Dec 172013
 

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In Canadian director David Cronenberg’s short film “Camera,” an elderly, retired actor speaks of his fear and malevolence towards an old film camera that a group of children bring into his home. The children assemble into a film crew, each with their own specific roles, and carefully prep the camera as the actor rages on about his career, death, disease, and memory, knowing that the children are inevitability preparing his next close up.

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The actor fears the camera because he identifies the device with death. He sees the lens as like his eyes, capturing experiences he will relive at the end of his life. Yet unlike memory, the camera fixes a moment in time and in a sense causes the death of the moment and experience. This makes the camera, recording the death of moments, a device that solidifies his mortality. He anticipates he will look back on his life replaying experiences and memories caught on camera and will enter a voyeuristic state, disconnecting from his own perception and becoming a mere observer of himself, of his own life.

This identification with the old camera speaks to a central struggle for identity that Cronenberg circles in his work. He spoke of this, among other topics, in a recent interview celebrating his 70th birthday (which can be seen here and is well worth the 90 minute watch):

In the interview he was asked about identity in his 2002 film Spider:

We are all the creators of our own identities. Even if we feel that is something given, we are actively involved in creating our own selves. You wake up in the morning and it takes you awhile to become who you are. It’s not just that you have to have that coffee. You have to remember who you are, where you are, where you’ve been, were your dreams real, who you were in your dreams. You have to reconstruct yourself every day. And if for some reason you could not do that, because of something that happened in your brain or nervous system, I can understand that, I can feel that, I feel very close to that.

In “Camera,” the actor speaks of recorded moments and their longevity. He alludes to how, when he is dead or eventually loses his memory, these fragments of time will represent how he is remembered. The camera will become the constructor of his identity, his memory. Rather than being an accumulation of his thoughts, feelings, and what he has or has not done, he will be only what has been recorded or documented.

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When the actor appears on the children’s camera in the final shot, we see him in a new, rejuvenated way. Though aesthetically beautiful, with its warmer colors, light music, and smooth inward zoom, this is quite a false image compared to what the more documentary camera eye has captured before the children’s film camera. If moments like this become all that is left of the actor, the camera will not only construct his identity, it will do so through a sepia lens, blurring the pores and flaws that might be the truth of who he is. If similar false images are all he leaves behind for others, and create their perceptions of him, then what becomes of his true self?

As the children’s camera slowly penetrates the actor’s privacy, his initial disdain for it disappears: what he initially sees as fearfully other, slowly becomes a part of him. Cronenberg’s work is fascinated with how what is other becomes part of the self. In Videodrome, we witness the protagonist, Max, become the type of violence he strives to air on his independent cable station. As he descends, his stomach morphs into a VCR-like wound, allowing others to control his actions by injecting him with videotapes. In The Fly, a scientist rushes his experiment and, using himself as a test subject, accidentally crosses his DNA with a fly, mutating his body in increasingly horrific ways. Crash involves characters who have fused their desire for violent car crashes with sexual pleasure, rending them unable to achieve one without the other. All these Cronenberg protagonists eventually come to embrace the other working against them. The violence and technology become a part of who they are, leading them into a spiral of self-destruction.

In “Camera,” the synthesis is more ambiguous, not entirely horrific. The camera invades the actor’s home and his resistance to the device gradually fades away. The camera and the actor synthesize their abilities to create something, an image, which without one another could not be whole. By the end of the short, the actor comes to associate, sympathize, and identify himself with the camera, comparing the two to an old couple aging alone together.

This old couple analogy draws attention to the children’s celluloid film camera as a technology, and as a technology with a mortality, too. There are two cameras in the film, the documentary digital camera and the children’s celluloid camera, the one he fears and is growing old like him. The camera that the actor directly addresses throughout most of the film captures a more digital or documentary style image, scrutinizing every inch and pore of his face in an unflattering and yet perhaps more suitable aesthetic for his cynical personality and perspective. In contrast, in the final shot the celluloid camera the children use has a more gentle and vibrant tone, creating a more nostalgic depiction of the old man as he reminisces about memories from long ago. This is the same man seen two ways and on this other level the film displays a debate between the old and the new technology.

Film is always on the brink of creating, discovering, and infusing new technologies but not without conflict at each stage of change. Rudolf Arnheim argued that the invention of sound recording would be the death of film. Filmmaker Peter Greenaway thought that home video, with the dreaded pause button, would destroy the experience of a film. Others believed that color would tarnish the significance of the story and actors. Recently though, there has been much debate over the proliferating use of digital film and the decline of celluloid, and “Camera” seems to reflect this.

Is this Cronenberg’s argument for the use of celluloid over digital film? To the disdain of many, in recent interviews,

Cronenberg has sided with digital film, arguing “it’s about time film died its natural death.” This stance may be a surprise to some, but Cronenberg has a track record of creating stories that expose some of the more honest and brutal truths about humanity and our obsession with technology. Perhaps he feels that digital film is more apt to capture this harsh and coarse nature. Or perhaps he enjoys viewing the cautionary themes within his work become a reality as the world swiftly embraces the newest technologies, without fully realizing their limits or implications, and leaving older forms behind in obsolescence. Film historians argue that we have lost nearly 80 – 90% of all silent films, most due to the deterioration of celluloid. In losing parts of our history we lose pieces of ourselves, and perhaps this is what Cronenberg is alluding to as the actor speaks of the camera causing irreparable damage to us all. Regardless, “Camera” contains an argument for both celluloid and digital, depicting the unique qualities of both and how the aesthetic of each can affect the tone of a story.

TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) is currently hosting an art exhibition on David Cronenberg titled Evolution.

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The exhibit is an accumulation of the filmmaker’s career, an eccentric collection of things Cronenberg that offer a close-up on the filmmaker much the same way the children’s camera in “Camera” offers a close-up. The exhibit continues until January 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox HSBC Gallery in Toronto.

–Jon Dewar

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Jon Dewar

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

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Dec 162013
 

Emma Jesse

I’ve been hoarding these Letters from Saskatchewan from Byrna Barclay. This is the last until she sends me more. They are a delight just for themselves — Byrna’s quick, direct sentences are packed with charming detail and wonderful to read. But then she offers the old photos, and the memories turned into fiction, into poetry — a deft lesson on the uses of the past, on the power of personality. The subject of this “letter” is Byrna’s Grandmunch, Jesse Emma, who married a tea-planter in Indian, then ended up moving to Saskatchewan with her prized violin and came to be friends with none other than John Diefenbaker, the wobbly-jowled prime minister from Prince Albert (whom I once interviewed as a cub reporter in 1972 in Saint John, New Brunswick — he proudly showed me his gold-topped cane that once belonged to an even earlier prime minister, the great Sir Wilfred Laurier).

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Emma Jesse

Micro-Memoir

Pics of Jesse Emma done electronically for me on disc ready in a.m. so will send them then for your selection.  One of my mother & J.E. in the same boat.  One of her young in India when she met my tea-planter husband some time before 1904, quite lovely, and the other of her in Canada in HBC coat, with dog likely named Diefy, most definitely in the Days of the Flapper, given the HAT…

Jesse Emma would arrive Christmas Eve on the train, dressed in a muskrat coat dragging behind her red high heel shoes, “bottled up for hours.”  She always wore a black straw hat so smothered by violets purchased at the Blue Chain Store in P.A.  When she was blue & alone she pinned violets to the hat, and when the top brim was full, she pinned them to the under brim, so her face was shadowed by lilacs.  She also wore an Isadora Duncan scarf to hide her goitre. I could never invent such a character. I hid behind my mother, embarrassed by Jesse, which worsened when we arrived home and Jesse called Prime Minister Diefenbaker and made me screech/squawk the vilon. He always said, “That’s very nice, and don’t forget to practice.” Shortly thereafter, I received a telephone call from Mrs. Claus, telling me to go to bed, Santa was on his way. Years later, Grandmunch confessed that it was Edna Diefenbaker, John George’s first wife.

After she died, Diefy wrote me a long letter that began: I am so sorry to hear of the passing of my dear friend. I knew her from the time of my first campaign in 1925…  The rest of the letter is only about him!  I’m giving it to his archives in Saskatoon, along with the letter the second Mrs. D. wrote me on the night of her honeymoon. Olive. Really and truly.  She asked me to write to my grandmother. I now feel guilty. But how Jesse Emma must have touched them. She had an enormous campaign poster of Diefy in her window even between elections.  The junk dealer took that too.  Regrets, I have some. That’s why I write. Well, not the only reason.

 

Fiction

Halt, Those Are My People: from House of The White Elephant

THE VAULTED AND DOMED CEILING of the Canadian National Railway Station echoes with bygone farewells of troops being shipped off to Halifax, of brass bands playing Will Ye Nae Come Back Again.

Every Christmas Eve, for as long as Annika Robin can remember, her mother brought her here to meet her grandmother’s train from Prince Albert.  First she took her into the Ladies’, lifted her high onto the window ledge so she could watch for the train.  Farr off, at first, a haloed yellow light, but it grew stronger and larger until the rumbling of steel on steel could be heard, and just when she was afraid the one-eyed, screaming monster would crash into the umber-brick building, it slowed and grumbled past, its coaches partly obscured by steam escaping from its brakes.

They rushed into the great hall.  Soon, passengers trudged up the grand staircase, none of them Grandmums. There was some kind of elaborate maze down there, with short passages and doors leading to platforms beside the tracks, and it was all strange because she had seen from the window that the train was not underground.

Grandmums could never manage those broad steep stairs.

Finally, the side door opened for a prancing redcap, his eyes rolling upward with disbelief, and he clutched under one arm a small bulging valise that Annika recognized and knew contained oranges and jars of rhubarb chutney.  Its locks has long since broken and it was stoutly belted, with the ends of an Empire scarf trailing from its sides.

An outlandish, dark-skinned woman tottered on high, red heels behind him.  Heavy ankle-length muskrat coat, with a matching muff dangling from a cord wound round one wrist.  Her black straw hat was so smothered with silk violets, even on the underbrim, it was a wonder she could see where she was going.  When she was blue she always bought a bunch of violets at the Blue Chain Store, and when the rim was full, she pinned more to the underside.  In one arm, she carried her Derazey violin, and in the other her sterling silver champagne cooler, not trusting either one to a redcap she called a Darkie.  Of course, she explained to Annika, she couldn’t leave her prized possessions behind for fear of those black damnable thieves who first stole her diamonds and sapphires when she lived in India.

“Halt!” she cried to the redcap.  ‘Those are my people!”  She suddenly had a dignified, almost regal bearing, her head uplifted; she appeared accustomed to issuing commands and having them obeyed.  If the sight of her was not mortifying enough, her air of superiority and prejudices made Annika Robin cringe and try to hide behind her mother’s wide, crinoline skirts.  Older now, she simply lowered her head, pretending she didn’t know the woman who caused everyone to turn their heads and stare.

The worst part was yet to come when Jesse Emma would phone her friend John George whom she called Diefy – as well as her Irish setter – and make Annika Robin play the violin for him over the telephone.

Why oh why couldn’t she have been given a grandmother who made peanut butter cookies instead of chutney and crocheted doilies instead of dancing the Can-can for the Prime Minister of Canada?

Poems

The Music Teacher

After she died no one wanted
furniture worn beyond use,
not even the junk dealer
who carted to the dumping ground
a mahogany gramophone,
chipped records, Caruso’s voice
cracked.  A metronome without a timer,
sheets and sheets of thin music
yellow as old skin.  The last to go
a battered case.  He didn’t know
the violin was a Derazey.

It’s all I have to give you

Bottled up for hours, she sought relief.
I failed to hide the violin under the clawfoot tub.
After chutney and oranges, she’d ring up her Diefy.
Forced to screech and squawk the violin
over the telephone, I cringed and cried.
Our Man from Prince Albert told me
not to forget to practice.

Before bed, she let down her hair, a miracle
how the unfastened braids never unraveled,
her boot-blackened bangs reeking,
olive skin sleek with glycerine.  She tuned
the Derazey applied resin to the bow,
then tucked it in its nest of Isadora Duncan scarves,
chiffon to hide a goitre the size of an orange.

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You must never part with my Derazey.  Promise me.

After my grandmother died
her sister shipped the violin
wrapped in her moth-eaten leopard skin,
stoutly bound with her red belt,
the one she used to strap
my wrists together if I failed to practice,
preferring to turn magic circles
around the music stand, while Jesse Emma
pounded out the Sailor’s Hornpipe on the piano.

Something must be done about Grandmums’
violin.  Lend it to the youth orchestra?
Give it to my own grand-daughter?  Surely,
Jesse Emma would forgive that kind of parting,
never the neglect.  After all these years
dare I open it?

I’m afraid to open the box.  Shelved
for thirty-odd years.  Against night noises.
Hinges creaking.  The case might open
like jaws.  Snapping.  Shrieks
like a fingernail on a blackboard.  Freed,
the violin will float over my bed, bow drawn
by my grandmother’s disembodied hand.

Peel away the leopard skin.
Hinges broken on the box.
Inside: the smell of old resin,
Midnight in Paris wafting from chiffon.
Coil and spring of snapped cat’s gut.
Wood warped.  Neck broken.  No wonder
the Derazey wailed nightly for oily palms,
glycerined fingers ringed with cat’s-eyes,
and the sweat of a musician’s brow.

In the dead of night
I dig a hole in my flower bed
big enough to bury a box
the size of a child’s coffin.
I leave off the lid, cover the violin
with rich damp loam.  Rose petals.

I will water it every morning,
just as the sun that long ago set
on my grandmother’s British Empire
rises at the call of new robins.
I will tend this small cairn
until the wood absorbs the dew.
Renewed, will someone play
a new song of forgiveness?

                 

Fear of Falling

The three-legged teak table was a trap
laid in the middle of the passage

between rooms in Jesse Emma’s suite
above the Hudson’s Bay Trading Post.

Deeply etched with thistles & exotic birds
her music pupils could not name

the tea table was a precarious perch
for her multi-dented silver champagne cooler,

a monument to more affluent days in India
where turbaned servants set the table

at sundown with quinine and soda
for artistocrats believing the sun

would never set on their Empire,
never on Jesse Emma’s.  Every Saturday morning

farmers’ daughters from Duck Lake,
awkward & gangly fledglings,

failed safe passage past the table & cooler
to the ballet bar fastened above a steaming radiator

that would scorch their leotards
if they didn’t lift higher their wobbly legs & toes

often bruised from the crashing cooler
when the table’s tripod unhinged and collapsed

sending the cooler toppling, lid clanking
& to the floor hundreds of Christmas card

addressed to Mrs. Robert Hand-Burton,
postmarked Calcutta, London, Winnipeg.

Not easy putting it all back, making it
right, one hinge broken the tripod legs

unable to withstand the weight
of the cooler, so heavy two pupils

lifted & heaved while two more
tried to hold steady the tabletop,

& backing away, gingerly, hands held out,
willing it not to fall

the table crashed again, the cooler lid
cracking an ankle this time,

but greater than the students’ fear
of toppling table & crashing cooler

was Jesse Emma’s need to place furniture
in the middle of rooms, her terror of insects

red & black ants, roaches & malaria-carrying
mosquitoes & other beasties

falling from walls.

    

In the Same Boat

This poem isn’t about me..  I wasn’t even born when the women climbed into the boat & I don’t know where they are, the north end of Turtle Lake, maybe, because of the tall sentinel pine on the shore.  Yet the poem pulls me in, like a lover already immersed reaches out and grabs you on the dock by the ankles, oh yes sweeping you off your feet so you fall, of course you do.   And now I emerge inside the poem, gasping with recognition.

The woman at oars is radiant in this northern light. Her flared tweed skirt has curled up just above her knees, showing off the sheen of the white silk stockings, a gift from her intended, the man I cannot see, the one who makes her toss curls the colour of a sunset, the one who causes lights to dance on water.  She will never be this happy again.

Behind the woman rowing the boat, perched on the prow, is a dark-skinned woman craning her neck like a startled drongo shrike from her homeland far away, trying to speak words of caution to the man who makes the young beauty pull bravely shoreward.  All that can be seen of her are the stab of light in her black eyes, the dark stray of fringed bangs beneath a cloche the colour of sun-burnt oranges.  Oh, do sit down, you juggins. 

The man disappears.  I never saw him, yet I know he was my father wearing his white wedding suit, moss clinging to his soft-soled shoes the way it grows on the north side of birch,    He leaves forever captured there, in a moment at once as prolonged & as fleeting as the click of his Brownie Kodak, his wife and his mother.  In the same boat.

 —Byrna Barclay

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Byrna Barclay

Byrna Barclay has published three in a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award,  YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.  In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award.  She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine.  A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine.  Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.

Dec 152013
 

Hillary Mullins

Since the beginning NC as made it a habit, now and then, to publish a sermon. It’s an old form, not much thought of in literary terms these days — you don’t see many college courses on sermons. But it’s a form that was once immensely popular; books of sermons were published regularly and became bestsellers. I have friends whose fathers were ministers and I’ve loved listening to their memories of the weekly composition process — think of it, an ESSAY a week, 52 weeks a year! Kind of like a blog but with God as one of your readers.

Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont, runs a window-cleaning business, and gives sermons — in a sense, she has given her life over to helping people see better. This is her Christmas sermon delivered earlier this month to the UU Fellowship in  Stowe. The subject is close to my heart because when I was six I played Tiny Tim in the school Christmas play. Picture this: rural, one-room, stone schoolhouse with a raised dais along the front for the teacher’s desk, Union Jack and the Queen’s portrait prominently displayed, and me with my theatrical leg-brace made (by my father) of soup tins and cut-down harness straps. Hilary quite rightly focuses on Scrooge, who is the reclaimed character, but still I love the line I got to say (raising my wine glass filled with apple juice), “God bless us, every one.”

The images are John Leech’s original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, via the wonderful Victorian Web.

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Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster….

Nobody ever stopped him on the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? when will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him, and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “no eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance….

Ebenezer-Scrooge

Charles Dickens wrote his famous Christmas Carol in 1843, and from the very first, it sparked changes in the people who read it, momentous and generous changes. Robert Louis Stevenson for instance, wrote a friend this: “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money—I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”

The historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle was seized with his own verifiable fit of generosity. We don’t have an account of it in his own words, but his wife wrote her cousin, referring to her husband by his last name and saying this: “A huge boxful of dead animals from the Welshman arriving late on Saturday night together with the visions of Scrooge—has so worked on Carlyle’s nervous organization that he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties with only a day between.”

And yet another conetmporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, pronounced the book, “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”

But it wasn’t just other writers who were affected. Some years later, after the queen of Norway read A Christmas Carol, she sent gifts to disabled children in London, signed “With Tiny Tim’s love.” And an American industrialist, a certain Mr. Fairbanks of Massachusetts, having heard Dickens’ own reading of the book one Christmas Eve, was so inspired he closed his factory the very next day for Christmas, somehow managing to get a turkey to every worker he had.

Used with permission from  http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/eytinge/49.html.

Plain folks too, numberless people whose names and stories we’ll never know, were affected as well. For instance, in the spring after A Christmas Carol was published, one English magazine noted that charitable giving was up across the whole country, evidently a result of this one little book. People were moved! And moved to action.

Even Dickens himself was deeply moved by the act of writing A Christmas Carol, pushing through it in the midst of other projects in a remarkably short six weeks, crying and laughing as he wrote, taking long walks through London—and I mean long walks—supposedly fifteen or twenty-mile walks!—at a time of night when, as he put it, “all sober folks had gone to bed.” And when he reached the ecstatic, joyful end of the book, and finished it, he said he “broke out…like a madman.”

But of course acting like a madman is just how Scrooge behaves too in the joyful conclusion of A Christmas Carol:

“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel. I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded….

“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge, “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”

I don’t know about you, but whenever I get to this short section at the very end of the book, I always feel a little mad with joy myself, almost embarrassed by the sheer exuberance welling up in me too. And why is that? What is the power of Dickens’ little fable? Why has it touched and changed so many people?

One reason surely is simply because it’s a remarkably well-written book. If all you’ve done for years now is watch the various movie versions, I suggest this Christmas season, you go back to the book itself. It’s sheer pleasure. But there’s more to its effectiveness than its high level of craft. There are, after all, lots of well-written books. But very few of them have worked the kind of change in people that A Christmas Carol has.

So walking a little deeper into the story itself, let us next consider the book’s most obvious lesson, a lesson that can’t be repeated too often, and that Dickens himself thought of as the “Carol Philosophy,” which is simply to give, and to give in particular to those who don’t have the money or resources you do. But though this is, as I say, the obvious lesson of the book, and giving is itself a profound practice that has its own momentum in people’s lives, taken alone, it still can’t account for the singular transformational power this book has.

That power, I think, lies deeper in the story itself and is related to its more fundamental teaching—which is to open our hearts, or as E. M. Forster put it: “Only Connect!”

This approach to life of course, the way of connection, is entirely the opposite of how Scrooge conducts himself at the opening of the book: Dickens makes that abundantly clear in the description I quote earlier of Scrooge as a man who is “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” edging “his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”

That is to say, Scrooge is a man who has disconnected himself as much as is humanly possible. He may have a business and a good reputation as a businessman, but in the beginning of the book, he has no authentic intercourse with anyone, spurning even the one surviving relative he has, his nephew Fred–and on Christmas Eve no less.

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Fred however, a plucky chap, never loses his good humor in this early scene, giving his uncle a fine little speech about the particular value of Christmas, calling it

a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

Scrooge’s response is to belittle his nephew. Then, after Fred, still persisting, invites him to dinner the next day for Christmas, Scrooge turns even uglier, vowing to see him in hell before ever he comes for Christmas dinner.

So then, think about it. How does this work really? How does Ebenezer Scrooge shift from a miserable, money-making oyster, poking his head out of his shell only to insult people, to a man who frisks about his rooms and heads right out the door, engaging right and left in handsome acts of generosity? What can actually account for his new, miraculous and permanent habit of connecting whole-heartedly with people everywhere he goes?

Another place to look for the answer I suppose lies with the power of the spirits who visit Scrooge. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story after all, and who wouldn’t change their tune faced with these visitations? Scrooge, you could say, is scared straight.

But now I’m really setting up straw ghosts here, because clearly,  this is not the whole answer either: Scrooge is plenty afraid at various points along his journey, but it’s not fear that is the most potent catalyst for his change. It couldn’t be. For though fear may change us, its primary effect is not to open our hearts, but to close them.

I think the key to Scrooge’s transformation lies in something else.

So let us start with him after Marley has gone, at the beginning of his journey with the three spirits. As you recall, Scrooge’s first companion amongst these spirits is The Ghost of Christmas Past, who confirms, as Marley foretold, that he has indeed come for Scrooge’s reclamation.

What you might not recall however is that just before they fly from Scrooge’s dismal rooms, the spirit, having compassion for the fear Scrooge is feeling, places his hand on the man’s heart. And his hand is still there when they make their first stop, a “gentle touch,” Dickens writes, that though “light and instantaneous,” is “still present to the old man’s sense of feeling.”

Where they are now when first they alight, is on an open country road, in a place that catapults Scrooge into a wholly different frame of mind as he recognizes countryside from his boyhood, happily recollecting and relishing the old familiar sights as they walk along. But soon they are not alone: the road is filled with boys Scrooge also remembers, boys who are traveling home for Christmas on horseback, on gigs, and on carts. “All these boys,” Dickens writes, “were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.”

In the midst of all this, we see a side of Scrooge we haven’t seen before, a side that no one has seen, evidently, for years: “Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds…why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past!”

