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.

dg

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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(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

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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:
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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/.

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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.

dg

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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

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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.

dg

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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!”

“We?”

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?”

“No.”

“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.

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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

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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.

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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.

dg

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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.

§

 

Mercury

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.

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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

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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.

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St. John River, New Brunswick

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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.).

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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

 

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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


“Review”

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

plastisitet.

plasticized.

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.

dg

 

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!

dg

§

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

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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

Canada
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.

 

Sep 262012
 

Two great Irish poems, a debt to Wordsworth, and Patrick J. Keane‘s synthetic/syncretic mind teach us here how to draw value from humble things in time of trouble (our time, among others) and offer a plea for significance enacted in Derek Mahon’s line “Let not our naïve labours have been in vain.” This plea rings through the ages but also presently, here and now, with the economy in tatters, the 99% grinding lower and lower, the massive direction of things against us. Why write, why persevere, what point? Pat Keane, as usual, with his vast reading, snatches references and parallels out of the ether, but he never fails to draw a passionately political moral out of the poetic argument.

The Yeats photo above is by Pirie Macdonald and the Mahon photo is by John Minihan.

dg

§

Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen
to fill our hives with honey and wax;
thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things:
sweetness and light.

—Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books

—–

To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran,
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

—William Wordsworth, “Lines Written in Early Spring”

§

The human cry for deliverance from pain and suffering, from violence and violation, whether personal or political or both, comes in many forms, some quite unexpected. Here are two poems written half a century apart. Both are by Irish poets, both have to do with the Irish Civil War (1922-23), and both radiate out from a focus on minute particulars to embrace universal meaning.

The first is by W. B. Yeats, Ireland’s greatest poet and widely considered the major poet of the twentieth century. It is the sixth lyric in Meditations in Time of Civil War, a poetic sequence Yeats wrote in the midst of that tragic conflict, a war fought between supporters of the new Irish Free State, which emerged from the Anglo-Irish Treaty following the War of Independence, and Republicans who rejected the terms of that Treaty, ratified in January 1922. The anti-Treaty forces objected particularly to the required oath to the British king and to the partition between predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. To clarify the title: a “stare” is the west-of-Ireland name for a starling; the “window” is in Yeats’s tower, an ancient Norman tower he purchased in 1917 and restored for his wife. The poet, now 57, and his young wife and two children were living there during much of the Irish Civil War.

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned;
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood;
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O, honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The second poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” is by the Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon. It was written soon after Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when British paratroopers fired into a crowd of Catholic protesters, initiating the violent stage of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Mahon wants his readers to associate that event with the Partition of Ireland back in 1922 and the subsequent Civil War. The poem is dedicated to J. G. Farrell, whose 1972 novel, The Troubles, has a scene including an old shed on the grounds of one of the many buildings burned down during the Irish Civil War. Mahon’s “disused shed” is on the grounds of “a burnt-out hotel,” burned down—like Farrell’s and like the “house burned” in Yeats’s poem—during “civil war days.” In the midst of destructive violence and embittered hearts, Yeats’s own heart reaches out to birds that nurture rather than kill, and bees that build rather than destroy. In an even wider historical context of exploitation, loss, and destruction, Mahon’s empathetic heart goes out, remarkably, to neglected mushrooms in a long-abandoned shed, “waiting for us” for precisely “a half-century, without visitors, in the dark.”

Mahon’s deeply humane, obliquely political poem is considered by many readers the single greatest lyric to have come out of Ireland since the death of Yeats—especially high praise considering the quality of the poetry produced over the past three decades by Ireland’s preeminent contemporary poet, Seamus Heaney, widely regarded as a worthy heir to Yeats. Appropriately, in accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney celebrated Yeats, his predecessor as Nobel Laureate, singling out for special praise “A Stare’s Nest by My Window,” a poem often quoted (as he notes in his acceptance speech) by men and women during the later Troubles in Northern Ireland. Along with having particular resonance for those who lived through one or the other of the two phases of the Irish Troubles, these poems by Yeats and Mahon are of universal significance. Both have roots going back to Wordsworth, writing during the era of the French Revolution, and they seem relevant to our current troubles: to a world in economic, political, and ecological crisis, and to our own polarized nation, marked by increasingly bitter partisanship and a widening gap between the rich and the rest, the comfortable and a majority struggling to survive.

A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.
…………………………………..Seferis, Mythistorema

Even now there are places where a thought might grow—
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And, in a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foeter of
Vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
Of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew,
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something—
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong—
“Elbow room! Elbow room!”
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half-century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”

These poems speak for themselves; but, having briefly introduced both, I’d like to now venture commentaries on each, beginning with “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.”

*

Aside from the opening poem, “Ancestral Houses” (written in 1921), the seven lyrics that make up Meditations in Time of Civil War were written, Yeats tells us in his own note to the sequence, “at Thoor Ballylee in 1922, during the civil war.” As published in 1923, the sequence reflects upon, and dramatically records, the internecine violence swirling around the poet’s own tower in the west of Ireland, nowhere more poignantly than in the sixth poem, “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” Like Wordsworth before him, also writing in a time of war and personal crisis, Yeats, experiencing a sense of what he called “the common tragedy of life,” focuses on small, common things of nature—here, bees and mother birds that “bring grubs and flies” to their chicks. Living in a restored twelfth-century Norman fortress, the poet was fully aware that men in this region had “lived through many tumultuous centuries.” Now, having watched stacked coffins carted past his door and heard night explosions, Yeats, as he tells us in his Nobel Prize memoir, “felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature” (“The Bounty of Sweden” [1925], in Autobiographies, 579-80).

Surrounded by human destructiveness (young soldiers slaughtered, great houses burned), Yeats attends to the constructive continuities of the natural world: the bees that “build” in the “crevices” of his tower’s loosening masonry, and the life-affirming feminine principle in the form of “mother birds” who bring sustenance to their nested young. In the refrain, the poet, by nature a creative spirit, even if his own “wall is loosening” (here he merges the ancient tower with his own aging body) invokes related creative spirits: the “honey-bees,” comb-makers and confectioners of a substance associated with sweetness and light. The bees are to “Come build in the empty house of the stare.” It’s not quite clear if the stares or starlings, rather quarrelsome and rapacious birds, have abandoned their nest, to be replaced by other birds, or if the “mother-birds” are themselves starlings. What is clear is that (to cite John Keats’s depiction of nature’s continuity) “the poetry of earth is ceasing never,” and that Yeats associates the bird feeding her young with the honey-bee, an archetypal image of harmony and regeneration.

As a young reader of Walden, Yeats famously longed, emulating Thoreau, to “build” a small cabin on the Lake Isle of Innisfree, with “a hive for the honey-bee,/And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” That was Then; Now he is writing “in time of civil war.” Unlike instinctual creatures who build and nurture, “we,” even non-participants in the violence, are caught up in, and cut off by it. In the isolation of his lonely tower, the poet and his family are—rather like Mahon’s mushrooms—“closed in, and the key is turned/On our uncertainty.” In the fog of war, with communications down, facts are the first casualty, an “uncertainty” compounded by the nature of this worst form of conflict. As is made clear by the full sequence of which this lyric is part, Yeats (though he accepted the Treaty) was ambivalent about a tragic civil war that had pitted brother against brother, creating “a whirlpool of hate” for which he felt “both sides were responsible” (1923 letter to Lady Gregory). One can argue either side of the political division that led to the conflict; Yeats himself refused (as he said in the letter to Lady Gregory) to “take any position in life where I have to speak but half my mind.” There are, however, a few lethal certainties: While “no clear fact” is to be discerned, “somewhere/ A man is killed, or a house burned.”

One day Yeats saw “the smoke made by the burning of a great neighboring house,” and, along with stacked coffins, actually witnessed the incident presented in the third stanza, also described in a letter to the critic F. J. C. Grierson. His graphic specificity and use of the demonstrative pronoun create the stark immediacy epitomizing and particularizing the horror of war: “Last night they trundled down the road/ That dead young soldier in his blood.” That close focus on the dead, in sharp contrast to the equally close focus on the details of the life-affirming birds and bees, is followed by a third invocation for those bees to build. In “Lines Written in Early Spring,” Wordsworth had asked, rhetorically, “Have I not reason to lament/ What man has made of man?”  Yeats renews that Wordsworthian contrast between the creative harmony of nature and the destructive tendencies of man: man caught up in the political world that is too much with us, and so cut off from and out of tune with the vital, fecund universe.

In the great final stanza, Yeats out-Wordsworths Wordsworth, making himself complicit in the very violence he deplores. “We” are not merely the closed-in, passive endurers of heart-hardening brutality, but its inadvertent engenderers. The maternal birds bring their young substantial fare in the form of life-sustaining grubs and flies. But “We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” Prominent among those “fantasies” were the potent myths, masculine and feminine, of Cuchulain and Cathleen ni Houlihan. In resurrecting both mythic figures, abstractions blooded, Yeats had fed Irish nationalism, a passion alternately ennobling and fanatical—all that delirium of the brave.

Having written a cycle of five plays based on Cuchulain, the Achilles of ancient Irish epic, Yeats seems, in his late poem “The Statues,” at once proud and disturbed that Padraic Pearse and some of the other leaders of the Easter Rising had made a cult of the ancient Irish hero Yeats had revived, in the process unleashing an uncanny power: “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,/What stalked through the Post Office?” To this day, Oliver Shepherd’s bronze statue of Cuchulain may be seen in the General Post Office, the building on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in which Pearse, James Connolly, and a youthful Michael Collins, among others, made their stand in the Easter Rising. In “The Man and the Echo,” another late poem, one written not long before his own death, Yeats posed another political question, perhaps the most famous in Irish literature: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” He was referring to Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), written for and starring his beloved, that beautiful patriotic firebrand, Maud Gonne; and the answer to the question is Yes. Young men inspired by that patriotic, even propagandistic, glorifying of blood sacrifice for Mother Ireland would later lose their lives in the Easter Rising (1916), or in the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21).

“Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart,” Yeats reminded us in ambivalently commemorating (in his group-elegy, “Easter 1916”) the leaders of the Rising executed by the British. But then, their hearts still deeply moved, yet often brutalized, by mythic fantasies, Irish patriots would turn against each other in the Civil War, displaying “More substance in our enmities/ Than in our love.” In the form of sectarian conflict between Catholic and Protestant, vestiges of love-eclipsing hatred survive in the not yet fully resolved Troubles in Northern Ireland. James Joyce had addressed the issue in Ulysses, set in 1904 but published in 1922, during the Irish Civil War. In “Cyclops,” the political episode of his novel, Joyce’s unlikely hero, Leopold Bloom, responds to the one-eyed Irish chauvinism he encounters in Barney Kiernan’s pub:

–But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is life.
–What? says Alf.
–Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.  (Ulysses, 273)

Having helped create a mythology that had turned into bloody reality, a lethal hatred “the very opposite of that that is life,” Yeats also envisions, nowhere more movingly than in “The Stare’s Nest by My Window,” the opposite possibility. As he put it in a letter written in the midst of the Civil War, “The one enlivening truth that starts out of it all is that we may learn charity after mutual contempt.” Enlivening: Life might yet issue from death, sweetness flowing into the breast once political bitterness had been cast out. In this sequence’s opening poem Yeats referred to “violent, bitter men,” and to “the sweetness that all longed for night and day.” This sixth poem in the sequence invokes creatures emblematic of that sweetness. Appropriately, the prayer for regeneration intensifies, and is most poignant, in the final supplicant refrain, with its direct and tender apostrophe: “O, honey-bees,/Come build in the empty house of the stare.”

This longing is a prayer for love among the ruins, plenitude amidst desolation; a cry from the heart for sweetness and light to replace embittered darkness. Filling emptiness, the honey-bees represent creative, natural, benevolent cyclicity in contrast to the destructive, unnatural brutality of civil war. What better image for a poem seeking reconciliation of civil enmity? “So work the honey-bees,” says Shakespeare’s Archbishop of Canterbury, “Creatures that by a rule in nature teach/ The act of order to a peopled kingdom” (Henry V, I.ii.187-89). It is no accident that Seamus Heaney, in choosing jacket art for Crediting Poetry, the published version of his 1995 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, selected The Bees (from the Ashmole Bestiary, circa 1210), an illustration intended to refer back to this poem by Yeats, a poem especially “credited” in the speech. Thinking of Yeats’s and Shakespeare’s honey-bees, perhaps of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, and surely of Swift’s praise of honey and wax emblematic of “sweetness and light,” Heaney notes the special significance of the honey-bee—“an image deeply lodged in poetic tradition and always suggestive of the ideal of an industrious, harmonious, nurturing commonwealth” (Crediting Poetry, 44-45).

*

We encounter another image from the world of nature, though one far less conventional, in Derek Mahon’s poem, which replaces Yeats’s honey-bees with a commonwealth of mushrooms. The poetic means by which Yeats moves us go, of course, beyond the resonant image of the honey-bee. His poem is intricately and regularly rhymed, its strict abaab stanza form subtly nuanced by enjambment and oblique rhymes in the a lines of each stanza, anchored and stabilized by the single b rhyme on “stare” throughout the poem. Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” though far more loosely rhymed and even more colloquially enjambed, is also highly formal—and, as we will see, or hear, remarkably allusive. It consists of six 10-line stanzas, with lines varying between approximations of iambic tetrameter and pentameter. Yeats found his theme in a precise place (an “empty” yet life-filled crevice near the bedroom window in his tower); Mahon begins by enumerating various “places” where a “thought might,” almost organically, “grow.” Those he mentions, before homing in on the precisely-placed disused shed, adumbrate his themes of exploitation, loss, abandonment, and the slow passage of time.

“Even now,” there are, in his opening example, Peruvian silver mines, once teeming with natives forced to labor in the darkness by exploitative Spanish conquistadores, mines now “worked out and abandoned/To a slow clock of condensation,/An echo trapped for ever…” The ticking off of the hard cs (worked, clock, condensation, echo) is balanced by fluid ls, fricative fs, and short is: a haunting delicacy—“a flutter/ Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft”–reminiscent of Keats’s goddess of Autumn, her “hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind.” From these “Indian compounds” the Indians themselves have long since vanished; now only the “wind dances,” and a door bangs “with diminished confidence.” The challenge, for Mahon as for late summer’s oven-bird in Robert Frost’s poem of that title, “is what to make of a diminished thing,” especially given the even more unpromising sites in this opening stanza: lime crevices hidden behind rain-barrels, or remote corners where dogs have buried bones or feces (Mahon originally referred to “dog corners for shit burials”).

The first stanza, which concludes by casually introducing the titular “disused shed in Co. Wexford,” pivots syntactically into the second stanza, which locates that shed “Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel…” Mahon seems again to be echoing Keats, this time his Hyperion, which opens with fallen, gray-haired Saturn, found “Deep in the shady sadness of a vale/ Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,/ Far from the fiery noon and eve’s one star…(1-4). The echo is sustained in Mahon’s description of the shed’s inhabitants, a “thousand mushrooms” crowded to a keyhole, the “one star in their firmament,” the “star” of that keyhole framing within it an actual evening star. Again, the question is what to make of a diminished thing. “What should they do there but desire?” Having survived “so many days” beyond even the evergreen rhododendrons, while the great world waltzes gaily and unconcerned in its amphitheater of cloud, the mushrooms “have learned patience and silence/ Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.” With the concealed effortlessness of an art great enough to induce the Coleridgean suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith, Mahon has brought us, amazingly enough, into the otherwise inexpressible, unconscious world of abandoned mushrooms, vegetative forms made as hauntingly real as the housed ghosts in Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.”

In fact, listening patiently and silently, they have been “waiting for us”—waiting for those who break into their shed in the penultimate stanza and those of “us” who read Mahon’s poem when it first appeared in 1972—for “a half century,” ever since “civil war days.” Back then, in 1922, the botanist who tended to them (the “expropriated mycologist”) was removed from those chores among the fungi, called to duty in the Irish Civil War. The mushrooms, always listening, mark his “gravel-crunching departure,” a departure that proved to be “interminable.” Presumably killed in action, he “never came back, and light since then/ Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.” Equally gently, and elegiacally, the years are telescoped. Through decades, while “spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew,” the abandoned mushrooms survive in their constricted shed, isolated and forgotten. Still, clinging tenaciously to their pitiably minimal existence, they listen in the darkness, and

Once a day, perhaps, they have heard something—
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

Not all these attentive auditors have survived the half century they have been patiently waiting for us. “There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking/ Into the earth that nourished it”; and “nightmares,” engendered by that decay and the nourishing and receiving earth. In this “grim/ Dominion of stale air and rank moisture,” the mushrooms nearest the door “grow strong,” struggling for their own mini-dominion: “Elbow room! Elbow room!” (This welcome note of jocularity is unlikely to derive from a recollection of King John, Shakespeare’s poisoned and dying wretch of a monarch, who cries out in the final scene of the play, “Now my soul hath elbow-room” [King John, V.vii.28]. Instead, Mahon is probably echoing the exuberant exclamation (popularized in a poem by Arthur Cuiterman) attributed to America’s expansive Kentucky frontiersman: “’Elbow room!’ cried Daniel Boone.”) Even in the claustrophobic shed-world there are winners and losers, the aggressive and the near-defeated. Those in the mushroom colony nearest the door grow strong;

The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

In this evocation of the pathos of mutability, diminished but still stubborn hope, and sheer survival among the crumbling and broken detritus, Mahon combines a question and answer from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” the Apostle asks, adding “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain until now” (7:24, 8:22). The mushrooms have been “so long/ Expectant” that they retain only the tendency to believe in their deliverance, only a “posture” or anticipatory attitude. Yet they remain poignantly open to that equilibrium of faith and tragic realization expressed in the final line of Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas”: “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.”

Yet, however expectant the mushrooms may be,  deliverance, when it comes, comes unexpectedly, as a shock—a sudden, violent, cacophonous violation of the silent loneliness of these long-neglected shut-ins:

A half-century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges.

In a remarkable fusion, the wise old “magi”-like mushrooms are compared to “moonmen” and sci-fi “triffids.” Sufferers racked “by drought and insomnia,” they are also depicted as “Powdery prisoners of the old regime,” victims resembling the few frail, long-forgotten prisoners released from the Bastille at the symbolic onset of the French Revolution. Reinforcing the allusion to that era, their survival is confirmed by a detail—“only the ghost of a scream/ At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with…”—that momentarily aligns the tourists armed with cameras with the French firing-squad of regimented automatons executing the Spanish rebels in Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May, 1808, in Madrid: The Shooting on Principe Pio Mountain. The victims in Goya’s painting are dead, dying, or waiting their turn; the focal point a white-shirted peasant kneeling on the bloodstained earth, his face and posture a remarkable mixture of human horror, pride, and fatalistic resignation in the face of death. Though the mushrooms, awakened by the camera flash, are being photographed rather than actually “shot,” it is not hard to imagine a memory of Goya’s great painting entering into Mahon’s description of the “posture” of his long suffering but dignified mushrooms, and the frightening effect on them of this “flash-bulb firing squad.”

And it is necessary that we again experience the mushrooms’ plight as victims since they have just been described, semi-realistically, as “Web-throated, stalked like triffids”—resembling, that is, the fictional plants in John Windham’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Windham’s bestial plants are, like Mahon’s mushrooms, capable of rudimentary human behavior; indeed, able to uproot themselves and walk, even to communicate with each other. But they are malign, voracious creatures. Any vestigial negative connotation attached to the mushrooms is dissolved in this re-emphasis on their victimage, and in the profoundly moving picture that follows the quasi-military firing of the flash-bulbs. The sudden light wakens them, revealing them at their noblest, most human, and most poignant. Their “ghost of a scream”

Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

That magnificent last line is at once richly alliterative, paradoxically witty (frail heads lifted in gravity), heartbreakingly vulnerable, and a tribute to inextinguishable hope. What more is there to say? Yet Mahon risks everything in the final stanza, taking the chance that his poem might over-reach by incorporating the marginal life of these forgotten mushrooms, neglected “since civil war days,” within a larger moral and historical background of catastrophe: the human tragedy of Treblinka, the natural disaster of Pompeii. Silent auditors till now, they are given speech in the final lines—“wordless” speech in the obvious sense that the words are supplied (as in the earlier and amusing cry for “Elbow room!”) by the author. Risking all, specifically the danger that his poem’s pathos might sink into bathos, Mahon pulls it off, a rhetorical triumph whose glory is humbled by its Wordsworthian attention to the lowly and dispossessed, and by an empathy and in-feeling reminiscent, again, of Keats, whose Grecian urn, a foster-child of “silence and slow time,” suddenly bursts into utterance at the end of the ode. Mahon’s final stanza opens with his mushrooms on the verge of utterance:

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.

They are begging us, all of us who read and permit ourselves to be possessed by this uncanny poem, to “do” something, anything; or, if we fail to act, to say something, to “speak on their behalf.” At the very least, they plead with us not to repeat their abandonment, “not to close the door again.” For a moment the mushrooms metamorphose into the victims of the modern Holocaust or of ancient Vesuvius, appealing directly to us–we mobile tourists and casual recorders of suffering—to bring them salvation, if only in the form of tragic remembrance. Mahon’s epigraph is from the Greek poet George Seferis, a Nobel Laureate who died the year before this poem was written: “Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.” Embodying the return of the repressed, those souls, in Mahon’s conscience-stricken expansion, include all those who, throughout human history, have struggled and suffered—isolated, abandoned, forgotten, deprived, dispossessed, destroyed, even incinerated—in a world groaning for deliverance:

Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”

This cry out of darkness and pain evokes our noblest human instincts, empathy and compassion. That it does so is a tribute to the poem’s final “tone of supplication.” I borrow the phrase from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech. Concluding that speech, Heaney, having repeatedly connected the Troubles in Northern Ireland with Yeats’s “Stare’s Nest” poem, turns to lyric poetry’s “musically satisfying order of sound,” which he also illustrates by reference to this particular  poem. He finds the satisfaction he seeks in the repetition of Yeats’s refrain, “with its tone of supplication, its pivots of strength in the words ‘build’ and ‘house’ and its acknowledgement of dissolution in the word ‘empty’,” as well as in “the triangle of forces held in equilibrium by the triple rhyme of ‘fantasies’ and ‘enmities’ and ‘honey-bees’…” What Heaney says in the peroration of his Address, celebrating the “means” by which “Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does,” applies as well to the second of our necessary poems, one no less musically satisfying, and no less deeply humane. For Mahon’s poem, too, pivots between strength and supplication, with his cherished mushrooms’ endurance capped by their petition, “Let not our naïve labours have been in vain.” This, as Heaney concludes Crediting Poetry, is to

touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem…is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they too are an earnest of our veritable human being. (53-54)

Wordsworth, an abiding influence in the work of Heaney, informs both these poems focusing on seemingly insignificant processes of nature: plangent labors, and values, persisting even amid profound distress. William Hazlitt rightly said of Wordsworth, “No one has shown the same imagination in raising trifles to importance”; it was his “peculiar genius,” Walter Pater added a half century later, “to open out the soul of apparently little or familiar things,” especially the small, neglected, humblest details of the natural world. In doing so, he was able to move the empathetic human heart in ways that help account for the emotional impact on us of mother birds and honey-bees, even of neglected but persevering mushrooms. “Tears” are inherent in “things,” Virgil tells us, since “mortality touches the heart” (Aeneid 1:462). With Mahon in mind, though his words apply as well to the most moving of Yeats’s Civil War poems, Denis Donoghue noted “the consolation of hearing that there is a deeper, truer life going on beneath the bombings and murders and torture.” The parent text may be Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, a poem of loss and recompense even greater than these two great poems, and offering, in its final lines, the humanizing consolation attending our empathetic response, emotional and cognitive, to that deeper, truer life surviving beneath, and above, what man has made of man:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

*

By way of coda, I conclude with a poem of my own, not (needless to say) to suggest that it belongs in the company of Heaney and Mahon, let alone of Wordsworth and Yeats, but merely to record my debt to that tradition elegizing the seemingly least significant lives.

In Memoriam: Mug Rinsing

In charge of the files, a Senior Citizen
Whose life seemed just a daily coffee grind,
She finally let the filing fall behind.
A neighbor phoned to say, She won’t be in….

For a week now, the Company’s been bereft
Of the services of Miss–what was her name?
Pre-dated time-sheets blazon forth her fame
Somewhat ironically. One token’s left:

That skoal to the quotidian, her coffee mug,
Ringed with sludge and sour Half ‘n Half,
Squats in her Out Box, ugly epitaph
On an existence rounded with a shrug….

The desk will soon be cleared; those palisades
Of mounting folders scaled; her little hutch
Rifled of its sugar-packs and such
Accumulated junk as sad old maids

Hive against a cold retirement.
Another woman (proximately aged,
According to Personnel) has been engaged.
The pageant blurs, but files do not relent.

Her mug remains: a dull memorial urn;
But caustic soap and rinsing will remove
Vestigial stains, these final trophies of
Another unremarkable sojourn.

In Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, the understanding wife of the anti-hero pronounces the appropriately named Willie Lowman “a man to whom attention must be paid.” Wordsworth, with the Bible and Milton as precedent, is, of course, the preeminent poet of the lowly, even the “lowliest”—the revolutionary pioneer of a poetry attending to, and commemorating, things beneath the notice of poets before him. It is a poetry of petition: a call to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, the neglected who suffer even posthumous violation. It is also a poetry of epitaphs—inscriptions for those whose evanescent lives seem writ in water; or, as here, memorialized only by a coffee stain.

Of course, the real memorial is the poem itself. To avoid sentimentality, I employed an impersonal narrative voice, beneath which readers should detect a very different authorial voice. The elderly office worker of my poem may have left behind—at least from the perspective of an indifferent world (replicated in the narrator’s tone)—only that trivial token of her humble existence: a coffee mug whose vestigial stains will soon be washed away, part of this insubstantial pageant faded. Yet she, too, had her life to live, and I found myself, as her fellow-worker and eventual elegist, unwilling to simply let her disappear, her naïve labors in vain. If the poem’s title and stanza-form derive from Tennyson, Wordsworth and Mahon supply its human heart.

.

Afterword on Derek Mahon and W. B. Yeats

I just came across an engaging interview on “The Art of Poetry,” published in the Paris Review in 1981. In it, Derek Mahon made several remarks germane to the preceding essay. “Heaney is a Wordsworth man,” he said. “I’m a Coleridge man.” As a self-confessed traditionalist, Mahon was thinking specifically of Coleridge’s emphasis on “organic form” and the power of what he called in the Dejection Ode his “shaping spirit of imagination.” Asked about the tension between the “formal” and the “wild” aspects of poetry, what Nietzsche, borrowing from the Greeks, called “the Apollonian and the Dionysian,” Mahon described this as the combination that has the greatest potency, the hissing chemicals inside the well-wrought urn; an urnful of explosives. That’s what’s so great about Yeats, after all. The Dionysian contained within the Apollonian form, and bursting at the seams—shaking at the bars, but the bars have to be there to be shaken….That’s true of the ‘Shed’.”

The final reference is, of course, to “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” a whole history of dispossession and violence contained within six carefully-crafted ten-line stanzas. That craftsmanship may, paradoxically, have contributed to an afterthought expressed in this interview. Though he realized that “A Disused Shed,” his most honored and best-loved poem, “meant a lot to a lot of people,” he said that it “now” seemed to him “a rather manufactured piece of work.” Perhaps, as with Yeats and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” or Van Morrison with “Brown-Eyed Girl,” he was momentarily wearied of being identified above all as the author of this one poem.

In any case, Mahon is precisely right about what was “so great about Yeats.” Consider, for example, all those great poems in which power is poured into and contained by Yeats’s favorite “traditional” stanza, ottava rima. In fact, it was the Apollonian-Dionysian antithesis in The Birth of Tragedy— the conception of chaos ordered, of Dionysian energy harnessed by Apollo—that first attracted Yeats to Nietzsche, that “strong enchanter” in whom he found what he described, with remarkable tonal accuracy, as “curious astringent joy.” In the late essay intended as a “General Introduction for My Work,” Yeats noted that “because I need a passionate syntax for passionate subject matter I compel myself to accept those traditional metres that have developed with the language. Ezra Pound [and D. H.] Lawrence wrote admirable free verse. I could not. I would lose myself, become joyless” (Essays and Introductions, 522).

This gladly- accepted bondage or disciplined joy—what Yeats, borrowing the term from Mahon’s mentor Coleridge, called “shaping joy”—is what Nietzsche meant by “dancing in chains” (The Wanderer and His Shadow) and being, “in most loving constraint, free” (The Gay Science). Writing to a close friend, Yeats explained this aesthetics of leashed power: “We have all something within ourselves to batter down and get our power from this fighting….The passion of the verse comes from…the holding down of violence or madness—‘down Hysterica passio.’ All depends on the completeness of the holding down, on the stirring of the beast underneath” (Letters to Dorothy Wellesley, 86). The beast must stir, must shake the cage; but, as Mahon notes, the “bars have to be there to be shaken.”

Mahon remarks, early in this interview, that one of his secondary school teachers, John Boyle, taught the poetry of Yeats as the work of “an historian of the time” in which he was living. In “A Disused Shed,” and many other poems, Derek Mahon is an historian of his time, though, in both cases, the response to historical events, however violent, is still cast in traditional form, metrical and stanzaic. In his own response to Irish history, the resurgence of the Irish Troubles to whose initial phase Yeats was responding, Derek Mahon, again like Yeats, refused to take sides if that meant repressing his openness to differing political and cultural perspectives.

Born into a Northern Protestant tradition he found not only limiting, but guilt-inducing, Mahon sought escape through travel and, in his poetry, through an empathetic  identification with the victims of history. Confronting the “horror” of the sectarian violence in the North, Mahon told the Paris Review interviewer in 1981, “you couldn’t take sides. You couldn’t take sides. In a kind of way, I still can‘t. It’s possible [ he continued, alluding to the “Disused Shed” poem] for me to write about the dead of Treblinka and Pompeii—included in that are the dead of Dungiven and Magherafelt. But I’ve never been able to write directly about it.”

Why these two towns? In Maghera, 14 people were killed, 10 by the Provisional IRA, in the course of the Northern “Troubles.” And Mahon presumably singled out Dungiven because it was there, on 13 July 1969, that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary brutally batonned an elderly Catholic farmer. The man, Francis McClosky, who was completely innocent, died from his injuries: a death that many see as the event that initiated the violent phase of the “Troubles” in the North.

To end on a happier note regarding the poetry of Derek Mahon: Following a fallow period of several years, there has been a late flowering. Four excellent collections have appeared in as many years: Harbour Lights (2006); Somewhere the Wave (2007), Life on Earth (2008), and An Autumn Wind (2010), published as the poet was turning 70. It would seem that, like W. B. Yeats, who also experienced a burst of creative energy as he entered his seventies, Derek Mahon has retained his shaping spirit of imagination.

