Dec 122014
 

Opening Night 2Fides Krucker in Julie Trimingham’s Opening Night

Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham‘s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

In keeping with Numéro Cinq’s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her third article, “Raising Hell.”

Reading Trimingham’s reflections on film is for me like reading someone else’s love letters. It led me to reminiscing about my own film loves, and here, specifically, the moments that have made me gasp and filled me with wonder. We’d love to hear about your favourite film moments of wonder in the comments.

— R. W. Gray

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III. Raising Hell

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The first time I saw Les Quatre Cents Coups I felt like I’d found myself. It is the film, the story, on which I stand. Awkwardly titled in English The 400 Blows (as if this were a film about hitting) the title comes from the French idiom faire les quatre cents coups which means to raise hell.

400 Coups

A boy steals a typewriter; his stepfather and others yell at him; the boy runs away from reform school to the ocean he’s always dreamed of seeing; these are scenes that define the arc of the film. These are scenes – writing, raising hell, beauty – that act as code on the double helixes that determine my self.

Truffaut was a delinquent; writing saved him. I never had to steal a typewriter; my auntie gave me a red plastic one when I was four (a proper dictionary soon followed). My thefts have been less tangible, as has the trouble; I have never had to reach beyond my own head for difficulty.

400 Coups 2

When I was a girl, I would often see myself and the situation I was in as from a surveillance camera. When I’d hear news of the classmate who’d gone down in his uncle’s small plane, or of the classmate who was riding in a car that spun out on gravel and fatally flipped, or the one who overdosed on Tylenol and even stomach-pumping couldn’t save her, or the one who cerebrally hemorrhaged after a tackle on the football field, or the one whose boyfriend pushed her out of the moving car, I’d imagine these horrific last moments, the terror of these children, as if I were there, an intrusive and unhelpful observer. It was a short step from what used to be called an overactive imagination to what is now called anxiety disorder, where the brain becomes crowded with disastrous possibilities rendered so believable that the body reacts.

Leolo

And when the anxiety, when the suffering overwhelms, imagination as escape: Jean-Claude Lauzon’s 12-year-old Léo escapes his schizophrenic home life by fantasizing another self for himself: he becomes Léolo in the eponymous film, a boy conceived when his mother falls into a heap of semen-studded tomatoes.  Imagination is Madeleine Stowe’s only refuge from torture in Closetland.  A stargazing boy muses on the life of doomed Russian space dog Laika in My Life as a Dog because he can’t countenance the recent deaths of his own dog and his mother. Too much loss: no wonder the boy barks.  A mother I know once told her young daughter that the great thing about imagination is that it’s always there when you need it. The daughter, though, pinpointed the tragedy of imagination when she  tearfully countered her mother: but it always goes away.

My Life as a Dog

It took me a while to figure out that the engine for imagining disaster is the same as that for delight; the image machine spits out images. I became a filmmaker because films are the most direct expression of how I think and perceive the world. Making films was an attempt at transcription, at shaping the content, keeping drama, whether revery or catastrophe, on the screen and out of my life.

When I was a filmmaker, I was married to my producer. When we divorced, I made a film (that he produced, good sport that he is) about divorce. Kind of. The project was structured like a matryoshka, a nesting doll, with music video that stood alone and was also part of a short fiction film, which in turn stood alone and was part of a documentary. The subject was voice, how you can lose it, how you can get it back. The subject was a woman’s relationship to a man, how she loses herself, how she gets her self back. How it can be hard to tell a suicide jump from a leap of faith, spiritually or artistically speaking. Both require the abyss. How to tell falling from flight?

Closet Land

Being in front of a camera scares me, but I forced myself into the documentary because I thought I might find clues to my life in the editing room. Likewise, the fiction was shot to mirror and provide clues to the documentary (or vice-versa). If it was filmmaking as forensics, it was also filmmaking as desperate alchemy: the same impulse that led me to give my wedding ring to a young jeweler rather than throw it into the cold Bow River compelled me to make the film. The fictional singer’s troubles imperil and enrich her performance on Opening Night, which is what I called the film. I wanted to open up night, rip the dark fabric of sky, see if the stars were glued-on sequins or tiny holes that revealed a great light behind. It is a film I never watch, but making it got me through a rough patch: film as refuge.

Opening Night 1From Opening Night

We think of causing trouble when we think of raising hell, but I also like a more literal interpretation: hauling hell up out from underground and letting light work on it, transforming it. As an anxious depressive, I’ve careened through countless therapists and quaffed various mood-changing substances (mostly caffeine and zoloft) all in a grasping search for non-suffering. It never occurred to me that equanimity might be had by diving headlong into nightmares. Literally. My analyst Sharon and I dredge up scenes from my subconscious and expose them to the sun. The dreams and anxieties, bathed in conversation, develop like a reel of film into an understandable narrative that gets projected back into my waking life.

I’ve always known that my own work cuts close to the bone, but  apparently I was sleeping during anatomy: it has taken me two decades to realize that my very first film, Gravity’s Angel, was autobiographical.  The woman’s tail, which she initially hides from the man she loves, turns out to be part of what her lover loves best, it is what makes her her. This is practical information that my younger self has sent across time to my current self; I am less neurotic now that I get, finally, that I’m not, by virtue of being, defective.  Such psychic shake-ups, though, I suppose are their own form of trouble, disturbances in the field.

Raising hell also implies its opposite: bringing heaven down. After you have stolen the typewriter and been sent away to prison, after you break free and run, how much more lovely is the ocean, how heavenly? Film stock is graded for sensitivity, for how well it can hold shadows and brights without losing clarity or detail. Empathy opens us up to beauty. We choose how much to see: to be willfully blind to either darkness or light is to be a one-eyed king.

Smoke Signals

If there’s a sound that can crash the divide between heaven and hell, it’s a roar. Laughter is a convulsion, a disruption of the body, an eruption of sound, air, mirth, relief. It’s rebellion against constraint: when we die laughing, we surrender to something outside our selves. I know that when I am laughing, truly, I am not afraid: hell is here, likewise heaven, and I can take it all. I give part of my heart to anybody, or any film, that makes me laugh, but rarely can I remember a joke or gesture or situation that gets me in stitches.  I give part of my heart to anybody, or any film, that makes me laugh, but rarely can I remember a joke or gesture or situation that gets me in stitches. Aristotle’s treatise on Tragedy has survived the millennia, but the one on Comedy was lost. My movie mash-up, the shifting montage that flickers amongst my synapses, is short on funny scenes not because I haven’t laughed and loved, but because I can’t find the scenes once I start looking. Wise humor can fling off the yoke of comedy and tragedy, free us from time’s straightjacket, and let us hold all our absurd contradictions at once.  It’s a wide-angle lens, the long shot: the cosmic Ha! Give me Lester Fallsapart in Smoke Signals, Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor in The Lion in Winter for such perspective. I never feel closer to the God I don’t believe in than when I am cracking up.

Lion in Winter

The apocalypse is coming –it always is –endings unfold in myriad ways around us. The people we love most are bound to suffer. Increasingly, I feel a need to write in a way that both acknowledges the end of the world and trumps it.  I have introduced my little boy to the notion of soul, because I want him to learn to tolerate despair; however, he is an empiricist, and dismisses the idea of soul as imagination. I understand: ever since I can remember, I have been agnostic, neither believing nor unbelieving.  And yet, I find comfort in acknowledging the limits of cognition; I like the idea that our lives are projections of something beyond our collective grasp. All the world’s a multiplex.

God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions, Jung wrote. Might films, our collective dreams, nudge us towards awakening? Might these images allow us to see the wonder and brutality that are  always with us, not as individuals but as a species?  We are made bigger than our single selves when we bear witness to the truths of others.

Movies may be conceived of and executed by a specialized team, but they are set loose upon us all. Our subtle minds splice scenes we’ve watched into those we’ve lived into those we’ve imagined; the montage, the film, of our shining selves. We may dream alone, but who can say we’re not stealing scenes from the dreams of others? We’re all together, watching the same unspooling frames, seeing light in the darkness.

—Julie Trimingham

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DSC_0053 - Version 3Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

Julie Trimingham’s films mentioned in this essay (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
Gravity’s Angel: not available online
The Former Mrs. Butterfly: http://vimeo.com/90229603
From an Opera about Divorce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OQsx94W-3g

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Dec 112014
 

Looking-upward

The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem. —A. Anupama

moon before morning thumbnail
The Moon Before Morning
W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press
120 pages, $24
ISBN: 978-1-55659-453-3

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The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem.

On one of the many double-dog-eared pages in my copy, in the poem “How it happens,”  the sky speaks:

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing…

This poem appears in the last of the four sections of the collection and is followed by the poet’s ars poetica, “The wonder of the imperfect.”

Nothing that I do is finished
so I keep returning to it
lured by the notion that I long
to see the whole of it at last…

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W. S. Merwin is prolific and draped with honors. His last book of poetry, Shadow of Sirius, won him his second Pulitzer Prize.  He has served as U.S. Poet Laureate (also) twice (1999-2000 and 2010-2011). He was born in 1927 in New York City but grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His influences are deep and personal. His father was a Presbyterian minister; he knew John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur at Princeton; Robert Graves’s son Merwin was his tutor for time. Now he lives with is wife Paula in Hawaii, on a 19-acre palm forest, which he planted from seed. Earlier this fall, the Merwin Conservancy announced permanent protection for the forest, in cooperation with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust.

Merwin’s new collection begins with a scene in this forest garden in a poem called “Homecoming.”

I looked across the garden at evening
Paula was still weeding

The poem is typically (for Merwin) unpunctuated. The assonance and half-rhyme between “evening” and “weeding” fold the lines together, suggesting the core thematic structure: couple and place.

Likewise, in “Theft of morning,” the beautifully described (anapests — “to the sound” — accented with alliteration and internal rhyme) palm garden grounds the meditation.

Early morning in cloud light
to the sound of the last
of the rain at daybreak dripping
from the tips of the fronds
into the summer day
I watch palm flowers open
pink coral in midair
among pleated cloud-green fans
as I sit for a while after breakfast
reading a few pages
with a shadowing sense
that I am stealing the moment
from something else
that I ought to be doing
so the pleasure of stealing is part of it

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Stealing moments is a theme of age. In the sonnet “Young man picking flowers” the poet delights in twisting up time and age to nullify their effects. Beginning here:

All at once he is no longer
young with his handful of flowers
in the bright morning…

and then ending:

the cool dew runs from them onto
his hand at this hour of their lives
is it the hand of the young man
who found them only this morning

The couplet’s question becomes almost a non-question because of the absence of question mark and because of Merwin’s precise tightening of line and thought by the repeated words (“hand,” “them,” and “morning”). Notice that the man is “young man” at the end.

In “Beginners,” time and memory hold hands for a moment and explain the game.

As though it had always been forbidden to remember
each of us grew up
knowing nothing about the beginning

but in time there came from that forgetting
names representing a truth of their own
and we went on repeating them

After this running start in rhymes (“nothing,” “beginning,” “forgetting,” “representing,” “repeating”), he goes on repeating variations of forgetting and remembering until “the day we wake to is our own.”

§

Merwin repeats the word “frond” frequently in the first section of this collection, anchoring us firmly in that garden home. It appears first in “Theft of morning,” and then recurs in several other poems, often aligned with time of day (to be precise, of course, for the garden changes with the light and weather). “White-eye” starts: “In the first daylight one slender frond trembles / and without seeing you I know you are there…” In the poem “From the gray legends,” “the screen of fronds” appears “before daylight,” and then in the poem “One day moth” he starts this way:

The lingering late-afternoon light of autumn
waves long wands through the arches
of fronds that meet over the lane

A poem titled “High fronds” gives us the image from a distance:

After sundown the crowns
of the tallest palms
stand out against
the clear glass of the eastern sky
that have no shadows
and no memory
the wind has gone its own way
nothing is missing

In “Garden notes,” the repetition summarizes itself at its zenith, encompassing all times of day and night:

All day in the garden
and at night when I wake to it
at its moment I hear a sound
sometimes little more than a whisper
of something falling
arriving
fallen
a seed in its early age
or a great frond formed
of its high days and nights…

“A breeze at noon” brings the repetition of “frond” to a close when the moment

drops a dead Pinanga frond
like an arrow at my feet
and I look up into the green
cluster of stems and gold strings
beaded with bloodred seeds
each of them holding tomorrow
and when I look
the breeze has gone

The word “frond” shares doubled consonance with “friend,” which Merwin repeats in the poem “Footholds.” The lines, specific in their setting of time and place, favor memory over forgetting.

…Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley of this morning
Wednesday with few clouds and an east wind.

§

The word “echo” takes over as a primary repetitive motif  in the second section of the collection and beyond. Again, the repetitions shift in their references, beginning with “Another to Echo,” which offers praise to Echo, the famous nymph in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses who could only repeat the last words of others, and who loved Narcissus in vain.

you incomparable one
for whom the waters fall
and the winds search
and the words were made
listening

Later, in “Garden music,” the echo as sound and echo as memory of sound coalesce.

In the garden house
the digging fork and the spade
hanging side by side on their nails
play a few notes I remember
that echo many years
as the breeze comes in with me…

And in “Variations on a theme,” the penultimate poem in the collection, Merwin personifies memory in the line “thank you for friends and long echoes of them”.

§

In an interview with Bill Moyers shortly after The Shadow of Sirius was published, Merwin mentioned having been pleased and encouraged to hear that children had no trouble understanding his poetry. To test this, I chose a few poems from this collection to share with my five-year-old daughter. I picked “The palaces” for its clouds like “gray cliffs / icebergs in other lives” and for words like “white-knuckled,” “pocket” and “crag.” My daughter wanted more. She asked, “What comes after that?” And so I continued with  “Old plum tree” and “Old breadhouse,” which won her approval, too.

Reading the poems aloud confirmed another of Merwin’s comments in that interview: that poetry relies heavily on the sense of hearing. The poems are full of sounds — the dripping leaves, the whisper of things falling in the night, those echoes, real and figurative. However, his use of “frond” seemed to me particularly visual. I remembered learning that the filtering of light through fronds and other kinds of leaves can even act like pinhole cameras, projecting images of the sun or moon across the ground, a fact I once used for watching a solar eclipse. But Merwin turns the strong visual aspects back to sound.

In “Lear’s wife,” the speaker says twice “I looked at the world” (visual). But the poem’s hinges are fastened to “if he had listened to me / it would have been / another story” and “only Cordelia / did not forget / anything / but when asked she said / nothing” (auditory). In “Another to Echo,” Merwin begins “How beautiful you must be / to have been able to lead me / this far with only / the sound of your going away” (visual metamorphoses to auditory). In “From the gray legends,” the color and texture of Arachne’s weaving opens the poem and carries its thread through to the end, all reflected in the strong visual of Minerva’s gray eyes. The only sound here, “all night her own bird answered only / Who”, is another uppercase exception to Merwin’s usual punctuation rules.

§

The silvery language hidden in plain sight on these pages only awaits a little breath of reading to reveal the pure way that dawn itself listens.

 —A. Anupama

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A. Anupama

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

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Dec 102014
 

1818  (2012)

Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, moved to Woodstock, Ontario, as a teenager, knew no one, found solace in the library, learned to read, learned to write. Like another famous Pole, Joseph Conrad, she made herself a writer in a foreign language. (Try it some time.) Last year she published a stern and unforgiving memoir called Drunk Mom, about life as an alcoholic mother of a months-old child. She also takes photographs. The ones I like (I picked them) project a dark femininity, a gender-bending, violent, transgressive girlhood (womanhood). They are erotic, fretted with death, both fearful and fearless, compulsive, defiant, disturbing, and secret.

dg

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blow up, the yellow houseblow up, the yellow house (2014)

LevitationLevitation (2014)

wolves evolveWolves Evolve (2014)

Apocalypse NowApocalypse Now (2012)

Ghost bridesGhost Brides (2012)

Merry ChristmasMerry Christmas (2013)

On Sale!On Sale! (2012)

WillinglyWillingly (2014)

Red CarpetRed Carpet (2012).

—Photographs by Jowita Bydlowska

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AuthorJowita2014

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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Dec 092014
 

Lisa Robertson Author Image 2

Is it any good is the wrong question; how is it changing the terms of our enjoyment is the right one. Cinema of the Present is a threshold experience I pin brilliant. It bites the fruit it invents and brains us, tingling. It is behind-the-scenes, pink wrench-work: It is an action on us. Now. —Natalie Helberg

Cinema of the Present Cover Image

Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson
Coach House Books
112 pages, Paperback ($17.95)
ISBN: 978-1552452974

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Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present arrives lean and reels in intellection. It’s delicate and circumspect and gutsy at once. Like so much of her work, it astonishes the sentence. It is an attempt to pressure writing away from habitual crutches, as in the trappings of the heavy hitters, not just what we learn in Poetry 101. It is eclectic, rarified, and dense, scatterbrained and philosophical: It tells us that the stakes of writing are high, that writing sculpts subjects as much as it sculpts the domain they dwell in, and that, consequently, there is no trick-bag to rely on, no set of writing techniques we can master and remain content with. Robertson claims that she does not know how to write, each time, then begins. Cinema of the Present attests to this attitude: Writing, it insists, is the attempt to write itself: it is humility, excitation, and persistent process. It is integrity and risk.

While much of Robertson’s work—The Apothecary (1991), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1993), Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Nilling (2012), and many, many other collections—embrace a lush, amped-up take on the sentence (the baroque), Cinema of the Present proceeds comparatively economically. It is close to Robertson’s 2010 work, R’s Boat, which in many ways anticipates it.

Robertson’s ‘baroque’ can seem semantically impenetrable: It arises from the creative ‘verbing’ of nouns—“rooms with no middle ground, differently foxed” (Occasional Work)—the use of “improper” adjectives—“Don’t be afraid tulip for time is fat / with our indiscretion” (Debbie)—general adjectival lavishness, or a more general clashing of unlikely but suggestive sentence-parts: “Loose-armed impostors, we’ll hone an incendiary calendar, from the still bosco contrive the days that shall give us History, that saline, perplexed crux: Day of Parked Cars; Day of Physical Secrets; Day of Consonant’s Lip; Day of Lucite…” (XEclogue). But it can also seem exquisitely clear and referential: “[A]nd then the theorist sauntering purposefully from her round hips, her heavy leather satchel swinging like an oiled clock” (Occasional Work).

If Robertson’s language-based interventions are at times rogue and rude, they are also well-informed. Robertson is somewhat of an extinct species, a bit of a Virginia Woolf figure, one of those rare writers who has had a chance to devote her life more or less exclusively to reading and writing, without the intrusion of anything like regular employment. She’s someone who’s survived by being innovative, by being communally embedded, and by scrounging.

She spent years living rent-free in a cabin on Saltspring Island, during which she gobbled up Phyllis Webb, Heidegger, Barthes, Jean Genet, Ezra Pound, and Proust, among others. She is well-read in general, and her influences are as myriad as they are motley: Virgil, Plath, Lyn Hejinian, Rilke, Lucretius, Susan Howe, bpNichol,  etc. She was involved with the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver for several years in the nineties, where she became acquainted with key figures in the American Language movement as well as Russian Formalism (Viktor Shklovsky and his injunction to quicken perception by defamiliarizing language), post-structuralist theory, and feminist criticism. Before the Kootenay School, she attended Simon Fraser University, where she took courses from writers like George Bowering and Roy Miki and studied the Canadian avant-garde (a few names to mention: The Four Horsemen, Erin Mouré, and Nicole Brossard).

Of her early, baroque approach to the sentence, Robertson has said: it is a pursuit of a particular internal sound-structure, an attempt to produce a “full knobbly quality, or a torsion or a jaggedness or a swoony kind of movement from syllable to syllable.”[1]  The resultant sentences may not mean in conventional ways, but the fact that they do not only serves another of Robertson’s professed aims: to create sentences that startle, and, in startling, produce new emotional and intellectual terrain.[2] The aesthetic Robertson adopts in Cinema of the Present is less gnarly, and yet it still glimmers; it finds alternative ways to invigorate language:

You are fundamentally forgotten and veiled or you are deeply erased and diverted.

It was a place like the farm, but near the ocean.

You were poverty shivering in an old turquoise city.

(from Cinema of the Present)

The intention animating Cinema of the Present is related: the piece is an attempt to construct a pronoun. The confessional voice that invokes the ‘lyric I’ risks sounding cliché and cheesy, but any work’s organizing pronoun, says Robertson, is in danger of becoming the site of formulaic, dry, taken for granted language; we need to trouble that site if we’re going to keep it. Cinema of the Present troubles its organizing pronoun by making it self-thematizing.

The text begins: “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem? / You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.” ‘You,’ the pronoun, a few lines down, sets “out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.” The poem, which consists of a hundred or so pages of double-spaced, one-line statements (sometimes questions, sometimes fragments), some of which are repeated in slightly altered form at irregular intervals, continues:

A downtown tree, the old sky, and still you want an inventory.

You were an intuition without a concept.

A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis.

Pure gesture.

Many of the poem’s subsequent lines likewise explicitly qualify this ‘you’: “You are the silence they exchanged,” “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such,” but many do not. As in the above (“A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis”), some are fragments which refer to the perceptual world, or just the world more broadly (“Atoms, theatres, famines”), and yet the pronoun/subject, situated with its valise at the frontier of consciousness, arguably absorbs them:

Each line that makes up the poem, though it can function independently, can also be read forward and backward (as in ‘you were an intuition without a concept: a gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture’); meaning can cascade forward or backward as many lines or as few as suits a reader’s fancy (you were ‘a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture,’ and, as the next line goes, “a gate made of carpet tape”). The poem posits consciousness as spongiform and figures poetry and poetic practice as a gate between subjectivity and objectivity. The “gate made of carpet tape” recurs throughout the poem as a figure for the mind’s immersion in the perceptual vista: it is a gate constituted by all manner of encountered materials: it becomes “a gate made of gas pumps,” “a gate made of bread and screws.”

The subject/pronoun the poem is preoccupied with, then, both surges up from and recedes back into language (“Your pronoun leaks thus”). The statements or fragments that seem to concern it least still become its tissue, and the pronoun, conversely, becomes the poem itself (“It was not your voice at all, but it can’t stop nor does it think”). It is this pivot which allows the poem to produce its meta-commentary: By the time we get to the line “You are banality,” or “You are no longer aesthetical,” for example, we can read these lines as referring to the poem itself. Besides its pronoun-anxiety, Cinema of the Present shares with R’s Boat, its precursor, a willingness to embrace what Robertson refers to as either flat, outright bad, or banal sentences, a willingness, in other words, to embrace everything—“What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”; “You presuppose a free, opened and unlimited space”— while sequencing these materials in such a way that they come to work aesthetically (which sometimes means that the resulting arrangement has actually opened up a new aesthetic possibility: “at the edges of banality, there is sensing”).

Sequencing may be one of the keys to Robertson’s title, as well: In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin notes that a reality presented through film, which is pure in the sense that it bears no sign of the technology used to produce it, is only pure in this sense because technology has purged it, has edited itself out, cutting shots and assembling shots taken at different times, while mindfully orchestrating transitions between them. Robertson has used the essay in the past to stress the extent to which writers—and this reflects a deep dimension of her own approach—are mindfully patterning, or texturing, a linguistic surface; they are arranging materials, and, like filmmakers, are orchestrating transitions between the text’s moments. The double-spaced lines which make up Cinema of the Present, the arrangement of this text as an uninterrupted sequence of these lines, and the arrangement of these lines themselves make the text, perhaps more than her other works, the book-analogue of film. It exists as the effect of a complex form of visual reduction, as well as of a cinematic sensitivity to time and rhythm.

Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation,” in which Stein offers an elusive articulation of her own approach to composition, “writing the present,” provides another insight into Robertson’s title. “Writing the present” à la Stein involves, among other things, an attention to time in the work, which is the effect of “distribution and equilibration,” or what, in keeping with the above, we might call sequencing. “To construct a velocity is what you want” (Robertson). It also entails “using everything” (as in the way both R’s Boat and Cinema of the Present do) “by beginning again and again” (Cinema of the Present, like much of Stein’s work, unfurls along descriptive axes—it makes reference to the sensory world, but also to the project itself, its pronoun and the act of writing it—and does so in a playfully repetitious manner).

Stein’s essay also affords a pre-echo of Cinema’s open-ended spirit and structure. Robertson writes, “Curiosity, limbs and momentum: because of form you kept playing,” “You carried the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form,” and “If you speak in this imaginary structure, it’s because other choices felt limiting.” Stein writes “No one thinks these things when they are making…no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made” and “Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here.”

The open structure that characterizes Cinema of the Present and the vocabulary that Robertson has let loose in the work are also relevant to the work’s thematic content. The diction in Cinema is drawn in part from philosophical sources. There is explicit reference to Nietzsche and Aristotle, an injunction, at one point, to eliminate all contradictions (which is contradicted), and the repeated mention of “the indispensable horizon of all that occurs or appears.” There is even a possible reference to Foucault, the great theorist of disciplinary spaces: “Thus you were led to describe hospitals, prisons, remote villages, monasteries.” And to Hannah Arendt: “So you came to nilling” (nilling being a passive form of willing, or an active form of not-willing).

Robertson has used Arendt as fodder before, in an essay on Pauline Réage’s controversial Story of O. In the novel, the eponymous protagonist, O, is made into a sex slave; more specifically, her boyfriend asks her to be a slave whom many other men—provided they are ring-bearing members of a certain salacious organization (at Roissy)—can make use of as his proxies. O is subjected to excruciating forms of corporeal torture; her body is mutilated, assiduously penetrated, yet at every moment she agrees to her treatment: she submits herself to it. Robertson reads Story of O as an allegory for the formation of the subject through the paradoxical form of agency that is nilling: the subject’s self-conscious self-submission to a power beyond itself (an Other), as occurs in the act of reading, during which the reading subject gives itself over to, and is transformed, however violently or benevolently, by text.

Cinema of the Present, seems, at times, to refer to this reading: It makes mention of “O, Rosy-booted.” Its organizing pronoun is said to want “to wear the feathered mask of a owl” (at the height of her subjection, O is shaved, attached to a dog-leash, and displayed naked at a party wearing just such a mask; she is afterward desecrated in the mask, on a table, as the sun comes up). The degree of permissiveness that characterizes Cinema as a curated space (it embraces banality, and anything: “What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”), its ‘openness,’ aligns the work with Story of O (something like Robertson’s take on it), as well. O is obligated, as a slave, ordered, to remain ‘open’: her lips must remain parted at all times, for penetration, as must her legs. Cinema of the Present marks itself as likewise radically accommodating, and accommodating in such a way as to enable self-change. “Your problem is again your own transformation,” it says. “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such.” “Once again you acquire a new surface.”

Robertson’s whole enterprise is in this way encapsulated in Cinema. The work is concerned with writing’s (contingent and alterable) conditions of possibility, as well as with the subjective possibilities which are related to them. What it is possible to write, in a given time and place, is an index of what it is possible to be, since it is a subject who writes, or since writing is, ultimately, a subject’s possibility. To alter writing is to alter subjectivity: “Only the rhyme of discourse transforms you,” Cinema says. “Still,” it says, “you’re totally in love with subjectivity,” and “Still, at this late date in the political, you remain intrigued by fucking”:

O is fucked by her Other, entered, conditioned and created and, as a subject, beholden. Cinema is open to an Other that takes the form of un-aesthetical, flat-toned language, and, in being so open, is engaged in producing a counter-pressure to a second Other: ‘writing proper.’

In challenging and altering literary norms, Robertson has also produced new possibilities for the legitimate use of language, for language practices, and for the subjectivities that are what they are partly because they engage in these practices. Cinema of the Present persists with this Sisyphean endeavour: “It’s time for your late style”; “That your mouth lovingly damaged the language”; “You would like thought to release something other than laboratory conditions.” Is it any good is the wrong question; how is it changing the terms of our enjoyment is the right one. Cinema of the Present is a threshold experience I pin brilliant. It bites the fruit it invents and brains us, tingling. It is behind-the-scenes, pink wrench-work: It is an action on us. Now.

— Natalie Helberg

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helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.

Lisa Robertson is one of Canada’s most celebrated experimental poets. She is associated with Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing but also resists being associated with any particular aesthetic. Her chapbooks, one-off essays, pamphlets, and scattered poems are too numerous to list here. Her books include The Apothecary (1991), XEclogue (1993), Debbie: An Epic (1997—a finalist for the Governor General’s award in 1998), The Weather (2001), Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), The Men: A Lyric Book (2006), Magenta Soul Whip (2009), R’s Boat (2010), Nilling: Prose Essays (2012), and, most recently, Cinema of the Present. She currently lives in France.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kai Fierle-Hedrick. “Lifted: An Interview with Lisa Robertson.” Chicago Review (Volume 5.1/5.2, Spring 2006)
  2. Mark Cochrane. “Stuttering Continuity (or, Like It’s 1999): An Interview with Lisa Robertson at Cambridge.” Open Letter (Thirteenth Series, No. 6, Summer 2008)
Dec 082014
 

Mary-Morrissy-NLB

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The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.

As I halted in front of the pub, I wondered if I could still rightfully call it ours, since on the outside it had clearly been made over. The masonry is now a fuchsia red and there’s a new name over the door – it’s called Billy Pilgrim’s now. I suspected that inside would be similarly altered ─ primary colours, stainless steel, loud music, themed. Superstitiously, I’ve never gone back there. But needs must. Migrainous from the sun, I knew if I didn’t take the weight off my feet soon, I would fall down on the street. I pushed through the pub’s double doors with the same milky glass panels I remember from before, and became a visitor in my own past.

I made my way through the outer bar to our spot in the long back room, under the big station clock, so, you said, we wouldn’t be reminded of how little time we had. The relief of sinking into pub leatherette was ecstatic. I looked around furtively in case I had registered out loud to the fact. But there was no one in the pub except for the bar-tender, a blocky, shaven-headed young man, with his sleeves rolled up and nothing to do. Apart from him ─ and he was probably still in short trousers when we were meeting in here ─ the rest of the pub was unchanged. The same polished oak, marble-topped counter, partitions of dimpled glass, brass rail to lean your feet on, a snug in the front of the shop, a back room and a mirror behind the bar so that even before you’ve got drunk you’re seeing double. The smell was just the same too. An oozing mix of stale porter and pungent urinal. I sat in our corner gratefully and ordered a mineral water. (A bald woman wearing a wig downing vodkas alone at four in the afternoon would have seemed as big a cliché as our affair – the older married man and the youngish single woman trysting in a pub. These days I’m trying to avoid clichés, even age-appropriate ones.) The electively bald barman landed the glass on the low table with a clink-clunk and obligingly opened the bottle and poured. I drank thirstily. The flinty taste of the carbonated water set my teeth on edge ─ funny aversions afflict you with chemo. I pushed the glass to one side where it spat effervescently still trying to be the life and soul of the party.

I confirmed the barman’s suspicions that I was a mad old bat when I called him back and ordered coffee instead. It came in a thick cream catering cup, slopped obligingly in the saucer. It was thin and bad, from a jug stewed for hours on a hot plate of torture. But it was like a madeleine to our long lost affair. With each sour sip, I was no longer visiting my past, I was right back in it.

After treatment, most sensible people would go home and crawl into bed. But post-chemo, the last thing I want to do is to give in to sleep during the day. If I do, it means I’ll be awake – and alone ─ in the blackout hours. Ironically, I live alone, or should that be I live alone ironically? I have made it a practice to call out “Honey, I’m home” when I let myself in as a joke to myself, on myself, and to puncture the squeamish silence of a house unmolested since I left it. I try to imagine the Sanforized existence that would match my smooth and hearty greeting. The set of “I Love Lucy” comes to mind, a gleaming kitchen rich in appliances, a brave suburban light. Not my dim and over-shadowed household. I use all the tricks of wolfish loners to combat solitude. I talk my way through tasks aloud. Trina, I say, time to sluice the tub. And so I set to, wiping down the surfaces, the tiles, the wash-hand basin and colouring the bowl with a squirt of lemony liquid. And because I can never manage to keep the towel wrapped around me ─ and now my body geometry can’t support it – I end up naked and sweating amidst the disinfectant fumes, the closest I get to a sexual glow these days.

This was the time of day we used to meet. It annoyed me that you would arrive breathlessly as if you were just managing to squeeze me in. But once you sat and calmed, we entered another time zone where all other pre-occupations fell away. So absorbed would we become that a parade of our nearest and dearest could have passed by and we wouldn’t have noticed. This place absolved us from being furtive; it was the only time we were not mindful of our situation, where it became just the pair of us, alone in the world. Perhaps that’s why it was so intense; for an hour-and-a-half twice a week we played ourselves. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to come back. But as I sat there, I found myself soothed by the atmosphere, not haunted by the associated memories. In the torpor of an empty afternoon pub, I realised I’d found the perfect asylum for the chemically blasted.

It didn’t stay empty for long, of course. Students started trickling in, a few pensioners arrived, men with caps and newspapers, and embroidered the bar. A family of tourists, Italians, guide book in hand, joined me in the back room. Mama, Papa, Silvio and Chiara. They took photos of themselves with their phones. Papa tried a pint and didn’t like it; the children bought crisps and released salt and vinegar into the air. I ordered another coffee and settled in. Not out of nostalgia. I cannot be nostalgic for something I destroyed myself; I am not that perverse. I stayed because it was easier than going home. And then, coming up for five when I was totally off-guard, when I had made my own of the place, you arrived.

Really, it was you. You, as a boy, that is. Slender – you always said you’d been a beanpole in your youth ─ a thin hollowed-out face, gaunt almost, a mop of black curls and eyes to match. It was uncanny. The boy wore a sludge-coloured rain mac over a faded t-shirt, a pair of navy drainpipe jeans, dilapidated Beatle boots with pointed toes. If it wasn’t you, this boy must have raided your youthful wardrobe. He sat in the outer bar in the corner but right in my line of vision. He – you, what pronoun to use? ─ nodded at the barman. He was a regular, it seemed. (Did you have a life in this bar before it became our haunt, I wondered?) He fished a paperback out of a canvas satchel and began to read. When the barman steered a pint towards him, he raised his eyes to say thanks and his gaze met mine. Well, I was staring. He raised the pint to his lips – I almost expected him to raise it in a toast – and then over a moustache of foam he smiled directly at me. Then I knew. Knew it was you, because that crease appeared between your eyebrows (the one I thought had come only in middle-age from too much worry) and your mouth turned downwards. You don’t smile up like most people. It isn’t – wasn’t ─ a mirthless smile, just one tempered with a clownish sadness. I felt myself weaken all over again. Shyly, I smiled back. Why shyly? Because I felt all my old uncertainties return as if I too had been spun back in time. To a time before I met you. To a “you” you’d never known. You settled into your book. By right it should have been one of those orange-covered Penguins – Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene – but without my specs, I couldn’t work out what it was. After the initial startlement, I felt invisible and pleasantly voyeuristic. I was happy to sit and watch you. After all these years, I finally had you all to myself.

Sharing. That’s what usually dooms an illicit affair in the end. The mistress not wanting to share. But I didn’t care about that. In truth, I didn’t feel I was sharing you with anyone. She was just the silent partner as far as I was concerned. I just didn’t want anything broken because of our association. I hated it when you talked about your past. Not because it contained her, but because it contained you. You blamed the past for our predicament. Bad timing, you would say. If I’d met you when I was younger we could have. . . We could have what? Obliterated your mistakes? Had children? When I still could. You could have brought out the maternal in me. If you’d known me then you’d understand. . . Understand what, though? That you weren’t always this rueful self? The trouble was I couldn’t imagine you younger; I could only see you as you were. Acting old, your role to impart wisdom, already writing me out. Don’t do what I did, you used to say, don’t marry for gratitude. As if I were inundated with suitors seeking my hand. I was 37 and considered past it. Worse than past it, because I was engaged in a fantasy relationship that couldn’t stand the light of day. That’s what my girlfriends told me. Even if you had managed to leave the silent partner, I’d have got the worst of you, an old man with sagging dugs and slowing walk, enduring a guilty superannuation trying to win back his wounded off-spring. I would get compromise while the silent partner would have had the wholehearted best of you. That ardent, warrior youth you seemed so nostalgic for. I would become the bath-chair pusher, the caretaker, witness to your decline. That was never my style. For one thing, I’ve always been careless. Careless with people. Other people might mistake it for carefree; not the same thing at all. I am free of care because I care less. I was not vigilant enough even about myself, as it turned out. If I had, I might have noticed the giveaway pellet of hardness on the underside of my breast, right over my heart.

The clock struck six and a girl breezed in. She had long, sand-coloured hair and a gapped fringe. She wore something filmy and floral. Not my type at all, but then that’s presuming I was your type. She looked like the kind of girl who’d stand on the shore with a towel to dry you off if you were in swimming. Girlie was territorial about you, fixed you with her big eyes and talked – a lot – some breathless account during which she would snatch your hand for emphasis, or poke you playfully on the arm.

“And then he asked me if I’d cover the late shift. . .” She exhaled indignation. “I mean, really!”

You played with the ends of her hair and gazed at her with an unseemly kind of yearning that made me look away. Then you leaned in and kissed her. She was bruised into silence by your lips. That was something you used to do with me. In mid-flight I would find my words smothered by your mouth. It used to infuriate me that you couldn’t bear my small talk. Looking at it now, I recognised desire. As you disengaged, another person joined you, a boy this time. I thought maybe I’d be able to identify him. Maybe he’d be someone who had survived into my time? But I couldn’t. He had a face whose features seemed in untimely progression. He had a boy’s eyes and soft chin, but a man’s brow and nose. His mane of nondescript hair grazed his dejected-looking shoulders. I christened him Lionheart, but it was you, with your dark looks, that consumed my attention. I kept you constantly in my sight-lines and every so often our eyes would meet and lock for a moment, though as the pub filled up with office workers, it was harder to maintain a clear line of vision. Girlie produced a phone and I could hear you planning the rest of your night. You wanted to go to a gig with a band called Methuselah, Girlie wanted to go for something to eat. Lionheart eyed Girlie, then you – he seemed to have the casting vote. I wasn’t sure who he was most in love with, you or Girlie. Between the standing army of drinkers, I kept on catching your eye. A quizzical eye, at first, lightly sardonic, then more calculating, curious. This is how it was when we met. Even with age you couldn’t cloak your emotions so everything got played out on your face. I felt, somehow, you were communicating with me, over the heads of your friends and the Friday night crowd. But what were you saying?

I hadn’t thought of you in years. Really! Not in that way, I mean. Not in the pained malignant way of the unrequited. But no, that’s not true. I was requited. During that time with you I was more alive and more unhappy than I had ever been. Maybe the two go together. Now I am chronically content and half-dead. Though even at the time I knew what we were doing was a recipe for heartbreak – someone’s. Yours, as it turned out. In the end, I couldn’t stand the tension of waiting to see who would break first. You? Me? Or the silent partner? I wasn’t slave enough to the cliché to wait for you to say – I can’t leave my wife. So I ended it. Chop chop. A swift guillotine. I remember your face when I said it – here on this very spot. Everything fell, as if I’d struck you. You started bargaining furiously.

““I’ll do it, right now.”

““It’s not that,” I said but you weren’t listening.

““Here, I’ll phone her now,” you said, lifting the mobile like it was a brick with which you were going to smash your life to pieces. On my account. A gesture. Our gestures give us away.

““Put it away,” I said. “It’s over.”

It’s not every day you get a chance to see the prequel to love. That’s what kept me in a sticky, airless Friday night pub sipping cold coffee. I’ve never liked being alone in a pub – call me old-fashioned. Even when we were together, I hated being early. Waiting for someone I was never sure of, full of dread about being hit upon by amateur predators. That wasn’t a problem now. If anyone was a predator in this situation it was me. But I couldn’t bear to leave before you. It seemed important this time around that you leave me. Finally at half seven, the three of you rose, gathering up your stuff and pushed out into the main thoroughfare of the pub. Immediately, in a pincer movement, three of the suited ones moved into claim your space. I felt the betraying heave of disappointment that goes with the beloved’s withdrawal of presence. You turned to go; then you stopped and whispered in Girlie’s ear. She looked back at you briefly then bounced towards the exit where Lionheart was waiting patiently. I could see his face lighting up as she approached. Ah, so it was her he was after. He pulled open the door and she darted through it. He followed her. You turned towards me. I felt panicky but told myself to stop. You were going to the toilets, maybe, or using the side-door, the one that opened out on to a laneway, the one I used to favour when we were together. I could see your head bobbing up and down as you weaved your way around the crowd that stood between us. I was trapped; this was too close for comfort. I had not banked on our worlds actually colliding like this. You stopped in front of me.

