Oct 192012

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Casper David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Contributing Editor Pat Keane goes from strength to strength; sometimes I feel that inviting him to write for NC I unleashed one of those Platonic demons — a torrent of thought, word, reference, and wit has erupted. This time he has outdone himself — “Mountain Visions and Imaginative Usurpations” is my favourite of his essays so far. He begins with Columbus sighting America but only uses that as an occasion, as a peg upon which to weave a gorgeous meditation on mountains, mountains in literature, sublimity, and poetry. Pat has more than a way with words and the gift of intelligence; he has vast reading and an astonishing memory — he seems to live in a house of words (in his mind), reaching this quotation and that off the shelf at will. Focused primarily on Wordsworth’s The Prelude, the essay leaps also from Petrarch (climbing a mountain) to Augustine, to Keats, to Yeats (“Lapis Lazuli” — see image below), to Emerson, to Kant and Nietzsche, and every reference is cited with intimate familiarity as if the author’s mind and the culture of ideas have somehow melded (think Vulcan mind-meld). Such feats are a deep pleasure in the reading. Hell, I am editing and publishing this AND I keep taking notes on the side for myself.





This essay was completed on the first day of October, 2012. Five hundred and twenty years ago almost to the day, a man saw something, a kind of vision. “About 10 o’clock at night, while standing on the sterncastle, I thought I saw a light to the west. It looked like a little wax candle bobbing up and down….The moon, in its third quarter, rose in the east shortly before midnight…. Then, two hours after midnight, the Pinta fired a cannon, my prearranged signal for the sighting of land. I now believe that the light I saw earlier was a sign from God and that it was truly the first positive indication of land.” The flash of light Christopher Columbus saw from the sterncastle of the Santa Maria on the night of October 11, 1492, transformed human history, mostly if not always for good. Even for those of us open to the ideal vision of America as a City on a Hill, or as earth’s last best hope, there are moments when mindless chants of “USA! USA!,” accompanied by an increasingly jingoistic insistence on American “exceptionalism,” make us appreciate, if not quite endorse, Mark Twain’s sardonic entry for the traditional date in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar: “THE DISCOVERY. It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been even more wonderful to miss it.”

Columbus’s Diario or log reveals a man of single-minded intensity, though hardly one with the elevated perspective marking the genuine visionary. I’m interested on this occasion in what I’m calling mountain vision; and, symbolically speaking, Columbus’s shipboard tower or sterncastle simply wasn’t high enough. He took the Bahamas for China and Cuba for Japan, and can hardly be said (anymore than the Norsemen 500 years earlier) to have “discovered” a world populated for millennia by native peoples, for whom Columbus’s voyage proved to be anything but a “sign from God”—emerging, instead, as a negative form of what William Wordsworth, describing the relation between the physical sight of mountains and the transforming power of imagination, termed “usurpation.”

And yet, in the full sense of the word, it was obviously “wonderful” to find America. The European Renaissance, an exciting Age of Exploration and Discovery, had a kind of rebirth in the Romantic period, which in many ways replicated that earlier explosion of science, exploration, and wonder-struck literature. The title of Richard Holmes’s splendid 2008 book seems inevitable: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The discoveries discussed by Holmes—by men like Joseph Banks, William Herschel, and Humphry Davy—were, of course, anticipated by the discoveries of such Renaissance and post-Renaissance men as Robert Hooke, Andreas Vesalius, and Isaac Newton. As if to confirm the link between the two Ages, Wordsworth added some lines to the epic poem that would be posthumously published as The Prelude. Recalling the statue of Newton at Cambridge, “with his prism and his silent face,” the poet paid tribute to the range of Newton’s extraordinary and solitary genius: “The marble index of a mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone” (III.62-63).

Wordsworth added those magnificent lines in 1838. In October, 1816, a younger Romantic poet, John Keats, evoked an adventurous quest for knowledge resembling that attributed by Wordsworth to Newton, and also connecting Romantic-era science with the age of European Discovery. Writing more than three centuries after Columbus, the young Keats unforgettably recaptured that initial sense of wondrous exploration and revelation. In the octave of his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats depicts himself as an explorer of “goodly states” and islands dedicated to the god of poetry. But for a young reader ignorant of Greek a vast continent or ocean lay unexplored:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
………..And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
………..Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
………..That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
………..Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.

Seeking analogues to express the sense of unexpected discovery he experienced on first reading Homer in the vigorous Elizabethan translation of George Chapman, Keats, in the sestet, deploys ocular images, astronomical and exploratory, of sudden revelation, stunned vision. He begins by evoking the discovery in 1781 of the planet Uranus by William Herschel, about which Keats had read in a book given him as a school prize: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken…”

But his second and clinching simile reflects his reading about geographical discovery in the Americas. Keats may, like Columbus, have been mistaken in details—it was not Cortez but Balboa who looked out upon the unexpected Pacific from the mountain at the Isthmus of Panama. But no one has better captured the awestruck moment of mountain vision, of revelation from the heights. Keats envisions the heroic conquistadore,

…………………….when with eagle eyes
…………..He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
…………..Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Poetic technique and form alone cannot account for that breakthrough into the Sublime—the assonance, alliteration, and double caesura that produce that final catch-in-the-breath moment, with its attendant sense of monumental tranquility. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate that Keats should cast his revelation in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet (rhymed abbaabba cdcdcd). The Italian Renaissance humanist, poet, and scholar Francesco Petrarca not only established an enduring form for the sonnet; he may be said to have initiated the modern sense of mountain vision. Keats depicts the discoverer and his men atop Mount Darien, that peak on the Isthmus of Panama. On April 26, 1336, Petrarch and his brother climbed a 6,000 foot peak, Mount Ventoux. His “only motive” for making “the ascent of the highest mountain in the region,” he writes a friend, “was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.” In his letter he describes the ascent in realistic detail. Unlike his brother, Petrarch tried easier, more circuitous paths up the mountain before realizing that, ultimately, he had to face the difficult ordeal of a tough vertical climb. Suspended between Medieval allegory, Renaissance symbolism, and the sheer exertion and exhilaration of the climb and the final prospect from the heights, Petrarch gives us a version of the old dialogue between body and soul, flesh and spirit, the outer and the inner worlds. In short, the climb, as literary as it is actual, is a spiritual as well as a physical ascent; and in describing it the great humanist pays no less tribute to the classical writers of pagan antiquity than he does to Christian saints.

Appropriately, however, since the friend to whom he wrote this letter was an Augustinian monk, Petrarch emphasizes Saint Augustine, a small-sized codex copy of whose Confessions, given him by his friend, he took with him on his ascent. Once atop the mountain, Petrarch took out the book and, he swears, opened the text (as Augustine himself famously had, turning at random to Romans XIII.13:13-14, at the moment of his conversion) to a revelatory passage. The words Petrarch opened to occur at Confessions, X. viii. 15: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” Brooding on Augustine, Petrarch “thought in silence” of we who “neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within.” Clinching the analogy between his initially meandering route up the mountain and his final direct ascent, Petrarch ends his paysage moralisé by requesting his friend’s prayer that “these vague and wandering thoughts of mine may sometime become firmly fixed, and, after having been vainly tossed about from one interest to another, may direct themselves at last toward the single, true, certain, and everlasting good.” (Letter to Dionysio da Borga San Sepolcro)



For more than four centuries, for reasons elaborated in Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959), the human view from and of mountains, thought to be deformed expressions of God’s wrath, was largely eclipsed in Western literature. Perhaps recalling Moses on Sinai, John Milton has several supernatural “mountain” scenes in Paradise Lost. In Book V, his archangel Raphael, describing at Adam’s request the revolt in heaven, depicts “the Father infinite,” together with his Son, announcing his decision to appoint that Son Lord and vice-regent, “as from a flaming mount, whose top/ Brightness had made invisible.” This luminous eminence is echoed later in Book V, when Raphael envisions a third of the angelic host approaching Lucifer-Satan on his “royal seat/ High on a hill, far blazing, as a mount/ Rais’d on a mount,” with the chief of the rebelling angels “Affecting all equality with God,/ In imitation of that mount whereon/ Messiah was declar’d in sight of heaven” (V.596-99, 756-58, 764-65). Still later, in the final Book, Milton’s angel Michael, a “seer blest,” reveals the far future to fallen Adam from a height, assuring him as they descend that, thanks to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, the Eden lost by Adam and Eve despite Raphael’s warning will be replaced by a “paradise within thee, happier far” (XIV..587).

Benjamin Robert Hayden’s 1842 portrait of Wordsworth (then 72), posed against Helvellyn Peak, a Lake District mountain (the third highest in England) often climbed by the poet). The painting was inspired by a Wordsworth sonnet commemorating one such climb.

This seems a version of the Petrarchan quest for “what is to be found only within.” But it took Milton’s great heir, William Wordsworth, to return poetry to human heights and to secularly redeem the false sense of “divinity within,” an autonomous instinct that proved lethal to Adam and Eve (Paradise Lost IX. 1010), but which defines the creative Imagination for poets in the Romantic tradition. Naturalizing supernaturalism, and fusing the power of Milton, and of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant on the Beautiful and the Sublime, with his own climbing experiences in the mountainous Lake District of England, in Wales, and in the French Alps, Wordsworth gives us, at two climactic moments of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude, unforgettable examples of mountain vision.

Those symbolic moments (in Books VI and XIV) are foreshadowed in the opening Book. Dramatizing the fair seed-time in which he “grew up/Fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” Wordsworth describes, among his boyish sports, stealing birds’ eggs from mountain nests. Though the object was “mean,” the outcome “was not ignoble.” In a terrifying but thrilling moment of enhanced sensory apprehension, the solitary climber, hung perilously on the cliff, is caught up in that sublime “motion” that, for Wordsworth, animates the vital universe. The descriptions are virtually identical in the 1805 (lines 341-50) and 1850 (lines 330-39) versions of The Prelude. Here I cite the 1850 text:

……………….Oh! When I have hung
Above the Raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill-sustained; and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag; Oh, at that time,
When on the perilous ridge, I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears! The sky seemed not a sky
Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!

Registering the ministry of fear more than of beauty, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would echo these lines in one of the “terrible sonnets” of 1885. “Pitched past pitch of grief” in the dark night of his soul, he interiorized Wordsworth’s moment “hung” on the cliff: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed. Hold them cheap/ May who ne’er hung there.” As Hopkins knew, mountain terror rears its head elsewhere in Wordsworth’s accounts of his youthful activities in this first Book of The Prelude. In the famous boat-stealing episode, the boy (whose stealth and guilt echo that of pear-thieving Augustine in the Confessions), is not only surrounded by “mountain-echoes.” As he rows farther from the shore, his changing perspective reveals “a huge peak, black and huge,” which, hitherto hidden below the horizon, now “towered up between me and the stars,” and “strode” after him, “with purpose of its own/ And measured motion.” The memory of this terrifying spectacle—self-created by the rower yet soul-fostering” and sublime in its effect—plunged him into a world of “unknown modes of being,” with no familiar or pleasant shapes, but “huge and mighty Forms” that “moved slowly through the mind/ By day, and were a trouble to my dreams” (1850: I. 356-400).

Sublimity supersedes fear in the crossing of the Simplon Pass in Book VI. Traveling in revolutionary France in the summer of 1790, Wordsworth and a fellow climber, Robert Jones, journeyed to the Alps, the majesty of the mountains further inspiring their revolutionary hopes. The great passage is foreshadowed by a brief but telling description of how they “first/ Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved/ To have a soulless image on the eye” (the actual sight of Mont Blanc), which “had usurped upon a living thought/ That never more could be” (VI [1805]453-57). The living thought temporarily  “usurped” is Wordsworth’s imagination of the great mountain, its summit more dramatically “Unveiled” in the 1850 version, but its merely Alpine sublimity still inferior to the imaginative power of what Wordsworth’s perceptive admirer Keats would later refer to as “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.”

That usurpation will be repeated, and crucially reversed, seventy lines later. Climbing along the “steep and lofty” Simplon Pass, ascending with eagerness, Wordsworth and his friend lose both their way and their comrades. At length, they encounter a peasant who tells them that they must “descend” to the spot where they first became perplexed, and that “their future course, all plain to sight,/Was downwards.” Reluctant to believe what they so “grieved” to hear, for, as Wordsworth emphasized in 1850, “still we had hopes that pointed to the clouds,” they question the peasant repeatedly, yet every word, augmented by their own feelings, ended in the fact (italicized in 1850) “that we had crossed the Alps” (524).

And here I pause to report another kind of “discovery.” On the very day I thought I had written the final version of this section of my essay, a newly-published book arrived in the mail: English Past and Present, edited by Wolfgang Viereck, consisting of papers selected from an IAUPE conference held in Malta. One essay caught my eye: “Constructions of Identity in Romanticism: The Case of William Wordsworth,” written by a distinguished German Romantic scholar and friend, Christoph Bode. To my initial dismay and eventual delight (an appropriately Wordsworthian trajectory), I discovered that he, too, was examining, with characteristic brilliance, the mountain episodes in The Prelude. Though relieved that we took the same general position, I was humbled by the ingenuity of his nuanced discussion.

For example—to return to and refocus on that crossing of the Alps—Bode persuasively argues that “it is almost as if, contrary to what the preceding lines say, Wordsworth is immensely relieved to know that from now on it is downhill.” While there is surely some disappointment (including Wordsworth’s feeling of having been betrayed by bodily senses and instincts that should have informed him when he was at the high point), compensation, though it came in retrospect, takes the form of a glorious rhetorical outpouring which is, as Bode says, “one of the most impressive apotheoses of the imagination in Wordsworth’s entire oeuvre.” The experience in the Alps was then, 1790. Now, a decade and a half later, its hidden significance is revealed in a visionary experience that apparently came to Wordsworth primarily if not exclusively in the act of writing about that Alpine crossing. Though I prefer the 1850 version, the layering of time requires citation of the 1805 text:

………………..Imagination! Lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my Song
Like an unfathered vapour; here that Power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me; I was lost as in a cloud,
Halted without an effort to break through.
And now, recovering, to my Soul I say
I recognize thy glory; in such strength
Of usurpation, in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes, that have shown to us
The invisible world, doth Greatness make abode,
There harbors, whether we be young or old.
Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be. (525-42)

What Wordsworth, that preeminent prophet of human hope, realizes in retrospect is that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. For Romantics enlisted in the visionary company, the glory of the human spirit consists, not in attaining the attainable but in striving for the infinite, even if our mortal capabilities are necessarily finite. Reversing the previous “usurpation,” in which the physical sight of Mont Blanc imposed upon an imaginative vision, Wordsworth, “recovering,” can say to his more conscious soul: “I recognize thy glory.” It is the glory of that “awful Power” which, through “sad incompetence of human speech” (1850 version), we call “Imagination.” This is the creative Romantic Imagination, whose “strength/ Of usurpation” succeeds and supersedes the mere “light of sense,” extinguished “in flashes” that reveal to us “the invisible world.”

The lines immediately following confirm the political analogy. Once ardently committed to the French Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!”), Wordsworth in effect revokes that delusory dream of a material, external Eden in favor of a paradise within:

The mind beneath such banners militant
Thinks not of spoils or trophies, nor of aught
That may attest its prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in itself, and in the access of joy
Which hides it like the overflowing Nile. (543-48)

Later readers have often been distressed by Wordsworth’s increasingly orthodox religiosity (traceable in the 1850 version of these lines, where the “mind” becomes “the soul,” and that overflowing “access of joy” a more pious “beatitude”). Some will also deem his personal conversion of politics into a cognitive, imaginative revolution less courageous than a retreat to quietism. Here, it seems powerfully validated by those intuitive “flashes” (recalling the Intimations of Immortality Ode’s “master light of all our seeing”) revealing both the invisible world and a “greatness” that transcends any merely external triumph. The language remains martial, but, as Yeats would later ask in an unpublished lecture titled “Friends of My Youth”: “Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle? a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” Writing in 1805, at the apogee of the empire of Napoleon, that usurper of the Revolution, who had by then twice exploited the strategic significance of the Simplon Pass (the shortest route between Paris and Milan) by building suspended bridges across the ravine), centripetal Wordsworth is no less dismissive of external battle, its spoils and trophies, and equally insistent on inward strength. Like Paul, Milton, Blake, and Yeats himself, Wordsworth elevates spiritual or imaginative struggle over “corporeal warfare.”

Having recorded the inner reward of mountain vision, the poet returns to the initiating experience. Overcoming the “dull and heavy slackening” that ensued on hearing the peasant’s news, Wordsworth and his friend hastened down a narrow chasm, their pace slowing as they descended. What Wordsworth sees and hears (rocks muttering, crags speaking “as if a voice were in them”) in the Gorge of Gondo is at once natural and epiphanic. The clash of polar opposites is apocalyptically reconciled, natural flux ending in permanent form, tumult in a final peace:

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And everywhere along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, the region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end. (VI. 556-72)

The Alpha and Omega of Revelation is fused—though, in Wordsworth’s case, with no reference to God—with Adam’s prayer (Paradise Lost V. 153-65) that the things of this world should extol their Creator, “him first, him last, him midst, and without end.” Though the revelation, at last, of the natural sublimity of the mountain landscape is revealed when Wordsworth is descending, we may be reminded of Petrarch, meditating on his ascent of the mountain and seeking his friend’s prayer that his “wandering thoughts” may become “more coherent” and, having been “cast in all directions,…may direct themselves at last to the one, true, certain, and never-ending good.” Both poets are internalizing the external mountain scenery, but while Petrarch’s terms are specifically Christian and moral, Wordsworth’s language, though echoing the Bible and Milton, remains nonsectarian, mysterious, Sublime. There is a striking resemblance (coincidental or a reflection of Coleridge’s Kantian influence on his friend) to Kant’s theory of the sublime, a feeling experienced when, however overwhelmed or even terrified as a merely sensual being, one realizes that, through the power of Reason, “a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense,” one is able to form an idea of the Infinite. As Bode notes of Wordsworth’s Alpine descent, now that the mountains, with all their “infinite grandeur,” are “identified as the external representation of something internal, they are no longer terrifying, but [in a serious pun] downright uplifting. The landscape does not praise God, it praises Mind,” in its most exalted, or intuitive, form: that of the creative Imagination.



Appropriately, inevitably, the final Book of The Prelude gives us, along with Wordsworth’s climactic mountain vision, his re-assertion of the even more sublime power of the creative imagination, that glorious faculty (to quote the final lines of both versions of The Prelude) almost infinitely “more beautiful than the earth” on which “man dwells, above this Frame of things,” in “beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of substance and of fabric more divine.” Since in this case, and in both versions, the inner meaning of what was seen and heard on the mountain was recognized during the climb rather than retrospectively, and since in this case the 1850 version is rhetorically superior, I will quote the later text.

Accompanied again by his friend Jones and a third companion, the poet ascended at night the highest peak in Wales, “to see the sun/ Rise from the top of Snowdon.” Climbing with “eager pace, and no less eager thoughts,” Wordsworth was in the lead, when suddenly “at my feet the ground brightened,/And with a step or two seemed brighter still.” No time was “given to ask, or learn, the cause;/ For instantly a light upon the turf/ Fell like a flash.” Unlike the inner “flash” of Imagination revealing “the invisible world” in Book VI, this flash of light comes from above. It is not, however, the rising sun, the spectacle that motivated this nocturnal excursion, but the lunar recipient of the sun’s reflected light:

………………..lo! As I looked up,
The Moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist. (XIV. 5-6, 35-42)

The vapors project over headlands and promontories, “Into the main Atlantic, that appeared/ To dwindle, and give up his majesty,/Usurped upon as far as sight could reach” (46-50). But the mist does not encroach upon the heavens, dominated by “the full-orbed Moon,/Who, from her solemn elevation, gazed/ Upon the billowy ocean, as it lay/All meek and silent,” except for the noise audible through a rift in the clouds. Through that rift (in lines recalling the Gorge of Gondo, though reversing perspective) “Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams/ Innumerable, roaring with one voice!” (50-60). Once reflected upon with “calm thought,” what he describes as “That Vision, given to Spirits of the night,/And three chance human wanderers,” appeared to the climber “the type/ Of a majestic intellect.” As Wordsworth’s language reveals, that emblematic Mind is a secular variation on Milton’s Holy Spirit “brooding” dove-like over the “vast abyss,” making Chaos fruitful (Paradise Lost I. 20-22):

There I beheld the emblem of a Mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods
Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voices issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream; a mind sustained
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In sense conducting to ideal form,
In soul of more than mortal privilege. (70-77)

While the mountain scene is natural, and we mount to vision through the senses, those truly gifted recognize the transcendent power of the mind, its capacity to creatively mold and convert sensory apprehensions of the outward show of innumerable and ever-changing phenomena into ideal and emblematic forms, permanent and unified. The initial project, “to see the sun/ Rise from the top of Snowdon,” is now utterly beside the point. Even the moon, “hung in a firmament/ Of azure without cloud,” beautiful as it is, is secondary not only to its source of light, the sun, but to another power that bathes the world in luminous meaning. This transforming, or “usurping,” power is, as always, that of the human mind in its highest form, “intuitive Reason” (120), by which Wordsworth—like Milton, Coleridge, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—means what Coleridge called the “shaping spirit of Imagination.” For Coleridge and those he influenced, the Romantic Imagination—a faculty at once emotional, cognitive, and spiritual—echoes and alters the epistemological re-orientation announced in the “Transcendental Idealism” section of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: that “Copernican revolution” in which the shaping mind gives form to the external objects it perceives, subordinating things to thought, just as the sensual is ultimately dominated by the cognitive in Kant’s theory of the Sublime.

Reflecting his own Coleridgean reading of Kant, Emerson ended his seminal text, ironically titled Nature, by asserting “the kingdom of man over nature.” An equally Coleridgean Wordsworth, speaking directly to his friend, writes that, together, they will “instruct” others (in the concluding lines of this epic poem dedicated to Coleridge) “how the mind of Man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells,” being “In beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine” (1850: XIV, 450-56). In the Snowdon passage, struggling to depict the reciprocal relationship between the mind and external Nature, Wordsworth falls back on epistemologically slippery or at least paradoxical formulations (“mutual domination,” “interchangeable supremacy”), and an emphasis on the senses and emotion  before, inevitably, celebrating the power of the all-illuminating mind:

One function, above all, of such a mind
Had Nature shadowed there, by putting forth,
‘Mid circumstances awful and sublime,
That mutual domination which she loves
To exert upon the face of outward things,
So moulded, joined, abstracted; so endowed
With interchangeable supremacy,
That men least sensitive see, hear, perceive,
And cannot choose but feel. The power which all
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus
To bodily sense exhibits, is the express
Resemblance of that glorious faculty
That higher minds bear with them as their own. (78-90)

The passage is complex, but what emerges is the supremacy of what Nature merely “shadowed there”—namely, that “glorious faculty,” the creative Imagination, in the exercise of which the highest human minds, at once reflecting and exceeding the orchestrating but limited power of Kant’s pure Reason, resemble Miltonic “angels stopped upon the wing by sound/ Of harmony from heaven’s remotest spheres” (98-99).