—Patrick J. Keane

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

Sep 252012
 

Darryl Gregory lives in Connecticut but has roots in Texas, plays country music on his lap steel guitar, and sings like a mournful soul. He can also write, and so we have here an analysis of the genesis and composition of an entire album, music and words. He tells a story about telling stories, eloquently and generously, and incidentally tells the stories again,  family stories. I love any insight I can get into the working language and practice of an art form other than my own. It always creates analogies, parallels and connections in my mind. While you’re reading, you can listen to the songs (click on the widget half-way down the page).

I met Darryl through his wife, Sophfronia Scott, who published an essay here last issue and is a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She told me a delightful story about how they found each other during a football game when she was in the stands and he was the band leader. I tell you this because I like the family connections here on NC which in the end is very much about friends, families and students (this is one of the reasons so many of the author photos on NC have children in them — have you noticed?). Also I think talented people find each other.

dg

——

I’m a songwriter. I’m also a storyteller—a raconteur with melodic intent. When I set out to write  a song, I want to guide a listener through my character’s state of mind as that character plays the hand I’ve dealt them. I use music to groove along with the words and to fill in for the fat I trimmed off when crafting singable lyrics. I doubt a novelist or a poet would or could do such a thing. But I can, in a sense, leave out some words that my lap steel guitar will intone with a reverb-ladened wail. That’s the really cool thing about being a songwriter, but you still need to tell a story and connect to the listener no matter how much reverb you soak in.

I say this all up front because as I began work on my latest album, Big Texas Sky, I had to keep reminding myself that I was a storyteller. I needed to tell a story, not just within each song, but over the entire album. What did I want to say and how could I string an album’s worth of songs together in order to convey it to a listener? I had a lot of songs to choose from as I had been writing consistently since my previous release in 2007. But which were the songs that told their own story and told a bigger story when played together with other songs?

Life, as it does with many a creative process, played a hand in answering that question. Last year as I began thinking about the process of writing and recording a new album, I was dealing with a boatload of family issues. I lost a very close friend and then my sister-in-law, attending their funerals in two different states only days apart. At the same timeI watched my mother’s health deteriorate as her age sapped her strength and will to live. I spent months saying my farewells to her. She passed away two weeks before her 86th birthday.

Last autumn I received a photograph in the mail from my Aunt Thelma, my father’s sister, who had just turned 95. She resides in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a photo of her, my other surviving aunt, their children (my cousins) and their children, all at the gathering for Thelma’s 95th birthday. As I looked over the picture a feeling of deep regret began to well up in my heart. Besides my aunts, I did not know any of the people in the photo. There were many familial characteristics that I latched onto (that man in the second row looks a lot like my brother) but I had no names and no story to go along with the photo. This thought truly saddened me.

So as I gathered songs for my then untitled album, I began to notice I was putting together a collection of songs about family. Consciously or not here was a group of songs that said something about how I was feeling. I saw the love and the regret in the words I had written, and those lyrics felt like unsent letters waiting to be postmarked.

From one of the songs emerged the phrase that would become the title of the collection and give me the way to connect all the dots. “Anywhere But Here” is a story about a young girl trying to escape one abusive situation after another. She curses her fate for being born under a big Texas sky. The image of a big sky overhead makes me think of God: the omnipresence, the spirit that is always there, watching as we live our lives. We either acknowledge it or not, but the fact remains that it is there. So for me the sky became a metaphor for God and Texas became a metaphor for family and these two ideas strung the beads together. After I saw this, picking the rest of the songs for Big Texas Sky became easy. Though I ended up with fewer songs than is on a usual CD these days, 7 instead of 10 or 12, I feel these seven songs are solid stories of family, life, spirit and love. Together they create a tableau the listener can comfortably insert themselves and feel right at home.

I’m very fortunate to have a recording studio in my basement. I built it when our family moved from cramped quarters in NYC to expanded-suburban-landownership in CT. I can go downstairs, shut the door and take my time finding the right way to record the songs I’ve written. For this CD I wanted to have a country/Americana sound throughout because I knew, even before I decided on the title, I wanted the album to be associated with Texas in some way. I was raised listening to country music: Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings. I hated it all. I hated it all because my parents loved it. But I absorbed it through the pores of my musical skin and when I got very serious about songwriting I found that my songs were inherently country. Oh I can write a mean post punk power pop diddy, but country is where my heart is.

I don’t have an exact process to recording, but the general path goes something like this: first drums, rhythm guitar and bass, add in the lead guitar, keyboards and background vocals, top it off with lead vocals and mix it all together.

I like to spend a lot of time finding just the right sound for my guitar through different amplifier settings and just the right groove for the bass. When a musician talks about groove he is talking about a couple of integrated items — the rhythms that allow the listener to move along with the beat (can I dance to it?) and how the other instruments all fall within that basic rhythm. You know you’re playing with good musicians when they know their place within the groove.

That being the case, I will record those instruments first over a looped drum track, kind of like a metronome, but with more of a rhythmic groove from a bass drum and snare (no one likes playing to a click-click-click-click). Once I get the bass and rhythm guitars down, I will go back and record a real drum part. I’m not a great drummer, so I will call in a pro to play these parts.

Next comes a scratch vocal track. Scratch means that I know I’m not going to keep it and it’s just there as a guide, like a piece of scrap wood. I use the scratch vocal to help me record the lead guitars, keyboards, lap steel guitars, background vocals and anything else that plays off of the lead vocal. The reason for doing this is so that those instrumental parts do not get in the way of the vocals. It’s all about the words and the story in country music, so the voice is center and upfront. Next time you listen to rock or pop, take a moment to listen to where the voice is in relation to the band. It’s usually even with or a little in the back of the instruments. Not the case with country. The voice is always more prominent than everything else.

Now I go back and do many, many takes of the lead vocal part. I find singing to be deceivingly difficult. Especially when you go back into the control room of the studio and listen closely: swallowed consonants, odd sounding vowels, bad pitch, poor phrasing. I usually record 5 or 6 full passes of the song, then go back and record multiple takes of verses and choruses and bridges. The real fun begins when I try to find the best sounding bits from all that and edit it together onto a single track. Digital recording sure has made this easier, but it still comes down to singing the part right, knowing what you want the song to sound like an being able to tell the story while singing. By the way, I never use auto-tune. If I can’t sing in tune then it’s time to find another line of work.

Here’s a quick run-down of the songs on Big Texas Sky and the thread that strings them together. A complete set of lyrics is available at the Big Texas Sky web page. I’ll also include a few notes about the sound as well just to give you an idea of how the music pulls the story along.

Aunt Jean’s Piano

This a story that makes a connection through time using the piano once played by a long dead relative as a pivot point. Jean was my father’s younger sister and she was always described to me as “the talented pretty one” of the nine children. She died of a brain aneurism at the age of 19. I often thought about what might have happened to the piano she played.

I run my hands across the keys
Black and white and yellowed with age

What might it be like to come back to her house and play it as the ghosts dance in the room?

I feel her ghost inside the chords
As they drift around this room
I see her dancing on the porch
Singing an old Texas tune

The interesting thing about this piece is that there was no piano in it. It’s a song about a piano and yet, no piano. The song is stark with just a guitar, mandolin and fiddle to accompany the voice. Of course this bugged me to no end until I came up with the idea to record a prelude. In the lyrics there is a reference to Jean’s father loving the old Methodist hymns. I decided to begin the song with a hymn being sung by Jean and me (the storyteller). I pulled in a dear friend to sing Jean’s part way out of her range so she would sound like a young girl and I sang the alto part down an octave. It comes out well as a very cool effect.

§

Anywhere But Here

I wanted to write a story in the vein of Emmy Lou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl”. A story about a young girl who is trying to escape one abusive situation after another and not quite getting out.

She’s gonna run far
From this broke down life
Stepdaddy’s greasy hands
And his visits in the night
He ain’t gonna hold her down this time
She ain’t lookin’ back this time

The listener hopefully realizes that she’s never going to find peace because it’s always anywhere but here.

She got a ticket for a bus
Headed to Austin
Or is it Detroit?
Maybe it’s Boston?
As long as it’s
Anywhere but here

The guitars are special in this song. There’s a twangy-ness to them that makes me think of an East Texas Buddy Holly sound. Layered on top of this is a lap steel guitar played with a slide and drenched in reverb. If you’ve ever heard the Flatlanders you’ll know the sound I was aiming for.

§

Workin’ Man

This is my tongue-in-cheek poke at why some guys work so damned hard: for the pretty little woman at home.

Yeah work
Cause baby needs a penthouse view
I work
Cause baby needs caviar
I work
Cause baby needs a mink coat
I work
Baby don’t know why I’m broke

I usually perform this song as a talking blues or a work-song. A work song is the grandfather to the music we know as ‘the blues’. It’s sung or chanted without instrumental support (acapella) and usually has a rhythmic groove that would go well with swinging a sledgehammer. I wanted to add atmosphere to the song and that meant adding instruments. I decided to arrange it for this CD with a pounding bass, a dobro and junk percussion. Junk percussion meaning, well… junk: tin cans, metal bars, trash cans, pots and pans, etc. I recorded the voice and then ran it through an amp to make it sound like the singer is talking through a bull horn at a union rally. All of this is intended to create a mood and a groove for this guy to wail about his lot in life.

§

How Do I Tell Her

In my job as a music educator, I have been in the position of having my job eliminated as school districts try to cut the budget. It’s a fearful situation in so many regards, not least of which was having to go home and have a discussion with my wife about the possibility that I might not have a job in the coming school year. “How Do I Tell Her” relates the story of a man who is let go from a long standing job and doesn’t know how to tell his wife.

Now I feel like a thief in the night
Like a ghost in my soul I’m going out of my mind
I’m afraid to deliver disappointment
Collecting her tears in kind

He finds that his wife knows more about his fear than he does and together they have the strength to weather the storm.

Next to “Anywhere But Here”, this is the most ‘country’ sounding track on the album. I wanted to go for that late 60’s, early 70’s sound with the pedal steel awash in reverb and a male chorus of background singers. Sad sounding, but not too sad. This is the type of song that a guy would call up on the jukebox, order a shot and a beer and after having a listen he’d raise the shot glass and say – “Here’s to that guy… I know how he feels… Man, I wish I had a woman like that…”

§

What About Love

Picture a couple in their mid to late 60‘s. The children have moved out, the house is too big, they have their ingrained habits and the love may or may not be there anymore. The song is written as a duet where each person is questioning the other – Were you, are you, and will you be the one I love?

What about you
What about me
Was I your guiding light
Your rock of Gibraltar
Did I part the sea

I love a good country duet. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and Janie Fricky, Dolly and Porter Wagoner just to name a few. I asked a good friend of mine to come into the studio to sing the female part. We discovered that the really interesting thing about getting the right takes was in the vocal inflections. We had to make sure that as we sang to each other we sounded like we were in love and that these two characters were questioning their relationship and yet reaffirming it at the same time. A singer needs to be an actor.

§

Elegy for an Old Man

Death has been a constant companion for my wife and myself for the past year. I’ve thought a lot about it and written on it many times in my journal. This song is about dying from the point of view of the one who, while on his deathbed, realizes he never really thought about dying.

I was a man of broad shoulders
Never thought my strength would disappear
Death snuck up behind
Cause I paid him no mind
Now we sit here in familiar conversation

I drew inspiration from the old cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” in the way that the character laments some of the things he has done yet relishes the full life he did have. After I wrote it and listened to it a bunch of times I realized it was an unintentional song about my father. He grew up in Texas, served in the Navy, settled in Cleveland and was always a cowboy in my eyes.

A note about the arrangement. I wanted to originally have a very mellow piano and bass accompaniment interspersed with a very distorted guitar sound in the vein of RadioHead or Adrian Belew. But as I listened, I found that the sounds were very distracting (as I mentioned before, the vocals are job number 1) and so I opted for a more chordal distorted guitar that, in my mind, represent the old man’s fists coming down on the table in defiance as he is about to relate his story.

§

Prayer & Hallelujah

This is a very simple song as far as lyrics are concerned, yet when I perform it I always get a powerful response. The song starts slowly with two verses that are a prayer to the divine for peace, love and compassion.

 Give me peace
In my soul
Give me love
Let me rock-n-roll
I’m gonna reach up into heaven
And touch the light of an angel’s wing
Bring it all back to my heart
So the world can hear me sing
Hallelujah

The song then breaks into a rousing gospel section with a repeating refrain:

May we all feel the light of a brilliant love.

I put this song at the end of the album to sum it all up by saying that we all need some spiritual connection to get through all that life hands us. It’s the connection to family and friends that allows us to sing a Hallelujah every now and then.

When I began writing this song, the guitar part in the beginning prayer section reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s song “Ramble On”. The more I played it the more it touched that musical memory so much so that I almost abandoned the song entirely. But I loved the way it grooved with the lyrics and so I kept at it and it found it’s way onto the album. I do tip my hat to the mighty Zeppelin song by emulating that great bass line of John Paul Jones that stands out as a melodic counterpoint against the voice and guitar.

So I’m turning 50 this year. 50 is a good number to make one look back and think about regret, or not. I’ve decided to make a list of things I want to do in my 50th year – a to-do list for the man peering over the edge. I think one of the top items on this list will be: Visit family in Texas, bring guitar, leave regret behind.

— Darryl Gregory

————————

Darryl Gregory is a true multi-instrumentalist who honed his skills as a rocker and singer-songwriter in NYC in the late 1990’s and early part of the new century. He produces other songwriters in his studio (Blue Cave Studios) in Sandy Hook, CT. Darryl has composed music for many different types of ensembles including orchestra, band, brass quintet, string quartet and Javanese Gamelan. He has composed music for film as well as incidental music for several off and off-off Broadway theatrical and dance works. Darryl has degrees in Music Education, trombone performance and music composition. He lives with his wife and son in the backwoods of Connecticut.

Sep 242012
 

Herewith an excerpt from Mark Frutkin’s strange and wonderful new novel, A Message for the Emperor just published by Véhicule Press. Mixing the past and the present, Frutkin tells the story of Li Wen, a landscape painter of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), who is on a journey to deliver a message to the Chinese Emperor in the far-off capital city of Linan. His teacher has instructed him to paint four landscapes, one for each season, during the year it will take him to travel across China to the Emperor’s Court where he is to present the paintings to the Emperor as a long-life gift. Part historical drama, part fable, part picaresque, part cultural criticism, A Message for the Emperor follows Li Wen on a series of (artful) adventures (including burial in an ancient tomb).

Frutkin grew up in Cleveland before moving to Canada during the Vietnam War, settling there (he lives in Ottawa) and making his way as a writer. He is one of a brave band of American/Canadians of that era, many of whom had a profound influence on the development of a nascent Canadian literary brand in the 60s and 70s. For a lively recollection of his early years in the Great White North, read his 2008 memoir Erratic North, A Vietnam Draft Resister’s Life in the Canadian Bush (Dundurn).

His previous novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006), won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His most recent publication (September 2011) is a travel memoir, Walking Backwards: Grand Tours, Minor Visitations, Miraculous Journeys and a Few Good Meals. His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). Altogether he has published twelve books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

dg

 


 ————

The curator of Chinese art swings open the door of his office at the museum, notes with surprise that the new paintings have arrived, places his take-out coffee on a corner of his desk and pries off the lid. He stares at the coffee a moment – brown as the sound of a cello – refusing to look up, in an attempt to delay gratification at the arrival of the long-awaited paintings.

He notices a message, unsigned, waits on his desk. Picking it up, he reads: No room in storage for these at the moment. I installed them here for the time being, figured you wanted them close by.

Finally, lifting his gaze, he considers the paintings – four Chinese landscapes – that hang down like banners from the ceiling. Spring, on the far left, ripples from an unseen air current.

Four Seasons in China by the Song Dynasty artist Li Wen comes with an intriguing provenance that caught the curator’s attention when he first heard the story. The paintings were recorded in the Imperial Catalogue of 1275, a thick volume which held a complete inventory of the Chinese Emperor’s artistic holdings. A later catalogue from the Ming Dynasty failed to include them. Somehow the paintings were lost, likely due to the chaos that followed the arrival of the Mongol armies in the south of China during the late thirteenth century. And lost they had remained until rediscovered the previous year rolled up inside a bamboo tube in the basement of a Chinese antique dealer’s in old Chinatown. Surprisingly well-preserved, each painting is exactly twenty-two inches in width by forty-eight in length.

The curator opens the top drawer of his desk and removes a rectangular magnifying glass, its handle cross-hatched with notches. He paces back and forth, considering the paintings, the magnifying glass in his right hand. He longs to examine them in detail, to explore their worlds, to wander freely through those landscapes. Pulling his chair close, he settles before the painting of spring and begins. By mid-morning, the curator’s arm has grown tired of holding the magnifying glass. He decides to switch to a more powerful lens. For close-up work he sometimes uses goggles with eye-socket loupes, a type favoured by jewellers. These he can wear mounted on his head, leaving his hands free. He finds the loupes provide an astonishing clarity.

Returning to the painting of spring, the curator delves back into the mountains, deep into their crags, crevices and ravines. Easing his way through shaded forests and gorges, he climbs twisting paths. He enters and begins crossing the broad valley laid out before him, divided into rice paddies. Through the long afternoon he wanders. By early evening, he is alone in the museum, lost in the never-ending forests of China.

Removing the goggles for a moment, he twists his head around – trying to loosen his neck muscles. Replacing the headset, he leans forward in his chair, focusing now on the landscape of autumn.

At the foot of a mountain, next to a multi-fingered lake, stands an open-sided pavilion surrounded by cassia trees. He can smell their faint evergreen-cinnamon scent. Inside the pavilion he sees a man—he’s bald so he must be a monk—sitting and talking to someone unseen. On a low lacquered table before the monk rests a cup of tea. With exquisite precision and subtlety, the artist has depicted the twisting thread of steam from the cup of tea as it drifts up into the mountains and forms a trail beneath the mist-shrouded trees, a thin grey line winding through patches of mountain spruce, larch, pine and oak.

He notices a figure walking along this trail with what appears to be an oversized load upon his back. At first the curator guesses the image is a woodsman bearing a heap of firewood but when he increases the power on the magnifying loupes, he realizes it isn’t firewood at all but a bulky, laden pack. Something straight and narrow with a furred end sticks up from its side.

The curator leans back in his chair. A brush, he whispers aloud, it’s a brush.

 

***

Li Wen hiked along the trail, the loaded pack weighing heavier and heavier as he climbed through the autumn mountains. Already half the leaves on the maples and oaks had fallen, and the pines and spruce grew darker with each passing day, with each night of lavish frost. As he tramped the path, Wen felt as if something was watching him from behind. Turning, he glanced back the way he had come. The previous day a hunter had told him that tigers were known to haunt these mountains. His heart thumping in his ears, he noticed back along the trail a patch of mottled bamboo shivering in a breeze. But he saw no sign of an animal. Breathing deeply and sighing, he trudged on.

Again he paused, gazed back into the forest, into the tops of the towering pines, and the river of blue silk sky high above. Suddenly everything felt upside down, as if the slit above was a rough stream rushing through a heavily wooded gorge. White mist drifted from the pines. With the vision of the mist came the memory of his master in the pavilion at the monastery. Everything that Li Wen knew about calligraphy and painting he had learned from his master, Fu Wei.

Wen’s last meeting with his master had taken place three days earlier. It had begun like a hundred other previous sessions. That afternoon, however, Master Wei’s cup of tea seemed to be emitting an unusual amount of steam. Wen considered that the steam from his own cup appeared rather meagre by comparison.

Wen had initiated the conversation: “One day I feel I am the greatest painter of the South and the next I believe I have never executed a single true stroke. I fear I must leave this place. It seems as if I have been doing the same painting over and over for the past two years.”

Master Wei nodded.

Fu Wei was a man of average height and stocky build, but he seemed larger than life, solid and immovable, with a core of iron. And yet, at times it struck Wen that Master Wei was hardly there at all, as if he could pass his hand right through him.

Fu Wei’s style name was One Tooth. How does one gain a sobriquet like One Tooth? Wen wondered, not for the first time. Especially as he seems to have most of his teeth but, in fact, has only one eye.

Li Wen continued his complaint. “I must leave. I am learning nothing here. I am the worst of students.”

Master Wei took a sip of tea, nodded again, said nothing.

“Perhaps because I am the worst of students, I am giving you a reputation as the worst of teachers.”

Fu Wei spoke: “I don’t require a student to make me a teacher.”

Wen persisted: “But what am I doing here?”

Wei countered with a question, as he often did. “What do you think?”

Their interviews were always like this, the push and pull, the struggle to arrive somewhere. But where?

Wen answered: “I don’t know. I just feel that I must leave. I believe I can learn nothing more here.”

Master Wei nodded, remained silent.

“I have drunk a thousand cups of tea in this room and today I feel as if I have learned nothing.”

This time, One Tooth did not nod, but sipped from his cup, his single eye piercing as he looked at his student. Finishing his tea, he turned his cup upside down on the low table. “You are correct. Our work together is done.”

—Mark Frutkin

————————————–

Ottawa author Mark Frutkin’s novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006), won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). His most recent publication is a collection of short essays, Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Quattro, 2012).  Altogether he has published twelve books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. He blogs at www.markfrutkin.blogspot.com.

 

Sep 242012
 

Tom Bauer, a Montreal writer, pens here a brief, poignant addition to the NC Childhood Series. Bauer’s writing is telegraphic and elliptical, yet he manages with few words to evoke the mind and memory of a child: the inexplicable nature of childhood, the mythic adults, the fear and confusion. The photo at the top seems iconic (the father looming, in focus); the one at the bottom moreso (the author inhabits only a corner of the picture looking dazed and uncertain). Lovely to add this to the collection.

dg

——–

I was born in the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, 1963. We always had animals in the apartment at Roslyn Court: a skunk waddling along the long wooden hall, cats bounding on tables. My father taught animal behavior, my mother worked in a zoo.

My father liked to carry me around on his shoulders. I pulled his hair once so hard he cried. I was standing on the couch in his study. I’m not sure if he was genuinely hurt, or fake-crying, but I was afraid I’d hurt him. I felt sorry about it. I think I remember this because it jolted me with fear at the time.

My father liked to stand at one end of the long hall in the Roslyn apartments and send me to the other. He’d open his arms and shout “Tovarich!” and I’d run down the hall into his arms. It was one of my favorite things.

My father was German and his voice was sharp, his accent rough. In his study was a wooden Afghan stool made of yellow leather, a tripod stool. His chess set, which I still have, contains a roll-up chess mat made of vinyl. The pieces are large and wooden.

His books smell of cigarette smoke. I looked through them all throughout childhood, memories for each: issues of Avant Garde, books of cartoons by Mordillo, the drawings of Heinrich Kley. He had a big record collection with Indian music and spoken word recordings of various poets, and liked to cook curry and burn incense. There were always pungent smells, cooking oil and cigarette smoke, the smell of empty beer bottles.

At night I would sometimes sneak out and eat brown sugar from the bowl on the kitchen table and watch the woman across the way taking a bath. I got in trouble for things like that, getting out of bed, getting into mischief. They tied me in my crib when I was little. I don’t remember that, unless unconsciously, in my limbs, the occasional anxiety passing through. They told me about that later.

I remember looking out the window waiting for my mother to get home. It is getting dark, sunset on the river, an evening view from five floors up. I am anxious for her to get home, the kind of feeling one gets in a dream. It might have been a dream, I don’t know. Sometimes dreams and memories get all mixed up.

I remember riding in a car, must have been a friend of my parents as they didn’t own one, probably going to an Italian place, maybe on Lulu Street, where I snuck wine from my parent’s glasses when they weren’t looking. If I think about it now it must have been a game. They must have seen me take the glasses and sneak the sips.

Apparently I ran along the street afterwards leaping at low-hanging branches, snatching leaves, crying out: “It’s spring! It’s spring!” I don’t remember that, it was one of the stories that get told, but I’ve heard it so often it feels like a memory. I can see the tree, the early evening air, my father calling my name, can hear the sound of my boy voice.

Later memories, after I was five and we moved to Montreal, into a house, are stronger, harsher. My father’s angry face, his belt, and shouting, warning me not to steal again, the forbidden smell of my mothers purse, her wallet, the sick feeling of taking coins and later getting caught and punished. Sometimes he used a bare hand, which hurt too much. I preferred the sting of the belt, less severe. There are many memories like this, vivid, clear, my mother overseeing from the doorway of my room, the bare wooden floor, the window near my bed, books and clothes on the floor, a half-finished plastic tank model, the smell of the glue and not getting the pieces to fit right, watching from the doorway as I’m told to never do it again, promising through tears, begging, the sick feeling in my stomach as I fear the pending spank, and crying.

When we first moved to that house there was a vacant lot on the opposite block. It had been a Pom Bakery factory before we got there, torn down by then. Nothing left but yellow-earth, rubble, stones, some ruins at the far end of the empty lot. The kid next door, whose front door was painted white, was older. He had a basement full of stuff, including a BB gun, and a work area where he made things with tools and a vise. He was always inventing things. Many boys were like that back then, inventors of objects, tinkering with things in basements. Even I did a bit of that whenever we went to the suburbs to visit my mother’s parents, and my grandfather would let me into his basement with hammer and wood and I’d sit down there and bang nails in, smelling the soft odor of pine, the silvery smell of the nails and metal hammerhead.

The kid next door took me across to the field, around in the rubbly parts, digging out odd-shaped bricks of some kind of orange bubbly plastic, deformed, almost molten, like cauliflour billowing out around the basic shape of a brick. He told me it was “Hash man! Hashish!” At that age I didn’t know what hash was, which probably took all the fun out of it for him. He asked me once to stand on the street and wait for a police car to go by, then shout: “Ew, it’s the fuzz!” I did, and he laughed.

—Tom Bauer

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Tom Bauer works in television, researching shows for Discovery and History channel. He has had fiction and poetry published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Headlight Anthology, and in the anthology In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec. His stories have also been short-listed for the CBC Literary Competition and the Quebec Literary Competition. He lives and works in Montreal.
Author photo by Karin Benedict.
Sep 222012
 

Christy Clothier is a former student, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a US Navy veteran with a story to tell. But her story isn’t just about the Navy; it’s also about the abusive family that nurtured her in its truly malign embrace, also about her courage to transcend her past and grow into the writer she is today and will yet become. NC has already published a segment from her memoir dealing with her arrival at a naval base in California where she worked as an air traffic controller. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been turned into a play called The Controller. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor.

dg

——-

There are no pictures to show what happened, so I will create the images myself. At age twelve I stood before the princess mirror on my bedroom wall and leaned so close to my reflection that the contours of my cheeks, forehead and chin blurred into the flatness of a photo, an image I wanted to scratch away. I cut my face with cuticle trimmers, safety pins, razors—pain slid red down my cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. If I had paused, I might have seen my face bloody and bruised—and I could have backed away. But I didn’t want to. Once my appearance was distorted I had the confirmation I longed for: that I deserved it, “that pain is weakness leaving the body,” something I re-learned in boot camp. And I believed it. Because long before I donned the olive green military clothes of conflict, I had already trained my body to bear witness to what my mind had to erase.

An inappropriate poke. Oh, come on, Christy, it was just a joke! your parents say. Get over it. Your stomach’s wound tight, but they tell you it’s okay—ha ha—no reason to get upset. You hug them goodnight. Your adopted-stepfather’s hands rest lightly on your back. Sleep tight! You can tuck yourself in, you mother knows. No need to tell Daddy that Mommy made you watch her masturbate that afternoon while he took Jacob and Bret Jr. fishing. What he knows won’t matter: you’re not really his kid. He ignores the bruises — your mother’ll let him add his own, if he wants — “I don’t get involved in Domestic Disputes!” his favorite line whenever your mother bites her children. “Don’t worry, tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of your life,” she says, sending the words after you down the hall as you walk to your bedroom. She’s teaching you to forget.

The next morning starts with Jacob and Bret Jr.’s teasing. They point to the “artwork” your mother bought at a craft fair. A plywood plaque featuring a doghouse with a carpenter nail in the center of it. Alongside the doghouse sit five miniature dogs, each wearing a collar. It’s meant to be funny, only your mother took it seriously and scribbled everyone’s name on the “This is Cute” piece of crap. Someone has placed “Christy” on the nail.

You hang on a wall covered with history: your father’s family crest next to a gold crucifix (a gift from Aunt Linda — you’re only Catholic when she visits). The doghouse and Christ hang next to the military awards given to every male member of the family. And there’s a picture of you and your New Father. He’s stiff in his officer’s dress whites; you’re green in your Girl Scout uniform. Together you stand composed with badges and pins.

You catch your mother’s reflection in the picture frame’s glass. She’s been watching you. Hi, sweetie! She turns you around to get her morning hug. She’s hungry again. She presses your breasts into hers, pinches your nipples. Just showing you love, she says: a mother’s touch. She hasn’t brushed her teeth yet. Instead, she sucks on a cinnamon jaw breaker. The sour-sweet makes you want to vomit. But instead you pour French vanilla creamer into her coffee and spread cream cheese thick on her bagel. The rest of the family takes its assigned seats in the living room. Your father’s in his recliner. His fingertips turning black with newspaper ink. He reads a version of what he already knew yesterday before watching it again later on the news. Jacob and Bret Jr. watch your mother’s morning programs. They laugh anytime she does, nod their heads whenever she argues with the infomercial hosts. Your brothers sit on their hands, knowing your mother’s unjustified indignation is only the start of her daily rage. They won’t look at you, yet you know they are grateful that you take your mother’s blows; they know once you’re old enough to leave the house, they are next. They watch you to see how you survive.

You leave the kitchen. You don’t eat. In this family, meals are issued by rank, and Jacob and you remain the lowest. First your father, then your mother and their biological son get to eat. Then Jacob and you may have whatever is left over, so long as no one is saving it for later. When there is no surplus food, and neither Jacob nor you had enough of your own money to cobble a dinner from snacks at the gas station, you ask your mother what you should eat, already knowing her answer: Fend for yourself! You should feel lucky, your father reminds you, I put a roof over your head.

But you are hungry, so you climb the staircase to your room. You already know how to feed off the girl in the mirror your mother gave you—a gift from her father once she’d turned thirteen. Your skin buckles under your fingernails as you rip off your face. Your reflection changes into swollen, gouged, scared cheeks, chin, forehead and neck, and you’re sated. You walk to your window, curl one foot behind the other, and imagine a life under blue skies streaked white just beyond the orange poppies dotting Southern California’s hills. Past palm trees interspersed with silver dollar saplings on manicured lawns. Past older kids riding their bikes and skateboards along the wide streets that flow like an alluvial fan toward Santee Lakes. I’ll live like Karana, you decide, the main character in the book you know by heart.

Yet I do remember the day that I decided I would never live in the village again. The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.

I joined the Navy just after I turned twenty, but I’d been heading for Naval Air Station San Clemente Island long before I knew it existed. By age twelve, I’d read The Island Of The Blue Dolphins often enough for the librarian to throw up her hands and give me the book. I never realized the fictionalized setting I’d imagined every night actually existed 75 miles off the coast of California. I followed jet exhaust like em dashes to a place so near to where I had dreamed that I didn’t know I’d been sleepwalking, unable to wake from my own fairy tale.

