Oct 182013


If only it were as simple as Julie Andrews would have it and we could just “start at the very beginning” because, of course, “it’s a very good place to start.” But in terms of narrative, there is always for me the pressing question of where to begin. I carry a few principles with me I have learned from various teachers and from trial and much error.

1. Walk in late.

2. The end is in the beginning.

3. Show the audience how to experience (love) the story.

The trick, then, is to keep these things in mind but, as Andrew Horton reminds us in Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay, “Remember you wish to draw the viewer into your world, but you don’t want to drown him or her in the first ten minutes” (159).  Easy peasy.

The odd thing about beginnings is how often they are forgotten. When I’m teaching and asking students about the first frames of films, they often reference later plot points more than the actual first shots. Roland Barthes, in his A Lover’s Discourse, points out that there is no love at first sight.

I never fall in love unless I have wanted to; the emptiness I produce in myself . . . is nothing but that interval, longer or shorter, when I glance around me, without seeming to, looking for who to love . . . Yet the myth of “love at first sight” is so powerful  . . . that we are astonished if we hear of someone deciding to fall in love. (190)

So how we do suggest, provoke, encourage the audience to want to fall in love, firstly. And how do we not falsely advertise, lure the viewer or reader in with the promise of a torrid and lurid affair only to promptly pull out the TV dinners and our sad house coats, narratively speaking?

The question of how to begin has been more recently preoccupying me with a film I shot last may, “zack & luc,” where I planned a beginning but lost it. I shot the film all on super 8 film which in this day and age is an exercise in desperate waiting for a hopeful outcome: you shoot the film, you send it off to the lab in another city, you then wait for the lab to develop it, send it to another place where it is scanned and digitized, and then months later your film footage and its electronic version arrive back and you see what you have (or don’t have). In our case, of the thirty-eight rolls of film, we were rather lucky that only one had some exposure to light and only one didn’t turn out at all. The problem that presented itself was that the footage on the missing roll was intended to be used for the first and last shots in the film. Because I believe the end was in the beginning, I lost both.

In the beginning,

The rain clattering against the windshield of the parked truck, the wipers forgetting then remembering to clear away the water. The lights of the cars driving by become clear then blurry, then clear, then blurry again.

And in the end,

Zack turns and opens the door and then he is gone, the cab filled again with the sound of rain on the glass. Through the windshield the world is dark and impressionistic, sparkled with the red and white lights of passing cars.

Perhaps I would not be so concerned with this lost beginning and ending if I wasn’t acutely aware that the stories I am interested in telling are a little high maintenance and thus a little hard to instantly fall in love with. In my short film scripts I am drawn to stories that are narratively challenging.  “alice & huck,’ directed by the wonderful Kaleena Kiff, tells the story of two characters who collide but mostly miss in various scenarios or universes, exploring the question of how timing plays into our possible romances.

AH poster 11 by 17

“zack & luc” is two versions of the entire story of a relationship, told for the one character on the right chronologically and for the other on the left frame in reverse chronology, so the first and last moment the two lovers are together are juxtaposed.


Among other things, this non-linear story I think gets to explore that beginnings principle (“the end is in the beginning”) and how it pertains to relationships. Once you’ve loved and lost a few times, you look at beginnings a little differently. In writing both stories, I was aware that I had to find some way to coach the audience to watch the films differently than they would a realist or classical (typical Hollywood) piece.

A film that taught me a lot about beginnings was the Belgian film Une Liaison Pornographique (a fantastic title which was then rather confusedly and perfectly translated into the title for the American release as An Affair of Love, which betrays an American confusion around endings or love or both).


It’s a peculiar film: it tells the story of a man and a woman, both unnamed, who are being interviewed by an unidentified interviewer about a sexual act that the two met for but insist they will not disclose to the interviewer. There are a barrel of monkey questions that could easily undo the “love at first sight” state we might want to experience for this story: who is the interviewer? Why is he making this documentary? Since the two versions of the affair contradict, who is telling the truth? And what the hell were they doing in that hotel room anyway? Here the filmmakers had to create a difficultly achieved balance between building the audience’s desire and not creating so many questions that the viewer might be more attached to the questions than the momentum of the story. How to coach an audience to not over focus on the details? How to get them to go along with an improbable though compelling story?

In the case of Une Liaison, the filmmakers bracket the film with the same crowd footage you see linked above. We begin and end with this out of focus, impressionistically shot, crowd of strangers on the street. If you watch intently I promise you that you can almost see the woman and the man in that crowd; or do you? This is flirting; this is the possibility of love. Regardless, the opening, in the style of an impressionistic painting, coaches us to see what follows in a similar fashion: to see associatively or impressionistically. One could look at a Monet painting and just look at the brush strokes but then one would be kind of missing the point.

Other films embrace the same principle with different methods. Tom Tykwer‘s Run Lola Run has an ominous clock followed by a similar crowd scene that emphasizes and introduces its themes around time and the interconnectedness of people.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s Amelie does a beautiful job of establishing its themes of connection and synchronicity and its tone of absurdity.

When it came to writing “alice & huck” I knew I needed a similar sign post declaring“Watch this way.” It presented itself in the swing and the clouds

That did not seem enough to signify the leaps between the various versions of how the two characters might collide, so I then wrote in a recurring impressionistic montage of body parts saturated in sunlight:

A world out of focus, what look like limbs, a mouth, a throat, 1 all blurry and impressionistic. breath and sighs. these
are the moments that bridge time and place, like puzzle pieces each time, but pieces to a puzzle all about the sky — no 
one can put this together.

This is what it translates into in the film:

With “zack & luc” I needed a similar sign post so the viewer would be prepared to watch loosely, associatively, patiently. The impressionistic beginning I wanted was that visual through the windshield in the rain. It had partly come to me from Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (presented and written about by Sophie Lavoie right here on Numero Cinq at the Movies).


There when the fish explain their dream where they go driving in the rain, we see footage of the highway through a windshield in the rain. This image stuck with me and seemed a perfect way to bracket the complicated story of “zack & luc.”

So when it no longer existed, when the roll was damaged, I had to decide how important it was. Then when I woke up two weeks later declaring to the ceiling that I needed the shot, I had to go about it. It took until the end of the summer for me to order in the film, book the camera and grab a handful of people to get the shot. I think it was a Tuesday night, in a friend’s driveway with a very long garden hose, but we got it.

It will be months still before an audience sees this beginning / ending and before I can really get a sense of whether these shots create a space for love. But I am hopeful and this is a good ending to the story where I lost my beginning.

— R. W. Gray

Oct 172013


In the spirit of Ror Wolf’s microstory just published yesterday on NC, we offer a homegrown micro author Cynthia Sample, a Texan who finds the strictures of story form an inspiration for jokes, whimsy, serendipity, found texts and mixed form. Call this an antidote to all the awkward 20-page monsters that so earnestly deploy characterization, backfill, social issue thematics and deep meaning. Don’t look for deep meaning here, at least not that kind of deep meaning. But the spirit of play is at work, irony is at work, the author possesses the flexibility of mind to see that a text can have more than one economy of use.



This is the automated Emergency Blackboard of the Town of Highland Park. The National Weather Service has issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Dallas, Collin and Tarrant Counties which includes our area.

Take cover immediately.

Winds are expected to be 50-60 miles per hour.  During a Severe Thunderstorm, tornadoes can develop with very little warning.

Take cover immediately in the safest place within your home, either a central hallway or in an enclosed bathtub in the lower level of your home.   Cover yourself with mattresses or other padding if you are able.

Stay away from windows.

Do not drive.  Flash flooding is expected along all major highways and roads going into and out of the Town of Highland Park.  Be aware that heavy winds can damage power lines.

This warning will be in effect until 8:45 p.m.

Take cover immediately.

Press * to repeat this message.

Press 2 to be removed from the Early Warning Emergency Blackboard.

Press 3 to speak with the Town Tax Collection Department.

Press 4 to be connected to the waste management team.

Press 5 to speak to the Police Department.

Press 6 for directions to the Town Hall.

Press * to repeat this message.

Press * to repeat this message.

Press * to repeat this message.

—Cynthia Sample


Cynthia Sample received a MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2005.  Her stories have appeared in Between the Lines, the Wichita Falls Literary & Arts Journal, Numéro Cinq and Love After 70.  She has work forthcoming in The Summerset Literary Review and Sleet. In 2007, she was one of four Emerging Writers to present her work at the WordSpace Literary Festival in Dallas, Texas, where she is a lifelong resident.

Oct 162013


Herewith, a delightful micro-story from Ror Wolf’s latest collection, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions (published by Open Letter Books and translated by Jennifer Marquart ). Wolf was born in East Germany in 1932. He is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. He emigrated West Germany in 1953, where he studied with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory. As you might expect of a writer with such a background, Wolf merrily refuses to create a conventional story line. Rather he works in fragments and asides and wordplay, always shadowed by the IDEA of a conventional story that might come into existence but doesn’t.  A first person narrator is asked a question. “What prompted your remark?” But Wolf’s narrator dashes and evades. “I didn’t make a remark,” the narrator says. And from there, we are off and running. Notice how Wolf shifts from past tense to present tense. Notice how he describes a cast of characters that aren’t really part of the main action. Suddenly the story fills with a variety of men sprawled out like disfigured shapes in a Goya painting.  What’s real? What’s it about? And Wolf leads us only further into the mystery, into the facts that never materialize. Like Robert Walser, like Gertrude Stein, like Thomas Bernhard, Wolf invents new possibilities for the story.

—Richard Farrell

two or three


Excuse me, what prompted your remark, said a man as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st 1999, and I said: I didn’t make a remark. I can’t even guess if the next man who shows up in line will make a remark. I also don’t know if my abilities are sufficient enough to describe this showing up, or to at least prove my competence for such a description here, in front of my readers. Anyway, I have doubts about my competence regarding the problem that surrounds and seems to occupy this man, and from which he is trying to momentarily step away in order to get my attention. Before I give any thought to this, I’ll turn my attention to another man, who’s lying crumpled under the table with only his feet visible. Without an extra explanation, no one would figure out why two identical-looking men are behaving so differently; and yet the explanation is very simple. You shouldn’t wait for an explanation from me because I just decided to turn my attention to another man. This man is resting his head on the table, as we can see, but in reality it only looks like that, and has no bearing on the continuation of this story. I am also not really interested in this man, but will only compare him to the man I wanted to discuss at the beginning and who is standing beside him—not directly next to him, but at a little bit of a distance. If I were to hear that the man I mentioned opened a door and disappeared, it would live up to my expectations and wishes entirely, enabling me to easily turn my attention towards several other men. They are men with a purpose, coming in as if they invented their purposes in the moment they entered, and they are in reality only meaningless purposes. Incidentally, all of these men wear their hats on their heads, and, between you and me, that seems somewhat boring, but I won’t dwell on it. Instead, I exhibit a certain interest in listening to a man whom I don’t see, but can hear quite well. Excuse me, what prompted your remark, this man said, as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st. And I said: I didn’t make any remark. That was ’99, a rather shitty year for men—men who went to the brink of tolerability, the end of their strengths, men with hats firmly adhered to their heads, shoes firmly attached to their feet, men who did not have a solid grasp on what could happen to them in a train station hotel. And that’s not nearly all. I’m refraining from describing what came next. I’ll do everything to avoid confusing you with more words, I said that time in ’99. I stood up. Where are you going? someone asked, some man asked: Where are you going? But I didn’t pay attention to the question, I left, and refrained from describing the further development.

—Ror Wolf


Ror Wolf is an artist, an author of prose and poetry, and a writer of radio plays and “radio collages.” Born in the East German city of Saalfeld, Wolf left the GDR for West Germany at the age of 31. His writing has earned him many awards, including Radio Play of the Year (2007), the Kassel Literature Prize for Grotesque Humor (2004) and the Literature Award of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in 2003. Wolf’s work has been translated into over 12 languages.

Jennifer Marquart studied German and translation at the University of Rochester. She has lived, continued her studies and taught in Cologne and Berlin. Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf is her first book-length translation.


Oct 152013


two or three

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions
Ror Wolf
Translated Jennifer Marquart
Open Letter Books
142 pages, paperback, $14.95

From its opening page, Ror Wolf’s Two or Three Years Later defies expectations. This collection of forty-nine ‘digressions’ (Wolf’s term), translated from German by Jennifer Marquart and published by Open Letter Books, takes the reader on a disorienting journey through a series of fast-hitting, unresolved, and zany stories. Located at the intersection of anti-novel and metafictional farce, Wolf blends his own spare style with absurd setups, half plots and tragic loneliness. We never get inside. We never arrive. Hell, sometimes we never even depart. Instead, we bounce about on a pointed quill of uncertainty and wild merriment.

Of the forty-eight miniature stories in this collection, only three are longer than two-and-a-half pages. Many take up less than a page of text. The last story, “The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from an Exposed Life,” is forty-nine pages long.  (Wolf does seem to enjoy these little riddles.)

Born in eastern Germany in 1932, Ror Wolf is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. Two or Three Years Later is the first of Wolf’s books readily available in English. He emigrated west in 1953, working in a variety of fields before studying with the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory.

Wolf plucks his stories from the edge of the familiar, so that we recognize some part of the architecture, some cornice or balustrade that hints at a larger design, but the building never materializes. Instead, we are left with only fragments, an incomplete blueprint that distorts assumptions and dismisses significance.

Take the story “Neither in Schleiz, nor Anywhere Else in the World,” in which Wolf announces his ambiguous intention in the title itself, not really a title but the negation of a title. Then the opening lines: “A man who prefers anonymity, a certain X—his name is irrelevant—arrives one day, one morning, one afternoon…It’s all the same in a city whose name we won’t disclose. He does nothing, which is what we wanted to report, since what he does is so insignificant that that’s the only significant thing to say about it.”

Notice how the story races ahead of the reader, all the while undercutting expectations. In a few sentences, Wolf silences character, plot, setting and theme with the cold-blooded efficiency of an assassin. What’s left, the reader reasonably wonders? But don’t expect Wolf to deliver an easy answer. He goes on to further nullify, through a series of parallel non-descriptions, any remaining hope of familiarity: “If he contemplates something, it is without feeling; if he touches something, it is without reason.” He’s erasing the story, rather than inventing it. He tells us nothing, and shows us even less. This story, like most in the collection, becomes almost impossible to summarize because it never arranges itself into any order.

Again and again, through a series of seemingly disconnected anecdotes and halting starts, Wolf declines to assemble. This is more than just post-modernist style. The collection doesn’t drift toward absurdism, it wallows in an almost nihilistic refusal to conform. And yet there’s a sturdy elegance about each of these pieces, a cold, biting quality that binds and spreads, so that what remains is a refreshingly pure, playful examination of stories without meaning (and, by implication, stories that do appear to have meaning).

“In a French Kitchen. In a Swiss Lake. In a Berlin Closet.” is a half-page story that delivers the accounts of three tragic accidents. A man intentionally blows himself up with dynamite. A golfer drowns after throwing his golf bag into a lake. Three seventy-year-old men playing cards burn themselves to death. Wolf relates these incidents without any context, emotion or explanation. “All three burned. This was in Berlin, near Nollendorfplatz.” Thus the story ends.

In “On the Edge of the Atlantic,” Wolf’s turns comically ornery. “A man yelled out in fear. Shortly thereafter, he died. That’s basically what happened, in any case, generally and essentially.” Nothing else happens. No explanation is offered. No narrative details fill in the missing pieces.  In fact, what Wolf supplies in place of the expected is a direct admonishment: “Of course, the reader deserved nothing better than the waves crashing over the man’s body, and the rain rolling in simultaneously, streaming down from above. Maybe he didn’t even deserve that.”

The idea of the reader not deserving the image, the prose that Wolf refused to render, certainly strikes a sinister, hilarious tone.

This roguish antagonism is embroidered in the text—between expectations and outcomes, between narrator and reader. It reveals that the patterns here are non-patterns, or anti-patterns at least. Uncertainty and doubt prevail. The stories rest on conditionality hinged together with the subjunctive mood.

Wolf does offer something of a clue to his aesthetic in the two-and-a-half page story, “At Nightfall.”

Last Monday I began to describe a man, who turned the corner of 82nd Street with a tremendous yawn. I didn’t want to describe his yawn, in any case it’s indescribable, and I didn’t want to describe how he turned the corner, but rather I wanted to describe how this man—or differently, differently. I’ll start over.

Wolf goes on to make nine aborted efforts to describe the simple act of a man turning a corner. “No, that’s weak, and not very good either. Maybe I should begin like this…” Is Wolf showing us the impossibility of language to adequately describe reality? Is he unmasking the fickle power of words to conjure anything? Or is he just having fun? If a story can’t get the simple act of turning a corner right, how can it hope to tackle the larger issues of morality, life, death, meaning? Wolf seems to be reminding us that, sometimes, it’s better not to try.

Artists are always trying to kick down the doors of tradition and form. The artist is always radicalizing his art; testing boundaries, pressing forward. Ror Wolf — with his philosophic roots in the Frankfurt School, famous for its intense critique of reason, the Enlightenment and modernity — appears to be of this ilk. His writing challenges the very notion of meaning and interconnectedness. In the end, the only thread that holds these stories together is no thread.

“I’ve traveled throughout this entire loud, reverberating world,” Wolf writes in “The Power of Song in Nevada, my favorite story in the collection.  “I’ve traveled out of a profound disposition for the echoing sea. I’ve heard ship bands and chamber orchestras, I’ve experienced the howling of the wind and the wild shouts of sailors—but all of that is nothing compared to the men’s choir I heard in Nevada.”

I don’t know what this means, especially when Wolf tells us how awful this choir was. But somewhere in the peregrinations and uncertainty, somewhere in these digressions, these strange and wondrous non-stories, the writer searches for the true note, for the profound disposition. It’s anyone’s guess if he’ll ever find it.

—Richard  Farrell



Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He 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.


Oct 142013

Ralph Angel

Ralph Angel’s lectures are theater pieces; he enacts meaning; he breathes presence; he speaks with quiet reverence and passion of great artists. He is my colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (along with Mary Ruefle, who has the same theatricality, reverence and passion but in a different key — it’s rare air that we breathe in Montpelier); so I watched him give this lecture; he starts by pulling your brain inside out like a sock (reading the Reverdy poem backward and forward); then he teaches a lesson about craft and art, not just by telling (Ralph is so NOT into telling) but by a series of images, Mark Rothko paintings that illustrate the true artist’s journey from craft to clarity and essence.

Watch for Ralph Angel’s new book of poems Your Moon, coming out next year with New Issues Press.




A long time ago a short poem by Pierre Reverdy changed my life forever. Its title is “Departure,” as translated by Michael Benedikt.

The horizon lowers
SPACESPACEThe days lengthen
SPACEA heart hops in a cage
SPACESPACEA bird sings
SPACESPACEAt the edge of death
Another door is about to open
SPACEAt the far end of the corridor
A dark lady
SPACELantern on a departing train

And for whatever reason, a long time ago—maybe because it retained its mystery each time I read it, maybe because each time it took me to some unnamable and wholly present, wholly immediate place—for whatever reason, I read this poem backwards, from last line to first line.

SPACELantern on a departing train
A dark lady
SPACEAt the far end of the corridor
Another door is about to open
SPACESPACEAt the edge of death
SPACESPACEA bird sings
SPACEA heart hops in a cage
SPACESPACEThe days lengthen
The horizon lowers

And voilà! This short poem, read from last line to first line, or from top to bottom, so validates the mind’s capacity!

I understand things in my mind—I understand things in my heart. There are times when I understand things in my knees.

Meaning involves the mind. The brain is a receptor. It’s like a dream machine. It receives impulses and it receives image upon image upon image upon image, but the mind craves meaning. The mind is assembling stuff all the time. It’s what makes the human species pretty interesting. We crave meaning by our very nature and by the size of our brains. If you think about language, it can be understood, it seems to me. You have twenty-six abstract symbols that mean absolutely nothing. And yet, in any arrangement, arbitrary or contrived, any arrangement whatsoever, we are orchestrating meaning. Those symbols, as they interact with one another, generate something greater than themselves. So it’s kind of like the brain itself. Impulse upon impulse upon impulse, and yet the mechanism is constantly, without our having a whole lot of say in the matter, making meaning out of what we receive.

The mind craves language, and Reverdy trusted that. Reverdy trusted language, and, therefore, a long time ago, trusted me, an embryo yet to be and waiting for a taxi.


The Metamorphosis

In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams….” And he can’t get up—he’s on his back!—and he’s late for work. Sound familiar? He hates his job. He loathes his boss. It’s a tedious, boring, undervalued job, but his father’s retired, and he’s the only son. His sister is a prodigy, and she’s young; she has a future ahead of her as a concert violinist. But Gregor’s arms and legs don’t work. He can’t turn himself over. The door is locked. His mother and sister and father and the char woman are outside the door. And then his boss arrives, and they are all exhorting him to get out of bed. But he can’t communicate with them in a way that they can understand. He just sort of squeaks.

Now Gregor lives with his family in a five-room flat, and his room is at the center, right at the center of the family. And, yes, he eventually tumbles from his bed—because he has will power and guilt and anger, and because he doesn’t know anything different—and he even gets a tiny hand to the key. But what’s on his mind? “…they should all have shouted encouragement to him, his father and mother too. ‘Go on, Gregor,’ they should have called out, ‘keep going, hold on to that key!'”

Not one time in this story does it ever occur to Gregor Samsa that he is a bug! And why should it? How may times have I awoken and not wanted to get out of bed? Or resented having to make money, or envied the sanity and good fortune of others, or hoped someday soon to murder my landlord? On any given morning I wear my skeleton on the outside because I am an insect at the center of the family and maybe could use some applause and a little more encouragement for once in my life! On any given day, friends, I am a bug. How else could I communicate with you? How else might you recognize me?

Gregor Samsa does not awaken one morning feeling like an insect. He is an insect. As time goes by he abandons cleanliness and stops sleeping. He loses all interest in food. “I’m hungry enough, but not for that kind of food.” He is the size of an insect now and does what insects do—skittering this way and that, climbing on things, collecting dust on his tiny legs, and leaving a weird sticky substance everywhere he goes.

Kafka’s title, “The Metamorphosis,” is a bit of a ruse. Gregor Samsa does not become a bug in this story. He is simply, from beginning to end, in spite of himself, who he is.


Poppies In October

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly—

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

Oh my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

In the last months of her life, Sylvia Plath, one of the supreme craftsmen of the last 75 years of American poetry, did not suddenly make transcendent poems by perfecting her craft. No poet or writer or artist or musician ever perfects his or her craft. The poet, for example, has only two tools with which to work: the language in which one composes, and the fact of one’s reality—and each is in flux. Just as one’s orientation to language evolves and changes over time, so too does one’s life.

Every poem is a revelation. Instead of perfecting her craft Sylvia Plath became, without much say in the matter, precisely who she was. She could not help but look outside of herself, at anything at all—in this case, at a bed of poppies in autumn—without discovering herself!

Like Reverdy who, at his purest, jettisoned the story of his reality for the fact of his reality. Poems comprised of essential language only—simple catalogues of details and images without exposition or explanation, without connectives, referents or transitions.

Language is powerful stuff. And essential language does the work. Inexplicable experience can never be explained, but it can be said.

Impulse upon impulse upon impulse, when we were born our brain weighed about three pounds, and our body was a mere appendage of it. Metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor, isolating out metaphor is a futile task. Everything is simply what it is. Situations are not similar to something else. Situations exist within themselves, as tone, as mood, as state of being. Just ask Gregor Samsa!

Sylvia Plath and Pierre Reverdy and Franz Kafka were great artists in part because they did not endeavor to explain reality. Rather, they were attentive to reality, which is the job of the artist, and each found a language to depict it. They were not tricked by the idea of perfecting one’s craft in order to make great art possible. Rather, they aspired to more than that. To immediacy and absolute presence.

To become themselves, they learned how to get out of the way.




Like all the great American abstract expressionists, Mark Rothko began painting with marvelous technique and craftsmanship.


But for years his paintings resembled closely the early paintings of many of his contemporaries,



like early Gorky, for example, or early de Kooning or Pollock.


But as he progressed in his work and began to make utterly unique, transcendent paintings


he learned to get out of the way, to become indivisible with his tools,


and to trust that, without referents or points of departure,


they could spin a viewer into his or her own ineffable interiority.


That they could make presence possible.SPACE


“The progression of a painter’s work,” wrote Rothko, “as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the observer….


As examples of such obstacles, I give memory, history, or geometry, which are swamps of generalizations from which one might pull out parades of ideas (which are ghosts) but never the idea itself.”

Poems, stories, paintings—art objects are like mirrors. No matter what we think we’re up to when we make them, they reflect precisely who we are at the time.

But it’s our job to be there. Attentively.

But we don’t always want to. To be there, I mean. I mean we all want to be liked, and we all want to spin things in a way that will make us look interesting and important and likable and smart.

It’s why not everyone is an artist.

“It takes ten years to master the art of basket weaving,” said the Master. And that’s just the first sentence of this story!

— Ralph Angel


Ralph Angel is the author of five books of poetryYour Moon (2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize, New Issues Press, forthcoming); Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 (2007 PEN USA Poetry Award); Twice Removed; Neither World (James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets); and Anxious Latitudes; as well as a translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.

His poems have appeared in scores of magazines and anthologies, both here and abroad, and recent literary awards include a gift from the Elgin Cox Trust, a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award, the Willis Barnstone Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Foundation fellowship and the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association.

Angel is Edith R. White Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Redlands, and a member of the MFA Program in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Seattle, he lives in Los Angeles.

Oct 132013

descriptionThis photo was taken in the 1980s with my grandmother and her grandchildren. I’m the tallest one. —BK

Bunkong TuonPhoto by Carol McCord

Bunkong Tuon’s grandmother carried him out of Cambodia on jungle trails on her back. In California, he was a lost kid, a dropout working in a donut shop, too bereft to find a footing in the West. One day he pulled a book off a library shelf and it changed him. The book and the author became this fatherless exiled orphan’s new father. You can read about this in his wonderful essay “On Fathers, Losses, and Other Influences,” published on NC  in February.

This time we have a handful of BK’s poems about his grandmother. They will break your heart.