But this opening jaunt, pleasant as it is, is just an ice-breaker, a little warm-up before the next step in Scrooge’s reclamation. Because a whole nightful of recreated happiness would not have the power to thaw the deep freeze Scrooge has packed around his heart. Not permanently anyway. That will take something else.

And that something else comes soon enough, the Ghost of Christmas Past going on with Scrooge to the school building the boys have just left, a mansion of “broken fortunes”: desolate, shabby, damp, and cold: “There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.”

Surprisingly, as moving as this scene is, Dickens, in the theatrical readings he used to give in later years of A Christmas Carol, dropped it. No doubt he had good reasons—the whole book, for one thing, couldn’t be read in one sitting, and it is also said that Dickens’ contemporary audiences favored Tiny Tim and the merrier feast scenes in the story too.

But I wonder if perhaps another reason Dickens declined to share this passage with an audience live was because it touched too painfully on a similar kind of desolation he himself had experienced as a boy during a period of acute family crisis.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Dickens’ father went into a financial freefall that ultimately landed him in debtors’ prison. This resulted in two things: while most of the family actually stayed in the prison along with the father, the young Charles Dickens, who considered himself a gentleman in the making and who had been going to school, instead now found himself at the age of twelve living alone in rented rooms and working, trapped, ten hours a day, six days a week, in a broken-down factory pasting labels on pots of shoe blacking.

And this went on for months, an experience so traumatizing for the boy that years later, as a grown man, he could not walk past the place where the factory had once been, without crying.

Strikingly Scrooge has the same reaction when he is confronted with the sight of his younger school-boy self: “They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.”

It’s a painful moment, but a momentous one, because it’s the point where Scrooge’s transformation truly begins. For it’s not only the house that’s broken–it is the boy himself who is broken too, the boy whose heart Scrooge still bears within, that same heart the Spirit has laid his careful and abiding hand upon.

Understated as the scene is, compared to, say the later scenes with Tiny Tim, this moment conveys a kind of human miracle. Though utterly sunk in his old, overwhelming desolation, Scrooge now has a companion, a calm and deeply accepting witness to his anguish.

photo 2

So now it’s no longer a question of how long Scrooge will take to thaw: his melting is instantaneous. And why? Because of the power this kind of witnessing has, the ghost’s compassionate spirit bringing clear-eyed acceptance, allowing Scrooge the boy and Scrooge the man to reconnect with the whole truth of himself.

And this, I’d say too, is the underlying dynamic in the transforming power of the book itself. One word for it of course is connection. But more specifically, the process that Dickens is enacting on the page for us is the process of vulnerability. Because it’s not just that the spirit connects with Scrooge—there’s more going on, an ultimately mysterious, paradoxical process, one I think that quietly runs beneath all the rest of the story, through all of Scrooges’ journey through the Past, the Present, and the Future, through all the wrenching scenes and the boisterous ones too.

But wait, just what do I mean by vulnerability?

Well, as I was saying before, the fundamental truth of being human is that we need to be connected—like it or not, we come wired for it. Without connection, we’re stifled; with it, we thrive. But in order to be connected, we have to let others see the things in us that make us feel like we’re maybe not good enough for anyone to connect with. It’s like Brene Brown, the researcher whose TED talk on vulnerability went viral, says: “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

What Scrooge discovers when he revisits his abandoned younger self in the company of the spirit, is that he must embrace his vulnerability in order to live again. Not only that, he must have the courage to do it with others. But courage, as Brene Brown reminds us, is not to be confused with bravery. If you look at the original root sense of the word, courage means having the heart to tell your whole story.

This of course, at the beginning of the Christmas Carol, is exactly what Scrooge doesn’t have. All he has is money, lots of it. But ironically, given the ways he has compensated for his extreme lack of connection with others, it turns out he is no better off than he was as a boy. He has in fact, recreated the hateful circumstances of his younger years with an unwitting fidelity. Whereas the young Ebenezer was left alone on Christmas day huddled by a small fire in a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building–Scrooge, on Christmas eve, rich as he is, takes himself home to a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building. His fire too, is the same fire, a dispiriting thing, a “very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night.”

But as ironic as the situation is, it’s natural too—in fact it’s exactly the kind of thing lots of us do, recreating the old wounding dynamics of our childhoods and imprisoning ourselves in the process.

For Scrooge himself is certainly in a prison, as the spirit of his former partner Marley recognizes. He sees that Scrooge needs drastic spiritual reclamation, a kind of crash course in vulnerability, and that of course is what Scrooge gets, the ghosts with their spirit of compassion handling him not with kid gloves, but compelling him simply to see things as they are. And that’s what does the trick: the spirits usher our man Scrooge into a fuller vision of himself, one that makes the prison of his own construction finally visible to him. Once he has seen that, the process of reclamation really takes hold in him, and he makes reconnection his own habit, his own philosophy, his religion really. For Ebenezer Scrooge is a man joyfully resurrected.

No wonder then, he goes frisking about his rooms! It’s not just because he finds he’s still alive, but because he finds at last he truly is alive. And what else to do then but make his reunion with mankind manifest, not only through giving spontaneously and generously, but by going forth to join the world on the streets of London? And here is how Dickens, who was himself his whole life a great walker of the streets of London, describes Scrooge’s jaunt that Christmas morning:

“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.”

Yes, it has taken a long night of work, but here at last, rejuvenated on Christmas Day, Scrooge has found out the wisdom of his nephew Fred’s words the day before—that is, for all that we continually fail to see it, other people really are our fellow-passengers to the grave: they are the only companions we have.

Scrooge1

Now I know Christmas certainly is not always the festive occasion Dickens painted. It truly is not. And it can be a time of particular and pointed anguish. But at the same time, it is also a time of year when, again, as Fred claims, “men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” In that way, Christmas offers precious opportunity, a chance for us to disregard what pains us most about the holiday and do instead what we’re here to do: connect.

So may the spirit of the past, the present, and the future be with you this Christmas season. May you have the courage to reconnect yourself with others and to find yourself whole. And may it bring us all joy.

Amen and blessed be.

 —Hilary Mullins

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Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.

Dec 142013
 

Genni in Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a reputation for being a closed kingdom, a place where military repression is the norm, unfriendly to strangers and outside influences. In 2006, my Italian-Canadian-singer-composer-writer friend Genni Gunn, rather intrepidly, went there anyway, with her husband Frank, her sister Ileana and Ileana’s husband Peter. “The Wild Dogs of Bagan” speaks of a down-at-heel country, the constant military presence (a soldier with binoculars watches a birdwatcher with binoculars), the poverty and the sense of menace (not just the cobras). It’s an essay excerpted from Genni’s brand new book of travel and memoir pieces entitled Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place. We published an earlier excerpt, an essay about her ancestral village in southern Italy called “Tracks: An Italian Memoir” last year and before that an excerpt from her novel Solitaria which was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize. Genni lives in Vancouver so we hardly ever get to see one another, although a side benefit of all my travel for Savage Love this fall was the chance to spend an afternoon in a Granville Island eatery catching up with her. Lovely memory.

dg

Bagan BuddhaBagan Buddha

Old Pagan 2006

8:00 a.m. I step out of the hotel bungalow to fenced, groomed, lush gardens, beyond which a yellow desert extends to the edge of the mighty Ayeyarwady River. A chain of blue hills shimmers in the morning sun. Three banyan trees provide all the shade for the restaurant, roots spread, branches clawing the sky. Squirrels run up and down their trunks. Crows shriek, flying back and forth, a murder of crows, whooshing their wings. Whoosh whoosh — the sound of lassos through the air. White-throated babblers hop into potted plants. Frangipani, skeletal grey limbs with single white flowers at the tip of branches. My brother-in-law Peter has his binoculars out, and his pencil and bird list: Vinous-breasted starlings, White-throated kingfishers, Great egrets, Ruddy Shelducks, White Wagtails, Grey herons.

At breakfast, served outdoors on the large patio, where all meals are served, on tables covered in white tablecloths, we hear that General Than Shwe — Myanmar’s iron-fisted military dictator — is in Bagan, as he often is, to visit the temples and gild the stupas and Buddhas, in a superstitious effort to fortify his power and gain the people’s confidence. “When he comes to visit a school,” a young man told us the other night, “they have to take the little money for education, and decorate one classroom, so that the General can see it. He spends two minutes there and leaves. Meantime, the towns and villages are suffering for this.”

“You won’t believe what happened to Peter,” my sister Ileana says, nudging him.

Peter, rolls his eyes at us, but is a good sport, so he tells us that he was up around 6:00 a.m., wandering about, bird-watching with his binoculars, when in his sights, he was startled by an armed guard staring at him through binoculars.

4 Bagan

We all laugh, imagining this unlikely scene, like a slapstick comedy on TV.

“Should teach you to stay in bed until a reasonable hour,” I say.

“It was not funny,” Peter says, and tells us he quickly lowered his binoculars, and casually walked away.

“Apparently,” Ileana says, “the generals are staying at the property next to the hotel.”

“You better be careful,” I say, smiling.

“They might come and take you away,” Ileana says, teasing him, because instead of joining us today, Peter is off on his own birding expedition.

After breakfast, we head out on foot to look at temples all around us, though we could rent a horse-drawn cart or a bicycle. Bagan, formerly Pagan, is an ancient city, the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, ruled by King Anawrahta. Situated in the dry zone and sheltered from the rain by the Rakhine Yoma mountain range in the west, it spreads for forty-two square kilometres along the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy. At one time, the plain was dotted with over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Today, only the ruins of about 2,200 remain, rising above and among the desert vegetation. Of these, the gold and white ones are still in use, while the red brick ones aren’t.

2 Bagan

3 Bagan

It feels as if we are the only people in this vast landscape of red earth, stippled with ancient spires, pagodas, temples. Desert brush and vegetation abound, dirt paths snake from one monument to the other, haphazard and circuitous. Quickly, however, two young boys attach themselves to us — Soe Myint wears a white dusty T-shirt and longyi, and Zaw Win an ochre T and jeans rolled up to mid-calf. Both their cheeks are white with thanakha and on their feet, flip-flops. In the woven bags around their bodies, the children stash accordions of postcards they sell for 1000 kyat.

“We are guide,” Zaw Win says. “We show you.”

We follow the children, who explain the history of the ruins, their voices rising and falling, their fingers pointing out this temple or that pagoda. Much of what we learn from the local people and the guides is oral tradition, difficult to substantiate through books or websites (as I later discover), but far more interesting. There has been no free press here for decades. The Internet is monitored and blocked. Ileana and Peter get their news every ten weeks in Bangkok, where they go to renew their visas.

“Do you go to school?” Frank asks.

“No,” Soe Myint says, “no money for school.”

I think about our spoiled children at home, our lax education system, the students’ sense of entitlement to good grades, the many functionally illiterate high-school graduates we see year after year. I understand why Ileana enjoys teaching overseas, in countries where education is valued, where students are eager to learn.

A military truck approaches in a cloud of red dust, its open bed filled with heavily armed soldiers, who roam, feral and unchecked, through the countryside, barking orders. We yield to the passing truck. I assume the soldiers are headed for Sinmayarshin Temple, whose golden stupa was regilded in 1997 by Than Shwe, on the advice of his soothsayer; Than Shwe, whose beliefs fuse Buddhism, Nat worship, astrology, and Yadaya magic rituals — an excellent witches’ brew for politics.

As we walk along, a venomous snake crosses the road, a slithering metaphor. We stare at the imprint it leaves in the earth. In this Garden of Eden live thirty-nine deadly snake species, many of which thrive in the abandoned temples of Bagan. Burma has the highest death rate from snakebites in the world — about 1,000 people a year just from Russell’s Vipers. Like everyone here, we walk barefoot along dark passages.

“King Cobra,” Soe Myint says, keeping a safe distance as the snake slinks away. “See it is thinner in one part and thicker where the head is.”

I try to stare at the ground from then on, but not for long, distracted by the splendour of the ruins, the brilliant skeletal frangipani along the road, and then, up ahead, a red carpet stretched to the stairs of a temple, the path bordered by red bougainvillea, and lined with soldiers who stand silent and forbidding in the sun. The children suddenly disappear.

Today was to be the start of the Popa Nat Festival, a festival that goes on for six days, beginning on the first day of full moon in Nadaw, which corresponds to our December. “Nadaw” in Myanmar characters transliterates as “Nat Taw,” meaning “Spirit Respect,” the veneration of Deities. However, because General Than Shwe is in town, the festival is not allowed.

Wherever he goes, a small army precedes him, clearing the area, setting down red carpets for him to walk on, lining these carpets with soldiers, like wild dogs keeping everyone frightened. He is enemy number one of the people, no matter how much he travels around, pretending to spread goodwill. It is obscene to see the money spent on pomp for this regime, for the new capital Naypyidaw, for the red carpets and lavish houses for the generals, whose disregard and disdain for their own people is staggering.

Bagan monks

We walk past the guards and climb the steps. This temple has padlocked iron gates at every entrance except for one — a security measure for the general, though we have seen no one all day. We remove our shoes, step on the red carpet and tiptoe inside, walking anti-clockwise through the long dark passages, admiring the Buddhas, stucco carvings, frescos. As we come to each opening, we find a padlocked gate, and soon we feel as if we’re in a maze and have lost all track of where we entered. A motorcycle revs outside, a warning surely. Then a wild dog barks, a man shouts, the motorcycle revs, other wild dogs join in, growing in magnitude until the air reverberates with deep sonorous woofs, yappy small-dog yaps, snarly Rottweiler growls, howls like wolves. A cacophonous canine symphony, an ominous soundtrack. It’s easy to imagine we’re locked inside. It’s easy to imagine a King Cobra slithering toward us. My heart beats faster, recalling the pack of soldiers, the ruthlessness they’re known for. My feet speed along the red carpet, and finally, there, the open gate.

We rush out, relieved, and avoiding the red carpet, scramble away from the temple. The soldiers watch us go, their faces impassive.

The two boys now reappear from behind a bush, eager to resume their guiding duties. We turn a corner and find a soldier facing us. Startled, we nod and walk on. At the end of another path, the soldier. The children are wary, furtive. They duck behind bushes. For the rest of the afternoon, no matter where we go, the soldier follows, sometimes surprising us at the top of a temple, his proximity threatening, like the wild dogs circling below. The children disappear whenever he’s visible, as if tuned into a collective memory.

“This is biggest temple,” Zaw Win says, pointing to Dhammayangyi Temple, a step-pyramid made of identical bricks without mortar.

“Look at the bricks,” Ileana says. “They are so precise. According to legend, while this temple was being built, King Narathu would execute masons if he could stick a pin between the bricks. Can you imagine? It was never completed.”

“No wonder,” I say. “He must have killed all the masons.”

temple

This temple has dark long corridors — approximately twenty-five metres per side — surrounding an enormous central core completely filled with rubble. No one knows why, or whether this core is simply a buttress to support the massive building.

We follow the passageways around, tall narrow walls pressing in, and when we get to one end, where small, perforated stone windows let in light, Ileana stops. “You know what this reminds me of?” she says. “Pozzecco.”

I stop too, and think about that. Pozzecco is a small village in the north of Italy, where my father’s aunts lived and farmed various fields. Ileana and I visited in summers, lay on top of hay wagons, watching the thin dusty road winding among green fields. “You’re right,” I say. “The paths, the colour of the earth, the feel of this is like Pozzecco.” And I recall the magic and superstitions of those happy days, when we slept in the stone mansion, which our great-aunts had convinced us was haunted. “And the ghosts, remember?” I say to Ileana. “Scrabbling in the ceiling, over our bedroom.” I look up, where high in the darkness hang hundreds of bats.

“They had silkworms up there,” Ileana says. “You didn’t really believe the ghost stories, did you?”

“We both did,” I insisted, and recalled a memory within a memory — a visit I made to Udine in 1982, to my father’s ancestral home where his sister lived, and how, on hearing I was going to visit the great-aunts, she had dissuaded me from staying overnight, citing malevolent ghosts. It grieves me to think how heartless I must have appeared, returning after so long to visit the last two octogenarian great-aunts, with whom my childhood summers are entwined, and not even spending a night with them in that mansion, with its long dark stone corridors, like the ones here in Myanmar, decades later.

“Actually,” Ileana says, “I wasn’t thinking about that at all. What I was recalling were the times — maybe you weren’t there — when I went to Pozzecco with the boy cousins, who would dare me to do crazy things in order to let me play with them.

“One day, I was wandering through the fields with our cousins, and we found an underground passage, a fallout shelter — I think that’s what it was, or maybe it was a bunker for soldiers during WWII. It was a cave, really, with a very small opening. Of course, the cousins dared me to go inside.” She pauses. “We had been warned about poisonous snakes that lived in crevices in the earth, so naturally, I was afraid. However, I wasn’t going to let the boys get the best of me. I was such a tomboy!”

In the winters, when Ileana came to visit me in Rutigliano, she was considered too loud, too rambunctious, an unbroken pony who galloped through the house, broken objects and scoldings trailing behind her.

“And did you?” I ask, though I have no doubt.

“Of course. I was petrified, but I crawled in and it was dark and dank, just like in here, only the walls were closer. I thought a snake would bite me. Oh, they were so impressed with me after that.”

“I was definitely not there,” I say.

“One of the boy cousins was Australian,” Ileana says. “Tulio, I think his name was, and what I remember is his mother, who was everything I wanted in a mother. She took the time to sit with me, to teach me to embroider, and do all the things that little girls did back then. I wanted her for my mother.”

I think about the childhood longing for this perfect mother in those years when there was none. Yet we’ve become who we are because of our pasts. Would we be here, now, in this remote location? Would we have travelled as we have — I for years a vagabond musician on the road — my sister endlessly displaced, returning every year to an altered home? The two of us, rediscovering each other in a foreign land?

Early Morning Ayeyarwady River

 §

At breakfast, in the morning, we continue to tease Peter about the binocular incident with the soldier, and blame him for our being followed the previous day.

“Careful when you’re in the pool,” Ileana says.

“Watch out for the King Cobra,” Frank says.

“Don’t go walking on any red carpets,” I say.

And suddenly, in the midst of our hilarity, arrives a pack of soldiers flanking a general, who strides directly to our table, as if he’s heard everything we’ve said.

“I am General Soe Naing, Minister of Hotels and Tourism,” he announces. He has a large white star on his uniform. “How long are you staying?” he asks, which feels like a trick question.

Our laughter wanes. Our earlier defiance dissipates as the twelve armed soldiers surround our table. Beside me, Frank’s face is set. I wonder what consequences there will be if he speaks up. The general looks carefully at each of our faces, but returns to Frank’s repeatedly. What could they do to us? I recall the statements we had to sign in order to secure visas, statements that say if we speak against the government, we can be imprisoned. Oppose those relying on external elements, holding negative views.

I listen to the murmur of our innocuous responses, to the wind through the banyan tree, the clatter of coffee cups against plates, the chatter of White-throated babblers, the soldiers’ boots on stone, the echo of growls, the barks of wild dogs around us, and when the general leans forward, his face in a tight smile, and holds out his hand to each of us, I watch myself from a distance, as if my arm does not belong to me, as it moves up to shake his hand. And the dogs howl.

—Genni Gunn

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Genni Gunn in Myanmar

Ileana, Peter, Genni & Frank

Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. She has published three novels: Solitaria (Signature Editions), nominated for the Giller Prize 2011; Tracing Iris, made into a film titled The Riverbank; and Thrice Upon a Time; two story collections,  two poetry collections, and two translations of poetry collections by Dacia Maraini. Her books have been finalists for the Commonwealth Prize, the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award, the John Glassco Prize and the Premio Internazionale Diego Valeri. She has written the libretto for the opera Alternate Visions, produced in Montreal in 2007, and showcased at the Opera America Conference in Vancouver, May 2013. She is an avid traveler, and her experiences are reflected in her most recent book, Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place (Signature Editions, 2013).

Dec 132013
 

My Nine Daughters

A man has nine daughters, including Emily A and Emily B, by nine different wives, and one day he sits down to write the stories of their births. This is the concept behind Marty Gervais’s charming tour de force “Nine Lives: Reunion in Paris.” There is no domestic angst, no break-up melodrama here; just a man who seems sweetly committed to romantic entanglements and no birth control. And what do you know? Things turn out well. The story has the feel of Latin America about, just this side of Magic Realism; something like Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, which also shares the hilarious recursiveness of plot(s). Marty last appeared on these pages as a poet. You can read more about him there.

dg

This is fictional. I really only have one daughter. But I was in France with these lovely young women — students from the University of Windsor. We were down by the Seine one night drinking red wine, and some young men — very drunk — strolled by and asked why I was with all these beautiful women. Before I could say anything, one of them, Krysten, piped up, “This is our Papa!” (She spoke French to them.) They stepped back, surprised. She added, “He was married to each of our mothers, and this is our reunion where we get to meet each of our step-sisters. Nine different wives, nine different mothers.” The young men shook their heads in disbelief. One exclaimed, “That is a good life!” And so, on the flight back to Canada, I started writing this piece.

—Marty Gervais

 

That last night in Paris, we went down to the river with two bottles of Burgundy wine. We watched the river come alive with lights. I spied the young boys cavorting in the darkening landscape. And waved away the men hawking cigarettes and small bottles of wine. Saw a man coaxing a thin young woman to join his five buddies. I sat silently watching and sipping red wine out of a plastic cup, half listening to the nine of you trading stories of one another, talking about your mothers, my nine wives. You, my nine daughters. Nine different mothers. Nine stepsisters meeting for the first time. A rendezvous in Paris. These are your stories. This is how I met your mothers.

§

Dear Sarah

You danced along the Seine in the fading light above the rooftops, the river rejoicing in the thin shadows that lift and play on a cobblestone night. You are the first, your mother a gypsy I met in Bologna, a young girl riding the commuter train. I’d see her every morning on my way to the library. Her hips sashaying through the aisles, dark and brooding eyes, and a smile that lit up the faces of men everywhere. I spoke to her one dark morning when it was raining, and I let her take my umbrella and trailed after her to a small albergo in the fish market. A room overlooking the street. I watched her unlatch the big windows that ran from floor to ceiling, and she opened them to the rain, the men in the market hurrying to cover the tables with tarps, and scrambling for shelter. She made me tea, boiling up water on a small stove down the hallway, and I sat on the edge of the bed, and cupped a rounded clay mug, and I listened to her to speak about her family from Vienna. Street musicians. How her father wasn’t happy with her — she couldn’t play the fiddle to save her soul. But she could dance. They would play, and she would dance. Her body, light and lively, her skirts catching the wind… That afternoon, she danced in the dark room above the fish market, moving with such grace, such wonder. We stayed for a week, and I quit my job to join her family in Vienna where we were married… It couldn’t last. I knew that. Perhaps even that day in Bologna. I knew nothing of her pregnancy until I received a telegram telling me of your birth. By then I had crossed the ocean, returned home and was working at the University of Toronto medical library. I disappeared into the labyrinth of stacks, and slumped in its silence and read about you: She is a daughter. Dark eyes, delicate hands. Looks nothing like you.

§

 Dear Jacklyn

I met your mother in Krakow. I had gone to the opera house in the late afternoon.