Now, at 35, a part of me still believes there is such a physical place, somewhere west where I can run and find peace. That same part of me still longs to rest on San Clemente’s porous volcanic rocks and watch the Pacific’s waves filter through them. I let myself go there whenever I need the familiar feeling of being trapped and free to reclaim what was promised and what was lost.

***

Is there anything more seductive than the illusion of safety? Senior Chief Petty Officer Ibsen directed Navy boot-camp Division 265 to march left, left, your left-right-left. A double-wide mass of eighty women—heads erect, shoulders squared, arms strong, hands fisted with knuckles pointed down and thumbs aligned with pant seams—march along the greasy-hot Chicago asphalt. I stared at the back of the recruit marching in front of me; her brushed cotton jacket provided no reflection, so I couldn’t see myself. I lowered my Navy ball cap further down my face and repeated Ibsen’s words to myself like a spell preventing me from thinking about anything else in case one thought led to another and reminded me of everything I knew, which I was certain would break me. I let the sound of boots carry me along in a wave of feet and fists that pounded the pavement until Ibsen commanded, “Division Halt.”

I and the other five-foot-tall recruit wearing a traffic-cone colored road-guard vest over her dungarees ran ahead of our division to “post” in the middle of the intersection. I rushed past the eighteen-year-old, with her short, dark bob; she could have been either the one sitting behind me at indoc crying over having to exchange her blue jeans and sandals for military-issue sweat pants and sneakers or the slender one who sat beside me quietly asking herself, What am I doing here? A month into boot camp, the only thing differentiating any of us was the last names sewn onto the fronts of our shirts, the backs of our pants. My long, dark braid tucked under my standard-issue ball cap, my dog tags bearing the surname of the man my mother forced me to marry at sixteen smacking against my chest under a white cotton tee, I ran into the street.

We had arrived a group of strangers. We filed out of Greyhound buses into a warehouse (it seemed) full of men’s portraits hung under multi-colored flags. I was sure, for some reason, that I was already in trouble. Screaming men in uniform demanded we identify ourselves by last name and social security number. That’s all I was: a name and a number I’d only recently memorized. My past no longer mattered. Only the fear of messing up, of saying the wrong thing in front of people who could tell me what to do, defined the present moment. I recited my most recent name before shouting out the number assigned to me at birth, and it sounded like it came from someone else.

The first few weeks of boot camp flashed by in a series of consecutive movements, as if each time I opened my eyes I was somewhere else on base, less and less myself, a new world widening to me like an eye after a blink. I relinquished all civilian possessions: my clothes, my wallet, the few dollars I’d brought in case of something (I don’t remember), blue jeans, tee shirt, tennis shoes, clothes I wore to do laundry or yard work in, clothes I was ready to be rid of. I was ordered to redress in a blue sweat suit with gold lettering spelling Navy down each leg and to tie on New Balance running shoes. Having shivered in the cold, seemingly unheated, cinder block building, I felt the new outfit as a relief. We shuffled into another room where barbers took their thick shears to many girls’ long ponytails. I’d been told by my recruiter that I’d entered boot camp during a trial phase when they weren’t forcing women to chop off their hair. But no one else had been told, and the Recruit Division Commanders in charge weren’t saying anything. I kept quiet and moved to the back of the room. At my height, it was fairly easy to disappear into the crowd. After one of the men with a pair of scissors in his hands asked, “Anybody else?” and no one stepped up to his chair, a man I’d never see again ushered us into a classroom where I waited to be assigned to a division.

The only vivid memory I have of the weeks that followed that first night, aside from getting “dropped” to do push ups, showing my teeth, getting my sight tested, having flu shots fired into my left arm by a gun, and penicillin so thick it was termed “The Peanut-Butter Shot” stung into my right buttock was the day we went to the military tailors. For two weeks, maybe even longer, my new division, Division 265, had marched and slept in those same sweat clothes, and I hadn’t even noticed. I never paid attention to what we were doing or when, though it was scheduled on a chalk board near the front door. I took comfort in the routine of waking, eating, walking, sleeping—getting yelled at; each day passed into the next.

That morning we marched past the other barracks holding thousands of recruits, past the large parking lot in front of the brick building we’d been dropped off at our first night. The streets were lined with trees and interspersed with grass islands dotted with park benches. It was like every military installation I’d visited as a child or any suburb I grew up in. I marched along, happy with my internal cadence of numb familiarity, happy with being ordered exactly how and where to walk. The tailors consisted of twenty seaman and petty officers—all women—working in a warehouse filled with identical uniforms folded in cardboard boxes stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling. I stood alongside seventy-nine other women like auctioned cattle in line after line, as the tailors pinched, poked and pinned our uniforms to fit us perfectly. We received summer dress whites and a winter pea coat. We were issued combat boots, black wool socks, white cotton undershirts. We were fitted for bell-bottom dungaree pants and denim chambray button-ups. The women I knew only by their rank were so delicate with me, making sure not to stab me with a needle, that I began to feel like a doll, and I thought it was a trick—they’d poke me, once I relaxed, I was sure. I looked straight through their faces to the white cinder block wall behind them until my vision blurred and I found myself in a familiar haze.

“You have a beautiful daughter, don’t you?” your mother breathes to your New Dad. She yanks you into place and instructs you to stand “Front and Center.”

You look away from your parent’s four knees facing you as they sit on the couch leering over you in your pageant dress. You are a trinket, required to look and play the part before being shelved away to the bedrooms and backyards of your multiple childhood homes. Your mind floats. You make your way up the wall like a balloon knocking itself against the ceiling, having nowhere else to go.

 Since modeling school at the age of ten, I had been trained to stand and receive all the clothes I would need for my Girl Scout banquets, my pageant photos, my enlistment. I stood at attention, locking my knees in front of the tailors circling me, checking proportions and measurements, until someone finally had to ask me to move.

Within a month into boot camp, I sleep walked right out the front door. Before the overhead florescent lights woke eighty recruits from their racks with a 4:30 alarm, I was getting dressed in my uniform and heading toward the galley. My fellow recruits informed me that they had to keep putting me back to sleep. I might have thought they were joking accept that I woke up wearing my dungaree pants and combat boots. Apparently I so relished regulation that I began dressing even before the RDCs arrived and told us to. Or maybe I was just hungry.

Still, when the day came for the hundred-meter jump, I didn’t want to participate. By the time I realized my hesitance I was already standing on the diving platform. The arches of my feet cupped the cement ledge so that it would only take the flex of a shin muscle. The slightest pressure down toward the big toe and I would drop twenty feet (or was it 100?) from the high dive platform into the Olympic pool below. The RDCs urged me on, but they wouldn’t push me. Like the other pass/fail tests in boot camp, jumping off the high dive would have to be my idea. I could back down the two dozen steps I’d just climbed to the platform, but I’d be punished, made to do push-ups until I acquiesced or sent to CID (the Navy’s remedial training that made everyday boot-camp activities like jumping into a pool seem preferable).

I looked down. Under the glassy water divers waited for me, a pedestrian already committed to stepping into the street. Like patient drivers, they waved me on as though motioning from behind a windshield I was about to crash into. Go ahead — their movements exaggerated by the water — we’ll wait for you to pass, ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign warning the light change. By then I’d learned my stark black uniforms were to be called Navy dress blues, my ball cap was a cover, the beds were racks, the cinder block building a ship, and I was an airman recruit. There was no going back. I let myself fall.

I heard the bubbles form overhead as I rushed toward the bottom of the pool. My initial fear over jumping changed with the weightlessness that suddenly surrounded me. Underwater, I couldn’t feel my skin. Everything I had seen before the jump now blurred into abstract forms. I brought my arms together above me and pushed myself even deeper toward the bottom. I wanted to breathe in the pool’s silver-blue anonymity that refracted everything around me for as long as I could. Above water, my RDC Senior Chief Ibsen flapped his arms, urging me to surface. The divers began to advance. If they helped me, I would fail for not having risen on my own. I tilted my head back and rose to the top, expelling any last breath before breathing in new air.

“Keep going!” Ibsen coached, hopping with each syllable as though his own excitement could propel me. “You have to get to the end to pass.” He pointed to the 100-yard-swim marker, which I needed to reach in order to advance to the next month-and-a-half of training, make it to graduation day, through air traffic control school and then complete my six-year enlistment before I could spend the 30,000 dollars promised for college. Behind me, other recruits waited until I was clear before they jumped.

It didn’t seem like that big of a drop once I looked back at the platform from the water. I am doing this for myself, I thought. I stretched my arms out and swam a slow languorous swim, enjoying every last moment before I reached the other side. Looking back, I realize that more than wanting to stay in the comfort of a familiar medium, I, having jumped from one world, wanted to remain in a moment of sheer freedom before pulling myself out of the pool and into another.

After passing the last crucial boot camp test, I knew I only had to make it through each day, which got easier and easier as I learned what to expect. Other than attending shipboard classes I paid no attention to (knowing I was going to air traffic control school, it seemed irrelevant, even to the RDCs who didn’t make me or a few others headed to nuclear engineering school participate in the man-overboard practice drills) I lost myself in the daily marches, concentrating solely on the footsteps ahead and behind me. I felt invisible in a group that, after six weeks, seemed unstoppable, no longer even needing a cadence to follow. We marched perfectly to the drum of each other’s feet pulsing down the streets; we’d been broken down and rebuilt, always carrying with us the fear of getting in trouble, for me of being left behind.

Eventually our RDCs decided they could Division 265 to discipline itself through the night. That gave them the opportunity to sleep at home with their families. But then one night two male RDCs from another division stormed into our barracks, flashed the overhead lights on and demanded we answer the question “What are you doing in my Navy?” They insisted that women only joined the Navy to find a husband, and, to punish us, they interrupted our sleep: a 4-hour respite separating our twenty-hour days. Being female recruits, we were not allowed to strip down to our skivvies for bed; hence, we were already dressed for the occasion.

These men singled out Jaime, one of my shipmates. Jaime was a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inner city. She was strong. She would have to be because the RDCs forced her to stay in push-up position until her hips gave out. Weeks before, another girl had been cycled—exercised—to the point of a heart attack. When she slumped against the metal beds and asked for help, two RDCs taunted her until the ambulance crew arrived and confirmed her near-fatal condition. After that scandal, the prospect of another girl from the same division hospitalized for abuse was too much, so the two men who had burst into our barracks that night were reprimanded and no longer allowed near our racks at night.

I’d come to trust my division’s RDCs, especially Ibsen who tried to be gentle and almost never yelled, because they protected us from other RDCs like the two men who broke in on us. I didn’t think about the fact that we were the lucky few. Those other RDCs led other divisions where they were able to do whatever they wanted (in loco parentis).

I happily followed Senior Chief Ibsen from our barracks to medical, the drill hall or the galley. Two-by-two we’d file through red-and-blue painted bars along with the thousands of other sailors also headed toward the aluminum serving counters. En masse we moved toward other uniformed recruits doling out breakfast in equal portions onto identical plastic trays, ending the transaction by singing the only authorized communication between any of us: “Thank you, Shipmate.”

We weren’t allowed to look around at anyone else, but my short stature allowed me to watch the crowd without getting caught. Most recruits were nondescript. Newbies, called “Rickis,” naturally stood out: lanky men with long hair and unshaven cheeks; girls with streaking mascara and loose ponytails. They never glanced at us, and I didn’t much look at them; it was as though we didn’t recognize each other.

But there was another group that always stood out, those who had made it past the initial first week or two and showed up in the same blue sweat outfits my division had received. I watched them lovingly, remembering my own initiation. Freshly cowed, these new recruits knew to keep their heads down, their eyes glazed, and stare at nothing.

But then one day, across from me dressed in his “Smurfs,” stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Jacob. Both of us forgot our training and rushed to one another.

“Hey Christy!” he said. It was the first time I’d been called my name in over a month. “The food’s pretty good here, huh?” He smiled.

Actually, the food was disgusting. Disguised with the heady aroma of scrambled eggs, sausage links and sweet pastries, under heat lamps warmed the worst breakfast I’d ever tasted. Powdered eggs overcooked into a Play-Doh texture. Pancakes floated in mock syrup that had the consistency of olive oil, which did nothing to mask the metallic taste of excessive baking soda.

But I knew what my brother really meant. When we were children, strangers mistook us for twins, partly because of our similar features, but mostly because our mannerisms, tastes and experiences were identical. We both had our mother’s large hazel eyes, kept the same timing when telling jokes, and Jacob had been forced to join the military before he was a senior in high school, around the same age I had been when I was forced to marry Jerrod, 16. Like me, Jacob also grew up with a mother who sexualized everything, with an adopted stepfather that would lock the pantry, angry over having to feed a teenaged boy who was not his biological son, or would shove him into corners and slap him, goading Jacob to “Go ahead, hit me!” Years later, Jacob would earn a graduate degree in criminal justice and work as a prison case manager, doing everything he could to help ex-cons rehabilitate. But that day, he was my baby brother, his thick chestnut hair recently shaved off by boot-camp barbers, replaced with the red track marks of industrial clippers.

Without thinking, we gave each other a quick hug. The RDCs rushed toward us, screaming for Jacob and I to “Break!” They were as infuriated as they were stunned.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” one asked.

“This is my brother,” I said, pointing to Jacob. He had our adopted surname on his uniform while I wore my estranged husband’s on mine.

“Do you mean your bro, like you guys are cool with each other?” the RDC asked.

“No, my brother-brother.”

“Look at them. They look exactly alike.”

Jacob nodded, confirming our relationship.

“Okay,” the first RDC said, “but you can’t talk to each other.”

Hours later, my division marched home amid the smell of over-saturated maple leaves holding the hot, moist air. We climbed the three flights to take our communal showers, stow our uniforms in the tiny metal footlockers, and dress in our Navy T-shirts and blue nylon shorts for bedtime when Ibsen, Sampson and Claude stormed the room with an urgency beyond what we’d ever seen before.

“Get dressed. You have five minutes,” Ibsen commanded.

We raced to prepare while spinning through the possibilities of what had gone wrong and who had done it.

Then the base lights began to shut off as Ibsen shepherded us to the ground floor, where we braced ourselves against what turned out to be the Lindenhurst tornado shrieking through northeastern Illinois.

I sat at a window and watched clouds. Some recruits buried their heads in their knees. A few cried. Others dug out paper and pens they’d kept hidden and wrote letters openly, realizing that the RDCs didn’t care. Ibsen, Sampson and Claude, separated from their own homes and families, watched over us, projecting their own worries out the windows by staring so hard at the storm outside it was like they were trying to control the weather themselves.

I told jokes. I relished being watched over during an emergency. I didn’t care if the RDCs ordered me to drop and “do twenty,” fifty, seventy, or more elaborate routines. We could get “cycled” by performing sets of exercises until our bodies collapsed, such as eight-count body-builders. We would stand tall then fall to our hands and feet on the tile, bring our feet up to our hands on the ground, and then push our feet back before jumping back into a stand—and that was one. We repeated the routine, up and down, to the count of eight seconds.

Often Sampson would order us to close the industrial windows lining the walls, shutting in Chicago’s summer air. Claude instructed us to “get into Battle Gear.” We stood in front of our racks, pulled our wool socks over the bottom of our dungaree pants, buttoned our long sleeve shirts to our necks. Then we were ordered to run in place for as long as it took for our body heat to saturate the room so that condensation would drip off the ceiling and back onto our faces, all the while the RDCs shouted, “Make it rain, make it rain!”

As far as I was concerned the RDCs could yell at me until their voices gave out and they needed to call for back up, because they never touched us. In boot camp, hitting was illegal. Unlike my parents, the RDCs would never stand by and watch while one or the other slammed my butt with a half-inch-thick piece of plywood fashioned into a fraternity paddle with the words “Board of Education.”  The RDCs could only make us hurt ourselves, something I was good at. With each pushup I performed, Petty Officer Sampson would kneel beside me and yell, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I believed her because with exercise I became stronger.

But then graduation day arrived like a disaster. I stood in a blinding sea of dress-white uniforms (several divisions including mine), which reflected the sun sharply into my eyes. I fought tears throughout the ceremony, pretending I was trying to avoid the sun in my eyes. The day I graduated was perfect southern California weather, but after growing accustomed to Chicago, I preferred the rain.

Friends and family filled stadium bleachers to watch us parade, listen to speeches, wave miniature American flags. My relatives did not come. While everyone else embraced, I walked home to the barracks unclaimed. I walked past empty racks to the fire escape landing outside, where I had my first solitary moment in over two months. I took my waist-long hair out of its clip, unwound the long tight braid and let it fall loose over my shoulders, down my back and into the wind. Standing three stories above a prison-like cement courtyard on an iron ledge, I could have told myself anything, but I felt at peace for the first time in my life, having had consistent food, clothing and shelter, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I left the fire escape for the bathroom. I didn’t bother turning on the lights: I didn’t need to see what I had to do having, suddenly, become aware I was once again alone. I stood in front of the mirror, thought about how my mother forced me to marry my boyfriend, Jerrod, when I was sixteen, and dug my fingernails into my face.

“I love you this much!” Jerrod squeezes your hand, but you don’t see it bloom purple-red. You don’t find the metaphor in the gift he mailed to you from the time he was in Army boot-camp only a few months before visiting from D.C. — the Army-brown chow-hall napkin with the words “You Are Mine!” penned in black Sharpee. You don’t know that he will consume you until you have nothing left but feet and knees and hands with which to crawl. You tack the napkin above your bed like a banner, a warning to your mother. Only he can touch you now! You shift the square into a diamond and wish on it like a star.

You are sixteen sitting next to your nineteen-year-old boyfriend who has visited from Fort Meyers in D.C. You have not learned to wipe your mouth, because nothing spills out for you to clean up after. In a Mexican restaurant, you pick tortilla chips out of a plastic wicker basket while your mother feeds your boyfriend of nine months from across the table.

She talks money, housing — but Jerrod hears family; he doesn’t really have one, either. She must get rid of you. He loves you. Your hands have done her housework for years, but now they are old enough to replace hers. Jerrod promises to take care of you.

Get away from your parents as fast as possible, your high-school guidance counselor warns you. She’s met them, knows that with the easy stroke of a cheap pen your mother abandons you to a man she’d eaten with twice.

At the Idaho State County Clerks Office, your mother’s signature is scratched across the  photocopied permission slip. You don’t know if there is a notary public. No one questions your mother’s intent. In the orphan’s court they assume you’re pregnant. Only your mother and Jerrod know you’re not.

Hand-in-hand, you stand with Jerrod inside a gingerbread cottage at the end of a trail your mother laid out. You want to be pushed into the oven. But he won’t let you, not yet, only later when children aren’t a possibility. He loves the sixteen-year-old with the huge green-brown eyes looking up to him with all the love she needed to give to feel real. Three years later when she breaks, he won’t recognize his “Baby Doll.”

So you suspend disbelief until you can no longer recognize the man who held you by the hand and repeated, “I Do.”

Once my face was covered with blood, I stood back and wondered how a mother could do such a thing to her own flesh and blood. I walked past Sampson on my way to my rack. She said nothing. I’d already graduated, and she was no longer responsible for me.

The next morning Greyhound buses idled to transport a dozen divisions to various technical schools around the country. I couldn’t walk straight while carrying my gym bag full of the civilian clothes I surrendered upon arrival along with everything else I had been issued. Ibsen turned back toward the end of the line of sailors streaming into buses and noticed my hesitant wobbling. I dropped my gym bag on the sidewalk. Ibsen walked to me, picked up my bag and helped me to the bus.

Hundreds of sailors watched out of bus windows as I sobbed like a child in Sampson’s arms. I gripped her like a buoy, hoping to remain within the cold cinderblock walls where I knew what to expect. I wanted the structured organization, every moment of my day scheduled in the hyper-strict atmosphere where felt safe. I wanted Ibsen to take my luggage back to the barracks so that we could continue to be Division 265, and I’d have a family. Sampson rocked me for a few moments before Ibsen took my hands.

“Christy,”  —he knew my first name — “you’ll be fine.” He swung my hands in his and said, “I felt the same way.”

I boarded the bus with the men and women I had lived among for nearly three months, and, for a moment, we all headed in the same direction. I was the only one from my graduating class to be attending Air Traffic Control School. Once my bus dropped me off at Chicago O’Hare, I walked alone to my gate. I felt awkward in my dress whites. I was too nervous to eat. But by the time my plane landed in Pensacola, I was ready to swallow anything they put in front of me.

—Christy Clothier

————–

Christy L. Clothier graduated with a double MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her recently completed memoir, Trail of Breadcrumbs: Why I Joined and Left the US Navy, follows a fairy-tale structure of a young girl wholly rejected by her “mother,” who believes she’ll find safety in the military, a world populated by men. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot. She teaches English to international war refugees in Colorado and lives with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.

Sep 202012
 

It is as if something bubbling under the murk is about to erupt [in Jon McGregor’s stories]. The bullies in “Looking Up Vagina,” the little bastard firebug, the dad with an injunction on him to keep away from his family in “Keeping Watch Over the Sheep,”…the collection as a whole is disquieting – rather like listening to the dark albums of one of McGregor’s favourite bands, Pulp. — Debra Martens

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You
Stories by Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury 2012, hardcover, 258 pages. U.S. paperback $16.00

I heard U.K. writer Jon McGregor read from his latest book, the collection of short stories This isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You, at the Bloomsbury Institute in London last April during an event for their Year of the Short Story. This was just two months before lightning struck and he won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Even the Dogs, published two years before.

That night the soft-spoken McGregor read a couple of short shorts, including “She Was Looking for this Coat,” which represents his work in several ways. The story speaks in the voice of a first person narrator (a clerk at the public transport office in Lincoln), talks about an unnamed character “she”, and builds the story with an accretion of visual detail (“Herringbone was a word she used.”). The narrator hints “she” is suffering an anxiety beyond the loss of her father’s coat: “The way she was talking, I felt like asking her if she needed to sit down.”

In his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the characters are not identified by name but by the tag of a physical description: “Next door, at number eighteen, the young man with the blinking eyes leans out of his window and takes some final photographs of the street….” Half of the novel is told through this kind of description, through short passages that focus on inhabitants of a street by using both the scene frame and the zoom lens. The other half of the novel is told through the first person voice of a young pregnant woman, who is thinking back to that last day of summer while also moving forward into a new relationship. “And sitting here now, waiting, trying to be calm, all these things are rattling around inside my head, like coins set loose in a tumbledryer.” This novel is so good that I can’t believe it is his first.

McGregor continues to experiment in his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin. He builds the story through a catalogue of artifacts that are important to David, a museum curator – a brilliant blend of form and character. This accretion of story through short scenes is again used in his powerful third novel, Even the Dogs. In it, McGregor uses short sections within a section with great effect, giving us the various points of view and disjointed thoughts of those who knew Robert before his death. In all three novels, then, McGregor uses detail to open up a scene, and he prefers to keep his scenes short.

Of the 30 stories in This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, half are under 1,000 words, and of those, six are under 500 words. The collection includes nine stories at the other end of the spectrum, from 3,000 to 9,000 words. The shortest story is “Fleeing Complexity” and it goes: “The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.” This story is more complex than its length suggests. There is the situation, worrying us into wondering if the fire burns down a house or… There is the tough guy voice talking about “the little bastard.” What does the owner of that voice do to the little bastard? There is the title, which in turn was used as the name of a Granta competition for one-line stories, judged by none other than McGregor, who explains “what I’m looking for in a piece of fiction as short as this is something that gestures very simply towards a much larger story.” (Click here for his winning pick.)

What I look for in the short short story is the delivery of the Dave Eggers/McSweeney style punch. Like the opening story, “That Colour,” a two pager that conveys years of marriage in a bit of dialogue, and turns on the words that a character doesn’t say. She chatters about the autumn leaves; he asks her why she is surprised by something that happens every year. She says “It’s just lovely, they’re lovely, that’s all, you don’t have to.” And that is when the he of the story stops washing the dishes and comes to her, looks at the leaves and holds her hand. This is the same hopeful note that ended McGregor’s second novel, So Many Ways to Begin, the note that sounds our human imperfections and accepts them.

At the other extreme, the longest story (approximately 8,700 words) is also told in the voice of a tough guy. “I’ll Buy You a Shovel,” set in Marshchapel, is about two ex-cons who have been hired by a woman called Jackie to provide on-site security and maintenance. What they are working on, or not working on, is a ditch to improve a murky pond that its owners call a fishing lake. Beyond their caravan and ditch, there are two major events unfolding: a wedding celebration at the Stewart house and garden, and the preparations for war as shown by the increase of bombs being dropped on the Sands by the Tornados flying overhead.

The short sections in this long story cut between the present (the two guys going over to crash the wedding) and their pasts. The narrator talks about Jackie’s son Mark dying at war in a desert, that he and Ray knew Mark when they were young, when they were starting to do jobs that involved “the thing with the wires,” about the death of the narrator’s mother while he was in jail. As the wedding progresses and the Tornado bombings escalate, as the two men sit by a fire and drink while waiting for the right moment to crash the wedding, their anger bubbles up to the surface. There is a flatness to the narrative voice, that at once parallels the flat landscape (“Whoever called it Hilltop Farm must have had some sense of humour, round here.”) and mirrors the men’s emotions. It is as if they are cut off from the world and from themselves and the only emotion they know, can feel and express, is anger. Here is the narrator, finishing up his little story about his mother being buried in the wrong place.

Ray thought it was funny. The idea of moving someone like that, once they were dead. The idea of anyone giving a shit where they were buried once they were dead, was what he said. What he said as well was he’d buy me a shovel himself. That was when I told him to shut up. He said I will I’ll buy you a shovel. I said Ray, leave it. He said don’t worry about fucking legal process, I’ll buy you a shovel and you can dig up your mam. I said Ray fucking leave it, and I put him on his back and he stopped laughing then. p. 241

It is this flat narrative that puts a chill into such sentences as “Ray made sure he knew not to tell anyone.” Or when the narrator repeatedly says, on the wedding day, “Just the drinks, I say. Nothing else.”

I’ve been puzzling over why this story comes at the end of the collection. Each story is subtitled with a place in Lincolnshire and environs, on the southeast coast of England. Some of the stories take place in the fens, or marshlands that have been drained for agricultural use, a landscape cross-hatched by raised roads and ditches, by names like Sixteen Foot Drain. So, for example, the first long story in the collection, “In Winter the Sky,” features ditches and the use of a shovel by a man who is so unlike Ray and his friend that it hardly seems fair that his life is so affected by one wrong night. In this story, the wife’s poem runs on one side opposite the narrative, emphasizing the flatness of the landscape. An earlier version of “In Winter the Sky” was published in Granta as “What the Sky Sees.”

Apart from the obvious similarities, however, the collection as a whole is disquieting – rather like listening to the dark albums of one of McGregor’s favourite bands, Pulp. (He talks about his influences on his blog and in this Guardian article.)

It is as if something bubbling under the murk is about to erupt. The bullies in “Looking Up Vagina,” the little bastard firebug, the dad with an injunction on him to keep away from his family in “Keeping Watch Over the Sheep,” who is unable to understand that he is the one causing his daughter to look “pretty tearful and scared and what have you.” The angry neighbour in “What Happened to Mr Davison,” who does not regret what he did but admits “Clearly the eventual outcome of the resulting chain of events was tragically disproportionate.”

Nor is it only the men who simmer. The wife in “Which Reminded Her, Later” and “Years of This, Now” is angry with her vicar husband for years, because he doesn’t listen to her, because he is married to his work, and her eruption is all the more surprising. Because of this distancing anger, you cannot read “Wires” without feeling you are being mildly electrocuted. At face value, this is a simple story about Emily Wilkinson thinking she is about to die as a sugar beet comes through her car windshield. You read and you chuckle with her thoughts. And then it turns. She pulls over to the side of the road and two men come to her aid. Except that these two men could well be Ray and his friend. According to McGregor’s blog, the story borrows the title of a Philip Larkin poem about electric wires teaching cattle not to stray.

But the book is not only about angry people roaming around. There are other elements at work – such as rain. In “If it Keeps on Raining,” a modern day Noah prepares for the flood, while at the same time nursing his resentful thoughts at being separated from his children. “Supplementary Notes” is about refugees and “The Last Ditch” (playing on ditches of the fens and a last ditch effort) is a copy of civilian plans for disaster with commentary by the military. Finally, the last story is called “Memorial Stone,” and is a list of place names – perhaps those that will be flooded by the rising waters of climate change. Or as the narrator in “Shovel” puts it, “National emergency crisis or whatever…” And what he is telling us is that if we wear our anger at world inaction over climate change as a heavy coat that muffles our emotions, and take inappropriate action too late, then we could end up like Ray, burning our future for the stupidest of reasons.

§

Read more about Jon McGregor’s life and work on the British Council website. Here is coverage of the Impac prize.

Here him reading from his collection here or here.

—Debra Martens

—————————————–

Debra Martens writes at Canadian Writers Abroad. Her story publications include “A Change in the Current” in The New Quarterly (2006) and “The End of Things” in Grain, a winner of the 2002 Postcard Story Prize. Her story, “Waitress,” is forthcoming in Room. She lives in London.

 

 

Sep 192012
 

Poet Shane Rhodes espouses an aesthetic called Stray Dog Poetics. He specializes in found poems, quotation, adroit juxtapositions and typographical play — also political comment and comedy (um, those beaver dialogues). Herewith the first in a series of assembled texts put together by Senior Editor R W Gray, matching poets with critics, performance with commentary. In this case, the poet also comments on some of the poems. The effect goes beyond the astonishing poems themselves (found poems, hybridized texts, quotations) to create an echo chamber of comment and refrain. Wonderful to have on the pages of NC.

dg

—–

Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes‘s playful and subtly acerbic poems dramatize, scandalize and make demands. There is no safe place to stand. In an afterword to the poems here Fredericton writer Rob Ross’s delves into Rhodes’s self-proclaimed “stray dog poetics” and argues for what he sees as the poet’s “mongrel meandering.”

—R W Gray

§

 

Four Found Poems by Shane Rhodes

 

“Ludic Lucidity: Pro Pelle”

Beaver 1 (opening gambit):
NOW KNOW YE, that We being desirous
to be one Body Corporate in Deed
and in Name.

Beaver 2 (poetically):                     Plead, and be impleaded.
Answer, and be answered. Defend, and be
defended.

Beaver 1:                          Dear and entirely beloved
Cousin, discover a new passage
to southern seas — let us trade.

Beaver 2:                                 Besought,
incorporate, in Deed and in Name,
in entrance of my Streights. Have me with especial
Grace, certain Knowledge, and mere Motion . . .

Beaver 1 (interrupting):                 . . . break,
change, make anew, hence the same and no other.

Beaver 2 (the questioning one):
And we will?

Beaver 1:                                 And we do!

Beaver 2:                                                         At any publick
Assembly, being desirous and being
one? Take this corporal Oath and assemble
in my convenient Place.

Beaver 1 (boldly):
OUR WILL, OUR PLEASURE!
This, I shall well and faithfully perform
in free and common Soccage in all the Seas,
Streights, Lakes, Rivers, Creeks and Sounds, upon
the Countries, Coasts and Confines, the Inlets
and Limits.