They will break your heart, not through design but because BK knows how to pare his poems down to their emotional core; he knows how to get out of his own way. Like his poetic father, Charles Bukowski, he is a master of sentiment without being sentimental. BK writes: “My tongue has been cut / to fit the meter of another world,” which is a nod to his refugee roots, his loss of his native Khmer language. But here it is almost a conceit, for his heart speaks English all the same, and his poems are a remarkable testament to the power of one woman’s love and determination and the author’s own redeeming spirit.

All my life I told myself I never knew
suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.


My collection of poems, Under the Tamarind Tree, is a story of leaving Cambodia, living in refugee camps, and growing up in the United States, exploring both the history and culture of Cambodia and the early experience of a refugee in America. I write about Cambodia’s rice paddies, water buffaloes, early memories of my mother and father, life in the refugee camp on Thailand-Cambodia border; I also write about growing up as a refugee in Revere and Malden, MA, in the early 80s, collecting bottles and cans, getting into fights after school, feeling culturally alienated, discovering the work of Charles Bukowski in a Long Beach public library, teaching at a small liberal arts college in the East Coast; in short, the emergence of a hyphenated Khmer-American identity.



Dead Tongue

We are each other’s
springboard to another world.

I search for mother in you,
and you see your daughter in me.

I never knew how to thank you.
The words don’t sound right.

My tongue has been cut
to fit the meter of another world.

The words bounce off walls,
deflated, a dead poem.



We were talking about survival
when my uncle told me this.
“When you were young,
we had nothing to eat.
Your grandmother saved for you
the thickest part of her rice gruel.
Tasting that cloudy mixture
of salt, water, and grain, you cried out,
‘This is better than beef curry.’”

All my life I told myself I never knew
suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.


Calling Home

My cousin left me this message:
“Grandmother fell in the bathroom
and hit her head against the sink.
There’s a small gash over her right eye.”

I call home, and my uncle answers.
“No need to worry.  You can’t talk to her.
She’s sleeping now.  How’s work?
When will you be up for that review?”


 Pic for Grandma poems 2This picture (of grandmother and me) was taken in 2004 at Wat Phnom, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


Breakfast with Grandmother

Her maroon beanie, a Christmas gift
from one of her grandchildren,
rests snugly on her shaved head,
a stained bib around her neck.
The pills, crushed in a spoon,
sprinkle the murky gruel.
The water must be heated
to the right temperature, somewhere
between hot and not warm enough.
She cries each time one of us leaves
and is surprised when we return.

I sit at the table trying
not to stare at the cut near her temple,
watching her eat her breakfast,
to let her know that I am here
for her
when suddenly she screams in pain.

Afterward, she sobs quietly,
starring into the gruel
of Jasmine rice, chicken broth,
and now, tear and mucus.


Dining in Chinatown

My twenty-eight year-old cousin says,
before putting a piece of sesame beef into his mouth,
“She can’t be lonely.  She has everyone by her side,
her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”
He pours chili oil over black and pepper squid,
and continues, “Whatever she needs, we get for her.
Food, medicine.  She has Elder Uncle who sleeps
in her room to make sure all her needs are met.
Unlike some of her friends whose children
are all over the States, she’s lucky to have us around.”

I watch, fascinated by his ability to take in all that food.
Maybe he’s making up for all that lost time
in the refugee camp.  “And that damaged nerve of hers,
her pain stops whenever you’re around.  It’s psychosomatic,
or something like that.  I don’t know.  You’re the Ph.D.”



On the couch she watches
her great-grandchildren chase
each other down the hallway.

Commanded by the eldest,
they are Power Rangers battling
some evil robot.

A smile flickers.
Memory lit, before it disappears
into darkness again.


Early October, My Cousin’s Four-Year-Old Daughter’s Birthday

Our house booms with noise—four generations under one roof. My grandmother, uncles and aunts, me and my cousins, and their children. Grilled chicken, steak, fried rice; hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad. Soda pop and beer. The kids are chasing each other in the hallway that connects the living room to the kitchen. I sit with the adults around the dining room table. Grandmother is having her lunch of finely crushed rice powdered with her daily medicine.

—She’s fine.  The doctor says she needs to exercise.

—I try to get her to move around. She walks a couple times between here and the living room, then sits on the couch, and seconds later, she’ll be snoring.

—She sleeps too much during the day. At night, she keeps all of us up with her night talks, about her husband,  her young brother, our missing brother, and your mother.

—I get goose bumps sometimes, listening to her talk like that.

—Doesn’t she want to go to the temple anymore? She has friends there and the monks really like her. Didn’t they come to bless her in August?

—Her friends are old, too. Grandma Jeat passed away last month from cancer. She was sixty three. Grandma is eighty-four.

—She needs to get out of the house and be with people her own age. I see her sitting by herself in the living room watching the kids run amok and yelling at them to speak Khmer.

—She’s out of breath just walking from here to the bathroom. Besides, it’s getting cold outside. She can’t handle the weather that well now.

—When is her next doctor’s visit?  I’d like to go with you, Uncle.

Staring at each of our faces,
Grandmother speaks in clear, measured Khmer:
“Why is everyone speaking English?
You think I don’t know that you’re talking about me?
‘Doctor.’ ‘Hospital.’  ‘Yiey Jeat.’
I’m no dummy. ”


A Lesson

I tell myself.
There must be a lesson
in old age.
As the body withers,
truth appears.
It’s wishful thinking,
but it’s good
to think of hope
and renewal
in something beyond
our control.

But, seriously,
how long can we
ask this
of our elders?
How long can we
ask this
of ourselves?


Thanksgiving Farewell

Grandma is holding my wife’s hand:

Take care of each other.
He doesn’t have any parents.
I’ve taken care of him
since his mother passed
away under Pol Pot.

Grandma sobs and turns to me:
Tell her. Speak for me.

She places my hand on top of my wife’s:
You. He. Take care.

Seeing our stunned faces, she repeats.
You. He. Take care. OK?

I give her a hug and say in Khmer:

There’s no need to cry, Lok-Yiey.
We’ll be back around Christmas.


Breathing In

Waiting for the broth to boil,
so that I can drop in the noodles

That Grandma used to make,

I imagine that phone call
from home,

The kind you see in the movies,
where a couple is awakened,

Two in the morning,
fumbling in a darkness

That will never leave.

I breathe in
to become part of you.

 —Bunkong Tuon


Bunkong Tuon teaches in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He completed a book of poems, “Under the Tamarind Tree.” These Grandmother poems are from this collection. Inspired by the reception of his essay “On Fathers, Losses, and other Influences,” he is currently working on a book of essays on family, memory, and home.

Oct 122013

Robert Miner in Cyprus

For years, I’ve listened to Robert Miner’s stories of his time in Turkey and Greece, when he was young and carefree, if not downright mischievous. Once as a boy, he set fire to a Turkish village by accident and burned half of it down. Once in Greece during the civil war, a servant took him out at night and he saw a tank drive by festooned with human heads. Bob is an old, old friend — we used to be young writers together, skiing at Gore and Stratton or on the backwoods trails behind Lake Desolation in the winter, going on roads trips in the summer, talking, talking about writing.

This is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called Night Work, a long ongoing project based very loosely on his own and his parents’ experiences in Turkey where his father was a teacher at Robert College (as was Bob, later in life) and then a diplomat (and probably a spy). Bob’s mother came from a distinguished Anglo-Turkish family threaded with exotic businessmen, beautiful women, elegant learning and dashing adventurers. The stuff of legend.

I give you fair warning. This chapter is not for the faint of heart. It wreaks of a kind of evil that exists in places where cynical wealth enables desires we mostly cannot conceive of except in police reports or United Nations exposés of sex trafficking and tourism. It has its literary roots: Justine frantically searching the child brothels of Alexandria for her lost daughter in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (remember the walls decorated with tiny anonymous childish palm prints?) or the amazing porn movie scene in Nathanael West’s great Hollywood novel Day of the Locust. Money, decadence, depravity and the mysterious seductiveness of transgression, of going beyond.


At night they look like huge prostrate skeletons, looming for miles at the edge of the old city.  Massive stone block walls fifteen feet thick, forty feet high.  They’ve been there in one form or another since AD 413 when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II had them built from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn.  Behind these walls with their ninety-six towers and triumphal gates, their treasure rooms, torture rooms, and dungeons, the city multiplied, secure.

Definitions of security have changed since.  The walls in places have been allowed to sag into ruin by a people more fatalistic, or perhaps merely defeated by manipulations of time that no walls, however formidable, could withstand.  Still, in one section of the walls, the most temporary of peoples has found a permanent existence.  No one knows how long they have lived in the catacombs and cisterns, deep inside the secret passages between huge walls and ancient dungeons, but huddled against the fortifications of the northwest section of the old city live the gypsies of Istanbul.

It was here I found myself staring at the giant slumbering bones of the city walls late one night in May, 1935.  The moon traveled across the battlements under hot, fast-moving clouds.  No other light could be seen, though a city of gypsies murmured in the shadow of the Fifth Military Gate, the section of the walls the ancients called Murus Bacchantes.

This night Prescott was dressed in what he called his nocturnal missions costume — his mackintosh, walking stick, monocle and hiking boots. Weekends lately, he had methodically dressed himself in this manner after classes on Friday, then disappeared for two days on solitary ventures into what he called the geology of place.

Ian  — and Frau Begus in her vigorous teutonic determination — had been leading us along the moat, now a gentle grassy valley parallel to the walls.  We’d passed no one and hadn’t seen a car.  Dogs barked, and I remembered Stefan Genotti’s stories of wild dog packs. We passed a silent group of dark bodies curled together in the ditch by a donkey cart. In my agitated state they looked to me like the victims of some casual wartime atrocity, left to rot.

Ian was looking for something as we walked. He kept stopping and studying the walls. We’d walk a bit, feeling nervous and exposed and horribly out of place, as if the hordes who’d been frustrated by these walls a thousand years before might tonight return to wreak their revenge on us.

Ian found what he’d been looking for. He headed across the moat toward a dark space on the wall that soon showed itself to be an arched entrance to the old city.  Once it would have had metal doors, but the archway was open now, and as a cloud moved across the night sky above us, I could see moonlight slide across a narrow road inside the walls.

“Now it’s essential that we keep quiet till we get to the house,” whispered Ian. “Not everyone here welcomes such intrusions. And besides,” he said, laughing, “who knows that manner of ancient pestilence you might inhale.”

There were seven of us, not all Americans. There was the Armenian wife of an English teacher from the German girls’ school in Pera. She had dark hair that shone almost blue, like a grackle. She talked in explosive whispers with her husband, grabbing at his sleeve, and she glanced everywhere around as if each look were her last. Prescott walked next to Ian, pointing at parts of the wall with his stick. Frau Begus had her arm around a stocky blond British woman — a nurse from the hospital, from what I had gathered when we met at the bus station earlier in the night. The nurse had said very little and seemed unaccountably somber in the midst of all these nervous talkers.

We walked for five minutes through a series of very narrow alleys between the walls and tall rickety looking wooden houses. In places the houses were built into the orifices of the walls and I could see candlelight flickering through arrow slits and murder holes the architects had built into the masonry. There were no streetlights and the alleys were slippery underfoot.

Once, incredibly — almost as if it were out of time — we heard engine noise and saw the beams of a car light as it squirmed down a nearby alley.

Frau Begus was knocking on a bright green door in a kind of wooden wall over the face of a giant doorway in the walls. I looked up and could see windows fitted into similar wooden barricades over other openings in what I now realized was a large octagonal stone tower, perhaps sixty feet high.

“Buyurunuz. Please come in,” a woman’s voice was saying in Turkish. But there was a strange lilt to the language which made it seem peculiarly foreign. Frau Begus and Ian had gone in first, followed by the English teacher whose name seemed to be Bunny and his black-haired wife. She was still vigorously whispering to him. Next went in the British woman whose name I didn’t know. She was tall and bovine but with long blond hair that the lady of the house ran her hands across, saying something admiring.

Prescott went in ahead of me, carefully stepping over the battered stone block that served as a threshold for the door. I could see the gypsy woman clearly. She had mahogany skin and very curly black hair. Her eyelids had been heavily painted hummingbird green and she was wearing lipstick the color of arterial blood. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were really almond shaped or just painted that way, but the effect either way was unnerving.  I wanted just to notice the artifice, but instead I found myself taken in.

She nodded and said something to Prescott. I wondered if they’d met before. Now the woman was smiling at me. It unnerved me again, a smile so genuine, as if I were actually giving her some secret pleasure that very moment.

Inside, the place smelled intoxicating. Onions cooking. Oregano. Fried liver. Hot cheese pastry. Thyme. Sumac. Cinnamon. There were oil lamps on two small wood tables in the corners of a sizable room, whose back walls were the soot-blackened blocks of the fortifications we’d just passed through. The floor was soft underfoot with dark-colored carpets. Lining the walls were huge thick pillows made from camel saddlebags, also of some kind of carpeting.

There were perhaps ten other people seated already, and I selected a pillow in a corner. I was being scrutinized by a thin man whose gold teeth shone like machinery in the lamp light. He was impassive except for his eyes which didn’t seem to blink. Why was he staring at me, I wondered. There were all these other foreigners here.  All these other voyeurs.

I wondered if that was what I was, too, simply a voyeur. Is that why I had come? “These things are never the same,” Ian had kept saying when I asked for details. But now, seated in the back of a dark room in an unnerving place, surrounded by strangers, I realized I could not have imagined how I might feel. Maybe, though, that is what he was saying: you can’t have an experience without having the experience.  You can’t fake it.

Two girls in long flowing red dresses and noisy earrings came in from another room. They carried trays.  One handed us plates from hers, balancing it in one hand and bending effortlessly to set plates on the floor for people who were talking too animatedly to notice her. The second girl carried small glasses of clear liquid.  Each of us got one — along with a piercing open look from her. I wondered if she were memorizing our faces for some reason.  I wondered why I wondered all these things.  Why couldn’t I just enjoy myself as the others seemed to be?

Frau Begus, for example.  I saw her reach for the girl’s hand and pull her closer to whisper something. The girl merely grinned and Frau Begus laughed, smiling almost menacingly at Ian. She had been carrying a small case, about the size of a doctor’s bag.  She was pointing at it, smiling perfect sharp teeth at Ian, who kept making mock gestures of dismissal with his hands. As if the thought were preposterous. The very idea….

Frau Begus got to her feet and her voice took on a sudden soft edge which silenced all talk. “Gentlemen” (it sounded like “Jentelmen”) “and ladies, of course. We must toast Mademoiselle Nina, our hostess tonight.  And a toast to the djinns of the city, the spirits of the underworld.  We are in their world tonight — no?” She studied us, daring someone to disagree. In the muted light her skin glistened metallic like antique copper. “Raki,” she said, pronouncing it so it rhymed with “khaki,” the way the British pronounced it. She was pointing to her glass which she held in her right hand at a slight angle.  “Let us begin,” she said, and downed her drink.

I, too, downed my drink. It felt like some vast vacuum I’d swallowed, absorbing my tongue and throat into it, sucking them dry. My eyes watered, and I tried to wipe them secretly with my sleeve as I held my glass high in the air for the serving girls. They came around again with trays, one for the empties, one with a new full glass for each of us.

Ian stood, brushing back his long hair and looking slightly crazed.  His voice was higher by an octave.

“Welcome to the Inferno, gentle friends. Here we stand outside ourselves. Ex-stasis. We are traveling with no cultural baggage, gypsies tonight of the senses. Deep in this tower there is an inscription from a French ambassador, imprisoned here awaiting torture.  It’s neatly scratched on the wall and says:  ‘Prisoners, who in your misery groan in this sad place, offer your sorrows with a good heart to God and you will find them lightened.'”

Frau Begus reached for Ian’s arm, signaling him to be quiet. “Ah, forgive me,” Ian said. “My companion here is being exigent. Women are always in a hurry. Though I suppose without that, Eve mightn’t have discovered sin for us.”

He said something in Greek — or it sounded like Greek. We drank again. I noticed the man and woman of the house had joined in that one. A new round of drinks, this time accompanied by a tray of meze — appetizers of crisp hot pastry filled with goat cheese and spices. Lamb liver fried in olive oil, served with freshly washed, nude leeks. Another round of raki. This time no watering of the eyes and I wondered if I were drunk. I didn’t feel  drunk. I felt paralyzed, a  pillar of salt.

We were sitting in a semicircle in the front half of the room, facing the dark stone walls; on one side, what was once an ornate marble doorway, framed in geometric slabs; on the other, a rough, dark stone entrance, leading, I assumed, into the tower and its adjoining walls. I had a momentary vision of corridors like a ship, like a submarine, populated by generations of gypsies who never saw the light.

The talk was deafening. I’d been shouted at and had shouted back at the Armenian woman, whose name is Annie. We’d been exchanging exclamations about the fried mussels and the kukaretzia. The gypsy woman appeared with an accordion. The man had some small pottery drums, shaped like hourglasses, with skin stretched across one end. Frau Begus and Ian could be heard expostulating. She was embracing him ostentatiously, as if for someone else’s benefit. Not hers or his, certainly.

“Ah, enfin,” said Annie. “Now just you wait, uh—what was your name?”

“Lewis.  Lewis Dyer.”

“Well, Lewis.  Yes.  Just you wait.”

“So you’ve seen this before?” I asked.

“Not exactly.  But Bunny — my husband — has.  And he’s told me.”

Frau Begus got up and went to the tables to blow out the oil lamps.  The gypsy woman lit one to our side and turned it up, so we were in darkness while the empty part of the room, between the doors, turned yellow.  Specks of mica sparkled in the stone.

I realized that the drums had begun and were only now becoming loud enough to hear. I had felt them before I could hear them, sound waves bouncing off the stone.  The gypsy was seated by the wall to my left and he’d brought a thin long stick with him, decorated with woven ribbons of bright colors.

The drums increased in volume and then the accordion began. One of the serving girls — the taller, older one — returned with a tray of glasses, and we all, I noticed, drank greedily. The anise taste, before somewhat cloying, now seemed merely voluptuous. The music flexed and rippled to the pumping of the drum. Someone was clapping. I found Annie’s hand on my hand, though she was looking the other way.  I wanted to be thrilled, but I was embarrassed instead. I didn’t dare move my hand and I didn’t dare respond.  My hand felt as if it were going to sleep.  Pins and needles.

When the first girl emerged it was almost an anticlimax. She looked so young now, more painted up and with fewer clothes on.  She was wearing thin, almost transparent pants gathered at the ankles.  And a thin blouse gathered at the elbows. I was reminded of Catherine, long-ago, when she’d dress in my mother’s clothes and try to make up her face. The child — and I now saw she was very young, perhaps twelve — had begun to rock her hips and twist her shoulders to the music.  It seemed pathetic, a desperate attempt to force her sex too early out of hiding. Now she turned to face away from us and was rocking her hips more, bending slightly so that her buttocks made firm outlines against the loose pants.

Annie was rocking. The pressure from her hand on mine increased rhythmically. She still hadn’t looked at me and she began to work her fingers down between mine, her palm massaging the top of my hand. Still I didn’t move a muscle. For a while I had managed to forget I even had that hand.

There was a quick, violent silence. The girl stopped suddenly, then turned rather too dramatically towards us, unbuttoning the blouse as she did. The drums began again and the girl opened her eyes wide so that the painted eyelids almost disappeared. The dark black lines made her eyes look trapped, something human where there should have only been the votary, the child whore.  She was pressing her chest forward, pulling the shirt against it and twisting her shoulders at the same time.  I could see small mounds the size perhaps of a cupped hand. A child’s cupped hand. The nipples traced a crease in the material of the blouse. For a moment the audience went quiet and I thought for some reason the girl looked frightened.

The buttons were opened — I noticed how small her hands were — and the girl now turned away from us again opening the blouse and working it off as she rocked her hips. The music became louder, and Annie more insistent. Her fingernails dug between my fingers into my palms. I looked to see if anyone had noticed.  Everyone else seemed rooted on the young girl dancing.

Frau Begus moved closer to the dancer. The English lady was sitting bolt upright, her long yellow hair making her look from the back like Alice in Wonderland on her long neck. She didn’t seem to move at all for the long instant I watched her. I wondered idly, if someone next to her, perhaps, had a hand somewhere even more intrusive than Annie’s on mine.  Or if maybe that woman, too, had been turned into a pillar of salt.

Prescott was back against the wall to my right by himself. He had removed his monocle but otherwise seemed expressionless and really rather relaxed. He might have been at a faculty tea. That same professionally bored but alert look.  I envied him his grasp.

By now the dancing girl had turned again and was holding a hand over each place where her breasts should have been. She was squeezing herself, trying to look aroused. For a moment I was taken — I found myself believing — then the sensation was gone, and I began to wonder what she thought as she looked at me.  She seemed to be looking hard at me. Could she see me in this dark?

“Bravo.” It was Ian’s voice. And it sounded like two words.  “Bra-vo.” I wanted to think it was ironic, and that I was not the only apostate. But Ian was clearly urging her on because he had begun clapping his hands hard, to the music, holding them way in front, towards her. I saw her smile, then slowly slide her hands off her breasts and towards her thighs. Others began to clap. I stared at her breasts, barely a cupped hand’s worth. Tiny whitish nipples. I remembered stories boys told of how dancers and models had to have their nipples stimulated to make them stand out. Who had done that for her back there? The other girl? I wondered if I was losing my grip, thinking such things.

For a while the drums stopped. The man appeared from the kitchen carrying two large hookahs. They had been primed and lit and as they were set down people began to take eager turns at the nozzle.

Now a great shout broke out, much vehement clapping and talk. The music had slowed to a canter and the girl had turned to the wall, rocking her tight little buttocks in a slow perfect circle. She pulled at the top of her pants and slowly worked them down about half way over her buttocks. The accordion music stopped. The drums began, ever so slowly, again.

Just the drums and the sudden quiet of the audience. The girl’s pants were down at her ankles and she was stepping out of them as she clenched the cheeks together.

I don’t think it was either the raki or the hashish — though they are the most conventional explanation — but only parts of the rest of the evening remain clear to me now. I know there was another dancing girl. I remember her mostly because she seemed older and had more to work with. She didn’t remind me of my sister Catherine.  Poor Catherine.

She danced and undressed for a while alongside the first girl. It had been she, I remembered, who smiled when Frau Begus had whispered at her, but it was the younger girl Frau Begus took upstairs with her.

That part I remember clearly. I had been smoking the hookah, sharing it with Annie (who still held my hand impaled, like a hawk with its prey) and concentrating on the apparatus and the fearful lotus sensations I expected.

I heard a rhythmic clapping and looked up to see the accordion  player poised near the younger girl, a long colored switch in her hand. She was flicking it at the girl’s body in time to the drums. And the clapping.  Now the girl arched and twitched as she was stung by the whip. There was something fascinating about this. It reminded my of the cool businesslike violence of certain hockey players I’d known. Nothing personal, you understand. Just doing my job. Had the woman been angry, or even the girl angry, it would have been different. Instead it was just pure disembodied discomfiture, perhaps a kind of art. The tempo of the drums increased, the whip came faster and left angry marks. The girl yelped and tried to continue her dance. Once she opened her eyes wide and stared at me. I’m sure at me this time, and I was stunned again by that look.

Frau Begus was up and shouting to Ian. At first Ian refused whatever it was she was urging, then people around him took up Frau’s chant.  To much hilarity and cheering, Ian found his way to his feet. Frau had her bag in one hand and had taken the younger dancing girl by the forearm, pushing her in front of them as they moved toward the tower door. Several people in the audience were on their feet, clapping and shouting. The three of them disappeared through the door, then I noticed a lull, many of those same people looking strangely somber and tired.

While the other girl danced and flexed herself and the hashish was passed, several more youngsters paraded into the room behind her.  Most of them could have been no more than twelve. Two of the boys were quickly spoken for and left with older men from the audience through the stone gateway to the right, accompanied by the gypsy woman.

Annie had unclenched herself from my hand and was quietly holding both her husband’s hands.  She seemed subdued. Perhaps it was the hashish.

The gypsy woman brought a girl to me at some point, a somber little girl, older perhaps with beautiful arms and huge brown eyes hiding behind a garish painted face. I shook my head, horrified. Or scared. Maybe they are the same thing, I don’t know. The woman was trying to tell me something complicated. I couldn’t understand. I kept shaking my head, the girl looking more and more frightened. She tried caressing my face, this strange, quiet girl. It was like having your child comfort you, only she seemed also so much older than her body. And she seemed infinitely sad. She tried running her little hands down inside my shirt, fumbling for my nipples. I wondered if maybe it was just a ruse to pick my pocket. Other girls were fondling people in the audience, men  and women alike. I imagined little magpie hands running over jewelry and rings and private parts.

Finally the gypsy woman said something to Annie. Annie said something harsh back to her. Then Annie leaned over to me, looking at the girl with new interest. “She wants to sell her to you.”

“Yes. I assumed that. I’m not interested.”

“I don’t think you understand.”

“Oh yes, I do. The youngest member of the oldest profession — correct?”  I felt worldly and ashamed at my callousness at the same time.

“Not correct. You forget perhaps where you are. What you are. The gypsy woman is offering the girl, not just her body.  She wants you to buy the girl, take her away from here.”

The gypsy woman misread the look of astonishment on my face, for she began talking very fast to Annie, and hissing something at the girl, who stared at me, then caught herself and looked down at her feet.

The girl reached to her knees for the end of her shift and a little two quickly pulled it over her head.  She was more voluptuous than the other girls we’d seen, with fuller breasts and pronounced hips. I didn’t look below her waist. The gypsy woman took her by the shoulders and turned her around. Skinny back, very straight, with several distinct rows of small thin scars. She was standing on her toes, I noticed, perhaps trying to make herself more for the money.

“Annie, what’s going on? I’m no white slaver, for Chrissakes. This isn’t ancient Rome  — or Byzantium —“

“Oh yes it is. Nothing changes here. But listen: she tells me this is her daughter. Her own daughter. Liane.  The others — merchandise. But the woman wants you to take the girl away from this.”

“How, for God’s sake. This is insane–“

“Away from what waits for her here.”

Indeed, just before she said that we had all heard two quick stifled screams from the tower. Then a longer drawn out one. Almost in time to the music, almost drowned out by it.

“You want Frau Begus to doctor this one, too?”

This girl had turned around again, at first covering herself with her hands, then, with a start, uncovering herself, dropping her hands to her sides. I stared at her, appalled even to have to imagine such a choice.

