Jan 182014
 

 

In the bizarrely beautiful short film “Next Floor, a lavish dinner quickly morphs into a grotesque and almost ritualistic feast as director Denis Villeneuve takes us on a disturbing journey that forces us to reflect on our uncontrollable desire to consume.

Several distinguished guests surround a large table and eat with an unquenchable hunger like starving children who have been waiting all day for Christmas dinner, stuffing their faces with the never-ending monstrous entrees served to them.  Classical music plays and the wine flows as an ominous man watches the dinner take place with a sinister and blink-free stare, hinting at the horrors to come. The menu features piles of raw liver, boar, lion, “brain,” oysters, armadillo, and a dead creature resembling a cross between a squirrel and the baby from Eraserhead, along with a myriad of other unidentifiable chunks of meat swimming in their own juices.  The feast is familiar and yet exotic in a way that tests the limit of appetite.

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Only one solitary woman at the table subtly refuses the onslaught of food, but she is served anyway.  She sits as a figure of hope and possibility. She might survive this meal, might be more than her appetite.

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When the floor suddenly gives out and the table with all its guests plummets to the floor below, the ominous watcher / maître d doesn’t seem shocked at all, effectively breaking the fourth wall. He stares straight into the eyes of the audience perhaps accusing or warning us of the dangers of excess, but he also seems to plead for social transformation urging us to break free from the status quo.

The guests themselves, older and conservatively well dressed, are no doubt symbolic of superpowers like the federal reserve cartel, energy companies, the military, politicians, media networks, and religious institutions struggling to maintain the obsolete establishments they are all woven into and what this film seems to represent is a changing zeitgeist, an “out with the old and in with the new” ideology.  It embodies a consumerist world with the wealthy upper class living overindulgent lives of excess atop a societal structure unable to bear the weight and support them in their lifestyle, in the end what we get is a total collapse as the structure essentially self destructs their parasitic ways beyond reform.

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The opening and closing shots of the ominous man hints towards a conspiracy hidden within this complex story to bring down the “one percent”, making room for a new power or at least an invitation of sorts to watch as the privileged literally eat themselves into nothingness.  They consume themselves and he’s willing to serve them to death.

The woman refusing food and shedding a tear suggests that within this wealthy circle of mindless consumption there is an ounce of uncertainty, yet the pressure to conform is so great, and ideology so compelling, that even she stays with the doomed herd perhaps because the truth is simply too unappetizing and inconvenient.  Even though she has a moment of resistance, in her last moments she chooses blissful ignorant and another mouthful.

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Another great success of this film is its meticulously executed composition and dark color palette.  Its use of pale overtones and close ups during the entire twelve minutes voids all possibilities for the bountiful meal to be at all appetizing or desirable, creating a strong revulsion while maintaining some level of elegance with the help of the beautiful and atmospheric music.

From the same mind that brought us both Maelstrom and Incendies, “Next Floor fits comfortably into Villeneuve’s style of taking on powerful, deeply layered themes with a poignant complexity that makes the seemingly grotesque beautiful.  Villeneuve’s short film invites us to either feast at the most decadent unrelenting meal ever or re-think our harmful ways and take perverse pleasure in imagining just how far these consumers will fall.

—Jared Carney

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Jared Carney is a writer, director, and producer from Fredericton, New Brunswick and is also a Film Production student at the University of New Brunswick.  Horror has always been of particular interest to him and many of his influences come from both the classic and the more extreme horror films.

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Jan 172014
 

 

A clear representation of character emotion does not necessarily mean writing things like “Bob is sad.” Actually, “Bob is sad” can work just fine as a starting point. But we generally expect a text to go further, to let the reader know not only that Bob is sad, but how sad Bob is, why Bob is sad, and how that affects Bob and his place in that particular story. The examples I’ll be using in this essay will provide a better understanding of what techniques can be used to accomplish all of these tasks simultaneously.

Before looking at those examples, I want to clarify exactly what it is I’m talking about when I say “character emotion.” I’ll start with the most concrete definition of emotion from Merriam-Webster: “the affective state of consciousness.” When that is applied to the writing of character emotion in fiction, it means placing the reader within the character’s consciousness and explaining how a character’s emotional state affects his behavior. This allows a character to act in a rational or irrational way without confusing the reader; the motivation is not just coming from a place of logic and reason, but rather from a well-defined emotional state.

Techniques and Definitions

First, there is direct reporting. With the direct reporting technique, a narrator (first or third person) describes the way a character is feeling, or a character identifies his or her own emotions. Characters report their emotions in dialogue. Of course, dialogue reports are only as trustworthy as that character may be. When direct reports come from a narrator, the reader is left with a concrete understanding of what the described character is feeling. The example I used earlier of “Bob is sad” is a simple example of direct reporting. The reader knows what the character is feeling and applies that knowledge to any actions that follow.

In her story “Nettles,” Alice Munro employs a first-person narrator to explore the feelings and thoughts of a woman struggling with her definition of love. The story begins with a flashback to the narrator’s childhood and her first encounter with love as a young girl, which unwittingly set the standard for love that would last her whole life. The story then moves ahead to the narrator’s divorce and her finding her first love again after many years. The narrator uses the direct reporting technique to describe both her emotions as an innocent child experiencing love for the first time as well as an adult searching for a fulfilling relationship following a failed marriage.

Recalling the first love she felt for a traveling well-digger’s son, the narrator describes the relationship in adult terms, but makes clear how the emotions felt as a little girl: “We were like sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression. And for me at least that was solemn and thrilling.” Although she is looking back on her time with this boy, the narrator is directly telling the reader how she felt thrilled by the relationship, which then, in the following narrative, serves as a contrast to what she experiences with her husband as an adult. It is a powerful emotion because it is one she longs for long after she has grown up. The technique of direct reporting tells the reader exactly what the narrator’s motivation is.

The story goes on to describe her adult life after she’s left her first husband, and the narrator uses direct reporting to describe the emotions she feels for a lover in this passage:

We exchanged news—I made sure I had news—and we laughed, and went for walks in the ravine, but all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex fused people’s best selves. I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman of my age. There were times when I would be so happy, after our encounters—dazzled and secure—and there were other times when I would lie stone-heavy with misgiving.

First, she describes scenes that took place with her lover and the conflicting experience of casual discussion while wanting sexual gratification. By the time the narrator gives a direct report of the emotions “happy” and “stone-heavy with misgiving,” the reader is already caught up in a well-defined, conflicted situation, so the clear statement of the narrator’s feelings helps to anchor the reader in that emotional state.

The second technique I’d like to discuss is the indirect reporting of character emotion. Indirect reporting is the technique of having the narrator or a character guess, judge, or intuit the emotion of another character based on an interpretation of actions or statements. The difference between direct and indirect reporting is that the emotion being expressed is interpreted; it is not presented as a factual emotional state, but rather a perceived one. With this technique, the narrator, or more commonly, another character comments on a character’s possible emotional state or motivation. This allows the reader to simultaneously see that emotion from an outside perspective and gain further insight into how the commenting character is seeing and processing those around him or her.

A good example of this technique is found in Andre Dubus’ story “The Winter Father,” where the protagonist is a divorced man learning to be a part-time father to his children who live with their mother. The story begins with the couple’s divorce and then follows the first few months of their separation, focusing on the father’s relationship with his own children with whom he no longer lives. The first time the man goes to pick up his children after moving out, he sees his ex-wife and makes the following observation: “Her eyes held him: the nest of pain was there, the shyness, the coiled anger; but there was another shimmer: she was taking a new marriage vow: This is the way we shall love our children now, watch how well I can do it.” This excerpt contains both indirect reporting of character emotion and thought. The third-person limited narrator is observing, interpreting, and reporting both emotion and thought that the father deduces from the expression on his wife’s face.

A third technique is character emotion depicted via physical manifestations. A writer represents a character’s emotion, say, sadness, in action, say, crying. When I first began studying this technique, I was looking for physical manifestations of emotion that stood on their own. And while those certainly do exist, I came to the conclusion that the most effective examples are often used in conjunction with direct reporting. This discovery had a particularly strong impact on me because I have found through personal experience as a learning writer that the emotion I believe I am clearly depicting with only physical manifestations is almost never clear to the reader. These exclusively physical manifestations, I’ve found, are almost always lacking in terms of revealing character emotion because they are just too subtle. The benefit of using the physical manifestation technique coupled with direct reporting is that it creates a visual to go along with the emotion being expressed.

I found a good example of this technique in Carson McCullers’ story “Sucker,” which is told from a teenage boy’s first-person perspective. The narrator tells the story of how his relationship with his younger brother Sucker blossoms and is then destroyed in tune with the narrator’s blossoming and then failing first romance. The story ends with the narrator lamenting the loss of a relationship with his brother following a frustrated outburst one night. This example uses direct reporting with a great amount of physical manifestation to show the younger brother’s reaction to an angry outburst from the narrator: “He sat in the middle of the bed, his eyes blinking and scared.” Here, the physical manifestation is given with a single-word of direct reporting: scared. However, that single word is enough to establish the young boy’s emotions and place the following passage into context for the reader, allowing the narrator to use exclusively physical language without sacrificing information:

Sucker’s mouth was part way open and he looked as though he’d knocked his funny bone. His face was white and sweat came out on his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and for a minute his arm stayed raised that way as though he was holding something away from him.

I’ve given these few short examples just to illustrate the techniques in practice. These were all stories I read early in my time as a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and they stuck with me as some of my favorites. It was only in going back in my reading in preparation for this essay that I began to notice things that I had skimmed over while focusing on other craft aspects the first time around. Now I want to look at two more short stories that utilize all three techniques and set a great example for all writers to follow.

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The Dead

The first of the two stories I’d like to examine is “The Dead” by James Joyce. In this story, Joyce uses a third-person limited narrative in Gabriel Conroy’s point of view. The story follows the protagonist through a night of encounters at an annual celebration. Throughout the story, Gabriel has three different encounters with women that affect his mood and cause him to grow self-conscious before he can assert himself and move past it. As the story moves forward, each encounter grows in its respective influence on Gabriel’s mood. As the story progresses, so does the insight into Gabriel’s emotional state.

“The Dead” focuses on Gabriel’s relationship with women in his life, moving from the rather inconsequential (a maid at the party) to a female journalist, Miss Ivors, a colleague whom he respects, before ending with his wife. During the party, Gabriel’s conventional patriarchal social assumptions are exposed through successive conflicts with the three women. Most of the story action takes place during the party, but the significant action with his wife takes place after the couple returns to a hotel room for the night. Gabriel mistakes his wife’s moodiness for sexual passion then becomes angry when she doesn’t react to him. Suddenly, she begins telling him about a lover, Michael Furey, who died many years before, died of love, and Gabriel is left mourning the fact that he had never loved anyone, even his wife, the way this ex-lover had loved her.

After each plot event (with the maid, with the journalist), the narrative always returns to Gabriel’s internal state, and as such, his emotions are paramount to the tone and meaning of the entire piece. Each encounter makes him gloomy and self-conscious until he engages in various ritual behaviors such as focusing on his speech or making condescending jokes that help to discount the women and make him feel better. Only when he has the plot conflict scene with his wife does Gabriel find that his habitual practices do not work; he is unable to render the encounter insignificant. Finally he has to see himself and his wife as they really are.

I’d like to now look at some examples of the techniques I’ve already discussed asthey are used to represent the emotional aspect of “The Dead.”  In the first scene, Gabriel makes a slightly off-color remark to one of the maids working at the party. To show Gabriel’s response to the maid’s retort, Joyce uses direct reporting of emotion:

He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the heading he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

This passage contains a great amount of information about Gabriel, and most of it is emotional. It begins with the direct reporting of his emotional state following the conflict with the maid: “He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort.” The paragraph continues with another example of direct reporting: “It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel.” This continuation of direct reporting by the narrator gives another emotion to Gabriel’s reaction to the incident. His thoughts, affected by the gloom cast over him, then turn to his upcoming speech, and the narrator continues to employ the direct reporting technique: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers.” Although the language in the passage then changes to express more character thought than emotion, the entire paragraph serves as a perfect example of direct reporting and clearly establishes the internal condition of Gabriel.

Later, Gabriel has a social conflict with Miss Ivors, a woman who is essentially his equal and a friend. The conflict begins when Miss Ivors needles Gabriel for writing a column for a paper not as pro-Irish as she would like, a charge that confuses Gabriel: “When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive.” The scene continues with more chiding from Miss Ivors as Gabriel grows more flustered: “Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy.” The scene also contains outbursts from Gabriel, a brief example of direct reporting in dialogue, such as proclaiming, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” in response to Miss Ivors’ accusing him of being a West Briton (an Irish insult something like an African-American being called an Oreo). However, following this more rattling conflict, we again see the other side of Gabriel.

Once Miss Ivors has left the party, before dinner is served, Gabriel is able to forget all about the encounter: “He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.” This example contains two different descriptions of Gabriel’s emotional state. The first describes him as “quite at ease” and the word “now” following that description adds the element of a change in emotional state, so it is clear to the reader that he has overcome the previous emotional struggle that was causing him to feel agitated. This is not only a good example of the technique, but it is also very important to the momentum of the narrative; this scene repeats the conflict of the earlier scene with the maid with increased dramatic intensity. More is at stake in this encounter for Gabriel than with the maid.

Near the end of this story, Gabriel’s emotions swing again when, instead of making love to his wife as he desires to do, he listens to her talk about a former lover. Joyce uses the direct reporting technique to show how, in an instant, Gabriel’s rush of giddiness comes to a halt: “The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to grow angrily in his veins.” As far as emotional language is concerned, this is perhaps the strongest description in the entire story. Both the mental and bodily representations of this sudden anger are first described as dull before growing almost uncontrollable. The scene continues with Gabriel’s wife telling him the story of her relationship with Michael Furey, including how he had died for her. The tale of Furey’s death inspires this last example of direct reporting, which shows, I think, perfectly the intensity of Gabriel’s internal struggles and the realization that he has failed to love his wife as much as his wife’s dead lover once did:

A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself.”

Joyce doesn’t use indirect reporting as much direct reporting in “The Dead,” but there are still some fine examples. Joyce’s focus on Gabriel’s internal state leaves little room for indirect emotional commentary, but he uses the technique increasingly near the end of the story where, instead of primarily reacting, Gabriel begins looking at his wife and trying to interpret her mood.

First, here is an example from earlier in the story when in the second act, so to speak, after his conflicted exchange with the journalist, Miss Ivors, on the dance floor, Gabriel becomes self-conscious and tries to figure out why she suddenly wants to leave the party: “Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing.” In this description, Gabriel is attempting to exonerate himself from blame, but he is attempting to do so by indirectly reporting the emotional state of the woman just before she leaves. I’ve found that indirect reporting can also contain information about the character commenting on the emotion, and here is a good example. Although he is providing emotional information about this woman, the narrator is also showing the reader Gabriel’s frame of mind and how that affects his interpretation of the woman’s emotional state.

But to return to the end of the story — once Gabriel and his wife have gone to their hotel room, he feels a sudden afflatus of love and sexual attraction for his wife and he thinks she is feeling attracted to him. Gabriel’s emotions in this scene swing wildly as I’ve already shown in my discussion of direct reporting, but here, Gabriel also attempts to read his wife’s emotions. When she has not reacted to his affection the way Gabriel hoped she would, he asks himself why. “Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord!” Although he is not making a clear statement about what he believes is bothering his wife, the questions Gabriel poses internally do provide commentary on the woman’s emotional state. From those questions, the reader knows she is distant, perhaps hesitant, and emotionally unresponsive to the love Gabriel is attempting to display. Like the first example of indirect reporting, this commentary also supports the emotional representation of Gabriel himself. He poses these questions internally, as well as hoping that she will do something differently, without ever speaking directly to her.

Joyce’s story provides many examples of how the third technique of physical manifestation is almost always informed or aided by direct reporting. Going back to my first example of direct reporting, in the passage which shows the gloominess that Gabriel experiences early on in the narrative, the narrator expands on how Gabriel attempts to dispel the gloom by “arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.” This example provides a strong outward manifestation of Gabriel’s emotions, but the action of rearranging his cuffs and bow-tie would not be as effective without the clear purpose behind the action: dispelling the gloom that comes over him. Tying such clear emotions with a character’s natural physical reaction to those emotions creates an extremely successful bit of characterization in only a few words.

Finally, I’d like to return again to the end of the story where the narrator gives an intimate view of Gabriel’s relationship with his wife. After an agonizing back-and-forth inside his own mind about wanting to be affectionate with his wife and alternately wanting to possess her violently, Gabriel finally reacts to a kiss she gives him: “Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it.” This is really a good example of how a strongly physical scene, or sentence really, is aided so much by the inclusion of a small example of direct reporting.

When I first selected this text, I was attempting to use it as an example of pure physical manifestation, primarily because so much of the description is physical. But it was also this example that informed my decision to focus on how physical manifestations are informed by directly stated emotions. If the directly stated emotion of delight were removed, the reader would be left with Gabriel trembling at his wife’s kiss and smoothing her hair. Although it would remain a touching moment, with all of Gabriel’s emotional conflict, the reader might be left wondering if he was in fact nervous or overwhelmed or even feeling guilty. But much like the previous scene where Gabriel was about to carve the goose, this is a brief moment of reprieve, and the inclusion of that delight tells the reader that Gabriel believes his wife has felt his adoration and that all is well. The act of smoothing her hair is the continuation of that adoration and, in light of the story’s ending, perhaps Gabriel’s most admirable attempt at loving his wife as well as dead lover had before.

This final excerpt stands on its own as an example of this third technique, but in reading the story as a whole with a focus on the emotional elements, I really began to see how the constant, consistent inclusion of clear emotional language and motivation builds a foundation and then an entire structure that manifests in a character who is wholly understandable, regardless of how irrational his behavior or thoughts may seem on their own. And as a writer, that certainly sounds like an achievement I would welcome in my own work.

 

Good Country People

The second story I would like to discuss is Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” In this story, O’Connor uses a shifting third-person limited narrator and a healthy dose of irony to show how false perceptions and assumptions can have unforeseen consequences. The story is about an unassuming mother, Mrs. Hopewell, who seems to find the best in people, and her cynical daughter Hulga who is handicapped by a childhood accident that left her using a prosthetic leg. The action of the story really begins when a naïve, seemingly simple-minded boy visits the house selling Bibles. After being invited to dinner, Hulga agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic with plans to take advantage of the young man, who she assumes is a dumb, backwoods Christian. As their date progresses, Hulga is tricked by the boy into removing her prosthetic leg, which he steals, leaving Hulga helpless in a barn loft. In this story, character emotion is especially important because it sets up the dark humor and irony that are trademarks of O’Connor’s work.

One of the first examples of direct reporting in the story does not describe either of the two primary characters, but rather the nosy and stubborn Mrs. Freeman whose husband works for Mrs. Hopewell. The description of Mrs. Freeman comes from the third-person narrator, but it is given from the daughter’s point of view:

Mrs. Freeman would take on strange resentments and for days together she would be sullen but the source of her displeasure was always obscure.”

This example of direct reporting clearly describes the emotion Mrs. Freeman would take on, that of being sullen, but also adds a bit of emotional characterization; not only does she exhibit her sullen mood in her behavior, but it can come from unexpected sources and even last for days. At the beginning of the essay, I used “Bob is sad” as a simple example of emotional reporting, and O’Connor’s line here a perfect example of how an author can say exactly that: “Mrs. Freeman is sullen,” but also how sullen — “for days” — and why (in this case, she directly states that the reason for the sullen mood is not always clear).

After the young Bible salesman has been introduced, the narrator provides the first bit of information that suggests some contradiction to Hulga’s cynical demeanor. After the young man stays for dinner, she agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic, which is a surprising turn in itself since the young salesman seems like a person Hulga would normally avoid or spurn. Her agreeing to meet him is surprising enough, but the larger surprise comes when the narrator introduces the reader to a vulnerable side of the young woman by directly reporting her emotions when she believes she has been stood up:

She looked up and down the empty highway and had the furious feeling that she had been tricked, that he had only meant to make her walk to the gate after the idea of him.