Beaver 2 (questioning):      And not in Capite or by Knight’s Ser-
vice?

Beaver 1 (building intensity):
Yeilding.

Beaver 2 (questioning):                  TO HAVE, HOLD, possess and
enjoy?

Beaver 1 (more intensity):
YEILDING.

Beaver 2 (questioning, with emotion):              TO BE HOLDEN?

Beaver 1 (fortisimo, they embrace each other):                     HOLD!

Beaver 2:         Give and grant, Our dear —  aiding . . . favouring
. . . helping . . . assisting.

Beaver 1 (breathless, grunting with rodent emotion):
AND FURTHER, my Bar-
onet! On Land as on Sea – whatsoever.
My Lord! My 100 Pounds Prince!

Beaver 2:                                                                  O, my WILL!
My special license!

Beaver 1:                                      My Mayor! My Admiral!
My Bailiff!

Beaver 2:                           We do.

Beaver 1:                                             WE DO.

Beaver 1 & Beaver 2 (together, rodent voices breaking):
O, WE DO!


Note on the Poem

On July 14, 1970 the fourth Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Rent Ceremony took place at Lower Fort Garry. This time, in place of the “two Elks and two black beavers” stipulated in the Royal Charter as rent, Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a large glass tank containing two live beaver. During the ceremony and in front of the gathered dignitaries, the beavers frolicked in the water. Near the end of the ceremony, the beavers began to mate, the tank water sloshing from side to side. The Queen stopped the proceedings and asked HBC Governor Viscount Amory “Whatever are they doing?”  To which he replied, “Ma’am, it’s no use asking me. I am a bachelor.”

Pro Pelle takes place on the dais where the beavers were presented to the Queen. All words and phrases are taken from the 1670 Royal Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Latin Pro Pelle means “for fur” and is from the HBC coat of arms: Pro Pelle Cutem.


The Requirement

The requirement is you sit still and listen
The requirement is you listen very well
The requirement is you not touch the wired-in speakers
The requirement is you must state the correct answer right now
The requirement is every word will be used against you, and the fighter jets overhead
mean nothing and the landing craft floating off-shore mean nothing as well

The requirement is you will be given a number and barcode and the barcode will be
tattooed onto your wrist and must not be removed even if your arm is removed
The requirement is you clean yourself, kneel and make the sign of the cross after it
has been done

The requirement is you hold the kneeling position for at least six hours
The requirement has been approved by the Minister in a briefing note of concurrence and
is to be read between commercials by the actor

The requirement is the actor have well-gelled hair and that, after he has read
the requirement, all stations will cut to a situation comedy already in progress

The requirement is brought to you by the following companies
The requirement is you are free to read the requirement; however, it is in a document to
which you have no authorized access

The requirement is you breath deeply from our generous gifts
The requirement is you don’t go digging in the jungles, forests, archives or libraries
The requirement is passivity holds its own promise
The requirement is your silence is a gold to be mined and smeltered to pay off the debt of
your speech

The requirement is a protest cannot be made under the stipulations of the requirement
The requirement is you sign the agreement if your fingers are broken if your hand cannot
write if you do not speak the language if you do not understand what it is we are saying,
we are authorized to sign the agreement for you

The requirement is an inquest will be held and report issued after it has been done
The requirement is you work with us to make the requirement better and better
The requirement is I speak no further of the requirement


Note on the Poem

El Requerimiento (The Requirement) was an edict created in 1510 by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a jurist with the Consejo Real, as a means to bely Spanish concerns that the indigenous populations of the Americas were being exterminated by the Conquistadors without due process. The Requirement was to be read to any indigenous population upon first contact. The Requirement gives a brief history of the Spanish Christian world, the Catholic church, and the 1493 papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI (the Inter caetera) that divided America into zones for Spanish and Portuguese conquest. The Requirement gave any listener  three options: convert, be converted by force, or die. The Requirement also absolved the Spanish crown and its army of fault.

Given the unlikelihood The Requirement would ever be understood (it was only read in Spanish or Latin) or heeded by indigenous populations, its use in the Americas approached macabre comedy.  “These wicked Spaniards,” writes Bartolome de las Casas in 1542, “like Thieves came to any place by stealth, half a Mile off of any City, Town or Village, and there in the Night published and proclam’d the Edict.”




Afterward

Stray Dog Poetics: Found Poetry from Shane Rhodes — Rob Ross

Shane Rhodes poems brandish a startling array of found materials:  the shell-shocked ravings of a sixteenth-century friar, a blood-curdling edict from the Spanish Crown absolving its military from acts of genocide, and poetically excised government documents.   Rhodes takes these found or borrowed pieces and confronts their blatant and insidious violence, showing how European supremacy has been ruthlessly maintained in the so-called “new” world.  The often visually-striking forms presented here flow easily into their gory contents, allowing the reader to rip meaty themes from structural bones without choking on gristly ambiguities, and leaving a lingering and visceral aftertaste of the ongoing horror of colonial exploitation.

“Ludic Lucidity: Pro Pelle” is a dramatic dialogue between two beavers being presented to the Queen who decide to get it on for her Royal Highness.  A footnote to the poem reveals that this actually happened at a Hudson’s Bay Rent Ceremony (the colonial equivalent of the landlord visiting your apartment for his due, and a cup of tea). Fittingly, their juicy linguistic foreplay is comprised of excerpts from the 1670 HBC Royal Charter, which apparently had some kinky aspirations for the relationship between Queen and Country.  The HBC, of course, very much relied on frolicking beavers for its financial well being, but this ménage à trois reminds me of how fur traders married First Nations women in order to facilitate the trade of pelts.  Sex was literally used to legitimize British dominion over Hudson’s Bay in several ways.

In “White Out: Erasure Poem,” liquid paper is selectively used on an Indian Act application form, the piece of paper that both defines and excludes First Nations people from treaty rights. “In you the  / Act will numb / the vision,” the poem begins, and what categorizes one as aboriginal in Canada is turned into an exposé of how the Indian Act excludes people based on blood lines:  “If you fall / you are under the Act /  lost not Indian / Children of women / whose mother whose father’s mother / did not have us under the Act.”

The presence of both a background and foreground text is reminiscent of Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue, where faded descriptions of various crops from an actual seed catalogue lie behind the poem proper.  Kroetsch’s aim was to describe the difficulty of being a poet in western Canada (how hard it was to “grow” a poet, so to speak, in the harsh climate of the prairies), while trying to invent a poetic tradition as well, transforming the catalogue in the process Rhodes’s poem plays in a similar way, but to critique Canada’s assimilation policies that “whiten out” aboriginal cultures. Canada denies aboriginal status to people all the time with this registration/segregation form.  In selectively whiting out the language that selects people for treaty rights, Rhodes points to the ongoing cultural genocide perpetrated by our government through crafty bureaucratic red tape.

Shane Rhodes once described his writing method as “stray dog poetics,” a theory of composition “built on lightness, wander, wonder, hope, anger, inquisitiveness, love, hunger, lust.”  It is a practice open to multiple styles and influences, designed to accommodate the “mutt conglomeration of impulses” that Rhodes pursues in his work.  Such mongrel meandering lurks in these poems, but Rhodes’s focus on imperial relations, and their ongoing impact in Canada society, demonstrates a thematic coherence that does not fit comfortably with this philosophy.  If anything, he adapts his stray dog poetics here to a unity of subject, showing multiple approaches to the one, overriding impulse of exposing colonial injustice.

Shane Rhodes has written five collections of poetry: The Wireless Room (NeWest Press, 2000), which won the Alberta Book Award for poetry, Tengo Sed (Greenboathouse, 2004), Holding Pattern (NeWest, 2002), which won the Archibald Lampman Award, The Bindery (NeWest, 2007), which won the Lampman-Scott Award, and Err (2011). His poetry has also appeared in a number of Canadian poetry anthologies including Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets and Breathing Fire 2. He lives in Ottawa where he works with the federal government developing AIDS policies.

–Rob Ross


Rob Ross reads and writes in Fredericton.  Some of his work has appeared in The Manitoban, Nod Magazine, and Nonymous.

Sep 172012
 

Braided Worlds is something of a literary miracle. First the story: In 1979-1980 anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her husband Philip Graham spent 13 months among the Beng, a small language/cultural group in Ivory Coast in West Africa. A decade later they published Parallel Worlds, a gorgeously conceived and beautifully nuanced co-discovery of the Beng, part ethnology, part narrative and part family conversation. In the intervening years, Philip and Alma have returned twice for extended stays with their friends, the Beng. They brought their children; they immersed themselves in the village. But wars and revolution have torn up that part of the world, too. Darkness descends. The result of these later visits is a brand new sequel to the first volume, the just-published Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

The literary miracle part comes from the neatly contrived cross-perspective of two gifted writers with different yet co-operative points of view. Both Alma and Philip bring different life interests, education and obsessions to bear: the one is studying the Beng with an arsenal of anthropological concepts and tools; the other is writing a novel while living amongst the Beng, bringing his literary sensibilities and his native curiosity to bear on his experience at every turn. The result is an amazing book, an amazing conversation, and a sense of life energized by difference, surprise, sympathy, respect and intelligence. (It’s needs to be mentioned that both Alma and Philip are very conscious of the debt they owe the Beng for their intellectual and emotional generosity and hospitality — all the royalties from these two books go to the Beng, not the authors.)

In the passage from Braided Worlds here published, through interweaving narratives, Alma and Philip recount unexpected dramas of cultural contact, including a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son Nathaniel was the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, and the deepening and increasingly dangerous madness of Matatu, a tormented young villager.

dg

 

 

———

 

Alma

The air still chilly from an overnight rain, our village hostess Amenan stepped among the puddles in the compound to sit beside Philip and me and fill us in on village doings. I wasn’t surprised to hear her begin with a story about Matatu. Shortly after we’d left the village for our short trip to the capital, he came to our compound, and when Amenan explained that we’d gone to Abidjan, Matatu announced that he’d follow us. Soon, he picked a fight with his older brother over borrowing a bicycle. “His brother refused to lend it. Who rides a bicycle all the way to Abidjan? But Matatu grew so angry he attacked his brother with a machete.”

I sucked in my breath. Matatu’s madness had moved undeniably from eccentric to dangerous. After the failed assault, Amenan continued, Matatu fled and wandered around the Beng region. When a group of farmers heard he was nearby, they abandoned their fields and beat a quick path back to their village, terrified that Matatu might try to attack them too. They sent messengers to Asagbé, begging for strong men to bring him home.

“Once Matatu was returned to his compound,” Amenan said, “his older brother strapped him to a big log. That’s where he’s been for the past few days.”

Amenan paused to let the weight of her words sink in, then added, “But Matatu is trying to free himself. He’s pulled so much that his hand tied to the log has swelled up. They’ll probably free him even though he’s still crazy . . .”

“My god, this is terrible!” I burst out.

Philip said nothing, but I read misery on his face and imagined he was thinking that our presence in the village, our western goods had fueled Matatu’s deepening madness, his conviction that he was the prime minister of Côte d’Ivoire.  He deserved riches . . . and why not? But what else might come of Matatu’s longing?

 

Philip

I pounded at the typewriter keyboard, its slow clatter the soundtrack of my novel, when through the screen door I heard Germain’s voice offer his greetings in the compound, followed by Alma and Amenan’s responses. I decided to stay put in the work of this developing scene in my novel: the imagined setting of a model train museum, where a secret hid among a tableau of tiny plastic figures in a miniature downtown.

Alma peered inside. “Germain is here, with Matatu’s father, Yao. You might want to be part of this.”

I did. Here was another drama I felt bound to, however unwillingly, haunted by Matatu’s relentless wandering about the village with a sack of discarded, useless objects, which he presented as treasures to anyone who would listen.  I left my desk and sat beside Alma on one of the chairs set out in a circle.

With the typical Beng formality of a village elder, Germain began to speak for Matatu’s father, asking us to travel to Bouaké to buy medicine for his son’s madness. Alma and I had grown accustomed to Germain trying to squeeze some financial or political advantage out of any situation, though in this case he clearly employed his position in the village to represent Matatu’s family in their crisis.

I turned to Alma. “What do you think?”

She kept her voice low, even though we were speaking in English. “I don’t think drugs are the answer . . . ”

“I agree, they didn’t help him the first time. And anyway, after we leave, those pills or whatever would run out.”

“Maybe an African solution would be better,” Alma said, and she turned to Amenan. “Aren’t there good healers among the Jimini people,” Alma asked, now in French, “ones who can cure madness?”

Amenan nodded, pleased that the discussion had turned to an area of her expertise. “I know a Ghanaian man who healed a woman in Asagbé. She used to be mad, but he cured her. He’s very good. He lives nearby, in a little village, Kaklagbé. It’s between Wati and Bedara.”

Alma and I looked at each other. Since we felt certain that Matatu’s illness was deeply embedded in his own culture, maybe this was worth a try, at least for starters. We offered to pay for the healer’s treatment. Matatu’s father and Germain huddled into their own whispering, and then announced that the entire family would have to decide.

Their decision wasn’t long in coming. Matatu soon broke free of his hand chains, though he no longer seemed violent. I would drive with Amenan’s husband Kofi to Kaklagbé, where my friend would ask the healer to take on the case.

 

Alma

The next morning, Amenan greeted me with bad news: “Matatu’s not better.”

“Now what?” I sighed, afraid to hear details.

“Last night, Matatu came by and said, ‘Big Sister, you were very bad when you didn’t give me anything to eat this afternoon. I was hungry!’ I’d given him a snack a little earlier, but he wanted more and I refused. So he returned to complain. I told him it’s not my responsibility to feed him. I was nice enough to give him anything.”

“Of course,” I sympathized, silently admiring my friend for her courage in standing up to Matatu.

“The problem is,” Amenan continued, ”he doesn’t stay at his mother’s house long enough to eat. He just wanders around the village.”

“You should be careful,” I warned her. “He might try to hurt you if he thinks you should feed him.”

“I’m not afraid of him,” Amenan countered, “he can only hurt people in his family.”

I nodded, relieved by Amenan’s reminder that among the Beng, witchcraft worked only with relatives bound by matrilineal ties. Yet a nagging doubt remained. Would a madman like Matatu follow the cultural script?

“Still, he isn’t improving on his own,” Amenan observed. “We need to fetch that Ghanaian healer, so Matatu can start treatment.”

 

Philip

Scrunched in the back seat of the car beside Alma and Nathaniel sat Ajei, the Ghanaian healer who’d agreed to take on the case of Matatu’s illness, and beside me Kofi warned of especially impressive upcoming potholes, though I could easily see them myself. The French word for a narrow little trail like this was piste, but a true piste boasted superhighway status compared to this horror of crevises and fault lines that constantly required maneuvering, and the dirt banks on either side of this piste stood close enough to scrape the car. Whenever patches of sandy soil sucked the wheels to a stop, Kofi and I pushed the car from behind, while Alma gunned the engine and the healer and Nathaniel stood safely off to the side.

Too often we came upon a four- or five-foot-high termite mound in the middle of the trail that I had to squeeze around—sometimes with two wheels high on the edge of one of the raised banks. I had to apply constant attention to the slightest trick and trap, and the trail stretched on and on as if it would never end. I’d already driven back and forth to the healer’s village days earlier, to ask for his help and offer him a chicken as a sign of respect. Now here I was again on this nasty seven-kilometer stretch. Perhaps this was a minor hell assigned to me for all my sins when I drove a cab one long-ago summer in New York City.

Finally, after emptying everyone out once again for another termite mound so the car wouldn’t tip over when it angled against the trail’s raised bank, some tenuous constraint snapped inside me. With the latest obstruction safely behind us, and the car full once more, off we drove. But now added to the dutiful rrrrrr of the engine rose from me first a murmur, then a full-throated string of the worst insults in any language that I could summon, a rising and falling, a rolling along of a Frenbenglish twisted eloquence that surprised even me. Once started, with no internal ignition key to switch off my running road trip commentary, I couldn’t stop.

Alma normally would have bored a hole in the back of my head for this string of curses I let loose within hearing range of Nathaniel, but this was one of those moments that demanded cursing, a protest against this reprehensible road. In the rearview mirror I saw my son’s six year-old self hunched over his drawing pad, pen carefully applied to the page, deep in his own world of art. Even if he listened, he’d have to learn these words some time in his life, and what better pedagogical moment could there be than the provocation of this road? On and on it perversely re-revealed its unique features, as if egging me on.

 

Alma

I would have protested Philip’s string of curses let loose within hearing range of Nathaniel, but I suspected that my husband’s foul mouth was less a complaint against this path-in-the-guise-of-a-road and more an outpouring of pent-up sadness at his father’s death back home. So I took the diversionary tactic of talking to the healer about his life. I posed questions in English to Kofi, who graciously translated to the healer in Fante, then back in English—and Nathaniel had the rare experience of actually understanding what was said around him.

The topic piqued his interest, and at times he suggested new questions. At first, since the subject of the interview was so—well, adult—the mother in me didn’t want to upset Nathaniel. But my young son seemed to have developed his own anthropological curiosity. After all, he’d already accepted his new village name of Grandfather Denju, bestowed because he was considered to be a reincarnation of an important clan ancestor.

“Do you know why Matatu went mad?” I asked the healer.

“I do know,” the healer said quietly, after Kofi translated, “otherwise I couldn’t cure him. I can’t discuss it now. But I’ve spoken with Matatu . . .”

Ah, bon?” I commented, surprised. I hadn’t heard about any recent visits the healer had paid to our village.

“I heard Matatu speaking to me in my mind, just as a diviner would do. I could hear that Matatu speaks nonsense . . .”

Nathaniel looked up from his drawing pad. “What medicine will the healer use?”

I repeated the question to Kofi, who translated without having to raise his voice. By now, Philip had reverted to muttering.

“The same I use for any patient, though I have a very strong blend of herbs and plants for people who are very mad.”

“Ah-heh,” I said noncommittally. I’d expected some ritual approach to re-position Matatu in his social universe—not an herbal cure. Maybe the healer sensed my skepticism, for he added, “I can cure a lot of other diseases, not just madness. But I also tell a patient if I don’t know the cure for whatever disease they may have.”

Nathaniel joined in, and Kofi translated, “How come Matatu is crazy?”

“I might find that a disease is caused by witchcraft,” Ajei hinted ominously. “Then, one night while I’m alone in my house, I beg the witches to reverse the spell. I ask what they need, and I buy back the spell from them with whatever they ask for as payment. It might be a sheep, some money, or alcohol—or just a chicken or some eggs. Last night, I talked with the witches who bewitched Matatu.”

Ajei paused while this statement sank in. “I met the witches,” the healer continued, “and they said they wanted money, nothing else.”

“How come they didn’t get arrested?” Nathaniel asked me quietly.

“I think the healer meant they met invisibly. Like in dreams.” Accustomed to hearing of his dead grandfather appearing in our friend Kokora Kouassi’s dreams, Nathaniel nodded and once again bent over his drawing pad.

“The witches said they’d need 200 CFAs—all in small change,” the healer concluded. “To pay them, I’ll give the money to the children in the village–one small coin to each child–and the witches will un-do the spell on Matatu. Then, when I give Matatu my herbal medicine, the witches will allow the medicine to work.”

“But who are the witches?” Nathaniel asked.

The healer remained silent for a few seconds after Kofi translated, then said quietly, “Actually, the witch responsible for Matatu’s madness is his own mother.”

I should have been able to predict this accusation, since Beng witchcraft always operates within the maternal line. Still, I was impressed. Ajei must have lived long enough in the Beng region to be able to chart their paths of sorcery. I glanced at my son. What might Nathaniel make of this unexpected, perhaps unthinkable answer? A new set of especially bumpy bumps claimed our attention, and we were left to ponder the upsetting news in our solitude.

When we finally returned to Asagbé, Nathaniel tugged at Philip’s shirt and said, with an open-faced enthusiasm, “Dad, look at what I did.”  We both looked down at his sketchpad.

The page bristled with nervous, jagged lines, each one running from left to right, line after line, repeating down to the bottom edge. Philip stared, clearly trying to figure out what it was so he could praise it.

“It’s . . . ” he hesitated.

“It’s a seismograph,” Nathaniel said.

“A . . . what?”

“A seismograph. It’s a souvenir of the road, the bad road.”

We looked again at the drawing. I’d been so intent on my interview with the healer that I’d barely noticed Nathaniel’s determined concentration. With the drawing pad on his lap, he’d applied the pen lightly to the page and let the road do his work for him . . . and charted very twist, turn, rattle and shake we’d all suffered through. Seismograph! Where did he get that word? It certainly hadn’t been in any of the phrases Philip had employed while driving. Yet maybe my husband’s extended stretch of curses were recorded too on this drawing pad, in some pre-alphabetic stenography.

“Amazing. Thank you, Grandfather Denju,” Philip replied as he held the pad and examined that skittish map as if it were a record of all this summer’s surprises.

—Alma Gottlieb & Philip Graham

————–

Alma Gottlieb is the author of eight books of anthropology, most recently The Restless Anthropologist, as well as The Afterlife Is Where We Come FromA World of BabiesBlood Magic and, with Philip Graham, Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds.  She conducted fieldwork among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire for two decades, and is now studying Cape Verdeans with Jewish ancestry.  She is professor of anthropology, African studies, and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon and the newly released Braided Worlds, co-authored with his wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb.  His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, The Washington Post Magazine, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.  He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor.  Graham teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at www.philipgraham.net.

Portions of this excerpt from Braided Worlds first appeared in the anthology Being There (Harvard University Press, 2011).

Sep 152012
 

In Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Where is my Romeo?” a cinema crowd of women, weeping, watch the tragic ending to Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (click here to see it too). This is Kiarostami’s contribution to the Cannes organized anthology film Chacon son Cinema, where thirty six directors from around the world were invited to make short films of less than three minutes reflecting on their feelings about cinema.

Kiarostami’s work is often misleadingly simple, employing documentary techniques so that audiences might mistake the fictive for real. In “Where is my Romeo?” most of the women we watch tearfully watching the film are actresses. Does this undermine their reaction to the film, make the expression any less real? For Kiarostami, this short is thematically related to his next feature, Shirin, in which, too, women in an audience watch a film and weep. For that film Kiarostami, David Bordwell reports, “filmed his female actors . . . reacting to dots on a board above the camera! Indeed, Kiarostami claims he decided on the Shirin story [the performance only heard in the soundtrack of the film, never seen] after filming the faces.”

Similarly, Kiarostami has explained in interviews how in the films where he has a driver and a passenger talking in a car (Taste of Cherry, 10) he shot each part of the dialogue separately, half a conversation at a time, with him sitting opposite with a camera. Yet the dialogue in both films feels real, zinging with life and emotion far from any script or intervention on a director’s part. Why do we need the truth of the film to be based in reality and is it simply that we are left cheated voyeurs (they knew we were watching all along)?

Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Kiarostami’s Uncertainty Principle,” explores how, in his film Taste of Cherry, the director challenges the audience with ambiguity:

Kiarostami . . . draws attention to the way curiosity grows necessarily out of uncertainty and is indeed its counterpoint: here the spectator’s desire to know and understand is heightened by a conscious sense of uncertainty about even the truth or reality of what seems to be happening. And Kiarostami builds these spectator sensations into the aesthetics of his cinema, so the process of understanding (or not) is central rather than incidental.

This uncertainty is perhaps not as foregrounded in “Where is my Romeo?” coming second place to just the beauty of the actresses’ emotional reactions. Only when we wonder how the director could possibly have caught so many reactions to one screening of the film — wonder if he had needed over a dozen cameras — do doubt and uncertainty enter into it for Western audiences. Iranian audiences perhaps would recognize some of the actresses from the start, but, even then, could they be certain that these are not sincere reactions to the tragic death of Juliet (since, fairly, actresses have real emotions too).

Some reviewers cannot get past the emotions themselves. Nicholas de Villiers in his article in Senses of Cinema describes how Kiarostami’s short “lingers over the teary-eyed expressions of women watching the classic tragic romance (this feminine ‘weepy’ cliché is another common thread among several shorts [in To Each His Own Cinema], a rather hackneyed illustration of film’s power to move an audience).”

De Villiers misses the point though. Much of Kiarostami’s work plays with the boundary of public and private. When he focuses on women characters, he chooses to focus on women in public and finds, instead, private moments there. He composes his film 10 as ten short vignettes, conversations a woman driving in her car has with her son, her friend, a prostitute, a stranger. All very private conversations but while driving around Tehran. The actress who plays the protagonist in 10, Mania Akbari, was so inspired by this idea she directed and starred in 20 fingers, a film that is structured by various conversations a man and a woman have in public, mostly in moving vehicles too (a tram, a train, a motorcycle, a boat). De Villiers reads the emotions in “Where is my Romeo?” as a “ ‘weepy’ cliché,” and does not register this clash between the ostensible private moment of emotion in the public sphere of the cinema.

Richard Brody in The New Yorker sees even greater subtext in the choice of Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet:

I watched it in my office and forgot to plug in headphones; a female colleague, hearing Juliet’s death throes (at forty seconds in), thought I was watching an erotic film. The mistake is accurate: Kiarostami’s conjunction of a woman’s pleasure and death is an implicit accusation of the repressive measures applied, particularly against women, in Iranian society. But the Prince’s roar, at 1:51, of the line “All are punished”—departing from Shakespeare’s text by repeating the phrase—speaks clearly for Kiarostami: the injustices done to women are done to all. The female spectators’ rapt terror at the spectacle reflects their personal implication in its subject, love rendered illicit.

These are not simple, documented displays of emotion and cannot be dismissed by de Villiers’s “weepy” misreading. To watch “Where is my Romeo?” is to witness a communion of the private emotional lives of an audience, “moving” for us as an audience in that sense of ending up somewhere different than from where we started. And yet the film continues to move us if we let it, into fraught, curious, and uncertain spaces between art and life, illusion and reality.

–R. W. Gray

Sep 132012
 

Sophfronia Scott has written a gorgeous yet uncategorizable memoir that is in part a tale of her brush with the celebrity Lena Horne. But that is only the instigation; their conversation lead both Horne and Scott to tears, to memories, to fathers and to white shirts and ironing boards. In capturing her memories of learning to iron and her father’s white shirts, Scott captures a moment in African-American cultural history that is poignant and complex as hell. Father-love, oppression, African-American male pride, daughter-love — all these and more.

Sophfronia Scott is a new friend, as it were, a second-semester student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, also a published novelist with, already, a long career as a freelance and woman-of-letters.

The two photos are of Scott’s father. One was taken in the 1940s, the other somewhere between 1988 and 1990. The author photo at the top is by Tain Gregory, Sophfronia’s son, age eight.

dg

—–

When my friend Jenny answered her cell phone that day she had said, “I’m walking with Jake and Ella and Grandma in Central Park. We’re only a few blocks away, come join us.” Jake was Jenny’s pre-school age son, Ella was her dog and Grandma? Well, Grandma was Lena Horne—singer, actress, icon. I said okay, hung up the phone and kept walking but I was pretty sure I’d left part of my brain back on the corner of East 68th and Fifth Avenue. At that point Jenny and I had been friends, dear friends, for close to two years but I’d never met the legendary Lena. Her public appearances, even at family functions, were few. Our mutual friends spoke of her with hushed awe, wondering if they would ever get the opportunity being presented to me then. They talked about the possibilities of being tongue-tied, not knowing what to say, of coming off as being less than fully charged in the mental department. As I walked toward the park I took on all their anxieties, just assuming they were my own. I felt like the suede jacket I broke out each fall suddenly looked shabby, and the scuff marks on my boots were rising up all white and too obvious.

I found them, stroller, dog, women, taking up most of a footpath near the East 70s. Jenny introduced me and when Lena said my name “Fronie-Fronie,” as I’m known in their family, the fear inside me melted. I recognized the lilt of her voice, but not from her recordings or her movies. She sounded like someone I loved. I heard the tones of my father’s sisters as I heard them in my childhood: slow and elegant and beautiful.

I don’t remember what she wore—unusual for me because at the time I was mad for fashion—but I remember the glow of her skin, the way her chin tilted up to examine my face. Maybe she marveled over my freckles or the reddish brown shade of my dreadlocks.  From the intensity of her gaze, though, I gathered she seemed to be searching not for prettiness but for content. She wanted, I think, to see what was in my brown eyes. I remember bearing her weight as she took my arm and we walked while Jenny pushed Jake in the stroller and supervised the leashed but ever-roaming Ella.

I like to believe she spoke to me as she did then because she had soon realized I was not like her granddaughter’s other friends, urban and modern and lovely, but for her out of reach in terms of connections and references. Lena was born in 1917. My father, by then deceased, had come into the world in 1919 so I had grown up with her language, with her references. Talking to her was not that different from talking to my own father in our living room as he used to sit in his recliner. In fact Lena asked me about “my people” and I told her about my father coming from Mississippi and my mother’s family from Tennessee, and how they merged in Ohio but raised me and my siblings as though no one had ever left either of those southern spaces, right down to my father’s whippings and demeaning words that stung even more than the physical strikes. My sisters and I were taught to cook and clean and iron as if they were the only endeavors that could ensure our survival as women. By the time I was 18 and leaving for college I was so angry I vowed never to return. I didn’t tell Lena that part.

That’s how the ironing talk started. She seemed intrigued that I had learned so young and surprised that I still did it. My husband was, and is, terrible with an iron and it never occurred to me to send the shirts out to be laundered and pressed as every male in New York City, even those who couldn’t afford it, probably did. Lena, I learned, had married young, just 19, and to a man who, much like my father, insisted on his wife producing ironed shirts, fresh biscuits, and perfect needlework, but she had been taught none of it. It had been important to her to try, I could see that as a little frown creased Lena’s brow. Her own father had been absent most of her childhood and she seemed to have wanted the chance to show this kind of diligence for a man she loved. For a moment Lena released my arm and her pale hands, at waist level, swept through the air in front of her. “I used to weep over that man’s shirts,” she said. I nodded and we stood there together at an imaginary ironing board. The yellow leaves over our heads and under our feet provided the light for our work on that overcast day. “And they were all white shirts, right?” I asked. I remembered my father’s own white shirts as I heard Lena answer, “Yes.” We stood there, the shirt large and voluminous in Lena’s small hands, the white cotton hopelessly scorched.

Lena had squeezed my heart and I wanted to cry because I could feel how much she had loved her husband, how much she must have tried. I knew what it was to have such obvious proof of failure. I too had burned my father’s shirt (and coffee and biscuits and collard greens). But I had been able to make adjustments—so many adjustments—until I had eventually mastered most domestic tasks and could present my father with perfect shirts and perfect biscuits. It never occurred to me what it would have been like never to be able to do it, to never be able to show love in this way. Of course I wouldn’t have said that when I was ironing my father’s shirts. But I remembered the complete sense of pleasure and satisfaction when my father pulled on a shirt without making a critical remark.  Maybe I even felt proud of the way he had looked. I wanted to tell Lena right then how to iron that shirt. Years later it still seemed to matter, and I felt Lena would have listened, that she still wanted to know like it was the answer to an essential, but long-elusive riddle.