I found the gypsy woman looking at me now. I couldn’t read her face, but it had the same expression I’d noticed when she smiled at me at the door. As if I were special to her.  How did she know that?  What did she know that I didn’t know?

“Listen.” It was Annie again, sounding tired. “I got carried away. Forget it. This will happen again and again.  You must do only what you want in this city. The others here, they’re doing what they want. No one wants girls — except, of course, Frau Begus.”

Annie turned away quickly, clutching at her husband who seemed oblivious to the whole exchange. She stole one more long look at the little girl and seemed to shudder. Her husband put his arm around her.

I didn’t notice how much time had passed when a tall gray-haired man returned with one of the girls, then two men with boys. The children stayed at the doorway looking matter of fact. The men took their places in the audience quietly for the most part. Frau Begus and Ian returned more noisily. More clapping and laughter from their friends. The girl was dressed in a shift and her makeup had run about the eyes. She looked curiously innocent. She tried a brave smile as she entered the room, but her eyes filled with tears that sparkled in the light and she turned away.

“Well, what would you have done with her, dear?” I heard Ian say to a man next to him.

Frau Begus was showing something in her case to a nondescript man with spectacles. “The finest ivory,” she was saying, “perhaps a bit much for a young one, eh?  But just right I’m sure for you, if you’d like, my dear?” Her smile seemed genuine, almost solicitous. I wondered if I were mishearing the conversation, inventing it from some unspeakable parts of myself.

We left the house long after midnight. The moon was lower and the walls cast deep shadows over the streets. I was exhausted, barely able to make my legs work right and for a while trailed behind the rest. I tried not to think about the horrors the walls had witnessed, but I kept imagining the anguish, the cleavered limbs and heads falling to the bloody pools at the base of the towers, being washed out to sea.

Pariah dogs slunk across the streets, looking sideways at us. I was reminded of the look the gypsy woman gave me when I left, the look you give someone you think is mean and petty, too righteous to care. I felt sick. The tram station was empty and stayed that way. A taxi passed and we crowded into it. Except, that is, Ian and Frau Begus who elected to stay and try another place.

“It’s almost as if they tempt the fates,” I said to Prescott, “asking to get hurt.”

“For a change, Lewis, you got something right. Not that you would understand, of course. But for them that, too, is a kind of escape from the obligations of what we call civilization.”

—Robert Miner


Robert Miner has published two novels, MOTHERS DAY and EXES , worked at Newsweek, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Esquire, Outside, Adirondack Life, Redbook, Glamour, etc.  MOTHERS DAY was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The New York times called it “relentlessly savage…picaresquely comic,” the Financial Times of London found it “extremely funny…an extraordinary first novel.”

Oct 122013



by D.W. Wilson
Bloomsbury Publishing (US & UK), Hamish Hamilton (Canada)
384 pages, $26.00

In a novel called Ballistics, you expect a gun to go off. The reader is satisfied in this respect very near the beginning of D. W. Wilson’s first novel. We learn about the gun from Archer Cole, one of the novel’s two narrators: teenager Jack West puts a bullet in the leg of Archer, a U.S. army deserter, as Archer is trying to break into the West’s hunting cabin. Jack’s father, Cecil West, tackles Archer (they “scramble like beasts”). Archer’s introductory story is, as his daughter Linnea says, “hyper-masculine”: Archer studs it with such phrases as “what went down,” “in your sights,” “the old bastard,” “hunched like a guerilla,” “tear-assing,” and “hearing gunfire like popcorn in my skull.” Archer describes Cecil as having “a menacing way of moving forward, as if he knows how to handle himself, as if he’s going to rip me a new asshole.”

Cecil West does not rip Archer Cole a new asshole. Instead of handing him over to the authorities, Cecil does the right thing: he sews him up, offers Archer and Linnea a place to sleep, finds him a job. Befriends him. While there is no date given for the beginning of these relationships, we know it is towards the end of the Vietnam war, as this is Archer’s third call up. Archer’s narrative throughout the book takes place in the early 1970s.

Archer Cole is looking back. The main action, in the present of 2003, is narrated by 28-year-old Alan West, the first narrator. In Alan’s story Archer Cole is a bitter old man dying of cancer. There are eight chapters in the novel, and in every chapter, Alan speaks first, then Archer speaks second. Until halfway through the novel, Archer gets about ten more pages than Alan. When the past catches up to infant Alan’s abandonment by his parents (Jack West and Linnea Cole) 30 years ago, or when the past starts to help us understand the present, Alan West’s tale takes up more pages, including the whole of the last chapter. And rightly so, because Alan is the catalyst of the action: his grandfather, Cecil West, believes he is dying. Gramps sends Alan on a quest, to fulfill his dying wish, to bring home his son Jack, whom he has not seen in three decades.

There are, of course, obstacles to Alan’s quest. The most physical is the forest fire raging between him and his destination. The setting is the Kootenay Valley in B.C. — familiar territory to D. W. Wilson, as he grew up there (and set his first book there — the short story collection Once You Break a Knuckle, 2012).


Although Alan West is the first narrator and the man on a mission, he is not the main character in the novel. Rather, the two families are. Wilson is interested in connections: how past actions affect the present, how one person’s action can affect five people even thirty years later. How the Wests could not have what they desired, and what the Coles desired caused pain to others. As Wilson’s narrators tell their stories, they also tell us what it was like to live in the Kootenay Valley, in that place at that time. Similarly, in Once You Break a Knuckle, Wilson tries to create a sense of place, of community, by having characters appear in more than one story, and through their (sometimes violent) interactions with the outdoors. In “The Dead Roads,” the story that won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2011, the landscape – bare, trees laid waste by beetles – presses itself in on the consciousness of the characters. In Ballistics, the forest fire forces Alan West to make an alliance with Archer Cole, who will guide him through the logging roads.

When Alan realizes that Archer is his maternal grandfather (Linnea’s father), he demands the truth about his parents, a truth Gramps would never talk about. This request is not only the premise for Archer’s stories (he often begins, “Here’s a story about…”) but also a motive for Alan to abandon his PhD thesis and drive towards a forest fire with an old man he doesn’t know. He wants to know why they left him to be raised by Gramps.

Archer, however, is not a reliable narrator. He lies to himself, to his best friend, to his daughter, and in the end, to Alan West. We have to pay attention to catch him at it. Sharing an unzipped sleeping bag with his 14 year old daughter, he contents himself with “I like to think I made a pretty good dad.” But there are hints that he is a bad father. He “barked” orders at her, he whistled for her to come out of hiding, he left her alone with the boy who shot him. He subdues her by his “military what’s-what.” He never tells us a good story about her, or a song she sings, or even her favourite anything. In one of Alan’s sections towards the end of the novel, Linnea’s partner calls Archer “a shitty dad” and tells him that Linnea left her father “for good reason.”

When 19-year-old Linnea informs her father that she is leaving home, she says simply, “I’m pregnant. But I can’t stick around to raise a kid with Jack. I’m sorry, Dad. You’ll have to let me go.” Straight and simple. Tough and to the point. But after she has gone, what does Archer tell Jack? “She said she didn’t think you’d make a good dad.”

Alan must extract the truth for himself. When he finds his mother, Linnea, he asks why she left. First she volunteers, “We were kids, Alan. Doesn’t matter what he [Jack] tells you. We were kids.” But when Alan insists (what drove you to leave) we see that it has nothing to do with Jack: “There are so many ways to live… So many ways life can go. And you have to pick, Alan, somehow, even though you can never know what’s right. There might not even be a right. But you have to choose. I chose to leave. It was just more terrifying to stay.”

And what is Alan West’s reaction? Someone calls someone a coward, but we are not sure who speaks, as there are no separating quotation marks, no speaker indicated. After he hears this, after all that has happened, Alan takes us back to landscape: “The wind hushed down off the Purcells, a chinook almost, and breezed over my arms, lifted the hairs like goosebumps, but I sat there and stared at nothing and wished for a beer, or sleep.”

His lack of reaction may have to do, as he admits, with not setting out to find her. She was not the purpose of his trip. Or it may be that he has already seen her as her father’s daughter. On finding Linnea, he immediately starts calling her ‘mom’ in his thoughts. When it slips out verbally, she says, “I’m not your mom.” Alan thinks, “Pettiness: Archer’s daughter.” The very first time he sees her, he thinks, “she resembled Archer in about every way a daughter can.” The way that affects him is that, like Archer, she leaves, and she takes no responsibility for how her departure might affect others. Like her father, she looks after herself first, as a teenager and as an adult. Wilson furthers this point by making Linnea and then Archer use the exact same unfeeling phrase: “It is what it is.”

Where Archer’s narrative is verb-driven, Alan’s is more thoughtful. He is given to more descriptive phrasing, such as the sentence above. Such as his offhand remark about his fight with his partner: “girlfriend drama that for many months has been only a few bubbles shy of boil-over”; or the deliberately amusing  “…a poorly ventilated evening in May.” Sometimes he forces the language, which doesn’t work for me: “I smelled the pinprick sensation” (can you smell a sensation?) or the freshening of a cliche with verbosity, as in “when the emotional shit strikes the Great Oscillator.”

The young man is also hiding behind his longer descriptive sentences. At the moment that his mother rejects him again, he numbs down by talking about a breeze and sleep. At the anticlimax, he writes not of how he might feel about seeing his long-lost father, but of what he sees. He displaces his emotion onto Jack’s roof: “shingles curling up like anxious, thirsty tongues.” He notes that the smoke of the forest fire “smelled like my childhood, like good times with Gramps.” He wipes his sweaty palms on his shirt and continues to observe the clean landscaped campground: “The whole moment, all the time it took me to take it in, was like stepping into someone else’s dream: a striped canvas lawn chair had been angled at the setting sun – it looked well-sat-in; at the foot the green-wood stairs, a football tottered in the wind; inside the house, a low orange light flared up, and then went dark. I felt like I was on the verge of a memory, or on the outside of one, looking in.” Dreaming, sleeping, distancing himself. The closest we come to emotion is through his penchant for making declarations: “The saddest truth of all is that we either lose the ones we love, or they lose us.”

That last quotation, “the saddest truth” comes from Alan’s account of Archer’s reunion with Linnea. Their reunion is in the present action, and therefore Alan is in charge of that story. Alan stays outside, watching through a window, and Archer goes inside to meet his daughter after 30 years. This is part of what we get of that charged scene: “I could see Archer and my mom squirm through those first moments of reunion. His lips moved like a chastened man’s and in his lap his hands picked themselves raw. She towered above him…” The scene stays in long-shot, until Alan wanders off. The reunion concludes the next morning, when Linnea asks why Alan brought Archer, saying “It’s more mouths to feed. And he’s a cripple now.”

The father-daughter reunion is a powerful scene, yet the reader is kept distanced from it. Is this Alan’s inability to cope with so much emotion? Just as he ran away from Toronto after being dumped by his girlfriend? Or is it the young author, D. W. Wilson, who evades bringing the scene into close-up? Just as he displaces Alan’s emotion through description? Wilson is delivering the reader into an explosive story of loss and betrayal. Perhaps, then, the reader needs to step away from this scene and share a quiet moment with Alan.

Ballistics is a page turner. You want to find out not only whether Alan fulfills his quest, you also want to know if Alan understands what motivated his parents and grandparents to make the decisions they did. A large part of the enjoyment of the book comes from Wilson’s skill at lathing a well-turned phrase, fresh as the smell of cut wood, carefully shared out between the two narrators, from Archer’s muscular and verb-heavy sentences (“Jack perked forward”) to Alan’s intimate descriptions, such as this one of an outing with Gramps.

…he and I swung into his truck – an old four-by-four reeking of hides and the rusty scent of bled animals – and drove down Westside Road, past the ostrich farm, to the gravel pits where highschool kids built bonfires big as campers, and there we’d waste the day and a carton of rimfires on emptied tuna cans and paperback books Gramps had deemed uninteresting at best.

Now there’s an incentive to write a good book. Ballistics is one book Gramps would not use for target practice.

— Debra Martens


Debra MartensDebra Martens has published short stories in New QuarterlyGrainRoom of One’s OwnDescant and in four anthologies. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa CitizenDescantParagraphBooks in CanadaQuill and Quire, and most recently in Numéro Cinq. She earns her living from freelance writing and editing.

Debra Martens previously interviewed D. W. Wilson for Canadian Writers Abroad. That interview is available here.

Oct 122013


Herewith a new short story by Greg Gerke, a writer out of the tradition of Gordon Lish, the second generation, sentences that ring of Gary Lutz; characters reminiscent of Sam Lipsyte; the whole exuding panache and cool and the inner seediness of the soul, ever hopeful.

Last month Greg Gerke, David Winters and Jason Lucarelli published “Learning from Lish, a Roundtable on Style in Fiction” at The Literarian (published by the Center for Fiction in New York) — Gordon Lish, the tradition, Lish’s aesthetic and his influence, the place of art in life; I am still mulling over this amazing conversation. One thing Gerke wrote especially hit home:

Isn’t the way of literature to tap into the source self, since writing bores into the pit of the brain better than any other process? Maybe that “last thing you would ever want anyone to know” is exactly the first thing any reader wants to know—otherwise, what is the point? The world is so full of deception that not to spread oneself out naked on the page or the screen or the canvas is senseless.

Think about this as you read the story.



Though they had been friends for ten years, Bret never fully trusted Ted. They would make fun of the same people, praise a select set of dead artists, and stuff themselves with Indian food, but about women they did not agree.

Short with a gecko-shaped face, Ted could talk and after a few laughs and drinks, even men wanted to rub his bald head. We like this every day guy, this new century Ralph Kramden, they thought. Maybe if we touch him we’ll find a hundred dollar bill in the gutter.

On Fridays, Ted would hoist a drink, twist his thin lips, and stretch his red cheeks to construct something resembling cute. “To all my friends,” he said sanctimoniously, aping a movie scene, though he’d long forgotten the title, even the story. “Let’s just say I invented it. Where’d you get that shirt?”

Nervous since childhood, Bret came at things like he continually walked the side of a 2×4. “What do you mean you forgot the Frisbee, did someone steal it?” he would say, wrinkling his forehead under straw-colored hair spidering out from his crown. People tolerated him because of Ted, but couples who knew them whispered about Bret before they went to bed. If he did finally lose it, they hoped to God they wouldn’t be around.

Bret’s plight. That phrase stuck in Ted’s head one morning after he completed a cardio workout at the gym. He approached the new girl at the front desk. “One of my best friends is so shy, babe. What do you say about a guy who likes to put a time table on when he’ll sleep with someone?”

She turned a magazine page and avoided Ted’s oily face by moving her lazy eyes to the far wall of gold-plated trophies. “I’d say nothing.”

Ted wiped his neck with a towel. “He’s great. He’ll make you frittata for no reason. He’d drive twenty miles to help me with my car—the man is a living, breathing, fucking AAA.” After a harsh laugh, he quickly judged her bicep tattoo of the grim reaper a worthy effort.

“Yeah, well.” She went back to the magazine.

“Where do you live, Martha?”

“On a street you may know, but will never visit.”

One afternoon before they played tennis, the two friends sat on Bret’s porch drinking lemonade with a splash of rum. Bret had found a set of childhood pictures. He bunched his shirt sleeves and grinned, “Look, this was me as the sad clown. Don’t I look ridiculous? My mom spent two weeks making the costume.”

Ted pouted his lips in appraisal, “Your eyes are pretty expressive—they say I hate Halloween, I hate my mom, and I hate my life.”

Bret gathered the stack of Kodak processed photos into his lap and ordered them neatly. “Don’t be a dick.”

“What? You told me those things about your childhood, bro. It was a tear-stained day in the mighty month of May.”

Bret scowled. “I only told you half the story.”

“Why only half? Am I half a friend?”

Bret laughed. “Hey, arsehole, why do you always deliver the punch lines?”

“Cause you’re the straight man.” Ted burped and hearing a car’s passing music, shook his arms to the groove.

Bret put the photographs back in a bubble envelope. “I’ll show you some other time when we don’t have a big match pending. Now, who is this woman? You said she played tennis at Irvine?”

Checking the money in his wallet, Ted said, “Sherri or Sharon. I don’t know, it begins with Sh. And no, I don’t know if she played tennis there or knew someone on the team. All I know is she’s wanted to play for months. Does massage. You know she’s trying to find her way here.” Ted made a wind sound. “The skin, I’m telling you. She could be in a mag a couple notches below Vogue.” He stretched his arms proudly. “Maybe one notch.”

The trio hit balls for less than a half hour. Bret wanted to let them play one on one and sat down for five minutes. We’ll go out, get some drinks, and then they’ll go and sleep together, he thought. What do I really want in my goddamn life?

The ball bounced off his foot and Sherri bounded over. As she blocked his sun, she twirled her old racket, still carrying a smudge of cob-web just below the strings. “Is our little ball boy tired already?”

“I just want to watch the professionals.”

Sherri giggled and he smelt her apricot body wash. Ten years ago, after she finished high school in Seattle, she had joined the army. She’d been in Oakland only three months. A middle-eastern restaurant venture in Portland had failed and now she lived here with her sister. She was lonely and when she smiled her gums showed.  Dropping Cézanne’s name made Bret want to take her in a corner and rub colors into her muscular chest.

Ted announced the Giants had won in extra innings and then kissed his cell phone.

They drove into Berkeley and after three rounds of mojitos on a patio with Tibetan prayer flags waving, Bret started doing impressions. He tilted his head and spoke in a baby-like staccato, “Yeah, gotta see Wapner at 4:00, then Jep-Jep-Jeopardy.”

“Rainman, ole!” Ted cackled, calling their waitress to also salute Bret’s skill.

It had been months since Bret didn’t feel terribly dependent or stricken by a sense of not belonging. For one grand moment he didn’t care about childhood or not being able to swim. He pictured pummeling his abusive father and being celebrated for it with a ticker-tape parade on Fifth Avenue. His blood ran faster and all the ideas and words that could never get out in time were readily available, like they hung on a snazzy tool belt. Four hours ago he had cursed the wireless signal in his house. Now his life was heaven.

When Sherri touched his knee, he knew he’d gone about the enterprise all wrong. Be a loud ass like his beefy friend, not a timid, sulking bore who dusts when he can’t think of anything better to do. Be sloppy and ruin the tawdry perceptions people hold to. Invite them to be entranced by your feelings. Give them what they can’t give themselves.

Sherri reeled from his Katherine Hepburn, holding his shoulder for support. “My parents took me to On Golden Pond. I was five. I totally hated it.”

Bret’s eyes lit up. “Mine took me, too.” Then he stalled like his battery had died, like he didn’t believe his bullshit anymore. He looked to Ted who grinned devilishly while composing a text that would surely make someone miserable.

Sherri went to the bathroom and Ted snapped his fingers. “You have a mini-stroke?”

“Fuck off. I’m having fun.”

“I know you are, but she likes you and you have to close it. Talk her up. Tell her she has strong legs.”

“Why?” Bret snorted. “Why legs? She has strong everything. A strong, warm per— And I’m goddamn thirty-two, dad. I don’t need pointers.”

Ted sat back and made the peace symbol. “Loving you, brother.”

When Sherri returned, Bret yelled, “Basta!” She smiled and the tip of her tongue showed like a cat in the midst of licking itself.

Bret motioned toward her with his drink. “You must have jogged a bunch in the army, right?”

Ted went to a birthday party, and Bret and Sherri walked into the hills of the campus at dusk. Giant fir trees swayed. Heat bugs rattled. They scooted to a prominence overlooking the football stadium and sat down to kiss. With his hands fastened to her breasts, he ejaculated. Quietly, he sunk his head into his armpit, but she yanked his chin up and opened her eyes to him. “I have an incredible feeling about you, Bret. I want you to come to my bedroom.”

His face finally softened.

She nibbled at his ear and whispered, “I just put on clean sheets.”

In the morning they couldn’t stop laughing. They’d made love all night and the world smelt raw and unrelenting like it had been created a few hours ago. When Sherri went to the bathroom, he pressed the pillow to his face to keep her sweet scent in his head. Joyously he lunged over the bed and noticed a hairpin underneath, along with some popcorn kernels. Also a white object that after he dug it up turned out to be her vibrator. A yellowy streak on the side momentarily disgusted him. He shrugged his shoulders and put it back. There were probably stale tissues under his bed.

Sherri came back gleaming, her skin golden. Everything she had stood out before him in the daylight. She sang, I want to thank you, for giving me the best day of my life.

“Please,” he said, raising his arm like a matador.

Her sister was gone for the weekend and later they sat in the living room naked—cuddling and listening to music. “I wanna hear all about the army,” he said brightly.

“No, you don’t and I don’t really want to talk about it, baby. It’s very overrated. Nothing big happened. It’s just like living. You work, then you party and have fun.” She took an apple slice off the coffee table and wiped up a spot of cinnamon.

Bret did a double take. “What is it? Two o’clock and all we’ve had is an apple?” They laughed and hugged. Outside a dog barked.

“You like chihuahuas?” she said.

He stared at her genitals, judging her labia’s breezy swirl the greatest work of art in North America. “Chihuahuas are number one.”

She looked across the room. “I want to get a dog, but I don’t have any money.

“My sister’s getting me some stuff, but I’ve got to get a real job. I live off of two massages a week. That restaurant debt,” and she shuddered. She turned up the sound on one of the few cds she had brought from Portland—Coltrane’s Giant Steps. “No worries,” she said and she danced back to the couch.

“Let’s get a pizza!” he shouted.

Sherri leapt for the telephone book while howling like an Indian and Bret closed his eyes in triumph.

When the doorbell rang Sherri went to get some clothes. Normally skittish about showing his rail thin body to the public, Bret threw a towel around his waist. “Oh, just use my wallet. It’s on the kitchen table,” she yelled from the bedroom. He would insist on getting dinner.

He took the wallet and opened the door to a short, pimpled delivery driver with a pale face. Part of Bret wanted Sherri to show herself behind him so the teen could see more of his new life. Her wallet had a ten and a clip of twenties with handwriting on the back of the outside bill. Bret’s eyes buoyed slantwise. He took a twenty from the middle and impatiently tossed it to the driver. After he closed the door, he read the note on the last bill. You’re the best. Tubby

Sherri ran in, dressed in a white bikini and clapped her hands as she jumped up and down. “I smell artichokes!”

“Who’s Tubby?”


He turned the clip and showed her.

“Oh, just an old friend.”

“He owed you money?”

“Yeah,” she said.  She reached for the bills, but he pulled them away.

There was a fork in the river and Bret could have taken the way that didn’t lead to the falls, but he knew she lied. He’d been made to pick at the slightest mark on the wall. Bret wiped his face and handed her the money—all four cold, heartless twenties.

Sherri kept staring at him and then opened the pizza, but he slapped the cardboard shut. “When did you meet Ted?” he said.

“This year.” Her head lowered like a dog. “Two years ago in Portland. We had a short thing, it was nothing. It was when the restaurant—”

“Stop talking.” Bret tried to step outside himself. The cords in his throat were going stiff and his right leg began to shake.

“Okay, Bret.” She felt the bikini’s pinching fabric on her once sleek body and crossed her arms over her breasts. “You alright?”

He sat down on the carpet and bunched the towel out to cover his parts. Silent tears slid off him. “He fucking paid you to sleep with me.”

“No!” she said. “No. I’m giving it back. It’s a misunderstanding.”

He beat the floor at his side.

“Stop, Bret. I like you. It’s not what you think.” She reached toward him.

“No,” he said. “It’s worse.”

Bret confronted Ted at his house. An embarrassing scene. Ted had offered himself to be pummeled. “Take me out, man. Do it. It was rotten, but I tried to help. I thought I was doing good.”

Six months later Ted again called and they exchanged pleasantries but when he tried to get him to go out, Bret laughed. “I can’t forgive you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

“Can’t or won’t?”


“Cut the shit. We’re  friends for a long time. You’re my brother,” Ted said mincingly.

Bret would often go to dinner by himself. It calmed him in some way. Chinese, Thai food—anything. He watched the slight waitresses and thought, Why can’t I let it go? I’d be happier. Bret once asked his waitress the same question. A smile raised her eyes and she walked to the back, returning with two spring rolls.

Ted had been out till dawn carousing. He bought a soda and drove up the foggy coast into Marin and parked at Muir Beach. Two couples had slept there and they were just waking up. A man with a bushy beard ceremoniously poured milk into cereal bowls while one of the women began tumbling on the shore. Dressed in purple yoga pants, she performed very precise somersaults and headstands, posing after each like an Olympian gymnast.

Ted sat on his patch of cold sand and felt the weakened sun on his neck. The limber woman sauntered before him—he wanted that dance. Twisting slightly, his bones ached and he ground his fingertips in the sand to erase last night’s woman. Then he stroked his growing belly like a slothful king.

The surf crashed loudly, almost otherworldly. Booming and bright white. A scene he hadn’t appreciated in years. Though fifty yards away from the group, he yelled and pointed at the ocean, raising his soda and laughing. They nodded briefly and went back to their breakfast. The woman in purple hadn’t noticed at all, she went onto cartwheels.

He’d had every kind of woman there was to have and they all felt amazing. Each time. The supply staying steady, with the women getting younger, but more disenfranchised, more insecure. He could easily relax. But he couldn’t. As the woman rolled about and yipped, as gulls strode the shoreline like pontiffs—he knew there was something in his life he hadn’t learned and women couldn’t help him with it. Massive and unwieldy, it kept stable at the top of his vision like a boulder fastened to his forehead. He couldn’t sit right until he faced it, but he didn’t exactly know what it was.

Ted burped and nodded, trying to assure himself everything would work. He looked for a big rock to toss into the ocean. He settled for a small black pebble.

 —Greg Gerke
Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review OnlineDenver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others.
Oct 112013




Albertine Sarrazin, translated from the French by Patsy Southgate
New Directions
192 pages, $15.95
ISBN 978-0811220736

Cruel fortune followed author Albertine Sarrazin. Abandoned as a child, she faced abuse, a teenage life of theft and prostitution in Paris, prison, and, after a daring escape, lingering injuries. Dead before the age of thirty, Sarrazin was at the height of her sudden literary fame—two novels, written while incarcerated, found publication in 1965; she and her husband, Julien, another career criminal, had settled down—when a bungled kidney surgery ended her life. Known for her defiance, her dangerous existence, her mistrust of authority, she expired in July of 1967, not via dodgy escapades, but in supposed safe hands.