The Prelude has long been recognized as, next to Paradise Lost itself, the greatest poem of its length in English. Excerpts, including the crossing of the Simplon Pass, appeared during Wordsworth’s lifetime, but the poem as a whole became public only after the poet’s death, in 1850. The long poem known to his contemporaries was not his autobiographical epic, but The Excursion (1814), the poem intended to be second in the triadic structure announced in the prefatory poem:  “a kind of Prospectus of the design and scope of the whole” of his project, including the culminating epic, to be called The Recluse. This so-called “Prospectus” to The Recluse was of immense importance to Emerson, who reprinted its 107 lines in his anthology, Parnassus, under his own title, “Outline.” Emerson was also impressed by the poem it accompanied, The Excursion, a lesser epic which nevertheless contains several notable mountain visions. In his 1840 essay “Thoughts on Modern Literature,” Emerson remarked that “The Excursion awakened in every lover of nature the right feeling. We saw stars shine, we felt the awe of mountains….” He is recalling those moments in Book I (paralleling the formative personal experiences recounted in the opening Book of The Prelude) where the boy who would become the Wanderer interacted with the natural world. We encounter him, as Emerson remembered, as he “all alone/ Beheld the stars come out above his head” (128-29), and “felt the awe of mountains.” That boy knew his Bible; “But in the mountains did he feel his faith” (223), a feeling of sublimity in which “the least of things/ Seemed infinite; and there his spirit shaped/ Her prospects; nor did he believe,–he saw.”

…………..Such was the Boy—but for the growing Youth
What soul was his, when, from the naked top
Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked—
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean’s liquid mass, in gladness lay
Beneath him:–far and wide the clouds were touched
And in their silent faces could he read
Unutterable love…his spirit drank
The spectacle: sensation soul, and form,
All melted into him…in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life. (197-210)

At such times, the Wanderer was “Rapt into still communion that transcends/ The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,/ His mind was a thanksgiving to the power/ That made him; it was blessedness and love!” (215-18). It is hardly surprising that the American Transcendentalist, who most famously presents himself rapt in a still communion in which he becomes “a transparent eyeball” (recapturing as well the moment in “Tintern Abbey,” when “we see into the life of things”) should respond so intensely to such a transcendent moment, and even think that “obviously for that passage” the whole of The Excursion “was written.” Emerson had, as any one would, reservations about the didactic stretches of The Excursion (“This will never do,” Francis Jeffrey’s famous Edinburgh Review dismissal of the long-awaited epic, has resonated with more than a few readers). But there were other passages than the one for which the poem was “obviously” written that also haunted Emerson. At certain privileged and precarious moments (he recorded in his journal) the soul “in raptures unites herself to God and Wordsworth truly said, “’Tis the most difficult of tasks to keep/ Heights which the soul is competent to gain’” (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 4:87). Emerson often cited these lines (Excursion IV.139-40), most memorably in his late essay “Inspiration,” where he laments the unpredictability and evanescence of such moments on the “Heights”: “with us” there is “a flash of light, then a long darkness, then a flash again…This insecurity of possession, this quick ebb of power…tantalizes us.”

Emerson was also fascinated by a related moment of “sublimity” in Book II of The Excursion, a vision experienced, as Emerson records in his journal, by “Wordsworth’s Recluse on the mountain” (JMN 8:51). The blinding mountain mist momentarily parts and the Recluse (or Solitary) glimpses “Glory beyond all glory ever seen.” He has a vision of a heavenly city, a natural phenomenon revelatory of the supernatural, an intimation of immortality (II. 827-81). Emerson, along with John Ruskin (Modern Painters, 364), thought this the most sublime of Wordsworth’s mountain visions. But Emerson was also affected by the mountain perspective with which The Excursion ends: a vision of a magnificent sunset seen from a “grassy mountain’s open side,” an “elevated spot” surrounded “by rocks impassable and mountains huge” (IX. 570-612).

All of these Wordsworthian mountain visions were consciously echoed by Emerson, striving to attain an elevated, enlarged, more affirmative perspective, especially at times when he was desperately seeking consolation in distress. Emerson suffered many familial tragedies, among them the premature death in 1836 of his closest brother, Charles. For all his alleged, even notorious “serenity,” Emerson had, five years earlier, intensely mourned the death of his nineteen-year-old wife, Ellen. In the privacy of his journal he confronted “that which passes away & never returns,” almost fearing that “this miserable apathy” will wear off, and that he will resume among his friends “a tranquil countenance.” He may even, stooping again to “little hopes & little fears,”

forget the graveyard. But will thy eye that was closed on Tuesday ever beam again in the fullness of love on me? Shall I ever be able to connect the face of outward nature, the mists of the morn, the star of eve, the flowers, & all poetry, with the heart & life of an enchanting friend. No. There is one birth & one baptism & and one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men. (JMN 3:226-27)

Retreating to the solitude of the White Mountains, and then sailing to Europe to meet Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, Emerson had eventually recovered from that loss. But as he turned from Charles’s grave, he asked with an enigmatic laugh, what there was “worth living for.” Two weeks later, though he could say, “night rests on all sides upon the facts of our being,” he could also add: we “must own, our upper nature lies always in Day” (Letters 2:19-25). But in the immediate aftermath of the devastating loss of his brother, Emerson fell into a despondency relieved, he tells us, by intense reading of Wordsworth: “Tintern Abbey,” the Intimations Ode (his favorite poem), and, again, the speeches of the Wanderer in The Excursion. “Those who have ministered to my highest needs,” he wrote in his journal for May 9, 1836, “are to me what the Wanderer in The Excursion is to the Poet. And Wordsworth’s total value is of this kind.” Echoing the Ode, as he had in insisting that “our upper nature lies always in Day,” he describes men such as Wordsworth, who offer comfort in distress, as possessing “the true light of all our day.” Their “spirit” constitutes “the argument for the spiritual world” (JMN 5:160-61). Writing in mid-May, after ten days of “helpless mourning,” Emerson began, tentatively, to recover. “I find myself slowly….I remember states of mind that perhaps I had long lost before this grief, the native mountains whose tops reappear after we have traversed many a mile of weary region from our home. Them shall I ever revisit?” (JMN 3:77).

Here, in struggling to achieve that “most difficult of tasks,” to “keep” the Wordsworthian “Heights” or mountain tops he knew the soul was capable of gaining, Emerson was recalling, as a despairing William James later would, the mountain visions and hopeful “states of mind” dramatized by Wordsworth in The Prelude, as well as the consolation offered by his stoical yet enraptured visionary, the Wanderer, especially in the fourth and final Books of The Excursion. Comforted and “elevated” by the Wanderer’s urging of the grief-stricken to convert “sorrow” into “delight,” the “palpable oppressions of despair” into the “active Principle” of hope (Excursion IV. 1058-77; IX. 20-26), a grieving Emerson saw the “tops” of his own “native mountains” begin to reappear, to feel an influx of hope, power, and that “glad light” that is, as he says, “the true light of all our day.” In the journal-entry mourning the loss of Ellen, Emerson had feared that he was forever cut off from nature and from life itself, since there is only “one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth.” That imagery is related to his persistent evocation of the “light of all our day.” To quote the lines he repeatedly, almost obsessively, cites or paraphrases from Wordsworth’s great Ode, Emerson is struggling to recover

……………………………….those first affections,
…………………….Those shadowy recollections
…………..Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing….(Ode, lines 148-52)

Since the recollection of those “first affections” and the intimations of immortality inherent in that light “Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make/ Our noisy years,” including “all that is at enmity with joy,” seem mere “moments in the being/ Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake/ To perish never,” it is not surprising that, in quoting the lines, Emerson invariably elevated “a master light of all our seeing” to “the master light of all our seeing.” There is one other reason, immediately relevant to the theme of this essay, for my emphasis on the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Since we began with the “light” seen by Columbus on October 11, 1492, and have been emphasizing, beginning with Keats’s discovery-sonnet and Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux, the imaginative internalization of exploration, it seems worth adding that, for Emerson, Wordsworth’s great Ode was, above all, a momentous act of discovery. The poem was, he insisted, a “new” voyage “through the void,” representing the “high-water mark” the human mind “has reached in this age….No courage has surpassed that” of the Ode’s author, “this finer Columbus” (JMN 14:98). Emerson revisited that journal entry, reinforcing his variation on the imperial theme, a variation resembling Wordsworth’s sublimation of “banners militant” and “trophies” of war in the lines on the crossing of the Simplon Pass. Emerson concludes chapter 17 of English Traits by asserting that Wordsworth’s Ode added “new realms…to the empire of the muse.”



An admirer of the Ode, but a less likely reader of The Excursion, was W. B. Yeats, who set himself—as “a duty to posterity,” according to Ezra Pound, staying with him at Stone Cottage at the time—a Herculean task. He told his father in January 1915 that he had “just started to read through the whole seven volumes of Wordsworth in Dowden’s edition. I have finished The Excursion and begun The Prelude.” But the sententious Wanderer was too facilely optimistic for Yeats’s more astringently joyful taste. Locating himself among “the last Romantics,” Yeats never forgot his boyhood image of Byron’s Manfred, poised in solitude above the clouds on the narrow ledge of the mountain glacier: an image visually echoed in Caspar David Friedrich’s mountain-masterpiece, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, painted the year after Byron wrote Manfred. In turn, Yeats associated the Byronic hero with Nietzsche—accurately, since the youthful Nietzsche was no less enraptured than was Yeats by the solitary and autonomous Manfred, destined to become one of the principal prototypes of the Űbermensch. Unsurprisingly, Yeats’s ultimate mountain vision, epitomizing “tragic joy,” emerges under auspices less Wordsworthian than Nietzschean. I conclude with Yeats’s superb late poem, “Lapis Lazuli,” written in 1936—precisely a century after Emerson’s journal entries and six centuries after Petrarch ascended Mount Ventoux. Appropriately enough, the poem was published on the eve of World War II.

Writing, like Wordsworth, at a moment of historical crisis, Yeats is annoyed by those who cannot abide the gaiety of artists creating amid impending catastrophe. To counter their consternation, dismissed as “hysterical,” Yeats presents a panorama of civilizations falling and being rebuilt. In his famous “Ode,” Arthur O’Shaughnessy, noting that, while one age may be dying, another is coming to birth, claimed that poets “Built Ninevah with our sighing,/ And Babel itself with our mirth.” An echoing Yeats asserts that “All things fall and are built again,/ And those that build them again are gay”: visionary artists creating out of an ineradicable joy—Homeric, Shakespearean, Nietzschean—in the  face of tragedy. Specifically countering the “hysterical women” of the opening lines, Yeats presents Shakespearean heroines—Ophelia and Cordelia, with the glorious queen of the final act of Antony and Cleopatra in the wings—who “do not break up their lines to weep.” Above all, “Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Fusing western heroism with Eastern serenity and a more specifically Nietzschean joy, the poem turns in its final movement to the mountain-shaped lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats as a gift, and which, in turn, giving the poet his title, serves as the Yeatsian equivalent of Keats’s Grecian urn. He begins by describing the figures on the stone:

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli;
Over them a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving man,
Carries a musical instrument.

In the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats’s empathetic imagination peaks in evoking scenes not pictured on the urn. Speculating about the origin of those in the sacrificial procession in the fourth stanza, he asks: “What little town by river or sea-shore,/ Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,” has been “emptied” of its people, now caught forever, frozen in stone and never to return. In a similar leap of imagination (even to the repeated ors), Yeats goes on to transform into natural aspects of an invented mountain scenery what were mere imperfections in the stone (accidents I almost added to some years ago, nearly dropping the piece of lapis while visiting the home of Michael and Grania Yeats):

Every discoloration of the stone;
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards….

Adopting, as Keats had, what Wordsworth calls the “usurping” power of that “glorious faculty,” the Imagination, Yeats not only transforms defects in the stone into features of mountain scenery; in describing what is depicted on the sculpture, he creatively imagines the immobile climbers (as frozen in stone as Keats’s urn-figures) having actually attained the gazebo they are depicted climbing “towards”:

………………………………and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky
On all the tragic scene they stare….

Once “there,” they attain, thanks to the imaginative intervention of Yeats, a prospect from which, like Keats’s explorers on Darien, they “stare” out, surveying “all.” One of the two Chinese sages requests music from their companion, who, though “doubtless a serving-man,” is the poem’s musician and resident artist. “Accomplished fingers begin to play,” producing silent music from a carved instrument played by a carved man. Addressing the musical instrument carried by the piper carved on the surface of the Grecian urn, Keats insists that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” This “soft” music (just, as it were, beneath the threshold of hearing) is addressed, “Not to the sensual ear,” but, more cherished, “to the spirit.” In both poems, we have an auditory as well as a visual leap of the creative imagination, and an appeal beyond the merely sensual.

The music in “Lapis Lazuli” contributes to the softening of what might have been an austere scene. A few years earlier, in his sonnet “Meru,” Yeats had imagined other mountain visionaries: “Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,/ Caverned in night under the drifted snow,” or exposed to dreadful winter storms that “Beat down upon their naked bodies.” While the poet of “Lapis Lazuli” asserts that all things fall and are built again, the Hindu hermits on their sacred mountain, having entered into “the desolation of reality,” know only that “day brings round the night, that before dawn,” man’s “glory and his monuments are gone.” In “Lapis Lazuli,” where the falling “snow,” far from battering naked bodies, seems indistinguishable from cherry blossoms, the tragic vision ends in tragic affirmation.

The melodies may be “mournful,” but, again balancing East with West, the final movement also registers what Yeats perceptively identified as Nietzsche’s “curious astringent joy.” There is even a conscious echo of the gravity-defying gaya scienza of Nietzsche’s prophet, Zarathustra, who insists (I.7, “On Reading and Writing”) that “he who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness.” Though Yeats didn’t know it, Zarathustra was echoing Wordsworth’s disciple Emerson, in turn a formative influence on the life and work of Nietzsche, who considered him the finest, and most tonic, thinker of the age. Since Emerson himself had referred to the “gay science,” it seems only appropriate that the original epigraph to Nietzsche’s The Gay Science was taken from Emerson.  In a splendid passage of Twilight of the Idols (IX.13), contrasting Emerson with his friend Carlyle, Nietzsche pronounces the former “Much more enlightened, more roving, more manifold, subtler than Carlyle; above all, happier.” Illuminating rather than caricaturing Emersonian “optimism,” Nietzsche associates his mentor with his own Zarathustrian dismissal of the spirit of gravity: “Emerson has that gracious and clever cheerfulness which discourages all seriousness.” Here, at last, are the crucial concluding lines of “Lapis Lazuli,” but they require, as context, re-quotation of the whole of the exquisite final movement:

Every discoloration of the stone;
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.

The fact that the perspective is not quite sub specie aeternitatis, that the “little half-way house” is situated at the midpoint rather than on the summit, makes this a human rather than divine vision. But that in itself also makes it the very epitome of a modern mountain vision, an affirmation, registered in full awareness of “all the tragic scene,” in which the eyes, and the Ayes, have it. The eyes of Yeats’s Rembrandt-like Chinamen, wreathed in the wrinkles of mutability yet still glittering with tragic joy, recall another Wordsworthian “flash”—the “flash” that breaks from “the sable orbs” of the “yet-vivid eyes” of the decrepit but enduring old leech-gatherer in “Resolution and Independence,” one of Yeats’s favorite Wordsworth poems. Those “ancient glittering eyes” evoke as well the famous “glittering eye” of the Ancient Mariner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Appropriately enough, Coleridge was the friend to whom Wordsworth dedicated The Prelude, that epic exceeding even the passages of The Excursion that haunted Emerson as the definitive celebration of the sublime glory of mountain vision.


In conclusion: the thematically crucial point is that, for all the high Romantics, early and late, what makes these mountain visions, actual or carved in lapis, truly sublime is that their sensuous, external glory is enhanced—indeed, usurped—by an even greater glory, one “to be found,” as Petrarch said, “only within”: namely, the transforming power of the human imagination. Emphasized in the finales of Emerson’s Nature, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and (as we’ll see in a moment) Keats’s “Ode to Psyche,” that priority is definitively established in the poem in which (as Emerson recognized in re-titling it “Outline”) Wordsworth laid out his entire canonical project. In the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, Wordsworth announces (lines 28-41) that he intends to surpass his master Milton by locating the arena of action in neither the supernatural nor the natural worlds, but within the human mind. Wordsworth is still thinking in terms of mountain gorges and mountain peaks; but, sinking “deep” and ascending “aloft” psychologically rather than physically, he will “pass” by heaven and hell and all other external terrors “unalarmed,” for nothing

………..can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,
My haunt, and the main region of my song.

Fittingly for an admirer of Wordsworth, when John Keats, echoing these lines from the “Prospectus” in the final stanza of the “Ode to Psyche,” declares that he will be Psyche’s solitary “priest, and build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind,” he surrounds the sanctuary in that interiorized mental landscape with the “branched thoughts” of “dark-clustered trees” that “Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep.”

In context, this oracular landscape is necessarily Greek, which may remind us that in the first of his two break-through poems (the second is this Ode), the young discoverer of the greatest of Greek epic poets imagined, as the climactic analogue of his experience on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, the eagle-eyed discoverer of the Pacific staring out, “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” Keats’s poetic temple dedicated to the one neglected goddess in Greek mythology is the autonomous creation of a young poet, as he insists earlier in the Ode, “by my own eyes inspired.” Necessarily, that temple is to be found only within, in “the Mind of Man”: Wordsworth’s “haunt,” and the “main region” of his poetry. When Keats locates his shrine to Psyche in a secluded “region of my mind,” the echo reconfirms that it is a mental edifice, a dome built in air. And yet, in the poet’s imagination—a creative imagination as delighted and fecund as Yeats’s in “Lapis Lazuli”—that shrine is surrounded by “wild-ridged mountains steep by steep.” In short, no matter how interiorized the “region,” it retains, perhaps inevitably given Keats’s reverence of Wordsworth, the vestiges of yet another of his precursor’s imaginatively-transfigured mountain visions.*


*A sad postscript. Keats thought The Excursion, including the “Prospectus” that introduced it, one of the few things “to be wondered at in this age,” and we know, from his friend Benjamin Hayden, that the passage he preferred “to all others” was the beautiful evocation of the world of Greek mythology in Book IV, reanimating the sun-god Apollo with his “blazing chariot” and ravishing lute, and the “beaming” moon-goddess, Diana, moving “across the lawn and through the darksome groves” (850-64). Yet when Keats, urged by Hayden, read aloud to Wordsworth his early “Hymn to Pan,” the older poet famously if somewhat ambiguously responded: “a very pretty piece of paganism,” apparently condemning with faint praise. Would Keats’s hero have thought the same of the far superior “Ode to Psyche”? Though one fervently hopes not, he may have, given his hardening Christian orthodoxy by then, and what Keats perceptively and, with equal ambiguity, designated “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” The “Mind of Man” that was the “main region” of his song was, after all, first and foremost the “mind”—of William Wordsworth.

—Patrick J. Keane


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

Oct 182012

Mary Rickert

Mary Rickert writes: “Gothic literature reaches for transcendence by pushing against the architecture of language. Language is, after all, the dark heart of this story, not simply the structure from which it is hung, but the gallows and the god…”  I wish I had written that. Mary is an old friend; she used to live in Saratoga Springs, New York, and once took a class from me at the University at Albany during which she showed me some amazing early stories in which blended myth and fantasy in startling ways. She went off and established herself as an award-winning speculative fiction writer (with two story collections Map of Dreams and Holiday to her credit — she publishes under the name M. Rickert); later she attended Vermont College of Fine Arts — this essay was her critical thesis.

“Angel on Fire: The Gothic World of Sophie’s Choice” is Mary’s summa, her analysis of the Gothic in contemporary literature, the cultural tensions that inform it, and the linguistic (craft) habits that define it. It’s a masterful analysis of an aesthetic that informs much of American  literature from the South, but it’s also Mary’s aesthetic, the thing that drives her compositions and tastes.



The sticky matter of Gothic literature’s standing, the sense that it cannot rise above a certain lowly state, resides in part in the fact that the very word used to define it carries a barbarous connotation.

The Goths were a German tribe who invaded Eastern and Western Europe between the third and fifth centuries. All that remains of this once conquering people is a fourth-century Bible translation, and their poor reputation. The first time the word Gothic was used to describe the architectural form, it was meant as an insult, a way to convey the horror of flying buttresses and turrets so offensive to the notions of good taste that in Oxford, undergraduates and young dons used to stop on their afternoon walks in order to laugh at Keble College, with its Gothic proportions, considered the “ugliest building in the world.”  (Clark 2)

Beauty, in all its forms, is not, in fact, a permanent state but a reflection of the society that defines it. In the eighteenth century, critics classified any deviation from conventional proportion and symmetry as “deformities exhibited by the absence of taste of a barbaric age.” (Botting 20)

Yet a building described as Gothic today is not automatically, or universally, considered an eyesore. In the realm of architecture Gothic has risen above the status of insult. What remains is a form appreciated or derided based on its own particular success.

Opera, obviously reliant upon language in a manner architecture is not, turned to classical myth as early inspiration, believing that music was the natural language of the gods. Yet opera, with its stage suicides, man-to-swan metamorphoses, spousal murders and spurned lovers, arguably populated by the same wide expanse of emotions as the Gothic, is held up as high art, a territory of those with refined or sensitive taste, while Gothic literature is routinely deemed a cheap, sentimental expression of the work of the lower classes. Even the terms associated with Gothic fiction – the “dime novel,” or “penny dreadful” – express this class element: inexpensively produced fiction with the “consequent implication that it is merely a literature of surfaces and sensations.” (Thompson 1)

Gothic literature is, by definition, a “writing of excess,” (Botting 2) “attacked throughout the second half of the eighteenth century for encouraging emotions.”(Botting 4)

While it can be argued that all literature is an art of emotion, consideration must be given to the relative value placed on its expression by the gate-keepers of artistic and social acceptance.

The values that gave shape and direction to the Enlightenment, dominated as it was by writings from Greek and Roman culture, privileged forms of cultural or artistic production that attended to the classical rules. Buildings, works of art, gardens, landscapes and written texts had to conform to precepts of uniformity, proportion and order. (Botting 22)

Distressing as this state of affairs is in a society still largely reliant on an order that has produced wars, genocide and a population which seeks meaning in things, it is particularly disappointing to see in the literary community. After all, who is better suited to break the illusion of “reality” than the artisans of the words by which it is defined?

And yet so febrile is the need to maintain accepted standards of what it means to be good that, as G. R. Thompson writes in the introduction to The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism,

classic works of fiction which employ Gothic conventions and subjects… tend not to be critically examined in the tradition of a Gothic mode but in some other, more acceptable tradition of the novel. (1-2)

In other words, if it’s Gothic, how can it be good?

While an exploration of this class divide and its lingering effect on the literary conversation is certainly worthy of attention and inquiry, what I’d like to focus on at this time is an example of the ultimate excellence the Gothic form can achieve. After all, Gothic literature, like all genres (and there are those who consider “literary” another genre) is defined by its content, but that content’s expression has as much opportunity for excellence as any other.