To this day I have never read any proper instruction for how to iron a shirt. I suppose if I Googled “how to iron a shirt” I would find enough information, with video included, to bring me to the level of the ironing elite. But I feel what I learned from my mother’s hands is old magic—I don’t want to meddle with it.

I can tell you I start with the collar, unbuttoning it if it’s that kind, and laying it as flat as I can on the ironing board. I press it end to end. Ironing the small parts of a shirt is when you’re most likely to get burned. You have to hold the part close to the iron while you press and your fingers are simply in harm’s way. A burn rises quickly, a living red capsule on the surface of your skin. You think it will never heal because that’s how much it hurts when it happens. Ice is better than butter, I’ll tell you that now. Butter and burns is an old wives tale.

Working with steam is a blessing. I didn’t have a steam iron when I was a kid and my arms often ached with the effort of exerting the right pressure to smooth out the fabric. Ironing is so much faster now with steam. (When I got older my father bought us a Press-O-Matic, a smaller version of the huge rectangular ironing machines you see at the dry cleaners, but that’s another story and a different set of burns.) Next I pick up the shirt and lay it on one side of the front with the buttons face down and running horizontally in front of me. I iron that, then the sleeve on that same side. Sleeves are tricky because of their roundness. They don’t lie flat well so I will usually iron a sleeve and turn it over to find a funky crease I didn’t mean to create running like a new slash down the arm. Once I fix that I move to the other side and the other sleeve. Then I lay the back of the shirt out with the neck area fitted as much as possible over the narrow end of the ironing board. I press the back and all the little nooks of the back of the neck. I run the nose of the iron around inside the cuffs and then I’m done.

It takes a lot of love to iron a shirt you will never wear. When I see a man wearing a meticulous shirt I wonder who loves him, who has taken the trouble. Or did he have to send the shirt out because no one does?

Thinking about my father now I tend to focus more on the love and less on the anger. In many ways I have forgiven him. Such forgiveness is possible, I believe, not because he is long dead, but because of these unexpected moments of grace reaching across generations reminding me of this: the reason I hurt so much then was because I cared so much then—and still do. As I look back on that autumn afternoon and how Lena took my arm again as we continued our stroll through Central Park, I can see how in that moment I was in my 30s, Lena was in her 80s, but we were both girls ironing the shirts of the first men we ever cared for, and hoping they could feel our love pressed hard into every crease.

—Sophfronia Scott

—————————————-

When Sophfronia Scott published her first novel, All I Need To Get By, with St. Martin’s Press in 2004, one prominent reviewer referred to her as potentially “one of the best writers of her generation.” Her work has appeared in Time, People, More, Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Sophfronia is currently a masters candidate in fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short story, “The Night Viera Kissed Her,” will be in the Fall 2012 issue of Sleetmagazine.com. She blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

Sep 122012
 

Poetry here from Irish author Gerard Beirne who attacks the notional divide between science and art head on and makes rhymes out of sines and cosines and the nature of colloidal suspensions. In ancient times Pythagoras theorized upon the nature of music and mathematics without making a distinction between the two. It is only in our day (and mostly in the popular imagination) that science, mathematics and art have drifted into a strange opposition. Perhaps it is only an ill-educated assumption that science is not beautiful. In any case, Gerard Beirne, in his new book Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual (Oberon Press) from which these poems are taken, makes poetry out of science and science out of poetry. And sometimes he uses science as a luminous metaphor for the spirit. Of circles and squares, he writes:

The relation of X’s to Y’s
the hows and whys
of the pleasure derived
from being true to themselves
or from pushing
…………………..at their boundaries

dg

 

 

Properties of Solutions: The Colloidal State

Take atoms, molecules
assume their use theoretically
if not practically
believe in them (or not)
if you will.

Accept (for now) that this
is elementary theory
to avoid a state of confusion.

Focus on colloidal dispersion
the scattering of light (for instance)
by particles of dust
in the path of a sunbeam
through a partly opened door
(call this the Tyndell effect).

Take these small sparkling specks
(these giant steps)
and follow these points of reflected light
observe the constant random motion
(name it Brownian movement).

Publish if you must
a mathematical analysis
of nonuniform random collisions
caused by the unequal number of molecules
colliding on either side.

(Answer if you dare
to the name of Einstein

or Perrin if you prefer
a Nobel Prize.)

Verify experimentally
remove the last doubts surrounding
atoms and molecules, offer
the proof of your own existence

(act surprised)

the notion of its constant
random motion
the human condition.

Believe in it (or not)
if you will

(but accept for now
that this is still

elementary
………………..theory.)

 

The Pressure of Gases – kinetic molecular theory

Torricelli immersed
at the bottom of a sea
of elemental air
considers the existence of a vacuum

(a space repugnant to nature
and philosophers
who advocate resistance)

but Torricelli bearing up
under the oppressing weight of hot air
fills a tube of glass
a dish with mercury
inverts the tube within
observes the empty space which forms

a place where nothing
(natural) he believes
can be contained

(unawares of molecules
of mercury vapour
ascending upwards)

a vacuous state of being
devoid of God or life

(at least on paper)

light-headed (and swimming
beneath the surface)
Torricelli endeavours
(and succeeds) to measure
the pressure of the atmosphere

like some exotic fish
he gauges the rise and fall
within the tube
floats easily amongst it all

the internal and external forces
rarefaction and density

(Torricelli breathing
at the bottom of the sea)

where all and nothing happens
an emptiness filled
with relentless intensity

Torricelli (like others
before him) sees mankind
struggling to its knees
in the lower regions
of the atmosphere

(quicksilver rising in a tube of glass)

a place cohabited with animals
meek and wild

while on the peaks of mountains high
closer to the heavens and the sky
(where prayers come to pass)
the air is pure and light
and finally measurable

the next step (unimaginable)
surely flight?

 

Form

After this
………….I lead you into form

triangle, rhombus, square, helix
circle, rectangle, ellipse

and from there
………………….to their equations

their defining features.

The relation of X’s to Y’s
the hows and whys
of the pleasure derived
from being true to themselves
or from pushing
…………………..at their boundaries

a circle stretched into an ellipse
a rhombus pressed into a square

but erstwhile
……………….there is the line

(like light concise
taking the least journey
…………………………….between points
adhering to Fermat’s Principle of Least Time
“nature always acts by the shortest course”).

Archimedes, Appolonius of Perga,
Euclid, Pappus of Alexandria

awaiting fourteen centuries more
to extend the shape of their knowledge

Gerard D. Desargues,
Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes

mathematicians defining concepts
…………………………………..in words
simple sounds
intricate with meaning

tangent, locus, vertex,
asymptote, focus, directrix,
………………………………eccentricity

the complexity
of geometrical theory.

Beyond this
………………..images and symbols

points aligned in space
specified by their coordinates
outlining inordinate quantities
of thought

and out of all of this a purpose
beyond the rapture of near perfection
an application?

The parabolic surfaces
of reflector lights, say
showing the way
or antenna in radio astronomy
solar furnaces
ballistic calculations

shots fired in the dark

satellites orbiting the earth
above the critical speed
needed to remain aloft
and hark
…………….transmitters locating ships.

But which from which

the bullet or the ellipse
the form or its intent?

Or by necessity
………………….both together
creating their own trajectory

forces never spent.

 

— Gerard Beirne

———————

Gerard Beirne is an Irish writer who moved to Norway House, a Cree community in Northern Manitoba, in 1999 where he lived for three years. While living there, he interviewed Elders in the community and edited for publication an anthology of those interviews. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead.

His novel The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express. His most recent novel Turtle was published by Oberon Press, 2009.

His short story “Sightings of Bono” was adapted into a short film featuring Bono (U2) by Parallel Productions, Ireland in 2001 and released on DVD in 2004.

His poetry collection Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual has just been published by Oberon Press- Fall 2011. His collection of poetry Digging My Own Grave was published by Dedalus Press, Dublin. An earlier version won second place in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.

Sep 112012
 

 

Diane Moser begins her memorial composition to the victims of 9/11 with an upbeat Big Band horn motif which seems surprising, even astonishing, until you realize the piece mimes the whole day, beginning with the pristine sky, sun blazing, everyone one his or her way to work, the streets packed with rushing cars and cabs, everyone brash, breezy and optimistic. Almost at once the sombre, premonitory bass counters, and for a few bars the horns and the bass alternate tentatively.

Diane is a brand new colleague of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a colleague since she joined the faculty of the equally brand new MFA in Music Composition Program. She’s a composer, jazz pianist, and mourner. These are all songs of mourning, as it were — for 9/11, for mother and father, for gifted friend. In every piece there is a darkness (from the bass, from the left hand) that battles against the liveliness of the music itself. Diane’s an amazing composer, with a special sense of the recuperative and redemptive effects of music and the capacity of jazz to embody the complex light and dark of life. The thrumming, gloomy bass reminds us of death; but the music dances with energy, rushes toward the light.

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce her here on this memory-filled day.

In the photo above, taken my Dennis Connors, Diane appears with bassist Mark Dresser. The artist photo below was taken by Chris Drukker.

dg

—————–

 

The Journey Home

I composed this piece to help the healing process from the attacks of Sept 11th, 2001. All of us went through so much on that day and the weeks that followed, and I felt as a composer that I needed to express my feelings and to help others as well. One of the recurring themes in NYC in the aftermath was the sight of people who were putting up posters, trying to locate their loved ones, and that’s what got me started on this composition.

The music begins with a motif that expresses exactly the kind of morning we had, sparkly, bright blue, barely a cloud in the sky. The bass solo is a foreshadow of what was coming. As the bass solo continues, the brass introduction goes from the bright sparkly motif, to wide open, dark harmonies, slowly descending, which represents the towers coming down. I chose a slower tempo for this, because in that moment, as we watched from our TV sets and from the streets of Montclair, NJ, where I live, everything seemed to go fast and in slow motion at the same time.

The next section is a motif built on the spoken phrase “Where are you?” This is what I imagined was being said by people who were looking for their loved ones who had vanished that day.

The third section is my vision of the souls of the people who perished that day and their Journey Home.

“The Journey Home” composed in memoriam for the victims of the attacks on Sept 11th, 2001. Live recording of Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band May 2008, Trumpets Jazz Club, Montclair, NJ. Composed by Diane Moser October 2001, premiered Nov 2001 at Tierney’s Tavern, Montclair, NJ. Soloists: bassist Andy Eulau, alto saxophonist Tom Colao, trombonist Ben Williams. http://www.myspace.com/dianemoserscomposersbigband.

 

For My Mother

This is a composition I wrote a few days after my mother died unexpectedly. I was supposed to speak at her service, but I decided playing the piano was a better way to express myself. I started with arranging some of her favorite songs, none of which I really inspired me. The next day I decided to experiment with her name as a musical cryptogram, assigning notes to her name.  After working with the notes, I found harmonies and created open spaces for free improvisation based on the themes.  I have arranged this piece (and performed it) for everything from solo piano to big band.

“For My Mother” composed by Diane Moser 1998. Tthis recording from the newly released cd “Duetto” with bassist Mark Dresser, CIMP Records release date July 3, 2012. http://www.cimprecords.com/albums/?album=786497576920. Also available on itunes http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/duetto/id515078907. Review by Robert Bush for the San Diego Reader http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/duetto/id515078907.

 

 For My  Father

When my father died, I decided to try again the musical cryptogram and add two of his favorite songs, “Deep River,” a traditional spiritual that he used to sing with his sister, and “My Buddy,” which was a special piece of music for him and his friends from WWII. The piece begins with the same idea of assigning notes to his name but with a pedal point (repeated note) and lots of open space for improvisation. I continue that pedal point with a free flowing rendition of “Deep River” and then let go of it as I play “My Buddy.” This piece was originally recorded with only piano and drums. I had wanted Mary Redhouse to be on the recording session, but it didn’t work out for that day. Two years later, she was on the east coast, and we recorded her, over dubbing twice while listening to the previous recording. Mary is a virtuoso vocalist and sings with Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai, a favorite of my father’s. I especially love the hawk sounds by Mary at the end of this track; I can imagine my father ‘s soul flying over the Grand Canyon, one of his favorite places.

“For My Father/Deep River/My Buddy” composed/arranged 2002. On the soon to be released “Diane Moser WDMO” featuring myself on piano, Duncan Moore-drums, Mary Redhouse vocals. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/jam-session/2012/jul/13/diane-moser-wdmo-just-out-on-planet-arts/

 

One For Mal

This composition is a tribute to the late, great jazz pianist Mal Waldron. I composed it a few days after he died, and after listening to a memorial broadcast of his music from station WKCR, Columbia University, NYC, and walking in the freshly fallen eight inches of snow we got that day. The melody just came to me after that walk through the snow, but I also added the chimes from a local church that I heard as I rounded the corner going home. I only had one melody, but I divided it into two fragments and juxtaposed them,and then reversed the juxtaposition. The chimes come in after each juxtaposition. The groove that I set up in my left hand is totally in tribute to Mal, who as Elzy Kolb writes in the liner notes of WDMO about Mal: “left-hand-that-rules-the-world-approach.” After that groove, the trio is free to follow where ever the spirit takes us, and then we come back in the way we started.

“One For Mal” composed 2002. On the soon to be released “Diane Moser WDMO” featuring myself on piano, Duncan Moore-drums, Rob Thorsen-bass http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/jam-session/2012/jul/13/diane-moser-wdmo-just-out-on-planet-arts/

— Diane Moser

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Diane Moser has been a featured performer and composer throughout the US with jazz ensembles, big bands, orchestras, chamber music, dance and theater companies since 1975. Since 1996 she has been the music director/contributing composer/pianist for her 17 piece Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, dedicated to developing and presenting new music for big band. Her other groups include the Diane Moser Quintet, and the Diane Moser Trio. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Arts and in 2011 was named the Mid-Atlantic Arts Creative Fellow at the Millay Arts Colony. She has received composition awards from Chamber Music America, Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, the Mary Flagler Carey Charitable Trust and the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University. Recently she composed and recorded the music for the award winning documentary “Breaking Boundaries: The Art of Alex Masket.” She has been a featured pianist and composer with Mark Dresser, Marty Ehrlich, Gerry Hemingway, Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake, Tina Marsh, Charles McPherson, Lisa Sokolov, Yale Strom, poet Bill Zavatsky, the Drifters and many others. Since 2006 she has been a member of the core faculty for The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (NY, NY) where she teaches composition, improvisation and history courses. She is also a member of the core faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition Program.

Diane’s music runs the gamut of straight ahead to experimental, using free and structured improvisation, graphic scores and the environment as source material. Her current projects include a suite based on birdcalls, culled from a MacDowell Colony residency where she improvised and recorded with birds over a period of 5 weeks, and a large work for her big band based on the concept of the Music of the Spheres, specifically the theories of Pythagoras, Johannes Kepler, NASA’s Voyager 1 & 2, and the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

 

Sep 102012
 

Each poem in The Children is alternately spare and dense, delicate and obsessive as filigree or tatted lace. “The heart / breaks its crochet,” she writes in “Snowy River Visions,” alluding to the intricate psychological fabric—handiwork or “white threads / like bandages”—painstakingly made and painfully undone in the course of each poem. — Emily Pulfer-Terino

The Children
by Paula Bohince
Sarabande Books
Paperback. 72 pages. $14.95

In a culture infatuated with irony, Paula Bohince’s poetry distinguishes itself for its subtlety and its acute attention to a world at once beautiful and ravaged. Four years after the release of her stunning debut collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonette Woods, published by Sarabande Books, The Children, (also by Sarabande), explores nostalgia and the ache of the lucid present in a rural landscape reminiscent of the Pennsylvania countryside where Bohince grew up. Where attention to multiplicity and contradiction could manifest in wry evasion, off-the-cuff colloquialism, and hyper-intellectualism, the imagination in these poems works delicately and relentlessly to make sense of the rift between ideas about the world and the world itself. Bohince tells it slant (to borrow Emily Dickinson’s phrase) only when there is no other way to tell it.

The book is lean and shapely, a collection of forty-two poems divided almost evenly into three sections. Demarcated by Roman numerals, these divisions emphasize thematic links among poems and lend the volume an implied chronology. While these poems are lyrics in free verse, a formal sensibility underlies the collection. For their lapidary precision and for the subjective, accessible “I” delivering each poem, this work feels born of the confessional tradition. Still, poems in The Children are fresh and surprising in their conception, paying homage to Bohince’s predecessors while establishing their own set of rhetorical moves and imaginative leaps. Bohince nods to literary, artistic, and historical figures: Mark Rothko, Virginia Woolf, Amy Clampitt, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and even Christ; invoking a sense of shared personal struggle. The Children articulates myriad forms of witness, addressing themes of childhood, fraught family circumstances, marriage, solitude, and decaying rural communities.

Bohince’s allegiance to beauty functions both as a characteristic and as a subject of the work. Each poem in The Children is alternately spare and dense, delicate and obsessive as filigree or tatted lace. “The heart / breaks its crochet,” she writes in “Snowy River Visions,” alluding to the intricate psychological fabric—handiwork or “white threads / like bandages”—painstakingly made and painfully undone in the course of each poem. Later, in “Froth of the Tides and Further Out,” she claims, “beauty rescues,” then wonders “Is that true?” This work asks what the function of the aesthetic can be in a world marked by loss. The first poem in the collection, “Pussy Willow”, begins:

Faint as flame-in-wind,
I was born, cupped inside a fist
and carried everywhere

even to the formidable river
so that I may see the stones
of the riverbed.

Introducing the essential act of attention at the core of this work, it concludes with a meditation, “Virus in my heart. Branches / salted with buds, soft- / eyed on the sill,” invoking, too, the repose and tenderness to follow. Later in the book, in dazzling strokes, bees are discussed in terms of “the shantung / of them: breathless forms / shuttling through sunlight.” A robin’s egg is “bejeweled on all sides / by goldenrod.” Yellow leaves “become portraits/of fecundity: watercolor / of wanton // against discriminate.” Effulgent phrases offer a complex, excruciating beauty, acting as abrasion and salve at once.

In the title poem, rural, post-rave melancholy is elevated to lyric emblem where “ecstasy lowered to ache” hums at the core of each stanza. Pithy, Anglo-Saxon diction drives a series of propositions and ruminations towards a conclusion equally satisfying and irresolute.

If the wind had been less gutsy
in its unbindings, we’d know them better,
the children

or the afterimage of them,
the teenage couple rapt inside the field
after the rave has died

and dispersed into corn, into cars, into
the trashed curfew.
We’d know them, the two who lay here,

ecstasy lowered to ache
and dull grin, glow sticks faded against
colorless weeds.

If the wind had been less federal,
sweeping anew the corn dust, and the clouds
that kept them starry for hours,

now passive against the noon sky:
if only they’d lasted.
If we’d been given more distinct evidence

beyond the condom listing against milk-
weed, the fox prints, the warmth
of glow sticks in our hands—

neutral again, broken of their magic.
Those dirty pacifiers we suck. Their whistles
we put to mouth and sound.

Plain idiom interacts with decisive formal gestures, lending the subject a surprising elegance and a sonorous elegiac quality. Tercets composed almost entirely of enjambed lines contribute a sense of momentum and also of containment, establishing the writer’s concern for the poem as crafted object while mimicking the energy with which the speaker bares witness to the scene. While none of the lines is end-rhymed and the internal rhymes are subtle as those inherent in colloquial speech, the language is rife with assonance and alliteration. Even in the first sentence, “couple,” “rapt,” “corn,” “cars,” “trashed,” and “curfew” establish a sonically arresting pattern of hard consonants and internal slant-rhymes that continues into the next sentence with “ecstasy lowered to ache.” The poem is built essentially of three propositions: “If the wind had been less gutsy”, “If the wind had been less federal”, “If we’d been given more distinct evidence”. Only the first resolves in a complete sentence; the following are fragments, expressive of incompletion and futility. The “we” who would know them better is literally suggestive of the community from which they are alienated. At the same time, the speaker and the reader are the “we” who know the “afterimage” of the children only through a set of lyric gestures. The poem is itself the afterimage, ghostly and particulate. Here distinctions among the man-made and the natural, the young and the dead, the beatific and the pathetic, collapse in quiet spectacle, acutely observed. The teenagers’ final whistling, which reads as half-habit, half-outcry, lends the poem the luster of ars poetica as writer herself scans the ruin, turning it into song.  This work is as much about the ordinary world as it is about our efforts to withstand it.

Bohince unabashedly exalts the quotidian, exposing and even, at times, announcing her ambition.  In “The Peacock,” for example, “Dreams feather the pillow and make bearable / the day…” in which dailiness—children’s’ aimless play, a working father’s depression—are juxtaposed with the bird’s “gorgeous body.” The poem turns its attention to the peacock until peachicks flock around the bird and, in a bold flourish, Bohince writes:

The day is finding its Breughel moment—
wine and sapphire and verdigris. His black hair
with sunlight on it.

A miracle. Something to recall
as beautiful, in the future. As the sewer was
in summer. Little childhood river.

Through the poem’s shift of attention from the pedestrian to high art to the sewer, dailiness is transformed, (or the poet announces her desire to transform it), wrought and iridescent. The world in this poem is as much imagined as it is observed, affirming one of the book’s central concerns: the relationship between perception and invention. As is the case with Elizabeth Bishop’s sublime, overwhelmingly lyrical passages are expressive of both affliction and delight.

An acute ambivalence characterizes the collection. In several poems, a subject is both itself and another, tilting and transforming. Beavers damming a stream are conflated with the rope-swinging teenaged boys the speaker used to marvel at. A mother’s frenzied consciousness is likened to birds, a “tonic of quail,” the mind “a cloud of quail…huge / as buckshot / when it balloons down, / scribbling earth/with its landings.” A hornet’s hive is a “collapsing universe” in which the speaker recognizes her own loneliness and collapse. An owl is “embodied psychosis,” “homeless, forever.” A rabbit in a winter field is discussed in the same terms as the speaker’s mother is.

A profound poem of leave taking, “Hare In Snow” responds to Mark Rothko’s vibrant, juxtaposing planes of color and his pulsing nuances. Built of two solid strophes whose rhetorical unfolding is almost identical, the poem reads as a kind of diptych imbued with the symmetry of reflection and of palindrome.

She sits in stately dress; she is all White. Slur of landscape.
In the birches’ breach, she waits: recompense for January’s deadly
beauty; rapid heart beating the downy body. Flaw
in the opal of field. Not-yet blood festival. To be as still
is to protest. Don’t go, I think, half-dozing at the window, when
she goes. Her shaming wakefulness. The poise of long feet
come to use. The adults look babyish all their lives.
It’s Nature’s trick, to feign innocence. Any intelligent thing
rejects the unhappy present. The thought of her alone would be
pretty, were she not true. And cruel as the feminine mind. Gone,
the mist she releases I interpret as Mother’s Hairspray.

She wears her fur, my mother. Pink-cheeked, she is
the landscape. Its cold eternal sunrise. Young and handsome
as my birth month. How rapidly we rushed toward each other
then. How we are the flaw in the other. Her blood slows
down. To be as quiet is to protest. Don’t go, I think, waving
goodbye from my car window. I go, and her waving
shames me. Though she bends, in mirror, in her sweeping,
she will always be younger than I am. It’s a mother’s trick,
to be loved as a lifelong daughter. The thought of her alone
will not do. She is pretty, and true. And cruelty flies into wind-
borne snow. Into the mist my mouth drinks now as milk.

Each dense stanza is built of a series of statements, sentences and sentence fragments, which addresses its subject with alternately literal and imaginative attention. The rabbit in the first strophe arrests the speaker where she sits, drowsy by a window, thinking, “don’t go” as the creature disappears into woods. But the speaker considers the animal’s presence before it runs away, making incisive claims about the natural world that read as philosophical and socio-political as well: “The adults look babyish all their lives. / It’s Nature’s trick, to feign / innocence. Any intelligent thing / rejects the unhappy present.” The poem hinges on this inventing mind, on the speaker’s consciousness that analyzes “any intelligent thing” and that “interpret(s)” the mist of snow as her “Mother’s hairspray,” again juxtaposing the natural and the artificial, the current and the recollected.

The introduction of the speaker’s mother at the hare’s escape prompts further consideration of “Nature’s trick.” Now the mother occupies the space, imagined and actual, that the hare had. She “wears her fur.” She is “young and handsome/as my birth month. How rapidly we rushed toward each other / then,” considers the speaker in a tone redolent with loss, “how we are the flaw in the other.” Again she thinks, “don’t go”, this time as she herself drives away, shamed by the image of her mother waving in the rearview mirror. “It’s the mother’s trick, / to be loved as the lifelong daughter,” she asserts, yoking safety and shame, love and anger, nurturance and dependence, in a set of relationships that throb like Rothko’s planes of color. Mother and daughter are both indistinguishable and achingly separate. The “cruelty” that “flies into wind- / borne snow,” then, is both the speaker’s and the mother’s; it is the pain inherent in parting and reunion.  The form—two stanzas rhetorically similar but imaginatively divergent—amplifies the marked and expressive ambivalence informing the poem and so much of this book.

Paula Bohince’s poems delight and hurt. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the complex and palpable struggle informing this collection, The Children is an intricate and distinct pleasure. Shapely and plainspoken, austere and effulgent, this work rewards repeated reading with subtly inventive language and an earnestness that feels unaccustomed and even bold in contemporary poetry.  The intellect and the heart are inextricable in this writing that promises to be enduring and influential.

—Emily Pulfer-Terino

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Emily Pulfer-Terino grew up in Western Massachusetts, where she lives and teaches English at Miss Hall’s School, a boarding school for girls. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. More of her work is published or forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, The Southeast Review, Poetry Northwest, Stone Canoe, The Louisville Review, The Alembic, Oberon, and other journals and anthologies.

Sep 072012
 

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (“Fish”) absurdly wonders what fish’s dreams are made of through a pool of carp who dream of driving in a car in the rain, but – and this seems the essential point – without dogs.

The frame of the film is crowded with bobbing carp of various sizes and colours that strain to reach for food at the top of an aquarium or a zen koi pond. Through their various tones of voice we detect differences in character between the fish as they blather in their invented language. Even without the sound, the anthropomorphized carp have personalities detectable in the way they treat other fish, nudging them out of the way, and swimming on top of them.

The strange and haunting sounds are a hallmark of Lucrecia Martel’s film style. The fish are granted the gift of semi-individuality through the sounds that they are associated with, depending on whether that sound is shriller or deeper. They speak in individual voices but with overlapping sounds. This is not the story of one fish, but a community. Schools of fish usually perform in perfect synchronicity but Martel’s carp react fitfully. As in her previous films (both feature-length and shorts), she is highlighting the individual’s comportment within a greater group.

The sounds, synchronized perfectly to the gaping fish mouths, are by Argentinean multidisciplinary artist Juana Molina. The noises are not from an easily recognizable instrument, but those who know Martel’s body of work will hear similarities to the device prominently featured in her second feature film, The Holy Girl. There is a sound like the theremin, an electronic instrument that is played without a touch. Molina is electro-folk musician who is also an actress and she cites Bjork as one of her influences. The connections between the two artists’ styles are unmistakable.

Martel is the well-known director of serious character studies like The Headless Woman and The Swamp, so her focus here on chatty sing-song fish might seem peculiar. Animal adventures are usually the stuff of Disney’s children’s films, rarely of prize-winning independent filmmakers and they feature elaborately drawn characters, not real live fish. In Finding Nemo (2003), the clown fish Nemo and his various friends tell us their story in their own words;Martel’s fish do so as well.  Nemo’s tale is more canonical, a simple father and son tale, while Martel’s story resists making the same kind of sense. The anthropormorphic turn seems to flirt with a more complex ontological project. Her last short, Muda, also featured on Numero Cinq at the Movies, featured humans acting like insects. Both these films suggest Martel is exploring the boundaries of the human experience, possibly intending to denaturalize desire and identity through these animalistic turns.

Simplicity has been a crucial characteristic of Martel’s films since the beginning of her successful filmmaking career. In this short, in the dominant fish pond scenes, her camera zooms in and out on the fish in one continuous dance. The frame is always densely filled and this allows for shots of a single humanized fish or a more complete view of the pond, with multiple fish. The carp mesmerize with their ceaseless irregular movements. Splashing water, wavelets, and silver coins at the bottom of the pond catch the light, saturating the captured image again and again.

Martel bookends these vibrant pond scenes with POV shots of a passenger or driver in a car driving on a highway in the rain. In the first, the title shot, we see a greenish rainy dusk with a lot of sky. Martel builds dramatic tension in this section of the short, despite the absence of other characters, through the eerie colour and the car we see in the distance. This first sky scene is intermittently interrupted by what we assume to be the windshield wipers; they are at the same time nuisance and godsend, since they temporarily block our view but ultimately allow us to see through the windshield.

The water from the fishpond is contrasted with the rain on the windshield (reassuring for the fish, one would suppose). Water is a prominent feature in all of Martel’s feature films, but usually it is the characters that use the medium in some way. In this case, it is unconceivable that she would film fish without the liquid. In The Swamp, it was an oppressive element present in the air (heavy humidity) and in the family’s pool (where ultimately, the dramatic twist happens). In The Holy Girl, it was an element that allowed various morally ambiguous characters to wash away their possible sins.

From the dark threat of the highway in the rain, she moves us suddenly to the cacophony of the fish in the pond. Martel’s contrast of the effervescence of the fishpond and the dark starkness of the highway scene is unexpected, a difficult clash of images to process. At 1:39, she offers us another two-second flash of the road, as a convoy of transport trucks pass to the left of the screen in rapid succession. Now that we know the fish, know of their dream, we are left to wonder if this is the car the fish dream about and what will happen to this car full of fish driving down the highway? The short ends with a return to the highway footage, the bottom darkness of the koi pond transitioning into the view through the windshield as the fish fade and swim away to the exterior shot and the round shiny coins become the street lamps flashing by. Still, our questions remain unanswered. We’ll never know where the carp wanted to go on their road trip, what is so terrible about dogs, or why they would ever want to leave the gloriously manic pond.

This short film is rife with planes of observation, one of Martel’s favourite tropes. We view the film, the car driver looks out the windshield, the camera watches the fish, and all the fish look out of the bowl. Martel requires of her viewers that they gaze, stare, and look again and again.  She perhaps does this best in her last feature film, The Headless Woman. In one continuous scene, we must watch the facial expressions of the main character as she goes through multiple emotions realizing, then discarding, the possibility that she may have hit a person with her car on the road. Watching a Martel film, we must discover and question the smallest of details or facial expressions.

In an perfect twist, given Martel’s preferred tropes, the filmmaker can be (barely) distinguished in a reflection in the koi pond, especially in the tight shots when there are few carp movements. We guess that she is there, a square black likeness, holding the camera, controlling what we see. But she and the film’s meaning remain elusive, a reflection, yet promissory.