Here, we get the direct use of the noun “feeling” to accompany the emotion of fury. She is not only upset or angry that the boy she agreed to meet with, a boy she would normally mock, has stood her up, but she is furious. The passage has the added bonus of expressing her insecurity with the accompanying exposition and shows the reader that Hulga may actually be more defensive than gruff and impatient.

Although O’Connor shifts her third-person point of view throughout the story, the reader gets very little information about the young salesman aside from what is given by other characters. In one example of indirect reporting, the emotional impact of Hulga’s statement of atheism on the young man is described: “At this he stopped and whistled. ‘No!’ he exclaimed as if he were too astonished to say anything else.” Hulga’s perspective here provides what she imagines the young man’s emotional reaction would be.

O’Connor uses direct reporting quite a bit, but very often she combines it with physical manifestation. In my first example, Mrs. Hopewell is reacting to the young Bible salesman’s pitch. He presents himself as simple, doing the only thing he’s capable of to help provide for his family. He mentions that he has a physical defect that prevents him from other opportunities, which has a strong effect on the mother.

He and Joy had the same condition! She knew that her eyes were filling with tears but she collected herself quickly and murmured, “Won’t you stay for dinner? We’d love to have you!” and was sorry the instant she heard herself say it.

There is a great deal of emotional information in this example. First, the thought that the boy has a similar physical condition to her daughter is informed by multiple direct reports of the mother’s emotions toward her daughter’s ailment earlier in the story. The physical manifestation of this emotion comes in her eyes filling up with tears. The reader understands that her tears are coming from both her sadness about her own daughter and sympathy for this young man and possibly tears of joy because her daughter has found a co-sufferer. However, there is more direct reporting that follows this to better depict the woman’s exact emotional state. The fact that she collects herself, asks the young man to dinner, and then is instantly sorry she extended the invitation shows her struggle with her own emotions.

Now, finally, I’d like to show how O’Connor uses physical description to represent emotion in a complicated and calculating character like Hulga. Unlike her mother, Hulga is the type of character who does not express her emotions in a direct or (connected) physical way; however, it is still important for an author to be able to describe both the internal and external simultaneously for effect, and that is exactly what O’Connor does in this example:

She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood.

“She sat staring at him” is the kind of line I used to use in my own work. But O’Connor goes further. Whereas I would leave that line alone and beg the audience to make an intuitive leap, O’Connor’s narrator gives a deeper physical description (stoic face, freezing-blue eyes), as well as the emotional reason behind this description because there was nothing in her stare or her eyes or her face that suggested she was moved. Then we get the key word but, and we know there is a shift. Then the narrator gives us a direct report of Hulga’s contradictory, but powerful, emotional response. Although the description is of her heart stopping and her brain pumping her blood, the narrator uses the verb feel — “felt as if”, telling the reader immediately that this is not a physical reality, but rather an emotional reaction to the young man’s words. This emotional information supports the final scene of the story when the young Bible salesman, who has moved Hulga to trust and vulnerability, removes her artificial leg and steals it, revealing himself as a fraud and a rather twisted individual.

— Walker Griffy

Walker Griffy received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches composition and literature at Santa Monica College.

Jan 162014
 

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Set in Warsaw in the wake of the Second World War, the world Hłasko presents is one of Stalinist media control and pervasive police presence. “Do you like it or don’t you,” is the officers’ constant refrain. That is: are you content, or are you the enemy? — Adam Segal

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The Graveyard
Marek Hłasko
Translated by Norbert Guterman
Melville House Books
Paperback, 140 Pages, $15.95 US/CAN

 

What happens when a man is set against a narrative? There is a curious moment in the book of Job in which Eliphaz the Temanite – one of the four men with whom Job passionately argues about God’s justice – seems to tell a heinous lie for the sole purpose of maintaining his understanding of the world. Job, once the wealthiest and most righteous man in the land of Uz, has seen his livestock slaughtered and stolen, his family obliterated by heavenly fire and crushed under the weight of his crumbling house, and now sits on a pile of ash, his skin crawling with boils and filth, his every breath a burden. The only comforting thought is the infinite rest of Sheol: “My Spirit is crushed, my days run out;/ The graveyard waits for me.”

Job knows that God has wronged him, while Eliphaz knows that God can do no wrong. Only the wicked are punished, the Temanite insists, therefore Job must be a wicked man. “You know that your wickedness is great,/ And your iniquities have no limit./ You exact pledges from your fellows without reason, /And leave them naked, stripped of their clothes.” This is a lie, but it is a lie fervidly expressed, because it is his only means for conforming Job’s pain to his perception of reality.

Marek Hłasko’s 1956 novel Cmentarze, republished as The Graveyard this past December by Melville House, is full of such harrowing brushes with the dogmatic. Set in Warsaw in the wake of the Second World War, the world Hłasko presents is one of Stalinist media control and pervasive police presence. “Do you like it or don’t you,” is the officers’ constant refrain. That is: are you content, or are you the enemy? After spending the night in jail for a rare bout of public drunkenness, left overnight in a cell alongside drunkards and discouraged men – themselves locked up for singing the wrong songs and listening to the wrong radio stations: broadcasts from Madrid, the Vatican, or (god forbid) New York – Franciszek Kowalski is informed by the police that while “one would say you’re decent, quite probably a good comrade… You’ve unmasked yourself” as an enemy of the state.

This is news to Kowalski, a hardworking and contented forty-eight-year-old “assistant technical director” at a car repair plant, a single father of two exceptional adult children. He is, further, a veteran of the Polish anti-Nazi resistance. Shot through the lungs during the war, the then-young partisan fighter joined the communist party so that he might have something worthwhile for which to die. He cannot remember what he shouted, though by all accounts it must have been rather seditious. “You have insulted the People’s Poland,” says the officer at the station, “You abused the party and the People’s government in such language that I’m ashamed to repeat it… By this token you have shown what you really are.” So what is Franciszek Kowalski, really?

“Here I sit behind my desk,” muses Kowalski’s boss, the First Secretary, “everything seems to be all right; but wherever you look – the enemy is vigilant…” Kowalski survived the war, only to learn all these years later that he has may just be one such vigilant subversive.

Marek Hłasko’s cynical treatment of authoritarian censorship and paranoia carries extra weight when one considers that Cmentarze was rejected by Polish censors, and had to be published abroad by Kultura, a Polish-émigré magazine then printed in Paris. Hłasko was born in Warsaw in 1934, became a celebrated author in Poland in his early twenties, only to become a reviled public figure for his Kultura writings. In 1958 he fled Poland, beginning an eleven-year nation-hopping exile ending in his death by drug overdose in 1969. He was thirty-three years old; some call it a suicide. In photographs Hłasko always sports the same cigarette hanging off his lip; sports the same dour expression, as if he’d eaten something truly unpleasant as a child and the bitter taste had never left him.

So it’s appropriate that the Warsaw Franciszek Kowalski navigates is dismal, unwelcoming, and at times downright nightmarish. Kowalski stumbles “over empty milk bottles and pieces of junk that had lain there for years; he trampled on innumerable dogs and cats and groped in the darkness and clouds of dust.” He encounters bottomless holes in the street, hurries past posters of American soldiers spearing Korean infants on their bayonets, meets children chained to banisters by overworked mothers, looks in the puddles of dirty streets and sees that even the stars reflected from above “swam like fat worms.” The legacy of the war, during which eighty-five percent of all buildings in Warsaw were destroyed, is painfully evident. But Kowalski’s observations are also a matter of perspective: the more loss he experiences, the bleaker the city becomes. And Kowalski’s life falls apart almost immediately after his arrest.

At a party meeting, in a room so choked with smoke that “the open, smiling faces of the dignitaries in the portraits on the wall were scarcely visible,” Kowalski hopes to prove to his comrades that he is not the enemy. But first, in a darkly comic monologue showing the necessity of hewing closely to the empty rhetoric of a party narrative, Kowalski must sit through the “self-criticism” of Comrade Jablonka:

“And I went off the deep end, comrades. When I was little, I tore wings from beetles, and from flies; and I did things with cats and frogs that – well, to put it bluntly – I had fun that wasn’t our kind, the workers’ kind. Once a man died under my window… There was starvation, and misery, and capitalism; until a man named Lenin came along.”

The crowd of course erupts in cheering and applause. But Kowalski, unable to invoke the savior Lenin in such a way, finds no support. Instead, he is kicked out of the party.

“Who is right,” asks Kowalski’s son Mikołaj, “you or the party?” Kowalski insists on his rightness, but the son is unimpressed. “Whom shall I believe – you, an individual, you who shout something you don’t feel, something you can’t account for – or the party?” Kowalski tepidly agrees, “We must believe in the party.”

Why is it so essential to believe in the party? Because there is little else to have faith in, evidently. In a flashback to the day he first joined, Kowalski recalls a conversation with his partisan commander, Jerzy, who sees communism as the only bulwark against innate human badness. “People are nothing but a herd of swine wallowing in a sea of shit… [Man] is infinitely beastly; he is capable of everything; he’ll believe everything and befoul everything. Courage in the truest sense is the ability to find a man’s upper, ultimate limits… That is how I understand Communism.” Mikołaj, in the present, echoes this sentiment: “If they tore the fronts off the houses, we’d see pigsties. I can’t afford to believe any individual. I can only believe the party.” Mikołaj disowns his father and moves out, promising only to return if Kowalski can clear his name. A test of faith, thinks Kowalski. He sets out to find his comrades from the war, certain they will help to redeem him.

Kowalski enters those houses, finding behind the façades not swine but phantoms; mere projections of men. Hłasko’s Warsaw is a junkyard of a city, but the men who occupy it are themselves derelicts, broken down and hollowed out by Soviet oppression. “Bear” is so fearful of informants that he ceaselessly plays music lest neighbors equate silence with conspiracy. Warding off suspicions now by forcing his son to recite vapid Soviet poetry, the hamstrung Bear insists Kowalski give up his fight and make way for “something beside which we mean nothing at all,” asking “can’t you die like a strong animal, alone and in silence?” “Birch” has chosen another route, securing his safety as an interrogator, a communist lecturer, and a propagandist. Birch despises the working class and has no real faith in the narrative he is perpetuating – the man makes Kowalski listen to a speech of his while simultaneously admitting to its outright falsity – but he is happy to keep the myth alive so long as it keeps him comfortable.

The novel’s second half sheds the chitinous outer shell of cynical humor that characterizes its earlier scenes. Gone are the drunk tank pranks and the hypocritical concerns of workingmen in smoky chambers. Humor, in Hłasko’s Warsaw, is a product of the crowd, and here Kowalski finds himself alone with his former comrades, alone but for the looming specter of the repressive state. Granted, the final sequence – Kowalski engaging his former comrades sequentially, driving inevitably toward an encounter with Jerzy – does feel a bit predictable and hurried. But it’s also the novel’s most exhilarating portion. Hłasko expertly narrates the verbal skirmishes between these damaged men. And Hłasko’s chronicling of Kowalski’s ideological development is likewise impressive, particularly considering The Graveyard’s brevity.

Hłasko uses his protagonist’s drunken outcry to great narrative effect. The original complaint – recall that Kowalski has no actual memory of it – was initially denied, then justified to Mikolaj as something he did not mean. But soon he is explaining to Birch “I said that I didn’t believe that… it was possible to build anything valuable by means of crimes and lies, by destroying human dignity, by transforming Communist loyalty into slavery.” By imposing his newly discovered oppositional politics on the earlier complaint, Kowalski is suggesting that he really has been the enemy all along.

So, do you like it? Or don’t you? The embattled protagonist is soon challenging the preposterous binary those questions suggest.  “Ah, my friend,” says Kowalski to the arresting officer in a later encounter, “if you had gone through what I have, you’d realize that it isn’t enough: you like it, you don’t like it.” Kowalski’s concerns soon extend far beyond the abuses of the current regime, which only hint at the greater problems facing mankind. “I raised my hand against things which neither conscience nor reason can grasp, which are beyond human understanding.”

Return, for a moment, to the book of Job. The man’s complaints are full of blasphemy against God, but there is one particularly subversive passage about the powerlessness of mankind against the unknown. God is so powerful that “though I were innocent,/ My mouth would condemn me;/ Though I were blameless, He would prove me crooked.” To Job, God transcends questions of right and wrong merely by being a superior entity. This is a fairly accurate prediction of what occurs when God finally appears to settle the debate. God’s argument is less about proving his point through reason than it is about establishing superiority and unquestionable power. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations,” the deity asks, “Speak if you have understanding.” Job capitulates, and is rewarded.

Franciszek Kowalski is the more compelling character. Do you like it? Or don’t you? “No,” he finally admits. “I really don’t.”

—Adam Segal

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

Adam Segal

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Jan 152014
 

JenSteelePhotography_073Author photo by Jen Steele

Oh, yes! This is a wickedly smart, wise story, artful, too, told from the point of view of a dissatisfied husband with an alcoholic wife, a man who only wants to be free of what he thinks of as his own worst nightmare, a man who abandons his wife, finally, in a Puerto Vallarta bar as she dances drunkenly with a stranger, but a man who, in the end, discovers that his nightmare wife was not the real woman, that he had never paid attention, that, without him, she wasn’t even a drinker. Like James Joyce’s “The Dead,” “To Mexico” focuses on the moment when the husband discovers the essential otherness of his partner, when he breaks through the assumed intimacy of couples to the real, secret woman beyond. In this case, it’s too late; in Joyce’s story we are left to wonder. The artfulness is most obvious in the pattern of bookish juxtaposition: she (the apparent drunk) loves Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano while he prefers the ersatz magical heroism of Carlos Castaneda, two visions of Mexico, two visions of the world, false contraries as it turns out that only feed the narrator’s mis-perceptions of his wife, himself and love.

dg

 

The first night, Dale was standing by himself out on the balcony, in the early dark. Somehow he relaxed enough to notice the sky. “Relaxed” wasn’t the word, it was more that he was worn down, not just by a day’s airport grind but by the months at home that came before. On the balcony, gently mouth breathing, Dale was tiredly alert and the moon caught his eye. It was the famous curled white sliver, but instead of vertical it lay flat. A tiny coy smile. A tiny smile in a black face the size of eons. The two could hardly be comprehended together. He saw more: one pale star up in a far left corner of sky, and then up in the right corner, another. Two tiny eyes for the tiny smile. He had to pivot his head to see the whole face, which gave off wall-eyed irony the size of the universe. He tried to relax and feel amused by it. He knew a nose would appear if he looked for one.

He heard Anna emerge from the bathroom. When she clunked a glass down, loud on purpose, Dale turned from the comical sky to his worst nightmare, who wasn’t looking at him from in there on the couch.

“Want some?” Anna waggled her empty glass in his direction.

“Sure,” he said. “You should see this sky.”

“It’s completely dark out there.”

“No, it’s not,” he said, regretting it right away, not wanting to show her the impossible face. She wouldn’t get it. That is, she’d get it but wouldn’t let herself enjoy it, the magical distortion, the brain stretch, because it was his idea. It had come to this. At one time she would have joined him and they’d have laughed together, excited by the size of space. She would have found the nose.

Anna brought Dale a glass of tequila and sat in one of the balcony’s wrought iron chairs. She had refilled hers; he’d see how that went. Back when they were planning this trip she’d asked him, straight-faced, “You think I’ll do a Lowry down there?” Though a binge could happen anywhere, her joke haunted him. Tequila was a favorite poison and here it was almost free. Her hangovers were when they usually almost ended it.

The chairs were heavy and ornate and Anna was surprised how comfortable hers was. Normally he didn’t care for heights, and they were perched way up a hill, their balcony hanging cliff-like over Puerto Vallarta’s southern outskirts and the sea. Maybe because it was dark and he couldn’t properly see the danger it couldn’t grab his gut. Or maybe he was too drained to be afraid. Of anything. Chances were—he mused as he touched tequila to his lips—if things got ugly between them tonight, if they started coming apart, he just wouldn’t care.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said to the darkness. It sounded like a peace offering.

“I knew I’d love it,” Dale agreed. He added stupidly, “I really want to see an iguana.”

“Hey. To Mexico. We did it.” She held out her glass and they clinked. She tossed her whole drink back, so he did too.

That night there were no eruptions and no plummets off the cliff. Anna was tired too and there on the balcony they barely managed some mumbling about tomorrow’s plans. She wanted to check out silver shops, he wanted to hire one of those boats to go snorkeling. They both wanted to eat authentic Mexican and she asked him, still friendly, if he was going to challenge himself with hot sauces. They had one more tequila each then yawned and stared dumbly into the dark. When they went in and she was in the bathroom he scanned the TV channels to see if there’d be any point ever watching it, and when he came to bed Anna was asleep, her back to him.

Which was fine, which was as usual. And it would make things easier. They were intending to split up here. Nothing had been discussed or announced, but Dale was almost sure that this was her plan.

He hired a boat for not very much money, making the arrangements at the public dock with a tall and handsome man, Vasiliev. Why the man had a Russian name, Dale never did learn. He announced the deal to Anna somewhat proudly because it included all snorkeling gear, which she’d thought they might have to buy. Now, chugging off toward Los Arcos, a trip that at this speed would take an hour, he wasn’t pleased to be crammed on board with another couple and their two kids. They didn’t look pleased either. His assumption had been that fifty bucks got them their own boat, which seemed to be the assumption shared by the dad, a guy older than him, maybe pushing forty. The boat had one seat too few and the dad was standing. At one point Dale shrugged at him, but he didn’t shrug back. His kids, a boy and a girl, looked about ten, and his wife never stopped rifling through her day pack for treats, lotions, water. The motor roared too loud to talk over. Vasiliev, apparently just the fixer, was back on the dock. Their captain was a Mexican with an eternal smile, caricature of a Mexican mustache and not much English.

But it was a beautiful afternoon. Anna leaned on the boat’s side, face into the breeze, which blew her hair back, a whipping bronze flag. She let her eyes close. She was into her own day pack for the mickey of tequila and discreet sips. Disappointed by the silver prices, which were double what she’d expected and which meant she probably wouldn’t be buying anything, Anna had been quiet most of the day. She was in that mood where something badly startling might emerge.

Dale watched the slow approach of Los Arcos—small islets that arched high from the water. The breeze was a relief. He caught the dad’s eye again, stood and pantomimed him coming and taking Dale’s seat and he waved, smiled this time, shook his head. He was fine, clinging to an iron post, hand to his brow like a pirate.

It was paradise, it truly was. The swelling blue sea, the friendly heat, a quaint old boat that smelled of rust and bait, taking them somewhere they’d never been. Arking frigate birds, diving pelicans. Chased by something larger beneath, schools of small fish thrashed at the surface where they ran out of water. The view landward was of old Puerto Vallarta, its white masonry, palm trees, wild green hills up behind, and then the hills above Conchas Chinas, where their villa was. Dale couldn’t quite see their place, or their balcony, but he knew there were green and yellow parakeets in those trees. Anyway, what could be better? At one point Anna caught the captain’s eye and pointed languidly at something off the bow. The captain slowed, quizzical, then pointed himself and shouted, “Turta! Turta!” Dale finally saw it, a turtle’s head, maybe thirty yards off, a sleek black fist sticking out of the water, then it was gone. Anna had already ceased looking at it. The boy never did see it, apparently, and when the engine roared them back to speed again, he was crying.

A few minutes later, when the little guy had calmed down, and after another pull from her bottle, Anna gestured Dale in close and said, “Next time we’re here, let’s pick door number 3.”

That she was mocking this boat, and his arrangements, was clear. He always despaired when Anna became a willfully hateful person, because it wasn’t her, it really wasn’t. And when he pulled back and looked at her, what also became clear was that she mostly mocked the notion of a “next time.”  She smiled dramatically and falsely, and her eyes, her beautiful deep-sky hateful eyes, dared him to join her and say something back and take things up a notch.

Now the captain was pointing and shouting, “Manta, manta!” They slowed and all of them saw the black fin cut the surface, identical to a shark’s, a big one. And then another fin, ten or twelve feet from the first, the manta ray’s second wing tip. A plankton eater, harmless.

“Are there any sharks here?” he asked the captain.

The captain thrust his finger at the gliding wing tips. “No shark. Manta!”

Dale shrugged and pointed all around them. “Sharks? Any sharks? Ever?”

“No way sharks, no way!” he yelled, smiling non-stop, shaking his head, for far too long a time. Dale didn’t believe him. He could imagine every captain in town agreeing not to see the sharks they saw every day, keep the tourists coming.