Chemo fugue, my friends say. It was your ex-lover’s son you saw. But no, I knew you had fathered only daughters. A trick of the mind, the light. But no, it was none of that.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

When I didn’t answer – well, how could I answer? ─ he rephrased it.

““Do you know me?”

He was more earnest than I expected. You were never earnest; had it beaten out of you, you said, in the rough justice of boarding school. You were playful in company, serious in bed.

““It’s just that. . .” he started. A lighter voice than yours; age makes us growl and grate.

““Yes?” I said, feeling the bloom of ambiguous trepidation show on my face.

““Can I . . .?”

I nodded.

He folded himself on to the small stool opposite me that had remained empty except as a repository for bags and jackets. He laid these carefully on the banquette seat beside me. If it was a delaying tactic, it worked. What was he going to say? Could he do me for harassment? Young people are touchy about this sort of thing and I had not kept custody of the eyes, as we were instructed in convent school.

““You’ve been staring at me all night,” he said simply. No outlandish accusations, then.

““I’m sorry,” I said, rising to go. I had been a bad voyeur; I’d attracted attention by the focus of my own. “I have to go. . .”

I tried to squeeze by him but he grabbed my arm.

“Why is that?” he demanded. “What do you want?”

To turn the clock back, I wanted to say. He gripped my wrist and looked up at me imploringly.

“Are you my mother?”

That broke the spell, the chemo fog.

“What? No!!”

“Are you my mother?” he repeated and stood up. There was the steel I knew from your eyes, the grit of refusal. I shook him off, my folly made manifest.

“My natural mother,” he hissed in my ear.

The airwaves had been full of stories of adoptees trying to trace their natural parents; I felt I had stumbled into someone else’s reality show. I tried to wriggle out of our awkward embrace.

“Are you the woman who gave me up? Who gave up on me?” He raised his voice. “Who refused to meet me but feels free to spy on me? Are you?”

There was a ripple of anticipation in those around us; a pub crowd recognises when there is a row brewing. What I wanted to say was yes. Yes to everything. Except to the accusation of motherhood. To that I wanted to say – do you think, dear boy, that if I were your mother, I wouldn’t rush bald-headed to claim you?

“Is it you?” he pleaded, “come for me?”

Oh God, I couldn’t bear the interrogative. I had come for you. But the wrong you. I yanked my hand away and ploughed my way through the crowds of drinkers, jogging elbows and upsetting drinks as I went. A couple of aggrieved “heys” followed in my wake. I stepped out into the laneway where more shirt-sleeved drinkers had spilled out into the golden evening. Once clear of them, I ran. I ran, clutching my false hair in case I should lose it too. In my haste I crashed into a stack of shopping trolleys parked in a bay outside one of those late-opening supermarkets. I ducked in and found myself in the refrigerated aisle. He didn’t follow me, or if he did, he didn’t find me. I counted it as a lucky escape, a remission of sorts.

—Mary Morrissy

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Mary_Morrissey_300_200

Mary Morrissy is an award-winning Irish novelist (The Hennessy Award, Lannan Foundation Award) and short story writer, the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey (long-listed for the 2015 IMPAC Award), and a collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye. A second collection of linked stories, Diaspora, is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape. Her website is available here.

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Dec 072014
 

Lise GastonLise Gaston. Photo by Josh Davidson.

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Occupation 

What nonsense we talk
What nonsense we’re told
What nonsense we are
But I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are

bbbbbbb…bbbbb—John Newlove, “Insect Hopes”

What nonsense we talk:
we scratch names into smoked glass, tongue
the caulk between the stones,
hiss our lies through air conditioning.
We scratch names into smoked glass, tongues
speech-torn, felted and furred.
Lies hiss through the air conditioning:
what nonsense we’re told.

Speech-torn, felted and furred
we press our warm bodies into the walls,
what nonsense. We’re told
what’s written into drywall and plaster

where we rub our beautiful bodies
against the pockmarked paint, our bodies
written into drywall,
what nonsense we are.

Under pockmarked paint our bodies
are ghosted rooms and emptied words,
what nonsense we are,
we’re crab-walking the hallways, faces gaped upside-down
through empty ghosting rooms.
We plug water fountains with our ripped and bitten nails,
we crab-walk the gaping faceless hallways,
we graffiti our genitalia into the ground.
We rip out the water fountains, biting each other,
our bones grind through the escalators,
we graffiti our genitalia. On the ground,
we press red ears to the thrumming,

the grinding of bones up escalators.
We push our breasts against doorways, letting
ourselves in, red ears pressed to the humming
red intestine of the building where the plaster’s peeled off,

we push our chests against the doorways,
press our sweet soft fingers into
the red intestine of the building, the plaster peeled off,
but I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are.

Our hard, skilled fingers nothing but
caulk between the stones—
but I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are,
in our grave and vital nonsense.

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Sunday

He kicks me out of bed for leaving no crumbs, none of me.

In front of the metro a big man’s swinging his hips.

The sun arrives late today, knocks empty the sky.

Last night we got high until the room shook.

Oh, the way smoke settles on his mouth.

At the market strawberries are sliced and piled like little tongues.

Last night I had tucked his feet in, touched his thighs.

Sweet little tongues.

The radishes show lipstick on their teeth.

Tonight he will eat with another woman, a fragile woman who dislikes me.

At home: bread, cream cheese, avocado. A damp eighteenth-century novel.

My herbs are wilting, and pigeons live in the air conditioner.

He will ask me back to him, tonight. And I . . .

She will be at her apartment, removing the bones from her hair.


Monday

And sickness comes. It bats your head with greasy paws.
You’ve missed the sun, it’s out there now, the glass
warm against your face, your broken face. For you had planned

on riding, triangle seat wedged between your legs,
white helmet bulbous on your careful head.
It’s so sunny now, and you aren’t in the sun.

That feeling when hands behind your face pull skin into your skull.
The day is filled with federal custodians trying to contain
leaks, and other hierarchies of willful abstraction.

Wanted, you, you wanted to ride, ride
past the street that’s sputtering gas, the firetrucks dominoed there,
sirens waking you in morning, you

believed they were coming for you, in dreams you had
pulled a trigger. Now your head
won’t let you enter the sun. When you awoke

the lazy cat had remembered his green-eyed catness
and teased a mouse through the night.
He offers it to you now.

..

Les Rues: Montreal

Berri

the balcony in July’s sweet heat sucking
bbbbbbyour fingers we were high and fascinated
with difference of the other it seemed
hours with your fingers in my mouth seemed hours
up and down each one teeth against your knuckles

bbbbbb waiting on the street’s slim corner for me
you so immaculate in white and sun-
glasses neck rooted over your phone
a nun once glared me across this street my
bbbbbbbright purple shorts inscribed too small on my
legs when I left you the whole city
was shaking enragée the nun so cool
in her baby-blue shift and wimple you
bbbbbband I have the same-sized hands remember

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Resther

we didn’t come here looking for a fight
bbbbbbmais la bataille commence les lignes ils sont
écrivées entre les francophones et les
autres
anglos students shaking with the weight
of their idealism enemies from Ford
bbbbbbNation ou mes amis living here for
half a cold decade turned away by the
interpreted code le domicile
c’est quoi ça le gouvernement change
their
bbbbbbgros collective mind if we don’t move our tongues
to our mouths’ roofs in the right correcte way

we had worn red boots and marched les rues in
thousands and they had loved us red paper
bbbbbbsquares clotted the sky like blossoms

 

Saint-Denis

all streets here more familiar after
bbbbbba bottle of dépanneur red yours
only two blocks out of my way it’s not
enough to mind but enough to notice

walking down in the city’s popular one
bbbbbba.m. light your old bedroom faces the
ambulance route of Saint-Denis shrieking and
unsleepable in summer all windows
open to the night in need trucks pouring
bbbbbbinto your third-story room the ugly
brown curtains you never did change that first
time all my limbs went numb and my face I
lost what control I entered with and went
bbbbbbgargoyle on you under an empty turret

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Saint-Dominique 

you pulled me from a marching crowd you looked
bbbbbbso crisp in your dress shirt ironed and tight
shorts beside the anarchists we didn’t
touch till after dinner politeness
we decided to call it there is part

bbbbbbof this old street you can’t walk past without
recalling how we kissed you said for
hours in front of that fence pas de vélos
s.v.p.
coming in the early light
bbbbbbfrom Village bacchanals I never told

you I don’t remember this let you
shake yourself alone on your way to
another part-time job imagining
bbbbbball the dark angles of my open mouth

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Sherbrooke

we ran some walk-up stairs against the slam
bbbbbbof riot shields watched bar patrons shoved from
les terrasses a cloud of grey a crowd of men
a spurt of red one eye lost to the spray

we marched for that stitched-up hole we marched against
bbbbbbCharest we haunted him in daylight I
marched for the sun that caught the hidden grey
in your black curls for memory of your
tired body slamming me against the wall

bbbbbbyour sweet heat my other rising ended
alone on an office carpet months
before the marches so-so-so-
solidarité
how little we were
bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbwilling to

—Lise Gaston

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Lise Gaston‘s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in magazine and journals including Arc Poetry Magazine, The Fiddlehead, Lemon Hound, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, and Prairie Fire. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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Dec 062014
 

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Given the magnitude of her achievement, it is hard to believe that Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not presented in an accurate text until 1955, almost seventy years after her death. And since those poems (almost 1,800 in number) continue to surprise and dazzle us with their linguistic ingenuity and psychological penetration, it is even harder to believe that Emily Dickinson was born 184 years ago!—on December 10, 1830. Famously, she spent much of her later, secluded life in her garden or writing in her room in the family house in Amherst. Yet, on Keatsian “wings of poesy,” she traveled the universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic. Her penchant for privacy far exceeded that of Thoreau, who had augmented Nature, the seminal work of his mentor Emerson, with Walden, the record of a temporary retreat to the woods, to live and write in solitude. Emily Dickinson’s only rivals for creative eminence in later nineteenth-century America were notably expansive: world-famous, globe-trotting Mark Twain, sea-voyaging Herman Melville, and that “kosmos,” Walt Whitman, who spread himself amply, in line-length and in the panorama of his Democratic vistas. In contrast, reclusive Emily Dickinson’s genius was in scrimshaw-like concision, economy, distillation. Yet her reach matched theirs in capaciousness. She took “For Occupation—This—/ The spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise—” (657).

But what did Emily Dickinson think of when she imagined “Heaven” or “Paradise”? More often than not, she clung to Emersonian and Thoreauvian “nature.” Her poems and letters on death and paradise, in which the human and the floral are often conflated by this gardener-poet, provide examples of what Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, termed “natural supernaturalism,” a phrase made part of Romantic criticism’s permanent vocabulary with the publication of M. H. Abrams’s landmark study of the secularization of the sacred—Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971). In an August 1856 letter to her friend Elizabeth Holland, Dickinson’s natural supernaturalism and her pervasive human/floral analogy are explicit, with a fortunate exception: “I’m so glad you are not a blossom, for those in my garden fade, and then ‘a reaper whose name is Death’ has come to get a few to help him make a bouquet for himself.” This follows a passage that assumes the analogy, claiming that this earth would be Paradise enough were it not for frost and that Grim Reaper. This paragraph begins (Dickinson’s letters often combine prose with poetry) in modified ballad meter: “If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not awaken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below, and if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess he would think His Paradise superfluous” (Letters, 329).

The relatively open-minded Christianity of Elizabeth Holland and her husband may have freed Dickinson to confide such thoughts. A few years later, she would put this fusion of Nature and Heaven, of the physical and spiritual senses, into poetry. What we see, hear, and know is Nature: a harmonious Heaven whose simplicity is superior to our supposed wisdom:

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity. (668)

Dickinson’s Romantic vision of an Earthly Paradise, its minute particulars as cherished as its sublime manifestations and all the more beautiful because it is under the shadow of death, is reminiscent of Wordsworth, before he froze over, and of Dickinson’s beloved Keats, who never froze over. Keats told a religiously conservative friend, Benjamin Bailey, that his own “favorite Speculation” was that “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone, and so repeated” (Letters of John Keats, 1:184-86). In one of the most beautiful passages ever written by Emily Brontë, Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter (the second “Cathy” in Wuthering Heights) describes her “most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness.” She would be “rocking” at the heart of the natural world, “in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side,…grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy….I wanted all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee” (Wuthering Heights, Norton Critical Edition, 198-99).

William_WordsworthWilliam Wordsworth

Such passages explain Dickinson’s reverence of “gigantic Emily Brontë” (Letters, 721), one of whose poems (“Last Lines,” also known as “No Coward Soul Was Mine”), a favorite of Emily Dickinson, was appropriately read at her funeral service. Wonderful as it is, Brontë’s description of a naturalized “heaven” or “paradise”—a world in motion, in which the speaker actively and joyfully engages in her surroundings—is both Keatsian and Wordsworthian. The final gathering (waves, breeze, woods, water, the whole world awake and joyous), especially Cathy’s wanting “all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee,” unmistakably recalls Wordsworth’s (and Dorothy’s) “host of golden daffodils,/ Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Those flowers, which outdo “the sparkling waves in glee,” comprise “a jocund company” in whose presence a “poet could not but be gay,” a joy recalled whenever “They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/ And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.” (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”)

Wordsworth_Excursion

Wordsworth’s head-“tossing” flowers are personified in a delicately pagan manner, their “sprightly dance” allying them with sprights or sprites: elfin supernatural beings. That disciple of Wordsworth and mentor to Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was also attuned to the sort of earthly paradise that appealed to both Emilys. He began his famous or infamous 1838 Address to the Harvard Divinity School by fusing the “gladsome pagans” in what was his as well as Keats’s favorite Book of Wordsworth’s epic poem, The Excursion (those pagans who “looked” and “were humbly thankful for the good/ Which the warm sun solicited, and earth/ Bestowed” [4:932-38]), with the “pagan” of “The World is Too Much With Us.” Quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, Emerson shocked his pious audience from the outset by declaring that he, too, would rather be “A pagan suckled in a creed outworn” than a Christian impoverished by being cut off from a vital, fecund nature sacrificed to both an austere religion and a crass materialism of “getting and spending.” Accordingly, he began the Divinity School Address with his own deeply responsive evocation of nature’s vital, sparkling, floral beauty. In “this refulgent summer,” it has been “a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold” (Essays and Lectures, 75). Those meadows were alive with flowers aglow with the light of Wordsworth’s “golden daffodils,” and sharing the pagan vitality of their “sprightly dance.” Emerson, like early Wordsworth, would have concurred with Emily Dickinson’s speculation in the letter to Elizabeth Holland: Had God “seen the things that I have seen” this summer, he would—Dickinson boldly or blasphemously surmised—“think His Paradise superfluous.”

It seems a shame that Emily Dickinson, who knew and admired Emerson’s essays, stayed in her room when, in 1872, the great man, after a lecture at Amherst College, visited her brother and sister-in-law, living just next-door. With his acute eye, Emerson would surely have recognized genius, just as he did when he first laid eyes on Whitman’s then-unpublished poetry. There are many passages in which Emerson, a peculiarly grounded Transcendentalist, evokes an earthly paradise. In his essay on Swedenborg in Representative Men, Emerson claimed that the only thing “certain” about a possible heaven was that it must “tally with what was best in nature.” It “must not be inferior in tone…agreeing with flowers, with tides, and the rising and setting of autumnal stars.” “Melodious poets” will be inspired “when once the penetrating key-note of nature and spirit is sounded,—the earth-beat, sea-beat, heart-beat, which makes the tune to which the sun rolls, and the globule of blood, and the sap of trees.” (Essays and Lectures, 686-87)

iemersr001p1Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like Keats’s “a finer tone”—descriptive both of the unheard music in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and of the repetition of earthly happiness “here after”—Emerson’s “not…inferior in tone,” and stress on key-note, melodiousness, and tune, echoes a text familiar to both Keats and Emerson: Wordsworth’s Excursion, and the Solitary’s reference in Book 2 to “Music in a finer tone” (2:710). Even later Wordsworth, tamed-down and religiously orthodox, never ceased to be a lover “of all that we behold/ From this green earth” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 104-5), a poet who found his “Paradise, and groves/ Elysian”—provided the human intellect was “wedded to this goodly universe/ In love and holy passion”—to be a “simple produce of the common day” (“Prospectus” to The Recluse,” lines 43-55). Even in revising from a more conservative perspective his account of his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, Wordsworth never recanted the desire initially expressed, to exercise his skill, “Not in Utopia” or some other ideal place, “Heaven knows where!/ But in the very world, which is the world/ Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,/ We find our happiness, or not at all!” (The Prelude [1850 version]), 11:140-44).

“Oh Matchless Earth,” Emily Dickinson exclaimed in a one-sentence letter, “We underrate the chance to dwell in Thee” (Letters, 478). She was borrowing from the “Prologue” to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell. Having sailed into the heavens in his little boat in the shape of a crescent moon, and having described the constellations and planets, the speaker asks rhetorically, “What are they to that tiny grain,/ That little Earth of ours?” And so he descends: “Then back to Earth, the dear green Earth…See! There she is, the matchless Earth!” (Peter Bell, lines 49-56). Dickinson herself might be “glad” that others believed they were, in the opening exclamation of her early poem, “Going to Heaven!” But, for herself,

I’m glad I don’t believe it
For it would stop my breath—
And I’d like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth! (79)

There is yet another parallel to Emily Dickinson’s thought that “Nature is Heaven,” or that Heaven would be superfluous, if only our earthly Paradise were free of frost and death. In a passage familiar to Wordsworth, Keats, Emerson, and Dickinson, Milton’s archangel Raphael offers a speculative analogy. Explaining to Adam the mysteries of celestial warfare by likening spiritual to corporeal forms, he adds: “Though what if Earth/ Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein/ Each to the other like, more than on earth is thought?” (Paradise Lost 5:573-76). Emily Dickinson echoed and altered this passage in an 1852 letter to “Dear Susie” (her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert). Reversing Raphael’s “therein,” Dickinson locates love “Herein,” and concludes by taking literally the angel’s rhetorical but intriguing question: “But that was Heaven—this is but Earth, Earth so like to heaven that I would hesitate should the true one call away.” (Letters, 195; italics in original). Milton himself may have been open to the idea of Heaven as a projection of earthly happiness complete with a terrestrial landscape. In his fusion of the Classical and Christian in “Lycidas,” the pastoral elegist leaves us free to imagine the risen man as either “saint” in Heaven or as the “genius of the shore,” drowned, but now, through the power “of him that walked the waves,” mounted to a place “Where other groves and other streams along,/ With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves” (lines 172-75).

In a jocoserious, life-affirming poem looking back to Romantic and Emersonian “nature worship” and ahead to the earth-centered female persona of Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning,” Dickinson rejects religious ritual, a formal “church,” and an other-worldly Heaven in favor of an earthly paradise, a God immanent rather than transcendent, and salvation as a daily process rather than a static end-state:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard for a Dome—

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of rolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton—sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along. (324)

In an 1863 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in which she describes herself as “not reared to prayer,” Dickinson pronounces “the ‘Supernatural’…only the Natural, disclosed” (Letters, 423-24). In a poem written that year or the year before (Johnson dates it 1862, Franklin 1863), dawn and noon seem symbols of what she calls “Heaven.” The skepticism implicit in the setting of “Heaven” in quotation marks is confirmed in the final two stanzas:

The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call “Paradise”—

Itself be fairer—we suppose—
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace—
Not yet, our eyes can see— (575)

In two letters of 1873, Dickinson subverts Paul’s text (“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”) about the dead being raised and changed as a consequence of Christ’s Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52-53). In the first letter (April 1873), she pronounces the novelist George Eliot (whom she knew to be a woman, Marian Evans) a “mortal” who “has already put on immortality,” adding that “the mysteries of human nature surpass the ‘mysteries of redemption,’ for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite” (Letters, 506). Later that year, in a letter to Elizabeth Holland, Emily notes that her sister Lavinia, just back from a visit to the Hollands, had said her hosts “dwell in paradise.” Emily declares: “I have never believed the latter to be a supernatural site”; instead, “Eden, always eligible,” is present in the intimacy of “Meadows” and the noonday “Sun.” If, as Blake said, “Everything that lives is holy,” it is a this-worldly truth of which believers like her sister and father are cheated: “While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that ‘this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption’—it has already done so and they go defrauded” (Letters, 508). In a notably legalistic affirmation of earth, included in an 1877 letter to a lawyer, her increasingly skeptical brother Austin, she goes even further:

The Fact that Earth is Heaven—
Whether Heaven is Heaven or not
If not an Affidavit
Of that specific Spot
Not only must confirm us
That it is not for us
But that it would affront us
To dwell in such a place— (1408)

Wallace Stevens, who, in “Sunday Morning,” imagines his female persona asking if she shall not “find in comforts of the sun,” in any “balm or beauty of the earth/ Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?” insists elsewhere that “poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns” (“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” section 5); that we must live in “a physical world,” the very air “swarming” with the “metaphysical changes that occur,/ Merely in living as and where we live” (“Esthetique du Mal,” section 15). Stevens seems to be recalling Wordsworth’s “Prospectus” and Emerson’s seminal book Nature, along with that ardent disciple of Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche. He might as well have been thinking of Emily Dickinson, and her audacious, even blasphemous preference for the tangible things of this earth, to be cherished above thoughts of an otherworldly Heaven, an abstract place offensive to our nature. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s beseeches us in his Prologue to “remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak…of otherworldly hopes!” She never accepted the Nietzschean premise, the Death of God, but, when she was only fifteen, Emily confided in her friend Abiah Root that the main reason she was “continually putting off becoming a Christian,” despite the “aching void in my heart,” was her inability to conceive of an existence beyond this earth as anything but horrible: “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you?….it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity.” Two years later she tells a friend that, while she regrets that she did not seize a past opportunity to “give up and become a Christian,” she won’t: “it is hard for me to give up the world” (Letters, 27-28, 67). She is not referring to that material “world” of getting and spending that is “too much with us,” but to this “matchless Earth” indistinguishable from, and perhaps preferable to, Heaven.

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The problem, of course, is that this Earth, however “matchless,” is not free of frost and death, so often almost indistinguishable in Dickinson. The invasive force in her Earthly Paradise was less the worm than the frost. The link between the fading and freezing-by-frost of her flowers on the one hand, and the death of those she cannot waken on the other, becomes a dominant motif. Her cherishing of a Heaven-like Earth is sometimes connected with the pain inflicted from above. In one poem, while noting the “firmest proof” of “Heaven above,” she significantly adds that, “Except for its marauding Hand/ It had been heaven below” (1205; my italics). In another letter to Elizabeth Holland and her husband, Heaven’s “marauding Hand” seems both a grim Reaper and a cruel Leveler. Writing during a period (autumn, 1858) when an epidemic of typhoid fever had struck Amherst, she cries out, not in concluding but in opening the letter: “Good-night! I can’t stay any longer in a world of death. Austin [her brother] is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week—our man, Dick, lost a little girl through scarlet fever….Ah! Democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden,—then deep to his bosom calling the serf’s child” (Letters, 341).

virginia-woolfVirginia Woolf

This letter has become controversial. The admittedly jarring reference to the “serf’s child,” both “politically” and historically incorrect, has been described as insensitive, shocking, an indication of casual snobbishness at best and class-conscious callousness at worst, compounded by (in the phrase of Albert Habegger) her “equating ‘the serf’s child’ with her frost-killed flowers” (My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson [2001], 363). We may be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who imagines people saying of her, “she cared much more for her roses than for” such human but distant “victims of cruelty and injustice” as those who perished in the Armenian genocide (Mrs. Dalloway [Norton Critical Edition], 88). But the best response to the attack on Dickinson’s “callousness” in this letter seems to me that of Judith Farr. After acknowledging the “insensitivity it projects,” she reminds us that “Austin’s [serious] illness and the coming of winter are also equated” in the letter. She then makes her central point, one I would emphasize as well:

To begin with, it is simply the case that Emily Dickinson loved flowers quite as much and as if they were human; her implicit comparison was…not intended to diminish the “little girl,” as she is rather tenderly called….With the cadences of Ecclesiastes and the Elizabethans always vivid in her ear, it was only natural that Dickinson should express the communion and equality of all living forms in death. Indeed, her letter’s zinnia and child commingling in Death’s grasp calls up such lines as Cymbeline’s “Golden Lads, and Girles all must,/ As Chimney-sweepers come to dust.”….Not snobbery, but the power of the aesthetic impulse to which she was subject is chiefly manifested in Dickinson’s much-discussed letter. (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson [2004], 56)

I would add only that Dickinson’s equation, not limited to the influence of Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare, also had Romantic auspices. Between Death’s “grasp” on a proud flower in her royally purple garden and the death of the little child of a servant there is no more gap than we find in “Threnody,” Emerson’s elegy for his little boy, Waldo. Also a victim of scarlet fever, dead at the age of five, that “hyacinthine boy” and “budding man” was never to blossom, though his father prepares for him, in the conclusion of the elegy, an appropriate Heaven: not “adamant… stark and cold,” but a rather Wordsworthian or Keatsian “nest of bending reeds,/ Flowering grass and scented weeds” (“Threnody,” lines 15, 26, 272-75). In a less-discussed but similar letter to Elizabeth Holland, whose child had suffered a crippling injury, Dickinson notes that “to assault so minute a creature seems to me malign, unworthy of Nature—but the frost is no respecter of persons.” In other letters, starting in the 1850s, Dickinson assumes this floral/frost/human analogue, making explicit what is implicit in poems like “Apparently with no surprise,” where “the Frost beheads” the “happy Flower” (1624): namely, her pervasive connection of flowers and frost with human life and death. At times at least, she includes a vision of transcendence for believers, the hope of spiritual resurrection.

Even when “the frost has been severe,” killing off flowers and plants that try in vain “to shield them from the chilly north-east wind,” there can be an imperishable garden. I am quoting from a touching letter of October 1851, anticipating the arrival of Austin. She had “tried to delay the frosts,” detaining the “fading flowers” until he came. But the flowers, like the poor “bewildered” flies trying to warm themselves in the kitchen, “do not understand that there are no summer mornings remaining to them and to me.” But no matter the effect on her flowers and plants of the severe frost brought by the “chilly north-east wind,” she can offer her brother “another” garden impervious to frost. The theme kindles her prose into poetry, minus the line-breaks (in fact, Johnson prints it as a poem, #2). She offers a bright, ever-green garden, “where not a frost has been, in its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum; prithee, my Brother, into my garden come!” (Letters, 149). As Judith Farr remarks, such a garden—which “could never exist, except in metaphor”—is “the garden of herself: her imagination, her love, each of which, she says, will outlast time.” As much as any poem in her canon, this early letter-poem, probably written when Dickinson was twenty-one, “discloses the rapt identification she made between herself, her creativity, and her flowers….‘Here is a brighter garden’ instinctively focuses on the garden of her mind, with its loving thoughts that transcend the ‘frost’ of death.” (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, 56)

A third of a century later, we have a remarkably similar letter in which, at least for her beloved brother, there is an autumnal harbinger of a spiritual as well as a natural spring to come. In this late letter of autumn 1884, the same year she wrote “Apparently with no surprise,” she tells a family friend, Maria Whitney:

…………...Changelessness is Nature’s change. The plants went into camp last night, their tender
armor insufficient for the crafty nights.
……………That is one of the parting acts of the year, and has an emerald pathos—and Austin
hangs bouquets of corn in the piazza’s ceiling, also an omen, for Austin believes.
……………The golden bowl breaks soundlessly, but it will not be whole again till another year.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………(Letters, 848)

Anthropomorphizing (as in the 1851 letter, where the flowers try to “shield them[selves]” from the autumn wind), she presents the “tender armor” of her flowers as inadequate to protect them against the autumnal frost. So, alert to their needs, she brings them indoors, into the “camp” of her conservatory. She ends by quoting the admonition from Ecclesiastes, that we are to remember God before the body disintegrates, before “the silver cord be loosed or the golden bowl be broken” (12:6). But Emily differentiates herself from her brother Austin, a closet skeptic who, for the purposes of this letter, “believes”—has faith, that is, not only in the seasonal rebirth of corn from seeds, but in the spiritual resurrection of the body. His sister, adhering to a seasonal form of natural supernaturalism, confines her hope to a natural spring; her “golden bowl” will “not be whole again till another year.”

Two of Emily Dickinson’s most beautiful, and most Keatsian, poems, mark her major seasonal transition, from summer to autumn. In “As imperceptibly as Grief,” summer has “lapsed away,” a beloved season that can’t quite be accused of “Perfidy” since she was always a “Guest, that would be gone.” The poem ends with summer, like Keats’s nightingale, having “made her light escape/ Into the Beautiful,” a Platonic realm beyond us, leaving behind only the memory, which is to be cherished here on earth (1540). In “Further in Summer than the Birds,” which has been described, by Charles R. Anderson, as “her finest poem on the theme of the year going down to death and the relation of this to a belief in immortality” (Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway to Surprise [1966],169), Dickinson employs liturgical language to commemorate, as in Keats’s “To Autumn,” the insects’ dirge for the dying year. “Pathetic from the Grass,” that “minor Nation celebrates/ Its unobtrusive Mass,” their barely noticeable requiem nevertheless “Enlarging Loneliness.” The music of the crickets, coming later in the summer than the song of birds, is a “spectral Canticle.” Their hymn typifies—in the transition from summer to autumn, with “August burning low”—the winter sleep to come, a “Repose” perhaps implying eternal rest on another level.

In the final stanza, Christian and Hebraic vocabulary yields to pagan. At this moment of seasonal transition, there is, “as yet,” no “Furrow on the Glow” of sunlit, burning August, “Yet a Druidic difference/ Enhances Nature now” (1068). That final religious image, whether we take the Druidic reference as stressing primarily the sacrificial or the animistic element in Celtic nature-worship, powerfully reinforces Dickinson’s own reverence for Nature, its beauty enriched and intensified less, perhaps, by what Anderson calls a “belief in immortality” than—again, as in the ode “To Autumn”—by time’s evanescence and the pathos of mutability, the deeply moving contrast between seasonal return and human transience. That transience extends to all animal life. This poem, written in late 1865 or early 1866, was enclosed in a laconic January 1866 note to her epistolary semi-mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom she had not corresponded for eighteen months. Referring to her beloved dog and constant companion, Emily Dickinson restricted herself to a single statement, and a wry question, less pleading than ironic, perhaps bitter: “Carlo died….Would you instruct me now?” (Letters, 449).

Samuel-BowlesSamuel Bowles

Though of course haunted by the thought of immortality, Dickinson was also dubious. In an 1858 letter to Samuel Bowles, she adopts an ironic, pretension-mocking tone. Distinguishing between nature and “us,” she at once anticipates and deflates modern “species chauvinism,” wondering, tongue-in-cheek, how it is that we mere humans, described by her pastor as a “worm,” should also be the very species singled out for a majestic and special end: a resurrection allegedly obviating any need for mourning, including mourning the death of what would seem to be paradise enough for us: summer with its cherished fields, its bumblebees and birds:

Summer stopped since you were here. Nobody noticed her—that is, no men and women. Doubtless, the fields are rent by petite anguish, and “mourners go about” [Ecclesiastes 12:5] the Woods. But this is not for us. Business enough indeed, our stately Resurrection! A special Courtesy, I judge, from what the Clergy say! To the “natural man,” Bumblebees would seem an improvement, and a spicing of Birds, but far be it from me, to impugn such majestic tastes! Our pastor says we are a “Worm.” How is that reconciled? “Vain, sinful Worm” is possibly of another species. (Letters, 338-39)

By this time, the 1730s’ thunderings of Jonathan Edwards against the moral ills of New England’s sinners in the hands of an angry God had lost some of their resonance, even in Calvinist Amherst. But in his debasement of man as a “worm,” Dickinson’s pastor may (the trope is hardly restricted to Edwards) have been echoing the great Puritan’s description of man as “a vile insect,” a “little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing” (The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners [1634]). Edwards himself—whose “Martial Hand” of “Conscience” Dickinson presents threatening “wincing” sinners with hellfire, the “Phosphorus of God” (1598)—was echoing Bildad, the second of Job’s false comforters. From the outset, he had advised the innocent sufferer to abase himself. In his final discourse (Job 25:2-6), Bildad wonders if it is even possible for man to “be righteous before God.” To this fear-instilling God of “dominion,” even the moon and stars are unclean; “how much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm!” How indeed, as Emily sardonically inquires, is that abject status reconcilable with our potential for “stately resurrection”?

Man’s biblical genesis and Fall seemed to put that glorious end in doubt. Prior to ejecting guilty Adam and Eve from Eden, the “Lord God” tells them, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19). For Hamlet, man is “the paragon of animals.., how like a god,” and yet, to him, “what is this quintessence of dust?” (2.2.305-7); Wordsworth, in the opening book of The Prelude, tries to “reconcile” the contradiction: “Dust as we are, the immortal Spirit grows/ Like harmony in music” (1:340-41). Dickinson can engage this tension in the grand tradition, observing that “Death is a Dialogue between/ The Spirit and the Dust,” with Spirit triumphant, “Just laying off for evidence/ An Overcoat of Clay” (976). But she takes a different tack in a couplet-poem she opens by ironically addressing God as “Heavenly Father”:

“Heavenly Father”—take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband—
Though to trust us—seem to us
More respectful—“We are Dust”—
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity—(1461)

So much for Bildad-like groveling! Like the image of the worm, that of dust reflects the Calvinist estimate of human worthlessness. But here the “worm” turns, with the “sinful” creature finding fault with the Creator. Despite his seeming straightforwardness, God committed a dubious act (an inconsistency emphasized by the alliterated candid and contraband). In fashioning us as he did, he set up, between dust and immortal spirit, not so much a creative tension as a radical contradiction. He thus stands accused of double-dealing, and any “apology” we make to so duplicitous a God will be less an acknowledgement of our own guilt, or a seeking of pardon, than a self-justifying defense—an apologia in the form of j’accuse directed against a divine adversary. That vindictive God himself supplied the right word. “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Exodus 20:5). Dickinson, who, like Mark Twain, cherishes the role of lawyer for the plaintiff when it comes to amassing evidence against God’s supposedly benign providence, has the children of Dust visit the charge of injustice upon an anything-but-paternal Heavenly Father, accusing him—blasphemously, though appropriately, given his supreme power—of “the supreme iniquity.”

Emily Dickinson 2

If this reading is accurate, our apology to God for his “own Duplicity” allies the poem with the most blasphemous of Omar Khayyám’s quatrains addressed to God, at least as adapted by Edward Fitzgerald in a translation the Victorian world accepted with a shock of recognition:

Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
……….For all the sin wherewith the face of Man
Is blackened—Man’s forgiveness give—and take!

The work of such writers as Carlyle, Tennyson and Arnold, and, later, Hardy and Housman, all responding in their different ways to Darwinian and other scientific and rationalist challenges to religious belief (including Biblical Higher Criticism) places an imprimatur on the judgment that Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubáiyát “reads like the latest and freshest expression of the perplexity and of the doubt of the generation to which we ourselves belong.” That acute observation was made, however, not by a British Victorian but by an American—the scholar and man of letters Charles Eliot Norton, writing in 1869, a decade before Dickinson wrote “‘Heavenly Father’—take to thee.” Not only the “doubt,” but the “perplexity” as well, is reflected in Dickinson’s poem, for the syntax of her opening lines suggests petition even more than protest. James McIntosh (Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown [2004]), identifying “humankind” as “the supreme iniquity,” takes these lines to mean: “Father, take humans, who are the supreme iniquity, to thee” (47). Perhaps; but what, then, of the poem’s final lines? My own reading is closer to that of Magdalena Zapedowska, in her 2006 American Transcendentalist Quarterly essay, “Wrestling with Silence.” She argues that, in this poem, Dickinson focuses, not on the Fall as original sin,

but on the subsequent expulsion from Paradise, which she blasphemously construes as the original wrong done to humankind by a God who first offered people happiness, then distrustfully put them to the test, and finally doomed them to suffering. Undermining the dogma of God’s benevolence, Dickinson contemplates the terrifying possibility that the metaphysical order is different from Calvinist teaching and that the human individual is left wholly to him/herself, unable to rely on the hostile Deity against the chaos of the universe. (“Wrestling with Silence,” 385)

At such moments, Emily Dickinson sounds like her considerably more public contemporary, Mark Twain, who made no secret of his religious skepticism, but who nevertheless refrained from publishing his most vitriolic attacks on the Judeo-Christian God, a divinity he described, even before his dark final decade, as both duplicitous and cruel. As the examples of Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain illustrate, for all our immortal longings, we are haunted, and angered, by the death implicit in our originating dust—in the case of both Dickinson and Twain, what Byron called “fiery dust.” And if the “Heavenly Father” who presides over this beautiful but doomed world really is an indifferent and “Approving God” (1624), Emily Dickinson seems to care less for him and for a posthumous, perhaps empty Heaven, than for this Earthly Paradise—the perishable beauty that must die, everything she wishes could “transcend the ‘frost’ of death,” but which she strongly suspects will not.

“Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?” That haunting question was posed by W. B. Yeats in one of his greatest poems, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” He was not suggesting anything so trite as that we love things and then they disappear. He was reminding us that we love beautiful transient things because they are mutable, doomed to vanish. That is precisely why we cherish them so, recognizing, as Wordsworth poignantly acknowledged even in the great Ode in which he claimed intimations of immortality, that “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.” These splendors and glories are part of a “supernaturalism” that is “natural.” That great enemy of otherworldly hopes and cherisher of the earth, Nietzsche, referred in a December 1885 letter to irretrievable beauty. In a floral image that would have appealed to Emily Dickinson, who would die shortly after this letter was written, he spoke of Rosengeruch des Unwiederbringlichen: the faint rose-breath of what can never be brought back.

Of course, with Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson as her precursors, we do not really need Emerson’s disciple Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s disciple Yeats to explain why Emily Dickinson’s Earthly Paradise is not only beautiful but death-haunted. I quote Yeats and Nietzsche (and Emily would, I think, approve) for the poignant beauty of their language in commemorating the pathos of mutability, what Wordsworth—deeply moved by the humblest “flower” that blossoms and blows in the breeze—called, in the final line of the Intimations Ode, “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

— Patrick J. Keane

Author’s Note: Though most Dickinson scholars prefer the three-volume edition of R. W. Franklin (Harvard U.P., 1998), Emily Dickinson’s poems are here cited by number from the one-volume Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Little, Brown, 1957, and often reprinted). Her letters are cited from the three-volume but continuously-paginated The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Harvard University Press, 1958). Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson, are cited from: Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (Yale UP, 1981); The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Harvard UP, 1958); Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (Library of America, 1983).

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PAT kEANE

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

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Dec 052014
 

Shambhavi Roy2Shambhavi Roy

Fiction writers often struggle with various questions related to subplots: How should I structure my subplots? How much space should my subplots consume? What kind of relationship should the subplot bear to the main plot? Should the subplot be congruent or opposed to the main plot? Let’s consider the novels Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler as an entry point into the study of subplots in general and the related techniques of character grouping and gradation.

Aristotle taught that the best plots proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions. John Dufresne is his book The Lie That Tells a Truth tells us that episodes do not necessarily make a plot. He says, “Plot is the writer’s arrangement of events to achieve a desired effect. It is the magnet to which all other narrative elements attach.”

Plot is something, I believe, that can be coaxed into being. John Dufresne says that “a plot begins to form as soon as you ask yourself the appropriate questions: what does my central character want? What is preventing her from getting it? What does she do about the various obstacles in her way? What is the outcome of what she does? What climax does this all lead to? Does she get what she wants in the end? Plot, then, is the element of fiction that shapes the other elements—character, theme, point of view, language, and so on—into a story.”

JDJohn Dufresne

Now let’s turn our attention to subplots, the main topic of this essay. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover says this about subplots: “In its simplest and most direct form the subplot is another plot, involving another set of characters, weaving through the novel.” Subplots can vary in size but every novel must have at least one to achieve the resonating or echoing effect that a novelist tries to achieve by modulating or reduplicating situations and characters, by having several people falling in love or dying or praying in different ways—dissimilar people solving the same problem or similar people confronted with dissimilar problems.

In his essay “Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats says that “the Shakespearean drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of one man and a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.” Yeats seems to imply that if we read the experiences of one man, we may imagine it rooted in his own unique personality or providential in nature or the result of unprecedented or uncommon play of events. But if we notice similar dramas unraveling in several individuals’ lives we may be forced to look beyond the characters and we may end up understanding the thematic issues the authors wants to highlight.