William Stryon’s novel, Sophie’s Choice is narrated by Stingo, remembering the summer when he was twenty-two and rented a Brooklyn apartment in a house painted an “overwhelming pinkness.” (Styron 35) Stingo, a young writer, finds there the source of inspiration for the novel in which we find him: Sophie, a beautiful, intelligent and tragic concentration camp survivor, her charismatic, controlling and dangerous boyfriend, Nathan, and an inheritance of evil that cannot be escaped. This is set, not in some distant era of darkly fantastic origin, but in the twentieth century with its prized rationality. However, Stingo clearly states that his interests and the interests of this novel rest in the Gothic realm:

In my career as a writer I have always been attracted to morbid themes – suicide, rape, murder, military life, marriage, slavery. Even at that early time I knew my first work would be flavored by a certain morbidity – I had the feeling in my bones, it may be called the “tragic   sense” (118-119)

Stingo doesn’t stop with this general allusion to the now famously dark matter of Sophie’s Choice to incite a Gothic reading, but offers several descriptions of characters and material as explicitly Gothic. When he writes of the Cracow of Sophie’s childhood, Stingo describes it as in “Gothic repose.” (95) Elsewhere, he alludes to his own childhood as being bound up “less with the crazy Gothic side of a Southern upbringing.” (220) The reader is introduced to the character Rudolf Franz Hoss as “a leading villain from Central Casting… a modern Gothic freak” (159) whose speech is described as bearing “clotted Gothic ratiocination.” (242)  Near the end of the book, when Stingo reads a letter from Sophie, he notes how the influence of German language has permeated her writing style like “Gothic stone.” (545)

The language of the Gothic tends to be reflective of the excess which defines the form. Gothic language is not tamed into docile sentences that bear little trace of their progenitor. Gothic language, by definition, bares teeth and claws, or as Foucault says in Language to Infinity, “The language of terror is dedicated to an endless expanse…It drives itself out of any possible resting place.” (Botting 1)

The language of Sophie’s Choice moves with liquid grace between the brutal (the first time Stingo meets Nathan he is calling Sophie a cunt) and the beautiful.

Later in the night’s starry hours, chill now with the breath of fall and damp with Atlantic wind, I stood on the beach alone. It was silent here, and save for the blazing stars, enfolding dark; bizarre spires and minarets, Gothic roofs, baroque towers loomed in spidery silhouettes against the city’s afterglow. (Styron 561)

Styron’s use of the poetic resonance created between the words “hours,” “stars,” “spires,” “towers” in conjunction with the flat tonal sounds of “chill,” “fall,” “damp,” “stood,” “dark,” “roofs” energizes this short passage so the reader feels that Gothic reach – grounded by gravity, seeking transcendence.

Styron also uses rhyme with its whimsical notes, for instance, as he does when listing Sophie’s relationship to food. “Bratwurst. Braunschweiger. Some sardines. Hot pastrami. Lox. A bagel, please.” (97) Rhyme is employed as well to direct the reader’s correct pronunciation of two different women’s names while highlighting an attribute of Stingo’s emotional connection with each. “…Maria (rhyming, in Southern fashion with pariah.)” (46) and “Leslie Lapides (rhyming, please, with ‘Ah feed us.’)” (129)

Nathan, Sophie’s troubled boyfriend, has a talent for mimicry used to both charm Stingo and mock his Southern upbringing. “His voice took on the syrupy synthetic tones of deepest Dixieland.” (58) Nathan’s talent is an opportunity to broaden the landscape of the novel, and to engage with the story of Gothic America, the experience of Southern Slavery, a reflective theme throughout. Every time Nathan uses his Southern accent the reader is reminded that Stingo is supporting his modest, yet privileged, lifestyle with old family money acquired from the sale of a slave. In this way Styron uses Nathan’s mimicry to direct the reader to consider that no single nation owns brutality.

Nathan isn’t the only one with a talent for language. Sophie speaks Polish, French, German, Russian, English and Yiddish. Her linguistic skill provides her with the temporary shelter of her own bed at Auschwitz. She keeps the anti-Semitic pamphlet she helped her father produce close to her body in hopes that it can be used as barter of some kind. Later, when she comes to America, Sophie finds a job working in the office of a Chiropractor, where she communicates to his patients in Yiddish. Sophie may have once had dreams of teaching music, but she is relegated to using her talent for sound to provide her with the rudimentary skills that allow her employment as a receptionist. From the work Sophie is able to acquire because of her talent for language, she is paid and from that money she is able to buy food, the rhapsodic source of that earlier cited list. Sophie, essentially, is fed through words; her survival as well as her guilt resides in them.

Sophie meets Nathan, the man whose character acts as both death and life force when he rescues her at the library where she’s come looking for Emily Dickenson and, confronted by the rude Shalom Weiss, faints. “Shalom Weiss may easily have thought that he had slain her with language.” (112) In the midst of this humorous connotation, Styron invokes the bedevilment that lurks on every page of this Holocaust novel; words shape the world, and their power for rejuvenation is measured against their destructive force.

When a Gothic novel fails in its use of language it is often through pushing the boundaries at sentence level alone, words as embroidery, nothing more. What Styron does so well here is make language visible in such a manner that it becomes almost unbound. The word is the stuff of the sentence, the paragraph, the story, but it is also the soundtrack, the landscape, the evil, and the good. Stingo, who bears witness to this tale of suffering, seeks its meaning within the very mechanics of that which induced the suffering – the word.

Why does the Gothic writer seek to make language visible when current fashion insists that to be visible is to be gauche? Well, first it must be said that by definition, to be gauche is not to care about it. More important, though, the Gothic writer believes that the way to move beyond language is not by hiding behind it but by moving through it to the sublime.

Gothic architecture pushed flying buttresses against notions of ideal form, not as an exercise in excess, but in order that, as Abbot Suger said about the intention of his design of St. Denis, “Man may rise to the contemplation of the divine, through the senses.”

Gothic literature reaches for transcendence by pushing against the architecture of language. Language is, after all, the dark heart of this story, not simply the structure from which it is hung, but the gallows and the god: “…for even then I was compelled to search, however inadequately, for the right word and suffered over the rhythms and subtleties of our glorious but unbenevolent tongue.”  (Styron 120)

Styron burrows into language by miming its force for generation as well as decimation. He uses language to reveal its beautiful potential as well as its foul. Through Sophie’s talent for languages he explores the mobile foundation of meaning. Through Nathan’s talent for mimicry, Stryon explores the susceptibility of language to corruption. Through his consideration of the Southern dialect, Stryon explores the landscape of evil.

Gothic writers know that no word is as flat as it appears. Every word is a geode. Break it open and there exists inside a small shining gem, like a star. What Styron does is break open language by burrowing into it, moving beyond its limitations to reveal its expansion, finally producing a galaxy of light.

What is now universally understood about the Gothic elements in architecture – that the introduction of flying buttresses, pointed arches, and stained glass windows was meant to introduce height and light in an effort to create a medium between Heaven and earth – is frequently forgotten in consideration of Gothic literature.

In Gothic, Fred Botting sums up Edmund Burke’s APhilosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime by explaining that “while beauty could be contained within the individual’s gaze or comprehension, sublimity presented an excess that could not be processed by a rational mind.” (39) In Gothic literature, where the reach is for the sublime, much depends on the emotions.

While the Gothic form is fungible, responsive to the environment of the time that produces it, its source is rooted in the expansive emotions of Romanticism.

The marvelous incidents and chivalric customs of Romances, the descriptions of wild and elemental natural settings, the gloom of the graveyard and ruin, the scale and permanence of the architecture, the terror and wonder of the sublime, all become important features of the eighteenth century Gothic novel. (Botting 30)

The modern fairy tale is arguably the extreme romance of our time, generally founded on impossible beauty, perfect affection and happy endings. “Fairy tale” is not the term that comes to most readers’ minds when considering Sophie’s Choice. Yet Styron frequently employs fairy-tale imagery, as when Sophie tells Stingo how Nathan saved her life, calling him her “Prince Charming.” (168) Stingo and Sophie are sitting in the park when “clouds like creamy blobs, iridescent Disneyesque confections” float overhead. (169) Later, with much evidence to the contrary, Stingo, too, refers to Nathan as Sophie’s Prince Charming and her “redemptive knight.” (339)

Nathan is drawn as a figure of love and its explosive opposite. The first time Stingo meets Nathan he behaves abysmally to Sophie before abandoning her. While Stingo comforts Sophie, Nathan returns, not as the Prince or the Knight, but in the “phantasmal silence” (53) of a ghost, or at least a creature not entirely of the living. A neighbor tells Stingo that Nathan is a golem. (63) Eventually, Stingo observes that Sophie’s love for Nathan was “like dementia” (159) and Stingo wishes Sophie would choose him instead of Nathan. “The death force is gone,” thinks Stingo. “Love me!” (379)

In the dramatic pushing-the-boundaries fashion of Gothic fiction, Sophie loves Nathan and Stingo loves Sophie in the lusting, yearning, tortured manner of the virgin poet. The first time Stingo meets Sophie he falls “if not instantaneously, then swiftly and fathomlessly in love with her.” (49)

One would expect then that in the language of romance, Stingo would see Sophie cast in the same Disneyesque light in which Sophie has seen Nathan, but this is Gothic romance, after all, and Stingo’s first vision of Sophie is that of “someone hurtling toward death.” (49) Sophie, it turns out, looks very much like a girl Stingo once had a crush on, a young woman who, Stingo has just learned, killed herself.

Stingo’s love for Sophie is realized, not as the idealized vision of a woman made more beautiful than can be possibly true, but as the ghost of a woman who no longer exists. Later, when Stingo enters Sophie’s room as she stands before the mirror, he is shocked when she turns to face him as “an old hag whose entire lower face had crumpled in upon itself.” (142) Stingo has come upon Sophie with her false teeth removed, giving her the appearance of wearing a mask. While Styron does not cite the connection, the reader remembers Sophie, the way Stingo first saw her, as the “simulacrum” (49) of the dead Maria. Now, with Sophie’s face collapsed from its usual beautiful proportions to this frightening one, the effect produces a shudder. Surely this is a death mask, though in the manner of doubling so often a theme in Gothic fiction, it is difficult for the reader to shake the feeling that the mask is the revelation of what is “real” and not its concealment.

Throughout the novel, Sophie reveals herself to be a character who has suffered a cleaving so thorough she will never recover from it. The famous choice she is asked to make, to pick one of her children for death at Auschwitz, remains one of the most terrifying fictional horrors ever written, set against a backdrop of millions of true horrors, the scope of which, while achieved by humans, remains almost unimaginable by them. In this way, Styron’s story enters the dark depths of the Gothic, formed as it is by the monster that most people prefer not to consider, as if, by some mirror alchemy, to look at the monster is to become one. Styron seems aware of this reluctance to go to the mirror when Stingo writes, “the embodiment of evil which Auschwitz has become remains impenetrable so long as we shrink from trying to penetrate it.” (237)

David R. Saliba, Ph.D., the author of A Psychology of Fear, a book of literary criticism about structural developments in Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, maintains a website, ScepticThomas.com, where he cites five characteristics that distinguish Gothic literature from other genres.

  1. 1.  There is a victim who is helpless against his torturer.

Certainly no one doubts that Sophie, in the concentration

camp, is helpless against the Nazis. What serves the Gothic nature of this story is that even when she is out of the camp, all the way in America, she is still prisoner. Sophie is tormented by brutal, inescapable guilt for having lived.

Sophie has been so thoroughly assaulted by evil that she comes to think of herself as the bearer of it. Near the end of the book, Sophie, in anguish, calls herself the Nazis’ collaborator. Stingo insists she was just a victim.

In Gothic fiction the distinction between opposites becomes uncertain. Just as language is broken open to reveal its reach, boundaries of good and evil are breached to reveal their permeability.

When Sophie first talks about her childhood, she describes storks that looked liked the storks in a book of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, as well as the crooked chimneys and church clock tower with the trumpet-playing men. Stingo tells the reader of his earlier accommodations at the University club, overlooking the “enchanted garden” below. (15) But when Sophie enters Auschwitz and becomes a member of the household staff of Rudolf Hoss, Stingo describes the family garden there as an “enchanted bower” (167) and the reader remembers that fairy tales, before they were co-opted by a cartoon world, were Gothic fictions most of all.

Were it only so easy that the very bad is always bad and the very good only that. Had Styron told the story of Sophie in the concentration camp, then brought her to America to live the wounded life of one who has been victimized and brutalized by the terrible other, it would not be the Gothic story it is. Or, as Stingo muses, “if Sophie had been just a victim, she would have seemed ‘merely pathetic.’” (237)

In Gothic, Botting cites the “loss of the human identity and the alienation of self” (157) as defining elements of the genre. Sophie is the victim who cannot escape the torturer because she is the torturer too. Sophie not only types her father’s anti-Semitic pamphlet in which he calls for the extinction of Jews, but distributes it as well. She doesn’t want to distribute it, and the memory of her father’s assumption that she will arrives with the realization of her hate of him, but she does distribute it. Later, while at Auschwitz, she keeps the pamphlet, hoping she might use it to secure some measure of safety.

The choice Sophie is required to make, where there is no redeeming alternative, creates a literal and mental severing that it is doubtful anyone could survive whole. To refuse to choose was to choose death for both children. It is easy to forget that in the midst of that terrifying scene, Sophie chooses life. Over and over again, Sophie chooses life with the tenacity of one refusing to release the thorned rose, though the grasp wounds.

Within the dark chambers of this Holocaust story it is also easy to forget that Sophie was a Catholic. Her loss of faith is reflective of her loss of self, the sense of abandonment she suffered. It is not at Auschwitz, however, that Sophie feels God turn away from her. She is angry at Him then, but afterwards, when she is freed, she goes to a church to kill herself because she thinks it would be a great sacrilege. At that point, Sophie still thinks there is someone to be angry at. Sophie, as a child, used to play a game she called “Looking for the Shape of God.” She is still playing that game when she goes to the country inn with Nathan and meets his demonic side there. Only then, after everything she has gone through, does Sophie see God leaving her, “turning his back on me like some great beast and go crashing through the leaves.” (375)

Sophie is a woman tormented by what she did for life. There is no redemption for her guilt. Nor is there any escape. Sophie uses Christian imagery to describe what she has become when she points to her heart and pulls away the imaginary veil there. “Only this has changed, I think,” she says. “It has been hurt so much, it has turned to stone.” (540)

Sophie is helpless against her torturer, first at Auschwitz, and then everywhere, because the torment she experienced was an internal corruption as violent as any of the Holocaust medical experiments.

  1. 2.  There is also a victimizer who is associated with evil and whose powers are immense and supernatural.

What would Sophie’s life have been like had the Nazis never

come to power? Her husband’s minor appearance in the novel reveals him as an unkind man, at best. Her father used her for her talent with language, liked to display her beauty, and had no apparent affection for her at all. Her mother seems an ineffectual person throughout.

Sophie, with her weakness for “getting along,” likely would have done just that. There is nothing to indicate she would have risen above her circumstances to find what we like all our heroines to find, true love and happiness.

Yet didn’t Sophie deserve the opportunity to make a mess of her life? Why couldn’t her poor choices have been relegated to the mundane reality of choosing the wrong man to marry, being loyal to a father that didn’t deserve it, emulating a mother who could not protect her own daughter?

The entire novel offers only a few scenes at Auschwitz. Styron turns to other sources to develop a picture of evil both vast and intimate. He quotes Hoss’s actual account, written in prison while awaiting his own execution: “My invariable answer was that the iron determination with which we must carry out Hitler’s orders could only be obtained by a stifling of all human emotions.” (166)

The sublime implies humans can, through feelings and language, transcend their condition. In other words, the way to arrive at the spiritual height the Gothic strives for is at least partly through the territory that separates human from beast, the realm of emotions.

Stingo, in his exploration of Holocaust horror through an examination of other texts (this text-within-text style is a frequent Gothic tool), turns to Richard L. Rubenstein’s book, The Cunning of History. The Gothic depravity of Sophie’s choice, the element that defines as well as consumes Sophie, lies in the immense power of the Nazis to siphon emotion so entirely that their victims became, as Rubenstein describes them in a term later used to describe a different fictional horror, the “Living dead.” (Styron 257)

The inclusion of elements of the supernatural is often the primary characteristic used to define Gothic fiction, and Stingo does allude to that realm. In describing the boarding house he writes, “…and had I been able to use a turn of phrase current some years later, I might have said Yetta’s house gave off bad vibrations.” (48) Sophie describes a premonition she had “and was filled with the slowly mounting frightful sensation.” (91) She tells Stingo that seeing two nuns is bad luck. A Russian fortune teller reads Sophie’s palm and tells her that “everything will turn out well.” (331) In fact so prominent is Sophie’s tendency towards belief in what most people consider the supernatural that Stingo writes, “Sophie had a confused and unformed belief in precognition, even of clairvoyance.” (440)

Yet the supernatural elements in Sophie’s Choice don’t rest in the meaning we most often associate with the word, but rather in the secondary definition as cited in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume Two: “Beyond the natural or ordinary; unnaturally or extraordinarily great.” (3112)

When Sophie points to her stone heart and says that only it has changed, she is saying everything has changed. What was once a human being is a human dying; the torment she suffers at the hands of the Nazis is not diminished by the removal of those hands. The Nazis are not inhabitants of a realm beyond earth. This does not make them less evil. Evil does not depend on the physical world. Its power, harnessed by the Nazis, went well beyond the natural or ordinary into the realm of super terror. In using Gothic elements to tell this story, Styron asks the reader to remember that the supernatural is not just the territory of phantoms, but humans as well, though its reach is beyond human reach. “Someday,” Stingo says, “I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world.” (560)

  1. 3.  The setting of the gothic story, at some point within

impenetrable walls (physical or psychological), heightens

the victim’s sense of hopeless isolation.

It is important to remember that when the Gothic fiction of castles and cathedrals was being written, those edifices were a common part of the landscape. Gothic fiction was once considered vital because it engaged with frightening aspects of the real world. The spiritual element of Gothic fiction, the secretive monks and frequent Catholic imagery, was potent because it tapped into the nature of fear in society at that time. What if the spiritual guide was the devil’s helper and not the angel’s? What secrets lived in the dark rooms of the castle on the hill? What if evil was amorphous?

Because of its transgressive nature, Gothic literature was not embraced by the establishment, and over time became associated with the less refined tastes of a lower class. The definition of Gothic literature became bound to the material of its past, and in that way, the Gothic became almost silly.

However, real Gothic literature is really frightening. What could possibly be more frightening than Auschwitz?

In Stingo’s investigation into the turmoil Sophie suffered he comes across a quote by Simone Weill that perfectly describes the guilt Sophie will not be able to survive.

Affliction stamps the soul to its very

depth with the scorn, the disgust and even

the self-hatred and sense of guilt

that crime logically should produce but

actually does not.

(Styron 158)

So it is that Rudolf Hoss, the commandant at Auschwitz, the man who tells Sophie he will let her see her son, and then changes his mind as though it is a matter of little importance, like changing his drink order, is able to write that he was “no longer happy in Auschwitz once the mass extermination had begun”  (166) while Sophie, with her love of music, her hungry appetite and her eager sexuality, is left to tap at her breast bone and say that all that is left of her heart is stone.

Sophie’s personal history, that of a Holocaust survivor, heightens her isolation. First, at a very basic, physical level; Sophie is, after all, an immigrant with no surviving family members. During the period Stingo writes about, the atrocities that happened in Auschwitz have been made public. Rudolf Hoss is in prison, charged with war crimes. When Sophie meets a group of Nathan’s friends they comment, out of her hearing, on her tattooed wrist. Nathan, in his dark temper, taunts Sophie with the question of what she did to survive when so many did not.

In this way, Stryon highlights the universal ownership of Sophie’s personal history, how it not only doesn’t decrease her isolation, but increases it. Even though Sophie chooses to tell Stingo what she’s told no one else, there is no sense that the sharing relieves her burden. Even Stingo, who loves Sophie, cannot reach through the dark of her past to place a light there. No one can. It is too dark, and the reach too far. So spectacularly does Stingo fall short of understanding what Sophie’s been through, that when he attempts to bring her south, he insists convention dictates they will have to marry. The reader is left to watch this exchange, knowing what Stingo does not recognize. No marriage can make Sophie less isolated, and in fact, this idea of marrying Stingo only highlights what Sophie realizes: her isolation is total, terrible and inescapable.

  1. 4.  The atmosphere is pervaded by a sense of mystery, darkness, oppressiveness, fear and doom to recreate the atmosphere of a crypt, a symbol of man’s spiritual death.

It bears repeating that the first time Stingo sees Sophie he is struck by how much she reminds him of his first crush, Maria, who he has learned recently killed herself. Shortly after this, Stingo hears Nathan tell Sophie that they are dying. Stingo describes the gloom hovering around Sophie as “almost visible.” (537) When they are on the train together, heading South, and Stingo loses Sophie, he finds her at the end of the car, “a bleak cage of a vestibule” (498) where Sophie gazes up at him and says she doesn’t think she’s going to make it.

Spiritual death exists here, not merely as symbol but as theme as well. Catholic Sophie has lost her religion so entirely she tells Stingo, “I know that my Redeemer don’t live and my body will be destroyed by worms and my eyes will never again see God.” (93)

Styron tells this horrible story and yet keeps us reading by using Gothic elements with great facility. For instance, much of the present story takes place in Yetta Zimmerman’s boarding house. Where a lesser writer might have made the locale as dark and gloomy as the story inside it, Styron paints the building pink. It glows throughout the novel like a stubborn sunset.

The house should be gloomy, but it is not. When Stingo first sees it, he is reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The reference is both pleasant and unnerving. Clearly, Styron is saying that we are entering a different world. The pink is wrong, but it is not intrinsically frightening. This is what Styron does so well with the Gothic elements. He knows how to use them adroitly. He doesn’t move away from the form to provide relief for the reader from the excess of Gothic, but rather, uses the form to its best advantage to keep the reader uncertain, but reading on.

Another aspect of the Gothic, not mentioned in Saliba’s list, is that of strange or unexpected juxtapositions. While an obvious example of the Gothic is a dark and gloomy castle, the gloom of Sophie’s Choice is no less prevalent without one. Under Stryon’s expert hands, gloom moves like a fog, creeping into unexpected corners, somehow made more pervasive by its uncertain travel.

The fairy-tale imagery and poetic whimsy in the midst of this Holocaust story, beautiful Sophie unmasked as the “old hag” Stingo spies when he sees her without her false teeth, the image Styron chooses to describe Emmi when Sophie collapses in the child’s room as “like that of a swollen fetus” (433) – all create a Gothic sense of disorientation.

In Stingo’s study of other texts as some foundation to explain what happened to Sophie, he refers to George Steiner’s perspective on “time relation.” After describing the brutal deaths of two Jews at Treblinka he writes that at precisely the same hour “the overwhelming plurality of human beings…were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist.” (234)

Stingo, aided by old letters from his father, is able to remember exactly what he was doing on the day Sophie arrived in Auschwitz, “a beautiful day,” she said, when “the forsythia was in bloom.” (509) Stingo was eating bananas in Raleigh, North Carolina, the realization prompting him to note that he became “for the first time in my life aware of the meaning of the Absurd and its conclusive, unrevocable horror.” (509)

The excess of Gothic novels serves to push the boundaries that keep us rooted in our human gravity, to reach beyond the body by exploring its inevitable limitations, to reach beyond language by burrowing into each word in recognition of the meaning that birthed it, to reach the sublime through the weight of being human juxtaposed against what most of us already know: nothing is certain but absurdity.

  1. 5.  The victim is in some way entranced or fascinated by the

inscrutable power of his victimizer.