The third night, they were in J’s Corruption, a bar they chose for the name alone. Puerto Vallarta had lots of colourful names and they figured it was the gay influence. Some buildings, they’d noted, had rainbow flags painted on an outside white wall. J’s was nearly full but people sipped at their pink or green margaritas as an afterthought, many heads propped on a hand, elbows on the table. It looked like the end of a long hot day. Dale had learned that, like them, most tourists arrived on a Saturday and left on a Saturday and so, city-wide, each new batch went through the same rhythms of recovery and liveliness. Anna, for one, had a formidable hangover from the night before. The cruise back from Los Arcos, her first mickey of the day empty, she’d leapt off the bow at full-speed, shouting in Spanish. But tonight she didn’t show it. Dale was used to this, how she climbed up through her pain to appear pretty much normal. Because there’s no way she wasn’t in pain. She masked it well, though she wasn’t saying much, or meeting his eye. Dale stared at the severe part down the middle of Anna’s head, wondered if that dark freckle had always been there.

He recalled how they’d decided on Mexico three years ago, after a particularly tectonic fight, the one that resulted in them reaffirming never, ever to have a child they were sure to ruin, and then also agreeing never to buy a place together. They’d been lying in bed after making restorative love and she was being wryly humorous, but in the air hung the dire truth that, before long, one of these fiery bouts would end them. At some point she’d said, “Let’s at least get to Mexico.” She’d said it twice.

They both had involvements with it, with Mexico, and neither had ever been. Years ago she’d written her M.A. thesis on Under the Volcano and it was her all-time favorite book. That it was deemed inappropriate to teach her high school English class—not due to content but difficulty—depressed her, perennially, beyond words. And, also years ago, Dale loved Carlos Castaneda, enchanted by the instructive maybe-not-quite-fiction, the magic that just might be true, and he’d read them all. And so they’d often agreed it was a shame that they’d never made it down, to see the world of their favourite books.

Now that they were finally here, Dale wondered if she remembered having said it. Let’s at least get to Mexico. Of course she did. All the travel plans had been made, and the flights taken, the bags checked, the bed turned back and the turtle spotted—all with those words chiming in her ears. It was almost grotesque to think about. He eyed her as she took medicinal sips of her margarita. No. What was grotesque was that he couldn’t ask her. That they wouldn’t talk about these things, their difficulties, was a mark of how far apart they were. Funny, but it used to be the opposite—it was a mark of how close they were that they didn’t have to speak. It had been clear right off the bat—maybe when they started having sex, maybe even at the party where they met, Jonathan’s, that birthday—that they somehow saw each other inside out, right to the embarrassing bones, without having to cloud the view with words. It was a starkest intimacy, and they decided to call it love. Yet it hadn’t taken long—though they never talked about it—for this involuntary nakedness to feel more chilling than warm, and under her biting gaze he lacked enough hands to cover himself up.

J’s huge dance floor was empty. The music tended to retro, 80’s, new wave. It was probably ten-thirty. Anna commented on how dead things were, flicking a finger at the seated crowd, languidly sipping. Dale joked that everybody, like them, was trying to digest several days of tortillas and tequila. When she said nothing, he asked if she wanted to try another place.

“All these heads are knobs,” she said, “waiting to be flowers.”

Because they were at tables and the tables were in rows, in the dim light the heads did look like a pattern of knobs. “Flowers?”

“Why not.” She still didn’t bother looking at him.

“What kind of flowers?”

“Crazy come hump me flowers, I don’t know.”

“Maybe peonies, dripping pheromones,” he said. He wasn’t funny like her but he was trying to go along, add to it, join in. That’s all he was doing. “You know peonies? Those big bulbous lush—”

“I know what peonies are.”

“That have to be opened by ants? They’re like weird foreplay machines.”

“I know the peony.”

“Why,” he asked her, brave, or maybe just really tired, “do you hate me right now? Right this second?”

Anna turned away, shaking her head. She didn’t hate him, the sadness said. Her look was desolate. He knew was that he wouldn’t be getting any straight answers from her. Maybe there were no straight answers to give, but she wasn’t even going to try. The day before at Los Arcos, snorkeling, after they’d anchored and gotten into the mismatched masks and flippers, she’d had him swim with her around to the other side of the first small islet where, making sure they hadn’t been followed, they found a ledge about four feet deep, to stand on. She doffed her bottoms and got him going and got herself going and they managed a fast one, underwater, surrounded by yellow and blue fish and the horrendous squalling of birds roosting on the island ledge twenty feet above  heads. Pelicans, frigates, boobies almost shoulder to shoulder. The smell of bird-shit was so ripe that Dale felt its sour acid in his nose and throat once he got to breathing hard. Her seduction was aggressive, and more of a dare than anything else: since they were in slap-dash Mexico they might as well fuck in public. He truly didn’t like it that those two small kids were a few fins kicks around a corner. And he was still thinking about sharks, and what he’d do if he saw a manta wingtip. But he managed her dare, glad when it was over. She said only, “Okey-dokey,” caught her breath, squeezed his bicep, got her bottoms back on, and swam away from him. Sex was never a problem for them. Unless you saw it as a thing that had kept them together too long.

In J’s Destruction, saying banyo under her breath, Anna stood and walked from their table, snapping her fingers and popping her hips to a Bowie, one of the dancy ones. For two days she’d been surprising Dale with Spanish words, like banyo. She somehow knew the difference, in Spanish, between mackerel and tuna, when she ordered a skewer from a beach vendor. Without resorting to a word of English she had haggled over a T-shirt. She knew how to get the good tequila and the darker beer. She told him that “diablo” wasn’t the real hot sauce. Had she been studying? When he asked her this she regarded him with cool concern, and said, “You don’t pay attention, do you?” It was the kind of accusation he no longer pursued.

She didn’t go to the banyo but made right for the dance floor. It was a bad sign, maybe the worst sign of all, when she danced solo to start off an evening. As if conspiring with her, the instant she set foot on the dance floor some staff person in the dark recesses flicked a switch and the floor lit up in glaring red and blue squares, popping off and on randomly, hideously. If colour was noise, it would have been deafening.

After gulping all the ice-mush of his margarita down so fast he got brain-freeze pain, Dale left the bar. And left Anna.

He’s been back home a year now and it’s been six months since he stopped checking the mailbox compulsively. He has no idea if news would come in a letter in any case. That was just romantic, archaic. If word from her ever comes, it would be her voice on the phone, a simple, “Now what?” Or it might be email, just as flippant, the subject line “Geoffrey Firmin Needs Money.” He hasn’t seen her for a year. She might be dead. Though he doubts that. He knows she might be anything at all.

He sees that he now thinks of her fondly. It helps him with the troubling times, though you’d think it would be the opposite. When he pictures her she’s usually in the pool, there in Mexico, where he watches her swimming from up on their balcony where he stands slightly frightened, two feet back from the railing, not touching it, and leaning forward to peer over it. She wasn’t a fluid swimmer and the punchiness of her stroke was somehow juvenile, and oddly sexy for it. He was perched three storeys above, so if he called her up for a sandwich or if she cajoled him into joining her they had to shout. The time he remembers most was when, poolside, on the lounger reading his Carlos Castaneda book, Anna suddenly dropped it, unfinished and unbook-marked, beside her onto the concrete. Done. It looked like she’d read maybe twenty pages. She dropped it sadly, gently, maybe because she knew she was dropping something dear to him. He witnessed the whole thing. It was the third book in the series. He really should have brought the first one for her, because it did a better job of preparing for the wise insanity that followed. The third book assumed a lot, too much. So maybe it was his fault. In any case she dropped the book and stared off, her sadness continuing, probably deepening, at what she saw to be the naivety of the man she’d married. Then she looked up. He doesn’t know if she already knew he was up there watching. But she looked up, saw him, tapped the dropped book with a finger and shouted, funny and sad both, “Come on.” And then, “Really?”

She knew that he wanted it to be true. She knew that he respected its instructions on how to live, on how to hunt life’s hidden purpose. How to see. When Anna dropped the book, there was nothing of her feeling superior. Nor was she sad for him. She was sad for them, this much was clear. She hopped up from her lounger then and, without another word, dived in. Whenever she wanted to feel better, Anna jumped into water, went for a fresh walk, or uncapped a bottle.

They did try. She’d also brought Under the Volcano, for him. He’d been sitting up there on the balcony with it resting on his lap. Heavy as hell and intimidating. Likely because he was trying to read it only for her, he found it impenetrable. And in the end, despite the colourful self-torture of Firmin drinking himself to death, surrounded by spiky Mexican exotica, it was boring. Let’s call a spade a spade. In any case, the two books only proved how wrong they had been that the two Mexicos they’d imagined might be remotely the same country.

“Why do you hate me right now? Right this second?” was the last thing he’d asked Anna, there in that bar, in J’s Corruption. He’d stood for a while watching her dance, by herself, for two songs. Her unabashed style wasn’t unlike her swimming. Using her body to get a job done. At the start of the third song, a well-built guy, white shirt so tight that Dale suspected he was Mexican, joined her. No conversation, but their chests stayed pointed at each other through the dance, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” which made Dale snicker through his nose as he hurried out. He had no evidence that she’d ever cheated on him, and he didn’t want evidence now. On his way out he stopped in the banyo. As he peed, something smelled wonderful–he looked up to see real vanilla beans—that is, the long black pods–maybe a dozen of them, dangling from the ceiling, just out of jumping reach. He remembers that, even at the time, angry as he was, right away he realized that the women’s banyo would have them too, and so he’d wondered, when Anna did visit the banyo, what would she think of them? She’d instantly see the contradiction between their look and their smell. She would call them God’s little shits, or something like that. Something wittier and better. Satan’s dreams.

He doesn’t know if she came back to their villa that night, after J’s, because he didn’t go back himself. Technically, he left her more than she left him. Two days later, when he did return to their villa, he timed things for when the maid would be going through it so if Anna was around she’d be down at the pool. Dale didn’t go to the balcony to check this because he didn’t want to know. Nor could he tell if the bed had been slept in because it was already made. There was no scatter of empty bottles, but they might have been cleaned up. He noticed a new birdcage, of ornate bamboo wicker. The fruit bowl was full of green papayas and the small, wrinkled, yellow mangos she loved. He nodded to the shyly smiling but perplexed maid, stuffed his clothes into his suitcase and taxied to his new room on the modern, less colourful side of town.

The next afternoon Dale saw Anna for the last time. He encountered her by accident, on the Malecon boardwalk. It had been their favourite haunt so he shouldn’t have been walking there in the first place. He don’t know what he was up to, maybe he wanted to see her. Maybe he wanted to grab her back and protect her from everything, especially herself. Maybe she wanted him to, and maybe he knew that. He’d even got badly drunk, in a bar by himself, the night before, telling himself he was doing it in sympathy, in communal spirit, sharing that magical expansion, that wise loving embrace that alcohol can sometimes perform. It was in the seediest corner of the seediest bar he could find, no English to be heard anywhere, and on a windowsill he saw a dirty brown lizard that made him laugh and swear and point, and some macho caballero shouted something at him, and Dale may actually have been in danger, even as he turned to him and smiled dumbly and shrugged. All that kept him from going off in search of Anna that night was his staggering state—he felt certain he was embracing her in any case with his own Lowry-drunkenness, and he felt certain she’d wait for him every night at J’s Corruption, because that’s what forlorn lovers did.

But when he saw her that next afternoon on the Malecon, she wasn’t drunk. Dale followed at a distance. He noted bracelets and bangles, silver, stacked halfway up both wrists. She was carrying a bouquet of dyed feathers in the most garish colours. She wore a new peasant blouse, that unbleached cotton. She appeared pretty much carefree. She wasn’t looking for anyone, for anyone at all, that was clear enough. Every twenty seconds or so Dale mumbled “No, gracias,” to the latest vendor shaking a trinket or T-shirt in his face, and he watched her strategy for handling the same. She had the pockets of her shorts pulled out, and to turn down a vendor she shook her bangled silver wrists at them and then pointed to her empty pockets, smiling. She had a phrase or two to share with them and, to a man, they laughed back and left her alone.

Leaving the Malecon, after several blocks she entered a cafe called The Blue Shrimp. The way she turned into it, without looking, told him she’d been there before. He waited outside long enough to hear her say something in Spanish, hear something said back, a clutch of women it sounded like, and then Anna laughed as loud as Dale had heard her laugh in years.

He realized what was different about her. She had the look of someone who hadn’t had a drink in three days. The exact amount of time since she’d last laid eyes on him. She looked uncomplicated, and fresh. She looked free of both of them.

No, she’s not dead, though they do say it’s either all or nothing for people like her. It’s not a case of being smart or stupid. Lowry was a genius, as Anna never ceased pointing out. It all might just be luck. Or who your companions are.

But what’s she doing? He doesn’t know what she’s thinking right now, doesn’t have a clue. He suspects that their famous fatal intimacy was bullshit all along. How could he not have a clue? He opened new bank accounts but kept their old joint account with enough in it to keep her going a while, though the two times he peeked it hadn’t been touched, and he’s since forced himself to stop looking. He’s checked and knows she would have had to come north to get her visa renewed by now. So likely she’s been in town. She might still be. Her work never did call, nor had any of her friends–so they all must know, and they must have been given instructions. He takes nothing from it; it could mean love or it could mean hate, and isn’t that funny? Mostly what it means is confusion, because that was their epitaph. In any case he bets he’s not far off when he pictures her wearing something colourful—turquoise, white, yellow—and giving lessons of some sort, maybe working in that café where he heard her laugh. Keeping up a simple, clean, one-room place. Keeping birds. He sees her as someone he’d like to meet, and take walks with. Have adventures.

Dale was back home over two months before he noticed the Speak Spanish! book. He was in the process of packing everything up to move to a smaller apartment, because a single man does not need two bathrooms, and he found one with a decent view from the balcony, a silver-blue glimpse of Burrard Inlet up through to Indian Arm which, irony of ironies, was where Lowry lived when he wrote Volcano. (Delighted, speechless as a little girl, Anna had taken him along to explore Lowry Walk there, a surprisingly serene path through beachfront forest.)

Dale found the bright red Speak Spanish! book in the small bathroom, as they used to call it. The book was sitting plain as day on the back of the toilet where she’d left it, ready for her to pick up and commit one or two more words to memory. As soon as he saw it he realized he’d seen it quite a bit, lying around the place. He thinks he’d seen Anna lying on the couch reading it, saying words aloud, trying her accent, excited for their vacation and boning up for it–but to tell the truth, she was right, he hadn’t been paying attention. None at all.

Only since finding the book had he begun seeing the size of their mistake.

Now every few days he opens her closet to check her clothes, feeling the fabric, trying to remember her wearing this blouse, or those jeans. Sometimes he can. But these clothes of hers, which was what she chose not to bring to Mexico, feel like cast-offs, and part of what she’d happily left behind.

—Bill Gaston

“To Mexico” will appear in Bill Gaston’s next collection, Juliet Was A Surprise, due out in this spring with Penguin/Hamish Hamilton. His latest novel, The World, won the Ethel Wilson Prize, and his previous collection, Gargoyles, was nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award in fiction. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Jan 142014
 

Patrick J Keane 2

Pat Keane pens here a brilliant essay on Keats, Negative Capability, personality and identity. We humans are a contradictory lot. We yearn for predictability, familiarity, self, home and identity, but, equally, we yearn for vacations, distance, difference and escape from self (falling in love is one of the ways we escape the self). When Keats wrote that famous letter about his friend Dilke wherein he invented Negative Capability, he seemed, yes, to advance the idea that a poet (artist) must leave self, certainty and identity in order to create. But in other works he speaks of “soul-making” as though, rather than losing the self, the poet is creating a self. Pat Keane, vastly erudite (the man is a magician, pulling quotes from his sleeves), does the critic’s job—to make distinctions and find unity—coursing through the letters, digressing on Coleridge and giving a close reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” (among others). This is no dry argument. Keats died young; he wrote in the shadow of his self’s annihilation and yet was “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” in the pursuit of beauty.

dg

 

In early November, 2013, Robert Boyers, the founder-editor of Salmagundi (now approaching its 50th anniversary), moderated a conference at Skidmore College on the subject of “Identity.” For two days, a panel of twelve discussed the subject before an audience. Those of us on the panel were given ahead of time an “Anthology of Readings,” full of provocative materials to which, however, we adhered only peripherally since the audience had no access to them. As a sort of preamble to this anthology, Robert provided brief excerpts from Leon Wieseltier’s Against Identity (1996), among which we found this:  “Only one in possession of an identity would understand why one would wish to be rid of it.”

Wieseltier was echoing a phrase from the final section of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” According to Eliot, the progress of an artist “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” This process of “depersonalization” is further defined toward the end of the essay, where Eliot undermines the “metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul” since “the poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality.” Just prior to his conclusion in the short coda—that “the emotion of art is impersonal,” and that “the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done”—Eliot had ended the essay proper with the observation Wieseltier plays off: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

In the midst of these critical assertions, Eliot had cited Dante, Aeschylus, and a passage from Tournier. But he also referred to the “Ode of Keats,” which “contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale…served to bring together.” It’s Keats I want to focus on here, ending with that “Ode” to which Eliot refers, and concentrating on what the nightingale “served to bring together” in terms of the poet’s wanting to escape from his “identity,” and finally being tolled back “from thee to my sole self.”

Keatspic

From the life mask by B. R. Haydon, 1816, Keats Memorial House, Hampstead; Photograph by Christopher Oxford

Unlike Eliot, but like Wieseltier, Keats spoke, not of personality, but of “Identity,” sometimes registering the loss of personal identity in the process of what William Hazlitt advocated as the “Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind,” the subtitle of his Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805). Adopting and adapting Hazlitt, Keats engaged in empathetic  identification with others, whether persons or things; sometimes celebrating the absence of Identity in a poet; at other times, and finally, embracing it as an ultimate existential achievement.

In an October 27, 1818 letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, contemplating both the massiveness and the limitations of the power of Wordsworth, Keats distinguishes between the “wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” and his own ideal of “the poetical Character,” that sort “of which, if I am anything, I am a Member.” As conceived by Keats, thinking, as always, of Shakespeare, recalling Hazlitt, and anticipating Eliot, the poetical Character

is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade…It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philoso[p]her, delights the c[h]ameleon Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in[forming]—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea [;] and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. (Letters 1:386-87)

Going further, Keats jocoseriously tells Woodhouse that, while it is “a wretched thing to confess,” it is (and here he anticipates the poststructural demystification of the “mistaken” view of the subject as cohesive and self-identical) a “very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature?” (Letters 1:387).

This characterless adaptability, this loss of identity, the feeling of being either absorbed in, or “overwhelmed” or “annihilated” by, what is around him, recurs frequently in Keats’s letters and poems. Readers of those remarkable letters are familiar with his self-identifications: flexing his muscles so that he “looked burly,” emulating Spenser’s image of the “sea-shouldering whale”; or becoming the billiard ball rolling across the table; or “if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel” (Letters 1:186). There is a particularly touching instance of annihilative empathy: as his younger brother was dying of the same disease that would eventually consume him, Keats felt his own “real self” dissolving in his intense awareness of what Tom was enduring. This capacity is connected with Keats’s “Pleasure Thermometer” passage in Book I of Endymion, and, of course, with his even more famous, influential, and somewhat elusive concept of Negative Capability.