Shocked to hear the trains rumbling so close by, just outside the tall narrow windows, the place shuddering like a startled puppy. It annoyed me and took my attention away, and when I looked up I saw her across the aisle. She was by herself. Her hand clutching a leather purse or bag. A scarf covering her head. She glanced at me, and gave me that look as if she knew me, had met me somewhere. I instantly turned away. I didn’t want her to think I was staring, but I wondered what it was about me that caught her attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that she had turned to look at me again. I tried to fix my attention on the concert program. The pianist was playing Polonaise in A-flat major. I was in Krakow on a research grant. I was searching for a family that I had been swept up in the Nazis in the war — it was thought they were Jews, and both the mother and father had been arrested and sent to the camps. They perished there. My interest, however, was a boy who had survived, and had lived with an uncle who worked as a shoemaker. I was having trouble finding people who knew him. That afternoon when I walked out into the courtyard outside the theatre, your mother was there. Once again, she glanced at me, but this time, I nodded and smiled. She paused, then shyly stepped over in my direction, and we stumbled through introductions. I knew no Polish, but she knew some English … Three months later, we were married. I was the only English-speaking person at the wedding. My parents refused to go. They still weren’t happy with my marriage. We lived in a small flat above a café. I continued my research and wanted to return to Toronto, but we ran into difficulties with her emigration to Canada. I had to leave, but I promised to smooth the way for her to join me. I was very much in love with her. At night, in the four-room flat in Krakow, I would sit with her in the kitchen. A bare tungsten lightbulb dangling above us, cupboard doors sagging on their hinges, the floor cold against the soles of our bare feet. I held her hands in mine, and we talked about the future. A life in Toronto. That April when I left, I promised I would return by summer. She need not take anything. But after a few months of wrangling with immigration authorities, and getting nowhere, sadly I gave up. It was in September that she told me she was expecting. It took your mother another 10 months before she let me know I had yet another daughter. After a year, she sent me a photograph. My second born.

§

 Dear Samantha

I left a steamer trunk behind in Bologna with my first wife. Some day I might let you see it. I have it stored away — its contents a miscellany of notebooks, post cards, dried flowers, Russian watches and hats, things I picked up on my trips to the book fairs in that city. I met your mother one night in January when I decided to go Tre Poetes, a café of the three poets. The waiter was leaning up against the doorframe, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he spoke, the ceiling fans whirling like lazy dancers. Your mother was clearing the tables. The most beautiful smile as she gazed up. I am not sure why I did what I did — it was not at all characteristic of me to be so bold, but I reached out and took her wrist and thanked her. Surprisingly, she smiled. She never spoke a word. Months went by before I saw her again. This time at the market. Three days before I was returning to Toronto. She recognized me and nodded. I can’t believe what happened next. I cancelled my flight. The next afternoon, we were in the plaza when it started to rain, and we ran for cover under the colonnaded streets, and found shelter in a noisy cramped café. A soccer game blinking away on the TV behind the bar. Italy versus England. We could hardly hear each other, but there was something special in that moment. We slept that night on the third floor of the same albergo where I had my first wife. A different room. I told her all about the gypsy wife. Men do that. They talk. Maybe it’s to make sense. Maybe it’s to boast. Maybe they think women are interested. We talk. We talk too much. But that night, she didn’t care as we snuggled in this quilted winter night. We were married in the summer. Our wedding night in the big room at the front of the house. I am not sure why your mother left me. I returned home to find her suitcases packed, and a man I had never seen conveying them to the car outside. We were still residing in Bologna. I knew of your birth from a newspaper clipping that arrived in the mail nine months later. An eight-pound baby girl.

§

Dear Victoria

I was at the post office in Rome when I met your mother. She was arguing with the clerk over a package that had arrived at her home in Malta. Somehow it had been ripped open, and its contents damaged. She wanted compensation, maybe an apology — I am not sure. It made little sense. She just wanted someone to talk to. She was getting nowhere, when suddenly she began directing everything at me. I nodded. I frowned. I sighed. Finally I was holding her hands as they dipped up and down, her dark eyes fixed upon me as if I could solve all the problems in the world. I am good listener sometimes. Maybe it’s because I really have little to offer. Maybe it’s because I really don’t care. I’m not sure. Maybe I care more than I think. In any case, for her, I was the only one willing to hear her story. Soon we had wandered far from the post office, and we were walking in the square— the afternoon light fading over tiled rooftops and the city exhaling its tired sounds. Your mother was the sweetest woman I had ever met. I was leaving that night for Sicily and asked her if she wanted to join me. I drove a 1964 Fiat 500. Its leather seats slightly ripped. Our suitcases taking up the entire back seat. We drove through the night, and she talked about her family in Malta, and begged me to join her. She wanted me to meet her parents. They owned a small hotel, and sometimes she worked in the kitchen. I couldn’t resist. A month later, we sailed for Malta. Two months later, we were married. Our honeymoon in a village by the sea. Four days. We never left our room. I was there for your birth. The doctor bundled you up and carried you down the narrow hallway, his shoes clicking on the tiled floors.  Your beautiful beautiful girl. Your mother left me in six months. I sailed to the mainland. I made my way to Prague. Another research grant. This gave me time to think.

§

Dear Emily B

I wasn’t surprised to meet you and see a camera in your hands. You are so much the image of your mother.  I can’t forget that moment when I met her. She was that lean, and elegant woman who moved right in front of me just as I stepping out of a taxi. She apologized for standing in my way. I noticed she was holding a Leica. She was photographing the cathedral that towered above the street. It surprised me that she spoke English. I paid the driver and turned to her again, for it seemed she was waiting for me to say something. Instead, she apologized awkwardly, then offered to carry my leather bag, or at least my satchel. I smiled and told her I really didn’t mind — she had not inconvenienced me in any way. Well, can I buy you a coffee? I agreed. We made out way to a small café. We were the only ones there except for the owner who was sweeping the floor. Your mother was a photographer then for a small news service. I know she gave this up a long, long time ago. That day her assignment was to photograph the restoration work being done on the cathedral. I asked her if she was married, and this surprised her. Actually she seemed offended. It wasn’t the kind of thing you should ask anyone. But she did tell me she had just broken up with a man that she loved very very much. He was notary, and made good money, and was well respected in the city. She had intended to marry him, but one morning she spotted him at the train station embracing a tall beautiful woman who was boarding the train. When she asked about this woman, he denied it. She was crushed. She stopped seeing him three months ago. That night, when I was unpacking some of the research material I had brought with me to the city, there was a soft knock at the door. It was your mother. She asked if I might join her for a drink. The rest is history. We were married in Prague. A small wedding. That night we drove to the Baltic coast. We stayed two weeks. It rained five days straight. We never left our rooms. Our meals were delivered from a nearby café. We were married for 17 months. You were born at Christmas when I was back in Toronto, struggling with a book I was researching. I received a phone call that night. A snowy night from your father. He seemed emotional. His first words were: She’s a girl. A little girl. That’s good. The marriage was doomed from the beginning. She wanted a career. I didn’t care, I guess. Or that’s what she claimed. It was always about what I wanted, never about her. I complained too much. I left for France that summer. You were eight months old. Your mother packed my suitcase and told me to leave. When I got to Paris, and walked from Gare Bercy to a nearby hotel, and opened my suitcase, there was a tiny photograph of you in the garden of our house in Prague. You were sitting on a blanket. Freckles, and pushing back strands of hair. I wrote you a letter and hoped your mother might read it to you one day. You were my fifth daughter. I told your mother nothing of the others.

§

Dear Emily A

I was surprised to find out that you played basketball. Your mother was an opera singer, as you well know. She gave it up by the time you were 12, and she had the most beautiful voice. In the early mornings when we were first together, I would be wakened by her at the other end of the flat we rented in High Park. As I say, I was surprised when we first spoke. I could see myself driving to the games in high school gymnasiums. I know nothing of the sport. But I look at you and beneath that athletic build is someone with culture, with intellect, someone who quotes philosophy and poetry as easy as breathing … You are like your mother that way. I met your mother when I was tired of Europe. I returned to Toronto, and within four or five months, I was looking for a job out west. I met your mother in Banff. I was at a conference. She was a singer, and had just finished a run in Calgary, and had joined some girlfriends for a weekend away. I was at the Rankin Hotel on the main drag. She was staying there too. We met in the lobby. I was reading the paper. She saw the headlines about the federal election taking place Monday, and asked if I was going to vote. Yes I said. Of course. She waved her hand as if to dismiss the whole affair. Well sure, she said. But really what’s the point? The same old stodgy bastards will get elected, right? I nodded, and then laughed. She smiled coyly. I asked lamely, What brings you to Banff? From there, we traded stories. I’m not sure what impressed your mother about me. But she was eager to hear all about my stories from Europe. She had always dreamed of singing opera in Bologna or Milan. I spoke about the colonnaded streets of the north, or the old opera house in Bologna. And the place by the sea in Malta. About travelling by train to the Baltic and Paris and Frankfurt. That afternoon, we walked down to the Bow. I rented a canoe and we kept close along the bank of the river. I told her its landscape reminded me of the poetry by Gary Snyder. I tried my best to quote from his work, and told her he was friends with Kerouac, that Kerouac had actually written a book about him called The Dharma Bums. The next day I returned to Toronto and for the next three months, I worked on my book. That fall, I flew to Paris for another conference. I hadn’t followed up with your mother at all since Banff. I had promised to write, and of course, I did not. She didn’t either. But there I was making my along Git-Le-Coeur one night when I ran into her. We stood in the street, police sirens wailing in the distance, and the street lights twinkling all around us, and it was if we were two long lost children finally finding one another. I remembered telling her in Banff all about Snyder and Kerouac, and told her she ought to check out Hotel de Vieux Paris, the place where Ginsberg and Bouroughs had stayed. That night, I walked her back to her hotel. She was in Paris to attend an opera. A friend had landed a job with a company travelling through Europe. She got me tickets, and we sat together the next night. I was in the city for a week. She spent two nights with me in a hotel with a view that overlooked the topsy-turvy coloured rooftops of Paris. I could see both Le Palais de Justice in the distance, and the Pont Neuf. By the fall we were married. We moved to a High Park in Toronto. That winter we went down to Grenadier Pond, and with the softly falling snow all around us, we promised one another we would stay together for ever. Forever turned out to be five months. I really did love her. But we argued over everything. Religion, politics, poetry, whether black was really black, neutello over chocolate, Mac versus PC, and the Leafs over the Canadiens … I finally moved out. You were born eight months later at the hospital right at the end of Roncesvalles. A plain, spiteful handwritten note: Your daughter was born yesterday. How many does that make now?

§

 Dear PAIGE

I saw a Polaroid shot of you when you were four. You wore glasses. Your smile was tender and earnest. You wore knee-high stockings, patent leather shoes and ribbons in your hair. I was dumbfounded and baffled as to why I was receiving this picture. That’s when I learned of your birth. That’s when I learned that you were the seventh daughter. I don’t blame your mother for keeping it from me. We were married for four months when she got pregnant. I knew nothing about it of course otherwise I might have stayed. But she kept it from me, perhaps to get back at me for leaving her. We were living in Saskatoon. I was working at the library. She was doing graduate work at the university. We met in Windsor, Ont. I was back in that region for some consulting assignments with the city over setting up its archives. I had become a specialist on French settlements. She was working at the museum there. We went out a few times. I didn’t think she was too serious, but when I got this appointment in Saskatoon, she asked me if I might consider living together. That’s when I popped the question. We were married in a civil service at City Hall. Our honeymoon was a bit old fashioned. We drove to Niagara Falls, and rented a motel room. From there, we drove to Saskatoon. I have to tell you, we really enjoyed each other’s company. And liked the same movies, same foods. I don’t think I ever loved your mother. It was more a matter-of-fact kind of marriage. Convenient. The day I left, I called a taxi and moved into a rooming house in town. I quit my job two months later, and moved to Windsor.

  §

Jessica

Your mother had red hair. I spotted her late one afternoon in Dublin. I had never been to Ireland before. This was the first time. A holiday finally. I was still smarting over the other marriages. Feeling pretty low. Wondering what had gone wrong. And daughters scattered across the globe. The taxi driver was welcoming me to the city, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We sped past a blur of shops, doorways, and men congregating outside of pubs. That’s when I heard the man tell me it was Bloomsday, the anniversary of when James Joyce and Nora Barnacle went out walking together for the first time, the day on which the novel Ulysses takes place. The 16th of June, 1904. A humid day in Dublin. You heard of Mr. Joyce? I nodded. Of course. And smiled. The driver’s face fragmented in the rear view mirror. He was smiling broadly and still talking. I got out at Finn’s Hotel. I knew that’s where Nora had worked as a chambermaid. I stepped out into the street, telling the driver I wanted to walk. Of course, I made my way to Merrion Square. After all that’s where James and Nora met, and passed by 68 Clare Street where Samuel Beckett’s father ran his business and where Beckett would write Murphy. Soon I was immersed in the culture and literature of the place, a city where each and every soul depends upon the weight of words. I found a tiny rooming house of sorts. The tiniest of rooms, as it turned out, on Upper Hatch. A garden flat with a sink in the room. The toilet was in a cramped little closet along the corridor. It was when I had opened the narrow window to the street that I saw your mother. The sun had just wedged itself between two storm clouds and it poured down upon her. Her red hair like an apparition. And she turned. I was on the second floor, and she saw me. I nodded a hello from the upper floor, and she bowed in dramatic fashion, sweeping her outstretched arms as if she stood on stage, then quickly glared at me. I was taken aback, and shut the window. This sort of thing never used to annoy me, but that night, she was part of my troubling dreams. The next morning in search of tea, I saw her walking ahead of me. A beautiful June morning. We both wound up at a take-away shop. She smiled coyly. The most heavenly face. She quickly apologized, and giggled a little. I didn’t know what to say, but she filled the silence with a flood of words. Suddenly I was learning everything about her — her father a ship builder, her mother, a nanny, and she, a librarian at the National Library. We stood in the street, my own words punctuating hers, but mostly with questions. A steady stream, her lively green eyes as fresh as mint, her soft white hands drawing out one story after another. I loved her instantly. That night, we met at a pub, and pressed close to one another because it was so rowdy and noisy. Again, I listened, and was taken into a maze of tales and adventures. A soft rain was falling when we made our way down the street to her one-room flat. I was pretty exhausted — still jet-lagged from my trip from Canada — and when she set about to boil up some water for tea, I fell asleep. I woke six hours later, still fully clothed, but my shoes were at the foot of the bed, one neatly placed beside the other. She was gone, but had left a note that she was at the library. We would meet later. And we did. I checked out of the damp little rooming house room, and your mother and I began living together. It was cramped in her squared-off flat, but I had little in the way of things. Mostly just clothes, and a typewriter. A portable. I would set it up by the window in the mornings and work when she was away. I stayed with your mother for three months. We were married by the same priest who had baptized her 20 years before. I wore a suit that her father gave me, one that had been worn by his brother to family funerals. I loved your mother, maybe more than anyone. The morning she told me she was pregnant, I did something inexcusable. I ran down the wooden steps to the street, and started walking. I wandered all over the city. I guess I thought I wanted her to have an abortion. She was Catholic. Her family wouldn’t have allowed it. Besides, she wanted children. When I returned that night, she glared at me from the wooden chair by the window. My typewriter was packed away in its case, and sat next to the tattered leather suitcase on the floor. She didn’t need to gesture to it. It was done. I told her that I loved her, but I didn’t want a child. She looked away, her right arm slowly gesturing in the gloom of the flat. It was done. I picked up the bag, and the typewriter case. Two nights later I was in London. I sent her a telegram to inform her of where I was staying. She never replied. I didn’t hear from her until I was back in Canada — spring, the following year. A modest note, unsigned: Your daughter Jessica is the eighth wonder of the world … red hair like her mother.

§

Krysten

I was in Montreal when a friend of a friend of a friend offered me tickets for a Canadiens game. I came out of the Metro at the old Forum at the last moment. It was early October. Uncommonly warm night. The crowds were still circulating at Atwater and Ste. Catherine streets. I wended my way through the mingling throng down to my seat. The puck had already been dropped. Next to me was a tall man who, within moments of me sliding into the seat beside him, had risen to his feet and left. He was frowning and silently pushed past the dark-haired woman next to him. That was your mother. She clearly was upset, fidgeting for some tissue. Glassy eyed. Her mind clearly not upon the game. Mind you, neither was mine. I was staring at her, and the empty arena seat stood yawned awkwardly between us. Finally, I spoke to her, and she pursed her lips, struggling to hold back a torrent of emotion. Then she spoke: He’s an ass. I listened. This wasn’t her husband. Not yet. He was her fiancé. A wedding planned for September. That wouldn’t happen now, she said. Too much had gone down. He had had an affair seven months before, and she kept raising it with him, despite promises she’d never to mention it again. She had broken that promise countless times. Then she apologized for spewing this all out in such a rush to a stranger. I said nothing, but moved into the empty seat next to her, and clumsily put my left arm around her shoulders, and surprisingly, she leaned into me. She apologized. We were strangers. She continued. I listened. She certainly didn’t need advice from someone married eight times. Your mother was such an elegant beauty — olive skin and winter dark eyes. When we left the game at the end of the second period, the Canadiens were ahead by two goals. I couldn’t tell you who scored. I couldn’t swear to anything about the game. We stepped out on to Ste. Catherine Street. It was the fall, and the air was warm. We waved down a taxi to take us to Le Spirite on Rue Ontario Est. Eclectic, crazy, cavernous, a décor of tin foil and mosaics, and that weird mixture of mellowy jazz. Your mother was hungry and polished off a huge bowl of leek soup, then a slab of chocolate cake. And I listened. By midnight, your mother was anxious to go home, and we parted. She really knew nothing about me — I had said so little. The next morning, I woke to her telephone call. She was working at a school on the west side of the city, and asked to meet me after work. We did. We met every night after work for about a month. She had ended her engagement. I finally wound up renting a small room in a boarding house. The room large enough to accommodate a solid arborite table, really a kitchen table where I’d work in the mornings by the window light. Writing a novel. It was going well. Your mother and I spent our time going for walks, though occasionally we would while away the time at a café, or take in a film. Once or twice, we went to a hockey game. It was about a month into the relationship that she felt confident enough to come to my place. That night, we slept together, huddled on a single bed. We woke in the morning to the blinds suddenly springing to action, and rolling up unexpectedly. We jolted from the bed. I nearly fell to the floor. We laughed about it. Somehow we felt guilty. Your mother hurriedly dressed and rushed to work. She was still smiling when I saw her to the door. The landlady scowled at her as she went out. Three months later, we went down city hall and made the arrangements. We were married in a civil marriage. The man presiding over it was a cousin to Jean Beliveau. We moved into a small flat above a tea shop, and life was good. I continued to work on the novel, and she at the elementary school. I’d wake up earlier and make porridge. Winter was upon us. I didn’t own a winter coat, but your mother brought one home for me from her mother’s. It had been her father’s coat, and though it was big, it served the purpose. Montreal was cold. And I hated the cold. I longed for Barcelona, or maybe Marrakech. I begged her to quit her job. I calculated that we could move to Europe. I was making good money from stories I was writing. She kept refusing. I swear I didn’t know she was pregnant with you when I left for Marrakech. I was strolling through the Berber market to find the man who would signal to me to sit down and have a cup of mint tea. He would smile, and signal to me, then would shift the large tin pot over the hot coals, and stuff fresh mint leaves into the steam. That morning, the boy who took care of my room and ran errands for me was suddenly standing beside me, out of breath. He told me of your birth. Seven pounds. Dark eyes. The most beautiful angel. Your little girl. Please come back. I drank the tea that morning, my insides burning. I made my way back to the rooms I rented by the month. It was near the old set that Hitchcock in 1956 had used for the opening scenes of The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and James Stewart. I smiled at the irony —I knew so little really. I felt compelled to send word back, and welcome you, but sadly I did not. I thought of your mother. I thought the others in my life, how I must seem to be such a cad. That morning I walked for two hours. Not sure where I went, or what I daydreamed. I was all over the map as my mind spun back to Bologna, Vienna and Prague. I should have written. So many times in my head, I wrote. I am now, and asking for this reunion. I see that you are playing hockey — I’ve read the notices in the paper. You grew up in Montreal, but now live in Windsor. From the photographs, you look so much like your mother. She was the sweetest. There are so many regrets. The biggest is leaving. I had wanted your mother to go away with me. I might not have left if I had known she was pregnant.

§

Tonight the nine of you drink red wine. This reunion of stepsisters is to say hello not goodbye. I tell each of you to catch the full moon that cruises over the Seine, where the nine of you have gathered. We see the moon bobbing among the rooftops and spires. I swear it is smiling. That big self-satisfied grin on its face tells me it has an opinion. Should I care? Listen? Maybe it’s time.

—Marty Gervais

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Marty Gervais is an award winning journalist, poet, playwright, historian photographer and editor. In 1998, he won the prestigious Toronto’s Harbourfront Festival Prize for his contributions to Canadian letters and to emerging writers. In 1996, he was awarded the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award for his book, Tearing Into A Summer Day. That book also was awarded the City of Windsor Mayor’s Award for literature. In 2003, Gervais was given City of Windsor Mayor’s Award for literature for To Be Now: Selected Poems. His most successful work, The Rumrunners, a book about the Prohibition period was a Canadian bestseller in 1980 and was re-released in an expanded format in 2010 and was on the top ten Globe and Mail bestseller list for non-fiction titles. Another book, Ghost Road and Other Forgotten Tales of Windsor was released in 2012. An earlier collection, Seeds In the Wilderness, of his journalism appeared with Quarry Press in Kingston. It includes interviews Gervais conducted with such notable religious leaders as Mother Theresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Hans Kung and Terry Waite. With this latter book, Gervais photographed many of these world leaders.

Dec 122013
 

Sydney Lea

Time was, long ago thankfully, when I used to worry about running out of ideas to write about. Nothing like that happens to Sydney Lea; Syd can’t get out of the kitchen before poems strike him. He makes coffee — a poem. He thinks about scraping out the firebox in his stove — a poem. Not that I am making fun of this; it’s a rich spiritual condition to have that much respect, and even love, for the existence of things. Things contain memory, affection, duty, ritual, even a moral armature — mere persistence, at a certain point, implies strength of purpose and will. Sydney has that Heideggerian ear for the sussurations of Being and we hear them, too, in the cadences of his poems.

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Ritual

For some it’s prayer and for others I guess it’s sitting quiet zazen
And for others still it’s chanting a litany of protest
At what life deals them and though I pray myself in my way
I’ve been known to recite the litany too though it’s clear that I do best
When I go downstairs and make a cup of strong black coffee

In the elegant glass French press my wife so good and lovely gave me
Years ago I think for one or another birthday
Then drink it because I should desire to be awake
To the world I see around me though it’s more than merely coffee
That will make me so I understand but still and all

The ritual can help incline my stubborn heart and soul
To appreciate that a doe let’s say before she runs
Stands silhouetted sideways there on the ridge outside
My window momentarily backlit by morning sun
And I should treasure the ridge itself and all the rest

The sun included spangling all this myriad glorious mess
Of October color which I’m willing to grant is just as corny
As any postcard but I also believe that for me to treat it
As no more than platitude will mean to miss the point entirely
Of why I should sustain deep gratitude no matter

Autumn’s here and gone more quickly nowadays than ever
Though that should be even greater cause for me to marvel
At all I behold and never mind that I don’t sit
Like some wise monk or yogi or sage I can nonetheless be mindful
Feeling that certain inclination that only a cretin

Would fail to cherish so why not feel it more often?

 

The View in Late Winter 

…….Step right up, come on in,
……………….If you’d like to take the grand tour…

………………………………..—George Jones

My wife and one of our daughters, home to visit,
sleep through the creaks and moans of timber and sill.
More than I might have once, I welcome
warmth, so I a load a log.
One fights the tug of nostalgia,
fights to accept the idea of acceptance,
of surrendering first one thing, then others, then all.