Though much of its meaning has been diluted by the Disney-fication of “reality,” the Gothic writer is aware of the darker tonal aspects of the word, “fascinate.”  Embedded in the shiny bright thing it has become is the meaning to “put under a spell,” (Oxford Volume 1 932) the territory of witchcraft and serpents.

“I was fascinated by this unbelievable thing that was happening to the Jews,” (Styron 510) Sophie tells Stingo, hastening to add that her fascination was not composed of pleasure.

In the present arc of the story, Sophie displays little interest in the Nazis. Instead, Sophie’s fascination falls on Nathan. Though it is true that Sophie, perhaps infected by her father, married a man, her first husband, who was cruel to her well before the trauma of Auschwitz, it is also true that what she suffered there cleaved her profoundly. It is this woman, struggling, as Stingo says, “with the demon of her own schizoid conscience” (269) who falls in love with Nathan, a man who sings the libretto from Don Giovanni by heart, whose enthusiasm is infectious, who saves Sophie when she faints at the library. As Sophie says to Stingo about Nathan, “he was my savior…and I never had a savior before.” (170)

It is an alluring notion to think that Sophie, who has suffered so much, has been rescued by the grand emotion of love. But what few humans can escape is love’s mirror. The fear that to look at the monster is to become one is rooted in the primal knowledge that who we are fascinated by, or who we love, is fashioned from the material of our lives. In other words, the “other” is often the self.

Another prominent theme in Gothic literature is that of the double, the duality of good and evil usually expressed within a single character. It is easy to love Sophie who is beautiful, smart, and tragic. When she displays an ugly tendency, such as when she tells Stingo that she always did hate the Jews, it is easy to dismiss the sentiment, as Stingo does, as an expression of her distress, and not of her true spirit.

What the reader wants of Sophie is that she be made whole again, in some way, even if it be an imperfect wholeness. Where is such healing wrought but in love?

Sophie’s suffering, her damaged psyche, is manifest in who she loves, Nathan. Where the split in Sophie is a divide she cannot heal, it is made more horrible by her recognition of it. When her Prince Nathan appears, Sophie feels she is being saved, until he reveals his own double, his demon side. Sophie is tormented by what happened to her and what she did at Auschwitz, she cannot escape her self, her guilt, or her past, but the narrative arc of Sophie’s Choice does not rest in what she has done but in what she is doing, and Sophie is loving Nathan, a man who abuses her and then cries in her arms, begging forgiveness.

In Gothic excess, Nathan is the double of Sophie’s divided self. While Sophie is severed by what she has done, Nathan is severed by what he is, a paranoid schizophrenic, the embodiment of the human split.

When Sophie has the opportunity to leave Nathan, she is drawn back to him, as one is always drawn by what fascinates, though she cannot survive the fascination. Nathan is the flame to her moth, the destruction she feels she deserves.

Did Styron know he was writing a Gothic novel? It is difficult to believe he did not. His narrator, Stingo, cites his affection for Faulkner, generally accepted as a Southern Gothic writer. Styron even uses what any writer knows to be precious, the last page of the novel, to describe his “abominable dreams” after Nathan and Sophie’s death, “which seemed to be a compendium of all the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.” (Styron 562) The community of great Gothic literature includes in its oeuvre Moby Dick. Surely Styron knew what he was doing when Stingo introduces himself to the reader with the phrase, “Call me Stingo.” (4) The many references to Gothic as a descriptor also offer in-text confirmation of the author’s intent. In G. R. Thompson’s excellent introduction to The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, he offers a description of the Gothic hero as “ultimately torn apart by demons,” one who “faces a world that he has no hope of comprehending and in which he cannot make the proper moral choices.” (Thompson 6) Minus the pronoun, this is an excellent description of Sophie.

Why is it necessary to locate Sophie’s Choice within the Gothic tradition? After all, doesn’t certain fiction rise above form to occupy that rarefied space reserved for works of genius?
Well, yes, and no. Sophie’s Choice is a great work and deserves to be placed amongst other great works. Yet we do a disservice to the literary conversation by not acknowledging its content. To dismiss the form as insignificant is to relegate all other voices in this conversation to the dark they engage with. To suggest, by censure, that true literature has no place for the Gothic is to propagate the idea that to look at the monster is to become one. It is ironic that Gothic literature, so often ridiculed as the work of superstitious minds, is censored by a lingering fear of looking at what is terrible.

Gothic literature is, by definition, a literature of excess; it can be sloppy, raw, and uncomfortable. The emotional space of Gothic literature is extreme, especially when read by a society that considers extravagant expression a sign of immaturity. Yet Sophie’s Choice, with its wide emotional arcs, carries within it the opposite poles, the life without feeling. Remember Colonel Hoss who wrote that he could only carry out his duties by stifling all emotions? Consider Sophie, who describes how, after the war, she could no longer cry and had no more emotions, equating the emotional life with the spiritual one when she says, “I couldn’t any longer pray to Him or could I cry.” (92)

In her introduction to Best American Mystery Stories 2005, Joyce Carol Oates writes,

I don’t think it’s an irony that as a writer, I am

drawn to such material. There is no art in violence, only crude, cruel, raw, and irremediable harm,

but there can be art in the strategies by which

violence is endured, transcended, and transformed

by survivors…  (13)

Sometimes people wonder why anyone reads Gothic literature, heavy as it is with doom, dark with the certainty of the hero’s failure. What Gothic literature remembers is that every fiction has a ghost, the unseen reader whose power within the story is limited to watching it unfold. In Gothic literature, the hero falls, but there is always that survivor, the reader, who closes the book or exits the screen, who has engaged with evil without being destroyed by it. All great literature changes the ghosts who’ve read the fiction into the humans who survive and transcend it. The sublime reach of the Gothic is not achieved by the hero, whose fall is often spectacular as an angel on fire. Gothic fiction, such as Sophie’s Choice, works within the space between the gravity of being human and the height of those angels, seeking the numinous the hero will never reach, but the reader might.

—Mary Rickert

Works Cited

Botting, Fred Gothic. Routledge, 1996

Clark, Kenneth The Gothic Revival An Essay in the History of Taste.  Icon Editions Harper and Row, 1962

Oates, Joyce Carol (Editor) Best American Mystery Stories, 2005. Houghton Mifflin Company

Thompson, G. R. The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Washington State University Press, 1974

Styron, William Sophie’s Choice. Vintage International, 1992

Web sites:




Mary Rickert’s short fiction, which has been awarded World Fantasy, Crawford, and Shirley Jackson awards, has been collected in Map of Dreams and Holiday.

Oct 182012

It’s a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics, but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.  — Jason DeYoung

Daniel Fights a Hurricane
Shane Jones
209 pages
Penguin USA, 2012

“The cry of terror called forth by the unfamiliar becomes its name.”
—Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

“Beauty in novels is important to me,” Shane Jones says in a recent BOMB interview. “I really don’t care for novels that have an agenda, a political statement, a sassy take on contemporary society. Give me something fucked-up and beautiful.”  Wistful yet playful, Shane Jones’s novel Daniel Fights a Hurricane wrings out an unsettling story about madness and suffering for love.  It’s a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics, but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.

Daniel Fights a Hurricane is Shane Jones’s second novel.  His first novel, Light Boxes (2009), is one of those rare books first published by an indie press (Publishing Genius Press out of Baltimore) and subsequently purchased and reprinted by a “big house” (Penguin Books, in this case). I’ve long admired Penguin for taking chances on gifted writers who don’t fit the mold, and Light Boxes is not standard big publisher fare.  It’s about a town—perhaps imaginary—under siege by February, who might be the author of the novel Light Boxes.  February is punishing the townsfolk for flying hot-air balloons. The townies, along with a group of rogue balloonists known as the Solution, go to war with February. It’s bonkers. But it’s a deeply felt novel about depression and hope, with characters emoting genuine reactions to their odd circumstances.  Along with Light Boxes, Jones has published two other books: A Cake Appeared, a book of poems; and The Failure Six, a novella

While Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Daniel) shares some spirited similarities with Light Boxes, it is a more fleshed-out novel. Daniel tells the story of a husband and a wife—Daniel and Karen—and it splits narratively between two different worlds.  One is the “real” world, a reality where Daniel works on an oil pipeline. The other is Daniel’s imagination, an imaginary world slowly taking over, perhaps because he wants it to, as he says, “[it] is haunting, but so beautiful that I want to live [it].”  When Daniel is fired from his job, his imagination grows larger, and he further removes himself from reality by living in a tipi in the woods.

Shane Jones says this about Daniel’s structure:

[O]ne part of the book, containing the sections with Daniel, is a tree. The tree is growing straight up into the sky. In this part, I can do whatever I want, I have total freedom in creation. The tree is uncontrollable and just insanely growing. The other part of the book—the one with Karen—is based on reality, and is like vines growing around the tree. The vines and the tree are separate but every once in a while, they cut into each other, and you have this intersection of the parts with Daniel and the parts with Karen.

So let’s start first with that uncontrollable imagination, which become more like hallucinations as the novel progresses.

In his dreamscape, Daniel is assembling a different sort of pipeline from the one he’s hired to build in reality. The fantasy pipeline is meant to go to the ocean to provide water for his imaginary town. Daniel is “responsible for the pipeline” and the town is thirsty; just the other day a baby died. True, you can’t survive on seawater, so one doesn’t know how this is going to help those parched children, so it’s best not to question Daniel’s dreamscape too much. Though sequence and consequence exists, his realm of pure imagination runs primarily on free association and self-suggestion.

Within his dreamscape a number of misfit characters help to build this pipeline. There is Iamso, a poet man-child, who writes poems to tell Daniel how he feels.  There is the Two-Second Dreamer, who sleeps for two seconds and dreams for anyone who needs a new dream.  There is the Man with the Tattoos, who is covered in tats of Daniel’s imagined town.  And then there is Peter, who is also known as the World’s Most Beautiful Man with the World’s Worst Teeth.  These characters beg for a Freudian or Jungian reading, especially with Iamso’s eventual take over.  (I am so. Get it?)  But, in fact, Daniel has this intoxicating feel of endlessness to it, and the novel as a whole contains such a mysterious arrangement of metaphor and contrast that it’s ripe for many readings and interpretations.

Pipeline construction, however, is just an impediment to Daniel’s search for his imaginary wife, the novel’s primary thrust.  In the real world, Karen Suppleton is Daniel’s estranged wife, who after years of dealing with his mental breaks from reality, has had enough, and has recently left him.  But, in the dreamscape, Helena is Daniel’s wife, and she has inexpiably disappeared.

Throughout the novel, Daniel has near misses with Helena, while other characters see her and point him in her direction. Daniel’s psychosis will not allow him to be happy.  In an effort perhaps to regain some dominance over his dream, Daniel decides to “take” a new Helena, yet his imaginary friends (side kicks? minions? gremlins?) concoct a ceremony in which Daniel closes his eyes, they spin him twice, whereupon he opens his eyes and the new Helena is gone: “Go and find her… She’s somewhere around the mountain,” says Iamso.  This doesn’t just make for a good way to nudge the plot along, but gets to something at Daniel’s core.  If his strongest desire is to live in his fantasy world—a world he finds so beguiling—then he has to remain unfulfilled. As Norwegian novelist Stig Sæterbakken once wrote: “We want to hold onto our strongest desires. We want to remain unfulfilled. We want to be alive.”[*]

Along with this cast of friends, what also keeps Daniel unfulfilled is the Hurricane. Even at the slightest hint of a breeze Daniel begins to worry. What is the Hurricane? “It’s my fear. It’s the fear,” Daniel says. Since childhood, the Hurricane has churned his madness.  But it isn’t a storm as we might think of it (though an actual hurricane does appears late in the novel). The Hurricane of Daniel’s imagination morphs, taking on different incarnations. At times it’s a garbage collector, a pack of wild children, a sky beast with claws, a faceless storm that “scream[s] ocean” and breaks “the sky in odd angles”—but no one knows.  Mid-way through the novel, one of Daniel’s imaginary friends creates more confusion by writing a list of what the Hurricane might be—“black magic, Godlike spirit, the horizon moving, everyone’s vision of death combined, optical-illusion hologram, mountain growing.” Whatever it is, it is usually a manifestation of something primal and terrifying.

Admittedly, I’m writing about the imagination section in broad strokes.  It’s a dream, a hallucination, a fantasy and its velocity is as such, turbulent, moving fast, taking odd turns, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes dark.  And it’s quite astounding how much adventure Jones packs into such a slim novel, taking his reader on a frenzied ride through Daniel’s imagination, which includes battles with the Hurricane, searches for lost loves, the invention of graffiti, identity switches, menacing spinsters, a man who calls himself a villain, and on and on, ever surprising:

“My skin sprouted dogs that ran from the beach.”

“The Hurricane throws a handful of mashed-together birds past the bedroom window.”

“I stayed up all night thinking about what’s real and what isn’t. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.”

As the tree of Daniel’s imagination reaches greater heights, the vine of Karen’s story coils the tree. Karen broods through much of the novel.  She sees their estrangement as her betrayal, and she is as tormented by her disloyalty as Daniel is by the Hurricane.  She searches within herself for the strength to go find Daniel, to save him from fantasy. As the novel progresses, her plot and Daniel’s become essentially the same. While Daniel is in his dreamscape looking for his lost wife, Helena, Karen is in reality searching for her lost husband, Daniel.  It gives the novel a finely tuned double-arced symmetry.

Not just the plots mirror, but imagery reverberates, too. When Karen goes to the grocery, she experiences the marketing spectacle of boom and mist as the spray system in the produce department freshens the vegetables.  During one of her soul-searching scenes, she meditates on the bubbles in spring water, while in the dream Daniel nearly drowns in seawater fighting the Hurricane.  Even their mental states echo, as they both share moments where they try to grasp their identities:

“My name is Karen Suppleton. And my ex-husband, mind [is] unraveling somewhere in a forest…”


“My name is Daniel. My wife is missing…”

These statements work two ways.  First they are a reminder to the reader of the individual plots, but they also give the two plots a kind of cohesion.  They are heartbreaking moments, when Karen and Daniel are separately trying to steady themselves within the chaos.

When the two finally reunite, they do not recognize each other.  Daniel has been living in his tipi in the woods for some time, hallucinating his heroic quest to find Helena.  When Karen approaches him, he sees her though the gauzy fever-dream of a starved man.   It’s a story that can’t end happily, and moments later the only “real” hurricane in the book hits and pulls them apart once again. As Daniel has done repeatedly in his imagination, Karen now has to fight to survive the hurricane, ironically named Hurricane Daniel.

For as complex as this novel is the prose and storytelling are sparklingly clear.  Jones weaves skillfully between the two worlds, keeping the logic and sense of both.  A different writer might have opted for odd or tortured sentence constructions to tell this story, but Jones has wisely chosen to keep things straightforward and unadorned:

I see the Hurricane as a monster who walks on water and bumps his head on the sky. He stops and unhinges his jaw. Underwater villagers put ladders up to his mouth. They climb up with burlap bags of salt slung over their shoulders and empty the knife-cut bags onto his tongue. When he’s had enough, the Hurricane walks again. The ladders fall away, and the villagers dive, splash, into the ocean. Clouds of salt dust fill the air that the Hurricane runs to gobble up, his feet smashing against the ocean in steel-drum echoes.

But Jones doesn’t mind tinkering with font size and presentation.  Lists and poems appear throughout the book along with glyph-like drawing which accompany the text. During one of the search party scenes near the end of the novel, an entire page is given over to the word DANIEL which appears six times, each in a different size font, each with a different letter repeated to denote the elongated intonations of Karen’s calls. On the other hand, the font might decrease a few picas when characters whisper.  In such an expressionistic novel as Daniel, these visual tweaks never feel gratuitous or strained.  Instead, they’re used to great effect as a pianist might play keys softly or righteously bang out a note. Additionally, Jones proves the notion of sticking to a singular point-of-view bogus by collaging first and third person with agility.

As in Light Boxes, there’s something extravagant about Daniel with its unabashed mythmaking, fantastic imagery, and whimsical plot turns. Daniel’s imagination is an electrifying and vast place, filled with exotic animals and pipelines, origami and strange weapons; it’s a place of curious freedom to indulge everything quixotic.  Daniel’s story is rich with odd yet sympathetic characters, too, which makes for engrossing reading and doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s imaginary.  Though paradoxically it’s all a work of the imagination. The densely twined dreamscape vs. reality puts the story of its “real” people—Daniel and Karen—in sharp relief.  Their story—about a man who doesn’t get the help he needs, and his wife’s betrayal and search for redemption—is quite different.  Daniel Fights a Hurricane is a trying and conflicting novel, at once beautiful and fun in its construction and storytelling, yet an astonishingly serious and sad story at its core.

[*] Stig Sæterbakken, “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music.” Music & Literature. Issue 1, Fall 2012. Tran. by Stokes Schwartz.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, Numéro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.

Oct 152012

Todd Bartel

Todd Bartel is a renowned collagist and conceptual artist, and Nance Van Winckel is a friend and colleague of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a poet, fiction writer and a creator of her own Off-the-Page works called photoems; the two of them combine here in a kind of extravagant show-and-tell operation, part-exhibit and part-interview. Bartel’s work, as you can readily see, is a gorgeous and complex amalgam of old books (in the first instance, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), old paintings, old photographs and frames, quoted, snipped, and translated, objects and their meanings separated and then reworked, colliding in a metaphoric phantasmagoria which creates yet more meanings and also manipulates the perspective/identity of the viewer/reader.

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of such interviews curated and conducted by Nance.


Nance Van Winckel: I appreciate in Garden Study (“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden) how the Hawthorne text itself invites the viewer to be a reader, to lean in and to take in the words themselves. Could you discuss your own ideas about this viewing/reading interplay? How does it happen? What makes it happen?

Garden Study (“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden), 2004

Two diptych puzzle-piece collages using 19th century paper and The Scarlet Letter remnants (Nathanial Hawthorne 2nd Edition, Riverside Press Cambridge MA 1978, Illustrated), with 20th Century matte and glossy paper, Filmoplast P90, pencil and lead letter type transfer. Arthur Dimmesdale’s collage (left side of frame) is translated from Ralph Albert Blakelock’s painting entitled The Spirit of Night, 1989. Hester Prynne’s collage (right side of frame) is translated from Fredrick Edwin Church’s painting entitled Twilight Short Arbiter, Twixt Day and Night, 1850. Mustard seeds, glass, etched glass, copper tape with patina, 19th century stereoview postcard (View of Salem and Vicinity), archival matt, in handmade (“bent”) frame that turns 90º in order to reside in both sides of a room corner. Each half of the bent frame measures 20 5/8” x 23 1/4” x 1 5/8”. Photo credit: Todd Bartel

Todd Bartel: In 2004, when I was invited by Lucinda Bliss—a direct descendant of Hawthorne and a strong artist herself—to create a work about The Scarlet Letter for inclusion in an exhibition that celebrated the bicentennial of his birth by focusing on his seminal, early American novel, I jumped at the chance to re-read it and to respond with a creation of my own. I started the book not knowing what I would make, and because I am a slow reader, I was glad for the six month lead time before the exhibition. I had no real idea other than I wanted to make a collage out of white paper, and I wanted to somehow involve an image of a landscape. I read the book in high school and enjoyed it, but I was just not prepared for the depth and the beauty of the book I found as an adult reader. My teacher at that time instructed us to skip the reading of The Custom House because it was not in the first edition. So this time around, I was curious to read it. I read it twice before I started the novel proper. During my first reading, I became interested that Hawthorne foreshadowed the portraits of his two primary characters, Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, through symbolic descriptions of light and dark, which pervade the text he inserted to his second edition. Despite the fact that neither of their names appear, they are nevertheless thoroughly invoked. As I reread The Custom House the second time around, I took copious quotes in a notebook I dedicate to the project. Once I had collected the quotes, I naturally read the rest of the book looking for connective clues, and I found an abundance. (I must not have been a very attentive high school reader, or perhaps my high school teacher did not appreciate well enough to point out one overwhelming observation I made as a return reader: Hawthorne’s novel is not a typical novel, but is actually a thoroughly haunting, detailed series of character descriptions, punctuated by a handful of key events.) I was astonished to realize that it is his readers who create the plot. And so, my quotes about each of his four characters ended up almost filling an entire notebook! (I also took notes on Hester’s husband, the doctor, and on Pearl, her illegitimate daughter, but those notes will inform a sister project that has yet to be realized.) In fact, as I was creating “A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden, it would take me an hour or more just to read my own notes on a single character! So deep and so rich are Hawthorne’s observations and descriptions of the human psyche, I decided to create an untypical and odd sort of collage that juxtaposed actual second edition cuttings of his text: key observations about night, darkness, and Dimmesdale with those of day, light, and Prynne. I bought two second editions, one to have and one to cut up. Normally, I juxtapose images as a collagist, but in this case, what is primarily juxtaposed are Hawthorne’s illustrations.

Arthur Dimmesdale’s selected text

Hester Prynne’s selected text











(A note about the term “illustration”: A few years ago I learned that “illustration” originally meant verbal descriptions and “exemplifications.” It wasn’t until 1769, when James Granger added blank pages at the back of his History of England volumes for his readers to supplement the text with “extra illustrations” or “cuttings”—pasted book engravings from other volumes or sources—that the term illustration evolved to mean visual information. See Extending the Book—The Art of Extra-Illustration. Granger had unwittingly invented the scrapbook! And since Granger, the sense of illustration being a visual term has eclipsed the original meaning as a literary term. Did Hawthorne know this, and to some measure was he responding to Granger by devoting his entire novel to illustrations of his main characters?)

Illustrations of dark

Illustrations of light

Selecting certain passages of Hawthorne’s text to juxtapose was like trying to edit Shakespeare! What do you take out? Ultimately, I had to choose quotes that could all live together while pointing to either one character or the other, but which would sadly, not be exhaustive—snippets that together formed an odd sort of paragraph, in the order it originally appeared, with a lot of editing between, but somehow, nevertheless, became page-like in order to illuminate attributes of the each individual’s essence while still referencing the book itself. It was the size and shape of the assembled quotes that altogether determined the dimensions of the shaped frame.

The idea of the shaped frame configuration—which I call a Synterial—came while reading the book, about midway through. Originally, I had set out to make a collage, not a Synterial. However, as it began to occur to me that Arthur and Hester did not live parallel lives—they only ever shared the same space a handful of times throughout the book—the idea of a flat collage was not enough. It seemed to me that their meetings were always events that were far and few between—they met at crossroads, at intersections, at right angles—and understanding that required an altogether different framework. When I realized this, the scope of my initial project expanded and I saw how I could create a shaped frame for the project. Hawthorne’s text had evoked an idea for a frame that could act as a kind of extra illustration of his work. Upon imagining this, it seemed essential for me to create a bent or “cornered frame” to symbolize the choices made by the two main characters. Another way to say this is that I decided to create a frame to house duel portraits by constructing a frame to straddle an actual room corner, which allows for placing one portrait on the left wall and the other on the right. Despite the separateness, both sides of the frame are inextricably bound. Thus, the cornered frame becomes a physical metaphor for Hester’s and Arthur’s choices to back themselves into a place, with nowhere else to move but away from each other.