This short was presented at the Jameson Notodofilmfest, an annual online festival born in 2001 from an idea by Javier Fesser, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (2007). This festival allows young innovative filmmakers to present their work through the magical world of the interweb. The prestigious jury members contribute to widening the selection of shorts; Lucrecia Martel was a judge for the 8th edition of the festival.

— Sophie M. Lavoie

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

Sep 062012
 

 

Sydney Lea has three books coming out, including his new essay collection A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press) this month. At an age when old dogs curl up before the fire and dream ancient dreams, Sydney is all spark and vigor which I find endlessly appealing and optimistic. Sydney is also the Poet Laureate of Vermont, and I guess poet laureates hobnob in ways that mere mortals don’t. He and Fleda Brown, recently Poet Laureate of Delaware, have been writing essays back and forth. As Sydney writes, “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); 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.”

Earlier on these pages I published the essay “Unskunked” which is part of this poet laureate interchange. In “Unskunked” we were treated to the image of the author running naked through the dark and dripping forest. In “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know,” Sydney Lea waxes less overtly spectacular and delivers a lovely, wise account of his education as a young poet. He is a paradoxical intellect; part athlete, hunter and woodsman; part scholar; mostly a poet. This is the story of how these impulses somehow coalesced around his admiration for what we might call the New England old timer (in 2012, there aren’t many of these left). At the center of this is an idea of manliness (not macho posturing but old fashioned manly virtue — a good thing).

Sydney Lea is a great friend and former colleague from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s a source of deep satisfaction that he has found Numéro Cinq a congenial home for his work.

dg

———–

When I was young, who thought I’d choose poetry as my prime mode of knowing the world?

Not I.  It’s true that as a high school punk, despite my enthusiasm for football and my wilder one for hockey, despite my commonplace tough-guy posturing, practiced by so many of us guys at that stage of life, I did secretly like to think of myself as a bit arty too. I was a musician. I could sing. I even thought I drew pretty well. I was a big cheese in the dramatic club, as a senior playing Oedipus in the eponymous play (a lisping king, who addressed “generationth of the living in the land of Thebeth”).

But I don’t remember writing poems, save maybe the sorts that any person may have written, and that he hopes have long since utterly biodegraded: rants about being ditched by a girlfriend, just for the tritest example.

I was also a pretty good student. Indeed, had it not been for what would now be diagnosed as a mathematical learning disability, my GPA would have been of the very highest. My truest proficiency was foreign languages, a gift nourished by the best instructor I ever had at any level, Ted Wright, who taught French. I began to speak the tongue pretty quickly, and I recall how strange it was that the words and the grammar often almost seemed to be granted me by some power outside myself.

It’s a feeling I would later come to recall – if not as often, naturally, as I could wish – when I composed a poem successful in my own eyes.

It’s at once simple and weird: words and phrases, whatever the language, simply enchant me, seduce me, especially if I hear them. Things spoken in my presence, if they have a particular, inexplicable resonance, will lodge themselves in my mind for decades. For example, I lately remembered a friend’s describing the death of his farmer uncle, who fell dead in his tracks while shutting the tailgate of his truck on a calf bound for the abattoir. I heard that description, unremarkable in most respects, about forty years ago. I wrote the poem last week.

Like my exemplar Robert Frost, I want my poems to have something of the ring of actual talk in them. But that’s to get ahead of myself. The college I chose had no writing courses as we know them in our era of too-rampant MFAism. But somehow, on my own, I started to feel an itch to write, which I did, my only audience, really, being my roommates, who tended to think I was good enough, if they thought about my work at all. My genre was short fiction, and I wrote a lot of it in those four years; it seemed to keep me balanced somehow, while everything else – including the alcoholism that would plague too many later years – was doing just the opposite.

Ultimately, of course, graduation loomed, and I had to figure out what I might do. Yale had accepted me as a grad student in French, but much as I loved the language and the literature, something in me recoiled from living as a kind of literary expatriate. I never imagined applying to a place like Iowa, though quantitatively, my portfolio would have permitted me to. (Who knows about the quality?) I had barely even heard of any of the far fewer MFA programs that existed in those days. I never dreamed, either, of Being a Writer.  Professional writing, I assumed, was something other people did; there must be some secret to it, and no one had shared it with me.

I did not want to go to Vietnam, as one those roommates did, becoming one of the earliest casualties of that wrong-headed adventure. And so, because schoolteachers were exempt from the draft at that time, I elected to go back to my own private high school, having no credentials to teach in a public one.

I taught French and English, and came to understand how Ted Wright managed to be so inspired and inspiring a teacher. He simply committed himself to that end every minute of the day right through the evening’s class preparation. No one messed with Ted: he was a big, muscular guy, the football coach, a former semi-pro pitcher. At a mere 21, I didn’t have that sort of gravitas, and I devoted a lot of time to quashing the same sort of ill discipline I’d imposed on all my other teachers, now my forgiving colleagues, just a few years before.

Top quality high school teachers are, to my mind, the heroes of American education. They deserve to be paid a lot more, and college teachers (especially those at the sorts of “prestige” institutions where I myself have taught) a good deal less. To say it tersely, even after one year in a pretty cushy job at that level, I knew I didn’t have the endurance and commitment Ted did. In deed, I concluded there wasn’t enough money in anyone’s bank to keep me at his sort of work. Too hard, too demanding, too much time just being present.

So I did go to grad school after all, not in French, but not in English either. I did comparative literature, wanting to use my languages while I focused on fiction and poetry as fields of study. I was too naïve to know that comparative literature was just then leading such study in the “theoretical” direction that has made it unappealing to me and apparently –  judging from the radical shrinkage in literature majors at the majority of colleges – to most students.

Not that my dabbling in theory didn’t have its heady moments. I particularly recall a fabulous seminar on European Romanticism, presided over by the second best of my many teachers, Geoffrey Hartman. And yet Geoffrey became, quite unintentionally, a bit of a villain in my history. I had settled on a perfectly conventional dissertation topic, Frost and the Romantics, but he persuaded me to expand one of my seminar papers, an examination of several supernaturalist authors of the nineteenth century, most of them deservedly forgotten. Unlike my other choice, he averred, this would be “a real contribution.”

Contribution? What about nightmare? To indicate how sheep-like I’d been in acceding to my professor’s suggestion, most of my texts were written in German, the one major western European language I didn’t really command, which meant that I was forevermore rifling through the stacks for translations from the original into French, Italian or Spanish, few being available in my native tongue.

Good Lord…

In due course I took a job at Dartmouth College, without, however, having finished that accursed dissertation. Indeed, it would take me more than four years to do so.

There were no writing courses at Dartmouth in those days, any more than there had been at Yale when I was there. But a fair amount of clamor arose from students for that lack to be remedied. The result, in my second year, was English 70, an omnium-gatherum offering in which students could write fiction, poetry, drama, personal essays, what have you?

The heavies of the department, many of them good people and true, to be sure, were exclusively male – women adjuncts were referred to as “lady lecturers”! – and white and old, and at least marginally Christian. (These descriptives fit me better as I write this than they fit the people in question then; but such, in my late twenties, was my regard for them, one and all.) They assigned English 70 to me, of all people.

This was meant, though, as an act of kindness. Since in the eyes of those senior colleagues, such a course was not a “real” one at all, not the kind that demanded any genuine thought or preparation, I would have more time to complete my burdensome dissertation.

And yet a strange thing happened  (or perhaps not so strange). In teaching that course, ineptly, I’m sure, given my utter lack of credentials, I found that old itch returning. It had been suppressed for more than half a decade, but now I began to write again myself.

I began, though, to write poetry. Why? Well, pardon a detour to something very relevant: on my father’s side, my family has had a relation to a remote part of Maine that now goes back generations. In these times, my brother and sisters collectively own our cabin there. My time in the neighborhood had exposed me to certain notable characters, ones who would be 120 or so if they lived still. These were men and women whose early lives had preceded the advent of power tools, so that the male lumberjacks had cut millions of board feet by hand. And to call the females “housewives” would be downright laughable: they lacked all domestic conveniences we take for granted. Stunningly hardworking people, they quite literally kept the home fires burning, cooked in wood-fired ovens, slaughtered chickens, skinned game, cleaned fish and did whatever else was called for to sustain a homestead.

Because these people had no electricity, they of course had no radio either, let alone movie theaters or the great drug television. No, they had to make their own amusement, and as a result, man and woman alike were fabulous raconteurs. Their magical turns of phrase ring in my head every day: some get into my conversation, a lot into my poems, as it were, in disguise.

It seemed inevitable that, when I moved for my job to another part of northern New England, I sought out their Vermont and New Hampshire counterparts, who were equally eloquent, grammar and syntax be damned. And even at my young age, I somehow recognized mine was the last generation who would have known these precious souls.

I wanted to get their voices onto the page.

And yet I knew I’d prove no genius. I wasn’t Mark Twain. I wasn’t Willa Cather. I couldn’t resort to dialect without on the one hand sounding condescending, which was the opposite of how I felt, or simply sounding “off,” or both. I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that if I used poetry to tell their stories – or rather to tell stories suggested by their stories –  I might capture the rhythms and cadences of that old-time, entrancing speech without having to imitate it.

My earliest poems, consequently, were in the main quite specifically narrative ones. And although I have drifted away from overt story-telling in my verse, I have never quit believing in certain narrative values: even if plot remains implicit, I want my reader at least to know who’s talking to whom, and where and why. Character, setting and dialogue: why should we poets have ceded these endowments so readily to the fiction writers?

To this day (and I am old enough now to be indifferent about what the Smart People think), I want whoever encounters a poem of mine to know some literal truths when he or she first sees it. I want to make him or her aware of who the actors are, perhaps especially the one named I. If I can make allies of my readers, I’ll be pleased – and genuinely grateful to them. To these ends, I feel I owe them a welcome. A good poem will be complex, no doubt, but that’s a different thing from complicated. Those who are willing to consider it shouldn’t be taxed to figure out the plain facts of its matter.

Back to the academy. One of the department elders – a man whom I greatly liked from those days up to his fairly recent death – was chairman at a critical juncture. He approached me one day and said, “People are starting to regard you pretty favorably around here, but you know the saying, publish or perish. I’m glad it didn’t apply when I was your age, but without some scholarship in print nowadays, you have very little chance of tenure.”

Okay, then… I liked where I lived. I particularly liked the landscape and that access to the old story-tellers, and since in those days one did not have to publish a book, but rather a few articles, to pass the publish-or-perish test, I thought, well, I’ll just take a chapter or two from my dissertation (a screed still incomprehensible, even to its author) and try to stick it somewhere.

Mind you, I had gotten lucky with my poetry pretty quickly. I’d put poems in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, The New Republic and a slew of high-end lit magazines. But however different things are now at Dartmouth, in those days publishing poetry was not “real” publishing; that my first collection was under contract cut no ice, then.

I took the dissertation over to my library carrel, opened it up, and felt as I sometimes have upon looking over a shear precipice. My head spun, my stomach knotted, and I uttered aloud, despite the fact that I was in my thirties: “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.”

I closed that dusted-over tome, vowing that I would go on writing poetry and let the chips fall where they might. I did not of course get tenure, but was fortunate enough as almost immediately to be hired by Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors had been fairly long established.

I now ponder that cri de coeur of mine, and I wonder why scholarship should not have appealed to me as something to do as a grown-up; why it couldn’t draw me more than it did or does. Understand, after all: nothing I say here is intended as an attack on scholarship. The contrary. I have benefitted enormously from other people’s labor in scholarly endeavor. It’s only that it isn’t for me.

Or not to the exclusion of other things. Oh, I have done a few genuinely scholarly articles since, copious annotation and all, and have even enjoyed doing them. But something always seems missing when I finish. It’s the missing something that’s provided by so-called creative writing, especially the writing of lyric, though I must struggle here and elsewhere to name that element.

For me, poetry is another mode of knowing the world, one that is different from the either/or, syllogistic one whereby people (myself included) generally conduct their business. Nothing wrong with that: if Shelley claimed poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, from what I’ve seen of them (myself included), it’s likely a good thing that their legislation does go largely unnoticed.

In any case, the lyrical approach is largely divorced from either/or, is in fact an approach well described, the way Carl Jung did in another context, as either/and/or –which is to say that it enables the writer (and ideally the reader) to see and feel from multiple angles simultaneously. To choose a hyper-obvious example, with the fairly recent birth of each of my grandchildren I have felt an indescribable surge of joy contemporaneously with numbing despond to imagine the world they may inhabit: over-heated, desperate for drinkable water, fratricidal, on and on.

It is this either/and/or quality, I believe, that John Keats famously called Negative Capability: the capacity to be  “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Any number of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and so on can exist in a poem at the same time, including ones like the above, which are evidently contradictory of one another. In these respects, poetry’s path to knowledge, more nearly than any other, seems the path my mind inclines to follow.

And of course there is again the matter of language. All those voices, old and new, anglophone and otherwise, that reverberate in my skull and, more importantly, in my heart. To abandon myself to what I called their rhythms and cadences, to let the words and phrases, as it were, bear me along like a tide to such enlightenment as I’ll ever have – that feels, and not just slightly, like a self-abandonment (allow me) to something divine.

— Sydney Lea

——————–

SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, will be out from U. of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in  April 2013,  his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).

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


Sep 052012
 

“I simply wrote stories whenever I got bushwhacked by inspiration and kept my fingers crossed in hopes that in the end they would somehow cohere…” — Steven Heighton

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“The writing life, like life in general, has a sacramental and a secretarial side,” Steven Heighton writes.  “As years pass and debts and duties accrue, the secretarial, clerical mode spreads like a lymphoma and starts to squeeze life from the sacramental, creative side.” Heighton’s own writing stands in defiance of this clerical mode. Prolific and diverse, he has published more than a dozen books, inlcuding collections of poetry, short stories and essays as well as four novels. He is a writer hell-bent on summoning the sacramental in his ever-expanding body of work, yet one dedicated and disciplined enough to sustain a steady output of consistently superior writing.

Heighton works and lives in Kingston, Ontario. His most recent book is a collection of short stories, The Dead Are More Visible (read my review at Numéro Cinq). In 2011, Heighton released Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing, a lively, eclectic gathering of aphorisms and memos about writing and art. I first encountered his work in the essay “The Admen Move on Lhasa”  (from a collection of essays with the same title). This essay remains one of the finest I’ve read on writing and the process of making art.

We exchanged a series of emails over the course of several weeks in preparation for this interview.  I confess to some initial nervousness. How often do we get to talk with the people whose work we truly admire?  But Heighton was both generous with his time and personable in our exchanges. He asked me about San Diego, about my family and my writing.  He confessed to a ‘minor’ bike accident which he described using the term cheese-grater in reference to the skin on right side of his body.  He talked about camping with his daughter, about finding a way to earn a living as a writer, about the blazing summer heat and the long, uncertain process of books being optioned to films. (Two of his novels have been optioned recently, Afterlands and Every Lost Country).

This sort of informal formality bleeds over into his writing as well. His stories are accessible but carefully crafted. They are filled with recognizable, often working class characters but written with a meticulous detail for language—a poet’s ear for melody combined with a prose writer’s eye for drama, a sort of genre-bending, cross-pollination of  W.S. Merwin and Raymond Carver, Ann Carson and Alice Munro.

Talking to Heighton, I feel myself in the presence of an affable high priest, a hardworking visionary whose polite chit chat is really just clearing the way for what he does best, which turns out to be two distinct things: both writing and talking about writing. The former is obvious; but the latter—the ability to articulate the process, to demystify the act of creativity, is a much rarer thing. Not every succesful and talented writer is able or willing to do this. At times, and especially in Workbook, it feels as if Heighton is lowering a rope ladder down from the Elysian fields and inviting others up. He offers no schmaltzy shortcuts, no write-your-novel-in-a-weekend workshops here. “Interest is never enough. If it doesn’t haunt you, you’ll never write it well. What haunts and obsesses you into writing may, with luck and labour, interest your readers. What merely interests you is sure to bore them.”  Haunted is a good word to describe his stories, poems and essays. To read Heighton is to intuit the effort that goes into the creation of something important and lasting. It is to “gape and loiter” in the sacramental, and all the while wonder what it means.

—Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell: Your latest collection of short stories, The Dead Are More Visible, contains eleven stories. Can you talk a bit about how long it took you to gather that collection?

Steven Heigthon: I wrote the eleven stories over a period of six years—2006 to the end of 2011—but during that time I also worked on other things: a novel, a book of poems, and a book of aphorisms & fragmentary essays.  I wrote a few other stories as well—stories that my editor, Amanda Lewis, suggested we cull from The Dead Are More Visible on the grounds that they didn’t fit the book tonally.  In the end I agreed with her.  I’m hoping those orphaned stories will fit into some future collection.

RF: Does making a collection of stories influence the way you write the individual stories? In other words, do you have a thematic sense of where the collection is going before you start, or do you cobble together the book after the stories are written?

SH: In the ’90s I published a book called Flight Paths of the Emperor—a collection of linked stories that use Japan as a point of thematic reference and departure.  At a certain point in that book’s making, I did start writing stories with a view to filling in thematic gaps, filling out a larger project.  Not so with The Dead Are More Visible.  I simply wrote stories whenever I got bushwhacked by inspiration and kept my fingers crossed in hopes that in the end they would somehow cohere, not in an overtly “linked” fashion but through loose tonal kinships imposed by my voice, my angle of vision, the particular mannerisms and mechanisms of my writing.

RF: In “A Right Like Yours,” a female boxer falls in love with her sparring partner.  I daresay it’s a love story with a happy ending.  I might make an argument that a few other stories in the book have happy endings, or at least resolutions that favor the protagonists. Are happy endings harder to write?

SH: Like any romantic, I have to keep an eye on myself.  I want to avoid lapsing into sentiment, avoid poeticizing or aestheticizing the world.  So I’ve trained myself to avoid positive endings, or at least prettified endings.  With “A Right Like Yours” I took a different approach.  I decided to tune out my captious, critical faculty and allow myself to end on a slightly sentimental note.  I’m glad I did.  It felt like a reprieve, a remission, for me as much as for the main character.  There’s a simple sweetness to her voice and I decided not to mute or undercut it at the end.

RF: By contrast, “Journeyman” and “Heart & Arrow” strike me both as particularly sad stories. I’m wondering if the process is different for you.

SH: The female boxer in “A Right Like Yours” is very young.  Like anyone, she has experienced a certain amount of loss, but not nearly to the extent that a middle-aged person has.  The protagonists of “Journeyman” and “Heart & Arrow” are, respectively, in late and early middle-age—and the tone and point of view of those stories are, in contrast to “A Right Like Yours,” retrospective, elegiac.  They’re stories about loss and how we decide what to do with it.  But does the writing process differ—is writing a comedy (“comedy” in the classical sense: a story that ends with a wedding instead of a funeral) fundamentally different from writing tragedy?  It’s a good question.  I guess I’d have to say the process doesn’t differ, if only because the technical demands of writing a story are always the same: keeping it tight, choosing the right words so that each word resounds forward and backward through the text, nailing each physical detail, somehow defibrillating those characters who won’t come to life.

But on second thought: in a “comedy” you can get away with caricatured secondary characters, which makes the process of creation a touch less demanding, and maybe you can also have a bit more fun in writing certain scenes, certain passages of dialogue.  But it’s still going to be hard to get the thing right and fictionally true.

RF: Do you ever abandon stories?  If so, do those stories haunt you or do you let them go?

SH: I do abandon stories.  Do they haunt me after the fact?  Rarely.  They failed because their material didn’t haunt and obsess me enough during the process of composition.  They failed because they lacked the power to haunt in the first place.  So I move on to new work and forget them.

But the essence of one jettisoned story stayed with me for years.  Around 1992 I started something I called “Nearing the Sea, Superior” and over several drafts it bloated up to thirty pages, and I kept adding more, trying to make it work—like an engineer trying to fix a flying machine that’s too heavy to fly by adding more and more heavy parts.  In the end I threw up my hands.  Then, a few years ago, I thought I’d take another run at the basic narrative concept—or what I remembered of it.  So I searched for a print-out of the original version.  Couldn’t find it, and I believe that was a lucky break, because if I’d read that original I might have mined it for a few good details, or lazily used the whole story as a platform for the new version and its protagonist.  Instead, I had to take a fresh run at the whole thing.  It’s just ten pages long now and, published in The Dead Are More Visible, I think it finally works.

RF: You write novels, stories, poems, essays, and reviews.  Do you write all these forms during the same period or do you compartmentalize your writing brains?

SH: During the same period, yes, but usually not on the same day.  If the things I’m working on are alive, molten, inclined to flow toward their natural culmination, I can walk away and write something different for a week—say, a review for which I have a deadline—then return to the abandoned thing and, within an hour or two, be back inside the vortex.  Partly it’s a matter of sheer curiosity.  I never know how my poems or stories will end—I want to write toward my endings with the same interest and excitement I hope readers will feel, reading toward them—so my curiosity about where things will end up helps draw me back into whatever I’m writing.

RF: I recently completed your novel Afterlands, which was terrific. In many ways, it felt like a 400 page poem, yet it was fully articulated as a dramatic story too. Are you a poet who writes novels or a novelist who writes poems? 

SH: I think of myself as a writer who channels his narrative impulses into fiction and lyrical impulses into poetry—I don’t write typical “poet’s novels” and I don’t write narrative poetry—but there’s definitely some spillover on the level of language.  The thing is, poets like me who also write fiction are saddled with a sensitivity to verbal acoustics.  They can’t help lugging their poet’s tool belt into the atelier where they build their stories.  So, unlike pure fiction writers, who work stylistically at the level of the sentence, the poet/fiction writer works at the level of the word, even the syllableWorse, they habitually, helplessly use poetry’s staple technique, re-enactive writing (i.e., the orchestration of verbal rhythm, sound, level of diction, punctuation etc. so that the writing embodies and becomes the action or sensation being described).  Bummer.  There are ten thousand syllables in the average story and a few hundred thousand in the average novel.

Come to think of it, one of the reasons I’m more and more drawn to narratives that involve physical action and overt dramatic momentum—as with Afterlands—is because I’m hoping those traits will balance the prosodic density of the writing.  I don’t want to create 400-page blocks of static, preeningly poetic prose.  I’m not writing “re-enactively” to show off—I’m just trying to make my narratives more vivid and vital.  So, yes, the poetry is there, but in service to the narrative and the characters.

RF: Is there a style (genre) of writing that feels most natural to you? 

SH: Depends on the day.  Honestly.  Some days I’m a poet, pure and simple.  Other days I want to tell a story.

RF: A friend of mine recently told me that she often tries to quietly do ‘beautiful things as an act of defiance.”  You quote a Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, who says, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” You’ve indicated that you see the making of art as a defiant or subversive act. Could you expound a bit on this?

SH: Making something slowly and conscientiously, the way you have to build a poem, story or novel, is subversive in the context of a hyperkinetic culture that promotes haste and speciousness—speed and loudness over slowness and quiet, surface over substance.  On the other hand, as that second quote suggests, Nhat Hahn extols the importance of sometimes doing no work at all—or at least no material, external work.  He too wants people to defy our culture’s manic forward momentum, but by simply sitting, breathing and smiling—“being”—rather than getting too caught up in doing and achieving.

RF: In Workbook you write, “If it doesn’t haunt you, you’ll never write it well.”  Do you remember the moment when you first felt haunted? 

SH: The truth is I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel haunted—haunted in the sense of inspired to try to make meaningful things: first drawings and paintings, then poems and stories, and for a while, in my last year of high school and throughout my twenties, songs.

An interesting point about the songwriting.  I’ve probably written about a hundred songs and they’re all bad or mediocre except for one, which is pretty good.  One good song in three decades.  At this rate I’ll have a solid album in about three hundred years.

RF: You bang the drum loudly for the purity of art, for art as a haven apart from the corrupting influences of capitalism and advertising, schlock. But how do you encourage a young writer starting out, who has to pay the bills and feed the kids? How do you advise her or him to stay true to this calling?

SH: Cultivate low material aspirations; you’re going to need them.  Remember you can live on a lot less money than consumer culture would have you believe.  Abolish all bourgeois vanities about the source and branding of your clothes and other stuff; you can dress yourself decently at a thrift store.  Try to find jobs that leave you time to write, real time, three to five hours a day (waiting on tables at night is perfect: decent and quick money, good exercise, and your days stay free).  Don’t marry anyone who cares a lot about material comforts and possessions, or who has high ambitions for you.  Never marry anyone who doesn’t see your calling as worth a lifetime of effort—and deep down, you know how he or she feels.

[Sheepish addendum: If you have a strong enough constitution, you can produce a stream of books by writing, say, from five to eight every morning before going out to earn a conventional nine-to-five living.  I doubt I could do it—manage a tandem twelve-fourteen hour workday on five or six hours’ sleep a night, and with no idling time—but there are people who can.  Famously, Laurence Durrell wrote The Alexandria Quartet on the small-hours shift (and I mean small hours—he got up and started writing at three a.m.) before going off to teach schoolchildren.  He also managed to make time in that crushing schedule for committed boozing.  Stephen Henighan (people are always mixing up our names) is a tenured academic and works on his fiction and non-fiction books in the very early morning, every morning, before going off to teach at the University of Guelph.  So that approach is an option for the athletic, the heroic, or persons of Paleolithic toughness.]

RF: I’ve been travelling a bit this summer, and I pay attention to what people are reading.  And people are still reading, but sadly, it seems like many people are reading the same few books.  (This summer, in particular, it seems the majority of people I’ve seen buried in a book were reading Fifty Shades of Gray.)  In Workbook you call lazy readers narcissists.  Do you suppose there’s any redeeming value in such group think?  From reading anything as opposed to just watching television?

SH: It’s a great question.  I guess I’ll say that reading is always different, less passive than TV, more interactive, collaborative, even if you’re reading trafe.  And who can blame people for reading trafe?  We’re all stressed and scared, one way or another.  I fully understand why most readers would prefer an unchallenging, escapist book to The Golden Bowl.  (Actually, I think I might find the Shades of Gray series an enormous challenge—which is my way of admitting I haven’t read a word and shouldn’t be commenting on it.)

To get back to that quotation from Workbook.  It was part of a three-part “memo” in a section called “On Reading.”  I argued in the first part that “Lazy readers are unwilling or unable to empathize with characters different from themselves.  Seeking some kind of personal corroboration, they want to read about versions of themselves.”  I added that lazy readers are unable to love a work of fiction—or even respect it—if they don’t love the protagonist.  Hence my charge of narcissism.  I could as easily have accused lazy readers of a failure of empathy, a narrowness of sympathy.

In your question I think you’re addressing a different kind of laziness: the simple need for escape and diversion, which we all share to some extent.  Frankly, escapist readers don’t bother me compared to those readers who think of themselves as literary but nevertheless read in the narcissistic way I describe in Workbook.  They want to have it both ways.  They want to associate themselves with books that look and smellliterary—just as they want to have jazz records, modern paintings, and a decent wine cellar in their home—but they don’t want to read things that actually confront, wobble, even upend their tidy haute-bourgeois vision.

RF: I would use the word prolific to describe you as a writer and the oeuvre of your work.  Could you talk about diligence and persistence in terms of your success as a writer?

SH: The prospect of the poorhouse—of failing to support myself and my daughter, then ending up in a rooming house eating Puss ‘n Boots—is a potent creative motivator.  I simply lack the luxury of suffering from writer’s block.

RF: In “Heart & Arrow” (which is an absolutely heartbreaking story, lovely, true, haunted), you play with memory as a structural device in the story. The themes of faulty memory appear in Afterlands as well. How important are your memories, both of the real and of the literary variety?

SH: Flannery O’Connor once said (roughly: I’m going on memory here, speaking of memory) that anyone who has reached the age of twelve has enough material to fuel a lifetime of writing.  I doubt I was nearly as attentive a child as O’Connor, so probably I didn’t hit that threshold until twenty or so, but I think the point is essentially right.  I know that if I concentrate now and revisit some part of my life I haven’t thought of for a while, I’ll quickly locate riches—not because my life has been exceptionally rich in experience or adventure, but because significant stuff is happening to all of us, all the time.

A key thing about the memories we draw on is that time and compound mental revisions have corrupted them—and that’s a good thing for a fiction writer.  I travelled through Tibet in 1986 but didn’t start writing about it till twenty years later (in my novel Every Lost Country).  Friends asked if I planned to go back, revisit the country, do some on-site research, and I told them no, I couldn’t bear to see how the Chinese occupation had changed Tibet.  My rationale was only true to a point.  Mainly, I didn’t want my contaminated memories of the place and people to be jarred, readjusted by reality.  I was embarking on a novel, not a non-fiction project, and for better or worse the Tibet of my book had to be my version and vision of the place.

RF: You are going to be marooned for the rest of your life on a desert island. You can only take 1 book.  What will you take?

SH: You’re not going to let me take a big fat anthology, right?  Or the collected works of Shakespeare?  Or Proust’s magnum opus, which is really a number of books, a roman fleuve?  Fair enough.  You want to make it hard for me.  I get just one book.  So let me spend the next year or two pinning down an answer, because that’s how long it’s going to take me to narrow my longlist of seventy or eighty favourites.

RF: What are you working on now?

SH: For the past year I’ve been working on new poems and stories.  Last month I finally got started on a novel, as I have to, since realistically the novel is the only form that can put bread on the table.  I think I’ve just finished the first chapter.  Now I’ll turn my back on it and work on other things for a few days.  When I return to that opening it will either hook me, haul me in and surprise me, in a good way, or leave me cold.  If I detect no vital signs, I won’t go on tinkering endlessly the way I used to—a process I now compare to doing chest compressions on an Inca mummy. Nowadays, I just tag the toe and start over.

Thanks for your careful reading and your questions.

— Steven Heighton & Richard Farrell

 ——————

Steven Heighton is the author of the novel Afterlands, which has appeared in six countries; was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a best book of the year selection in ten publications in Canada, the US, and the UK; and has been optioned for film.  His first novel, The Shadow Boxer, was a Canadian bestseller and a Publishers’ Weekly book of the year for 2002.  Heighton’s fiction and poetry are translated into ten languages; have appeared in London Review of Books, Poetry, Tin House, Brick, London Magazine, TLR, Agni, Numéro Cinq, and Revue Europe; have been internationally anthologised (Best English Stories, Best American Poetry, The Minerva Book of Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, Modern Canadian Poets); and have been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.  He has received the Gerald Lampert Prize, the P.K. Page Award, and four gold National Magazine Awards for fiction.  He writes occasional  reviews for the New York Times Book Review and in 2013 will be the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence at McGill University.

*Author photo credits: Mary Huggard & Michale Lea

 

 

Sep 032012
 

With a Heighton story, only the essential is conjured. There’s an efficiency in his writing, along with a sign posted at the door: No shaggy dogs allowed. But to call a writer efficient these days might imply some mechanical coldness—the latest anointed hipster, brimming with pocketfuls of detached irony and urbane wit. Heighton’s efficiency, however, is anything but sparing. His prose is lush, melodic and carefully cadenced. —Richard Farrell

The Dead Are More Visible (Stories)
By Steven Heighton
Alfred A. Knopf, Canada
ISBN 978-0-307-39741-6

“The virtue of good prose,” writes Steven Heighton in Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing, his meditative collection of aphorisms and memos on art and writing published in 2011, “lies mainly in this dishabituation: it triggers conceptual stammers in the mind, momentarily rerouting hard-set neural circuits, even laying the ground for new ones.” These conceptual stammers, echoes of what the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky called defamiliarizaton, lie at the center of Heighton’s latest collection of stories, The Dead Are More Visible.