Usually, subplots have graded characters closely related to the main characters. On the topic of graded characters, Glover offers us this: “Graded characters are characters in narrative who share, in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion, thematically crucial experiences in such a way as to create structural parallels” (The Enamoured Knight). A group of friends or schoolmates or army buddies make good subplot characters. “The advantage of the near relations between characters on plot and subplot lines is that they can interact with and observe one another naturally” (The Enamoured Knight). However, we must keep in mind that the different character groups we see in novels often—class, family, working groups—are options we see frequently, but they are not the only possibilities for running subplots.

EK

All right, now let’s turn to Sense and Sensibility to better comprehend what might have led Jane Austen to make use of a plot-subplot structure with graded characters. In this novel, after Henry Dashwood dies, his three daughters and his wife inherit a small and insufficient sum, so the Dashwood girls must marry to find respectability and secure their futures. Although their stepbrother, John Dashwood, promised his dying father he’d take care of his stepmother and sisters, he decides to offer them nothing under the influence of his greedy wife, Fanny. Then, a pleasant unassuming man, Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother, visits Norland and Elinor, the prudent Dashwood girl, gets attached to him. Fanny disapproves of the match and complains to Mrs Dashwood, Elinor’s mother, which results in the hasty departure of Elinor, her sisters and mother from Norland to a small rental cottage they’ve found for themselves in Devonshire. Marianne, the younger sister, full of fine sensibilities—which is a euphemism indicating her excessively emotional and impetuous temperament—disregards Brandon, an older, mellow, reserved man and finds her soul mate in a dashing young man named Willoughby, who, not surprisingly, resembles Marianne. Demonstrative and passionate, Willoughby and Marianne never leave each other’s side, leading to much public speculation about their relationship. Then, all of a sudden, Willoughby leaves. Marianne, a romantic, suffers a “violent oppression of spirits” while waiting for him to return. Soon she learns of Willoughby’s engagement with someone else for monetary reasons and falls sick and nearly loses her life as a result of the heartbreak. Like Marianne, even Brandon is wronged by Willoughby: Willoughby flirted with and impregnated a girl-child, Eliza, under Brandon’s guardianship. Even Elinor faces ill-luck in love—Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy, a girl who suffers from a want of delicacy and integrity of mind. But Elinor does not share the news of Edward’s engagement with her family for a long time and bears hardship with a sense of forbearance. In the end, Elinor turns out to be the fortunate one, although just by chance: Edward’s fiancé, Lucy, breaks her engagement with Edward so he can unite with Elinor; however Marianne must content herself to be with Brandon, although she didn’t care for him before.

Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, anonymously, brought its writer no fame during her lifetime, although it was an instant success. With a recent surge of interest in Jane Austen, the novel is more widely read and proclaimed today than it ever was. Written in third person from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, the novel explores the problem of finding a life partner and whether sense or sensibility leads to a better match.

In this novel the plot and the subplot occupy nearly equal space and are accorded equal consideration, forming parallel plot-subplot structure. Right in the beginning, on page three, Jane Austen sets the stage for parallel plots with graded characters.

Jane_Austen_coloured_versionJane Austen

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to learn. (3)

Note the way Elinor’s character is described in relation to that of her mother and her sister. In the next paragraph, the author offers us this about the younger sister, Marianne.

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. (3)

Throughout the novel, the author uses the words “prudence” in reference to Elinor and “eagerness” and “imprudence” in reference to Marianne and her mother, Mrs Dashwood. Elinor and Marianne—sisters, young, unmarried, constrained by their financial situation, the fact they are women, and the fact they must marry to secure a future for themselves—belong to the same character group, even though they are temperamentally apart. They are both well brought-up girls, who enjoy books and are fond of arts, although Marianne’s fondness for arts is more vehement in nature. Elinor draws and Marianne plays piano. They love their mother and each other. But to illuminate the theme of the novel the author must draw out the differences in the outlook of the two Dashwood girls. So to accentuate their heterogeneity, the sisters form pairs with men who reflect their personalities. Like Elinor, Edward has a quietness of manner and is amiable, warm and affectionate. Willoughby is frank and vivacious and as passionate about music and dancing as Marianne. Not just Elinor but even Edward and Brandon represent sense and the pair, Marianne and Willoughby, sensibility and indiscreetness. Edward and Willoughby mirror the dispositions of the women they are with, though not entirely. Elinor is not as shy as Edward, and Edward doesn’t have the same interest in arts as Elinor. The narrator tells us this about Willoughby and Marianne: “The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or if any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed.” Jane Austen takes time to define the spectrum of her characters’ beliefs and their propensities, and then these graded characters will trudge along parallel plot lines to explore the central theme of the novel: when looking for a life partner, is it better to follow reason or sensibility? Whether sense or sensibility is the winner in the end?

Both sisters fall in love; they are presented with obstacles and find resolutions. The novel unfolds in a pattern. We see some event bear down upon one of the sisters and observe her reaction to the life event and then we see a similar occurrence in the other sister’s life and witness her response and learn what others think of the whole business. “In fiction,” E. K. Brown tells us, “the rhythmic arrangements that move us most are those where repetition is enveloped in variations, but never so enveloped that it appears subordinate.” That is exactly what Jane Austen seems to want to accomplish. Although the arcs of the two parallel plots cover the same points and are a bit repetitive on the surface, they are designed to achieve the opposite effect: highlight differences and illuminate the theme.

Compare Elinor’s gentle anguish, when she discovers Edward is engaged to Lucy, to Marianne’s finding Willoughby with a woman at a party.

Elinor for a few moments remained silent. Her astonishment at what she heard was at first too great for words; but at length forcing herself to speak, and to speak cautiously, she said with a calmness of manner, which tolerably well concealed her surprise and solicitude—‘May I ask if your engagement is of long standing?’ (87)

Here’s Marianne’s comportment in a somewhat similar predicament.

Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.

‘Go to him, Elinor,’ she cried, as soon as she could speak, ‘and force him to come to me. Tell him I must see him again—must speak to him instantly.—I cannot rest—I shall not have a moment’s peace till this is explained—some dreadful misapprehension or other.—Oh go to him this moment.’ (119)

When the sisters are about to leave their childhood home in Norland, Marianne sheds tears, but Elinor finds the decision to move prudent and refuses to dissuade her mother, even though her love-interest is in Norland.

A romantic, Marianne says, “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” “Grandeur has but little,” says Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.” Elinor falls for Edward who is not handsome, and his manners require intimacy to make them pleasing. Marianne, who doesn’t approve of her sister’s beau entirely because Edward has no spirit and is not striking enough, falls in love with Willoughby, a charming personality in everyone’s opinion. Even Mrs. Dashwood commends Marianne’s choice and finds Willoughby faultless, although Elinor can clearly see a problematic propensity, in which Willoughby strongly resembles Marianne, of saying too much what he thought on every occasion, without attention to person or circumstances.

I counted seventeen different occasions when Jane Austen brings out the striking diversity in the conduct of these two sisters. The sisters form two parallel mountain ranges reflecting sound off each other so the echo reverberates in the reader’s mind. The author seems to pitch antithetical ideas because, I believe, human beings do not understand in a vacuum but in relation to one another. In E. K. Brown’s terms, the two sisters “irradiate each other and become clearer by irradiation.” By offering contrasts and similarities the author is according greater depth to these characters and the social milieu, while trying to get at the hidden truth.

In the end, Elinor, although prudent, selfless, calm, hardly fairs better than Marianne, even though Marianne is eager and imprudent. Elinor’s cautiousness is not entirely a helpful trait, given that she cannot discuss her feelings openly and is unsure how Edward feels for her. Ultimately, she unites with Edward only because of happenstance. So, in a way, the author declares “sense” as the winner somewhat grudgingly. We see the same pattern reappear in the cast of characters supporting the two parallel plots: Willoughby, Brandon, and Edward Ferrars. Shy and sensible, Edward loves Elinor but gets engaged to Lucy because of a past commitment. If Lucy didn’t abandon him, he could count on a miserable life ahead of him. Brandon, another calm, rational, caring man, never marries his first love, fails to protect the child, Eliza, under his guardianship, and finally unites with Marianne only after Willoughby deserts Marianne. True, Willoughby finds himself in a frightful place toward the end of the novel, but then, he has abandoned sense and even sensibility for that matter—he has lived a life of extreme indiscretion: rejected Marianne, flirted with and impregnated a young girl, and married solely for monetary reasons. The author has placed Willoughby near the edge of the spectrum of her characters, but with the help of her other characters, she argues for and against her ideas imparting depth to the discourse.

It is clear that the main benefit of having closely related characters and a tightly interwoven plot-subplot structure is to act as the glue holding and unifying the story and bestowing a direction and a sense of purpose. The author shows several characters struggling to find life partners so we get a flavor of the emotion of multitudes. The plots and the subplots point in the same direction so the theme is emphasized and we get a sense of the larger world. How else would we recognize the complexities inherent in identifying a life partner, and the fact that it is so hard for anyone to be right in this matter?

So what other benefits Jane Austen reaps by having parallel plots with graded characters. As I read Sense and Sensibility and considered the topic of graded characters, I also realized that having two sisters driving parallel plots was also serving as a subtle memory rehearsal device by reinforcing and comparing constantly. When Elinor expresses her thoughts on the subject of move from Norland and then Marianne wails over the same issue, the reader knows for sure the family is moving. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the role this repetition plays. The more a bit of information or an idea is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, to be “retained.” People tend to more easily store material on subjects that they already know something about, since the information has more meaning to them and can be mentally connected to related information. So if you want your readers to retain bits from your novel in their long term memories you may want to consider closely related characters and an interlaced plot-subplot structure so these characters can frequently cross each other’s paths and reflect on each other.

In the end, we must recognize that narrating Marianne’s story, along with Elinor’s, doubles the length and makes the novel more interesting. Far more engrossing, Marianne and Willoughby serve as a balance against Elinor and Edward, who are shy, reserved and not so amusing. Does that mean if a protagonist is ill-tempered or morose, we should consider a lively and more engaging character driving a subplot to relieve the strain off a difficult topic? Definitely something we should keep in mind.

Now let’s turn to The Accidental Tourist to see the plot-subplot structure in that novel. After Macon Leary’s twelve-year-old son gets shot and killed, Macon and his wife Sarah separate, because Sarah cannot find any comfort in her husband.

Left alone with just an unruly dog for company, Macon has difficulty sleeping and wishes his wife would return. Then he breaks his leg and is forced to move to his sister Rose’s house where Rose and Macon’s two brothers, Charles and Porter, live. To help train his dog, whose violent tendencies have increased as a result of the move, Macon hires Muriel Pritchett. She is a divorced woman and the mother of a seven-year-old reclusive boy with medical problems from the time of his premature birth. At first Macon refuses to get involved with Muriel, but, ultimately, her eccentricities and her problems draw him out of his shell. He cohabits with her in her house, which is in a slummy neighborhood, and teaches her son math and plumbing techniques, even though he is not in love with her or even entirely comfortable with her, for that matter. Disorganized, unsettling and unpredictable, Muriel has a “nasty temper, a shrewish tongue and a tendency to fall into spells of self-disgust.” Not surprisingly, Macon’s siblings disapprove of the relationship and try to convince him she is not the right woman by reminding him she is much younger and just out there to catch a man so he could provide for her. At this point, Macon’s ex-wife, aware of Macon’s live-in relationship, tries to woo him back. As Macon has never really gotten over Sarah, he cannot help but move back with Sarah; but Muriel, unwilling to give up on Macon, follows him around when he goes on a business trip to Paris. Finally, after an argument with Sarah, Macon realizes that he and Sarah “have used each other up.” He realizes he must embrace his new life with Muriel and leave the memories of his dead son and his ex-wife behind.

SS

Anne Tyler’s tenth novel, written in 1985, The Accidental Tourist was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. With a clear plot-subplot structure, the main story has Macon Leary as its lead character, and the subplot features his sister Rose. The minor subplots are about Macon’s two older brothers, Porter and Charles.

Just as in Sense and Sensibility, the subplots in The Accidental Tourist are driven by close relatives, the sister and brothers of the protagonist. As if the fact that Rose and Macon are siblings isn’t enough to bring them together often, Rose has a relationship with Macon’s boss, Julian, and this gives the author an opportunity to talk about Rose every time Macon meets Julian. Even Macon’s estranged wife, Sarah, is close to Rose and when Macon and Sarah reconcile they discuss Rose’s situation in life. The relationships form a tightly woven pattern so the characters can observe each other and compare and contrast.

Just as the two sisters in Sense and Sensibility are both similar and different, Macon and his sister and his two brothers resemble each other and have traits that establish their distinctness as human beings. All of the Leary children are grammar fanatics, orderly, somewhat socially stunted, and idiosyncratic. They even look alike: “Their hair had an ashy cast and their eyes were a steely gray. They all had that distinct center groove from nose to upper lip. And never in a million years would Alicia [their mother] have worn an expression so guarded and suspicious.”

Rose has her kitchen so alphabetized that she keeps allspice next to ant poison and considers it perfectly normal to live with her brothers. Macon sleeps in a body bag, does not use a dishwasher, and stalks around in circles while showering, sloshing the day’s dirty clothes underfoot. Even though the details differ, the siblings have the same strange quirky feel about them, as if they are different shades of each other. But the siblings wouldn’t become real in our eyes if the author didn’t list their unique characteristics to round them up as human beings.

Books Anne TylerAnne Tyler

So Anne Tyler lets us know that Rose is the only social Leary, who helps out neighbors and old relatives; Porter is the best looking Leary kid, talkative, and able to run finances and plan taxes; Charles, a sweet-faced man who never seems to move; and Macon, even though he shares several character traits with his siblings, is not always comfortable with the idea of abiding with Rose and his brothers. He experiences moments of anxiety when he wonders if has gone any further in life since his childhood days. And he is also the only one who considers the fact that that they might be unconventional. When Julian visits Rose’s home, Macon tells Rose that Julian was there just because “he hopes we’ll do something eccentric.” Macon wishes none of his siblings would say or do anything awkward around Julian.

Unlike her three brothers, Rose wants to experience love. Rose says, “Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love.” But Charles and Porter, after their failed marriages, seem content in Rose’s house with Rose overseeing the housekeeping for them. Even Macon does not seek romantic associations actively, although he can get entangled into them. To a certain extent, Macon and Rose share the desire to be in romantic relationships, and therefore, their lives evolve in a similar fashion, creating a congruent plot-subplot structure. After Rose marries Julian and lives with him for a while, she begins to get disoriented with the newness of her life and moves back with her brothers. Similarly, Macon abides with Muriel for some time and then moves back with his estranged wife. In the end, both Macon and Rose unite with their lovers, although in variant ways—Macon leaves his estranged wife and goes back to Muriel and Julian begins to live with Rose and her brothers. .

Now let’s focus for a minute on the textual space devoted to Macon versus that devoted to Rose. As this novel has a clear plot-subplot structure, Macon enjoys the lion’s share of space. Rose does not appear in the first chapter—there is not even a mention of her. She appears for the first time in the second chapter and then disappears till the end of the fourth. The fifth chapter is dedicated to describing Macon’s siblings, particularly Rose. And from then on, Rose is mentioned in every chapter, even if it is just to let us know that she drove Macon to Julian’s place. In the last chapter, although we don’t get to see Rose, Macon’s ex-wife, Sarah, informs Macon that Julian has moved in with Rose and the brothers. Of the twenty chapters in this book, Rose occupies significant space in just four and the brothers are given much less consideration.

So why have Rose and the brothers? What purpose do they serve? Several, in my opinion. First, with the help of these subplots, the author highlights the theme of the novel—the nature of love and the fact that for successful love relationships one has to reach a point of wisdom or a compromise between the desire for order and chaos. As we see Macon and Rose struggling to understand what they want and where they belong, we get the “emotion of multitudes,” a feeling that even though we are reading a novel with a simple structure and few characters we are in a large and teeming world where everyone is trying to fathom the meaning of love, marriage, and compromise in an ever changing world.

Note how all the Leary kids seem to drift back to their place of origin. After Macon breaks his legs, he moves in with Rose and his brothers and experiences quiet contentment. Macon gets involved with Muriel only because his dog, Edward, is unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings and begins to attack everyone. Even though Macon misses some aspects of his life at Rose’s place, he is lulled by the ease and simplicity of his childhood routines and hardly seems to desire new relationships. Even though he says his lack of interest in sex is a result of his son Ethan’s death, one cannot help notice that he has always shunned newness and unfamiliarity. Even when he was young, it was Sarah who initiated and drove the relationship forward, not Macon. Anne Tyler sheds light on the same appeal for one’s native environment through Rose. Rose, fascinated by the concept of love because she’s never been in a relationship before, falls for Julian and marries hastily, but within a few days of her wedding, she leaves her marital home and comes back to live with her brothers. She unites with Julian only because he sheds his traditional idea of a marital home and moves in with her brothers. Julian says, “She’d worn herself a groove or something in that house of hers, and she couldn’t help swerving back into it.” Even Charles and Porter have the same regard for familiarity as Macon and Rose. And all the Leary children love and deeply care for each other. Rose ministered to the needs of her ailing grandfather and cooks and cleans for her brothers, and they, in turn, care for her in a subtle, heartwarming way. Looking at Macon, Rose, Porter and Charles, readers may begin to wonder if, at some level, we all have the same affinity and weakness for our first homes. We do not know if this is the effect Anne Tyler wanted to achieve but nevertheless with the help of her subplots and graded characters, she underscores the human tendency to value familiarity—the sense of well-being we associate with our childhood home—and the intimacy we share with our siblings and other blood relations.

What other purpose do the subplots serve? What other “emotion of multitudes” does the author hope to evince? Let’s consider the partners the Leary kids are attracted to. Rose, a sober, prim woman, who “folds her hair unobtrusively at the fact of her neck where it wouldn’t be a bother” and wears “spinsterly and concealing” clothes, finds love in Julian, a playboy, living in a Singles apartment. Rose’s brothers try their best to dissuade her from getting involved with Julian but for some reason she cannot resist. Even Porter and Charles were married to women unlike them, who made fun of them. Macon, a man in his forties, obsessively organized, grammar fanatic, has a strange attraction for Muriel, a talkative, neurotic, disorganized woman. Every one of Macon’s siblings thinks Macon and Muriel are unsuitable for each other. But when Macon moves back with his ex-wife, he misses Muriel’s eccentricities and her misusages. Even though Macon and his sister and brothers have a fondness for the familiar, they are also enthralled by the unfamiliar, and the same can be said about their spouses. We, the readers of The Accidental Tourist, wonder if most of us “in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion” exist in a confused state, drawn toward and repelled by the familiar.

Accidental Tourist

Now let’s turn our attention to the two married couples in The Accidental Tourist. Even though Macon and Sarah have been together for decades, even though he loves her dearly, the only comfort they seem to accord each other is the comfort of routine. When Muriel tells Macon she wants to marry him, he says, “I don’t think marriage ought to be as common as it is; I really believe it ought to be the exception to the rule; oh, perfect couples could marry, maybe, but who’s a perfect couple?” And then later, thinking about a conversation Macon had with his wife, we learn this: “Thinking back on that conversation now, he [Macon] began to believe that people could, in fact, be used up—could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other and maybe even do harm to each other.”

On the other hand, Macon enjoys the cozy, sloppy presence of Muriel, a woman he does not love. At times he is ashamed of Muriel but still ends up making a home with her. And Rose loses her fascination for marriage soon after she gets married and returns to her childhood home. Although she is attracted to Julian, a traditional wedding and a married life provide no comfort to her. Ultimately, her marriage survives because Julian moves back with her forming an unconventional arrangement. So is there some truth that the author wants to shed light on here? Is it possible to live and find comfort in unorthodox relationships and arrangements outside of marriage with people we do not even love? Is marriage as an institution worthy of the respect we accord to it, given that people and their conditions change so frequently?

After studying these two novels, Sense and Sensibility and The Accidental Tourist, it is clear that their subplot structures are different in key ways. Rose occupies far less space than Marianne, probably because Jane Austen wants to initiate a dialogue with her readers, but Anne Tyler seems to open our minds to a new idea, one that may not have too many takers in the middle class. The key thing to note is the fact that subplots must parallel or reflect the main plot, otherwise the various elements of a novel fly apart and the text lacks rhythm and unity of thought.

—Shambhavi Roy

 

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Shambhavi Roy, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, lives in Saratoga, CA, with her husband and two kids.

Dec 042014
 

139056374STranslator David Need

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When poet and translator David Need began translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry in 2001, it was in part an attempt to get closer to one of his favorite writers, to fashion a “close workshop with someone” of remarkable ability. Rilke’s often-overlooked second-language work presented a convenient inroad for Need, whose proficiency in French at the time exceeded his knowledge of German, the poet’s first language. This practicality proved fortuitous as he began to focus his attention on a discreet series of short “rose poems,” written by Rilke in 1924. Need felt the rose poems constituted a unique arm of Rilke’s oeuvre, one that if considered on its own terms can be found to contain the generous whole of the poet’s vision in miniature. As he continued to translate Rilke, completing work on the rose poems and moving on to the German material, he began to incorporate his ideas on Rilke’s aesthetic into a book that would present a variety of the poet’s German and French pieces along with an essay and commissioned ink drawings, all serving to support a thesis embodied by the heart of collection: the rose series.

Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is first and foremost a set of fine translations. Each two-or-three-stanza poem in the rose series is given its own page opposite the French original, which encourages the reader to proceed slowly and attentively. If one wants to stop there, satisfied with Need’s fresh take on these under-read poems, the book is a worthwhile read, an enlivening encounter with one of modernity’s greatest poets. But a patient reader eventually realizes that Roses, like the flower that inspired Rilke’s meditations, is constantly seeking to open up for us toward a more potent aesthetic revelation. This is because Need has invested the book with a varied and generative infrastructure that forwards a larger argument through a series of dialogues. Most conspicuous in this regard are the 27 sketches by artist Clare Johnson that react to each brief rose poem with an image that engages the text, but does not attempt to “portray” its content in an overtly literal or didactic way. The images, which range from atmospheric depictions of silhouettes on a city street, to rain-streaked windows, to abstract patterns, act out of Johnson’s response to widen the confines of the multi-media dialogue. The sketches echo the poems and in so doing help us to reconstrue their meaning. Another important interlocutor in Roses is Need’s essay, “The Room Next Door: The Impossible Affordance of the Rose.” The essay is a convincing distillation of the translator’s ethos that considers the influence of Aestheticism and figures like Rodin and Cezanne on Rilke’s vision and situates the poet’s artistic response within a millennia-old incantatory tradition in poetry that goes back to the Rgveda, India’s pre-Hindu epic written around 1400 BCE. Need argues that Rilke uses the rose motif to take a firm stand against the reduction of the material to a kind of impenetrable surface, urging us to consider the ways in which nature creates room, or “affordances,” for the various—at times contradictory—facets of our being. The combined effect of the essay, sketches, and poems is one that collaborators across genre and medium strive for: a ringing of distinct yet concordant tonalities that elevate the piece to something more than the sum of its parts.

David Need teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. A specialist in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, he sees confluence in philosophies of religion and art and often speaks of them in overlapping terms. It’s a point of view I found instructive when I was his student at North Carolina State University in 2003. We’ve kept in touch over the years and, upon learning of the publication of Roses, I was eager to set up an interview. He invited me to his home in Durham, North Carolina, where we talked at length about Rilke, translation, and the implications of an existence that might somehow be, in the poet’s words, “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.”

—Dan Holmes

 

Dan Holmes (Holmes): What brought about this turn toward translating in earnest? How is this situated in your creative development?

David Need (Need): There are two parts to that. One is that I think it’s always good for an artist to be working in two modalities. It’s important to think about your medium in a couple of different ways, or to think about a problem in a couple of different ways. I’ve noticed that when I spend time doing a lot of singing, I start to have ideas about writing that are new and fresh. There’s something about the singing that presents a set of problems to me, like problems of rhythm or problems of shape, but it presents them in this other form. Then when I come back to write, the music of the writing is being informed by what I’m doing with the other thing. For me it doesn’t happen just by listening, I have to be involved in some kind of making. Same thing with translating. Translating gives you this really close workshop with a particular writer’s language. When you translate really good writers you’re getting a close workshop with someone whose ambitions or skills in poetry is extraordinary. In translation, you get what’s going on completely, but you have to make some decisions about it. And in some ways those are the same problems you have with respect to your own gestures and skills. When working on my poetry, I can pull out an image and put it down, but I learn something from working with Rilke about how heavily to weight that image. And I learn other things, like, reading him I’ve learned he leaves messy things in his poems sometimes deliberately. He just leaves little thumbprints and you know he’s clearly got an ability to be smoother and it hasn’t happened there. That was an important lesson for me: that I didn’t always have to smooth and that I could mix diction at times if that was the way the poem was emerging.

The other thing is that I think any art is basically translation. Talking now, I’m translating. When I’m teaching I’m constantly translating—that’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in front of a class, I’ve got this body of information I’ve been interpreting, then I’m putting it into forms for the students, and their ability to understand this stuff is related to the reading they’ve done, and what they bring to the class, how old they are, the ideas they already have about spirituality. I have to see those and figure those out and translate to them. Also when I’m working with different religious traditions I’m constantly needing to translate, from talking within a Christian context to talking within a Buddhist context to talking within our context here—it is a lot like translating. “Now I’m in this field. Now I’m in this location. And this is the way you think inside this situation.” I have a sense of the world, or music in the world, and I’m trying to get that vision or image to happen for you. There’s a translation or a telepathy there that happens in the reading. I know as a reader and writer that’s what I’m looking for—to make other people see things that aren’t visible commonly but might be common in our imaginations.

Holmes: I can imagine two approaches to translation: one is to render as clearly and accurately as possible what you’re seeing within the context that you understand the writer wrote it, and one is to draw out the germ of it and further express it.

Need: I’m a really more the first kind of translator. A lot of times when I’m looking at other people’s translations, I’m impatient if I see they’re getting away from the word count, the words that are there in the original. If there is any “thing” that the poem is, I don’t think it’s the ideas, or only the ideas—I think it’s the words. The words are these little material edges that are the latticework of the poem that the reader catches on. Some people that have their own lyric sensibility take a poem and say, “I see the image and I’m going to render that image in my own lyric terms.” I’m not comfortable with that. I think it brings too much of your own reading to the material and doesn’t leave the material open enough in something like its original form.

The people that I’ve translated so far are good for the kind of translation I do. I have a lyric sensibility, so when I’m faced with choosing some words, I go for a quiet music that will work as a poetics for the reader, so it will read lyrically. But the word count and the grammar I’ve almost always just transformed it into an English word count, and grammar and line count, and things like that. Rilke is not a poet where there’s a lot of punning. He tends to use words directly and simply so he’s easier to translate. I can establish a word without worrying about the fifteen meanings the word Rilke chose in German has that a reader might pick up. Celan has been more challenging for me because there’s a lot more play going on and what’s worse, or better, is that Celan is a translator, so the puns aren’t even just in German. He’s constantly making these really wicked puns with English and English phonemes that are buried in German and French. So sometimes I find that I actually leave the third language or fourth language that he’ll use, and I don’t translate it. I’ll run into objections with readers who don’t want to put the time in. But if that person is interested and curious then that little thing—which is like a little smear that Celan has left there because he shifted into the other language—will look like a smear instead of being fixed out of being a smear. There is a way in which that multilingual capacity can grow in a reading and still be connected to the writing that he does.

551-12.jpgRainer Maria Rilke

Holmes: Rilke wrote these poems in French, which was a second language for him. Is that different for you than translating a German Rilke poem?

Need: Not in the end. When I first sat down and did it I didn’t have German yet. I had the sense that the French was a little strange, but I didn’t try to do anything to make the strangeness apparent. I just translated the weight of the language. My approach is the same with German. I’m not as comfortable in German so I have to do more dictionary work and I have to go, “Okay, that’s a dative” and work out what all the grammar is, but my approach isn’t that different. He’s not a completely different person in French.

Holmes: Like Beckett’s French. It feels to me like a second language.

Need: Yeah. And there’s been some great second language writers like Conrad, who are just unbelievable, but there’s a little bit of the haunt of it, that fact that it’s a second language. Or Kerouac. People are starting to focus on that, that he is actually a second language writer.

Holmes: What drew you to the rose poems? Have they been neglected? Are they emblematic of your aesthetic in some way?

Need: I did work with them because they were in French, and they were a discreet set, and because I like flowers and they haven’t been translated that much. So French because back then I didn’t have German and I wanted to work with some Rilke. Roses because it’s a discreet set and kind of simple. And I have a bit of a disposition to the pastoral. So the rose works for me at the level of motif. I’m similar enough for finding floral or seasonal things as the beginnings for certain kinds of meditations. There was a rapport there.

I translated them back in 2001 and even then I was beginning to develop an argument about Rilke in relation to contemporary poetics. So there is actually an aesthetic argument that I’m using Rilke to make. I think when it comes down to it it’s the idea that post-60’s and 70’s there was this turn to the surface in poetry. To lots of attention to the surface and a distrust of any kind of depth at all… a criticism of depth as always referring to the romantic subject that we were supposed to dispel as good progressives, because somehow the romantic subject was this feudal encrustation that could only create bad things in our relationships with other people. So I already knew that in Rilke I had somebody that I could use to argue for interiority—for the aesthetics of interiority. In the writing itself, right from the first one he says, “Rose you’re this thing that’s infinitely unfolded and absolutely withdrawn at the same time.” That really fit with ideas that I was having at the time about the human situation, that the human is a being who has this exteriority that continues to unfold; there continues to be this play on the surface, but there is also this interiority that never gets completely seen by anyone else or even by the person, or gets completely exhausted. That seemed to be really important in terms of arguing for a place of freedom despite the way people were thinking about language and culture, because so many people felt that we were in this hegemonic era with commercial culture dominating all production and value and I felt: no, that’s not quite true. We’re buying into and shutting off access to something within ourselves that we shouldn’t cut off access to, that actually is freer that we imagine, but also at stake. And what people who want freedom can never quite understand is—and obviously this reflects a kind of commitment but—we don’t have some kind of “drive your car in all directions without ever having to be accountable to anything” kind of freedom. We have life, but we’re in relation to others and we’re always at stake in those relationships.

Rilke just seemed to be another person coming out of modernity—early on in modernity—who seemed to be really caring about the world, and arguing that the lyrical and what we feel as beauty and desire are not to be shut off, or cut apart, or dismantled because of the harm we do each other. We have to work hard to make the choice not to harm each other. And I felt like a lot of peoples’ construction of interiority and the unconscious has been wrong, so I felt that the rose poems were a good small vehicle, a simple study, that were themselves making an argument that was consistent overall with the way Rilke used the trope of the rose in his work. The idea I’m arguing I think is an idea that was Rilke’s, actually rooted in what he was doing with the rose.

cover

Holmes: Do you see the Rose poems as a culmination in miniature of Rilke’s vision? Or an anamoly?

Need: I think it’s a miniature. He finishes the Duino Elegies and writes the Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922 and he spends a lot of the rest of the year finishing a translation from French of Paul Valery. There are two things that are going on: he’s already starting to work on ongoing lyric projects in German. One of the things I translated (for the book) was actually a suite. Most of the poems are from ’23 and ’24 in German and he put it together at the end of his life and gave it to his publisher as something to bring out for the estate. And there are about 80 poems there. He was working in German but I also think he got the idea from working with Valery to do some studies in French. And he had started doing the Valais Quatrains within about a two-week period. They were studies. I think he was a good enough artist to apply himself to a material. But not just any material; it was one of his leitmotifs, something he’d brought up at different times to try and make a certain kind of argument. And that argument is there again in miniature. It’s almost like somebody who had been painting larger scale paintings of roses decided to do a series of line drawings. That’s not because he doesn’t want to do the big project. It’s because he’s decided to do a setting that’s a line drawing setting. So I see this as yet another setting.

A lot of them are what I call—and I think this is important regarding surface and depth—a lot of them are half-sonnets. Not “half,” but what you can call broken sonnets. He wrote often in the Italian sonnet throughout his life, and once he found the Italian sonnet it appears in all the published books. Not all of the Rose poems are broken sonnets, but many of them are just two quatrains, which means for the Italian sonnet he didn’t add the two tercets at the end. But I feel like he was still thinking “sonnet”. He just drew the sonnet that far and then left it blank, so it feels to me like he drew in the visible part of the sonnet and left the turn part not visible. They weren’t casual at all. He was still working and thinking on a project that was related to the ideas he was working on in his life.

Holmes: Rilke describes the rose in #3 as “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” He’s always showing us the rose as paradox, as something interior that is inseparable from its surroundings. He considers the relational nature of “features” and forms in order to glean something of their essence. Can you talk about what you think he’s doing by setting up and undermining these dualities?

Need: Thinking in terms of antimonies is characteristic of human thought. Certainly in Europe post-Hegel, thinking in terms of antithesis tended to be a mode of thought that people thought was a real structure. Any kind of opposition you found, its resolution would be in this dialectical process. That’s how you worked with problems like the tension between mind and body, or spirit and body, or life and death—any thing that you could think of in those terms. I think lyric poetry in general, and post-Romantic poetry, was trying to argue for a different status. To actually argue for “both/and” rather than a conflict. Even though Hegel’s model—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—moves towards a “both/and,” the synthesis actually erases the difference. I think Rilke was really interested in the fact that another way of thinking would say that impossibly we were “both/and.” So his problem is how to get us to break the Hegelian way of reading, or to recognize that there’s another way to resolve that kind of antithesis.

Hegel’s model is a very combative model. It’s a model of unresolvable antagonisms. It can’t imagine the resolution. Rilke is trying to say “I want to have a relationship to the world that doesn’t erase it. I want to have a relationship to other people where I’m not taking away the space or being taken over. I want to somehow be in a situation where impossibly this difference can exist, together.” So I think he’s presenting us over and over again with a problem, but also trying to get us through contradictions to consider impossible things, such as the possibility of being “infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” We’re encouraged to think of both of those at the same time. And we could be like that. We are fundamentally limited by being incarnate at the same time we have openness in us. It’s not that one or the other wins, but that we’re impossibly both of those things.

Holmes: Had he read into Eastern religions at all? That cutting away of dichotomies is an insight that I associate with that kind of thinking and it’s interesting if he had that insight on his own. Had he read any of that?

Need: No. The stuff he writes about the Buddha is not…it doesn’t look to me like he read the material about Buddhism. I take Buddhism as arguing for both/and but a lot of people take Buddhism as arguing for just one. Just this. I think Buddhism is saying that impossibly there is both form and emptiness at the same time. And that it isn’t possible to work it out, but you can bear or realize that, impossibly, appearing forms are what they are without any grounding and it doesn’t hurt.

pic1Illustration by Clare Johnson

Holmes: These poems feel linked to me, almost like a single poem of many stanzas. Some of the most gratifying reading I had was when I would read it for a long time and feel the perspective shift just enough; it starts to mount and become a larger aesthetic experience.

Need: He’s a suite poet. He composes suites. All of his books are set up—this one feels musical to me—but other ones are set up as picture galleries, where you’re supposed to walk through and see this image and then that image and then that image. Each poem has a setting in relation to the other ones. He thought a lot about that. And it is really gratifying. There is an intelligence about theme and variation that I’ve been moved by in my own life. I can’t imagine trying to write any longer except in that way. He recognizes that any poem is a version, and therefore what links the poems is the project of starting out. The series of poems don’t have to be about a particular argument. They’re essays, and they can be linked essays by which you don’t just tell people there is a series of infinitely repeating moves. The one freedom we have is that when we’re crossing the street, and we’re doing the street-crossing routine, we can shape through “crossing the street” in different kinds of ways. In the same way, when you’re working with “the motif” you can show an interesting aesthetic freedom by showing there are a number of different aesthetically valid ways through this space. Like when you go through a well-hung show at a museum, you feel instructed by it. It’s an experience that has informed you beyond what any one poem could do.

Holmes: There seems to be a larger ontological inquiry happening here, something beyond the Rilke poems (or perhaps a continuance of their gesture) that is uniquely yours. Are you conscious of employing the poems, the drawings and the essays toward the end of a personal aesthetic statement?

Need: Yes. I think it would be hard not to. I’m pursuing a line and Rilke is a co-conspirator. I don’t feel I’m being unfaithful to him. It is part of a larger aesthetic related to looking for beauty or care, and an argument about beauty and care in the face of other arguments about freedom or power that other people have.

Holmes: And if you just read the poems themselves, that’s one thing, but if you read the whole book there is a kind of collaboration. You mention in “The Room Next Door” that Rilke thought of the poems as sketches or “brief drawings.” Did this provide the impetus to commission the sketches? How did your collaboration with Clare Johnson come about?

Need: Right from the beginning the poems seemed like little line drawings—very careful line drawings that I saw right from the beginning. I wanted to bring that plastic quality out by having a series of images commissioned. I wanted someone who would create a set of images that weren’t illustrations of the poems; I wanted them to have their own integrity as a suite and yet somehow have a relationship to the poems, and Clare got that. She thought it was an interesting project and wanted to try her hand to it. I was grateful and Clare’s been doing other kinds of projects in this post-it note series, working in a small space, and also doing black and whites on a larger field.

When you work with somebody you’re looking for a kind of intelligence. You could, I guess, be looking for someone that had precisely your sensibility of the beautiful. I had a sense of Clare’s commitment and her effort. She had serious standards about beauty; she has graphic problems that she’s working on. The actual images might or might not be the first thing that would come out of my mind, but when you’re working collaboratively, what’s more important is that there has to be a common agreement about that workshop practice side of it. That the person is actually thinking about the work, and has a project going on in which they are thinking again and again about certain kinds of problems. She seemed to connect with the project.

One thing to add to that is that Rilke was planning to bring out another one of his French suites that would have drawings that were commissioned in exactly that kind of “Not an illustration, but alongside.” His partner who was an artist was going to do that. So I felt like this wasn’t far from what Rilke was thinking at that time anyway.

Holmes: The multimedia approach feels apt here, because the poems themselves are dialogical. One way to look at this book is as a framing of dialogues: of the rose with its surroundings, of Rilke with the rose, of you with Rilke, of Clare with Rilke, and of you with Clare. Even the way the print interacts with white space. To what extent was it a conscious structural decision to embed a series of dialogues within the book?

Need: One of my fundamental principles—and I don’t know if it’s one of Rilke’s fundamental principles, but I think we might agree—starts from this idea of “impossible doubledness.” One correlate of that for me has been the idea that things acquire resonance and open up for the reader in ways that are hard for us to talk about, like a dream that we have that somehow has an affordance for us. So I have some kind of—I don’t know if it’s metaphysics—some sort of desire in general in my work to try to create things that have the possibility of opening up these affordances for others. Right now my guiding thought has been that you do that by establishing dialogue and difference, and what happens because of that isn’t that you just keep bouncing, but that actual resonance happens. And if resonance happens then the imagination can come alive.

It’s deliberate about keeping the difference there, especially in America where there’s so much pressure all the time to make everything common, or to erase difference, or to act as if difference doesn’t exist. And I feel like, “No.” We actually deprive ourselves of some of our dignity and some of our real worth by doing that. We don’t actually become common with each other and we lose the ability to talk about our differences. Our whole economy is based on a zero-sum game. So how do you make money that’s not there? How do you make energy that’s not there? What I’m curious about is, if you’re rigorous about doing this, is it possible to create this thing-that-isn’t-there for other people? So that they actually have energy they didn’t have before, because of paying attention to the dialogical structure. I don’t know if that’s for real or not.

Holmes: I think it is. I’ve read multi-genre books before but this one really popped for me and I think it’s because it’s so well thought out and holistic.

Need: And you know that thing when people get together and they want to go a multimedia thing, so they get some musicians and they throw some images on the wall and they do a couple of other things. But nobody is actually thinking about those things as being different, the idea is that they’re just kind of letting them loose in there. I think that’s a dead end. It doesn’t produce what people would hope a multigenre or multimedia thing would do.

It was hard at times. Dave (Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press), Clare, and I have really different ideas at times and I had to make some decisions. For the image weight and the image layout, Clare’s the boss. It just doesn’t matter if I like it. In terms of finally being the person that was paying for it, there was some level at which I got to make decisions like that—some of the decisions were actually not to make decisions, which ended up sometimes being frustrating for me and for the other people too.

Holmes: When you ran into those difficulties, what was your guiding light? Was it always back in the poems or in your larger aesthetic project?