“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden

“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden

In addition to collecting and fusing the textual cuttings, I also selected two quintessential pairs of quotes that exemplified each character, and I used them in different ways. I used one set of quotes to impress into the white paper collages of period landscape paintings by Ralph Albert Blakelock (Dimmsdale’s side) and Frederic Edwin Church (Prynne’s side), which flank each text collage. Both painters were alive during Hawthorne’s lifetime, but Blakelock’s painting was created well after the book’s success. Nevertheless, each collage of the selected landscape paintings—which I refer to as white paper translations or blank paper translations—echo the character adjacent to the text collage. Blakelock’s, The Spirit of Night, 1886–95, bears the phrase “joy unutterable,” and Church’s, Twilight, Short Arbiter ‘Twixt Day and Night, 1850, bears the phrase “beneath the open sky.”

Blakelock’s The Spirit of Night, 1886-95

Church’s Twilight, Short Arbiter ‘Twixt Day and Night, 1850

Text impressed into white paper collages using 19th century lead type, rubbed, bone burnished from the back of each respective collage

Dimmesdale refused to publicly share his secret while Prynne wore hers out in the open. Similarly, Church was widely known for his plein-air paintings, while Blakelock’s fame came from his paintings of the night sky, and although sadly appropriate, Blakelock went “mad” by the end of his life, which seemed compelling enough to reference for a portrait of Dimmesdale. The second pair of quotes was etched into the glass and reside over the respective text collages. Each was taken from that moment in the book when late in life they met in the forest and asked each other the following questions:

Dimmesdale: Dost thou yet live?

Prynne: Art thou in life?

Glass etched quotes

Those questions exist as if to say, “Was it worth it?” For me, this attitude of American passion seemed a defining characteristic of our culture. As one of the first widely published American novels, it seemed not a stretch of the imagination to claim this couple as America’s very own Adam and Eve.

NVW: I think the boxes themselves give these pieces such power and resonance. The encapsulated. The crypt-like. The one lifted out of the many. I’m intrigued too with your ideas about “Stynterials” and “coupling particular frames with particular verbal ideas.” Might you say a little about what’s inclined you to the “boxed”?

TB: In a wonderful essay on the boxed sculpture format, Donald Kuspit wrote, “Inner reality will always find a way to act itself out through external reality. This process is what the box sculpture epitomizes.”1 Kuspit’s observation is what allowed me to stay making boxed constructions when I was in graduate school and was heavily questioned about why I put my work in frames, behind glass. Cornell had epitomized the process and many others had come before me. Such history made it hard for me to find the wherewithal to attempt to contribute to the genre. But it was Kuspit who helped me to realize that whatever I put inside the box would equivocate my existence and my experience, something that is not reproducible. I began the Synterial series when I realized that the box does not need to be square. The first Synterial idea I developed was the notion of a frame with a bridge to another frame—an idea that stayed dormant until the day I took my five-year-old son to the Planetarium in NYC the early winter of 2001. At that marvelous museum in the first vitrine, which has a beautiful display of the elements from the periodic table, I found a quote from Walt Whitman alongside the rocks it contained: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of stars.” In that instance I saw the rationale for what it meant to create a frame with a bridge to another frame. Soon afterward I realized that all the other ideas I had for shaped frames needed to be informed by accompanying texts.

Todd Bartel, Garden Study (Pollination of Devonia), 2002, 55 3/8” x 22 5/8” x 1 1/4”

Computer-cut mat board, etched glass bearing the word “re member,” mustard seeds between three layers of glass and copper tape with patina in constructed wood frame; watercolor, ink, Craypas, tempera, charcoal, and blood on two pages from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, with collage on 19th century engraving; tempera and watercolor over Xerox transfers (text from Genesis 1–3, 26) on 19th century book end pages. Photo credit: Tom Young

First two elements over Genesis 1–3, 26

Mustard seeds over Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Bridge center with etched glass over mustard seeds

Elements of human biology and watercolor interpretation of Charles R. Knight’s rendition of the Devonian Era

NVW: Joseph Cornell. I know you were just part of a show of visual artists following in the Cornell tradition. So many poets have written poems to him or for him. Charles Simic has a whole book of prose poems devoted to his work (Dime Store Alchemy). What is it about Cornell’s work that you think speaks especially to readers and writers? And do you think that same “something” pertains to your own work, and if so, how and/or why?

TB: Cornell once wrote on a scrap of paper, “Nostalgia anyone?”

Cornell’s invocation says so much about his work, my own work, and I think collage in general. The past is rich beyond adequate expressiveness; to rekindle it is to offer another chance to see again. As a collage-based artist, I am always compelled to pull the past back into the present as a way of pointing out we are not done thinking about the thing that reappears. My current work is about landscape and cultural identity. Cornell’s work was always about the subject of wonder. I share an affinity for that aspect of Cornell’s universe, and often my study brings me to the same materials he used, particularly those of the nineteenth century. But my acute fascination surrounds the transition from the industrial age into the one we find ourselves in now and that is where my work separates from the twentieth century master’s.

1 Kuspit, Donald, On Being Boxed In, in Sculpture, Vol.10 # 4 , November–December 1991, p. 37.

— Todd Bartel & Nance Van Winckel


Todd Bartel received his BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1985 and studied in Rome at RISD’s European Honors Program between 1984-1985. In 1990, he was a recipient of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship (U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.). He achieved his MFA in Painting from Carnegie Mellon University in 1993. Todd Bartel’s work assumes the forms of painting, drawing and sculpture in a collage and assemblage format. His work investigates the interconnected histories of collage and landscape and the role of nature and natural resources in Western culture. His work has been exhibited nationally in venues that include Palo Alto Art Center, Katonah Museum, Brockton Art Museum, The Rhode Island Foundation, Zieher Smith, Mills Gallery. He is the gallery director at the Cambridge School of Weston’s (CSW) Thompson Gallery, where he teaches drawing, painting, conceptual art, collage, assemblage and installation art.
See also:

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

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


Oct 152012


Herewith a lovely, touching, immaculately detailed essay about books and reading by Fleda Brown who is the former Poet Laureate of Delaware and Sydney Lea’s friend (Syd is my old friend and the current Poet Laureate of Vermont) which is how I came by “Books Made of Paper.” As Syd explains: “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals — see attachment); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Numéro Cinq is just the place, apparently, for we have published two of Syd’s essays, “Unskunked” and “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know“. And now we have Fleda Brown’s response, the other voice in the conversation, and she begins with a sweet evocation of childhood and libraries and books — the little girl climbing the narrow dusty steps to the room of stacked books. Oh, to have written the lines: “I think of everything as worn, the floors, the stacks themselves, the central desk. I was entering a privacy, a sanctum with hidden grottos, secrets. All that I did not know felt like an emptiness in my skinny body.”

There is some dazzling yet subtle intimacy in these essays Syd and Fleda are writing; they speak to the reader but also straight to each other, old, literate friends for whom memory and books are the lingua franca. It’s a huge pleasure and privilege to have them here on NC.



The old libraries were upstairs. Up long, narrow stairs. Maybe not all of them, but some. The one I knew. As if it were a secret, a garret. They were all musty. Or some of them. Or, the only one I knew back then, with its severe guardian, or one who seemed severe, who had severe bones and counted the books to the limit of six. When you’re small, I suppose the world itself outside of family feels severe, rule-bound, alien. But what do I know of what it was like for others? I would climb the dark stairs on Saturdays to where they opened out into the grand, narrow stacks, and I would meander my way among them, not a clue what I wanted, how to choose, except by heft, texture, print. All the covers were red, green, or brown cloth-like texture on hardboard of some sort, all the titles pressed into the board in black or gilt, all worn. I think of everything as worn, the floors, the stacks themselves, the central desk. I was entering a privacy, a sanctum with hidden grottos, secrets. All that I did not know felt like an emptiness in my skinny body. What I could know was stacked and turned away, spines out, forbidding, colluding, pulling at me. I was helpless and hopeless, and when I picked out my six, I had no idea if they were the right ones. If they were the ones that would reveal to me any part of what I needed for my soul.

Before that, I remember nothing of libraries. I remember story hour in Middlebury, all of us hanging up our snowsuits and sitting in a circle. I remember the circle but not the stories. How was it that the stories went into me and lodged somewhere unreachable yet sent their perfume into the crevices of my character? I remember the semicircle of first grade, sounding out syllables one by one to hear the ruckus when Dick and Jane chased Spot around the yard. “No, Spot!” Jane called when the leaf pile flew into the air, pictures and words speaking in unison. I can smell the perfect certainty of the book, the waft of its origin, of organic matter. I can feel its soft, cloth-like pages with their slight sheen.

What did I read, after I could?  Mostly easy books, below my level, for a long time. I was a lazy child in that way, wallowing alone in my own mind, wanting my mind separate, I guess, from the struggles toward a book’s difficult language, difficult plot. I read and re-read Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, my favorite book in grade school, the story of orphaned children who set up their home in a boxcar, who made it theirs by collecting cracked dishes from a nearby dump, dipping water from a convenient stream, going into town only to work briefly for a few potatoes, a little bread. I loved the way they distrusted the adult world’s ability to look after them and went at it for themselves. I loved their small world. Home was a miniature windowless island on rusted rails on the outskirts of so-called civilization. I also loved The Good Master, by Kate Seredy, the story of a smart and wild Hungarian girl who was partially tamed by her kind uncle. I look it up, now. Amazon has copies in a new cover, but Wikipedia shows the original heart-shape on a blue background. It is only that version that I want. With the jacket a little frayed from use. But it’s long gone, and even if I could have an exact replica, or the original bought from some used book dealer, I would not. It’s the one on our cottage shelves that I want. It is the nine-year-old reading it over and over on long summer days that I want. Not me now.  And Heidi. Another wild girl noticed and loved into good behavior by her kind uncle. Later when my friends were reading Black Beauty; I was being a horse, galloping across the playground. But not reading the stories. I read the Hardy Boys, some of them. I read Nancy Drew, some of them.

What I remember rather than stories themselves is the feel of reading. The way the book and I came together as if we were enclosed under gauze netting, the outside world barely whispering. I remember the graininess, the slightly darkened paper, the words actually pressed into them, the texture of the pressing. My body curled, holding in the story. When I was a teenager, my grandparents gave me a stack of old Readers’ Digest Condensed books. I read them all, one after the other, lying in bed on summer mornings, lying in bed the month I had mono and had to stay home from school. Easy reading. Lazy.

It was as if my mind was needed elsewhere, to just live, to figure out my own life, to muddle through the day-by-day. All I could afford was this small turning away, this coasting into the heart of someone else’s life.  Through high school, I read what I had to—history, the sterile excerpts in my English anthology, I’m not sure what else. Nothing stands out. Even the most modest of writers’ memoirs typically tout a list of books read by high school that I hadn’t even heard of until mid-college.

Ah, college. I should mention I got myself married before I even set foot in the door of college. That’s another story. But within that new stability, that safety, a wide and unforseen world began to present itself. My freshman reading list drove me wild with terror and joy. All I remember is that there were many pages in small type. Dickens, Camus, Tolstoy, maybe. One Christmas holiday, I read War and Peace, page by gloriously laborious page. I have a memory of reading it under a tree in the warmth of a winter afternoon in Arkansas, the snow of Moscow all around me.

Maybe we love what we love because it’s hard going. Maybe we love it because we’re supposed to. Maybe we don’t love it at all, but want to prove something to ourselves. All I know is that my mind quivered with new ideas, with ratification of old ones, with the sheer physical weight of other people’s words I cradled like a baby in my arms back and forth to class.  I don’t remember any back packs. Girls cradled their books and notebooks, stacked in their arms like a baby up to the chin. Boys carried them in one arm alongside. Knowledge had heft and weight, it pressed itself onto the page, it spread itself and turned itself in the breeze like leaves.

Meaning was an amalgam of the physical object: the book, its cover, its pages, and where the words flew into my mind and rearranged themselves according to the whims of my nature. I think it is not the grand and classic narrative, the movement of events, that held the meaning, but the feeling, the interstices, the spaces when I looked up from the page, where I stopped to scribble, and where, later, I brought along a whiff of what was there, to permeate my thoughts.

I am very visual, more than anything, and I would—and still do—recall what the page looks like, how far down the page, whether octavo or verso, where the lines I love appear. Their meaning has to do with font, with ink, with crispness, delicacy, or heaviness of the paper itself. The Norton anthologies with their biblically thin pages, the Boxcar Children with its sturdier ones, my Scotch-taped college copy of Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America, where D.H. Lawrence’s “Whales Weep Not!” begins almost at the bottom of a page and fills up the next one. Where “urgent” and “urge” and “ice-bergs” are circled, with the note in the top margin, “[incantatory], and, and, and,” holding my younger and excited self on the page forever.  At the top margin of Robert Graves’ poems, “always the practical impossibility, transcended only by miracle, of absolute love continuing between man and woman.” My hand, Graves’s words, Miller Williams’ quoting them in class. Each part of a whole, a meaning. Yeats’ “Second Coming,” my ink drawing of a gyre, one triangular whirlwind on top of the next, with the note, “most rests upon A Vision, cataclysm every 2000 years.”

The number of marks on a page is a measure of how engaged I am. Pen or pencil doesn’t matter. For my husband, an Eighteenth Century scholar, books are sacred artifacts, or something close. He will not dog-ear a page of a book or mark it (except back when he was teaching), even when it’s a cheap paperback. For him, it’s respect for the tradition of the book, for the author, for the paper. I, however, want to mark how my mind is moving in and out of the author’s mind. I think of our work as a partnership, and my role involves scribbling in margins. In a novel with a strong plot, I mark nothing, my mind dutifully, practically, racing forward.

On the Kindle, it is possible to underline sections, and then call them up, along with the relevant passages. You can then click on those and return to the page on which they appeared. Very convenient. You can take notes, only that is harder. You have to type them in on the little keypad.  I bought a Kindle. I use it for maybe a quarter of my reading. I like being able to summon books from the ether and have them magically appear. I appreciate not having so many ephemeral paperbacks pile up that I have to figure who to give them to afterward. The print is good on the Kindle: neat serifs, soft background. No doubt whole committees have scientifically assessed the brightness of the screen, the font, the movement of the eye. Good job.

As my eye moves down the Kindle “page,” I am aware of the words as barely being there, disappearing with a click to the next page, gone forever if I remove the book from my device. I feel the futility of saving anything, and interestingly, therefore, I begin to view my mind as the repository, rather than the bookshelf. I am my own bookshelf. And of course even I can’t hold on to much. My mind is slippery and unreliable, unlike the firm book between covers. Unlike the world I imagined existed, the permanent one in the past, the better one, with manners, with tact, with grace and a clear list of what the well-read person has on her shelves.

I love the actual book. I am okay with the Kindle. What’s lost, what’s gained is hardly worth talking about because what’s here is here and won’t go away. Humans will always find the shortest path, given a chance. I just downloaded my first book of poems: Jane Hirshfield’s  Come, Thief.  I’d heard poetry was a formatting problem for e-books, but this one seems fine, if sterile. I will probably use the Kindle mostly for fiction that I intend to get rid of later.

A poem cries out for paper, in my mind. It wants to be located, pinned down. I’m fine hearing a poem spoken or read, but I want to know it resides, at last, on what is for me its native habitat, the page.  Why else the fuss with line endings, with indentations, with stanza breaks? Why else do poets argue with their publishers about fonts and point size? Of all genres, it seems that poetry most wants to be read simultaneously by eye and mind.

There’s nothing more or less “real” about the words on Kindle versus the words pressed onto paper. The words themselves are not real. They’re metaphors for what we “see” (also not “real”) as we read. I could deconstruct all the way down, but everybody knows that. What matters is the relationship with meaning that each insinuates.

Someday this conversation is going to be so dated! Who cares if the molecules form themselves into pixels or press themselves into ink? What difference did it make when Gutenberg began pressing one after another pages, each a copy of the first? Was the work less authentic, being no longer in the delicate script of the copier? Are stone hieroglyphs “better” than print, being more permanent, more solid?

I am the generation who’s been knocked on its tail by the systematic unmooring of all we held sacred. Never in human history has the past disappeared so quickly while at the same time remaining perpetually with us in film and TV.  Our first little black and white Zenith TV entered our home when I was 13, my first computer when I was 40. After a traumatic struggle, I learned to love the word as it flashes at me from my screen. I love it on the page, I love it flying around in the air.  I am a convert, mostly.

At the same time, I’m sad. I think only those of us who were young in a different world know what it is to move more slowly within it, to feel its edges as unrelenting rather than as possessing the infinite regress of the screen. To walk up the many steps to the library, its elevation a signifier of the invisible grandeur of its holdings—even the word “holdings” both warm and forbidding—pull open the long wooden card catalog drawers and run our finger along the cards softened by years of our predecessors, miss the right card, look again and find it! And write down the call numbers on a scrap of paper with a stub of a pencil, then stand in the crevasse between stacks letting our eye travel until—there it is!—our book. By now it is our book only, the one we looked for with our hands and feet and eyes, and found. The one chosen  from the long, skinny drawer of cards. This one. The librarian stamps the borrower’s card and slips it into the pocket at the back of the book. We can read who else has checked out the book. The names remain until that card is full and has to be replaced. Oh, this book hasn’t been checked out in six years! How smart we are to have re-discovered it! We carry it home, place it on the table, and open it, the end of one journey, the beginning of another.

Not that people don’t still do this. But when it was the only way, it seemed more important. Even the book felt somehow more necessary, a lifeboat in a storm, a lone squeee of a radio signal in the wilderness. When each book went through several printings, we could trace that in the front matter, and marvel at how many people must have read it. People. That’s what I mourn, I guess. The thumbprint, the smudge, the marginal note, the hand that works the press. The hand, its slow and sometimes clumsy articulations. The universe is slow, really. The sun takes its own sweet time coming up and going down, tides come and go with time enough between for a sand castle to be built. No matter that it will be washed away. It was something: tall, many crenellated, gritty, its doors and windows made of our own fingerprints. It was right out of King Arthur. You could see the knights crossing the moat-bridge, clamoring their way right out of the book.

— Fleda Brown


Fleda Brown was born in Columbia, Missouri, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She earned her Ph.D. in English (specialty in American Literature) from the University of Arkansas, and in 1978 she joined the faculty of the University of Delaware English Department, where she founded the Poets in the Schools Program, which she directed for more than 12 years. Her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her sixth collection of poems, Reunion (2007), was the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin. She has co-edited two books, most recently On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press.

She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan. In Traverse City, she writes a monthly column on poetry for the Record-Eagle newspaper, and she has a monthly commentary on poetry on Interlochen Public Radio. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, and she spends summers with her husband, Jerry Beasley, also a retired English professor, at their cottage on a small lake in northern Michigan. Between them, they have four children and ten grandchildren.

Oct 132012

Caroline Adderson

This is a treat, a gorgeous, frank, lusty, ever so subversively comic (it’s always slightly comic when women take a good look at a man) love story about — no, not that kind of love, but about a woman and her dog. I have known Caroline Adderson since, oh, before 1992 when I included three of her stories in that year’s edition of Coming Attractions (co-edited with Maggie Helwig). I will never forget that experience — I read five lines of a story and KNEW I’d found a writer, not just someone who pushed words around on a page efficiently but someone who ELECTRIFIED the language. And she has never disappointed since. Later I also put her in Best Canadian Stories. So we have an editorial past together, Caroline and I, and a friendship, and that makes it doubly pleasurable to bring her into the Numéro Cinq fold.

The story is gorgeous, yes, I should repeat that. It is stocked with felicities, large and small. One of the loveliest is the way Caroline weaves in a reading and rereading of Chekhov’s classic short story “Lady with a Lapdog” — a tale of a woman, a man and a dog, though as Caroline’s protagonist notices, the dog is not altogether considered as a character and seems to fade out of the story, a shortcoming that is rectified in the present story. (And to nail the point we have, above, a photo of the author and dog.) Caroline further complicates the story by introducing a younger male lover, a former husband and a wonderfully irate new wife (there is an amazing set of scenes around this pair — the author does not make the mistake of hiding the fact that the protagonist and her ex have slept together since the ex married his new wife, the new wife knows, her hatred is dramatic and comic, the scenes are charged with mischief).

And, of course, the dog can read.



BACK IN OCTOBER Matt’s girlfriend had been out of town.  Matt, unemployed, had hours (all day in fact) to lie around with Ellen who, living off her savings, was queen of her own life.  Queen Ellen spread out in the loft on the hot twisted sheets, inhaling the tang of their exertions, while Matt scampered naked down the ladder to do her bidding.  He brought her a glass of water, a wad of tissues to wipe the milty puddle off her belly, a cheese plate from the fridge.

She’d sold her house for a grotesque sum and inherited half of what her father had socked away in the life he cut short himself.  Meaning Ellen could quit publicity and rent an old live-work studio in a Kitsilano triplex.  One very large room, kitchen, bath, sleeping loft.  She took up pottery again, put the kiln outside under an overhang.  She took up with a man-boy in his twenties who wore shorts in any weather.

The things Matt said were so funny and sweet. Like the time he fell back on the pillows, his curls fanning out.  “I need to ask you something really personal. I’ve never asked anyone before.  I need the honest truth.  Please.”

“What?” Ellen said.  “What?”

“Is my cock too big?”

Now she was back. The girlfriend.  Matt brought his cell phone up to the loft and left it turned on.  Ellen pretended she didn’t see it tossed onto the clothes he’d so urgently shed.  She pulled the sheet up to cover her body.  Too much information, she thought.

What choice did she have? Ellen was 48.  Too old to be anyone’s girlfriend.


Across the street from the studio was a corner store.  This time of year Christmas cacti, poinsettia and little bonsai pines crowded the board and cinderblock shelves out front.  Plants were the main business besides cigarettes and lottery tickets.  Ellen worried it would go under so once a week she scooted across the street to buy something she didn’t need.  Another plant to ignore to death.  A can of corn.  There was little else.  The Frosted Flakes looked archeological.

She ran across in sweats and an old loose t-shirt scabbed with drying flecks of clay.  The dog was shivering in a newspaper-lined box beside the till.  She couldn’t tell its breed.  The black kind with a goatee and plaintive eyes.

“Where did it come from?” she asked.

The owner of the store said, “My brother.  Driving from Chilliwack?  He saw it on the road.  You want it?”

“I just came in for some corn.”  Ellen set the can down, leaving fingerprints in the dust on top.  “Maybe you should take it to the SPCA.”

He waved his arms back and forth like an air-traffic controller directing a 747 with batons.  “Too busy!”

“Oh.  Do you want me to take it for you?”

Ellen tucked the Niblets in the box with the small black dog and carried both across the street.  Halfway, the dog reached up and licked her face.

“None of that now,” she said.

Hardly anyone got Ellen at first, but this dog did.  He beat his feathery tail against the side of the box and smiled.  When she shifted the cardboard carrier onto one hip and opened the door, he leapt right down, dashing circles around the studio, sniffing everything—Ellen’s pottery wheel, her dentist’s chair.  He jumped onto the couch and tossed the cushions aside with his snout.  Then he did what Ellen always did when visiting someone for the first time.  He went over to the shelf and read the spines of all the books.


Matt didn’t come that day, or call—well, he never called.  Normally this meant long unfocussed hours tied up in knots of hope, then, when Ellen could no longer deny he was a no-show, her dejected release from these self-wound coils.  How pathetic to be waiting all day for a man as young as her daughters.  Tear-stained, humiliated, she fashioned little monsters out of clay, then flattened them.