To judge by the journal I just took down from a shelf,
on this very day in 1968,
I hiked all the way up Mousely Mountain
to camp at height of land.
There are maybe a dozen visions
scribed indelibly into my mind,
and one, however minor, is of that night,

when the world seemed oddly, generously upside down.
From high above them, I spied on a pair of owls
that coasted tree to tree on a hillside,
while their perfect shadows below them
slid over snow, cast there
by a moon as wrought as museum marble,
all else but those birds and shadows equally still.

I’ve checked the mercury now through a frost-starred pane:
at 22 below, it seems far too frigid
to scrape the ashes out of the firebox.
I should have done it before
this cold snap, but that would have meant
letting the stove go dead to haul them,
and so to invite the chill into our kitchen.

Instead of moon or predator or hill,
from a favorite chair beside the stove I fix on
a lovely ceramic plate we found
in an Umbrian village somewhere.
Our honeymoon. Years ago…
On the cluttered counter before it stand
still photographs of children–and their children.

I see pictures as well of dogs, most of them gone.
Each thing in anyone’s life is fated to go,
and yet here it comes, the faithful day.
Who doesn’t vainly long
for what he has loved to stay?
Another photo shows our house on the pond,
with its still, inverted reflection in water below.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has just published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock, and A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

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.

Dec 112013
 

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Cover

Joel Thomas Hynes is an actor and author from Newfoundland, an actor who has invented himself as a character, loosely based on himself, and then become the author he invented his character to be. Something like that anyway. He’s very funny, touching, acerbic, raw, scatological, and Rabelaisian. He’s a voice, a character actor — everything he writes has that down-home outport dialect that is at once subversive, hilarious and charged with poetry (and offense). He has made himself a piece of performance art, performed himself on stage, in films, in bars, in streets. He has become his other self. Wonderful to see.

This is an excerpt from a new novella, Say Nothing Saw Wood, just published in a beautiful edition by Running the Goat Books & Broadsides in Tors Cove. With illustrations by Gerald Squires. Read the text, and take a look at the video below of his Manifesto monologue.

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§

“O’ great saint Jude, whose traitor-sounding name, by man’s perceptions crude, confused is with the infamy and blame of him who to our gain and his disaster betrayed so kind a Master.”

Lost causes. Great St. Jude. Jude Shannon Traynor. Sounds a bit girlish I s’pose. Shannon is after me mother. Never knew her. Traynor being me father’s crowd. Leonard J. Traynor, so says me birth certificate. J for Joseph or John, one of them other bible names. Use to think it mighta stood for Jude. Len’s long gone too. All was left of him was the hood of his oilskin coat. Boat was called the Shannon Marie. People said Len was just askin for it to name ’er after a dead woman. I always thought it was a nice name for a boat.

They were takin in their gillnets for the year-end. Himself and his brother Angus. October. That undertow off Claire’s Head. So. Yeah. Angus, every time he told the story he always told it different. Sometimes he said Len fell overboard and other times he said he jumped. They stuck the hood of Len’s oilskin into a coffin with a set of rosary beads, a few flowers. Sunk the works into the dirt.

Dont remember much about Leonard. At the hay in the stable one summer, gettin me to jump it down. Never leave the prong lyin flat in the hay. Accident waitin to happen. I got one decent memory of his face, ’bout a month before he was lost. Maybe. Hard to keep things straight. Sometimes I dont know if a memory is a real thing or just some lie I’m tellin meself to help me get by.

Len, standin at me mother’s grave. Sunday clothes. Hard time keepin his balance, sorta lopsided. He dont say a word. Blesses hisself, bangs a nail back into her fence with a chunk of marble. Turns and looks at me. I’m sure he’s gonna crack me one. His teeth are…  and his eyes. I used to like to think I had his eyes. Grabs me by the back of the neck and shoves me forward. I trips, lands face first onto me mother’s grave. Next he got me up in his arms, walkin me out through the gates of the graveyard. Funny walk, like he got a limp in both legs. Thick smell of tobacco off him. Tobacco and salt fish.

watercolor4 copyGerald Squires, from the Ferryland Down series, pen-and-ink with wash

Tomorrow’s the fifteenth. Twelve years to the day I was shipped off to Dorchester. Life-seven. Non-capital murder. There’s no such thing as that no more. All a matter of degrees nowadays. I aint been back to the Cove in twelve years. I s’pose I’m calmed down a bit. Jail. Few years workin the bush out west, after I got out. Cracked to be headed back, what? I mean, I shagged it up once. Once. I was seventeen years old. A lifetime ago. Sharp as yesterday sometimes too.

The night her purse was found I took to the woods behind the house. Sloshed me way through the Beaver Gullies till I hit the highway in back of the Cove. Long old night. Got a run though. Right to Town. Knocked around the bars on Water Street. Got talkin to some foreign fella off the boats. Offered me a berth. Vodka. I came to in Victoria Park, just about froze to the ground, some old queer rootin at me belt. Missed me boat of course. I got drunker then. Later on that morning I read me name in the paper. Jude Shannon Traynor. It was funny, seein it in print like that. I read it over and over. Just that bit. Just me name.

Couple more days beatin around Town like that and gettin picked up was a bit of a relief, really. Smell of diesel, me head bouncin off the steel floor of the Paddy Wagon. I started screamin for Margie. I mighta been bawlin.

“You need not say anything, you have nothing to hope from any promise or favour and nothing to fear from any threat, whether or not you say anything. Anything you say may be used as evidence.”

Say nothing, saw wood, I said, over and over. Say nothing, saw wood.

watercolor5 copyGerald Squires, from the Ferryland Down series, pen-and-ink with wash

Eight weeks locked up in St. John’s waitin to go to court. Lawyers. Doctors. Mounties. Plead guilty, make it easier on yourself. Not guilty, I said. Well, they paraded every arsehole and his dog into the court to have a say about me. This head doctor makin me out to be some kinda crackpot. Fellas I hung around with all me life.

Margie. She wouldnt even look at me in the court. Never once came to see me all the while I was held in St. John’s. Wrote her a bunch of letters from Dorchester. She never wrote back. They werent exactly love letters I s’pose. Couple of letters from Harold when I first went away. Deep shit, how some moose tried to mount a cow in the lower meadow. Harold. One thing that struck me as odd though was Harold’s version of how the purse was found. How Mrs. Alfreda’s horse found the purse in the stall of our stable, carried it down the lane in his mouth and dropped it at Angus’s feet. But how there was a few fellas standing around at the time. Don Keough and them. How they all put it together that something wasnt quite right, that there mighta been something else. Poor old Angus, no choice but to turn me in. I s’pose it all gets twisted up after a while and it dont matter what the truth is so long as there’s a good story. And everyone else’s hands are clean.

 —Joel Thomas Hynes

§

And watch JTH’s MANIFESTO here.

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Joel Thomas Hynes is the award winning author of the novels Down to the Dirt and Right Away Monday; the notoriously cheeky chapbook God Help Thee: A Manifesto; a collection of poetic non-fiction called Straight Razor Days; the novella Say Nothing Saw Wood; and numerous acclaimed stageplays. Hynes has written and directed two short films, Clipper Gold and Little Man, and has also performed numerous leading and principle roles for television and film including Down to The Dirt, Crackie, Hatching Matching and Dispatching, Rabbitown, Republic of Doyle and Re-Genesis. His first novel, Down to the Dirt, is available in numerous translations around the globe and has been adapted to stage and the big screen. The movie, featuring Hynes in the lead role, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, received many accolades and awards at national festivals and was showcased at Cannes Film Festival. Hynes most recently penned the feature film adaptation of Say Nothing Saw Wood, which is currently in post-production and will hit the festival circuit in the spring of 2014.

Dec 102013
 

American author Jonathan Littell gives a

cover

The Fata Morgana Books
Jonathan Littell
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Two Lines Press
208 pp., $10.46

A Fata Morgana is a mirage visible just above the horizon line. The name is a hybrid term, with the Latin word for “fairy” combined with a reference to Morgan le Fay, the sinister witch from the legends of King Arthur. It makes sense: These optical illusions could easily be mistaken for sorcery, as light refraction distorts the image of a ship or an island from just beyond the horizon line, piling doubles and doppelgangers on top of each other, stretching or compressing them until they become almost unrecognizable.

Fata Morgana is also the name of the French publisher who brought out the original edition of Jonathan Littell’s new book of novellas, called in English The Fata Morgana Books, apparently as gesture of respect to the house that first issued them. If so, the coincidence is as surreal and bizarre as the stories in this strange short book, which rise like the faux castles and continents that baffled sailors in the Straits of Messina four hundred years ago, shimmering inexplicably at the far edge of the visible world.

Those who come to these tales expecting the standard protocols of narrative fiction, perhaps having just finished The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes), Littell’s perverse epic Nazi confessional masterpiece (and winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2006), will find themselves adapting to a very different type of fiction. If as Umberto Eco suggests, any text molds its “model reader,” recalibrating the expectations of the audience from the first sentences, then Littell makes you over into a sensual voyeur of cryptic often displaced, deferred or interrupted erotic events unfolding among lovely but anonymous people who for all their couplings remain distant and alone.

“Études,” the first of the four novellas that make up the book, is itself written in four parts, or études, and describes the sporadic romance between the writer and B., his girlfriend. In the section called “A summer Sunday,” they are stuck with a group of friends in a city emptied by the war raging nearby. The writer longs for B., contemplates kissing her, but fails to act, “crucified by desire and fear.” Later he chides himself for obsessing over the incident: “You should learn to grow yourself a skin before you play at scraping it with a razor of such poor quality.”

In “The Wait,” the writer returns to Paris, the only named city in all of the interlocking stories, and waits – for a government posting, for word from the writer, for his life to begin. He entertains himself with a brief homosexual fling and then subsides into a waking coma of impatience and dissatisfaction.

As “Between Planes,” the third étude, begins, the war is back on center stage, disrupting civilian life without ever coming into focus. We read about “rioters” passing by in “commandeered trucks, waving green branches and chanting slogans against the new authorities,” whoever they may be. The narrator has a new girlfriend, C. who is traveling between an alphabet soup of anonymous cities, G____, K____ and M____ on various military transport planes, somehow never quite available for a meeting.

On one occasion the writer scores a job moving freight from the city, allowing him a layover with C. But a set of Kafka-esque bureaucratic entanglements, never described in detail, leave him standing on the tarmac, refused boarding privileges, clutching a yellow flower his hand. The situation is muddled, but the image lingers in the mind. The relationship with C. stutters forward, with shared insomnia and occasional revelations (she has a child, for instance, whom she had never mentioned and whom we never see). The writer never gets a clear view of her and neither does the reader; only the writer’s emotions remain clear. He is “distraught” at her aloof demeanor, “Mad with suffering,” but always “something very strong prevented me from pushing, from provoking her to a rejection that would at least have the merit of being clear.”

Littell salts these elusive events with striking images that shine brightly for a moment, revealing their emotional truth, car headlights glinting off the reflectors that mark a sharp curve on a dark road.

I was sitting in the lobby of the office where she was with the administrator when a little black and white bird flew in. It began walking around with disjointed but calm little steps, surprised at the closed door. Then it turned on a little moth that was sleeping there and attacked it with its beak. The moth struggled, but in vain and the bird swallowed it in a cloud of scales, a fine white dust of torn-off wings forming a luminous halo around its head.

This moment seems to define the power relationships in the entire story, both political and personal. At the end we are left with one more rejection and another cancelled flight.

The fourth étude, “Fait Accompli,” the most impressive text in the entire collection, features a leap into third person and an attempt at pure emotional abstraction. We have two characters – unnamed, of course, undescribed, virtually undifferentiated – thinking about the process of thinking about each other. Are these two people the characters from the earlier études? It must be, but it’s hard to be sure, because we have plunged from a satellite view of their actions to a close-up so extreme that we’re studying the pores on their faces, unable to see the larger features. This works because of the repetition of certain phrases, the obsessive recycling of language that perfectly captures to futile spin of the mind coping with jealousy and rejection. The narrative is abstract the way ballet is abstract. It’s a a dance of despair. The reader provides the music:

For him then, two questions, that is question 1 the other or not the other, and question 2 her or not her, To these two questions four solutions, that is solution 1 him without her without the other, solution 2 him with her without the other, solution 3 him without her with the other, solution 4 him with her with the other. Now for him at this stage with the other out of the question and hence out of the question solutions 3 and 4, remain numbers I and 2, without the other or without her, hence why not with, it wasn’t so bad, and it would be almost like before, except that in the meantime there would have been that. But here precisely is the problem, since for him with the other out of the question, for her without the other out of the question, of this he is certain, even without asking her I mean. So if for her, without the other out of the question, then out of the question solutions 1 and 2, remain thus numbers 3 and 4, already out of the question. So start again.

And he does.

The lover imagines various scenes with various settings – a Moscow subway station, a park at night, a restaurant, scenes with them walking or sitting, talking or silent or just exchanging letters, the phrases recurring — “the cage the locked window the key thrown in the pond”;  “eating your cake and having it too” — the options divided by the chanted “or else.” Or else, or else, or else, with no solution, no conclusion, just an unfiltered, eventually unpunctuated down-spiral of despair with an unnerving intimation of violence: “Love in the garbage can, blood everywhere,” and the sudden possibility that all the time he has talking about not another lover but a child, not a three-way affair but a family, not a break up but an abortion. So the story becomes not simply the wild gyrating thoughts of a lover trapped by circumstance, but a plea for mercy. One can only hope that the woman will take his advice have the child, live happily ever, eat her cake and have it too.

But the chances are slim.

The remaining novellas feel connected, and Littell clarifies their subject, theme and purpose early in the first one, “Story about Nothing”:

…I didn’t really know if I was driving, or if, stretched out in this vast heat on the sheetless rectangle of my mattress, I was dreaming that I was driving, or even if I was having this sleeping-driver dream in the midst of driving, my hands inert on the black leather hoop of the steering wheel. Sleeping, I said to myself: one should write about this and nothing else, not about people, not about me, not about absence or about presence, not about life or about death, not about things seen or heard, not about love, not about time. Already it had taken shape.

We watch while it happens. The narrative devolves into reverie. The narrator drives to the beach, swims far out to sea, hears a woman’s voice calling him back – but from the dream of swimming not the swim itself; but the woman is only another dream, one more fata morgana mirage piling up on the horizon line.

He visits a friend’s house and the first thing he sees is a mirror, which will become the defining image for the remainder of this story and the final texts in the collection, “In Quarters” and “An Old Story.” Mirrors proliferate, cracked mirrors that evoke vaginas, black mirrors that threaten to swallow the narrator, mirrors on every wall and above every bed, reflecting every sexual act. And the sexual acts proliferate, to the edge of pornography, ever more perverse, from simple adultery to cross-dressing and three-ways and orgies.

At one point, the narrator is the only male at a lesbian pool party, though he’s dressed as a woman and many of the other woman seem to be hermaphrodites. Consciousness refracted through this hormonal haze creates its own stacked mirages: at one point he watches a porn film under a mirror that watches him watching the actors and seems to watch us watching all of them. You reel, amused, appalled, dizzy, from one surreal incident to the next. The narrator attends bull fights, nibbles lime sorbet beside swimming pools, enjoys affairs with interchangeable lovers, and somehow in the rush of action and memory, images or insights glint:

I had never received anything from her, either good or bad, she had never granted me any rights or down me any wrongs; what she had given me she had given freely, just as she had taken it back from me, and there was nothing to say to that, even though I was burning from head to foot in a fire of ice that left no ash. At the same time, I couldn’t have cared less about her.

Who is she? It doesn’t matter. The dream is moving on, in this case into the next novella, “In Quarters,” which amplifies and deepens the dream imagery, with an even more delicate filament of reality holding the scenes together. The story starts and ends in a large communal house with the narrator surrounded by busy adults and swarms of children, none of whom seem to notice him. One of the children, a blond boy who keeps turning up, may or may not be the narrator’s biological child.

Eventually he leaves this exclusionary idyll and returns to his own apartment, shadowed by mysterious men in black overcoats, a sinister surveillance that contrasts sharply with the way he moves through the big house like a ghost. He meets a woman at his apartment, they have sex, examine brutal war photographs, and before we can discern what their actual relationship might be, he’s on a train. It arrives at the destination and we watch the dreamer wandering around the town, looking for his friends, amid a tense atmosphere of unspecified political unrest.

Soldiers, overheard ominously talking about some faction “going too far” and “provoking” us, recall the early sections of the first novella “Études,” — the characters enjoying an eerie holiday atmosphere of a town cut off by war. And everywhere, shapes float on other shapes, pools against lawns, coverlets on beds, even the Rothko like squares in a painting that seems to watch the author as he moves around the room, evoking mirrors. Then the narrator finds some handwritten pages, a story in his own hand, which he doesn’t recognize, though it describes the events that began this narrative: wandering unseen through the densely populated mansion. “In any case it has nothing to do with me.”

The reflections and mirages continue to pile up. Eventually he returns to the mansion to find that the blond boy who might be his son has fallen ill. He sits by the boy’s bedside. “He raised his hand and placed it over my own, it was light as a cat’s paw, dry and burning.”

Everyone else still ignores the narrator — except the doctor, who eventually pays a house call. When he walks the doctor to his car in the street outside the mansion, the men in black close in, presumably to arrest him. For what crime? We can only hope he’ll awaken before he finds out.

And then we come to “An Old Story,” the final novella, which begins and ends with a man breaking the surface of a swimming pool from below, stroking up into the recycled air of the health club, or mansion basement, or prison exercise area, or … well, in fact the location of the pool doesn’t really matter. It’s too deeply buried in the unconscious mind of the narrator to need a geographical tag. By now it’s a familiar spot anyway, filled with strangers, surrounded by mirrors, the gateway to another cycle of dreams.

In this case the circular nature of the sequences become explicit. The narrator dons a track suit and starts jogging along a circular corridor, opening various doors, going inside for a surreal experience, then leaving and jogging on. In the first room he seems to be married, with a son much like the one in the previous story. There are problems with the electrical service, another theme that will recur through all the following vignettes, along with the plaintive excuse that the narrator called the electrician twice to have all the wiring overhauled. There are paintings that seem to observe the action and mirrors that reflect them, and a sense of menace and war in the background, and sex, always plenty of sex. In this case the child catches the narrator and the woman in the act. He runs off and the woman goes to find him. Night has turned to day, and the narrator steps outside into a lovely garden, feeling “a strong morning heat that clung to the skin.” Once again, a crystalline, perfectly observed image anchors the floating world for us.

Soon the narrator is running along the corridor again. Soon he finds another room, with another bed and another woman and another set of mirrors, the bed like all of them covered in “a heavy golden cloth, embroidered with long green grass” that evokes the chaise lounge on the lush lawn of a previous story. Here windows facing into the night (it’s night again) take on the looking-glass chores. And the sex grows funkier, with the woman using a dildo on the narrator in a prolonged scene rescued from the prurient and the salacious by the eerie detachment of the narrator himself.

He wakes up into another dream, another room, another bed with the same coverlet, and another woman, Here again the exotic raunch, escalates, with the narrator cross dressing and finding himself attending the lesbian pool party mentioned earlier. The pool itself functions as another mirror. And it goes on: he becomes by turns a child slave, the murderer victor in a conflict with a gay male prostitute, a voyeur, a sex-starved  scavenger roams a surreal gay bathhouse, once again caught by the child in an even more compromising position and finally the leader of some barbaric Medieval army engaged in a war vague enough to echo the peripheral battles that began the collection. The woman in this story he rapes and murders, as the increasing  perversity of these linked dreams starts to spiral out of control.

Then, when it seems like nothing more could possibly happen, the narrator is emerging from the water, breaking the surface of the pool, back where he started, at the beginning of the novella, and seemingly cued up to begin again, launched into a sequence of dreams perpetually eating its own tail, a nightmare of recurrence from which he can never wake up.

Littell’s message remains constant in these shifting tableaux: life may be largely meaningless, but is nevertheless redeemed by isolated moments of pure beauty We are hopelessly self-conscious, yet tragically incapable of real self-awareness, doomed to repeat both our pleasures and our mistakes until we learn to distinguish between them.

It’s a gorgeous tour through a world of human excess and futility, exhilarating and exhausting, a world, yes, ruled by repetition, doubling and displacement, a world in which the mind cannot escape the mind. After a couple of hundred pages squinting at the fabulous fata morganas of a refracted continent, I longed to make landfall and feel the actual sand between my toes. But I suspect that was at least part of Littell’s intent. Like many deep water ocean voyages, this one had passages of fear and boredom, but also exalted spikes of strangeness and beauty you could never encounter closer to shore.

                                                                                                                                                                             —Steven Axelrod

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Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the Writers Guild of America (west), though he hasn’t worked in Hollywood for several years. Poisoned Pen Press will be kicking off his Henry Kennis Nantucket mystery series in January, with Nantucket Sawbuck. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, is scheduled for 2015. He’s also publishing his dark noir thriller Heat of the Moment next year with Gutter Books. Two excerpts from that novel have appeared in the most recent issues of “BigPulp” and “PulpModern” magazines. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and Salon.com. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island where he writes novels and paints houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. His web site is here.

Dec 082013
 

Lowe in Studio

There is a line in Rilke’s “The Spanish Trilogy” — “…to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing” — that rings down through this amazing interview, NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel with visual artist Lynda Lowe, an interview about art, making art, and the art of collaboration. All art is, yes, about making Things. We forget that sometimes. Expressing ourselves, making a point, sending a message, selling a line, finding a market, all take a back seat to the thingness of the Thing, its sudden and utter presence, sui generis and unique. Whether it’s a poem or a painting or some combination thereof (or a novel or a figure in a block of stone…).

dg

01 Installation Object of the Object

01 Installation view of The Object of the Object, for the Poetic Dialogue, 13”H x 20’W x 4”D, 2008
Collaboration with poet Nance Van Winckel

NVW: I thought we’d begin with a few questions about our collaboration for the Poetic Dialogue Project, a group exhibit of poets and artists who were paired to combine poetry and visual art. Since we both live in Washington, we were paired together. I remember coming to your lovely studio near Tacoma and seeing all the cool “tools” you’d collected and thinking about a poem I’d written called “Left to Our Own Devices,” which was also about tools, tiny clock-repair tools.

I sensed we were both interested in objects and, as we went on to discuss, “thingness” or “objecthood.” We called our collaborative project The Object of the Object. I particularly love the piece of yours with those calipers in it. I would suppose that as an artist you must have developed a close kinship with the “tools of your trade.” Can you describe a bit what our collaboration WAS (the series, sizes, etc.) and also talk a little about the subject of “things” and its appeal to you as a visual artist?

05 Object of the Object panel 15

Panel 15, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

Lynda Lowe: The Poetic Dialogue’s intent was to have a visual artist and a poet collaborate in the creation of a new work for a traveling exhibition. It was on my mind to not just make an illustration for your poems or for you to write something in reaction to a painting, but to integrate these forms as much as possible. Since we didn’t know each other before beginning the collaboration, we spent time sniffing out the turf where we might find something common and fertile. We passed back and forth word lists, favorite readings, images, and poems to see where we might begin.

Through Rilke’s poetry we discussed the interiority of the object, its thingness: “to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing.”

Things contain narrative, perhaps even a kind of sentient presence. Humans make stories from, and meaning out of, even the most random collection of them. The idea seemed a good starting place as it shows up in your poetry and also in my imagery. Thus began “The Object of the Object.”

02 Object of the Object panel 1

Panel 1, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

Our work had to grow organically between us and achieve a balance that honored both word and image. I started with a group of paintings on 12” square panels that were deliberately left unfinished and sent images to you. You sent poetry in progress. We had to meander about with some directionless hiking for a while. An “aha!” moment for me was reading the last line in your poem “Coxswain”: “in us are the woods.”