Need: My aesthetic. I keep talking. This is the kind of directorial move that is consistent with the overall project. We did talk about that and just sort of set that out intellectually at the beginning. But when it got down into it, with actual material things…it’s easy to have an idea, but it’s harder when you’re deciding “is the book going to be blue? Red? What’re your color choices?” I’m not very good at those decisions. You could show me a blue one and a beige one and a yellow one and a red one and I’d find ways to like each one. So I’m not great at that. I had to make decisions at times with what that person has generated. But I also felt that was consistent with my overall practice there. If you thought about it as a bandleader, I really did have to let this person bring this kind of music out. I couldn’t get in the way of that because they couldn’t be a part of it unless they could do what they do. I had to go with their notes.

Holmes: That’s the only way to make it strong I think.

Need: I think so. I got that from Miles Davis actually. I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis when I was working out these principles. I was listening to the Columbia session recordings.

Holmes: That’s how he put those great bands together. He was a nurturer of talent, not just the bandleader.

Need: Right. And that’s consistent. My goal is to bring out the possibility of each person’s capacity but in a structured way, not just “here is the thing, now run.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4jdau4XqCo

Holmes: Translation is perhaps often misunderstood in its creative potential. Can you say something about what happens in this dialogue between poet and translator?

Need: When people think about artists, they tend to like the idea of “out of nowhere” creation, but I don’t think that’s how creativity works. I think we’re playing along with the reading that we’re already doing. We’re already reading in the world and we’re reading the options that people are presenting to us, whether it’s music, or reading a lot of books, or looking at paintings. We have seen options. Some people have this idea, kind of a Platonic idea, that the real poem is there somewhere. I might say that the real painting is there in a way that the real poem isn’t ever there. And I feel like maybe the real song isn’t ever there. We have these different ways that we mark the song; we write down music, we make “a” record of the song. But even when we write down music there’s a gap that exists between the piece and the various performances of the piece. Even for the author of the music itself.

If we’re talking about a piece where the author sits down and writes a piece of music out and then plays it, I bet that something happens that’s not recorded in the writing down of the music. And I know as a writer, one of the things that happened for me was, in the beginning, I was more of an oral poet than a written poet; I would write and I would hear it when I wrote, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t having the performance when I was writing. When I would read it out loud, it would come alive, but I was trying to perform again that thing that I was hearing, and sometimes that meant that I would do things that we’re not that reproducible on the page. A page only has a line break. It’s hard to create a word that somehow gets suspended. Type doesn’t give you the ability to create that sense of suspension easily. But suspension can be done in music. You can create these kinds of suspended turns. So I would look at that and see there’s a suspension happening there, but how do I mark that? So from the very beginning I never was bothered by the idea that my translation of the poem wasn’t the real poem, because I’ve always felt that the poem exists in reading anyway, and I’m in a sense creating a translation of some kind, or I’m doing a reading of it that heads toward being a translation. And I have my own sense of music and a sense of the music that I see some echoes of in Rilke’s work but I never try to go beyond, or ambitiously try to get some fine move he made if it didn’t come simply in my own language. I never got hung up on those.

Holmes: Like you were saying with the Celan, “that’s a fourth language, I’m not going to be able to tackle that.”

Need: Right. So I’ll just leave it. Because I want to create a text that does something of what the original text does in some way. Or not the original, but the one that we have. Because they are all how people set them as printed texts. So to some degree I have decided to commit to printed settings.

The other things I’ve felt—and this is probably just my own romantic imagination—I really felt with Rilke that his poetry had interceded in my life; it had given me a possibility that didn’t exist before I read it, when I really read it in grad school. I sat down and it was just “Oh my God, there’s more. And there’s somebody with me.” And I was stunned by the sense of “This is somebody who knows some of the things that I experience that are so hard to talk about to other people.” He’s made a place where we are laughing across the surface of the poem together in the way that people that are chronically sick nevertheless have joy. When I did the translations I felt, “I’m being allowed into the room where I’m getting to sit down with this poet and his intelligence is still present in the poems, even though he’s dead. This isn’t just somebody who’s teaching me how to think, but is somehow making a place for me.” So you can make art that isn’t just an artifact, but actually has energy and can come to life years after you’re dead. The translations are a way of trying to do that, of trying to make settings or versions. It’s not going to work for everybody but there is some of that, “Wow, this medicine really worked for me; I hope it works for you.” It was about the pleasure of being taught by this profoundly caring intelligence whose instincts I wanted to get something from.

Holmes: Was it in part the encounter with that intelligence and the intimacy of it that made you feel the existing translations were not quite adequate?

Need: Sure. The existing French translation, it wasn’t quite…I felt that there was only one and I wanted to try my hand at it. It wasn’t that I wanted to cancel it or erase it, but I felt like I could try my hand at it and not be too influenced by all the other translations and the whole process. It was still simple enough for me to take a swing at it. (Translator A. Poulin) had made some choices that seemed less musical than the French. I thought I might have slightly better instincts at the level of music in some cases. There’s only so far the translation can go. I didn’t struggle to not use words that he used and things like that. I made decisions so that I could feel it was my own, but I didn’t try to force that either.

Since I’ve been translating the German, I’ve been trying to place the German within the larger project of me ventriloquising Rilke. At this point, I feel like I’ve developed a voice that is my voice-language in which Rilke is translated. So when I now turn to things like A Sonnet to Orpheus, or things that have been translated a lot, what I’m doing is my Sonnets to Orpheus based on the voice and practice that I’ve already established. I’m hoping that the passion I feel in the voice produces a poem that has more of that passion in English.

I really want to see if I can bring out these two unpublished German sequences that Rilke put down (before Orpheus). They haven’t been worked over that much, so they’re like Rilke exhibits that people haven’t been taken through yet. I remember a couple of years ago I was thinking, “God I wish there was just one more thing by Rilke that I’ve never read.” Then somebody brought something out that I hadn’t read and that was exciting. But I can’t be the only person who’s read Rilke enough that it would be cool to see one more film by him.

rilke baby

Holmes: Can you tell me about your work translating the Rgveda and how that informed this work?

Need: I learned translation working on the Rgveda and Buddhist texts, and early Sanskrit material. There is some connectivity there. It was one body of literature that I worked closely with, that I thought was actually still relevant, looking at the way poetry and art are working now. I don’t think our relationship to the world or language is in certain important ways that different. It’s not clear to me that we’ve solved the problem they were working on. A lot of that has to with the imagination, with understanding the relationship of the imagination to the world. I think that we have this radical capacity to amplify the world for ourselves through weaving our imagination into physical forms and the kind of amplification that occurs through doing that—I think human beings have been using and then refining a whole range of media for staging their imaginations and that it’s always been important.

Holmes: Like what you said earlier about the reaction toward poetry that is more surface… Rilke seems to be unapologetic about what he thinks poetry can do, and there’s that link to the Rgveda, or other religious scriptures, where there’s a willingness to go further with it.

Need: Yeah. I know some people feel that they can’t go there but I don’t know what else we can do. We have not solved it by just becoming secular creatures or by killing the romantic subject in ourselves. We’re just as hostage to the violence that we do each other. I think that in doing that we rob ourselves of a great deal of possibilities that we might bring to bear in our relation to each other.

I think World War II and everything since then indicated that we do tremendous violence to each other and certainly one response to that would be to want to have a huge revolution to change that, or to become deeply suspicious of any desire that you have. You can almost see that as a coherent trauma reaction if you were dealing with things on a smaller scale. But I think we would get a lot more if we really understood that it’s not just what we’ve done but that we continue to be at stake in our relationships now. And we still desperately need to finds ways to nurture, to create affordances for each other, to create impossible economy and space for each other. And we can’t do that just through strict rational means. The 20th century has pretty much proven that just getting grain someplace is not what makes culture happen or nurtures people. Not that art necessarily does it, but at least art is making the argument that it should be our goal.

—David Need & Dan Holmes

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David Need is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.

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DanHolmes

Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Numéro Cinq, Paste, and Digital Americana.

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Dec 032014
 

551-12.jpg

The following selections from David Need’s Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke provide an illuminating glimpse into the ways Rilke uses the rose as motif. The poems seek to elucidate how time’s ceaseless transformations do not rectify or allay the contradictions they invoke. The living rose is “fully awake” but discreet, possessing “many pages / of detailed happiness / we will never read.” Rilke is fascinated by these irreducible relationships: the flower’s vitality belies its eventual death; its blooming won’t diminish the impenetrable density of its petals. Clare Johnson’s attending illustrations reinforce Rilke’s assertion that the rose of these poems is “a supple spoken word / framed by the text of things” and that this “framing” constitutes a relationship binding our transitory hopes to “the tender moments / in the continual departure.”

—Dan Holmes

cover

Roses
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by David Need
Illustrations by Clare Johnson
Horse & Buggy Press, 2014
224 pages, $27.34

 

I

Si ta fraîcheur parfois nous étonne tant,
heureuse rose,
c’est qu’en toi-même, en dedans,
pétale contre pétale, tu te reposes.
 
Ensemble tout éveillé, dont le milieu
dort, pendant qu’innombrables se touchent
les tendresses de ce coeur silencieux
qui aboutissent à l’extrême bouche.

 

I

If your blooming sometimes so astonishes us,
happy rose,
it’s that, petal against petal, you rest
within yourself, inside.

Fully awake, your petals, whose surroundings
sleep, though numberless, meet
this silent heart’s tendernesses
which end in these urgent lips.

Untitled1

II

Je te vois, rose, livre entrebaîllé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu’on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,
 
qui s’ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés…,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d’avoir eu les mêmes idées.

 

II

I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,

which is opened by the wind and can be read,
eyes shut …
from which butterflies scatter, confused
to have had the same ideas.

Untitled2

VI

Une rose seule, c’est toutes les rose
et celle-ci: l’irremplaçable,
le parfait, le souple vocable
encadré par le texte des choses.
 
Comment jamais dire sans elle
ce que furent nos espérances,
et les tendres intermittences
dans la partance continuelle.

 

VI

A single rose, it’s every rose
and this one—the irreplaceable one,
the perfect one—a supple spoken word
framed by the text of things.

How could we ever speak without her
of what our hopes were,
and of the tender moments
in the continual departure.

Untitled3

XIV

Été: être pour quelques jours
le contemporain des roses;
respirer ce qui flotte autour
de leurs âmes écloses.
 
Faire de chacune qui se meurt
une confidente,
et survivre à cette soeur
en d’autres roses absente.

 

XIV

Summer: to be for a few days
the contemporary of roses;
to breath what drifts about
their blooming spirits.

To make of each who dies,
a confidant,
and to outlive this sister
among the other, wandering roses.

pic1

XVIII

Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t’arrive, nous l’ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lire toutes tes pages.
 
Il y en d’entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j’aime les roses épistolaires.

 

XVIII

All that we feel, you share,
yet we ignore what happens to you.
There would have to be a hundred butterflies
to read all your pages.

There are ones among you like dictionaries;
those who gather these
are tempted to bind all the pages.
Me? I like the roses which are letters.

Untitled4

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David Need (translator) is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.

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Dec 022014
 

ZinkPhoto by Fred Filkorn

 It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf… — Benjamin Woodard

Wallcreeper

The Wallcreeper
Nell Zink
Dorothy, a publishing project
200 pages ($16.00)
ISBN 978-0-9897607-1-3

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With The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink has crafted a novel that’s truly difficult to summarize, for while one could say the book is a lampoon of modern relationships, or an elongated joke about eco-terrorism, or a satire concerning birdwatchers and American expats stumbling through life in Europe, each of these interpretations fails to capture the pure insanity that rockets through the narrative’s gnarled veins. Instead, the novel begs for a more naked description, one finding focus not in recapped transgressions, necessarily, but in simple adjectives: sexy, funny, strange, and clever. It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf, that demands close reading to decipher subtle verbal jabs, yet one that also remains mysterious in its rambling success, that covers so much ground with so few words that the reader is provoked to ask, “How does such a crazed book work so well?”

At the heart of the novel rest Tiffany and Stephen, young newlyweds who move from Philadelphia to Switzerland after Stephen lands a job in research and development for a shadowy company based in Berne. Their story opens with a marvelously loaded sentence: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Immediately, Zink tags the reader with an immense amount of physical, spatial information—travel, pregnancy—as well as four turns in action (“looking” “swerved” “hit” “occasioned”). In a more conventional narrative, such a line would function as a springboard for a sad novel circling the loss of an unborn child, yet Zink employs this sentence for two reasons: to set the rhythm of what’s to come, and to use the trauma to simply replace the unborn child with a wallcreeper bird, the actual cause of the accident (“I thought it was dead,” Stephen claims. “I just wanted to get it off the road.”), who the couple—birdwatchers, naturally—take home and begin to nurture. The miscarriage does linger for a few pages, particularly in a sequence where Stephen tries to entice an uninterested Tiffany to have sex standing up in the kitchen, yet the couple’s lives continue forward with the same sharp efficiency of the novel’s compact opening line. Thus, it isn’t long until Tiffany strikes up an affair with a local named Elvis, the wallcreeper grows large and is released into the wild (where it meets a swift, entertaining demise), and Stephen takes an interest in a politically charged upstart committed to halting the expansion of hydroelectric power in the Rhine. The couple moves to Berlin to be closer to the upstart’s action, and as they continue to dabble in extramarital flings, Tiffany—unemployed, living off of Stephen’s income, and attempting to write a screenplay—strays toward more violent methods of invoking environmental change.

To say more about the plot of The Wallcreeper would be a disservice to both it and the reader, for half the pleasure of the novel is seeing just how far Zink will take her characters. It’s this fearlessness that makes the novel so immensely potent. Zink writes without restraint, and the result feels something like a trip through the best kind of haunted house, one where you have no idea what’s around the next bend, where you’re simultaneously laughing and cringing at the rapid fire of ghosts and goblins crossing your path. She is a master at crafting exchanges both blunt and hilarious. Take this initial scene between Tiffany and Stephen:

“Tiffany,” he said. “That means divine revelation. From theophany.”

“It means a lampshade,” I said. “It’s a way to get around the problem of putting your light under a bushel. The light and the bushel are one.”

He didn’t back away. It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck.

In just two lines of dialogue, Zink tells the reader exactly who these two characters are: the idealist and the realist; the thoughtful and the sarcastic; the astute and the naïve. This truncated conversation not only allows Zink to skip generic paragraphs of character description, but it helps to reinforce the zippy groove pace of the novel. Add to this the sequence’s final punch line—“We will definitely fuck”—and the future indiscretions of Stephen and Tiffany seem inevitable: can one truly be surprised of their flexible fidelity when sex seems imminent from such a strangely banal chat?

Zink has tremendous fun with such punch lines. Before relocating to Berlin, for example, Tiffany describes the residents there (“No one was sleek or fluffy in Berlin, not even me. In four weeks I didn’t see a single good-looking person on the street.”), only to follow up her distaste with the admission, “Accordingly, Stephen insisted we move there.” Yet while such direct guffaws are satisfying, The Wallcreeper also succeeds when looked at as a whole, for Zink binds the eccentricities of her characters with an admirable, satirical commentary on modern life. There’s a “disposable generation” quality to Tiffany and Stephen. These two hold very little close, be it apartments, lost hopes, careers, or lovers, and so it is brilliant when such a pair, so willing to toss emotional and material possessions aside, decides to change the world through environmental activism. There’s a wonderful paradox at play here, one the characters never quite realize, and it speaks to the way so many of us try to erase years of futility with a single act of generosity.

In addition, Zink pokes fun at the concept of female dependency throughout the novel. Tiffany, in need of male companionship to support her financially, willingly shuffles around Europe with her husband. Her motivation also comes from the men surrounding her, and her engagements reflect their interests. She is our narrator, yes, but even while seeing the world through her eyes, it becomes obvious that she is also a character in serious need of a jolt of independence, and Zink relishes in this awareness, commenting nimbly on Tiffany’s false sense of freedom and prodding young women to, perhaps, reconsider their own forged paths, to avoid the trap of a legacy defined by the men that enclose them. Moreover, this jab speaks to the way in which The Wallcreeper has been received by the critical mass. As is often the case when reviewing a novel from a relative unknown, one tends to compare the work to that of a celebrated contemporary, and with Zink, that contemporary quite often has been Don DeLillo (his name even comes up on the back cover blurb from Keith Gessen). While such comparisons are certainly understandable, writing wise, they also reinforce the patriarchal stereotype Zink clearly parodies in her novel. With so many wonderful, successful female writers also crafting funny, sexy, strange, clever novels, why choose to hang Zink’s debut over the shoulders of a man?

Questions like this help The Wallcreeper extend its life beyond the page. This is a novel that clicks both instantly and in hindsight. It’s rare to read a book that so fruitfully welds so many elements without flailing, especially from a debut novelist.

— Benjamin Woodard

 

Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon ReviewPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Dec 012014
 

Chaulky-WhiteChaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

The following is an excerpt from SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’—a book that is based/extrapolates on an MFA thesis my brother Kevin White wrote in 1990 entitled ‘SSES” ‘SSES” wherein he recapitulated Joyce’s Ulysses‘ recapitulation of Homer’s Odyssey to a trip he took across Asia in search of our father (who committed suicide a few years before). ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ takes his recapitulation 1 step further, folding in his journals, unpublished stories + artwork he made before himself dying of a drug overdose. ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ is also a literary work that reflexively interrogates the very transcription processes used to produce/copy it, mobilizing reflexive loops between original imagined intent + editorial deterritorialization … a «gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm»—as Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses.

This is episode 1 (the 2nd episode—episode 0 is up on Sleepingfish if are interested in seeing the continuity/more background on the project: http://sleepingfish.net/13/000_SSES.htm).

Chaulky White is the pen name given to our combined effort.

Derek White

SSEY 01-1Click on the individual pages for larger views.

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SSEY 01-7

SSEY 01-8

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Chaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

Nov 302014
 

Adrienne Love author photo

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I am beyond hot for Jeremiah, who’s only 20, half my age, and in a relationship. But the relationship isn’t the problem because Jeremiah’s not in love with his girl—he’s in love with me. And it’s not our ages either, though I could be his mother. The problem is that while I would love to shag Jeremiah silly—God knows I would—I’m in love with my husband, Thomas. Really. It’s these darned herbs I’m taking—Shitavari: Capable of 100 Husbands and Ashwaganda: Strength of a Horse—to get us pregnant.

After all baby makes three and all that crap.

I am a horny mess, what with all this bewitching of my ovaries, and Jeremiah knows I’m hot for him, Good Lord. If that boy presses his cute little checkered pants arse against my apron one more time I’m going to lose my cucumbers.

§

One day, in the kitchen at the restaurant where Jeremiah and I work, I’m snatching meatballs from the hot line, smiling at the cooks, hungry, and hoping I can flirt my way into getting all of us, all the waitresses, fish for dinner instead of fried chicken (because my doctor says fish have enzymes, which are good for womb juices and such), and Jeremiah, cooking, shoots the daggers of his deep blue eyes right into my own, My Lord.

“Oh, I know what you want, Elsie,” he says.

Shifting my hips around, trying to hush the hunger in my groin, I pretend not to hear him.

“Oh, I know you hear me, Elsie,” he says.

I’m trying so hard not to smile, and I won’t look up for anything because I know he’s still throwing those daggers at me.

“Say, Elsie,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“Whatcha doin later?”

“What do you mean?” I shift again, but it’s no use. Twitching all over, I focus harder on my meatball.

“Oh, Elsie, you know what I mean.”

My eyes betray me. They look up at him, dog gonnit. Just as he closes his mouth over the breast of chicken in his hand, searing his tongue. Liquid juices down his nude forearm and streams into the sleeve of his chef’s coat. Eyes watering from the heat, his smile cracks open when he’s finished chewing. His tongue swoops down the back of his hand, still cupping the breast, and he laps up all that moisture. When he laughs it’s so damned sexy. But I melt when tears stream down his face. Sensitive men drive me wild.

Speechless, I back my own arse out of the kitchen fast as I can manage. Head thrown back, palms pressing my pulsing thighs through my apron, I sway through the dining room as if in a dream. Dear god what on Earth am I going to do?

§

The next morning when I pull up to work on my motorcycle, Jeremiah’s puffing away on a cigarette out front. It’s still early, dark as night, and the breakfast crowd won’t be along for a while.

“It’s cold out here Elsie,” he says, hands in his pockets, cigarette puffing between his lips.

“I know. You shouldn’t be smoking.”

He shrugs and looks away, hands still stuck in his pockets like he’s after something. There’s something wrong this morning, I think. Or maybe he’s just tired. For a moment I think we’re safe—that I won’t be tempted by him any longer. He’s just a kid, after all, and I’m, well I’m just not. Something inside me wants to press his head to my breast, but not like that. I want to do it like a mom. I want to take care of him. Rubbing my fingers together and breathing heavy into them, I try to warm up while he smokes.

After his cigarette, he looks up.

I follow him up there, looking where he’s looking, but it just looks like sky to me. Little stars piercing the darkness. He keeps on looking, searching, so I search his face, which is long and sad. “Hey,” I say to him. “You okay today?”

His head still angled up, away from me, hands still in his pockets, fingers wiggling wildly around in there, he’s still searching. Shoulders shrugging, he says nothing. He blinks back tears.

“Hey,” I say to him. “Jeremiah, what’s going on?” I warm my fingers with one more big exhale and then I touch him on the forearm. I wait a few minutes, just like that, and neither of us moves. “Do you want me to go?” I ask him finally.

He shrugs.

“Do you want to be alone?”

His gaze descends back down the ladder of the sky until it finds the earth. In our four years working together I have never known Jeremiah to look at the earth unless he’s bending to pick something up.

“Sweetheart,” I say, stepping in closer. “It’s me, Elsie. Sweetheart, Jeramiah, you can talk to me.”

Maybe I should have stopped right there. Maybe I shouldn’t have pressed him anymore, but I couldn’t help it, seeing him in pain like that.

“Jeramiah, I love you, you know.”

The passion I’d been harboring for him drains from me. I want to protect him. I suppose it’s a different type of passion. One passion replacing the next. Stepping closer, I wrap him up in my arms. If someone drives past, this is what they’ll see: a tall, gangly young man, hands stuffed in his pockets, staring at the earth beneath his gnarled shoes; a middle aged woman, arms wound round his middle, pressing herself into his side, her head on his bicep. It might look like the end of an affair, which it is, sort of.

“Time for work,” he says, and spins round on his heel, preparing to leave me dumbfounded and raw, but I stop him. “Jeremiah,” I plead, “wait.”

“Why?” he asks. “What’s the point? We’ll talk and I’ll tell you I love you, and you’ll go home to your husband, and I’ll still be alone, I’ll still be missing you. Forget it, Elsie. Just leave me alone.”

“Jeremiah,” I begin, but I don’t know what to say. What can I say? Sinking down onto the curb, I hide my face in my fingers. He stays. He waits for me to say something to make it better. “Sweetheart,” I finally manage, “I’m old enough to be your mother, and I love my husband. You don’t love me—”

“I do, Elsie,” he argues, and spits at the earth. He kicks the garbage can with the steel toe of his boot. “You see?” he asks. “I knew you’d say this. I know you love Thomas. But you love me, too.”

“No,” I lie. Because lying to him is the only thing to do.

What can I possibly say to Jeremiah? Yes, I love you, but not in the way you want me to love you? That I’m out of my mind, all jacked up on herbs, a last ditch effort to achieve pregnancy without IVF at my age? That trying to achieve pregnancy might be just a last ditch effort to revive my stale marriage? That all love goes stale eventually, and that you have to find the one you want to work through the staleness with? Is that even true? Does all love, eventually, go stale? Do I still love Thomas? Does he love me? Or are we fooling ourselves? I’m older than Jeremiah, and I’m supposed to be wiser. But I feel like a fool.

After Jeremiah leaves, I cry, head in my hands, until he hollers at me through the open kitchen window, announcing the first table of hungry breakfasters waiting to be served.

§

That night, groggy from an evening nap, and still recovering from my morning outside the restaurant with Jeremiah, I’m nestled into the sofa in my living room, drinking hot buttered rum (something I do when Thomas is gone and I’m feeling lonely) when the door bell rings. The mantel clock, a wedding gift from Thomas’s mother, shows quarter past midnight. The San Francisco skyline twinkles at me through the porch window. Haggard and drunk, I stare out onto Russian Hill. The city is sleeping. I should be sleeping, too. Disoriented, I rub my forehead with the back of my arm and ignore the bell. Perhaps I imagined it? Thomas is on the east coast for super bowl parties with his buddies, and I’m not keen on being left alone at our apartment in the city anyway. Sipping my rum, I begin thinking to myself, All those people out there
The bell rings again.

This time I’m a little startled. “What?” I call from the sofa.

“Elsie, it’s me, Jeramiah.”

“What?”

“It’s me.” Rightfully wondering whether I’ll scold him, ignore him, or permit him to enter my home, he waits a minute. But then, “Jeram—”

“I heard you,” I holler. My mug I place on the coffee table, and I pad on over to the door, bumping my knees on the hearth and my hip on the corner of the hallway wall. I wish for a mirror in our foyer, but we don’t have one, so I can’t notice my hair and all that. I just open the door for him and turn away before he enters. In a moment, he hovers over me as, rum in hand, I resume my nest in the sofa. “There’s hot buttered rum on the stove. Mugs over the sink.”

“Thanks.”

I watch him as he helps himself in the kitchen, sort of guffawing for a moment when I remember in my haze that he’s not even of legal drinking age. Suddenly I feel old.   And very lonely. But as I watch his body at the stove, his long, strong arms stirring the pot of rum as it reheats, there’s an awakening in me, a hunger licking its chops. How long has it been since I craved Thomas like this? I can’t remember the last time we made love because we wanted to. We fuck now and then because we should, because we’re married, because we’re telling ourselves we want to make a baby.

“How did you find me?” I ask.

“I followed you.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think, Elsie?” He enters the living room with two steaming mugs. One he hands to me, “Your old one is probably cold.”

I take the hot mug from him and stare hard into his eyes, bold because I’m drunk. For a moment I’m lost.   “It doesn’t matter,” I lie. “Rum’s rum.”

“Taste them side-by-side,” he says, and his smile erupts. The irony is inescapable. What if I could taste Jeremiah and Thomas side-by-side? Who would I choose?

I sip from both mugs. Obviously, the hot one tastes better. The old one, I discard.

Smiling wildly, Jeremiah buries himself in the pillows on the sofa next to me. He presses himself so far back into the cushions that I think he might disappear, and in that moment I know I’ll be hopelessly lonely without him. Sipping our rum, we’re quiet together, which is odd. Quiet’s how I knew something was wrong this morning. I’m not sure whether it’s the quiet between us or my rum haze or the left over grogginess from my nap or what, but I don’t bother him about the fact that it’s after midnight and he doesn’t bring it up. Smiling, instead, I lift my head from the pillows and face him. His face is closer than I expect, so I wind up inches from him, staring straight into the daggers of his eyes. The blue is twinkling. I can’t tell in the moonlight whether his eyes are full of tears or whether I’m drunk and the lights from the skyline in the window behind him are reflecting onto my own eyes, but nevertheless his eyes look moist to me. I wonder if he’s been crying.

“Jeramiah, Sweetheart, I have no idea why you would follow me home,” I lie, knowing how he wants me.

“Yes, you do.”

“No.” I wait. I sip my rum. “Besides, Jeramiah, I’ve been home since 4:00 this afternoon.”

“Not today.”

“What?” Now I am surprised.

“I didn’t follow you today.” He brings the side of his leg closer to the side of mine. My insides gasp and purr.

With one hand I grip my hot mug like it’s my lifeline; with the other I reach for the blanket on the armchair next to me and yank it over my lap. A chastity belt.

“Elsie.”

I don’t say anything. I can’t say anything. He’s a child. I’m a middle aged woman. I’m married. He’s confused. So am I. This is wrong. I sip my rum.

“Elsie.”

I sip my rum.

His nude forearm brushes my knees as he reaches for my lifeline.   Unwrapping my fingers from my mug with his calloused hands, rough and burned already from only a handful of years cooking other people’s food but still so soft and tender because of his nascent age, he leans into my space. I’ve never been this close to him before and looked. I follow the veins from his hands to the rolled up sleeves of his gingham shirt, and imagine them circulating all his want throughout his whole being, making it possible for him to follow me home, to pursue me like this. When the veins disappear inside his clothing I follow their imagined routes to his heart. Then I climb the ladder of his anatomy, from heart, to hairs poking out above his shirt collar, up his neck to his jaw. He bites down on something and his jaw bulges, and I imagine that he’s imagining what it might be like to taste me, and I know I want him to taste me. My eyes crawl up his sideburns and over the bridge of his delicate nose to his eyes. I don’t know what I expect or want to find there, in his eyes, but it’s exactly right. There is so much sadness. In him. In me. He watches me watch him, both of us quiet.   Effortlessly, like water moving, he suddenly slips his hand inside the slack neckline of my pajama blouse, cupping my naked breast. His movements are liquid, dreamlike, and I have no time to protest. Holding his hand there, breathing, we’re still, and I think for a moment that perhaps I’m not awake.

“I need you, Elsie,” he says, squeezing my nipple between two fingers, hand so big he holds my rib, my breast and my sternum in one palm. I feel small, so feminine; this feels so right.

“I know,” I say.

“You need me too.”

“I do,” I say.

“Can I kiss you, Elsie?”

Falling forward, I burrow into his chest with my forehead. If I let him kiss me, I’ll dissolve into him, all the way. I’m the kind of woman who falls in love fast. I’ll end up loving him more than I already do if I let him take me to bed. Deeply, I inhale him. “Not tonight,” I whisper, because I’m too drunk and lonely now to stop him from taking me to bed if I let him kiss me. And because it’s true what I said in the beginning, I love Thomas, too.

There’s a silence at the center of unrequited love, the deafening kind of silence that tells you you’re alone—that you always have been alone, and always will be alone. If love is a storm, unrequited love is a hurricane, most destructive at the outset and ending, quiet in the middle. I had known Jeremiah was in love with me for years, and I’d relished the attention, sure. Who wouldn’t? And at my age? My own love affair with my husband having grown into something dormant like the center of a hurricane, though I’m told love evolves—becomes less and less pregnant with passion over the years, but ever more rooted and fierce if it’s real. Perhaps our dormancy is sending a message to my body—Do not get pregnant! There’s not enough love here! Maybe you need that pregnant passion to get through the unbeautiful parts of childbirth together.

According to a National Geographic article I read once, biological love lasts only three years in human beings—about the time it takes to court, seduce, impregnate, gestate, deliver and regain sufficient post-partum independence for survival. I remember wondering about supposedly happy couples with multiple children. Were they somehow able to fall in love over and over again? Or was there a lie in there somewhere? And what about Thomas and me? Nine years. Had we been able to expand the storm of our love? Is that three-year storm elastic? Or are we trying for children to delay the inevitable? To keep the clouds from passing, and carrying us over to the other side, closer to the end?

As I fall asleep on the couch in the twinkling light from the city and the glowing moonlight after Jeremiah leaves I think about Thomas, and how we once ached for each other the way Jeremiah and I now ache for each other. I wonder whether my having an affair might be just the thing to shake things up, to help Thomas and I move toward the other edge of the hurricane. The thought of it makes me shiver, I’m so sterile and cold in my reasoning.

§

I stay on the couch, sleepless, still a little drunk, as morning rises. By the time daylight whispers into the living room I’m lost in a fantasy. My head presses back into the corner of the sofa, my legs drape over its back, my body turns away from the windows. I writhe. My breast pokes out from beneath the slack neckline of my pajama blouse, and I remember Jeremiah’s fingertips, so young, so desperate. My nipple stings with the memory of him squeezing.

I’d wanted to tell Jeremiah that love gets easier, but it isn’t true.

As sunlight breaks into the living room I reach for my old, cold mug of buttered rum, the one I’d been contently drinking before Jeremiah arrived. In one, hurried gulp, I take it in. I don’t want the night to end. As the rum slithers into my body my eyes roll back, and then I reach for another mug, and then the other. Three, I think. Three mugs. Sufficiently drunk, again, I fling myself back into the couch as if I’m thrown in a fit of passion. Whose passion? It hardly matters. I just want passion. I want to feel alive. Cupping my hands between my legs, one palm over the other, and pressing my head into the corner of the sofa until it hurts, and then pressing harder, just to feel it, just to feel something, I shove my fingers into my insides and I imagine one of them, Jeremiah or Thomas, or maybe both of them, there. They’d be pinning my arms to my sides with their knees, smiles erupting, the daggers of their blue eyes piercing right through me.

And then the locks on the door rattle, and Thomas is standing in the doorway. Bemused by my spectacle he crosses the room in his work suit, and still holding onto his luggage he comes to hover over me. We’re speechless and still. Inspiration stirs in him—I know him well enough to recognize it instantly. After all, he’s all geared up on herbs for procreation, too. Momentarily, I wonder whether he, too, has been lusting after some hot young thing. Probably. Men are like golden retrievers. If you don’t pet them, they’ll find someone else to do it. The thought of Thomas lusting after someone else chokes me, but he drops his suitcases and yanks his tie off so suddenly my mind is erased as the longing inside me grows louder and stronger. Stepping out of his shined up dress shoes and jingling the change in his slacks, he strips everything off in a hurry. As suddenly as he’d appeared in the doorway my husband is nude before me, the grey morning light and the fog outside matching the grey in his hair. Saying nothing he kneels in front of me, and with soft, manicured hands, those hands that shake other hands in boardrooms in the financial district before the sun comes up every day so that he can provide this fancy apartment in the city for us, for the family we’re supposed to create, he pulls back the layers of my blankets and pajamas, one by one. He finds the back of my head beneath all the pillows and cups it with both hands. Lifting me up so he can see my eyes he hovers just above my face, his hazel eyes—they’re hazel, not blue—are dark and hungry. He slips a small hand over the front of my neck and it’s clammy, but familiar. The grizzle of his beard scratches my sternum but it’s all hot and wet as he licks and oozes his way down between my breasts, skipping them. He’s always skipped my breasts. My nipples sting again with the memory of Jeremiah, but I forget Jeremiah as Thomas licks all the way down. Maybe one day I’ll ask Thomas not to skip my breasts, I think, as I watch him squat back on his haunches like an animal. My husband laps at the moisture between my thighs, my legs thrown over his shoulders.

The pad of his thumb bursts it’s way inside me, and then it’s gone. For a moment I panic. Where did he go? Suddenly we’re not touching anymore and I can’t feel him anywhere. I can’t live without him. I know this. Scared, my eyes fly open, and I discover him standing over me again, watching, licking his lips.   Fast, he swoops down and lifts me up off the couch, carrying me into our bedroom. With me in his lap, both of us sitting up, he enters me. As he does, he finally speaks to me. His team didn’t win the super bowl, he’s not sure if I know. The truth is, I don’t even know which team is his team. Before, I believed this was a problem. Not because I don’t know, but because I don’t care. But, wrapped up in him, I know none of that bullshit matters. Nothing matters, as long as I have Thomas, as long as we can connect like this. How long have we been disconnected?

Laughing. Suddenly we’re laughing so hard, and then, heads thrown back, bodies rocking in time together, arms and legs wound round and round like knots keeping us from falling apart, we come together.

When I wake up on the couch it’s after 1:00 in the afternoon, and I’m alone. Thomas is still on the east coast. Rubbing my eyes, I vow I’ll never lose him.

§

Two months later, carrying my husband’s child, I pull up on my motorcycle to work the lunch shift at the restaurant. I barely notice Jeremiah waiting for me out front. I hurl myself off my motorcycle just in time to lose my helmet and barf in the bush on the sidewalk. Groaning, knuckles in my eyes, I sink down on the curb to recover.

When Jeremiah re-appears minutes later and offers me two mugs, one with hot water and lemon, the other with Sprite, I stare up at him for a moment, jaw slack, and then turn and wretch in the bush again. He searches in his pants pockets after setting the mugs down on the sidewalk, jingling change.

“Jeremiah,” I beg, “please don’t smoke. It’ll be too much.” I gag, and hurl again.

His smile erupts and he bends down to rub my back. “Soda crackers,” he says, and produces two packets from his pockets.

“Thank you.”

“Do you want to be alone?”

“No. Not right now. Please stay.”

“Worse than yesterday, huh?”

“Yeah,” I say, wiping my mouth with my sleeve.

“Here.” He thrusts a stack of napkins at me.

“Thanks.”

“I thought this was only supposed to happen in the morning.”

I want to laugh, but I wretch again.

He looks up at the sky, and when I’m recovered I follow him. A few minutes later he asks, “Have you figured out yet when it happened?”

“No.” My gaze falls to the earth.

“I thought you’d want to know.”

“It’s too soon I think.”

He keeps his eyes up in the sky. “Have you told your husband yet?”

“No.”

“When?”

I’d promised Jeremiah that I’d tell him. That I’d tell Thomas about our affair, even though it’s over. Somehow the truth is important to Jeremiah, in his nascent age. But the truth would only hurt my husband, and we’re finally connecting again. I don’t want to spoil it. So I lie to Jeremiah: “Soon, but not tonight.”

—Adrienne Love

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Adrienne Love lives in Sausalito. She earned her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Art in 2013.  Her work has been published in Numéro Cinq and Yoga Journal.

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Nov 302014
 

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In the slider at the Top of the Page this month — Bruce Stone, who, although he only recently joined the masthead  as a Special Correspondent, has been an ongoing part of the magazine since he first contributed a short story in the June, 2010, issue. He has published reviews and essays intermittently since then, always closely argued, erudite, controversial. Last month (November) we published his horrific short story “FPS,” the account of a school shooting, much like Sandy Hook, from the point of view of the teenage mass murderer. I say “horrific,” because it is; it does what are is supposed to, render the catastrophe in words.

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 MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

Nov 272014
 

Apocalypse NowApocalypse Now: Photo by Jowita Bydlowska

It’s the turning-of-the-year, the hinge of the world creaking, the door shutting behind us, much new horror anticipated for the New Year (but before that, Christmas shopping, Black (Death) Friday, stockings hanging by the fire (image: fire leaping onto stockings, blazing up the mantelpiece, consuming the house — the usual Christmas nightmare; it used to be images of Santa dead and roasted on the glowing embers Christmas morning — I had a healthy childhood). And so we call this the Apocalypse issue, the raising of the veil issue, the revelation of a previously unfathomable future complete with dancing girls and hoola-hoops courtesy of photographer-novelist-memoirist Jowita Bydlowska who contributes to this issue a selection of disturbing, subversive, gender bending photographs of what might be best described as a dark femininity, which lifts my heart.

Chaulky-WhiteKevin & Derek White

From Derek White, the legendary artist-writer-editor at Calamari Press, we have a stunning collaboration, a multi-hybrid work of nonfiction created out of his brother Kevin’s MFA thesis, itself a recapitulation of Joyce’s recapitulation of Homer’s Odyssey written as a trip through Asia in search of his father, dead by suicide years before — Kevin himself died subsequently of a drug overdose. White adds (think: collage) Kevin’s drawings, journals, unpublished short stories and his own commentaries to create a massive art/text thing full of rhyme, cross-reference, and startling juxtaposition. This is part of a book that will be published next year under the name Chaulky White, the nom de plume of the two brothers together.

SSEY 01-1By Chaulky White

Lisa Robertson Author Image 2Lisa Robertson

Natalie Helberg contributes a review of Cinema of the Present, a new book by the Canadian experimental writer Lisa Robertson.

It is eclectic, rarified, and dense, scatterbrained and philosophical: It tells us that the stakes of writing are high, that writing sculpts subjects as much as it sculpts the domain they dwell in, and that, consequently, there is no trick-bag to rest on, no set of writing techniques we can master and remain content with.

emily_dickinson_daguerreotype_-large-Emily Dickinson

Contributing editor Pat Keane, snowed in in Syracuse, delves into the state of Emily Dickinson’s religious belief, her alignment with the Romantics, her natural supernaturalism, as he calls it.

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—

Mary-Morrissy-NLBMary Morrissy

From Gerard Beirne, editor of our Irish feature Uimhir a Cúig, we get “Déjà Vu” a gorgeous, lush story by the novelist Mary Morrissy, about a cancer patient who, instead of going home after chemotherapy, drops into a pub and falls into a chemo fugue, as she calls it, remembering old loves and betrayals, only to be, shockingly, mistaken for a bar denizen’s mother.

The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.

Adrienne Love author photoAdrienne Love

From Adrienne Love, a funny, knowing short story about love, marriage, babies, and sudden illicit lust for a handsome young man. The story is called “Hot,” and it is.

I am beyond hot for Jeremiah, who’s only 20, half my age, and in a relationship. But the relationship isn’t the problem because Jeremiah’s not in love with his girl—he’s in love with me. And it’s not our ages either, though I could be his mother. The problem is that while I would love to shag Jeremiah silly—God knows I would—I’m in love with my husband, Thomas. Really. It’s these darned herbs I’m taking—Shitavari: Capable of 100 Husbands and Ashwaganda: Strength of a Horse—to get us pregnant.