Today she put aside these pitiful recreations.  She had to get a dog to the SPCA; to do that she needed a collar and leash.  One thing led to another and, come evening, the dog was still there sniffing Ellen’s books.

She loved it too, that particular, melancholy odour of old paperbacks.  It only followed then that the dog should have a literary name.  (She had to call him something before she turned him in.)  Tintin?  Tintin was the boy, not the dog.  What was the dog’s name?  She googled it.  Snowy.

Snowy would not do.

Lady with a Lapdog was right there on the shelf, perfumed in dust and sadness.  The moment Ellen settled in the dentist chair to reread the story, the dog sprang onto the footrest, gingerly walked the double plank of her outstretched legs, then curled into a polite ball and fell asleep.  A dog in the lap of a lady reading “Lady with a Lapdog.”

In the story the lapdog makes his appearance in the first paragraph, trotting along the Yalta promenade. No name, just a breed. A white Pomeranian.  (This is ironic, for Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov thinks of the women he seduces as of the lower breed.)  How many times had Ellen read this story of a passing affair that swells to a grand passion?  Many, many times, and every time reminded her of her first reading at seventeen or eighteen, when she’d sobbed.  With each subsequent reading, the sob returned, a ghost in her chest lodged too deeply now to release, her own heartaches grown around it, holding it fast.  She’d been living with it ever since. Catharsis interruptus.

Tonight though, something was different.  Something rang false.

A few days after first noticing Anna Sergeyevna, the lady with the lapdog, Gurov seats himself near her and the Pomeranian in an outdoor restaurant.  He wags his finger at the dog and, when it growls, he appeases it with a bone off his plate.  This way he secures Anna Sergeyevna’s acquaintance – through her dog.

After dinner, Anna and Gurov take a long walk, just as Ellen herself had done that afternoon when she returned home with the leash and collar and a hundred and twenty dollars worth of dog food and paraphernalia. What happened with Ellen was that the dog, the black one, the flesh-and-blood, tongue-and-tail one, made straight for the nearest tree and began to circle it, forcing Ellen to leave the sidewalk and slop around on the saturated verge.  It was as though he was searching for something he had lost in the longer grass at the tree’s base, something he was desperate to recover.  Finally, he found it, this precious thing invisible to Ellen, and when he did, he lifted a leg and pissed all over it.  Then he romped ahead to the next tree where, evidently, he had also left something important in the grass.

After ten minutes of this Ellen grew impatient and tried to pull the dog along.  He stiffened his legs, effectively putting on his brakes, and stared at her, ill-done-by.  She had to coax and herd him, then pick him up and carry him.  In other words, the entire walk had been about getting the dog to walk instead of sniff.  More than once she got tangled in the leash, or he did.  Yet when Gurov and Anna Sergenyevna go strolling after dinner, talking the whole time, marveling at the way the light falls on the sea, the dog isn’t even mentioned.  Presumably he was there, or had they left him tied up back at the restaurant?

A week later, Gurov and Anna Sergenyevna retire to her hotel room to consummate their affair.  Again, no reference to the Pomeranian.  Does he object to their lovemaking?  Is he jealous?  Have they shut him in the bathroom?  It doesn’t say.  In fact, the dog is only mentioned once more in the story.  Months after they both leave Yalta, Gurov finds he can’t forget the lady with the lapdog.  He travels to her town, loiters in front of her house until, after a miserable hour, an old woman comes out with the Pomeranian.

Gurov was about to call to the dog, but his heart began to beat violently and in his excitement he could not remember its name. 

Here Ellen lifted the real nameless dog out of her lap so she could return the book to the shelf.   It was the first time the story had failed her.

Her epiphany came an hour later while she was brushing her teeth: the story was in Gurov’s point of view!  It wasn’t Chekhov, but Gurov, who was indifferent to the dog beyond the purpose it could serve him in seducing a young woman.  Whatever Chekhov may have felt about the canine species, Ellen knew this: if the story had been from Anna Sergeyevna’s point of view the dog would certainly have had a name.  And a patronymic. And a diminutive, too.

So she settled on Anton.  The resemblance was obvious by then—the longer black chin hairs, the compassionate tilt of the head.  Couldn’t she just see him in a pince-nez?


In the studio window her pots flaunted themselves.  Passersby could drop in and buy one.  That was the idea anyway.

The next day Matt was out front getting rained on when Ellen and Tony returned from their walk.  Her heart stuttered at the sight of his bare knees.  According to the clock with movable hands on the back of her Come In sign, the sign she’d flipped to Will Return when she’d left with Tony, Ellen was late.  This clock had proved useful in their affair, which was being conducted strictly on a drop-in basis; now it had provided Matt with a grievance. She pointed to her goateed excuse, though the goatee was not so obvious with the wet sock hanging down.

Matt asked, “What’s it got in its mouth?”

“A sock.  Isn’t that cute?”

Before the door was fully open, Tony bolted in ahead of Matt, who threw back the dripping hood of his Gore-Tex and sampled Ellen, her mouth and neck.  Only after they separated and shed their rain gear, did he ask whose dog it was.

“Well,” Ellen said, and she told him the whole story of bringing the dog home and the trip to the pet store.  She might have been reading a script.  Did he hear it?  This was how she lived now, hovering above her own life, watching herself so that later, when she recounted her day to Matt, he would be amused.

“You would not believe what they had in that store.  Look.  Party balloon poop bags!  I can coordinate Tony’s poop bag to my outfit.  Or I can say, ‘I’m feeling existential,’ and take a blue one.”

Everything was in the box Tony and the can of corn had come across the street in.    Matt reached for the plastic banana, squeaked it, and Tony snapped to attention.

“That’s a lot of stuff to take to the SPCA, Ellen.”

“And I hate shopping!  I don’t know what came over me!”

“Let’s go up,” he said, starting for the ladder to the loft, pulling on her sleeve.

Ellen sashayed over to the sign and turned the hands of the clock forward another forty minutes, remembering how, not so long ago, their pleasure hadn’t been so stingily meted out, yet still feeling grateful, so very grateful.


She walked Tony to the vet, paid for shots and deworming, determined he was flealess.  Wheaten Terrier, the vet thought, with a dash of Labrador.  Maybe even a little Corgi.  He lectured her on neutering.

Ellen said, “The thing is, I’m probably not keeping him.”

She should have been churning out Christmas pots, but couldn’t settle at her wheel.  So restless!  Ever since that debilitating conversation with her daughter Mimi, the one in Toronto, who had casually mentioned her Brazilian wax job.

“Everyone does it, Mom.  No one would ever go around all hairy down there.”

Ellen was stunned.  Another thing to fret about: her wild bush.

She started training Tony out of library books, glad to have found a use for all that corn.  Tony was gaga for Niblets.  Within days she had him sitting and lying down for Niblets, though no inducement would endear him to the leash.  He was a free spirit and, respecting that, Ellen let him sniff along behind her.

On YouTube, she watched Pumpkin the beagle read.  It really seemed that he could.  When shown a picture of a cat and offered a selection of words printed on cards, Pumpkin selected C-A-T 100% of the time.  Some old competitive streak surfaced in Ellen.  She opened another can of Niblets.

Finally, finally, Matt dropped by.  “Sorry,” he said.

“What for?” Ellen chirped.

“I couldn’t get away.”

Ellen pictured the girlfriend, not her ineffable face, but her tidy little Chekhov mound, pristinely waxed.  All her thinking about the Russians had brought her to this unflattering comparison, that, pubically, Ellen was in the Tolstoy camp.

Matt said,  “And I’m going home for the holidays.  Did I mention that?”

One of the dog books explained stances, tail positions, barks.  Ellen had noticed that, though Matt always said “I”, when he really meant “we” he cast his eyes down and to the right.  And if she told him how desperate this news made her, would he ever come back?

“And where is home?” she asked.

“Spruce Grove.  Outside of Edmonton.”

“Ah,” she said, feigning nonchalance. “I’m going away myself.”

He asked where, and she told him Cordova Island.

“Where’s that?”

“I used to lived there a long time ago.  When I was married.  My younger daughter Yolanda lives there now with her partner and their kids.  She dropped out of pre-med to relive my life. The weird thing is, then my ex-husband moved back.”

“Oh,” Matt said.  “Should I be jealous?”

Ellen laughed, but he didn’t. His face folded up in a way she hadn’t seen.  He was always so uncreased, so playful, except when lamenting his penis size.  It frightened her into blurting, “Oh!  We’ve got something to show you!”


It seemed he’d forgotten the dog until Ellen said, “Tony?” and the black head popped up among the couch cushions.

Ellen selected three books from the shelf—Lady with a Lapdog, Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina—books the average undergrad couldn’t tell apart.  She stood them up on the floor.  Tony waited, shifting from side-to-side, licking his lips, which Ellen knew now was a sign of anxiety.  She showed Matt the index card with its neatly printed question: Which book did Chekhov write?

“Read,” she commanded, holding the card in front of Tony.

He pranced over to Lady with a Lapdog and brought it back to Ellen.  For this, she rewarded him with a palm full of corn.  Then she turned to Matt so he might – she hoped – claim his reward, too.


Bus to Horseshoe Bay, ferry to Nanaimo, bus up island to German Creek.  Ellen pulled her suitcase—stop-start, stop-start—stones jamming the wheels, through the gravel parking lot to the government wharf where the ramp was angled at eighty degrees.  And she remembered how, all those years ago, whenever they left Cordova Island or returned, it had seemed so difficult.  Inevitably it would be low tide like this and Ellen would have to negotiate the ramp with all their groceries and bags and Mimi, just a baby.  Ellen had needed a sherpa. And where was Larry?  Why couldn’t he sherp?  She let the suitcase go first, clutching its strap and the railing, inching her way down, thinking of Tony pulling on the leash.  She’d left him with her neighbor, Tilda.

It was the same ferry, a metal tub with a covered freight area, rows of wooden benches inside. Ellen loaded her suitcase on.  Eventually other passengers began arriving with backpacks and Rubbermaid tubs filled with provisions or the Christmas presents they’d come to the mainland to buy, stacked on foldable dollies.  A group of strangers.  It used to be that whenever she took the ferry, she knew everyone and they knew her and half of them had slept with Larry.

Last year Ellen had slept with Larry at the Winter Solstice party at Larry and Amber’s house.  Amber had gone to bed early with cramps.  The island was full of this secretless type of woman, their menstrual cycles public knowledge.  Ellen used to be one herself, though last year she took this information to mean that Amber’s body, if not Amber, accepted that these intermittent reunions between Larry and Ellen were, then, Ellen’s only opportunity for sex.  That was Ellen’s point of view anyway, that she threatened no one.

And this year?  This year Ellen was besotted with Matt, who kept coming around.  Whatever his reason, apart from sex, was his secret.

The ferry backed out of its berth.  A seal watched, head and shoulders out of the water, then ducked.  Gulls screamed in a wheel above the dockside fish store.  Ellen had quite forgotten the Solstice Party until now.  During Ellen and Larry’s marriage, when she’d learned that friends of hers had slept with him, she’d shrieked, “How could you?”  Very easily, it turned out.  As easily as Ellen slept with Matt, rationalizing all the way: Ellen didn’t know the girlfriend.  She was young.  She would pity Ellen if she knew.

But Ellen knew Amber.  She was practically related to her.

Tossed in the bag with the Christmas presents, Lady with a Lapdog.  During the crossing, Ellen took it out, sniffed it, ran her fingers over the dog-Braille inside the front cover.  She’d intended to reread the whole book, but instead found herself back with poor Anna Sergeyevna, stuck in love with Gurov, a man who classifies the women he sleeps with according to three types: Carefree, good-natured women, whom love had made gay and who were grateful to him for the happiness he gave them; those who made love without sincerity, with unnecessary talk, affectedly, hysterically; and two or three very beautiful women whose faces suddenly lit up with a predatory expression, an obstinate desire to take, to snatch from life, more than it could give.

This last type were no longer in their first youth.

And Ellen?  Which type was she?  Grateful and utterly sincere, yes.  But it was true, too, that she was chatty in bed and freely voiced her pleasure.  And that in two years she’d be fifty.

Then she felt it, the sob that could never be released, pressing hard behind her ribs. She put both hands over the place at the same time she glanced out the window, glanced at the precise December moment out on the open ocean with the solstice approaching when the colour of the sky and the colour of the water merged and there was no light anywhere to orient her.  The great gray middle of her life.

The sob absorbed back inside her body.  Next time she looked, it was night.


Her son-in-law, Sean, picked her up in the truck.  They drove the main road, companionably, Ellen recovering from the shock of winter darkness.  Off the grid, the island shut down on these long, overcast December evenings.  They passed the Post Office, the Arts Centre, the Free Store, but Ellen couldn’t see them, only the forest in the headlights.  She marveled that Sean knew on which rutted lane to turn.  Then they bounced along, cedar boughs brushing against her window, spookily, like the memories of her former life here clawing to get in.

Eli ran out of the cabin when he heard the truck.  “Nonny!” He was seven with wild clown hair he’d got from his father, who hid his under a toque.  He dragged Ellen inside and when Sean brought in her suitcase and set it down, Eli looked from it to Ellen.

“Did you bring me a present, Nonny?”

Yolanda came over from the stove with baby Fern in a sling on her back, tsking at Eli, her glasses half-fogged from cooking, exhausted and angelic in her half-hearted ponytail.

“Give me that baby right now,” Ellen said in the middle of their hug.

Yolanda loosened the knot on her chest and Ellen waltzed Fern over to the couch lumped with sleeping cats.  “Eli, come here,” she called.  “I have some news. I have a dog staying at my house. His name is Tony. And you will not believe this, but it’s true.  He can read.”

“I thought we were cat people,” Yolanda said, back at the stove.

“Where are our presents?” Eli asked.

“Don’t give in to him.  He has to wait.”

“Why should you?” Ellen whispered. “Bring me that bag next to my suitcase.”

In it was Lepus arcticus.  Arctic Hare.

At dinner, Ellen told them about her neighbour, Tilda, the fabric artist.  “She knits iconic Canadian wildlife.  She spins the yarn herself.”  The white hare perched on the table dangerously close to Eli’s bowl of chili.  “That’s why he’s so soft,” Ellen told him. “He’s got real bunny fur mixed in with the wool.”  She didn’t want to say what the hare and the tiny Townsend’s Vole she’d bought for Fern had cost.  “They’re not really toys.  They’re works of art.”

 Yolanda said, “The Solstice Party’s at Mason and Spirit’s place this year.  And Amber invited us over tomorrow night.  Do you want to go?”

Likely Ellen blushed.  She fanned her face, pretending the chili was too hot.  If she said no to Amber’s invitation they would wonder why.

Sean was trying to get Fern to eat a bean, washing the sauce off in his mouth, spitting out the bean and feeding it to the baby by hand.  At the same time, he glanced at Ellen and smirked.

“What?” Ellen said.

Flapping his hands on either side of his toque, he cawed, “Amber alert!  Amber alert!”

Yolanda slapped him on the shoulder.

“What does he mean?” Ellen asked, but Yolanda wouldn’t say.

Before bed Ellen read to the children, then stumbled in the starless dark to the outhouse and back.  Calling goodnight to Yo and Sean, she retired to the tiny, frigid room, the one too far from the woodstove, less a bedroom than a pantry lined with dried beans and canned preserves.  The cats joined her, bed warmers, slipping out later to kill.

Last year she’d lain in this same rack of a cot listening to the ocean’s restless exhalations, wondering what would happen between her and Larry.  This year, the ocean was still exhaling, but the hands that moved over Ellen were young.


“When I say walkies he grabs something that smells like me.  A sock.  Once he headed out with my panties.”

Yolanda asked, “Are you keeping him or not?”

“I didn’t plan on it.  Now I’m in something of a situation.  Because I care about him. I can’t stop thinking about him.  Like now. Talking about the dog counteracts the pointlessness I feel going for a walk without a dog.”

 They were following a rocky trail through the woods down to the beach, Fern in the sling wearing a bright Peruvian cap with ties, twisting her head back to look at Ellen, Eli marching ahead pretending to shoot things while Yolanda intermittently called out, “Cease-fire!”

 “I should give him up.  I’m not getting any work done.  I feel like I’m being dragged around by the hair.”

“Sounds like you’re in love,” Yolanda said.

Ellen halted in the middle of the path with her mouth open, her hand clutching her heart.  Was she in love?  The other hand reached for the support of a tree.  She leaned in, pressing her forehead to the rough bark.

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

Yolanda hurried back and slipped an arm around Ellen. Fern’s small hand patted her head.  It felt like the touch of a crow’s wing, over and over.

“Are you depressed?”


“Last night I thought you looked so beautiful when you came into the cabin.  You looked so happy.”

Ellen looked up.  “Did I?”

“Yes.  Sean even said so.  He said you looked hot.”

“I love that man,” Ellen said, wiping her nose on her sleeve.  “I’m—”

No, she was too embarrassed to confess.

“I know,” Yo said.  “It’s the holidays.  They get me down, too.  Maybe we shouldn’t go tonight.”  Her lips brushed Ellen’s cheek.

“Go where?” Ellen asked.


Yolanda went ahead with the kids in the truck while Ellen and Sean walked over with flashlights, Ellen hugging the ditch.  Any old draft dodger with one headlight and a medicinal marijuana permit could round the bend, but Sean strode fearlessly up the middle of the road the way he would, on any dry day, streak down it in a death-defying crouch.  He custom-made longboards and sold them on-line, or bartered with them.  Somehow the boards, their Child Tax Benefit payment, and Ellen’s occasional cheques sustained them.

The glowing glass lantern of Larry and Amber’s house appeared through the trees, the opposite of Yolanda and Sean’s cabin.  The opposite, too, of the shack where Larry had once lived with Ellen.  For over twenty years Larry had written for television.  This house, architect-designed, cathedral-ceilinged, powered by the sun, was built on sit-coms.  You walked right into the heart of it where Amber was, at the stove talking to Yolanda, but falling silent when she saw Ellen coming over.  She’d changed her hair, sheared the sides and beaded the long part on top.  “Nice,” Ellen said, smiling and opening her arms.

On Cordova Island the standard greeting was a hug.  You hugged the postmistress when she handed over your mail.  You hugged the man who filled your propane tank.  When Amber turned away, Ellen stood there, bewildered and stung.

She tried again.  “What are you making?”

“Latkes.” Amber transferred one out of the pan onto a paper towel-lined plate.

The first thought that came to Ellen: “I have the best latke recipe. Grind the potatoes in the food processor.  Then they’re fluffy instead of rubbery and don’t look so grey.  Do you have a food processor?”

“No,” Amber said.

“Are we doing Chanukah?”

“No,” Amber said.

“Can I help?” Ellen asked, sincerely.

“No,” again, just as a latke slapped the floor.  When Amber bent to pick it up, her thong showed.

“I see London, I see France,” Ellen said and Amber straightened with a look of such undiluted hatred her monotone trio of “nos” sounded furious in retrospect.

Ellen backed up all the way to where Yolanda had escaped to nurse Fern in the big armchair by the fire.  She sank down on the hearth.  Amber was never really warm with Ellen, understandably.  Her best friend’s mother was also her husband’s ex-wife, but they’d always muddled through.  Now Ellen, who had only expected to feel, along with the usual awkwardness, the guilt anyone would feel returning to the scene of a crime, was confronted with a hostility whose source she quailed to guess at.  Amber was the one who’d invited Ellen.  Yolanda had said so.  Why would Amber do this if she knew what had happened between Ellen and Larry last year?

“Where’s your father?” Ellen asked Yolanda.

“I don’t know.  Sean’s checking on Eli in the bath.”

They came over once a week for this purpose, Ellen remembered, trying not to panic.  Because Sean and Yolanda would take a bath, too, probably together, while Larry hid in his study, like now, leaving Ellen alone and defenseless against Amber.

“Sure you’re okay, Mom?” Yolanda asked, touching Ellen’s knee.

Larry didn’t show himself until dinner.  Unshaven, in slippers and a stretched-out cable-knit sweater, the kind on offer in the Free Store, covered with pills, he finally appeared.  At the sight of Ellen, he drew his head back sharply, which confused her.  Also, she didn’t know if she should hug him with Amber right there carrying the plate of latkes over to the table they were all gathering around and, instead of setting it down, letting it drop the last two inches so it clattered.

Ellen decided to behave normally and hug Larry.  The sweater was pungent with old wood smoke.  Strange how different his once-loved body felt when for all these years it was everyone else’s body that felt strange.  All those lovers who weren’t Larry.

Then her second epiphany happened.  Her second in as many weeks, when most people don’t experience two in an entire lifetime.

She took her place at the table, beaming.

Last year, and the year before, over the last quarter century, in fact, when she knew she would soon see Larry, she would always be in some kind of state.  Excitement sometimes, often rage.  At any rate, some form of passion would carry her away.  But this year?  This year all she felt looking across the table at the delicately made, silvering man who had ruled her heart for decades was a mild irritation that he couldn’t be bothered to put on something presentable.

She raised her wine glass. “Cheers.”


“It’s not you,” Yolanda told Ellen after they had got through the incredibly strained meal made bearable to Ellen by her own inane chatter.  No one else would step up to the plate and talk.  Except the children.  Fern had blatted her few words, then guffawed as though she’d cracked a joke.

Ellen, with much nervous lip-licking, had explained how to teach a dog to read. “Take soap.  Rub it on the card with the correct word.  Rub the corresponding picture or object.  Leave the other pictures unsoaped. What the dog is actually doing is reading the smell. That’s what smelling is for them.”

Eli asked what grade Tony was in.

(Lying with Matt, listening to Tony singing at the bottom of the ladder, she had used Lady with a Lapdog to teasingly fan his face.  “Aren’t you curious how I taught him?”

“I know how you did it,” Matt had said.  “That’s the book with teeth marks all over it.”)

Amber wouldn’t make eye contact, even when Ellen complimented her on the latkes, which were in fact rubbery and grey.  Neither would Amber look at Larry.  Instead, she shot secretive glances at Yolanda as though the two of them were teenagers.

Yolanda and Ellen volunteered to do the dishes.  In the kitchen, the window ledge above the sink was crowded with driftwood and shells and coloured bits of beach glass.  Also two rubber duckies, one with a bowtie, the other in a flowered bonnet.  Ellen wondered about the pretty detritus, the shells and glass, things you’d pick up on a beach holiday to take home as mementos.  What possessed Amber—it had to be her—to gather and display things so commonplace to island life?  Ellen pictured her moping down at the beach, noticing a shell, and stooping.  And in her mind’s eye, Ellen saw the thong again, the world’s most uncomfortable undergarment, and was glad, very glad, no longer to be young.

“Dad told Amber—” Yolanda whispered and the plate Ellen was washing very nearly slipped out of her hand, “—that he didn’t find her very interesting.”

Ellen exhaled, relieved.  “Why is she so mad at me then?”

Yolanda said, “It’s not you.  She’s mad at Dad. See how the boy is facing straight ahead?” She pointed to the duckies.  “That means Dad wants to make up.  But the girl has her back to him.  So Amber is still pissed off.”

“Are you serious?” Ellen asked.

Yolanda picked a dripping plate out of the rack and, covering her face with it, giggled.