Though it must be measured by the limitations it is encompassed by, the key passage of Book I of Endymion, written in the spring and early summer of 1817, constitutes an answer to the young poet’s question, “Wherein lies happiness?” That answer, couched in poetry occasionally mawkish and marred by the rhyming demands of the couplet-form, nevertheless advances an important theme. Sending along a revision of his initial attempt, Keats, in a letter of 30 January 1818, told his publisher, John Taylor: “I assure you that when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping stone of the Imagination towards a Truth. My having written that Argument will perhaps be the greatest Service to me of anything I ever did—It set before me at once the gradations of Happiness even like a kind of Pleasure Thermometer” (Letters 1:218-19). Answering his own question in the poem, Keats tells us that happiness lies

[space] in that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence, till we shine
Full alchemized, and free of space.
[space] (Endymion I. 777-79; italics added)

Happiness is measured by its intensity and by our selfless absorption in four ascending gradations of pleasure. The first two involve our sensuous response to natural beauty (exemplified by the tactile feel of a “rose-leaf” on fingers or lips), and to music, from the “sympathetic touch” with which the wind harp “unbinds/ Aeolian magic,” to battle’s “bronze clarions,” to the “lullaby” that occurs wherever “infant Orpheus slept” (777-94). “Feel we these things?” Keats asks rhetorically; if so,

That moment have we stepped
Into a sort of oneness, and our state   [an unrhymed line]
Is like a floating spirit’s. But there are
Richer entanglements, enthrallments far
More self-destroying, leading, by degrees,
To the chief intensity: the crown of these
Is made of love and friendship….(795-804; italics added)

He would later tell Fanny Brawne, “You absorb me in spite of myself” (Letters 2:133). In “love,” this self-annihilating absorption in beauty is so intense that, having “stepped/ Into a sort of oneness,” we melt into that “orbéd drop/ Of light” at the pinnacle of experience.

Melting into its radiance, we blend,
Mingle, and so become a part of it—
Nor with aught else can our souls interknit
So wingedly. When we combine wherewith,
Life’s self is nourished by its proper pith,
And we are nourished like a pelican brood.
(804-5, 810-15; italics added)

In legend and Christian symbolism, the pelican wounds herself to nourish her brood with her own blood. The lover sacrifices selfhood in order to attain unity, or (if one is persuaded by an Idealist or Neoplatonic reading), in order to re-attain a lost Unity. Similarly, lovers of beauty—“full alchemized” and in “fellowship with essence”—become so absorbed in the “thing of beauty” they contemplate that they melt into the object of their love. The crucial point in the passage as a whole is Keats’s emphasis on entanglements and enthrallments that are “self-destroying.”  The “sense of beauty” overcoming and obliterating every other consideration is also the crucial aesthetic point of Keats’s speculations regarding Negative Capability.

 Keatspic

In a December 1817 letter to his brothers George and Tom, Keats reports “not a dispute but a disquisition” with their mutual friend Charles Dilke:

several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (Letters 1:193-94)

Keats was wrong to cite as a counter-example Coleridge—whose system-building was forever being thwarted by his inability to “let go by” the many “isolated verisimilitudes” that became, at worst, digressions and, at best, intuitive insights that imported German Idealism to England and, in the process—as demonstrated in my own Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason (2007) and Samantha Harvey’s Transatlantic Transcendentalism (2013)—transformed both British Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Furthermore, Coleridge’s “Dynamic Philosophy” may, in the present context, help explain the apparent contradiction between Keats’s emphasis on the chameleon poet possessing “no Identity” and, in the “vale of Soul-making” analogy, the imperative to acquire an Identity. Keats’s “disquisition” with Dilke may call to mind, for us, if not for Keats, a seminal passage in Biographia Literaria, beginning with the assertion that “The office of philosophic disquisition consists in just distinction (Coleridge’s italics). But, Coleridge continues, the philosopher must remain

constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conception to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy. (Biographia Literaria 2:11)

In Coleridge’s thought, based on Polarity and the harmonizing power of Intuitive Reason, ultimate unity emerges from, and depends on, the dialectical tension between opposites. Once we have set out, he says, “these two different kinds of force,” it remains for us “to elevate the Thesis,” by “contemplating intuitively this one power” combining “two…counteracting forces,” with their dynamic “interpenetration” achieved “in the process of our own self-consciousness” (Biographia Literaria 1:299). “Thus,” he remarks in a letter, “the two great Laws…of Nature would be Identity or the Law of the Ground: and Identity in the difference, or Polarity=the Manifestation of unity by opposites.” The final, if hypothetical, synthesis would be “the re-union with Nature as the apex of Individualization—the birth of the Soul, the Ego or conscious Self, into the Spirit” (Collected Letters 4:807).

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Though that final phrase may remind us of the “vale of Soul-making,” Coleridge’s conception, no less hypothetical and dialectical than Keats’s, was, unlike Keats’s, theological. In the Biographia, a dozen pages prior to the “interpenetration” attained “in the process of our own self-consciousness,” Coleridge made Identity ultimately equivalent to the divine I AM of scripture: “We begin with the I KNOW MYSELF, in order to end with the absolute I AM. We proceed from the SELF, in order to lose and find all self in GOD” (1:282-83). That lost-and-found process would entail metaphysical self-annihilation, Negative Capability in extremis. Though I occasionally feel the spiritual pull in his poetry and letters, I cannot bring myself to read Keats, even in Endymion let alone the Odes, from a religious or Neoplatonic perspective. What has interested me enough to engage in this “Coleridgean” digression is Coleridge’s dual, apparently contradictory, use of the term “Identity,” and the potential of his Dynamic Philosophy, with its polar fusion of opposites, to help us examine and perhaps reconcile Keats’s two apparently contradictory perspectives on Identity.

To return to the letter on Negative Capability: whatever his misjudgment of Coleridge’s “method” and cognitive processes, these thoughts on Negative Capability codify Keats’s own imperative in engaging a world of “uncertainties” impervious to systemic and total explanation. Since we can rarely get beyond half-knowledge, what is called for, especially in a poet, is a mental and imaginative openness and receptivity. Adumbrating the Shakespearean “quiet power” he finally and fully attained in the ode “To Autumn,” Keats wrote his friend John Hamilton Reynolds on 18 February 1818: “Now it is more noble to sit like Jove tha[n] to fly like Mercury—let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee-like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive—budding patiently under the eye of Apollo, and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit” (Letters 1:232-33).

Such hints should be accepted gratefully, not least because they are creatively productive (As Blake put it, using “Keatsian” imagery: “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.”) To irritably reject them because they cannot be fitted into a larger scheme—“knowledge of what is to be arrived at,” a system of one’s own making—amounts to an egoistic assertion and projection of one’s own identity. Of Dilke, “disquisition” with whom launched these thoughts, Keats later said he “was a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his mind about every thing. The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts…Dilke will never come at a truth as long as he lives; because he is always trying at it.” (Letters 2:213).

Keatspic

PencilSketch by Charles Brown 1819Pencil Sketch by Charles Brown, 1819

Reading Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principles of Human Action, Keats learned to see “identity” as a limitation of a prior anonymous subjectivity and receptivity. Cancellation of the ego enhances concern for others, a disinterestedness leading to empathy. But Keats could think of almost no one, other than Socrates and Jesus, who had attained such disinterestedness. The Self and Identity were not so easily jettisoned. Along with Hazlitt’s Essay, it seems likely that Keats also read John Locke’s chapter on “Identity and Diversity” in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a volume we know he owned (Keats Circle 1:255). In Book II, Chapter 27, Locke argues that “personal identity” requires “psychological continuity,” an unchanging and unique sameness produced by consciousness and memory. “For it is by the consciousness” an intelligent being “has of its present thoughts and actions, that it is self to itself now, and so will be the same self, as far as the same consciousness can extend to actions past and to come” (sect. 10, p. 451; Locke’s italics). What “preserves” a person “as the same individual,” he concludes the chapter, “is the same existence continued” (sect. 28, p.470; Locke’s italics). In his essay “On Personal Character,” published in March 1821, within weeks of Keats’s death, a now deterministic Hazlitt insisted that “No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay I might say, from the time he is two hours old….The character, the internal, original bias, remains always the same, true to itself to the very last” (Hazlitt, Complete Works, 16:23-34). By the spring of 1819—reflecting what Hyder Rollins, the editor of Keats’s letters, surmises was his reading of Chapter 27 of Locke (Letters 2:102n)—Keats would posit an identity unique to each person’s “individual existence.” But unlike Locke and, especially, Hazlitt, Keats did not see the self as unchanging and unaltered by experience. Instead he believed, in Aileen Ward’s formulation, in a “gradually developing sense of self which emerges as the individual matures, in reaction to the crises of his emotional experience and from imaginative interaction or identification with the identities of others” (John Keats: The Making of a Poet, 419n14).

The movement from one provisional ideal, that of the poet who “has no Identity,” to its polar opposite, the painful creation of an Identity forged in the experiential crucible of the world, is a Polarity that may be illuminated, as earlier suggested, by Coleridge’s emphasis on opposites requiring a creative act to transform and reconcile them: a reconciliation always potential since “distinction is not division.” Those unfamiliar with Coleridge’s emphasis on bipolar unity may think of the process in terms of Hegelian or Blakean dialectic. One or the other seems to be in the background of Stuart Sperry’s apt synopsis: if in his “expansion of the Negative Capability formulation,” Keats “envisioned poetry as an escape from or transcendence of the limits of identity, it was all the more necessary to see it as the discovery or creation of identity at a level that was more profound” (Keats the Poet, 151). The development—reminiscent of Blake’s dialectical movement from Innocence through Experience to a Higher or “organiz’d Innocence”—culminates in the analogy Keats worked out in the spring of 1819, tracing the development of the formless “intelligence” we possess at birth into a coherent “Identity.”

In the most celebrated pages of the journal-letter to his brother and sister-in-law in America, Keats rejected as “narrow and straitened” the Christian notion of “the world…as ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven.” Instead, Keats, a religious skeptic, hypothesized the existence of a soul, not because he believed the soul to have ontological status, but in order to advance his own scheme of salvation. He proposes an immanent process of “spirit-creation,” in which our experience of earthly life itself, however painful, is its own reward. “Call the world if you Please, ‘the vale of Soul-making’[.] Then you will find out the use of the world….Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” These intelligences do not become souls “till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself,” possessing a “bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence.” What, he asks, summing up his speculations, was a man’s formless soul before it came into the world and was altered and fortified: “An Intelligence—without Identity—and how is this Identity to be made? Through the Medium of the Heart? And how is the heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances?” (Letters 2:102-4).

Here, Keats’s earlier sense of, even occasional longing for, self-annihilation—Wieseltier’s “wish to be rid of” an Identity, Eliot’s “extinction” of, or “escape” from, personality—is retracted, replaced by an existential, Wordsworthian, even proto-Nietzschean insistence on the crucial need to face harsh, often unregenerate reality, and a positive emphasis on the acquisition of personal Identity, shaped by experiencing a world of difficulty and suffering. The process is creative rather than destructive, a rejection of both Christian and Platonic Otherworldy soul-making, a vision of tragic humanism that is finally an affirmation.

Wordsworth4

It is also Romantic in its fusion of Mind and Heart. This is precisely what Wordsworth had done in the final two stanzas of the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” To the penultimate stanza’s emphasis on “thought” and the “years that bring the philosophic mind”—a “necessary” development endorsed by Keats, citing the Ode (Letters 1:186)—Wordsworth added that, even though “the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now for ever taken from my sight,” he still felt the power of nature “in my heart of hearts”:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.  (200-203)

The Ode ends with “tears,” but they are unshed since the “thoughts” evoked by that simple flower are “too deep” for tears. In an earlier letter, to John Hamilton Reynolds on 3 May 1818, Keats says that Wordsworth identifies “the human heart” as “the main region of his song” (Letters 1:279). Keats is misremembering the lines from the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, where Wordsworth identifies “the Mind of Man” as “My haunt, and the main region of my song” (40-41), because he is reading them through the prism of the final lines of the Ode, in which Wordsworth offers praise and thanks “to the human heart by which we live.”

Keats’s own fusions of Mind and Heart are rather more sensuous. He could not have known of the letter of Coleridge I earlier cited in connection with Keats’s own “vale of Soul-making” letter, where, in describing the fusion of two forms of “Identity,” Coleridge personified Polarity as “Male and female of the World of Time, in whose wooings and retirings and nuptial conciliations all other marriages…are celebrated inclusively” (Collected Letters 4:807). But Keats did know, intimately, Wordsworth’s “Prospectus” to The Recluse, which he echoes in the “Ode to Psyche,” where the fusion takes erotic even “nuptial” form in the finale. Keats, who will “build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind,” is remembering as well Wordsworth’s “temple in the hearts/ Of mighty Poets” (“Prospectus,” 40-41, 85-86). Echoing in order to alter the Greek myth, Keats, as the goddess’s priest and self-inspired prophet, brings Psyche and Eros together in that heart- and mind-forged temple he has made for her. In one of the most touching of all the many Romantic reconciliations of mind and heart, the poet as devotee of the forlorn goddess replaces the myth’s fatal “lamp,” whose dripping wax awakened the god and drove him away, with “A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,/ To let the warm Love in.”

In the most strikingly “Keatsian” image in the “vale of Soul-making” passage, the Heart is described as “the Mind’s Bible, it is the Mind’s experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity” (Letters 2:103; italics added). To adapt John Donne, one might almost say of Keats that his body thought. One conclusion is palpable. From his own struggle with a world of painful circumstances, Keats would emerge at last, heart and mind altered and fortified, and in possession of what he had earlier criticized or resisted and what, in any case, had so long eluded him: a strong sense of his own personal Identity. The thinking and feeling Heart having become a “Medium” in the experiential crucible of a “world of Pains and troubles,” the chameleon poet of “no Identity” emerges from the soul-making process with an identifiable Self.

Keatspic

This same trajectory can be traced, mutatis mutandis, in what Eliot called “the Ode of Keats,” especially when it is placed in the context of Keats’s development up to that point—the same spring of 1819 when he wrote the journal-letter we have been examining. The “Ode to a Nightingale” is generally, or at least most often, read as a poem of Romantic escape from the self or identity (a “wish to be rid of it,” in Wieseltier’s phrase), however induced.  In the most controversial, and reductive, surmise in his fact-filled new biography, Nicholas Roe reads the Ode as Keats’s “Kubla Khan,” laudanum being the “dull opiate” mentioned three lines into the opening stanza:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
[space] My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
[space] One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.

The heartache and paradoxically painful numbness are a response to the “happy lot” the speaker attributes to the singer hidden in the foliage, a response intensely empathetic rather than pettily envious:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
[space] But being too happy in thine happiness—
[space] [space] That thou, light-wingéd Dryad of the trees,
[space] [space] [space] In some melodious plot
[space] Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
[space] [space] Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

“The Ode to a Nightingale” is, Roe asserts, “one of the greatest re-creations of a drug-induced dream-vision in English literature” (John Keats, 324). I take the Keatsian caveats seriously; the speaker says he feels “as though” he had drunk hemlock or “emptied” a dulling “opiate to the drains,” and goes on to reject not only poison and drugs but a milder and more enticing intoxicant: that “beaker full of the warm South,/ Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/ With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.” There is ample reason to want to escape human “weariness, the fever, and the fret,” Keats’s restless fricatives recalling Wordsworth’s solace in nature from “the fretful stir/ Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” (“Tintern Abbey,” 52-53), itself recalling death-contemplating Hamlet’s cry, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133-34). In any case, like the opiate, the wine is rejected as a vehicle to join the nightingale: “Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,/ Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,/ But on the viewless wings of Poesy.” The dream-vision—escapist, imaginative, or both—is poetically induced and articulated. And, as has been said by Paul Valéry, great poet as well as great critic, “It is the very one who writes down his dream who is obliged to be extremely wide awake” (“Concerning Adonis,” in The Art of Poetry 11-12).

Echoing Hamlet’s desire, in this same opening soliloquy, “that  this too, too solid flesh would melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,” Keats wants to “fade far away, dissolve and quite forget” the world of mutability. Though the “dull brain perplexes and retards,” he will join the nightingale on those “viewless wings of Poesy”: the very word summoning up Keats’s earlier, Spenserian poetry of voluptuous refuge from selfhood and the world of circumstances. “Oh, for ten years,” he had cried out in “Sleep and Poetry” (1816), “that I may overwhelm/ Myself in poesy.” Even there he had anticipated three stages, a journey through the sleepy realm of “Flora and old Pan,” and an erotic paradise of natural repose, until “these joys” are bade “farewell.” For the poet, inspired by a vision of his presiding deity, charioted Apollo, knows that “I must pass them for a nobler life,/ Where I may find the agonies, the strife/ Of human hearts” (90-91, 101-2, 122-25; italics added).

In lines that anticipate the disenchantment of the final stanza of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats is torn between the real and the ideal, struggling to retain, despite the gravitational pull of reality, the memory of this vision of Apollo in his chariot, a vision he skeptically doubts, yet vows to keep alive:

The visions all are fled—the car is fled
Into the light of heaven, and in their stead
A sense of real things comes doubly strong,
And, like a muddy stream, would bear along
My soul to nothingness. But I will strive
Against all doubtings and will keep alive
The thought of that same chariot… (155-61; italics added)

The threat in the Nightingale Ode will come from “the fancy” and (closely related if not identical) the beautiful yet deceptive siren-song of that “light-wingéd Dryad of the trees,/ In some melodious plot.” In “Sleep and Poetry,” the self is threatened with annihilation by a doubled (because post-visionary) sense of the trammels of phenomenal reality: a “muddy stream” reminding us again of Hamlet, this time of drowned Ophelia, whose “garments, heavy with their drink,/ Pulled [her] from her melodious lay/ To muddy death.” These antithetical pulls persist. For Keats, who will cry out later in this poem, “If I do hide myself, it sure shall be/ In the very fane, the light of Poesy” (275-76), is not yet ready for the full burden of the Apollonian vision: the need to engage with full consciousness that “nobler life” where he may find “the agonies, the strife/ Of human hearts.”

Two years later, in January 1818, in the pivotal sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” he will turn from Spenser to Shakespeare, from that “Siren” and “Queen of far-away,” Spenserian “golden-tongued Romance,” to engage, “once again”—in the process of re-reading Shakespeare’s deepest tragedy—“the fierce dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay.” Once again “Must I burn through, once more humbly assay/ The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearean fruit.” By vicariously experiencing the agony of Lear, “bound upon a wheel of fire,” Keats comes to that deeper understanding of human life he adumbrated in “Sleep and Poetry.” He also anticipates emerging from the fire, reborn as a poet of self-knowledge and tragic affirmation: “Let me not wander in a barren dream,/ But, when I am consuméd in the fire,/ Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” The Lear sonnet’s advance from barren dream to tragic reality and self-knowledge extends to form and meter. Though the octave was Petrarchan, its sestet is Shakespearean, and that final line hyper-metrically enacts the poet’s liberation, its Alexandrine breaking the cage of the pentameter.

All of these stages are re-enacted in the “Ode to a Nightingale.” The opulent beauty of the Ode seems Spenserian, never more so than when, on the “viewless wings of Poesy,/ Though the dull brain perplexes and retards,” the poet suddenly (“Already with thee!”) joins the nightingale in her bower-world of “verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways,” from which mid-region, since “here there is no light,” he guesses at heaven: “Tender is the night,/ And haply [perhaps] the Queen-Moon is on her throne,/ Clustered around by all her starry fays.” In the exquisite fifth stanza, the poet guesses at earth. In “embalméd darkness,” he “cannot see what flowers are at my feet,/ Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,” and so must “guess each sweet/ Wherewith the seasonable month endows” the floral and arboreal world around him. But if the absence of sight liberates the imagination, even the flowers guessed at introduce more than organic fertility and growth. Echoing Oberon’s description of Titania’s bower in Act 2, scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (where “the nodding violet grows,” over-canopied “With sweet muske roses and with Eglantine”), Keats’s bower-litany (“the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild,/ White hawthorn and the pastoral eglantine”) ends with

Fast-fading violets covered up in leaves;
[space][space] And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
[space] The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Shakespeare’s violet “grows”; Keats’s “fast-fading” violets, the “coming” musk-rose, the projected flies of summer all evoke process, cyclical change, death. The violets’ rapid “fading” recalls, too, the poet’s desire to join the nightingale, wholly integrated into its floral and leafy world and blissfully unconscious of transience and death. Back in stanza 2, the speaker wanted a wine charged with all the joys of earth, “Tasting of Flora and the country green,/ Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth,” in order, paradoxically, that he “might drink, and leave the world unseen,/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim.” He longed to “Fade far way, dissolve and quite forget/ What thou among the leaves hast never known”: the world of human fading—where, with Tom behind the abstraction, “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;/ Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.” But with the turn into the sixth stanza, he must think, even though the stanza, until the abrupt turn in the final two lines, involves the ultimate dissolution and fading: the dream of escape from a death-haunted world through death itself.