After all baby makes three and all that crap.

I am a horny mess, what with all this bewitching of my ovaries, and Jeremiah knows I’m hot for him, Good Lord. If that boy presses his cute little checkered pants arse against my apron one more time I’m going to lose my cucumbers.

rilke babyRainer Maria Rilke

From translator David Need, we have Rilke poems about roses, in French first, then the English, from his book Roses, just out with Horse & Buggy Press. And then an interview with the translator, Need, by Dan Holmes, who last appeared on NC interviewing the travel writer Richard Grant.

I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,
which is opened by the wind and can be read,
eyes shut …

Wallcreeper

Ben Woodard contributes an review of the Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper.

Shambhavi Roy2Shambhavi Roy

Shambhavi Roy pens an illuminating essay on the mysteries of subplots in novels, yoking together for her purposes two disparate works: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.

I counted seventeen different occasions when Jane Austen brings out the striking diversity in the conduct of these two sisters. The sisters form two parallel mountain ranges reflecting sound off each other so the echo reverberates in the reader’s mind. The author seems to pitch antithetical ideas because, I believe, human beings do not understand in a vacuum but in relation to one another. In E. K. Brown’s terms, the two sisters “irradiate each other and become clearer by irradiation.” By offering contrasts and similarities the author is according greater depth to these characters and the social milieu, while trying to get at the hidden truth.

Lise GastonLise Gaston

Also a clutch of poems from the delightful Lise Gaston, now living in Berkeley (via Fredericton, Victoria and Montreal).

.………from Village bacchanals I never told

you I don’t remember this let you
shake yourself alone on your way to
another part-time job imagining
bbbbbball the dark angles of my open mouth

Looking-upwardW. S. Merwin

Also a review of the latest W. S. Merwin collection by A. Anupama.

A scene from this garden opens the new poetry collection in “Homecoming.” Specific in place and time, the setting for the silent arrival of a migrating flock of birds takes shape in almost one sentence. I say almost one, because the line break that marks the end of the first sentence (I looked across the garden at evening / Paula was still weeding) suggests the conjunction “and,” which then begins two of the consecutive lines just after. The assonance and half-rhyme between “evening” and “weeding” fold the lines together, keeping the unpunctuated sentence break smooth. At the dramatic arrival of the birds, however, the line break splits a prepositional phrase: “…and at that / moment from behind me….” The other such line break splits silence open between the last two lines of the poem: “but home now arriving without / a sound as it rose to meet them.”

Trimingham_JulieJulie Trimingham

And last but never least, from Senior Editor R. W. Gray (locked away somewhere doing the last edits on his forthcoming book of stories), the last of Julie Trimingham’s triptych of essays on influences, avatars and the art of filmmaking at Numéro Cinq at the Movies.

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Nov 162014
 

Un_Chien_Andalou2

Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham’s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

In keeping with Numéro Cinq‘s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her second article, “The Horror.”

— R. W. Gray

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Part 2: The Horror

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The horror. He says it twice. Marlon Brando’s hulking Kurtz in Apocalypse Now has witnessed and done things a person should never. I wish I could unsee the scalpeling of an eye in Un Chien Andalou. The severing of an ear in Reservoir Dogs. The rape in A Clockwork Orange. The flaying of a man in Red Sorghum.  A thug in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover tortures a young boy by stuffing him with buttons torn from his apprentice cook’s white coat, and then finally the most awful button, the excised one from his own belly. Paul Newman swallowing too many hard boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke leads to him digging his own grave at the end. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout begins with a man trying to kill his children. A diligent boyfriend’s investigation into the disappearance of his girlfriend in the Dutch film The Vanishing ends with him, and us, finding out what happened by sharing her fate: buried alive with no hope of escape. Celluloid images of brutality –nightmares – are belched up from our species’ shadow side.

ApocalypseNow_195Pyxurz

Part of me wants to cling to Anne Frank’s belief that we are all good at heart; another part wants to figure how it is that all these good hearts are involved with genocide, murder, torture, stupid wars, as well as more intimate and prosaic barbarities. It is a question against which I bang my head. My son, now in kindergarten, has suggested that the good people should kill all the bad people in the world. I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

Oppenheimer atomic bomb lecture

Australian security recently reported that they had broken up a plot in which zealots would randomly seize people of the streets of Sydney, cut off their heads, and videotape the killings so all the world could see. The White Rose, an intellectual, non-violent resistance movement, bloomed in Munich in the early 1940s. Comprised of university friends, the group anonymously wrote and distributed leaflets that decried Nazi policies. Sophie Scholl, a girl of 20 who loved hiking and books, children and God, was one of these activists. I clap my hand over my eyes as she is beheaded by Nazis in the film that bears her name.

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Nor can I bear to watch the beheading of Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons, the beheading of King Henry’s smart, proud queen in Anne of the Thousand Days, the beheadings of Daniel Pearl, of James Foley, of Steven Sotloff, of Hervé Gourdel in virally distributed jihadist propaganda film clips.

Even when unseen, these scenes have made their way into me as if I have swallowed dark pills.  Does it matter that some are fiction,  some historical dramas, some news, some threats? Yes, but the images are all queasily spliced together in my mind; they describe the same arc of an unjust blade.

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Aristotle would have us feel cleansed by tragedy, scrubbed by pity and fear. Screaming, crying, gasping at something that happens on screen allows our bodies to release some of the horror we feel simply because we’re human, because suffering exists, because the world is as cruel as it is beautiful. Too, the dramatic form is a container for collective emotional experience, a means by which we can feel connected, if briefly, to one another.  We can mourn together. We can vicariously survive the tragedy, and come out the other side. We can empathize with the protagonist who, by dint of pride or error, has come to a sorry end. If Anne had held her tongue, if More had signed the oath, if Sophie had discreetly distributed the tracts rather than flinging them into the air, they all would’ve kept their heads. We all screw up and behave foolishly, and we are reminded and relieved that we get away with it when we watch the heroes of these stories fall.

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But what of the character who snuffs out, who desecrates the hero? What of the executioner? The eye-slicer, the ear-cutter, the flayer, the flogger, the imperious king, the dictator, the jihadist, the torture artist? What of Laurence Olivier’s dentist in Marathon Man, the Nazi sadist? Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, taking turns inflicting pain in Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden? I do not feel purified by watching them; I feel stained.

death

Brutality is suffering inflicted for selfish gain, cruelty of a particularly human strain. Witnessing it in movies seems not catharsis but admonition: the veneer of civilization is thin.

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I should know: I have hacked a man’s throat with a small, blunt knife and watched as his life gushed out. I have allowed the police to cart off my innocent young daughter, and then I have denounced her as she is tortured, her face pressed against a white hot iron. And often, sometimes nightly, I’ve had to run through the narrow streets of Montreal and Jerusalem, climbing up walls, out of windows, hiding behind dumpsters, I’ve had to run for my life from the oppressive state, from the minotaur, from my university painting instructor.

Carl Jung’s description of dream structure is not so different from Aristotelian dramatic principles or North American film script conventions: what Jung calls Exposition is our Act I, setting the stage with theme, character and place; Development is classic Act II, the playing out of conflict and action; Crisis is the Climax; Lysis is the resolution or conclusion, Act III.  Filmmakers structure films in order to create emotional momentum, to keep us from getting bored. Jung structures dreams in order to read us.

Some neurobiologists think that dreams are rehearsals for survival, if we run from disaster in our sleep, we’re more likely to do it when awake. Freud stripped dreams down to a single, telling essence, be it conflict, neurosis or wish-fulfillment. Various cultures have seen dreams as prophecy, healing, or divine intervention. As all human bodies are variants of the same basic genome, so our psychologies simply play off a fundamental human psychology: Jungians read dreams as messages from this unconscious, collectively held and personally expressed.

Sharon is a tiny, blonde woman who dresses in pale silk and pearls. She speaks softly and is, as far as I can tell, fearless. I suspect that if she weren’t an analyst she would tame lions.  Her talent and work, whether with adult neurotics or troubled kids, is to behold a psyche – that messy, alive, invisible thing – and to accept it, understand it, reflect it. To give it back to itself, nudge it toward wholeness. Her take on dreams is informed by Jung and also by decades of experience, of witnessing people thrash out meaning in their lives. She takes the internal narrative –dreams– as reflection both of the dreamer’s own psyche and the human consciousness we all share. Sharon translates, and transforms, nightmares: killing is repression; I am the killer, I am the innocent, my self is refracted in the violence of my dreams. The images are all clues.

Seeing our selves more clearly is a kind of spiritual proprioception. As these selves of ours are always caught in the sticky web of culture and history, seeing the web more clearly allows for more nimble navigation of it. If we can intelligently read our dreams, our own moving pictures, we are not bound to act blindly according to buried fears and desires.

Ditto, perhaps, for films. If we peer into the collective darkness, if we peel the text from the subtext of our cultures, might we be better off?

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I am a filmmaker who no longer makes films: after a series of short films, my first feature was, despite a flurry of meetings with producers and a lovely actress in Montreal, never produced; it became a novel instead. While not explicitly violent, the work does explore how decent people (namely, a drifting actress) come to take morally questionable action, how our most altruistic motives can be twined with the most selfish. My husband has asked me why my characters aren’t better people; he doesn’t understand, and doesn’t like my need to traffic in what he sees as tawdry, what I see as human. He doesn’t like that my brain even comes up with this stuff. I don’t think I’m coming up with anything; I’m just watching, and trying to describe.

If we can see the ways in which we are wounded and the ways in which we wound, aren’t we more likely to be kind? If we can see the ways in which we are blind, isn’t our vision at least partially restored?

Too: the light in chiaroscuro works so well because the darkness is so thick. We are barbarians with moments of grace. Cruelty sometimes inspires resistance, transcendence.

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I once wanted to make a movie based on Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, which is a compilation of letters and journals of her time during World War II. Photographs show a young woman with short, dark hair, bright eyes. She lived in Amsterdam, was a secular Jew, and wrote as a way to figure out her path in life. Living in a non-Jewish household, and consorting with the bohemian class, her writings limn the city in which she lives and her coming into her self, sex and her physical desires, the world of ideas opening to her. Politics and religion stayed in the margins until the Nazis invaded her life and her pages. She was recruited to the Jewish Council, where she performed administrative duties, but she hated this work and requested a transfer to Westerbork, a camp where she worked in the department for Social Welfare for People in Transit. These people were in transit to death camps. In time, and despite chances to escape, she became one of those sent. She accepted this fate. I came across, and was stunned, by her journals when I was 29, the same age as she was when she was gassed at Auschwitz.

Although unmade, scenes from this hypothetical film are cut into the montage that slow-burns at the back of my brain:

INT. WESTERBORK TRANSIT CAMP: She nurses the sick and comforts the anxious in the barracks. They all know what they’re waiting for. Etty tries to get a smile out of a fraught new mother. She can’t. The nursing infant unlatches from his mother’s breast. He gurgles, milk-drunk. The mother can’t stand it, she tries to contain herself. She hands the baby to Etty while she goes off to scream.  Etty gentles the baby, coaxing him to sleep. Kisses the top of his little bald head.

INT. CATTLE CAR CROWDED WITH FAMILIES – DAY:  Etty scrawls on a postcard. From outside, we see her fingers reaching through the slat, letting loose the card which flutters down and settles on the gravel ballast of the railroad,

INSERT POSTCARD:  her last written words: We left the camp singing.

A common interpretation of this act is that Etty had achieved great spiritual maturity, going Christ-like to her death. I prefer to see it as a beautiful fuck you to brutality.

—Julie Trimingham

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DSC_0053 - Version 3Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

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Nov 162014
 

Mark Anthony JarmanMark Anthony Jarman

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 Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet (1792-1822)

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Pope Rat watches Euro Cup, the blind man wanders our hotel halls, and I wander Rome’s swarming city. I soak my head and T-shirt in cold water to escape the Roman heat, I inhale cold bottles in a dark bistro, then I creep into another empty church – simple, not a rock-star church, but I must look. The streets burn in wild daylight, but inside is shadow, inside my eyes rise to a blue dome where a young Italian artist painted night stars inside the cupola before spilling from his high scaffold, the falling man ending his art and life in one downward stroke.

Ever so slightly sunburnt and intoxicated, I am in the precisely right state to take in the swooning gift of these stars glowing in a tiny compass of sky, this is exactly what a place of worship should do, lines of light guiding my eyes from the well bottom up to these high stars in a circle.

My cells vibrate happily, my mind and eyes ready to receive this perfect sacrament. Light like blocks of white stone fills the church windows, and in my head Gene Clark’s tremolo voice singing, ain’t it good to be alive. This temporal bliss won’t last, but in the moment its echo is beautiful.

Our world revolves about me for a few hours until like Galileo I know, what heresy, it doesn’t circle me, I remember I am millions of miles from the centre. But I’ll survive, I have options. What of the woman from Iraq with her injured eyes? She was once so happy, on her way to college she steered a blinding gold Mustang through the heart of Baghdad and courted bright ambitions, but after the invasion she has nothing, finds herself so far from the centre.

American soldiers liked the woman from Iraq and Americans ran over her gold Mustang with a tank while she was trapped at the steering wheel and then I meet her in her new life in Rome, in her exile. Birds and countries flying through the air like scalding shrapnel, all these wax nations, all these melting borders and homes. Our hotel rooms have teensy televisions bolted to the ceiling and mine pulls in a German MTV channel, rock unt roll, the VJ’s narration an unsettling mix of Teutonic Girl and Valley Girl. Our alliances and kingdoms fidgety as a blackbird’s eye.

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Loaded down by buckets of dirt and rocks, men trudge out of the earth carrying rocks by hand through the hotel atrium, lugging buckets to a tiny truck the size of a scooter. In a silent prayer I call upon the backhoes of the nation to help them.

I want to chat up the soft-eyed Spanish woman who inhales cigarettes in the atrium. In her white sundress blood speaks in her skin and she reminds me of Natasha, a similar face and hair, as if I know this person, a sister-messenger, though Natasha is too health-conscious to smoke, Natasha is more green tea than Pall Malls.

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Angelo owns the rambling hotel, Angelo delivers to our atrium party a giant vat of purple-black wine that resembles Welch’s grape juice, a giant ham, prosciutto di Parma, and a giant knife; Eve and I glance at the knife warily. Angelo moves slowly to a long table, his grey hair slicked back, a beaked nose like a hawk; he is generous to us, he is regal.

“Tonight we have a super-big party!” exclaims a smiling Angelo.

Eve can’t take the wine’s sweet taste, but Ray-Ray and the others like the hooch well enough. We also carve up a spicy sausage the size of a small pig and an amazing cake filled with light custard. Food is so good in Italy; it’s like being stoned.

Father Silas makes a toast, “Thanks to the hotel owner for a festa with real Italian girls.” And it’s true, Angelo did arrive with smiling Italian girls with big hair like Amy Winehouse or the Shirelles.

“The bigger the hair the closer to God,” says Eve.

“Grazie, grazie,” we all intone. Grazie. Am I saying it right?

Basta, Angelo says modestly. Enough.

Father Silas whispers to me, “If Angelo says Ciao to us, then we can say it to him.” Otherwise Father Silas worries we might be too informal.

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The Spanish woman says Angelo’s men are digging a cellar for a basement cafe and gym. Angelo is ambitious, owns many buildings, and I find myself wondering how much real estate he has. Or how he owes. The crew has no jackhammer or bobcat. Excavators and dump-trucks are too wide for the narrow lane. So the work is done by hand and back and legs, like labour scratched out thousands of years ago. Will the men’s picks and crowbars stab into artifacts, find bones in a well? Will our hotel collapse?

Every time they dig in Rome they find something, the Spanish woman says, reading my mind. It is impossible to do anything. If they try to expand the subway, the new line they can dig, a tunnel is narrow, that is okay, but a new station means excavating a much broader space and then they find a temple to Saturn, to Venus, they find a villa, they find rude frescoes, and work is halted. A stray cat crawls into lost catacombs and they must bring in specialists in archeology and incest. So apologies to the world, but Rome will have no new subway lines.

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Bottles of champagne arrive, like the hand-cut prosciutto, courtesy of generous Angelo, and the champagne thrills Tamika, she scrambles for her camera to snap photos of the large dark bottles. I find this endearing, and wonder if Tamika wants the photos to show her parents or grandparents that she moves in champagne circles. Or perhaps they worry she isn’t having fun in Rome and here is evidence to send them, truthful or not.

I feel guilty lounging around with Eve and Tamika and the Spanish woman while the men work in this heat, passing by us with buckets of rocks and earth. They must think me a rich tourist, that I am lazy, that I am lucky. Am I lucky, I wonder. They dig under the hotel and I hope the undermined foundation will be all right.

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Angelo’s cured ham is scrumptious and the soft-eyed Spanish woman sips spring water inside her cigarette fog, says, “I am here from Madrid to help a friend at the hotel, a woman. I am not staying at this hotel, I am staying by Termini. Do you know my friend? Do you know Madrid?”

“Madrid is a beautiful city; I was there many years ago.” I struggle for memories: such striking architecture and art deco and oil paintings in the Prado and parks and tabernas, but what I recall mostly is summer heat ballooning in an airless upstairs room by the Puerto del Sol, the temperature driving me from the old hotel and driving me from the city to a cooler sea and a smaller harbor town. Perhaps the Spanish woman loves the heat, like Natasha. The Madrid hotel was shelled during the Spanish civil war. And I remember St. Sebastien and the threat of bombs in Basque country. Does Natasha still keep her hair long, light striking her like a saint?

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Eve wears a fichu cape and a cute Oriental coolie hat to fend off the sun. An Italian man in the courtyard stares at my cousin Eve’s white t-shirt, a low scoop top that reveals the top of her breasts. He speaks to her breasts in heavily accented English.

“Oooooh, look at you! That is a very nice shirt. My wife has been in the hospital for eight weeks, that’s her over there.” He points to a weary-looking woman glued to a phone, but his eyes stay riveted on my cousin’s chest.

“She was really sick. Yes, her kidneys I think, I’m not sure, but oh she was in so much pain. It was hard to take, but she’ll be all right.” His eyes never lift from Eve’s t-shirt. “You look so goooood!”

My cousin backs up, trying to get away.

“Oooooh yessss, I very much like your beautiful shirt.”

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I chat with the Spanish woman several times in the atrium, but find I cannot ask her out because I am sure she is waiting for me to ask her out and I hate the moves and the knowledge and the lack of knowledge.

“Are you interested in zombies?” the Spanish woman asks me. Her name is Elena. How do you say dinner and drinks in Spanish (the dream of a common language)? How do you say that you are so very tired of zombies? I wish I had my old phrase book from years ago in Spain. Mucho gusto.

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Whenever I walk onto my room’s terrace I hear two women talking on their terrace.

We went to Australia, one woman says. We went camping, it was fun. They offered me all kinds of seafood and I said no. We didn’t have money to buy. Well, we had some.

Don’t you wish you’d done some of those things?

You look back. There are memories.

Those are positive memories! Mary, you still have memories to come.

You think so?

Absolutely! Life isn’t over. It’s a new chapter. And another chapter. A set of problems is just a new chapter.

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I make noise with a chair on my side of the terrace so they know I am there, but it has no effect, the two women keep talking, so I abandon my comfy terrace to zigzag bridges crossing the Tiber.

I step inside out of habit and curiosity; every church has a relic, fragments of the true cross, bones, thorns, nails. What chance that they are real? There is Christ’s alligator suitcase retrieved from the Holy Land, there is Christ’s hairdryer, and his first report card signed by Mary.

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On the terrace Mary the nervous woman says, In the old days I’d talk to men. Now I hold back.

Her more confident friend says, You’ve forgotten who you are.

I lost that. You understand?

Absolutely! What if he knew you were looking for someone new. I’d be interested in his reaction. I’d be very interested.

Maybe we’ll meet some Italian men!

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Ray-Ray says to me, “I hear you’re running for Pope. Very cool. If there’s an interview, just remember he’s human, he puts his pants on one leg at a time.”

Ray-Ray, so tall and smiling, has a girlfriend and a baby waiting back in Canada, but in Italy he’s on a quest for an Italian woman, even asking the Spanish woman for advice.

“Where can I meet them? What do Italian women like, what should I say?”

“It will not happen,” she says, “they live in another world. My apologies, but you must be Italian to seduce.” Ray-Ray has a few words of Chinese, but little Italian.

“One leg at a time,” she says, “yes, I understand such a motivational concept, but does a Pope even own pants?”

“He probably wears sweat pants at home,” says Ray-Ray, “you know, to chillax, eat chips and watch Euro Cup on the boob tube. But the man’s from Dusseldorf or somewhere. So what team does the Pope pull for? He’s deep in this crazy-ass palace in Italy, but, really, the man’s from Germany, right? And he’s got these Swiss Guard dudes, who do they pull for?”

“Is there a Swiss team in the Euro Cup?”

“The Swiss Cuckoos?”

“The Swiss Army Knives?”

“Ye Gods,” mutters Father Silas shaking his head while enjoying cake and custard.

South Africa is killing Italy in the Euro Cup; Angelo and the girls with beehive hair grimace as one. The goalie moves the wrong way with his ski gloves out-stretched. Italy has a gifted team, but they seem jinxed, they lose every match. For the locals this is heart-breaking and suspicious: are the matches fixed?

Angelo holds one hand up high: “How the team should play,” he says. Then a hand low: “How they are playing instead.”

As a child in Nigeria Ray-Ray went to old style British schools, obeyed a headmaster, wore school uniforms in the Nigerian heat. I try to imagine him in a blazer. Later he may try to kill himself in the Don Valley, but how can our group know that?

Ray-Ray says to the Spanish woman, “Did you know the Etruscan language was never deciphered?”

“That’s really a shame,” she says.

Ray-Ray keeps saying that he was a celebrity in China, the girls on campus loved him, flocked to him, thinking he must be an NBA star because he was so tall. But he is not so well loved in Italy. In the hotel Ray-Ray doggedly pursues the chambermaids room to room, his big wolf teeth in a grin.

“How you doing today, ladies?”

The chambermaids’ boss, a severe Aryan looking woman, shoos the towering Ray-Ray away from her staff. “Go! Go! Let them do their work!” And we smile at the ribald drawing room spectacle.

But what of my gaze, and my crush on Irena, our Croatian chambermaid? Am I so different than Ray-Ray? Every day I speak to Irena on the stairs or when she knocks on the door of my room to ask if I need my room cleaned.

Irena gently scolds me in the hall: “You should not walk about in bare feet! You might step on broken glass! You are a free spirit. It is America.”

“It is not America.”

I delay wearing socks as long as possible, not to upset Irena the chambermaid, but because in bare feet the day remains somehow mine, I feel the chains when I have to don socks and shoes and move out into the world to take care of something dubious or pay money to someone when I’d rather not pay. When I get in the door I can’t wait to peel off shoes and socks, especially in this hot climate. And what chance of stepping on glass when Irena guards our sparkling halls? Being scolded by Irena is enjoyable. She first showed me the long route to my rooftop room. Why do I feel my pursuit of her is not base, but is high minded, a noble romantic quest? “It is Canada.”

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Marco the intern laughs about the hotel’s Croatian chambermaids. Three women were washing a floor and Marco had to get in the room for inventory, so he took off his shoes to tiptoe past. They were incensed; the clean wet floor should be made dirty rather than Marco take off his shoes. A man should just walk through.

“When I had to move out of my room and stay with the chambermaids I made my own bed every morning, but they would unmake it and make it their way. They are still very old world.”

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On my way out of my room one fine morning I see Irena making up the beds next door, in what I think of as the sex room, as this room is used by so many mysterious couples. Irena pauses by the bed, looks over.

“Do you need your room made up?”

“No, thank you. My room is fine.”

She asks me every day and I have the same reply. I have everything I need. Grazie.

You are lucky, she may say. That is the usual extent of our talk. But today she stops her work, today she wants to chat.

“You are wearing shoes today,” she notes with approval. “You are from Canada,” she says, “what is it you do in Canada? What is life like there?”

She knows some Croatians who like Canada. She says, “Canada has more interest in culture. Here in Italy it is all business.”

“It is?” I’m surprised.

“Here it is who you know. Want anything done? You need a friend, a connection. And if you have no friends? Nothing can be done for you.”

“I think of North America as all business. With Italy I think of art and culture.”

“No, no. Clearly it is the other way around.”

Now I’m puzzled. Irena tells me of her home in Croatia, the hills of white stone above the sea, she says in Croatia there are mountains, but not too high, they are just perfect. Her town once a Roman colony and now she is drawn to Rome, her town once a key port in the salt trade, but now its beaches are covered with roasting Germans, the Germans are everywhere, the EU accomplishing what Hitler could not.

Irena says, “I’d like to move to London and go to school there, but it’s hard.”

Irena has been working in Rome two years to save her pennies. London a magnet for her, but London is so expensive and school in England is so dear, thousands and thousands of pounds Sterling. She worries, she worries about the crash of the Euro and the terrible economy and the backlash in Rome and Athens and Madrid and she sees the TV news of arson and riots and jobless males battling police and attacking foreigners (do we have that in common, Irena, we are both foreign?) She is an immigrant, as were my parents, but her hill town is close to Italy, she did not need to step in a sinking boat, she rode to Italy by fast train.

Irena says she worries that what is happening elsewhere is sure to spread here and become far worse. Greece is a disaster, Spain, Tunisia, Libya, Syria in rubble, Iraq in convulsions.

“It’s not over yet,” she says, “on the contrary, it is just the beginning.”

She has worries and hopes, Irena seems impossibly nice. She asks where else I’m going and I mention Napoli and Pompeii.

“Ah, Capri,” she says dreamily. “And you must go to Elba. Though Napoli has the best food. It is the best city.”

I wonder if Irena lives and works in Italy legally, but can’t bring myself to ask. Irena has three languages and I have none. I heard her speaking Croatian and the language sounded like jagged Russian colliding with musical Italian. How long must Irena clean tile floors in Rome, work in a hotel and save a few Euro to put herself through school? She has no iPhone or tablet, no college student pub-crawls, no fast Bimmer or fake and bake tan, no Mom and Dad paying the credit card for a trip to the capitals of Europe.

Irena served and fed Marco, the hotel’s American intern when he was kicked out of his room. The hotel was over-booked, desperate for a room, so for a few days he was farmed out to the apartment shared by several Croatian chambermaids. A male guest in their home was not allowed to lift a finger, they cooked full meals and fed him plums from a mother’s garden in Croatia, plums a storm-cloud purple, taut yet dripping sweetly with juice, and sliced wrinkled apples that tasted like summer wine, as if the apples were ready to ferment. The young chambermaids treated him like a lord.

Irena’s stern blonde boss bursts out of the coffin-sized elevator, an unwelcome genie with dyed hair. The woman stares, suspicious of a shirker, suspicious of what I am after. Irena’s face alters, eyes scared, and she scampers back to cleaning the sex room.

Sometimes I feel like an exact saint of restraint, sometime I worry I possess the virtues of a dog running loose. At times I’ve been called a dog, but my mien leans more to milquetoast, surely I am more custard than canine. Galloping miles of halls and stairs to the Roman street (I don’t use the elevator), I hope that Irena’s Aryan boss won’t make trouble because she spoke to me. But I am happy Irena wanted to chat with me about her future life in the U.K.

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A sickle moon hangs over the curved brick portal arch, moon and brick permanent fixtures both. And statues everywhere in Rome, long lines of anemic statues peopling rooftops, huge armies of silhouettes and future suicides crowding ledges, arms spread as if losing their balance or to leap from the ledge and get air in their beards, fly off and shudder like shaky kites around the white columns and spires and tourist piazzas.

I stare at chalk-white eyeless statues and older Italians in the subway car stare baldly at Tamika’s dark round face and wire-rim glasses and dainty dreads. They are not shy about staring wide-eyed, as if Tamika is some amazing piece of furniture perched beside me on a subway seat.

Tamika is super-shy and doesn’t fit into the group of young drunks and Tamika is very aware of the open stares as we ride buses or the Metro. In Philly she fits in fine; in Rome her dark skin draws unwelcome attention, eyes on her.

Tamika asks me, “Do people stare at you here?”

“Not really.” I am becoming invisible and to be invisible has its uses.

Tamika tells me that she ate something that disagreed with her and warning she became sick on a moving public bus.

“I felt horrible, but I couldn’t get off in time. The driver stopped the bus and he called the police.”

“The driver called the police?”

“They took me off the bus and I sat for ages in the police station. No one seemed to be paying any attention, so after three or four hours I slowly stood up and walked out the door with some other people and came back and hid at the hotel. I get nervous when I see any police or a uniform.”

Shy Tamika the outlaw. Italy has an uneasy relationship with colour, with Africa, Africa once part of its old Roman Empire and still so close, a slow boat-ride away from Sicily or the Italian island of Lampedusa far to the south where refugees swim to shore at this exact moment or they fail to swim to shore.

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Some citizens in northern Italy prefer the north, would like to be part of Switzerland or Austria or Friuli, Venice wants to be an independent serene republic. Italian cousins in the south are seen as uncouth, un-north, they are Terroni, of the earth, swarthy peasants, lazy, corrupt, brutish, violent, invaded and tainted by Arabs and Moors and Algerians, by heated kingdoms of darker blood, by invasion after invasion.

Men ask Tamika, Are you Africano or Americano? They want to be sure.

Father Silas surprises us, saying, “Some Italian men have a fetish for black prostitutes.”

“A fetish? North Africa? West Africa?”

“I really can’t say, it’s not my fetish.”

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“It’s not that I’ve been cold to him.”

The two woman talk on the next terrace and I imagine my wife saying similar words to her best friend over a glass of shiraz, adjusting decades of memories. To hear this is depressing.

“You ask yourself what happened to all those years.”

The years of connections and cities and good times don’t alter or disappear. But now those years are different to my wife, now tainted, though not to me. The women talking on the next terrace are a vocal reminder of what I’ve done wrong and how I will be misunderstood and maligned over a glass of shiraz, perhaps at this very moment.

“This new therapist, he lets me come to my senses, he doesn’t tell me.”

“I like the advice this doctor gives you.”

“Is it out of fear I’m doing this or out of love?”

“You do what you have to do.”

“I don’t want my kids to be vulnerable. Damaged people gravitate to someone like, to damaged people. I can empower my two children by standing on my own two feet. Or they’ll step into the exact same scenario. It’s a valuable lesson.”

“You know in your heart you did everything you could.”

Don’t the women know that I’m on my side of the trellis and vines, that I hear every word and sigh? I make noises on my terrace to alert them, but they are like oblivious shoppers who block the whole aisle with their carts, no one else exists.

“What if he came back? He’s not open, he’s not going to be expressive or lively or please me. He can’t find it in himself to be happy.”

“Can’t go down that road. Tell the kids when they’re older.”

“If I’m giving 150 per cent and he’s giving 80, it ain’t gonna work. Is that flame too high?”

“I don’t think so.”

“That fire worries me. Should we get some water?”

“It’s citronella. It smells nice. Ah, this is the life. Shopping in Rome.”

“Can we put it out?”

“Okay, okay. Feel better?”

“I do.”

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Jesus, I think, let the stupid fire burn.  I’ve lost my euphoric mood under the perfect cupola of chapel stars.

So once more into Rome I wander footsore, that one church on the edge, marble underfoot, tombs underfoot, reading graffiti, stepping over graves, over a lost city.  Eve and I gaze at The Conversion of Saint Paul, but the canvas is so dark for an epiphany, it seems more the reverse of an epiphany, I see no light or illumination.

Saints line every rooftop and I pass the spot where the dead rat has been resting every day on cobblestones and when I wander back the two women still talk on the next terrace.  Like me, like the woman from Iraq, these two women on a terrace so dedicated to their dead country.

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“I told him wish you were here, she says.  Why did I say that?”

“Because that’s how you feel.  Mary, you’re allowed your emotions.”

“If he was here he’d know every temple where Caesar was stabbed.  I think women a generation or two back were stronger.”

“Hey, we’re two powerful women — we put out the fire.”

“Safety first, ha!”

“This is fun.  More vino?!”

“We are having fun.”

“Be grateful for small things.  The here and now is important.”

“You’re wise.”

“Life isn’t over.  It’s a new chapter.  Life is a book.  And each chapter….”

“See in a marriage…well…he betrayed me.  But I’m more angry about the car than that woman.”

“Tell him you’re looking for someone.  Did you do that before?”

“Fool around?  No.”

“To grow.”

“No.”

“I did, I went to someone else.  I felt those feelings.  It scares me that I don’t care.  Is it because I’ve dealt with it?  It’s wonderful to feel that close to someone.  If I stumbled across her in a social setting, what does she look like, I don’t care.  It’s almost creepy.  It is creepy, a creepy creepy feeling.  Every day I wake up and expect it to change.”

“The Mole called me back.”

“Who?  Not him.”

“Turned me down, but he called me back.”

“You’re better off without him.”

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The woman’s last words make me wonder: in the long run, am I better off without Natasha?  I resist, but I need to believe this, need to take it in like an arthroscope to the knee.

Something in me can’t accept the finality, some part of me still wishes for contact, to hear of Natasha’s mother and father, the farm, her sisters.  “My dad’s youngest brother died, only 62; my poor dad, such a shock for him.  My crazy sister is okay, but her boyfriend bonked her on the head with his laptop and she’s depressed a bit.”

And I want to tell Natasha all my Italian news, I feel a wave at times, a physical command: lift the phone, click Reply on her last email.  But I have decided: no more.

It’s difficult, as we were so comfortable with each other; how to find that lost empire again in the stone mountains?  It seems impossible.  The anatomy of desire and the anatomy of loss – I have them mixed up in my sun-burnt head.   Brushing my right ear is the fever song of mosquitoes, then a mosquito frittering inside my ear, wanting my brain.  I smack my own head hard, then cry out, OW!  And Eve laughs at me: is such slapstick exactly what this mosquito aims for as evening entertainment?  Like me, the mosquito has a soft spot for the Three Stooges.  Rome’s hills and marble temples built above a marsh and winter mosquitoes felled an emperor.  In Trogir I leapt off a water-taxi to see a Norman fortress in palm trees and walked Malarjia Park.  In Rome we will devour delicious blood oranges and pray to Madonna della Febbre, the protectress of victims of malaria.

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At night in the hotel stairwell I bump into a thin blind man.  The blind man is shirtless and wields a long white cane, a slim stick, a pilgrim of sorts.  His pale wonky eyes aim into deep space.

“I’m above you on the steps,” I say.

“Are you with that group?”  His voice is assertive, angry about noise in our hotel.  Would I be so confident if I might fall down an open stairway?

He says, “I have a wife and a two year old trying to sleep.  Can you tell them to stop chit-chatting?”

He may mean a noisy group up on the roof.  I don’t know them, but I lie to the blind man, saying I will pass on his message.  Is it more of a sin to lie to a blind person?  Or is the sin pretty much the same?

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Eve and I are crossing manic streets like expat experts, we’re leveraging complex transactions in fruit market bedlam.  When was it I met the exiled woman from Iraq in a supermercato?  She told me later that I did something and she knew she could trust me, she told me that she can read people, was trained in it.

Was it posture, I wondered, how I clasped my hands?

She wouldn’t tell me what it was, but it was enough for her to believe in me.

I had no idea what I would learn about her family, her fiancé.  At the time she was simply someone interesting I met by chance, one of Iraq’s numerous exiles, Iraq coming to pieces and so many forced to become gypsies, wandering like brimstone butterflies, the first to appear after winter.

She worked in a hospital in Jordan after fleeing Iraq, liked her job and the people and the dialect was similar, but Jordan was overwhelmed by refugees from Iraq.  Every month she had to make her way to a police station and pay a monthly fee to stay legally in Jordan. The fee rose every month until it was too high for her to pay and she had to leave her job and had to leave Jordan and look for work in Italy.

She does not drink, is devout, well-schooled in the Koran, but she does not wear traditional garb, does not wear robes or a veil.  She can look very western in stylish jeans, makeup, nail polish, even a Mickey Mouse T-shirt if she is in a happy mood.

The woman from Iraq told me her father had kidney problems, she worried about him.  She said to me with a serious face, “Drink only water when you wake up and cleanse your kidneys.”  No one else speaks to me quite like this.  I enjoyed such times.  She was always very clean, concerned with health and hygiene.  At one café she wouldn’t sit on the seat cushions because they seemed dirty and she was used to better.

I bought her tea from Ceylon, Akbar big leaf, and one afternoon over tea I guessed her age.

“How did you know?”

I said I liked the henna tint in her hair and she asked, “How you know that word?”

“I know some things.”

Much of what I said seemed to surprise her.  I told her about Natasha and she did not approve.  “So she left after causing trouble with your marriage?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“No?”

She showed me the ring her brother gave her years ago.  “He loves me.  He is very handsome.  And in Iraq it is real gold, 21 karat, not like here, 10 or 11.  In the Middle East men don’t wear gold.  Only women.  Men don’t have earrings like here.  If men wear jewelry, or a lot of gold, we think, eh, no.”

She looks at my hand.  “There are no rings on your fingers?  All those years, did your wife not give you a ring in all those years?”

.

The women’s voices continue on the next terrace.

“I fall for people.  You understand?  I fell into that trap.”

“Are you mad at me?  What I said about the Mole?”

“He was nice.  He’s ok.  He had the Asian wife.  He did seem interested in me.”

“He’s a microbe, a creepy little creep.  He had an affair with the cleaner, can you imagine, creepy, on the desk.”

“No.”

“Yes.  He’s a pervert.  She got pregnant.”

“Maybe that’s why he was so hot and heavy to get a vasectomy.”

“He’s a perv.  He has to send her cheques and his other wife has to get up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus and work at a factory.”

“She probably has no background.”

“Treat your spouse like that.  It’s unbelievable.  A perv.”

.

I listen to the women and think, Now I have joined the club of those sending cheques, joined the club of those termed a perv.

The woman from Iraq says, “Everyone I meet here, divorced, separated, divorced, separated.  I think our system is better.”  She may have a point.  My drunken question to popular opinion: Why does the phrase “night falls on Rome” sound cool, but “morning falls on Rome” sounds clunky and wrong?

She doesn’t drink, but young males stagger our hotel halls shouting, MAKE SOME NOISE!  Rome has no history, Rome is a drinking binge with no parents to harass them.  They lug huge jugs of rotgut wine, yelling Yo Yo Yo Yo!

Young and loose and full of juice, drunk with what seems possible.  Their shop has not yet been bombed to rubble, to molecules.

In the Roman night someone is insisting over and over that she is not a hollaback girl.  My high room is well removed from the inebriated and industrious fray, but poor Tamika’s hallway is the epicenter of several open-door party rooms.

Eve walks by bent to her tiny clamshell phone, her face serious, saying, “She told me three of the drugs she was on.”

Tamika says, “I can’t get any sleep with their drunken racket.”

Father Silas says, “I’ll see what I can do,” and walks over to a noisy open door.

“You ain’t my daddy,” yells a drunken female voice inside, “and you sure ain’t ….”  And then the voice trails off, seemingly stumped, and we all wonder: what else is he ain’t?

Tamika does not like the drunkards, Tamika a lone wolf roaming Rome while the others seem blind to the ancient city, see Europe as a hotel, an outlet shop, a humongous nightclub.  They are the same age as Tamika, but she dismisses them with a world-weary wave.

“It’s so awesome here in Rome, but all they do is complain about everything, they bitch about the food, bitch about their room, bitch about walking through amazing cathedrals.  They complain if they have to walk uphill!  They bitch about having to look at Bernini’s marble and paintings by Caravaggio.”

Tamika mimics their voices: “It’s not fair!  You can’t tell me what to do.  This is boring.  I’m hungry.”  Tamika pauses for breath.  “Rome is not boring, they’re boring.”

From my backpack I dig out a tiny sealed bag from my days in a loud band: the baggie is not drugs, but a packet of disposable foam earplugs for Tamika.  Eve asks for some as well, worth a try to help her sleep and she is wary of depending on sleeping pills.

Tamika takes the earplugs a skeptical look on her face, and eases the door closed on the drunken mayhem.  She longs for sleep.

 .

My cousin Eve has an uneasy relationship with sleep, uneasy with Morpheus and Hypnos, the father and son team running our sleep and dreams.  I never know if she is awake or asleep, she has a night language, uses her hands to make a point or ask a question, wakes up laughing.  It’s odd to watch.  Eve dreamt the two of us were trying to find our way out of a city-sized department store and I fell down an open elevator shaft.

