Nov 192013
 

 

In Ryan McGinley’s short film “Varud,” a young woman dressed for backyard summer play with a t-shirt as a dress and a gold lame wig skips through New York, altering the city as she goes. The film’s simple repetition and its dream-like collision between youthful exuberance and the mundane design of the city is perfectly captured in the slow skipping of the young woman down yellow meridian lines, among the gentle yellow taxis of New York traffic. It is both sublime and common, unspeakable beauty with a cheap wig, t-shirt dress, and bare feet.

varud taxis

The simplicity of the film makes the experience a more poetic than narrative experience. McGinley in his own words describes his intent:

“this piece is my poem to new york city. i wanted to bring a childhood innocence to the streets, through a character whose own light and wonder effects (sic) the world around her.  i’m always interested in an atmosphere where dreams and reality mingle on equal terms.”

As the film unfolds, small details gather around the wonder: the orangey gold wig, as cheap as it might be, sheds bits of sunlight; pedestrians turn and watch her go by; she traverses even more extreme concrete and empty spaces like the highway off-ramp.

mcginleysigur

If McGinley had stopped there, with just the intervention of the young woman skipping through the city, that might have been what this film was about: a simple, sepia-with-joy filter to see the city through anew. But this city, McGinley’s city, is altered, ruptured. As the film progresses the city starts to seize up mid breath as though the young woman’s skipping, her strange combination of joy, youthfulness and alarming play, stop time. These pauses, these cessations, we can read as moments of reflection where the city’s denizens pause to glimpse some wonder among the asphalt, the crowds, the day-to-day.

Yet these are not simple pauses. They do not end. The only pause that ends is the final one where the girl fades into the sepia long light of the end of the day, and, ever so slowly, the frozen pedestrians find their stride once more.

sunset valtari

Until this final moment of the film, the people she has passed have all remained frozen, caught, as though she has put the kingdom to sleep. And though there is a beauty in that, in this reflection, there is also something ominous and a little apocalyptic in it. As each street falls to silent pause, after pause, the film’s images recall the horror of other film cities left in stillness, like at the start of 28 Days Later and in the psychological twists of Vanilla Sky.

Vanilla-Sky-Tom-Cruise-empty-Times-Square

28 days later

She leaves the city, as these other films do, not resembling itself, lacking its bustle, fury, and perpetual motion. It is the end of things, heralded by an innocent in a sparkly wig. Could there be a more grace-ful way to go?

What does it mean that the skipping girl not only stops time but does so repeatedly? There is something here of Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion: “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.’ Each repetition, each frozen moment she creates has her skipping past what might have been momentary encounters with wonder and towards an absence of time, and the philosophers will tell us that without time there is no being. Block after block she freezes the city. But this is what we expect from wonder. Beauty that potentially annihilates the self.

sr3

The music, with its indecipherable lyrics and at times choir-like arrangement, encourages a heightened emotional engagement. The film is # 6 in Sigur Ros’s The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment, one of the sixteen films that were made with the support of the Icelandic band. The sixteen were chosen from almost 800 entries.  The press information for the project notes that

“valtari was sigur ros’s last album as a four-piece. An elegiac work; they didn’t feel much like talking about it, and so, instead asked a bunch [of] talented directors to make whatever they felt like making to go with music. These 16 films are the result. Sad, funny, beautiful, and, occasionally, plain bewildering, they represent just some of the available emotional responses to this most contemplative of sigur ros (sic) album.”

Sigur Ros’s atmospheric music inspires each of the directors to move to more poetic and less narrative pieces (though the Valtari film already analyzed by Nicholas Humphries for Numero Cinq at the Movies, Dash Shaw’s “Seraph,”  is significantly more narrative). This poetic atmosphere of the music and the overall project makes it possible for “Varud’s” repetitions and slow, unfolding, and makes it possible for us to submit to its unspeakable and breathless wonder.

— R.W. Gray

Nov 162013
 

Self Portrait as a Dead Man, 2011, oil on board, 16 x 13.5 in., collection of the artistSelf Portrait as a Dead Man, 2011, oil on board, 16 x 13.5 in., collection of the artist.

I am always alert to what artists have to say about their work. They are thoughtful, patient people who spend a lot of time by themselves working with their hands (something that always promotes a kind of detachment — you think with your hands and the rest is a kind of meditation). I first met Stephen May 25 years ago when I was writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick the first time. Stephen, despite the title of the painting above, is manifestly not dead (see the photo below), but still alive, painting and asseverating. When Stephen writes, he writes with passion and a style that rises here and there to the aphoristic; when he paints, his work shimmers with a kind of classic beauty. Herewith a sample of both, painting and text — the measure of the man and artist.

dg

Stephen May

This is about how inadequate logic, reason, passion, intelligence and imagination are in art. It’s about how reasonable it is to accept that. It’s about how misleading and misguided the word creativity is. This essay is not meant as a spiritual work, but it necessarily enters territory that sounds spiritual.

I want to make good paintings. Sometimes when I’m painting something good happens. I remember not the first time it happened, but the first time I realized what was happening. The words that came into my head were, “Oh, all I have to do is tell the truth!” or “Oh, all I have to do is put down what I see!” (It was a long time ago).

In the late 1800’s a critic named Albert Aurier reviewed an international exhibition of contemporary art in Brussels that included the work of Van Gogh. He singled out Van Gogh as a leader and praised his work in terms of its form, the way he used colour. Van Gogh wrote letters to friends in response. In one of them he wrote, “Aurier’s article would encourage me if I dared to let myself go, and venture even further, dropping reality and making a kind of music of tones with colour, like some Monticellis. But it is so dear to me, this truth, trying to make it true, after all I think, I think, that I would still rather be a shoemaker than a musician in colours.”

Van Gogh loved truth. He is not famous because he cut off his ear. He is famous because his paintings are good. His paintings are good because of his relationship with truth.

What is truth anyway?

I’ve painted good paintings and bad paintings, which is to say beautiful paintings and banal paintings. I’ve reflected on both experiences. I want to understand what it was that seemed right with me when the paintings were beautiful and what seemed wrong with me when they were banal. My experience has brought me to an understanding of the way my art relates to my life and how what is good in art, what is meant by good art, relates to what is good in life in general.

Beauty is just a word. There are many claims on it. Something is happening, though, in the art of Bach, Tolstoy, or Manet, for example, that is unpredictable and mysteriously complex. I use the word beauty to serve that phenomenon.

Artists sometimes say beauty is truth, and people sometimes say God is truth or truth is God. I tend to say those things now. When John Keats and Emily Dickinson equated beauty with truth, and when Gandhi and Simone Weil said truth is God, I don’t think they were using the words as a slogan for an intellectual position. I believe the words occurred to them the same way they occurred to me. And they occurred to me as a revelation but only after many experiences of the difference between true and false, beauty and banality. It is reasonable to be skeptical about the expression beauty is truth, but, ironically, skepticism led me to the expression.

Simone Weil describes prayer as paying attention. I thought I stopped praying when I was a teenager, but now I think perhaps I’ve continued to pray all along.

Painting is an act. Painting is living. The problems of painting — the problem of whether to paint or not, how to paint, what to paint — are the same problems we all face in just being human. They are the problems we have figuring out what to do with our lives, figuring out what’s possible. A person acts, and we find out what’s possible.

L & A's Garden with Neighbour's House, 2010, oil on board, 24 x 24 in, private collection.

L & A’s Garden with Neighbour’s House, 2010, oil on board, 24 x 24 in, private collection.

Shakespeare wrote plays.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So Shakespeare is possible. How did he do that? We want some explanation for his power and the continued effect it has on us. The only thing we can see and hear is the form, so we look for the secret there. Did Shakespeare have a secret formula? Did Bach and Beethoven? Did Manet and Monet? Did Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

What allows some people to leave us better off than we would have been without them? Those who do that sort of work are, invariably, un-secretive, and the infinite variety of the forms their actions (art) take suggests that there is something very un-formulaic at the root of their work. The root of whatever it takes to do something good outside the art world might be the same as within it.

Our ego lives behind our eyes and the world pumps it up to blind us. Our bitter disillusionment (those lines of Macbeth’s) steals upon us concealed behind the blind of illusions created for us, within our ego, behind our eyes.

A beautiful painting is never simple. It’s never just some canvas with colours on it, never just the image, what it may or may not symbolize, never just an artist’s diary or an artist’s taste and opinions, and never just a reflection of the artist’s culture either. We all tend to be distracted by the specifics of our lives, our passions, etc. Socrates is supposed to have said the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothingAnd Einstein once said there are only two ways to look at the world. Either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle.

I need to use the word truth. Like the word God, it is a metaphor. I don’t think you can say God without imagining something like lord or father, something understandable. But if you use metaphor it moves mystery in the direction of non-mystery, and you undermine the significance, you undermine the psychic weight of mystery. You undermine the useful purpose of the word.

The thing about being human that makes me need to use the word truth is the hardest thing to put into words and the thing that if I could put it into words, might be the best use I could ever make of words. I am. I know I am because I experience. I know something else exists because I experience it. It’s a circular knowledge. There is no proving anything about myself, no proving anything about what I experience. One defines the other. There is no going outside that circle to see what’s outside it or to look back and see what that I really is, or what experience really is. It’s not even worth saying I know I experience as I can’t define either of the words I or experience other than in terms of the other. All our acts are acts of faith. Lived experience is normally so consistent it allows for a deep faith in nature and science, but as the Buddhists say, all is illusion.

I could ignore Socrates’ or Buddhist wisdom. I could ignore Keats’ revelation (my own) and call what happens within that circle knowledge. But it would be the first selfish act, the first subjective act that sanctions all subsequent selfish acts. It would be the end of wisdom. It would be the end of loving truth. It would be the end of true love. It would be the beginning of cowboys-and-indians. It would be the beginning of the presumption of knowledge and the sanctioning of all acts of relative good. It would be the end of goodness and love. It would be the end of beautiful action. It would be the end of beauty in my life. I wouldn’t paint anymore, or at least I hope I wouldn’t.

Truth is beauty is God. But I can only say that in the sense that I accept that all three words reflect an understanding that we really don’t know anything, that reason is limited. Beauty is mystical. It can’t be made un-mystical by social science or neuroscience (and yet it accepts those sciences). It accepts everything without judgment or fear or contempt. It isn’t fragile so requires no soldiers to protect it, nor rites to keep it holy.

We’re simply invited to fall on our knees. All our assorted lives and deaths lose all their gravity, they melt into air. We’re released from grasping, striving and collecting. Our fists are opened. We accept the ants on the kitchen counter, the dandelions in the lawn, our own nature, too. Poetry begins where separation between what’s solid and what’s mysterious melts away.

In Grace and Gravity, Simone Weil gives us an apt analogy. She describes a space normally filled up with our self, a space filled up with logic, reason, passion, intelligence and imagination. It’s only if we can remove our self from that space that there will be room for beauty or truth or God to arrive (she used the word grace). When we fill up the space again, there’s no longer any room for beauty. Reason and passion etc. are all manifestations of self love and they leave no room for beauty.

The mystical root of beauty and wisdom is in loving truth. Buddhist wisdom, Christian wisdom, and the wisdom of great art begin there. To love truth means knowing you know nothing. It means only accepting and accepting and accepting. It means being without agenda or prejudice. It means being without pride.

Egocentric taste is what is in the eye of the beholder. That’s not what I mean by beauty. I am not strictly speaking a religious man, but there’s no separation for me now between art and religion, painting and prayer, beauty and truth/God. If you consider aesthetics as philosophy of art, then for me aesthetics and ethics have merged.

View through the Studio Window, 2013, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 in., collection of the artist

View through the Studio Window, 2013, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 in., collection of the artist

I don’t know

A beautiful painting is not a representation of something you think is beautiful. If you see an image of an attractive and healthy young man or woman, or a sympathetic portrait of a beloved personality, a saint for instance, or an image of some idyllic setting, a place you’d like to be in, you have to be extremely wary. All of us involved in art have to make ourselves aware of the seductive power of imagery. What goes for art often fails to be more than expressions of taste or pandering to taste. Art very often fails to be more than seduction or manipulation.

You see, hear and taste, you feel beauty. How much do we miss though? Two people might be smiling at you, while one wishes you well and the other wishes you ill. Those smiles might look the same but they are different. It is a dangerous misconception that beauty is what something looks like. Beauty is what something is. Ugly, distorted, or plain things reveal themselves to be golden. Glittery things disappoint.

My struggle to come to terms with experience is the same as anyone else’s. We’re raised on illusions and comforted by them.  My moments of disillusionment were unpleasant and life changing. We’re all taught by experience (or should be) the danger of mistaking illusion for truth. Some people wear blinkers their whole lives, loving escapism. Some people get cynical and don intellectual armour. Some love truth.

An old commandment, “Thou shalt make no graven image”, doesn’t make much sense to us at first glance. But if we make images of God from imagination, in words or pictures, and then love those images, it is really ourselves that we love. We create God in our image. We get what we want. We enter the brothel of illustration.

This isn’t new, nor will it ever grow old. It is in establishing whatever relationship is possible with truth that we begin to be beautiful, that our actions begin to be beautiful and the results of our actions, the traces we leave in our wake begin to be beautiful. Without that relationship all form is normal, banal. Within that relationship any form is beautiful.

In the pursuits of science, philosophy, theology, art, and in our everyday lives, truth is beautiful. Artists are prone to getting distracted from this no less than others. When I was young I liked art class best. When it came time to choose a career all I wanted was to play for a living, as opposed to work, so I chose art. It wasn’t too long though before I realized the only worthwhile thing an artist can do is love truth. I believe it’s the same for any career. I wonder what it does to a person’s soul if his career is ugly (spin doctors, etc.). In loving truth, the apparent incompatibility between our pursuits, between science and religion for instance, disappears.

I’m not suggesting we forsake intelligence, but beauty is not a strictly intellectual pursuit. You don’t need to be Plato to be beautiful. Being smart can just as easily get in the way. Maybe you need to be smart to realize that or to be able to put it into words (maybe it’s stupid to try to put it into words). A beautiful intellectual argument would be one free of rhetoric in the sense of persuasion. The rhetoric of persuasion is banal. That banality is an invitation for realities much worse than simply banal. We are attracted to intelligence for its own sake, to rhetoric and sophistry. But is leaves no room for love of truth. The rhetoric of persuasion is dangerous. It’s a truly ugly idea that if you’re better at persuasion than anyone else in the room, you win and truth is yours. Intelligence is for safe guarding ourselves against cleverness, distinguishing the difference between truth and rhetoric.

View from Jenn's House, 2007, oil on board, 28 x 31 in., private collection

View from Jenn’s House, 2007, oil on board, 28 x 31 in., private collection

Elements of art

We can’t talk about art without talking about form. Art always takes a form, but the form that art takes isn’t what matters in art. The derogatory term academic art is reserved for art where form matters too much. It matters too much if you’re searching for new forms just as much as if you’re trying to conserve old forms. There is something more crucial than innovation. The painters Manet and Picasso are famous for breaking old forms and inventing new ones. That’s the orthodox story of western art. Really though they are famous because they are good, just like Van Gogh. Rembrandt was no breaker of form. All four of them are good in that they take form out of the precinct of words. Those who find refuge in form, the progressive and conservative alike never escape history, never escape their own time. Oscar Wilde asks us to be kind to fashion because it dies so young. I can’t muster much sympathy.

Manet’s contemporaries were offended by his lack of respect for what they considered to be the serious concerns of art. Things don’t change much. We get so caught up in our moment. Manet’s early paintings were designed as signposts, as if to say, “If you want to understand what I’m doing, just look at Velazquez (for example).” Manet’s painting, far from merely being a precursor to the triumphant art that followed, actually makes most subsequent painting look like window dressing and doodles, just as it made most of the painting of his contemporaries look like huge bags of brownish wind.

Sometimes when a person associates himself with the word realism it is meant to reveal their desire to dismantle false hierarchies. It is meant to express a willingness to accept all that is seen even though it may undermine the romantic/idealist notion that we are individually or collectively somehow the figurative center of the universe. It is meant as an acceptance of the fact that we are not the purpose or goal of existence. There have been many painters willing to put us in our place but none who have done it with such gentle humour, intelligence and kind sympathy as Manet.

Manet understood as well as anyone the potential of looking at something and painting a picture of it. He was reported to have said that a painter can say all he needs to say with fruit or flowers or even clouds. We can be moved generation after generation by paintings of nothing in particular, a glass of water, an empty field…by music without words. Manet’s perfect advice to artists: “If it’s there, it’s there. If not, start over.”

Chardin painted a picture of a brioche. He said you use colours but you paint with feeling. There’s a long list of great painters who looked at things and painted pictures of them, a long list of great paintings done that way. If sophistication prevents anyone from doing it today, there’s something wrong with sophistication. Van Gogh stuck candles to his hat so that he could see what he was doing when he painted outside at night. The French artist Marcel Duchamp called that stupid painting. The question of futility is empty. We are and so we do things. We can draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa or we can paint The Night Café, one or the other. The sublime and the ridiculous are Siamese twins. It’s a bit of good fortune if you don’t mind looking ridiculous.

We can’t talk about art without talking about media. There are practical advantages and disadvantages with respect to each medium, degrees of suppleness, degrees of ease of dissemination, etc. Ultimately though, we are the message. It is ourselves who are being delivered. We must tend to ourselves first. Our instinctual egoism is embodied in any new form and delivered by any new medium as naturally as in and by the old ones. That the delivery is increasingly more efficient is no great comfort.

A new medium is not necessarily a better medium. As a medium or technology becomes more complex, McLuhan’s observation that “the medium is the message” becomes truer. Love and empathy disappear within the complexity. We need to be careful that the increasingly complex media we adopt don’t cause this we that’s being delivered to become we-the-machine.

Painting most likely persists as a medium because of its infinite suppleness. It always bends to the force of the person who paints and makes it impossible for that person to hide. Anything that is good about them is plain to see. It’s almost as simple and obvious as singing or dancing. Less machine means less machine. It’s for those who love a person.

Hummel Figurine, 2011, oil on canvas, 56 x 57 in., private collection

Hummel Figurine, 2011, oil on canvas, 56 x 57 in., private collection

We can’t talk about art without talking about content (or substance). The word content is an acceptable word to stand for what matters in art. Whenever something gets formed (by humans or otherwise) all the causes, the obvious and the mysterious, of its being formed are contained within it. Content might be a word that denotes the limits of our understanding of what is there in the form, the limits of our ability to read it, to perceive it, as in, content is what I see, or content is what I know. Content might also be a word to denote all that is contained in form, independent of our ability to perceive it. When we form something we could define content as what we meant by forming it, or we could define content as what we are, as the force that determines the form. We don’t know what we are. We say intellectual content without knowing exactly what a thought is, what consciousness is.

If it’s true that the universe is in a grain of sand, that the content of a grain of sand is the universe, what then distinguishes a beautiful man-made form from a plain or ugly one, or nature from art? If content is what matters, what is the content in Bach’s form that distinguishes it from all other form in his time or before or since? What constitutes its value to us, if all sound, every sound, any sound holds truth in it? I would say that art is a human affair. A communion occurs. The origins of Bach’s music are mysterious. Bach willingly collects us within this mystery. It’s a kindness, a generosity on his part. When the sun shines, or the rain falls, or the volcano erupts, we can’t be sure it’s a kindness. A grain of sand isn’t kind.

We seek knowledge. We seem to be offered it but beauty takes it away again. We are stripped of the urge to be assertive. Maybe the beautiful thing about beauty is that no one knows how to do it, that no one ever has or ever will. We only know little pieces of a puzzle that keeps expanding in unimaginable dimensions beyond our potential and when we look again at that piece of the puzzle we thought we knew, that we so carefully and assuredly put in its place, it’s no longer what we knew it to be. I don’t know why Bach is so good. I don’t know how he so consistently avoids failing when it’s so easy to fail. I borrowed a Maria Callas CD from the library of her first recording when she was in her early twenties. The person who wrote the commentary for the CD ended with, “Listen to it on your knees.” It’s of crucial significance when one of us fails to fail.

There is a potential for art beyond metaphor. It would be better if people would understand that the value of art comes not from the nature of it being about something crucial and important, but from the nature of it actually being something crucial and important. Its value is not as illustration or documentation or story or metaphor, but as the embodiment of what is valuable. Imagery and symbols come naturally to painting which makes it particularly susceptible to this perceived limitation. 20th century painters abandoned the image to declare an understood kinship to music’s intrinsic abstract qualities. The same is true in modern dance and literature when they abandoned plot. There are no formal safeguards against failing to be beautiful, no formulas, but one understands the motivation.

I’m beginning to get angry at images. They seem to have an innate tyranny to mislead. When you see, when you feel with your eyes it happens in colour patches, in light and dark shapes. We respond to it in all the ways we respond to it ever since we’ve been human, by backing away, by approaching, in fear, in wonderment. But culture turns images into symbols that have meaning. The tyranny of the image is that it distractw one from realizing that the paintings aren’t symbols first, they are art first. They are embodiments of the painter, hopefully embodiments of feeling. For every painter who feels as Rembrandt feels, there are 100,000 painters whose symbols are the same as Rembrandt’s. For every painter who feels as Tom Thomson feels (in his plein-air sketches), there are 100000 painters whose symbols are the same as Thomson’s. This is the tyranny of the image.

Vegetable Garden and Phlox, 2010, oil on board, 26 x 26 in., private collection

Vegetable Garden and Phlox, 2010, oil on board, 26 x 26 in., private collection

Critical thinking

My best paintings were done by putting dark paint where it looked darkish, light paint where it looked lightish, like some glorified, faulty camera with two eyes instead of one and self-awareness instead of none. Cézanne said of Monet that he was “only an eyeyet what an eye!” I love Monet’s late paintings of the Japanese footbridge, when his eyes were ruined by cataracts and the operations to fix them.

I want so much to trust somebody. All I have is my eyes, ears and time to find out who I can trust, to discriminate between who might care and who might be looking out for themselves first. I think much of what is admired in the world is admired for being great examples of people overpowering other people. It’s taken it as a license to do the same. Hell is other people.

I’m searching for something and am compelled to walk away when it doesn’t appear to be present. If I can separate the good from the not so good, the difference between them becomes much clearer. The success of this phenomenon might be why there are long line-ups to get into the Musée D’Orsay every day.

There is an idea in vogue right now of artist as critical thinker. There is a relationship between art and philosophy, but they aren’t identical. Matisse said if you decide to be a painter you must cut out your tongue, you give up the right to express yourself by any means other than painting. He didn’t cut out his tongue though, and his art didn’t suffer. It’s good to hear it from the horse’s mouth. It would be even better if the horse could be as articulate as the horse experts. One tries.

Marcel Duchamp was a competent painter with interesting ideas. He stopped painting. He eventually ended his involvement with the art world altogether. He probably noticed the difference. Faithless action is impossible for a sincere person to sustain. Dadaism as it is manifested in his art—great art by function of its influence on later artists—reflects a strange cynicism with respect to the possibility of a person doing anything beautiful. Goodness saves each one of us at every turn. Disillusionment is with ideology. To abandon the cynicism that accompanies disillusionment means abandoning ideology. Icons are ideas. Marcel Duchamp has become an icon of iconoclasm. He’s his own mistake. When you destroy something, unless you arrange otherwise, the vacuum will be filled up again with normal things.

You can’t make anti-art. If you make it, it’s art. If you persist after realizing that, then you kind of need to accept that you’re the type of person who likes a joke at another’s expense. Duchamp kept attempting to present an art without value, anti-art, suggesting that the value we place on art is false. Every time he made something though, he realized he failed. The thing became art. By having been done, it inevitably participated in the phenomenon that is art and was valued as such. He realized that the only way this wouldn’t happen was if a thing remained un-done, un-made, that the idea remained unrealized. An unrealized idea, though, isn’t anti-art, but rather the absence of art.

The term conceptual art is a classic oxymoron. Conceptualism was still born. Art-as-idea has evolved from an absurdity to a concept of art reduced once again to illustration and documentation. Research, the collection of facts, has replaced perception, replaced feeling. Duchamp’s cynical act of pointing at a urinal and calling it art has spawned the current fashion of pointing. The art in this situation is not what is pointed at but rather the act of pointing and the implicit declaration. It is more vapid than the more traditional and self-centered pointing at yourself, drawing attention to yourself when you have nothing to offer, no beautiful intentions.

Duchamp was the first artist to gain a history book kind of success because he had nothing good to offer. The root of his powerful influence on today’s art world lies in the hope he gives to so many artists with ambitions for a similar kind of success, who, despite reasonable intelligence, like Duchamp have nothing good to offer. It is a telling fact to consider that some of the greatest paintings ever made were painted by Monet with his coke-bottle glasses in his garden in Giverny years after Duchamp pointed at a urinal. The history of what matters is more like a pulse than a march.

It’s in the nature of institutions to be conservative. Institutions must hold on to the ideas of themselves to exist. As we are in the era of art-as-idea, there is institutionalized sanctioning of cleverness within the contemporary art world that looks suspiciously like the 19th century Academy. It’s what happens when ideas replace feeling. There is a work of conceptual art that consist of a panel that has the words on it (in French) “Art is useless. Go home.” Without beauty, without feeling this is more or less true.

All artists, great and small, make things that aren’t beautiful. Sometimes some of them make things that are. A thing shouldn’t be held sacred just because Leonardo painted it or Mozart composed it. We’re allowed to walk away from art, even great art, if we find we can’t trust it.

Making beautiful things is beyond me. If it was just a matter of sincerity or intelligence or skill the world would be full of beautiful art. If it happens for me I’m never sure where it came from, or why it happened. It has many of the characteristics of accident. I realize I’m not controlling things. Simone Weil talks about waiting for God. All I can do is wait and hope for the beautiful thing to happen.

There was hope the industrial and technological revolutions would give us the opportunity to become our best selves but we sit in cars at drive-thrus and in chairs staring at screens and allow the means to become the end, the medium to become the message. We never seem to be up to our dreams, our utopias. We always imagine things that need us to be better than we are: Camelot, Star Trek, socialism, democracy. Occasionally a person saves us though, for a while, by disappearing, by being disinterested, by being selfless.

Watermelon Rinds in a Bowl, 2012, oil on board, 19.75 x 20 in., collection of the artist

Watermelon Rinds in a Bowl, 2012, oil on board, 19.75 x 20 in., collection of the artist

I have my moments

William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is, infinite.”

As the best musicians listen, so the best painters look.

I’ve been trying to figure out the word tactile with an artist friend of mine. It’s one of those words, like beauty, used to denote something crucial in art but difficult to define. My daughter is a performance artist, a dancer. She uses the word presence in a way that I think might stand for a manifestation of the same crucial quality of art. When you stand in front of a painting, often you read the image as a few symbols and that’s all that’s there. You run into the end of the art quickly and moving up close to it or remaining with it for hours is fruitless. If a work is tactile, if a work has presence, you are rewarded by any kind of closeness.

When artists look, when that word means something, they can’t avoid seeing themselves there, present in their art action. Our undeniable and mysterious presence is inseparable from our experience (what we’re seeing when we’re painting) and our action (painting). It is one thing and it is the connection. As E.M. Forster said, “Only connect.” The eternal and universal miracle of realness is what connects us. When I paint a picture, if I’m looking, I am the man in the cave scratching on the wall. I see myself living and already being gone.

When I started out as a painter I emulated my heroes in a superficial way. Eventually I realized their paintings all had something in common that couldn’t be attributed to style or technique. The mechanics of painting never change much. We all use our hands and eyes and some painting supplies. Most artists are happy to share their methods. My method is pretty simple. I put green or red where I see green or red, dark or light where I see dark or light and make lots of corrections as I go. The results are predictably ordinary much of the time. The alchemy that occasionally happens has something to do with looking and feeling. Occasionally an image results that wasn’t imagined. A painting becomes that mysterious truth that is infinitely close and at an infinite distance.

Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, and Lucien Freud all lived in the era of the photograph. The unimagined image is, as are we, embedded in a miracle.

What it feels like when I’m painting is that I’ve gotten into a very small boat by myself and pushed off land out into a vast ocean where there are no fixed points to navigate by and everything’s constantly changing. I’m searching for an island in the middle of that ocean where there’s a spring with regenerative waters. It is only by being quiet that I can see and feel the subtle signs, the quality of the air and light, the push of the currents on the boat in order to sense where the island lies. The clumsiness of a large boat and the distraction of ideas would blind me. I wouldn’t be able to find the island.

I very often fail to find it anyways and return with nothing more than a documentation of facts I encountered on the way (stupid paintings). I can’t take anyone with me and I can only bring a small amount of water back. The only proof that island exists is the water I taste and bring back for others to taste. The water does what it does for those it works on. My responsibility is just to get into the boat and push off away from land and try to be quiet.

But for the water on that island I’d have no reason to get into the boat. I get to taste it too. All I know is how I am different as a result. Once you’ve made a good painting, a beautiful painting you’re driven to do it again. All arguments against beauty carry no weight against experience of it.

My most recent good painting happened this way. I was fearless, which isn’t normal. Usually I’m lucky if I become fearless along the way. Maybe I was fearless because I began by destroying a painting I’d been struggling with for years. I scraped and sanded something mediocre. I had no clue what the new painting would end up being. I didn’t think much about composition, the kinds of marks that I’d make, or the image that would result. I set the easel up facing a window I’ve painted countless times, something handy, and then the painting just sort of fell on to the canvas. I was in a wonderfully submissive state of acceptance of everything. I felt weightless. The ultimate form the painting would take wasn’t my concern. It felt like everything that I did, or might do, would be OK. There were no weighty decisions that were mine to make.