The stanza begins, “Darkling, I listen,” for, along with the murmur of the rose-bosomed flies, Keats hears (as Thomas Hardy later would in “The Darkling Thrush”) the “nocturnal note” of Milton’s nightingale, that “wakeful Bird,” who “Sings darkling and in shadiest Covert hid” (Paradise Lost 3:38-40, marked by Keats in his copy of Milton).

Darkling, I listen; and, for many a time
[space] I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a muséd rhyme,
[space] [space] To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
[space] [space] To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
[space] [space] [space] While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
[space] [space] [space] [space] In such an ecstasy….

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With the nightingale pouring forth her own soul, still singing, precisely at midnight, of summer “in full-throated ease,” that half-loved “easeful Death” seems a consummation devoutly to be wished, a fulfillment of the old prayer that, intoxicated “by the breath/ Of flowering bays,…I may die a death/ Of luxury and my young spirit” come “to the great Apollo/ Like a fresh sacrifice” (“Sleep and Poetry,” 57-61). But in the Ode, Keats is only “half in love” with that prospect, and though he has called on Death in “many” a rhyme to “take into the air my quiet breath,” and it now appears “more than ever” a luxury, he has a second caveat: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” For Keats’s long-entertained death wish, his voluptuous morbidity, is here countered by his even stronger, quenchless vitality (“full” is repeated twice more in the second stanza). Having half-embraced a “midnight” death, Keats recoils, realizing the actual consequence: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod.” Actual death, not the “easeful Death” of his erotic-aesthetic fantasy, far from being “rich,” would impoverish the listener, reduced to insensate oblivion. The nightingale’s song, an outpouring from her own selfhood inviting the poet to join her in a similarly self-transcending ecstasy, has now become a “high requiem” to which he is deaf. The bird would continue to sing; he would hear nothing. The trance has ended.

The two lines anticipate a truth registered in Keats’s heartbreaking letter, written on 30 September 1820 from Yarmouth, off the Isle of Wight. Aboard the ship on which he was making his final journey, Keats, aware that he was beyond recovery, was haunted by the image of Fanny. “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me—I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing.” He tells his friend Brown, “I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline[,] are great separators, but death is the great divorcer for ever” (Letters 2:345).

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With the realization, at this late turning-point of the Ode, that death, far from being the portal to union with the nightingale, would be the great divorcer forever, an unbridgeable breach opens between mortal poet and immortal bird. Precisely what had made its “happy lot” so desirable, singing “of summer in full-throated ease” because it had no consciousness of seasonal change and death, now becomes a painful contrast not just emotional but existential: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!/ No hungry generations tread thee down,” as they tread down those all-too-aware that they are “born for death.” The voice the poet hears on this particular evening was heard “in ancient days” by high and low, by “emperor and clown.” Revealingly, the nightingale’s song introduces in this, the penultimate stanza, the “forlorn” note with which the final stanza will open. The poet attributes both immortality and identity to that song, though he registers (“Perhaps”) a characteristically skeptical note at the outset of the sinuously beautiful lines that follow. The song the poet, a transient mortal, hears “this passing night,” is

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
[space] Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
[space] [space] She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
[space] [space] [space] The same that oft-times hath
[space] Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
[space] [space] Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

However permanent (“Still wouldst thou sing…”) and identical through the ages, his immortalized Bird’s “self-same song” has different listeners, and the final tonality is forlorn.

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
[space] To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well
[space] As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades
[space] Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
[space] [space] Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
[space] [space] [space] In the next valley-glades….

Keatsfacsimile2

Like the “fast-fading violets, covered up in leaves,” the music of the nightingale, which had seduced the poet into longing to “fade far away, dissolve,” and forget the world of transience and death, now itself becomes a “plaintive anthem” that “fades/ Past the near meadows,” over the stream, up the hill-side; “and now ‘tis buried deep/ In the next valley-glades.” As in the crucial sixth stanza, the final two lines of the concluding stanza mark a turn, this time in the form of a double-question: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?” The only thing certain is that, like the visionary chariot of Apollo in “Sleep and Poetry,” the music has “Fled.” If  the fading and burial of the bird’s song recall Wordsworth’s “something that is gone,” in stanza 4 of the Intimations Ode, Keats’s final double-question more certainly evokes the double-question with which Wordsworth ended that stanza (for two years his final stanza): “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?/ Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

Like Wordsworth at that point of his unfinished Ode, Keats is at a loss. “Nothing is got for nothing,” Emerson reminds us, and the ending of the “Ode to a Nightingale” is as poignant as it is perplexed.  The speaker—embodying Negative Capability, “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”—is left wondering, as are we. Was his response to the song of the nightingale “a vision real” (as he initially wrote, and, significantly, cancelled)?  Or, however glorious, was it a mere waking dream? Was he then truly awake and now in a state of sleep and torpor inferior to imaginative Reality? Or was he merely entranced then, and now once again awake to the reality of human life, however changed he has been by the intervening imaginative experience?

As in the ode it precedes, that on the Grecian Urn, the “Ode to a Nightingale” is based on antithetical pulls: between attraction to ideal beauty, authentic or escapist, and a skeptical, gravitational attraction to the truth, or the illusion, of earthly reality. In the later Ode, the Urn, speaking belatedly (and, for many readers, problematically, even notoriously) reconciles the antitheses, achieving in oracular utterance—“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’”—what Keats struggled with, in terms of “sensation” and “knowledge,” feeling and thinking, “beauty” and “truth,” as well as in terms of his differing perspectives on Identity. Indeed, the Delphic Urn asserts what Coleridge was laboring all his life to find through philosophy: that elusive bipolar unity. Of course, the Urn speaks (including, as I read and hear the lines, both the Beauty/Truth equation and the sweepingly un-Keatsian generalization) sub specie aeternitatis, a perspective which is, paradoxically, limited. The equation, true within the urn-world, seems, at best, unconvincing in our own “world of Pains and troubles.” But debate persists; it all depends on how we interpret the variously punctuated final thirteen words. “Who says What to Whom at the End of Ode on a Grecian Urn?” as Jack Stillinger famously put it in his astute analysis of the “various possibilities, along with the objections usually raised against each” (111-12).

Our inexhaustible critical interest in Keats’s Odes lies in their opening up the possibility of contradictory, and almost equally plausible, interpretations. In the case of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” though the conflict may not be definitively resolved, the gravitational pull seems paramount. For the thrust of the final stanza is that Romantic reverie must bow before reality: “The fancy,” Keats tells himself and us, “cannot cheat so well/ As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.” While “the fancy” and the poem-long subject and object of that fancy, the nightingale, are not identical, they do seem to melt into a sort of oneness in the final stanza. Is the nightingale—just a stanza earlier, an “immortal Bird” whose changeless song had the power to magically open lofty if fragile “casements”—now reduced, like “the fancy,” to a “deceiving elf”?

The contrast to that deceptive “elf,” emphasized by the very rhyme, is the “sole self” to which the word “forlorn” had tolled back the poet “from thee,” the nightingale. Those who read this return to self negatively often cite a passage from Book II of Endymion, Keats’s first attempt at epic. In the temple of Diana (anticipating the purgatorial shrine of Moneta in the great Induction to The Fall of Hyperion), the young hero is suddenly lost, at the “maw of a wide outlet, fathomless and dim.” In that state of “wild uncertainty,”

[space] thoughts of self came on, how crude and sore
The journey homeward to habitual self!
A mad-pursuing of the fog-born elf,
Whose flitting lantern, through rude nettle-briar,
Cheats us into a swamp, into a fire,
Into the bosom of a hated thing.
[space] (Endymion II. 272-80; italics added)

Earlier in Book II, the fountain-nymph told Endymion he would have to “wander far” and through “pain” before being received “Into the gentle bosom of thy love” (123-27). Now, an elf-like ignis fatuus “cheats us” into “the bosom of a hated thing.” And yet Endymion is driven to plunge through this quest-landscape of Ordeal, even at the cost of the alienating pain of “consciousness”; and in the final book, in synopsizing his entire quest, he bids “farewell” to “visions,” vowing, “No, never more/ Shall airy voices cheat me” (II.283-90; IV.652-54). Together, the passages presage the return-journey to “self” in the “Ode to a Nightingale.” The hidden, “fog-born elf” that “cheats us” seems a negative but largely accurate anticipation of Romantic fancy, that “deceiving elf” said to “cheat.” “Forlorn! The very word is like a bell/ To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” One senses something funereal in the tolling of that bell. “But surely”—as Morris Dickstein has observed in celebrating Keats’s at last taking up “residence, as he has repeatedly promised, in the difficult domain of the ‘sole self’”—the primary meaning “is of an awakening to life; ‘forlorn’ serves as the bell that brings us back from the dream-world of the nightingale and from the faery lands” (Keats and His Poetry, 219). Paradoxically, and because of the poet’s altered response, it is the song of the allegedly “immortal” nightingale that “fades” and is finally “buried deep.” Though the conflicted poet mourns the fading of that enchanting song, in the “bitter-sweet” balance he has attained, schooled by “a World of Pains and troubles,” Keats seems, in this final stanza of the Nightingale Ode,  to endorse (as he does in the “vale of Soul-making” letter) Identity, the “sole self.”

Keatspic

“Only one in possession of an identity,” said Eliot-echoing Wieseltier, “would understand why one would wish to be rid of it.” In his earlier poetry and letters, indeed, earlier in this Ode itself, Keats, seduced by the song of the nightingale and longing to be caught up with it in a self-dissolving transport, wished to be “rid of” his own “identity.” And he remains torn between enchantment and disenchantment, allured by ravishing if dangerous music, which, like Odysseus, he audited in delight, but to which, in the end, he did not succumb. Does that make the ultimate return to the “sole self” a defeat? Paul de Man has asserted that “the condition of the ‘sole self’ is one of intolerable barrenness, the opposite of all that imagination, poetry and love can achieve. The experience of being ‘tolled back to one’s sole self’ is always profoundly negative” (John Keats, Selected Poetry, xxiii). I concur in Morris Dickstein’s adamant rejection; “that,” he says, “is simply not true” (Keats and His Poetry, 221). Despite his attempts to “dissolve,” to “fade,” to avert his eyes from human suffering; despite all the vestigial tensions in this Ode, Keats, in the final stanzas, moves beyond Spenserian Romance, which turns out to be empty and “forlorn,” returning to a grounded Shakespearean (now Keatsian) reality, and to the self-same world and “sole self” which served as the existential basis for his imaginative flight in the first place.

Keats has emerged, here as in the “vale of Soul-making,” from his own struggle with a world of painful circumstances in possession of a strong sense of his own personal identity. This does not mean that he has lost the capacity, the Negative Capability, to relinquish that now altered and fortified identity, “surrendering himself wholly,” in Eliot’s phrase, “to the work to be done.” In the poem he was born to write, “To Autumn,” the last of the great odes, Keats disappears into the sights and sounds of the season. In this poem, the “full-ripened grain” of Keats’s art, there is no ego, no “I.” The one fleeting moment of subjectivity—the ubi sunt double-question, “Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they?”—is quickly subsumed in the reassurance to Autumn herself: “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” And the funeral dirge for the dying day and season, though orchestrated by Keats (an elegiac diminuendo decreasing in volume, increasing in pitch and clarity), is made to seem her music, not his, even as she hymns her own harvest, her delayed but inevitable disappearance. The sun sets, making the “soft-dying” day “bloom” (life-in-death) and touching “the stubble plains with rosy hue.”

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
[space] Among the river sallows, borne aloft
[space] [space] Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
[space] Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
[space] The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
[space] [space] And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keatsfacisimile3

SPACE

Keatsfacsimile4

In a sonnet Shakespearean both in form and Negative Capability, Keats reminds us of this ode’s unspoken but ever-present parallel: “Four seasons fill the measure of the year;/ There are four seasons in the mind of man.” Following man’s “autumn, when” he is content “to look/ On mists in idleness—to let fair things/ Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook,” the sonnet ends with a human/seasonal memento mori: “He has his winter, too, of pale misfeature,/ Or else he would forego his mortal nature.” In the ode, autumn’s “full-grown lambs” look back to spring, while the post-harvest sounds (rising from bleat, to sing, to whistle, to twitter) and the gathering swallows herald the approach of winter. But winter is merely hinted at; even the migration of the swallows is left implicit, as, gathering, they “twitter in the skies.” The poet’s own thoughts of mortality remain liminal; they never intrude. Autumn has her own music to the end.

Each season, each stage of life, has a distinct “identity and beauty which man can appreciate by disengaging his own ego” (David Perkins, The Quest for Permanence, 294). We rightly think of this ego-less, autumnal poem as essentially “objective,” and the Nightingale Ode as highly “subjective,” rounding as it does from the opening “My heart aches,” through the flight of imagination, to the rondural tolling back to the poet’s “sole self.” The last word of John Keats’s final ode may be “skies,” but “To Autumn,” moving through its own diurnal and annual cycle, is, even as its music recedes from earth, an earth-centered poem—as, in the end, is the “Ode to a Nightingale.” As Helen Vendler has noted in the “Conclusion” to her book-length study of the Odes, “Keats is unsparingly faithful to his own sense of the artifice necessary to creation; but he remains as well the greatest celebrant, in English, of the natural base without which no art and no identity would be possible” (The Odes of John Keats, 294).

In “To Autumn,” art and identity, art and the natural base, coalesce. Here, at last, beauty and truth seem as distinct yet indistinguishable as the leaf, blossom, and bole that comprise Yeats’s “chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer.” Nor (to cite Yeats’s final image of unity of being in “Among School Children”) “can we know the dancer from the dance,” the performer from the work of art, the Eliotic “poet” from his “particular medium.” Keats was never more identifiaby Keats than in “To Autumn,” where he is an absent presence, a poet of “no Identity.” For here, his “sense of Beauty over[coming] every other consideration,” he is “continually… filling some other body,”  having “stepped/ Into a sort of oneness” with Nature, as in Coleridge’s unrealized nuptial vision of “Identity” as alienated man’s “re-union with Nature.” Though terrestrial Keats could only half-identify with the eternal song of that light-wingéd Dryad of the trees, the immortal Nightingale, he may fully identify with the gathering swallows that twitter in the skies. Yet even here there is a poignant distinction. Keats knows that, unlike them, he will not be part of a migratory let alone eternal recurrence. Even when “no Identity” weds Identity, death is the great divorcer forever. In echoing Keats’s final cadences and imagery, Wallace Stevens, in the final lines of “Sunday Morning,” made Keats’s elegiac music less subtle but more explicit: “the quail/ Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;/ Sweet berries ripen” in the wild,

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

[SPACE]

Coda

Montecito CA

This essay on “Keats and Identity” began with Leon Wieseltier’s observation that “Only one in possession of an identity would understand why one would wish to be rid of it.” His latest   “Washington Diarist” column (The New Republic, 9 December 2013), titled “Binocular,” is a moving meditation on things more important than politics, enough so for me to incorporate it as a coda. The essay is set in Montecito, an “impossibly lovely” town between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea. “Perched on a large rock facing the ocean,” and “saturated in the noontime light,” Wieseltier escapes all sense of “care.” Momentarily “rid of” his identity, he experiences an “exciting sensation of insubstantiality” a Keatsian dissolution of the self. A thin woman arrives and spreads a towel. He notes her “beautiful gray hair,” her “pleasant Californian smile,” and watches as “she lifted her face toward the light. I could see her sighing with gladness to be in the sun.” Sharing with her what Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” has his female persona “find in comforts of the sun,” he enjoys “a moment of solidarity with her.”

But then she reaches into her bag and removes two well-thumbed and “desperate” books: The Art of Healing Cancer and A Cancer Battle Plan Sourcebook. Wieseltier “can hardly describe the shock to my mind. The entire scene was transfigured by my discovery of the woman’s circumstances… The light shone no longer upon beauty but upon tragedy. She was gaunt, she was a fugitive, and she was dying; and I felt pity. The magnificence of creation was suddenly dwarfed by this thin, doomed creature.” I read these words earlier this morning with a shock of recognition, since, in thinking and writing about the “Ode to a Nightingale,” and the magnificent final stanzas of “To Autumn” and “Sunday Morning,” I had been haunted by memories of my first girlfriend, now, like Wieseltier’s woman on the beach, battling cancer.

When that woman on the beach at Montecito got up, stepped toward the ocean, and “stood there staring at the glittering world,” Wieseltier was reminded of the Irish custom of “taking the last look.” He had first heard of the custom, he tells us, in a Mellon lecture, later incorporated into a book, a “subtle and affecting study of the poetry of dying.” The lectures and the book, Last Looks, Last Books (2011) are by Helen Vendler, whom Wieseltier goes on to quote. “How,” Vendler asked, “can…a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit?” What is required, she says, is a “binocular style”: a variation on Coleridge’s “bi-polar unity,” though, unlike Coleridge and like Keats, Wallace Stevens and the four other modern American poets Vendler discusses had to confront death without religious consolation. During his initial idyll in the sun, Wieseltier had escaped from all troubles: “beyond caring,” but “with none of the cruelty the phrase implies.” Though he realized that it was “a temporary escape,” he really “wished,” during that momentary respite, “to be emptied” of the world’s pains and troubles. Wieseltier’s short-lived illusion of “escaping” the cares of the world, as well as Helen Vendler’s exemplification of the need, in a poetry of dying, to register “both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit,” illuminate not only “The Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn,” but many of Keats’s other poems, as well as his life and letters.

They also illuminate the state of mind of my ex-girlfriend, with whom I’m still in touch and to whom I just wrote a letter. Yesterday she completed phase one of her chemo treatments, and on the day I’m writing, she is having her first stem-cell infusion. According to a mutual friend, the process is painful, with more pain to come. He knows. Both have multiple myeloma, a horrible, incurable form of cancer. My friend has survived for an astonishing nine years, a tribute to excellent medical care and to the retention of some of the extraordinary physical strength he displayed when we were getting in fights back in the Bronx. In contrast, my girlfriend was always delicate. Yet, while under no illusions, she’s facing her situation with courage, “unabated vitality of spirit,” and the same humor I remember from all those years ago, when we were in love in the Bronx. Her vision is binocular, her face lifted to the sunlight, even as she is acutely aware of the looming presence of death. With her example in mind, as well as that of Keats as a writer and as a man, I’m trying, in Vendler’s phrase, to “do justice to both.”

Wieseltier ends his meditation on mutability by noting that, as a caring person in his everyday life, “I was binocular.” At the beach, during that care-obliterating moment of noontime sun and glittering ocean, “I became monocular.” But “care” and the “identity” he wished to be “rid of” suddenly re-emerged in his Keatsian epiphany: “the entire scene was instantly transfigured by my discovery of the woman’s circumstances.” For one’s “Identity” is “made” through the medium of the heart, “and how is the Heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances?” Wieseltier concludes, as Keats had, fusing restored identity with an empathetic identification with others. “When I left the beach I was binocular again. An old and frail friend was waiting for me to pick him up for lunch, and he needed help getting in and out of the car.”

[SPACE]

Keatspic

John Keats (1795-1821): A Biographical Endnote

john-keats

The richness and meteoric improvement of his poetry, the intellectual brilliance and human warmth of his letters, and the tragic brevity of his life have combined to make John Keats the best loved of all poets writing in English. In one astonishing year, 1819, Keats wrote two great medieval romances (“The Eve of St. Agnes” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci”) and two powerful epic fragments (Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion) fusing Greek myth with an inquiry into human suffering. But for most readers, the height of Keats’s achievement is the remarkable 1819 sequence of odes, culminating in the flawless ode “To Autumn,” composed in September. It was preceded by the odes written that spring: “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode on Melancholy”: beautifully constructed poems employing language of almost unparalleled richness to explore the tensions between imaginative creativity and human mutability, between vision and reality.

It is hard to separate the poetry from the young man who wrote it. Conceiving of life heroically, not as a vale of tears but as a “vale of Soul-making,” in which an identity is forged through suffering, Keats responded courageously to his own ordeals. Both his parents died when he was a boy, his mother of the same tuberculosis that would later claim both Keats’s younger brother, Tom, whom he lovingly nursed to the end, and, three years later, Keats himself. During the months he spent in Italy wasting away from consumption, Keats alternated between hope for posthumous fame and understandable bitterness at the mortal illness that had thwarted his poetic ambitions and separated him from the young woman he loved, Fanny Brawne. (Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star is based on Keats’s love letters to Fanny.)