“People were running down stairwells to find you.  Is that a 9/11 dream?”

Is the blind man’s sleep a steep grey cinema?  Has he ever seen stars at night?  Can you imagine colours and faces and fields in your dreams if you are born blind and have yet to see colour or a face?  Can you dream light if you don’t know light?  When the blind man is in a better mood I must ask him.

To shutter my own eyes at night seems not always to deliver quietude; my sleep chaotic, unnerving, festive.  I close my eyes to a strange movie-house in my head, fragments and half-lit clips, an unseen projector constantly grinding.  A huge cast and the footage never stops.  I have no idea where these night films come from, but I like them.

.

“Someone called him, did you hear of the bomb downtown.  I begged him not to go.”

The woman from Iraq told me about her fiancé, though she did not tell me this part right away, it took her some time to get to the chapter of her fiancé.

“His business was in the bombed building, he wanted to see if his shop was hit.  Can’t you wait?  I had a bad feeling, I pleaded with him.”

Sorry, sweet one, he said, I must go see the damage; perhaps his shop would be spared, God willing.  His shop was his livelihood, his hope, their future, her fiancé was worried and he drove into town to see the damage.

The second bomb exploded later, timed to kill those who came to walk the rubble of the first bomb.  The second bomb exploded and her fiancé vanished and she was a widow without yet marrying.  As Trotsky said, You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

“He was good to me,” she stated calmly, “he was modern, he told my parents when asking for my hand that he didn’t mind if I wanted to go to school or have a career.”  The bomb was only months before, but she stared off speaking flatly.  It happened to someone else a long time ago in a world that no longer exists.

.

Thursday at dawn our art group rises grumpily to inspect the Sistine Chapel.  Father Silas has a connection, he knows an ancient Irish monsignor who arranges a select viewing, but we must arrive very early, before the mad throngs block the front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Eve and Tamika crave more sleep and the party animals cradle monstrous hangovers from their dubious cooking wine.  For a few cents more decent plonk can be had, but they scoop up huge jugs of cheap cooking wine, amazed by bargain prices, but this is stuff the Romans don’t drink.  At dawn they feel the hurt big time, at dawn they can barely move, can barely text or kill aliens.

In my arms I once carried my dead dog from the street where it had been hit by a driver who did not stop: my dog’s beautiful brown eyes lost their light to a machine, the brown eyes had no depth, no engagement, no awareness.  Some in the group have that dead canine look as we shuffle down the block to Michelangelo and the vaulted ceilings of Sistine Chapel.

My head!  Man, why does this asshole make us go out so fucking early?  Who wants to see some stupid Listerine chapel?  Dude’s seriously harshing my mellow.  And we’re missing the coolest Shark Week like ever.  Got any Advil?  Man, I can’t deal with fizzy water, going to hurl.

Father Silas hates alcohol and some suspect he has made us rise early to punish those with piercing hangovers.  He reacts strangely when I happily tell Tamika that Eve and I found an “Italian American-style Irish pub” called Fairy Tales of New York, a great little underground bar.

“American and Irish and Italian?” asks Tamika, interested.  “What was that like?”

Before I can answer Tamika, Father Silas gets right in my grill.

“A place for American college students to get DRONK!” he shouts, his big reddening face in my face.

I want to say the pleasant arched cellar is not for drunken college students, but he won’t give me a chance.  Everyone I meet in the cellar is Italian, lives in the neighbourhood, and the young musicians are local.  But Father Silas hates any mention of pubs and pub-crawls and Rome is crawling with pub crawls, posters and ads everywhere; Father Silas is furious when he spots Ray-Ray in a souvenir T shirt from a pub-crawl that reads APPRENTICE ALCOHOLIC.

Ray-Ray complains to Eve.  “Man, why does he get so mad like that?”  Ray-Ray says, “I’m not a child.  I can travel and check into a hotel, he’d be surprised.  I can do all sorts of things.”  The younger people in the art group hate it when he lectures them on how to behave in Italy.

.

Father Silas may not win a popularity contest, but he finagles us past the giant lineups in front of St Peter’s, skipping mobs and security checks; his Irish connection in the palace of Popes pays off.  As early-birds we have time to check out the Sistine Chapel before the crowds arrive.  How many times have I joked about some half-ass project, Don’t worry, it’s not the Sistine chapel.  Now it’s the real article, now it is the Sistine Chapel!

Father Silas expertly guides our eyes through each brushstroke and painted image on the ceiling, nude bodies and fresco skies of pale pink, robin egg blue, pale canary yellow, Noah drunk and disgraced and martyrs and mild saints flung about hallucinatory heavens floating in this chamber.  I love it.  Grotesque figures and prophets lean out from high dizzy corners and sinners pulled to hell in this ecstatic artifice.

Noah a drunk!  News to me.

Don’t let Father Silas know, says Eve.

The guards yell at us, No fo-to!

A young German backpacking couple elbows me, pushing past me to cram closer to Father Silas and hang on every word; they are not in our group, but they are eager for Father Silas’s narrative of the Sack of Rome in 1527; our group couldn’t care if the Sack of Rome is in five minutes.

Eve nudges me, signals with her eyes at a bench where some of our disgruntled comrades perch: one art lover cradles his pained head in open hands, one holds his giant Dr. Dre headphones tight, one poor soul manages to tap out a text.  In the Sistine Chapel they are all looking down!  I will say this once and then let it go: the fucking Sistine Chapel and they can’t see, can’t lift their eyes to Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, blind to the arches and lunettes and miracles hovering above their dehydrated heads, blind to treasures floating over their trauma brains.

Above us God divides light from darkness and we linger in the centre of the chapel, Father Silas ecstatic, the longest visit he’s ever had here.  But as the room fills with travelers, guards spring up to move the crowd along the marble, to herd us to the exit.

“Keep moving.  No fo-to.”  Does the blind man know the chapel?  “Keep moving!  No fo-to.  Keep moving!  No fo-to.”

A woman from Delaware asks me, “Where is Noah?”  And I have the answer!  I show her the ark and his drunkenness and we chat easily, she charms me, looking me in the eye – how to describe that permission to engage her eye, the face, that magnetic connection?  But her tour group is gone from the tidal room and she worries she has lost them.

Bye! she says hurriedly, eyes still on my eyes.  Very nice talking to you, she says.

I want to say more: woman from Delaware, you seem important.  But what to say quickly that doesn’t seem lame?  I fail to utter key words and she vanishes from sight.  Sometimes I feel my own mind staring at me and judging like a separate person.  Delaware: I’m picturing a river, a green valley.

.

In the Vatican cafe Ray-Ray buys three sandwiches and three drinks and thirty Euro vanish in seconds; Ray-Ray puts it on plastic, does this over and over, Ray-Ray is always hungry.

A button on his tote bag says, I was Raised by a Pack of Wild Corn Dogs.  “Does the Vatican sell corn dogs?  I’d kill for a corn dog.”

I don’t know if the Vatican has corn dogs.  I will return from my travels to be murdered in the bath.  It is the 40th anniversary of the White Album; the Osservatore Romano says that the Vatican forgives John Lennon his “boast” that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

“Weird to drink beer in the Vatican.”

My parents loved the church and hated the Beatles.  I am going to get me religion, maybe I’ll start a church, the church of cold toast.  Natasha likes cold toast and cold butter, as I do.  No one else likes cold toast.  It’s a sign, she sank her nails into me, haunts me still.  Like Pompeii after the volcano, the shore altered.

.

Through marble halls and chambers we find our way and stumble outside to battle sunlight in our slit eyes, we are in the vast pillared piazza in front of St Peter’s Basilica, the floating dome, the silver spaceship, the mothership and its rows of myriad Doric pillars moving out like great arms enclosing a flat open space larger than a football field.

.

This is not the way we entered; this morning we slipped in the north side, and now we move under the church of churches, the rock of Peter.  Byron admired this view, this architectural marvel, Melville stood here, Goethe, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Jethro Tull.

“Are there any zombies in Rome?  Yeah, zombies in the Vatican!  That’d be a very cool movie.”

Ray-Ray yells “HEY” and runs across the space to question an Italian man who is missing one leg and has an amazing comb-over, his hairdo a monument to tenacity.

“Hey man, is it true about phantom limbs, that you get an itch in the limb that’s not there anymore?”

Non capisco.  He doesn’t understand English.

In the endless white light, in the corner of vision, a bear cub gallops through the forest of pillars.  The bear must be panicked, but it looks very cute: dark fur, a pale brown muzzle, outsize ears and that rolling stiff-legged lope past our hungover group, past Saint Peter’s, and barreling toward the sidewalk men selling leather purses and sunglasses.

“How did a bear get here in the city?” asks Eve.

Is there a gypsy circus camped in Trastevere or the Piazelle del Gianicolo?  The poor animal swiftly crosses a road, speeds down a narrow medieval passage and I can’t see it anymore.  People scatter before the bear cub, but some follow behind attempting shaky photos and videos.  A tiny blue police car joins the chase and when the men selling sunglasses see the police car, they gather up their squares of cloth and footstools and vanish, a form of magic.

“Oh shit, where’s my iPhone?” calls out one of our group, half of a star-crossed tragic couple who have fallen for each other on the trip, but are betrothed to others back home.  They spend much time in Rome pacing and staring at each other and exaggeratedly sighing like silent film stars.  “Did someone steal it?  I put it down for like five seconds max.  My mother’s going to freak!”

In Italy eyes are on us, waiting for the moment when we put down our laptop or briefly ignore our camera on the table.  The thieves love us.

Eve says she was mugged for her phone in Chile: she laughs telling us, says the man asked for her phone, looked at it, an old clamshell with a duct tape hinge, and handed it back to her, her phone not worth stealing.

“What’s it like to not have a phone?”  They ask me this with genuine curiosity.

Discarded phone cards litter the ground.  They are so afraid to not be connected; everyone staring at a tiny screen, that slow zombie walk, zombies in Rome.

Our hungover group walks away from the mothership’s giant field of pillars.  Taking our place, a new batch of amiable tourists line up to display their girth and sunglasses; we are all part of a giant art installation, the pure products of America abroad, trodding leather and considering miracles in marble and wondering about beer and lunch and dinner menus with no inkling that a cute bear cub rambled past us moments ago.

Ray-Ray stops me: “What kind of pants is this?”

He’s studying a woman swishing past in gold harem-pants; her walk has a pronounced twitch, her pants moving about her like shimmering drapes.

“Looks like MC Hammer.”

“Who?”

“You can’t touch this.”

“Touch what?”  He looks suspicious; what am I talking about?

With the harem-pants woman we try our limited Italian.  Dove un internet café?

There follow many speedy sentences and in seconds I’m lost.

Wait, non capisco.  Holdo, signora, parla lentamente per favore, lentamente, please speak slowly, I am a foreign simpleton in your speedy empires of talk.  Our group did not invent stupidity, but we are the latest visible practitioners.

.

My cousin Eve leans conspiratorially toward Tamika and says, “Those Italian men on the street!  Their eyes, they look right into your soul.”

Tamika mutters, “It’s not your soul they are after.”

Amore, amore.  Look at the eyes here, eyes like slow sunsets and foxfire and Friar’s lantern, eyes like the feral cats in the temple ruins, diamond-eyed cats after rats.

My eyes roam the world too, looking for stars held in a cupola, looking for the right person, a person who likely does not exist, like my childhood guardian angel, an ideal that may lead only to disappointment.  I’m not unlike the two women on the next terrace in that respect.

.

The promise of Rome and the promise of the Spanish blonde in the leafy hotel atrium, her adherence to smoke and water bottles; I work up my nerve for the question.  And I never do this.

“Would you, um, care to go out for dinner?”

“No,” she says too quickly.  “I’m having dinner with my friend when she gets off work.”  So Elena was expecting the question and ready to say no.  What is it like to believe in an anthem, I mean really belt it out?

I need a wee drink.  The others keep working away on vats of sweet wine.  In the laneway a few feet away a sweaty man with no shirt hits a motorcycle with a piece of wood, setting off a loud alarm.  The man tosses the piece of wood and casually lights a smoke to wait for the resulting beneficial social interaction.

His hope: someone will approach and fight.

Our hope: he will go away.

All our tiny wretched hopes like cartoon thought balloons over each block of Rome, multiply these across the city street-map, across the wide world, all these hopeless little balloons of our hopes, like markers on a board game, like hotels on Expedia.

We are not always pleasant, but we all have our tiny hopes.

.

The blind man wanders the stairways in search of culprits and the women’s voices continue on the next terrace.

“I asked that nun for the time.  In Italian.”

“We fit in.”

“We’re doing so well, we went right to the edge of our map!”

“No one would know we are tourists.”

.

Sun beats on our skin, leathers our lives of quiet desiccation, sun on lovely hours of fountain spray as Hotwire and Orbitz fight over my soul and then the strange lost look of my street before dawn.

Get some sleep behind scrolled blinds and rise late and the sun always there until it must enter the horizon like a burning airship and a million emails jetting out to everyone in the world say A Special Offer Just for YOU! and at dusk swallows circle and blur in a mosquito frenzy and in her famous T-shirt my cousin walks out in the garden of green parrots just before rains sweep in from some distant sea.

The Italian man has eyes.  As do I.  I resent him as cousins might.

“It’s so cozy here,” says Eve.  “I love the sound of the rain.”

Night and the light on Eve’s face may change your mind about the world.  I have to gaze, to compensate for the blind man who can’t see her.  Behind the city a wall of rain like green glass, like some remnant of hurricane season.  She climbed above me in the fig tree and I was allowed a vision of her muscled legs and beyond, I see Paris, I see France, I dream of her at the beach, half nude at the shore, her freckled skin so lovely, to live inside it, to kiss her in the eelgrass, light under the harbor swell like light inside a fountain, to see her at the sea where she is almost naked with strangers, but I never go with the group to the beach, it is too scorching or I am not inspired.

Perhaps I’m a winter person, a touch of winter in me always.  I should drop everything and be a ski bum in the blue glaciers before they melt and vanish, I could work on the hill, work as a liftie putting skiers on the Angel chairlift.

Eve knows the mountains and resorts, says, “No, don’t quit your day job.  Being a lift-operator is a killer on the back and people are always falling over and poking you with their ski poles.  Definitely join a band.  Chicks dig that.”

The lifties use shovels to level the snow where skiers load on the chairlift, like shoveling coal, and Eve says at shift’s end they’d set their ass down in the scoop shovels and race each other in shovels to the bar at the bottom of the mountain.

.

God is irritable, God recently gave up cigarettes.  At our subway stop I let Eve and Tamika step out first, but the doors close hard on my arms as I step out just after them.  Why do the subway doors attack me when I was so chivalrous?  Perhaps the gears and sensors know something of my true nature, gods alive in our machines and devices.  I must have offended the elders of the internet, a major disappointment to You Tube.  I need to learn to love technology, must dab datum on me like cologne from a dollar store.

.

In the neighbourhood café Francesco knows our faces and gives us free morning coffee.  Angelo, the aged hotel owner, joins us for a late breakfast.  Eve picks up an espresso and an Italian newspaper.

“Tell me, Marco,” Angelo says to the American intern.  “Is it true that Americans eat donuts for breakfast?  That is wrong.”  But for his breakfast Angelo fills a sweet croissant with whipped cream and chocolate Nutella.

Angelo says he used to know the Vatican crowd, but no more.  I assume those men he knew are dead now (and there rose a pharaoh that did not know Angelo).  He doesn’t look that old, but Marco says that Angelo is over eighty; he never stops working on his hotel, moving walls, refurbishing rooms, digging a cellar.

Eve and Tamika run off to a pro-choice rally gathering in front of Pope Rat’s place at St. Peter’s; Angelo finishes his whipped cream and Nutella and leaves; Marco lowers his voice to tell me of an old friend of Angelo’s at the hotel.

“The man paid me cash for three different rooms.  Seventy years old if he’s a day.  He books the rooms for four hours and I swear five different women showed up.”

.

I wonder if the noisome couple in the next room paid by the hour, the minute, or down to the second.  Or hotel staff who know it to be free?  Or was it Angelo’s old friend with his harem?  Does his harem wear shimmering harem pants?

.

Every hotel, every guest house, every B&B, has offered me “an arrangement” to pay cash.  No receipt, but the room costs much less.  I find it hard to say no as it saves me so much, hundreds easily, perhaps thousands given enough weeks or months.  Factor in millions of tourists wheeling luggage down Europe’s cobblestones and dropping cash only and one sees why lawmakers and accountants have such trouble chasing their cut of the haul.  As a spoiled North American I am so used to plastic, but cash is king here and my best deals are off the books.

.

Marco’s work at the hotel has to do with the books; Marco’s task is to nudge the hotel into the computer age.  The French woman still consults a huge old-fashioned ledger book with our names and reservations written by hand.  Marco is setting up a computer.  Businesses in Italy often need two sets of books; after Marco is done, will the hotel need two sets of computers?

God enriches, but cash is king, so we all must stash envelopes of cash, cash on my person or hidden in my room, more cash than I am comfortable carrying or hiding.

.

Eve’s purse was stolen from her hotel room a year before; she found a small footprint in a flowerpot on her balcony and her bag tossed to the next balcony.  Luckily, the young thief missed Euros she had hidden in the WC.  The art historian’s phone lifted as he walks a crowded street, a religion teacher’s wallet eased from his front pocket on the bus, a beatnik backpacker swarmed by children, turning and turning, a dizzy whirligig to keep their nimble fingers from his pack pockets, and a pink rental car stolen as a woman from Banff opened the car door for the first time, she possessed the car for seconds and it was gone.

.

Marco and Eve traveled to the police station to interpret for the hotel’s American family who lost a ring handed down from a great-grandmother, lost blown glass from Venice.  A sweltering night, an open window or balcony door.  The police type up a report, but what can they do, a waste of ink.

Who expects someone from the roof?  In all corners of Europe such a complex economy dotes on our purloined phones and cameras and we oblige, we carry cash, wallets and laptops, and we deliver them to the thieves.  How they long for us like lost lovers in their damp winter and each year we come back like the blossoms of spring.

.

Angelo had to sack an employee who lit rubbish on fire in a stairwell; the employee hated the guests, the noisy party animals, and he wanted to get off work early.  So a fire against the exit door is the answer.  Could he be the hotel thief?  Or is it the blind man, bounding like a cat across the roof?

.

Father Silas tells our group a farmer’s daughter joke.  And Natasha sent me email from her parents’ farm in northern B.C.  Why did I not think of this all these years: Natasha is a farmer’s daughter.  I broke off contact with the farmer’s daughter, for my own well-being, but every day I have a physical urge tell her what I see in Italy.

In Canada Natasha said we must stay in contact, an unbearable empty place if we stop talking, a huge hole in both our lives.  She said those words, admirable thoughts.  But in her life, in her distant city, she has someone there to turn to, to say she had a bad day, to say, He’s really upset, I just don’t know what to tell him.  She can say to say to someone, Let’s go out for a drink, can say later, Hey, love you so much.

..

Irena the chambermaid greets me, Come ve?  She does not ask, Come stai.  Is she being formal with me as a hotel guest?  Irena is always so friendly with me.  Is she just as friendly with the others?  I want her to like me.  She wears cargo pants with numerous pockets to hold cleaning gear, waistband low on her belly from weighted pockets and pulled tight on her round rear.  Irena’s shirt rides up as she cleans the room and I notice a puckered scar on her belly like a hieroglyph, a story scripted in a scar.  In her supple hands a large sheet rises and settles as if on a breeze: her levitating art.

Come stai? I ask.

Sto male.  She is sick.  But she is working anyway.  Maybe she caught whatever Ray-Ray had when he arrived from China.  Some afternoons I see the chambermaids walk away from work in their street clothes, altered in their clothes, happy to be free on the sunny avenue, happy to be free of us.

 “I hope you feel better,” I say.  She nods.

Irena leaves the sex room, Eve leaves Italy like a merry sleepwalker, “Excuse me,” says Our Lady of Madrid, “I must go.”  Soon all leave the city, the mountain frontiers, leave Europe’s stone quarters and catacombs, say goodbye to the orchards and marble excavations.

..

It seems so long ago that Natasha phoned after silence to say there was someone else.  I knew something was wrong, but did not know what.  I was married to the sound of her voice, talking to each other when she was almost asleep, part of something beautiful and spooky and rare and rich, but part of nothing now, and another woman in a doorway or an airport says, I’d hate to lose touch with you, you know I love you in so many ways, who says, It’s been wonderful.  My half-buried past, my layered Pompeii, my quiet buried city.

That day my faith was tested.  Phil Ochs in exile from Ohio, kicked out of Dylan’s car, no more songs and the rope on the pipe beckoning.  The snake handler’s look of disbelief as he died in his own church, as he recalibrated his idea of being exempt from the fang.

I KNOW I AM NOT SPECIAL: I must repeat this until it sinks into my head like a spike into a rotten log.  Exiled from dopamine, from the snowshoes of yesteryear, I tape a piece of white paper to a mirror: For sleep, riches and health to be truly enjoyed, they must be interrupted.

.

On a map I showed her Canada, showed the woman from Iraq where I grew up.  She is well educated, but has rarely seen a map with Canada.  And America there right below Canada.

“They have has so much space; why did they want to invade our country when they have so much land?”  She peers at the map with utter puzzlement.

The billion dollar question: why did Bush and cohorts invade the wrong country?  Oil an easy answer or they got their Auto Association maps mixed up.  Or rumours say the invasion was revenge for an earlier plot by Hussein to kill Dubya’s father, George Bush, Senior.

“Bush is in town; you could ask him.”

“Bush is here?  Where?  I’ll go see him.  Did you see him smiling on the aircraft carrier, he was so happy while we suffer.  Bush is always talking of terror.  My brother is not a terrorist.  I am not a terrorist, I want to hurt no one.  He has killed more than anyone else in the world.  Will someone hunt down Bush and hang him on a rope?”

The woman from Iraq is very charitable, she is not anti-American, has relatives in Chicago and wonders about moving to live there.

“I hate no one,” she says, “but I hate that man.  When they threw a shoe at Bush, I was glad.”

I do wonder about Bush, what he really thinks.  “Did you ever see your Mustang again?”

“Oh no, nothing was left.”

Blow upon blow, her pleasant world dismantled by this man Bush, her fast American car transformed into a tin can, her brother kidnapped and dumped in the desert in plastic cuffs, her mother going mad with worry, her fiancé dead in the rubble, her happy life stolen by a thief.  And the banner on the aircraft carrier:  Mission Accomplished.  After meeting her, I swear I’ll never complain again.

Her mother misses her bright laughter in the house, now the house is quiet, but for the noisy generator running outside the house; the power off and on since the invasion, so they must run a generator in the yard.

“I was always laughing then,” she says.  “Now I only laugh with you.”  And somehow we do laugh a lot.  Our odd connection.

She says her mother needs to go to the hospital, but the power grid is so damaged that doctors are afraid to start any complicated surgery for fear the lights will go dark while a patient is cut open.  She grew up in a prosperous, stable country, her father a professor, but now it is too dangerous for him to leave his home and risk the roadblocks where someone in a mask may execute you if you say the wrong word or drive the wrong part of the city.

She misses driving her car in Baghdad.

“Was your Mustang fast?”

“Oh yes.  I’m not a crazy driver, but on the highway one must go fast.”

Marco convinces Angelo to lend me a two-door Fiat so I can take her for a spin and let her drive a car once more.  I am nervous in Rome’s traffic.  Sniffing Rome’s oily exhaust, she claims the petrol in Iraq is so pure that her car’s exhaust was sweet as perfume.  Before the war every road was brightly lit and the roads smooth and broad, not so narrow as here.

“Summer must be hot in the desert.  You must need air conditioning.”

“Desert?  Iraq is not desert.  There is a river, how can that be desert?  There are plants, a hundred varieties of dates and olives, such flavours.”  She is offended.  “Iraq was a great civilization.  Why do you say desert?”

Sorry, but on TV with the rolling tanks and dust it looks like desert.  When her car was too hot in the Baghdad sun she kept a special aerosol spray in her purse to cool the hot metal so she could touch the car door without burning her hand.

Sipping leafy tea, we chat and laugh and by accident I discover my power over her: if I reach out in conversation, touch her shoulder or neck, the woman from Iraq swoons, falls into some half-awake state, not used to touch from a male who is not a cousin or betrothed.

I ask, Has this happened with anyone else?

No one else has touched me, but you and my fiancé.  How you do that?

I don’t know; it’s never happened before.

Please don’t right now, I want to go out, I don’t want to be sleepy.

I touch her and her knees buckle, but she acts as if it is normal to have such power.  She casually asks me to be careful.  Yes, I will be careful.  I have the strangest life.

She asks me, “In Chicago, are there many blacks?  I’ve heard there is work in Chicago, but it has many blacks.”  She worries about blacks.  “They scare me,” she confides.

“Winters can be cold in the Windy City,” I say, “and you’re used to the heat.”

“Yes,” she says, “I don’t know how you go outside in that cold.  You whites are tough!”

I get an inordinate kick out of being called a white.  I put my arm by her arm and her skin is lighter than the skin on my tanned arm.

The woman from Iraq jumps at any noise, even the sound of feet running on stairs in her building.  I strum a quiet Townes Van Zandt song on guitar and she says, “That’s nice, soft music.”  She can’t listen to loud rock or rap, she can’t take bright light, must wear her big sunglasses.

At night she wakes from nightmares, has a frightening nightmare immediately after telling me the story of her fiancé and his bombed shop, her eyes closed in sleep she relieves the scene and I feel guilty for bringing on the nightmare.  Any noise in a room above, a shoe dropping or a door slamming and she jumps in panic.  I’m no physician, but these seem classic symptoms of trauma.  The young American soldier in the graveyard may suffer from the same set of ailments, the war that always follows the war.

Odd that I meet both in Italy, two brains creased slightly by trauma, two brains moving through train stations of beautiful flowering vines and thuggish teens.

I heard this mother and daughter weep on the phone when a connection worked.  Often her phone rang briefly and then went dead.  I bought her time at a grubby internet café.  She told her mother all was well in Rome, she didn’t want her mother to worry.

We’ll talk soon, she said to her mother, God willing.  She often ends sentences with this careful phrase: God willing.

“If there is a God,” I commented once.

“No if!” she said.  “No if.  Believe me, there is a God.”

But is it the same God George Bush believes in?

She has such faith in God, that God will look after her, but she must sell the gold ring from her handsome brother who loves her, she must enquire into jewelry or coin shops.  She can’t understand why this has happened, her father trapped in his eerie house, the old land of Persia laid low, his daughter exiled in a strange land, an orphan who is not an orphan, a widow who is not a widow, Babylon destroyed and giant tanks lumbering through the garden, tanks in the garden where we began as Adam and Eve.  Then Adam and Eve forced to pack their bags, exiled to a less fashionable suburb.

.

The woman from Iraq’s last email to me: Happy Birthday, I wish you the best wishes, I hope I’m the first one who remember your birthday, have a nice day and might be when I have time will do it again coz I will be busy tomorrow, have fun and wish you the best.

Her name translates as some kind of desert blossom.  And like her fiancé, she vanishes as if never there, like an ancient civilization, like dew leaving a blossom as the sun rises.  No answer on her phone, no reply to email, no answer to a knock at her door.  Weeks went on and I finally received email from her, but it was spam, her email account hacked.  I see her name, but it is not really her, she has been taken over, a regime change.

At a hockey arena in Canada I once heard a man say, “My truck’s got the same tranny as a tank in Eye-rack.”  I never thought I’d meet someone who’d been crushed by an Abrams tank in Iraq.  I hope the woman from Iraq finds a home, perhaps with her relatives in Chicago, a quiet home in the world.

.

Bush stands on an aircraft carrier in his flight jacket and Father Silas sits in his curtained hotel room where I drop by to return a book on art in Naples.  Out of the blue Father Silas tells me that his favourite sister is a serious addict.

“She wakes up each morning and it’s a fight to not have a drink, not use something.  I’ve seen it firsthand.”

So Father Silas detests levity about staggering drunks or stoners and he loathes people profiting from giant pub crawls.  My eyes open: so this is why he is always angry at the group’s moronic drinking, so angry at Ray Ray’s APPRENTICE ALCOHOLIC pub crawl t-shirt, this is why he got in my face about the Italian American Irish pub.

“I worry some in the group will be on that same road because of Rome and I don’t want to encourage it.  That boy from Madison, blotto every night, but he makes it for every class or trip, up wearing dark shades in the morning.  He’s coping, which is a bad sign.  I don’t want something like that to start on my watch.”

What about me, am I also coping on his watch?

If he told the group about his sister they might understand his anger, not dismiss him as a Puritan out to kill the party, to ruin Italy for them.  Can one hold up a sign?  My sweet baby sister is a heavy duty addict; please cut me a little slack.

.

“More vino?”

“Yes please.”

“I like to do a good thing now.  Like today at the elevator, so they think about it and pass it on and it keeps going.  It makes my day, it really makes my day.”

“A good feeling.  I think I’m getting to that.”

“Mary, You’re almost there.”

“95%?”

“No.”

“91?”

“No, 80.”

“Only 80, only 80.”

“Sorry I’m so mean, I’m terrible, but Mary, I couldn’t lie to you.”

.

Go ahead and lie, I think on my terrace, please lie to Mary.  For fuck’s sake, tell her she is 90%.

.

A lightning storm hangs over the mountains, an x-ray shudder, a heart attack of bleached light, then the world brought back to dark purple, back to now, a form of time travel, two worlds at once.  Near our high terrace an invisible dog speaks in an urban cave and the barking echoes into every neighbourhood wall.  Which window or room is the dog?  The woman from Iraq was not used to dogs; in Iraq they are stray curs or guard dogs, associated with fangs or power, not a favoured pet in your bedroom.

Eve loves animals, bends to address every dog and cat she spies.  This invisible dog speaks to something in the night and the two women on the next terrace speak their lines to the night as if in a play and I hear every word, yet my eyes never know their keen faces.  Now I stop, now I close my terrace door on their secret mix of bonhomie and sadness.

.

We all believe we have a corner on sadness.  In our Jetson future perhaps sorrow will be valued as a renewable resource.  The immense power of sorrow will light our giant glass houses and pay the tab for our therapy and plastic surgery.  In our jeremiad Jetson future they will mine our misery the way we frack the earth for shale gas pinned there like a cage wrestler.  Our sorrow will fuel beautiful sports cars and sleek machines to Mars, our sorrow will employ our children’s nannies and reverse invasions and rescue the Euro and make shuddering markets rise in joy, our reliable sources of sorrow will make brokers rejoice and smile champagne smiles behind their complex buzzers and floodlit gates and blank limos.

.

An animal speaks, a piano echoes tidy counterpoint, and my small room sways above you in lightning, orbiting in a beautiful Roman sky, and the blind man walks our clean halls with his clicking white stick: Will you please ask them to be quiet!

He can’t stop the raucous partiers, those who drink themselves blind.  I close my eyes and see Eve at the black sand beach in the bay under the volcano, her pale form stretched to the black sand – like looking at a negative.  The blind man wanders eternally, I expect him to carry a lantern at noon, Diogenes searching the halls for an honest man, Diogenes searching the deck of an aircraft carrier lurking in the gloom offshore.

I walk down the stairwell with my eyes shut, I feel I owe the blind man that much, but on the stairs I fail, I have to look.  Train your eye, he seems to suggest, see better, live better.

I will try.  We try on mysterious shoes, have mysterious offspring.  One child wants to be a priest, one wants to be a pirate.  Like the snake-handler, and like me, Adam and Eve felt exempt from the fang.  Something changed.  We sin and are forgiven, we fly to and fro, we are on earth, then we are in the heavens, then we are not, we are on earth, then we are back in the silent cup of stars, then we are not.

In this world tiny things make me irritable and tiny things make me greatly happy.  Like a stone in my shoe, like stars inside a chapel ceiling, or my high window in the night sky, its glass moon shape, and moonlight over arched doorways and ivory rooftops, moonlight making shapes seem profound and unearthly, but only for those who have a moment, this staggering light so secretive and brief and only for you and me.

—Mark Anthony Jarman

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Mark Anthony Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Jarman has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planetand nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. “Exempt from Fang” will appear in Jarman’s forthcoming short story collection Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (Goose Lane Editions, 2015).

 

Nov 142014
 

dave-smithDave Smith via The Poetry Foundation

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By design I was to introduce the poet Dave Smith on December 4th, 2013 at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. By chance an ice storm struck Mississippi where Dave lived and he could not make it. By design he returned to give his reading at Rockhurst in September; by chance I could not be there. Those of us who write as much for pleasure as for profit try not to waste words; better to recycle them, to wit:

Dave Smith and I have been friends for almost thirty years which might surprise him because we met only four or five years ago and since then have passed only a few hours in each others’ company.

We did not grow up together; his brother did not date my sister, and we did not get in a fight about it; we did not hunt quail together with me out-shooting him (or the other way around) neither of us boasting of it but instead agreeing it was good practice to feed the quail heads to the dogs. We did not swap lies at the local tavern, nor tell raw jokes back and forth, the same ones again and again over the years, my favorite being about the Ozark man who feeds his pigs apples and Dave’s being an especially reprehensible one about a hillbilly bringing his daughter to the doctor for birth control pills.

And we have not grown old together, the two of us at a high school reunion a few years ago in either his Virgil Cain’s south or my West Jesus Land, Kansas, re-calling that in our youth we’d talk about breasts and buttocks but now we talk about stove-up bowels and government bonds. How is it then have we been friends all these years? By the power of the 17century metaphysical poet’s ability to yoke the mechanics of compasses with the sublimity of love I will explain.

Not that Dave would know this, but I first met him when he was in Utah and I was in Paris. A left bank book store (not Shakespeare and Company) had a display of American literary magazines, and I bought two or three to take back to my apartment in the couscous quarter. In those literary magazines I read a number of poets whose work I knew (and knew in person as well as in print) and some I did not: Dave Smith was among the latter in both regards. But instead of being just a poet whose poetry I had not read, he became a poet who sent his poems directly (and especially) to me via a literary cosmic connection established well before the Internet.

Surely all of us who read have had such an experience: Bill Stafford wired me poetry from the early sixties on—well before we met. William Maxwell and J.D. Salinger hailed me from New York City. Evan S. Connell sent me high signs from New Mexico years before Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward became Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Henry Green (not Graham Green) found me sitting on a bench in Washington Square’s Greenwich Village, Mary Travis a bench away. Paul Bowels got in touch from Tangiers while I was in California at the No Name bar in Sausalito listening to Tom Leher sing Poisoning Pigeons in the Park on the jukebox. As Dave Smith writes of the poet Richard Hugo: “His poems spoke to a listener that I did not know was in me; an ear I didn’t yet know listened.”

Remember when Holden Caulfield says that when he reads a good book he wants to call the author. That’s what it is like. Only in reverse: Dave Smith called me in Paris and we began over the years a magical literary conversation. Not that Dave Smith knew (or maybe he did and just never told me). Which reminds me: Garcia Marquez got in touch from Macondo; Elizabeth Bishop from the New Yorker; Amos Tutuola from Nigeria; Elizabeth Bowen from Dublin; Jean Rhys and Mavis Gallant from Paris; and in Kansas City at the Westport Inn where I was sitting at a back table having a red beer, Andrei Bely hailed me from Petersburg at the suggestion of Vladimir Nabokov who, in the early sixties, had sent Dolores Haze in her circular skirt and scanties to my night stand at the Window Dunn’s farm house in Lawrence, Kansas.

The list is long; the world is round, the conversation everlasting. To talk about literature is as natural as breathing, Eliot writes. Dave Smith spoke to me; I listened. Our breathing had begun.

The Dave Smith I met on rue Xavier Prive in Paris that summer wrote thin, long one stanza poems; more elegy than story. Others were short and taciturn. Not quite lyrics, they were less songs than small bore single shots to the squirrel of our heart. I imagined him trim as his poems, and short. Over the years, his gift expanded, and so did his poetry. To read Dave Smith now is to read one of America’s fine narrative poets. To read his prose, as in his book Hunting Men (in which the Richard Hugo piece is included), is to read one American’s fine literary essayists. Metaphors and similes happily abound in both. This is Dave’s description of three coyotes running ahead of a car at night in a snowstorm, taken from his poem “Christmas Concert, With Violin.”

They took the road oblivious as saints. Soon flecks of ice
like metal shavings, then blizzard. We followed.
Snow spooled, slammed, like treachery, hiding those shadows.
As I gripped the unknown way, snaking, we’d
see them in and out, crossing a creek, clattery bridge, the new
milk-blue on their backs like royal robes.

Ever since the Iliad, the narrative poem and repetitive similes have cohabited in verse. But in our time, not since A.R. Ammons, has a poet used metaphor and simile with the description power of Dave Smith. Or, as he writes of Ammons, “he felt the weight, metaphysical and back bending, of snow.”

Such accomplishment is not much admired these days. We look for less length in our verse, less story, and a lot less of what one confessional poet told me was “the dead white whale poet still lingering among us.” I was tempted to point out that whales, even dead ones, don’t “linger.” And like Oscar Wilde I did not resist.

In the end however, what must be admired, at least for the sake of what is left of our Republic of Letters, is Dave Smith’s poem itself. “Christmas Concert, With Violin” is huge, running 28 stanzas to nearly 200 lines. And those stanzas are an unrhymed version of rhyme royal (think Chaucer) where the stanzas are sometimes rooms, and sometimes rooms that a-join one another to deepen the scene while carrying along the story. In this way, Christmas Concert, With Violin is both dramatic and narrative, all in pursuit of an adventure—not unlike the classical epics. I know of no other poem like it.

What friends who are writers do is make literary gifts to one another: slices of scenes, bits of dialogue, stories, all as a way of saying: I can’t use it, maybe you can. Better to recycle than even compost. Dave, here’s one for you from me:

Years ago, even before we became friends, I was a student at the University of Arkansas Writer’s workshop in Fayetteville where, on the local television news one evening, there began live coverage of a murder on Magazine Mountain. Someone had been “butchered into body parts,” as the reporter told us. Now the search was on to find the “whole fellow, who ever he was.” To that end the sheriff, a man named High Hat Hal, had called upon the local hunters to lend a hand, in this case their dogs. Each evening for about a week, I would tune into the television news to learn what body part had been retrieved.

“What do we have today?” The reporter asked.

“One of Ed Earl’s pointers drug back most of a leg,” High Hat answered. “It was River Johnson’s coon dog that found it, but coon dogs are not much on fetching. You know River Johnson?” He was the reporter’s shoestring cousin.

As the week went by, the other leg came in, then one hand and most of both arms—-but not the body itself, which High Hat opined had been either digested and passed by bob-cats or tossed into the West Fork to float down to Simpson’s ox-bow where the turtles would “nibble it clean.” As to the head, again it was River Johnson’s coon dog that bayed at it, but Texas Tom’s half-breed retriever who brought it back so badly chewed they’d have to send it to Little Rock to see who it was.

“That dog always was hard-mouthed, “ said the sheriff.

With all the body parts more or less accounted for, it was left to the following week for the Sheriff to report that they’d found the murderer, a man not yet named but charged. His wife had turned him in after she’d freed herself from his chaining her to a washing machine, then running the spin cycle with a lump of wet blanket on one side to shake the devil from her innards.

“He was apparently given to Jesus,” the Sheriff told us. The body parts had been the wife’s lover.

Dave Smith, my friend all these years, make a huge great poem of it, from that I’ll write a screenplay. Like James Dickey, you can be the sheriff; I’ll be the reporter. We’ll need to find a some dogs and an actress willing to be chained to a washing machine. But in the end, how about the two of us walk out of the final frame like Rick and Louie in Casablanca? Only I want to be Humphrey Bogart for reasons having to do with Ingrid Bergman. Dave: The story is yours. As is my gratitude for your friendship.

—Robert Day

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Robert Day

Robert Day’s is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

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Nov 132014
 

CaptureNarcissus by Caravaggio via Wikipedia

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they used to tell the story of an hidalgo who had emigrated from Spain as a very young man, and who had amassed a huge fortune in the sugarcane industry. Old and ill, he gathered his many children around him in order to give them his final instructions. “If I should die here in Havana,” he told them, “promise me that you will send me back to Spain to be buried there.” One after the other, all of his children swore that they would carry out his will to the letter. “However, if for some reason I should die in Spain,” he added, “I want you to bring me back here to Havana to be buried.” “Of course, Father,” his eldest son assured him, “That too we shall do. But tell me: why do you wish this?” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied the old man, “Just to fuck around.”