Astragal, the superb novel that helped make Sarrazin a star, recently reissued by New Directions, parses through some of the author’s unfortunate kismet. Semi-autobiographical, the short narrative concerns Anne, a tough nineteen-year-old thief serving a seven year jail sentence. The novel opens with Anne leaping over a prison wall. Plummeting several stories, she lands hard on her foot, shattering her ankle. Unable to run, or to hide, Anne is left to the mercy of Julien, a helpful drifter, who scoops her from the ground and shuttles her from one safe house to the next, weaving her around France. As Anne’s injury slowly heals—it takes some time before a doctor tends to her—she ends up at the Paris home of Julien’s acquaintance, Annie. It is here that Anne realizes her true love for Julien, her savior. Her heart melts for the man, who, himself a criminal on the lam, wanders in and out of her narrative, popping in for brief visits before disappearing for weeks, if not longer. The closer Anne gets to walking, to leaving Annie, the hideaways, to rejoining the world of prostitutes and thieves, to being independent, the more her love chains itself to Julien. He is a force she cannot escape. So she waits for his return, a prisoner able to roam, yet unable to flee.

The rhythmic quality of Sarrazin’s prose—expertly translated by the late Patsy Southgate—provides most of Astragal’s brilliance. This rhythm works on two levels, both in the motif of imprisonment that bounces along throughout the narrative, and also on the basic level of sentence. Speaking first to the motif, one need not look far to witness it on display. Anne, hoping to break free from prison and to find her female lover at the beginning of the story, instead breaks only her talus (or astragalus) bone. The result: she cannot walk; she cannot hide; she must rely on others to survive. This leads to physical imprisonment, as Julien drops her in three different safe houses for protection. Not only can she not move, but she cannot be seen by the public, either. She is a veiled being, a ghost to the outside world, able to control very little (“I double-lock myself into my room; it consoles and liberates me to bolt the door of my jail myself,” Anne proclaims, only somewhat convincingly). And even when Anne’s ankle does heal, when she finally is able to move on from life with Annie, panoptic paranoia and carnal desire prevent her from achieving true freedom. As she works the streets, every face turns into a potential nemesis, as Anne claims: “…I am frightened and leery of everybody. The thought of getting caught never leaves me: I learn to look it in the face, I tame it, I never chase it away.” And Julien, often hovering but rarely around, leaves her in an emotional state of limbo. Gone is Anne’s longing to find her girlfriend. Now all that matters is happiness with Julien. While Anne thinks, “…the constant thought of Julien conceals and protects me,” certain questions arise: How long must she wait for him to return? How far can she truly stray without him?

That Sarrazin continually finds new forms of imprisonment for Anne thematically binds Astragal’s otherwise episodic narrative: in order to move forward, Anne must constantly look back. On the basic level of sentence, Sarrazin also uses the rhythm of language to drive the pace of Anne’s story, often employing long, patterned passages to sweep the reader into the mindset of her protagonist. These extended sentences sometimes work to generate an accelerated effect, as in when Anne describes the pain from her freshly broken ankle:

“Circuits had been formed, cadences: in my ankle, suddenly, something would wake up hissing, like water spurting from a broken pipe, more springs would start gushing, then they would all run together and flow insidiously through the length of my body. Or else, the pain would gather into a ball above my heel, slowly twisting and winding itself up; when the ball was finished—I now could tell the exact moment—it would burst with a sensation of light; and the flashes would shoot through my foot and explode, in stars that quickly went out, in the ends of my toes.”

The intensity of this moment, the pure jolt of the experience, exists thanks to Sarrazin’s choice to include only one full stop while expressing the agony of Anne’s injury. The words steamroll forward, building momentum from every previous syllable. Astragal‘s story progresses through a constant reference to what has already occurred. Conversely, at other points in the novel, Sarrazin employs long sentences for an opposite effect, implying almost a dreamlike, lyrical, internal quality to the narrative, like in this description of cigarette smoke:

“I think of the warmth of the smoke which flows, liquid, with a slight bitter edge, into your throat and chest, making your blood tingle; I think of all the ashtrays I’ve emptied in my life; tortured by my cravings, I sit there, unable to care about what Annie’s saying, my eyes riveted on her pants.”

Here, nearly every word builds on what precedes it: “smoke” becomes “liquid,” “throat” becomes “chest” and “blood.” “Think” is repeated twice, and these thoughts turn to torture.

When Astragal was first published, Sarrazin’s style drew comparisons to Jean Genet, another criminal turned author, and while that link is valid—both loiter in the realm of the felon; both write with a poetic flair—in hindsight Sarrazin’s work may best be associated with the 1950s and 1960s cinema of the French New Wave. Her long, rhythmic writing mirrors the long takes of Goddard and Truffaut. Her rebel personality slots in comfortably with the youthful exuberance of the movement. And just as Michel in Breathless finds a persona in the guise of Humphrey Bogart, so too does Sarrazin discover her double in Anne. Not only that, but both Anne and Julien have their own variations in the characters of Annie and Jean, one of Anne’s johns. Annie, a former prostitute, is what Anne could grow into, while Jean—wealthy, lonesome, desperate—allows Anne to take full advantage of his generosity, moving her into his home with the full knowledge that she only loves Julien. Where Anne’s true love is often distant, Jean is the opposite: always there, always willing to bend over backward. He is everything she wants, only in the wrong package. Such is the life of Anne throughout Astragal: a negative for every positive, a cruel twist always waiting to pounce.

— Benjamin Woodard


Ben_WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in decomP magazinE, Cleaver Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.

Oct 102013

Betsy book pics 2013 - 236Author photo by the poet’s daughter, Hannah Tarkinson.

Last May we published a gorgeous Betsy Sholl essay on Osip Mandelstam, “The Dark Speech of Silence Laboring: Osip Mandelstam’s Poems & Translations,” and now we offer the poet’s own work, her own words, and at the same time give our readers a sneak preview of her new book, Otherwise Unseeable, due out in next spring, 2014, from the University of Wisconsin Press. Betsy is an old and dear friend and a colleague from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and partly we are friends just because I admire her poems, because she WILL write lines like: “Ah love, the wind sighs— / doesn’t love always undo the very thing / done up to draw it in?”

Just take an extra moment to meditate upon this poem — “The Wind and the Clock” — because it is marvelous. It’s built on a clash of opposites, a semantic and syntactic confrontation between, yes, wind and clocks, between the wild, scattering forces of nature and the will to control, to order and number, of the domain of clocks (and civilization and man — it’s a romantic poem). But the conflict comes in a series of inflections, beginning with the wind (oh, that wonderful verb “dresses” in the first line — that almost makes the poem all on its own) and backing and forthing with the clock, until, awful to say, the clock wins. And here Sholl magnificently escapes the convention of the poetic confrontation, escapes mere romantic whimsy, and launches the poem into something more sustained and epic. Her amazing final stanza leaves you just hollowed out, haunted by the spectre of death, the final winner of the argument (although the wind is back in the last line — those “little eddies”).

So, its argument won, the clock strikes,
as if it had no second thoughts, never
once wished for wind’s little ruckus

to swirl up old hair, dried wings, dust
from the stars, dust from the dead. The dead,
for whom all ticking has ceased, who come
to mind, and then go, invisible as the—
Oh, the wind, stirring its little eddies.



Latcho Drom
“Safe Journey”—After the Tony Gatlif film

Nowhere to nest, to rest their heads,
like starlings scattered by gunshot—

a flock of gypsies.
When the town runs them out,

tosses scarves and pots into the street,
then sweeps,

they even roost in an old tree—nail up
ladder rungs, then, limb after limb,

add platforms, cook stoves, cradle slings,
hang sheets for loose billowing walls.

But a town wants roofs, wants rent, rules
to keep the rich rich,

keep the poor shame-faced
behind closed doors—

until the flagrant gypsies come,
 until they’re chased out,
chased up,

until their charred throats, their knife-glint eyes
slide under our buttoned shirts

and find that secret place a song lives,
that choked-back sob tucked inside—

call it the soul—it slips out
to sit under their windy rooms,

among parrot-bright skirts, raven coats
and the wings of a violin.

All night it lingers in that throb of song,
hearing how the world poisons

fruit-eating birds, shoots a flock
into drifting feathers,

how the road is rough and dark,
but better than the town’s spit…

At dawn, the town wakes
to wooden wheel clatter, horse hooves,

feel of something missing, snatched—
though we don’t know what.


The Wind and the Clock

The wind dresses itself in trees, handbills,
dust balls, feathers and rags—anything to be seen—
unlike the upright clock in its polished box
sure of the world’s respect for synchronized
numbers, the world’s need for balance and weight.

Oh wait, the wind cries, shaking the window
in its sash, aching to get near the clock,
to knock at its door, unlatch that wooden world
inside. And once there? The clock knows
the wind would toss its weights like halyards

clanging in a stormy boatyard, hurl sand
in its fine-toothed gears, or lick its many
moon faces blank. The clock has seen how
wind strews autumn leaves like clothes tossed
on a lover’s floor. Ah love, the wind sighs—

doesn’t love always undo the very thing
done up to draw it in? But the clock thinks,
Faceless, what would I be, my hands spun
to a dizzy blur, my numbers scattered?
Numbers! the wind cries, does love keep

accounts? Didn’t St. Peter say a day
and a thousand years were one and the same?
To want what you can’t have is a fool’s dream,
the clock tells the wind. To not take what
you want—that is love. And the wind,

which just now was stretching its invisible flag
in long rippling waves, falls limp.
So, its argument won, the clock strikes,
as if it had no second thoughts, never
once wished for wind’s little ruckus

to swirl up old hair, dried wings, dust
from the stars, dust from the dead. The dead,
for whom all ticking has ceased, who come
to mind, and then go, invisible as the—
Oh, the wind, stirring its little eddies.


 Rush Hour

We’d been sipping wine at an outdoor café
in late afternoon light, my friend and I, our words

making light of whatever they touched, two flies
on the rim of a glass, talking as if the sky admired us.

Then out of the skateboards, bass thrum and laid-on horns
of jammed traffic, a woman appeared beside us,

set down her canvas bags, and the way her fingers flew,
it was clear she was deaf, signing a kind of shriek

at the street, at the cars and the awning over us,
which I saw could any minute collapse.

Small cross at her neck, short hair flecked with gray,
smudged glasses sliding down her nose,

the woman leaned in, flicked her hands toward my face,
so I looked up, away, then back, and had to shrug,

“What? I don’t understand.” Staring at me,
she conked her head three times with the heel of her hand,

and who couldn’t understand that?–
bang against the world’s bony ears,

whack to shake something loose,
tell the Furies, “Back off, settle down.”

The light changed, she gathered up her loose
handles and straps, stepped wordless into the glint

of bumpers and hoods. In her wake we watched
light drain from our glasses under the thinning sky,

watched her move through sirens, skate clatter, taxis,
snatches of rap, and what could we say

that wouldn’t leave everything inside her


What I Can Say: To My Sisters

Maybe we will never yank out the old root
of our wounds, and if it begins to die
that’s only because one day we will die too,
our birth certificates moved to another file,
even our shadows removed from earth—
where we once stood: air, dust-flecked light.

And the rocks at the foot of my stairs,
smoothed by eons of sea, the smaller stones
on the sill, striated, speckled, heart-shaped—
each one plucked glistening from the waves,
or salt-crusted rubble line? Someone else
will gather and—I don’t like to imagine—

dispose of them. But at least they can’t be
destroyed, no matter what happens to us,
what happened to Mother, Father, to all
the animals we have buried, who must
be vegetable or mineral by now,
secrets the earth holds and will not release.

But don’t listen to me. So many feelings
are rooted in us we did not plant
but became good soil for. What does a root
know of stem and leaf, of what blossoms
beyond its sight? Perhaps we go down
that others might rise. What do we know

more than this stranger at the next table,
glancing up from his book to see our brief
meeting of here and now, how we’ve appeared,
three sisters, the fact of us insisted on,
against all odds, as if our lives were a gift,
and so, shouldn’t we ask, for whom?


O For a Thousand Tongues
……………—Charles Wesley

Having climbed to the thinnest branch that will
hold, I must be more ponderous to the tree,
and less musical than the birds I’ve scared off,
less supple than the paper lantern I’ve come
to hang, to elaborate on a midsummer night.

I can hear my ancestors, not the leaves,
hissing, “frivolous”—my people of the book,
of trees cut, shaved, pressed into pages of rules
warning against the mind branching out too far—
frivolous, that word easy to stammer,

so if I were on solid ground I’d stomp,
push it out with fricative force, though up here
I’ll just hum to myself, looping a string around
the branch so this paper moon will cast its soft
unreal light, which, yes, the first drops of rain

could easily snuff. Oh my flaw, my friend,
my stammering tongue, how I stumble over
your fff’s and vvvv’s like a drunk, your liquid llll’s
that won’t pour from my lips, as if words were rust,
woodblocks, wet wool, scotch tape, chipped marbles,

and why not? Why should it be easy to speak?
A flaw looked at another way is—I meant to think
“a source,” but it came out “scorch.” So be it,
as my ancestors would say, those for whom
the body always betrays the spirit’s goal,

for whom the soul was a canary sent
into the world’s mine, all mission, no pleasure.
They disdained ornament, as if to decorate
were to insult God. I don’t know what they saw
when they gazed into wind-blown bristling trees.

It’s a miracle that my ancestors actually
conceived, that all those overdressed mothers
gave birth. They wrote our names, weight and length
on one page of the book, our first words, steps,
baptisms on the next. But they were silent

on the matter of delight, so we had to find
our own way through spindrift, dog romp,
dancing in the streets, through one kind of flaw
or another, as branch by thin branch, we teetered,
and swayed, strayed, yes, found ourselves blown away—

frail lanterns hanging on a twig’s tip end
where wood blends with air. But singing there,
adding a little back beat, a little howl
to flesh out the tune, until as the song says,
our stammering tongues fall away.

— Betsy Sholl


Betsy Sholl served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.  She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Rough Cradle (Alice James Books), Late Psalm, Don’t Explain, and The Red Line.  A new book is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press.   Her awards include the AWP Prize for Poetry, the Felix Pollak Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and two Maine Individual Artists Grants. Recent poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Image, Field, Brilliant Corners, Best American Poetry, 2009, Best Spiritual Writing, 2012.  She teaches at the University of Southern Maine and in the MFA Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Oct 092013


The Infatuations
Javier Marías
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Knopf, 337pp., $26.95

Ask an American why certain international imports, say, soccer and French film, have yet to be fully embraced by the culture and he or she may answer, “Because nothing really happens” in them.  Perhaps the same complaint could be leveled at acclaimed Spanish author Javier Marías, who has sold more than seven million books in forty languages world-wide but has yet to find a significant following stateside.  Marías is a master of crafting plots that are light on the action and accelerated pacing American readers have come to expect.  In his novels, pages upon pages, entire chapters even, are devoted to isolated, apparently stagnant scenes in which characters contemplate and/or discuss from every angle the sometimes minor, often bizarre circumstances in which their author has placed them.  Marías’ latest novel, The Infatuations is no exception and it is splendid.

Though born during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who imprisoned Marías’ philosopher father Julián for his opposition to the regime, Marías has mostly refrained from injecting politics into his work, though his nation’s history often casts a shadow.  In February, 2013, he told The Guardian, “The idea was that writers, as far as censorship would allow, must try to raise the consciousness of the people about the terrible situation. I thought it was well meant, but had nothing to do with literature.  My generation knew that a novel couldn’t end the dictatorship, and so as writers we did as we wanted.”  His first novel, Los Dominios del Lobo (The Dominions of the Wolf), published when Marías was twenty years old, was what he calls a “tribute” to mid-twentieth century American cinema.  He published several more novels while at the same time establishing himself as a translator of American and English writers before achieving international acclaim with the publication of 1992’s A Heart So White. Known for his sprawling narratives, dark, intellectual humor and, at times, tryingly digressive voice, Marías is often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize.  The Infatuations, his twelfth novel, is the first to be released in the United States by a major publisher.

The Infatuations is the story of a murder as seen through the eyes of a woman who becomes part of the victim’s life in the aftermath of his death. Marías has a fondness for beginning his books with an act of violence then spending the course of the novel realizing its significance, both to the characters and to the greater metaphysical truths of life. In “Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me,” a man’s attempt to start an affair with a married woman ends when the woman dies in his arms.  In “A Heart So White,” a new bride shoots herself in the heart.  In “The Infatuations,” a happy husband is stabbed to death by a homeless man he has never met.  The murder has great psychological consequences for the narrator, María Dolz, a timid Spanish woman who has been secretly admiring from afar the husband and his elegant wife at the café where she enjoys her breakfast each morning:

“The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him,” writes Marías in the novel’s first line, “which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word.”  Such an opening triggers a tantalizing series of questions: Why does the murdered man have two last names?  Who is the narrator and what is at stake for her in this gruesome affair?  And, of course, how and why did the murder happen?

Rather than using the revelation of the crime to kick off the plot’s sequence of events, or to start answering these questions, Marías immediately decelerates into the first of countless digressions in which he allows his characters to ponder the philosophical minutiae of their circumstances.

His last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is, senselessly, and what’s more, not just once, but over and over, unremittingly, with the intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then.  But why do I say ‘too late,’ I wonder, too late for what?  I have no idea, to be honest.  It’s just that when someone dies, we always think it’s too late for anything, or indeed everything – certainly too late to go on waiting for him – and we write him off as another casualty.

In the pages that follow, Marías provides what might be considered by American standards as parenthetical, if not completely unnecessary details to a plot device as bold and dynamic as murder: María, the narrator, describes how observing the couple each morning provided her with “a vision of an orderly or, if you prefer, harmonious world;” she goes into extensive detail about the pair’s looks and personalities, her reasons for admiring them and her fantasies of their life together that, before Desvern’s passing, gave her “a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple;” she recalls the day when the couple failed to appear at the café leaving her with an existentially uncomfortable awareness of “‘how easy it is for a person simply to vanish into thin air.’” Marías spends an entire chapter in the publishing house where María works as she interacts with her pretentious clientele, a scene which touches more on the arrogance and oddness of writers – “you have to be slightly abnormal to sit down and work on something without being told to” – than Desvern’s death.

The crime, set up in the provocative opening line, seems to promise a narrative packed with high drama, offering the relentless twists, turns and confrontations one might expect from a thrilling albeit highly literary whodunit.  But as this is a Javier Marías novel, actual events are few and far between.  After forty-three pages of contemplation and digression, María finally approaches Luisa in the café, which is only the second “event” of the plot after the murder.  And what is the plot?  Desvern is murdered (some time before the novel begins), María befriends his wife, meets and becomes lovers with a family friend who has been tasked with caring for the grieving widow, then discovers the apparently random murder may not have been so random after all.

The five main events of the plot – the murder, the meeting between the women, the beginning of the love affair, the moment of discovery and subsequent conversation revealing the truth – are the points that move the story forward, though it may be more accurate to describe them as the ties in the thread that carry the reader through an exploration of ideas.  Rather than laying the tracks of a well-ordered plot, the author seems more invested in exploring themes.  Thus, what may seem like tangents or superfluous meditations might be better interpreted as the real purpose of the author’s work.

Marías separates the novel into four parts; each part presents a plot event and muses upon one of the book’s themes.  In part one, Desvern is murdered and María befriends the wife, which leads to a meditation on death.  In part two, the characters explore romantic desire and the nature of existence, including the advantages of death, after María becomes lovers with Javier, the Desvern family friend, and finds out there may be more to the mystery of Desvern’s death.  Part three revolves around a conversation between the lovers and takes crime as its theme, while part four shows María’s life after the mystery is solved and ponders truth.

Thus, what makes up the bulk of the novel are the characters’ lengthy meditations and conversations about the circumstances in which they find themselves and the larger metaphysical issues arising from them.  These passages lay the philosophical and psychological groundwork from which the readers are invited to engage with the few doses of actual plot.

For example, when María approaches Luisa in the café, more than a month after Desvern’s death, Marías writes, “That was when I decided to go over to her.  The children had left in what had been their father’s car, and she was alone.”  A more conventional plot structure might require María to go directly to the table where a conversation would begin.  Instead, María moves inward, “‘How many small eternities will she experience in which she will struggle to make time move on,’ I thought, ‘if such a thing is possible…You wait for time to pass during the temporary or indefinite absence of the other…as our instinct keeps whispering to us, and to whose voice we say: ‘Be quiet, be quiet, keep silent, I don’t yet want to hear you, I’m still not strong enough, I’m not ready.’”

María introduces herself, the two women bond over having noticed one another in the café then end up in Luisa’s home where, for the next three chapters of the novel, they talk about Luisa’s feelings about the crime.  The passages are made up mostly of an extensive monologue in which Luisa reveals her angst –

“The most painful and irremediable thing is that the person has died,” she says, “and the fact that the death is over and done with doesn’t mean that the person didn’t experience it…What came after that moment is beyond our grasp, but, on the other hand, when it took place, we were all still here, in the same dimension, him and us, breathing the same air”

– and María’s thoughts about it –

Perhaps Luisa clung to me that afternoon because with me she could be what she still was, with no need for subterfuge: the inconsolable widow, to use the usual phrase.  Obsessed, boring, grief-stricken.

Marías provides tidbits of information readers will need to make sense of the revelation at the novel’s end, but mostly María’s internal monologue and the prolonged dialogue between the women is a philosophical examination of mortality.  As is the case throughout the novel, the movement for readers to follow is not the movement from one plot event to the next, but from one thought to the next or one thought cycling back to a previous thought.  At times, movement stops altogether in order for the characters to linger to the point of exhaustion on one idea alone.  There is even hypothetical dialogue, for instance the imagined conversation in which Desvern asks Javier to take care of his wife should something happen, which lasts eleven pages.

“You shouldn’t confuse us, the living me and the dead me,” Desvern says in María’s imagination. “The former is asking you for something that the latter won’t be able to question or remind you about or else check up on you to see whether or not you have carried out his wishes.  What’s so difficult, then, about giving me your word? There’s nothing to prevent you from failing to keep it, it will cost you nothing.” Contemplation is the action here, not only for the characters but also for readers.

Death is the overarching theme, a menace that obsesses each character.  It is the unpredictability of death, its instantaneous erasure of the individual from the planet, that haunts María as she imagines beginning “a day like any other with not the faintest idea that someone is going to take your life” and fixates on reports that the murderer killed Desvern while screaming, “You’re going to die today and, by tomorrow, your wife will have forgotten you!”

She also contemplates death vicariously through Luisa: “You cannot fantasize about a dead man, unless you have lost your mind,” María thinks, “and there are those who choose to do that…those who consent to do so while they manage to convince themselves that what happened really happened, the improbable and the impossible, the thing that did not even have a place in the calculation of probabilities by which we live in order to get up each morning without a sinister, leaden cloud urging us to close our eyes again, thinking: ‘What’s the point if we’re all doomed anyway?’”

Some of the book’s more original, and often humorous, reflections on human mortality consider the tiny inconveniences of death and its aftermath: “From the start, though, we know – from the moment they die – that we can no longer count on them, not even for the most petty thing, for a trivial phone call or a banal question (‘Did I leave my car keys there?’  ‘What time did the kids get out of school today?’), that we can count on them for nothing.  And nothing means nothing.”

Is Marías suggesting life is ultimately pointless?  “You only have to glance around the room of the person who has vanished to comprehend how much was interrupted and left hanging,” he writes, “how much becomes, in that instant, unusable and useless; yes, the novel with the page turned down, which will remain unread, but also the medicines that have suddenly become utterly superfluous.”  Perhaps human beings are useful only for the life they bring to other things – to their belongings, to relationships, to other people’s days – and so are useless in and of themselves. “They’re alive one moment and dead the next,” says Luisa, “and in between there is nothing.”

The leitmotif in which all other themes are rooted in the book is certainty.  Marías uses the word and words like it – precise, irremediable, definitive, solid, firm, concrete, final, guarantee – repeatedly throughout the novel.  The characters may seem obsessed with mortality, love and truth, but really they are all on a search for certainty in life when there is none; or, at least, they seek a return to the illusion of certainty with which they lived before Desvern’s murder.

They suffer because of the uncertainty of life and also the uncertainty of love – whether it will be returned, whether it will last, whether it will be interrupted by death, whether it even exists in the first place. “I could never be certain that my visit would end up with our bodies entangling,” María says of her rendez-vous with Javier.  “I both liked and didn’t like that strange uncertainty: on the one hand, it made me think that he enjoyed my company…on the other hand, it infuriated me that he could hold off for so long, that he didn’t feel an urgent need to pounce on me without further ado.”  The novel begins with María more or less spying on the couple because of a desire to see the world as “orderly” and “harmonious,” a desire Desvern’s death crushes.

It is particularly challenging to suspend the need for action near the end of the novel when the mystery of the murder is on the verge of being solved.  Marías goes into an extensive interpretation of the psychology of the character about to reveal the truth and even repeats some of the ideas he has already covered extensively in the preceding pages.

In the Paris Review, Marías discusses his penchant for taking such detours by describing a scene from his novel “Your Face Tomorrow, Volume Two,” in which a character is about to slit another character’s throat until the action is interrupted by, “a reflection on the sword: what a sword means, what a sword has meant in history, what it means nowadays and how anachronistic it is, and how, precisely because of this, it is feared maybe even more than a gun because a gun—the possibility of its being drawn—is something that you would expect if you are attacked.  There is a long reflection for many, many pages.  No one knows what has happened to that sword that has just been drawn.  If someone would skip those pages to find out whether the man is going to be beheaded, they are free to do that, but my intention—my wishful thinking—is that all digressions in my books should be interesting enough in themselves to make the reader wait, not just for the sake of waiting, but to say, OK, this writer has interrupted this and I would like to know what happens with the sword, but what he is telling me next instead of what happened with the sword is something that I am interested in, too.  I try the reader’s patience on purpose but not gratuitously.”

The Infatuations is packed with dense, obsessive, unanswerable and inconclusive ruminations about life, love and death.  In Reading for the Plot, writer Peter Brooks called plot “the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” and that, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, “we seek in narrative fictions…that knowledge of death which is denied to us in our own lives.” There is meaning in death because its finality allows us to craft stories with beginnings and ends, stories forever linked to the endless cycle of life.  Though clarity may seem to emerge from those stories, Marías warns, “the truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess.  Even when you get to the bottom of it.” María’s search for answers in Desvern’s demise mirrors a universal search for certainty and meaning, a futile search but one that gives life its shape.