“I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,” he said in 1818; but during the hopelessness of what he called his “posthumous life” in Italy, Keats directed that the only words to appear on his tombstone should be, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” He died, after much agony, on February 23, 1821. He was twenty-five, and had been unable to write for almost a year. The extraordinary swiftness and sureness of Keats’s development as a thinker and poet, a record of rapid growth unparalleled in literary history, intensify the sense of tragic waste all readers feel at the cutting short of so remarkable a genius. But what, in the few short years given him, he did accomplish, combined with the lovable personality revealed in his letters, ensure that John Keats will always have a prominent and especially cherished place “among the English poets.”

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Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. 2 vols. Princeton UP, 1983.

_____________________. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1956-71.

de Man, Paul. Introduction to John Keats: Selected Poetry. New American Library, 1966.

Dickstein, Morris. Keats and His Poetry. U of Chicago Press, 1971.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (pp. 3-11), in Eliot, Selected Essays. New Edition. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. pp. 3-11.

Harvey, Samantha. Transatlantic Transcendentalism: Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature. Edinburgh UP, 2013.

Hazlitt, William, Essay on the Principles of Human Action: The Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind (1805); “On Personal Character” (1821); both in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed.  P. P Howe. 21 vols. Dent, 1930-34.

Keane, Patrick J. Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason. U of Missouri P, 2007.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 2 vols., ed. Hyder E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1958.

________. The Poems of John Keats, ed. Miriam Allott. Longman-Norton, 1970.

________. The Keats Circle, ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2nd edn. 2 vols. Harvard UP, 1965.

Locke, John. “Identity and Diversity,” in vol. 1 (pp. 439-70), of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vols. Collated and annotated by Alexander Campbell Fraser. Dover, 1959.

Perkins, David. The Quest for Permanence. Harvard UP, 1959.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale UP, 2013.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and King Lear; in The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Sperry, Stuart. Keats the Poet. Princeton UP, 1973.

Stevens, Wallace. Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems, ed. John N. Serio. Knopf, 2009.

Stillinger, Jack. “Appendix” (pp. 111-12) to Twentieth Century Views of Keats’s Odes, ed. Stillinger. Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Valéry, Paul. “Concerning Adonis,” in The Art of Poetry. Pantheon, 1958.

Vendler, Helen. The Odes of John Keats. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983.

____________. Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill. Princeton, 2011.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. Viking Press, 1963.

Weiselter, Leon. Against Identity. W. Drenttel, 1996.

____________. “Binocular.” The New Republic. 9 December 2013.

 Wordsworth, William. Wordsworth: The Poems. 2 vols., ed. John O. Hayden. Yale UP, 1981.

 Yeats, W. B. W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright.  Everyman’s Library, 1992.

— Patrick J. Keane

 

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

Contact: patrickjkeane@numerocinqmagazine.com

Jan 132014
 

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I met poet John Barton about seventeen years ago at a University of Alberta conference titled de:Scribing Albertas. The conference brought together academics and writers and, often uncomfortably, had them face-to-face over the same text. Which is how I came to do a reading of landscape, memory and identity in John Barton’s poems while he sat kindly and patiently in the second row and didn’t hurtle chairs at me.

In an interview with him I taped at that conference, John Barton said,

I often play around at the extremities of metaphor. Right now I am quite interested in conflating seemingly unrelated ideas or images . . . the poem becomes a kind of aural photomontage composed of discordant, arbitrary splices.

This conflation continues in these two poems: public history, mythology, desire and personal loss all collide and thrum alongside one another.

Two years ago Barton was the writer-in-residence at University of New Brunswick where I teach. The two poems included here were written during his tenure in Fredericton. As beautiful as it is, this place is still sometimes an alien landscape to me. It’s with palimpsest pleasures that I read about Fredericton through Barton’s poetics and I invite you to collide, too.

—R.W. Gray

 

Maritime Icarus, June 28, 1838

Upon discovering Keir Inches dead in Fredericton
after the coronation of Victoria Regina
in the nineteenth year of his life

Why should you keep falling through numbing blue
Layers of the St. John River, night’s soft dark
Mauves soon to black its crest, a misconstrued
Curve of known camber snagging you in stark
And tenacious currents, your fall no lark
You a volunteer from army quarters
On board a scow, launching fireworks to mark
A far queen’s ascent, their nitrous flicker
A seal torn free of by frantic limbs, its glister

Clinging to you as, dripping, they extract
Your corpse escaped into unsurveyed depths
Awash downstream among grey shoreline tracts
Of reeds below Oromocto, the length
Your life meant to take shedding light, its breadth
Praised as a simple crossing, bank to bank
Not a falling-in partway home, hope’s worth
Unwished-for, your half-read face bloated blank
Its unlikeness not unlike this freeze-and-thaw-franked

Stone still here to hold your grave in place
An anchor thrown off time’s foredeck to slow
Not stop a family’s drift, motto effaced
Its stance set flat in earth, soon known
In fissured pieces, tectonic plates thrown
Ajar by cracks swamped in lichened waves
Your bones falling still as you plunge through loam
Unaware if bursting through the craved-for
Surface is up or down, memory a breath staved

Off longer than this hour permits, breathless
As I stand primed from above to watch you
Fall, to haul you ashore, not prone to guess
Or make you what you were not or might not
Have sensed, though scarce years later, from the blue
—Sweet unencumbered man, my ancestor—
A friend’s remains lay vanished next to yours
Light’s substrates porous and me no reader
Of soils, though I would swim through each and no others.

§

Closing the Gate of Sorrow

             …you were the axe at my side
in which my arm trusted, the knife in my sheath
the shield I carried, my glorious robe
the wide belt around my loins, and now
a harsh fate has torn you from me, forever.

Gilgamesh, translated
by Stephen Mitchell

Ten years have sunk a foundation beneath me since the towers fell.
In your and their phantom presence, I have become another man.
Or his stand-in. A few cells snarling in retrospect’s Möbius strip
Are left to regenerate into bracing twists of conscience.
My body, as it uncurls, may feel warm if adrift were you
To ease in beside me while I doze, my eyes half shut, unallied
To the quiet verdant space you had hoped to reseed inside me
The sun burning my face clean of your green, expansive gaze.
Today I’d roll away a stranger, one not far from the lean, unsatisfied
Man you’d met by chance, though once you were the axe at my side.

Two towers fell, and the unlooked-for deaths of several thousand
So private and improbable, must not reconstruct as a backdrop
To how abruptly we came to be apart, though the down-rush
Of floor into floor, the avalanche of debris and ground-to-dust
Flesh and bone juggernauting through the Financial District
As TV watchers looked on, boiled up a haze to screen the disbelief
You projected in a flash upon my betrayal and untoward failure
To love, my untried fidelity an itinerant eye seeing manifest
Destiny in the regard of each man at every corner despite the interleaf
Of your hand in mine, in which my arm trusted, the knife in my sheath.

We fought for hours, the news ten years ago unable to blowtorch
Our gaze elsewhere, my remorse a match lighting your nerves.
Today I’d strike each deflection, not see our nosedive down through
What held us up as uncontrolled, the elevator cable a fuse unwinding
At live-stream speed word by threadbare word, my grip slipped free
Of, in despair, as you plummet, flame out in the searchlight’s strobe.
What gravity may be I’ve come to know, lacking your weight upon me
Though you’d fall under mine—the thrust of my randy indifference
Left you insatiable, another appetite you would not dare probe.
Your unexamined love became the shield I carried, my glorious robe.

Perspective one day highjacked jets, payloads intent as they streaked
Through frets of porous steel. Cut deeper into the century, I am still
Alive as someone here to mourn, not relive as mine what they’d felt
In advance of immolation, primed no more to see you in the shock
Of office workers catching wind of the approach, fuel about to spill
A timeless fear of not remaining calm, unsure of what could allow
Them to stay as they are before taking flight down stairs on fire
Or climbing higher: abyss or redemption not a choice, no unasked-for
Consequence rigged to look fated, and the resolve of nations I vow
Never again to loop into the wide belt around my loins, and now

Like Gilgamesh, millennia later, I close the gate of sorrow. No ends
Exist of the known world I can voyage to in avoidance of death
After the loss of a friend. We subside into earth or spread as light
On the wind in handfuls, not fists. And should we meet again
Our past won’t re-link us; no love is epic, and how cities fall
Can’t repeal how we came to live as citizens before, the favour
Tragedy offers us in its aftermath helpful only in how we rebuild.
Gilgamesh arrived home a just ruler and no longer divine. I wake to sun
Through blinds, the blankness of my cells open to rising light, the lover
I am: perhaps a kinder man, but a harsh fate has torn you from me, forever.

 —John Barton

 

John Barton’s ten books of poetry and six chapbooks include For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood, 2012) and Balletomane: The Program Notes of Lincoln Kirstein (JackPine, 2012). He lives in Victoria, where he edits The Malahat Review. His eleventh collection, Polari, is forthcoming from Goose Lane in April 2014.

Jan 112014
 

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Katie DeGroot is an old friend who lives in a farmhouse on the picturesque banks of the Hudson River just outside of Fort Edward, NY. Her son Niles was in day care with my boys. Her husband Jon and I used to ski together while the three boys practiced mayhem on more dangerous slopes. Like most artists I know, she has a quiet, obsessive side that drives her to long solitary hours in the studio relentlessly putting shapes and colours on paper or canvas. In this case, the shapes come notionally from nature, those rotted, knobby logs you see off the trail, festooned with things growing upon their morbidity. Strange symmetries. But she takes the logs out of nature and puts them up on a white ground, often in tandem (parallel constructions), with the images running off the page, and the moss, lichens and fungi elaborated in fantastic profusion.

dg

It’s funny, but as an artist I hate to even say I use watercolors because it’s the medium so much bad art is made with. It’s what your mother uses to paint with in her art class. I only started using watercolors because I had them and I was waiting for the oil paint to dry on a group of paintings. I have never learned the “correct” way to use them. I think of it as fast drying paint that can give you the most amazing color and translucency. You really only have one chance to make the artwork, the watercolor demands that you work quickly and then walk away. If you push too hard, or second guess your first take on the painting, the result is often an overworked failure. I edit a lot.

I have worked from nature for many years. Recently found objects such as sticks and logs have become a starting point for my studio investigation. Where these objects lead me in my artwork has to do with my interests in surrealism and abstraction, as well as my own quirky interpretation of the objects’ personality.

—Katie DeGroot

PanoramaNatural Attraction,  watercolor on paper, 45″x 60″  (2012)
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Big Diva, watercolor on paper, 45″x72″ (2013)
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Untitled (Nonquitt), watercolor on paper, 24″ x 18″ (2013)
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Untitled (Grey), watercolor, 24″x 18″ (2013)
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Dumbo, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2011)
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Mr. Smiley, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2011)
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Family Relations, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2013)
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SPACE—Katie DeGroot
/
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Katie DeGroot attended New York University and Illinois State University before living and working as an artist in New York City for nearly twenty years. Katie now resides and works in a studio on her great grandparents farm next to the Hudson River in Fort Edward, NY. Katie has exhibited her artwork regionally and nationally. Currently she is exhibiting work in the 2013 Mohawk-Hudson exhibition at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, and the Albany Airport Gallery. This fall she had a solo show at Gallery Gris in Hudson, NY. She is currently the Director of the Skidmore College Summer Studio Art Program.

Jan 102014
 

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The Lost Letters
Catherine Greenwood
Brick Books
88pp; $20

Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain
Russell Thornton
Harbour Publishing
80pp; $16.95

For Display Purposes Only
David Seymour
Coach House Books
80pp; $17.95

I’ve known for most of my life that Americans are woefully ignorant of our great neighbor to the north. I try hard not to be, in part because I live within an easy drive of the Québec border. But I have no real right to be sanctimonious, even with regard to my own calling. Having just (pinch me) turned 71, I find it increasingly hard to keep up with U.S. poetry; some recent Canadian visits, however, have reminded me of my deeper ignorance of Canadian verse, beyond that, say, of my friend John B. Lee and of Don Mckay (two men I admire deeply) and of Anne Carson (a woman who, I admit, mostly baffles me).

The Lost Letters coverThe three books I’ll consider here suggest how much I may be missing. Each is greatly distinct from the others– and each of a very high order.  I marvel, for instance, at The Lost Letters (Brick Books) by Catherine Greenwood, whose pivotal section, “Dear Peter,” is prompted by such correspondence between Heloise and Abelard as survives. Many have tried Greenwood’s strategy, but few to my mind have succeeded: she “updates” aspects of an old story, here, so to speak, putting the legendary lovers’ relationship into modern dress.

This story is famous: Abelard, renowned twelfth-century logician, seduced and impregnated  his brilliant student Heloise, whom he spirited away to live with relatives of his. She bore a male child, after which, infuriated by her teacher’s behavior, Heloise’s uncle hired thugs to castrate the scholar. Soon, however recalcitrantly, Heloise became a nun.

So richly detailed and so narratively compelling are these poems that to excerpt from them seems almost an impertinence. But consider this from “Astrolabe,” titled with that bastard son’s name, in which Greenwood conjures a mother lying in her grown boy’s room after he has left her with an empty nest. “Sentimental music,” she testifies, “makes my nipples itch”:

With the clarity peculiar
to us oxygen tipplers I recall
the infamous homemade astrolabe
at our son’s grade eight science fair–
two cardboard circles pinned together
with a grommet, sights drawn
with banana-scented marker
the ensuing kafuffle
when he taught the other children
how to calculate the angles
of Venus and Mars tumbling
in their star-besmirched
quilts.

Her evocation’s sheer sensory accuracy is enviable, but her rendering of motherly love, mixed with anxiety, amusement, frustration, and protectiveness, however obliquely rendered, is more than that– it’s stirring. Whether Greenwood has children or not I can’t say; but she keenly understands, when it comes to one’s offspring, what complexities underlie a parent’s urgent wish that her child have the very best.

The entire Heloise-Abelard portion of The Lost Letters shows Greenwood as above all a supreme chronicler of longings, often as not unfulfilled. In “Same Story, Different Day,” for instance, having cited a fragment of an Abelard letter, including the phrase, “You know what my uncontrollable desire did to you,” Greenwood speaks from the perspective of a young woman whose beloved is in jail. On visiting day, she writes, “We fuck/ each other quickly with our eyes,” and then

…………………..Across
The bare plywood table, my guy
holds my wrists and sneaks
the balloon full of contraband dreams
I smuggled in up my sleeve.

Greenwood’s depiction of the pain of desire– from her opening poem, “Monk’s Blues,” an hilarious and funky monologue by a young woman with a crush, precisely, on an unresponsive monk, through the final section, “Lost Letters,” which presumably derives from her time as a clerk in a thrift store: that sense of unrequited yearning, in a word of loss, is masterful. In “Lost Letters,” say, the speaker of “Charity” recognizes a customer, who may or may not recognize her: “In our grade six pageant I’d played mother/to his pauper.” Real pauper now,

stepped from decades of gleaning gutters,
he’d returned to what was possible, a man
grown into his fate like a foot into a boot…

he’d returned –still short, spunky–to visit
his mom, he said, and hadn’t brought a coat.

To see this derelict, resilient despite his own foiled promise, leads the clerk to recognize that

…my own life had been driven
by small-heeled struggle, the leather scuffed
but snug, and that for a long while I’d been
walking the wrong way in a costume slowly
going out of style.

That last passage, in which the speaker recognizes vulnerabilities far greater than her own, may suggest what makes The Lost Letters such a triumph. Whether she is considering “The Natural History of the Hamster,” the late night wishes breathed into a “Rotary Dial Telephone” (“Double cheese pizza./Something, anything to fill the gap…”), or the profound and balked passions of Heloise and her lover, Greenwood has the heart and humility to see yearning from the inside.

 Russell Thornton cover

For us humans, it is –is it not?– always a matter of hope and/or its betrayal, love and/or its absence. The first-person narrator of Russell Thornton’s Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain often makes clear that the missing ingredient in his  story is the love of a father who deserted him early. He means to compensate that lack by lavishing love on his own children, a daughter and a newborn son. As he says of the latter, “I want this infant/to fight my father for me.”

The sense of betrayal, anger, and loneliness occasioned by his male parent’s leaving is sharp unto excruciating in Thornton’s work. The writer would leave all that behind if he could. But when the noises of a storm sound to the adult like knocks at the door, he says,

………………………….…father, if I let you in,

I would crush your skull the way some men will
an intruder’s, some an enemy’s, some a boy’s.
The blinds, the wind and rain, are actual

banging blinds and wind and rain– before I fall
more asleep, I know it. Still, I want with all my heart,
whatever my heart is, to go the door.
……………………………………………………….(“The Envelope”)

Similarly, when he recalls his father fabricating “Aluminum Beds” and installing them in his sons’ room just before running off, Thornton recalls that

Nightly I allow not one of my brothers
to speak or even audibly breathe. I know
that the sound of any of our young voices
will distract the light trying to make its way
through the fitted substance of the metal. I know
at the same time that this light is my father
searching for his sons.

The desperate wishfulness suggested by the repeated “I know” in that passage is laden for me with pathos, as is the later moment when the poet’s childhood bed seems “a skeleton,”

unending silver, pure and cold, and I become it,
the light of my father’s love arrived at last.

The boy’s delusion is heartbreaking– and yet it turns out in due course to be less than entirely illusory. Again, fatherly love does indeed enter the very being of the poet as he exerts it upon his children.

The moments in which that love manifests itself are so many in this volume that to quote one is to slight others; but for any parent to note this passage from “River Rainbow,” in which the speaker stands at riverside with his two-year-old, who cries boohewun

Looking back at me
with the grey-blue of the river heron,
one of its feathers fallen into her eyes.
She looks back to the water. Throws a stone
And adds circles within widening circles.
Throws another stone and her irises
halo the river flow. Throws another
and in her pupils the heron opens
its wings and lifts to arc through the blackness
lit blue–

For a parent to note the world’s freshness and sheer availability in the eyes of a child is a poignant experience:

……………………any name
she utters is a rainbow, any bird
she sees is a boohewun, a messenger
carrying to her a name for rainbow,
a heron, and bringing her a heron’s blue.

By focusing on parent-child thematics, I scandalously overlook Thornton’s other significant accomplishments in Birds, Metal, Stones & Rain, not least his spot-on representations of the natural world. Yet because I too am a doting father (and now grandfather, I can’t seem to help myself. Though I was never scarred by a parent’s desertion, I do know the ineffable and unbreachable bond a committed elder feels toward his progeny; and at my age, having watched five children grow and go, I am moved by this much younger author’s sense of time’s velocity, and how it impinges on that bond. In “My Daughter and The Geometry of Time,” he stands with the same child on a beach where he buried the ashes of his grandparents:

I think I will be here at her margins
when I am gone in the same way those two
are now at my own margins, receding
to the beginning…

This  is, I think, as much prayer as speculation, the poet keenly aware that, all too soon,

I will see my small daughter gazing back
at me for a moment from where she stands
collecting and pouring the sand, moving
into the future at the speed of light.

Surely that’s one thing that makes parental love so precious, our awareness of how little time we have to offer it in its originative state, primal and primary.

 David Seymour cover

In general, the poems in David Seymour’s For Display Purposes Only are more edgy than others I’ve considered here. I was unsurprised to learn that the poet works in the film industry, because –as his very title may imply– the perceptions he records are somewhat like “takes” in a film shoot. One of the epigraphs of his collection, in fact, is from fellow poet Jay Hopler: “From being to being an idea, nothing comes through that intact.”

In short, this volume emphasizes that our representations (or “ideas”) are inevitably provisory, are, precisely, for display purposes only. There may be some solid ground of being –the opening lines of the first poem are “The best design survives/ a narrative compulsion”– but successfully to figure it in words seems largely beyond us.

To that extent, the identity of the “I” in these poems is obscure, even to the I himself. The cinematic perspective dominates: we are usually acting even when we think we are at our most genuine. Here is a passage from “The Photo Double”:

The cameras, correctly aligned, produce a seamless
Waterline between the shooting tank and the Pacific
Ocean behind it. Cloudy skies are ideal for this illusion.

Study the dailies, learn his moves, I am the mirror left
After the actor has used the mirrors up.