It is in such a spirit that I would like to propose a brief meditation on mirror scenes in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction. Gratuitously in other words, in a largely unfettered and fundamentally playful perspective, one not driven by the prospect of immediate utility, but rather by simple (and very nearly idle) curiosity.

The burgeoning of the detective novel in Nordic countries during the last couple of decades is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable in many ways to the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s. Working in the wake of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten-volume Martin Beck series (1965-75) set the terms of the trend, an impressive diversity of writers has broadened the genre’s horizon of possibility in significant ways. I’m thinking here of figures such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Kristina Ohlsson, Kjell Eriksson, Åke Edwardson, and Håkan Nesser (Sweden); Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø (Norway); Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland); Peter Høeg and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Among the many intriguing features one may find in this body of work, it abounds in mirror scenes, that is, moments when a subject comes face to face with her or his reflection in the mirror.

That the detective novel should deploy a topos such as this one makes a great deal of sense. For that literary genre is all about discovery after all; and perhaps, as much as anything else, it is about the prospect of self-discovery. Think for instance of Oedipus, an excellent example of an early detective, and consider especially the way he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. When asked what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon, he replied “Man,” and that answer of course did the trick. Yet the real answer to the Sphinx’s question is “Me”—as the rest of Oedipus’s tale clearly demonstrates, to his doom. The moral is clear enough: no riddle can be solved if the subject cannot first come to terms with himself or herself. And in certain cases, the subject need look no further than that. Such is the lesson of the gnothi seauton, the imperative of self-knowledge that has animated Western culture from its very beginnings. And such, too, is the impulse that subtends the mirror scene wherever we may find it these days, in our increasingly specular culture.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau

The other key figure in the tradition of mirror gazing is of course Narcissus. There are many versions of his myth, and the lessons they put on display are varied. The most harrowing among them is the version that Ovid recounts. Asked if Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, a seer remarks, “Yes, if he does not come to know himself.” It’s a sly answer, and a very perverse one, too, cutting across the grain of cultural commonplace as it does. Its moral is more immediate than that of the Oedipus myth, and less equivocal with regard to the gnothi seauton. Both tales, it must be recognized, paint a dark picture of the encounter with the self, one where deliberate, uncompromising introspection leads to catastrophe for the subject. All of this is to say that the mirror scene is a cultural topos more than passingly vexed, and more than usually fraught with contradictory messages. When contemporary literature turns to that topos and puts it to use, even in offhanded ways, its trappings come along with it, which may help to explain why even the most apparently innocent mirror scene typically creates a disturbing moment in a text, a moment of exceptional reflection.

In what follows, I would like to consider the different shapes those moments assume in the Scandinavian detective novel, proposing along the way a loose, heuristic typology that may help us to think about them more efficiently. My own sense is that those scenes are deeply involved with the poetics of the gaze in literature, with the representation of the self, with the way the human subject grapples with his or her humanity, and with what we may hope to find when we look into the mirror of the text.

CaptureKarin Fossum

Before we leap into those moments, it is important to point out what is not a mirror scene; and in doing so it is best to be both draconian and exhaustive. First, it should be noted that the mere mention of the object does not suffice. When Karin Fossum writes, “I got up every morning and went out to the bathroom, and there was his toothbrush below the mirror” (Don’t Look Back 255), there is indeed a mirror in the scene, but the subject fails to encounter herself therein. Fossum is particularly fond of events like that, sometimes wagering upon pure (and from the devotee’s point of view, purely otiose) analogy: “A mirror-like tarn, no bigger than a large pond, lying among the spruce trees like a secret space” (Don’t Look Back 26). One gets the same sense of missed opportunity when the mirror is invoked in a figural, metaphorical manner. “The same questions. Again and again,” complains Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, as he grapples with a particularly thorny problem, “Over and over again. Reflecting themselves in the mirror” (Mind’s Eye 19). Those questions may reflect themselves till the cows come home; they are not human beings, and their specularity has no psychological or moral depth. More cruelly still, Åsa Larsson insists upon the absence of the mirror, and we benighted readers are left to muse upon what the moment might have been like if only a mirror had been present: “‘What gorgeous clothes,’ smiled Sanna, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Look at this jumper! Pity there isn’t a mirror in here'” (Sun Storm 26).

One must also dismiss a category that I would like to call the mirror scene manqué. “He was in such a hurry,” remarks Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, “that for once he didn’t stop to admire himself in the little mirror hanging beside the coat rack by the door. If he had, he would have seen that his aura was heavy and dark. Almost black” (My Soul to Take 131). Here, the subject’s encounter with the mirror is conjectural, rather than actual, and thus unsatisfactory. A more literal example of that species presents itself when Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole finds himself nose to nose with a great white shark at the Sydney Aquarium: “At first he thought it was his own reflection he could see, then his eyes became accustomed to the light and he felt his heart register a last pounding beat before it froze. The Great White was beside him, watching him with cold, lifeless eyes” (The Bat 168). Though this is not a mirror scene, it should be noted that there is an ironically specular dimension to it, for as he gazes in horror at the shark Harry Hole realizes that he, too, may have something of the coldblooded predator about him.

Jo nesboJo Nesbø

We must also agree to turn aside from scenes of simple introspection, moments of self-appraisal undertaken without the mediation of the mirror. Consider this passage from Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled: “He sat at his desk, feeling that he could now examine himself at arm’s length: the man staggering around in the West Indies, the miserable trip to Thailand, all those days and nights when everything seemed to have ground to a halt apart from his bodily functions. He was looking at himself, but he realized that that person was somebody he no longer knew. He had been somebody else” (57). Perhaps he was indeed “looking at himself,” but not in the literal sense; and in a rigorous consideration of mirror scenes, we owe it to ourselves to be as literalist as we possibly can.

When one character in Mankell’s The Pyramid asks another, “Have you even seen what you look like?” and that latter individual testily retorts, “I don’t spend my time looking at myself in the mirror” (9-10), the suggestion is that looking at oneself in the mirror is something that vain, lazy people do, something that is unfit for people of a more active, engaged, and robust constitution. And perhaps it is for reasons such as those that Inspector Kurt Wallander upon occasion deliberately eschews the mirror: “He splashed cold water on his face and took a long leak. He avoided looking at his face in the mirror” (Henning Mankell, One Step Behind 333). Other passages in Mankell’s writing are a bit more difficult to dismiss, because while the mirror therein is virtual rather than literal, the subject’s encounter with himself has a great deal of flesh on its bones: “Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever seen anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skäne. No-one would have guessed his double-sided self” (Sidetracked 14). I realize that I have been relying heavily upon Henning Mankell here. Having read him so attentively, and with so much pleasure, over so many years, I feel now that he is a close personal friend. I’d like to go to IKEA with him. More pertinently, his writing provides a very rich vein of classic mirror scenes, as we shall see in a moment, undoubtedly the mother lode insofar as Scandinavian detective fiction is concerned.

Before we get there however, and having now plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in the non-mirror scene orchard, let me invoke a few examples of passages that hover right on the threshold of mirror scenedom. Consider this passage from Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back: “Each time he looked at the picture of his father, his own old age seemed to advance uncomfortably on him” (35). Clearly, the subject sees something of himself when he gazes at the picture of his father; but to call this a mirror scene is to reach too far. It offers, in a sense, a negative image of a mirror scene, a notion that can be confirmed by comparing it to a positive image of the same topos, such as this passage in Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga: “He examined his face in the mirror and saw that he was getting more and more like his father” (201). Yet when the subject gazes at a photograph of himself, rather than one of his father, the elements of a full-blown mirror scene fall easily into place, as Åke Edwardson understands: “He removed the cloth and stared at a photograph of himself, taken shortly before high school graduation” (Death Angels).

Then there are textual moments when the encounter with the mirror is implicit, rather than actual. “She sat anesthetized at the kitchen table,” writes Åsa Larsson, “and recalled the joy she had felt earlier; the bike ride to the city and back, how she already felt more fit, the feeling of putting on the black skirt and the neat blouse, her new appearance that the hairstyle and her more conscious application of makeup gave her” (Sun Storm 329). Any reasonable person would infer that the subject had put her makeup on while looking in the mirror; yet the narrative elides that moment maddeningly.

As much as it pains me, it must be said that in certain mirror scenes nothing happens—or nothing of real interest. “Gullberg was completely exhausted after all his efforts on Monday,” writes Stieg Larsson. “He did not wake until 9:00 on Tuesday morning, four hours later than usual. He went to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He stood for a long time looking at his face in the mirror before he turned off the light and went to get dressed. He chose the only clean shirt he had left in the brown briefcase and put on a brown-patterned tie” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 124). The moment is flatly constative; it provides nothing beyond the simple fact of the encounter; it has no depth. A passage in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists is similar: “They returned to their own base, where there was no one but the chief of the Stockholm Police. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair with great care. Then he eyed his tie, which as usual was of plain colored silk. Today it was pale yellow” (226). In both cases, alas, we learn more about the tie than we do about the subject. Certain other passages of this sort set up the encounter with the self, and then shy away from it, as it were: “While she was putting on her coat, Thóra looked at herself in the large mirror. She knew it was important to make a good impression at the first meeting, especially if the client was well-off” (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Last Rituals 12-13).

When the devil holds the candle

Still other instances put mirror substitutes into play, and I think we can agree that they clear the bar when those proxies are functional. Here are two examples of that ilk, the first borrowed from Karin Fossum, the second from Åsa Larsson: “Zipp could see the outline of his own face in the black of the television screen: a cowardly, wavering thing” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 222); “She looked at her reflection in the mirror that the roll of aluminum foil attached to the wall provided and where her face appeared cracked in a thousand wrinkles, before she tore off a sheet and handed it to Johnny” (Sun  Storm 172). Sometimes those proxies are human. Arnaldur Indriðason is especially fond of moments like that: “Looking at Steve, she saw her own anxiety reflected in his face” (Operation Napoleon 237); “Marion Briem’s eyes revealed clear pity and a sad certainty that they were looking at their own reflection” (Jar City 121). Other people’s faces can serve as very efficient mirror substitutes, often reflecting an image of the subject that is no less faithful than one that a more literal mirror might provide, if one is willing to embrace the phenomenon of projection that such scenes put on stage, that is. For this specular relation between the self and the other is patently a matter of projection, as Henning Mankell points out: “Wallander looked at Martinsson’s and Hanson’s tired faces and wondered what his own face must be like” (Firewall 68). In other instances of the same effect, Mankell underscores the fidelity of that projection for our benefit, confirming the information that the other’s gaze conveys by a more literal encounter with the mirror: “‘At your age you shouldn’t stay up all night,’ she said. Wallander looked at her with surprise. ‘Is it so obvious?’ She bent down and got her bag from behind the counter, then fished out a make-up mirror and handed it over to him. She was right. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess” (One Step Behind 239).

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As we move beyond these dubious, hybrid, or limit cases toward sturdier and more compelling examples of mirror scenes, it should be noted that their fundamental discursive mode is interrogative. That is, whatever else they may put on offer, mirror scenes portray a questioning subject; and the vector of that questioning points directly toward the subject herself. Gazing at his own reflection, a character in Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of the Night articulates the question that quickens any mirror scene at all, be it overtly or more subtly: “‘Who is Stig Franklin?’ he asked the mirror” (275). We are squarely in the orbit of the gnothi seauton here, of course, and that’s just where we’ll remain as we trace the subject’s fate through three types of encounters with the mirror. The first type involves simple recognition, a moment wherein the subject comes across a mirror and recognizes himself or herself unproblematically. In the second type of scene, such recognition is not immediate, but progressive, and it involves a process that runs the gamut from the mildly difficult to the outright traumatic. In the third type, finally, the subject fails utterly and definitively to recognize himself—and I hereby promise not to dwell upon that morbid eventuality more than is strictly necessary.

Having postulated those categories so very categorically, allow me to temper their terms just a bit. For it must be said that the scenes of simple recognition one finds in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction are very rarely simple. One does come upon scenes of that sort—”As the coffee was brewing, Wallander went into the bathroom. He noticed with pleasure that he looked healthy and energetic” (Mankell, The Fifth Woman 20)—, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, scenes of this first type involve something beyond the subject’s mere recognition of himself. In The White Lioness, for instance, Wallander’s recognition may be immediate, but it is problematized by the recognition of far broader truths about himself and about his manner of being in the world: “When he got back to his apartment, he stripped and stood naked in front of the hall mirror. ‘Kurt Wallander,’ he said aloud. ‘This is your life'” (182). He reads himself in the mirror in this moment of naked truth—and of course we read him reading himself, recognizing as we do so that what is fundamentally at stake in scenes like this is interpretation itself. Obviously, the principle of self-knowledge is deeply imbricated in scenes such as this one. Yet upon occasion the promise of unique identity that is implicit therein is put into question by the encounter: “He saw himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like thousands of other young people” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cop Killer 274). In that instance, the subject recognizes himself without difficulty, but he fails to recognize his particularity, and by virtue of that the encounter has gone badly awry.

CaptureSjöwall and Wahlöö

For it is almost always the other who vexes the encounter with the mirror, whether that other be real or virtual. Sometimes, it’s a matter of checking one’s appearance in order to appreciate how other people will see us. That sort of moment can be relatively uncomplicated, like in this passage from Håkan Nesser: “She checked how she looked in the mirror. It’ll do” (Borkmann’s Point 131). Or this one, from Sjöwall and Wahlöo: “It was now eight o’clock on Monday morning and she was standing in front of her large mirror in her bedroom, admiring her suntan and thinking how envious her friends at work would be” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared 144). Alternatively, the moment can be significantly more fraught: “Carl took a step toward the mirror and ran one finger along his temple where the bullet had grazed his head. The wound had healed, but the scar was clearly visible under his hair, if anyone cared to look. But who the hell would want to do that? he thought as he studied his face” (Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes 3). Who indeed? But that’s just the point, of course, because whoever else may choose to look at Carl, we readers are looking at him, and in that sense we constitute one of the others that lurk on the edges of these scenes.

But we’re not the only ones, I think. For even if there are no other flesh-and-blood witnesses to these events in the fictional world, mirror scenes always suggest a doubling of the subject. That effect can be more or less pronounced. Sometimes it is merely a question of a subject seeing himself in an unexpected way, projecting an image of himself that he had not anticipated: “In the mirror behind her he saw himself sitting with an idiotic grin on his face” (Jo Nesbø, The Bat 80). Other cases suggest a deeper alienation of the subject from himself, as if I really were an other: “The mechanic stands next to me, gazing at his own reflection as if it belonged to some stranger” (Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow 213). Who is that stranger one sees in the mirror? Is he merely a pretext, a figment, a convenient and temporary construction enabling us to see ourselves objectively? Or is it really someone else, someone with whom we are largely unacquainted? If it is true, as Peter Høeg’s Smilla argues, that “you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger” (Smilla’s Sense of Snow 395), are we to take that assertion literally or figuratively? For if it is indeed the case that mirror scenes put the act of interpretation itself in play, the manner in which we choose to interpret them must be deeply involved in the success or failure of the wager they stake.

Capture

Consider for example this passage from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman: “He had looked in the mirror as recently as the evening before and seen a tall, sinister figure with a lean face, wide forehead, heavy jaws and mournful gray-blue eyes” (55). One may choose to read that passage in a literal sense, in which case the moment becomes a very strange one indeed, and in some respects the reading experience is enriched thereby. Or one can read it more figuratively, imagining that the subject is impressed by the alterity of the image he sees, but not duped thereby. Those choices are conditioned by a wide variety of factors—and not least by extremely thorny questions of readerly desire. Like the White Queen, we can easily believe six impossible things before breakfast in the looking-glass world of fiction. And we may well seek the thrill of the uncanny while simultaneously attempting to normalize and rationalize a given narrative event. Faced with a passage such as the one I just quoted, most readers would opt for a figural interpretation, I imagine. And all the more so insofar as they are acquainted with the supremely rational Martin Beck. For he is a man who never forgets who he is, and no matter how unrecognizable his reflection may seem, he is always able to bring himself back to himself: “While he hung up his coat he glanced at his face in the mirror. He was pale and looked sallow and he had dark circles under his eyes. This was no longer due to the flu but to the fact that he had gone without much sleep” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Roseanna 61).

Other subjects are not as lucky. Karin Fossum’s Zipp Skorpe, for instance, is a badly broken man: “He stopped in front of a store that sold mirrors and looked at the dozens of tiny Zipps. It suited the way he was feeling: shattered into thousands of pieces” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 175-76). Still other individuals embrace that estrangement effect, putting it to use in an effort to get outside of themselves. Such is the case of a teenager in Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked, who makes himself up as an Indian warrior before committing the first in a series of murders: “The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying the memories and thoughts that had haunted him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Then the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snake-like designs on his cheeks. None of his white skin should be visible. Then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be born again in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak as a human being again” (12). In other cases, the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is a fundamentally unhappy event, because it triggers a sense of self-loathing. “She was 16, and had gone to stay with her mother in Malmö,” writes Henning Mankell. “It was a time of crushing defeats, the kind only a teenager can experience. She hated herself and her body, shunning the image she saw in the mirror while strangely enough also welcoming the changes she was undergoing” (Before the Frost 24). At least this character comes by her self-loathing honestly, for she is none other than Linda Wallander, the daughter of Kurt Wallander. And he is someone who has honed self-loathing to an art: “You flabby piece of shit,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, “Do you really want to look like a pitiful old man?” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 27).

Henning-Mankell-007Henning Mankell

In order not to end my discussion of recognition scenes on that sour note, let me point out a final topos that they commonly exploit. I have argued that the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is typically accompanied by the perception of broad truths about oneself. It is useful to imagine those truths as significantly mobile ones. That is, they shift over time, and that process of shifting leaves perceptible traces upon the face. “When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week’s events” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 217). The cultural cliché upon which this passage plays is a familiar one, of course, but it bears special scrutiny in the present context. For if the face is indeed a kind of text in which a person’s experience may be read, two considerations follow. First, the situation of a subject gazing at her face in the mirror and reading the story of her experience thereupon is very much like the situation that we are in, as gazers and readers. Second, each of these scenes, whatever else it may seek to put on display, is not simply specular, but rather doubly so: that is, the mirror function is itself mirrored in a reflection upon representation and its possibilities.

Scenes of difficult recognition are fewer in Scandinavian detective fiction than in certain other regional traditions one might name, though I hesitate to draw sweeping cultural conclusions from that fact. As to the shapes they assume, I mentioned a moment ago that difficult recognition scenes run the gamut from incidents that are mildly disturbing for the subject to events that are far more traumatic. On the former end of that horizon, one finds scenes where it is merely a question of momentary hesitation before recognition sets in. By way of example, consider this scene from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, where Inspector Van Veeteren gazes absently into a mirror as he makes a phone call: “While he was waiting for a reply he observed the grotesque face glaring at him from the shiny surface above the telephone. It was a few seconds before it dawned on him that he was looking at his own reflection” (68). Those “few seconds” are readily dismissed, and the uncanniness of the moment can easily be rationalized by appealing to Van Veeteren’s distracted state, the fact that the “shiny surface” was not obviously a mirror, and so forth. Yet the face that confronts him is nonetheless “grotesque,” and its expression is “glaring.” Both of those features serve to heighten the strangeness of this encounter, and to broaden the distance between the subject and his image. Moreover, rather than dismissing the incident out of hand, Van Veeteren continues to reflect upon it, gazing upon his face as another person might do, or even as if it belonged to another person. “He was smiling,” he notes. “The corners of his mouth were raised to form a generous curve and gave his face an expression suggesting a touch of lunacy” (68). That coldly phenomenological description of a smile, and the conjecture of lunacy (rather than a more reassuring and conventional interpretation of a smile as a sure sign of happiness) testify to the difficulty Van Veeteren finds in coming to terms with his reflection. That impression of difficulty is further underscored by the comparison that Van Veeteren next invokes. “Like a posturing male gorilla,” he muses (68), and the analogy seems so apt to him that he pursues it: “he stood there glowering at the gorilla” (69). In other terms, what we find in this incident is an apparently trivial scene that opens onto an event far more disturbing, a conversation of self with self wherein the interlocutors stray ever further one from the other. Without wishing to belabor the point, it should be noted that, just as “simple” recognition is never really simple, so “difficult” recognition is actually difficult, in every case.

the-minds-eye

If time is at issue in that scene from Nesser, it is only a brief moment in time, those “few seconds” that it takes for Van Veeteren to recognize himself. More consequential stretches of time are often at stake in scenes of difficult recognition, however. Most characteristically, these occur when the subject finds it hard to accept that she or he has grown old. These scenes are highly variable, to be sure, but they tend toward the latter end of the spectrum I described, that is, toward trauma. “The face I saw in the mirror terrified me,” remarks Fredrik Welin in the final moments of the story he tells. “I had become old” (Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes 240). On the one hand, Mankell is playing on a cultural commonplace here, the one that holds that as we age, our sense of ourselves does not age at the same rate, so that we are often unconscious of how old we have actually become. On the other hand, when we do come face to face with our aged selves (and whatever the particular vehicle of that encounter may be), it is most often an occasion for mild surprise, rather than outright terror. Yet clearly mild surprise pays fewer dividends than does terror, when it is a matter of storytelling; and just as clearly, Mankell has chosen to accentuate the strangeness of this moment in his novel in order to heighten its narrative effect.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man, when Lennart Kollberg confronts himself in the mirror after having shot someone in the line of duty: “That person there has killed a man” (108). It is not that Kollberg cannot recognize himself; instead, that recognition is “difficult,” because it entails the acceptance of a harsh truth about himself. The estrangement effect is very pronounced when he designates himself as “That person,” and the effect is further amplified when he muses about other killers he has known: “During his years on the force he’d stood face to face with more murderers that he cared to think about” (108). What distinguishes him now from those others? And, more disturbingly still, what distinguishes the self he has always believed himself to be from the self he has now so unmistakably become? In other words, has he become someone else entirely?

Questions of that ilk can make the encounter with one’s reflection in the mirror a very painful experience indeed. “Every morning he looked into the little mirror on the wall and asked himself if he was staring into the eyes of a madman,” Mankell says of a character in Before the Frost (246). And of course that’s one way to rationalize the estrangement effect: I look unfamiliar to myself and thus I must be going crazy, because otherwise I would recognize myself easily. Yet such a gesture obviously creates a kind of feedback loop whereby alienation is accentuated rather than attenuated, and it thus points tantalizingly toward catastrophe. For pushed relentlessly to their limits—and why would we readers wish it to be any otherwise?—such moments can have only one outcome: the utter failure of the subject to recognize herself.

Throughout my discussion of mirror scenes, I have argued more or less stridently that the way they function is closely bound up in questions of readerly choice and semiotic desire. That is especially true of this third and final type of scene, which puts on offer an I who has in fact become an other. Now, whether we read that metamorphosis in a literal or a figural manner is entirely (or mostly, rather) up to us. For my own part, speaking as a mirror scene fundamentalist, I would argue that we must take mirror gazers at their word whenever possible. I am forced to concede, however, that some cases strain our credulity more than others. Consider the moment when Stieg Larsson places Lisbeth Salander in front of the mirror in The Girl Who Played with Fire: “She studied herself in the mirror and decided that Irene Nesser looked a little bit like Lisbeth Salander, but was still a completely different person” (68). It is very difficult to imagine that Salander fails to recognize herself here. For one thing, she is an exceptionally astute individual. For another (and more compellingly), she has just disguised herself as this “completely different person,” Irene Nesser, and she is checking the effect of her disguise in the mirror. In other terms, she is assessing the effect her disguise will produce when other people look at her. We have already discussed gestures like that one, of course, and I think it is prudent to dismiss this moment, reluctantly, from our catalogue of failed recognition scenes.

CaptureNoomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless, and the danger that awaits them, below. Insofar as mirror scenes are concerned, that danger is defined precisely by the possibility that the subject might fail to recognize herself. It is a fear that haunts many of us, notably including those people who inhabit the worlds of Scandinavian detective novels: “What she feared most of all was to walk down the street and not exist, to step into the elevator at work and discover that the mirror reflected someone else, to exit the elevator and hear the poisonous tongues gabbing behind her back” (Kjell Eriksson, The Cruel Stars of the Night 110).

Jo Nesbo

It is that kind of fear, and the fascination it provokes in us, that fuels our reading of passages such as this one: “Harry went to the lavatory, splashed some cold water over his face and confronted his reflection in the mirror. Beneath his wet, closely cropped fair hair he saw a pair of bloodshot eyes with dark bags under them and drawn, hollow cheeks. He tried a smile. Yellowing teeth grinned back at him. He didn’t recognize himself” (Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star 40). And this one: “Kristín closed the door. A mirror hung in the hall and when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass on her way back to the living room, she did not recognize the figure in it: a gaunt-faced stranger with dark circles under her eyes and dirty hair, matted around her ear which was now red with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She was wearing the thick snowsuit which was still stained with Steve’s blood. She did not know this woman. Did not know where she had come from. She stared at her, shaking her head with incomprehension” (Arnaldur Indriðason, Operation Napoleon 307-08). And this one, too: “He turned on the cold tap and tried to rinse the blood off his face. He did not recognize his reflection in the broken mirror. His eyes were staring, bloodshot, shifting” (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness 293). Each moment creeps closer to the moment of no return, to the moment of absolute catastrophe. Because if the subject can no longer recognize himself, what in the world will become of him? And what will become of us, granted that we have willingly suspended our disbelief in order to dwell in these fictional worlds?

For it is largely a question of suspense, I think. Moreover, in that very perspective it is we readers who are the funambulists, suspended vertiginously between what we know and what we wish, between experience and imagination, the real and the virtual, recognition and bewilderment. In such a parlous, tensive state, with all of our senses on the alert, we can learn a great deal about who we are and how we read literary texts. For each of these mirror scenes reflects us, too, and the gestures we sketch as we interpret them. They are eminently welcoming, integrationist tropes, in other words, pointing toward the permeability of the boundaries between the fictional world and the phenomenological world. They suggest that even the most committed rationalist among us has a role to play in an imaginary drama, whether that drama be bound up in the struggle of crime and punishment or in the dynamic of writing and reading, whether it be staged on the foggy plains of Skåne or on the comfortable hillocks of one’s own couch.

—Warren Motte

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Works Cited

Adler-Olsen, Jussi.  The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Trans. Lisa Hartford.  New York: Plume, 2012.

Edwardson, Åke.  Death Angels.  Trans. Ken Schubert.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

Eriksson, Kjell.  The Cruel Stars of the Night.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Fossum, Karin.  Don’t Look Back.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2005.

—.  When the Devil Holds the Candle.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

Høeg, Peter.  Smilla’s Sense of Snow.  Trans. Tiina Nunnally.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Indriðason, Arnaldur.  Jar City.  Trans. Bernard Scudder.  New York: Picador, 2005.

—.  Operation Napoleon.  Trans. Victoria Cribb.  New York: Picador, 2012.

Larsson, Åsa.  Sun Storm.  Trans. Marlaine Delargy.  New York: Delta, 2007.

Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

—.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2009.

—.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

Mankell, Henning.  Before the Frost.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  The Dogs of Riga.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Faceless Killers.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Fifth Woman.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Firewall.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  Italian Shoes.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2010.

—.  The Man Who Smiled.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: New Press, 2006.

—.  One Step Behind.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Pyramid.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson.  New York: Random House, 2009.

—.  Sidetracked.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The White Lioness.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

Nesbø, Jo.  The Bat.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Vintage, 2013.

—.  The Devil’s Star.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Harper, 2011.

Nesser, Håkan.  Borkmann’s Point.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  Mind’s Eye.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2008.

Ohlsson, Kristina. Unwanted.  Trans. Sarah Death.  New York: Atria, 2012

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa.  Last Rituals.  Trans. Bernard Scutter.  New York: Harper, 2009.

—.  My Soul to Take.  Trans. Anna Yates.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö.  The Abominable Man.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Bantam, 1974

—.  Cop Killer.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

—.  The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1977.

—.  The Laughing Policeman.  Trans. Alan Blair.  New York: Vintage, 1976.

—. Roseanna.  Trans. Lois Roth.  New York: Bantam, 1971.

—.  The Terrorists.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

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Warren Motte

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003) Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

Nov 122014
 

MooreLisa Moore

Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She [Moore] concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. —María Jesús Hernáez Lerena

Alligator

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The philosopher apparently meets our expectations by spelling out what the “reverie” of the refined poets and the commitment of the contemporary artist have in common: the link between the solitude of the artwork and human community is a matter of transformed “sensation.” What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience. […] What is common is “sensation.” Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of “being together.” (Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator 2009, 56)

I am similarly ensnared by consumer products and culture, especially “junk foods” such as chocolate bars: I like to celebrate their blaring colours and slogans, and I like the noisy, chance juxtapositions of everyday things: the newsagent’s sweet counter, the magazine rack, the stall of souvenir t-shirts.” (Cynthia Poole “Exactitude IV” 2008, 1)

x

Lisa Moore’s novel Alligator is fashioned by conferring the still life —the depiction of inanimate objects— primacy over other kinds of discourse. The narrative opens itself up to another medium in order to imitate methods of composition that would be otherwise fully realized in painting, thus resisting the naturalized impulse of narrative to become a transition or temporal process. By this transfer of the still life from one medium to another, I do not only mean that there are abundant descriptions of place and objects in the novel, since all novels depend on this explanatory apparatus [1], but that the mere sight of objects —a view the reader shares with the characters at all times—, becomes the center of gravity in their lives. Novelistic and biographical discourse is thus counteracted and transformed into a mode of understanding which does not depend on the disclosure of meaning through time but on the peculiarities of shape, color, and brightness that objects possess.

In this article I will attempt to describe Lisa Moore’s method of composition in Alligator and relate it to an analogous form of composition in the visual arts, particularly an artistic movement called hyperrealism, in order to throw some light on the epistemological implications of their common strategies. I will then discuss whether this perspective in the novel —a besetting representation of external reality— addresses or contests certain ideas of cultural distinction and community which are ever-present within the cultural context Lisa Moore belongs to, Newfoundland [2]. “Burning Rock” is the name of the writers’ collective where Lisa Moore began her career as a writer in St. John’s. The phrase refers to an unidentified burning object which fell into the sea off the Newfoundland coast. With this name, its members wish to point to the emergent incandescent energy coming from Newfoundland, The Rock, which until relatively recently was seen as marginal to or lagging behind Canada. They wish to conjure up “images of isolation and extreme subject matter”:

Geographically, we have always been an extremity: on the edge of a new, unknown world, the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, our topsoil scraped by glaciers and dumped into the Grand Banks. An island on which, for centuries, it was forbidden to settle. And now, economically and culturally we have drifted to a state of emergency. The ball of lightning has burned past us and we stand stunned, dumbfounded by the experience. […] We live in a bruised landscape which cultivates extreme people with extreme stories. (Michael Winter Extremities 1994, xi-xii)

I will address two different but interrelated questions: first, how to think critically about our response to Lisa Moore’s particular invocation of reality in fiction; and second, does Moore’s particular depiction in Alligator of a group of characters in St. John’s constitute some kind of statement about sense of community in Newfoundland? [3]

My approach is conducted by a basic idea that underlies much of the theories of Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Jacques Rancière: the belief in the dichotomy between seeing and understanding. John Berger’s quote “Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight” (1972, 7) points at this basic premise: an awareness of the mismatch between what we perceive through our sense of sight and the elaborations of discourse. The idea that the image does not make you understand, that it only activates your sensory system, also runs through much of Susan Sontag’s interpretation of the photograph (1977, 110). For her, photography is the opposite of understanding, “which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (1977, 23). How the world functions must be explained in time. “Only that which narrates can make us understand” (1977, 23; 2003, 89). According to her, muteness in a photograph is an attraction, a provocation; it “makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is” (1977, 24). The art of photography makes no invitation to understanding the world, but to collecting it (1977, 82). For Jacques Rancière, viewing is also the opposite of knowing: “The spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals” (2009, 2). Additionally, he believes that viewing is also the opposite of being active, “to be a spectator is to be separated both from the capacity to know and the power to act” (2009, 2).

Both critics agree that the photograph, the image in general, is a moral anesthetic, in spite of the fact that it may produce distress (Sontag 1977, 109-110). Our impression that we have come into possession of the essence of tragedy, for example, neutralizes horror, it distances us from it. As a result, history is transformed into spectacle because it possesses the qualities of beauty and eternity (Sontag 1977, 109-110; 2003, 99-103). “Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through a photograph really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment” (Sontag 1977, 111). [4]

This idea of the binary image/word is supported, on a different front, by critics who could be termed sociologists of identity: Nicholas Rose (1997, 244), Charles Taylor (1996, 51), or Anthony Giddens (1991, 54), for example. For them, the self cannot be constructed outside words, it requires verbalization and narration: it requires the story of how things happened. There can be no such thing as instant identity. [5] For Rose “Language is one of the keys to our assembly as psychological beings. Only through lexicons, grammars, syntax and semantics can we organize our thoughts and formulate our intentions” (1997, 234). Psychological language is, for him, the main key to the modern soul (1997, 238).

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor (1996 18, 48) rejects the value of the immediate experience or the sudden rupture by explaining that our notion of ourselves only comes through the story of how we have become, the unfolding of how we have travelled to get here. According to him, not to use this framework for one’s life is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. “The sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding as an unfolding story” (1996, 47). The self cannot be punctual or instantaneous. Self-understanding necessarily has temporal depth and sense of direction, and incorporates narrative. If we think that we become different persons each time we are in a different situation or if we fail to meet the full challenge of making sense of our lives we destroy our chances for a meaningful life. When analyzing confessional narrative, Dennis Forster remarks that “[n]o matter how one’s experiences may be present in memory, the events of these narratives are understandable only when they are transformed into objects of consciousness, into histories rather than sensations” (1987, 10). His argument clarifies the dilemma of our considering images as mere stimuli that cannot substantiate “real” knowledge, which is only to be accessed through a contextualized historicity. [6] Thus, we seem to be immersed in a battleground where the warring forces are the dissociated images —objects which belong to the realm of suspended temporality— and articulated plots sustained by informed rationalizations. [7]

One paradox inherent in Alligator is that, although the novel’s plot is action-packed, it is structured around the perception of a few objects whose presence becomes overpowering. A jar, a metal Christmas tree, the walls of an elevator, the arrangement of objects on a restaurant’s table, a plastic bag that contains food, reflections of the city in a car door. The visual qualities of these objects are a magnet around which events and thoughts seem to rotate. Due to the intensity of gaze these objects are given, the novel’s plot, events, even the thoughts of the characters, seem to be beside the point. The characters’ past also appears to them in a clear and crystalline form: like light falling on surfaces.

In a narrative, a description does not materialize into a still life merely because an object is being described; the description resembles a pictorial still life when the reader feels that a frame has been put around a small section of static material reality and the surrounding area remains out of sight. The same object may be shown again but, contrary to common poetic strategies which turn the object into a symbol once it has appeared several times in the narrative —and it has become interwoven with events and feelings—, the still life retains its specific characteristics in isolation, impervious to the meaning-making processes that narratives per se impose. Alligator opens with a young woman, Colleen, watching some footage where a man surrounded by a crowd is taming an alligator. For some time the narrator focuses on a helium balloon tied to a little girl’s wrist:

The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There’s no wind, but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and bobs and then settles, becomes still. There isn’t a cloud. The little girl’s blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light. (1)

A spellbinding fascination arrests the pull of the narrative. We are clinging to a sort of tableaux vivant whose mise-en-scène leaves the temporal processes of the plot without a sense of purpose. Both character and reader are given the position of a stunned viewer, what we see is sharply outlined but slowed down and torn from context. This ocularcentric approach presides over Alligator; the reader is put inside metaphorical bubbles which somehow prevent a rationale. The impression that characters are in a bubble returns many times:

On the street the boy from next door was playing with a bubble wand. He pressed a lever in the handle and the wand opened out into a large diamond shape and bubble liquid shot up from the clear handle and coated the plastic diamond when he tipped it into the breeze and a giant bubble wobbled into the air and lifted from the wand, and it caught the reflection of the landlord’s Jaguar, which was parked outside the bed-sit and the black streaky gleaming car slithered on the curve of the oversized bubble. (225)

Slavoj Žižek claimed that repetition turns an element into a symbol, that it ascribes a metaphorical import to an event due to our need for transcendence. “The crucial point here is the changed symbolic status of an event: when it erupts for the first time it is experienced as a contingent trauma, as an intrusion of a certain nonsymbolized Real; only through repetition is this event recognized in its symbolic necessity” (1989, 61). However, this direction of meaning is at odds with the dynamics of our understanding in Alligator: the objects depicted do not become symbols. What we perceive is the intensity with which the narrator or the characters look at them. Once an object becomes a reference for something else, the still life somehow loses its force. This is because the reader’s pleasure originally lay in the actual physicality of the thing, not in its evocative or allusive power. This is contrary to painting, where still lifes have historically gone hand in hand with fixed metaphorical traditions. Whether or not we wish objects to become metaphors, the actual achievement in a medium formed by words is to be found in the materiality they seem to bring to life, in their rotund visibility.

Thus, the usual methods of characterization in novels are somehow put on hold in Alligator; there is no panoramic setting that may hold or explain characters. Readers encounter mainly the exigent presence of objects. The first time we meet Frank, a street hot dog vendor in St. John’s, we read:

FRANK’S GOT THE windows open and the warm night breeze jostles the handful forget-me-nots sitting in a Mason jar of yellowish water on the windowsill. A few petals move on the surface of the water like tiny boats on a still lake. The glass jar and the submerged flower stems are coated with silvery beads of air. There’s a housefly near the jar, bluish and iridescent, lying on the crackled paint of the windowsill, since Frank moved in a few months before Christmas, two days after his nineteenth birthday. (10)

After this still life we are informed of the string of events in Frank’s past that the narrator recollects for him: Frank’s mother died of cancer, he sold her furniture, he was evicted and moved to a bed-sit, he became a hot dog vendor in a sleazy street in St. John’s, an Inuit man hanged himself in an apartment above his, the police came and removed the body. But all these chunks of experience are related as if in haste, while Frank himself is standing, having a shower, thinking. There is no analysis, no comment: meanwhile the way objects stand before Frank’s eyes while he is thinking acquires a full dimension. The objects are explored as if with a magnifying glass: minimal spaces which the narrator makes conspicuous by describing the way the light makes them appear. These descriptions are not ornamental or explanatory, they form the very substance of the tale.

At this early point in the narrative the reader may not yet suspect that the overwhelming presence of objects may in fact not be there for the sake of our understanding of the characters, their moods, or their plights. After all, we could agree that the image of a preserve jar and a dead fly on an old window sill may evoke the emptiness, the silence, the vacuity of a life. As has been previously mentioned, having objects as projections of the character’s situation is indeed a common literary device. However, at the end of this chapter, Frank leaves the room and we read:

Inside Frank’s empty bed-sit, water drops travelled in hesitant, zigzagging paths down the plastic shower curtain, and in the window several air bubbles on the stems of the flowers in the Mason jar floated to the surface and broke soundlessly. The breeze nudged the flowers into one another and the stems tippytoed across the bottom of the jar. (17)

Then we realize that objects, this object here, is not a thing which irradiates emotion coming from a human source. The relevance given to the physicality of the jar, its inner workings —so to speak— alters our idea of Story itself, story defined as sequence of events or a flow of emotion. Alligator becomes a medium to render life as externality attached to trivial, inconsequential objects we do not normally care to perceive in their full essence. At the end of the chapter we have been given a glimpse of Frank’s life but after he leaves, the object (the Mason Jar) is the element that remains there to give a sense of closure to the chapter. The attention paid to the jar seems to reduce everything else to insignificance, to diminish the pull of narration by having us stare at a random element when the room is empty. What stays is the solidity of the object, the little changes in its appearance; the rest seems to be ephemeral, pure silence. Narrative as such evaporates and the way an object impacts our retina remains. The personality of the object becomes the priority.

The abundance of examples of the previous strategy in Alligator implies that the novel articulates our dependence on the visual mode as a mode of conscience. This affects the reading experience structurally: all fiction strives to make the reader visualize but some fictions, such as this one, engage in the visual as a literal index to reality, even when the image itself is outside the drama of the story. That does not make its “reality” less urgent. When we experience a moment of intensified perception, we put continuity and sequence on hold. And this is the way suspense is created here: it defines experience as visibility in a strictly physical sense and stops short at that, without offering reasoning in transitions. The author refuses to provide the consolations often implied in novelistic, biographical, or historical narrative. These explanatory structures often assure us that life is a journey which can be explained by the author, that we have access to the characters’ minds and understand them, and that we can morally assess their decisions.