When the dishes were done, Yolanda went out to the greenhouse with Amber, ostensibly so Amber could smoke.  Sean was in the bath with Fern.  This left Ellen and Larry effectively alone, except for Eli, who was walking on Larry’s back.

“Why do you like to get stepped on?” Eli asked.

“It’s what I’m used to,” Larry said.

Ellen snorted.  Soon Eli lost interest and scampered off to look for his arctic hare, leaving Larry face down on the rug.

“Those are great kids,” Ellen said.  “It’s nice you see so much of them.”

“I’m wanted for my indoor plumbing.”

 “More wine?”  She went to the kitchen for it, found Eli crouching behind the island counter with the hare that had cost her $350, its face stained with chili now.  He’d discovered chopsticks in a drawer and was carefully inserting them between the stitches into the animal’s body.

She returned with a glass for Larry, too.  By then he’d resurrected himself and was stoking the fire, stabbing the burning logs with the fresh one. “Did you lose weight?” he asked.

“No,” Ellen lied.

Larry closed the fireplace doors. “You seem happier.”

“You don’t.  And your sweater is ugly.”

She felt sorry for him, the way after seven or eight readings she began to feel sorry for Gurov, shackled by bitterness.  Every new affair inevitably grew complicated and problematic; love always became an unbearable situation.  When Yolanda moved here to be with Sean after Eli was born, Larry visited them.  His visits to his own children had been infrequent, but now that he was a grandfather, he came.  At some point he decided to move back, possibly when he met Amber.  Ellen had never asked, but now she did.

There turned out to be a story.  The way Larry offered it up made Ellen think he had been waiting a long time for someone sympathetic to lend an ear, and that no one had until now.  Until Ellen.  It concerned a play Larry had gone to see in L.A. five years before.

“A play everyone was raving about.  By a young playwright.”

“A woman.”

Larry nodded. “It was pretty good.  I liked it.  The playwright was there so afterward I went over and introduced myself.  She didn’t know who I was.”

Ellen sensed what was coming.  She disguised her cringe with another sip of wine.

“I told her about Talking Stick and the awards it won and my TV projects.”

Talking Stick was a great play,” Ellen said.  “Your best.”

“I only wrote two plays,” Larry said.

“That was my favourite.”

He looked at her.  Larry had a look like a taser.  It disabled you with feelings of stupidity and self-doubt, but Ellen had been looked at by Larry so many times over the years she was as desensitized as a lab rat.  “And?”

“That’s it,” Larry said.  “I told her who I was.  She didn’t have a clue.  She’d never heard of A Principled Man.  It ran two seasons.  I was head writer.  Curve Ball?

“That was the baseball show?” Ellen asked.

Curve Ball drew a blank, too.”  He scratched his stubble then admitted that he had asked the young playwright to go for a drink sometime, not necessarily that night. “‘To talk about your play.’ I said I had a few suggestions.  Well.  She took gross offense.  It was unbelievable how she over-reacted.  Like I’d just said her play was shit, when I’d said the opposite.”

“Unbelievable,” Ellen said, thinking of Tony in full snorkel mode at the base of a tree.  Now that she’d read all those dog books, she knew what he was so desperately seeking there.  Some other dog’s three-week-old piss to dilute with his own.

Amber appeared out of nowhere then with Yolanda behind her.  “I’m going to bed,” she announced.

 “See you,” Ellen sang.  “Thanks for dinner.”

 Larry looked at Amber and, on her, it had its intended effect.  She swung around and stomped off like a little girl, her beads clacking.

Yolanda said,  “I’m just taking a quick bath, Mom.  Do you want to walk now with Sean and Fern or come later with me and Eli in the truck?”

“We’re talking,” Larry told her.

“Well, don’t talk too much,” she said to Ellen.

“Gotcha,” Ellen said, sitting up straighter.

“The last time I wrote something decent was when we lived here,” Larry said, as though these discomfiting walk-throughs hadn’t happened. “That’s your answer.  That’s why I came.”

“So how’s the play?” Ellen asked.

“There’s no play,” Larry said, and he turned and opened the doors of the fireplace and slammed another wood chunk in.

“Did you tell Amber about last year?”

Larry said nothing.

“Larry?  You shouldn’t have.  She’ll tell Yolanda if she hasn’t already.  And now she hates me.  Is that why she invited me?  To show me that she hates me?”

“It’s a test,” Larry said.

Ellen threw up her hands.  “It was nothing.”

“Was it?”

The way Larry looked at her then was entirely unfamiliar.  There was a softening in his eyes.  She saw his pain, too.  His back, and now his play.  Larry had always had a tortured process.

“My therapist?” Larry said.  “The one in L.A.?  He used to say, ‘Larry, you are addicted to Act One.’”

“What does that mean?”

“I like beginnings.  When I lived with you?  Here?  That was the only time I ever finished a play.”

Ellen stared at him.  The sweater made him seem shrunken.  Both hands pressed the small of his back. Also, now that his legs were stretched out in front of him, she saw two different colour socks, black and brown.

Larry stood.  Last year she’d followed him to his office, to his battered leather couch calicoed with the stains of his former conquests.  But not then, not during any of the other times through the years that they had coupled up for old time’s sake, or relief, had he ever indicated that she might be his muse.  Now he limped out, leaving Ellen by the fire in the lonely cathedral of the room wondering where everyone had got to and how they’d ended up this way, so miserable.

Well, the children were all right, and Sean, too.  Yolanda was just tired.

“Nonny!” Eli called.

Ellen went to him, still behind the island.  He held up the hare impaled with chopsticks; it resembled a voodoo doll.  Laughing, Ellen lifted him and set him on the counter next to the sink.

“Look at these two,” she said, showing him the duckies on the windowsill.  She made the girl ducky fight the boy ducky and Eli laughed.  It was laughable.  Pathetic.

Then she turned the girl ducky so it faced the boy ducky, so it seemed to be nuzzling the boy ducky’s neck.


Something happened just as they were leaving that changed the entire holiday for Ellen.  Larry, when summoned by his daughter, shambled out to be hugged by her, then Ellen.  Having helped the squirming Eli into his coat, Ellen pulled her gloves from her pocket.  And something fluttered to the floor, something orange that Larry bent, wincing, to pick up. To her amazement, and Yolanda’s apparently, he straightened with a smile, his first that evening and, for all Ellen knew, that year.

A poop bag.

“I know what’s different about you, Ellen,” he said.  “You got a dog.”

Did it count?  Could this be a third epiphany?

She loved that dog!  She would forget Matt.  Forget Larry.  What did they, or any man, ever do for her?  She was always giving, giving herself away.  No more, she decided.  No more.  She would get Tony neutered and live with him instead.   Long slow walks in the morning, reading together every night.  In between, a little bit of squeaky banana and some fetch.  The second half of her life unspooled before her like a newsreel, its blazing headline: Contentment! Contentment!

After that Ellen just had to speak to Tony.  She called Tilda from the truck.

Tilda said, “Yesterday there was so much corn in his poo.  Today he’s better.”

“Have you been practicing with the Henry James?”

 “Um,” Tilda said.

“Where is he?”

“Right here.  He’s sleeping.”

“Put him on.  Tony?  Hi, Tony!  Whatcha doing?  Do you miss me, Tony?  I sure miss you. What’s he doing, Tilda?  Does he know it’s me?”

“He’s wagging all over the place.”

So who was Ellen’s grand passion?  She wondered this after she hung up, in the truck bouncing back to Yolanda and Sean’s.  Of course it was Larry.  It had always been Larry, her Gurov.  (But this was only her point of view.  Larry, of course, would have a different opinion.  He always did.)

Then this past October she found herself standing in line behind a man whose shirt tag was poking out the back of his collar.  She tucked it in.  He turned and said, “Your hands are cold.”

Your hands are cold.  Your hands are cold.  Let me.  Warm them.  Let’s go up.

She hadn’t told Larry, though she’d planned to.  She’d planned to say, “See?  I, too, can snatch this from life.”

Then, what with the Winter Solstice party and Christmas and visiting old friends who still lived on Cordova Island, Ellen did forget Matt.  She barely thought of him after that night at Larry’s.  Things were getting complicated between them anyway, especially now.  Now that she had Tony.


When she got home to Vancouver, he was waiting for her.  Tilda opened the door and he leapt against her legs and dervished all around her.  The whole dog wagged.  He wagged for Ellen.

She threw her bags inside and out they went.  Tony sniffed and peed, sniffed and peed.  Reaching the end of the block she turned; he was far behind.  But all she had to do was call his name and he ran right to her, tongue out.

A child’s pink purse lay in the gutter in front of the corner store across the street.  Ellen wiped it on the grass and showed it to Tony, who took the handle in his mouth.

In the next block, an elderly woman came along.  “What in the world is he carrying?”

“We’re just coming back from Saks,” Ellen said.  “Gucci’s on sale.”

“Well, he is cute.”

“Smart too.  This dog can read.”

The woman’s face crinkled all over when she smiled in a way Ellen found very beautiful.

Back home, the mail was in a drift behind the door.  She unpacked her suitcase first—she had bones for Tony—then checked the beeping phone.

“Ellen? Are you back?  It’s Matt.  I’ve been calling and calling.  I really have to see you.  I have to.”

She pressed the phone against her ribs, pressed it hard, but it wasn’t any use.  It had been building all this time.  And out it came.  Out and out and out.

Tony laid back his ears and cocked his head to one side, but both of them knew because both of them had read the story.  The end was still a long, long way away and the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.

—Caroline Adderson


Caroline Adderson is the author of three novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice, The Sky Is Falling), two collections of short stories (Bad Imaginings, Pleased To Meet You) as well as books for young readers. Her work has received numerous prize nominations including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, two Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes, the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Rogers’ Trust Fiction Prize.  Winner of two Ethel Wilson Fiction Prizes and three CBC Literary Awards, Caroline was also the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award for mid-career achievement.  She lives in Vancouver.


Oct 082012

Micheline Maylor writes poems with dash and élan, attack poems, full of desire, heart, dangerous men and revenge. A woman ties her husband to the kitchen chair and whips him with the letters of former lovers (and he watches the “black serpent of her hair flickering its tongue down her back”). “I Was a Pack of Dogs Last Night” is a gorgeous orchestration of dream, desire, dogs hunting, and the epic squeeze of time as the grains of sand drop through the funnel of the hour-glass. These lines make you ache with envy.

And for a second, just a second, sand tucked itself into itself
to pass through the gullet of the time keeper
and for that second, that one squeeze of time
the totality of hunt crushed my ribs with its bite
and I stopped in recognition the way a woman might stop
at a grocery store or a light
to see a lover at a distance…

Micheline Maylor is by way of becoming an old friend, though we’ve never met (a deficiency soon to be rectified since she’ll be introducing me Wednesday night at Wordfest in Calgary). She comes from Windsor, Ontario, but lives in Calgary where she writes poetry, teaches writing at Mount Royal University and edits FreeFall Magazine. Her first collection Full Depth: The Raymond Knister Poems was published in 2007. (Raymond Knister was an early 20th century Ontario poet, story writer and novelist, something of a cult figure in Canadian literary circles for his early promise and the tragic way he died. His daughter used to live in Waterford, dg’s hometown.) She has a new collection due out in 2013. It’s a huge pleasure to have her back on the pages of Numéro Cinq.



Even the Done

Marisol tied her husband, Juan, to a kitchen chair and with the letters of her ex-lovers she inflicted deep paper cuts in his skin. On the third day he begged her unfairness. He pleaded to her. Marisol sliced with a quote from Carlo’s pen,

“You were eternally beautiful in the garden last night,
when you kissed me, only then, the stars took flight.”

Juan asked for Marisol to look at her clothes, look across her garden that he had sown for her. He gestured to his work, his provisions, all for her. Marisol nipped a letter into the corner of his eye until he bled a tear. “You tell me no sweet things, Juan. I will never forgive you.”  Juan protested then remembered his necessary words, the demands, the could yous, the would yous, the will yous, and the nos. He surrendered, said nothing more. She continued to slice him each morning then brought him warm supper in the evening so he wouldn’t lose his strength. Marisol did not relent. On the twentieth day, Juan watched through the window as his crop wrinkled in the late August heat. He watched the spell her hips cast as she left him wounded, the black serpent of her hair flickering its tongue down her back. Still, he said nothing except with his eyes.

Eventually, even the edges of love notes brought from lovers become dull. Juan’s skin toughened. The letters no longer bled him weak. In his defiance, Marisol remembered the blush in Juan’s cheek, watched his forearms taut on the chair, and remembered his bedroom sigh in her ear. The lovers’ notes were not as warm as she recalled. Juan’s pain was no longer red. She asked Juan if he’d had enough and he answered, ‘the wind blows only softness into my heart for you, Marisol.’ She untied the rope and when he rose, he held her and called her “precious” and “ darling” and “love”. He looked out the window at his ruined crop and unkept walk. With his chin nestled in her scented hair, “My angel,” he said, “even this can be undone.” He remembered sweet words then. He’d learned that much.



I was a pack of dogs last night

I was a pack of dogs last night,
in my dreams, moving as one.
A solitary mind, the pack, chuffing at the hunt
and it might be fair to say the hunt was meat
but I knew the hunt was something else,
something ethereal, something more substantial,
less brutish, less blood,
something impossible to grasp with teeth or paw.

We, or should I say I? Whatever the semantics, we moved as grains
of sand through the belly of the hourglass and just as fast
towards a mound of shiver-light and intuition. We already felt satisfaction
in our throats, that fat satisfaction as it sometimes sits
under stars, summer feisty in the air.

And somehow, though no audible sound yipped aloud,
somehow I was one and all,
all speed, all fur, all dogs, all one,
and led them like organs follow bone and muscle to places they wouldn’t go alone.
Somehow I knew this journey was mine to lead,
to bounty, to consequence, both mine and ours.
And for a second, just a second, sand tucked itself into itself
to pass through the gullet of the time keeper
and for that second, that one squeeze of time
the totality of hunt crushed my ribs with its bite
and I stopped in recognition the way a woman might stop
at a grocery store or a light
to see a lover at a distance with a new lover or child,
long enough to accept a different choice in a different moment
might never have led to this present
a present with a new future in it. And I thought of you.
That night. That rightness in our fingers ranging. And your hands tell the whole story for just that moment, that finite spark of time, that small balance
where glass narrows.

I stopped long enough to look at that choice, that grain of time,
before it fell out of sight. I must have stopped longer than I thought,
for the pack cued nose to haunch in stalactite shapes
and those black muzzled swimmers nudged me on. And we, the pack, ran on.
We and I, the pack ran as one into a forest of light, paw after paw striding the dirt.
Nothing to fear. The anxiety of moment lifted into the flow, under our feet,
into the slip of time, out of your hands. And I, and we pant, and they, and I pant,
each leaf under paw, over grain, a tint of yellow, of green, of red, of day,
a day in a life, a leaf underfoot, a colour, a memory, a molecule, a pack, and the pack ranges on, in this surrender to time, in this finite hourglass, though that narrow tip between all things done and undone.




When Rob said, look at this,
he snapped the bottom off a glass thermometer.
Mercury bled into his hand
while adults downstairs conversed.

He snapped the bottom off a glass thermometer.
Ebb and flow in laughter
while adults downstairs conversed,
he whispered, quicksilver.

Ebb and flow in laughter,
down his heart-line, up his life-line,
he whispered, quicksilver
until his hot fingers tipped the ball

down his heart-line, up his life line
into my palm and I felt it slide
until his hot fingers tipped the ball
down my life-line, up my heart-line

into my palm and I felt it slide.
It’s poisonous, you know.
Down my life-line, up my heart-line.
Get it in your mouth and it can kill you

It’s poisonous, you know.
Then he darted his tongue
Get it in your mouth and it can kill you.
He tasted his own skin where the mercury had been,

then he darted his tongue
his eyes never moving from mine.
I tasted my skin where the mercury had been.
I let the ball roll into a pop-bottle cap

his eyes never moving from mine
did the same with my own tongue.
I let the ball roll into a pop-bottle cap
with my quaking hand.

I did the same with my own tongue.
And certain death never came
at my own hand.
Me and him, eye to eye

certain death never came
in the bedroom of
me and him, eye to eye,
my first dangerous man.

— Micheline Maylor


Micheline Maylor’s  newest collection titled Whirr and Click is due with Frontenac House in spring of 2013. Her recent publication Starfish, a chapbook with Rubicon Press, sold out in 2011. She became a recent graduate of the May Studio at the Banff Centre in 2010. She was named honourable mention in the UK’s 2007 Petra Kenny poetry awards. She has upcoming fiction and poetry in The Shyness Anthology, and Stampede Noir Anthology. Her latest works can be found in the Planet Earth Poetry Anthology, University of Las Vegas Review, and The Freshwater Pearls Anthology. She attained a BA with honours at the University of Calgary in English, a Masters degree with distinction in creative writing at Lancaster in Northern England, and a Ph.D. at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in English Language and Literature with a specialisation in Creative Writing and 20th Century Canadian Literature. She has been the recipient of the Overseas Research Scholarship, the International Research Scholarship and Alberta Foundation for the Art grants. She has poetry published in over 70 journals in 5 countries. A certified poetry fanatic, she teaches creative writing, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and composition at Mount Royal University. She serves as the President and co-founder of Freefall Literary Society, and is the editor of FreeFall literary magazine: www.freefallmagazine.ca. Her first book is titled Full Depth: The Raymond Knister Poems (2007) and is available through Wolsak & Wynn www.wolsakandwynn.ca.

Oct 082012


Flowerpot Rocks, Hopewell, New Brunswick, low tide


Home of the highest tides in the world, a billion tons of water ebb and flow in the Bay of Fundy. Located along the East Coast of North America, north of the Gulf of Maine and between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy is one of Canada’s seven natural wonders and in the Guinness Book of World Records. The Bay’s unique funnel shape together with the pull of the sun and the moon cause resonance so that at the head of the bay, in Minas Basin, Nova Scotia, the water at high tide can rise as much as 53.5 feet.



The world’s highest tides continue to sculpt red sandstone. At Hopewell Rocks (north of St. John, New Brunswick), tourists clamber over the sea floor at low tide. Later, when waters surge back, reclaiming exposed rock and mud flats and seaweed beds, canoes exploit the currents while water-gazers climb on platforms to avoid being stranded or carried off.



Watergazers, watching





Alma, New Brunswick, low tide


In ports—such as at Alma, New Brunswick—boats lean against docks, waiting for the tide to come in, before heading out to check lobster traps.


Alma, New Brunswick, 6 hours later


When the incoming tide crashes into the St. John River at St. John, New Brunswick, it creates raging whirlpools and rapids. At high tide, the power of the water actually reverses the flow of the river. Kayakers and boaters here brave the surge.


St. John River, New Brunswick



While the vertical tides have made the Bay of Fundy famous, horizontal tides are also spectacular. At low tide, more than 620 square miles of ocean floor stretch exposed to the atmosphere. Every beach on the Bay of Fundy bares a substantial intertidal area where millions of organisms live half the day underwater and the other half revealed; they have adapted to the extremes of temperature and salinity (Randall, D., Burggren, W. and French, K. Animal Physiology: Mechanisms and Adaptations, 3rd ed. W.H. Freeman and Co. New York, 1998–Source here).


Alma, New Brunswick, low tide


Alma, New Brunswick, high tide


Upper Salmon River, Alma, New Brunswick, low tide


Upper Salmon River, Alma, New Brunswick, high tide


The greatest intertidal expanses lie in the North; scientists have identified these tracts of muck and mire as “food pumps.” The power of the water that rushes back and forth stirs up nutrients—phytoplankton and zooplankton—feeding the creatures that inhabit the Bay. (Smith, R.L. and Smith, T.M. Elements of Ecology, 4th ed. Benjamin – Cummings Publishing Co. Menlo Park, Ca.1998. Source here.).



Puffins breed on nearby islands. Flocks of sandpipers circle the exposed sea floor and then swoop in, concluding their 900-mile flight from Arctic breeding grounds with a feast. They gorge for two weeks on the Bay’s mud shrimp, doubling their weight before setting off on a 2500-mile non-stop migration to their winter grounds in South America, which they will complete in a little over three days (Thurston, H. and Horner, S. Tidal Life. Nimbus. Toronto. 1998. Source here.)


Northern Gannet


Approximately two million birds of all species stop here annually; this is the single most important stopover point for migratory birds on the Eastern seaboard. Other inhabitants include whales, seals, dolphins, porpoises, and all types of fish and crustaceans.



Boats slip through the fog, trailing these creatures; the lashed and lashing motion of the Bay of Fundy transfixes the water-gazer and invigorates the adventurer—who like Bulkington in Melville’s Moby Dick—finds that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God.”



–Natalia Sarkissian



Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy, Egypt, the United States, and South Africa.

Oct 072012

From talented directors Adrián Cardona, Rafa Dengrá, and David Muñoz comes a hilarious and fun-filled bloodbath of a film.  International audiences might expect Spanish horror films to generally follow themes of the supernatural, or might anticipate an art house pedigree of films like The Orphanage or Pan’s Labyrinth. But “Brutal Relax” defies such expectations. With massively gory results.

The film follows socially awkward Mr. Olivares who, upon being released from an institution, is told by his anxious doctor to take a vacation and avoid getting agitated at all costs. So Olivares slaps on his Hawaiian tourist outfit and heads to a beach inhabited by classic beach bums, but their happy existence is short lived because, in the age-old tradition of “beach horror,” whenever there are young, attractive, and scantily-clad people enjoying themselves, they must suffer.

Arriving at the beach, Olivares bathes in mud and cranks up his Walkman (yes a Walkman).  Soon after, an army of aquatic slime zombies rise from the sea and, unbeknownst to Olivares in his tuned out state, the dismemberment begins.  What follows is a superbly directed fast-moving sequence of flesh ripping carnage that includes a skull penetrating Frisbee, all to music courtesy of Olivares’s Walkman.

When his batteries die, the mud covered Olivares finally pays attention to the chaos surrounding him and we see why his doctor was so nervous.  A man can perhaps be an artist in anything; Olivares’s art, it turns out, is destruction, and in the carnage that follows he creates his masterpiece.

“Brutal Relax” relies heavily on slapstick visuals, the kinds of exaggerated violence and physical movement perfected by silent comedies.  There is almost no dialogue except for the opening scene with the doctor and this provides a unique dynamic between the audience and its protagonist: it deters us from identifying with Olivares too strongly, not letting us get beyond that infectious smile of his and this distance puts us in a delightful place from which we can watch the amusing massacre.

Olivares then rises to challenge the army of aquatic slime zombies. One of the things that seems to make him a viable adversary is that with the mud caked all over him he looks inhuman and very much like the zombies themselves.  This peculiar, slimy look helps dissociate him from the other beach goers and brings him to the same level of the monsters so he can destroy them.  Once the massacre is over Olivares is literally washed clean and returns to his pre-beach form, all smiles.  His rampage against the aquatic slime zombies is, essentially, cleansing. His doctor was wrong. Agitation is for Olivares very therapeutic.

On top of the more bodily style of comedy the film is a celebration of disgust.  Before the violence even starts we get little hints of the repulsion that’s in store:  we see several close-ups including one of a pimply woman slapping lotion on herself, and the mud puddle Olivares uses to apply his all-over mud mask appears to be the product of runoff from a garbage can.