Seymour’s response to the inevitable facticity (as the theorists, on whom  more directly, would say) of personality and perception is, however, seldom daunted. It is more likely to be jaunty, even when the material at hand might be shocking or dismaying. “Eyewitness Testimony,” for instance, recounts a murder in a parking lot from the perspectives of various onlookers. But that “The man who was killed died,” as the poem avers at the outset, seems the one unequivocal “fact” in the whole incident.

Consider “The woman at the scene sporting leopard-skin/spandex.” She was

…way too realistic. She lacked
conspicuous panty lines. Her description,
though relevant, was weapon focused.

Elsewhere,

The report from the shots fired was heard variably
As a calendar sliding off a kitchen wall and the after-
vacuum of implosion.

Or

The passing cab driver had the largest
hippocampus among the onlookers, being
the least lost.  This was scientifically proven
though need not be mentioned in the final.

And

Others were directionless– what they saw
They now knew had never not happened.

By poem’s end, we cannot even be certain of the incident’s physical details. “(T)estimonials/ hardened into notebook fact,” and yet “Plausible rival hypotheses/ will arise in court.”

Just as everything we do or observe is hypothesis, so is the doer/observer: “That’s me,” the poet writes in the tellingly entitled “The Clones’ Brief Tenure,”, “immortal matter, a smattering of universe made/ coherent by reason.”

There are several clones in the poem just quoted. The third at one point reads the first, who’s apparently a poet:

When I read anaemic verge of yews lamping wiry shade
along the urban growth boundary  I read
stand of trees casting shadows on the edge of town

and think I have reduced his thoughts, insulted him,
or oversimplified the yews, but no,
……they have only grown

more complex since he laid eyes on them,
if he saw them at all and they weren’t fabricated
……for the line to convey meaning of
………….another order entirely,

and now I’m stalled on the words, trying to uncover
a clue to the yews’ reality, a stark hint of certitude…

As it turns out, it is not only what, elsewhere in the poem, Seymour calls his “suppositious self” that is endlessly clone-able but also the world that we wrongly imagine to be intact and, as we like to say, factual. As my dear friend, the superb poet Fleda Brown, has written,

Poets/fictionists are liars. They make things up as they go along. So? Language can never  tell the “truth.” So?  I’m reminded of the French critics of the past 20 years, who very accurately noted (in ridiculously convoluted language) that language has no intrinsic meaning. That the author is dead. The reader makes up the stories in a negotiation between mind and page.  So?

I have also long felt that, once one penetrates the explorations of the theorists, one arrives, as Brown implies, at conclusions that the average writer will have discovered within a few months of applied authorship. How much more fun it is to find these “truths” enacted by a poet of David Seymour’s manifest talent than to find them emphasized in studiously and gracelessly unreadable prose.

I challenge you: Search the theoretical pantheon, from Heidegger to Derrida to Lacan to Lyotard and on and on, and find me something as delightful as this:

When I tell you I love you
you smile like

our old television advertising
a clearer HD television.

Ms. Greenwood and Messrs. Thornton and Seymour present us, variously, with persona poems, impassioned “realist” testimony, and postmodern (brilliant) japery. Let us Americans jettison our odd provincialism. If we look north of the border, we’ll find a little –or in fact a lot– of something for each of us.

 —Sydney Lea

 

sl, bird dog pete and sharptail, Montana

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications recently released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

Jan 092014
 

Marie Ponsot with Five of Her Seven Children

It’s probably unfair – at the very least it’s risky – to place an old photo of the poet Marie Ponsot, surrounded by five of her seven children, at the beginning of this review of her work. The implication is that the state of motherhood defines and constrains a poet qualitatively, and I don’t think that’s true. But the photo certainly suggests something quantitative about Ponsot’s creative output for a certain period of her life, and explains the slow development (by anyone’s standards) of her career – a first book, True Minds, championed and published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for his City Lights series, and a second book (Admit Impediment) in 1981. If you’re doing the math, that’s twenty-five years between first and second books. During those years, she divorced her husband, the French artist Claude Ponsot, and raised the children as a single parent. To support the family, she taught basic composition at Queens College and took on translation work, translating over 30 books from French into English. Those translations include celebrated versions of La Fontaine’s fables and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales.

Since that second book of poems in 1981 – thirty-two years ago –  there have been only four more books from Ponsot – The Green Dark (1988), The Bird Catcher (1998), Easy (2009) and one collection from the previous volumes – Springing: New and Selected Poems (2002) which also has a scattering of new poems. Easy was published just after Ponsot turned eighty-eight.

Whatever it is, it's not as "easy" as it seems.... Whatever it is, it’s not as “easy” as it seems….

I offer up the photo of Ponsot with her children in the lead position as a visual explanation of her atypical career trajectory. The adjective “undersung” attached to her name might be explained by the hyphenated adjective at the beginning of the biographical notes in Contemporary Authors Online: “In the course of her career, Ponsot has published several widely-spaced collections of her work…” [emphasis is mine]. Spacing, it appears, can be everything.

Five children gathered around their mother, and all appear to be under seven or eight years old. When I look at this photo (and I have looked at it plenty – I kept a copy of it taped up on the file cabinet near my computer for a few years)  I think of Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott-award-winning picture book Make Way for Ducklings, especially everyone’s favorite page in that book, the one showing all the ducklings walking in a row:  “One day, the ducklings hatched out. First came Jack, then Kack, and then Lack, then Mack and Nack and Ouack and Pack and Quack.”

It’s a charming drawing, and I see a lot of charm in this photo of Ponsot with her children. There the kids are, though not widely spaced; there is the poet with her beatific smile. Or maybe I’m projecting my own comfort level with odd career trajectories onto Ms. Ponsot. Is the smile beatific? When I showed the photo to a few other people, their descriptions ranged from “addled” to “deer in headlights” to “amphetamines.” So maybe we see what we want to see.

But after reading through interviews of Ponsot and studying her poems, and after meeting her myself a dozen years ago, my theory is this: The woman – who will turn 93 in May – has a preternatural ability to enjoy herself, no matter what the task. The word “preternatural” fits; Webster’s definition says it describes something “suspended between the mundane and the miraculous.” That fits Ponsot to a T. In a piece for the PBS Newshour in 2009, she said, “I write for pleasure. I am a firm supporter of the pleasure principle of life. I think things that we really long to do – and are refreshed by doing – are what we ought to spend a lot of time on. Why not?”

The Spirit of "Why Not?"  The Spirit of “Why Not?”

Of course, Ponsot’s desire to write must have come into conflict with other interests – including motherhood – from time to time. Few of us are single-minded and focused enough not to feel conflicted about competing desires, and conflict like that can make a lot of internal (and sometimes external) noise. Unfulfilled expectations and thwarted desires can be disruptive or, in the case of someone like Sylvia Plath, destructive. Ponsot’s attitude is more accommodating. Consider this poem, written after her divorce:

AMONG WOMEN

What women wander?
Not many.  All.  A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I am one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.

The grandmother in the poem envies the beggar’s freedom to “sleep where you will / walk out when you want.” The speaker of the poem wonders and wanders while “sitting still.”

When I met Marie Ponsot– she was already eighty years old – she didn’t seem capable of sitting still. She had been invited to read on campus at the University of Washington by the Counterbalance Arts organization, and I had been asked to introduce her. She met me for lunch already having spent the morning busy with a visit to the Seattle Art Museum, and I expected her to be worn out, in need of a rest. Instead, she was energetic, animated, and fully engaged in our conversation. She described having seen, at the museum that morning, a glass bowl three-thousand years old, and she commented more than once on how remarkable it was that anything so fragile could have survived so long without breaking.  As she talked, her passion and enthusiasm about this small object left me wondering whether I could keep up with her for the rest of the afternoon, though I was thirty years her junior.  That’s not to say she was giddy or over-effusive. But her high energy level at the time was clear; that same energy beams out from this photo and the poem which follows it.

Marie Ponsot Photo 2

 

ONE IS ONE

Heart, you bully, you punk, I’m wrecked, I’m shocked
stiff.  You?  you still try to rule the world — though
I’ve got you: identified, starving, locked
in a cage you will not leave alive, no
matter how you hate it, pound its walls,
& thrill its corridors with messages.

Brute.  Spy.  I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl
in your cell but I’m deaf to your rages,
your greed to go solo, your eloquent
threats of worse things you (knowing me) could do.
You scare me, bragging you’re a double agent

since jailers are prisoners’ prisoners too.
Think!  Reform!  Make us one.  Join the rest of us,
and joy may come, and make its test of us.

It’s not everyone who can write energetic sonnets that threaten and yell back at their own metaphorical hearts.  Nor can many poets surprise us with rhyme as well as Ponsot. It’s the rhymed couplet at the end of this poem which rings like a bell and announces the fact that the poem is an Elizabethan sonnet.  Once that happens, the reader returns to the opening of the poem to find the rhymes unfold in their traditional order, ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. Ponsot disguises the rhymes on first reading by offering us choppy mid-line sentence endings (“Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now…”) and by highly enjambed lines (“I’m shocked / stiff”) as well as non-traditional stanza breaks (6 lines/5 lines/ 3 lines.)  The rhymes are subsumed until the end. But, going back and looking down the end words of each line, there they are, plain as day.

Beginning poets often go wrong with the tonal register of a modern sonnet, believing that the formal elements go hand in hand with heightened diction, when what the successful modern sonnet needs is a more conversational tone (“…you punk…”) to help readers relax. Even the ampersand, rather than the word “and,” helps the sonnet feel more comfortably modern.

Ponsot manages to find a conversational tone for many of her formal poems, without the work suffering from what the critic Suzanne Keen calls “the strain of artfulness.”  Take these ars poetica lines:

COMETING

I like to drink my language in
straight up.  No ice, no twist, no spin
—no fruity phrases, just unspun
words trued right toward a nice
idea, for chaser. True’s a risk.
Take it. Do true for fun.

As many critics have pointed out, the poem is constructed with the very tools it rejects – it is an act of artifice (written in rhymed iambic tetrameter) but does not feel artificial. The language itself is “straight up” – it’s clean and clear.  Again, Ponsot finds a modern vocabulary and tone, and she yokes it – gently – to form. Ponsot’s ability to do this in poem after poem inspired the critic Angela O’Donnell to say, “As with the practiced athlete or dancer, she makes achieved grace seem natural….”

 Not only does Ponsot do well with received forms, she invents forms of her own. The tritina, a compressed form of the already-difficult sestina, is a case in point:

LIVING ROOM

The window’s old & paint-stuck in its frame.
If we force it open the glass may break.
Broken windows cut, and let in the cold

to sharpen house-warm air with outside cold
that aches to buckle every saving frame
& let the wind drive ice in through the break

till chair cupboard walls stormhit all goods break.
The family picture, wrecked, soaked in cold,
would slip wet & dangling out of its frame.

Framed, it’s a wind-break. It averts the worst cold.

 

Following the rules for that form is groan-inducing, unless you do it, as Ponsot does, for pleasure.  There are three tercets, with repeating end-words as follows: ABC, CAB, BCA. The envoi – a single line – must include all those end words in their original ABC order. Like I said, it’s torture unless you think it’s fun. If you’re game, try writing one. Produce anything that makes sense and sounds like normal English, both syntactically correct and fluid. Make sure it obeys the rules. Pay attention to sound.  Make it musical. If you can do it as gracefully as Ponsot does, and enjoy it as you do it, my hat is off to you.  “The delicious realization that what someone’s reading aloud is a sestina gives you a little kick in the back of your ear,” says Ponsot of the form that causes much teeth-grinding to lesser poets.  “Some other use of the word six lines away, it’s really very pleasant.”

Though this next poem does not follow a formal pattern of rhyme, Ponsot uses  her  modern voice effectively to offer up an ancient myth:

DRUNK AND DISORDERLY, BIG HAIR

Handmaid to Cybele,
she is a Dactyl, a
tangle-haired leap-taking
hot Corybantica.
Torch-light & cymbal-strikes
scamper along with her.
Kniving & shouting, she
heads up her dancing girls’
streaming sorority, glamorous
over the forested slopes of Mt. Ida
until she hits 60 and
loses it (since she’s supposed
to be losing it, loses it).
her sickle & signature tune. Soon
they leave her & she doesn’t care.
Down to the valley floor
scared she won’t make it, she
slipsides unlit to no rhythm,
not screaming.   But now she can
hear in the distance
some new thing, surprising.
She likes it. She wants it.
What is it? Its echoes originate
sober as heartbeats, her beat,
unexpected. It woos her.
The rhythm’s complex
–like the longing to improvise
or, like the Aubade inside Lullaby
inside a falling and rising
of planets. A clouding.  A clearing.
She listens.  It happens.
between her own two ears.

Come to think of it, that poem has some rhythmic patterns that make it sound almost Anglo-Saxon. Seamus Heaney reproduced that drum-beat of Old English in his translation of Beowulf (two beats on each side of a central caesura):

 

…sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessels hold, then heaved out
away with a will in the wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her,
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird….

 

In her short poem, Ponsot does something similar, though she breaks the full-line drumbeat into two lines each. If we put her lines back into a single-line format, it looks (and sounds – boom-boom, boom-boom) like Heaney:

 

Handmaid to Cybele, she is a Dactyl,
a tangle-haired leap-taking hot Corybantica.
Torch-light & cymbal-strikes scamper along with her.
Kniving & shouting, she heads up her dancing girls’
streaming sorority….

 

Also like Heaney, and like the original poet of Beowulf, Ponsot uses strong alliteration (“Someone takes over  / her sickle & signature tune. Soon ….”) along with kennings (the riddle-like renaming of things via the hyphenating of two dissimilar nouns, such as Heaney’s translated “whale-road” to mean the sea, and Ponsot’s “torch-light and cymbal-strikes” to mean lightning and thunder.)

The last line of Ponsot’s poem feels wrong at first, since the rhythm is broken by inserting the word “own.” Without it, the rhythm would be perfect – two beats on each side of the caesura (“She listens. It happens / between her two ears.”) Instead, Ponsot breaks the back of the form. So – is it a misstep? Well, sometimes relaxing the rhythm of a poem can be the sign of mastery – and right there within the poem, Ponsot explains it to us: “The rhythm’s complex /–like the longing to improvise.” It’s “her beat,” it’s “unexpected,” a little nod to her own improvisational skill.

I said that putting the photo of Ponsot with her children at the opening of this piece was risky. It’s also risky to call any poet “undersung” who has had so many poets and critics sing her praises. Josephine Jacobsen (herself a “poet’s poet” and somewhat undersung) was a long-time champion of Ponsot’s work, citing her “powerful, and hence relaxed, ability to play with language, to fuse the witty with the grave.”  Louis McKee called Ponsot “an important but often overlooked writer.” Since winning the National Book Critics Circle prize for her third book (The Bird Catcher) in 1998, she has received more media attention and many fine awards, including the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Shaugnessy Medal from the Modern Language Association, and the Ruth Lilly Award for lifetime achievement (with its whopping $100,000 prize.) She was elected a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets in 2010.

So why isn’t her work better known? What keeps a writer from connecting to a wider audience? Maybe wordplay – one of Ponsot’s fortes – confuses readers. Maybe formal elements scare or irritate them (one reason why Billy Collins’ clever poem, “Paradelle for Susan,” which mocks demanding poetic forms, is so popular.) And maybe we have a skewed idea of what makes a poet “great.” Consider this description of “Greatness” by David Orr, who writes the “On Poetry” column for the New York Times:

 

What, then, do we assume ambition and Greatness look like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping—unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.” And the persona we associate with Greatness is something, you know, exceptional—an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, a prodigious intellect, a mad-eyed genius who has drunk from the Fountain of Truth and tasted the Fruit of Knowledge and donned the Beret of….Well, anyway, it’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, as I mentioned earlier, and a Great poet is therefore a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.

Sarcasm aside, Orr makes an important point about scale. Is it possible for someone like Marie Ponsot, somewhat casual about her career as a poet, and equally charmed by motherhood as by professional success, to gain access to the inner circle? Does Ponsot write about “big things in a big way?” or is there too much of the kitchen and garden, of children and grandparents, in her work to satisfy anthologists who help determine reputations? Who determines what the “big things” are? Even more important, does it matter to Ponsot?  As she said once during the previously mentioned PBS Newshour, “… when you get to be 80, you can say about a lot of things that used to cause you anxiety, ‘I don`t care. I just do not care. There are things I care about, but all this worrisome stuff, no, I don`t care.’ ”

Not caring enough about being praised could be to blame.  Or is the problem simply the lack of a steady stream of books? How long can a writer’s reputation remain suspended above the Earth without some gravitational pull being exerted? For twenty-five years, Ponsot not only did not publish collections but did not send individual poems out for publication in reviews. Once she began publishing again, urged on by her friend, the poet Marilyn Hacker, the time between books averaged eight years.

That doesn’t mean she stopped writing and thinking about language while her main focus was on raising her children. In an interview with Anna Ross, Ponsot says this:

My first baby was my girl—I had one girl and six boys. [One day] I walked into her bedroom in the morning and I realized that that little noise that she was making in the morning was the shape of that sentence that I always said to her. We were speaking French at that point because my ex-husband had no English, and I was going into the room and I was saying “Òu elle est, Monique,” and there she was saying “dah-dah-dah-dah-dah.” She’d been doing it for days, and I hadn’t recognized it. I was so ashamed of myself, I didn’t know what to do. It was a great moment of celebration, because I realized that the shape of a sentence is a music that she was reproducing. Like everyone who is still living in the purely oral tradition, she had no idea that a sentence was composed of different words; it was all one little tune. She was babbling out her little tune to me. Oh God, it was so thrilling. It was one of the great days of my life.”

Marie Ponsot Photo 3 - 1952 with Son

What do we want our writers to care about? Praise? Reputation? Productivity? Some poets, after all, manage to publish often and even to earn back their book advances. Mary Oliver, one of America’s most popular poets, has published twenty-nine books in fifty years, and that includes a nine-year gap between her first book in 1963 and her second in 1972.  If you do the math on this one and start the count in 1972, her output averages one book every 17-18 months.  Billy Collins, another wildly popular poet, has published ten collections since 1995 (the date of his breakthrough collection, The Art of Drowning.) Ten books in eighteen years – one every couple of years.

But being prolific can’t explain everything about popular success.  Some of it has to do with accessibility, which both Oliver and Collins excel at.  Few readers say of an Oliver or Collins poem, “I don’t get it.” But Ponsot’s poems, despite their modern diction, are not always easily understood. She brings a razor-sharp intelligence to the task of writing, along with her wit, and intelligence can send us scurrying to reference books or to Wikipedia for clues (Cybele? Dactyla? Corybantica?) A keen intellect can assign some poets to the dreaded “Academic” file forever, especially in the United States (God save intellectuals in 21st-century America.)

Some of it  – the achievement of name-recognition status – has to do with whether a poet is easily classifiable. Readers want to know: Is this a nature poet, a funny poet, a regional poet, a feminist poet?  It’s difficult to pigeon-hole Ponsot – her poems include references to myth and medieval iconography but do strange Beat-Generation things to syntax sometimes and send out hipster vibes. She can be funny, political, lyrical, light, heavy, post-modern, formal and free-wheeling, but she is not consistently any of them.

And certainly, writers who stay afloat in terms of reputation are willing to self-promote and to indulge in the networking that connects them – via readings and workshops and signings and conferences and and and  — with insiders in the world of media and publishers. Ponsot, in a 2003 interview with Benjamin Irvy,  had this to say about her interrupted career:  “I was very busy. It’s really that I was entirely out of all those professional poetry loops. That’s worth saying, because it’s easy to keep writing without tremendous agitation in whatever time you have. If you don’t imagine yourself as a career poet but rather as a person who writes poems, you can just go on doing that.” She goes on to say, “You really have to believe me when I say my dissociation from the idea of publication was not deliberate, contemptuous or passive-aggressive; it just didn’t occur to me. Think of all those seventeenth-century cavalier poets who had no interest in publishing their work – it didn’t occur to them either. Frequent publication of poems is a nineteenth-century development.”

Ponsot did not, during those quiet years, consider herself a “career poet.” Rather, she saw herself – at least for a long period of her life – as simply “a person who writes poems.”