The Oxford dictionary defines grace as (in Christian belief) the unmerited favour of God; a divine saving and strengthening influence. It defines nirvana as perfect bliss and release from karma, attained by the extinction of individuality.

I don’t like to talk about technique. I feel like it would be misleading to talk about technique after realizing that I can make something beautiful with just a fat charcoal stick on a plain piece of paper. Though inferior tools and materials and clumsy and inefficient technique can frustrate an attempt, ultimately we can’t be saved by what colours we have on our palette or what brushes we use.

I have a number of techniques in my bag of tricks, all of them impatient. There are many painting techniques I don’t know, the patient and careful ones. Sometimes I find myself hopping from one technique to another in a short space of time during one painting session. I do that, not because I’m searching for the right one for that particular situation but because I’m trying to trigger the escape from technique. Things aren’t going well. I’m mired in knowledge and I want to get out.

In my bag of tricks there’s only one that matters. It’s not a secret and it’s supremely simple. Stop looking for your voice. Stop trying to distinguish yourself. Give up.

View from Everetts, 2011, oil on board, 12.75 x 21 in. private collection

View from Everetts, 2011, oil on board, 12.75 x 21 in., private collection

It’s simple

There is no substitute for feeling in art. Logic, reason, passion, intelligence, imagination, skill, maybe even what we call talent, are all realities of self. There is no beauty without their surrender. Feeling may not be all that’s required to be an artist, but it’s all that required to be beautiful. If you want art to be worth something, you need to know that it’s only beauty that saves the world, grace our reconciliation with gravity, love our relief from futility.

There’s a relationship between creation and destruction and a point at which the two seem to become one. Or perhaps neither exists except as different perspectives on change. In the fearless state of art, things are constantly being “created” and “destroyed,” constantly changing. Sometimes very good art will be perceived as irreverent and destructive, punk. It wasn’t their intention, but Manet and Van Gogh probably seemed like punks at the time. We trust them now. How do you distinguish between the good people and bad people when both ignore the laws? The question can make a conservative soul feel uncomfortable, mistrustful, angry and at sea. Beauty is found in realizing that we’ve never been anywhere other than at sea.

Great creators realize they are merely instruments. We place them on a pedestals and aspire to be there ourselves. Leonard Cohen once said something to the effect that he didn’t write his songs but he’s really glad we think he did. What’s rare is the understanding that none of us are creators. There are countless artists with Rembrandt’s or Manet’s skill but the skill is almost always wasted on inventions and opinion, on presumptions of knowledge. We’re all guilty of such waste. Rembrandt often was. Rubens was especially.

Their ability to find detachment for short periods of time doesn’t make saints of my painting heroes. Humans are clever, aggressive, territorial animals and are driven for the most part by biochemistry and overpowering social and survival instincts. Selfless detachment is difficult to maintain in the everyday world. I feel like I get to take little vacations from myself. Tolstoy said, “The one thing necessary, in life as in art, is to tell the truth.” In life, though we’re all aware of the risks of telling the truth.

The art history books are filled with art that flatters our species, magnificent follies, conceits of the intellect and imagination…pyramids and urinals, but there is no better reason for making art than being able to do for people what beauty does for people. On a number of occasions I’ve ended up weeping at the experience of beauty. I ask myself why I’m crying. It seems to be from some deep and unexpected sense of relief. I feel delivered from banality, from the sense that no-one cares, or from the sense that people’s concerns are exclusively worldly. It ends some kind of loneliness. It is redemption from narrowness and subjectivity.

Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice is a cautionary tale about confusing two types of beauty. At the end of the story he points us in the right direction. Attractiveness-type beauty leaves one with an ache to possess the object, the form. Truth-type beauty is only ever joyful. Whoever owns the object or form is irrelevant as beauty is not the form itself but what is manifested in it. In the experience of beauty, it is yours. It takes possession of you, it breaks your armour, and you expand into it. You participate in the artist’s expansiveness. It is unrestrictedly generous.

I want to do this, I want to make beautiful paintings, but I realize you can’t get there from here. You can’t try and make one. Striving to be great doesn’t help. You just need to do your job and hope for the best. Sometimes, strangely enough in telling yourself you’re going to make a bad work on purpose you can trick yourself into avoiding pretentiousness. The best thing an artist can be is nothing in particular; the best thing an artist can do is disappear. What’s left is infinite.

There’s a category in the thesaurus: artlessness. Under it you find ingenuousness, simpleness, naivety, innocence, unguardedness, unpretentiousness, sincerity, trustfullness, openness… reminds me of that lovely Shaker song.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Prospero the usurped Duke/magician has, in his daughter, one gift to bestow. This gift is “plain and holy innocence”. Prospero’s one great fear is that this gift won’t be received with respect. It is a gift that when respected “will outstrip all praise”, a gift that if held at an impossible distance by disrespect will issue nothing but “barren hate, sour-eyed disdain and discord”. Plain and holy innocence is the sine qua non of good art. With The Tempest Shakespeare passes the torch, and includes instructions.

Though we often reject critics and scholars as popes of culture, they often do what they do out of love and they’ve likely seen things we haven’t yet. But to love something does not necessarily mean you have insight into what makes it possible. Northrop Frye seemed to think that what enabled great art and made it special and valuable was what he called imagination. He also confessed to being unable to write a work of fiction.

I think most people assume that a work of art is a product of imagination, that Bach and Shakespeare had great imaginations. This idea implies that the work of art is generated within. Imagination is but a useful tool. But there’s a force to which it must surrender. It can provide situations but must surrender those situations to the infinite which the imagination can never be. Imagination gives us pictures of where we want to be, mythological gardens, things to strive for. We’re never up to our progressive ideas, our dreams. Everywhere we go, there we are. Without beauty life is nasty, brutish and probably too long.

I’ve condemned imagination’s role in the search for beauty. Perhaps others have a broader understanding of the word. Perhaps I should use the word fancy. Yet the root of imagination is the word image. It’s what our minds are limited to. Cézanne said, “I should like to astonish Paris with an apple.” As with Chardin’s and Manet’s, his paintings of apples continue to be astonishing. It doesn’t take much imagination to put an apple in front of you and paint a picture if it. Simone Weill wrote in Gravity and Grace, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.”

We need to acknowledge that our understanding is limited, yet our condition is a consciousness of limitlessness. In loving truth we have to accept paradox. If you acknowledge that agenda, prejudice, preconception and conceit are facts of life and therefore facts of art and then decide that your conceit is an art without agenda, prejudice, preconception and conceit, that’s quite the paradox…sophisticated innocence. No wonder it’s so normal to fail.

Apples in Glass Bowl, 2008,  oil on canvas, 43 x 56 in., private collection

Apples in Glass Bowl, 2008, oil on canvas, 43 x 56 in., private collection

All you need is love

We’re proud of artists like Picasso. Some are even proud of people like Napoleon, all that strutting and fretting we do. The history of humans is the history of the failure of ideas. In studying history we hear the haunting refrain “never again,” “never again,” “never again.” The critical stance we adopt with respect to what we perceive as wrong is born of the conceit that we know better, the same conceit that gets us in to trouble in the first place.

The ambition to be beautiful is really an anti-ambition. It is the ambition to de-create the self, using Simone Weil’s expression.

In his play Antigone, Sophocles warns us to beware of hubris and to always hold the gods in awe. John Keats tells us in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” all we need to know on earth is that beauty is truth. The hardest thing an artist can do, the hardest thing a person can do, is act without self-interest. Once you have come to know that beauty is truth, you realize that any step away from beauty is the greatest danger we face. Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky meant when he said that beauty saves the world.

The last lines of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch describe the selfless character Dorothea:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

The absence of beauty in a person is the root of callous indifference. The presence of beauty is the proof of love. The presence of it in what we’ve done is the great value of art.

Nobody can be good all the time, but if I can be good while I’m painting, at least that’s something, a few shining moments.

 —Stephen May

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Stephen May’s canvases have been collected by prestigious corporate and private collectors for over three decades and are included in the public collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the New Brunswick Museum, the New Brunswick Art Bank, the University of New Brunswick, l’Université de Moncton, the New Brunswick Department of Supply and Services and the Department of External Affairs. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery presented a solo exhibition of May’s work entitled Embodiments in 2006 and the following year he won the Miller Brittain Award for Excellence in Visual Art. May graduated from the fine arts program of Mount Allison University in 1983.  He lives in Fredericton.

Nov 152013
 

Bravi

The Combover pic 

The Combover
Adrián N. Bravi, translated by Richard Dixon
Frisch & Co.
137 pages, (eBook) $7.49
ISBN 978-0-9891267-4-8

Adrián Bravi insists you look over your shoulder and squint until your eyes bleed. His most recent novel, The Combover, originally published in Italian as Il riporto (2011), is a swamp—its narrative at once as rich, as eldritch, as pedestrian and unspectacular—whose subtle, insidious suck will have you half-metabolized before you recognize it for what it is. Its gutters, its digressions, are quick, bright black, flaring, and, like a mix of flies and charading fireflies clustering over a corpse, if not easily missed, then perhaps too easily dis-missed: They are the crux of this work’s mesmerism, mechanism and generosity.

In The Combover, a compromised hairdo is enough to catalyze damnation. The work is ironic, hyperbolic, and asymptotic in its reach for the absurd. In fact, several of Bravi’s protagonists have a knack for fixating on minutiae, for blowing what most would consider inconsequential out of proportion, for getting hung up, in fact, emotionally strung up, on bagatelles. In La Pelusa (2007), a librarian’s unremitting perseveration on the dust that accosts his library lays the ground—or the patina—for all-out psychic chaos; in Restituiscimi il cappotto (2004), a would-be suicide begrudgingly defers his departure because someone—how audacious?—has borrowed his coat, thereby spoiling everything. Arduino Gherarducci, The Combover’s bitter, neurotic anti-hero, exhibits a logic that is sometimes equally difficult to sympathize with and understand.

In the character of Arduino, Bravi mobilizes a psychic world premised on complicated forms of hostility, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and pent-up rage, a world which, for all that, remains fixed on hair: on ‘lack of hair’ and ‘styles of lacking hair’ as moral categories, and on the fact that Arduino’s preferred style of lacking hair, a comb-over, has been skewed: One of Arduino’s side-burned-yet-serious students approaches him inexplicably one day during a lecture (Arduino is an expert on bibliographic data-exchange formats), and, with a gesture exuding both grace and necessity, exposes his pate. A prank? Or perhaps—as Arduino thinks, toting about Spinoza’s Ethics, pursuing his own half-baked, deliriously caustic line of reasoning—this student came into being for the exclusive purpose of bringing him to shame. The text leaves the imagined impetus for the act as ambiguous and incomprehensible as Arduino’s response to it: fugue. He quits civilization. Intending to make it to Lapland, he finds himself instead in northern Italy, dwelling in a cave.

Though he believes he is removing himself from a world of potential hair-rufflers, Arduino is in fact only exchanging one set of hair rufflers for another, for the wilderness, with its winds, rains and branches, is itself an antagonist, and, beyond this, its woods are teeming with ‘the sick and infirm’: a band of elderly and other aspiring convalescents who flock to the anchorite Arduino, much to his snowballing chagrin and horror. They bring jams and lasagna, tribute in the form of munitions; they perform, as Arduino cowers, cornered, a paradoxical form of apotheosis, executing ritual violations (stroking his head from back to front) so as to better exploit his comb-over, which, is (treacherously, he thinks) curative.

Arduino’s exploitation reaches nearly corporate extremes: he is buffeted about like an inadvertent pop-sensation: The old, cloyingly virtuous, formerly ailing Giuseppina takes it upon herself to manage his client-base and make his schedule, all the while in the vexing, metaphysical thick of Bravi’s wilderness, home of the red roe-buck, entwined snakes, locus of apparitions, staged evasions and disembodiments, Arduino cedes to the idea that he might learn to live “without getting too fucked up about [his] hair and those [data] formats.” That or else, spurred by his burgeoning hatred for the sick and infirm, might end up adding circles to a Dante-esque hell.

There are many caves in this story: wells imbued with spectral, melancholy voices, empty, naked centers, glabrous, or glabrating heads. It is clear that, within Arduino’s male-centric reality, baldness is a state laden with significance: it is a wound, a void: “every man in the world has a bald patch hidden within him”; it is, like the more explicit skull, a memento mori: bald men “reconstruct on [their] scalps the landscape which all men, sooner or later, will see snatched from them.” Arduino casts his combover with an additional moral valence as well: it is a way of being honest, a way of emphasizing by concealing baldness and thus implies that he is far more virtuous than the deplorable ‘shorn head,’ Costantino Toldini, who, by shaving his scalp conceals the fact of what it lacks naturally. Arduino’s comb-over is, additionally, a way of situating himself with respect to his paternal line, a homage to his deceased father (his best friend and the subsequent hub the novel’s nostalgic lucubrations), and a defiant, even proud recapitulation of his father’s suffering: he, too, was tormented because bald.

The father’s suffering is only alluded to, and, like Arduino’s suffering, which, in the game of show versus tell, is stated more than textured, lends itself to allegorical reading. Perhaps because of the seemingly trifling nature of its purported source (baldness), and because of the strange mesh Bravi has managed to confect with the text, using strands of humour which are variously light, ironic, wicked and dark, it becomes possible to reconfigure baldness and whatever social ridicule is directed towards it as viable stand-ins for deeper sources of anxiety, or for alienation itself. The various meanings with which Arduino invests baldness and comb-overs put him at odds with the social world: The text’s ‘barber’, its ‘janitor,’ its ‘barroom habitué,’ each of these characters is simply a version of the Joe Schmo who would insist, over and against Arduino, that he would look good shaved.

These characters place him in the same position as any person consciously practicing a ‘style’ (construed broadly) against the norms of the day: Arduino sees the outside world as “a constant series of traps”; he feels that he has spent a lifetime locked in a fight against those who would invalidate his enterprise, a lifetime like his father, sheltering his comb-over, dueling with metaphorical winds. These winds, in turn: the barber, the janitor, even Arduino’s wife, encounter him with blank bemusement: they cannot digest him. Arduino has clearly, though, to some extent internalized the social pressures that afflict him: he feels real shame when his comb-over is lifted, despite the fact that he is proud it emphasizes his baldness by concealing it, and despite the fact that a lifted comb-over would presumably be even more effective in accomplishing this emphasis.

Arduino’s obsession with his hair floats on the rest of his conscious experience like a cataract, shifting around, sometimes allowing a reality beyond what we are given access to (despite the fact that the work is written in the first person) to come into sight, though more often occluding it. His seizures, his nightmares, his depressed wife, his marital troubles, a lingering memory of a father warped by filial brutality (by Arduino’s brother, the bully), these are never dwelt on as extensively as the comb-over issue, unless they are auxiliary to it; instead they pepper his ruminations as a series of asides. As a result, the book has a kind of writhing unconscious, a peripheral vision that sees in colour as Arduino’s mind strays to his past (distant and recent), often alighting on its most violent or lugubrious details:

We lived in a first floor apartment close to the main square in Recanati. Below it was a take-away shop that gave out a terrible stink of grilled meat. The owner was a man who smoked a cigar that he always kept in one corner of his mouth. He roasted pork by the shovelful, and as time passed, he began to develop pig-like features, as if the spirit of the pig had left its body just as he was putting its flesh on the grill and had gone and attached itself to the first bastard it happened to come across…I couldn’t open the window without breathing in a stink of putrefaction.

These digressions lend an emotional depth to the novel that would otherwise be lacking. If Arduino’s physical and other outbursts at times seem mysterious, or seem insufficiently motivated, it is at least possible to suspect that there are valid causes for his rage strewn about the novel’s obstructed depths. After a seemingly benign phone call devolves into a cruel attack on his wife—really just a misdirected attack on his mother-in-law, who has, apparently outrageously, borrowed a book—Arduino states: “I don’t know what she said in reply. Once I’d put the phone down I felt much relieved. There was not much else I could say. If she couldn’t understand, it was hardly her fault.”

The cataract hovering over the text as Arduino streamlines his vision toward matters of hair places a reader of his overreactions in essentially the same position as his wife. For some readers at least, desire (wanting to know the ‘why’ of an outburst) and pleasure (wanting an answer to exist, but not wanting it: in truth wanting only the sense of textual depth that is its insinuated existence) might issue from the confusion.

Arduino’s escape from civilization, combined with his repeated insistence that one cause leads to another, that his student could have done nothing other than humiliate him, and that escaping civilization is his only viable response to humiliation, makes The Combover a variation on themes in Bravi’s earlier work, namely ‘displacement’ and ‘determinism’ as nested concerns. ‘Displacement’—specifically in the form of expatriation—has a privileged place in Bravi’s imaginary, perhaps because the native Argentinian has opted to base himself in Italy, and perhaps because he is one of those writers who chooses to move, always with incomplete comfort, between linguistic bases as well (he works in Spanish and Italian). ‘Determinism,’ in his work, lurks forever behind the will, a nag that assumes various narrative forms in order to better harass it:

In Río Sauce, Bravi’s protagonist abandons his birthplace because it is besieged by flood-waters, an act that is both impelled and willed: the fact of the flood impels it, but some of his relatives remain behind, carrying on with their lives as much as possible (the need to leave, then, was never absolute). In The Combover, alternately, as Arduino makes his way north, he becomes increasingly callous, in spite of several moments that smack of redemption, that nearly insinuate he has a choice in the matter of his own becoming.

Redemption, in this book, is a tease. Cruelty is reality, and Arduino’s trajectory—the line that connects early Arduino, the hostile, but merely petulant melancholic, to Arduino, the crazed assaulter of later pages (oh yes, the mother-in-law gets it, but only because Arduino would like to prove himself a healer)—seems, perhaps because it is too baffling, too absurd to admit of alternative explanations, fated, inexorable.

It is difficult to put your finger on just what The Combover is. The work has one foot in what is not quite the banal and another in what is not quite the metaphysical. Some of its tropes seem drawn from a twisted fairy-tale, as when Arduino severs his pigtail-like comb-over with a hunting knife. It is funny. It is not slapstick. It seems to vacillate between darkness and a lightness which some readers might equate with superficiality and which still other readers might simply insist is aesthetically valid entertainment (‘Why should it all be grim and heartbreaking?’).

Bravi’s book is quizzical in the best sense of the word; its intrigue as a novel lies in its un-decidability: it is both light and grim. Its sheer neuroticism and darkness are sometimes masked by its humour, but if they are behind trees on your first read, they will surely trail you out of it, loop back, snarl, and stalk you brazenly in the second.

—Natalie Helberg

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 Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.

 

Nov 142013
 
Photo by Hank Lazer

Photo by Hank Lazer

Urban Tumbleweed

Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary
Harryette Mullen
Graywolf Press
120 pages, $15
ISBN: 978-1-55597-656-9

Walk, don’t run, or you’ll miss it—Harryette Mullen’s feat of taking to her feet to capture the hum of bees in the botanical garden, droning of news headlines, and blare of vuvuzelas, all within 31 syllables. In Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary, Mullen’s daily discipline of walking and writing tanka poems blossoms page-by-page into this reflection on nature and human nature.

Born in Alabama, Mullen grew up in Texas, and received degrees from University of Texas and University of California at Santa Cruz. She published her first book, Tree Tall Woman, in 1981 and went on to write several more including Trimmings (1991), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), and Muse & Drudge (1995) (Graywolf collected these three books in Recyclopedia in 2006). She is a language poet, influenced by Gertrude Stein among others, also known for her wit and humor and her interest in social activism. Mullen is now an English professor at UCLA, teaching creative writing and African-American literature. A decade has passed since her collection, Sleeping with the Dictionary, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

In the introduction to this new work, Mullen claims to be engaged with merely taking walks and writing poems, on a mission of personal health, mind-body alignment, and closer observation of human-versus-nature duality. This book doesn’t flaunt her wondrous powers of poetic play, punning, and language games, which are showcased in her previous collections. The real accomplishment of this collection occurred to me while I spent a couple of days without my car, walking my usual school-home-work circuit after hitting a high-bouncing soccer ball on a six-lane highway. Urban Tumbleweed offers up the beautiful heartbreaks of encounters in an urban ecosystem. Mullen’s skillful subversion of stereotypical thinking has merely taken on a stealthier strategy in her diary of 366 days of walking and writing.

In Urban Tumbleweed, Mullen uses her own variation on tanka, which is a Japanese form traditionally written in a single line with a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. When translated or written in English, the poems usually take line-breaks at the end of each syllabic unit. Mullen’s variation adheres to the 31-syllable limit but uses a three-line format. Throughout the book, a consistent layout of three poems per page promotes a sense of conversational tension across the gutter of every page-spread. An example from early in the collection of two poems directly facing each other:

Flowers of evergreen tree called bottlebrush,
not stiff bristles but velvety filaments,
leave fingers brushed with yellow pollen.

Flame tree, I must have missed your season
of fire. All I see are your ashy knees, your kindling
limbs, branches of extinguished blossoms.

The images of pollen-dusted fingers and ashy knees overlap subtly across the page, bringing into focus the conversation between human and nature. In other instances, poems contrast sharply with each other, as in this example of facing-page poems from near the middle of the book:

These colorful little stucco houses in
Sunkist Park don’t look so bright today
beneath this overcast sky of cloudy gray.

We’re jerked awake as helicopter blades beat air.
Light glares from above. An amplified shout
orders a fleeing suspect to halt.

Darkness in the middle of an ordinary day versus blinding brightness in the middle of the night sets up the scene for the two poems beneath each of them, which push and pull against each other with complaint, image, and specific observations.

A shivering dog left out in the rain,
dripping wet and cold as a miserable
werewolf, each raindrop a silver bullet.

My usual half-hour ride to work took
two hours today because the president
returned for another fundraiser.

Expressions of complaint and keenly observed natural detail define Japanese poetic diaries, including classics as Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road through the Provinces and Masaoka Shiki’s A Verse Record of My Peonies. Ki no Tsurayuki, an acknowledged master of the tanka form and one of the compilers of the first imperial anthology of tanka poetry, invented the Japanese poetic diary with The Tosa Diary (935 CE), a fictional account from a female protagonist’s point-of-view based on his own travel experience with a group returning to Kyoto from a distant province. The discomfort of travel by boat, unfavorable weather, and her recent loss of her young daughter set the scene for many poems of longing, hope and sorrow. Different characters compose and recite tanka poems, which Tsurayuki varies according to their roles and personalities in the story. The overlaps and contrasts seen in Mullen’s collection are abundant in this and other Japanese poetic diaries. A short excerpt from Earl Miner’s translation of The Tosa Diary:

The 4th

The captain said, “The condition of the wind and the sky is extremely unfavorable,” so that it has not been possible to put out the boat. All the same, neither the wind nor the waves rose so high. This captain really seems unable to tell anything about the weather. On the shore of this harbor there are many beautiful little shells and pebbles. For all their beauty, because they are just the sort of thing she would have liked to gather, they remind me of my little girl who has passed away. I made a poem.

Beating upon the shore,
O waves, I wish that you would bring
Shells of forgetfulness
That I might pick a shell of comfort
From the heavy thoughts of her I love.

When I spoke the poem, there was one with us who was unable to remain silent and made a poem on the sufferings of our voyage.

Shells of forgetfulness—
Not they the things I shall take up,
But pretty pebbles
To remind me of a precious child,
To be a souvenir of her I loved.

Mullen also shares a little of this collaborative effect of writing tanka:

After hearing that poem from my tanka diary,
you handed me a smooth and pleasing stone
shaped like a lopsided heart.

A kind friend sent me a hastily scribbled note,
inquiring about my “tanka dairy.”
I wrote back to say, “I’m milking it.”

Because her poetic has tussled directly with identity politics throughout her work, I was surprised to find so little obvious sign of it in her approach in this collection. From her poetic statement in American Women Poets in the 21st Century:

My desires as a poet are contradictory. I aspire to write poetry that would leave no insurmountable obstacle to comprehension and pleasure other than the ultimate limits of the reader’s interest and linguistic competence. However, I do not necessarily approach this goal by employing a beautiful, pure, simple, or accessible literary language, or by maintaining a clear, consistent, recognizable, or authentic voice in my work. At this point in my life, I am more interested in working with language per se than in developing or maintaining my own particular voice or style of writing, although I am aware that my poems may constitute a peculiar idiolect that can be identified as mine. I think of writing as a process that is synthetic rather than organic, artificial rather than natural, human rather than divine. My inclination is to pursue what is minor, marginal, idiosyncratic, trivial, debased, or aberrant in the language I speak and write. I desire that my work appeal to an audience that is diverse and inclusive, at the same time that I wonder if human beings will ever learn how to be inclusive without repressing human diversity through cultural and linguistic imperialism.

The following consecutive poems veer toward explanation of Urban Tumbleweed’s method:

This curly cloud don’t grow straight or need
straightening. It takes rough wind to wreck the ‘do.
To some, when brushed and combed it still looks tangled.

You could say I am borrowing light
from the moon when I write my tanka
after reading translations of Princess Shikishi.

Toward the end of the collection, the cross-talk between tanka poems increases as does the musicality of the individual poems. These two poems across the middle of their pages speak of “head” versus “heart”:

At first, the dog walker mistook it for a horror-
movie prop—that severed head found in the park,
beneath the HOLLYWOOD sign.

The heart of a saint, stolen from a church
in Dublin. Thieves leave golden chalices,
costly art, choosing this most priceless relic.

Some of my favorites from the collection accomplish together the inclusiveness that Mullen strives for with a touch of humor, especially where nature turns around and examines the poet. In one a hummingbird momentarily mistakes the poet in her red dress for a giant flower. And much later in the collection:

“Who do you think I am? Tippi Hedren
in an Alfred Hitchcock film?” I wondered,
when that flying object pecked me on the head.

Another represents Mullen’s intent throughout the collection with this:

TUMBLEWEED, name in black letters
on the side of a bright yellow bus
delivering students to open gates of Windward School.

Mullen mentions in her introduction that she leads students on tanka walks in the botanical garden where she teaches. This glorious discipline of the mind and body moving through poetry is better experienced than explained, and Urban Tumbleweed offers a moving invitation.

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—A. Anupama

Final photograph of the New York Botanical Garden’s 2013 exhibition, Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden, including the drummers from Taiko Masala, and poetry displays co-presented by the Poetry Society of America and curated by Jane Hirshfield.

References:

Rankine, Claudia, and Juliana Spahr, eds. American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Miner, Earl. Japanese Poetic Diaries. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969.

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A. AnupamaA. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

Nov 132013
 

Everything Happens Cover

“Night Vigils” comes in the middle of Albena Stambolova’s new novel, Everything Happens as It Does (Open Letter Books). This chapter is a sample of Stambolova’s idea-rich and scintillating prose. The reader doesn’t need to know much context to make this chapter complete, save that Margarita and her father have not seen a lot of each other lately, and, for the most part, she is a rather odd young woman. I think my favorite aspect of this chapter is the way Stambolova can write about such commonplace scenarios and make them sound surprising and intimate (perhaps even intrusive). Through the eyes of Margarita, Stambolova manages to convey the authentic nature of experience as a surprising and unsettling encounter with otherness.

— Jacob Glover (see NC’s review of the novel here)

25.

Night Vigils

Margarita tiptoed between tangled legs and arms, tilted lamps, overturned glasses and all kinds of remnants from hours of sitting, smoking, talking and listening to music. She saw a couple kissing, their lips sunk into each other with such riveting force that she could not take her eyes off them. Worn-out desperate things had a strange effect on her. A threadbare blanket, for example, or this hopeless kiss, beautiful like a dead rose’s petals dripping with their scent of hysteria. She decided to walk around them, bumped into a sleeping body and the solid surface of an armchair, finally reached an emptier space with enough room for both her feet and managed to steady her step. Where could she have left her coat, her oversized, long black coat and her gigantic bag? They must be here somewhere. The figure of a man holding a candle appeared out of nowhere. Nothing ever happened the way one anticipated it. Come to think of it, even tonight, earlier in the evening, she had tried to explain that she didn’t have the time, but it turned out that she did have the time, she had lots of time. And what birthday were they talking about, no one had a birthday. At least she couldn’t see anyone who had a birthday.

For the first hour or so, it had been only the three of them—the boy who had brought her and who seemed to know her very well, and the girl she had assumed was the hostess, as she had changed into different clothes at least twice. They had all been sitting around a low coffee table when the girl had stood up and walked away, and just when they had almost forgotten about her, she reappeared wearing something like a transparent nightgown over her naked body. She looked beautiful in the dim light. Then more people came and Margarita lost sight of the girl, only to see her later in a different outfit, which made her doubt for a moment that it was the same person.

Now she was looking for her coat and her bag, and she was starving. Finally she stepped into a room with piles of coats thrown on a bed, and she buried her hands to search for hers. She recognized it by the touch of her fingers, like a blind person, and pulled it out, overcoming the resistance of the soft mass of clothes around it. Her bag was on the floor and she almost tripped over it. She flung it on her shoulder, continuing to tread carefully toward the exit.