From wrathful lesbians to lonely widows, from aging track stars to angsty teen-agers, Heighton pulls off a literary hat trick: he tells spellbinding stories in aching, melodic voices that demand to be read again and again. A female boxer falls in love with her sparring partner; a heroic fireman rushes back into a burning building to rescue a bag of snakes; a recovering drug addict wanders the Sonoran Desert pursued by a mythical, oxycontin peddling hallucination; these are just some of the stammering citizens of Heighton’s fictional universe.

Heighton is a prolific novelist, essayist and poet. With a dozen books already published, it should come as no surprise that his short stories resist easy labels. In his fiction, Heighton interrogates the liminal borderlands of prose and poetry, walking the fine line between lyrical richness and good old-fashioned yarns. Yet never do the intricate textures of his language get in the way of clear-minded, narrative straight-forwardness, a linearity born not of simplistic formulas but out of a long and careful examination of form and structure.

The Dead Are More Visible contains sad stories with happy endings, simple stories with complex themes, and ineffable mysteries of being told from the perspective and language of common folk.

One of the more heartbreaking stories in this collection is “Heart & Arrow,” a twenty-four page, third person story that hinges on the fallibility of memory. On the occasion of his sister’s fortieth birthday party, Merrick thinks back to when he was ten and he would drink alone in his parents’ long-neglected basement bar. He remembers the loneliness of that bar with its “kidney-shaped counter of faux marble with a brown buttoned vinyl fronting, set at the head of a low, half-finished rec room.” His parents drink upstairs and his sister, Laurel, is almost always out with her friends. Desperately isolated, Merrick tries to act grown up by mimicking them. He wants to recreate an imaginary social life with booze and stale mixers. Instead, he creates his own personal hell.

And now he reminds her of that ironic reversal, to encourage her, he thinks, to cheer her up. Or is it to punish her instead? And what is it that’s pushing him to guide her back down that long-demolished stairway into their childhood rec room, the basement bar where he first tried to drown his childhood self and play the hardened, hard-drinking grown-up, while she already seemed set to inherit the only earth that mattered then: a feral frontier of contraband mickeys and smokes, death’s head roach clips, classes skipped with a shrug, creatively varied expletives, first lays in junior high. Stoners, they were called, nobody sure if that honorific referred to the state they were always said to be in or to the flooded limestone quarry where they hung out and smoked up and chugged beer and threw themselves naked off the cliffs.

Condensed into a series of tangible objects imperfectly recalled, this paragraph works like a narrative map. Every image counts. The rec room and dope, the cliffs and quarry, the drinking, sex, and partying—none of these are throwaways. Neither is the reliability of memory itself. Like Chekhov’s gun, each image carries weight. All repeat again and again throughout the pages that follow, forming rich and complex visual and acoustic layers which grow and harmonize as the story progresses. Heighton is thrumming along, patterning images and splintering them off only to bring them back. And the reader is lost in a wonderful miasma of sight and sound, fully captivated and awake.

With a Heighton story, only the essential is conjured. There’s an efficiency in his writing, along with a sign posted at the door: No shaggy dogs allowed. But to call a writer efficient these days might imply some mechanical coldness—the latest anointed hipster, brimming with pocketfuls of detached irony and urbane wit. Heighton’s efficiency, however, is anything but sparing. His prose is lush, melodic and carefully cadenced. Note the alliteration in the above passage, the internal rhymes and the precise pacing of Merrick’s memory of his sister’s social life: “a feral frontier of contraband mickeys and smokes, death’s head roach clips, classes skipped with a shrug, creatively varied expletives, first lays in junior high.” Yet the musical quality of the words balances with abundant, honest and empathetic characters. The stories in The Dead Are More Visible operate with the efficiency of nature, like the recycling of energy and matter in ecosystems, a churning, vital antidote to the sleek, mechanistic packaging of our entertainment culture.

She came from a side of town where most women thickened dramatically in their thirties and before long outweighed their men. The men thinned to sinew, their faces got a wrinkled, redly scoured look as if the skin had been worked with sandpaper, their eyes grew raw and haunted. Ellen had been spared the puffy moon face of her older sisters, only to see her features grow meaty and masculine while her body consolidated, almost doubling itself, like a hard-working farm wife of another era.

In “The Dead Are More Visible,” the lonely Ellen works the night shift, flooding a local park in order to form an ice skating rink. Nearby, a deranged man stares at a twenty-five foot obelisk and channels the dead—once buried there but moved to make way for the park. One night, a menacing group of three men approach. “They had the Grim Reaper look—slumpy, faceless, in layers of dark, baggy hooded sweatshirts.” The men begin to harass, first the deranged man, then Ellen. One of them, Shane, is strikingly handsome, something that Ellen notices in spite of the danger. He casts insults and threats, but she stands her ground. They want to rob her, possibly rape her, and she knows it, but she continues to provoke them. When Shane lunges at her with ice picks, Ellen defends herself with the only weapon available, the hose head in her hand, “a half foot of steel tapered to a flanged hole an inch and a half in diameter.” Ellen impales Shane with the hose head, and rips out his eye. The rest of the story becomes a farcical search for the de-socketed eyeball on the ice rink.

But what happens after such a violent set up is quite remarkable, and I’ll not spoil the ending, except to say that a simple compassion returns to offset the gore. Along the way, Heighton reveals the hardscrabble reality of life in a modern big city, invites the reader to experience a lonely woman’s heroic stance, and, just for good measure, he treats us to the strange, quasi-mystical figure of the deranged man and the obelisk.

It is this deranged man, a seemingly irrelevant character (he has no agency, really, on the page) who serves as the story’s deeper consciousness. “The dead are more visible than we are,” the deranged man tells Ellen, referring not just to the literal dead—the displaced graves once buried below the park—but also to our own existences run down by mortality, progress and the inevitable sweep of time. His voice provides the story its chilling resonance. The reader perceives that this story is about more than just violence and a lonely woman flooding an ice rink. In Workbook, Heighton describes this layering effect as vertical resonance.

Vertical resonance means a downward echoing, the potential for soundings into a textual subconscious, the swimmer’s thrilling sense, when crossing a mountain lake, of unmeasured depths in the dark below the thermocline.

Like the swimmer crossing the lake, we feel only the forward narrative movement, the stroke-and-kick, what-happens-next stimulus of plot. But what differentiates literature from schlock is precisely this deeper, textual subconsciousness. We read along and enjoy the surface story, but something else is happening. The reader slowly becomes aware of a chilling depth, an awareness of the gap between the habituated, day-to-day routines and the deeper, more meaningful qualities of life. The well written story bewitches us this way, deriving power from its ability to wake us up, to shake us out of an automated existence. Or, as Shklovsky once wrote, it makes the stones feel stony again. When it works, and it works quite often within Heighton’s stories, we submit to what John Gardner described as the vivid continuous dream, that phantasmagorical wonder that is reading a well made book. Plot becomes story. Metaphor becomes meaning. We become, in Heighton’s own words, more intensely alive.

Perhaps Heighton’s greatest gift as a writer is a relentless commitment to variety. His readers need never fear boredom. In the collection’s eleven stories, Heighton employs first, second and third person points of view. He has female and male narrators, old and young, innocent and experienced. From sprawling, almost-novella length tales to compact, twelve page stories, Heighton shifts often. Don’t look for thematic unity here. Don’t look for simple structures or stereotypes. Instead, expect to be pulled and pushed in ways that will baffle and befuddle but never fail to satisfy.

The last story in the book, “Swallow,” swells to almost 50 pages, yet it reads—thanks to tight pacing and careful construction—like a story half that length. A Greek-Canadian woman, Roddy, breaks up with her boyfriend, loses her waitressing job and refuses to move home again. To earn money, she signs up for a weeklong human drug trial. The drug she will be taking is an unnamed sedative.

The clinic is a hangar-like structure, cinderblocks and green corrugated siding, on the edge of an industrial park in the wind-scavenged steppes of outer Scarborough. At the park’s entrance the bus drops you along with two women in matching peach parkas over grey sweats. A sunny sub-arctic afternoon. No sidewalks. Snowless lawns hard as Astroturf. Up the middle of the road the matched pals tow dark, wheeled suitcases as big as wolfhounds. You have only a daypack, yet they edge ahead, their trainers flashing, heads down, shoulders high and tight—the slapstick, puffin shuffle of Canadians in winter. You don’t mind the wind’s bee-sting assault on your skin. You haven’t felt so awake in weeks. Neither do you mind the industrial park, finding something here that mirrors your inert inner world, so that for now—for a change—you don’t feel out of place.

Suburban Ontario transforms into a kind of wasteland, yet somehow stays homey too. The puffin shuffle, peach parkas, the wheeled suitcases like wolfhounds, these details accrete. What should be cold and arresting becomes an object of curiosity. The reader, while filled with trepidation, is also called forward.

Bleak and dismal, with drug trials and female subjects locked inside a forbidding building, it’s reasonable to expect Solzhenitsyn, or at least some sort of Orwellian dystopia. But in “Swallow” the mood remains more tantalizing than terrifying. Through a series of drug-induced scenes, we grow closer to Roddy. (The use of a second person narrator is rarely done this well.) We come to feel a community forming between the other women and the providers in this strange place. A sort of humanity arises despite the setting and the fact that these women are being poked and prodded and filled with poisons.

Once again, the conceptual stammers begin to fire. Heighton plays against the expected. Rather than sedating, the experimental sedatives become portals into Roddy’s world. The grim setting and the unusual concept create opportunities for a rich, meaningful experience. It is, in many ways, a sort of cockeyed celebration, a party of misfits who seem somehow enlarged by their very entanglement. This is not what the reader might expect.

But then each of the eleven stories in this collection surprises and delights. Heighton blends structural complexities with a linguistic opulence into a dazzling array of styles. The Dead Are More Visible is a master performance of art and storytelling from a significant writer who has honed his skills to a sharp edge. “[A] yen for transcendence,” Heighton advises himself in Workbook, calling upon the younger writer he once was (and, perhaps, by extension, other writers and readers) “to surmount one’s inborn pettiness and laziness, to be worthy of life’s wonder and better able to frame it in the right words, rightly arranged.” Thankfully, he follows his own advice. The dead are indeed more visible here. The right words are rightly arranged. With neural circuits rewired, habitual concepts stammered, deep lakes crossed and soundings taken, the reader surmounts pettiness and gazes anew at life’s wonder.

—Richard Farrell

——————————————————————

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

Aug 302012
 

Herewith a gorgeous, poignant story about love, loss and translation, about the strange world in which we find ourselves today, a world of exiles, guest workers, refugees, immigrants, and fractured cultures — we all leave home, it seems, but what of identity and love? Christy Ann Conlin is an old friend, dating from when I first read her wonderful first novel, Heave, when I sat on the Governor-General’s Award jury in 2002. I hadn’t met Christy Ann yet, but I was friends with her writing. Later, I put one of her stories in Best Canadian Stories when I edited that estimable annual anthology. Her fiction has lilt, it has swing, and it has heart. Nothing else like it.

dg

 —–

Wiedervereinigung, the German teacher said. Viola knew the Chinese student named Henry would translate just as he had since starting the class two weeks ago, always trying to help, but she already knew the word. It was impossible to be in Germany and not know. The teacher, a plump middle-aged woman, told them the fourth anniversary was approaching and she went around the circle and made them repeat, stretching their lips, raising their eyebrows, as though they were warming up for an opera.

Wie-der-ver-ei-ni-gung.

 “This means reunification,” Henry said looking at Viola from across the table. In perfect English. With an accent just like hers. His eyes found hers and she blushed. His smile soft and careful.

“I know what it means,” she replied in halting German, her eyes closing.  The Berlin Wall had come down four years ago.

Die Berliner Mauer, Viola said slowly. Apparently Henry interpreted this as confusion. “The wall,” he said in his remarkable English, as though he’d grown up down the road from her. “The Berlin Wall.” He stretched his arms out, as though showing her how big it was in case she thought it was a fence for goats like the one on the small salt water farm on Campobello Island, near her parent’s house, the farm where Nolen now was, without her, of course. The teacher clucked and reminded them to speak German. Henry smiled at Viola again as Fiona from Australia giggled as though they were still teenagers.

It was a small class in a small language school in the centre of Frankfurt, Im Zentrum, as the Germans said. Viola had been in the German class for three months. She took the train in every weekday from the small town she lived in with Ralf who she’d met on a trip she’d taken to Vietnam after finishing her history degree. When she spoke German at home Ralf would stroke her hair and say: “You are like a kitchen appliance, macerating every syllable. It’s very cute, Schatzie. You sound like a Turk.”

The director had brought in the new Chinese students that Monday morning. The director was an old German hippie, always winking and telling Viola to eat muesli. During introductions Fiona said Henry had smiled instantly when Viola said she was twenty-three and from Campobello Island.  Viola hadn’t noticed–she often shut her eyes when she spoke German, and thought of home. Henry was from Beijing. He had been in Frankfurt for one month. He was thirty-one years old.

Every Monday they began with a new expression or word they had learned on the weekend. This class, Viola offered Heimweh. Fiona had told her on coffee break that Henry had nodded when she said she missed Canada.

“Homesick,” he said, nodding as though he could see the sea urchins and shells she saw behind her eyelids. Viola squinted thinking his name couldn’t actually be Henry. It wasn’t Chinese.  He told her later it was a name he had taken for Westerners.  His real name was Sun He Peng.

On coffee break Henry was talking with the other two Chinese men as she walked by.  Henry smiled and looked down at his feet and then back at her. He was tall. He’d laughed later when she said she thought Chinese men were all short. He told her he used to think Caucasians wore sunglasses so their eyes wouldn’t change colour in the sun. “I didn’t know the colour of your eyes at first,” he said. “Your eyes were always closed when you were speaking. They are green like the ocean.”

Henry had worked at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. He’d worked at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa for one year, part of his training. He’d perfected his English there.

“A translator?” Viola asked.

He smiled back. “A diplomat. At first I thought you didn’t understand the language. You are just shy. Forgive me.”

Viola laughed and closed her eyes and her cheeks were suddenly hot.

§

After class Fiona had proclaimed them a mini UN.  Fiona was an accountant from Sydney and she was living here with her fiancé, Helmut, a banker she’d met at a conference. He had a telescope. They were going to Australia soon to get married.

There was a young couple from Turkey, Gastarbeiter, guest workers doing industrial work there weren’t enough Germans for. They never stayed after class. Sixteen-year old Farzad from Tehran who mourned the fall of the Shah and with his large aqua eyes followed the every move of Kwan-Sun, seventeen and from Korea, a nanny for a wealthy German family. Padma was from Bombay, her husband an English investment banker. It was the second time they’d been married to each other and she anticipated another divorce and possibly a third marriage. They were made for each other, she said, but only incrementally. Padma laughed what Fiona called a deep curried laugh. It was Padma who said the Chinese were refugees. “The riots, you know, the massacre,” she whispered.

And there was Lucien from Burkina Faso, married to a German historian. He and his wife Helga spoke French together, he had told the class. They’d married in Ouagadougou, and now she had a position at the university in Frankfurt. Helga’s last name was von Feldenburg. In the olden days von was a sign of nobility, Lucien stated.

Yes, their teacher had nodded, but German nobility ended with the abolition of the monarchy in 1919.

Ja ja,” Lucien had said, leaning back in his chair, his eyes sparkling and his skin like espresso against the creamy white wall. “But abolition does not mean the old ideas disappear. Ce n’est jamais si facile que ça, mes amis.” He looked at the teacher and then at Viola and winked.  “Ja,” she said, eyes closing and in her mind sitting with Noel on the back porch of his family farm house that had come down five generations to him. They ate chèvre with sun dried tomatoes on homemade brown bread. Don’t go to Saigon, Nolen said, looking out over the beach, crying so quietly. Stay here and marry me. We’ll run your parents’ inn and my family farm, do the summer market for the tourists, go sailing on Saturday afternoons.

§

Henry would always come to the park after class with the others who would scatter to benches in the late October sun. He sat by the fountain with Viola. She told him she was living with Ralf, that they’d met in Saigon where she’d gone after graduating from university with what Ralf called a useless degree. She’d left Campobello because it as an island, there was nothing there.  But her voice had caught then and Henry had nodded his beautiful head, knowing there were some things there. Ralf was a software engineer. He’d been married once before and had a daughter the same age as Viola. She lived in New York and would call sometimes, usually hanging up if Viola answered.  I don’t recognize you, the daughter said once. You are just one more. Don’t think you are the only one even now. Ralf would say his daughter was jealous. She was insecure. She refused to grow up. Ralf was doing research on using the internet for telephone calls. It was the way of the future, he said. He travelled frequently so Viola was studying German, something to keep her busy. She had no work papers, no official status.

Henry smiled.  “I have a great affinity for Canadians. They’ve been very kind to me.”

Viola told him the Canadian Embassy in Saigon had closed up shop in the night and fled just before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. The Vietnamese who’d worked for the Canadians found an abandoned building in the morning.  “That wasn’t very kind,” she said, looking at the sky.

Henry nodded and sipped his coffee. “Viola, no one puts their best foot forward when the army is advancing. Things did not go as Ho Chi Minh planned. He was hopeful after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in the first Indochina War. But the negotiations at the Geneva Conference in 1954 were not what Ho wanted. Zhou Enlai was the Chinese diplomat involved in these negotiations, assisting the Viet Minh. Zhou Enlai was brilliant. ”

Viola nodded.  “Is he why you became a diplomat?”

Henry laughed and his coffee spilled on the ground.  “Oh, Viola, I was selected and told I would be a diplomat, and like Zhou Enlai, my job would be to think of my people. You know, over a million Chinese died in the Korean Conflict.”

“I can’t imagine so many people,” Viola said, watching the coffee trickle through the dirt.

He closed his eyes. “Zhou’s main concern was keeping the Americans away. A permanent partition of the Vietnamese Peninsula suited China.” Henry paused and then, opened his eyes and looked at the pigeons. “The freedom of my people suited me.”

Viola slapped the coffee puddle with the toe of her shoe and Henry looked at her. “We have a saying: The general sees with only one eye, the diplomat with both. War may be the domain of soldiers but resolutions are always the purview of diplomats.” Henry smiled. “Uncle Ho discovered that even hope must be negotiated.  But Vietnam was his home and he would not abandon it after he had returned after so many years in exile.”

Viola slapped the trickle of coffee again.  “There is an American photojournalist buried on Campobello Island.  He died on a helicopter that was shot down near Danang. He was twenty-nine. He had a baby boy who never knew him and puts flowers on his grave every Sunday afternoon even when it’s snowing.  He’ll never know his dad but he tries.  He’ll never leave that land.” She squeezed her eyes so she wouldn’t cry.

Henry took her hand.  “In China we prayed to our ancestors. The old ways are slow to pass. My father was sad when I went to Beijing. He said to complete the circle of life one must bury one’s father.  I laughed at him, Viola, but I laughed less as I grew older. It is our history with the people we love that binds us together. Being close to the graves of the dead has life in it even if you cannot see this.” He took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and cheeks, and kept holding her hand.

She moved closer to him and he put his arm around her. “Nolen puts silk flowers there in the winter, not real ones because they’d freeze.”  She could feel his body shaking as he laughed, and then she laughed too and felt a lightness then, as she had the first time Nolen had given her daisies when they were fifteen.

After lunch they would walk to the subway, the U-Bahn. It was always Fiona, Viola and Farzad who would walk together but these days Farzad and Kwan-Sun had been walking away in the other direction holding hands.  Henry began to wait and walk with Fiona and Viola. He and Fiona would board the train on the left and Viola would take the one on the right to the Hauptbahnhoff , the main train station, taking the S-Bahn, a commuter train to Darmstadt, back to the empty apartment to wait for Ralf. On Fridays, some of the students would lunch at a cheap Yugoslavian restaurant near the school and Henry started to come along with them.

Ralf would be home on the weekends and they’d eat and then ride his motorcycle through the countryside. He knew she was homesick and hoped it would cure her. He would take her to ancient castles in the hills and as they’d climb the turrets he’d tousle her hair and tell her she was beautiful.

Ralf never approved of her housekeeping.  He’d unpack his suitcase and then vacuum. It wasn’t a criticism; it was how he relaxed. You had to stay on top of the dust, he’d comment.  And then he’d tie her to the bed and take a feather duster to her, from her toes, up her legs, over her breasts, her face, feathers soft on her eyelashes. And he’d be packing again on a Sunday evening, gone, before she awoke alone.

§

The day she went back to Henry’s apartment they’d been swarmed by an army of pigeons in the park.  The pigeons of Frankfurt were nasty creatures and knew no discretion. They didn’t wait quietly for crumbs but hopped and leapt about in a frenzy, even the maimed birds, creatures with one eye, one leg, bald birds.

She wondered about how they got their injuries but Henry had laughed.  “What is significant is that they survive them.”  He joked they were ancestors of war birds–while the bombed-flattened zentrum of Frankfurt might be nothing more than a replica, the pigeons carried the DNA of the survivors. They would survive an apocalypse now. There were pigeons in China, he told her. But having pets was now considered bourgeois. “They are not in the parks like this,” he said.

Henry always wanted more stories of Campobello Island, and she told him it was near Maine, near Passamaquoddy Bay—it was easier to talk about the geography. Her hands fluttered in front of her face, in front of her breasts, up over her head, as she drew him a map in the air. She told him of Nolen and the goats, and the summer market where they worked together, how Nolen had wanted to marry her.  “He thinks if his father had been a farmer and not a combat photographer, he wouldn’t have died, if he had done what his parents wanted. I went away to university but I came home every holiday, every summer. The autumn after I graduated I went to Saigon. I went because I saw his father’s photos. They spoke to me. Nolen said I’d never come back. And I didn’t. The island felt as though it was growing smaller everyday.” Viola asked Henry why he was in Frankfurt. He was so easy to talk to and yet shared so little. He’d been at Tiananmen Square, he told her in a matter-of-fact voice, as he watched the pigeons. He’d been in prison and then under house arrest. The Canadians had negotiated on his behalf, for his safety. His voice became very soft and she had to bend her head close to hear. His father had died during that time.

Could he ever go back, Viola asked, holding her hands up.  His eyes followed her fingers as though they were wings in the sky and he reached for them, clasping her cold hands in his as he told her, no, he did not foresee that. And he put his hands on his lap, still holding hers.  I can see nothing yet in the tea leaves, he’d smiled at her. He wanted to know again about Campobello and she told him of the beaches, Theodore Roosevelt’s summer place that was now part of a park. Viola’s family home was now an inn. Her father was ill, Alzheimer’s.  He would have to be institutionalized. It was easier to be away, she said.  Henry had nodded.  It is nice you have a choice, Viola.  She’d closed her eyes then but there was no judgment in his voice and he had held her hand tighter.

The refugee camp was not what she’d seen in the news, tents and jeeps and aid workers dolling out bowls of rice. Henry laughed.  Housing was perhaps a better word than camp, saying her island view of the world was charming. She’d smiled. They had not discussed that she would come with him. It was a Friday but Ralf was away until Saturday evening. After lunch, they walked to the subway. Fiona got off at her stop, winking at Viola as the doors closed.  And they’d carried on until his stop. The door opened and he’d held out his hand.

It was a tall generic building. Henry and the two other Chinese classmates shared the small, tidy apartment.  Two bedrooms with one of them sleeping in the living room. The roommates had not been in class, away for the weekend, Henry said. Viola did not ask where.

Henry led her by the hand to a little bedroom with a mattress on the floor and a tiny table beside the bed, on it a photo of a smiling young Chinese woman holding a baby, and beside it, a black and white picture of a young boy and his father and mother, standing by a cow. Henry turned to Viola and took her face between his hands and kissed her, sucking her breath inside of him, her fingers all over his flesh, mapping her way to him. They made love on the thin mattress, his long hard body pressed down and in on hers, spreading over her as the shadow from a tree would.  Henry was silent and when she cried out he covered her lips with his mouth.

He had asked her, after, as they lay there drinking tea, if she would stay and marry Ralf. Or if she would go home to her young man with the flowers. Frankfurt was not a city for her, he said. There were no beaches. “As the Germans say, Zu Hause ist es am Besten,” he said with a smile. The late afternoon sun tunneled in through the small window.  No place like home, he said.

Henry told Viola they’d said his wife and daughter would be safe but only on the condition that he go into exile without them. It was the Canadian Embassy who’d arranged things with Germany. Henry hoped he could one day go to Canada. They were working on that but it would be years, and his life would be only in exile now, he knew this. There would be no visits to his father’s grave.

Henry brought her some noodles for supper and in the early morning he brought her persimmons and tea. Grey sky filled the window and she imagined she was on the shores of Campobello, the traffic outside the surf on the sandy beach. She held up her hand and spread her fingers out. “Did you know the starfish is a symbol for safe travel,” she said.  She thought of Nolen and his goats, and his armful of wildflowers for his father on Sundays in July, her father now drooling in a chair.

“Viola,” Henry whispered, taking her hand in his, “Home is something we must sometimes negotiate.  But it is always worth the negotiations, no matter how hard. You must not send yourself into exile when you can return and make your way.  We Chinese have a saying: Your heart will lead you to a path and if you do not follow it, you will, as the years pass, find that you are still at its beginning.” It was then he glanced at the photo on the small table.  He shut his eyes and was quiet for a moment before he took Viola’s hand, kissing the palm, his lips soft and warm on her cold pale skin.

— Christy Ann Conlin

———

Christy Ann Conlin is the author of the novels Heave and Dead Time. She is finishing her next novel, Listening for the Island. She hosts the CBC radio program, Fear Itself, a show that explores the whys, wherefores and what-have-yous of fear www.cbc.ca/fearitself/ You can learn more about the quiet country life of Christy Ann at christyannconlin.com.

Aug 292012
 

Robert Day is the best teacher I ever encountered, also one of the most amiable of men and author of The Last  Cattle  Drive, a novel I fondly reread every now and then for its rich comedy, its distinctively clipped and forthright voice, its deft and delicate puncturing of the myth of the west, and its humane decency. Bob and I met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1981 when I was a student and he was a visiting instructor. The first day of class he walked into the room and wrote across the whole front wall of blackboard REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. I have written about this in my essay “The Novel as a Poem” in my book Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. I include the opening paragraphs below (and I wrote about him from memory and no doubt reimagined or even fictionalized details for which sin I hope he will forgive me).

The best writing teacher I ever had was a Kansas cowboy named Robert Day who showed up at the Iowa Writers Workshop as a last minute, one-semester replacement for a sick colleague in January, 1981. The first day of classes he strode into the room wearing Fry boots, jeans and a checked shirt. Without saying a word, he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote across the full length of the blackboard in huge looping letters: “Remember to tell them the novel is a poem.”

At the time, Day had only published one novel, a book called The Last Cattle Drive. He was a tenured English professor at Washington College in Maryland. He had been one of the founders of the Associated Writing Programs. As a young man, he had worked at G. P. Putnam in New York and could recall for us the excitement over the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Summers he went back to western Kansas where friends ran a borderline ranch. He kept a horse there, a horse which at various times had eaten loaves of bread through the kitchen window, or Day’s hat. All summer long he would hang out with his friends, their cattle and his horse.

That semester we read Queneau, Musil, Rulfo, Achebe, Nabokov, Tutuola, Abe and Marquez. Day did not tell us what he meant–“Remember to tell them the novel is a poem.” Maybe he forgot. Half-way through the semester he read the second draft of my novel Precious, three hundred typed pages of plot, dialogue and scene that stubbornly refused to come alive. I still have the notes I made during our conference, fifty-four words. It took less than fifteen minutes. But like a skilled surgeon he had opened the novel up for me and shown me its heart still beating, its bones, nerves and veins.

The bit about AWP needs expansion (and even now I am not sure I have this right). But according to Bob’s friend and colleague Walton Beacham, in 1971 the infant AWP, then being run by its co-founder R. V. Cassill (George Garrett was the other co-founder), was about to go under. Cassill was bowing out and Brown University was withdrawing its support. Bob and Walton arranged a new home and financing for the organization, and Bob made the trip to Providence to retrieve the AWP archives from Cassill. Cassill handed him a shoebox containing some notecards, the full extent of the AWP archives at the time. Bob remained director and/or sometimes president until 1982.

Bob Day and I have not been much in touch since those days in Iowa, a hiatus probably due to the diffidence that exists between a student and an important mentor. But it’s a huge pleasure now to reunite on these pages — one of the best things about publishing Numéro Cinq is the number of friendships it has revived. When he wrote to me a few weeks ago, he reminded me about the last time we were together. “The last time I saw you we were looking a new jeeps as I was to buy one for the ranch where I worked; they had gone up scale and you said:  Bob, they’re toys.  Right you were.”

Now I am deeply pleased to be able to publish a new Robert Day short story, also to applaud his new book of stories coming out in September: Where I Am Now.

The hunting photo above is by Denise Low.

dg

—–

I had not been a good enough high school student to go “East” for college.  My father had hoped for a scholarship to Yale or Harvard: an Ivy League education was to a young man from Kansas as a wealthy marriage was to a young woman. As for my mother, she had discovered that any college in Kansas had to take you if you had graduated from a state high school.

“I think he should stay in our domain,” she’d say, using in context one of the ubiquitous words she was forever trying to teach me out of her dictionary.

“He should go East,” my father would say without–I would learn later–any sense of history or irony: “Go East,” you could hear him say summer evenings in our front yard as he drank a beer in his webbed aluminum lawn chair.

“I think he should stay in our environs,” my mother said through the open kitchen window as she cleaned up. That spring I was accepted at Emporia State Teachers College.

“William Allen White’s town,” my father said.

“Teachers and government workers are never without a job,” my mother said.

The summer before I left for Emporia, I life guarded at the local pool and helped at home: I mowed the lawn, painted the basement walls, cleaned out the attic, ran errands, and hung the laundry on the backyard clothes line. Some days I fixed flats, pumped gas and changed oil at my father’s repair garage and filling station.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I didn’t sit around looking into a gold fish tank.

At the swimming pool that summer, I saved a boy out of the deep end bottom but never said anything about it until my father saw it as a news item in the local paper.  I was the kind of kid who did not explain himself.  It seemed natural. The summer after my first year at Emporia I went back to work at the pool.

“Your uncle Conroy writes that he has a fellowship for you,” my mother said. I was home on lunch break from life guarding.  “It pays wages and you get college credit.  You need good grades in science.”

My mother has said this without much enthusiasm.   She was reading the letter a second and third time.