Moreover, it is these ruminations that distinguish Marías’ work from his American counterparts’ as he offers a rare opportunity to slow down, to invite the mind to labor over intellectually complex and even tormenting ideas, to follow a train of thought or a desire without ever achieving completion or closure.  To let nothing happen in the outer world so that the inner world can come fully alive. For this, The Infatuations is a treasure.

—Laura K. Warrell


Laura K. Warrell is a writer and educator living in Boston.  She teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music and UMass Boston.  Her work has been featured in Salon.com, Racialicious.com and the Boston Globe, among other publications. Her essays, short stories and reviews have appeared in Numéro Cinq.

Laura Warrell

Oct 082013
Robert Francis 1901-1987

Robert Francis 1901-1987

This is the second in a series of essay by Contributing Editor Julie Larios on the undersung, underappreciated, underpublicized, forgotten, unknown, unread, lost (I could go on) poets of America (and beyond). There is so much chance and luck involved in becoming a famous author and so little chance and luck to go around. Little things like birthplace, the language you write in or whether or not some bigger poet is already there taking up all the air before you arrive on the scene all fresh and anticipatory. So Julie pays homage here to the great but lesser lights, the overshadowed and underrated. Julie Larios is an especially gifted poet and writer of essays about poetry. She seems to have read everything, have a scholar’s grasp of the tradition and the culture but with a poet’s eye and ear. I cannot imagine a better psychopomp into the Land of Shades; NC is amazingly lucky to have her.


“Sing a song of juniper / That hides the hunted mouse / And give me outdoor shadows / To haunt my indoor house” (from “Sing a Song of Juniper,” published in The Sound I Listened For, 1944.)

Robert Francis, once called “the best neglected poet” by his mentor Robert Frost, lived many years of his professional life like a maple sapling not getting enough sunlight to thrive. There must be a technical name for that condition – it has something to do with photosynthesis (turning the sunlight into growth?) or chlorophyll or damping off or root rot or….Well, I’m no arborist. But whatever the term for that pathology, the tree fails to thrive because it lives in the shade of larger trees. To carry the analogy to completion, let’s just say that Robert Frost, despite his encouragement of the younger poet, cast a very big shadow over poets living in New England in the first half of the twentieth century.

The poet and editor Louis Untermeyer, approached by Frost as a possible reader and publisher for Francis’s work, said once that Francis’s poetry “reminded me so much of Robert’s that until I learned better, I thought my leg was being pulled and Robert Francis was an alter ego Robert Frost had invented by slightly altering his last name.” It was Francis’s poem “Blue Winter” that Frost offered up to Untermeyer for consideration:

Blue Winter

Winter uses all the blues there are.
One shade of blue for water, one for ice,
Another blue for shadows over snow.
The clear or cloudy sky uses blue twice-
Both different blues. And hills row after row
Are colored blue according to how far.
You know the blue-jays double-blur device
Shows best when there are no green leaves to show.
And Sirius is a winterbluegreen star.

In fact, “Blue Winter” does sound like Frost – the focus on nature as both independent of and analogous to the human condition, the contemplative mood, the fine control of rhyme scheme, and the structure which hints at becoming a classic sonnet but is satisfied instead to end without an Elizabethan bang. The language itself falls into the iambic rhythms of “plain speech” (a quality Frost mentioned often in association with his own work); Francis even seems quite casual in places, as in his decision not to name those “different blues” in Line 5, and in his unusual repetition in Line 8 of the word “show(s)” which both opens and ends the line – that’s something we do all the time when speaking, but which a poet seldom does in a single line. Frost and Francis deliberately sought out this quality of relaxed speech to avoid the over-constructed and inflated diction of their predecessors (you can hear that sound even today in poems written by poets who mistake inflated diction for serious thought.) The words of Francis’s poem are common one- or two-syllable choices until we reach that lovely neologism “winterbluegreen” in the last line, suggesting a playfulness and an approach to words as constructed, man-made objects. That approach is more Franciscan than Frostian.

Take a look at this poem by Robert Frost:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So sun goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Again, the focus on nature as a metaphor for the human condition, the contemplative mood, the iambic rhythm, the plain speech, the fine control of rhyme, the almost anti-climactic last line. Without a name attached to some of their poems, it’s difficult to tell which poet wrote them. For example:


From where I stand the sheep stand still
As stones against the stony hill.

The stones are gray
And so are they.

And both are weatherworn and round,
Leading the eye back to the ground.

Two mingled flocks –
The sheep, the rocks.

And still no sheep stirs from its place
Or lifts its Babylonian face.

What do you think – is it Frost or is it Francis? Actually, it was written by Francis and published in his second book, Valhalla and Other Poems, in 1938. To me, it is indistinguishable from Frost.

The desire to imitate, as Francis seems to have done in his early work, is not necessarily a bad one in a young poet. By imitation a poet learns to look carefully at the technical strategies behind a particular artistic voice. Visual artists are encouraged in studio classes to imitate famous artists as they study technique. But imitation can be dangerous – as Untermeyer’s assessment of Francis’s third book of poetry (The Sound I Listened For) reveals:”It is nothing against Francis that [his poetry] resembles Frost….But we know who wrote [the poems] first.” Imitation begins to suggest a lack of personal imagination, akin to forgery.

Francis might not have felt that his poems imitated Frost so much as honored him, but reverence, too, can be dangerous. Listen to what Francis wrote in his autobiography, The Trouble with Francis, about his feelings for Frost as their professional relationship developed: “If I ask myself what it was in Frost that impressed, attracted, and fascinated me most in the years before I met him as well as in the years afterwards, the answer is power. He was a poet and he had power; the combination was striking. …He was a match for any man he ran into on the street, and usually more than a match….You had only to catch a glimpse of him anywhere to sense his solidarity, his weight, his sanity….But though the poems were the basis of his ascendancy, the man himself kept increasing and enriching that ascendancy. Unlike some poets he always seemed more than his poems, inexhaustible. What he said was fresher and terser than what others said. Like a boxer his mind stood on tiptoe for the next parry and thrust. People listened because they were too fascinated not to.”

Initially then, Francis might have been too fascinated not to listen. His early work, remarkable as it is, might have suffered in terms of theme and structure due to the powerful opinions expressed by his mentor. In his autobiography, Francis published not only the text of a letter written to him by Frost, but a facsimile of the letter, as if even the Great Man’s handwriting had a solidarity and weight that Francis could not ignore. In the letter, Frost wrote, “I am swept off my feet by the goodness of your poems this time. Ten or a dozen of them are my idea of perfection.” Imagine how Francis felt when he read that kind of praise. But isn’t there something unnerving about the idea of Frost’s “idea of perfection”? Couldn’t that intimidate a young poet who, when composing future poems, found himself asking “What will Frost think of it?” and altering the piece accordingly? There is sometimes a fine line between influence and intimidation.

Frost as mentor....

Frost as mentor….

My concern about Frost’s influence might sound pinched and mean. But as someone who has seen that kind of reverence for an influential teacher, and who has watched the effect of it on a wide circle of fellow students, I can say that our awe of that poet’s talent and intelligence probably kept us imitative of him for too long. It was our own fault, not his; he was nothing but generous. But his students, those who felt his “power,” as Francis describes it, sometimes neglected the development of their own idiosyncrasies in favor of his.

Compare “Blue Winter” (published in 1932) to a poem written much later in Francis’s life (listed in the “New Poems” section of his Collected Poems 1936-1976):

Yes, What?

What would earth do without her blessed boobs
her blooming bumpkins garden variety
her oafs her louts her yodeling yokels
and all her Brueghel characters
under the fat-faced moon

Her nitwits numskulls universal
nincompoops jawohl jawohl with all
their yawps burps beers guffaws
her goofs her goons her big galoots
under the red-face moon?

In that poem, Francis is both big-boned and playful, like a bear with a honey buzz. He emerges from the shadows and invites the reader to join him at play, and the language is anything but measured or contemplative – in fact, it’s positively giddy. Rhyme as a formal element has disappeared, though other poetic strategies are clear. The pronounced alliteration puts me in mind of how it feels to face several Coney Island bumpers cars – they’re impossible to avoid, slightly lowbrow, confusing, almost out of control, but you still laugh and enjoy yourself until the ride is over. So, too, with the poem. And despite the fat-faced, red-faced moon, the poem addresses no other nature than human nature.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Robert Francis titled his fourth book of poetry, published two years after Frost died, Come Out Into the Sun. But by then Francis was no longer an emerging poet and his books did not make much of a ripple. Poet and teacher Samuel French Morse, however, got it right when he said in one of the few reviews of the book, “The quiet excitement with which one reads Come Out Into the Sun generates the conviction that Francis is considerably more than ‘a poet, minor’ as he modestly calls himself. His work has humor, as well as wit, and it may be this idiosyncrasy that accounts in part for the otherwise unaccountable neglect into which the taste-makers have allowed it to fall. On the other hand, the freshness which marks almost every poem here may derive in part from the poet’s awareness that he has nothing to live up to except his own standards of excellence: he is free to be himself in ways that the poet with the burden of reputation may not be free.” The poem Morse uses as an example of this standard of excellence is one of my favorites:


The tongue that mothered such a metaphor
Only the purest purist could despair of.

Nobody ever called swill sweet but isn’t
Hogwash a daisy in a field of daisies?

What besides sports and flowers could you find
To praise better than the American language?

Bruised by American foreign policy
what shall I soothe me, what defend me with

But a handful of clean unmistakable words-
Daisies, daisies, in a field of daisies?

And in the “New Poems” section of his Collected Works 1936-1976 there are even more poems headed in this playful direction, such as the following:


Could be a game
like battledore
and shuttlecock.
Could be.

Could be a color
but none of your Commy red
damn you!

Red of a cocky cock’s
or scarlet poppies
popping in a field of wheat.

But poppycock
after all
alas is only

In other words bilge

ballyhoo from Madison A
ballyhoo from Washington DC
red-white-and-blue poppycock

There are other cocks
to be sure.

barnyard cocks
bedroom cocks
or cockunsure.

But to get back to poppycock
what a word!
God, what a word!
Just the word!

Keep your damn poems
only give me the words
they are made of.

It’s as if a spring has been sprung and Francis is sailing out into the air, whistling as he flies. Yes, there is weight to what is said; the poem delivers its payload. But those exclamation marks! That full-feathered rooster-ish display! And what on earth would Frost have thought of the “purest purist”?

Francis is definitely undersung, but it’s not as if his work is unknown among poets. If you read enough poetry, you eventually make your way to some of his poems. And he got a sprinkling of fine awards. He was invited to participate as a fellow in the Breadloaf Writing Conference after the publication in 1936 of his first book, Stand with Me Here. In 1938 he received the Shelley Memorial Prize (contemporary winners include Robert Pinsky, Ron Padgett, Lucia Perillo and Yusef Komunyakaa.) But nearly twenty years elapsed before the awarding of that prize and his Rome Fellowship, and almost thirty more years passed after that honor before the Academy of American Poets named him, in 1984, the recipient of a Fellowship Award, citing his “distinguished achievement.” Philip Levine was just named the 2013 winner of this prize, and recipients in the years surrounding Francis’s award are true stars now in the world of poetry: John Ashbery, Philip Booth, Maxine Kumin, Amy Clampitt. Still, the header on Francis’s obituary in the New York Times says it all: “Robert Francis, A Poet Hailed by Frost, Dies.”

So how to explain the “unaccountable neglect” of critics and the reading public, other than to say that Robert Frost cast a big shadow? Plenty of ambitious poets make their way either in spite of or because of influential mentors.

Maybe the key word there is “ambitious.” Certainly something that contributed to Francis’s failure to ascend was his parallel failure to engage in the practical art of building a reputation. He did not hob-nob, he did not schmooze, he did not self-promote, he did not teach or become a mentor himself. Why not?

As Easily as Trees

As easily as trees have dropped
Their leaves, so easily a man,
So unreluctantly, might drop
All rags, ambitions, and regrets
Today and lie with leaves in sun.
So he might sleep while they began,
Falling or blown, to cover him.

It’s interesting that in his autobiography, Francis recalls something about ambition and reputation-building that Frost said to him: “Sitting in my home on the evening of December 10, 1950, he remarked casually that he had never lifted a finger to advance his career and that what had come to him had just come to him.” Francis apparently believed Frost, and was disappointed to read, when Frost’s letters to Louis Untermeyer were published, how far from the truth it was: “…what I had taken him to mean by not having lifted a finger was evidently not what he meant.”

Francis was also startled when Frost asked him what he did when he wasn’t writing. Francis lists the things he did for himself: “Marketing, cooking, dish-washing. Washing, ironing, mending, bed-making, floor-mopping. Gardening, grass-cutting, leaf-raking, snow-shoveling. Storm windows off and screens on, screens off and storm windows on. ….If I wanted wild grape jelly to sweeten the coming winter, I had to find and gather the wild grapes and do everything to the pouring of the hot wax….I knew I could not make my situation intelligible, and, what is more, I didn’t altogether want to. I was not proud of my incessant busyness. I could have envied the miraculous sense of leisure that Robert Frost carried around with him at all times.” It seems that a little doubt, a little bitterness, swelled up in Francis when looking back on this mentor who “never smiled in greeting me at the the door.” The leisure Frost took for granted bewildered Francis, and he admitted finally that there were many Frosts to Robert Frost. “I don’t want to be a farmer,” Frost once wrote. He also wrote, “There’s room for only one person … at the top of the steeple, and I always meant that person to be me.” He admitted to ambition of “astonishing magnitude.”

Frost as the independent and crusty New England farmer....

Frost as the independent and crusty New England farmer….

In his wonderful essay about these two poets, “Robert Frost, Robert Francis, and the Poetry of Detached Engagement,” Andrew Stambuk details Frost’s studied self-idealization by showing how carefully Frost constructed and protected the image of himself as the crusty old New England farmer who stands up to Nature’s brow-beatings. In discussing one of Frost’s most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Stambuk says, “Frost’s evocation of ‘barrenness’ is a conscious tactic that extends to a strategy of self-idealization, whereby the poet, in shrugging off this condition and asserting his will, disguises his characteristic wariness as tough-minded resistance.” Few high school students in America have not been asked their opinions of “The Road Less Traveled” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” after having been taught that Frost was the man who took the road less traveled and had “promises to keep /and miles to go” before he slept.

Stambuk goes on to say that Frost “helped shape the public’s perception of him as a tough-minded realist, one strikingly at odds with the poet who was insecure about his reputation….” Maybe Stanley Kunitz described it best: Frost’s “most successful work of the imagination was the legend he created about himself.”

Francis, on the other hand, turned away from reputation-building. He gave up his 15-year dependence on income which kept him out and about in town, teaching violin lessons; he gave up his high school teaching job after only one year, and he decided to rely exclusively on the money his poetry produced, which was meager. He lived alone for more than forty years outside Amherst in a hand-built two-room house he called “Fort Juniper.” Aside from the residential fellowships he was awarded, none of the honors he accumulated paid enough money to live on. In 1955 he was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts; in 1960, he taught for a year at Harvard. He spent one year in Italy on his fellowship from the Academy and returned ten years later after being awarded the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship.

Most of Robert Francis’s life was lived Thoreau-style, in a cabin in the woods, in the shade cast not only by Robert Frost but by a suitably transcendental forest of birch trees. He died in 1987, relatively unknown, alone, 85 years old, still writing, chopping wood, sweeping the floors, ironing, mending, and making that wild grape jelly at the kitchen stove.

A house in the shade of birch trees.

A house in the shade of birch trees.

Fort Juniper Kitchen

Fort Juniper Kitchen

Desk at Fort Juniper

Desk at Fort Juniper


As you are (said Death)
Come green, come gray, come white
Bring nothing at all
Unless it’s a perfectly easy
Petal or two of snow
Perhaps or a daisy
Come day, come night.

Nothing fancy now
No rose, no evening star
Come spring, come fall
Nothing but a blade of rain
Come gray, come green
As you are (said Death)
As you are.

Reading at the window...

Robert Francis reading at the window…

—Julie Larios

Julie Larios

Julie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Oct 072013



Marguerite Duras
Introduction by Kazim Ali
Afterword by Sharon Willis
Translated from the French by Kazim Ali and Libby Murphy
Open Letter Books, 109 pp. $12.95

Reading Marguerite Duras’s short novel L’Amour, written in 1971 and translated for the first time into English with this 2013 Open Letter edition, is like watching a film of silvery images unwind against a muted seascape of sand and salt. An occasional flash of color punctuates. Blue eyes. Green plants. A pink dawn. And throughout the novel the nameless survivors of concealed histories—The Man Who Walks, The Woman With Closed Eyes, The Traveler—group and regroup on the beach, along the river and in the mythical town of S. Thala in a never-ending, enigmatic dance of desire and entanglement.

In a world where secrets are manifest but never revealed, Duras’ rendering of the painful aftermath of aborted love takes the form of a tortured tango in which the three protagonists take part.

At the outset of the novel the author silhouettes two words against the page, a sentence fragment which freezes the image of a man against an uncertain backdrop:

A man.
Standing, watching: the beach, the sea. The sea is calm, flat; season indefinite, moment lingering.
The man stands on a boardwalk over the sand.
He wears dark clothes. His face distinct.
His eyes clear.
He does not move. He watches.
The sea, the beach, a few tidal pools, flat surfaces of water….

But the lens then widens to reveal that this man, The Traveler, is not alone. Far off, between The Traveler and the sea, at the edge of the water, strides another man: ‘The Man Who Walks.’

Between the man who watches and the sea, far off, all the way at the water’s edge, someone walking. Another man. Wearing dark clothes. From here his face is indistinct. He walks, going, coming, he goes, comes again, his path is rather long, never changing….[3]

To the left of the Traveler, The Woman With Closed Eyes sits against the stone wall that separates the beach from the town:

The triangle is completed by the woman with closed eyes. She is sitting against the wall that separates the beach from the town.
The man who watches is between this woman and the man who walks along the edge of the sea.
Because of the man who walks, constantly with his slow even
stride, the triangle stretches long, reforms, but never breaks.
This man has the even steps of a prisoner….

The three-sided tango begins. At first static, the triangle shifts and comes undone, reforms and comes apart, and then reforms again as the characters move through space.

The man is still walking, coming, going, before the sea, the sky, but the man who was watching has moved.
The even sliding of the triangle ceases.
He moves.
He begins to walk.

Someone walks, nearby.
The man who was watching passes between the woman with closed eyes and the other, far away, the one who goes, who comes, a prisoner. You hear the hammering of his steps on the boardwalk.
His steps are uneven, hesitant.
The triangle comes undone, reforms. [4-5]

In continual flux, this shape-changing triangle is the foundation of the novel; it is both metaphor and metonym that eliminates the need for explanation. The reader learns only that The Traveler, having abandoned his wife and children, returns to S. Thala to commit suicide. The Woman With Closed Eyes lives in a prison-like institution; she is followed by a mad caretaker, The Man Who Walks. The story that involves them “began before the walk along the edge of the sea” in the opening pages. As the sea has washed the sands in the interim, so has time washed memory from the minds of the characters.

Several other characters appear briefly in the novel; these include two women who meet with The Traveler. They allude to previous affairs and to other, long-disbanded triangles. But it is to The Woman With Closed Eyes that The Traveler returns. With her, he attempts to undertake a voyage to the center of town to recover memory; as a result, “a peak of intensity” is reached. [1] The woman dresses in white and carries a handbag that contains nothing but a mirror. Vague recollections surface: the woman’s eighteenth summer, her children, her dead husband and how the town of S. Thala used to be. There is, however, no release. The memories prove to be too spare. Neither the characters nor the reader can fully understand. When the sun becomes too hot and the effort of remembering too much, the woman collapses on the beach, stretches out, does not move. She falls asleep and The Traveler sprinkles sand over her body. He pronounces the word “Love,” in a truncated dialogue which elicits no response: [2]

Her eyes open, they look without seeing, without recognizing anything, then close again, fade to black. [84]

Soon thereafter, the man who walks returns from his wanderings and sets fire to the town of S. Thala; by destroying the town, he empties the novel; all that is left is the sand and sea and another day without significance.

Dialogue throughout the novel enhances this aesthetic of estrangement; it is short, discrete and disconnected. Often a series of non sequiturs, conversation barely functions as communication; instead it seems to be a “faltering counterpoint of sound and silence.” [3]

Transitions between paragraphs—the book’s chapters—are likewise abrupt. Words that resemble stage directions indicate shifts in time or place. Moreover, by embedding scenes within a frame of white space on the page, Duras creates discrete units, the cumulative effect of which is a series of images flashing across the page. The reader bears witness to the morphing geometry of the dance as if flipping through a photo album or watching a film.

Yet the description of setting—especially of the beach—is lush. Indeed, Duras’ rendition of the elements often draws attention away from the trio on the beach, dissolving them. Consider:

 Day dwindling.
The sea, the sky, fill the space. Far off, the sea, like the sky, already oxidized by the shadowy light.
Three, three in the shadowy light, a slow-shifting web.


Somewhere on the beach, to the right of the one who watches, a movement of light: a pool empties, a spring, a stream, many-mouthed streams, feeding the abyss of salt.

This is gorgeous writing that creates a metaphor of the environment, a shifting, modulating, oxidizing world of relations.


In the introduction to this edition Kazim Ali writes that “the starkness of tone and flatness of delivery may be why” L’Amour has never before been translated into English. But he also points out that “the stillness of the text and the static nature of its characters is a deception—it is full of movement, people shifting form place to place, endlessly moving like the sea.”

In fact, as Sharon Willis illustrates in the afterword, a chief technical problem in translating the work was how to present the “rich palette of variation of verbs that only French can provide.” English relies on prepositions and lacks the movement inherent in French. Revenir is translated with three words in English: ‘to come back,’ and retourner with ‘to go back.’

Written midway during an illustrious and prolific career that spanned more than five decades and earned Duras numerous honors including the 1984 Prix Goncourt for L’Amant, L’Amour is at the core of a group of Duras’ works dubbed the “India cycle.” This body of work includes the novels Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964) and Le Vice-Consul (1965) as well as the films La Femme du Gange (1972—the adaptation of L’Amour) and India Song (1974—from Le Vice-Consul); the primary event from which the India cycle works spring is the betrayal of the character, Lol V. Stein by her lover.[4]

L’Amour recalls the earlier novel by reworking the material, but it does so in a fragmented manner. The Woman With Closed Eyes on the beach in L’Amour seems to resemble Lol V. Stein but, as we’ve seen, she remains nameless. The traveler is possibly Michael Richardson, the lover who abandoned Lol for an older woman, but in L’Amour this is also unspecified. The name of the fictional, coastal town—S. Thala—is the same in both (although the early English translations of Le Ravissement mistranslated it as South Thala).

In the same way, Duras renders descriptions, history, plot, and analysis—novel thought—ghostly or non-existent. Stripped of layers, the characters in L’Amour do not reflect on where they’ve been, where they are and where they are going; nor do they feel. Their world has been bled of much color and sound; it is a black and white space where, in the words of Duras, “breath is rarified and sensory experience is diminished.”[5] Their world emptied, the characters are caught in a void.[6]

L’Amour is, in fact, a revolutionary text, one in which Duras grappled with the issue she faced as an avant-garde artist interested in rendering Roland Barthes’ zero point. This, for her, was where “the intolerable emptiness of the text forces recognition of the need for the recovery of sensitivity.”[7] In order to reach the zero point in L’Amour, not only does Duras depict disintegration in the pages of her novel, but along the way she destroys “the most precious theme of Western fiction, the love story, and the structure of the bourgeois novel.”[8] The seamless creation of the realist writer writhes on the operating table as Duras wields her scalpel.


After L’Amour, Duras turned the flame up on her experimentation. She believed she could write more radically in film because in film, “tout est écrit”.[9] Thus, when she moved on to La Femme du Gange, “through a continual and unswerving shift, she passed from words on a page to images on a screen; [From fiction to film] discourse is muffled, concrete representation of reality is reduced to fragmented materiality and finally to full darkness projected into the space of a given screen.”[10]

Thus, just as L’Amour echoes an earlier text, it also gives rise to works that continue to experiment with rendering the void; these in the medium of film. But by supplying actual footage in lieu of text, Duras ultimately succeeds in subverting another triangle; that of the reader, the narrative and immersion in a world that seems not to have been constructed but to have always existed.[11]

—Natalia Sarkissian


Borgomanero, Madeleine. “L’Ecriture Filmique de Marguerite Duras, Review by Yuri Vidov Karageorge.” The French Review, 61, no. 4 (March 1988): 641

Duras, Marguerite. “An Interview with Marguerite Duras” (conducted by Germaine Bree), tr. Cyril Doherty, Contemporary Literature, 13 (1972), 427.

Duras, Marguerite. Les Cahiers. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

Duras, Marguerite and Xaviere Gauthier. Les Parleuses. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974, p. 12.

Gaensbauer, Deborah B. “Revolutionary Writing in Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour,” The French Review, 55, No. 5 (April 1982): 633-639.

Josipovici, Gabriel. Whatever Happened to Modernism? New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

McNeece, Lucy Stone. “The Reader in the Field of Rye: Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour,Modern Language Studies, 22. No. 1 (Winter, 1992): 3-16.

Nichols, Stephen G., Jr. “Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes,” Contemporary Literature, University of Wisconsin Press, 10, No. 1 (Winter, 1969): 136-146.