Once outside, she could see only machines; there were people, but the people were all inside machines—trams, buses, and cars. She didn’t feel like going home, and decided instead to visit her father. The trams’ jangle and dazzling threaded lights did not seem inviting, so she headed there on foot, her heavy bag on her shoulder.

Walking gave her the satisfaction of work well done. Work that was pleasant and amusing, squeak-squeak-squeaking feet on the snow. Gliding, slaloming between the parked cars, stopping at traffic lights, standing upright like a soldier.

At night the city looked like a picture. Spaces look indistinct, the houses are surprising. At night the city lets you be; it lets you in, in all of its places, which, you then realize, belong to the city and not to you, a passerby. If you are brave enough, it will let you in even deeper, to places invisible in daylight no matter how hard you look for them. Night people in the city know this, they belong to the city, and that’s why they are scary and others are frightened by them.

Margarita was not thinking about these things. She never thought about anything at all. Thinking for her was like floating down a babbling stream, gently propelled by the drift of her unusual perceptions, until someone broke the spell by speaking or asking for something. No one had ever heard Margarita herself ask for anything. If she happened to feel like “asking,” what other people would call “asking,” she just let her feet take her to a place where whatever she needed simply happened to her. If she ever felt scared by something, she would run away and no one could stop her. She had thus gone through a number of schools, special schools and ordinary ones, she had started many classes and abandoned many, until one day Maria decided that she deserved some peace. Margarita read books, children’s stories and other books, she went out with people, to the cinema or elsewhere, but how far her knowledge of things extended was a mystery. She did not seem depressed about not fitting into a normal category, and the doctor, Mr. T., whom she was seeing about once a month, had himself come to a standstill in observing her perpetual state. Valentin would sometimes drag her with him for weekends or holidays with friends, and Margarita would blend in, in her own dazed way. At the same time, she never forgot faces or people in general. Her memory, free as it was from all other things, recorded words, faces, situations—gathering an endlessly abundant material that would make quite a few film directors happy.

Now she strolled about the city and registered no signs of danger. Every once in a while she felt the weight of her bag and moved it to her other shoulder. What was in that bag, only she knew, whatever to know meant for Margarita.

The window of her father’s apartment gleamed like a beacon. He answered the door almost immediately, dumbfounded to see her. So much so, that for a moment he did not invite her to come in, but let the smell of something burning reach her nose in wafts through the open door.

Are you alright?

Margarita smiled at him happily and he stepped back. He knew that she perceived things differently, but all the same he felt uncomfortable that she could see the remains of his lonely midnight dinner in the black frying pan. He chased away the thought of Maria’s ability to prepare something tasty out of anything, her oven turning out unbelievable dishes as if by itself.

Margarita looked at the piano, but her father waved his hand—not now, people are sleeping.

I’m hungry, dad.

Straight away he put a plate and some bread on the table, poured her a soda drink and took a salad out of the fridge. Margarita began to chew heartily, while her father wondered how he could possibly tell her that he was worried about her.

He asked about Valentin, but quickly hit some barrier and concluded that he needed to find out what was happening at his wife’s house.

Margarita finished eating, suddenly looking sad. He shouldn’t have spoken to her about Valentin. He took a sip of his beer and asked her about the baby. Margarita’s reaction was calmer, her mother and the baby were fine. And dear Boris? She hadn’t seen him for a while.

Her father felt anxious, the way he did every time he received news from Maria’s house. Margarita stirred from her seat like a restless bird before a storm. She wanted to go to bed and her father drove her home. He kissed her goodnight, lightly, as if this was something he did every night.

When she climbed into her enormous boat of a bed, her grandmother’s lamp was still lit. She couldn’t tell if there was anyone in the house.

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StambolovaExcerpted from Everything Happens as it Does by Albena Stambolova

Trans. Olga Nikolova from Bulgarian

Pubished by permission of Open Letter Books

Nov 122013
 

Stambolova

Everything_Happens_as_It_Does

 

Everything Happens As It Does
Albena Stambolova
Translated by Olga Nikolova from Bulgarian
Open Letter Books
120 Pages, $10.16
ISBN 978-1934824849

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Everything Happens As It Does by Albena Stambolova is a 120-page novel broken into 54 short, individually-titled chapters. The title of the novel comes from a quotation from Wittgenstein that Stambolova uses as an epigraph: “All propositions are of equal value. The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.41). Though the novel is not simply an exploration of this utterly Wittgensteinian sentiment, we ought to take note of this idea as we dive into this rich and intellectually dense world Stambolova has created.

In a way, Stambolova invites us to begin her novel by not ascribing value to anything, or by ascribing equal value to everything. She suggests: “This story considers itself the story of everyone… It is simply the story of women and men who are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends… or, in a nutshell, of people who are tigers and lions, oranges and lemons. This story is neither funny, nor sad. It is simply a story that takes place somewhere on the border between the world we know and the world we are no longer very sure about”

Most importantly, this novel is a story. Structurally speaking Stambolova has no less than eight major characters from whose perspective we get a glimpse of the world. Or, put differently: she presents us with eight different worlds contained by individual, yet occasionally overlapping, perspectives. The story of the novel seems to exist somewhere in the midst of these eight characters. In a way, the meat of this story or narrative comes out of the concatenated life-worlds Stambolova presents us with. I’m tempted to use the word weave here, but really the suggestion that Stambolova “wove X with Y” detracts from the real artistry of her play with presence. She is presenting us with these lives, which happen, as any two or three lives will do, to be mingled, mixed, or articulated together. The narrative begotten out of this articulation renders but a snapshot of these lives proper, yet it is only within the articulated whole that we find our story.

Now: What story? We begin and end with Boris, but Boris is by no means the main character or the protagonist. He is a strange child with a predilection toward what smacks of existentialism but often comes out as boredom. We stay with Boris until he is a young adult just delving into the world of computers. Then, Stambolova switches gears and introduces Philip, Maria and their twins Margarita and Valentin. We get a glimpse of this family for a few chapters until Philip leaves, and Valentin begins to date Raya and gets her pregnant. Then Valentin gets himself kicked out of Raya’s house. He goes back to his mother Maria’s home only to find Boris there and Maria pregnant with Boris’ baby. It turns out that Maria is getting divorced—from Philip. The lawyer is named Mr. V., and we now begin to follow his life and meet his family. Fanny is his wife’s daughter, but not necessarily his daughter.

By the time we meet Mr. V’s family, all of the characters have been introduced. What follows is a series of descriptions of the same Christmas Eve from different perspectives (all third-person limited). It is possible to say this series of descriptions constitute the climax of the narrative, however it would be a slippery argument because it is only in retrospect that this appellation would make sense. We get a description of three or four or five even Christmas Eves—depending on how you count them. Fanny, Valentin, and Margarita are all together, but Mr. V joins them. Boris is unaccounted for. Philip is depressed and drinking. Maria and her baby are driving to Boris’ parents’ home in the country. And Mrs. V is home alone waiting for Mr. V. These Christmas Eve scenes are quite beautiful and, I think, set out important ideas in the novel. They are about human interaction and the way we live together.

Fanny’s kitchen was busting with life. The spell was lifted from the appliances, pots and pans chittered on the hot stove, cabbage was being chopped on thick wooden boards and sprinkled with paprika, platters were being arranged with pickles and dips, glasses were being passed hand to hand, drinks were being poured generously. All guests, feeling truly welcome, had an air of devotion, regardless if their work was contributing to the common good.

After Christmas Eve, there is a lull of sorts, but we are aware that something has happened to Maria. Christmas morning she walks into the woods in the deep snow, but we are not sure if she makes it back. By New Year’s Eve forces have assembled, and it is confirmed within a couple of days that Maria is dead. This death which just barely happens on-screen is the climactic point of the novel.

The rest of the novel seems to resolve in some way after Maria dies, but it is important that we notice how much of the resolution is not directly related to Maria dying. Valentin, Fanny, Mr. V and Mrs. V, Philip, and Boris all in some way have a resolution prior to the discovery of Maria’s death. But in the chapter Philip tells Valentin that Maria is dead, we get this exquisite passage:

While [Maria] was still with them, her absence, which kept everyone at a distance and made her different, used to scare them.

Now, when she was no longer with them, they had to somehow domesticate her absence. Now the three of them had to make it — Maria’s life.

And maybe there were other lives to make, too.

So Valentin and Margarita and the baby have to learn to live without the oddness of Maria, which somehow grounded their worlds for them. Stambolova plays with this Derridean idea of presence and absence more than just in relation to Maria’s death. And it seems telling that Maria is often emotionally inaccessible, yet she remains defined fully in her presence or in her absence. There is a sense in which Stambolova’s novel is an experiment in presence vs. cognition/conceptualization. Even objects remain mysterious and enigmatic, e.g. Boris’ tapes, Margarita’s bag, even the baby.

Maria is somehow central, but she is also the character we know least. One is tempted to compare Maria to God. Possibly this is ingenuous or reductive or both, but Maria is intentionally complex, and her similarities to the divine are narratologically relevant. And this characterization of the divine Maria over-flows with a beautiful sort of mystico-biblical reference.

It was impossible to say “no” to this voice, which was now calling to him [Philip] from the receiver. Why him, and not someone else, he never understood. Here I am, Lord.

We first meet Maria on the day of Boris’ christening, though we don’t really know it’s her til later. Boris walks into the chapel as a young boy and sees “a tiny woman in black, whose eyes he was to meet again years later.” This is a fascinating moment for us as readers because it is explicit foreshadowing. But of what? Maria’s eyes, her gaze, become a motif throughout the novel. Boris doesn’t encounter Maria in the chapel as a person but as her awareness of him; he encounters her only as her gaze upon him. This image comes up again later when we read Philip’s first encounter with Maria:

Philip met Maria at a friend’s house. Although he never liked to admit it, he failed to notice her at first. She had been sitting in some part of the room, watching him. He had felt her gaze, though without being able to identify where it came from.

Maria’s name, of course, echoes both the mother of Jesus and the temptress-turned-apostle Mary Magdalene. And, in the language of the novel, she seems to conceive the twins immaculately: “She became pregnant almost by magic.” Her very presence seems to explode experience and stop time.

But [Philip] could remember situations in which her presence or her voice obliterated everything else.

And:

[Philip] proposed to her almost immediately, not knowing what he was doing. He knew only that he could not have done otherwise. [Maria] nodded, as if she had foreseen long ago that this was bound to happen.

And yet again:

The woman, having emerged from the numbing cold, sleeping baby in her arms, simply sat next to [Mr. V] as if her place had always been there. [Maria’s] presence, impossible to reference or classify, transfixed him.

Maria resists worldly definition because her presence is only determined in her absence. That is, only after Maria dies do we clearly see just how she wove meaning and cohesiveness into the stories of the other characters. In the chapter of Maria’s death, the only chapter from her perspective (again, third person limited), we get this revealing line: “Maria was not thinking about it, she was watching it. She was watching the world, and it was watching her.” Maria represents a way of relating to the world that neither assigns value nor conceptualizes (thinks), a way perceiving that simply happens without the distinction of subject and object (and thus, in the discourse of religion, is an analogue of the divine).

Everything Happens as It Does is a novel which operates under the maxim: “The world allows descriptions. And resists thought.” We should remember that in this world of happenings, we are part of that happening; we occur alongside every other occurrence; and our value and significance only comes out of these happy moments when on Christmas Eve, for example, we happen to be happening together.

 —Jacob Glover

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Jacob Glover

Jacob Glover is a pursuing an MA in Classics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Nov 112013
 

Gerard Beirne

charlie tallulah cover

Charlie Tallulah is on the run, has always been on the run. He left Ireland to escape his family, now he is on the run across the Canadian prairies from a man named Krotz after, um, losing $40,000 (Charlie is possibly not the most dependable of men). The locale of this particular novel segment is woodland near a Cree reserve, the borderlands as it were, where there is precious little law and people live as in a slum except that you can walk out of your hovel and shoot dinner. Charlie has a girl named Cindy and a Gila monster (nameless) when they drop in on his old friend John Lee who lives in a hut and deals guns and homemade whisky.

This is from Gerard Beirne‘s new novel Charlie Tallulah, out imminently with Oberon Press in Ottawa. The language is sharp and precise, the dialogue is punctuated à la Joyce using em-dashes instead of quotation marks (see also Robert Day’s serial novel on NC). Two things to note especially: 1) Having lived in the Canadian north by a native reserve for  several years, the Irish-born author knows whereof he speaks; and 2) the author’s way of patterning his text with luminous phrases that reach out of their context toward some larger and more mysterious meaning.

He saw her eyes drift towards the open door. John Lee stood there watching them.
-Sorry. I was just passing. But he did not go anywhere.
– What is it you can’t see? Cindy asked.
– A way out, John Lee replied.

And there is a great scene with a girl and a bear skin (as you all know, this is right up my alley).

dg

Somehow the stories of Charlie Tallulah’s life never seem to add up, are always less than the sum of their parts, amount to nothing in the end. In this particular story, Charlie is on the run, not only from his past – a previous life and identity in Ireland – but from Krotz who believes Charlie has stolen money from him. Charlie believes otherwise and is surprised when Krotz gives chase – across the Canadian prairies. Charlie meets Lucinda working in a liquor store in Brandon, Manitoba. She too is unhappy with her life and when Krotz shows up, Charlie and Lucinda both take to the road together – in the back of the truck, beneath a tarp, a large glass tank with a Gila Monster Charlie bought, from a store dealing in illegal exotic animals, as a gift for both of them – in the glove compartment, a gun. With nowhere better to go, Charlie follows the back roads to where an old acquaintance of his hides out in a cabin in the woods – John Lee Harper, a gun-runner who had finally stopped running. John Lee now brews illegal alcohol which he sells up North on a ‘dry’ Cree Indian reserve. 

—Gerard Beirne

§

The cabin was set back in the trees, impossible to see from the road. It took five kilometers of dirt to drive there and then a five minute hike in. The structure was small. Three rooms and an outhouse. Water pulled from a well a hundred yards behind. Even at this hour of the morning Charlie and Cindy were sweating from the walk and the sun.

– How do I look? Cindy stopped at the edge of the clearing. Her hair needed washing. Her clothing was stained from dirt and sweat.

– You’re good.

– Well, Charlie, you look like shit.

She carried her soiled jacket in her folded arms. Charlie carried his over his shoulder. He climbed up the steps, opened the screen door and knocked hard on the inner one.

– This place doesn’t look lived in, Cindy said. Are we chasing wild geese?

Charlie knocked again. The thin shredded bark of paper birch lay scattered on the ground. Pine trees and Quaking Aspen. Charlie saw a patch of garden to the side, tall stalks of fresh corn, green potato leaves.

– Somebody’s living here.

He knocked again, called out John Lee’s name. He waited, then heard the sound of something striking wood, the squeak of door hinges. Cindy pulled at her grimy blouse, tucked it into her skirt.

A tall thin man, with a long down-turned moustache and stubble opened the door, looked out at them through the screen.

– Well fuck me!

He wore a red tee-shirt and blue and white striped boxer shorts. He opened the screen door which creaked.

– Charlie-fucking-Tallulah!

He took a double take on seeing Cindy, ran his hand through his swept back greasy hair.

– Can we come in?

John Lee shook his head in mock self-disgust.

– Forgetting my manners, Charlie.

He stood back to let them in. The room was bare except for an armchair, an old pioneers’ pine table and dresser, four mismatched chairs and two propane lanterns on the window sill. Magazines and newspapers were spread at the base of the armchair.

– You’re lucky. I usually greet my guests with Old Bess. He nodded to the shotgun leaning against the wall inside the door. Take a seat. I’m going to make some coffee.

Charlie and Cindy sat at the table. They heard him fill the kettle. He came and stood in the doorway of the kitchen and scratched at the back of his boxer shorts.

– I ought to dress.

– It’s your home, Charlie said.

– I’m not used to ladies here is the thing. Like to say I don’t have much need for them, but that would not be the truth. He pulled at the side of his moustache. As a race we’re a fucking mess. Slaves to our desires, you’ve heard it before.  He turned back into the kitchen. My bedroom’s through this way, he said. I will dress for the occasion.

– He’s okay, Charlie reassured her when he was gone.

John Lee came back a few minutes later wearing the same tee shirt, a pair of blue jeans and green socks. His hair was wet where he had thrown water on it. He carried a pot of coffee and three chipped mugs.

– So to what do I owe the pleasure? It is pleasure, isn’t it? He pulled at his moustache again. I don’t do guns anymore.

– I know, Charlie said. I know that.

– Just so’s you know.

– This is Lucinda.

John Lee nodded.

– You must be hungry, he said. I’ll cook you up my special.

Cindy and Charlie watched him cut up sausages, bacon, tomatoes, and potatoes. Then he fried it all up in beaten egg with shredded cheddar and mozzarella cheese, a little salt and pepper.

– Man! Charlie said when they had finished. It was worth travelling all the way for that.

John Lee opened the curtains a little. A shaft of light fell across the table. Their stomachs were full now, it was time to talk.

– All what way?

– Vancouver, Saskatoon, Brandon, I don’t know.

Cindy heard what sounded like children fighting outside. Neither John Lee nor Charlie seemed to notice.

– Sounds like you’re running, John Lee said.

The noise got louder, clearer. Geese. Cindy could see them through the gap in the curtains.

John Lee went over, picked up his shotgun and walked outside. The geese sounded excited all talking at once loud and unstoppable. Then the gunshot and the shocking momentary silence which followed as though even these basic animals were capable of recognizing their mortality and were stunned by it in turn. The silence that ended as suddenly. The scattering and screeching.

Cindy looked at Charlie. He held his mug, gave nothing away. They waited there until John Lee returned carrying a goose by its neck. He placed his shotgun back against the wall, then threw the goose on the table.

– Dinner. He washed his hands in the kitchen, came back in and sat down.

Cindy saw the red stained feathers. Its large limp body. Its dark grey head and neck, its soft white cheek and undertail, its gnarled webbed foot. She couldn’t look it in the eye.

– Who are you running from?

Charlie leaned back on his chair, watched the random motion of the specks of dust trapped in the shaft of light.

– A guy named Krotz, you know him?

John Lee nodded.

– Yeah, I dealt with him in the past.

– Maybe Lyle.

– Lyle? John Lee sounded surprised. Toque Lyle?

– He’s with Krotz now. They both came bursting in on me in Brandon. I was out at the time. Lucinda took the call.

John Lee looked at her with what could be mistaken for concern.

– Did they harm you?

She shook her head.

– I don’t know about Krotz, John Lee said. I don’t really know how far he would take it. I sold him two .375 magnums. What he does with them is anybody’s guess. I don’t want to be the one to find out.

Charlie took in John Lee in his home, this cabin of plywood and metal siding which contained him, his sparse room, bare floor boards, white and green cotton print curtains, stubble, drooping moustache, Old Bess. He didn’t seem happy or unhappy. He had a small garden, a dead goose on his kitchen table. There was a still, moonshine hidden away someplace.

Cindy looked at the two of them. She wondered how far back they really went. She was wedged in between them, stuck somewhere in the middle of Charlie’s life, caught up in her own.

– Do you have soap? The words just came out, almost unintended.

– Do I look unwashed?

– Not you, me, Cindy said. I haven’t had a proper wash in days.

– I have a tub out back. No hot water I’m afraid. But yes I do have soap.

John Lee brought her through the kitchen and out the back door. An old aluminum tub stood on a rectangle of dirt reclaimed from the wild grasses. A black plastic pipe ran from the faucet to a water tank perched on a plinth above it. The plug hole led directly to the ground where a channel covered in gravel drained the dirty water away.

– It’s the best I got to offer. He looked around at the grass and tall trees. Can’t ask for much more privacy than this. I got towels inside.

He brought her some towels and went back inside with Charlie. He knocked on the kitchen window. Cindy looked in at him.

– We’ll be up front. Take all the time you need, John Lee said bending down to open the cupboard beneath the sink. He took out a four litre milk container filled with a clear liquid. What time of day is it? he asked

– Time enough, Charlie said emptying the remains of the coffee from their mugs and washing them under the tap.

John Lee brought the container into the front room and sat down. Charlie put the washed mugs still dripping with water on the table beside him. John Lee filled them half-ways up.

He banged his mug against Charlie’s. Charlie took a sip.

– Jesus H!

John Lee laughed.

– Who buys this stuff? Charlie asked.

John Lee swallowed, savored the taste still fused to his throat.

– There’s a line. This is good, trust me.

– I do.

– 65 proof. That, he said pointing to the four liters, sells for sixty bucks.

– You’re joking.

– I kid you not.

Charlie took another drink and lit a fuse all the way to his stomach.

– It’s the fourth of July!

– I sell most of it to the reserves.

– So that’s your business.

– They’re good customers.

– What about the law, are they onto you?

– They don’t care. It’s like the good old days. Fire water. Keeps the natives distracted while the government shits on them more. Colored beads, that sort of thing.

– Doesn’t it bother you? Isn’t that why you gave up the guns, the unpleasant outcomes?

John Lee fiddled with the cap on the milk container.

– Maybe you’ve got me there, maybe you haven’t. The way I see it this stuff is in their own hands, under their control. Criminals always abuse guns, that I should have known, but people don’t have to abuse this. John Lee stood up, did not seem convinced by his own argument. Now, I could say I need to do something in the kitchen, he admitted, but if you don’t mind I would like to look at my tub. I have never seen it with a woman bathing in it before.

– What if she minds?

John Lee raised his eyebrows.

– Maybe I should go and ask her.

He stood to the side of the kitchen window and looked out. Cindy was stretched in the tub, her eyes closed, her shimmering breasts floating on the top.  Beneath the water the sheen of her stomach perhaps, maybe the shadow of her thighs. He would like to have seen her turn over, or for her to stand up and dry herself off. He came back in and sat down, pushed his lips together, twisted the ends of his moustache.

– I ought to feel ashamed, he said, be saddened by my behaviour. He took a drink, wiped his lips.  I am unworthy of her, that much I know.

Cindy lay back in John Lee’s tub unaware of his eyes upon her. The grass grew wild around her. The trees quaked in her presence. The cold water lapped at her body. She watched a blue jay fly overhead, perch on the nearby branch of a pine tree. Perhaps this was all it took, a chance encounter. Relationships were fraught with risk. When the fear subsided Cindy was happy to be with Charlie, happy to be on his arm. She closed her eyes, breathed in the fresh air. Her job in Brandon was tedious, her life uninteresting. Charlie was not the answer, but it felt to Cindy as though he was part of the solution. The problem was not so clear. It certainly had something to do with her father’s death and her absence. It was accentuated by this, amplified. But it had not begun there, had been at hand as far back as Cindy could recall. She had always felt absent as though her place in her family eluded her.

Cindy’s sister, Jackie, had phoned her shortly after she had moved out to complain.

– I thought you were supposed to be taking care of Father.

– Where are you? Cindy asked.

– You know I can’t come back. I am already obligated. But you had no reason to leave.

– No reason?

– He’s ill for heaven’s sake. I can’t believe you left our mother to mind him on her own.

– You left me on my own with them.

– You’re being unreasonable, Lucinda. He wasn’t ill at the time. There was no need for me to stay then. But you were needed. What were you thinking of?

My life, she should have replied.

When he died her sister called again to tell her what her own mother would not.

– Daddy died, Jackie simply said. You didn’t even know did you? Well I am here with her now. She says there is no need for you to come.

– Of course I’ll come, Cindy said. I’d have come sooner if I had known. Why didn’t you call me as soon as you heard?

– If you had been here, you would have known.

I’m not the only one at fault here, Cindy wanted to tell her. Yet I’m the one bearing the faults of all.

Throughout the time of the funeral her mother barely looked at her, speaking only when necessary.

– You can go now, she said the day after he had been buried. You have been here long enough.

Cindy returned to Brandon. She talked to her mother a few times on the phone, but her mother made it clear that she did not wish her to call anymore, made it clear she was not welcome anymore in their home.

How little it takes for a life to fall apart. Cindy lay in the tub with her eyes closed and listened to the songs of the birds, the rustle of the tall grasses. Despite all that had occurred she felt strangely at peace now. Such things were possible it seemed.

– So tell me, why is Krotz on your tail?

– He thinks I let him down.

– And did you?

– I don’t know. How do you know when you’ve let someone down?

– They tell you, I guess. In words or other ways.

Charlie put his hands flat on the table and held them there as though he could make it levitate.

– He wanted something I couldn’t give him.

– What was it? John Lee watched Charlie’s hands as though he thought levitation was entirely possible, could happen right before his eyes.

– I could say it was money, but that would not be entirely accurate. Charlie seemed to give up. He took his hands from the table, looked at them forlornly. He wanted a part of me, he said.

– Doesn’t everyone? John Lee looked disappointed as if Charlie had somehow let him down. So how much money?

– Forty thousand.

– That is by no means a small amount.

– It was not my money, Charlie told him. I was merely the delivery boy, but in the end I failed to deliver. Charlie folded his arms in front of him, trapped his hands beneath them.

– How wise was that?

– I know.

– So what did you do with it? You didn’t bring it here did you?

– The thing is, I lost it.

John Lee looked at him in disbelief.

– You lost forty thousand dollars?

– In a manner of speaking.

Cindy came back in the room wrapped in one of John Lee’s towels. They both glanced up at her, distracted now from Charlie’s tale.

– I washed my clothes out, she explained. They’ll soon dry in this heat.

John Lee grinned.

– I’m not complaining.

– I feel much better, thanks. I feel like the dirt of the world has been lifted off me.

– Another illusion, Charlie said.

Cindy made a face at him.

– Don’t be mean spirited.

– Speaking of mean spirit, John Lee said, fetch yourself a mug.

Cindy pulled the towel more tightly around her, twisted it under her arms. She turned around to enter the kitchen, the towel adhering to the line of her buttocks. John Lee glanced at Charlie forlornly.

– It’s early for me, she said, bringing the mug back in.

– It’s early for us all. John Lee unscrewed the cap and poured them a drink.

– Be warned, Charlie told her.

– I hear a voice, John Lee said.

Cindy took a cautious sip.

– Whoh!

John Lee looked at her, smiled. He had seen beneath her towel. Be warned, the voice repeated. Whoh! John Lee answered.

He was happy with them here. He hadn’t had company in quite some time.

– You can stay here as long as you need to, he told them. It’s no Super 8, but hey the liquor’s good.

– Appreciate that, Charlie said. Just until I get a plan, do some logical thinking. We’ve been running blind.

John Lee thought of Cindy’s clothes drying outside, felt oddly pleased.

– You two can take my room. I’ll make up something here on the floor.

– We’re good here, Charlie told him.

– This is the way I’d prefer it, John Lee said. It’d give you more privacy, me more peace of mind.

Charlie remembered Gila.

– There’s something else. Another guest.

John Lee looked uncertain.

– What are you springing on me now?

– Don’t you worry about it. He’s a man after your own heart. Charlie left the two of them there and walked back for Gila.

– So how long have you known Charlie? she asked.

John Lee scratched his head.

– I can’t say I’ve ever known him. We met in Vancouver about six years back. Moved in the same circles. John Lee laughed, showed teeth that were going yellow. We hung out together sometimes. He helped me, I helped him. Mostly we got drunk together. John Lee shrugged with one shoulder. Even then Charlie was not entirely committed. What about you?  How long have you known him?

– A few days.

John Lee’s lips drooped like his moustache.

– That figures. So what do you think?

– About what?

– Charlie, you both? I don’t know.

Cindy laughed.

– I don’t know either.

– And Krotz, what did you think of Krotz?

– He scared me. I thought he was going to do me some harm.

– He still could. You running with Charlie and all that.

– I know that. Cindy felt her fear return.

– Just so’s you do.

– I took off with Charlie because of Krotz. He knew where I worked. I was afraid he would come after me if he couldn’t find Charlie.

– It’s not unlikely.

Charlie came back in a short while later with Gila. He put the tank down on the table. John Lee squinted into the tank, screwed his face up in disgust.

– Jesus, Charlie, what is that?

– Gila monster. Sort of like an overgrown lizard.

– Is he safe? He doesn’t look safe.

– You’ve got to be careful. Can’t get too close. He must be starving though. We haven’t fed him more than a couple of mice in days.

– He’ll do alright then. We’ve got plenty of mice around here, rats too. Don’t worry, he told Cindy, they don’t usually come in the house.

John Lee fixed up the room for them, moved his belongings. Cindy was tired, woozy from moonshine. She excused herself to rest up a while. The room was small. Apart from an old double bed there was a chest of drawers with a propane lantern on top, a trunk, and a wooden chair. Traps hung from one wall, a large fish stuffed and mounted on another, and a bear-skin lay on the wooden floor as a rug. The window had the same cotton print curtains as the front room. Cindy pulled them over and stepped out of the towel. She lifted up the bear-skin and wrapped it around her, covering her head with its head. Then she turned the skin around and wrapped in its fur climbed into bed. She was losing track of the days already. She tried to trace them in her mind but soon drifted off to sleep.

John Lee told Charlie he’d bring him out to show him his still. He took his shotgun and walked with Charlie back out onto the dirt road where Charlie had parked. He walked over to the trees and moved some heaped up branches to disclose a hidden track. About fifty yards into the forest John Lee stopped and pulled away more branches to reveal a tarp covered truck.

He winked over at Charlie.

– I’m not at home if I don’t want to be.