Beautiful! Imagery began to coalesce for me. Our circumvolution continued. I remember we discussed the creation of a codex form where a viewer-reader would have to physically walk the expanse of a series of panels, thereby engaging time and memory through repeated imagery and text. The final product was a twenty-foot span of eighteen panels that were seated on a shallow shelf, leaning against the supporting wall.

NVW: During our collaboration, I recall you also brought up another term that’s near and dear to my heart: wabi-sabi. I think you rightly sensed my simpatico with this idea as you so well described it in our email exchange back then, ” the worn beauty of age and the graceful disorder of nature.” I know your work is influenced by Eastern philosophies in general and perhaps by the concept of wabi-sabi in particular. In our collaboration, how did these ideas influence the process and/or product?

Lynda Lowe: We both pay attention to that earned patina: your marmot playground of rusting factory equipment and my hundreds of old wall photos taken on travels. The layers of wear, weather, the mark of a passerby build such beautiful surfaces that speak of narrative use and history. Nature has these cycles of age and re-growth too of course. Being a gardener you can’t miss it. Imperfection and disorder is an undeniable part of the landscape on every level. When I’m developing a painting, vestiges of many additions and subtractions layer the work and this is never quite predictable. It lends a wabi-sabi quality to it.

Object of Object (panel 4)

Panel 4, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

NVW: I know you’re a great lover of T.S. Eliot and in particular his Four Quartets. You’ve used passages of his poetry in your work before, as well as lines from other poets, myself included. Can you explain a little about how you think text—and perhaps specifically poetry—may best share the visual field with your incredibly textured and expansive imagery?

Lynda Lowe: Text and imagery are in some basic way, information. They comprise part of a larger perceptual field. I’m very interested in how we construct meaning from a personal blend of reason, intuition, memory, and spirit. In the combining of elements such as poetry, diagrams, equations, realism, intuitive mark, and abstract color field, I’m creating a matrix that suggests these are all part of a unitive whole.

Object of the Object (panel 6)

Panel 6, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

NVW: I was happy to reconnect with you recently in Tacoma at the Museum of Glass and the opening for your wonderful show, a series of 108 ceramic vessels called The Patra Passage. Again, I realized we had another mutual interest, Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift. I recall reading this book in the mid-1980’s and being very moved. It helped me to feel a better acceptance and even joy about my own life-choice: to make poems. Hyde speaks about art as a kind of gift the artist gives to her world. The gift is meant to be shared. This making and giving concern important aspects of community and shared values.

Hyde’s messages came to me at a time when I really need to hear exactly that. The promises of financial reward, publishing contracts and such sorts of “recompense” had begun to feel far off and unreachable to me, but I still loved and valued poetry and I wanted to continue with this art front and center in my life. Can you talk about your vessels which you gave away, and which the recipients (myself included) will again give away, and so on—and how, as an artist, you think about this interconnectedness of art-making and art-giving? And how The Patra Passage, in particular, was inspired? Here’s the wonderful video about that project:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKd7mLPFzes

Lynda Lowe: After a rough couple of years and I felt I was looking at life through the other end of the telescope. What do I consider valuable when viewing things in reverse, not ahead? I’d been incubating ideas for the Patra Passage for over a decade. The image of a bowl repeatedly shows up in my paintings as a symbol for the fluid act of giving and receiving. Interconnectedness is of great interest to me.

I knew where I wanted to take the idea, but the project required a total change in media and a large commitment of time without income. Lewis Hyde’s writing was and is indeed a true gift and encouragement. Also hugely significant is the privilege of many wonderful supporters and participants – you being one of them! The Passage seeks collaboration and connection. The website more fully describes the project. I wholeheartedly invite interaction from all visitors to the site: www.patrapassage.com.

Patra vessels on bench

The Patra Passage, detail of some of the 108 vessels, 2013

Patra vessel

The Patra Passage, Patra vessel, 5” x 5” x 5” 2013

Patra  vessel

The Patra Passage, Patra vessel, 2013

NVW: What’s your next project?

Lynda Lowe: I’m in that transitional phase now after the launch of the Patra Passage where it’s back to the meandering path without a destination in mind. For the moment I’m playing again with my old friend T. S. Eliot and The Four Quartets. I don’t think I could ever mine that out. There are several exhibitions ahead, including the return of the Patra vessels at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. And soon I’ll be working collaboratively with poet Joseph Heithaus on another project. I’m grateful to be doing something I love and that challenges me.

Path-to-the-Path

The Path to the Path, 24” x 56” water and oil media, wax on panel, 2008 (T.S. Eliot quote used in this painting, title credit to Nance)

 

Falling and Flying 2

Falling and Flying II, 48” x 48”, water and oil media, wax on panel. 2012 (Rilke quote used in this painting)

Oaxaca Wall

Oaxaca Wall, 38” X 32”, water and oil media, wax on panel. 2012

—Nance Van Winckel & Lynda Lowe

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After completing an MFA at Indiana University, Lynda Lowe taught fifteen years at Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University.  In 1998 she left her academic position and began painting full-time. Soon after, a move to the Pacific Northwest brought fresh opportunities and the construction of a studio on the Puget Sound in Washington state where she currently resides.

Lowe’s overall imagery combines sections of color field, realism, text, and diagramatic figures. She employs fragments of poetry, handwritten scientific observations, and mathematical formula and layers them alongside highly rendered recognizable images to suggest that the construction of meaning is shaped from many different frames of reference. Archetypal symbols are deliberately integrated into her art, pointing out that the human experience is intrinsically connected the sentient world. Her surrounding environment and her travels abroad also profoundly impact her work.

A recent project, the Patra Passage. centers on the gifting of 108 hand-built ceramic bowls which are re-gifted at least three times throughout one year. After they return, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, will host an exhibition February – May, 2015.

Lynda Lowe’s paintings have been widely exhibited nationally in galleries and museums. She has been the recipient of two Artist Fellowship awards from the Illinois Arts Council, a distinguished resident of the Ragdale Foundation, a finalist of the Neddy Award, and represented by the following galleries:

  • Gail Severn Gallery, Sun Valley, ID  www.gailseverngallery.com
  • Arden Gallery in Boston, MA   www.ardengallery.com
  • Forre Fine Art in Aspen and Vail, Colorado and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida  www.forrefineart.com
  • Abmeyer+Wood, in Seattle, Washington   www.abmeyerwood.com

More of Lynda Lowe’s work can be viewed on www.lyndalowe.com and www.patrapassage.com.

Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.

Dec 062013
 

William Olsen

William Olsen is a dear friend and former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a publisher, editor and poet, a major force, diffident and yet such a presence. In this new poem, he pens what he calls “among other things, some sort of response to and loving argument with a favorite poem, Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight.” The Coleridge poem situates itself as an address to the poet’s son, sleeping in his cradle. It’s night; it’s cold. Frost outside. Everyone is asleep except the poet. The world is so still the stillness seems to flutter with presence that disturbs meditation, the presence of the Stranger, which is a kind of Coleridgean encapsulation of a neo-Platonic deity behind or beneath the phenomena of existence. The poet bemoans his own childhood (much to complain of there) cooped up in the city grime and tells his son he’s lucky; he’ll grow up in sight of “…lakes and shores / And mountain crags…” that are the “eternal language” of God.

Olsen’s poem plays with Coleridge’s poem starting with a brilliantly suspended first sentence that takes seven stanzas to come to an end as the poet takes us deeper and deeper beneath the surface of things, past regret and mother’s tears and “funereal vacuities” (more than a hint of humor here) to something that, in the end, is not Coleridge’s Stranger nor his God, rather something the poet cannot name or even choose to name. Note the line “wherever it is leaves must fall” and its echo farther down “The leaf falls to earth…”

The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.

And the word “teach” here echoes the Coleridge poem that also is about teaching: God “Great universal Teacher!” But Olsen is much less credulous or sanguine than Coleridge. He cannot say why things are nor who speaks through the delicate traceries of frost and the decomposing leaves that teach.

dg

Far down below black, lowest regret,
deeper than death, and deeper yet,
down where my mother weeps to me
to leave tomorrow’s sorrows be,

far below sadness and tenderness,
where more is less and less is less,
below the sky or the sky-blue lake
brimming over like the hull of a shipwreck,

below where the crows crow and the cows sleep,
below the bluestem and the apples the cows crap,
below the prettiest sunset,
below even the bluest white-

bright-last-sunlight upon even bluer waves
gleaming their overly-precious granite graves,
below funereal vacuities,
extravagant superfluities,

far below the lovers’ quarrels,
or their story’s broody morals,
in its own good timely time, time has gone back home.
Time and time again, homeless time—

all the time in the world, homeless,
homeless space of universe,
all the time that time might pass
inside a shiny timeless hearse——

far down below idling hopes,
below the learned astronomer’s telescopes,
wherever it is leaves must fall
is neither my life nor my choice to call.

                            §

Upon a few gnarled stunted vines
fall’s first frost fairly shines,
mist rising up from fields while new minted frost
mummifies a shingle-sided house.

Here is a glittery homelessness
better acquainted with earth than with us.
All we are is less substantial,
all our fears, less substantial.

Dawn is ready and the heart is able.
Fear could not be less substantial.
I’ve had it with odes to dejection,
which is never more than the fear of rejection.

                            §

Here’s what frost isn’t—insubstantial,
querulous, of itself too full,
a mood of ferried buried
waves and the threadbare eroded

dunes we sightseers climb up and down to ruin.
Torment never spread itself this thin.
Incandescent, heartless, so like tin—
gull-gray gulls shriek atonal tunes.

The light of frost is the understudy of day,
this lake, once, as hard as rock:
icebergs—like ships, they broke
to floes which, farther down on their luck

drowned, to nothing—invisibly.
This frost is anything but free.
It looks like the moonlight got good and lost.
It got busted, sprung, and lost.

Frost has a cryological conscience:
the afterworld is cold chance.
Lunatical . . . white as a grin.
It shines unapproachably, like sunlight shines on tin,

whitening fields between cars and houses.
Plow-slashed furrows freeze
over smooth to its silver sky.
Forgive this intricate analysis

but it looks so stunned and incredulous.
It is spotty, like a roof of a vacant crystal palace,
Instantaneously tenuous,
it scribes the window glass.

                            §

It is so distinct from rain.
It shuns asphalt as too human.
The lustrous is
incipient in us.

Its deposition of glory
is inexplicably ordinary.
What a tenacious
underside of heaven it is—

it won’t be pushed around or salted or plowed like snow.
It won’t be tracked on and no weatherman will see it lift.
It is profligate thrift.
Its past is vaporous.

Beauty never spread itself so thin—
incandescent, the heartless night
turned inside out—
pasture field light.

                            §

The great lovers once frantic to touch
in darkness no dawn or frost can reach—
my mother gone in the blink of an eye,
my father going by and by,

all mothers, all sisters, all fathers, all sons,
all brothers and keepers, everyone’s
truest, best, lost influences,
nameless lovingkindnesses. . . .

it is all and none of this.

                            §

It seems irretrievably early.
Time is awake, only barely,
infinitesimal hates,
infinitesimal fights.

Tight, fibrous and delicate,
around the fine white plow bared roots,
its extremely minute white
threads appeared overnight.

It prompts us and then reproves us.
Its intricate paralysis
crystallizes . . . miraculous.
Preposterous.  Analogous.

                            §

The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.

                            §

So night may be said to be over,
over, and over at no real cost,
each dawn the stars take cover.
Stop fretting about the frost.

Frost clung to the shadow places
and as always already was there
before anyone could take a step.
In the sky, stars stayed on

while you were asleep.

                            §

While you were asleep
everyone was asleep;
if we sleep, if we die,
stars hang in the sky.

Between our houses
is its heartlessness,
but whatever grass
is, the frost blesses

whoever sees this,
whoever would mean
that frost be seen
not heard in this:

now fields steam and
its steam mists to sky.
Under us is only sand
and who can say why,

or whose voice this is.

—William Olsen
———————————-

William Olsen is author of five collections of poetry, including Sand Theory (Northwestern, 2011). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA and Breadloaf.  He is co-editor of Planet on the Table: Writers on the Reading Life (Sarabande) and, most recently, Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry (New Issues). He teaches in the MFA and Ph.D program at Western Michigan University and edits New Issues Press. His home is in Kalamazoo.
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Dec 052013
 

keun

Gilgi

Gilgi
Irmgard Keun
Translated by Geoff Wilkes
Melville House Books
Paperback; 229 pages; $16.00 US/CAN

In the spring of 2011, Melville House published as part of their Neversink Library a compact but tremendously potent little novel by German author Irmgard Keun called After Midnight. First published in 1937 as Nacht Mitternacht, After Midnight is Keun’s third novel, written in exile after the Nazis banned her books and effectively prevented her from further publishing. A tale of censorship and acquiescence, of nationalistic fervor and vile human pettiness, of disappeared persons, of vengeful murders and polite suicides, After Midnight contemplates above all the moral obligations of a writer in times of government oppression and blind patriotism.

Keun secreted herself back into Germany in 1940, protected by rumors of her demise, and lived long enough to see her novels receive renewed critical attention in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her life is easily romanticized (defying the Nazis, wandering in exile, staging her own suicide), but Keun’s time away was no holiday. As an aging writer explains to the protagonist during the party scene that is After Midnight’s climax, “You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs you see are not built for you… And the language you hear is not spoken for you.”

Now Meville House has released Keun’s debut novel, the 1931 bestselling Gilgi, ein von uns. Translated by Geoff Wilkes (and conspicuously missing the “one of us” subtitle), this is the first time Gilgi has been fully published in English. The eponymous Gisela – she prefers the name Gilgi because “the two i’s are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s” – inhabits a seemingly free Germany, a Cologne that is worlds away from the party demonstrations and concentration camps spoke of in After Midnight. Still, a painful recession is bankrupting whole companies and ruining personal fortunes, the Weimar government is clamping down on individual freedoms, and all the while gangs of communists and Nazis are beating each other up in the streets. Keun shows complete awareness that something terrible was about to happen, even if Gilgi, not much interested in politics, doesn’t seem to care.

What does interest Gilgi is ambition. Aged only twenty years at the novel’s outset, Gilgi works as a typist by day, studies in a rented room by night, and only ever allows herself some fun when she feels she’s earned it. Any activity she deems unproductive or unenjoyable is simply “a pointless waste of time, and completely incompatible with Gilgi’s character and her conscience.” She is quite sure, furthermore, that all her successes are a direct result of such diligent work; that the unemployed and the poor, “these people who don’t work, ambling so idiotically, frivolously, dozily through their lives,” simply aren’t trying hard enough.

Gilgi’s work ethic, her independence, and even her boyish-but-alluring body are all indicative of Gilgi’s life as a New Woman, a concept popularized by Henry James but prevalent in German society in the wake of the First World War. The German New Woman of the Weimar era was – according to popular magazines of the time like Die Dame and Uhu – intelligent and athletic, sociable and sexually liberated, while still being beautiful and refined.

Gilgi’s (perceived) firm grip on her life’s trajectory begins to fall away on the morning of her 21st birthday, when her mother informs her she was adopted as a baby from a poor seamstress named Frau Täschler. Täschler, a “faceless” old woman whose poverty Gilgi finds repulsive, reveals that Gilgi is in truth the daughter of the enormously wealthy Frau Kreil, though the birth was hidden away to avoid a scandal. But before Gilgi can dissolve into an absurd melodrama of confused identity and lineage, the protagonist is distracted by that most unrelentingly force of destruction: love.

Enter Martin Bruck, world-traveling writer and romantic adventurer; a man of forty-three years who scorns money and finds steady employment far too quotidian for his taste. Gilgi of course falls desperately for Martin, in a fit of passion that rips her away from her work, from her ambitions, and ultimately from her once-firm sense of self. Gilgi’s lover, alternately worshipful and condescending, wastes no time in imposing upon her his image of an ideal woman.

While she’s no stranger to flirtation or male attention, Gilgi learns for the first time what an absolute chore it is to care deeply for another human being. “The hours of happiness come at a high price. The bill is presented promptly,” she muses. “Pay it! With what? With fear and twinges of pain. No, I don’t think the price is too high, I just find the currency strange.” Gilgi wants her love to fit into a rational economic system, a scheme she can control or at least plan for, but finds sorely that one cannot make a budget of one’s desires.

Martin comes across as a bit of a type, the Writer, what with his penchant for swapping drunken stories with old sailors, dreaming up romantic narratives for backstreet curio shops, and punctuating long periods of inactivity with furious, flittering frenzies of writing. (Gilgi, desperate to justify the relationship to herself, lies to friends about the frequency of these frenzies, “then she believes it, because she wants to believe it.”) Keun is expert at charting of his and Gilgi’s relationship – as the currents of euphoria flow alongside terror and anxiety and self-doubt.

In fact, many of Gilgi’s supporting cast bear resemblance to common character tropes. From the beautiful and carefree artist Olga, to the brooding and sexually frustrated off-brand Raskolnikov named Pit, to Gilgi’s three mothers (working-class, bourgeois, and wealthy), Keun’s characters feel oddly familiar. But this is precisely the point. Just as Gilgi is a (fictional) living product of New Woman ideals, so the other characters may be seen as reproductions of tropes from other serialized popular novels. The connection is explicit: all the characters, most evidently the three mothers, read the very magazines they’re being pulled from. “My beautiful love shouldn’t turn into a kind of Strindberg play,” opines Gilgi, and Keun here knows exactly what sort of joke she’s making.

Of course it’s nothing new to have fictional characters read and reference fiction. Any believable facsimile of the world will include its own references to novels and films, and the rather fun irony here is that nothing is more life-like than a human being comparing her life to a work of fiction. But Keun’s efforts are particularly pointed. When Gilgi finally meets the true mother, locked away behind her wealth in labyrinth of chambers and antechambers, she is described dismissively as a “title character in a mediocre magazine serial.” Gilgi insists that Frau Kreil explain herself, “so that you become a living being for me.” Kreil, shocked into silence by the meeting, says nothing. So Gilgi constructs Kreil’s narrative herself, and a “magazine-lady” she remains.

Gilgi herself is a remarkably complex protagonist, occasionally naïve but also fiendishly clever, particularly in her understanding what it means to be a young woman in a male-dominated society: “the shape of Gilgi’s little breasts is clearly visible under her blue-gray velvet dress, convincing Herr Reuter that Gilgi is ‘the’ woman who understands him.” Even when she is overtaken by desire for Martin, she never ceases being cognizant of what love is costing her: “What I see in the mirror is what someone else has made out of me.” Martin rarely allows Gilgi to have her say, casting doubt as to whether Martin can really see her as “a living being.”

The novel is told in a fluid third person, but so close is the narrator to Gilgi’s thoughts that “she” and “I” are used almost interchangeably. Certain of her thoughts and actions are described from without, others as if Gilgi herself were the narrator (a version of free indirect discourse), and – increasingly so as she becomes more disconnected from her firm concept of self – the action is described even with the universal “you.” Some of Gilgi’s most profound revelations about what fierce desire can bring upon a human animal (“…and deep down you sense the purpose of pain and inevitable loss…”) are directed as much at the reader as they are at Gilgi herself.

Keun brilliantly depicts every change in Gilgi’s constantly evolving understanding of her love for Martin; the narratives by which she justifies her actions, the cynical resignations to self-loathing. Gilgi can casually joke to a friend in one moment that she has “been stung by a wild hormone,” and spend a sleepless, tormented night waiting for Martin to come home in the next. Keun here hints at something her protagonist slowly begins to suspect. Gilgi, though she believes as we all do that she is a cohesive, self-motivated individual with a consistent identity, may actually be something far more fragmented.

Beneath her athletic figure and her daily routines, Gilgi is an absolute mess of warring desires. “There are two layers in me,” she realizes, “and the upper one, it dictates – everyday words, everyday actions-little girl, little machine girl, little clockwork girl- the lower layer underneath it-always wanting, always searching, always longing…” She asks, finally, “WhatamIreally?” This, then, is the real horror of love: not that it weakens our resolve or compels us to compromise our individual interests and ideals, but that it forces us to reconsider the commonplace notion that we are firm, consistent entities. The concept of a singular Gilgi, a young woman who is the same from day to day, or even from moment to moment, is revealed to be an illusion.

All the while, Gilgi undergoes a second curious transformation, one that parallels her growing dependence on Martin. She begins to stray from a Randian self-importance and acquires a slightly more liberal, sympathetic view of her fellow man. Having lost a concrete knowledge of her origins, Gilgi considers that her successes stem as much from her bourgeois upbringing as they do from sheer hard work. As a result of the hemorrhaging economy (and of love-induced slothfulness), Gilgi also comes face to face with real poverty. The poor continue to repulse her, but it’s more out of a subconscious understanding of belonging to poverty than a feeling of being above it. And finally, the protagonist’s weakening selfhood makes her more likely to experience her life not as Gilgi, but as a universal you. It’s worth noting that while the socialist Pit is arguably more interested in the welfare of the common man, Gilgi makes the firm distinction between “people” as an abstract intellectual concept and “human beings,” real knowable entities with thoughts, feelings, desires, and pains.

Crisis strikes, and Gilgi is shocked into abandoning Martin and reasserting her independence. On a train platform waiting to depart for Berlin, Gilgi assures Pit that she will inevitably prevail. “There’s a whole heap of people I can beat,” she says, “because my will is stronger and more durable.” And yet she’s also learned humility, “because you belong in the overall structure, you’re not created to stand outside it.” This final conflict – between a human sense of belonging to the crowd while simultaneously feeling that she alone stands above and apart – perhaps confirms more than anything that Gilgi really is ein von uns.

—Adam Segal

———————————-

photo

Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.

Dec 042013
 


JM1

 

The first book I reviewed for Numéro Cinq was Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul & Other Stories. It was a book that shook me like few other have. Its sentences were often long, articulated in a style that was erudite and meticulous. But length and erudition wasn’t all, these sentences frequently seemed to syntactically dislocate, or bloom formally and then mutate colloquially, or grow fractal-like with a multitude of subordinate structures resisting simplicity to achieve a kind of nonhierarchical fiction.

The complexity and range of these stories were beguiling, like a new experience, displacing what I thought fiction could do. At the time I knew very little about Joseph McElroy’s fiction, and in my naiveté I compared the stories in Night Soul to wooly, homemade machines; I compared them to a radio slipping between stations. But here’s how novelist Kathryn Kramer says it: “[A]s you wend your way through some of McElroy’s sentences, you find, not so much yourself, as yourself in the process—yourself not lost through diffusion but enlarged through connections.”[1]

While reading for that review I stumbled upon this from Joseph McElroy in which he writes: “What can happen? my stories ask, as I ask of my life and yours. Not only what did happen.” This in many ways helped me to read and appreciate McElroy’s fiction more, understanding that his imagination didn’t stop at the aesthetical, but pushed beyond.  “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne,” a story from Night Soul & Other Stories, is available on Numéro Cinq to get a little of the flavor of what I’m talking about.

Joseph McElroy is the author of nine published novels, including Cannonball (2013), Actress in the House (2003), Letter Left to Me (1988) Lookout Cartridge (1974), and the twentieth-century classic, Women & Men (1987). He has also written a book of essays and three plays. Dzanc Books will be reissuing several of McElroy’s books in the coming year, including the aforementioned collection of essays, Exponential, in e-book form, and his second novel, Ancient History: A Paraphase, in paperback.  He is the recipient of the Award in Literature from American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellowship from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D. H. Lawrence Foundation and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts. Now in his early 80s, he doesn’t seem to have lost any steam for writing remarkable prose. Cannonball, his most recent novel, has the robustness in style and execution that characterizes his work without a hint of looking back, but with an enthusiastic pressing forward.