Natalia Sarkissian

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

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Gaensbauer, 637
  2. See Gaensbauer, 637
  3. McNeece, 7
  4. McNeece, 5
  5. Duras, Les Parleuses, cited by Gaensbauer, 636
  6. Gaensbauer, 636; McNeece 4
  7. Gaensbauer, 633
  8. Gaensbauer, 633
  9. Duras, 1977, p. 90-cited in McNeece, 14
  10. Borgomano, Madeleine. L’écriture filmique de Marguerite Duras—Book Review by Yuri Vidov Karageorge in The French Review p. 641
  11. Josipovici, p 166
Oct 052013


What an older writer can do that a younger one can’t is erect, out of the merest wisp of chance memory and association, a brief, complex image of youth, a life, a satanic struggle (“I’ve tasted hell,” he writes sardonically) and ill consequence (you ache for that boy who runs from the spider lady to a milkshake—oh innocence—that later turns to alcohol). Note the apparently casual opening that rhymes (without telling the reader) spider/arachnid with Signora Ragnetti, the spider summoning the writer into the dark labyrinth of the past; the repugnant singing lesson; the precise oscillation in the text between spider and Signora (Ragnetti means “little spiders,” as someone who knows informs me); and the shape: October, fall, tenor—at the beginning and the end—and, in the last line, “spider, Ragnetti.” Sydney Lea makes this look effortless; damn, it’s not.


October’s warm for now, the truer chill yet to come. As it happens, an angler spider, trailing its thread like a fishing line, has just caught me this morning, in exact coincidence with my random recall of Signora Ragnetti, long since dead. Even gone, though, in memory the woman’s still an ogre, the one who terrified me every Thursday afternoon one winter. During singing lessons, fist on high, she led me, barely yet  turned tenor, through cheerless versions of Caro mio ben’ and others.

I arrived, cradling my folio of airs. I’d been sopped and darkened by smutted snow in that stranger’s land, Downtown. The bells of San Cristofero’s tolled a torpid portent of the slow agony ahead. I’ve tasted hell.

I hear it already: “How is this? You do not do so simple things I ask. O Dio, che stupido….

The spider thinks he’s found arachnid heaven. That is if a spider may be said to think, and even if so, in terms aside from food and drink. If he can, not knowing how I’ve shrunk, he has reason to find me quite a catch.  He’s likely drunk with joy, not knowing either how in those old sessions, when (cretino!) failure seemed its own long season, I was hollowed out to a specter. If he tweaked his thread, I’d rise. I’m only air in this nightmare, a whiff of ether.

La signora is five feet one at most, and perhaps eighty pounds. How can she be so huge, then? She wrests the door inward and lets me in with clickings of her tongue.

“So different from my son,” she growls, before I’ve so much as removed my soaking jacket. She turns to study the photo, which shows a middle-aged man with a face as set and stern as hers. She crosses herself and scowls, then sits malignly down. Soon, too soon, her left hand jabs at scales on her piano, the right one in that gnarled fist, as if it held a dagger.

Piu forte! she insists. I wince, as though from actual blows, while we do-re-mi.

“Disaster!” she spits as I grapple up and down those ladders: “Do you visit here for making such a noise, asino?” 

Another note, another Latin imprecation. I grow colder and colder and smaller. My mother, I know, won’t imagine my complaints, on my return home, as other than self-pitying puling.

Released at last, I cross the swarming street to buy a milkshake, icy, laced with malt, scant consolation for all I’ve felt go out of me. My hope is delusion; the treat seems to freeze the fear I’d meant to melt, the poison residue of terror, hate. In coming years, for too long I’ll turn to alcohol, in the same vain longing for numbness.

Once I felt the harsh lash of Ragnetti. Now the spider vainly imagines he’ll take me into his maw.

It’s not yet fall. The years have changed that voice she called a mediocre tenor. The liquor has been banished, and one might think I’d come to accept myself for what I am, no more. I want further to say, but cannot quite: Ragnetti, spider, I amount to something, have gravity.

—Sydney Lea


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

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

Oct 042013


Julie Bruck won the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry last year for her third collection MONKEY RANCH. She is from Montreal but lives in San Francisco. Her other two books (all three published by Brick Books) are THE END OF TRAVEL (1999) and THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS (1993). Herewith NC offers a wonderful interview Julie recently gave NC’s Contributing Editor Ann Ireland plus a trove of poems. By mysterious Fate or Synchronicity or sheer Coincidence (still astonishing) it just so happens that Julie Bruck will be reading in Fredericton (where dg is the Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick, in case you’ve forgotten) Saturday and Sunday at Ross Leckie’s famous Poetry Weekend. According to the latest reading schedule (there is a cast of dozens it seems; never so many poets in once place—difficult to organize; a veritable extravaganza of poets with a huge party at Sharon McCartney‘s house where DG will partake of the Barking Squirrel), Julie Bruck will be reading at Gallery 78 Saturday at 2pm and again at 8pm on Sunday at Memorial Hall.



Ann Ireland: Your poems slow the reader down so that we pay attention to moments that might fly by, unobserved. In your first book the poem CLOSURE feels like  a statement of poetic intent. Thoughts on this?

Julie Bruck:


Who hasn’t had days when the door
stayed  ajar; the important business call
in which you meant to sound brisk
but goodbye came out bye-bye?
Or when you talked over someone
saying what they’ve tried for years
to say;  hung up in the middle
of I love you, or got hung up on.
A plane takes off and a small child
turns from the cloud-streaked
window, asks, what happened?,
and sobs for the rest of the trip.
Poof!–gone are her grandfather’s
delicate nose-hairs, the sunlit world
with its parking-lot  demarcations.
There’s just this terrible shaking
between the past and future.
You want  to know when it stops.

There’s  a poem I haven’t thought about in a long time! When it was written, circa 1990,  I wouldn’t have pegged  the poem for an ars poetica, but you’re definitely on to something. I’m a person who mourns for what has yet to be lost, for whom the concept of “closure” is laughable. I refuse to come to terms with how provisional and temporary life is. Is that a form of arrested development? I suspect so.  Meanwhile, looking slowly and clearly at even the smallest things is an attempt to wrest a snippet of meaning from the passing moment, or to restore the dignity or beauty—even the embarrassment—inherent in what can be so ephemeral.

If I revised that poem today, I’d change “delicate” to “wiry,” a more concise word for how an old man’s nose hair looks to a child. I’m starting to  understand why poets like Stanley Kunitz and Donald Justice kept changing and reissuing their early poems in their late years. I’d also cross-examine those semi-colons. But please, stop me before I start. What a slippery slope.

AI:You write of place, of growing up in Montreal. How did it affect your writing to move to San Francisco?

JB: I have a long, intimate connection to Montreal, the kind you don’t get twice in one lifetime. It took almost a decade before I felt like I lived in San Francisco, as seductive as this place can be. When I was new to the Bay Area, I once complained to (the poet) Heather McHugh about homesickness, and she said something to the effect of, you never leave where you come from, you simply carry it with you. At the time, this advice sounded more like one of Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmations on Saturday Night Live, but Heather, who also has roots in Canada, is the smartest person I know. Sure enough, as both cities took up residence in my writing, I came to feel both more grounded in California and more connected to where I’m from. That was an enormous relief, though I should have had more faith: so many writers whose work I admire retain a creative foot– if not both feet–in their place of origin. James Thurber said, “The clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus.” My chimes will always be the CBC’s “long dash, followed by a period of silence,” though I’m beginning to  take comfort in the emergency siren that sounds here every Tuesday at noon, with its warbling reminder that “this is just a test.”

Julie Bruck 4

AI: How might you describe your upbringing, the household you grew up in?

JB: Idyllic and fraught. My dad, who died just days before his 98th birthday this March, was the president of a textile company when there still was a large domestic textile industry in Canada, so our family was quite affluent. I grew up in a big Georgian greystone in Westmount, and my two older brothers and I went to a private school a few blocks away. By the time I was nine, my brothers had left for colleges in the U.S., and their absence had a big effect on me, though I didn’t know it at the time. On one hand, I gained a great deal of solitude in the big house (a state I still crave today), and on the other, I became an only child, wedged between my parents, absorbing the dissonance from two well-meaning people who never should have married. My father was, despite his liberal politics and fascination with Thomas Jefferson, very traditional in his family expectations, while my mother wasn’t one for the bell jar. While my dad would come home wrung out from dealing with budding labor unions, my mother was organizing anti-poverty or clothing drives on behalf of the children of these very same people. So, while I enjoyed all the pleasures that my father’s work brought us, I also received a clear message from my mother, which was that our largesse was built on someone else’s labor. Something was always rotten in the state of Denmark, and I began to look at things from a slight remove, a stance I still have. These particular family matters are things I’d just begun to revisit in Monkey Ranch, and I don’t think I’ve quite exhausted them, as my long answer to your question suggests.

AI: When did you start reading poetry? Were you read poetry as a child? Which poets first excited you?

JB: My mother read Edward Lear and other children’s verse out loud when I was little, and my father liked to quote Ogden Nash, but aside from a voracious appetite for British children’s mysteries with ponies in them, I never became an enthusiastic young reader. My parents loved to read, and this may have been a reaction, I don’t know. I do know that I wanted to be outside, preferably with real animals instead of imaginary ones. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I started to read actively. Those were tough years, and I was looking for meaning and excitement wherever I could find it. I read lots of Canadian women poets, especially Atwood. I had much reading ahead of me. If I’d known how much, I might have fled for the hills.

AI: You began training as a visual artist. What caused the change in direction? Do you still make visual art or is your highly visual poetry taking care of that?

JB: After a few years of photography, using both 35mm and large format cameras, I was frustrated with needing so much equipment to make  such quiet, simple things.  I’d just completed my freshman year at The San Francisco Art Institute, and the little kitchen in my apartment doubled as a darkroom. Since I was using traditional archival methods, one day it dawned on me that I was probably washing my fruits and vegetables in selenium toner or gold chloride.  To make a long story shorter, the simplicity of a pen and a notebook looked good. And of course, poetry is another way of framing what one sees, one that uses revision instead of dodging and burning to fill in the shadows and set the brightness, the contrast, the tensions in the work.  There are plenty of kinships between the two mediums.

This week, I stumbled across a familiar bright orange box at the local thrift shop, the same rare, soft Agfa portrait paper I used to use.  Someone had ripped open the light-proof black wrapping inside the box–to inspect the contents, I guess–exposing and ruining every sheet. I stood there for a few minutes, feeling very sad and very analog.

I still have my Olympus OM-1, but it needs repair, which is both hard to find and expensive. Eventually,  I’ll have it fixed, even if I take the film to Walgreen’s, and have the images digitized.

AI: How is the writing scene in Montreal different from SF?

JB: Montreal’s Anglophone writing scene is very small and intimate, while the Bay Area’s writing “communities”  are multiple and widely scattered.  In a way, they mirror the topography here, which has scores of neighborhoods folded into these dramatic hills. If you chose to, you could attend a literary event every night in San Francisco, and never touch down, but it would be hard to get any work done.

AI: Did you know any writers when you moved to SF?

JB: My spouse, Lewis Buzbee, is a writer and a third-generation Californian, so I got to know local writers through him. I’ve also made writerly friends on my own here, but  much of my writing life remains tied to Canada, and  I still exchange work with friends in Montreal. I was 40 when I picked up stakes, and these old affections transcend geography. They’re akin to what Leonard Cohen lovingly refers to as his “neurotic affiliations” in Montreal. They run deep.


AI: Advantages to having a foot in Canada and the USA. Any disadvantages?

JB: Quite honestly, I never  plan  much according to practical advantages and disadvantages, for better and for worse. I’ve just followed my dumb heart so far. Except for parenthood, which changes everything,  my daily life here isn’t so different from what it was in  Montreal. Like most writers, I  struggle to carve  time  from work and other responsibilities to get a few quiet hours to work .

I sometimes wonder whether living in San Francisco isn’t more like being in Oz than living in the U.S. It’s such a left-leaning, progressive place, it’s easy to lose sight of the rest of the country from here. Meanwhile, growing up as an Anglophone in Quebec might have been the perfect training for living a bit of a split existence. I can just add one more hyphen. When I lived in Canada, I had a foot in the States.  Now I have a foot in Canada. When you come down to it, isn’t that how most writers live–with one foot in the immediate surround, and another inside  the work that goes on in their heads? Ugh, I’m mangling this metaphor so badly, I should have to walk around with a foot in my head.

AI: What kind of work do you do in SF?

JB: For nearly nine years, I’ve taught  year-round poetry classes for adults at The Writing Salon in the Mission district, as well as working privately with a few individual writers.  During the academic year, I also tutor part-time at The University of San Francisco, and pick up various freelance gigs. This is an expensive city, and we have a teenager, so I scramble a fair bit.

AI: Thoughts on teaching poetry? What is it that you teach your students?

JB: If there’s one thing I try to convey above all else, it’s the importance  of breaking the tyranny of  pre-determined subject matter, just enough to allow for real discoveries to happen in the writing. This is something  I’ve had to learn and relearn myself, and  each time I  “relearn”  it is an exhilaration.

Many beginners–and not just a few seasoned writers–feel that they can’t write without that familiar pressure in the chest, the one associated with something particularly painful in their lives. They’re carrying such a heavy biscuit when they sit down to write, it’s no wonder they avoid their desks.  What I try to teach, and it’s often a challenge since we’re so often bound by our versions of “what actually happened,” is that whether you’re exploring metaphor by writing from the point of view of a lychee nut, or taking on the challenges of some new and unfamiliar form, it’s the engagement with language that matters most.  If divorce is on your mind, that lychee nut might be cleaved, that delicious word that means both torn apart and joined, and what would that suggest about separation and loss? Maybe a villanelle’s patterns of repetition won’t narrow your possible word choices, but actually expand them, pointing to a word you’d never have considered, but which couldn’t be more apt. These kinds of playful engagements are, I think, the best ways  to discover meaning  you couldn’t have predicted, and to make poems that are fresher, deeper, and more relevant to the reader. In that state of mind, your heart rate goes up just reading the dictionary. You come to realize that your angle of approach can vary wildly, but your own themes  will always surface, and that  no-one’s going to take away your voice.

Hmm, I notice that the teacherly “you” has infiltrated this conversation.

Monkey Ranch

AI: How has your work changed in form and content over the three books?

JB: I hope the work has become more expansive. Some poems from the first two books might confuse precision with depth, though I’m likely not the best judge of that.  The books span 20 years. I’ve grown older, had a kid, and the newer poems should, to steal a photographic term, have a wider angle of view. Teaching has also been helpful to me as a writer.  I decided early on that I couldn’t impose anything on my students I wasn’t willing to try, and I think that kind of playfulness, coupled with the game exuberance I see in so many of my students has  tempered a streak of preciousness in me. It’s made the writing more fun.

AI: You’re not prolific ( I should talk)—can you talk about your writing process?

JB: Yes, I’m awfully slow, but most of that has to do with being an ardent reviser. And often, it’s only when I see the shadow  of a manuscript emerging from what had been just a stack of drafts, that I can finish certain pieces, since the revisions involve not only what’s on that particular page, but how that poem might interact with its new neighbors, in its new town.

AI: Thoughts on traditional poetic forms and metrics?  How important is sound?

JB: I like the constraints of traditional forms, and the surprising ways those limitations can be freeing, but I’ve only included a few loose sonnets in my books. That may change in the next collection, since I’m having a good time with certain fixed forms at the moment.

Sound matters a great deal. Free verse is really just variations on basic iambic pentameter  (I hate to see de eve’nin sun go downta-dum,ta-dum,ta-dum, ta-tum,ta-dum–the sound of our heart-beats), and patterns of stress are an essential part of a poem’s tension and meaning. I’ve never written strict metrical verse, but my ear is tuned to where the stresses fall in a poem, as well as to alliteration,  assonance and consonance, and to how line breaks manipulate sound.

AI: How does a poem gather in your head?

JB: A poem can begin almost anywhere,  but the most common scenario starts as an itch that I can’t quite scratch. There might be two or three seemingly unrelated images or bits of conversation or musical phrases, and an intuition that these things are connected. The real work lies in finding that connective tissue, and in the process, discovering why this particular poem wants to be written, what gesture it wants to make. I once heard Robert Pinsky describe some poems in terms of their “infinitives.” He looked at several pieces for the particular movement or gesture in each one; to seek, to lament, to persuade.  That’s an approach I’ve found to be very helpful, as long as I don’t close in on the poem’s infinitive too soon, and exclude other possibilities the poem may hold.  I always want to let the poem lead, and I think a reader knows when a writer has wrested control of the thing too early. Those poems feel predetermined, as if the writer has decided the poem’s an elegy, while the poem itself feels resistant –like it really wants to blow the deceased’s cover.

Very rarely, a finished poem just lands in my lap. But those usually come when I’ve been working hard on thorny pieces, or ones I’ve had to abandon. I no longer stand around waiting for lightning to strike. Life’s too short.

The End of Travel

AI: Do you see yourself as having a ‘poetic project’ that continues as a through- line in your books. What is it that you seek to engage with, to investigate over the years?

JB: Probably, ibid: That life’s too short. Occasionally, I’ll concoct grand plans for what’s next, but in the end the work seems to create its own path. I have to trust that there’s more than one note to be struck concerning the fact that we’re temporary–I think the history of literature certainly bears that out–and that those notes can also  be ones of dark humor, and even joy.

AI: In Monkey Ranch: “Snapshot at Uxmal, 1972,” you fix on what appears to  be a photograph of you as a teenager with your photographer mother. Mother pays attention to detail in her work, lots of zoom lens; father speaks of the – ‘vast scale of what he saw while heading off to visit larger ruins.’ You remark on the teenager in the photo: ‘Her father’s impatience hasn’t flared in her yet, / though she carries that too, an unstruck match.’  Care to comment?

JB: That poem arose from coming across a photo I’d taken of my mother, resting against a temple wall with her cameras. At fifteen, I was heavily identified with her. I would never have guessed that aspects of my father I also carried–his single-mindedness among them–were the very things that would let me differentiate myself from her later on. When a child acts as a buffer, or a compensation for a shaky marriage,  growing up and away can feel like a betrayal of that close parent. It can also anger the more distant parent, who needs the child to fill in for them emotionally, and that creates additional pressure on the kid.

That’s a lot of baggage for such a little poem to carry. I hope the reader doesn’t need all that information to feel the latent tension between a mother and daughter, but it is what underlies the “unstruck match.” A lot of young people feel  they are responsible for maintaining their family dynamic, and that opting out  of their assigned role is tantamount to setting fire to the family.

AI: I note several references to Elizabeth Bishop. How has she influenced your thinking and writing?

JB: I’ve been reading Bishop for many years–the poems and prose, all her collections of letters, and every biography out there. In truth, I have no idea whether my great affection for her work has had any direct influence me or not, but I’ve often felt changed as a person by reading her. What I love best about her poems is how the emotional pressure of what’s left unsaid seeps through. All she has to do is describe that greasy little doily or the “hirsute begonia” in  her poem “Filling Station,” and I’m awash in both beauty and loneliness.

AI: Do you need any particular circumstances to be able to write?

JB: An empty flat is best but very rare, so I use the circumstances at hand. At the busiest times of the year, I have a standing, weekly writing appointment with my notebook in a parked car. As long as words get put down on a regular basis, I can live with myself, and I suspect this makes me easier to live with. I had a residency at The MacDowell  Colony many years ago, and I’ve kept a little essence of that kind of stillness tucked away inside. When I need it, I pour out just a few drops. A tincture of quiet. One day, I hope to get back there and refill it for the next decade or two.

AI: Which poets should we read, dead and alive?

JB: I’m a promiscuous reader, so I’ll narrow it to (mostly) living writers in my country of residence. I have two current enthusiasms. The first is for what the Buddhists call “monkey mind,” meaning poems that dramatize the movement of mind,  with all those meanderings and loop-de-loops, though never at the expense of clarity and communication.  This would include work  by Lucia Perillo, Bob Hicok, Paul Muldoon, Jim Harrison, Nikki Finney, and C.K. Williams, just for starters.

A second excitement  comes from  poems that compress and distill, and here I think of Charles Simic, Kay Ryan,  Rae Armantrout and Jane Kenyon. Of course, this excludes poets who do both. It’s an impossible question, and if we throw Canada in the mix, I’m overwhelmed. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to get my paws on a copy of Sue Goyette’s new book, “Ocean.”


AI: Californians are very outdoorsy, hiking and camping etc. You?

JB: Such a waste! I’m an urban creature, happy with daily walks or runs in  Golden Gate Park. Occasionally we leave the neighborhood to be astounded by the natural beauty of the state, but at heart we are city rats. You don’t really need to leave San Francisco to feel connected to nature. We have the shoreline of the Bay, the Presidio,  Crissy Field, all the boats,  and the fog blowing in and out. In our neighborhood, the fog tends to be in, which lends a winterish character to the summers.

AI: What music do you listen to? You refer to Richard Thompson a couple of times in your work.

JB: I’ve always been a devoted  fan of Richard Thompson, both as a guitarist and songwriter, and there are other singer-songwriters on my list (Patty Larkin, high among them), but  my  own playlists have been eclipsed  by my 15-year-old’s . She has the vinyl collection, and the biggest speakers in the house. That means I hear a lot of  Vampire Weekend  and  The Vaccines, among others. Hardship? I think not.

— Ann Ireland & Julie Bruck


Poems from Monkey Ranch



[SPACESPACE]My husband said he felt human again
after days of stomach flu, made himself French toast,
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]then lay down again to be sure.

[SPACESPACE]I took our daughter to the zoo,
where she stood on small flowered legs, transfixed by the drone
[SPACESPACESPACESPAC]a sound more retch than howl.

[SPACESPACE]Singing monkey, my girl says.
She is well-rested. We all are. As we slept, cold spring air arrived,
[SPACESPACESPACES]blown from the Bay where San Quentin

[SPACESPACE]Tonight, my girl will tell her father
(a man restored, even grateful, for a day or so), about what she
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]saw in the raised cage.
[SPACESPACESPACESPACE]Monkey singing, she will tell him,

[SPACESPACE]and later, tell every corner of her cool dark room,
until the crib springs ease because she’s run out of joy,
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]and fallen asleep on her knees.



Leaning into the sun-warmed stone, she must
be fifty, still beautiful, her strong frame
easy inside her loose shirt and jeans.

He’s gone to a larger ruin for the day,
someplace deeper in the jungle, more
challenging to reach by jeep or tank.

Here, where the early Mayans worshipped
the sun, appeased their gods with routine
live sacrifice, she will photograph only

small details in black and white. Later,
he’ll describe the jungle’s colours, ornate
bird plumage, the vast scale of what he saw.

She will need the afternoon to document a single
weed growing through a crack in the pediment,
a candy wrapper blown against an ancient step.

And there is the daughter, fifteen and not
quite as sullen as she’s going to be, shouldering
the pack of lenses, her mother’s fine-grain film.

Her father’s impatience hasn’t flared in her yet,
though she carries that too, an unstruck match,
trailing her mother through the tall, dry grass.



I am watching my mother’s neighbourhood
explode on live TV, when Ruth, my father’s
girlfriend, calls from her renovated kitchen,
reports she is baking an apple cake.

On screen, one more disaffected youth
in a trenchcoat, and bodies–trauma units
filling up fast with the dead and injured.
My father is 92, she is ten years younger.

They live in her B.C. apple orchard
after a twenty-five-year affair, which
somehow slipped under everyone’s radar,
lasting half of my parents’ marriage.

Are you watching the news? I ask.
Yes, she says, terrible isn’t it?
If I’d been able to speak, I would
have said, Yes Ruth, I haven’t reached

my mother: perhaps she’s dead.
But my father needs to talk
about an insight he’s gleaned
from a Steinbeck novel-on-tape.

I ask whether he’s seen the news.
Awful, isn’t it? he says,
and returns to East of Eden.
It is already dark in Montreal.

Blue police lights bounce on wet
streets and buildings I knew better
than my own hand, everything
cordoned with yellow crime-tape.

Once, I’d thought we’d all driven
my father away: conversation at the family
table was fast, digression the rule.
He’d often dozed off by dessert.

Guns drawn, a SWAT team flanks
the door to my mother’s building.
My father wraps up Steinbeck, inquires after
my health, says their kitchen smells good:

Ruth took those apples from the neighbour’s orchard.
She swears stolen apples have more flavor.



I used to watch my supple mother
bend to collect shells on the beach.
They piled up on the porch furniture–
she rarely threw anything back.
Look at how the water’s made
a Henry Moore hole in this one
she’d say, look–but I didn’t want
to be told what to look at, how to see,
didn’t want her using my head as
a spare room for her own, a self-
storage unit, though I couldn’t have
said so then, not even to myself.
Instead, I’d get a knot in my chest
that tightened on cue, I’d darken.
Now, when I gaze at my daughter,
she raises her eyes to mine in defiance:
Stop looking at me, she’ll growl, and why
am I surprised? I was looking at her brave brow,
the profile that’s her own and no-one else’s,
because yes, she’s a physical extension
of her father and me–I’m looking at what
we made, and she knows this in her marrow, puts
on her 100-yard stare and turns her face away:
all I can see is the tip of one ear,
sunlit almost to transparency,
its delicate runnels and inlets
shaped, as if by water.



Poems from End of Travel



It’s rare, slow as a creaking of oars,
and she is so frail and short of breath
on the street, the stairs–tiny, Lilliputian,
one wonders how they do it.
So, wakened by the shiftings of their bed nudging
our shared wall as a boat rubs its pilings,
I want it to continue, before her awful
hollow coughing fit begins. And when
they have to stop (always), until it passes, let
us praise that resumed rhythm, no more than a twitch
really, of our common floorboards. And how
he’s waited for her before pushing off
in their rusted vessel, bailing when they have to,
but moving out anyway, across the black water.



“I felt as if I was being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t.”
–Elizabeth Bishop

Imagine Elizabeth six years old,
being torn from this narrow province,
a train’s headlamp dividing the dark, south-west,
all the way to Worcester, Massachussetts, 1916.
Our bus flies down the same curved road,
past the sign for Pictou County, and a yellow
diamond warning magically of Flying Stones.
The skies are wild and northern. I can still
hear the aggrieved honking of the Canada goose
I disturbed this morning in the Wildlife Management Area,
and now, by the sign ordering us to YEILD
in the late half-light, I almost expect
Miss Bishop’s lonely moose, high as a church,
homely as a house, to appear at the next bend.
Our driver waves to every passing truck.
Their headlights flash across a farmhouse window,
redden the eye of a roadside dog.
One trucker doffs his cap as he roars past,
going home to his invisible house by the water,
where five pennies buys you a great many humbugs,
where the dress was all wrong. She screamed.
The child vanishes. Where the moon
in the bureau mirror looks out a million miles.