He got in and started the engine. We can drive some of the way, but after that we’ve got to hike. They drove through dense forest hacked back to make way for a vehicle. They bounced over tree roots and rutted ground. Low branches scraped against the roof and windows. Sunlight filtered through the treetops. Wood pigeons flew from above. After about fifteen minutes of driving, John Lee abruptly stopped the truck.

– Road’s run out, he said taking his shotgun from the rack. We got to hoof it from here.

A small foot-worn trail led through the trees. John Lee whistled as he went.

– This is bear-country, need to let ‘em know we’re coming.

A grey squirrel ran up the tree-trunk to Charlie’s side. John Lee raised his shotgun, got the squirrel in his sights.

– Boom! He laughed, lowered his gun. Haven’t eaten a squirrel since I was a kid. You ever eaten one?

Charlie shook his head.

– Where’d you grow up anyway? John Lee swung the shotgun over his shoulder.

– I never grew up, Charlie replied.

– I guess not many of us do. You sound like you come from out east.

– Further east than you think.

John Lee lifted up a low lying branch and ducked his head under it.

– Are you telling me you weren’t born here?

– That’s right, said Charlie sidestepping the branch as it swung back at him.

– So where were you born?

– That’s a long time ago.

– Not so long you can’t remember.

– This is between you and me.

– Right.

Charlie saw a yellow and black ladybug land on his shoulder. He placed his finger in its path so that it walked on it. He held it out in front of him examined the frail shell of his spotted wings.

– Ireland.

– Ireland!

Charlie flicked the ladybug off his finger, saw it fall then fly to safety onto a branch. Charlie had never told anyone this before. He was on the run from his past. If he hadn’t been laden with John Lee’s moonshine, he most probably would not have told him either. If he hadn’t been running from Krotz. He regretted it immediately.

– Listen John Lee, I don’t want to talk about this.

– Well fuck me, Charlie, there’s a lot of things we don’t want to talk about. I mean I don’t want to talk about this moonshine, and yet here we are. They stepped into a small man-made clearing. John Lee pointed with his shotgun to a small wooden shed.

– Welcome to my world.

Charlie heard the whir of a pump. John Lee opened the lock and pushed the door inwards. A large steel barrel stood in the middle of the floor with a long copper pipe extending upwards from it. Clear plastic tubing attached to the pipe connected into a cylinder and out the bottom into another barrel. Eight ten-gallon oil drums were stacked to one side and a row of plastic containers on the other.

– Bush whiskey, John Lee said.

– How does it work? Charlie asked.

– A little bit of chemistry, nothing more. He pointed to the containers. That’s where I make my mash from. Cornmeal, sugar, yeast, malt, water. You just mix it and let it ferment in the boiler. He kicked at the base of the stainless steel barrel. You heat it up until the mash vaporizes and then condense it. I just keep it pumping around.  Fractional distillation if you remember anything from your school days. Separates the different substances. The water boils off at 100 degrees. The stuff you and I want is Ethyl-Alcohol. That separates out at 78.8 degrees. After that it’s Methyl-Alcohol, turns your brains to jello. That stuff I keep for fuelling my truck.

John Lee started the boiler up. Charlie watched as he fiddled with the faucet and thermostats adjusting the flow until a clear liquid trickled into the barrel. John Lee poured them off a sample in two tin cups. They brought them outside and sat down with their backs against the shed.

– A fucking Irishman! John Lee grinned over the top of his tin cup.

Charlie looked up at the sky through the gap in the trees. A large black mushroom cap cloud had blown in. Cream colored light played at its lower edges.

John Lee  took a drink, tasted its rawness on his throat. So why did you leave?

– I needed a break.

– How long ago?

– Fifteen or so years.

– That’s a long break, Charlie. You ever been back?

Charlie shook his head.

– But you still got family there, right?

– I don’t know.

– You don’t know?

– I never got around to telling anyone I was leaving. Charlie stared into his cup, leaned back against the shed. I needed to start over, he said. Take another shot at it. Turn into the person I wanted to be, not the one everyone else thought I should be.

John Lee nodded in agreement.

– I had a family who drove me to distraction too. A father who drank himself to death and a mother who followed him soon after just so’s she could watch him rot in hell. A sister who disapproves of my lifestyle, and well who can blame her? I do of course, so we hardly ever see one another. It’s possible for years to go by.

Charlie looked around at John Lee’s hiding spot. Another alternative. To clear a path into the heart of the wilds, cover your tracks, stay put.

– Who else knows about this place?

– It’s not a place I bring people to. This is my own illicit part of the universe.

– You’ve got it made.

– You know, Charlie, I believe I really do. He drained the rest of his cup. I’ve got a run to do tomorrow. You want to come with me, bring Lucinda too? There’s a reserve I got to deliver to. We just head north ‘til the road disappears. It’s gravel after that. It’ll take a good four hours to get there. I know a lady there. I sometimes stay a day or two then head back down.

– So there is a lady in your life?

– I wouldn’t put it like that. I see her on occasions. That hardly constitutes my life. So what do you say, Charlie, d’you want to come?

– I would like to go, he said. I believe I really would.

Charlie looked in on Cindy when they returned. He saw her tucked beneath the blankets. He went over and climbed in beside her. As soon as he did she shucked the blankets off them and leapt upon him covered in the bear-skin, growling hungrily.

 Charlie wrestled her down on the bed, rubbed her furry rump. She dug the bear claws into his chest, tore at him. He pushed hard and turned her over on the mattress. The bear-skin fell free of her naked body. Cindy’s arms were raised in the air holding Charlie’s strong wrists.

He saw her eyes drift towards the open door. John Lee stood there watching them.

-Sorry. I was just passing. But he did not go anywhere.

– What is it you can’t see? Cindy asked.

– A way out, John Lee replied.

/

Cindy said, why not, when asked about the trip north.

– You mean it? Charlie asked still recovering from their lovemaking. In the midst of her passion she had bitten him hard on the leg. Charlie screamed with the pain, almost kicked her in the face as he freed his leg from her bite.

– Have I complained this far?

– I just wanted to be sure.

– Well don’t count on that. I’m not sure about anything.

– You’re in good company, Charlie told her. He squeezed her bare shoulder, saw the flush of their passion on her neck and upper chest. He heard the geese again outside. The continual migration.

– What’s up with John Lee?

– Lonely, I guess.

– Aren’t we all, but we don’t go peeping in at other people.

Charlie looked up at the stuffed walleye. It stared back uneasily at him. A different fish entirely than the one John Lee had caught. Its innards removed, its painted skin, its false eyes which stared down at them. Trophy. The traps on the walls looked ready to spring.

Charlie and Cindy arose later that evening. The smell of goose cooking drifted in from the kitchen. John Lee had scalded the goose in boiling water, plucked it on the table. He fed Gila now the gizzard, heart and liver.

– So you guys finally got done. Come and join me.

– We were almost going to say that to you, Cindy said.

John Lee looked embarrassed, wiped his hands on his jeans.

– I’m not used to company.

The black clouds continued to blow in from the east. Thick rolled-over swathes of darkness folded towards the earth. Flat harvested fields, broken-down homesteads, lone trees, ancient machinery. The tireless steel wheels of early tractors, the rotted remains of fencing, loops of unattached wire, giant cylinders of pale nicotine fingered hay, torn strips of clear sky. The humid air was laden with heat, tension.

– It’ll break soon, John Lee said.

As he spoke the trees began to sway, and the forewarning winds swept through. A metal bucket rolled across the yard. A door slammed repeatedly on its hinges. A yellow fork of lightning flashed in the distant sky. Cindy waited for the sound of thunder which never came. The sound of rain, maybe hail, on the roof. Beating against her bedroom window. Huddled into her sister for comfort. Another flash.

– The last storm started a fire a few miles west, John Lee said. Lightning hit a tree. It was so dry the whole thing went up. They had to fly water bombers in, dropping thousands of gallons on top of it, took a couple of days before they got it under control. If the winds had changed, I’d have been out of here for good.

The door rattled and the flaps on the air vents outside smacked down. Gila looked uneasy, his eyes flicked back and forth.

– Had a dog once that would have spent the day howling, John Lee went on. When it finally came he would run and hide beneath the table. There are things those animals can intuit we cannot. A portion of our senses we have forsaken for consciousness. It’s a raw deal when you think about it. Just watch two dogs humping. Going at it as if nothing else mattered, then moments later not giving a fuck about that either.

He spoke now to Cindy as though to explain something to her that would make her feel better about his life.

-That’s why I am alone out here. I’m trying to regain my senses.

A purple sheet of lightning flashed through the window. Cindy felt the flesh of one thigh touching the other uncomfortably. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. A rumble of thunder, ongoing like simmering anger. Charlie remembered the gun in the glove compartment. Telling John Lee where he had come from had unsettled him.  For the first time since he had left, he began to doubt if there was any such thing as a clean break.

Another flash and a louder roar. The world a little edgy. These were the moments of bar room brawls, unprovoked attacks, inexplicable violence. John Lee tapped his feet on the wooden floorboards. Cindy shifted in her seat. Her recently washed clothing already damp with sweat. Charlie’s face unshaven.

John Lee challenged him to an arm wrestle. Cindy watched their gritted teeth, the hard lines of their tensed jaws, the clenched whitened hands, the thick veins of their forearms, the bulge of upper-arm muscle. She recalled the innards John Lee had torn from the plucked goose, how he had dropped them into Gila’s tank, slimy and red raw. Gila devouring them as John Lee devoured Charlie’s strength and resolve, slamming his arm to the table, the bones of his hand cracking down on the wood.

John Lee grunted, let go Charlie’s hand with no expression of pleasure in his friend’s defeat.

– The goose, was all he said and stood up to go to the kitchen.

Charlie looked at his hand and arm as though they were detached from him, and then across to Cindy as if to ascertain that she was not likewise removed.

– You put up a good fight, she said.

Charlie lifted his arm from the table, clenched and unclenched his fingers.

– You cannot depend on me, remember that.

Cindy walked over to the window. The dark cracked open into light. The loud retorts. Charlie looked at Old Bess lying against the wall beside her. Loaded, ready for action. John Lee came back in with the cooked goose on a large wooden breadboard. He laid it in the center of the table. Cindy sat back down. And as lightning flashed around them and thunder roared, they tore pieces off the goose’s plump body with their sweaty fingers and greedily ate the greasy flesh.

 —Gerard Beirne

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Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1999. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. He has published two previous novels including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award.

Nov 102013
 

Diane-Lefer

I have a weakness for the smart girls of history, and Diane Lefer has invented an amazingly smart, innocent (yet bold) 18th century Italian girl, a mathematics prodigy, hidden away in her father’s home till Balsamo, the spiritualist fraud, comes to rescue her (sort of) and wrest from her the occult numerological secrets of the ancient Jews. Just out with Loose Leaves Publishing, Diane’s new novel The Fiery Alphabet is a road book, a little tour of the esoteric philosophies of the age, and a peek into a young woman’s heart — presented as a faux document discovery the author made in her research (see author interview here). The excerpt presented here plays a bit on the combination of Daniela Messo’s naïveté (she offers herself to Balsamo but doesn’t quite know the “form” of seduction; she mis-identifies Jesus as the old man who pooped on the floor) and her brilliance with tenderness and a gently comic irony.

Diane is a dear, old friend of mine from the days when she taught with me at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She as a multiple recidivist, having contributed over and over — works of beauty, passion and commitment — to the pages of Numéro Cinq; she is one of the old guard.

dg

 

FALcover

 If I had not been raised to be a genius and if Pope Benedict had lived a few more years, my father would not have suffered a stroke on the afternoon of April 14, 1760, my thirteenth birthday. If not for the events of that day, we would not have cut ourselves off from the world, here behind these walls.

If Papa had been in good health four years later, when you first asked to be admitted to our home – a stranger, a Sicilian, without introductions or name – I suspect he would have said no. Instead, he heard your request and looked up for a moment. “Library?” he repeated. “Uh, yes,” and returned to his breakfast, a mush of bread and eggs.

If we had not been trying to save my father’s life and restore his lost youth, we would not have stood before one another naked. Perhaps I should never have reached the point of knowing I would do whatever you might ask.

“Give yourself to me,” you said, and it was as though one of Leibniz’s monads, independent and oblivious to every other monad moving through space – unaware that Pope Benedict and my father, the integral calculus, the deadly man in scarlet cap were all part of the harmony – should suddenly step back and see the entire pattern that brought you to me and made you my destiny. Balsamo.

Give yourself to me, you said. But how is it done? I am willing, don’t you see? I stepped into your arms as easily as I would hand Fiammetta a shawl, and yet I saw you weren’t satisfied. How does one give?

You can give someone a plate of noodles, but then the noodles must be eaten. It is not enough for the gift to offer no resistance – I offer none to you – but it must be offered in a form in which it can be consumed.

The problem: I am not a serving of pasta, nor a pair of lace cuffs that I can give you and even help to fasten at your wrists, an ornament to accompany you in the world.

The solution: I give up my suspicions, I hold you first in my heart and in my mind. I have entertained your friends and I have trusted you with my father’s life. Yet none of this is useful, none of it in the proper form. I have failed you.

This morning, I went to your room.

So much has happened in these short months since you first appeared. I remember you, a slight figure in threadbare clothes, a Southerner, and not quite civilized. Your dark curling beard, your hairy frame made me think of a malnourished satyr. I felt sorry for you then, you were so ugly.

This morning I sat on the edge of your bed. “I love you, Balsamo.”

“Dani,” you said, “you are so innocent.”

“Ignorant.”

“No. Innocent,” you said. “Who are you, Daniela? I want to know you.”

And I started to cry, because you do know me. No one knows me as well as you.

“You keep your secrets, Daniela.”

I have no secrets. I stood before you naked. Not even I have seen myself as you have seen me. I have looked at my arms, my thighs; I studied my breasts as they grew. But I have never seen myself whole. Only these fragments, this part, that. My face in the mirror. Balsamo, no one but you.

No, this is all wrong. I sound like a silly girl and that, above all, is what I am not. Try again.

* * *

God may not watch the world from on high, but I do. A third-story window leads onto the roof and I have scrambled over the tiles to my flat and secret hiding place and I have looked out over Rome. Here, from our house on the hill, while I look down on the church of Santa Francesca and the convent, the bell tower rises in the distance, almost on a level with my eyes. The ruined arch at the near end of the church seems to be getting higher, growing up to poke through the screen of trees. If the arch means something – and Balsamo says it does – I swear I know nothing about it.

Daniela Messo was my mother’s name and what they called me at birth. But I have no mother. I am Minerva, sprung forth with a yell from my father’s skull. He raised me to be a genius, though I have been called other things. Now, at seventeen, I cannot be counted a prodigy anymore, so what am I to be?

I am what I know. So put it all down, Daniela. Then mystery must yield to study, and fears to facts.

“When I think of all I tried to create in this world,” my father once said, “your mind is the one unqualified success.”

That mind has conquered Latin and Greek, chemistry, the integral and differential calculus. I have never before turned it to look at my life.

* * *

My father, Don Michele Messo, is a very good looking man – slender, small and well-defined. His nose comes to a sharp point and his eyebrows form two straight silver lines. His eyes glinted like metal when we bent our heads together over the secrets of algebra and geometric forms, but now those eyes are nearsighted enough to be gentle and dim. My father has always been a non-conformist – perhaps because his only child is a daughter and not a son – yet his bearing is – was – that of, I imagine, a military man. Before his health failed, he had the most wonderful way of standing up from his chair. He never unfolded his body the way some, especially taller, men do. Counting on nothing but the strength of his thighs, he would push himself up, without effort or hurry, his back absolutely straight.

Even before his stroke, I can remember, now that I think back, his memory had become confused. One day, in the spirit of radicalism, he told us – the servants Carlo and Fiammetta, and me – that we were to call him “Michele” from that day forth. We were embarrassed, but he insisted and so we agreed. “Michele,” I said, trying to get his attention. “Michele?” But perhaps he had not heard the word spoken without its preceding respectful Don since he was a boy. At any rate, he had forgotten the sound of it and no longer answered to his name. “Father,” I said at last, and then he looked up and scolded me for my formality.

Papa taught me at home. By the age of seven, I was fluent in Latin and French and could read and translate from Hebrew and Greek. I learned philosophy, and so I could have reminded my father that matter is neither created nor destroyed. He has not made me – at most, he has recombined my elements.

In those early years, I wasn’t kept here at home. I was free, or so I thought. I made my own choices though, now I see, all with the aim of pleasing him. My ignorance of Art is an echo of Papa’s disdain. We agreed that busts of the Emperors glorified tyranny; graven images of saints, gods and angels sprang from disordered minds. In the old days, by which I mean before I was thirteen, my father would call for the carriage and we’d visit his friends – priests, mostly; most every man in Rome is either a beggar or a priest. To dress respectably, even my father often wore a black cassock, and we would go and visit somber homes and palaces, vast, ill-lit and dreary, with bloody crucifixes on every wall, tables covered with bric-à-brac and pretty clocks and stones, and prayer stools arranged so cunningly that a child couldn’t help but trip over them in the dark.

Once, at a time when I could not have been more than two or three, I remember a room where murmurous women petted me and made me stand before the crucifix, looking up at the ragged, punished man upon the Cross. “And you know who He is, don’t you?” they asked, as they kissed me and fussed. I’d had no religious education. The only Cross we had at home hung over our door so that men relieving themselves in the street would show respect and squat a little further down the road.

“She doesn’t know,” the women murmured. “She’s just a baby, a tender babe.”

Even at that age, I was used to being praised for giving answers and didn’t like being treated as a child. “I do know!” I cried. “I do!”, and guessed: “That’s the dirty man who made caca on the floor.”

I can remember quite clearly the women’s shock and my own feelings of shame, but I only know the words themselves because my father loved the story and repeated it many times, but only to the most discreet and trusted friends.

 —Diane Lefer

 ————————————–

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

 

Nov 092013
 

Andre MaroisAndré Marois

The ten-year-old narrator of André Marois’ new novel 10 ans, pas méchant (published by Éditions La courte échelle in Montreal) starts out by pushing a friend into a thicket of brambles — “It was very bad, holes like a colander” — turning him into “a perforated kid.” He doesn’t know why (a bit like Meursault killing his Arab in Albert Camus’ The Stranger but with a juvenile lead). But our narrator, yes, is not really evil, mischievous perhaps, a bit ADHD perhaps, given to perpetrating serial indiscretions and acts of violence. He likes to “get the villain out” as his mother says, so he can calm down. The story is told deadpan, the tone is mordant, black, and insistent.

Marois was born in France but lives in Montreal where he has published a long list of novels, story collections, crime novels and books for young adults. The text is in French; that’s not a new thing; longtime Numéro Cinq readers know that we do publish occasional untranslated works in French. We even have a Special Feature page for this called Numéro Cinq | En Français. Get out your translation dictionaries. It’s not so hard. It will sharpen the mind.

Also, perhaps it does not need pointing out, but Marois sent in the best author photo ever published on NC.

dg

couv 10 ans

J’ai dix ans.

Je ne suis pas méchant.

En tout cas, quand ça m’arrive, je ne le fais pas exprès. Je suis un enfant normal, mais je n’aime pas toujours jouer comme les autres. Je m’en suis rendu compte la fois où je parlais avec mon copain François. Nous étions dans la descente de la voie David, une petite rue près de chez moi. Il tournait le dos au gros buisson de ronces et moi, sans aucune raison, je l’ai poussé dedans. François s’est retrouvé au milieu des ronces, transpercé de partout par les aiguilles. Il a hurlé. Il avait très mal, troué comme une passoire. Philippe l’a aidé à sortir de là. François est parti chez lui en pleurant. J’ai regardé le sang qui coulait sur ses jambes. Je ne comprenais pas ce que j’avais fait.

Mes bras avaient bougé sans que je le décide. Il fallait que je le pousse dans les ronces. C’était sa place, même si je ne savais pas pourquoi.

François n’est pas mon meilleur copain, mais quand même. Il est gentil. Pas le genre à faire de mal à une mouche. Il ne m’a jamais fait de mal. Je n’avais aucune raison d’être méchant avec lui.

Pourtant, je l’ai été.

Je suis rentré à la maison, je n’ai rien raconté à ma mère. Un peu plus tard, celle de François a sonné chez nous. Elle criait. Elle tenait son fils par la main. Il avait du mercurochrome un peu partout, ses yeux étaient gonflés d’avoir beaucoup pleuré. Sa mère a expliqué à la mienne ce qui s’était passé. Elle m’a engueulé comme du poisson pourri. Ma mère lui a dit de se calmer le pompon. Elle me protégeait. François se planquait derrière sa mère. La mienne a dit qu’elle allait régler ça avec moi. Elle s’est excusée aussi. François et sa mère sont repartis. Elle parlait fort dans la rue, en agitant les bras en l’air. Comme si elle voulait gifler les nuages. Je crois que François a recommencé à pleurnicher.

Ma mère m’a dit qu’elle avait honte de moi et que j’allais voir ce que j’allais voir. Pour me punir, elle m’a envoyé dans ma chambre. Je me suis endormi sur mon lit, alors je n’ai pas vu grand-chose.

Elle n’a pas pu me priver de télévision, comme le font les mères de mes copains, parce que nous n’en avons pas. Ma mère m’a privé de bandes dessinées et de dessert. J’ai été obligé de lire un roman pour passer le temps et oublier l’odeur de la tarte aux pommes.

À l’école, tout le monde a entendu parler de l’affaire des ronces. Il faut dire que l’arrivée de François transformé en gamin perforé n’est pas passée inaperçue. Comme s’il avait la varicelle juste en arrière du corps. Il jouait les martyrs. Il m’énervait.

Les filles me regardaient bizarrement. On aurait dit que j’étais un monstre échappé du zoo.

François me tournait le dos dès qu’il me voyait.

Une fois, il faisait ça et il s’est retrouvé avec la face à trente centimètres du mur de briques dans la cour de récréation. J’ai eu très envie de le pousser dessus. Je suis allé vers lui. J’ai sorti les mains de mes poches. J’ai fait un énorme effort pour me retenir. J’aurais pu lui casser les dents de devant ou le nez. Je voulais vraiment le faire, mais j’ai fermé les yeux et j’ai passé mon chemin.

Ce n’était pas un accident, le buisson.

J’ai le droit de m’amuser, c’est tout.

Mes meilleurs copains s’appellent Jean-Marc, Philippe et Stéphanie. Nous nous connaissons depuis notre naissance. Je sais tout sur eux, parce qu’ils habitent à côté de chez moi. Ce sont mes voisins. Nous jouons tous les jours ensemble dans la rue, nous allons à l’école ensemble. Je regarde la télévision chez eux. Nous nous prêtons des bandes dessinées.

Mes copains ne m’ont jamais rien dit sur l’histoire du buisson de ronces. Ils n’ont pas rigolé non plus. Ils ont juste fait comme s’ils n’avaient rien vu. Ils avaient envie d’oublier ma mauvaise blague. Moi aussi.

Nous jouons avec des karts dans la voie David. Ce ne sont pas des vrais karts de course avec un moteur et tout. Nous n’avons pas d’argent pour acheter ça.

Nous fabriquons chacun le nôtre avec une grosse planche et des roues de poussette fixées sur des barres en bois à l’avant et à l’arrière. À l’avant, il y a un axe vertical dans un trou percé au centre de la planche pour la direction. Nous posons un pied de chaque côté de la barre et, quand on la pousse du côté gauche, on tourne à droite, et le contraire quand on la pousse du pied droit. Il y a aussi un siège avec un petit coussin et un dossier, une sonnette de vélo, des accessoires. Nos karts sont peints avec des gros numéros dans des ronds et nous y ajoutons tous les autocollants qu’on peut trouver. Comme si c’était une voiture de course.

Le plus dur à trouver, c’est les roues. Parce que des planches, tout le monde a ça chez soi. Quand t’as des bonnes roues avec des bons roulements à billes qui ne font pas de bruit, tu vas beaucoup plus vite que les autres. Moi, je n’ai pas de très bonnes roues. Elles grincent un peu, même quand elles sont bien graissées.

Le début de la voie David est en pente, après c’est plat. Nous partons d’en haut en courant, nous sautons sur notre bolide et nous faisons la course à fond jusqu’en bas.

Nous avons le droit de nous rentrer dedans et de faire des queues de poisson, mais pas trop fort. Je suis le champion là-dedans. Les autres essaient juste d’aller le plus vite possible. Ils se penchent pour que l’air ne les ralentisse pas. Et moi, je fonce dans leurs roues arrière. Ça les bousille.

Je n’ai pas le choix, je ne suis pas grand. Ceux qui prennent le plus de vitesse dans la descente, c’est les plus lourds, comme Philippe et Jean-Marc. Moi je suis maigre, alors je dois piloter avec ma tête.

Comme eux, je veux arriver le premier.

Quand je leur rentre dedans, ça les énerve.

Il faut remonter nos karts en les poussant jusqu’en haut de la côte. C’est super fatigant. Chacun de nous souffle et transpire et se jure de mieux réussir la course suivante. Alors, quand nous repartons après une descente où j’ai heurté Philippe ou Jean-Marc, ils disent qu’ils vont me percuter à leur tour. Mais ils ne le font pas souvent.

J’adore quand ça arrive.

C’est ce que j’ai découvert.

Quand je suis méchant avec quelqu’un, ça le rend méchant à son tour. Ou bien il a peur et il s’enfuit, mais ça n’a aucun intérêt. Alors quand l’autre devient méchant à cause de ma méchanceté, je suis content.

Je ne suis plus tout seul, ça me rassure.

Nous finissons par avoir un accident, mais comme nous n’allons pas très vite, nous nous faisons juste des écorchures aux genoux et aux coudes. Pour les mains, nous portons des gants sans doigts. Ils ont ça, les pilotes de Formule 1. Nous avons aussi des vieux casques de motos. Il fait chaud là-dessous.

Je rentre chez moi en nage, calmé. Le méchant est sorti, je peux aller dîner sans agacer ma petite sœur.

C’est ma mère qui dit ça : il faut faire sortir le méchant. Je ne l’ai pas inventé. Ça veut dire qu’on a du méchant en nous. Tout le monde.

Je le fais sortir le plus que je peux. Par la bouche, en disant toutes les choses qui me passent par la tête. Par les mains, en poussant du monde dans les ronces, par exemple. Par les pieds, en donnant des coups dans les tibias de ma petite sœur sous la table. Par les yeux, en lançant des regards bizarres à plein de gens. C’est tout ce que je sais faire pour l’instant.

Le méchant sort, mais j’en ai encore dedans, c’est ça qui est bizarre. Il se reconstitue.

Ce n’est pas toujours facile, surtout avec les adultes. Ils ont vite fait de vous donner une claque si vous les embêtez. Je commence à mieux m’y prendre avec eux. Je les surprends en faisant des choses qu’ils n’attendent pas. Je leur lance des œufs sur la tête, par exemple. Ça les énerve beaucoup. Ils ont du blanc et du jaune plein les cheveux. Ça dégouline sur leur col de chemise, dans leur cou. Ils sont furieux.

Je m’arrange pour qu’ils ne me voient pas. Je les bombarde depuis l’arbre qui monte au-dessus du poteau de l’arrêt d’autobus. Aussitôt que j’ai atteint quelqu’un, je saute par terre et je pars en courant. Je cours plus vite que tous mes copains. Je suis le meilleur en sprint à l’école.

Des fois, ceux que j’ai touchés me poursuivent en criant. Des fois, même pas.

Il faut aussi s’entraîner au tir. Je lance des cailloux de la taille d’un œuf sur une boîte de conserve dans la voie David. Je commence à être très adroit.

Le plus dur, c’est de voler des œufs sans se faire attraper. Au début, je les prenais à la maison, mais ma mère a commencé à s’en rendre compte. Maintenant, je les vole dans le frigo des parents de mes copains. Un œuf par ci, un œuf par là, ça ne se remarque pas. Je dois juste faire attention à ne pas en casser un dans ma poche.

Ça m’est déjà arrivé.

Ma mère m’a demandé ce que j’avais fait, et j’ai répondu que c’était François qui m’avait fait une blague pour se venger du buisson de ronces. Elle a trouvé ça bête, mais elle n’a pas eu envie d’aller crier après la mère de François. Pour un œuf, ça ne vaut pas le coup de se déplacer, même si un œuf, c’est de l’argent. Et chez nous, on n’a pas beaucoup d’argent.

Mon père est mort dans un accident de chantier. Il est tombé d’un échafaudage en recouvrant une maison de crépi. Il était maçon. C’est chouette comme métier, maçon. La bonne nouvelle, a dit son patron à ma mère, c’est que mon père n’a pas souffert. Il est tombé sur la tête et PAF ! Mort.

C’est arrivé il y a quelques mois, alors je me rappelle bien de lui, mais des fois, je l’oublie un peu.

Ma mère, elle travaille. Elle n’a pas le choix, comme elle dit. Elle fait des réunions Tupperware pour vendre des boîtes en plastique à d’autres dames. Elle en a une valise pleine. Elle dit qu’elles sont incassables, pas comme les œufs. Elle les laisse tomber par terre pour prouver que c’est vrai. Les dames trouvent ça drôle et elles lui achètent plein de boîtes vides avec leurs couvercles. Il paraît que c’est la meilleure vendeuse de la région, mais nous sommes quand même très pauvres. Je me demande comment font celles qui ne vendent pas autant de boîtes que ma mère. Elles doivent avoir encore un mari vivant.