Over the last few weeks, Joseph McElroy was gracious enough to take some questions.  We talked on three topics: his unique writing style, Cannonball, and his upcoming books. As you’ll discover, Cannonball is about many things: conspiracies, competitive diving, bogus religious texts, the United States’ most recent war in Iraq, and more.  So, in the way of offering some guidance through the interview, I’ll just mention a few facts. Zach is the novel’s narrator.  At the beginning, Zach is a teenager, and he befriends Umo, a 300-plus pound (possibly illegal) immigrant after seeing Umo dive so elegantly at a community pool.  Zach’s father is the coach of a local swimming club and he has ambitions of coaching a swimmer to the Olympics. Zach brings Umo to see his father, thinking that Umo is the one who’ll help his father. The Chaplin who is mentioned below becomes important mid-way through the novel after Zach has enlisted in the army, receiving a somewhat mysterious offer to be a photography specialist despite his lack of talent as a photographer.  Zach meets the Chaplain twice: once during training and a second time after an explosion at a palace in Iraq. Zach discovers the wounded Chaplain holding what appears to be ancient Scrolls “purporting to be a first-hand first-century live interview with a Jesus” in a water system running underneath the palace. Zach takes from the Chaplain a scrap of the Scrolls, which is later used to prove their inauthenticity.

I’ll leave it that and let Cannonball’s author speak.

—Jason DeYoung

 

Jason DeYoung (JD):  Your style of writing has often been described as difficult, challenging, demanding. Your sentences are often mysterious, long, and multifaceted; they are often wonderfully exuberant with words, too.  You seem to be interested in pushing the English language to “do more.”

Joseph McElroy (JM): I’m only using it for myself, to get at whatever it is I think I’ve found or I’m up to. It’s a great language, the Germanic and the Latinate and Shakespeare’s new words and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange—the novel and its glossary. American English, too, no matter what people say, the variety of vocabularies overlapping and migrating like people who happen to come to you at a big moment or even who deny you something. When I was teaching at Hopkins in 1975 I wrote down a bunch of short statements about the sentence and said them aloud in class, however gnomic they might have sounded, and felt badly afterward but was told that what I said was OK. I have added to that list, maybe there are forty of those statements. Maybe I’ll publish it and be paid for it someday.

I think about the sentence as drawn between a need to get somewhere and end and then not to end if it can find its continuing shape in what comes next. Thurber on Henry James wanting to say everything at once. Proust both thinking summarily of a whole narrative of things all in one sentence with particulars and wonderful generalized coups of insights, the last sentence of “Swann in Love where he concludes with a longing, almost corny, but shattering climax, that Odette wasn’t even his type—his genre (in the French); James Joyce a great composer of syntactical fragments and of long sentences—in Ulysses xvii, especially on water, where the seriousness, the comprehensive well-informedness implied humorously and lovingly by Joyce in Leopold’s science and municipal technology become also the ongoingness of the sentences, the  “prose” as well as Leopold’s happiness to be giving this young guy Stephen some hospitality in the middle of the night boiling water for tea. Sentences are like home for me, even a wilderness, yes, to seek what I have perhaps found. Eudora Welty, Donne  (his sentences in the poems), poor Cheever recalling DeQuincey in Bullet Park, Jane Austen (the mind of all those fine ironies all at once in her sentences), Nabokov in Pale Fire (even granting a truth in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s charge that the expatriate never achieved maturity), Henry Adams in The Education, the nursing mother whales we look down and see suspended in the watery vault “eyeing us” in Melville’s close to miraculous Grand Armada chapter—sentences so many of our younger memoirists running off at the mouth would do well to have heard and given some thought to— Intricate the passage and the sentence are my unit, pretty much, and can be sometimes several thoughts enfolding one another, passing through one another like neutrons or my reciprocal fortunate memories—and is Melville not a thinker?

JD: But how do you see your style?  Do you see it as those things, as I mentioned?

JM: A rhythm of amazement and precision, risk maybe sometimes like Faulkner’s in Absalom or As I Lay Dying, his best—blunt elusiveness like Beckett’s?  Beckett maybe in The Letter Left to Me.

JD: Could you talk a little about the evolution of your style, how you developed it, influences, philosophy?

JM: Philosophy? Read it all, Barthelme advised. Haphazard. Dos Passos and the collage of informational forms in the USA trilogy made a huge impression. Japanese legends of warriors, black armor. Great Expectations, the great sources in a kid’s helpless snobberies, the first novel I ever took apart and analyzed, I mean a teacher in second year high school told me to—I mean I saw that this story was a thing made and could be studied as to how it worked. Technique, structure. I can’t think where my style came from at the moment. Science reading. The fear of not gathering what I wanted into a sentence. Don’t trust the writer answering this personal question. Sentences, though.

JD: Well, how do you think about sentences?  How do you know when they’re done and what are you looking for?

JM: I thought I had to curb my syntaxes when I was ten or eleven years old and writing stories. It wasn’t till I was in college that it occurred to me that the structures of my sentences might be truer than… —I wonder if the highly inflected Latin I had four years of in school in an amiable way suggested to me that I might find truthful structures in English while positioning parts of a sentence as if I were working with declensions, dative, ablative, accusative, a nominative toward the end, say, of the sentence. I have only a little graduate school German, whatever I kid myself I get in facing-text renderings of Rilke—so I never thought about holding the verb off till the end.           

cannonball

JD: Cannonball is your ninth published novel. What are some of the discoveries you made while writing (these could be technical or emotional or something else) or what surprised you the most about writing Cannonball?  This question is inspired by those wonderful three sentences in your essay “Socrates on the Beach”: “Writing is thinking. Getting somewhere. Even into ignorance.”

JM: Sounds like you want to take readers away from the book itself, but no, not you, Jason.  “Ignorance” I mean here is an achievement, right? Limits crashed into for now, a dark space you fall into. But limits which if you live in them are like the next question, which is even, Why the need of questioning?

Cannonball takes the mess afflicting its characters to a new stage and is clear about it.  Some of it is learning how things began. Why the huge, in fact corpulent Asian probably “illegal” teenager who can dive so astonishingly well came into Zach’s life to begin with. It’s all there. How things happen. Something’s at stake for the reader. This is my most uneasy-feeling or darkest book. More than Lookout Cartridge. My only really dark book, upshot after upshot, though with a young voice that itself isn’t dark.

Stanley Elkin, in the days of carbon paper—was it that early?—said somewhere more or less that your American novelist makes his POV hero six or seven years younger than himself; this is what is known as Carbon 14 dating, Stanley explains. My hero, and at the end of it all he is something of a hero, is six decades younger than I and I’ve been happy to hear from some young readers (they’re all younger now) that Zach is convincing. He’s a remarkable witness, for all he doesn’t quite know. You have to look at what happens. People sometimes they come to you at the right time asking you for what is needed. What does William James say about this in the Varieties of Religious Experience: What actually happens. It’s right there. What do we learn from the Chaplain? What are we to make of it? And what of him is saved by Zach—one of the best surprises in the story. Somewhere between Catch 22 and The Red Badge of Courage, I’ve heard said of Cannonball. That doesn’t come too close. Closer to Crane if I have to compare. But Crane? Hemingway admired The Red Badge—who said: You make it up out of what you know—though he didn’t know much about women and men together.

“Surprised,” you said? I was surprised how the closeness between brother and sister developed. What it has to do with the war and diving. I let the characters be. That means make the scenes speak. Brother and sister in the car toward the end, things changing between them slightly – one of the best things I have done. Each new book asks the reader to read what it says. Many readers would rather talk about something else. The father is seen by one reviewer as an absence. But we know a lot about him. Maybe for some readers each scene the father’s in might seem to leave out some dumb confessional explanation by him of himself some reader thinks is needed. It’s not. The son Zach doesn’t know him too well, perhaps.  Zach tells what he knows. The father seems to find fault with the son. But not only.  What the main character Zach sees gives us even richly these extraordinary limitations of the father character.  He recedes but not into indefiniteness. Proust would have given us a wonderful analysis of the man. I might have in another novel. Proust the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, so much closer to me than these other names I hear myself placed with and am so unlike.  Doesn’t mean I write like him. In this novel, did father sacrifice son to get what he wanted? The father probably doesn’t see it that way. Attentive reader grasps the question. By the time of his enlistment Zach makes his own choice.  But he’s invited to enlist, remember, and if you read, you can find how he came to be invited. The reader might try accepting the characters as given. All the information’s provided—a lot, and often I would say American information.  The chaplain, what happens to him and before he recedes, all that he leaves us with. Lazarus. Zach’s half-unknowing influence on events. Government thinks one character is alive but isn’t, another dead but isn’t.

lc

JD: I’m interested in the idea that you wrote Cannonball out of your “anger about the Iraq war,” as you mentioned in another interview.  Were your emotions purged or lessened by writing the novel? Or is the point of writing with these strong emotions meant to be a transference of sorts of your emotions onto the reader? And if that’s so, do you agree that writing is a “hostile act,” as Joan Didion called it so many years ago?

JM: Transferred into the story, I would say. Story stands between the reader and the writer: there it is, for the reader to take or leave, and not for the writer to explain, much less explain where it came from. Writer probably does not entirely know. I say the Scrolls, one source. An American curse, mouthing some Christianity lipservice to justify any damn thing we do as a nation. So from archaeology and weapons of mass destruction and confirming all our self-promotions comes an ancient transcript torn and fragile and part-lost derived from what we know and what we do purporting to be a first-hand first-century live interview with a Jesus not at odds with American success myths. Lawrence meant something else when he said “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” But the cruelty in a whole segment  of our politics (right wing? the word “wing” is misleading) is hard to believe. [2]

I guess the Scrolls are near the source of Cannonball. But springboard diving another point of departure definitely.  Perhaps never quite been done like this before in a novel.  Even the calculus of it at the very end connects it to the war and the brother and sister and the Hearings about Competition.

For me there are no individual beginnings for a novel—several points of departure, impulses, subjects scattered out there, that I let myself be at sea with or in orbit around or they in orbit half out of reach around me and gradually the subjects gather their relations. The diving accident, as the reader will understand, draws so many of the book’s elements together; but so does the brother-sister relation; and friendship; and the Scrolls, and so on.

JD: What about “hostile act”?

JM:  What exactly, and who, am I, as you put it, agreeing with? Anger could be out of control. Anger could be a clarifying force. Writing is fighting, I think Nietzsche said. Only as it’s trying to think something through. It’s meditation, too. I have it both ways. There are the sentences and there are the people.

201105140057260.LgWomen-and-men

JD: One of the more interesting facets of your style is the confluence of simultaneous events for instance early in Cannonball, Zach, the narrator, is shooting onto film one of Umo’s dives, while at the same time Zach is being told about a question Corona’s wife has asked E, Zach’s sister; but also there is a “breaker fluke,” and the power flashes, and on to that an “old woman” “materialize[s]” to speak.  This is all captured in an 18-line sentence.

JM: (An 18-word sentence would have been better.) It’s an embrace a love a prayer but to whom(?), so many parts of one in-motion act—vision like a dive you might want to see all the parts of but at the same time as William James in that late book refutes Zeno’s infinitely dividing up the space traversed so supposedly you never get there?

Everything at once may make hash of causality. It’s also the way we can feel—not overwhelmed so much as in touch with a lot suddenly, our decision-making all but dissolved or some aesthetic thrill at the changing core of things if there is one. A reader might note that a character close to Zach is interested in what happens right before an event; another what comes right after. A nose for how things happened. Something to do with photography, too—what seems to take Zach to the War, Army’s employing him for that. Reader might follow why. Zach’s not a pro. Really not much of a photographer. Though maybe that makes the photography more interesting. It’s not photography that takes him back to the War the second time.

JD: In a lot of Cannonball, sports and war and religion are all mixed up, and it is in many ways a political novel.  Do you believe that sports are (or can be) a replacement or placeholder for war?

JM: Sure. Who doesn’t? Conflict coming at you unavoidable—doesn’t mean that knife-fighting is the ultimate moral test as Cormac McCarthy, a great landscape writer, would have us believe, who dismisses Henry James. You have to decide how far the always interesting pressures of a competitive sport can take you. Character-building as coach says, whose own character may have been stunted by it; it lives in fantasy—but imagination, finding new combinations and possibilities is our social and ethical genius if we would seek it in ourselves. Diving, soccer, karate—art? Maybe, or some texture or task like how to live. Football takes brains, all those playbooks, but the allegiances and simple-mindedness and insane fandom, God.  Preoccupation with sports makes us trivial but it’s dramatic, too. Degrees of difficulty in competitive diving measure beauty too. Never apart from the behavior of the water.  Yeats, the “fascination of what’s difficult” —Orwell, the overcoming of something difficult in writing, hence a density. Someone says “difficult” —of art—but “difficult” is never spelled out, it’s conveniently left indefinite, it’s never voiced as a word that refers to a clear idea or standard, though it pretends to in readers’ mouths. What are we willing to look for in other people?  Intricacies of courage.

Joseph_McElroy,_Ancient_History,_cover

JD: Ancient History being re-released just a few months after your most recent novel, why Ancient History: A Paraphase and not, say, Hind’s Kidnap? Or is the latter forthcoming?

JM: Partly an accident of publishing; Hind’s Kidnap is coming out as an e-book, and I hope for a print reprint.  A young writer friend of mine thinks Ancient History (1971) has a lot to say to young people now, so we pushed for a print reprint.  Jonathan Lethem wrote an intro.  What publishers choose to bring back, it’s all something of a lottery.

JD: I’ve read that your next project is a nonfiction book on water.

JM: It’s been in progress nine years. Almost done. I don’t think there’s anything like it. One small side of it visible in an essay that appeared recently in New England Review, “Wetland Reflections,” about a made wetland in lower Bronx River. I’m interested in what water is to us.

JD: Any other new work?

JM: Sceenplay. Children’s book. Libretto.  A novel called Voir Dire begun in 1991.  600-some pages so far. An excerpt published a few years ago. And another novel at last getting finished was the first effort I ever made to understand what I was doing—being made to move by outside forces yet somehow within their restrictions making my world move—sorry about that word “world” —and what awaited (though not necessarily me). You sign up for what you think the job is and it turns out to be something entirely different. More to it, you know, than that. It gives me the chills how that novel is still clear in my mind. I started it around 1948, do you believe me? Been sort of writing it since I was 18. It’s getting done by Spring.

—Joseph McElroy and Jason DeYoung

JM2

Joseph McElroy is the author of nine novels including A Smuggler’s Bible, Lookout Cartridge, Actress in the House, and Women & Men.  He has also published a book of short stories—Night Soul & Other Stories—and a collection of essays—Exponential.  He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D. H. Lawrence Foundations, twice from Ingram Merrill and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930.

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared or forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kramer, Kathryn, “Dr. McElroy, Homeopath: What One Goes to Him For,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Spring 1990. Vol. X, No. 1. Page 80
  2. The full D. H. Lawrence quotation from Studies in Classic American Literature: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
Dec 032013
 

Louise Manifold & Kevin Barry

Today Numéro Cinq begins a new special feature tagged Uimhir a Cúig, which means Number Five in Irish, wherein you will find some of the best in contemporary Irish literature and culture exhibited. To launch Uimhir a Cúig, we have a video by the amazing and uncanny Galway artist Louise Manifold with text and voiceover from the massively celebrated Kevin Barry, winner of last year’s Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award for his novel The City of Bohane as well as the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. Barry is a wonderful read. He is especially good on the rhythm and nuance of Irish idiom (his stories set in pubs are wonderful, put you in mind of Flann O’Brien) and comedy in a dark time. Cotard’s Delusion happens to be a real pathology in which the sufferer believes he is dead.

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This is a piece I wrote to go with a video and audio installation for an artist called Louise Manifold in Galway based on Cotard’s Delusion — a rare mental state in which you wake up one morning and believe yourself to be dead. It was apparently Cotard’s that inspired Beckett’s The Calmative. Louise filmed the interior of a derelict old cinema in New Jersey — as good a locale to define a state of living death as any!

—Kevin Barry

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My wife is distraught and has refused to accept the facts of the situation. I suppose her reaction is common to the bereaved. She cannot accept that the old realities are done with now. That I have no heat in my bones to lend her now. She rants like a mad woman – she refuses to accept the pure state of my absence; she will not accept that I am no longer here. I can only hope that time will do its patient work on her now – as they insist it will –  and that she can find something or someone to live for again; she is not an old woman yet.

It is Saturday I can tell even by the feel of the streets and somehow by the way the light falls – there is a species of winter light that holds the particular resonance of Saturday – and it is late morning, and the people are about and lost in the make-busy routines of their lives, as though any of it matters, and I move among them and sometimes, even still, I draw passing nods from the acquaintances of my old life, but I do not return their smiles and gestures – how could I? – and their faces fall into frown and puzzlement then, and I sense the way a chill of cold certainty passes through them. Word will have got around of my demise, and they will know it is a spirit they have seen, or sensed, or a cipher, or a ghost, for I could be nothing else now and no other, for I have passed on, and I throw no shadow in the white winter sun.

But I can taste the world still even though I am no longer a part of it. Still there is the waft of coffee from the cafes but it stirs nothing in me. Still from the tannoys of the shops I can hear sentimental pop music – old love songs I would have held her to, in discos, in 1978 – but it stirs nothing in me. Still I can recognise the beauties of the planet – they are all about on this fine bright Saturday –but they stir nothing in me.

I could not name for you the precise moment of my death. I suspect, of course, there was a significance about the moment when the tendrils of smoke came from my nostrils. It was a sweetish, greenish-black smoke, as from the burning of a seasoned ash wood. Perhaps something left me at that moment – another might call it a soul – and it was perhaps then that I become merely this husk; I became something to be carried on the breeze off the river, on the wind off the bay.

I can witness the moments of my old life still but only as a stranger. I am puzzled by my actions. By the decisions I made and the paths that I took. What a fool I was. What a happy poor fool I was. What a happy and arrogant and deluded poor fool I was.

I walk straight ahead with my shoulders thrown back and the head held high and the people walk straight at me but they swerve at the last moment though they cannot see me but somehow they must sense me – I was once of the tribe, and my scent is about the streets still. These are the streets of our lives and our Saturdays, as though we are a confluence at the centre of the universe – what arrogant poor fools – and I walk on, as always I walked on, and as ever I am drawn to the water.

The occult places are where the rivers enter the sea and I walk now by the mesmerizing roar of the black water, and I am drawn along the same old pathway again – tang of sea – and I walk into the saltwind and into the light; I am there and I am not there; I have become water, wind, light.

— Kevin Barry

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Kevin Barry is the author of the story collections Dark Lies The Island and There Are Little Kingdoms and the novel City of Bohane. He has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and many other journals. He also writes plays and screenplays. He lives in County Sligo, Ireland.

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Born in Co. Galway Ireland, Louise Manifold studied at Central St Martins College London and the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology, Ireland. She has exhibited extensively throughout Ireland, and internationally in group exhibitions at ISCP, New York. Proximal Distances Chicago, Supermarket Art Fair, Stockholm, Red House Arts Centre Syracuse New York, Candid arts centre, London. 411 Galleries Shanghai, China and the Botin Foundation, Spain. Louise has been the recipient of numerous awards from Galway City Council, Galway County Council, The Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland,  In 2009 she was one of the four artists short-listed nominated for Allied Irish Bank Art prize. Louise is currently based in Galway and is on the board of directors of Galway Arts Centre, and  Artspace studios Galway, Ireland.

 

 

 

Dec 022013
 

Louis Armand at Jazz Republic 23.5.13

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ouis Armand’s fiction saunters through the darkest underbelly of society, illuminating the forgotten and the discarded. His recent novel Breakfast at Midnight (2012) reads like a twisted, brilliantly savage acid noir: amid a decaying Prague, rechristened Kafkaville, a quasi-mystery unfurls through the addled mind of a nameless fugitive, a man looking to solve a murder and piece together his own history. Canicule, released this past April, finds purchase through the lens of cinema: a man commits suicide, forcing his friends—failing screenwriter Hess and terrorist-sympathizer Wolf—to reenter each other’s orbit. A narrative revealed in snippets—“I’m not able to put the pieces back together, because I don’t understand them,” Hess confesses. “They’re pieces of an alien life, a completely alien life.”—the novel’s elasticity feels like an experimental film, spliced together on a dusty Steenbeck. Constantly moving forward and backward in time, Armand refuses to coddle his audience, and the result is a tale full of irony, repetition, and alcohol-fueled remorse.

Now comes Cairo. Set for publication in January (Equus Press), the following excerpt fuses themes and beats from Armand’s earlier novels: a murder, followed by a mystery left for men out of their element to decipher. Cinema bubbles throughout, as well, as Armand’s characters employ film tropes to handle their increasingly odd situation. And yet, while these ideas resurface, Cairo’s aura is nothing like that of Breakfast and Canicule, for while those settled on a far more serious plain, Cairo is downright playful. What makes this excerpt so very interesting is that it showcases Armand’s gift for language, both in his wickedly funny character exchanges and in the way he describes locations: senses are explored, filling us in on not only the tangible space, but also its sonic properties, its perfume, truly creating in three dimensions the underbelly of the underbelly.

Benjamin Woodard

louis armand_cairo_front cover

ELEPHANT’S EGG 

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he East Ham Mortuary off Barking Road was a squat cube of dark brick with a set of blue doors at the entrance. Nicky Cohn was waiting under a yellow CCTV sign, collar up, cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, somehow still alight in the drizzle, when Joblard wheeled up riding the clutch. A naked fluorescent blinked over the doorway, lending the journalist’s features a decidedly funereal cast. The light glistened on the wet chrome of the BSA’s petrol tank, catching the steam as it hissed up from the single cylinder. Then it didn’t. Then it did.

“You’re looking bright and chirpy,” Nicky Cohn said as Joblard yanked off his helmet, face a blur behind frozen breath. “Not half bloody cold.”

“Nice night for it alright,” Joblard said, “though I’d rather be in the back lounge getting intimate with a pint. You been in yet?”

“Nah, just got here. Thought I’d have a fag before trying to blague my way past the Homicide and Serious Crime boys. I recognised two of them when I peeked in through the door. They can be right cunts when it suits them.”

Joblard stuffed his gloves inside his bellstaf jacket, helmet under one arm.

“That’s good, I could fancy a couple of cunts on a night like this.”

“Not like these you wouldn’t. Speaking of which, what’s your Spielberg up to these days?”

“You on the square brother?”

“Eh?”

“Freemasons. Grand Lodge. He’s got some notion about poking a camera into the holy of holies. Ladies of the Illuminati.”

“The what?”

“Yeah, I reckon our mate Johnny Fluoride might’ve been getting him some of the more candid stuff. Kind of spank-and-tell exposé of the secret handshake brigade.”

“Tell me about it after,” Nicky Cohn said, tossing the unsmoked half of his cigarette on the ground. “I’m freezing my balls off out here.”

Behind the blue doors was a corridor and an office with a little window where Nicky Cohn showed his press credentials and signed in. Joblard took in the atmosphere. A couple of plods eyeballed him from where they were sitting beside a pair of swing-doors, like they were on stakeout duty waiting for a corpse to show up and trying to outguess each other about whose it might be. Joblard grinned at them. It was a rule he had with cops: you never break eye contact and always smile, drives the fuckers nuts. Nicky finished with the forms and they waited for a technician in a blue smock to come and give them the grand tour. He was a tall and skinny, with a straggly goatee and hair down past his collar and acne on his neck. Student-type. Taking full advantage of the opportunities society had on offer.