Just back from California this early Sunday,
and now, those introspective singer-songwriters, or Bach,
even the manic genius of Glenn Gould–just won’t cut it.
Outside, in the gentle Montreal morning
of my childhood, an old man shuffles past
on the arm of his paid, young companion.
Pink impatiens do what they do in orderly beds,
as the odd cyclist zips by in black-and-white Spandex
under Sherbrooke Street’s arched maples.
A homeless man, his hand out for change, seems
tentative, even apologetic. In San Francisco,
I heard someone tell a panhandler, ‘Sorry man,
but change comes from within.’ Yes, that’s
a non-sequitur, and neighbours, I’m sorry.
But this moth on the window screen is too grey
and plain to me, after driving the fire-seared hills
of Oakland, after crossing the Bay Bridge
to the city at nightfall, as bank fog moved
like pure violet cataclysm across the navy bay.
Neighbours, this calls for Peter Gabriel,
his overblown synthesizers, overlaid drum tracks.
Neighbours, we live like orderly mice here
atop the Laurentian fault, Precambrian
and deep as the San Andreas. Surely, this
calls for a brighter noise. I’m sorry, neighbours–
you, concert pianist; you, sleepy optician;
you, McGill phys.ed coach with the girlfriend,
here only on weekends–I’m sorry. But the man
I love sleeps on his side in that other landscape,
fog stalled over the city, as Sandburg said, on cat’s feet.
Here, our papers fill with fights over the language
of signs, instead of what they signify. I’m sorry,
neighbours, to wake you from pleasant or anxious
dreams, but the very limestone under your beds
is grinding against itself right now (for God’s
sake, I could have put on Wagner’s marches!),
and this building settled on its foundations
nearly one hundred years ago and trembles
with every bus that goes by. Neighbours,
I’m sorry about all this bass and percussion
so early on a Sunday, but hey–d’you feel that?




At the edge of sleep, I thought it was snow
I heard brush and rattle the bay windows;
the same hour when cars glide soundlessly
down white Montreal streets and the smell
of winter creeps around window frames,
straight under doors into dreams.
But our baby is now the size of a lima bean
and growing fast in this place where winter
means red bottle brushes dangling from trees
and crazy-fragile freesias in street vendors’ buckets.
I must have curled myself around our bean
like a thick seed-coating against the cold,
and I was glad to do so, though when I woke,
way, way down in the bed, small as I could
make myself, what I heard in this clear, indigo
midnight, was the bottle-picker’s progress
among our block’s blue boxes, and it was
a minor miracle that the empties could rattle so
in a grocery cart filling with snow.

— Julie Bruck


Julie Bruck is the author of three collections of poems from Brick Books: MONKEY RANCH (2012), THE END OF TRAVEL (1999), and THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS (1993). Her work also appears in magazines and journals like The New Yorker, MsPloughshares, The Walrus, The Malahat Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Maisonneuve, Literary Mama, and others, and her poems have been widely anthologized. Her awards and fellowships include, Canada’s 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, The A.M. Klein Award for Poetry, two Pushcart Prize nominations, Gold Canadian National Magazine Awards (twice), a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award, as well as grants from The Canada Council for the Arts, and a Catherine Boettcher Fellowship from The MacDowell Colony. Montreal-born and raised, Julie has taught at several colleges and universities in Canada, and has been a resident faculty member at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire. Since 2005, she has taught poetry workshops for The Writing Salon in San Francisco’s Mission district, and tutored students at The University of San Francisco. She lives in San Francisco’s foggy Inner Sunset district with her husband,  the writer Lewis Buzbee, their daughter Maddy, and two enormous geriatric goldfish. She is currently writing poems for a new manuscript, with the working title of DOMINION.

Ann IrelandAnn Ireland is the author of four novels, most recently THE BLUE GUITAR, which has been getting excellent reviews all across Canada. She coordinates the Writing Workshops department at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, in Toronto. She teaches on line writing courses and edits novels for other writers from time to time. She also writes profiles of artists for Canadian Art Magazine and Numéro Cinq Magazine (where she is Contributing Editor). Dundurn Press republished Ann’s second novel THE INSTRUCTOR in Spring, 2013.


Oct 032013


Recently we went photo hunting–it was a beautiful Sunday in Milan and fashion week was wrapping to a close. The streets in the fashion district brimmed with trendy types and photographers with telephoto lenses stalked them, hiding behind traffic signs or at the curb between cars. We did likewise, snagging a few frames with our gear.




Later, we followed the sounds of loud music and found the venue for the John Richmond show, held in a lush garden behind Corso Venezia. It was lunchtime; only a small, steadfast group waited outside the gates for celebrity attendees to exit. When Italian television star, Belen Rodriguez (of Argentine descent), and her brand new husband, Stefano, emerged, people scrambled, clicking madly.

(from left) Belen, Stefano and a guard

(from left) Belen, Stefano and a guard

“You’re so beautiful,” one woman said, gushing.

“I love your ring,” said another, referring to her huge diamond. “Good luck on your marriage.”

“Thank you,” Belen smiled. She seemed tired by the hoopla; she had married Stefano just two days prior in the midst of a media frenzy.


The crowd thinned and by the time Jane Hamilton, star of the TV serial, “Elisa di Rivombrosa,” emerged, just a few bystanders were on hand. Two men asked to have their pictures taken with her; she graciously complied.



Journalists from the Russian World Fashion network worked the crowd. “I like  your shoes,” said the journalist to one man in a fedora. “Where did you buy them?”


Later, to one side of the Metropole theater where the D&G show was underway, the ticketless congregated on the street, here too snapping their cameras at anyone who looked fashionable.

“Who is that?” I asked one man in a baseball cap who was avidly immortalizing a blond. The man shrugged.

“I don’t know, but she looks good doesn’t she?” he said.

“She’s a blogger,” said a woman in a black tunic printed with green dinosaurs. “No, don’t know her name,” she answered when I asked.


We drifted toward the corner where several tall, thin, photogenic types in eccentric costumes—former models I wondered?—paraded back and forth as if they themselves were on the runway, enjoying D&G’s reflected light. A masquerade rave in via Piave.


We were back at the Metropole entrance in time for a glimpse of the D&G grand finale.  From our vantage point, we could see through the glass doors into the lobby. Models in gold–with Stefano Gabbana in their midst–filed through.


Some in the audience likewise wore precious metals.

Fashion pundits write in The Guardian that with this 2014 summer collection laden with gold coins, “Dolce and Gabbana seemed to be saying, ‘If you’ve got it flaunt it.’ [The whole collection] seemed like a metaphor for wealth.” This may be Milan’s last D&G show; convicted in June of tax evasion, rumor has it that the designers may vacate the city.

Several minutes later, the models had changed into street clothes and mingled on the street, some stopping and posing, others heading for the tram.



Then the street crowd began to hurry away; the Missoni show was about to begin elsewhere. Economic times are difficult but during fashion week the Milanese find it satisfying to watch, take pictures and dream.

—Natalia Sarkissian


Natalia Sarkissian holds an MFA in Writing Natalia Sarkissianfrom the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.

Oct 032013



Bruce Stone pens here a stylish, exuberant review essay on the latest Thomas Pynchon novel Bleeding Edge. Phrases like “polymathic autism” and “swarming with goombas of paradox” are alone worth the price of admission (not to mention gorgeous encapsulations of Pynchon’s prose). But Stone, himself a literary polymath of sorts, brings all the weight of long reading and intelligent discernment to a serious and important analysis of the legendary American author.


Bleeding Edge
By Thomas Pynchon
477 pages; $28.95


Bleeding Edge, the new novel from Thomas Pynchon (yes, that Thomas Pynchon, our Thomas Pynchon), could prove to be his most saleable book to date. This is either an insult or a compliment, depending on your loyalties. The novel taps two deep and plasma-rich veins of contemporary culture: digital technologies and the “11 September” catastrophe. In the historical coincidence of the Internet’s accelerated rise and the Towers’ unthinkable fall, the book finds causality, elaborating a convoluted link between the two phenomena. Because this is Pynchon’s world, Bleeding Edge also encompasses Korean karaoke, progressive school curricula, classic video games, a recipe for Tongue Polonaise, Madoff ponzi schemes, designer Russian ice-cream, the continental drift of Manhattan’s urban landscape, the defunct playlist of WYNY, IKEA rage, time travel and much more. Conveniently, this compact encyclopedia of a book volunteers two apt phrases to describe its own agenda: it’s both a kiss-off “Valentine to New York” and, like the Deep Web interface that anchors the plot, a “dump, with structure.”


As a novel, Bleeding Edge is the work of a master yet in his prime, the Indian summer of a legendary career (at 76, Pynchon is still chronically hip); it’s funny, wise, handily plotted, unerring in its style, generally user-friendly and eminently readable. If anything, the book is a little conventional, almost pulpy: embarrassingly linear, with off-the-rack noir clichés and oodles of dialogue (albeit excellent dialogue) to carry the narrative along. What’s most surprising about Bleeding Edge is its fluency in classic novelistic techniques: it features an artful density in its character portraits, a subtly echoing plot. That is to say, Gravity’s Rainbow it ain’t. However, if you can imagine that magnum opus narrated, or shot, from a single stationary tripod, manned by a competent and sane operator, with turn-of-this-century America for a backdrop, you might get something like Bleeding Edge. If the work disappoints somewhat as art, it remains a welcome—no, a priceless—addition to the Pynchonian catalogue and to the archeological record of Western letters: the book is a chemical peel for the face of the modern nation, a tactical assault on some cherished cultural pieties.

Set among the pan-ethnic precincts of millennial Manhattan, the novel chronicles the events—both the domestic day-to-day of the protagonist and the international intrigue of the dot-com bad guys—surrounding the 9/11 attack, and the intention is to stoke, determinedly, those period rumors of US complicity in the event. The heroine is Maxine Tarnow, a private fraud investigator, recently decertified by the fraud-investigator certification board (apparently such a profession exists), and the whole novel fits in her hip pocket as she chases down an array of bookkeeping irregularities that lead her straight into the heart of the Deep Web and its corollary 9/11 conspiracy theory. If, like me, you have no idea of what the Deep Web is, the novel offers an erratic user’s guide: the term refers to a layer of cyberspace invisible to web crawlers and search engines, a repository of sites criminal and goofy, unfit for public consumption, as well as a junkyard of surface-web offerings that have expired from “linkrot.” Applications in this domain can be accessed by invitation only, with a special passkey. For this sub-hyperspatial dimension, Justin McElmo and his partner Lucas, California transplants, have built a platform called DeepArcher (a pun on departure) with a diabolical security design that makes it untraceable and unhackable, script features that are especially attractive to Web-giants and poachers (think, Microsoft and the US government). In this case, the code is more interesting than the content because DeepArcher appears to be a kind of SecondLife for cultural dropouts, those surfers who plug in with the sole purpose of vanishing from the grid (it’s ironic).

Maxine logs a lot of hours at the keyboard, “dowsing” this cyber-landscape, clicking on its nested links, and the time isn’t entirely misspent. Some of the novel’s most artful lines arise in the act of evoking screenscapes:

The screen begins to shimmer and she is abruptly, you could say roughly, taken into a region of permanent dusk, outer-urban somehow, … underpopulated streets increasingly unlit, as if public lamps are being allowed to burn out one by one and the realm of night to be restored by attrition. Above these somber streets, impossibly fractal towers feel their way like forest growth toward light that reaches this level only indirectly….

What’s more, the virtual world courses with the book’s thematic energy, its peculiar mysticism, its antagonism of capitalist economics, its potential to steer actual human destinies, and even its promise to sustain a digital afterlife for the departed. The biggest thug in the scrum surrounding DeepArcher is Gabriel Ice, impresario of a computer-security company named, with an improbable pun, hashslingrz. Like most of the novel’s men—from Bernie Madoff (offstage) to Vip Epperdew, a peripheral point-of-sale fraudster—Ice is a crook, embezzling funds from his company through the undecryptable back alleys of the Deep Web: he might also be funneling money to the Middle East, financing the terrorist attack with the government in cohoots. But readers should notice how carefully Ice’s biography echoes that of Nicholas Windust, the novel’s ersatz-Rocketman figure, a black-ops agent who is either abetting or hampering Maxine’s investigation. Both men start out with clear eyes and fresh faces—Ice in the computer sciences, Windust with a nonspecific government agency—yet time and experience corrupt both men irreparably: fully fledged, they both engage in pseudo-sadistic sex practices, and both appear to have blood on their hands (in roughly similar quantities).

These harmonic character portraits are, in fact, typical, almost ubiquitous, in the novel, with its populace of male embezzlers and female adulterers (Ice’s wife, Tallis, nicely synthesizes these gender-skewing malfeasances). Of the latter faction, one dramatic example is Maxine’s long-time friend, the City College professor Heidi Czornak, who has overlapping affairs with Carmine Nozzoli, a cop with a hard-on for petty street crime, and Conkling Speedwell, a “professional nose” (someone with superheroic olfactory senses) who helps Maxine sniff out criminals; she also admits to some more distant hanky-panky with Maxine’s estranged day-trader husband, Horst. Of the men, besides the likes of Vip Epperdew and the Russian mobster Igor Dashkov, Lester Traipse also engages in Icy behavior, having the gumption to siphon money out of hashslingrz’s Deep Web accounts. These lists go on, and while this is old-school novelistic artifice, here Pynchon seems to exacerbate the technique, which might contribute to the book’s big-picture obscurity: it becomes a little hard to keep straight who’s doing what when everyone’s up to the same narrow range of no good. Even so, by Pynchon’s standards, Bleeding Edge is a breeze: call it beach-reading with fangs.

Along with the combustible subject matter, what most recommends Bleeding Edge to a wide audience is its impeccable style. Pynchon’s facility with language is unrivalled—he’s an expert voice imitator, but in the new book, rather than pillage the history of literary manners, he plies this talent only to render the idiosyncratic voices of his characters. As a rule, the prose in Bleeding Edge has a studied laxity, a colloquial inflection; of these playfully virtuosic sentences, most channel the cluttered, wise-cracking speech, wry and hardboiled, of his Jewish-mother protagonist. Pynchon shows a special taste for vexed syntax, a kind of deadpan convolution, in the book; see this description of Tallis Ice:

Black silk slacks and a matching top unbuttoned halfway down, which Maxine thinks she recognizes from the Narciso Rodríguez spring collection, Italian shoes that only once a year are found on sale at prices humans can afford—some humans—emerald earrings weighing in at a half carat each, Hermès watch, Art Deco ring of Golconda diamonds which every time she passes through the sunlight coming in the window flares into a nearly blinding white, like a superheroine’s magical flashbang for discombobulating the bad guys.

Against the glitz of the accessorizing, the syntax preserves a homespun feel, and in a similar spirit, Pynchon also stoops repeatedly to retread clichés, some of which are especially pungent with age: “Maxine approaches the address from the other side of the street, and as soon as she catches sight of it, her heart, if it does not sink exactly, at least cringes more tightly into the one-person submarine necessary for cruising the sinister and labyrinthine sewers of greed that run beneath all real-estate dealings in this town.” This might be a dubious practice if the results weren’t so routinely excellent, and besides, the novel is, in certain lights, a cultural salvage yard, so we might as well spruce up the place with some recycling.

Over all, this is Pynchon at his most companionable and readable, and yet, there’s a steady brilliance luminescing in the prose, which occasionally flares up into bravura genius. In one of the novel’s best set-pieces, Pynchon offers this description of an actual island garbage dump, with a bird sanctuary cordoned off in its middle: “Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death and decay, chemicals unpronounceable as the names of God.” The place evokes comparison with DeepArcher: “This little island reminds her of something, and it takes her a minute to see what. As if you could reach into the looming and prophetic landfill, that perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence, and find a set of invisible links to click on and be crossfaded at last to unexpected refuge, a piece of the ancient estuary exempt from what happened, what has gone on happening, to the rest of it.” Perhaps the most breathtaking passage of the novel arrives later, as a “Geek Cotillion” breaks up, on the night of September 8; as partygoers head for the exits, one metastatic sentence lightly captures the spirit of the dot-com bubble while throbbing with the awful burden of foreknowledge:

Faces already under silent assault, as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the work-week that no one is quite imagining, the crowds drifting slowly out into the little legendary streets, the highs beginning to dissipate, out into the casting-off of veils before the luminosities of dawn, a sea of T-shirts nobody’s reading, a clamor of messages nobody’s getting, as if it’s the true text history of nights in [Silicon] Alley, outcries to be attended to and not be lost, the 3:00 AM kozmo deliveries to code sessions and all-night shredding parties, the bedfellows who came and went, the bands in the clubs, the songs whose hooks still wait to ambush an idle hour, the day jobs with meetings about meetings and bosses without clue, the unreal strings of zeros, the business models changing one minute to the next, the start-up parties every night of the week and more on Thursdays than you could keep track of, which of these faces so claimed by the time […]—which of them can see ahead, among the microclimates of binary, tracking earthwide everywhere through dark fiber and twisted pairs and nowadays wirelessly through spaces private and public, anywhere among cybersweatshop needles flashing and never still, in that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of—to the shape of the day imminent, a procedure waiting execution, about to be revealed, a search result with no instructions on how to look for it?

The book can be majestic when it peers into the near future or the not-so distant past, but usually, as it roots through the gutters of the fictional now, its beauty is matter-of-fact: consider this description of Ground Zero: “They’re up on the bridge again, as close to free as the city ever allows you to be, between conditions, an edged wind off the harbor announcing something dark now hovering out over Jersey, not the night, not yet, something else, on the way in, being drawn as if by the vacuum in real-estate history where the Trade Center used to stand, bringing optical tricks, sorrowful light.” If the tone sometimes edges into an apocalyptic gravitas, comedy is never very far away either: to describe a phenomenon that the book calls “virtuality creep,” minor ruptures in spacetime as “DeepArcher … overflow[s] out into the perilous gulf between screen and face,” Pynchon writes, “Out of the ashes and oxidation of this postmagical winter, counterfactual elements have started popping up like li’l goombas.” A pidgin contraction has never before made me want to throw my arms in gratitude around a writer, but this one does.

As the antic style suggests, for all its catastrophic events and big-ticket conflicts, Pynchon’s novel is scrupulously unsentimental; it draws what little emotional heft it has from the agonies of 9/11, evoking these deftly, often by indirection and understatement. One of the rarest feats of Bleeding Edge is that it renders a strange hiccup in stock-trading activity that will cause you to catch your breath. In the same vein, one of the most haunting passages is an inconspicuous moment, a mere paragraph, in which Horst, shortly before the 9/11 attack, lightheartedly translates the term Inshallah, as spoken by a Muslim cab driver: “‘Arabic for “whatever,”’ Horst nods. They’re waiting at a light. ‘If it is God’s will,’ the driver corrects him, half turning in his seat so that Maxine happens to be looking him in the face. What she sees there will keep her from getting to sleep right away. Or that’s how she’ll remember it.” This tendency toward attenuation emerges radically in the depiction of the event itself, which arrives about two-thirds of the way into the book; the attack is viewed only on television, almost casually glossed in two scant sentences: “Maxine goes home and pops on CNN. And there it all is. Bad turns to worse.” But this just goes to show that Pynchon’s interest lies in the matrix surrounding the event, rather than the epicenter itself. And the book might miff a few readers as it punctures the patriotic illusions that sprouted from the ruins of the Towers. Bearing the brunt of the abuse is the NYPD, whose officers, per Bleeding Edge, menacingly brandish their mantles of heroism. Also, the real-estate wolfpack gets its comeuppance for crimes past and present: they not only rapaciously churn under Manhattan’s urban identity in a death march to a capitalist dystopia, they also start wrangling immediately, even as the rubble smolders, for the rights to profit from this sudden cavity in the downtown realty market. The book reserves a special venom for Republican politics, which it implicates in the terrorist attack for the usual reasons (to keep us scared, etc., maybe also to herd us online), but Democratic standard-bearers aren’t spared either. One of the book’s heroes is a crusader of the far-left named March Kelleher, but her virtue lies precisely in her distance from the capitalist position trumpeted in the Newspaper of Record, as the book contemptuously refers to the Times.

The targets here are clear, yet the book’s plot still feels diffuse. Like many Pynchon novels, this one has a stately sprawl: he seems to construct a narrative centrifuge that holds a Byzantine myriad of bright shards in orbit, but ultimately succumbs to entropy, tapering off rather than converging climactically. That is, we get a lot of Windust in our eyes, but nothing in the kaleidoscope really comes into sharp focus. The novel breeds new characters as a matter of convenience (including an oracular bike messenger) to carve fresh turns in the labyrinth, and the narrative shuttles rather abruptly between its bipolar storylines: the homely arena in which Maxine tends to her family and friends and the pot-boiling Web-thriller action. At times, these segues veer into the implausible. When Maxine, in the course of her sleuthing, stages an amateur performance at a strip club—a set-piece that concludes with her gifting a footjob to the code-geek Eric Outfield—the action feels flimsy psychodramatically.

A few other red herrings surface in the plot: for example, the 9/11 conspiracy includes a dubious Plan B, involving rooftop operatives with surface-to-air missiles, to ensure the mission’s completion. However, the strangest glitch in the narrative fabric arrives when Maxine breaks into Ice’s Montauk hideaway and discovers a secret passage giving on to an eerie lair, a government laboratory with shades of alien encounters and time travel. It’s not entirely clear why Ice’s mansion would be the designated site for this government-sponsored creepiness, but in any event, the threat dissipates with cartoonish ease as Maxine puts her Air Jordans to work. The strangest thing, to my mind, about the episode is that the book seems self-aware of this cranial soft spot. In the wake of the 9/11 attack, the city’s residents, we learn, have been “infantilized,” and characters report encounters with weirdly childlike adults, figured in the novel as a variant of time travel. Elsewhere, the book reminds us that irony was another casualty of the 9/11 event: “Everything has to be literal now,” one flummoxed character gripes. The book appears to tease readers persistently with this interplay between the literal and the figurative: maybe the Montauk incident wants to be read as a literal translation of the metaphorical changes experienced by the populace. As such, the chapter might be dubious by design, a means of making transparent, or aggravating, this alteration between irony’s twin poles. That is, if the figurative infantilization of the city is irrational and scary, so is its literal corollary.

Here, we start to see the book’s carefully counterpointed plot construction, which, though subliminal amid the tsunami surge of the narrative, is almost Shakespearean in its precision. Early in the book, those small-time point-of-sale crooks have gadgets that allow them to both dip into unsuspecting tills AND to neutralize such invasive technologies: the same guys play both economic ends—demand and supply, crime and security—against the patsy of the middle. Later, the Deep Web plotline also hinges crucially on the manufacture and use of vircators, devices that similarly disable machinery through electromagnetic bursts. On a smaller scale, the novel evokes the pop-cultural cliché of rival East and West Coast rappers; the same bicoastal rivalry informs the portrait of the tech-sector gurus. More pointedly, the devastating collapse of the Twin Towers also has its miniaturized antecedent: the reported destruction of a pair of “colossal” Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. We find calculated artifice underlying even the worst of the novel’s mayhem.

Maybe the most resonant of these correspondences emerges when Maxine’s kids beta-test a jokey FPS videogame for the Deep Web, designed by Justin and Lucas as an offshoot of DeepArcher: the gameplay requires the kids to punish, vigilante-style, typical New York obnoxious behavior: shoppers illicitly grazing on supermarket produce, parents abusively reprimanding children, etc. Surprisingly, the novel’s plot appears to replicate the experience of the game: on the Thanksgiving following 9/11, as Maxine stands in line, waiting to purchase the bird for her main course, an aggressive patron, cutting his way viciously to the front, is felled by a frozen turkey lobbed in from the wings. In touches like this, the book suggests some link between the experience of the Deep Web and that of reading this novel, as if truly “the Internet is only a small part of a much vaster integrated continuum” that spans the poles of cyberspace and “meatspace.” This existential permeability works the other way, too, as some intrepid explorers of the Deep Web actively seek out a mystical “horizon between coded and codeless.” It’s hard to say if this is simply a proposition that the novel floats without leading to some rational terminus, or if it’s another teasing iteration of those phase-shifts between the literal and the figurative, or if in fact, there is something urgent and apprehensible to be drawn from the pattern (could it be all three at once?).

In any case, this convergence of Deep Web and Bleeding Edge begins to blunt some of the otherwise devastating critique of the Digital Age in its infancy (with proleptic nods to its current adolescence). Through the tech-savvy cast of characters, Pynchon skewers both the Net’s capitalist designers and its end-users almost equally. Reg Despard, the filmmaker who initiates Maxine’s investigation of hashslingrz, has a distinctive non-narrative, mindlessly-point-and-shoot aesthetic, which he sums up as a self-deprecating prophecy: “someday, more bandwidth, more video files up on the Internet, everybody’ll be shootin everything, way too much to look at, nothin will mean shit.” Later, the same proliferating trend is glossed more sumptuously: “The Internet has erupted into a Mardi Gras for paranoids and trolls, a pandemonium of commentary there may not be time in the projected age of the universe to read all the way through, even with deletions for violating protocol.” Maxine’s father, Ernie, gets the final word on the subject when the two debate the Net’s cultural potential: “It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet.” Ernie also seems to anticipate the NSA’s Big-Brother machinations presently making headlines; however, all of this incendiary commentary founders when the book suggests that it is itself an analogue of DeepArcher and its offshoots. Is the book dramatizing the coercive power of the Internet, or does it betray, in a self-negating turn, its kinship with those pernicious virtual worlds? The latter seems more likely. Against the retail cacophony of advertising and masturbation that is the surface web (which houses some pretty fine magazines and blogs, as well), the Deep Web is, at least initially, in the hands of Justin and Lucas, an idealistic enterprise, a push for some antidote to the murderous virus of the US economy. And maybe this is what Pynchon has in mind with regard to his own novel: it too is an anarchistic affront to the status quo, but maybe, like DeepArcher, it is inescapably mired in the very economic forces that it attacks.

The current of nostalgia that courses throughout the book is also likely to dull the impact of the counter-cultural rabble-rousing. Bleeding Edge features occasional montages that seem to eulogize the comparatively innocent era of Times-Square peepshows and video arcades where kids once plugged quarters into the cabinet consoles of Galaga and Robotron 2084. Web apologists and urban planners might jeer at this as a dated technological conservatism, but one thing the book isn’t is naïve. Against an endemic pessimism and paranoia, the book does, however, hint at a few imperiled stays; in the end, it suggests that there might be at least one last sanctuary for nesting birds available, a safe harbor for citizens of the twenty-first century.