The presence of objects through their materiality of glass, metal, clothing, plastic, skin, is insistent (Fig. 1). Their solidity is sometimes offputting, even fierce, and it upsets the fluidity that events, feelings, and thoughts are supposed to be given in a narrative. To focus on the way objects are depicted in stories leads us to the question of narrativity and narrative resistance, that is, to the questions: Is reality amenable to storytelling? and, can we translate reality into a continuous and coherent temporal sequence? Any story is the abstraction of a temporal trajectory, a humanized sequence of events or emotions, of accomplishments and frustrations, or psychological deepening and sometimes of healing. Objects, on the contrary signal an impasse, an impenetrability, the indifference of the inanimate world.

Fig.1-StevenSmulka-SolarSystemFigure 1. Steven Smulka. “Solar System.” 2011, Oil on Linen, 76.2 x 116.8 cm.

Other explanations of the function of objects in literature have run against the above-mentioned interpretation of objects as repository of absence and of aloofness. The latter interpretation of the role of objects in narrative has been given, for example, by genre theory. The short story as a genre does not seem to depend on the rendering of temporality in the degree that the novel does, and one recurrent strategy to enhance meaning is to use objects to which characters become emotionally attached in order to express, through them, the characters’ ordeal. [8] This paradigm for understanding the characters’ dilemmas is a model usually called “feeling behind the surface,” that is, trivial objects embodying conflicts. The objects contain a quality of latent lyricism and speak on behalf of the characters. They signal turning points in their lives, they implement a revelation or show the manifestation of something hidden. The effect is usually of tragic awareness: a detail, an object from the past, emits significance without explicative intrusion; it discloses the character’s essence. [9] Our associations may be false but they show us the mechanism of our thinking: we like to believe our actions and feelings do have an effect on our environment, on the objects around us.

However, the objects we find in Alligator are not so obviously there for the sake of the distillation of meaning. If they are disturbing and their presence cannot be shaken away it is because of the fetishized relationship characters have with them and also because of the author’s frantic attention to visual compositions of objects and light: they are not peripheral, they always remain sharply focused in a close-up mode. Lisa Moore creates a certain kind of bond between words and things, a certain responsibility within language to render ocular arrangements. A focus sharper than you’d thought possible, as a fellow writer said. [10]

Madeleine is another character whose experiences we trace and whose life is patterned through vivid perceptions of a number of objects. She is an aging film director, obsessed by making a film with iconic images from Newfoundland: a priest, a cliff, the foaming sea, the rocks, horses running wild. She tries to put together this scenario for the film, she gets into trouble because of the transportation of horses, she has imaginary conversations with the archbishop whose letters she found in the Roman Catholic Archives. But her obsession with capturing the essence of Newfoundland becomes somehow secondary when, almost at the end of the novel, she gets inexplicably, almost pathetically, fascinated by a metal Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. The narrator says on her behalf:

It was as though she had unleashed all of her loneliness. Her loneliness had been imprisoned in a tree, which happens all the time: and she had been forced by some evil spell to walk up and down the aisles of Canadian Tire, forgetting why she was there (clothespins), until she found the tree. When she got it home, the tree leapt out of the box, screaming absurd loneliness in eight different languages. A burning bush of shame, how old she is and weak-feeling lately and the film is lost and how profoundly alone with a ball and chain of a film around her neck. (180) (My emphasis)

This passage may be interpreted as a parody of one the best known revelations or epiphanies in the history of English literature, the one rendered in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss”: an upper class woman looks at a tree in her garden and comprehends how mistaken she was about her life and achievements. When looking at a tree in full bloom, she realizes she has lost her husband and her best friend. Madeleine wants to uplift the idea of Newfoundland through images but instead finds herself attached to a cheap commercial object. Moore is responding here to the often trotted-out western tradition which unites objects and feelings. This becomes even more conspicuous when Madeleine says in addition to the previous comments: “There is no need to question the rightness of the tree. She wanted some stone stupid objects in her life that are irrevocably themselves” (181) (my emphasis). Clearly, objects do not have to stand for emotions. Moore is explicitly defining objects outside our need to turn them into bearers of significance. Their solidity may be the only source of comfort.

Thus, in Alligator, Madeleine makes her final, important point: objects are, after all, just objects, and not any other thing or idea, and she claims their validity as such. But although objects are that, just commonplace things, even if we need to attach to them some psychological import, the very juxtaposition of objects and feelings hints at the monstrous separation between inanimateness and the continuity of ordinary life, at the abyss between life and non-life. The act of looking at something and the way Alligator is studded with these images increases this very distance. No quantity of words can make up for life’s opacity. There are no doors for in-depth revelations. However, the final issue in this novel does not seem to be the encounter with the untameable inhospitality of reality; Moore’s novel conveys a recognition of its impenetrability as well as an offer of a certain kind of pleasure, a call to pause on the objects’ idiosyncrasy. Experience is both blazing and numb, as one character in the novel says about love (263). By inflating the status of the sense of sight, Lisa Moore offers us narrative as bondage: this term, taken from dictionaries of fantasy —so concerned with alteration in narrative– means: “an engagement with story not as process but as bondage, that is, being trapped by a particular place or physical shape that keeps you immobile, under a spell” (Clute & Grant 339).

Alligator does not only represent the case of one medium (narrative) and a genre (novel) taking on the nature of another medium (painting or photograph) and genre (the still life): it contains an explicit dialogue with a painting style, a certain method of rendering external reality that an artistic movement, hyperrealism, has made well-known in the last few decades. [11] Lisa Moore’s interest in genre hybridity may have to do with the fact that she is an art critic. She studied Art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and is an art journalist for a variety of Canadian newspapers and magazines. In Alligator, a meeting between two characters takes on the iconic quality of the paintings of photorealists and hyperrealists: a shaltshaker is foregrounded, “It was ordinary, with a stainless-steel screw on perforated lid and a fluted glass bottom. The salt looked very white” (83). Two friends meet at a restaurant: “There were white truffles in small jars under lock and key. The ceiling was stucco with bits of mirror and the tablecloths were checked and the balsamic vinegar and olive oil were poured into a saucer that must have a matching teacup in the back” (174).

Frank visits Kevin, another poor child who, like him, had to be kept in a home as a child. Both have been beaten down by life and they meet at Kevin’s run-down flat many years later:

The rain came down hard, drilling the metal garbage tin, rising up like white fur from the slabs of the concrete that made up the patio, spiking off the arm of the plastic lawn chair. Kevin unwrapped the bologna and, peeling off the wax rind, dropped each slice in the sizzling margarine. (259)

The embarrassment they feel at the uneasiness of being together is replaced by a concentration on objects (their conversation revolves around a frying pan). These are all very clear cases of ekphrases, literary representations of visual art. Ekphrasis is a mode of narrative which speaks to and for works of art, not only about them (Heffernan 1993, 7): it is the “art of describing works of art, the verbal representation of visual representation” (1-2). Its difference from pictorialism is that the latter “represents natural objects and artefacts, not art.” Ekphrasis represents pictures. And in this case, pictures which represent photographs, which look like photographs, as is the case with hyperrealism.

Whenever there is a shock experienced by the characters it is associated with a certain kind of brightness, a colour, a piece of clothing that assaults the characters’ memories persistently after seeing it. Scenes in Alligator are transformed into “metal experiences,” also plastic and glass: electrified fences, coins, saltshakers, plastic nozzles, meat in fridges, sun striking the doors of cars, the remains of food on a dish, bottles: precisely the icons that hyperrealist writers have painted over and over again. There are too many coincidences to be overlooked. Coincidences in subject-matter, method and purpose, even ethics. One could even say that Lisa Moore is establishing an open dialogue between her strategies of written composition and the pictorial approach to reality that has become the trademark of hyperrealism. She has gone beyond fiction to converse with visual art.

Hyperrealism is a style of painting, although some painters and critics consider it a proper artistic movement, which seeks a perfection of resolution above all other painterly interests (Head 2009, 16). [12] Hyperrealists seek to achieve a hypnotic sense of objective presence. They want to make the real and the illusory indiscernible: reality in their paintings looks like a photograph. The photograph is indeed their technical starting point and from that primal source, they enrich its photographic reality, they make it more palpable, larger, impossible to obviate. The real is translated onto the canvas through the camera and then it is “photographed” by painting it. They make of minimal spaces and objects magnificent feats of physicality. Some say their work is more realistic than photography. They do not leave marks of brush strokes on the canvas; functionality is emphasized. They are said to be an outgrowth of the photorealist movement which started in the 1960’s especially in America, whose subject-matter was mainly cars, motorcycles, diners, fast-food emporiums, etc. They believed that their work should adhere strictly to the information found in the photo, as the photo was the object to imitate because in their time it was the supreme reality. They zoomed in on shop windows and through doorways. Most of the time they approached a culturally charged subject matter (American everyday objects) while retaining the objective stance: their aim to reveal banality and beauty, but also address the industrial wastelands of our civilization. Some well-known photorealists are Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Charles Bells, John Baeder, Tom Blackwell, et al. [13] (Fig. 2 and 3)

Then again, at the beginning of the 21st century painters from a number of nationalities mainly exhibiting in One Plus Gallery in London, England, formed a movement called “Exactitude.” They showed a similar approach to reality to that of the photorealists, but this time they expanded their techniques and their range of subjects. They abandoned their fidelity to the photograph too. They added more detail than any photo would ever show and from the emphasis on urban wastelands and American cultural icons, they would move on to other less panoramic views in order to bring the contemporary commonplace to our attention. A certain amount of explicative literature has been gathered by them and about them. Certainly, the language painters and visual critics have used to describe their hyperrealistic methods and philosophy helps us to understand better the artistic qualities displayed by Lisa Moore in Alligator.

Figure 2-Ralph GoingsFigure 2. Ralph Goings. “Double Ketchup.” 2006, Pigmented Inkjet on rag paper. 22×32.75 in. Edition of 30.

Figure 3.- Randy Dudley, Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave, 1988Figure 3. Randy Dudley. “Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave.” 1988, Oil on Canvas. 28 1/2 x 54 in.

One of their maxims is that things deprived of their functions and of their context reveal their real status: “A thing stripped of its real function […] revealed to me the poetry of reflection, distortion and light!” says Dutch painter Tjalf Sparnaay (2002, 34). For him, the object is explored and discovered down to the smallest detail: “Under the realistic surface of this painting is the soul of the object, and essence we were never aware of before” (Introduction). He usually paints fried eggs, banana peels, half-eaten food, dishwashers, packaged meat, etc. He tries to find beauty in ordinariness and is fascinated by banal subjects unrelated to mainstream aesthetic traditions, the question being “is this thing really so ordinary?”:

Clean Crockery! A fresh start, gleaming as if nothing has happened, ready to be dirtied again. But then that is the whole point of crockery —and of the dishwasher. We are happy with it, although we never take the trouble to see how nice it really is. So I’ve done that for you. Our domestic and eating tools shine in all their clean-lined stupidity. (2002, 56). (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4-Sparnaay-DishwasherFigure 4. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Vaatwasser” (“Dishwasher”). 1998, oil on canvas, 185 x125 cm.

When trivial objects are contemplated in their timelessness, we obtain a renewed sense of reality:

Time stands still when I place these objects in a classical arrangement, removed from the context of their day-to-day surroundings. Ideally, this sense of timelessness is the way in which my technique is close to the 17th century Dutch tradition” (http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl/index_eng.html)

Sparnaay talks back to classical painters by having their iconography transformed into a consumerist product, his most famous painting being that of “Meisje Van Vermeer in Plastic”, a version of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” wrapped in plastic and with a price tag (Fig. 5) (see http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl /overview/meisje_vermeer.html).

Figure 5-Tjalf-Sparnaay-MeisjeVanVermeerInPlasticFigure 5. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Girl with a Pearl Earring in Plastic”. 2002, oil on canvas, 75 x 60 cm.

These painters share an acute awareness of the visual overload in our contemporary society, but they accept the ubiquity of consumer products and attempt to create new relationships with them: “The visual overload we are exposed to day in, day out, has deprived us of the ability to look “purely”, in the same pure way a child, for instance, looks at reality. The visual harmony of things is dictated not, as consumer society would have us believe, by perfection, but by imperfection, idiosyncrasy and unpredictability.” (Sparnaay 2002, 46).

Another hyperrealist, Cynthia Poole, says:

Many of the pictures are of chocolate bars and crisp packets, either in newsagents’ displays or in vending machines. I like their vivid colour and strident competitiveness. These objects are normally only perceived as signage, their actual visual qualities, particularly in combination, are invisible —yet they make up much of the visual fabric of contemporary life. […] Again, that captivating combination of ordinary objects, vivid colours, and strong signage. Still close-cropped, taking still life outside into the larger urban context. [14]

Cynthia Poole is interested in the surfaces and signage of everyday things, mass-market, consumer items, so that she can rescue them from our familiarity with them. She thinks of her work as “contemporary still life.” (Fig. 6)

Figure 6-Cynthia Poole -DisplacedMintsIIFigure 6. Cynthia Poole. “Displaced Mints II.”2011. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 120 cm.

Thus, they promote a sense of seeing anew through an intense gaze at objects that are otherwise background and meaningless. Their aim is to activate a sense of visual excitement with our immediate environment (Clive Head 2009, 12). They share a common optimism “which asserts humanity’s ability to create beautiful objects” (10). Sometimes they represent reality in an almost forensic way, like Vania Comoretti; [15]  their purpose being to bring clarity and focus to our lives, suspend disbelief, realize meaning in the mundane. Sparnaay claims that: “As a painter I seek my personal reality in almost trivial subjects. […] even a till receipt offers a voyage of discovery.” (2002, 102).

They also like to experiment with the borderline of meaning: how close does a close-up have to be before becoming blurred and decontextualized?:

I like to arrange the objects in a ‘modern’ way: thanks to the camera, we are overwhelmed by images; we are used to seeing multiple views of the same thing. […] I am also interested in the close crop: how close can you go before the composition becomes entirely abstract, or the context incomprehensible? (Cynthia Poole at http://www.plusonegallery.com/Artist-Info.cfm?ArtistsID= 382&Object=#Bio)

They sometimes openly manifest that theirs is not an art of social illustration or comment (Head 2009, 10-12), it is not an art which raises issues, or cultivates irony. [16]  Their dedication is to a world that has already shaped its identity; that is, there is no troubled relationship with “objective reality.” They say, we see what others miss and then make it compelling (Fig. 7).

Most of these painters are interested in a corner and not in the big picture, not in the architectonics of place and the archways of biography or feeling but, like Lisa Moore, only in that restricted visual space (or object) our eyes can apprehend with intensity. [17] They wish to possess the world and remove it from chaos (Head 2009, 12), or what is the same, from time. The world, or better, certain parts of the world are presented in a state of permanence, their object apparently, as Jean Baudrillard (1976, 1018) had claimed, “to enclose the real in a vacuum, to extirpate all psychology and subjectivity in order to represent pristine objectivity.” This project was common, for example, to the Nouveau Roman. It was an attempt to elide meaning by exhibiting the attrezzo of a meticulous reality.

Figure 7- TomMartin-OneofFiveFigure 7. Tom Martin. “One of Five.” 2009, Acrylic on panel, 90 x 90 cm.

Hyperrealism has sometimes been harshly criticized for being an art without soul, without a transformational end, that is, it has been regarded as unable to awaken consciences. Hyperrealist ethics, an extreme commitment to the reproduction of reality, seems not to be enough. After all, so-called “objective realism” has been downgraded from the early 20th century. Is this just art for art’s sake and therefore just barren aesthetics? Perhaps we are still clinging to a very limited definition of aesthetics, forgetting its capacity of awakening us into the qualities of the world. Or, could we say that hyperrealism represents the aggressive triviality of modern life and that therefore, Lisa Moore´s method liberates her portrait of contemporary St. John’s from all duty to depict inner states or to raise social issues?

Is the effect “glacial”, as some have said? Hyperrealists have been accused of not trying to depict inner states, to eliminate the presence and the interpretation of the painter. These questions about artistic positioning, as well as about method and subject-matter, bear on the impulse which generates Lisa Moore´s novel: her penchant for the still life, her close-ups of objects from kitchens and restaurant tables, her insistence on the city reflections on cars and windows, her habit of rendering people (characters) as patches of colours. The prominence of the surfaces of everyday consumer products turns her novel into a hybrid form: “The meticulous investigation of the events in a minimal space” as Vania Comoretti says of her work.

The way the biographies of the characters shape up in the novel is inextricably linked to their perceptions of a world made of glass, of metal. But do we perceive it as lacking in depth? Indeed, as in the case of Madeleine, there is a hitch between the character’s aims and their actual experiences; their sensorial input sends them off their tracks. Colleen, a young woman who wishes to act against the environmental destruction of developers in Newfoundland is caught out when she pours sugar into the fuel tanks of some bulldozers which belong to a business man in St. John’s. She wanted to save the Newfoundland pine marten from extinction. Her meeting with the judge is put in these terms:

THE ELEVATOR DOORS fling open and Colleen sees a judge heading toward her from the end of a long hallway. He’s in full stride, forehead first, the arms of his black robes billowing. The reflection from a tube of fluorescent ceiling light runs over his oily bald head like a charging train […] Colleen looks at the judge’s reflection in the brass panels of the elevator. His eyebrows hang down into his watery eyes. His face is warped in the polished metal. (18-9)

Just after this view, a whiff of perfume hits her and she immediately remembers a gift package of four bottles of Aqua Velva that she gave to David, her stepfather, for Christmas. The relationship of Colleen with her stepfather —the most important familial tie she’s ever had— will be told from now on through this object.

The Aqua Velva was the first gift Colleen had ever picked out by herself. A tower of boxes ingeniously piled one on top of the other, each with a corner slightly off-kilter so the stack rose like a spiral staircase. There were giant Christmas bulbs hanging from the rafters, carols bubbling wordlessly through the overhead speakers, shoppers in bright coats rushing forward and away like the bits of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope (20).

Before and after this passage, people seen at the supermarket are described within a dynamics of visual pyrotechnics. They become shreds of colours, the buttons on their clothes blinking: suddenly a close-up shows us the head of an obese woman in a wheelchair. “The grooves made by her comb were still visible and the pink of her scalp showed through.” (21)

How can Colleen remember the past in such a visual literality? Narrative is supposed to be the main medium to transform reality into psychological information, i.e., useful, therapeutic, but here narrative becomes a static medium more akin to a certain style of painting. Also, characters only remember themselves seeing something, their past only becoming remembrance through the visibility of objects. This approach gives a certain vision of identity. The self is defined as more punctual and instantaneous than narrative oriented; it is not given real agency. The cologne is the last agent in the chapter which tells about Colleen’s relationship with her stepfather:

The cologne eventually made its way up to the cupboard under the sink in the guest bathroom, behind the pipes, containers of Comet, cleaning rags. It remained there, even after David died, the plastic window of the box covered in a fur of dust (31).

The presence of this object permeates at least three chapters, but it does not crown an important episode in Colleen’s life. The cologne is placed outside a gigantic mechanism of causes and effects, rescued from a then-and-then narrative, from any kind of purposeful biographical arrangement. As a consequence of the high status given to the sense of sight, the narrative becomes the story of how objects put their imprint on us, how they assail us: in fact, everything else is defocalized by the spell that a banal element casts on us. It definitely blocks our reading habit of uniting objects and symbols: although the bottles of cologne can indeed be considered to stand for disappointment and forgetfulness, that dusty box that is waiting for our look there in the bathroom is not totally subservient to the character’s mental summary of her past. The visuality of the package challenges the passing of time, it refuses to be made absent, it makes the reality of feelings, the crazy turmoil of experience, recede, become tangential. It is as if the narrative proper, with its incertitude and all too human mistakes, would lie far away, muted.

An art critic said: “Stories may be told about animals, or even inanimate objects, but most Western narrative art depicts the vicissitudes of individuals in human form: men, women, children and the gods who take on their semblance” (Langmuir 2003, 11). Certainly here, humans seem to be more absent than objects, their burning wishes and fulfilments swallowed by a whirlpool, sent back in another direction, inapprehensible, unmanageable. In contrast, the permanence of everyday, commonplace objects becomes too familiar, almost threatening. And this method of composing a novel certainly reflects the way characters think of themselves. Beverly, Colleen´s mother, says:

She had come to think of life not as a progression of days full of minor dramas, some tragedy, small joys, and carefully won accomplishments, as she figures most people think of life —but rather a stillness that would occasionally be interrupted with blasts of chaos. (46) (my emphasis)

Alligator takes on the nature of the still life as a painting genre, and when it moves beyond it into a temporal dimension, the world of the characters explodes with grief and physical pain, like Frank, who is literally burned alive, one of the most horrifying sights we are made to look at in the novel. We see how his skin is transformed by the effects of fire; it is one of the climaxes of the novel rendered in descriptive slow down. The acts of perception of each character seem to originate in different dimensions of existence, there seems to be no thread that connects their personal circumstance so that we can reach a common platform for social analysis. The very idea of cruelty embodied in the dehumanized Russian exile Valentine, who sets a house and Frank himself on fire, is put in the background in view of the narrator’s fascination with the transformations of Frank’s body in the flames.

As in hyperrealism painting, in Alligator we have an altered state of reality through a meticulous depiction, taking human observation of the visible to an almost impossible realm. [18] But does this heightening of visibility inevitably provoke a trivialization of humanity? Is it a flat, clean, and thrilling art where the image is liberated from all metaphysical troubles?

Conclusions
Characters in Alligator are dissociated from large-scale setting and attached to common-place “universal” objects: crockery, cars, gifts, consumer items. These objects seem to bulge out of the page and they are presented to us at critical moments for the characters. They become pivotal and replace the role that psychological discourse often plays in fiction. The characters’ bond to the appearance of objects intensifies their isolation, trapped as they are by their overinflated visual perceptions. As a consequence of their fascination with the “outwardness” of objects, the idea of collective —of a common experiential space— is difficult to assemble or imagine in a novel where characters are given a more sensorial than social existence.

This narrative environment close to ekphrasis prevents the past from being memorialized. It cannot be passed to others as a legacy because it creates situations that are outside time. It precludes the possibility of offering a regional representational continuum made up of images that could be regarded as the epitome of Newfoundland, powerful as its iconicity has been historically in the literature of the province. In Alligator we find recognizable geographical and cultural facts of St. John’s, its streets, institutions, businesses, tourism, although the overall impression readers assimilate is that of the bleak realities of a city overridden by greed and short-sighted development practices. However, close attention to the dynamics of the novel prevent us from giving primordial importance to an interpretation revolving around loss or dilution of cultural identity. This is a fact at the start of the novel and the tone is not elegiac. Life is not seen as a collective enterprise and the transmission of information between individuals is not effected through storytelling; [19] there is either the isolation of intense perceptions, often happening in miniature domestic spaces, or an exposure to the violent realities of the world through the internet. The novel opens with a teenager, Colleen, watching an accident during a stunt performance with alligators in Louisiana; she then watches a man’s beheading on the internet while she eats a sandwich. In the unobserved intimacy of her room she can view the world’s detritus.

Rancière defined aesthetic and political communities in the quotation that opened this article. Through tactics similar to those of hyperrealist painters, Alligator shows us that the “sensory fabric” (Rancière 56) that characters share is personal and untransferable and if there is to be a community of sensations, it lies in those objects that everyone shares nowadays, objects that accompany us when we eat, watch TV, or shop at a mall. The second quote opening this article by hyperrealist painter Cynthia Poole attests the validity of that idea. This is the collective enterprise, “the distribution of the sensible” that Rancière alluded to, a globalized reality wedged into little worlds that, like Newfoundland, not so long ago were very different.

Another strategy which overrides the evocation of the uniqueness of geography —and the notion of connectedness among individuals in a community—, consists of forcing the reader to reconsider the status of narrative as process or plot by creating suspense through images unaided by any rationalization. Lacerating memories retain their physicality and cannot be appeased by the comforts of narrative: narratives are therapeutic, they tie things up. In a different kind of adventure —closer to the ecstatic nature of visual art—, Moore, like the hyperrealist painters, brings clarity of vision into focus by the isolation of detail. Moore makes us look at objects purely, as was Tjalf Sparnaay’s desire. There seems to be a resistance to take a step further than the impact caused by an assailing stimulus. Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. The power of sight dismisses the significance of plot. By doing this, Moore makes problematic the conventional bond between image and message in narrations by showing us that the power of sight may reduce everything else to insignificance, to fuzziness. The paradoxes of hyperrealist art are the same paradoxes implicit in Moore’s style: does it give an intimate or a detached vision? Is her rendering of reality matter-of-fact or hallucinatory? Are objects reliable or menacing? This is a kind of psychic ambush, but it certainly does not foster a sedate or stultifying approach to reality, as some critics have claimed about hyperrealism.

The novel does show some concern with the modern overexposure to images, a problem which deeply troubled Sontag and Rancière, disturbed as they were by our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events” (Sontag 1977, 11, 28 and 30; Rancière 2009, 87). Photography negates the ephemeral quality of an event and once it makes everything permanent, the fact of considering one thing important and another trivial becomes arbitrary; discrimination is often beside the point. These critics have sensed the moral problems resulting from our saturation with the image, with the photograph; the analgesic effect of living in a world made up of overpowering visual display. At one point in the novel, Madeleine, the film maker, comes across a digital photograph of a naked man with his cuffed hands over his genitals. She is deeply shocked:

She brought the picture close to her face to see if she could see pixels, how the colour had been reproduced; she tried to understand the image. A blooming horror made her skin prickle; what was this photograph? It was a homemade joke about torture, folksy and kitsch, full of abject glee and hatred. She had left the egg boiling. The egg was boiling over. She went back to the kitchen and put the paper on the table. The shock of the photograph receded; shock smacks and recedes. She would not let herself think the word evil. The egg was rubbery. The photograph was evil. (170-71)

In this excerpt and the text that follows, we realize that extreme cruelty is unavoidably implicated and overridden by the little urgencies in our daily life. Madeleine soon forgets about the Iraqi prisoner, even after she notices his broken shoulder.

Although characters are occasionally allowed brief glimpses of the pain of others, Moore does not bear in the novel any representational burden, neither from the icons that may represent Newfoundland’s culture nor from an overly exhibitionist capitalist system. Thus, she somehow questions Sontag’s negative ethical interpretations of the overexposure to photographs that citizens in the first world are inevitably subjected to. Like hyperrealist painters, she has turned this overload of images of commercial items into a visual gift which can work toward creativity in art. There is celebration rather than rejection: of shapes and colours, also an impulse to foster a capacity for acute visual focus. Time and again in her novel we realize she does not show impatience with the image, that her approach is not fatigued or mournful, nostalgic for a time where the world was not so imaged-choked.

In Alligator people are defined for what they are, a portable kit of images. With them we try to possess the past and grapple with the present (Sontag 1977, 8). This definition of humankind rooted in the sensory does not mean that the novel’s final statement is to opt for visual entertainment removed from social discord. [20] There is deep reverberation beyond the sensorial. The emotionally neutral temperature of the still life in its coolness and detachment in fact intensifies the heated chaotic state of discomposure that the characters are experiencing. The intractability of reality, the resistance of objects and circumstances to bend to the characters’ purposes or understanding is a basic factor in realizing that the relationship between characters and objects is not one-way road.

There is another dimension added to this celebratory mode: all the characters seem to be spectators rather than actors. They do try to become agents in their own lives but cannot help behaving only as viewers. They build private spaces within which to be able to build protection against aging, failure, poverty, loneliness. Walter Benjamin (1936) and Susan Buck-Morss (1992) described a mental state where the individual, by looking at something other than himself, lets this otherness, usually inhospitable, invade his senses. As a result of this saturation of the senses, the powers for thought are paralysed. This understanding of reality as shock was explored by Benjamin to explain how modern society has created artistic mechanisms and commodities (phantasmagoria) that protect people from the excessive energies of external stimuli and from the harshness of industrial societies. The creation of cushioned spaces in the professions and in art is further developed by Buck-Morss, who located the threat of bewilderment and pain in the relationship between humans and the image. According to her, we possess a synaesthetic system through which the images we store in our memory get connected with external stimuli, thus creating an internal language that cannot be conceived of in conceptual terms (see Sarikartal 2005, 106). This language threatens to betray the language of reason, endangering its philosophic sovereignty. What is absorbed unintentionally resists intellectual comprehension, it baffles notions of knowledge as comprehension and confers instead climactic status on states of bewilderment. As Susan Buck-Morss explains, “all of the senses can be acculturated […]. But however strictly the senses are trained […] all of this is a posteriori. The senses maintain an uncivilized trace, a core resistance to cultural domestication […] they remain part of the biological apparatus” (1992, 6).

This existential stance undermines the polarity used against hyperrealist painting: the accusation that there is a prioritizing of aesthetic creation over reflexive criticality. Moore shows us in her novel pop-up images and the fascinating labyrinths of the mundane. Yes, she portrays characters as spectators, however, she shows the dangers of spectatorship. Characters keep trying to make cushioned versions of their reality that would fit their purposes, yet they live in a world of digitality which inhibits metaphor and transcendence. The digitalization of reality itself troubles definitions of what is real. Moore shows a world that is itemized through the image (see Sontag 1977, 22-3) and novelizes what to expect after humanity has gone through the saturation point, the image-choked world Sontag referred to. The consequences were diagnosed by Sontag (1977, 28): “The arbitrariness of considering some elements as trivial and some as important has been superceded long ago.” When all events are levelled, the result is lack of empathy: the world in Alligator has withdrawn the lines between the extreme and the trivial, between the relevant and the inconsequential or frivolous, the cruel and the desirable.

If we bring to mind how the notion of “Newfoundlandness” is usually codified, we perceive a marked contrast between Lisa Moore’s literary practices in Alligator and some manifestoes of national or regional identity, such as the one previously quoted, Extremities, which explained shared objectives by writers bearing witness to the same landscape and history. This declaration revolved around notions of extreme geography and extreme experiences, however, Alligator is constructed upon a foregrounding of globalized consumer objects.

Certainly Alligator’s message is not that geography is destiny, an idea which permeates much of the literature by Newfoundland writers and others writing about Newfoundland; the novel is almost a visual treatise on the materiality of new capitalist spaces. Alligator also runs against the idea of constructions of Newfoundland as a therapeutic space, where victims of capitalist modernity can pull themselves together and recover meaning. [21] Characters are not cultural artefacts and the plot is not contaminated by the stitches of historicity because the arbitrary intersections of emotions and circumstance provoke not so much a meditation on cultural heritage as an engagement in a densely displayed net of affective intensities. Moore’s technique prevents the past from being memorialized: she works on a common contemporaneous fabric of sensation that is often unnoticed but that nevertheless reaches everywhere.

How do we describe place now? Lisa Moore has shifted our ocular bondage to place from an evocation of landscape or cityscape to the hypnosis produced by readymade objects which do not transmit transcendental meaning or collective memory but a common sensory fabric, a certain quality of palpability devoid of conciliatory epilogues. [22]

—María Jesús Hernáez Lerena

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Bowen, Elizabeth (1994). “The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories” (1937). The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles May. Athens: Ohio University Press. 256-262.

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Comoretti, Vania. http://www.vaniacomoretti.com (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).

Demos, T. J. “Storytelling in/as Contemporary Art.” The Storyteller. Eds. Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell. Independent Curator’s International. Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2010. 83-107.

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Fowler, Adrian. “The Literature of Newfoundland: A Roundabout Return to Elemental Matters.” Essays on Canadian Writing, 1985: 118-141.

Fuller, Danielle. “Strange Terrain: Reproducing and Resisting Place-Myths in Two Contemporary Fictions of Newfoundland.” Essays on Canadian Writing. The Literature of Newfoundland, 82, Spring 2004: 21- 50.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

Head, Clive. “Foreword.” Exactitude: Hyperrealist Art Today. Ed. Maggie Bollaert. Plus One Publishing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009: 8-19.

Heffernan, James A. W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Hennessey, Simon. “Simon Hennessey.” In Exactitude, 2009: 144-153.

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” (1914). Dubliners. London: Penguin. 1992: 199-256.

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Mansfield, Katherine. “Bliss” (1920). The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Penguin, 1981: 91-105.

McKay, Ian. “Helen Creighton and the Politics of Antimodernism.” In Myth and Milieu: Atlantic Literature and Culture 1918-1939. Frederictown, NB.: Acadiensis Press, 1993: 1-16.

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MacLeod, Alexander. “History Versus Geography in Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.” Canadian Literature: The Literature of Atlantic Canada, 189, Summer 2006: 69-83.

Moore, Lisa. Alligator, A Novel. Toronto, Anansi, 2005.

O’Flaherty, Patrick. The Rock Observed: Studies in the Literature of Newfoundland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Poole, Cynthia. 2008. “Exactitude IV” http://plusonegallery.com/Shows-Detail.cfm? ShowsID=195 (last retrieved April 2, 2012).

Proulx, Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Scribner, 1994.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London, New York: Verso, 2009.

Rose, Nikolas.“Assembling the Modern Self.” Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Roy Porter. London and New York: Routledge, 1997: 224-248.

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Whalen, Tracy. “An Aesthetics of Intensity: Lisa Moore’s Sublime Worlds.” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 23 (1), 2008: 1-20.

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San Sebastian-2014
María Jesús Hernáez Lerena is an Associate Professor of American and Canadian literatures at the University of La Rioja (Spain). She is author of the books Exploración de un Género Literario: Los Relatos Breves de Alice Munro (1998), Short Story World: The Nineteenth-Century American Masters (2003), and co-author of Story Time: Exercises in the Study of American Literature for Advanced Students of English (1999) with Julieta Ojeda and James Sullivan. She co-edited the volume Canon Disorders: Gendered perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the United States (2007) with Eva Darias Beautell. She is the former editor of Journal of English Studies (University of La Rioja) and teaches graduate courses on Canadian literature within a doctoral program awarded a quality distinction by the Spanish Ministry of Education. She has published essays on English, American and Canadian writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Douglas Glover, Katherine Govier, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Crummey, etc. Some of her articles and interviews can be found in the journals Toronto University Quarterly, Canadian Literature, British Journal of Canadian Studies, Arc Poetry Magazine, Wyndham Lewis Annual, Atlantis, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, etc., and in the books Visions of Canada Approaching the Millennium (1999); Wyndham Lewis the Radical: Essays on Literature and Modernity (2007); Canada Exposed/ Le Canada à découvert (2009); Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts: Narratives of English Canada (2011); Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective (2012). Forthcoming is her edited book: Pathways of Creativity in Contemporary Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Description and narration are not clear‐cut categories, there is usually instability of their boundaries. Nevertheless, some texts show a marked tendency to one or the other direction. See Heffernan (1993, 6).
  2. Some of the recurrent topics in Newfoundland literature have been the idea of extreme geography, rugged individuals, fraternal communities in the outports, a tradition of orality, and loss of nationhood. See O´Flaherty (1979), Adrian Fowler (1985), Seifert (2002), or MacLeod (2006).
  3. Lisa Moore belongs to a young established generation of Newfoundland writers who, after Wayne Johnston, have become well‐known beyond their region. Together with other writers such as Michael Winter, Michael Crummey, Kenneth Harvey, Ed Riche, Jessica Grant, Joel Thomas Hynes, etc., they represent the literary present and future in Newfoundland.
  4. Rancière poses that the intolerable image, the image which shows pain or infliction of pain does not necessarily imply or call for action or engagement, since we live “a single regime of universal exhibition”: “the mere fact of viewing images that denounce the reality of a system already emerges as complicity with this system” (2009, 85).
  5. Fernández Prieto (1994, 124‐25) claims that there is no identity previous to the act of narration. In order to achieve a sense of the self, we have to become a narrator and construct a plot in which we fashion some of our pasts as characters. Giddens (1991, 54) asserts that we are not to find a person’s identity in behavior, or in the others’ reactions, but in his or her ability to keep a particular narrative going. The self is no longer a list of qualities, but a narrator in search of coherence.
  6. Melnyk (2003, x) is another author who has reflected on this dilemma: “We know that reality is separate from language and beyond language, although language claims to offer us the truth of reality. At the same time we are not comfortable in a reality beyond the explanations of our language. If we find ourselves in a situation that is unexplainable we become either fearful or we struggle to find within our language some explanation. Trapped in the discourse created by our culture and our time, we are lost without it.”
  7. Photographs make us confuse beauty with truth, according to Sontag (1977, 112): “the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relationship with the needs of understanding.”
  8. See Elizabeth Bowen (1994, 262) and Michael Trussler (1996, 558).
  9. Well‐known examples are the pear tree in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss” (1920) or the snow in Joyces’ story “The Dead” (1914).
  10. See Tracy Whalen’s (2008) view on the scope of Lisa Moore’s rendition of hyper‐sensory details.
  11. See Takacs for a definition of the hyperreal in the context of digital art and the contemporary indiscernibility between the actual and the virtual.
  12. See Clive Head (2009, 8‐19) and John Russell Taylor (2009, 20‐53) for a manifesto of hyperrealist principles. Some hyperrealist painters of a variety of nationalities are Tom Martin, Tjalf Sparnaay, Cynthia Poole, Pedro Campos, Ben Schonzeit, Paul Bèliveau, Cesar Santander, Steve Smulka (Fig. 1), etc. Literature on and reproductions of hyperrealist paintings can be found at the following websites: http://www.justart‐e.com/; http://www.meiselgallery.com/; http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl/home.html; http://hyper‐tom.deviantart.com/. Apart from Bèliveau, there are other Canadian hyperrealists who use the photograph as their starting point: Robert Potvin, Wayne Mondock, Merv Brandel, Olaf Schneider, Brandi Deziel, Evan Penny (sculptor), etc. however, not all their work would be closely related to the hyperrealist impulse. In Newfoundland we can also find paintings by Helen Parsons Shepherd and Mary Pratt. Lisa Moore’s iconicity in Alligator, however, does not seem to be related to the Canadian painters but to less panoramic artists who obsessively represent certain kinds of objects mainly related to an urban American tradition.
  13. See Louis K. Meisel (2002) for an introduction by Linda Chase and for excellent reproductions of paintings by most photorealists.
  14. In http://www.plusonegallery.com/Artist‐Info.cfm?ArtistsID=382&InTheNews=1&Object= #Press (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  15. See her pictures at http://www.vaniacomoretti.com (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  16. An exception would be Denis Peterson, whose astonishing paintings of poverty and marginality pose as call‐to‐action photographs. See, for example, “A Tombstone Hand and a Graveyard Mind” in his exhibition “Don’t Shed No Tears” at http://www.denispe terson.com/.
  17. These painters had a hostile or rather indifferent critical response. According to Clive Head, the brainchild of Exactitude in Europe, “The art world is predominantly a place for political or social pronouncement, not a forum for aesthetic development” (2009, 14). After so much conceptual art, they think of their realism today in terms of avant‐garde. There are websites devoted to them which engage in making this kind of art known to the public. See, for example, “Deviant Art” (http://hyper‐tom.deviantart.com/gallery/#). Clive Head (2009, 18) claims that “Exactitude occupies a very particular stance within the contemporary scene. Undeniably rooted in their own personal creativity, these artists nevertheless present a collective position against the philosophical underpinnings of the mainstream. What might be seen as a conventional pursuit in another era could be regarded as radical in today’s context. The failure of the media and large art institutions to embrace this art only intensifies its outsider status, consolidating it as an avant‐garde movement.” A return to representation was seen as a retrograde step. See also Russell Taylor (2009, 33‐45) for a discussion on the criticism to this art and a meditation on the use of photography in painting.
  18. “There are certain qualities produced by the camera that do not exist in reality; they are only present in the hyper‐realist world of photography”, says Simon Hennessey, a hyperrealist painter who exaggerates the qualities in conventional photographic portraits of people. (Bollaert 2009, 144).
  19. This is somehow surprising for an author coming from Newfoundland, an island who has historically possessed an acute sense of independence based on a distinctive cultural legacy and a political past separate from Canada. Moore’s style is at odds with usual modes of transmission of cultural memory, namely storytelling, usually revolving around episodes of the national past, sense of place, the rural idyll (or tragedy), and on a reassuring sense of human connectedness in small communities.
  20. See T. J. Demos (2010) for a meditation of the status of storytelling in contemporary art and cultural industry.
  21. See Danielle Fuller (2004) and Ian McKay (1993) for the ideological dangers of romantic constructions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A notorious case is Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, harshly criticized in Newfoundland for its inaccurate and stereotyped representations of the place (see Tracy Whalen 2004).
  22. An earlier version of this paper was published as “Still Lifes: The Extreme and the Trivial in Lisa Moore’s Novel Alligator” in the electronic journal Canada and Beyond 1, 1‐2 (2011). http://www.canada‐and‐beyond.com.