“This way gentlemen,” he said, taking a chit from the receptionist behind the window. “My name’s Zack and I’m your guide for this evening. The main attraction’s just through here and on the left.”

They ran the gauntlet of the two Homicide boys, busy giving Joblard the business with their cop stares, tongues working the backs of their teeth, but not making any more than a show of it.

Joblard jerked his thumb back at the swing-doors, behind them now as their guide steered them left along an underlit tunnel of half-tone green:

“What’s with the local entertainment, Zack?”

“One of our residents has attracted special attention.”

“Zack,” Nicky said, “I have a confession to make. That’s who we’re here to see.”

The technician stopped and scrutinised the chit he was holding.

Joblard, trying to get a look at it over the technician’s shoulder, found himself with an unobstructed view of a dandruff condition on the verge of spiralling out of control. Greenish flakes of dead scalp layered the back and shoulders of Zack-the-mortuary-technician’s smock, sifting down between greasy cords of black hair. Joblard edged back to maintain a safe interpersonal distance. Dandruff always made him think of leprosy. It was an association he’d had ever since childhood and the smell of antidandruff shampoo in the change rooms. Afraid he’d catch the stuff. At least they’d had the decency to wash. Some people, he thought, ogling the back of the technician’s head, lack the very basics of self-respect.

“You’re not here to see 856?”

“No.”

“We’re supposed to report anyone who wants to visit the new guy.”

Nicky slipped a freshly minted portrait of Queen Liz into the pocket of the technician’s smock.

“Put this towards your scholarship fund, Zack. No-one ever need know. You just got the numbers mixed up, that’s all.”

Zack glanced at the bill, which in the light of the corridor was the brown of a freshly minted turd.

“She looks kind of lonely, don’t you think? Got another one of those to keep her company?”

Nicky slipped the technician another royal likeness. The kid grinned.

“Right through here then, gents,” Zack said, leading the way.

Once when he’d been KO’d in the ring by the southpaw Mickey “the Hammer” Mulligan, Joblard had woken up on the floor staring at a light thinking he’d died already and was stretch out on one of those mortuary slabs they have in movies and any minute some geezer in a white labcoat was going to come in and poke a scalpel in his brain and pronounce the cause of death. Telling himself how “Hammer” wasn’t a name Mulligan earned in the ring but operating a protection racket off Brick Lane. But the room Zack the technician ushered them into wasn’t like anything in a film, more like a wholesaler’s stockroom. The far wall was lined with time-warped refrigerator doors you’d expect to find racks of frozen meat behind. Sides of beef, lamb, pork. A whole raffle bonanza.

The technician went straight to the third door down and yanked it open. Behind it there were three more doors, square, one above another, old paint a dozen hues of off-white cracked and flaking. Johnny Fluoride had taken up residence behind the door third from the bottom. Like those Japanese coffin hotels. Zack trundled out the slab. Joblard shivered. Johnny Fluoride’s body, sans head, was wrapped in semi-opaque plastic. The swim hadn’t done him any kindnesses. Even with the plastic on he looked terrible, like he’d been force-fed through the proverbial wringer. But whatever took his head off, that sure as hell hadn’t beaten around the bush.

“Jesus!”

The corpse, Joblard duly noted, had bare feet. Eventually, he supposed, the Coroner’s Office would release a report. He wondered what they’d make of the fact Johnny here had gone swimming without his boots on. Getting a head start, so to speak. The violent crime boys hadn’t made a positive ID yet. Their floater had washed up not only sans head but sans anything in his pockets. According to Nicky’s mate at the yard, Johnny Fluoride’s body had still been zipped into his army surplus when they found him. Which was how he knew it was Johnny Fluoride. The anorak had somehow kept him afloat, otherwise he mightn’t’ve turned up at all till next week, if ever.

Still, Joblard supposed, it’d only be a matter of time now before the Homicide boys rang the old widow’s doorbell over in Greenwich and got themselves an earful. And then from Greenwich to Canvey, which was all they’d need to put him on the spot. A knock on the door in the middle of the night. But at that moment, all Joblard could really think of was how the fuck…?

The three of them stared at the body for a while in silence. Nicky flicked at the chipped paint on the freezer door. The room seemed to Joblard to’ve grown noticeably colder. Nicky pulled a splinter of old paint from under a fingernail and held it up to the light.

“You know,” he said, breaking the silence, “they reckon lead paint’s accountable for half the violent crime on the planet. God’s truth. But just try telling that to the Homicide boys. And the people responsible for the stuff? Why, only the honest-living folk at Innospec, up on the Manchester Ship Canal, flogging tetraethyl lead wherever it hasn’t been banned yet. Fun places like Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. The fact it’s illegal to sell in good old Blighty doesn’t mean they can’t manufacture and export the stuff. Now if it was anthrax…”

“Somehow I don’t think it was lead paint did that,” Joblard said, pointing at the mess where Johnny Fluoride’s head formerly resided.

“The interesting thing,” the technician said, fingering the tag affixed to the big toe of Johnny Fluoride’s right foot, “is they found river water in your man’s stomach, but not in the lungs. Whoever blew his head off gave him a soaking first. Must’ve had something they wanted. That’s my guess. Held his head under till he talked. Then pop. No further use. Seen it before. The Albanian they found in a suitcase last year? He’d swallowed half a gallon of Thames water too, and not from any tap. Except they used a saw on him instead of a canon. Never found the head, either. Your mate involved in any funny business, then?”

“Nah,” Nicky said. “He ran nostalgia tours for old pub-rock fans. Didn’t know shit from clay. Probably a case of mistaken identity.” Turning to Joblard: “What do you reckon?”

“Yeah, mistaken identity,” Joblard echoed. “Poor sod.”

“Did he have a name?”

“Mmm,” Nicky said. “Can’t remember.” To Joblard: “D’you remember his name?”

“Frank maybe? Don’t rightly think he ever told us.”

“Too bad,” Zack said. “Too bad.”

A wedge of lemon floated in the glass of water Nicky Cohn was holding up to the light, eyeballing the citrus bits drifting around in it. He’d watched the waitress closely while she filled the glass straight from the tap.

“That stuff comes direct from the river, you realise?” Joblard said, trying on the tone of voice of someone attempting to be helpful. “If you’re lucky, there might even be a couple of particles of Johnny Fluoride in there. Not to mention all the other crap they dump in the Thames. London’s Pride.”

Nicky Cohn snorted and set his glass down in front of him. The bar they’d retreated to from the East Ham Mortuary was slowly filling up for the evening with what looked like a regular crowd. Joblard counted at least a dozen different types of Adidas tracksuit. The only beer they had on tap wasn’t beer at all but some foreign crap called Carlsberg, so he’d settled for a cup of tea. The publican had given him one of those looks. The de rigeur TV in the corner was running the day’s Ashes highlights. Depressing viewing. They’d’ve done better switching to one of the disaster channels. BSkyB or whatever. Rapping out the small print on why the world was going to shit. Global warming conspiracy nuts. The latest candidate for World War Three.

On cue the box cut from the cricket roundup to the news desk. Some joker in a flash suit talking to himself in a studio with lots of high-tech graphics making up the décor. Lip-syncing to a soundtrack that’d been swapped for the usual pub banter in competition with some sort of Kylie Monogue remix. Text scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Then cut to footage of what looked very much like riots on Wall Street. Archive material on the Twin Towers going down. Joblard registered crowd shots and helicopters. Something brewing on the other side of the pond, he thought. Nicky Cohn was still eyeing his glass in a manner you might describe at pensive.

“Gone to a better place, if you believe that stuff,” Joblard offered, thinking condolences of some sort might be in order. Though exactly what Nicky’s connection with Johnny Fluoride was, he didn’t know. Nicky looked up from his glass at the bulge Joblard’s gloves made inside his jacket.

“Your tea’s getting cold.”

“Don’t really fancy it anyhow.”

“My mum used to say cold tea’s good for piles.”

“That right?”

“She made my old man drink the stuff till the day he died. Sure enough, never did get piles. Fucked his liver good and proper though.”

“Eh?”

“Used to slip rum in the tea to make the stuff drinkable, when the old girl wasn’t watching. She’d keep a pot cooling on the windowsill for all occasions. Earle Grey. By the time he finished his third cup of an evening, the poor bugger could hardly stand up. Which the old girl attributed to the tea’s potent medicinal effect.”

Joblard sniffed his cup then set it back down on its saucer.

“Just regular tea, this. Probably doesn’t work.”

Nicky squinted up at him.

“They put out a call for witnesses. A couple of those lugs might want to have a talk with you. Canvey jetty. How many people saw you together?”

“Just the barman. And maybe this scarecrow character with some sort of skin disease on his face.”

“Mmm. Barman’ll probably just mind his own business, unless they make a point on it. Who’s the scarecrow?”

“Dunno. Followed me, though.”

“Followed you?”

“Yeah, him and a dwarf. They both followed me when I went over to Johnny Fluoride’s gaff. After the shithead decided to take a swim. That’s the bit I can’t figure out.”

“Dwarf?”

“Former associate of our headless friend, I do believe. Seems Johnny accidentally snapped a pic of him and he didn’t like it. Kind of, in flagrante delicto, as they say.”

“You’re not making much sense, old chum. Care to fill in the blanks?”

Joblard, against his better judgement, took a sip of the tea. Grimaced. Resisted the urge to spit it back out.

“Disgusting.”

“Like I said.”

Joblard wiped his mouth on his sleeve, pushed the cup and saucer aside, then folded his arms.

“Bludhorn paid Johhny Fluoride to take some candids. Some geezer getting his jollies being tickled with a riding crop. High class stuff. In the middle of which, this dwarf turns up, blows the geezer’s head off. On film.”

“Kosher?”

“One hundred percent.”

“So Johnny was tied up with Bludhorn, too, eh? And that’s why you were out on Canvey? Because of these pictures?”

“Except I never knew anything about what was in the pictures till after.”

“And I suppose Bludhorn has them safely under lock and key?”

“Curious are you?”

“Curious, old chum, is hardly the word.”

“Doesn’t look like you’re the only one.”

“You think whoever nixed Johnny might be after the pictures?”

“Stands to reason, doesn’t it? Besides, I spotted scarecrow and his mate hanging around Bludhorn’s club in Soho.”

“Maybe we should give the old bugger a call.”

“Maybe.”

“Got anything better to do for the next five minutes?”

Joblard creased his brow like someone trying hard to think, glanced sidelong at his teacup, then fished his mobile out of his inside pocket. Nicky Cohn looked at him in disgust.

“Knowing how you hate these things…”

“You’re begging for cancer of the brain, you realise that?”

Joblard grinned, fingered the keypad, stared at the screen. The background noise covered the dial tone, but a little icon on the screen indicated that the phone at the other end, Bludhorn’s, was ringing. Joblard had counted to five when the icon was replaced by a message saying his call had been interrupted and please try again later.

“Not answering?”

“Nope.”

“Mmm. You know, this could be one hell of a story.”

“Could be. Could also just be a coincidence.”

“Come off it. Why the heck’d anyone go to the trouble of saving a clown like Johnny Fluoride from drowning just to blow his head off?”

“Beats me. Maybe he washed up all by himself, emptied his own pockets, then blew his head off just for the hell of it. Or maybe he got sucked into another dimension. Dr Who stuff. And his head’s still on the other side, mashed into the vortex. One thing I do know, he was scared shitless of somebody. Said they were out to get him. Thought it was because he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see and they found out about it. Or maybe they wanted to send a message further up the line. Join the dots, you know, so whoever arranged to take the pictures in the first place’d get the connection. So they’d know not to fuck with it. Masonic conspiracy stuff, maybe.”

“Is that what Mr Undertaker says?”

“Bludhorn knows who the geezer is but he’s not saying. In the pictures you can’t really make out his face. There’s just this geezer tied to a chair getting whipped. Stiff upper-lip type. Then there’s a flash. Next thing the dwarf appears out of nowhere and the geezer’s head’s vanished. Just like that.”

“Too bad.”

“Hey, did you hear about that coke-dealer, blew some kid’s head off in Wapping last night?”

“Twelve gauge? Yeah. Sodomised the corpse. Made a real mess of himself afterwards, too. Think there might be a connection?”

“You never know.”

“Nah. It’s too crazy. The lunatic shot himself in the head.”

“What if it only looked that way and someone else shot him in the head?”

“Nah.”

“It’s a possibility.”

“Shit. That’d make four. Four headless fucking corpses in one day. One of whom we don’t know anything about. It’s too much.”

“Don’t forget the tart with the whip. If she copped the same treatment, that’d make five.”

“Five? I don’t buy it.”

“Why not ask your mate to scan the register. See if anyone else’s checked into a morgue lately without their head attached.”

“Bodies could’ve ended up anywhere. In a bleedin’ meat factory, for all we know. Fed into a mincer. Bzzzz. Like they keep finding horse DNA in beef paddies. What if it was human DNA instead? Soylent Green stuff. Kid munching on quarter-pounder spits out a couple of fingernails. Not the sort of thing they’d want to see on the six o’clock news. Imagine it. Wozzie the Cannibal Clown! Bad for business.”

“I’ll stick to being vegetarian.”

“You could do far worse, chum. Say, what’re the chances you can actually find this dwarf character?”

“Dunno. All look the fucking same to me. I was figuring they’d probably show up again by themselves. Unfinished business. You know Bludhorn’s got a thing about midgets?”

“Size.”

“Eh?”

“It’s all about size. Midgets. Small.”

“I know what a fucking midget is.”

“Same reason they go for the oriental girls, you know. Little hands.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Nothing, chum. Over your head.”

“There’s a freak running around blowing people’s heads off and you’re on about some slanty tart’s manicure?”

“A dwarf. Blowing people’s head’s off. Apparently connected in some way to your Mr Undertaker. Capische?”

“What’s that mean, then?”

“What’s what mean?”

“Capische?”

“Don’t you watch films?”

“Not those sort of fucking films I don’t. You want to have a conversation with fucking subtitles, go to fucking Poland.”

“Maybe the dwarf’s fucking Polish, you ever consider that?”

Joblard blinked, looked thoughtful, creased his brow. Nicky Cohn shook his head, muttering to himself. He sniffed at his glass of water, took a sip.

“Oh, and I forgot to mention,” Joblard said, “they were driving a smartcar.”

Nicky Cohn peered over the rim of his glass, set it carefully on the table, picking a sliver of lemon seed from is lip.

“What?”

“You know,” Joblard said, “one of those poxy little jobs, like a golf buggy with an M.O.T.…”

Nicky Cohn made a sucking sound with his teeth, poking his tongue up under his lip.

“I’ll tell you something, chum,” Nicky Cohn said, straightening his mouth out. “If I hadn’t just seen Johnny Fluoride’s headless corpse with my own eyes, I’d swear you’re flaming nuts.”

Back during what used to be called The Troubles, old Uncle Hugo, ex-Sandhurst, had the good fortune to spend a tour of duty behind eight inches of plate glass in a pillbox in the fair city of Armagh. He’d been standing there one day watching the drizzle slowly mutating from bad to worse when some Fenian fucker, parked on a hillside a mile away, took a pot-shot at him with an elephant gun. He’d seen the shell embed itself three-quarters the way through the glass, big as his thumb. When he told the story afterwards, he’d always joke that if there’d been a tailwind, the bullet would’ve caught him right between the eyes. And taken his whole bleeding head off.

Joblard had been thinking of Uncle Hugo’s story while he watched the helicopters circle the Shard. It looked like the flattened head of an enormous glass prawn, sticking up above the Canada Square towers. Some Mujahadin types had tried to blow it up a week ago and now they had half the RAF up there every night at tax-payers expense, searchlights criss-crossing the rooftops. Every wisearse on the South Bank was probably laying bets on how long it’d be before some trigger-happy Afghan vet in a chopper went bezerk and did the job himself, like the one that smacked into the crane over in Vauxhall. Maybe blame it this time on a meteorite.

What killed Uncle Hugo in the end was a brain tumour. “Size of an elephant’s egg,” he’d say, while the nurse prepared his bed-bath. “Elephants don’t lay eggs, Captain Banks,” the nurse would tell him. “This one did.” And that, as they say, was the end of the matter. Joblard remembered the picture the doctor showed his mum. You could see the skull and what he supposed was brain tissue with a void right in the middle of it. Like that Fenian bullet had a bad karmic vibe that’d lodged in his uncle’s head and grown there for forty years into a knot of dead cell tissue, invading whole swathes of cortex till his motor neurons finally packed it in.

Joblard had tried calling Bludhorn once more after leaving Nicky Cohn, but the proverbial Undertaker still wasn’t picking up. Piss-taker, more like, Joblard thought. If things keep the way they’ve been going. He decided to swing by the Hindu’s hole-in-the-wall for a bucket of soy Vindaloo, papadums and sweet mango. Then back to the Fridge. Upstairs one of the regular parties was in full-swing, sub-sonic bass shaking the windows in their frames. He killed the engine and wheeled around to the service lift, chained the BSA to the grill and hung a tarp over it. The basement lights weren’t on, so he figured Bird Girl probably wasn’t back yet. Decided to go in quietly anyhow, in case she was there asleep. Though how anyone could sleep with that Moby shit playing, he didn’t know.

The basement wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it was big. A single room, about ten yards wide, ran the length of the building, a kitchenette with garret windows at the back. It’d been used once upon a time for storage. Upstairs was where the meat processing had gone on. Some of the residents practiced a type of voodoo to ward of bad spirits, appease the bovine gods. Joblard wasn’t interested in animal karma. The place stank of rat bait. Every other morning he took a bag of dead rats out to the trash. He burned incense. Told Bird Girl there must be some sort of rat disease going around. Had to be careful what he left the bait around in, though, in case one of the resident freaks from upstairs got to scrounging munchies on a comedown.

Joblard left the takeaway by the door, tiptoeing through the basement obstacle course in his boots and trying not to bang his head on any fixtures. The sound of snoring was audible despite the thumping bass. Joblard peered into the bed – a king-size mattress on trestles high enough for a dwarf to camp under. On account of the rats. The bed, though, was empty. The snoring came from the other side of it. Joblard made out something moon-like wrapped in an overcoat, lying on the couch. It didn’t look like Bird Girl. He went over and flipped on the lights. Ol’ Pasty, with his head back, felt hat tipped forward, mouth open, was snoring like a bullfrog. His coat was gathered at the neck in the ball of a skinny fist, blotchy like his face. His other hand was wrapped around the butt of a service issue .45.

By the time the scarecrow got his eyes open, Joblard already had an elasticated ocky strap round his wrists and was in the process of cocooning the bastard with an industrial roll of kitchen wrap. Ol’ Pasty’s eyes bugged. They bugged even more when Joblard shoved the .45 in his mouth and asked him very politely to sit still. Wearing about fifty feet of kitchen wrap, the scarecrow looked like a sick grub. He squirmed when Joblard pulled the gun out of his mouth. It made Joblard think of his first day in school.

“You’re not going to piss on my couch, are you?”

Scarecrow shook his head. His grey felt hat had tipped to one side, revealing a serious case of eczema. It gave Joblard the creeps.

“Where’s your mate?”

Scarecrow just looked at him.

“You’re not fucking Polish, are you? Rozumiesz anglielskiego, ty głupi pizdy?

Scarecrow glared.

“Suit yourself.”

Joblard tore off a strip of kitchen wrap and somehow got it around the scarecrow’s head without making contact with the eczema.

“Since you’ve got nothing to say,” Joblard pocketed the gun. “Any trouble breathing, just remember to holler.”

Joblard went to the kitchenette and grabbed a six-pack of Guinness from the fridge, then back to collect his vindaloo. He pulled up an armchair by the door and killed the lights, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. Maybe, after he’d enjoyed a decent meal, he’d get the jumper leads out and see how the scarecrow responded to a little encouragement. Maybe the fucker was mute, hehe. That’d be a laugh. Better him than me.

Outside, the same Moby track was still echoing in the stairwell. There was the sound of the DLR rattling by. The usual peace and quiet. Joblard grinned to himself, spooned some rice into his curry, popped a can of stout and settled back, munching on a papadum, to see what the remainder of the evening might bring.

Nicky Cohn was standing in the middle of the room, toeing an orange-and-brown paisley rug Bird Girl had said blended with the couch. Joblard couldn’t help thinking she was right. He spooned some instant into two give-away Wozzie Burger coffee mugs and snapped off the kettle. Poured. Doused the mix with soy milk.

“Sugar?”

Nicky Cohn pulled a face like the very idea appalled him.

“Nice place you’ve got here. Pity about the stiff.”

Joblard brought over the coffee and stood beside Nicky Cohn. They both sipped their coffee, surveying the couch. The scarecrow’s brains had made a complete mess of it. But there was no denying it had a certain affinity with the rug. Little fractalised blobules of red, black and grey floating in a type of Rorschach amber that continued half-way up the wall, punctured by bone shard. Bits of the scarecrow’s brains were even stuck to the ceiling. Joblard thought he recognised a patch of eczematous scalp glued to the lightshade – a paper globe that’d once been white, but now looked like a sepia pock-marked moon. Sea of Tranquillity and all that.

At some point in the night Joblard had dozed off under a dusting of papadum crumbs and pilau rice. What woke him was a sound like rats trying to burrow out through the walls. He’d been dreaming of a boat, somewhere on a river. A sort of funeral barque. Egyptian. Head of a jackal at stern. Anorexis, or whatever it was called. Dog god. With a gold sarcophagus in the middle of it. Like Bludhorn’s museum. Naked midgets at the oars. Ol’ Pasty there, too, beating a big drum. A sail with billowing Rosicrucian eye. And Joblard himself, trapped inside the sarcophagus, gasping for breath, tangled in mummy wrappings, trying desperately to escape.

He spilled what was left of the vindaloo grabbing for the .45 wedged in his Bellstafs, lucky the safety catch was still on. At first he thought the scarecrow had gotten away. The place was quiet. The party upstairs must’ve ended. And then he saw it, a faint mock of paracelene from the back windows glinting on the kitchen wrap, casting a long shadow up the wall. Only it was no shadow…

“What d’you know,” Nicky Cohn slurped his coffee. “Looks like your pal must’ve wore falsies.”

“Eh?”

“Unless those are yours?”

He poked his mug towards a splotch on the back of the couch. Joblard squinted at it. A pair of dentures was embedded in the muck. They seemed to grin back at him.

“Yikes.”

“Think someone’s trying to finger you, old chum?”

Joblard pulled out the scarecrow’s gun. Sniffed at it. Nicky Cohn glanced at him with a vague look of apprehension.

“Hasn’t been fired. Beside,” he held the gun out for Nicky Cohn to inspect, “no .45 on Earth could’ve done that.”

 Nicky Cohn demurred.

“Still, doesn’t exactly look good, does it?”

Joblard stuffed the gun back in his pants.

“What’re we going to do?”

Nicky Cohn held out his empty mug, Wozzie-the-Clown smirking sideways from it.

“I’ll take another one of these, if you’re offering.”

It’d been just after four o’clock when Joblard called Nicky Cohn. Figured he slept in his office. Got the answering machine. Shouted something incomprehensible at it. Rang again. Third go, the answering machine cut-out mid-message and the real-life Nicky Cohn came on.

“D’you know what time it is?”

“Of course I know what fucking time it is!”

“This better be good, old chum.”

“What if I told you there’s a headless fucking corpse sitting on my couch?”

He’d made it there in fifteen minutes. The sort of thing possible in London only around four a.m.