Pynchon’s work has long been notorious for its polymathic autism, its astounding range of erudition but its bumbling trade in human emotion. However, Bleeding Edge reveals a clear affection for its scrappier cast members, and Pynchon records convincingly the freezes and the melts in familial relations. The book warmly portrays the resurrected affection between Maxine and Horst, and as the plot trips along, we’re led to worry about their respective well-beings, but just a little. Maybe Pynchon’s appetite for, and startling ability to retain, cultural trivia tends to suppress the naturalistic heat of the characters’ relationships. There might even be a thematic upshot to these off-kilter balances between private desires and public detritus, as if identities are both saturated and dwarfed by the culture that houses them. My sense, however, is that these artistic cross-currents are Whitmanian in origin, reflecting the limitless fecundity of Pynchon’s imagination. (While this talent allows him to write metaphors that seemingly storm off into other novels, I wouldn’t mind if the book’s Ace Ventura reference, for example, fell victim to linkrot.) That is, the debris-collecting flair might not motivate the character portraits; instead, maybe the character portraits help to catalyze the wash of period details. The cast in Bleeding Edge is rigorously, even myopically, sketched, fully alive and breathing. Consider this little vignette of a tag-team Russian goon squad, distracted by Game Boys as they ineptly proctor an investigative tete-a-tete:

For a while, Maxine has been aware of peripheral armwaving and hand jive, not to mention quiet declamation and deejay sound effects, from the direction of Misha and Grisha, who turn out be great fans of the semiunderground Russian hip-hop scene, in particular a pint-size Russian Rastafarian rap star named Detsl—having committed to memory his first two albums, Misha doing the music and beatboxing, Grisha the lyric, unless she has switched them around.

Amid the roiling of world events, the minor dramas of these characters, their peculiarity and quiddity, their loves and triumphs, seem soft-pedaled, muted, whittled down to flashes of tenderness. But it’s here, at home, where a select few characters manage to bypass the socioeconomic matrix of criminal capitalism and mercenary sex, ultimately hinting at the book’s moral center. It’s a surprisingly domestic, even conventional space, but the novel insists that we hearken to it. As the book cycles to its close, these family affairs come to the foreground, eclipsing the convulsions of global terrorism. The dramatic switchback recalls the epilogue to War and Peace: against the marital relations of Pierre and Natasha, Napoleon is just a dissolving memory.

Of the many things that add some (bleeding) edge to this fuzzy familial warmth is that most of these characters, the surviving good-guys, possess a kind of ESP, a talent that leads the novel’s vision beyond the mundane. Maxine routinely exercises her intuitional second-sight when she detects, unaided, the lies and evasions of her suspects (even her bladder is a sensory detector of this type). Horst also uses his idiot-savant instincts to strike it rich in the market and avert disasters. The two share this ability with one of Speedwell’s colleagues, a “proösmic” nose, who can foretell catastrophes: after an olfactory premonition, she abandons Manhattan late in the summer of 2001. The novel appears to honor ratiocination and scrupulous domestic bookkeeping, but it lays down a healthy wager, as well, on the side of the supra-rational. Moreover, notice again how Horst blandly exercises the same preternatural ability as that clairvoyant nose: Bleeding Edge continually crosswires its twinned narrative poles, as if maybe all along a closer artistic correlation binds the private comedies and the public tragedies. The book doesn’t argue for a moral equivalence between domestic misdemeanors and terrorist atrocities, between the family tree and the body politic, but it does force us to view these loci and their transgressions on a behavioral continuum. In our last glimpse of Ice, we see him as just another rabid ex-husband-to-be, hell-bent on custody-battle payback: a strange curtain call for a supervillain, but there it is.

In the end, the book might be a Mobius strip, more artistic Easter egg than ideological hand-grenade. Maybe the digital-doomsday prophesies, the 9/11 conspiracy mongering, and much else besides are driven and subsumed by an aesthetic necessity, the book an involute web of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing. If this sounds like writerly passive-aggression, it helps to remember that art has always been so, going back at least to the Grecian urns memorialized by Keats. Some readers might accuse Pynchon of bad taste in bending such high-stakes material to his novelistic purpose, but I take the opposite view: I can’t shake the feeling that, in the novel’s evasive and ultimately peaceable vision, as the characters roll with the world-historical punches and reclaim their ordinary lives, Pynchon has missed an opportunity to etch some harsher, less delible mark on the national psyche. The book’s conspiracy theories, its demonization of dot-com capitalism, feel like the whirrings of a historical novel, a little feeble, an accurate snapshot of what was (and is) rather than some more revolutionary glimpse of what might be.

Even under these vitiated conditions, swarming with goombas of paradox, Bleeding Edge still offers one handy brick to hurl at the heads of thick-skulled Republicans, hypocritical Democrats and tech-sector pollyannas alike. As the book calls bullshit in the face of the collective storytelling enterprise that is our civilization, it manages to deliver a serious wallop before retreating, almost reluctantly, into its artful silence. (Above, behind, or below everything else, the loathing for “post-late capitalism” sticks, even if it grades, by force, into self-loathing.) And if the narrative surface is a little slushy and porous, the deep structure is taut, intricate and humming with voltage. Such a performance suggests that Pynchon has, to this point, staved off the decline that often befalls writers in their autumn years. Instead, he seems to be morphing (agreeably, for some, churlishly, for others) into your average marketable novelist with closet-virtuoso skills. But just as the book imagines a future in which cybergeeks might topple the capitalist forces of the Web, maybe we too can hold out hope for even greater things from this one-man panopticon and his omnidextrous English. If nothing else, Bleeding Edge will surely boost Pynchon’s notoriety for twenty-first century readers. But who knows, maybe it will prove to be a gateway to harder stuff, all around.

— Bruce Stone


Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


Oct 022013

Nance Van Winckel

NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel has popped out two, yes, two! books simultaneously this year; Pacific Walkers, a collection of poems, and this one, Boneland, a collection of linked short stories. As we all know, one book is amazing enough; two books, in different disciplines, is tantamount to having the literary equivalent of Multiple Personality Disorder. Only this is a disorder we all wish we could catch. I have taught with Nance for years at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She never ceases to surprise me with her unconventional wisdom, her oblique and revelatory take on art, and her questing spirit.  We have here for your delectation a lively and intelligent interview with Nance by the inimitable Ross McMeekin.



Ross McMeekin: Tell us about the Spokane area literary scene; there are so many great writers who call it home.

Nance Van Winckel: Yes, Spokane has some wonderful writers and I feel lucky to call many of them friends: Sam Ligon, Jess Walter, Laurie Lamon, Christopher Howell, Greg Spatz, Tod Marshall. There’s a very active spoken word poetry scene here too and many younger poets—with loads of great energy—involved with that. We have a literary festival, Get Lit, every spring that brings many writers of national prominence to town. And of course we have three outstanding universities in town, and all of those have good writers on staff and bring IN good writers. I’m still very connected to my former colleagues at E. Wash. U, and the MFA Program there where I taught for 15 years. I’m teaching a one-day workshop for them in November. And we have a great independent bookstore, Auntie’s, that has fabulous readings every week.

RM: Do you have some recommendations for books or literary journals that have impressed you recently?

NVW: With some of my Vermont College students I’m currently reading a very compelling book of stories: Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausabel. I also just read a superb second book of poems by a former student of mine: Jennifer Boyden’s The Declarable Future. I’m also reading Proust for the first time. I’m half way through the six volumes and loving this work, savoring it. Wish I could read it in French. I talked with a French Canadian flight attendant who said he had read it all by reading one page aloud every day for several years. He had also loved it. Gorgeous prose. Luminous. Strange. Imagistically sparkling. And full of a sad interiority, a soul I find myself missing when I’m away from it for a few days.

As for literary journals, I’m trying these days to get to know more of the online journals and formulate a sense of what may be the BEST of those. Since I’m working now on combining text and photography (digital photo-collage), those journals—rather than print journals—seem to be better possibilities for me in terms of “publishing” these full-color hybrid art pieces. Of these journals I especially like ILK, EM, Cascadia Review, Diode, Sleeping Fish, and Drunken Boat. I’m also amazed at how many bad ones there are out there: badly edited with grammar troubles and/or typos everywhere, or badly managed. I had one journal (Glassworks) accept three pieces, and then email later that they’d changed their minds and weren’t going to use the work after all. What?! I wish there’d be more REVIEWS of online journals, or of ALL journals really. But clearly it’s also part of a writer’s job to do this sort of legwork and scope out the best homes for her work.

RM: The characters in your new collection, Boneland, are excavating everything from memories to ancient dinosaur bones in order to understand the past. This desire to piece together what’s happened seems to me an innate and universal human drive, even for those of us who choose to ignore it. But there’s a certain strangeness and sadness to this drive, as well, that I think the collection exposes. I wonder if you’d speak a bit to our drive to dig up the past.

NVW: Yes, very well put, Ross! Excavation is a big part of Boneland. So is reconstruction. As we see with the do-it-yourself dinosaur fossil reconstruction going on in the old dairy barn, and probably a few mastodon bones getting glued into the dinosaur, what was the ACTUAL past, the reality of the past, later becomes a mish-mash. A collage. Made up of facts and guesses. History may never be completely accurate since memory itself isn’t. But you’re right—we try anyway. As we mature, as these characters do, we try to understand better what haunts us, what lingers in unsettled ways, from our earlier lives. And we never can put together a full and perfect rendering of the BEFORE. There’re always going to be gaps and holes, things we can’t know, things that will continue, maybe forever, to remain hidden. But what remains hidden may give the resurrection an air of sadness and/or strangeness, as you say, but I hope it may also suffuse it with something beautifully human or humane—this living with uncertainties, accepting these, and going on from there.

RM: There’s a lovely passage in which your protagonist, Lynette, is piecing together the development of her relationship with another character that I think speaks to the nature of how imagination and memory and the physical bleed into one another.

“These last few mornings, I’d awaked imagining conversations that Steve and I might have. I varied the lines. There was, each day, a little more sexual innuendo in the exchanges I invented between us. I could almost feel on the inside of my left thigh the place I’d imagined his hand last night and this morning his mouth.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the nature of memory, and also how imagination and memory interact.

NVW: What I think about with this passage is how a friendship or a romance may often begin IN the imagination. One first has to SEE in the mind’s eye what a connection with another person might look like, might BE like—emotionally and physically. This facilitates—doesn’t it?—the making of the bond. So, really, I guess I’m talking about how the construction of the future itself is similar to the construction of the past in that one first has to “glimpse” the possibility. Then begins the building.

RM: I was fortunate to have the opportunity at a conference to hear you read a section from one of the stories in the collection, “A Kingdom Comes.” The piece involves a family’s discovery that their son is uniquely gifted in mathematics, and perhaps on the spectrum for Asperger’s Syndrome. What inspired the story?

NVW: Yes, I do think of Buster as having Asperger’s. I have two good friends who have autistic sons. One son is quite gifted, though. As a visual artist. As a writer I’m intrigued by sometimes seemingly contradictory elements that make up a personality. Though this particular character has trouble connecting with other humans in some ways, I found myself moved by how he tries to. This was an act of pure imagination, of course. I love that he finds a way to be a husband and father. I am not sure if this will be true for either of my friends’ sons. But in writing the story, I constructed a kind of future that I hoped for them.

RM: There’s some beautiful image patterning in the book, specifically the attention given to eyes and eyesight, both metaphorically and physically. How did it first emerge, and at what point did you recognize the pattern?

NVW: The “re-seeing” was something I recognized was going on in “The Funeral of the Virgin,” an early story in the book. A woman with some greater temporal distance on her husband’s death begins to wonder if the death might have been a suicide. The implication is that she may not have been able to contemplate such a version of events at the actual time of his death. Keeping that narrator, I subjected her in a series of small short-shorts to LASIK surgery. Those were interesting pieces to write in that I had the actual physical messed-up eyesight to work with. I could give a physical body to something that had seemed more cerebral or theoretical in other stories, that “re-seeing” of the past. And of course the surgery itself had to get a little bollixed up for this to work. I liked too the narrator having this “down-time” from ongoing dramatic events to ruminate. It seemed to me I could let the language get perhaps a bit more lyrical in these sections since they were small and interrupted the ongoing dramas in the longer stories. I liked coming back to her lying there, holed-up in a foreign country, blindly feeling around, sorting through what had been. This may have been partly inspired by the fact that back in the mid-1990’s a lot of people I knew were driving up to Canada to get this surgery done because it was, for some reason, hundreds of dollars cheaper there! There were ads in the paper for it every week.

RM: I also wondered at what point during the composition of Boneland you realized the interconnectedness of the stories. Did you intend it from the beginning? Was the process similar to your previous linked story collections?

NVW: Every book of my stories (and they’re ALL linked) has been linked in a different manner. This linking is, for me, something I just thoroughly enjoy experimenting with. The number of ways one might link stories seems infinite to me! I love series too. My last three books of poems I consider poem “series” as well. The stories in Boneland started to “form” their linkage in a way I hadn’t expected or intended. When I realized these characters were all cousins, that they hailed from three brothers, three sons who’d grown up on the Montana ranch together and worked themselves on the dinosaur fossil reconstruction—when I realized this particular commonality, the linkage began to come into focus. I have liked the family saga sort of novel sometimes, the large arc of time and history that can be covered, and so for me, the challenge and the experiment were to see if I could do something remotely like that with a group of stories. I’m not sure I finally did match the breadth and sweep of some of those novels, but I did enjoy being alive in a history that felt very very large and went WAY back. Way back.

RM: You’ve had both poetry (Pacific Walkers) and story collections come out in the last year. What’s next?

NVW: I have a new book of prose poems in progress. I’m tinkering with its shape right now, moving parts around, and still writing a few new prose poems that may yet be included.

I’m also working, as I mentioned, on these hybrid text-based photo-collage pieces right now. There are three distinct book projects, each of which I see as a possible ebook. (I suspect they’d be too pricey an undertaking for print publication. But maybe. Maybe black and white versions?) One is a novella in the form of a photo album/scrapbook/flash-fiction memoir. Another is a book of poems that consists of altered pages from the Official Guide to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. This is not erasure art, but rather text I have changed and integrated into text that was already there, and I usually add other graphic material as well. This World’s Fair was something I went to as a girl with my family and it was the first time I recall having my wee little mind blown. Blown by the huge wild international world and THE FUTURE suddenly all around me. In my project I talk back, some fifty years later, to these versions of the future I was given. And the third project is also an alteration project; it’s tentatively called THE BOOK OF NO LEDGE. Altered pages of an old encyclopedia. I’ve been sassing back, as my mother would say, to the All-knowing Voice of Certainty of this encyclopedia. Since there’re about nine volumes, all purchased for five bucks last year at a yard sale, I think this project may well last me the rest of my days. And to tell you the truth, if I die altering THE BOOK OF NO LEDGE, I think I’ll die happy.

 — Ross McMeekin & Nance Van Winckel
RossMcMeekinphotoRoss McMeekin’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in publications such asShenandoah, Passages North, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and Tin House (blog). He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, edits the literary journal Spartan, and blogs at rossmcmeekin.com. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field,and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, andKenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review OnlineClick this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
Contact: nancevanwinckel@old.numerocinqmagazine.com
Oct 012013
Photograph: Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images

Photograph: Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images


Borges at 80: Conversations
Edited by Willis Barnstone
New Directions, 192 pages, $18.95

Professor Borges
Edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis
New Directions, 288 pages, $26.50

Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview
Translated by Kit Maude
Melville House, 176 pages, $15.95

Jorge Luis Borges is a dead, white male. But he isn’t European. So he lacks imperialist cred and isn’t taught among the typical classics. As editor and translator James E. Irby remarks in the 1961 New Directions edition of Labyrinths, “Not being French has undoubtedly also relegated Borges to comparative obscurity in the English-speaking countries, where it is rare that a Hispanic writer is ever accorded any major importance at all.”

A lover of contradictions, he would appreciate the paradox of his current position: he is sometimes overlooked, often mislabeled. Some lazily lump him in with Marquez, with magical realism. Others tie him to dadaism, surrealism, modernism, post-modernism. Borges was a dreamer who described himself as constantly puzzled, stuck in a labyrinth, so perhaps he won’t mind being labelled so haphazardly. Probably aware of the futility of the exercise, David Foster Wallace attempted to classify him more accurately, calling him the “great bridge between modernism and post-modernism.”

He was barely even a writer—more a librarian, a professor of literature and philosophy who just happened to translate and write free verse poetry and brilliant experimental stories. His prose is usually short—compact yet expansive, deeply-rooted in a mixture of traditions yet simple in its fascination with time and eternity. A symbolist, Borges thought in metaphor from the beginning, but turned deeper into his imagination when he began losing his eyesight in his fifties. What results are his story-puzzles of infinite regression and infinite possibility.

New Directions was the first to bring Borges to an English-speaking audience when they published Labyrinths in 1961. That same year he and Samuel Beckett shared the Prix International, awarded by the Formentor Group (created by Carlos Barral). This brought more attention to his work. That collection of stories and short essays remains the essential primer to Borges. Now New Directions has released in short succession Borges at Eighty: Conversations and Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. The former presents the interviews he gave to Willis Barnstone, Dick Cavett, Alastair Reid, and others during a visit to the U.S. in 1980. The latter is a transcription of twenty-five classes Borges gave in 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires. This spate of new material was just barely preceded by Melville House’s Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview, which came out in June, and contains a 1968 dialogue with Richard Burgin, a fantastic discussion with the editors of Artful Dodge, and of course the last interview Borges gave before his death.

In a short meditation written at Borges’ death in 1986, Sven Birkerts called him “the Euclid of the secret orders of time.” Birkerts, writing in the Boston Phoenix, captured the Argentine’s writing in as close to a nutshell as one can: “These are not stories at all. These fanciful narratives are the author’s way of telling us his truth; they are whimsical-looking ciphers in a most serious code.”

Nothing in Borges is superfluous or forgettable. But he was not much interested in character. Borges obliquely addressed this in The Last Interview. Burgin asks about writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald who have (Burgin’s words) “no metaphysical feeling.” Borges says, “They take the universe for granted […] They don’t think it’s strange that they should be living.” His stakes were metaphysical and only somewhat existential. One of his most memorable characters, Pierre Menard, decides to rewrite Don Quixote. To do this he seeks to immerse himself in old Spanish, recover his Catholic faith, and fight some Turks so as to become Cervantes. Menard’s work would be more formidable than the original, because Cervantes had the benefit of living in the sixteenth century. Cervantes had the benefit of being Cervantes. And the story is about identity and authority instead of personality.

In one article-cum-story, Borges invents a world where the spoken language contains no nouns (among other deformities). In the logic of Wittgenstein, the language dominates the world. On Tlön:

…they do not conceive that the spatial persists in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas.

Borges was a poet steeped in Leibniz and Spinoza, with a preference above all for Schopenhauer. He loved Whitman and Stevenson. He admired but also criticized Kafka and was fascinated by Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. He described himself not as an author but rather as an interpreter through which writers of the past were filtered. He found a fascination in mirrors and labyrinths, in the distortions not only of the senses but of the mind. Everywhere he saw tradition, variation, and the fictional hrönir.

Centuries and centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tlön, the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent. Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to his expectations. These secondary objects are called hrönir and are, though awkward in form, somewhat longer. […] Curiously, the hrönir of second and third degree […] exaggerated the aberrations of the initial one; those of fifth degree are almost uniform; those of ninth degree become confused with those of the second; in those of the eleventh there is a purity of line not found in the original. The process is cyclical. (Labyrinths)


Born in Buenos Aires in 1899 to a bookish father and a mother whose forefathers were criollo soldiers, Borges was outspoken against Argentina’s support for Mussolini. Early in his life he took firm liberal stances—especially against the ruling Perón family. He became disenchanted by his home country, or at least he became more careful in public proclamations, which lack nuance. He also became less productive in general when he began to lose his sight. As with Milton, blindness did not end Borges’ writing career. But it slowed him down and hampered his reading of contemporaries, which might have contributed to the complaints that he ignored his country, its literature, and its politics.

Meanwhile he was too shy (and, perhaps, too clever) to fully embody a public persona, presenting himself as humble and apologetic for all the fuss made over his work. In his short essay “Borges and I,” he plays with the duality of his life as both a public figure and a quiet, sociable person. Just read this and shudder:

I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. (Labyrinths)

Twenty-seven years after his death, these new books show how much he affected to prefer the non-writing Borges to the controversial, acclaimed writer. That said, whether at the podium or in an interview, it’s not always clear which one is speaking. Though he says he hopes his work will be forgotten, and that he’d like to become Ellison’s “invisible man,” he seems to enjoy these conversations too much to completely disown the public Borges.


Though Borges tells Richard Burgin in The Last Interview that he hates cameras (because “a camera is a kind of mirror”), Borges clearly enjoyed being interviewed, and evidently also loved to teach, to converse about the writers he felt a closest kinship to—not Marquez or Cortazar or Joyce but Whitman, Shaw, and James. In Professor Borges, he covers a selective history of English literature from kennings to Stevenson, for Spanish-speaking students who have never encountered the tradition before. The main pleasure of this collection is to wade into the mind of a lover of books, the one-time head librarian of the National Library of Argentina. Borges again seems more like a curator of tradition than an inventor of fictions.

In Borges at Eighty, the writer comes alive, touring various universities and the New York PEN Center. Of all places, he is most revealing on The Dick Cavett Show. The discussion ranges from the differences between Spanish and English, to Hitler, to Citizen Kane. When Cavett asks about Argentina’s fascist past, Borges sounds resigned:

Look here. I think the Argentine Republic cannot be explained. It is as mysterious as the universe. I do not understand it. I don’t profess to understand my country. I am not politically minded either.

Borges’ literary games were so much more than clever tricks—they were metaphors through which he conveyed as poetically the strange, lonely world he inhabited. Cavett asks whether they are artistic flourishes or “something alive.” Borges replies:

I am always being baffled, perplexed, so a maze is the right symbol. They are not, at least to me, literary devices or tricks. I don’t think of them as tricks. They are part of my destiny, of my way of feeling, of living. I haven’t chosen them.

In other conversations from Borges at Eighty, he explains why free verse is as difficult as prose, and how either is more challenging than structured verse. He describes immortality as a threat, rejects his early work as too baroque, and explains simply that he never wrote novels because he could not do it. He admits, “I am a bit of a prig,” and expounds on the importance of saving humanism. He bemoans his inability to reason, finding in himself instead a preference for dreaming.

In these new books there is much to like about Borges the dreaming librarian, but, oddly, neither the writer nor teacher seems interested in including women in the library. He will say things like, as he tells Burgin, “I think men are more prone to metaphysical wondering than women. I think that women take the world for granted.” When asked to identify significant women in literature, he offers Emily Dickinson. When asked whether there are more, he says, “Yes of course.” He then suggests Silvina Ocampo, “who is translating Emily Dickinson at this moment.” Sometimes his remarks borders on the condescending. In The Last Interview, he tells Burgin:

I have known very intelligent women who are quite incapable of philosophy. One of the most intelligent women I know, she’s one of my pupils; she studies Old English with me, well, she was wild over so many books and poets, then I told her to read Berkeley’s dialogues, three dialogues, and she could make nothing of them.

It can be argued that Borges’ gender gap is also a gap in the tradition he so loved. Borges might have recognized this flaw, though he did not address it very well. As Colm Tóibín notes when discussing the Menard story, Borges is keenly aware of his difficult role as a writer and “the concept of the writer as a force of culture imprisoned by language and time.” Like many of his compatriots, Borges faced a crisis of identity: embrace Western modernism or turn back to the “gaucho” sensibility and poetic style of the earlier Argentina, exemplified by José Hernández’s poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro. But nothing captures better Borges’ conflict with identity—personal, visual, aesthetic, national, gendered—than the short epilogue to Borges at Eighty, from an interview held at the National Library in 1979. The statement touches on a number of problems with the notion of universality:

Reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? […] I have always advised my students: If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. […] If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.”

It is a shame Borges did not recognize his weak position on female writers. His critics either will not forgive him this, or perhaps they do not understand the Argentine’s general appeal to cosmopolitanism. His accepting of an award from Pinochet and professed admiration for Franco did not help either. Such utterances form one contradiction too many for the contradictory universalist.


Of the three new books, The Last Interview stands out in that it brings us the English translation of Borges’ last interview, with journalist Gloria López Lecube. He spoke with her right before his departure for Geneva, where he planned to die. In this “last” interview, he speaks fondly of his mother and describes for López Lecube how he dreams in color. We see a man anticipating his death with the air of a giddy boy who will finally learn how the magic trick worked.

Spinoza says that we all feel immortal, yes, but not as individuals, I assume, rather immortal in a pantheistic way, in a divine way. When I get scared, when things aren’t going well, I think to myself, ‘But why should I care what happens to a South American writer, from a lost country like the Republic of Argentina at the end of the twentieth century? What possible interest could that hold for me when I still have the adventure of death before me, which could be annihilation; that would be best, it could be oblivion…

This is the most interesting thing about these new books, ultimately—not the lectures on Stevenson, but the description of his late solitary walks through Buenos Aires, or the colors of his blindness:

It came like a slow summer twilight. I was head librarian of the National Library and I began to find that I was ringed in by letterless books. Then my friends lost their faces. Then I found out there was nobody in the looking glass. And then things grew dim, and now I can make out white and gray. But two colors are forbidden me: black and red. […] I live in the center of a luminous mist. […] Grayish or bluish, I’m not too sure. It’s far too dim. I would say that now I live in the center of a bluish world. (The Dick Cavett Show)

One of the problems with writing a review of three recent books about Borges is the books do not bring much new attention to Borges’ texts, but rather to his persona. He comes off sounding self-deprecating and amiable, curious and perhaps a bit embarrassed by his fame. Though the books are by no means a definitive take, readers will enjoy immersing themselves in the wandering, conversational writer/non-writer Borges. Professorial dictums and self-deprecating jokes aside, his writing is more important. It must be read, reread, and played with. His work is universal and cosmopolitan in nature, and generally runs shorter than the average New Yorker article. Within a five-page story you will find a new language, a labyrinth, a library.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure is an MFA in Fiction student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News, and undergraduate magazines at Columbia University. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York. Contact: tomfaure@old.numerocinqmagazine.com