Uncle Conroy was my mother’s older brother, a pediatric researcher of international fame.   In the cultural gulf between our 1950’s linoleum-floor kitchen in Merriam, Kansas and Doctor Conroy Watkins directing a medical research lab in Berkeley, California, circa the mid-sixties, there was a pleasing pride–as if in our small house we had a first edition signed by Clarence Day.

“Let me see,” my father said.  He had closed the garage for lunch and was also home.

“At the University of California at Berkeley,” said my mother handing him the letter.

I have an hour before I have to be back at work.  After closing I am to take Muff LaRue to Winsteads for a Frosty. My plan is to drive back to the pool for a swim.

“That’s what it says,” said my father.  “A fellowship in Conroy’s research lab that could lead to medical school.  He should get there as soon as possible for training.”  My father left the kitchen with the letter in one hand, his meatloaf sandwich in the other, and headed for the front yard to sit in his aluminum lawn chair.

“I don’t know that General Science counts,” said my mother through the kitchen window.

“Two semesters of A’s,” my father said, talking straight ahead.

They were referring to my freshman grades.  I seem to be present only in the third person.

“I’m going to be a doctor,” I said to Muff LaRue as I unlocked the gates to the pool.

Muff dove in fully clothed and swam to the deep end.  When she got there she pulled herself out and said if I’d turn off the lights she’d skinny dip.  I flipped switches.

“I’ve never dated a doctor,” she said.  “What kind of doctor?”

She walked to the end of the low board, took off her summer shorts and tossed them on the deck.  Then she pulled her t-shirt over her head and threw it in the pool.

“A surgeon.  I am going to Cal-Berkeley to be a pediatric surgeon.”

I was treading water beneath her.

“I’m going to Sarah Lawrence to study Classics,” she said as she dove in.

The next day it was agreed I should accept my uncle’s invitation even though Berkeley might have “agitators” –as my father called them, not unlike Dustin Hoffman’s landlord in The Graduate.  On the other hand, my mother feared impertinence among the rich students.   She told me to find the word in the dictionary she had given me when I left for college, along with instructions to learn three words a day: aplomb, domain, environs.

§

It took me a week to quit my job as a lifeguard, say good-bye to Muff, and pack. My uncle met me at the airport.

“So you want to be a doctor?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

We were driving over the Bay Bridge toward the East Bay.  You have to be a young man from a small town in Kansas to understand how astonishing it is to see the San Francisco Bay for the first time.  There is nonchalance about its grandeur.

When I said I didn’t know if I wanted to be a doctor to one of the most famous and accomplished physicians in America, a man who had no doubt made special arrangements to get me a fellowship, it sounds, even at this distance, something Californian-sixties:  Mellow.   Really, man.  Yeah. Wow. Far out.  That’s not what I meant.   Perhaps I thought–as we crossed the Bay Bridge to the East Bay– that if I couldn’t be a doctor like Uncle Conroy, I didn’t want to be a doctor.  I’d like to think that now.

“I don’t mean. . .” I said as we drove up Grove Avenue past the lab where I would be working.

“I understand,” he said. “Don’t worry about your future.  It is always there.”

“Thank you,” I said.

From Grove we drove into the Berkeley Hills behind the Claremont Hotel to my aunt and uncle’s house overlooking the Bay.

My uncle’s laboratory was the Hansen Pediatric Research Center. My first week at work, I had met Hazen:  Hazen Edmond Floren Reynald who was pleased to introduce himself by all or part of his name, just as it pleased him to pick one of his names (including his last) and use it for a week. Or this:

“My name is Hazen Edmond Floren Reynald, and you may pick the name you like and call me that from now on.  I will remember.  But sometimes I won’t.”

I picked ‘Hazen.’  My uncle and his step-father had picked ‘Edmond.’ His mother used Floren. Aunt Lillian picked ‘Howard,’ and no one had told her that was not one of her choices.

“You may change names as I do,” Hazen said.  “This week I am to myself ‘Floren’.  But you may call me ‘Edmond’.  That’s what my step father calls me.”

Hazen grew up on Russian Hill where he still lived with his mother and stepfather, Doctor Milton Reed. He was a large-nosed, black-haired, stout-chested, short guy four or five years older than I was.  He had dropped out of college after his freshman year to travel in Europe: a trust provided him with funds to “poke around the world and among the girls.”

“Hang up medicine unless it can create a Juliet,” he said when I asked him if he was going to be a doctor. “Hang up medicine unless it can create a Juliet,” he’d say as we worked medical experiments for the researchers who used my uncle’s lab.

“Do you have a girl friend back in Kansas?”  Hazen asked me one day.

“Muff LaRue,” I said.

“’Rue’ means ‘street’ in French,” Hazen said.  “My mother is French.  So was my real father.  I understand we are all coming to dinner at your aunt and uncle’s house.  Very formal.  Mother usually brings her favorite hors-d’oeuvres: pâté de canard.”

I must have looked puzzled because Hazen went on, as if to reassure me.

“Just remember, it is impolite to take the last hors-d’oeuvre, which, if you think about it, means you can’t take the second to last piece because you’re being impolite to the poor bastard who is stuck with not being able to take the last piece. And if you think about it from here to eternity, you can’t take anything off the plate.  You just starve.”

My mother’s fear of impertinence had come true.

“Doesn’t he look good, Conroy?” said my Aunt Lillian.  I was wearing a tuxedo borrowed from my uncle. I had seen myself in a mirror before coming out of my room and thought the same thing:  not bad for a rube from Kansas.

“Very good,” said my uncle who, I understood, did not put much stock in the formalities of social life but had come to a routine acceptance of it.

The reason for the dinner party was Hazen’s step father’s Nobel prize for experiments (done a number of years before) in which he had taken the amino acid  “package” off proteins, then put it back on.  At least that is how I understood it at the time.

Aunt Lillian was wearing what my mother would have called “a cocktail dress.”  Not the kind of dress you saw Harriet Nelson wearing on television in those days (and not the kind my mother owned), but the kind that Olivia de Havilland wore in the movies.  It was pale green with tiny gold flecks that seemed to have been woven into the fabric.  I had never seen anything like it. Later in the evening I would notice that her dress matched in a subtle way the dinner plates, goblets, and even a small glass dinner bell that were put out by Bella, my aunt’s maid.

“Now use your forks from the outside in,” said Aunt Lillian, taking me to the table.  “‘Outside’ being the fork all the way to the left.  And do not use the spoon or the fork above the plate until the plate has been changed, and then use the outer one first; in this case that will be the spoon for the sorbet, then the ice- cream cake fork for the ice cream cake that they make at the lovely bakery on Shaddock where they make so many fine things.  When you are finished with your courses, put your knife and fork at four o’clock on your plate.  That way Bella will know you are finished.  And hold your wine glass by the stem, although Howard’s mother takes hers by the bowl and puts her—I must say—rather large nose—into it.  And sniffs quite loudly.”

By this time my uncle had escaped to stand in the driveway to wait for his friend.

“Hazen,” I said.  “His name is Hazen.”

I had never been to a formal dinner party, much less in the presence of a Nobel Prize winner.  And I had never worn a tuxedo.   My brother rented one for the high school prom.  My sister’s boyfriend picked her up in one for the same dance.   I wore a dark suit, went without a date, and stood by the record player and watched Muff LaRue dance to Dean Martin’s Memories are Made of This.

Living with my aunt and uncle when I first got there had its pleasures.  Even after I moved to an apartment on Derby near the University in the fall, I was always welcome.   If they were away (to a medical conference or to a retreat in Mexico in which they owned an interest), I had the run of their house with its splendid view of San Francisco Bay.  I was well fed, and when necessary, could use one of their cars. For this, my uncle asked only that I drive Aunt Lillian to the store and on errands in her large green Cadillac, complete with fins and air conditioner scoops.

“Let him drive,” my uncle would say. “That way he can learn his way around Berkeley.”

When he had me aside he said:

“Lillian is many fine things, but while she can set an excellent table for a dinner party she cannot cook a breakfast egg nor drive a car.”

§

“Your uncle thinks I am a poor driver because I am alert,” my aunt said one day as we left for errands and to drop me off at the lab.

“That is why he wants you to drive.  He has told me more than once I am dangerous, but ask him how many tickets I have gotten?  None.   Or how many accidents I have had that were my fault?  None.  It is just a prejudice he has about women drivers because we are cautious.”

Aunt Lillian had stopped for a green light on Durant because–as she explained amid the honking of horns behind her–men sometimes run red lights.

“You must be defensive in your driving.  Defensive and alert.   Not alarmed.  But alert to what is coming at you from all sides:  front, back, right, left.  I am perched high and straight in my seat and I am always alert and defensive.”

She achieved her “perch” by sitting on a folded pillow so that her head was well above the steering wheel, and not all that far below the car’s headliner.  From there she could see as well as any present day SUV soccer mom.

“You must be careful of rocks rolling off the mountains,” Aunt Lillian said one day when she came to a full stop in the middle of West View Drive, not far from the end of their lane. I looked up the hill at a large rock protruding from underneath a few scrub trees.  It had probably been deposited by an ice age.

“Would you like for me to drive?” I said.

“Not at all.  You think that rock has been there a long time and will not roll down.  That is what Conroy says.  But because it has been there a long time means it is more likely to roll down.  Hills flatten into plains because rocks roll off them and grind themselves to dust.  That is what happened in Kansas.  It can happen in California.  We have earthquakes. There was a famous one years and years ago that started a fire.  They still talk about it.  You must be watchful wherever you are in a car.  On the small roads.  On the highways.  In traffic.  In the hills with rocks on them.  Just because we are very close to the house doesn’t mean an accident can’t happen.  Most car accidents happen close to home.”

“Did she stop at the top of the hill by the rock?” asked my uncle when I told him I had not been able to drive her that day.

“Yes.”

I drove Aunt Lillian very little, and I never understood why some days she was pleased to have me do so, but on most days she was insistent that she drive.  Nor could I determine why she stopped at some green lights (and ran red ones), but not at others.

“Has Lillian pulled off the road when a truck is coming?” asked my uncle on another occasion.

“No,” I said.

“She thinks some trucks are too big for the roads so she’ll drive off the shoulder to let them go by.  Once I had Triple A pull her out of a ditch, and all she would say was that it was better to be in the ditch than  ‘squished like a beetle.’”

A few days later Aunt Lillian veered the Cadillac onto a lawn because a large cement truck was heading our way, very much on its own side of the road.

“Better up on a lawn than squished like a beetle,” she said as we came to a thud of a stop in a well-tended yard. “A wreck involves the police and smashed fenders and a broken windshield and medical bills.  Just because your uncle is a doctor doesn’t mean we get hospital care free. “

Aunt Lillian looped back onto Stuart just ahead of a woman dashing across the lawn shaking a vacuum cleaner attachment like a fist.  At the next green light we made a full stop.  At the next red light we drove through.

§

“When Bella serves a new course,” my aunt continued, “it is polite to change the direction of your conversation.  You will be sitting between Doctor Reed on your left and Madame de Ferney on your right, and if you have been talking to Doctor Reed for the first course, you then talk to Madame de Ferney during the second course, then back to Doctor Reed for the next course.  Madame de Ferney may not converse this way.  She has a habit of talking to whomever she wants.”

Aunt Lillian paused for a moment and looked at the table, first at one chair, then another, slightly nodding at each, as if more than counting.

“At home we just ate,” I said.  I thought I should say something by way of thanking Aunt Lillian for telling me how to behave.

“It is all a bit fussy,” she said.  “Conroy doesn’t much like it.  He says dinner parties are “fork fetish feasts”.  I suppose he’s right, but we women have to keep up standards.  Do you see a young lady in Kansas?”

“Muff LaRue,” I said, thinking I didn’t know the meaning of “fetish”.

“When did you last see her?” said my aunt, now circling the table to make some adjustments in napkins and silverware.

“At the swimming pool where I work.”

“How nice.”

“Yes,” I said.

Aunt Lillian stepped back to look the table over at some distance. “Everything is in its place,” she said, more to herself than to me.

Then: “One more thing.  Madame de Ferney always brings the hors-d’oeuvres.  A duck pâté on toast points.  I will put them on a large plate and we will have them in the living room with some white wine before dinner.”

“I know it is not polite to take the last one,” I said.

“Yes,” said my aunt, and seemed pleased.  Then, looking past the table and around the dinning room and into the living room where Bella was putting out napkins and wine glasses on the coffee table, she said:  “Madame de Ferney has kept her curious name even though she has been married all these years to Doctor Reed, who as you know, is Howard’s father, just as Madame de Ferney is Howard’s mother, even though she doesn’t have the same last name as Doctor Reed.  Or maybe Doctor Reed is Howard’s step-father and Madame de Ferney is his mother.  I think that’s what Conroy once told me.  She came to America when he was very young and brought Howard with her.”

“Hazen,” I said.

“And for some reason I think Howard doesn’t have the same last name as either of them because Madame de Ferney named him for an uncle for whom a French village is named.  Or maybe she is named for the village.  Howard is an only child so I suppose it is easier to do that when you are an only child.  And Madame de Ferney always calls Doctor Reed, “Doctor Reed,” not by Milton as the rest of us do. So we all call her Madame de Ferney and have for so long by now I don’t remember her first name, but I think it’s Mimi.  You should ask Howard.  Very curious.”

§

“Here they are,” said my uncle from the doorway.

“There is something else,” Aunt Lillian continued, but in a lower voice. “Madame de Ferney keeps both her hands on the table, sometimes even her elbows.  She is French. They have peculiar manners. And her English after all these years is still odd.  A bit of French mixed in with English.  Very odd.”

“My mother said I should cut my food with my elbows down, not up.  And that I should bring my food to my mouth and not my mouth to my food,” I said, again trying to reassure my aunt.  But this time she seemed not to hear me and said: “I am thinking maybe I should seat you. . . but no I can’t. . . that would disturb the arrangement.”  I could hear my uncle at the door saying come in, now, come in and they all did.

§

“Is it the case,” Madame de Ferney said as Bella was clearing the table of the second course, “that in Kansas. . .how shall I put it? . . .comment dirais-je?  Je ne sais pas…”

She said something else in French to her husband.  I saw Hazen frown.  I saw Doctor Reed frown.   Doctor Reed said something in French.  Then Madame de Ferney said to me:

“Is it ‘provincial’ in Kansas?  Provincial?”

She pronounced her second  “provincial” with a certain prairie flatness, as if to make sure I understood.  Not that it mattered: It was not a word I had learned from my mother’s dictionary:  Rube. ff.

While it was true that Madame de Ferney had used her forks according to Aunt Lillian’s rules, she had not–as my aunt had predicted—abided by the formalities of conversation; also, her elbows had been on the table repeatedly, and–my mother would have been shocked—Madame de Ferney had removed her bread from the bread-and-butter-plate and put it on the tablecloth where it left crumbs.  And she not only stuck her nose into the wine glass, she swirled it around before holding it to the light and said: It is the first duty of a wine to be red.

“Don’t you agree?” said Madame de Ferney to my Aunt.

“Yes, indeed.”

“And also from what you call the environs.  Is that the right word Floren?”

“Yes,” I said.  Everybody looked at me for a moment and then Madame de Ferney asked me what kind of wine we drank in our environs.

“My mother has a glass of Mogen David as she fixes dinner,” I said.  “My father drinks Coors.  My mother is Polish.  My father Irish.”  In the small silence that followed everyone took a sip of wine.

“I ask about Kansas being provincial,” Madame de Ferney said, “because I am told they were provincial ici in San Francisco before the gros earth cake.  The gros earth cake and the fire did them a great good because the rebel lost their shanties.”

“Rabble, mother,” said Hazen.

Madame de Ferney paused only to mouth the word rabble silently with what seemed to me impatience toward the English language.

“Mother’s ‘gros’ is French for ‘large’,” Hazen said to me.  “The Great Earth Quake.”

“Thank you,” I said.  And to show I was going to learn French I repeated ‘gros’ out loud.

“You’ll need to work on your ‘r’,” Hazen said.  I had no idea what he meant.

At this point Bella came to serve another course, while Madame de Ferney continued:

“The families whose furniture came “around the Horn” began to assende and that gave the city its culture.  Some people who first arrived in San Francisco brought their furniture with them over the prairie ground in wagons.  It must have been very hard on chairs.  Not to mention desks and tables.  All of Doctor Reed’s family furniture came “around the Horn.”  Our chairs are very solid.  Tres solide.”

Madame de Ferney had been speaking to the table at large, but then she turned to me:

“They have no earth cakes in Kansas to make matters better.  C’est tres mal in that regards, don’t we all think so?    Maybe a dust storm or a prairie bison fire could do the same thing. Does your family have the particle?”

“’Quakes’, mother,” said Hazen. This time Madame de Ferney did not mouth the word.

“They have tornadoes,” said my aunt.  “Tell Madame de Reed about the tornadoes. How Dorothy went to see Mr. Oz on the Yellow Brick Road. That  might be just as good as earth quakes.”

I was about to ask “a particle of what?” thinking Madame de Ferney might have wondered if we owned a bit of farm ground when Doctor Reed coughed loudly a number of times to my left and we all looked his way.  My uncle patted him on the back and asked if he was all right?

“I was telling our nephew the other day,” Aunt Lillian said when Doctor Reed’s coughing spell stopped, “about that big rock at the top of the road, and how it might fall down if we had another earth quake like the one Madame de Ferney has mentioned.”  My aunt stopped and seemed befuddled for a moment.

“You were about to say something about the rock, Lillian,” said Doctor Reed.

“Yes!  Well, if it rolled down the hill it would squish that nice bakery on Shaddock where we got the dessert for tonight.”

“Ah oui!” said Madame de Ferney.  “It is a lovely bakery and Doctor Reed always get something from it whenever we are coming to the University.  There is rien like it even in San Francisco.”

“’Rien’ means ‘nothing,’” said Hazen.  I nodded.  “‘Rien,’” I said, this time doing no better with my “r” judging by Hazen’s look.

“’Nada’,” in Spanish, said Doctor Reed.

“’Nada’,” I said, thinking at least there wasn’t an‘r’.  Again a moment of silence while everyone took another sip of wine and Bella bustled.

“And they probably don’t have a bakery in Kansas like the one on Shaddock that we all like so much,” said Aunt Lillian. “Just like they don’t have hills down from which rocks might fall because they already have fallen down and that’s why it’s flat.   And maybe that is why Madame de Ferney has asked about it being provincial.  No quakes.  No hills.  No rocks.  No bakery.”

“Ah oui,” said Madame de Ferney, at which point Aunt Lillian rang the bell for Bella who was standing beside her.

“Maybe I should not have asked about Kansas being provincial,” said Madame de Ferney. “It is of no matter, but sometimes those of us who live la vie de chateau cannot imagine remote places in the United States as being other than provincial.  That is true in France as well.  We have peasants in many places south of Paris.  Some of them harvesting their own ‘poulet.’”

“’Chicken’, mother,” said Hazen.

“I know it is “chicken” in English,” said Madame de Ferney.  “But I prefer the French.  Who can like a word like “chicken” instead of “poulet”?  Or “duck” instead of “canard”?

“It is what we had this evening,” said Aunt Lillian.  “A recipe right from France.  Chicken Cordon Bleu.  Not that we raise chickens or ducks here in Berkeley.  I expect there is some kind of rule against it.  I know there is one about hanging your clothes out to dry, isn’t there Conroy?”

“There is indeed.  It is called a ‘covenant’,” my Uncle said to Doctor Reed who smiled.  “As if good taste were a religion. No rabbits in cages.  No chickens.  Or ducks.  No horses or goats.  It was quite a list they gave us when we moved here.  No clothes line, as Lillian says.”

“In Kansas we have a clothes line,” I said.  “I do the hanging out when I am home.” Uncle Conroy looked at me and smiled. I was about to say the Simms down the road had both chickens and ducks,  as well as pig they fed out but Madame de Ferney said:

“It is our own limitation, I suspect, and I would be pleased to learn otherwise.  How did your parents’ furniture come to Kansas?”

“Here is dessert!” Aunt Lillian said, and once again rang the bell, even though Bella had returned to the table.

The arrival of dessert and the clatter of plates and forks and the general talk about the bakery on Shaddock changed the course of the conversation and as we ate Madam de Ferney turned to Hazen and asked:

“Do you remember when you were an adultlesson and we took you to Paris?”

“‘Adolescent’, mother,” said Hazen.  “It is the same in French.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” said Madame de Ferney.  “It is just that we were showing you where I was reared—is that the word?  You raise cows but rear children.  Do I have that right?”

“Yes,” said Doctor Reed to Madame de Ferney, and then to the table:   “Edmond was born in Paris as was Mimi, but after her husband died they moved to America and he was reared here.”

“Conroy and I have not reared any children,” said Aunt Lillian. “This is our nephew,” nodding toward me.   Aunt Lillian seemed either to have forgotten my name or was continuing my family’s tradition.

“Ah oui,” said Madame de Ferney to Aunt Lillian.

“Ah oui,” said Aunt Lillian.  “But do tell us about your rearing in Paris.”

“We lived in the Sixth, but below Saint Germain.  The Sixth goes all the way to Boulevard Montparnasse, but my father would not admit that.  For him it only went as far as Saint Germain.  So I was reared in that domain.  Is that the right word?” Madame de Ferney asked me.

“Ah oui,” I said. I saw Hazen smile. “Or you could say ‘environs’,” I said. Madame de Ferney seemed pleased at this information and this time said environs out loud with a peculiar guttural sound on the “r.”

“My father was tres formal and would not even ‘tu’ my mother.  Of course he did not ‘tu’ me or my sister.” Madame de Ferney paused for quite awhile and looked away from the table. The only sound was Bella putting out coffee cups in the living room.

For my part, I imagined Madame de Ferney was thinking of her days growing up in Paris; I imagined this because in between the rocks tumbling down and squishing the Shaddock bakery, the tornadoes that might be as good as earth cakes, covenants against chickens and clothes lines, I had been thinking in bits and pieces about home.  About my father’s webbed aluminum lawn chair and how he took my uncle’s letter and his meatloaf sandwich outside and read the letter while my mother cleaned the kitchen counter where on summer evenings we “just ate”, my mother having her glass of Mogen David wine while she cooked with no idea about the wine’s duty, my father with his beer in a bottle after dinner as he read the paper or, on Fridays, watched boxing on television.

And it wasn’t when Aunt Lillian asked me about a girl friend that I thought of Muff LaRue.  It was when Madame Ferney was talking about chicken and poulet and duck and canard.  How, after both Muff and I got dressed, not having gone “all the way”, we sat in two chairs under my life guard stand and talked into the night about our futures: me to California to become a doctor, she going East to Sarah Lawrence to major in Classics–and I thought then that studying classics at a fancy East Coast college for girls and skinny-dipping in a Kansas municipal pool with the life guard whose father had a car garage didn’t go together.  But I did not say so.  And how later I drove Muff home and we promised we’d meet again over Christmas break—at the swimming pool, cold and snow or not.

§

“Thank you,” my uncle said to Bella as she began clearing the table of dessert plates, all forks now at four o’clock.

My aunt fingered the spoon on the top of her plate.  She picked up her wine glass by the stem and studied the color.  She started to ring for Bella even though Bella had just left.

“Maintenant that you are ici in Berkeley,” said Madame de Ferney, “do you think it provincial in Kansas?”

My uncle was about to speak and so were Hazen and Doctor Reed when I said to Madame de Ferney and, with considerable aplomb, to the rest of the table:

“Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.”

“Ah oui!” said Aunt Lillian.

§

“Did you miss Kansas?” Muff said to me.  We are sitting in my father’s lawn chairs that I have taken to the pool and put beneath my old lifeguard stand.  It is snowing.  The pool has been drained, but not to the bottom.  There is a skim of ice on what water remains.  “I did not,” said Muff before I could answer.

“I did,” I said.

“Are you going back?” she said.  “To Berkeley to be a doctor?”

“Hang up medicine,” I said. “Unless it can create a Juliet. The guy I worked with at the lab used to say that over and over again.” She seemed not to hear me and said:

“I learned that Socrates took up dancing in old age.  So I’ve started dancing.  Modern dancing.”  She got out of her chair and did a small pirouette in the snow in front of me.

“I’ve never dated a dancer,” I said.

And then there was a long silence between us.  I took a sideways glace at her.  She was looking at the space just in front of us where she had done her pirouette.  The snow was falling faster now and it was filling her footprints. I never knew her well enough to guess what she might be thinking.  But I was thinking I would not see much of her ever again, and I would be right about that.

“You haven’t said if you are going back.”

“In Berkeley,” I said, “you don’t just eat, and you can’t hang your laundry on the line.”   Again she seemed not to hear me and said nothing but got up from her chair and did a second pirouette, this time putting her toes into the same place where they had been before, and in so doing her feet made their marks in the same place where the snow had almost filled in her previous pirouette. And in coming back to her chair she stepped into the same footprints she had made before, and smiled at being able to do so.

§

When I drove her home Muff asked me if it was true I had once saved a boy from the deep end.

“Yes,” I said.

And it was at the door of her house that she told me where Hazen had gotten his saying, and that was not about medicine, but about philosophy and that when Hazen said it over and over it became his mantra–a word I did not know until I came home that night and I looked it up in my mother’s dictionary.

—Robert Day

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Robert Day’s novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.  His short fiction has won a number of prizes and citations, including two Seaton Prizes, a Pen Faulkner/NEA prize, and Best American Short Story and Pushcart citations. His fiction has been published by Tri-Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Kansas Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, and New Letters among other belles-lettres magazines. He is the author of two novellas, In My Stead, and The Four wheel Drive Quartet, as well as Speaking French in Kansas, a collection of short stories.

His nonfiction has been published in the Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes FYI,  Modern Maturity, World Literature Today, and American Scholar. As a member of the Prairie Writers Circle his essays have been reprinted in numerous newspapers and journals nationwide, and on such inter-net sites as Counterpunch. Recent book publications include We Should Have Come By Water (poems) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction).

Among his awards and fellowships are a National Endowment to the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Yaddo and McDowell Fellowships, a Maryland Arts Council Award, and the Edgar Wolfe Award for distinguished fiction.  His teaching positions include The Iowa Writers Workshop; The University of Kansas; and the Graduate Faculty at Montaigne College, The University of Bordeaux.

He is past President of the Associated Writing Programs; the founder and former director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House; and founder and publisher of the Literary House Press at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland where he is an Adjunct Professor of English Literature.

Where I Am Now, a collection of his short fiction, will be published in September, 2012 by BkMk Press.

Aug 282012
 

 Two Rigoberto González poems to die for. Nothing else to be said really. I got part way through the first poem and thought, This is the motherlode. Look at this stanza.

where there never was a father
there never was a child. if not
a birth, then not a love. if not
conception, then not a thought.
if not a wish or possibility, if not
a miracle, then not.

The poem is a meditation on the poet’s knowledge that he will never have children even though there is in him the capacity to love a child, the paternal element, as it were. And this is the climactic moment of the poem. Rigoberto runs as series of sentences that are simple parallel constructions, relentlessly repeating “if…if…if…if”/”not…not…not…not…” within which pattern he juxtaposes a set of paired nouns: father/child, birth/love, conception/thought (beautiful pun), wish/possibility and miracle/not where the final “not” breaks the rhythm of the parallels and by the magic of language becomes also a noun, a homonym of nought, nothing, zero. This is gorgeous writing. The effortless play of the poet’s mind keeps the poem from descending into sentimentality. He holds his sorrow in a container of words and prolongs the emotion to a terribly bittersweet breaking point.

Rigoberto González is a friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s a deep pleasure to publish his poems on NC.

—dg

 ————-

 

Bodies of Little Dead Children
…..after a painting by Forrest Bess

inside of me, i who will never be
a father to any he is my son or she
is my daughter or that’s my baby
mirror glaring its crooked teeth back
at me.

…………yet i must know something
about parenting. at night my torso
splits apart, a cradle for my heart
to pound and tantrum to delirium.

dare I wish the little thing had
never been? dare I ignore it,
let its cry shrink to a squeak that i
can place over my tongue?
this squirming pillbug, dare i
ingest it?

………..oh cashew in the sack,
interrupted dream my barren sister
had—the pitter-pat of baby feet
vanishing like sweat on the tile
turned steam. oh vacant nest.

will she resent the way I squander
my fertility? bless the tumbleweed
that chases after rain all summer
yet only flowers in a fire.

……….what am i but an apple tree
indifferent to the fruit that blisters
and spoils, that clings to a dress
like accessories that do not flatter.

oh lover-thief, if you steal my seeds
it doesn’t matter. you’re taking
nothing personal away—i will not
call the removal of my dead
a loss.

………i will not name them, either.

where there never was a father
there never was a child. if not
a birth, then not a love. if not
conception, then not a thought.
if not a wish or possibility, if not
a miracle, then not.

………let my calvary be this:
to fade without a trace like all
that chromosome and protein
laid to waste across the sheets.
let my flesh go just as white
and just as cold without a soul.

let the ghosting haunt me.

 

Picture Me Awake: The Immortal Ramón Novarro

………  Razor me
a mustache;
……….shape my shrieks
………………..into kisses me.

…………………

Young men collect
grains of sand that might turn

into pearls in their trunks.
I dream of such discoveries.

The beach bursts with light.
My housecoat splits

apart like an oyster.
I spill like sludge on the porch.

…………………

……….On my knees
a glow prayers me.
……….I soften anything
…………………hard and mean.

…………………

Papi, I too used to wear
such confident skin.

My nipple lifted like a finger
and silenced the room.

!Atención!: a duet of blasts
in black on my skull and on

my crotch. You too sing
that naughty tune. I nuzzle

with my old horse nostrils.
My eye is not so dark anymore

but it can still expand
to take you in completely.

…………………

………………..Say you see
the youth of me
………………..beneath
the truth of me.

…………………

Ladies, who do you want me to be?
A Spanish caballero, a sheik?

Fantasies are no disgrace.
Press your hand to my chest,

it Hollywoods a heartbeat. Caress
my mask, it slow-mos to a face.

I know this speed. I too lust for men.
In my greed I can inhale like a whale

and swallow one whole. My final role–
fish that bites two baits–is no pretend.

One winks. His brother leans in.
Come closer, love. My whiskers twitch

when one tongues the other’s lips. This
plunge into a barbed-wire bed I can’t resist.

…………………

…………………Picture me
awake.                  …… Picture me
angelic and alive.               Beautiful me,
intact,           winged—
undeathed—                      . me.

…………………

I am not a tragedy.
I am not the reel of film

that snaps and leaves
blank the movie screen.

I am not the afterimage
bursting to a blood-blot

then just as quickly draining
back into the puncture.

If I exit from the picture
I sky like a god. My teeth

a dazzling marquee.
Say my name. I glitter

in my gown of stars.
Don’t walk away,

José Ramón, or I’ll be
the comet that careens

around your neck.
You will be the welt

blistering with tears
and muffled scream.

Bésame, lindo–
I will breathe in you

an immortality.
Ay, José Ramón,

quédate bonito, maricón,
or you will die without me.

 —Rigoberto González

——————————————-

Rigoberto González is the author of ten books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, and The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey and a member of the MFA in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.