Mes copains non plus ne sont pas riches. Personne ne l’est.

Si leurs mères apprennent que je jette leurs œufs par les fenêtres, je vais me faire disputer.

Mais c’est plus fort que moi.

Ma mère trouve que j’ai beaucoup d’imagination, surtout pour les mauvais coups. Mais souvent ce n’est même pas moi qui les invente. Je fais des trucs que j’ai entendus, des trucs que tout le monde fait.

Par exemple, je coince une épine d’acacia entre mes doigts. On ne la voit pas. Puis je serre la main de mes copains. Ça leur fait mal. Ils crient, retirent leur main, et moi je rigole. C’est juste une petite piqûre de rien du tout, pour rire.

Je sais bien que la méchanceté va continuer. Si je pique Philippe, il va piquer Jean-Marc, qui va piquer Stéphanie, qui piquera François. Ça s’arrêtera là, parce que François n’osera jamais me piquer. Il sait de quoi je suis capable. J’aime ça, savoir que je lui fais un petit peu peur.

Une autre qui me dérange, c’est ma sœur. Elle m’aime tout le temps, même si je ne suis pas gentil avec elle. Elle me regarde avec des yeux de biche, elle ne comprend pas pourquoi je suis méchant avec elle. Comme quand j’attache les lacets de ses chaussures sous la table, et qu’elle tombe en voulant marcher.

C’est ça que j’aime le plus, quand ça me fait rire.

Quand on est juste gentil, on ne peut pas rire autant. Si je cache un caillou dans une boule de neige que je lance à Jean-Marc, il va être surpris, et sa tête en sang fera rire tout le monde. Il aura un peu mal, bon, mais pas vraiment. Et pendant ce temps-là, les autres et moi, nous rirons comme des baleines.

Surtout moi, je sais.

Ma mère dit que je ne suis pas toujours drôle.

Les parents, ils ne rient pas des mêmes blagues que les enfants. Ils disent des choses entre eux et ils nous bouchent les oreilles et ils pouffent. On entend quand même. On dirait qu’ils ont honte de rire. Moi, je ne me cache pas, je n’ai pas honte. Je ris si c’est drôle, c’est tout.

Tout le monde n’est pas drôle, c’est vrai. Moi, oui. Stéphanie rit quand je raconte une blague. Je sais ce qui la fait rire et j’aime voir ses dents. Je n’ai jamais été méchant avec elle. C’est comme ça, allez savoir pourquoi. Stéphanie, elle a une tête de plus que moi. Si elle voulait, elle pourrait me donner des coups de poing très forts. Mais elle est trop gentille pour ça.

Je ne lui fais pas mal, pas parce que j’ai peur qu’elle m’assomme, mais par principe. On ne frappe pas les filles, c’est comme ça.

Même si des fois on en aurait envie.

Il y a plein de filles à l’école qui m’énervent beaucoup, mais je ne les touche jamais.

Ce que j’aime le plus, c’est quand je trouve une nouvelle idée. Je suis excité comme une puce. Je veux essayer mon tour le plus vite possible.

Comme dévisser la chaise du professeur pendant son absence.

La dernière fois que j’ai fait ça, monsieur Laporte, qui nous enseigne la musique le mardi matin, est tombé de l’estrade sur le plancher, et son front a frappé le pupitre de Jean-Marc. Jean-Marc est au premier rang en classe, sinon il parle tout le temps avec ses voisins.

Monsieur Laporte a eu très mal. Ça se voyait. Il a crié des grossièretés en me regardant, comme s’il n’y avait que moi qui pouvais être le coupable. Il était super impressionnant, avec du sang qui lui coulait au milieu du visage, un peu comme Dracula. Je ne riais pas avec ma bouche, mais en silence dans ma tête.

Le directeur est venu dans notre classe. Il a demandé qui avait fait ça. Tout le monde m’a regardé. J’ai dit que je ne le referais plus.

Personne ne m’a cru. J’ai été renvoyé de l’école pendant deux jours. C’est une très grosse punition dans notre école.

Ce midi-là, Jean-Marc, Philippe et moi, nous avons beaucoup ri. Ça aussi, c’est un truc que j’ai remarqué : on peut rire plusieurs fois du même tour, juste en le racontant encore. On peut même rire de plus en plus fort.

Jean-Marc a expliqué qu’il y avait du sang de monsieur Laporte sur sa trousse à crayons. Un peu dégoûtant, mais marrant.

L’après-midi, ma mère n’était pas à la maison à cause des Tupperwares. Je m’ennuyais pendant que les autres étaient à l’école. Moi j’étais puni chez moi.

On ne peut pas faire une course de karts quand on est seul. Ni pousser un copain dans les ronces.

Je ne peux quand même pas me taper dessus pour faire passer le temps.

À force de m’ennuyer, je cherche de nouvelles idées.

— André Marois

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Né le 21 mars 1959 à Créteil (France), André Marois étudie deux mois en arts plastiques et cinéma à l’université Paris VIII, puis deux ans par correspondance pour obtenir le brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS) en publicité, en 1981. Il effectue ensuite son service militaire comme dessinateur chez les pompiers de Paris, puis démarre une carrière de concepteur-rédacteur publicitaire en 1982, dans diverses agences parisiennes. Il émigre à Montréal en 1992 avec ses deux enfants, pour travailler comme publicitaire pigiste jusqu’en 2006. Il y habite toujours, en plein cœur du Plateau-Mont-Royal.

Depuis 1999, il publie des romans noirs pour les adultes, des romans policiers et de science-fiction pour les enfants et les adolescents, ainsi que des nouvelles pour tirer sur tout ce qui bouge. En 2013, son roman Les Voleurs de mémoire a gagné le Prix jeunesse des Libraires du Québec. Depuis, 2006, il donne des ateliers / conférences auprès d’étudiants de primaires, secondaires, cégeps et universitaires sur l’écriture, le polar, la nouvelle noire : Edmundston, Gatineau, Montréal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, UQAM, Bordeaux (France), Sudbury, Gatineau, Québec, Toronto, Windsor, and Calgary. Depuis 2010, il est chargé de cours à l’Université de Sherbrooke : créativité et rédaction.[1]

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Bibliographie
    Romans
    201310 ans, pas méchant, Éd. la courte échelle
    2013La Fonction, Éd. la courte échelle
    2010 9 ans, pas peur, Éd. La courte échelle
    2010 Sa propre mort, Éd. La courte échelle
    2008 Passeport pathogène, Éd. Héliotrope
    2003 – Les effets sont secondaires, Éd. la courte échelle (Édition de poche 2006)
    2000 – Tête de pioche, Éd. Les Allusifs
    1999 – Accidents de parcours, Éd. la courte échelle (Édition de poche 2006)

    Recueils de nouvelles
    2013 Santé !, Éd. L’Atelier Mosécu, France (coauteur)
    2012 Printemps spécial, Éd. Héliotrope (coauteur)
    2011 Petit Feu, Éd. La courte échelle
    2010 Tab’Arnaques, Éd. Québec Amérique (coauteur avec Luc Baranger)
    2008 M.O. Crimes of Practice (Crime Writers’ Association Anthology), Comma Press, UK (coauteur)
    2006 – Du cyan plein les mains, Éd. la courte échelle (Édition de poche 2006)
    2005 Boucs émissaires, Éd. Les 400 coups (coauteur)
    2001 – 38 morts dont 9 femmes, Éd. Trait dʼunion
    1998 Circonstances particulières, Éd. L’instant même (coauteur)

    Romans et albums jeunesse
    2013 – Petit Pat tome 1 : Tout le monde dehors !, Éd. la courte échelle
    2013 – Les voleurs de mémoire, Éd. la courte échelle
    2012 – La Forêt des insoumis, Éd. Boréal
    2011 – En mai, fais ce qu’il te plait, Éd. Boréal
    2010 – Mesures de guerre, Éd. Boréal
    2010 J’aime pas les mascottes, Éd. Les 400 coups
    2008-09 – Les Allergiks, feuilleton en 13 épisodes, Éd. la courte échelle
    2008 Papy, où t’as mis tes dents ? Éd. Les 400 coups
    2006 – La main dans le sac, Éd. la courte échelle
    2006 – Au feu!, Éd. la courte échelle
    2005 – Vol à l’étalage, Éd. la courte échelle
    2004 – Avis de recherche, Éd. la courte échelle
    2002 – Meurtre à l’écluse 50, Éd. la courte échelle
    2001 – Les voleurs d’espoir, Éd. la courte échelle + réédition en janvier 2013
    2000 – Blanc comme la mort, Éd. Boréal
    2000 – Tueurs en 4×4, Éd. Albin Michel (France)
    (trad.allemand, Mürder im Geländewagen, Éd. RoRoRo)
    1999 – Un ami qui te veut du mal, Éd. Boréal
    1999 – Le Chat botté à New York, Éd. Les 400 coups
    1999 – Riquet à la Houppe, Éd. Les 400 coups

    Prix et mentions

    – Les Voleurs de mémoire, Prix jeunesse des libraires du Québec, 12-17 ans, 2013
    – Mesures de guerre, finaliste au Prix jeunesse des libraires du Québec, 9-11 ans, 2011
    Sa propre mort, finaliste au Prix Saint-Pacôme du roman policier 2010
    – Les effets sont secondaires, finaliste au Prix Saint-Pacôme du roman policier et au Prix Arthur-Ellis Crime Writers of Canada en 2003
    Mon œil, Grand prix des Magazines du Québec, catégorie Chronique d’humeur, 2008 et 2010
    Petit feu, 2e prix au concours des prix Littéraires Radio-Canada, catégorie ouvelles, Montréal, 2006.
    – Le tueur autodidacte, gagnante du concours de nouvelles policières de Ligny, Belgique, 1999.
    Belle mort, gagnante du concours de nouvelles de la revue Stop, Montréal, 1995.
    Dialogue de sourds, gagnante du concours de nouvelles de la revue Nouvelles Fraîches, Montréal, 1994.
    – Van Gogh a encore frappé, gagnante du concours de nouvelles policières du journal Voir, Montréal, 1993.

Nov 082013
 

Rik NelsonRik Nelson

Almost every night my husband brings me home a fish. It’s been our ritual for a decade. A kind of seal on the day’s end. With the presentation of a fish, the workday endeth. Each fish gets a number on its back. Last night’s fish was #1362. That’s the total completed so far. Usually Rik’s fish are of the bright and colorful variety—made from repurposed materials like cookie tins and bottlecaps. They hang cheerfully, as these do, in various galleries and museum shops (e.g. The American Folk Art Museum shop) around the U.S.

In a spirit similar to that of Neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns’ variations of flags, targets, and maps of the U.S., Rik uses the fish to play traditional fine art/folk art expectations against consumer culture, setting up a natural/man-made dialectic from “trash.” After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Rik began work on a new group of sad-but-also-beautiful fish he calls CRUDE (The Oil Spill Series).

Nance Van Winckel

For us in the Inland Northwest, oil spills are tragic, yet distant catastrophes (even the Valdez spill in Alaska). It’s one thing for it to happen There and to empathize, but what if it happened Here? To our own waterways, beaches, flora, fauna, and economy? Translate such a catastrophe to our local fish, right in our own front yard. Might that be more of an eye-opener, have more impact on awareness and influence consumer practices? Don’t know, but I resolved to try to find out by taking my repertoire of fish forms and mutating them into a “school” of deconstructed/reconstructed oil-spill-despoiled flotsam. This effort has pushed my bas-relief fish forms to more sculptural representations. I’m continuing to expand this body of work until I have enough to offer it up for a show, a show entitled Crude.

—Rik Nelson

1080-1090-1110-comboBrown Trout Triumvirate

910-smallfrySmall Fry

King Salmon -1King Salmon

Smallfry Mashup-croppedSmall Fry Mashup

950-walleyeWalleye

Small Chinook in FlamesSmall Chinook in Flames

Rainbow TroutRainbow Trout

Rainbow and SmallfryRainbow Trout and Small Fry

930-bulltroutBull Trout

960-MonPetiteMon Petite

970-largemouthLargemouth Bass

920-redbulltroutRedbull Trout

990-KissinCousinsKissin’ Cousins

—Rik Nelson

—————————————

Rik Nelson Rik Nelson makes art out of cast-off consumer objects, recycled remnants and cultural detritus, and the art reanimates the natural world threatened by the very detritus he mines for his work. His work is shown and sold at: the Crow Valley Gallery, Orcas Island, WA; the Ohio Craft Museum, Columbus, OH; the New Morning Gallery, Asheville, NC; and the American Folk Art Musuem, New York, NY. As you can tell from the introduction, he is married to NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel.

Nov 072013
 

Victoria Redel

Just a taste: the opening lines of Victoria Redel’s short story, “On Earth,” from her new collection Make Me Do Things. Of this story, our reviewer,  Richard Farrell writes:

The first sentence of “On Earth” certainly works: “‘What if we were the last ones on Earth?’ her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.” In this twenty-five page story, Redel teases out themes of family, marriage, evolution, infidelity and obsessions. The daughter, Ella, is a seven-year-old girl preoccupied with dinosaurs. Sasha worries that dinosaurs are a “boy thing.” Then, on the second page, the story swerves, destabilizing expectations and opening up fresh possibilities.

And on the collection as a whole:

It’s impossible to nail down Redel’s style. Each of these eleven stories is uniquely crafted, perhaps because she approaches them with a protean lens, focusing attention down on the particular details of narrative and syntax, so that the result is clarity of intention and meaning. As a writer, she is willing to let her images guide her, willing to follow her sentences and characters into whatever strange and twisted paths they seem destined to trod.

 

“What if we were the last ones on Earth?” her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.

“That’s not a bedtime question, buckaroo,” Sasha said, leaning to press her lips against her daughter’s cheek. Ella’s cheek in the dark seemed softer than at any other time of day, the skin almondy from bath soap.

“But what about the dinosaurs?” Ella said, holding Sasha’s arm. Dinosaurs were the new craze. Before, it had been fairies. She’d begged Sasha for the yellow wings they’d seen in the store. Then mermaids. Now it was everything Tyrannosaurus Rex. Everything Pterodactyl. Sasha was not prepared for her daughter’s obsession with dinosaurs. Wasn’t that a boy thing? Dump trucks, superheros, dinosaurs—what the morning coffee group called basic male destiny.

What was it with men and their end-of-the-world questions?

This afternoon, the lover had moved Sasha over to the window. “Look out there,” he’d said, positioning her against the sill as he pressed into her. “We’re all that’s left.”

“Ella, dinosaurs were hardly the last ones.” Sasha kept her voice easy and matter-of-fact. “There are new species evolving on Earth all the time.” That sounded right; she was pretty certain that it was right. But if it got down to particulars, Sasha couldn’t whip out the name of a newly discovered Amazonian insect or hybrid amphibian. Always risky to give new information before sleep. A comment like that could keep Ella up asking questions, calling Sasha back and back and back into the room. Best she could do then was angle for a morning research project. Better yet, by morning her daughter would be on to a new obsession.

“But what about the very last dinosaurs? Did the very, very last know they were the last?”

“Roll over, my beauty,” Sasha said.

Ella squiggled onto her stomach and Sasha worked her hand in small circles, the nightgown’s thin cotton bunching and slipping as she moved down the delicate ridge of her daughter’s spine. Sasha closed her eyes and worked to keep her breath and her hand slow, as if leading Ella to sleep by example.

“Did they?” Ella’s voice pushed up. There again, that urgent, worried thread. Not just a fear of extinction, but the sorrow of the final one, the one that endures and knows it is the very end.

Sasha worked two slow breaths, holding back from giving a response.

“I don’t know about the very last,” Sasha said when Ella asked again. “But I promise we’re good here for a while.” . . .

— Victoria Redel

Nov 072013
 

redel photo Ettlinger

Victoria Redel

Make Me Do Things
Victoria Redel
Four Way Books
227 pages; $17.95

Whether examining divorce, infidelity, shaved genitalia or historical re-enactors who forget they’re acting, Victoria Redel’s prose tramples fiercely over safe and familiar conventions. Zany, powerful, and at times downright heartbreaking, her raw and luminous characters set out from territories that, at first glance, seem anything but exotic. And yet when they arrive, their destinations (and destinies) are always sublime.

A poet as well as a fiction writer, Redel has just released a new story collection, Make Me Do Things, with Four Way Books. This marks her seventh book; she has three previous books of poetry and three of fiction. And though her language and imagery are always sharp and rich, there’s a tidiness about her prose, a self-contained urgency, that makes each of the eleven stories in this collection taut and trenchant. It’s not surprising that Redel studied with Gordon Lish, or that Lish published her first book. In an interview, she credits Lish with “the belief is that the story works from the first sentence on, and if it doesn’t, then you fix the first sentence and go back.”

The first sentence of “On Earth” certainly works: “‘What if we were the last ones on Earth?’ her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.” In this twenty-five page story, Redel teases out themes of family, marriage, evolution, infidelity and obsessions. The daughter, Ella, is a seven-year-old girl preoccupied with dinosaurs. Sasha worries that dinosaurs are a “boy thing.” Then, on the second page, the story swerves, destabilizing expectations and opening up fresh possibilities.

This afternoon, the lover had moved Sasha over to the window. ‘Look out there,’ he’d said, positioning her against the sill as he pressed into her. ‘We’re all that’s left.’

Notice the parallels between the daughter’s question and the lover’s remark. Note the physical space of the two scenes—both set in bedrooms, Sasha twice poised on a bed but for very different purposes. Juxtaposed as they are, the scenes render an almost diabolical rhythm to the story. And yet Sasha still loves her husband. A connubial bliss somehow survives. After having passionate sex with her husband, she thinks, “if she told the women in the Muffin about the lover, they would be surprised most of all that she had no complaint about her husband.”

Later in the story, when Sasha discovers that her morose lover is secretly obsessed with her daughter, she is faced with an extinction of her own. The scrim standing between fantasy and reality becomes suddenly much thinner than she imagined:

Heat coughed from the pipes. The room was broiling. What instinct gone kerflooey would put so much at risk? He was making survival kits, three of them. ‘Come with me, my love’ he’d said. She was wrong; she hadn’t stepped into unexpected weather. She was her own catastrophe. Her own bolide collision. No, there were catastrophes much larger—unseen shifts to the system—she hadn’t considered. Extinction. The underlying cause, the failure to adapt to changing conditions.

All the elements of this story—the obsession with dinosaurs, the passion, the infidelity, the presumptions of reality, the premise of extinction—resonate throughout the text in wonderfully intricate patterns.

Again and again, Redel plays for the highest stakes, and she delivers with remarkably clever stories that haunt us long after the final words are sounded. In “The Third Cycle,” two seemingly innocuous albeit infertile women are sitting at a café having lunch. They decide to assume new identities:

‘I could use being someone else today,’ says one of the women.
‘You? Call me Polly and I’ve got to be happier than who I am,’ the other woman says, squeezing at her arm.
‘Polly? Right. That’s perfect. You’re Perky Polly and I’ll be a Susie,’ says the new Susie.

They order fresh, viable eggs for lunch. “‘Eggs! Eggs! More eggs!’ they shriek. ‘Lots and lots of them!’ And both of them are laughing now, unladylike, practically snorting water right at the waiter.” The set up is rather breezy, with humor and a curious energy. Like Lorrie Moore, Redel blends humor and sadness seamlessly, each hinted at in the characters’ refusal to say the word ‘baby.’ But Redel never particularizes this sadness. We don’t learn these characters’ histories, and the residual gaps work to set up expectations.

Then the Blue Woman, pushing a pram, sits down next to them, and things suddenly go off kilter. Polly and Susie offer to hold the Blue Woman’s crying baby and the two friends transform into, well, witches of a sort.

Redel is summoning Angela Carter here, and retelling a Slavic folktale, “Baby Yaga,” in feverishly inventive ways. When the Blue Woman asks for her baby back, Polly and Susie refuse to relinquish the infant. There’s mounting evidence that these two women have the darkest intentions: “The baby is plump, with full, plum cheeks. ‘Is this delicious or what?’ Susie says, leaning over the baby, making smoochy nibble kisses.” We refuse to believe that these women are about to actually eat the baby, but it certainly looms as a possibility. A storm ensues, a maelstrom of biblical proportions, replete with torrents of frogs and plagues of vermin. “Of course, slaying of the firstborn has been, if not mentioned, already considered.”

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Redel’s fiction is how masterfully compelling her twists turn out to be. What began as a relatively simple opening—resting on assumptions of maternity, infertility, wish fulfillment—turns dark, intriguing and utterly unexpected.

It’s impossible to nail down Redel’s style. Each of these eleven stories is uniquely crafted, perhaps because she approaches them with a protean lens, focusing attention down on the particular details of narrative and syntax, so that the result is clarity of intention and meaning. As a writer, she is willing to let her images guide her, willing to follow her sentences and characters into whatever strange and twisted paths they seem destined to trod.

In the final story, “Ahoy,” a husband and wife, after selling an internet startup company for a fortune, move to an island for a year. Their idyllic plans and their marriage quickly begin to unravel, primarily due to the husband’s incessant partying and budding cocaine habit. Then, Olivia takes a job at the Hardwick House, a historical home where she plays the part of a sea captain’s wife. She becomes pregnant, and for all intents and purposes, starts living in the nineteenth century.

This story is rich with dreamy details, conjuring up John Fowle’s novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which actually takes on a prominent role in the story. Like the novel, the murky line between reality is driven to a desperate, dramatic convulsion. The husband even begins to assume the role of Captain Hardwick.

This, the end of my story: like me, it’s wobbly, more often than not unable to walk a straight line. I have been away, at sea, adrift. I wish I came home bearing exotic gifts, tales of the South Seas and perils of rounding angry Cape Horn, but I never left port.

Like Redel’s narrator, we journey through this book as Redel builds a geography of textured prose that emerges from her lush and prolific imagination. Endowed with an amazing gift of wit and wisdom, she offers variations on themes and reconfigures the richness of life, story and memory. Her words rush out from familiar shores toward the unsettled shoals of ontology. Her characters are wonderfully and arrestingly broken, seekers in the best sense of the word. Innocence coexists alongside wisdom, hope alongside despair, love alongside lust. Somewhere in these stormy seas, Redel navigates us through these vivid and irresistible stories, and we, the beneficiaries of her work, never have to leave port.

 

—Richard Farrell

farrell

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.

 

Nov 062013
 

Jordan Smith 1

John Clare was a farm worker’s son, a contemporary of Keats, and, sometimes, a madman who thought he was Shakespeare and Byron. “I’m John Clare now,” he wrote. In one of his most famous poems, “I Am,” he penned the lines:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

In the July issue we published Jeanette Lynes’ wonderful selection “From School of Flowers: The John Clare Poems.” Jordan Smith read those poems and almost immediately sent me some of his John Clare poems, written long before but aching to be part of the conversation. This delights me because I do have the persistent idea that NC is a community, a group of readers and writers talking to each other, not just numbly glancing and racing to the SUBMIT page. NC writers inspire each other and are inspired by the same things. I also really enjoy seeing two poets dealing with the same material (more or less), a practice that throws their styles and personalities into a bold relief. Read Jeanette’s poems and Jordan’s poems side by side and you will read them both better, find their individual felicities in difference.

When he sent me his poems, Jordan wrote: “I read the set of John Clare poems right away, with the complicated pleasure that the warps and threads and vines and dead ends of Clare’s life and work offer. I’ve thought about him a lot in the last several years, and spent a good part of a sabbatical in 2010-11 writing a book-length sequence about him. Jeannette Lynes’s poems are quite different than what I was up to, but I can see we were caught in the same gravity of that sweet, sad, class struggle of a life.”

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John Clare via WikipediaJohn Clare

John Clare, His Early Poems

He wrote on scraps of paper his mother craved
For her own purposes, tedious, domestic,
Practical. He hid his drafts away;
Practice in penmanship or arithmetic,
He’d lie straight-faced if any such were found.
He spoke one once. He claimed it.  The room went round

With laughter. Later, he found a stratagem
That suited his desire be heard
Unmocked. He’d read his poems and say he’d found them
In an almanac. Then they thought them fine,
Though as he grew more deft, more sure in verse,
He found he liked best those that they thought worst.

And yet they cared and prayed. His mother talked
Of service, her highest hope for him, in livery
To a lord. He nodded as a horse will, balked
and bridled, pawed and stood his ground, quivered,
Feigned stupidity. Feckless and disheveled
He wrote to tell the truth and shame the devil.

 

Clare Absconditus

Under an ivied oak in Oxey Wood
He twisted young vines into a bower
And hid there and found it good,
Cramped, and private. So the hours
Flee in idleness and rhyme.
Both shamed him, He knew that time

Loves the industrious and labor’s
The first cause of God and his first
Rebuke. Play Adam’s sin with tabors,
Pipe Eve’s as well; no sin is worst.
And yet see what has come of it:
Fields, towns, the unfit ruled by the fit.

He knows all this. He hates it. Briars
Are better friends to man, and God
Is not our friend when not a liar,
Governing with a wink and a nod.
The men who felled the tree thought witches
Hid there. Good guess, you sons of bitches.

 

John Clare at School with the Gypsies

Were it not for dread of winter cold,
He might have gone with them, whose talk
Was horses, lasses, dogs, who were less bold
Than rumor claimed and cannier, who balked
When questioned closely about God, or why
Their men had a crooked finger (sly,

They broke them to avoid the king’s levy
Of soldiers that would not claim a crippled man).
Their thefts were petty, their arts were mummery–
Beguiling, fortune telling. They could mend pans,
But not their slandered, squalid reputations.
One reverend judge suggested extirpation,

Hardly needed once the groves were cut,
The fields fenced, paths gated, commons turned
To private profit. They dwindle now like June
Flowers in a storm or ash trees burned to ash.
He should have gone too. His sadness was a riddle
They might have answered. They taught him how to fiddle.

 

Thoreau’s Flute, Clare’s Fiddle

Thoreau’s flute was made in Albany
By Firth & Pond, given by his father
With a family book of tunes; an Irishman’s
Shanty supplied Walden’s planks, his mother
His laundry. Don’t scoff. He knew what he was about.
Pure New England. Make do, or do without,

As writers do, though making do means taking
Some small advantage of another’s work
To do your own, and better that than waking
To make pencils, teach a day school, fork
Manure, survey a lot, herd the cattle, bend
And scrape to scrape by, and defend

A little leisure anyway you might.
Take up your flute, your fiddle, and you’ll find
No one asks you why, no one slights
A good tune. Even the halt and blind
Harper might find a place at the lord’s right
Hand, the cramped, closed hand, the one that writes.

 

Clare’s Library

Included Thompson’s Seasons, Ward’s Mathematics,
Fisher’s Young Man’s Companion, Robin Hood’s
Garland, pamphlets and sermons, Joe Miller’s antic
Jests cheek by jowl with Death of Abel, the good
And bad alike brought home at no small cost.
A Shatterd Copy of Milton’s Paradise lost…”

His mother gave him a small locked wooden chest
To save his coins for clothes in. Leave off writing,
Buy no more books, she said, meaning the best.
He knew she did. He had no thought of quitting.
He rhymed in secret, furious, a kind of theft,
Locking the drafts away inside her gift.

What else could Milton teach him? Mankind plunges
Into labor, an angel guards the garden.
We study to get back, nothing expunges
Our desire to know. We scribble in the margins
Of any texts. n.b, q.v, inter alia,
Ad infinitum, our gloss, our glossolalia,

 

But Everywhere He Is In Chains

The ego is a chain. The chain
Connects the trap and stake. The stake
Is class, an accident maintained
By some as virtue; the trap’s the stake
By other means, sharpened teeth, weight
Of bite, sprung jaws. The ego’s bait–

How’s that, you say, stake, trap, and bait?
Imagine you stood by the road.
A distant horse. Dust. You think your fate’s
A calloused palm’s line. Hoofbeats. Goaded
(he’s used his whip) you start to sing
An old ballad, made new each spring.

A gypsy lures the lord’s wife out;
She forgets herself in the song he sang,
Rolls in his arms. (She’s in yours now,
Joyous.) They’re caught. The gypsy hangs.
He canters up. You doff your hat.
Good song, lad.
……………………….M’lord. (I’ll rewrite that.)

 

Genesis, Reconsidered in Light of the Enclosure Acts

The Great Rift, where all time began
In endings, scavengings, some ape
With thought, thought’s ape, leading his clan
Through thought’s default, jaws’ agape,
And wonder at, yes, flower, flock,
And pelt, as earth, unseemly, quaked

And humped, plate sliding under plate.
It strikes Clare that the world can be
So lovely only when unconstrained,
That God’s hand in the willow’s leaves
Must wither when enclosure comes,
His voice among the reeds go dumb.

That Pan should die, and panic not
Seems mystery enough.  The grip
Of property’s another, and the lot
Of all the wretched, pox and grippe,
And scarcest of all, happiness,
That sweet disorder, undone, blessed.