The quirky aesthetics add to the overall comedic tone of the entire piece. If it gets recognized for nothing else, it should be praised for the job well done by the effects team in doing their best to disgust and amuse us by creating the perfect storm of gross comedy, including everything from an impaling cooler to a decapitating head kick. The film is a visceral carnival of disgust with its steady flow of internal organs and body fluids flying about

“Brutal Relax” is an amazing fifteen minutes of horror fused with comedy and is a refreshing story within the sometimes boring zombie category.  The hilarity doesn’t end with the credits so keep on watching.

— Jared Carney

Jared Carney is a student in Film Production at University of New Brunswick, Fredericton.  He is an emerging writer and director working towards making a feature film one day.  Horror has always been of particular interest to him and many of his influences come from both the classic, and the more extreme horror films.

Oct 042012

In June 2010, NC magazine challenged readers and writers in a homophonic translation competition contest to translate a passage into English, with explicit instructions to “Let go of your bourgeois yearning after sense and meaning. Forget certainty. (The judge is returning to his Sufi roots.) Think only of the sound of the words, their rhythms, and what you can invent from them.” You can read the winners of that competition here. In this issue of Numéro Cinq we feature a homophonic translation by Fredericton mathematician and poet Hugh Thomas. Following this is an essay by Sarah Bernstein,  “The Boundless Chaos of Living Speech, ” where she picks up on Numéro Cinq Magazine‘s infatuation with the play, uncertainty and absurdity and explores the possibilities of homophonic translation further.

—R W Gray


Det virker som om visse nivåer i tekstene er mer tilgjengelige

Debt worker some advise never in texture armour til angelic

for lesing og skriving i Canada enn i Norge. Og at det

for leasing of scrivening in Canada in a north.  Or at debt

å likestille, og spleise ulike formale og tematiske nivåer er

as lifestyle, or splays unlike for male or demotic never or

langt mer integrert i skrivingen, og dermed i den lesningen

long more interrupt in scrivening, or under meds Eden lessening

tekstene forventer. Som i Angela Rawlings wide slumber for

texture for events.  Some I angela rawlings wide slumber for

lepidopterists, en legering av de ulike søvnfasene og møll,

lepidopterists, a lingering of the unlike unfastened or null,

nattsvermere, sommerfuglers utvikling fra egg, via

not swarming, summer foolers our wrinkling from egg, via

larve og puppe, til ferdig utvokst, kjønnsmodent individ,

large or puppet, til further outfoxed, consumed undivided

«imago». Legeringen finner sted på en rekke nivåer:

on the go.  Lingering finer stayed pain wreck never:

i kvasi-vitenskapelige plansjer som parallellfører

in quasi-inviting shapely plans you’re some parallel farer

søvnfasene og sommerfuglers kroppsdeler; i tekstenes

unfastened or summer foolers’ crops’ delirium; in textures

plasseringer på siden (i det hele tatt hvordan Rawling

pleasuring besides (in that whole thought warden rawlings

har tatt i bruk boka, siden, oppslaget og typografiens

hair that in broken book, siding, slagged or typo graphing

muligheter); i sammenstillingen av et «normalt» engelsk

mull lighter); in same stilling of abnormal angels

og en rekke vitenskapelige, latinske termer, som jo

or in wreck escaping, letting tremor, some gone

i utgangspunktet er ment å spesifisere, gjøre

outing spanked torment of specificity, gore

distinksjoner, men som her befester det hypotetiske

distinct shone, men some her behest order hypo fetish

slektskapet mellom disse to vitenskapene – de tilhører

slake caped melodious to escape – death til hearer

det samme språket; i anagrammer og kvasi-anagrammer

that same sprocket: I, anagrammer of quasi-anagrams,

hvor fonemer glir ut og inn av ord fra søvnforskningen

for phone more girl out or in of word for own forsaking

og lepidopterologien (som om det ene ligger

or leaped opt enroll of logging (some am that in liquor

forpuppet i det andre). Og samtidig handler det om

for puppet in detained).  Of same tiding handler that I’m

å snakke, å skrive, å samle, organisere, puste, om å

a snake, a scriber, a small organizer, paste, I’m a

holde noe inne i noe annet, og om hulrom:

holder, no inner and no ante, or I’m hull room:

pins through epidermis
                   a wall, a tooth
Place specimen under lamp to increase drying time.
             tsniaga tsurht rotcelloc a#tilps#tips nehT
                   a moth with barbed spines
          vulva, uvulva

En tekst, eller rettere sagt en bok med en usedvanlig

Intact, all her attire sang in book made in used vinyl



A note on the text: this poem is a homophonic translation of Paal Bjelke Andersen’s review in Norwegian of the book “wide slumber for lepidopterists” by a.rawlings (from which the quoted passage is drawn).


Hugh Thomas is a poet and translator living in Fredericton, where he teaches mathematics at the Univerisity of New Brunswick. Franzlations, a collections of visual and textual riffs on images from the writings of Kafka, jointly created with Gary Barwin and Craig Conley, was recently published by New Star Books.  His poetry has also appeared in chapbooks published by BookThug, Paper Kite Press, and above/ground press.

‘The Boundless Chaos of Living Speech’: On Homophonic Translation

by Sarah Bernstein

In a 1986 interview with Werner Wögerbauer, Thomas Bernhard said of translations, “Translations? What do you mean?”

For Bernhard, all translation was impossible. “A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra,” he said. He even famously banned future productions of his play Der Weltverbesserer: it “was written for a specific actor because I knew he was the only one who could perform it,” he said.

Perhaps homophonic translation and the gymnastic leaps of imagination it requires would have earned Bernhard’s disdain, the same way Viennese coffeehouses, train stations, bureaucrats, actors and the Austrian state did. Probably he would have found it absurd. But concerned, as it is, precisely with sound (or “orchestration”) over semantic meaning, precise homophonic translation “plays” the same way across languages. Homophonic translation bridges the lingual lapses traditional translation creates, while at the same time making new (or original) the source text by recreating meaning.

As an erstwhile polyglot (I grew up speaking English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish) and always-Tolkien fan, I have always been interested in the confluence of languages – shared roots, the “boundless chaos of living speech,” the impossibility of fixing language, any language, of untangling it from others, and I read literature in translation – even and especially Bernhard – all the time.

But comparative literatures have fallen out of favour in academia, and for the very reasons that Bernhard himself was not interested in translations of his own work: “It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it.” And, indeed, when one reads the most recent Vintage translations of Bernhard’s work, masterpieces though they are, it occurs to one that there must be a kind of disconnect. It is not that the translations are not “faithful” to the original text; they are, I imagine, very much written in the same key. But, as Bernhard says, the notes are different, and there’s a flautist instead of a fiddler, as it were.

Faced with the always already note-imperfect “translation,” poets like Hugh Thomas explore and experiment with forms of “naïve translation.” Thomas, poet and professor of Mathematics at the University of New Brunswick, says that homophonic translation “fits into a spectrum of naïve translation… when you sit down with a text in a language you don’t really know, and try to produce a ‘translation’ of it.” In other words, the phonetic features of the original work are more or less preserved. There will inevitably be some words “whose translations might be clear,” says Thomas, “and then guesses guided by false cognates, parts of words, random thoughts, and also sounds.” Homophonic translation, or macaronic writing, is often associated with Oulipo writers like François le Lionnais, who wrapped up one of his manifestoes with a translation of Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” became “Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l’hiver.” It’s a useful writing exercise for students learning to navigate metre and meaning, and it yields clever results in contests, such as the ones created and published for contests in Numero Cinq Magazine’s early years.

More recently, writers like Thomas, Christian Bök, and Gary Barwin have been interested in this particular language game. Thomas’s second chapbook, heart badly buried by five shovels, published by Paper Kite Press, includes homophonic translations of poems from a variety of languages.

So what makes a homophonic translation “work”? If a “translation” lets go of its claim to and desire for symphonic fidelity, what tethers it to the source text? For Thomas, the level of rigour and precision establishes itself as he writes. He does, typically, like to have a kind of “line-to-line correspondence” between his work and the source text. “Though,” he adds, “what exactly ‘correspondence’ entails is not clear and depends on the original piece.”

Determining what kind of tie the target text has to the original depends, in part, upon the insistence of the source text’s language. If I consider the kind of precision that, say, Ron Silliman thinks makes a successful (or more honest) homophonic translation, I see that the “pull,” as it were, of Rilke’s German is so strong that it saturates the translation. The notes and orchestration that Bernhard talks about are there – I hear the German in Silliman’s lines “Angle niche, mention niche. / Undefined again, her American is shown — / toss furniture for lace lick: zoo house sin.” It’s an odd, delightful poem, and if I close my eyes and listen, there is Rilke’s notation, his orchestra.

But what does the reader make of the German running under the seams? What does it mean for the piece? Is there a reason, some kind of resonance with this particular Rilke? “For me,” Thomas says, “thinking about fairly precise homophonic translation, there has to be some kind of reason to do it.” Like in the writing of a classical sonnet, “more is needed for success than iambic pentameter and appropriate end-rhymes, but the constraints of metre and rhyme provide inspiration for the poem’s direction. Homophonic translation can be more constraining, but I tend to think of it in the same way.”

For Bernhard, a work requires one set of notes, one specific orchestra, and it seems to me that what he means is the integrity of a piece depends upon the confluence of voice (language, tone) and meaning. So perhaps the elusive “more” a homophonic translation requires merely means staking a claim to the piece – “make it new,” someone once said.

In using the same notes, the relationship between the translation and source text becomes transformed into a dialogue between – a moving back and forth, rather than a movement away from one language to another. To continue with the metaphor, homophonic translation functions much the same way as a musical variation: the sense of the original melody is there, but it has been altered, somehow. It makes one wonder, what else can be said with this orchestra, these notes?

–S. Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein is a writer from Montreal. She currently lives in Fredericton, NB, where she edits poetry for The Fiddlehead and shelves books at a French-language library. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in CV2 and Room magazines.

Oct 032012

A good photographer makes the world look different; good photography is not just a matter of reflecting what’s there — it’s a matter of perspective, taste, emotion, framing and rendering the world so that the viewer sees it fresh. In the best of his pictures, Roger Crowley makes myth of Montpelier, Vermont, makes it grand and spectacular, makes it look like no other place on earth. We all know Roger, without knowing him, because he’s there at every Vermont College of Fine Arts residency taking the graduating class photo. Now we get to know him a little better.



Alley between the Coffee Corner Diner and Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont.

Snowy barn doors in Montpelier Vermont.

First Night Fireworks Downtown Montpelier Vermont.

A decaying poster on a brick wall reflects shadows of a band in Montpelier Vermont on July 3rd 2012.

American flag in Montpelier Vermont – July 3rd Parade 2012.

College Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier Vermont.

College Hall from Cliff Street in Montpelier Vermont.

Bob Sassaman takes a noontime slide down a hill in Hubbard Park, Montpelier, Vermont during his lunch break.

— Roger Crowley


Roger Crowley is a freelance photographer living in East Montpelier, Vermont. He specializes in images of New England and Eastern Canada, sports, nature, landscape and portraits. His pictures have appeared in major magazines and newspapers as well as online publications. See more images at www.CrowleyPhotos.com.

Oct 022012

David Helwig here reminds us that poetry is a kind of divine tomfoolery, a playful messaging that oscillates between meaning everything and meaning nothing, that never means but momentarily and then the meaning shimmers away like a leaf blowing in the wind, catching here and there and moving on. He sent this to me calling it poetry. Actually what he said was more like he couldn’t figure out what it was so he called it poetry. On some level it enacts a messianic parody; it gives the year 2051 a mysterious significance; I like the stenographer drawn in a cart by a Newfoundland dog; I like the Four Lads and all the words beginning with Q; it lifts one’s heart.

David is an old friend and an amazingly prolific author of poems, translations, stories, novels and a memoir. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His book publication list is as long as your arm. He founded the annual Best Canadian Stories which he edited for years. Biblioasis is on the cusp of a collection of David’s magnificent translations of Chekhov stories, the title story “About Love” originally on Numéro Cinq. See also his poems on NC here and here and here and here!



You’d see them by the shore on those greenest of green days, Himself in conversation with Quigley, adding newly minted sayings, in the distance one of the fishers wading barefoot, steady in one place as his bare feet step gently up and down in search of the lump in the mud, the hard shell of the quahog, bending to lift each small edible bivalve out of the sludge, drop it in the floating container he dragged behind him, like a ghost towing his hard fate. Further out an oysterman probed the bottom with a set of tongs. And beyond that yet the tiny image of a lobsterman pulling traps on the shimmer of water, silver under the light-infused clouds and on in a hint of forever to the line of horizon. In the air the fine metallic flex and curl of birdsong, the tiny musicians hidden in the green reeds or the tall grass or the thick accumulation of succulent new leaves.

Himself would be bent a little forward, walking ten steps one way, then ten steps the other, intent, speaking his words, and Quigley staring at him while he went on, the big Q, so he said, remembrancing every word of it, so later to scratch it all down and share it with the Four Lads, in the years when the entirety of them westered into the secret underground, and were known only by the initials, Q for Quigley, though many said it was for some Latin or foreign word, Q not for Quigley at all, though he was called that in the farmyards and on the highways, and among the high lines of travel, while the Lads were known by their initials M and M and L and I, MMLI adding up to 2051 in the ancient numeration, and it was prepared that in the year two thousand and fifty one, some Final Secret would be told, Himself achieving his place at last. Never such demand for Last Things, and Big Quigley had a whole bundle of prophecies of the Third Coming and the Fourth, always more, like a couple, adulterous or even not, who have just at last caught the pace of it and climb the holy mountain at all hours.

At low tide the radioactive seals, flopping out of the ocean like fat mermaids, gather on a rock shoal not far from shore, grunt and boom and snarl.  No one could remember the name of the arctic goddess who once reigned in the icy waters, and governed their lives.

Nearby, observing, silent, is a tall hard man with a shaven skull. He never speaks. Then Mad Mary, in an opalescent shirt full of flesh, tiny shorts defining white thighs, strides out of a tent in the long green ferns where she has passed the time with whomever, contributions to the fund, all her big mad teeth in a grin as she goes aboard the school bus, with its beds and galley and chemical toilet and with a bending and shifting of her bare long legs and heft of muscular arms she lifts and places cardboard boxes, sweeps up, and the holy scrolls filed once more in their rack, she sets to packing up dehydrated veg and salt fish, with fresh water for the next voyage, a hip canted to one side as she lugs the buckets.

Big Quigley watches her. Whatever his claims to holiness, he is not to be trusted, of course, who would try to cheat the shell-fisher of his catch, or anyone else of any manner of thing, better conceal him as the letter, Q for quaestio, a seeking or searching, Q for quies, rest, Q for questus, complaint, Q for quisquiliae, rubbish. And his ways of remembering served to augment confusions in what was said of what was done, each of the Four Lads recording what each believed he knew, late at night debating the matters and sharing out their stories. His record, the spoken and claimed and imagined basis of it all, would finally be vanished forever, so that nothing was left but an image of an image, Mad Mary’s bright eyes and heavy sunlit hair caught in the mirror of a puddle, where she glimpsed herself with all her devils gone off, Himself seen over her shoulder in the water, come up on her from behind. Himself must use the tools at hand, what is in the world is in the world. She will read the Parmenides scroll to him in the shade late some afternoon.

Now, the packing and preparation done, she comes out of the bus with a wooden bowl in her hands, down to the water to fill, then goes to the firepit, where there is a faint trace of smoke winding up into the air, and Himself arrives to her and sits in the old upholstered seat taken out of the bus each time they set up camp, and she takes off his summer sandals and kneels, sun glittering on the waterdrops as she washes his feet, and as she bends toward him, he put his fingers through her thick hair with its metallic highlights.

They will march down a main street for the final parade, some of the willing natives gathered by the wayside, some watching on their eyeglass screens, and when she has washed his feet, Himself tells her a mystery while she combs out his hair and beard, making him handsome for the public presentation. Big Quigley studies it all. He is standing in the long green ferns, and down by the jetties, he sees two women climb from a rowboat and walk to a waiting air-bicycle, and he stares them so hard that they grow naked to his eyes, and in his way he possesses them both entirely.

The sunlight catches the thin smoke and the wisps thicken to clouds until the firepit is all whirling whiteness. Himself and Mad Mary vanish from sight, and the two of them gone, the Four Lads appear on the scene in their royal T-shirts each with his letter – TWO-ZERO-FIVE-ONE – as they sing out their stories in plainchant, then the unison dissolves into the chords of a march, and out of the vast smoke rolls the schoolbus, Mad Mary at the wheel, her bare arms exposing shifting tattoos, big hands gripping the wheel. Himself stands on the roof beating time, and all around it marches a phalanx of drum majorettes, in white satin skirts, tall boots, and red satin shirts.

Big Quigley, riding behind in a horse drawn carriage, has a notebook in his hands, and he is scribbling in it as fast as he can, but he can’t keep up, so he turns on his eyeglass phone and begins to dictate into it. Behind him, in a cart drawn by a tremendous black Newfoundland dog, sits a stenographer receiving his dictation and putting it down in shorthand. Behind the orange schoolbus, marching with their knees high, come male and female cheerleaders in silver bikinis, two of them holding a banner with the words EAT FRESH SEA FOOD. With the fingers of both hands Quigley forms the letter Q, and the cheerleaders wave to him and some of them make the same digital gesture. Each observer’s portable device records their progress into the city.

Then the bus vanishes with its smoke and noise, the long street is empty.

A van is parked in front of a snack bar, and a young man climbs out, who wears a Boy Scout hat, holding a stick ending in a nail in his right hand, a canvas bag in his left, and he strolls along the boulevard picking up the chocolate bar wrappers and chip bags and popcorn boxes.

 — David Helwig





Sep 282012

Ford has concocted a remarkable, controlled tale from the many themes on which he has based his career. The novel is one that feels, like the yarn Dell shares, meditated upon for years and years, perfected in a way that only comes with age and experience. When Dell cops, “I am blessed with memory,” late in his story, one can’t help but believe the same can be said for his literary creator. — Ben Woodard

Richard Ford
Ecco ($27.99)

(Author photo: Laura Wilson)

Richard Ford has made a healthy living dealing tragic narrative blows to the residents of Great Falls, Montana. In his brilliant story collection Rock Springs (1987), as well as the short novel Wildlife (1990), fathers brawl and kill, mothers sleep around, and families dissolve amongst the city’s flat panorama. To Ford, Great Falls is a place where bad things happen to regular people, where children are left to fend for themselves, and where the line between good and evil ever trembles. Canada, the author’s latest Montana venture, finds the author comfortably exercising these principles while simultaneously dazzling the reader with detailed, rich prose. A story of desperate parents and the consequences of their poor judgment, the novel is heartbreaking, calculated, and nothing short of a masterpiece.

Canada unfurls through the mouth of Dell Parsons, a retired English teacher looking back to the spring of 1960, when he is fifteen-years-old and living with his parents and fraternal twin sister, Berner, in Great Falls. Dell speaks in a confessional tone and wastes no time in divulging the crux of his narrative, declaring:

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. (3)

This announcement is reminiscent of Ford’s story “Optimists,” from Rock Springs, which opens with a similar flair:

All of this that I am about to tell you happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back. (Rock Springs, 157)

Yet while young Dell initially seems analogous to that of Frank Brinson, the narrator of “Optimists”—he’s friendless, concerned about school, and coping with an unstable family—the forty years of careful introspection provided by Dell’s older voice adds a dramatic heft that separates the character from his less seasoned literary cousin. As Dell speaks, one senses both nostalgia and experience alive on his tongue. While mapping out the elder Parsons’ foray into lawlessness—his father Bev’s involvement in a flawed stolen meat scam leaves the clan owing $2,000 to a group of Cree Indians—Dell frequently pauses to consider his family’s fate. “It seems possible, I suppose, to look back at our small family as being doomed, as waiting to sink below the churning waves, and being destined for corruption and failure,” he muses early in the novel. “But I cannot truly portray us that way, or the time as a bad or unhappy time, in spite of it being far out of the ordinary.” (31-32) His is not merely a recounting of events, but rather a chronicle that reads as if meditated upon for decades.

This contemplation continues once the elder Parsons are captured for their crime. Berner runs away from home and Dell finds himself jettisoned to Saskatchewan in an attempt to escape the clutches of social services. Left in the care of Arthur Remlinger, a hotelier and the brother of a family friend, the boy is assured safety from the troubles lingering in Montana. But within days of his arrival, Dell wonders if Remlinger and his right hand man, the uneasy Charley Quarters, pose to him an even greater threat. “… Arthur Remlinger had seemed like a different person each time I made contact with him—which naturally confused me and made me feel even more alone than I would’ve otherwise,” the aged Dell recalls. (309) And as Remlinger slowly incorporates Dell into his business and personal life, the discomfort between the two grows. Sitting at a café, Dell listens in befuddlement as Remlinger rambles on about Canada, Tolstoy, and the Bronze Age before finding himself locked in the following exchange:

“Do you think you have a clear mind, Dell?”

I didn’t understand what that meant. Possibly a clear mind was the opposite of unsteady. I wanted to have one. “Yes, sir,” I said. I’d ordered a hamburger and had begun to eat it.

He nodded and moved his tongue around behind his lips, then cleared his throat. “Living out here produces a fantasy of great certainty.” He smiled again, but the smile slowly faded as he looked at me. “People do crazy things out of despair when their certainty fades. You’re not inclined to do that, I guess. You’re not in despair, are you?”

“No, sir.” The word made me think of my mother in her jail cell—smiling and helpless. She’d been in despair.

Arthur took a sip of his coffee, holding the cup around its rim—not by its little curved handle—blowing on the surface before he sipped. “That’s settled then. Despair’s out.” He smiled again. (312-13)

This chat, a sort of test on the part of Remlinger, pulls Dell closer to the underhanded dealings of his keeper (as well as the “murders” mentioned in Dell’s opening monologue), yet it also illustrates Ford’s masterful understanding of the power of conversation. In this moment and throughout Canada, the author’s sporadic employment of dialogue—most of the novel’s exchanges are told in summary—works wonders. These scenes are lean and spare, filled with indirect, seemingly distracted comments that, upon hindsight and context, speak volumes and drive the narrative to a higher level of excellence. They leap from the page and leave the reader spellbound by how much can be said in so few words. And as the story chugs toward its spiraling finale, the muscle of these conversations hang in the air like ghostly informants, warnings that tried their best to prime Dell and his cohorts for the horrors that wait for them in the cold Saskatchewan night.

In a recently published interview with The Daily Beast, Richard Ford was asked about his return to Great Falls as setting in Canada, and after touching on the city’s “dramatic landscape” and how he initially “just liked the name Great Falls,” Ford turned reflective, much like his character Dell. “I’m—I guess—by nature a writer who returns to subjects,” Ford said. “It must be I think that each time [I] write about something (Montana, New Jersey, real estate, families in distress) I open opportunities for later, even fuller consideration.” This “fuller consideration” is evident in Canada, for here Ford has concocted a remarkable, controlled tale from the many themes on which he has based his career. The novel is one that feels, like the yarn Dell shares, meditated upon for years and years, perfected in a way that only comes with age and experience. When Dell cops, “I am blessed with memory,” late in his story (416), one can’t help but believe the same can be said for his literary creator.

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.