“You weren’t kidding,” Nicky Cohn said, when he saw the scarecrow. “There’s a corpse with no head sitting on your couch. What’s he wrapped in plastic for?”

Joblard spieled it out while Nicky Cohn clicked his tongue, shook his head, toed the rug. Sniffed.

“Rat bait,” Joblard explained.

His visitor appraised the room without moving from the spot, keeping an eye out for stray rodents.

“Nice place…”

Handing Nicky Cohn a fresh mug of coffee, Joblard pondered the situation. Nicky was right. If the cops got hold of this, they’d be all over him. Wouldn’t matter what he said. Wasn’t a single alibi he could think of that’d hold water. So to speak.

“In the films,” Nicky Cohn offered, warming is hands around his coffee, “they always search the body first, get rid of any I.D., then put it – the body, that is – in a bin liner and dump it somewhere. Got any of those housewife gloves? You know, for washing dishes and stuff?”

“What about his mate?”

And that’s when Joblard knew he’d have to find the dwarf. But even then, none of it made any sense. He’d spent half-an-hour scrubbing the wall and ceiling, scooping bits of brain matter off the floor, then bundling the stiff into a couple of bright yellow bin-liners – the ones they sold cheep at the local Sainsbury’s. The couch was a goner. He tried getting the stains out with diluted bleach. It only made matters worse. Nicky Cohn sat over by the door and watched, throwing in the odd suggestion from time-to-time. Like why not just toss the carpet over the back of the couch and be done with it?

The only thing Joblard had been able to find on the scarecrow was a roll of tenners and a pawnshop ticket. Castle Square, Brighton. He could dump the stiff and get down there on the bike before the place opened. See what he could find out. But the first thing was where to do the dumping. He’d never been all that conscientious about recycling. And riding about with a couple of bright yellow bin-liners on the back of a vintage BSA wasn’t exactly low-key. But then, nothing he ever did was. He figured the best thing to do was drop the lot into the canal, over by Tequila Warf. It was only a block away. Nicky Cohn didn’t like the idea quite so much. It wasn’t the headless corpse that bothered him. It was being a possible accessory that gave him the heebie-jeebies.

“Don’t tell me you’re suffering from a case of journalistic ethics?”

“Do I work for the Sun?

“Thought you type were all the same.”

“Listen, chum, some of us have a future to think about.”

“What about the poor fucker with his head blown off. You reckon he didn’t have a future to think about?”

“Not sure I get your point, chum.”

“Nicky. There’s a headless stiff on my couch. If we don’t get it out of here, I’m screwed. You think I popped Johnny Fluoride? There were witnesses.”

“I just want to be able to write the story without calling down any heat. My mate at the Yard already smells a rat. Like where I got the tip-off on the floater. This could end up ruining my expense account.”

“Shut up and give me a hand, will you.”

Joblard bundled the disposal job in Bird Girl’s rug and left the stain on the couch to look after itself. Between the two of them they got the rug out into the yard, along the alley behind the Rajasthan Café. Nicky Cohn huffed and puffed at the back while Joblard shouldered most of the weight up front.

“For a skinny bastard, he sure weighs a bloody tonne.”

Once they’d made it across the parking lot off Brunton Place, it was easy going. Trees lined the canal, shrouding it in shadow. Bits of concrete rubble lay piled hither and yon. Bricks. Steel piping. Coiled wire. A body-disposal paradise. Across the water, a billboard stood up from the wharf, facing the Commercial Road Bridge, as if the plan was to get your average out-bound commuter worked up for the homeward run, and the missus-and-three-veg. Miss Big Tits in the Wonder Bra ad. Hello Pikers! Some local vigilantes had sprayed out the offending bits, adding WHORE across Miss Big Tits’s face. The marketing geniuses had really picked their demographic. It wasn’t called the East End for nothing. Any further east, you’d be in fucking Cairo.

“I heard somewhere,” Joblard said, hoisting the weighted bin-liners across the tow-path to the edge of the canal, “that if you cut the guts open, a body won’t float. On account of the gas. When it decomposes.”

“Not much good when it’s wrapped in a plastic bag, is it?”

“Shit. He’ll blow up like a fucking balloon.”

“Forget it. Your man ever floats, he’ll wash up in the locks. Maybe get pulled down to the river. Means they’ll have company for Johnny boy. Give the fuzz something to think about.”

“Shame about the rug.”

It made less of a splash than either of them expected, swallowed by the dark water. Joblard tossed the gun in after it. There were lights coming on over at the wharf. The six o’clock shift. Time to get a move-on. It was going to be another long day.

— Louis Armand

——————————

Louis Armand is the author of seven collections of poetry and five novels, most recently Breakfast at Midnight (2012) and Canicule (2013), both from Equus (London). His screenplay, Clair Obscur, received honourable mention at the 2009 Alpe Adria Trieste International Film Festival. He is an editor of VLAK magazine and has worked as a subtitles technician at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. He lives in Prague.

Dec 012013
 

Paul Forte 2013

Paul Forte is a fascinating artist and thinker. “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” is a major essay on the theory and practice of Conceptual art, also a short history of the tradition, also a lesson on how to appreciate art, and also a Cook’s tour of Forte’s own amazing art (dwell on the images, meditate upon them). Steeped in the history of art and philosophy, Forte sorts out definitions and vectors of influence, does not lean on jargon but explains it, and is above all infectiously passionate about his subject. Note also that the essay is dedicated to the late Arthur C. Danto, a hugely influential philosopher (whom I have myself read assiduously now and then over the years), Forte’s friend and mentor.

dg

For Arthur C. Danto 1924 – 2013

The international Conceptual art movement that swept the art world in the late 1960’s emphasized the primacy of the artist’s thoughts or ideas in the art making process and forever changed how many artists think about and make art.  Reaching its peak in the late 1970’s, the movement was eventually overshadowed by the resurgence of more traditional art forms, but not before sowing the radical seeds of a new consciousness, at least where art is concerned.  Almost a decade after Conceptual art passed from the scene something interesting happened: in the mid 1980’s the movement seemed to resurface in what was touted as a revival called “Neo-Conceptualism” (also referred to as “Neo-Geo”). While roundly dismissed by Conceptual purists at the time as lacking in critical value, Neo-Conceptualism nevertheless signaled a significant turn for contemporary art.

In hindsight it appears that Conceptual art began evolving in the late 1970’s, and Neo-Conceptualism was one outcome of this evolutionary process.  The curious thing about this supposed revival was its acquiescence to the importance, indeed necessity of perception for expressing or communicating ideas along with the return to more conventional materials and methods of art making.  While an implicit acceptance of the centrality of material form in art didn’t necessarily negate or displace the predominance of the idea, it did give material form equal weight or footing, rendering the most controversial theory of the 1960’s, “de-materialization,” highly problematic.  Even so, much of the work that resulted from this supposedly renewed Conceptualism seemed sensationalist and facile.  In this sense the purists were right, and yet the reintroduction of perceptual concerns while adhering to the basic principle of Conceptual art concerning the primacy of ideas was highly significant.  Thus the stage was set to usher in a post-Conceptual era: art, or at least, Conceptual art, seemed to be evolving in a cognitive direction.  “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” attempts to make sense of this far reaching development and hopefully contribute something to our understanding of aesthetic experience.

 •

Desert Parcel (book fragments)

Desert Parcel (book fragments)
Paul Forte, 2013
Collage on canvass made from the fragments of an illustrated volume titled: Picturesque Palestine, Egypt and the Sinai, published in the late 19th century
39 3/4 x 54 3/4 inches

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“Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers.”[1]Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto’s observation about artists, expressed in a review of the Whitney Biennial over a decade ago, seems prescient given the ubiquity of art made along ostensibly conceptual lines today.  Writing for savvy readers of The Nation in 2000, Danto was concerned about what he saw as an erosion of aesthetics for the sake of imparting moral meanings. He was not objecting to art that raised social awareness, only work that might do so at the expense of aesthetic value, as he understood it.  There are many competing concepts of aesthetic value, making the subject contentious to say the least.  And yet, the notion of visual thinking seems generic enough to have some bearing on a host of ways in which art might be valued.  I believe that Danto felt that by focusing on contemporary art as a form of visual thought we might renew the discussion of aesthetic value and perhaps rediscover just what it was about the experience of art that we find so engaging.  Danto’s basic point about artists as visual thinkers remains sound and was never at odds with the possibility of art being used as a vehicle for moral posturing.  His concern over the advancement of moral agendas through art at the expense of aesthetics carries little weight today, because most artists, critics, curators, and others understand that there was never an issue between aesthetics and socially committed art, although a fundamental change in attitudes about the use of aesthetics has taken place, something that Danto may not have anticipated: the aesthetic practices of many contemporary artists have become, for lack of a better term, conceptualized.  In other words, aesthetic properties such as line, form, and color, for example, are often not explored for their own sake as it were but are used as indices or signifiers, elements of visual thought perhaps best understood in terms of the artist’s intentions.  This outcome is one legacy of Conceptual art, that radical re-visioning of art begun by Duchamp and championed by Danto.  There is no little irony in the fact that the undermining of aesthetic attitudes that troubled Danto should come as a result of this legacy.

1 Headstone (Laying NO to Rest)

Headstone (Laying NO to Rest)
Paul Forte 2005
Black Slate, 42 x 22 x 2 ½ inches
Collection Yale University Art Gallery

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Arthur Danto’s view of artists as visual thinkers prods us to re-examine our aesthetic experiences in light of what they can tell us about cognition. Danto’s perspective, shared by a number of his contemporaries, is important because in supposing that many contemporary artists are basically engaged in visual thinking, he suggests a fundamental reevaluation of art.  This reevaluation can be summed up in terms of the potential that art has for deepening our understanding of cognition or cognitive processes.  Certainly such understanding is as important as the moral or intellectual purpose of one’s artwork, if, indeed, that is the intention of the work.  In fact, it could be argued that it takes precedence over any moral or intellectual purpose, however lofty or urgent, because art that explores how we know and understand, however implicitly, can at the very least reveal new and engaging ways of communicating ideas.  Palpable realizations about knowing and understanding are not simply byproducts of one’s social or political messages, rather, they are the very things that make these messages effective, enduring, or even possible in the first place.  If we consider the potential of art in light of this basic value, surely its “moral or intellectual purpose,” whatever it is, will be preserved by virtue of the deeper ways the work has changed our hearts and minds.

7 Ringing silence

Ringing Silence
Paul Forte 2012
Alarm bell, map and biology text in found box
13 ½ x 16 ¾ x 12 ½ inches

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The idea of artists as visual thinkers gained currency in the 1960’s and 70’s through the advocacy of visual thinking by the psychologist, Rudolph Arnheim.  But visual thinking, according to Arnheim, is hardly limited to the activities of artists.  It is a capacity that we all share, artists and lay people alike, and may be the only form of thought capable of engendering productive understanding on a broad scale.  “Visual thinking is the ability of the mind to unite observing and reasoning in every field of learning.  Whether people spend their days on using the physical forces of their bodies as garage mechanics or surgeons or dancers or whether they labor quietly at their desks as mathematicians or poets, the principal instrument on which their minds rely will always be the same.”[2]  That instrument, of course, is the eye.  The practice of one’s discipline forms the connection between observing and reasoning, something that results in the give and take or back and forth of one’s art or activity.  One does, observes and evaluates the results, and then proceeds to adjust the doing as is necessary.  The work of either artist or garage mechanic involves a dynamic interaction between doing or making and observing.

8 Facade Compendium Wall

Façade (Compendium Wall)
Paul Forte 2013
Encyclopedia covers (1893) on wood
42 x 52 ½ x 1¼ inches

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But art making, certainly for the creative artist, requires open observation and careful reasoning.  The mind is always implicated in what and how we see, so the challenge for the creative artist involves sustaining an imaginative approach to both observing and reasoning without succumbing to solipsism or sophistry.  An imaginative mind combined with a critical eye seems to be the key.

2 Compact Record of Discarded Thoughts

Compact Record of Discarded Thoughts
Paul Forte 2005
Wadded paper (artist’s writings), glue, varnish
12 x 12 x 12 inches

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Our knowledge of self and world is in constant flux; there is an ongoing interrelation or interaction between what we know and what and how we see.  Visual thinking in this regard seems more fundamental than abstract thought; thought seemingly divorced from qualitative features of perceptual states that determine what something is like, or to employ a philosophical term: its qualia. The artwork of artists exploring the interrelations between the phenomenal properties of their materials and ideas is often provocative and unusual, calling for a more demanding set of interpretive skills; skills beyond at least aesthetic judgment that puts great store in absolute distinctions between perceptual and conceptual concerns.  When this dichotomy is guiding appraisal of the artwork it is often misunderstood and subsequently misjudged.  For example, critics, curators, and the art viewing public often overlook or underestimate the cognitive value of contemporary art seemingly indebted to some tradition or another, assuming that such work is primarily concerned with furthering that tradition and little else. If, on the other hand, such art is presumed to simulate a tradition and have a conceptual intention, then it is usually viewed as a matter of either pastiche or parody.  The presumption in the first case is that the work is primarily the result of formal concerns, to some extent or another, in the second, that the work is either a matter of critique or gamesmanship, and essentially conceptual.  It appears that much like the apparent opposition between aesthetics and socially engaged art, absolute distinctions between the formal and the conceptual, eye and mind, are overstated if not illusory.

9 Book of Maladies

Book of Maladies
Paul Forte 2013
Sealed book, crystals and mixed media on painted base
16 x 22 x 3 inches

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While visual thinking is commonplace, it is nonetheless a mainstay of creativity.  For artist and audience alike, artwork that engages visual perception and thought on an equal footing can imbue aesthetic experience with clarity, depth, and passion.  Artwork that delivers in this way may even lead to a new attitude toward aesthetics in general.  In my view, such engaging artwork precedes or makes the new attitude possible.  Thus Danto points the way when says that contemporary artists “portray themselves as engaged in conceptual exploration, calling boundaries into question, seeking to bring to consciousness the way we think about many things.”[3]  This is all well and good, and yet, it seems that artwork that both results from visual thinking and requires it in order to be properly understood or appreciated will implicitly call into question the limits and efficacy of conceptual exploration.  This is a reasonable assumption supported by a diverse yet coherent body of contemporary art practices, regardless of how those practices might be characterized (i.e., as “conceptual or conceptually oriented”).  It is my contention that the primary factor underlying these practices is not conceptual exploration, but rather, cognitive exploration.

3 Small World

Small World
Paul Forte 2008
Magnetized globe with metal objects on wood stand
20 x 12 ½ x 12 ½ inches

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Many artists, critics, and curators continue to use the terms “conceptual” and “cognitive” interchangeably.  One reason for this indiscriminant usage may be related to the orthodox understanding of cognition as a domain consisting of “logical reasoning, awareness, and judgment, and the rational structuring of sensation and perception.”[4] This understanding relies on or is in keeping with presumptions concerning mental processing and the formation of ideas. But cognition is essentially a matter of knowing and understanding, which certainly involves thought and ideas, but thought and ideas, in daily experience as well as in the art making process, are never fully independent of sensory input or emotive aspects, at least indirectly.  A fuller understanding of cognitive processes entails apperception and the emergence of new consciousness.  Consciousness of the integration of thought, sensation and feeling merits mentioning because it has bearing on understanding the basic distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual. Consider for a moment the fact that a good many of our ideas and concepts are first expressed metaphorically, expressions that were originally based on some manner of sensory experience. Consider also the deep relationship between thought and emotions. Feeling may be ultimately inseparable from thought, however subtle the thoughts or manifest the feelings.  Think about the feelings that often accompany ideas that give rise to strong religious or political convictions.  The person holding such convictions may not be aware of his or her feelings, but others often are. There is even a question as to whether the “rational structuring of sensation and perception” is possible in any definitive sense because it seems that sensation and perception are never entirely free of unconscious factors.  Briefly put, knowing and understanding are intertwined processes that involve more than just thought and ideas.

4 Artist's breath

Artist’s Breath
Paul Forte 2008
Sealed bottle on brass stand
13 x 4 ½ inches

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The late philosopher, Nelson Goodman, made a lasting contribution to our understanding by clarifying the distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual, as well as prodding us to reconsider the nature of aesthetic experience.  “In contending that aesthetic experience is cognitive, I am emphatically not identifying it with the conceptual, the discursive, the linguistic.  Under ‘cognitive’ I include all aspects of knowing and understanding, from perceptual discrimination through pattern recognition and emotive insight to logical inference.”[5] Thus it seems clear that the cognitive encompasses the conceptual, not the other way around.  That memory, knowledge, and imagination, as mental capacities, to some extent all determine what and how we see is beyond dispute.  But the point is to see anew.  Cognitively effective art can have an impact on our lives because it enables us to, in Goodman’s words, “See what we did not see before, and see in a new way.”[6] I think that Goodman’s main point here is that such art can be instrumental in developing visual acuity, thus enriching our daily experience.  I believe that some of this artwork can do even more.  Cognitive discoveries, finding new ways of seeing things, are, ultimately, discoveries about cognition itself. The new experiences that art can provide lay the groundwork for how we come to understand ourselves and the world and how we eventually conceptualize that understanding.

6 Nest egg

Nest Egg
Paul Forte 2010
Bird’s nest, glass globe, photo and map in found box
10 ½ x 13 x 7 inches

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“In metaphor, symbols moonlight.” [7]—Nelson Goodman

There is a mode of reference that has bearing on the notion of visual thinking.  This is metaphor; something that occurs primarily in verbal form, but is not limited to the realm of letters.[8] I accept the supposition that metaphor is an essential component of language, in both its literary and everyday usage.  Metaphor animates language in complex and subtle ways.  It makes words breath, adds color and interest, and generally makes reading pleasurable.  But it is more than an ornamental or humanizing gesture.  In instances where, for example, denotative language falls short or is nonexistent as a means of describing a particular phenomenon, metaphor serves an invaluable function. Thus, in science, for example, metaphor has an indispensable role in the advancement of knowledge.  Catherine Elgin comments on the value of metaphor in this regard.  She maintains that while it is true that scientists, unlike artists, “strive for literal, univocal, determinant symbols,”[9] it is wrong to assume that metaphor and other indirect forms of reference are alien to science.  Elgin states her case eloquently: “Inasmuch as metaphor is a device for drawing new lines and for redeploying conceptual resources that have proven effective elsewhere, it is an immensely valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry.  Where there is no literal vocabulary that marks the divisions that scientists want to recognize, they resort to speaking metaphorically of strings or black holes or central processing units.  But as inquiry progresses, the talk becomes increasingly less metaphorical.”[10] I think that visual metaphor has an equivalent value for the visual arts.  The practice of appropriating images and or objects from everyday life for metaphorical ends could be considered analogous to a redeployment of conceptual resources as it occurs in the theoretical language of science.  Just as it is wrong to assume that metaphor plays no essential role in the advancement of knowledge through science, it is equally wrong to assume that visual metaphor in art is not essential to our understanding of aesthetic experience. Indeed, it may be essential to our even having an aesthetic experience.  If aesthetic experience is cognitive, as Nelson Goodman contends, then visual metaphor in art is also a very valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry.  That metaphor in general connects disciplines or domains, at least in principle, indicates more than versatility.  Given its reach, it may be an instrument that combines thought, imagination, sensation, and feeling in ways that lead to new knowledge.

5 History lesson

History Lesson
Paul Forte 2009
Collage and mixed media on board
32 x 40 inches

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10 Beckett's Notes

Beckett’s Notes
Book covers, postcard, map and compass on board in artist’s frame
26 ½ x 30 ½ x 1½ inches

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Of course not everyone agrees that art is a form of inquiry.  Those who balk at the idea that art can teach us something fall into two general categories: those who cannot take it seriously, and those who resist its seriousness.  Art is as serious as science, and just as the results of scientific inquiry need not threaten our well being, understanding and accepting the seriousness of art need not undermine the spirit of art.  Some people maintain that they love art and that it is possible to enjoy it for no other reason than the pleasure that it affords.  Some people take it seriously for the moral instruction or social message that it conveys.  Whether we treasure art as a way of refining our sensibilities or as a tool for consciousness raising, in either case we gain immeasurably when we can better understand why we consider a particular work of art pleasurable, important, or both.  The point is that understanding the artwork from a cognitive perspective can both deepen our pleasure in the work and or our respect for its moral or social message.  Moreover, artwork with the primary purpose of exploring cognition through visual metaphor can be both pleasurable and socially relevant.  Just as the metaphorical language of science can broaden our understanding of the world, the metaphorical images and objects of art can deepen our understanding of ourselves.  As understanding grows, the metaphorical language used to express the theoretical advances of science gives way to more literal or denotative forms of expression.  Something similar may be happening as the investigation of cognition through art progresses, although it is the nature of the visual metaphor that is changing, not the underlying metaphorical orientation through which the exploration advances.

— Paul Forte

Author’s note: Arthur Danto was a wonderful philosopher and critic as well as accomplished print maker. I am very fortunate to have known Arthur, a mentor of sorts, and someone who genuinely cared about art and never shrank from offering his support and encouragement to those artists that he deemed worthy of attention. He gave a talk at the Yale University Art Gallery on my “Headstone” in 2005. It was a great evening and Arthur was in fine form. He will be greatly missed.

Arthur & Paul

Arthur & Paul

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Paul Forte’s career as an artist began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s.  The Bay Area in those days was a crucible for social, political and cultural change, and Forte managed to play a small but vital part.  Like many artists at the time, he was interested in the experimental possibilities of art and, like many others, believed that the changing nature of art still had the capacity to enable new visions, new voices.  Art and politics were always an uneasy combination for the artist, although he understood perfectly well that how art is received, or enabled is largely contingent upon politics and economics, perhaps especially in a capitalist society, which tends to marginalize those artists who cannot or will not meet the demands of the market.  This realization led to an interest in Conceptual art, and to one of its principle mediums: the “artist’s book,” of which he self-published a number of works in small editions.  Throughout the 1970’s Forte’s work explored the subjective and aesthetic dimensions of conceptual approaches to art making through a variety of media that would later become the basis for what the artist calls a cognitive approach to art making.

A resident of Rhode Island since 1987, Paul Forte has exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California  (1975,1983); A Space Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1978); 80 Langton Street Gallery, San Francisco, California (1981); The Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California (1986); The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut (1991); the Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (1998); and Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York City (2007 & 2008).  Forte’s work is included in the Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (artist’s books); and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, among others. Forte has lectured on his work at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island; The University of Rhode Island; The Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University (Honors Program); Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; The California College of the Arts in Oakland, California; and the University of California at Berkeley.  Paul Forte is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Fellowship (1978), and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Fellowship (1990).

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Arthur C. Danto, “Art of the Free and Brave.”  The Nation, May 8, 2000, p. 45.
  2. Rudolph Arnheim, The Split and The Structure.   Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996, p. 119.
  3. Arthur C. Danto, op. cit., p. 47.
  4. Herbert Kohl, From Archetype to Zeitgeist.  Little, Brown and Company, Boston Toronto London, 1992, p. 179.
  5. Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 84.
  6. Nelson Goodman, ibid., p. 85.
  7. Nelson Goodman, Ibid., p. 77.
  8. Whether or not verbal metaphor is related to visual thinking is an open question, one involving an understanding of how mental images are the bases of associations underlying most verbal metaphors.  If most verbal metaphors are the result of making associations based upon mental imagery, does that make such metaphors inherently a matter of visual thinking?  It seems self-evident that visual metaphor is a matter or form of visual thinking.
  9. Catherine Elgin, “Reorienting Aesthetics, Reconceiving Cognition.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 3 2000, p. 223.
  10. Catherine Elgin, Ibid., p. 223.