 

The Poverty of the Imagination

Is nothing to it. The poverty of spirit’s
Mere fiction, noble or otherwise
Ill-intended; the poverty inherent
In inheritance (the will’s demise)
Is but circumstance; the poverty
Of scholarship’s self-fashioned penury–

Compared, I mean with this morning’s mourning-
Grey sky, a hospital hallway, windowless
Whose inmates mutter, scoff, and scorning
Reason as the king’s gang scorns the impressed
Sailor. Let’s join them in that suite
Of endless rooms, that hell whose only heat’s

The mind’s fevers, flaring like the sun ,
And each room similar as snowflakes,
But maddeningly, meltingly its own
Design. Left to these, how they ache;
And hunger’s nothing to it,nor an ear,
Throbbing, bursting with what it alone can hear.

/

Clare’s Badger and the Arrest of Big Bill Haywood, Denver 1904

Pull it, you son of a bitch, pull it…”
Big Bill, bulky, blind in one eye,
Down at the Denver depot, decked
Capt. Williams, faced down the carbines,
You damn bastards, was hauled by the neck,
Pistol whipped in the hall of the Oxford Hotel—
As Marlowe said, we all know hell:

It is the baiting of such fierce nobilities,
Clare’s badger harried from his sett
For dogs to worry; it is equality
Redrawn as suffering and the yet
Undisproven axiom that the rich
Deserve their riches. Son of a bitch.

They used a cuspidor to catch
His blood (they get a forked stick
To bear him down) after they pitched
Him headlong down the stairs (till kicked
And torn and beaten there he lies).
He did his best. He didn’t die.

 

An Economy of Poetry
………………..— for Hunter Brown

Poetry is necessary
Only to those who find it so,
That is to say, unnecessary
To whatever makes the world go:
A mill’s shuttle, the back and forth
Of industry walking over the earth,

Each step a thread, the weft, the cross-
Hatched fence through the warp of property,
A world ill-divided, lost,
As Adam Smith said labor must be
In details, infinite, repeated,
Efficient, skilled, or not, depleted.

Imagine a poet and the few
And fit readers in a public house
A small fire, small beer, the news
Is war, ventures; the talk is loose
As capital, but talk is cheaper.
And poetry cuts its losses deeper.

 

Clare’s List, Like Orwell’s

So we must imagine Orwell lying in his sanatorium bed,
                gaunt and wretched, going through his notebook…wondering….
                which of the 135 names to pass on to Celia.
……………………………………………………………………………— Timothy Garton Ash

A notebook full of unnoted treasons
Of the cloaked and waspish enemies
Of language, which is to say, of freedom;
Nettles; among the anemones,
A serpent’s sibilants. So he names
Names. Wouldn’t you do the same:

The carpers, the false friends who claimed
He did not write his verses, wastrel
Publishers and  patrons and the damned
Mutability of public taste,
Those who’d write in fealty
To tyranny, authority.

He is no saint, and they would try
A saint’s patience, much less a wrecked,
Sick man who, before he dies
Would like to think words have effects,
Even his, and so he hands his muse
These private notes, for her public use.

§

These poems are a fantasia on the life and work of John Clare, and make no claim to accuracy. For whatever fidelity to the facts they possess, the author is indebted to Jonathan Bates’ John Clare: a Biography and to David Powell and Eric Robertson, the editors of the remarkable John Clare – By Himself. The epigraph to “Clare Finds a Watch Upon the Heath” is from William Paley’s Natural Theology. J. Anthony Lukas’s Big Trouble provided the epigraph to “Clare’s Badger and the Arrest of Big Bill Haywood, Denver, 1904.” Background information and the epigraph to “Clare’s List, Like Orwell’s” are from Timothy Garton Ash’s essay, “Orwell’s List,” in Facts Are Subversive.

—Jordan Smith

 ———————————————————-

Jordan Smith’s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” is in  Big Fiction # 2, and Clare’s Empire, his book-length sequence of poems after the life and work of John Clare will be published in a digital edition by The Hydroelectric Press. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

Nov 042013
 

daffodil

The other day Pat  Keane dashed off 10,000 words on Wordsworth’s daffodils and sent them to me wondering if I might want them for Numéro Cinq. He starts off with a detour through the mine field of contemporary American literary criticism, the still fresh battles fought between the proponents of intrinsic criticism and extrinsic criticism, the New Critics who value “close reading” and the contextual critics who bring in tradition, influence, history, biography and sometimes psychoanalysis to help explain a poem. Helen Vendler’s analysis of the Wordsworth poem stands as an example of the former and after giving it fair due, Pat launches into what he whimsically calls “a few contextual elements” — those, um, 10,000 words more or less, starting with Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entry (see facsimile page below) on the day she and her brother saw the daffodils and ending with Immanuel Kant’s immortal line about the starry heavens and the moral law. This is a gorgeous essay on criticism, on the provenance of a poem, and on Wordsworth (and his sister) — also a wonderful re-visioning of a poem that sometimes is difficult to see because it has, yes, become oh so familiar.
dg
As my doubly plural title indicates, I’ll be wandering beyond the received text of one of the most familiar poems in the literary canon, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”—Wordsworth’s best-known poem, though demoted by some to “that damned thing about daffodils.” Since its initial publication, in 1807, the poem has been parodied and admired, despised and exalted. Today, though it can still produce an occasional groan, it is generally ranked among Wordsworth’s small triumphs, one of his self-described “simple songs for thinking hearts.” That simplicity is complicated by the fact that, while we rightly consider it one of Wordsworth’s “signature” poems, it bears the signature of more than one Wordsworth; indeed, of more than two. Yet it remains quintessentially “Wordsworthian,” both intrinsically and thematically. For “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” gives us, writ small, the theme—“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility”—of such indisputably major poems as “Tintern Abbey,” the opening Book of Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic, The Prelude, and the great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”[1]
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The mixed reception of the Daffodils poem is not an anomaly. Wordsworth’s road to recognition was a rocky one, and even after he had “arrived,” he was still subjected to withering criticism. No one who has read it can ever forget the opening of Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review reception of Wordsworth’s long-awaited epic poem, The Excursion. When it finally appeared, in 1814, Jeffrey famously dead-panned, “This will never do.” It’s hard for us to know whether to laugh or to cry; Wordsworth did neither. Seven years earlier, his friend and admirer, Margaret, Lady Beaumont, underestimating the “invincible confidence” of the poet, thought he would be distressed by the disparaging reception of Poems, in Two Volumes (1807). Responding, Wordsworth pronounced himself unperturbed by temporary attitudes. Quoting another friend well known to Lady Beaumont, he insisted that a “great and original” poet “must create the taste by which he is to be relished; he must teach the art by which he is to be seen.”[2] That was certainly the case with Wordsworth, who endured savage, often belittling criticism before he eventually triumphed, becoming the dominant poet of the 19th century, and, after a brief decline in the earlier twentieth century, reemerged in our own time as a monumental figure—widely, if not universally, considered the major poet to have written in English between Milton and Yeats.
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samuel

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The friend Wordsworth quoted to Lady Beaumont was, of course, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who inspired, and was inspired by, Wordsworth and who, as a critic, did more than any other single figure to advance the case for Wordsworth as a major poet. But he was also aware of “defects” in his friend’s poetry, and readers who continue to resist that “damned thing about daffodils” will be heartened to know that he, too, thought that whatever flashed “upon that inward eye,” it ought to have been something rather more momentous than a bunch of “daffodils,” which he italicized to emphasize the trivial nature of what was being “retrospected.” As we shall see, given what he considered the bathetic emphasis on mere daffodils, he judged what have become the most famous lines in the poem—“They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude”—to be an example of “mental…bombast.”[3] As we’ll also see, though Coleridge presumably didn’t know it, those two lines were actually not written by Wordsworth, at least not by William Wordsworth. But this takes us outside the autonomous, internal world of the poem, and I want to begin with an intrinsic reading.

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The Daffodils and Helen Vendler

helenvendler

Helen Vendler

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As it happens, the critic and teacher generally recognized as the most acute living exponent and practitioner of intrinsic criticism, Helen Vendler, writes at length about “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in the third edition of her superb text for college students, Poems, Poets, Poetry.[4] After a brief two-page analysis of Robert Herrick’s “Divination by a Daffodil,” she devotes the remaining pages of her 11th chapter, “Writing about Poems,” to Wordsworth’s daffodils poem. As an intrinsic critic, Helen Vendler preaches and practices close reading, or explication. For her, a poem is essentially an autonomous artifact, a work of art to be experienced in and of itself. And it is to be experienced, she says (323, 329-31) in two somewhat different but equally indispensable ways: temporally (unfolding itself in time, with a beginning, middle, and end) and spatially (viewed from a distance as a space full of elements set in relation to each other). Vendler is, of course, aware of authorial and historical contexts:  who the author is, when he or she wrote, and under what circumstances. But in examining and writing about a poem, she is primarily engaged by the interrelated elements within the particular text itself—its words, families of words, sentences, sounds (alliteration and assonance), rhyme and rhythm, etc.

As one can see from what she has to say about many of the poems in her book, not least “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” this focus on close reading is immensely illuminating. Praising “a good paper,” the sort she wants students to write, Vendler says such a paper “leaves your readers, when they come back to the poem, feeling ‘Oh, yes! And yes! Of course!’ It makes readers see aspects of the poem they may not have noticed themselves, in their more cursory reading of the poem, but now see clearly because you have showed them those things” (336). This is precisely Vendler’s own great gift. “Yes, of course; why didn’t I see that for myself?” so many of us have said over the years, responding to one or another of her brilliant close readings: explications which clarify almost everything. I said “almost everything” by design—as Browning’s Duke says in “My Last Duchess”—because, in her emphasis on the internal dynamics of the individual poem, Vendler omits most external factors. She’s perfectly aware of the contexts beyond the poem.  As she says herself of this particular poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”: it can “be set in larger frames,” for example, “among other Wordsworth poems,” or “among other Romantic poems,” or “among poems about memory; and so on” (336). As I’ve already suggested, I will be exploring, among others, precisely those “larger frames”; but, even then, there is much to be said in favor of close reading.

There was a time, prior to the advent of the modern pioneers of close reading, the so-called “New Critics” of the 1940s and ‘50s, when it was perfectly acceptable for college professors, supposedly discussing with their students such a poem as (to choose an example once cited by the critic Richard Fogle in demonstrating old critical shortcomings) Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” to say little or nothing about how the poem actually “worked.” Instead, they would lecture about the “occasion” of the poem (the tour made by Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy); about the intense personal and literary relationship between the Wordsworths and Coleridge; and about the political context in which the poem was written (the era of the French Revolution, of which Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially ardent enthusiasts). And then, as class-time was running out, the professor would conclude by saying something like: “as for the poem itself—ah, beautiful, is it not!” This was not good enough: indeed, it was just such cursory, or negligent, treatment of poems that gave rise to the New Critics.

It’s not that such contexts don’t matter. Indeed, they mattered to Wordsworth himself, who sometimes incorporated them into the poem, or at least its title. For example, he makes sure, toward the end of “Tintern Abbey,” that readers realize that his sister has been present all along, as a silent auditor (making the poem a kind of surprise dramatic monologue). In addition, his own long title —“Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour”—gives us the precise circumstances of the poem’s composition. And his inclusion of the date, “July 13, 1798,” one day short of Bastille Day, the anniversary of the outbreak nine years earlier, of the French Revolution, is intriguing since the poem itself says nothing about politics, an absence which is itself not without interest.  Unfortunately, too many historically-sophisticated critics, especially the so-called New Historicists, have so emphasized this “absence” or “political evasion” on the part of Wordsworth—what is “repressed” or “not said” in the poem—that they de-emphasize what is there, actually present in the poem. Reading through the prism of politics offers its own illuminations, but this re-swinging of the critical pendulum has ironically brought us back to the situation earlier addressed by the intrinsic critics who preceded Helen Vendler: the need to read a poem as a poem, and not as something else, either a political tract or a “message.” In The Prelude and elsewhere, Wordsworth can hardly be said to avoid politics. But a poet has the right to choose his own subject matter and theme; in “Tintern Abbey,” his focus is on his psychological-imaginative engagement with the landscape.[5]

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Vendler begins her discussion of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by printing the poem in its final version, accompanied by an imaginary student’s running commentary, noting the poem’s four-beat meter and ababcc rhyme scheme, and raising questions.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.   (WP 1:619-20)

Vendler’s hypothetical student, annotating the opening stanza, wonders why the “lonely” speaker is “like a cloud”; notices the natural scene of hills and valleys; and that “crowd,” generally used of people, here refers to flowers, as does “host,” usually describing “armies” (he or she omits “angels”); then remarks that the line “Beside the lake, beneath the trees,” offers a “closer focus than vales and hills.” The final line of the stanza prompts the student to ask how rooted flowers can be said to “dance”? With the second stanza’s “much further focus—up to the stars,” the student wonders about the “difference between shine and twinkle”; marks the expansion of never-ending and ten-thousand; notes that “saw becomes glance”; and that the dancing daffodils become people, tossing their heads. The waves of the third stanza are “like people too, dancing,” and the “flowers have feelings: glee.” The jocund company indicates that the speaker is “not alone anymore.” The crucial transition from saw to glance to gazed and gazed is noted, as is the glance back to golden in stanza 1 implicit in this stanza’s reference to wealth and show (itself a shift from company). Of the opening of the fourth and final stanza, For oft, the student notes, “past anecdote over, now present tense,” and follows that accurate observation with a flurry of marginal questions: “Difference between vacant and pensive? Flash; not dance or flutter or toss: why? Solitude: different from first lonely? Earlier, eye (outward and inward); now heart?” Finally, the student, observing “same rhyme-sound as in stanza 1,” has noticed at least the rhyme on daffodils in both the opening and closing stanzas.

Vendler then turns to the poem’s words, suggesting that students consult a dictionary to “check out etymologies and different connotations,” since poets have a “very specific sense of the aura around each word.” Her own search reveals words with roots in Old English (crowd, shine, twinkle, bliss), Middle English (glance, glee, gaze, flash), Latin (host, jocund, vacant, pensive, solitude), French (gay), and Greek, since daffodil itself derives from the Greek asphodelos. Wordsworth, she suggests, is “balancing” words, the Latinate (Latin-French) with the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon). She also notes the “families” of words that “help to organize the poem,” focusing on four inter-related clusters: “Glee, gay, and jocund  (a family of being happy, in terms of both meaning and—in the case of the first two—alliteration); Glance, glee, gay, gaze (words connected by alliteration, joining looking and happiness); Saw, glance, gaze (a family of looking); and Float, flutter, shine, twinkle, toss, flash, fill (a family of verbs of motion).”

Discussing sentences and rhythm, Vendler notes that the first two stanzas are periodic; the sentence is the stanza. But, despite our expectation that the pattern will continue, the third and fourth stanzas “together make up the third sentence,” with the “hinge” that joins them “the couplet, ‘I gazed—and gazed—but little thought/ What wealth the show to me had brought.’ This couplet leads into the exemplification of the ‘wealth’ in stanza 4.” And since the “third sentence is twice as long as the other two,” it “bears twice the weight.” The poem’s ababcc rhyme-scheme suggests, says Vendler, an initial statement (the quatrain) followed by an additional observation (the couplet). Of rhythm, she notes that the basic iambic beat of the first five lines is purposefully disrupted in the sixth line, where, “to emphasize the unexpected motion of the flowers,” Wordsworth shifts to a strong syllable followed by a weak: “Fluttering.” She concludes her thoughts on this subject by observing that a “careful reader will see that for his concluding rhyme (‘fills/ daffodils’) Wordsworth has reused one of the rhyme-sounds from his first stanza (‘hills/ daffodils’), giving us a strong sense of the end coming back to the beginning.” (In fact, if we count slant-rhyme, Wordsworth may be said to have reused two rhymes, the final stanza’s “mood” and “solitude” obliquely chiming with the first stanza’s “cloud” and “crowd.”)

Most importantly, Vendler invites us to look at the poem temporally, then spatially. We examine the poem temporally to see what changes we can observe as it moves from A (the opening, with the speaker lonely, as “unconnected to the world as a cloud when floating high above the earth”) to Z (where, though “still alone,” he is “no longer lonely,” since “now he feels the bliss of solitude”). How does Wordsworth move us, persuasively, from A to Z, the point at which, alone in his room, “suddenly, unasked, the daffodils flash into his mind so vividly that he sees them with his ‘inward eye’,” filling “that empty container, his heart,” with a pleasure that recaptures “his previous pleasure on that apparently forgotten day”? How does he convince us that the daffodils have “indeed lasted intensely in his mind, without any conscious effort on his part?” The explanation lies in “all the verbs of motion, all the verbs of seeing, all the verbs of delight”—in short, those “families” of words earlier discussed. Now it is the job of the reader-critic to see, along with much else, precisely how those verbs are deployed in the poem.

Looking at the poem spatially, Vendler draws our attention to three descriptive “glances” at the same phenomenon.” The first glance (“I saw”) shows us the daffodils as many (“a crowd, a host”), in a landscape (lake, trees), and in motion (“fluttering and dancing”). The second glance (“at a glance”) shows us the daffodils as many (like “stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way,” “ten thousand”), in a landscape (“along the margin of a bay”) and in motion (“Tossing their heads in sprightly dance). The third glance (“I gazed—and gazed”) shows us the daffodils as many (“a jocund company”), in a landscape (“waves beside them”), and in motion (“they/ Outdid the sparkling waves in glee”). If we considered these three descriptions temporally, we would distinguish between “seeing, glancing, and gazing.” But in considering them spatially, as three reiterated versions of “the same thing” (such “repetition” is actually “intensification”), what marks the daffodils is that (a) they are not alone, but many; that (b) they  feel “at home” in their natural setting; and that (c) “they are not gloomily rigid but in joyous motion responsive to the waves and the breeze.” As Vendler suggests without dwelling on the point, Wordsworth’s prepositions play a crucial role in positioning the daffodils and integrating them into their natural world. They are “Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze,” “stretched in never-ending line/ Along the margin of a bay,” beside “the waves.”

We also notice that the poem, still being examined spatially, is divided into two parts: “outdoors (stanzas 1-3 and indoors (stanza 4).” The outdoor part, in the past tense, tells of the particular day when the poet saw the daffodils; the indoor part, “phrased in the habitual present tense (representing something that happens often), removes the daffodils from a physical scene (in nature) to a virtual scene (in the mind). Wordsworth makes explicit, at the end, the connection between what the eye has seen, glanced at, and finally gazed at (imprinting the scene firmly) and what the heart feels.” Bringing the daffodils indoors, Wordsworth wants us to “recognize that the poem has been brought to closure.” (330-31)

The interaction between speaker and flowers is made credible by the alternation between them. The speaker governs the first sentence, with the daffodils the objects of his observation; but this governing function changes, producing “an antiphonal structure of alternation…in which the poet and the daffodils engage in a ‘syntactic dialogue,’ as first one predominates, then the other. We ‘believe in’ the speaker’s interaction with the daffodils because the poem shows it happening.” In case we missed it, Vendler points out that Wordsworth has put the word dance, in one or another of its variants, in each stanza: dancing; dance; danced, dances. And we notice that “the word dance alliterates with daffodils, making them ‘belong’ together phonetically” (331). At this point, it’s up to the student to write an essay about how the poem “works,” and Vendler devotes the remainder of this chapter (332-40) to suggesting a variety of potentially fruitful approaches to the poem and to ways to organize a coherent and persuasive essay.

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The Daffodils in Context

daffodils

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Thanks to astute observation of the sort she wants students to emulate, Vendler has provided all the preliminary spadework as well as the framework for an intrinsic analysis. I will be doing my own share of close reading; but before returning to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” I want to bring in a few contextual elements, extrinsic to the poem, at least until its final form. To begin with, we can locate the actual incident that inspired the poem. As by now everybody knows, or else should know, the genetic episode was recorded by Dorothy Wordsworth in her Journal for Thursday, 15 April 1802. She tells us that she and William came across many flowers on this memorable walk, including the Lesser Celandine, that

starry yellow flower which Mrs C[larkson] calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the waterside. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more, and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them [six words crossed out] along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones, about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness, and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake. They looked so gay—ever-glancing, ever-changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was, here and there, a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up—but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.[6]

The poem that resulted—originally titled “Daffodils”—was composed later, sometime between March 1804 and April 1807 (WP 1:1005). Some readers have preferred the journal-entry to the poem. A scholar no less distinguished than Ernest de Selincourt, referring to the “unforgettable walk” of 15 April 1802, describes the Wordsworths’ encounter with the daffodils, “which William records in verse,” as “more lovely in Dorothy’s unstudied prose.” Even those who may not agree can see his point. But that prose was not quite “unstudied.” Dorothy’s manuscript (reproduced by de Selincourt on the overleaf that follows his remark), shows that she deleted six words after “a long belt of them” (“the end we did not see”), and jotted in as an afterthought, “This wind blew directly over the lake to them.” It is also worth noting, as Pamela Woof does in her edition of the Grasmere Journals, that Dorothy wrote a letter to Mary this same day, in fact, immediately on returning home from the walk along Ullswater. In this account, the wind is “furious” and “sometimes almost took our breath away”; but, as Woof notes, “it is not a creative force: no daffodils are mentioned, no partnership with the wind in dance.”[7]

In 1815, Wordsworth gave the poem its present title, dropping “Daffodils” for, I would surmise, two reasons: first, to place initial emphasis on the isolated speaker (“I wandered lonely…”), second, to defer the surprised delight of his, and our, first encounter with the flowers to the poem itself. He also inserted a new stanza (see WP 1:1006n), beginning “Continuous as the stars that shine…” A cluster of interrelated questions arise. Why did he feel the need to add these lines? How does this new second stanza affect our interpretation of the poem? What else is there in the poem that isn’t in Dorothy’s journal-entry? Alternately, what does Dorothy give us in prose, “unstudied” or otherwise, that her brother doesn’t?  And what do the differences between journal-entry and poem suggest in terms of experiential response and aesthetic shaping, even, perhaps, in terms of female and male responses to the natural world? Whatever changes he made in shaping his own poem, does knowing that Wordsworth adhered so closely to Dorothy’s journal-entry alter our attitude regarding Wordsworth’s creativity? In what follows, I return to the Daffodils poem in connection with three Wordsworths (William, Dorothy, and Mary); then in connection with Coleridge and Emerson, on the subject of “eyes” and the sublimation of the commonplace. I’ll conclude by placing “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in a larger Wordsworthian and even Coleridgean-Kantian context.

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Even though two years passed between Dorothy’s April 1802 journal-entry and Wordsworth’s initial draft of the poem, that remarkably perceptive and imaginative entry was obviously in the poet’s mind when he sat down to write, or, as was often his practice, began to chant lines while walking. Of course, we cannot know the precise extent to which he was indebted to his sister’s observations. Considerably, it would seem, though we cannot rule out the possibility that he may have had some influence on her wording in the journal-entry, given the crucial omissions in the contemporaneous letter to Mary, and, especially, given the closeness and reciprocity of the relationship between Dorothy and her brother.

Dorothy  Wordsworth journal

Reciprocity is, in fact, one key to the poem. “So much depends…,” William Carlos Williams opens “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a little poem as alternately loved and resisted by students as Wordsworth’s daffodils. Williams’s opening foreshadowed a mutual dependence: just as the poet depends on what he sees, the things of the world, as necessary raw material, so those “found” objects depend on the poet to perceive, frame, and so order them aesthetically—through unexpected line-breaks, division into three- and one-word couplets and juxtaposed colors and textures (“a red wheel/ barrow// glazed with rain/ water// beside the white/ chickens”)—that they are transformed into a work of art. In a similar reciprocity in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the Wordsworthian speaker’s mood is affected by the daffodils, which, in turn, depend on the poet (and, in this case, Dorothy, in her journal-entry, though not in her letter to Mary) to record their gaiety as they “dance” in the breeze. At the same time, as that personification or pathetic fallacy indicates, Dorothy and William are also projecting, attributing human characteristics and emotions (primarily, joy) to the flowers. The speaker in the poem begins by “naturalizing” himself, comparing his loneliness to that of a floating cloud; then reverses the process by personifying the flowers; and, finally, internalizes their supposed joy when every subsequent recollection of them so “fills” with pleasure his momentarily empty heart that it “dances with the daffodils”—all, aside from the related “Fluttering” and “Tossing,” to an iambic-tetrameter beat.

When he started to write the poem, two years after Dorothy recorded her journal-entry, Wordsworth clearly depended on that entry, both to refresh his memory and for emotional coloring. In the poem, he deploys her observations selectively, emphasizing certain aspects, omitting others, most notably her reference to those daffodils that seemed to rest their heads on the stones they grew among. Dorothy, in fact, begins by noticing these presumably wind-beaten flowers resting their heads on the elegiac “mossy stones… as on a pillow for weariness.” Whether or not this reveals a specifically female sensibility, it is a sympathetic, even poignant observation unregistered in her brother’s poem. He focused instead, and exclusively, on the flowers animated by the breeze off the lake. According to Dorothy, they “tossed and reeled and danced,” a joyous movement replicated in the poem: “ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” A later, more orthodox Wordsworth would dismiss Keats’s “Hymn to Pan” (which his young admirer had been pressed to read to him) as “a very pretty piece of paganism,” even though Keats’s main source was a favorite mythological passage in the fourth Book of Wordsworth’s own Excursion. Here, however, he adds to his sister’s head-“tossing” personification of the daffodils a light but detectably pagan note, their “sprightly dance” allying them with sprights or sprites: elfin supernatural beings. I’ll return to this point.[8]

Interestingly, the description closest to his sister’s did not appear in the poem until 1815, in the couplet concluding the stanza Wordsworth added that year. This addition may be his equivalent of the phrase she had deleted, “the end we did not see,” referring to the “long belt of them,” which, together with her reference to the Lesser Celandine, “that starry yellow flower,” may have led to Wordsworth’s belated insertion of this stanza, in which the multitude of daffodils that “stretched in never-ending line” are said to be “Continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way.” This shifts the focus above the cloud that “floats on high,” and far above Dorothy’s “long belt”—now extended to stars, perhaps reminding Wordsworth of another “Belt,” Orion’s. Not part of our Milky Way, Orion, so familiar to stargazers, is the easiest constellation to find, and so the best way to orient ourselves to viewing the edgewise Milky Way’s “never-ending line,” or “busy highway,” of stars. In short, even Wordsworth’s most distant, sublime, celestial comparison, added more than a dozen years after she made her journal-entry, may still be partially indebted to Dorothy’s original description of the daffodils.

However we judge the relationship between his sister’s journal-entry and the poem, we know that Wordsworth, like Coleridge, valued Dorothy’s acutely sensitive perception of the details of the natural world. In the concluding lines of “The Sparrow’s Nest,” a short lyric grouped with “Daffodils” in the “Moods of My Own Mind” section of the 1807 Poems in Two Volumes, Wordsworth says of Dorothy (lightly disguised as “My sister Emmeline”):

She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.  (WP, 1:529-30)

Though every item in this litany of gifts to her poet-brother is crucial, his priority is, significantly, ocular: “She gave me eyes….” It seems all the more remarkable, therefore, that the lines Wordsworth himself described as the poem’s “two best”—“They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude”—were contributed not by the poet’s sister, but (he told Isabella Fenwick) by his wife, Mary. Dorothy may have given him “eyes,” but, in what borders on a co-operative family affair in the creation of this particular poem, it was another female member of the household who gave him his final and sublime image, “that inward eye.” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is nothing if not an “ocular” poem, one in which the speaker “saw,” and “saw,” and “glance[d],” and, more intensively, “gazed—and gazed”: a pattern culminating in that “inward eye” upon which those gazed-on and imprinted daffodils later “flash.” Wordsworth himself described the poem in 1815 as “rather an elementary feeling and simple impression [approaching to the nature of an ocular spectrum] upon the imaginative faculty, than an exertion of it….” (WP, 1:1006n)

But it must be added that it would be erroneous to over-emphasize the “ocular spectrum” at the expense of “the imaginative faculty.” Even in the note I have just cited, Wordsworth does not deny the exercise of the faculty of imagination, only of the sort of strenuous effort suggested by his italicization of the verb “exertion.” The point is confirmed by the fact that the note was written in the process of Wordsworth elevating the poem, previously located in “Moods of My Own Mind,” to a “higher” status among what he called, in the 1815 re-grouping, “Poems of the Imagination.” What we see with the physical or external eye still matters immensely, for without the initiating and necessary grounding in visual apprehension there would be no Romantic transcendence, defined by David Vallins as “at once a feeling of elevation or sublimity, and a process of contemplating, explaining, or evoking the unity of phenomena.”[9] In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the “continuous,” integrated belt of daffodils is further unified and internalized through the power of the poet’s “inward eye.”

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The phrase I’ve just quoted from David Vallins occurs in his analysis of the reinterpretation of Romantic ideas by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The legacy of the “inward eye” includes the responses of Coleridge and of his (and Wordsworth’s) American disciple, Emerson, both of whom had things to say about the Wordsworthian “eye” engaging the commonplace, the humble things of the world.  Coleridge was the first and, in many ways, the most astute appreciator of the poetry of Wordsworth, a poet he ranked with (and second only to) Shakespeare and Milton. But he devoted a whole chapter (22) of Biographia Literaria to the “characteristic defects” (BL 1:119) of his friend’s work. As indicated earlier, in that chapter, he cited the lines in which the daffodils “flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude” as an example of a thought or image “too great for the subject,” and thus approximating “what might be called mental bombast, as distinguished from verbal” (BL 1:136). Just as Wordsworth was not minimizing the role of imagination in his 1815 “ocular” note on “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” so Coleridge was not criticizing these lines in themselves; only their misuse, since their very sublimity leads us to expect a more significant “joy of retrospection”—such as the passing before “our conscience” of “a whole well-spent life”—rather than what he considered on this occasion the relative triviality and bathos of a recollection of mere “daffodils” (137).

