  We conserve water, use compact fluorescent light bulbs; incandescents will be illegal in California by 2013.  We recycle and compost nearly everything with a sophisticated stream recycling system.  Everyone has three garbage cans: green for compost, blue for all recyclables, black for trash.  The black can is seldom full.


A Haunting Echo

It feels as if we’re all striving to create a New World utopia in San Mateo, much like the Spanish missionaries did two hundred years ago.  Perhaps that’s the long-dead Spanish influencing us from beyond; their zealous drive a haunting echo from the past.

Father Junipero Serra followed Anza, with the hopes of building a perfect utopian society.  He and his padres worked fervently (using Ohlone slave labor) to create a network of 21 missions exactly one-day walk apart along El Camino Real (the Road of the Kings).  Serra was an exacting and determined perfectionist, much like the people in San Mateo today. But, most people here aren’t looking for Serra’s pietistic existence. We’re on a fast-paced, never-ending quest for a particular type of utopia that takes our constitutional “pursuit of happiness” literally.  We’re pursuing that right with intense fervor, all the while portraying the cool substance of a calm demeanor.


Defining Diversity

San Mateo is a multi-cultural and socio-economically diverse town that’s walkable and welcoming.  People talk to each other the street.  Many languages are heard: Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi.  Flower boxes with impatiens dangle from light posts.  Public benches with matching iron trashcans are evenly spaced along the sidewalks. Littering is a misdemeanor in San Mateo, punishable by a $1000 fine.

There’s an impressive collection of restaurants: Mexican cantinas, Korean noodle houses, Irish pubs, Italian eateries, and Brazilian Steakhouses.  There are countless Sushi and Chinese restaurants, Indian buffets, all-American diners, healthy cafes, coffee stores, and juice bars.  Draegers Grocery has organic fruits and vegetables, free-range meat, and sustainable fish.  There’s also a Japanese Grocery (Suruki Supermarket) and several Mexican Markets (Market Fiesta Latina, El Azteca Market, and El Faro’s Mexican).

There are more Mexican restaurants in San Mateo than any other; Spanish tapas or native Ohlone fare (acorn bread, deer, mussels, fish) aren’t found anywhere.  Perhaps this reflects the Mexican victory of independence from Spain in 1822, when Mexican Generals set about secularizing the California missions and distributing large land grants throughout California.

So what of the Mexican influence in San Mateo?  It extends beyond margaritas and enchiladas to the rich Mexican heritage of industrious land labor (cattle ranching, tanning, logging). In addition, historian Robert Glass Cleland said of the Mexican Californians (Californios) in 1833: “They are free from the pressure of economic competition, ignorant of the wretchedness and poverty indigenous to other lands, amply supplied with the means of satisfying their simple wants, devoted to the grand and primary business of the enjoyment of life, they enjoyed a pastoral, almost Arcadian existence.”

MuralUntitled glass tesserae mosaic on exterior Bank of America building in San Mateo; Louis Macouillard, designer and Alfonso Pardiñas mosaicist (Five mosaic panels 25 ft. high, approx. 90’ across).

The Mexican culture also introduced liberalized divorce, custody, and property laws for women in California long before the rest of America recognized gender equality.  In fact, in 1844 one of the largest ranchos on the Peninsula (4400 acres) was run by a Mexican woman named Juana Briones.  Juana fled her drunken husband in San Francisco with her eight children to buy her own ranch on the Peninsula, where she began raising cattle and farming. Historical accounts say she prospered, acquiring five other ranches over her lifetime and living a fulfilled existence with her large family around her.

As a native Californian, I can’t help but see Juana as some sort of standard-bearer I should emulate.  After all, she seemed to find opportunity and achieve happiness, all while juggling the pressures of a demanding career and raising children.  Living in San Mateo, I feel as if Juana’s endowment fills me like a deep, resonant well of possibility.  Perhaps her lasting legacy is stored inside me, simply because I live here.


At the Center

America took control of California upon winning the Mexican-American war in 1847 and broke up (“redistributing”) the large Mexican ranches.  This slice of history is seen in Central Park, 16-acres bordering the north part of San Mateo.  The oaks and bay trees have stood here since the Ohlone, but the pine, cedar, redwood, and fig trees were planted for the estate of Charles. B. Polhemus, director of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad.  Polhemus grabbed the land from the Mexicans, and built a grand estate where Central Park now sits, with a 13-room Victorian mansion and lush landscaping.  He later sold the estate to a sea captain named William Kohl, who then passed the property on to the city of San Mateo in 1922.  The mansion was torn down long ago, replaced by a large circular grassy area in the center of the park.  It’s a vibrant public space where the whole town congregates: parents bring small children to romp in the playground and ride the miniature train for a dollar, older kids around on bicycles and skateboards, seniors practice Tai Chi under the shade of a pine tree. A drummer sits on a bench thumping out a mesmerizing, visceral beat.  There are also a baseball field, tennis courts, a community center, rose garden, and formal Japanese tea garden with a granite pagoda, koi pond and bamboo grove.

Mateo4“Library Lane” mural depicting American expansion in San Mateo, by muralist, Norine Nicolson, 1989.

The black squirrels live here in Central Park too, fed by older folks who come for daily walks with nuts stuffed in their pockets. There are no more quail or great horned owls as in the days of the Ohlone.  They’ve diminished in numbers and headed up to the ridge with the falcons and condors, but there are still plenty of finches, doves, warblers, and jays to liven up the park with song.  Lining the park are several senior apartments, upscale and subsidized side by side.

Two blocks east of the park—across the train tracks—men eager for work gather on street corners hoping for day labor.  No one asks for documentation.  Sometimes the men congregate in the parking lot of the Worker’s Resource Center where a County Mobile Health Van offers free health assistance.


The Strong Current of History

Sometimes living amidst all this sunshine and happiness can be difficult, the pressure and pace crushing, the competition daunting.  Opportunity isn’t ubiquitous, and luck is often elusive.  Amongst the intense rush, the quiet contemplation and reflection that our forebears enjoyed is often fleeting.  When I catch a slow moment, not originating from evaluation and measurement or leading toward any admirable achievement and success, I think of those who came before and how deeply they influence what it’s like living here.  Walking along San Mateo Creek, I think of the Ohlone catching fish.  Sitting on the patio listening to my son playing a malaguena on his guitar, I think of the Spaniards.  Watching a hummingbird from my window suck on lemon blossoms, I think of the Mexicans who brought those trees here. I delight in these simple moments, circling around like an eddy in a river, slowing me into a reflection of swirls and ripples and the glassy texture of the water itself.  Then the strong history of my town grabs hold and pulls me along once again, throwing me like a pebble into the single fast moving cultural current that is San Mateo.

— Wendy Voorsanger


Wendy Voorsanger is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a shadow contributor to NC, writing on the arts and creating art (see her gorgeous Burning Man novel skin) without actually appearing on the masthead. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and children and is at work on a historical novel about California.

See also our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays, a staple of the NC economy.