Coleridge, whose compelling Mariner mesmerizes us as well as the Wedding Guest with his “glittering eye,” was not a man to undervalue the eye. In a crucial and influential passage from Aids to Reflection (1825), Coleridge identified, as a “higher gift” than the life breathed into man and animal alike, man’s “Reflection, or Reason,” associating it with the moment in Genesis when “man became a living soul” (Gen 2:7), and providing an echoing Emerson with what he would later call (in the “Idealism” chapter of Nature), the “eye of Reason.”[10] God has given us a house gloriously furnished, writes Coleridge, “Nothing is wanted but the eye, which is the light of this house, the light which is the eye of this soul. This seeing light, this enlightening eye, is Reflection.”[11]

Coleridge here aligns his biblical quotation—“And man becomes a living soul”—with the moment in “Tintern Abbey” (46-49) when, laid asleep in body, we “become a living soul.” Thus empowered, we are—in Wordsworth’s visual image—able to “see into the life of things” with “an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony and the deep power of joy.” Thus, Coleridge might have agreed with Wordsworth, who seems not to have been merely patronizing his wife when he described the “inward eye” lines to Isabella Fenwick as the “two best lines in” the poem. For many subsequent readers, they have certainly seemed to be the poem’s most quintessentially “Wordsworthian” lines, even if they are more Mary’s than William’s.

Of course, just as it is possible that Wordsworth had some influence on Dorothy’s journal-entry on the daffodils, Mary may, like Coleridge, have been remembering that “ocular” passage in “Tintern Abbey.” Three decades later, and across the Atlantic, Emerson, another admirer of Wordsworth, remembered both ocular images, connecting them with the premature death of his closest brother, Charles—a victim of the same disease, tuberculosis, that had earlier claimed both his nineteen-year-old his wife and his younger brother, Edward, and that had, moreover, threatened his own eyesight. Devastated by this third family tragedy within five years, Emerson wondered of Charles, “Who can ever supply his place to me? None,” he answers, for Charles was to him what Dorothy was to Wordsworth: “The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see.”[12] Emerson’s partial compensation came in the form of a metaphorical transmutation of his dead brother’s “eye” attuned to the natural world. In the most celebrated moment in his book Nature, written in the year Charles died, Emerson famously or notoriously describes a moment in which, “my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space;—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all” (E&L,10; italics added). At once lonely and exhilarated, he experiences an uplifting, a rapturous and self-transcending unity with the divine in which “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God”: a version of Wordsworth’s less explicitly religious “sense sublime” of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (“Tintern Abbey,” 95, 100-102). Seven years later, in his great essay “The Poet,” Emerson looks back on that epiphanic moment, remarking how rare and difficult it is to attain “the all-piercing…and ocular air of heaven” (E&L, 451-52). Along with his brother’s “eye,” all-seeing but now closed in death, the American Transcendentalist seems to be recalling both the culminating ocular image in the Daffodils poem, that “inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude,” and that “Serene and blessed mood,” in which the affections gently lead us on until, our breath and even the motion of our human blood almost suspended, “we are,” to repeat the lines from “Tintern Abbey,”

SPACESPACESPlaid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (30, 41-49; italics added)

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Dorothy Wordsworth's silhouette

Dorothy Wordsworth’s silhouette

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As with so many Wordsworthian roads, this emphasis on seeing leads back to Dorothy, who “gave” Wordsworth “eyes to see,” just as Charles’s “eye” was “to see Nature” for Emerson, and give him “leave to see.” Of course, Dorothy makes an appearance, albeit belated and unnamed, in “Tintern Abbey.” Though we do not find out until the final movement of the poem, “thou my dearest Friend…, My dear, dear Sister!” (119-120, 124), has been silently present all along, on the banks of the Wye, just as she was present when brother and sister saw the daffodils dancing in the wind beside Ullswater. But while Dorothy was there, and while her journal-entry inspired the Daffodils poem, her journal and her presence go unmentioned in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” It is not hard to guess why Dorothy was left out.

In what is perhaps the most repeated of all definitions of poetry, Wordsworth called it “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility.” In the case of this poem, the supposedly spontaneous overflow took place over many years—from 1804, when he first drafted the poem, through its first printing in 1807, and its revised version in 1815, in which Wordsworth, though leaving the final stanza intact, improved the first stanza, replacing “dancing” with “golden,” and “along” with “beside” in lines 4-6. Some devotees of simplicity may prefer the original phrase in line 16, “laughing company,” to the permanent change made in 1815: “jocund company.” Though echoing the “large recompense” in “Lycidas,” the more-than-Miltonic Latinate and polysyllabic “abundant recompense” in “Tintern Abbey” seems ponderous. Here, the Latinate adjective seems less so; in addition, “laughing company” may have belatedly seemed to Wordsworth too close to Dorothy’s delightfully over-the-top surmise that the daffodils “seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake.” Most importantly, of course, in 1815, Wordsworth inserted an entirely new stanza. As earlier suggested, that stanza’s galaxy of “stars” may echo Dorothy’s “starry yellow flower” and  seemingly-endless “long belt” of daffodils;  and the new stanza concluded by directly echoing Dorothy’s description of the daffodils as they “tossed and reeled and danced.” Nevertheless, it would hardly do to mention that journal-entry, even in an appended prose note, since that would reveal that what was being “recollected” was less the poet’s “spontaneous” feelings than Dorothy’s, jotted down more than a dozen years earlier. An awkward affair best avoided.

Nor could there be room for Dorothy as a character in the poem. Though Keats would later famously and accurately refer to “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” the omission of Dorothy here has nothing to do with the “mean egotism” Emerson shed when he became a transparent eye-ball. Dorothy’s omission is thematic. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” depends upon the speaker’s initial isolation, wandering “lonely as a cloud,” as preparation for the  moment when, “all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils,” and, caught up in their “glee,” becomes part of their “jocund company,” all leading to his very different final “solitude,” when emotion is recollected in a tranquility at once thoughtful and blissful, and his “heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.” Indeed, the memory of the daffodils seems a talisman against loneliness. As long as he retains this, and other similarly vivid remembrances of Nature, Wordsworth will never be truly alone, or bereft of material for poetry. That initial loneliness and final solitude, associated with the “inward eye” upon which the remembered golden daffodils “flash,” is even more essential in this poem than it is in “Tintern Abbey,” where the repeated “I” finally yields to a petition to his beloved sister that she “not forget” that “after many wanderings, many years/ Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,/ And this green pastoral landscape, were to me/ More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake! (158-62; italics added). The poem rightly ends by focusing on Dorothy and past, present, and future, for though she has been silent, he has read his “former pleasures in the shooting lights/ Of thy wild eyes,” and caught “from thy wild eyes these gleams/ Of past existence” (121-22, 151-52; italics added).

An ocular presence in “Tintern Abbey,” as a poignant reminder of what were once his own unmediated “wild ecstasies,” Dorothy is an absent presence in the public encounter with daffodils, the poem inspired by her strikingly visual journal-entry. But we know from “The Sparrow’s Nest” that, along with her “eyes,” Dorothy also gave her brother “a heart” and “love, and thought, and joy.” All of these, thought included, are reflected in the final lines of the Daffodils poem. When he intensely “gazed—and gazed” at the daffodils, impressing them on his memory, the poet “little thought/ What wealth the show to me had brought,” but that “wealth” is revealed in stanza 4. There the poet, indoors and in either vacant reverie or in “pensive mood,” transforms an engraved but, at the moment, involuntary memory of the daffodils into a mature joy: a renovating spot of time now restored in the mind and incorporating, along with the initial joy, the “thought” absent in his original emotional and visceral response.

There are Then/Now parallels in the “Ode” and, earlier, in “Tintern Abbey,” which opens: “Five years have passed; five summers, with the length/ Of five long winters….” In the hovering on “length,” the seasonal references, and the triple repetition of that long-voweled “five,” we feel the “heavy and the weary weight” (39) of the world. Back then, when he first “came among these hills,” it was, says Wordsworth, “in the hour/ Of thoughtless youth.” “I cannot paint/ What then I was,” says the poet, who then proceeds to do just that, magnificently:

SPACESPAESPACThe sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. That time is past…. (77-85; Italics added)

A similar shift from feeling to thought, from past to present, comes, in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” with the pivot—syntactical and thematic as well as temporal—from the third into the fourth and final stanza. For now, when the poet is indoors, alone and reclining in “vacant or in pensive mood,” wandering in his mind, the recalled flowers “flash” upon his “inward eye,” his last and most piercing “glance.” That brilliant, intermittent “flash” gathers to a greatness the poem’s light-imagery (shine, twinkle, sparkling). It also becomes a flash-flood, for the sudden recollection of the flowers so “fills” the poet’s heart with pleasure that it “dances with the daffodils.” The “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” has been “recollected in tranquility,” by thought supplied, but retaining, in the mind’s eye, the original excitement of what he “saw” with the outward eye. The three “glances” in the poem, and its version of that empowered “eye” that enables us to “see into the life of things,” seem fused in a Marianne Moore poem that also shifts back and forth from perceiver to the object perceived, concluding that works of art “must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’.”[13]

SPACE

7

Despite Wordsworth’s final fusion of thought and emotion, head and heart, in the Daffodils poem, some readers will concur with Coleridge that too much is being made of too little here; that, following the sublimity of the “inward eye,” the final lines “sink” into bathos. Influenced by such responses, more by the negative British reviews he read than by Coleridge’s momentary fault-finding, Emerson was among those who at first scorned Wordsworth’s penchant for making the trivial sublime. In a June 1826 letter to his Aunt Mary (whose insight into Wordsworth was at the time deeper than his own), Emerson asked, “Is it not much more conformable to that golden middle line…to let what Heaven made small and casual remain the objects of a notice small and casual, and husband our admiration for images of grandeur in matter or in mind?”[14] He had been reading British reviewers who (however inaccurately) caricatured Wordsworth as blubbering over the flower at the end of the Ode. But gradually, as he read more of Coleridge and (with the help of this mentor’s genuine insights) saw more deeply into Wordsworth, he came to admire what he originally dismissed. In Nature and elsewhere, in locating the miraculous in the commonplace, Emerson was emulating Wordsworth, the great poet of the “lowly” and neglected, of the humble, common, and seemingly trivial. Wordsworth’s “imagination” was chiefly engaged, as William Hazlitt pointed out in The Spirit of the Age, “in raising trifles to significance.” It was “his peculiar genius,” Walter Pater added a half-century later, “to open out the soul of apparently little or familiar things.”[15] Wordsworth is able to do so, as Coleridge understood just as well, and even more intimately, than Hazlitt and Pater, because he makes us “see into the life of things,” and to see what had been passed over by earlier poets, who thought such things literally beneath their notice.

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Emily Bronte

Emily Brontë

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No doubt Dorothy helped her brother see. We will never know just how much “wealth” Wordsworth owed to her meticulous, affectionate, and imaginative apprehension of the “little things” of the natural world, especially flowers. It is a detailed, discerning, and passionate attention that anticipates Emily Dickinson. And the Wordsworths’ Daffodils also anticipated another Emily, Dickinson’s “gigantic Emily Brontë.”[16] In one of the most beautiful passages the latter ever wrote, Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter (the second “Cathy” in Wuthering Heights) describes her “most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness.” She would be “rocking” at the heart of the natural world, “with a west wind blowing, and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above,…grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water; and the whole world awake and wild with joy….I wanted all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee.”[17] Cathy’s idea of heaven is an earthly paradise, its primary “literary” source obvious. The entire passage (clouds, waves, breeze, woods, water, the whole world awake and joyous), and, especially, Cathy’s wanting “all to sparkle and dance in a golden jubilee,” reflects Wordsworth’s “golden” host of “Fluttering and dancing” flowers that out-danced and out-sparkled “the sparkling waves in glee,” their “never-ending” line “Continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way.” Cathy’s description suggests that Emily Brontë was also familiar with William’s source: Dorothy’s loving and dynamic description of those “beautiful” daffodils that “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed in the wind that blew upon them over the lake. They looked so gay—ever-glancing, ever-changing.”

Wordsworthian Emerson was also attuned to the sort of earthly paradise that appealed to both Emilys. He began his 1838 Divinity School Address by fusing the “gladsome pagans” in what was his as well as John Keats’s favorite Book of The Excursion, those pagans who “looked” and “were humbly thankful for the good/ Which the warm sun solicited, and earth/ Bestowed” (4:932-38), with the “pagan” of “The World is Too Much with Us.” Quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, Emerson shocked his devout audience from the outset by declaring that he, too, would rather be “A pagan suckled in a creed outworn” than a Christian impoverished by being cut off from vital, fecund nature. And he began his Address with a deeply responsive evocation of nature’s vital, sparkling, floral beauty. In “this refulgent summer,” it has been “a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold” (E&L, 75). Those meadows were alive with flowers aglow with the light of Wordsworth’s “golden daffodils,” and sharing the pagan vitality of their “sprightly dance.”

 SPACE

8

Having found the transplanted and transparent “eye” he was seeking in the aftermath of his brother’s death in Mary and William’s “inward eye” in the Daffodils poem, Emerson, reading  his favorite Wordsworth poem, the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” again found an emphasis on sight, on the mature eye, and, climactically, on a simple flower. More importantly, he was not alone in finding in this great poem lasting consolation for grief. Like so many, Emerson valued the Ode not only for its intimations of immortality, but for its appreciation of the natural world, both when it seemed, as in childhood, “appareled in celestial light,” and later, when Wordsworth loved it “even more,” though the initial radiance had been irretrievably lost. Innumerable readers in the nineteenth century and after have cherished the poem for the literally thoughtful consolation it offered to those who understand the pains as well as the joys of the human heart. In his “Memorial Verses,” written in the very month that Wordsworth died (April 1850), Matthew Arnold speculated that Time might bring us the wisdom of another Goethe, the force of another Byron; “But where will Europe’s latter hour/ Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?”[18]

That healing power takes linguistic form in the Ode. We can only reintegrate the sundered self, Hegel insists in the Logic, through knowledge, since, in his famous homeopathic metaphor, “the hand that inflicts the wound must be the hand that heals it.” As Helen Vendler demonstrated a third of a century ago in her challenge to Lionel Trilling’s celebrated essay, Wordsworth, in an intricate series of repetitions and alterations, had triumphed over what Trilling considered “the discrepant answers of the second part of the Ode.” The poem’s language reveals an autonomous pattern of self-healing—in Vendler’s phrase, a “homeopathic cure”—largely dependent on thought.[19] For example, in the Ode’s initial pastoral in stanza 3, while the lambs bounded to the shepherd-boy’s tabor and the birds sang a “joyous song,” to the poet “alone there came a thought of grief.” He claims, rather too quickly, to recover and, again “strong,” vows that “no more shall grief of mine the season wrong.” But when the pastoral is replicated in stanza 10, the true recovery fuses joy with cognition: “We in thought will join your throng.” And though the once-bright radiance “Be now forever taken from my sight,” we will “grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind,” both in the “primal sympathy/ Which having been must ever be,” and in “the soothing thoughts that spring/ Out of human suffering.”

In a now-familiar pattern, the Ode brings together the trinity of eyes, heart, and thought. For “though the radiance which was once so bright”—the celestial light attending the dawn of life, when we came from God, “trailing clouds of glory”—has “now” and forever been “taken from my sight,” the “clouds that gather round the setting sun” are said, in a reciprocal balance, to “take a sober coloring from an eye/ That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” This is not the eye of that “Child,” over whom “thy Immortality/ Broods like the Day,” and who was addressed in stanza 8 as “thou Eye among the blind,” but of a mature adult acquainted with suffering and death. We have an elegiac “gathering” of the clouds around the “setting sun,” and a “sober” coloring imparted to them by a mature “eye.” But the Ode does not end in despair or defeat. Emerson concluded one of his most justly-famous notebook-entries, jotted down in the immediate aftermath of the death of his little boy, “I am Defeated all the time, yet to Victory am I born” (JMN 8:228). Concluding his Pindaric ode, a form used by the Greek poet to celebrate athletic triumphs, Wordsworth employs a similar race-image, pagan and Pauline (Corinthians 9:24), of loss and compensation, defeat and hard-earned victory:

Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.  (Ode, 199-203)

We had heard earlier in the Ode of “The Pansy at my feet” (54) and Wordsworth’s most sublime masterpiece concludes with the “meanest [or, as he first wrote, “humblest”] flower that blows.” And with this, we are back—though with a more sober coloring and accompanied by a decidedly different metrical music—to flowers that, recollected in tranquility, “flash upon that inward eye,” filling, to cite the Ode, “the human heart” and evoking deep “thoughts.” Thus, the conclusion of the Ode brings us, by a route Coleridge called “rondure,” and Joyce “a commodious vicus of recirculation,” back to Dove Cottage and environs. Back to Mary, who supplied that “inward eye,” and to Dorothy, who “gave” Wordsworth “eyes to see,” and who shared with him notebook observations that, while they had nothing to do with the metrical and Then/Now orchestration of the Daffodils poem, provided him with closely-observed and already imaginatively-organized raw material. When we recall Dorothy’s loving and detailed journal-description of the daffodils, and the principal gifts that, by his own account, she “gave” her brother—“eyes,” “humble cares,” “delicate fears,” a “heart,” which was the “fountain of sweet tears,” and “love, and thought, and joy”—it begins to seem appropriate (though by Wordsworth’s order the Ode was to stand last in every collection of his verse) that in John Hayden’s splendid two-volume edition, ordered by date of composition, “The Sparrow’s Nest,” begun in the same month as the great Ode, and, like it, first published in 1807, appears immediately after the Ode’s concluding lines. Dorothy seems an absent presence here as well, though it is crucial to note that, while the final word of the Ode is “tears,” no “fountain of sweet tears” actually flows. Whatever may be invented by careless readers, whether malicious or maudlin, the lines are clear: thanks to the tenderness, joys, and fears of “the human heart by which we live,” the humblest flower that blossoms and blows in the wind can evoke “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

If Dorothy did not literally give her brother “eyes to see,” she certainly enhanced his own “eye” for detail and (in this instance) even design, supplying him with a vivid example of his own central theme: the joy intrinsic in vital, personified, nature. Dorothy gives Wordsworth, and us, a “long belt” of beautiful, joyous daffodils that “tossed and reeled and danced” in the lakeside breeze, recollection of which later fills with pleasure the thinking heart of the poet, so that it “dances” with those dancing flowers. Dorothy did not write the poem, but without her notebook-entry, recording precisely what she “saw” on that “Thursday, 15 April 1802”—“I never saw daffodils so beautiful”; and how they appeared to her (“they looked so gay—ever glancing, ever-changing”)—it is doubtful that “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” now considered one of Wordsworth’s signature poems, would ever have been written. Along with the “eyes” he said she “gave” him, Dorothy’s “heart” and her ultimate trinity of gifts—“love, and thought, and joy”—inform her notebook-observation of the daffodils that “tossed and reeled and danced,” seeming to enjoy “the wind that blew upon them over the lake.” Wordsworth was inspired by these details, and, perhaps most of all, by Dorothy’s final noticing of a “few stragglers a few yards higher up,” but “so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.”

Here, keen-eyed “ocular” observation kindles into a genuine Vision of what Coleridge called, in a line added to “The Eolian Harp” almost a quarter-century after he originally wrote the poem, “The one Life within us and abroad.” And that “one Life” necessarily extends from earthly flowers into the very universe itself, which seems to me to explain the need Wordsworth evidently felt to add, in 1815, that stanza in which the “ten thousand” daffodils he “saw…at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance,” are said to have “stretched in never-ending line/ Along the margin of a bay,” as “Continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way.” It has been noted recently, by Pamela Woof, that “the permanence of stars, as compared with flowers, emphasizes the permanence of memory for the poet.”[20] And that’s true, too. But the addition of this stanza emphasizes even more, I would suggest, the extension into the interstellar universe of the continuity, harmony, and unity with which Dorothy concluded her journal-entry. Echoing her previous awe at encountering “more and yet more” daffodils, until, “at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road,” she ends by stressing (to repeat the key phrase) “the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.”

Orion

Orion’s belt

As with the transmutation of yellow flowers into an angelic “host of golden daffodils,” in the alembic of Wordsworth’s creative imagination Dorothy’s imagery of terrestrial unity (flowers, trees, shore, and country road) is transmuted (through the oxymoronic fusion Thomas Carlyle and, later, M. H. Abrams, called “natural supernaturalism”)[21] into celestial unity: the shining and twinkling of myriad stars on the Milky Way. If, as the final line of this stanza strongly suggests, Wordsworth had returned for inspiration to Dorothy’s journal-entry, he may have linguistically associated her “long belt” of daffodils (as suggested earlier) with Orion’s Belt, and, consciously or unconsciously, echoed her reference, immediately preceding the encounter with the daffodils themselves, to one of his own favorite flowers, the Lesser Celandine, as a “starry yellow flower.” These details may or may not have prompted his belated but sublime likening of her “more and yet more” daffodils in a unified “highway” to our Milky Way’s glowing roadway, that arching band of “continuous” stars splashed across the night sky. Whatever its genesis, the added stanza completes the poem’s (and Dorothy’s) theme of continuity and unity by fusing flowers and stars, microcosm and macrocosm.

SPACE

A Kantian-Coleridgean-Romantic Coda

kant

Immanuel Kant

These thoughts recall the famous opening of the “Conclusion” of The Critique of Practical Reason (1788) by the preeminent philosopher of the age, to whose thought— a pivotal influence on Romanticism—Wordsworth, like Emerson, was introduced by Coleridge:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Neither of them do I have to search for and conjecture as though they were shrouded in obscurity or in a transcendent region beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence.[22] (italics added)

What Immanuel Kant says of the starry heavens above and the moral law within— “I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence”—Dorothy and William Wordsworth said of the now-famous daffodils: “We saw a few daffodils….we saw that there was a long belt of them….I never saw daffodils so beautiful….they looked so gay…” (Dorothy).  “All at once I saw…Ten thousand saw I at a glance….I gazed—and gazed…They flash upon that inward eye…And then my heart with pleasure fills/ And dances with the daffodils” (William). Seeing the flowers before them, and connecting them with the consciousness of their own existence, the Wordsworths here, as so often, affirm a loving unity with nature, with the Coleridgean “one Life within us and abroad.” As Kant continued, glossing his “two things,” his sense “of the place I occupy in the external world of sense” is enlarged by an intuition of relationship with the whole: “I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection… reaching into the infinite” (CPR, 154). In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the extended, universal, even eternal harmony, the sense of interrelationship from which the “lonely” poet was at first alienated, is expressed in the immediate delight he takes in the daffodils, in the presence of whose companionable “glee,” a “poet could not but be gay.” But it is, to fuse half-lines from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” and “Tintern Abbey,” a gaiety transfiguring all this unintelligible world—a world that at first seemed as aimless as the poet’s wandering, or as fluctuating as the flowers, whose natural “fluttering” was, however, instantly transformed into a no-less-joyous but ordered “dancing.” That dancing, floral and later human and emotional, is also mental, a matter of consciousness. And since that dancing company is “Continuous as the stars that shine,” it all seems part of a cosmic dance, the daffodils and the “heart” that “dances with” them participating in a post-Pythagorean harmony of the spheres.

The transforming power that fuses the infinitesimal with the infinite is that of the orchestrating mind, no longer passively afloat and wandering, but once more active and order-making. That change takes place under the auspices of Kantian Reason. According to Kant’s Theory of the Sublime, through the power of Reason, “a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense,” one is able to form “an idea of the Infinite.” Often retaining (a cause of confusion) the term “Reason,” the Romantics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson) identified it with Imagination, with what Coleridge called in the “Dejection” Ode, “My shaping spirit of Imagination” (86). The “wealth” the ocular show “had brought” to Wordsworth in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” —as “Tintern Abbey,” the Ode, The Prelude, and the “Prospectus” to The Recluse demonstrate at length—is directly related to what Kant called the inner law, both moral and epistemological since, in keeping with Kant’s Copernican Revolution, the external world is shaped by what is within us: the co-creating mind, which fits Things to Thought.

In the poem in which he lays out his entire project, the “Prospectus” to The Recluse,  Wordsworth designates “the Mind of man/ My haunt, and the main region of my song,” adding that “the discerning intellect of Man,/ When wedded to this goodly universe/ In love and holy passion, shall find these/ A simple produce of the common day.” As simple and common, we might say, as daffodils. And even the shifting agency in the Daffodils poem, alternating back and forth from poet to flowers, is later philosophized in Wordsworth’s overt adaptation of Kant’s epistemology. At the crux of the “Prospectus,” Wordsworth proclaims “How exquisitely the individual Mind/…to the external World/ Is fitted,” and how, even more rarely and significantly,

The external World is fitted to the Mind;
And the creation (by no lower name
Can it be called) which they by blended might
Accomplish:—this is our high argument. (“Prospectus,” 61-71; WP 2:38-39)

At the conclusion of The Prelude, to which he always referred as “the Poem to Coleridge,” Wordsworth tells his friend and “joint-laborer” that

SPACESPACESACESPACESPACwhat we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of Man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this Frame of things,…
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.[23] (14: 446-54)

I may seem to have gone far afield in contextualizing—by setting, in what Helen Vendler called “larger frames”—so “simple” a lyric as “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” There is always the danger of losing the individual poem in a widening gyre of associations, however valid each may seem to be. But had he read the poem in this enlarged context—Wordsworthian, Romantic, and Kantian—Coleridge would surely have been less likely to accuse his friend of “mental… bombast” in making lowly daffodils exemplify “what we have loved.” For these flowers are loved things which, however “common,” are so cherished that, years later, in renovating memory, they “flash” upon the poet’s “inward eye.” And, in keeping with the “out-in-out” dialectic M. H. Abrams has rightly attributed to the structure of the “greater Romantic lyric,” the inward inevitably moves outward. By means of the very poem in which they are immortalized, the daffodils expand their power to delight beyond the immediate pleasure they gave to Dorothy on that long-ago April morning in 1802 and beyond that retrospective “bliss” experienced in “solitude” by her brother, whose suddenly overwhelmed heart dances with them. For, as readers, we, too, join their throng, first as delighted, then as thoughtfully delighted, participants in the daffodils’ “jocund company.”[24]

That is as it should be, for, perceptive as his admirer Keats was in identifying him with the “egotistical sublime,” Wordsworth is a poet who chooses to “sing,” as he says in the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, “Of blessed consolations in distress;/ Of moral strength, and intellectual Power;/ Of joy in widest commonalty spread” (16-18; WP 2:37-38). Along with the “moral strength” and “intellectual Power,” which he associated with Kant, Coleridge considered that last line so quintessentially Wordsworthian that he summoned it up years later in a pivotal afterthought. Just as Wordsworth had added, in 1815, a crucial six lines to the Daffodils poem, first printed in 1807, so Coleridge added, in 1817, several thematically-crucial lines to “The Eolian Harp,” a poem first written in 1795, the year he met William and Dorothy:

 O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere— (26-29)[25]

Aside from the penultimate line (“sound” being necessary to a poem focused on a wind-harp, its music a response to the ever-changing breeze), the passage might have been written of the Wordsworths’ Daffodils. The “glee” of that “jocund company” in “motion” registers “Rhythm in all thought,” and truly spreads “joyance everywhere,” a bliss culminating in William Wordsworth’s preeminent addition to the joyance Dorothy had recorded in her journal that day: his internalization of the past scene in excited reverie. His fusion, in the present, of joy and “thought” as a result of the renovating “flash upon that inward eye” dramatizes precisely what Coleridge had in mind, and heart, when he cried out, “O! the one Life within us and abroad.”

–Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J Keane 2Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition(1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), andEmily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering(2007).
Contact: patrickjkeane@numerocinqmagazine.com

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In context, Wordsworth’s famous definition is complex rather than paradoxical. His point is that  the spontaneity at the moment of composition is preceded by thought and influenced by poetic skill, and that—in a process central to my argument—the contemplative tranquility itself leads to a resurgence of emotion resembling the original emotion, but now actually “exist[ing] in the mind.” Here is Wordsworth’s complete sentence, quoted from the 1802 edition of the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”: “I have said that [all good] poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”
  2. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 2nd ed. ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Vol 2: The Middle Years, Part I, 1806-1811,  rev.  Mary Moorman (Oxford UP, 1969), 145-46 (21 May 1807). He adds that Lady Beaumont should “never forget” this point, which “I believe was observed to you by Coleridge.” In the “Essay Supplementary to the Preface” to the 1815 Poems, Wordsworth repeated the point, adding, “This remark has long since been made to me by [my] philosophical Friend. Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (Yale UP, 1981), 2:944. (WP; though, for the major poems, I simply cite line-numbers).
  3. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate [Vol. 7 of the Collected Coleridge, 1969-2001]), 2 vols. (Princeton UP, 1983), 1:136.  (BL)
  4. Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (Bedford/St. Martin’s, third printing, 2010), Chapter 11, “Writing about Poems, 323-40.
  5. Predictably defending poetry and intrinsic criticism, Helen Vendler polarized a 1990 conference on “Revolutionary Romanticism” by fiercely rejecting what she characterized as Marjorie Levinson’s “vulgar” assault on “Tintern Abbey.” Pointing out that Wordsworth did not conceal (or “repress” or “exclude”) his “political investments and political disillusion” in his poetry as a whole, she called it “absurd that he should be obliged to mention them in every poem, or even in ‘Tintern Abbey’ alone.” Along with Levinson’s New Historicist demands, John Barrell’s criticism of the poem on gender grounds was also characterized as an assault in Vendler’s “‘Tintern Abbey’: Two Assaults,” in Wordsworth in Context, ed. Pauline Fletcher and John Murphy (Associated University Presses, 1992), 173-90. The debate is synopsized in my own Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (U of Missouri, 1994), 182-83, and, a decade later, in Eric K. W. Yu’s “Wordsworth Studies and the Ethics of Criticism: The ‘Tintern Abbey” Debate Revisited,” in Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 30 (July 2004): 129-54.
  6. Dorothy Wordsworth: The Grasmere Journals, ed. Pamela Woof (Oxford UP, 1991], 85. (DWGJ.)
  7. See Ernest De Selincourt, Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography (Oxford UP, 1933), 137; DWGJ, 216n; and L, The Early Years, 1787-1805, ed. de Selincourt, rev. Chester L. Shaver (Oxford UP, 1967), 350.
  8. When, in 1817, Keats read the “Hymn” to the now-firmly Christian older poet, Wordsworth famously sniffed, “a very pretty piece of paganism.” This seems both condescending and  ironic, since his young admirer was echoing the rhapsodic aspects of the evocation of Greek mythology in a passage of The Excursion (4:858-64) his friend Benjamin Hayden (marking the lines in his copy) said “Poor Keats used always to prefer…to all others.”
  9. Vallins, Coleridge and the Psychology of Romanticism: Feeling and Thought (St. Martin’s, 2000), 5.
  10. Nature, in Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (Library of America, 1983), 33. (E&L)
  11. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, ed. John Beer [Vol. 9, Collected Coleridge] (Princeton UP, 1993), 15-16.
  12. Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 vols. (Harvard/ Belknap Press, 1960-82), 5: 152. (JMN)
  13. Marianne Moore, the penultimate line of “When I Buy Pictures.” In her note to the poem, Moore tells us that she borrowed the quoted phrase from A. R. Gordon’s 1919 study The Poets of the Old Testament (which may partially explain her insistence, in the poem’s final line, that an art-work “must acknowledge the spiritual source that made it”). But Gordon, whose final prepositional phrase, “glances into the life of things,” clearly echoes “Tintern Abbey,” may also have recalled the “glance,” and  more piercing “gazed—and gazed,” in the Daffodils poem.
  14. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (vols. 1-6 [1939]) and Eleanor M. Tilton (vols. 7-10, [1964]). 10 vols. (Columbia UP, 1939-1995), 7:148-49.
  15. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (Dent, 1930-34), 11:88. Walter Pater, “Wordsworth” (1873), reprinted in 1889 in Pater’s Appreciations (Macmillan reprint, 1906), 48.
  16. Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas  Johnson and Theodora Ward, 3 vols. (Harvard UP, 1958), 721.
  17. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (Norton Critical Edition, 1972), 198-99.
  18. “Memorial Verses,” in The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. Kenneth Allott (Longmans, 1965).
  19. The Logic of Hegel, trans. W. Wallace (Oxford and Fairlawn, N.J.,1892), 56. Helen Vendler, “Lionel Trilling and the Immortality Ode,” in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (Harvard UP, 1994), 93-114. “The Immortality Ode” first appeared in Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (Viking, 1942), 129-53.
  20. Woof’s comment was made in a 2009 BBC program on “The Wordsworths and the Cult of Nature.”
  21. . The oxymoronic phrase, its terms at once  paradoxical and complementary, occurs as the title of chapter 8 of Book III of Carlyle’s  Sartor Resartus (first published in Boston, in 1836, with the help of Emerson). It later provided the title for M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Norton, 1971), a landmark study of the secularization of spiritual motifs in German and British Romanticism.
  22. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason. Introduction, Dennis Sweet (Barnes & Noble, 2004), 154.  But I have not adhered slavishly to this slightly dated translation, by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.
  23. 1850 version, cited from The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (Norton Critical Edition, 1979), 483.
  24. I’m thinking specifically of the shift from the outward to the inward eye and then out again to the eyes of the poem’s readers; but Abrams’s essay on “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” is partially relevant to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in a larger sense. The Greater Romantic lyrics he has in mind usually begin, writes Abrams, with “a description of the landscape,” which “evokes a…process of memory…closely interwoven with the outer scene,” issuing in a “meditation,” in the course of which “the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation” (77). Our less ambitious poem engages fewer issues. Nevertheless, though it moves from an outdoor to an indoor scene, it certainly “rounds upon itself” since, in the final stanza, the “outer scene” returns and is internalized. There is a deepened understanding as a result of a revived memory, taking the form, of a “wealth” previously not “thought” of.  In short, much, though by no means all, of what Abrams says here, including his later subhead-emphases on “The Coalescence of Subject and Object” (94) and  “The Romantic Meditation” (104), applies, mutatis mutandis, to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Abrams’s essay, first published in 1965, is here cited from its reprinting in Abrams’s collection, The Correspondent Breeze: Essays in English Romanticism, Foreword by Jack Stillinger (Norton, 1984), 75-108.
  25. “The Eolian Harp,” in The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, 2 vols. (Oxford UP, 1912), 1:100-102 (for the first version of the poem, see 2:1021-23). Coleridge added seven lines, of which I cite the first four.
Nov 032013
 

eggers

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The Circle
By Dave Eggers
Knopf, 504 pp., $27.95.

Reading Dave Eggers’ new novel The Circle an image slipped into my mind, one not contained in the book but which I’m sure its protagonist would appreciate: a big church wedding with full Catholic ceremony – the priest in his vestments, bathed in the densely colored sunlight from the rose window, holding a massive Bible before a crowd of hundreds of friends and family as the sacred catechism rolls up the nave and echoes from the flying buttresses of the medieval ceiling. “Do you take this woman …” and the man answers “I do.” Then he turns to the bride. “Do you, Emily Johnson, take this man, Brad Halpern, to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold …” When he’s done, she looks up distracted.

“What?”

She’s been texting.

The only problem Mae Holland, the heroine of The Circle would have with this scenario is that Emily hadn’t “gone clear” – she had no portable camera attached to herself which could document every moment of the ceremony to her 239,456 followers. She wasn’t “zinging” them all (a kind of instant tweet), acknowledging their “smiles” and good wishes as they came in. What was wrong with Emily? Why wasn’t she sharing this beautiful moment? Who made her dress? Where did Brad get his tuxedo? Does the church do charity work? Couldn’t she link to the designer and the haberdashery and the Catholic aid organization? Think how her Conversion Rate (that’s the number of purchases you stimulate with your comments and zings and links) could be sky-rocketing! Not to mention her Retail Raw – that’s “the total gross purchase price of recommended products” people have purchased because of you. What a waste! Doesn’t Emily understand that sharing is caring and secrets are lies and most of all – privacy is theft?

Those are the guiding principles of the Circle, an internet company which Dave Eggers has conceived, with great precision, merciless humor and a healthy dose of authentic alarm, as the ultimate combination of Google and Facebook. The goal of this ever-growing institution is to “close the circle,” to create a world where everyone has access to every aspect of everyone else’s life at all times, in real time, all of it recorded forever in “the cloud” – those very much land-bound cemetery rows of computer servers that are helping to make this nightmare come true, even as we try to dismiss Eggers’ exaggerations.

With all politicians ‘going clear’ for complete transparency in all their discussions and negotiations, with cameras in every house and infrared cameras outside to mark the movements of all the inhabitants, and with a Circle account mandated by law so that all functions of  life can be  organized through one portal, from health care and voting and car registration to job hunting, friendship and even love affairs (how much greater an intimate moment is when it becomes a communion with five million lovelorn comrades across the globe!), the Circle is poised to take over the world.

Unlike the conventional dystopian fantasies, from We to 1984 to the The Hunger Games, this new world order enjoys the approval of its victims. They embrace it. They celebrate it.

I look around my own world and none of this seems particularly far-fetched. There’s a whole generation growing up that has never known a world with real privacy. Their idea of internet oppression is a day when no one comments on their blog, or their twitter feed goes down.

One of the most audacious aspects of Eggers’ book is that the writing sticks rigorously with Mae Holland’s point of view. The narration is as close as “close third person” can get. Why not tell it in first person then? But that’s the whole point: that pesky “first person” is precisely what the Circle is trying to eradicate. Because Mae doesn’t understand what’s happening to her and her world, the reader is forced to make the arguments that she can’t. The novel becomes interactive in a way that no computer program could ever be. You’re literally shouting at the page. When Mae talks about basic principles with Eamon Bailey, one of the three Wise Men who founded the company, she swallows his specious arguments whole.

All secrets are bad because anything private is suspect – why would we hide something we weren’t ashamed of? Mae doesn’t have the presence of mind or the education to point out that most of the great strides forward in human history – including the basic technical work that created the Circle itself – was done in silence and solitude. Human beings need isolation and quiet and uninterrupted thought. Physical health and sanity depend on it. The idea that we only hide what we’re ashamed of is simply false. But Mae doesn’t get it. She loves being part of something bigger than herself, having her tastes and opinions influencing the world, seeing her face in the mirror of a million hard drives.

Bailey goes on, laying out the corollary point: secrets revealed cast light and harm no one. He uses Wikileaks as an example, saying that no one was harmed by the release of those Top Secret diplomatic cables. But most informed people are aware that Julian Assange meticulously redacted every bit of information that might have compromised anyone’s safety. He kept the secrets that needed keeping.

When the crimes and scandals in the family history of Mae’s friend and Circle Mentor Annie Allerton are revealed, through a new historical data-mining program, the revelations stigmatize her among her c0-workers (her ancestors owned slaves), alienate her from  her parents (they watched a homeless man drown without trying to help him) and finally, tip her over into a nervous breakdown. Knowledge can be caustic, and the truth wounds as often as it heals, whether Eamon Bailey admits it or not.

His off-kilter utopian fervor is only one leg of the tripod that holds up this fantastical internet giant. He’s one of the “Three Wise Men” who created the company. The other two are a Sergei Brin/Mark Zuckerberg geek named Tyson Matthew Gospindov and ruthless entrepreneur Tom Stenton. Stenton fills the Eric Schmidt/Steve Ballmer slot.

Together these three archetypes resemble the three chemicals required for execution by lethal injection. Ty, as everyone calls him, enacts the role of the sodium thiopental in this experiment: his brilliant coding and the seductive internet experience putting the prisoner to sleep. Eamon is the pancuronium bromide, paralyzing the body politic with the false dreams of his perfect world. Then Tom Stenton, the Machiavellian master of monetization, acts as the potassium chloride, administering the death blow in a flurry of zings and recommendations and smiles and surveys.

Stenton has captured a deep-ocean shark and brought it up from the Marianas Trench. He delights in the way it devours everything around it, from tuna to sea turtles to the delicate sea horses that shared the deep water environment with the shark when they were left alone in the dark. Placed in this new setting, in brightly lit tanks, watched by the whole world, the shark turns rapacious and no creature is safe. The metaphor may seem heavy handed; in the context of the novel it seems cautious at best.

We can all sense the shark approaching. Even our jokes about it have a nervous edge. The laughter was uneasy at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner last year, when Conan O’Brien quipped, “Here’s a suggestion for everyone live-tweeting this event – use the hashtag, ‘unable to live in the moment’.”

Like Henry Ford, feeling a twinge of apocalyptic uneasiness, watching the first cars roll down his production line, Ty himself finally realizes that his invention has gotten out of hand. He enlists Mae’s help to dismantle the monster, but it’s too late for both of them.  He should have known better than to trust Mae. The clue to this tragic miscalculation could have been found in the demonstration she put on a few days before. The Circle was unveiling a new program to locate anyone on the globe in less than half an hour. Mae chose to track down her ex-boy friend, Mercer — a determined Luddite (and the primary voice of sanity in the novel) who fled from San Francisco to live off the grid. The good news: It only takes ten minutes to find him. The bad news: The event, complete with armies of phone-cam wielding acolytes and private airborne drones, pushes him to suicide. He drives his pick-up truck off a high bridge.

Eamon Bailey’s response? What a shame the boy wasn’t in a self-driving car. The on-board computers would never have permitted such self-destructive behavior.

But Mercer understands the world in ways that Mae never will, and Eamon refuses to. Earlier in the book, Mercer walks out on Mae during  dinner with her parents, when she is “zinging” pictures of the deer-antler chandeliers he builds to her “friends” all over the world. She’s caught up with the screen of her phone, oblivious while he  talks to her. She follows him out to the street and he says this, in the course of their confrontation:

Here though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues.  You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai. You know what I think, Mae? I think you think that sitting at your desk frowning and smiling somehow makes you think you’re actually living some exciting life. You comment on things and that substitutes for doing them … Mae, do you realize how boring you’ve become?

About as boring as the bride in my fantasy – or the kid texting as his dog-trainer friend runs his pet German shepherd through a series of perfectly synchronized commands; or the father texting continuously during his daughter’s dance recital. Or the driver texting his way into a fatal car crash. He was pressing send when the light turned red.

It’s the future and no one has seen it more clearly than Dave Eggers.

In the last image of his novel, Mae sits at Annie’s bedside, watching her comatose friend, studying the read-outs that show brain activity, furious that everything going on inside, all those dreams and memories, remains steadfastly secret, private, stolen from the world by the barricade of a woman’s skull. And the book seems to say: be patient, Mae.

It won’t be long now.

                                                                                                                                                                                — 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 WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his work has appeared at Salon.com and various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.
Contact: stevenaxelrod@numerocinqmagazine.com

 

Nov 022013
 

Desktop28Salerno, Salinger & Shields

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Fame is a mask that eats the face – John Updike

Salinger
by David Shields and Shane Salerno
Doubleday; 331 pp; $37.50.

I was on YouTube the other night and I happened upon an old video that reminded me of this book and its subject. The clip was from 1969. Hugh Hefner was hosting the British group, Deep Purple, at his mansion in Chicago. Hef had a TV show back then, late night, a very loose piece of broadcasting that nonetheless was suffice with all the vibrations that drew millions of gents to Playboy. It was just before Hefner decamped to LA. Once amongst the palms, Hef traded in his tux for silk pyjamas and withdrew from the public eye almost altogether. He holed up in a mansion that ran on werewolf’s clock and a sybriate’s appetites. Hef built his own space-time continium in that mansion, a swinger’s paradise that gave American what it wanted without the swinger having to give himself up to America.

Perhaps that is what Salinger was after when he retreated to a modest cottage in New Hampshire not long after the publication of Catcher in the Rye. In this massive oral history, cobbled together from an unbelievable variety of sources, Shields and Salerno give us a Salinger who lost himself in an imaginary family, the Glasses, even while his own young family looked on with dismay and bewilderment.

Jerome David Salinger began well in life. His people had money and he had the looks and smarts to make the most of that advantage. Two events, not unrelated, conspired to lay him low. First, he fell for Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona. Salinger wanted her badly and hit her with his best shots, including what would become his preferred method of mashing – love letters. The radiant debuttante was unmoved, however, and cast her lot with Charlie Chaplin who married her a month after she turned eighteen. The thirty six year difference between them proved to be nothing; they had eight children and the marriage flourished for thirty four years until Chaplin departed the limelight for good. For Salinger, the rejection was particularly galling, as he was trapped in Europe fighting WWII when he learned of his defeat at the hands of the old musical hall rascal. Chaplin was everything Salinger would prove not to be – sociable, entertaining, comfortable in fame yet able to best its worst to the benefit of his privacy.

If O’Neill permanently marked Salinger with a lust for nubile flesh, WWII gutted his psyche. Salinger lived through the worst the war had to give a soldier. He survived a number of nasty combat episodes as the Allies moved to finish off the Nazis. Then he participated in the liberation of one of Hitler’s concentration camps.

The biographers state early and often that Salinger understandably cracked up. Jilted and spooked, Salinger came home to America unsuitable for American life. But his madness gave the literary world two bona fide treasures. In 1948, the New Yorker published A Perfect Day for Bananafish, a short story that blew the New York literary scene out of the water. Salinger was no Norman Mailer. He didn’t pride himself on coming out of WWII a hardened existential warrior. And he wasn’t Vonnegut who managed to take his own case of shellshock and transmute it into absurdist literature suffuse with playful, almost childish humanity. To the contrary, Bananafish is a communique from the front lines of untreated and untreatable PTSD. We learn that the first half of the story came in a crucial revision process demanded by The New Yorker editors. The comely young wife of Seymour Glass tries to convince her anxious mother that Seymour, tormented by his war experiences, is getting better. Then the reader joins Seymour on the beach where he is entertaining a little girl with stories about a make-believe fish. Glass returns to his Miami Beach hotel room, takes a look at his napping wife and blows his brains out with a service revolver. Salinger was rubbing something very nasty in the face of America, a war-weary country that didn’t want to think about its brave veterans eating a gun after they’ve covertly ogled little girls on the beach. America was on the make, with flag and Jesus and easy credit on hand to sanctify the ascent and quell the primal doubts of modern existence. Salinger wrote in an authentic voice, deeply troubled yet unyielding in its alienation from American life and fatal disappointment with the world at large.

Catcher in the Rye was Salinger’s moment of truth for that voice. His short stories had bought him enormous goodwill and standing in the publishing world. He had become a staple at The New Yorker. Now he could truly reveal himself, the arrested adolescent who went to war and came home with yet another set of mental handcuffs, a troubled kid who nonetheless found a way to bear witness to the prison life of his mind in edgy prose spiced with profanities. Holden Caulfield was raging against the hypocrisies of his time. And American youth were all ears. They were mad as hell and didn’t want to take it anymore. Fuck the squares and the Russians and the bomb and apple pie. Shields and Salerno do a lovely job of piecing together how the book barely managed to make it to the presses as publisher after publisher balked at Salinger’s aggrieved prep-school dropout. When Catcher came out, the response was sensational. In less than five years, the book was being banned by schools all over the country. What Salinger had started with Bananafish, he finished with Catcher.

And then Salinger escaped New York to Cornish, New Hampshire. Years passed, then decades. While Salinger tried to capture his beloved Glass family under glass, the world tried to capture the elusive Salinger. Where had he gone? Why? Hefner went away to live out the fantasy he sold on the newsstands. Salinger went away to escape the collective fantasy of the successful author, a fantasy that shadowed his writing and weighed heavily on his compromised mind. By removing himself, he hoped, the work was left to speak for him.

But is that really true? As the book moves into its final third, Shields and Salerno provide ample evidence that Salinger was a rabid protector not just of his privacy but also his mythos. Just as Hefner fights to keep his mid-century image frozen in the public mind, so did Salinger. Holden must not grow up. He must not be seen dealing with the awful drudgery of adulthood. He must not be an old man toiling on idiosyncratic oddities. Salinger duked it out with a would-be biographer all the way to Supreme Court and emerged victorious. He took on his own daughter who wanted to air the soiled family laundry. He played footsie with publishers, big and small. And he continued to cultivate young female pen pals.

Old hard-ons die hard. No biography of Salinger would be complete with an appearance by Joyce Maynard, the ambitious literary ingenue who moved in with JD as the Summer of Love was falling apart. Here Shields and Salerno allow Maynard to give a full account of her romance, if you can call it that, with Salinger. We might have heard it all before but never in such a rich context. Looking at pictures of teenage Joyce, you can just imagine what she did for Salinger, eternally on the make for a new and improved Oona. In Bananafish, Salinger shamelessly advertised his addiction to innocence, female innocence, the kind of innocence that didn’t wear a baby doll nightie or get pregnant. And ultimately that is what caused Salinger to send Maynard packing – the realization that her innocence was not only fleeting but in flight, it could cause him the grief of more fatherhood. She wasn’t a real person; she was a place to indulge his delusions. At least Hef invited his ladies into a heated jacuzzi to get the same kicks. The Maynard saga ends with the lamentable Joyce driving up to New Hampshire, looking for closure. By then she had been dining out on her liaison with Salinger for decades. She gets what she came for with a fuselade of expletives and a door slammed in her face.

This is not a standard celebrity biography written by some Fleet Street hack eager to bring his subject down a peg or two. Nor is it a hagiography looking to give us a buffed-up JD Salinger who heroically fought to keep his literary quest pure and unsullied by the machinations and madness of fame. It is a cunningly ramshackle collection of all the source material one expects from a biography lashed together in chronological order but with no singular authorial voice. The authors don’t serve you drinks in a boat; you’re swimming in their water but the current is copacetic. Shields is an old hand at this sort of thing. In works like Reality Manifesto, he outlined a galvanic form of creative non-fiction where the reader and the writer have to do real work on the page, the former providing the potential for a meaningful collage, the latter putting it together, just barely.

Why Salinger now? The authors intimate that posthumous goodies from the Salinger vault are about to be released. No doubt this will excite some in the literary community while others will yawn. Salinger, after all, never fulfilled his promise. To use a term that he liked to use on others, he didn’t really measure up. Neither committed to the Jewish heritage of his father or the Roman Catholic heritage of his mother, Salinger lacked a compelling bassline to his writing unlike Roth, Bellow or Hemingway who all played deep and aggressive notes of an actual ethnic or moral heritage. Perhaps that’s why Alexander Portnoy is far more compelling than Holden Caulfield. Portnoy doesn’t whine that he’s misunderstood; he jacks off on the subway to show he plays by his own rules.

That said, time has proven that Salinger was probably wise to disappear. Fame is a game that has become unbelievably coarse and cruel. If not fame, people will gladly settle for infamy. Just ask Mark David Chapman. Nobody escapes from it, old or young, talented or talentless, the once proud star or the forever pathetic nobody. TMZ has a seemingly bottomless pit of cretinous young paparazzi eager to earn their bones confronting celebrities with inane barbed questions mixed with ingratiating urban patter.

Salinger also is a reminder that at one time America was a society that read, that knew the names of authors and cared deeply about their work. Literary fame was the result of actual accomplishment. Today, middling authors lay their lives bare on social media platforms for fans, setting an ugly standard that better authors feel obligated to oblige. Aren’t the books enough? In the end, perhaps not even the books were enough for Salinger. But they kept him alive long after he pulled the trigger on Seymour Glass, the man he probably was.

—Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale is a professional copywriter and brand manager. He writes literary fiction and composes electronic music under the pseudonym Stirling Noh. Visit him at: http://noh.atomicquill.com

Nov 012013
 

Tim Deverell

Tim Deverell grew up on the flat geographical abstraction of the Canadian Prairies, spent many years studying and evolving in the urban abstraction of New York and now lives in Toronto, a city that, if anything, is an abstraction or an abstraction, a sign of its own absence (but very busy nonetheless). Deverell’s influences are a set of party invitations to painterly Modernism and Abstract Expressionism with a nod back even farther to Heironymus Bosch and James Ensor who composed proto-abstract paintings of multitudes of human scenes, figures or faces. Hence Deverell’s use of collage, cut up bits of magazine image and sketch applied as paint or instead of paint — that’s one compositional theme. In the interview he talks of influences, of a structure and destruction of structure, the two always in some ironic tension with one another, and about obsession which has its effect in the detailed recursiveness of the work.

Deverell has a new show opening in Toronto November 2 (details below). If you happen to be lucky enough to be around, go take a look.

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Tim Deverell: Paintings 2000 to 2013 is an exhibition of Deverell’s paintings, his first solo show since 1999, at the yumart gallery in Toronto, November 2-23, 2013. Location: yumart is located on the 2nd floor of 101 Spadina Avenue, south of Adelaide on the east side of Spadina. Gallery Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 6:00 p.m. Phone: 647-447-9274. Gallerist: Yvonne Whelan.

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01 Berkeley #4 gouache copy

Berkeley #4, gouache, 16″ X 12″, Tim Deverell, 2012

Y.M. Whelan: Donald Brackett wrote about your work in Toronto Life Magazine as being a ‘portrait of urban life as it plunges into the next millennium’ with images that ‘build into a storm of little symbols, graphic designs and geometric forms and give way to a feeling that you’re looking at 21st century hieroglyphics’. Do you actually reference or draw upon the urban landscape as source material, and if so, would you say your work is abstraction?

Tim Deverell: The paintings are abstract. The city is abstract. I wander and get lost in the city as I search and find my way in the painting. The cityscape is continually reinvented, as is the painting.

02 Clusters and Squares

Clusters and Squares, acrylic on canvas, 12″ X 24″, Tim Deverell, 2012

YMW: After a recent visit to your studio, I noticed that you have two distinct yet complementary bodies of work: paintings composed of tiny figures, heads, texts etc., and paintings that are composed of pure colour and light. Do you see these as two separate styles? How are they related to each other?

TD: They both depend on multiplicity and a cross-fertilization. The one is in the other, opposite equals striving to be one body.

03 Fieldnotes collage

Field Notes, collage and acrylic on wood, 12″ X 12″, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW:  Can you tell me some of your major influences throughout your art practice?  Have they changed over the years as your work has developed?

TD:  Two very different artists have been key influences from the start of my art-making: James Ensor and Piet Mondrian. Influences are to be absorbed then shaken off, but I feel a strong affinity with the work of Mark Tobey, H. Bosch, Arshile Gorky and Wols — a German artist of the Tachisme movement. Also, Sally Drummond, an American painter who also uses a built up saturation of tiny marks. From the Canadian prairie I continue to look at the work of Agnes Martin and Art McKay. Having made paintings for over fifty years, I prefer being influenced by what lies outside the art world, such as the urban environment that I soak up through long walks where I observe the human element and bustle.

04 Niagara collage

Niagara, collage and gouache on paper, 24″ X 18″, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW: Your work is highly detailed. Can you describe your technique or process of making art and what kind of time-line is involved? Do you work on several paintings at once?

TD: Thinking about technique can get in the way. There is a certain randomness in how I choose imagery and colour; it’s not predetermined. I often start with a grid and broad washes of colour which will slowly become obliterated as I continue working. They act as a structure or discipline to destroy. The tools and materials are simple – palette knife, brush, pen, pigments, collage elements from diverse sources and canvas. I have an innate need to saturate the surface in a search for a space my mind roam in. The infinite variety of the visual is seductive. I work on one large painting for an average of two months companioned by small pieces – collages and gouaches. Drawing is a constant, though I don’t make studies or drawings for paintings.

06 Red dots

Red Dots, oil and collage on canvas, 42″ X 40″, Tim Deverell, 2013

05 Red dots detail

Red Dots (detail), oil and collage on canvas, Detail of 42″ X 40″ painting, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW: This one might be too personal: what informed your decision to leave New York City after so long? Do you regret your decision?

TD: There was no rational decision to leave Manhattan, just a usual upheaval of human relationships, confusion of personal and artistic direction and an unrealistic idea of what life would be like in Canada. Regrets? Deep, for over ten years. I did return to New York for a year, but something had changed, either in me or the place. Toronto is in the Now. It’s hard to describe the grip a big city can have on one. I feel New York as a place that formed me as a painter. The art world at that time was a place of incredible flux. You protect yourself in a big place by creating a smaller world, as I did with three close artist friends who were from Saskatchewan.

08 Snapshot

Snapshots, oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas, 48″  X 36″, Tim Deverell, 2013

07 Snapshot detail

Snapshots (detail), oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas, detail of 48″ X 36″ painting, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW: Where do you see your work going from here?

TD: I let the work tell me where to go. I am increasingly involved with balancing collage elements and paint. I have countless images to pluck from shoeboxes full of fragments of my own drawings and printed material such as magazines, encylopedia and dictionaries.  The challenge is in bringing the collage elements into the painting and having them work as paint.

All I know is that I will continue to make paintings in my usual obsessive way.

10 Swim Alone

Swim Alone, acrylic and collage on canvas, 48″  X  48″, Tim Deverell, 2013

09 Swim alone detail

Swim Alone (detail), oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas, detail of 48″ X 48″ painting, Tim Deverell, 2013

— Tim Deverell & Y. M. Whelan

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Tim Deverell was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1939. His father worked as a journalist, his mother as a nurse. He first studied art with Ernest Lindner at Saskatoon Technical Collegiate. He went on to work at the Regina College School of Art with painters Ken Lochhead, Art McKay and Roy Kiyooka. At age eighteen, he travelled to New York City where he lived for the next seventeen years. Deverell studied at the Art Students League with Theodoros Stamos, George Grosz and Charles Alston during a period when painting was a dominant force in the New York art world.  At age 21, Deverell had his first solo show at the Kornblee Gallery on Madison Avenue and a follow-up show the next year. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, he was a member of  the 55 Mercer Street Gallery in Soho and exhibited there many times in solo and group shows. During the New York years, he made extended trips to Europe, and India.

Returning to Canada in 1976, Deverell settled first in Vancouver, then in Toronto, where he has lived since, with frequent forays to Mexico and Berkeley, California.  Since his return to Canada, he has exhibited at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon, the National Gallery of Canada, and had solo shows in six different Toronto galleries.

Tim Deverell: Paintings 2000 to 2013 is an exhibition of Deverell’s paintings, his first solo show since 1999, at the yumart gallery in Toronto, November 2- 23, 2013.