Marie Ponsot, Spiraling and Springing (Photo by Diane Bondareff)

In 2010, Marie Ponsot suffered a stroke which impaired both her speech and her memory, two things which made her the unique poet she is. She has been struggling against those limitations; her still-strong religious beliefs (she is a life-long Catholic) sustain her. Her Catholicism might also explain the seven children, sixteen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.  At the center of a large family, Ponsot still thinks of the power of poetry to keep her company:  “…it’s a very enjoyable thing,” she says, “to be an old writer. It’s bliss! It’s really a highly entertaining state. You manage as long as language lasts. And language lasts a long time. Language is a sturdy companion, I think.”

I’ll leave you with one last poem by Marie Ponsot, taken from her book, The Green Dark:

 

THE IDES OF MAY

Every seventh second the wood thrush
speaks its loose curve until in ten minutes
the thicket it lives in is bounded
by the brand of its sound.

Every twenty-eight days the leisurely
moon diagrams the light way, east to west,
to describe mathematics and keep us unstuck
on our arched ground.

Every generation the child hurries out of child-
hood head bared to the face-making blaze
of bliss and distress, giving a stranger power to
enter, wound, astound.

The dedication of that poem reads “For my children entering parenthood.” In that poem I see and hear a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way. Maybe success doesn’t depend on timing, productivity, accessibility, or pigeon-hole-ability. Maybe it just depends on how we define “big.” And how we define “success.”

—Julie Larios

————————————————-

Heads

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

Jan 082014
 

Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a language-player whose restless mind and tender sensibility makes poems that l like to read over and over. The first time we met up was at the Cow Cafe in downtown Toronto. Someone had put salt in the sugar bowl and I ended up spitting tea down the front of his shirt. He smiled and dabbed at his clothes, the picture of grace when blindsided by an unexpected event. He approaches language and image the same way, welcoming the unanticipated and ushering it inside the poem. Phil Hall has been short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize twice and has won the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Book Award.

— Ann Ireland

 

Ann Ireland interviews Phil Hall

Ann Ireland: How did you come to poetry?

Phil HallGet that goddamn / dog out of here / before I get the shot / gun down (said my father – sounding a lot like Milton) Blue & green / should never be seen / except in the washing machine (said my mother – sounding a lot like Beatrix Potter)

I came to poetry through all of the usual pathetic early tunnels: Wilf Carter and Hal Lone Pine, Kipling and Service, The Song of the Lazy Farmer, greeting cards… I came to poetry backwards, secretly, on an outside track: I would be an actor, because theatre is the art form by which one gets the most immediate response and attention. I was hungry to be told I was OK, and clapping is a big (if fleeting) OK. (Thankfully, writing poetry means that not a soul is in the audience. The inside track and the stadiums are for prose. Hear the novel whizzing by…) I came to poetry – I guess you could say – missionarily – is that a word? The clean & holy parents of school friends sometimes took me along to Baptist Sunday School & Church in Bobcaygeon. Here I heard and sang hymns devoid of melody but rich with long dark tones, the foot pedals pumping on the organ. That chastising drone got into me, I guess – along with the bag-pipes at Orange Lodge parades… Between Milton & Potter: half mighty condemnation / half little animal jingles –  I sing.

AI: What does living in nature bring you?

PH: I grew up on farms, but was allergic to everything: hay, ragweed, goldenrod, dust, horses, dogs, cats, blue & green molds…When it grew cold, and those spores weren’t in the air, I got asthma, bronchitis, skin rashes…A dead deer was hanging in the woodshed, dripping – I wouldn’t eat meat. What the hell is wrong with him! Fortunately, books have in them none of the things I am allergic to – except as referents. Books saved me. And peanut butter. I am allergic to rural life, I guess…or ultimately, I am allergic to Ontario. But I have grown out of the asthma, have never smoked so my lungs are clear, can avoid horses & pets & dust & weeds, mostly. And living back in the country, in nature, now, I feel at home – with my aversions. I am writing with Blake’s rural pen, or trying to. I have a little garden, even. The poems eat the leaves off my bean plants.

AI: You burrow at words from the inside-out: I will write a poem again today / it will make no sense // my claver will clawhammer the bars of the word barbaric // sense can be a gag order / silence can be made to sound civilized & free. This feels like a statement of poetic intent. Care to comment?

PH: If we don’t work with words from the inside-out, we are using them as they have been sold to us, cheaply. A poem will then be no more than a Cabbage Patch Frankenstein composed of imitative sound-bits. Poem as soma – in the Huxley sense of a pacifier from the State. Coke. Against this – we may try to honour the historical and sonorously complex revolt against propriety that is each word in truth. Also, to write this way makes me laugh, and is clarifying. I have come late to the pondering of words, late to letter-rumination. Neither Milton or Potter care-took language in this way, contemplating words as objects, designs, sounds, shapes. (In other ways, they did.) Susan Howe, bp Nichol and Robert Duncan are my Virgils in this. But let me tell what I know about these lines you quote…Claver – in Scots means gossip or jibber-jabber. Clawhammer – is a style of banjo strumming, as you know. And you have seen already that the word barbaric has two bars in it. My kind of talk in a poem will strum the two bars in a word like barbaric, acknowledging it visually as well as referentially. Making sense turns out to be very limiting. There is more to be said than — Then she said…And don’t ever think that silence is proper (it is wild). Or that by saying nothing you can remain free. If you don’t write the poem as a full invite to all of the potential barbarism its words embody, your voice is being muzzled, tamed, and eventually killed by…what…education? Morality? As Clark Blaise (another of my heroes) says of the short story: literary justice is at war with morality. This applies to poems too. How would Gertrude Stein or James Joyce write of having been sexually abused as a kid? There are rigorous savannahs of possibility still.

AI: What goes on between spoken words and words on the page?

PH: One of the most common mistakes people make when giving poetry readings, is that they proceed as if the poem – as written – were sacred. It isn’t. When shared aloud, the poem is a non-page creature. Listeners deserve to be entertained. Not preached to, or taught. And certainly not regaled by sly or hip examples of the poet’s sensitivity. For me, this involves composing a reading by pasting together various sections & stanzas of poems from throughout a whole book. I often will tear a book apart, then cut & paste. Making a new thing to read…This turns a box of fossils into sea life again. And listeners are grateful for the iconoclasm.

AI: Sound is dug into the soil of your poetry, so I’m assuming that music is important to you. What do you listen to? Do you listen while writing?

PH: I listen to jazz. Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Mingus, Roland Kirk, David Murray, Jerry Gonzalez & the Fort Apache Band…Horns & bass full-tilt. Sometimes I can write while inside that harsh wall of sound, for it blocks out the constant nitter-natter, and is oddly calming. I listen to early Zydeco and The New Lost City Ramblers. I listen to a lot of fiddle tunes: Jarvis Benoit, Wade Fuge… I have been trying to get the fiddle tunes inside me – to replace the organs & hymns. I’ll keep the bag-pipes.

AI: Do you read poetry in translation? Care to comment on translation in poetry?

PH: I am ashamed to say I use only one language, but what poverty of word there would be without translation! When I read in translation, I know I am looking down through water at cities I can’t walk around in, but I am voracious for wavering glimpses of those foreign cities. Many of my masters are non-English poets: Vallejo & Jimenez, Elytis & Ritsos, Mandelstam & Tsvetayeva, Char & Césaire, Brossard & Pato…Many of what we consider great English poems are in imitation of models from other languages.  And what presumption to assume that one language – ours – can always be where the best writing is…Shelley said that to translate a poem was to boil a tulip. I prefer boiled tulip to no tulip at all. At worst, I get that shimmering recognition of something deep in the water; at best, there are translators and trans-translators who give us luminous furtherances of poems…new poems built in border-crossing forms…

AIAh research / now there’s the ear’s coffin – This is my favourite line because, like so much of your work, it makes perfect sense although I couldn’t tell you quite what, or I’d get tangled if I tried. It’s also funny. There’s that research and that ear – and the ear is within the research as if tucked into a coffin!

PH: You’ve got it – visually, the word research enacts all of what I’m saying. A pet peeve of mine: the popularity of researching a subject and then writing poems based on that information, the popularity of young poets getting Phds. Too much research, too much information, kills the ear’s ability to hear music. For example, look at the Augustan poets, Dryden & some of his lesser contemporaries. They were solid, pragmatic versifiers, and translators, mostly on classical themes. Designed purely for instruction…reasoned into truth. Lectures & fables cut into heroic couplets. Dryden was like (later) Darwin with a metronome. Dull stale stuff. I prefer, though it sounds flaky in these reactionary times, the ephemeral scatter of Mallarmé. Or I like what Philip Levine says – about actually avoiding learning to do many things – while waiting for the voice to enter him. Not inspiration – but certainly there is more than enough to know about these complex interlocking mysteries of personhood & language – without having to mummify your ear in some archives…There are exceptions, but generally – a book of poetry about something gives me the heeby-jeebies.

AI: I’ll stop there. What the heck is Plevna?

PH: Plevna is a town near here, in the Ottawa Valley. I’ve used as titles for a number of poems in this new book the odd names of nearby towns: Tweed, Poonamalie, Ubdegrove, etc. These poems aren’t about those towns, I just like the sounds of the place-names. And who knows, maybe I have represented my place and mind – by invoking the map of sounds I live within…Who wouldn’t want to call a poem – Oompah!

— Ann Ireland & Phil Hall

IMG_1138

Three poems from The Small Nouns Crying Faith (BookThug, 2013)

SPACE

Tweed

..The chewed-corn gaff of the mullein
its tall standard rising behind the wood-pile
..(between the wood-pile & the woods)

seems yellower as the morning darkens
..& the maples gather darkness into themselves
& clouds combine as overcast moil

..& the highest poplars tell of what’s to come
throwing their paper bangles up / letting loose
.[their crepe-ribbon noise (braided loops

being pulled down after the party
..that was sleep)[**]such blinkered comfort to write like this
the supposedly-tender anthropomorphic wit

[.of witness that is really a hiding-out
under stupid traditions[**]while the ramps narrow
[.in the tock yards

it is going to do a whole lot more than rain

 /

Greenbush

.[I am away[**]up side-roads[**]into another attempt

at local song[**]have begun to see how to possibly fix[**]again
.[an obscure entry or warped fragment[**]its pulse taken at word

crossings-out[**]circles with arrows[**]crossed-out arrows

[.I am lost[**]my only anchor / dither[**]dither as dubious power

I have sold my children to the zero & the one[**]& complete sets
[.of My Book House to the fox[**]to Fox[**]to Captain Fox

I drink only Adam’s Ale[**]have no one to read to but yellow-jackets

[.when I sit still[**]when I try to be clear & silent[**]I go & & & &

my ear at some hive[**]listening to flight thicken

/

The Access Route

[.There were coy-wolves howling in our woods last night

what is rarer & rarer is an un-surveilled common
[.when it was coming dawn out[**]enough grey-blue[**]the lake grey-blue

I looked out to see the thermometer
[.there were riot police around the cabin
leaning hard against the logs[**]staring straight ahead[**]locked eyes

[.on point with the new chinking
I tapped the window[**]but they didn’t acknowledge
[.they aren’t supposed to I guess[**]the weather continues
& I am the same age I’ve always been[**]am trying

[.not to talk about the weather or my age
for instance I didn’t know hallowed or hollowed
[.was a choice[**]I got told by example something different
victims convinced of their own goodness

[.& up to despicable distractions[**]these were my people
so I chose hollowed by scar[**]when I could have had hallowed
[.which is my initial h plus allowed

now I’ve changed my thinking on this[**]I allow that a hole is for echo not ache
[.bless me 26 times[**]that I may be finally not the point

but the pointer[**]sheep & citizens beware

/

Two sections from the poem sequence X, published in a deluxe special edition of 100 copies by Thee Hellbox Press of Kingston, 2013

[.My posture[**]crumbling[**]says its word

quick-ache-to-sternum-slump
[.but the little sweet Tommy Sweets

grown off of one last tree[**]beside the furthest stile

[.up Devitt’s Settlement[**]scrub cedar[**]mullein[**]purple thistle
are down[**]all down[**]derry-down

[.warty-yellow in the unscythed timothy

my posture says I never went there[**]when I could[**]& can’t now
[.but I did[**]always did[**]& am

/

§

/

[.Few poems worth knowing

worth suspect[**]knowing suspect[**]/[**]few suspect
[.seeing double[**]hearing less out of one ear

to have had to be 60 to say in a poem the abuser’s name

].is this success or failure[**]both[**]neither
my tongue’s baloney-smell[**]articulating adios

 

 — Phil Hall

————————–

IMG_1139Phil Hall is the 2011 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in English, for Killdeer, published by BookThug. His is also the 2012 winner of Ontario’s Trillium Book Award for Killdeer. This book of essay-poems also won an Alcuin Design Award, & was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Previously,Trouble Sleeping (2001) was nominated for the Governor General’s Award; and An Oak Hunch (2005) was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Among his many titles are also: Old Enemy Juice (1988), Hearthedral—A Folk-Hermetic (1996), White Porcupine (2007), & The Little Seamstress (2010). In the early 80s, Phil was a member of the Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union, the Vancouver Men Against Rape Collective, & the Starvation Army Band. In the early 90s he was Literary Editor at This Magazine. He is a graduate of the University of Windsor, & has taught writing & literature at York University, Ryerson University, Seneca College, George Brown College, & elsewhere; currently, he offers a manuscript mentoring service for the Toronto New School of Writing. In 2007, Phil & his wife, Ann, walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He has been poet-in-residence at Sage Hill Writing Experience (Saskatchewan), The Pierre Berton House (Dawson City, Yukon), & elsewhere. In 2012, he was writer-in-residence at Queens University in Kingston. He plays clawhammer banjo, is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, & lives near Perth, Ontario.

Jan 072014
 

john mackenna

In the mid-nineties, I returned to Ireland from Washington State having completed my MFA in Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University. I was young, heady on a mix of Russell Banks, Ray Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford et al. Ford, it seemed had taken it up a notch. His characters less inclined towards defeat (than many of the other so called “minimalist” writers) and more inclined to take some control upon their lives, to seek some form of transcendence or at the very least self-knowledge. But the landscapes were harsh, crude, rugged, the lives equally so- in any case, I was a visitor and intoxicated with the abundance of, for me, unexplored literary territory. I returned to Ireland with an expectation of disappointment – back home to a familiar landscape, a familiar literature.

Into this entered John MacKenna’s collection of stories, A Year of Our Lives, published shortly after I returned – at first glance, as far removed from Ford and my intoxication as I could imagine and yet… strangely similar – minimalist yes, the landscapes harsh, the narrative confessional but revelatory –It provided me with a way back in, a fresh vantage point. A few years later I was off on my journeys again, but the beauty and lyricism of MacKenna’s writing has remained with me since….soberly beckons me home.

“The Angel Said” is from a new collection, Once We Sang Like Other Men – “a book of thirteen stories based on twelve men who followed a socio-political leader  to his execution and now, twenty-five years later – are scattered across the globe.” His novel Joseph (coming from New Island Press in September) is a contemporary telling of Joseph the carpenter’s story and the collection is a contemporary retelling of the stories of the twelve apostles – Peter telling the first and last stories, thus the thirteen.

— Gerard Beirne

§

I sit at the small table and eat my breakfast, wondering, as I wonder every morning, where my brother is. I ask myself the questions I ask first thing each morning and last thing each night. Is Peter alive? Will we ever find each other again? Does he wish to meet or has too much icy water flowed under the bridges of experience? Then I wonder if he’s well and if he’s enjoying his life greatly or to some extent or at all. Is he happy or at least content? And then I stop this gradation of life, this slotting of emotions into pockets.

I wish him only happiness.

I don’t wonder if he thinks of me. That thought has no part in this daily process. That’s for a time I rarely dare to dream about, a time when we might meet and sit and drink coffee and talk or not talk, a time when we might recapture in silence the warm energy and the familiarity of our comradeship.

And then I finish my breakfast and watch the passing shapes of the figures in the street – quavers and semi-quavers with minims in tow; figures of darkness and, occasionally, figures blessed by the light of the falling snow.

Once my morning meal is over, I go and wash in the small bathroom that is never bright and never warm. Snow piles halfway up the thick little windowpane in winter and pigeons squat there, blocking and unblocking the light with their comings and goings all year round. In winter I stop shaving; it’s easier that way. My beard sprouts in all directions and for those few months I can imagine that I might have been born here, might be one of these people and not an interloper from somewhere beyond the Black Sea.

In the small room that houses my bed and my instruments and music, I perform my little ritual of tidying, as I do every morning, carefully straightening the sheets, punching my pillows into shape. I take my violin from its case, randomly choose a piece of sheet music – probably the only random thing I will do in any day – and place it on the music stand. I pause and then play the chosen piece through twice, before carefully replacing my violin in its case and putting the sheet music back in its ordered spot.

Beyond the window, in the cemetery, young boys are throwing snowballs, dodging behind the headstones, squatting in the shelter of small crosses before launching their next attack on each other. Their voices come faintly across the ledgered lines of memorials, some as dour as those they commemorate; some sporting bowed ribbons for the season of the living; a few splashed with the petals of winter flowers. Two young girls in very short skirts and skimpy tops stand at the gate of the cemetery watching until the boys, in a show of bluster, turn their icy fire on them and drive them laughing through the gates of death and back onto the living street.

I leave the room, closing the door behind me, and complete the other odds and ends that need doing – making sandwiches, washing my cup and plate before putting on a coat, scarf and hat and leaving my apartment for the short walk to the church where I work as choirmaster.

I am a creature of habit. Perhaps I was always so, though I like to think there were weeks and even months when I was otherwise, the weeks and months when Peter was about.

There is a young boy sitting on the narrow stairs of his parents’ house. It is late in the night; more than late, it is the early hours of the morning. The boy sits in the most uncomfortable position possible, his back arched and aching, his hands clasped tightly about his knees, his fingers welded painfully together. He does not move. His pyjamas are thin and the night is cold, but he wants to suffer. He hopes that he can barter with God, swap his discomfort for his parents’ happiness. If he sits here for another sixteen minutes and forty seconds, if he counts to a thousand – slowly – then the arguing will end, peace will flutter through the winter window like the angel of the Lord and happiness will, at last, be tangible. Despite his youth, he understands the meaning of the word tangible.

What he doesn’t understand, though he has an intimation of it, is why he is being used as a shield in a marriage that seems incapable of generating anything but anger and discontent. Even he, a boy of ten, can see how much better life would be for everyone if the owners of the voices from the kitchen were to move elsewhere, one to one end of the village, one to the other. But, instead, the war goes on, and his welfare is invoked as a justification by both parents.

If it wasn’t for….

Well I’m not going to walk out and leave ….

An intermediary without power, the phrase pops like an organ stop as I’m locking the door at the foot of the stairs.

That is what I was. An ineffective go-between, my role defined by those who needed to justify themselves.

“Without power or respect,” I add out loud.

A passing figure looks up, frowns an even deeper frown and then returns his eyes to the frozen snow that pleats the footpath. I turn my key a third time and the lock creaks into place. I try the door: locked, tight.

I look up, as I do every morning at the massive edifice that is my workplace. It sits like a great bird, its profile moving slowly across the summer days, its darkness a permanence on the winter skyline. Nothing in this part of the city can exist without this reference pile impinging on its being. No one who lives in this quarter can get into or out of bed without its real or imagined shadow gouging a deep, slow path across their dreams and imaginings.

The young boy, who sat on the winter stairs, stands at the edge of the sea. The late summer sun is bending and creasing the horizon in shades of red and orange and ochre. The setting sunlight is still warm on his face and he knows that it will hardly be gone from one sky before it pushes like a cerise mushroom into the other sky, sidling above the morning mountains.

As yet, the rising dread as the time for his brother’s return to sea approaches has not become the uppermost thought in the young boy’s head. He is happy in the knowledge that the dark shape in the crimson water is his brother’s punt, moving between the lobster pots, and that before the sun has gone down Peter will be stepping from that small boat into the water and he will rush to help. They will paddle through the shallows, each with a hand on the light gunwale, lifting the boat clear of the sea, leaving a track on the pale sand as they drag it above the tidemark.

“Good man,” his brother will say. “Only for you.”

“You’d have got it clear on your own.”

“But together we’re better.”

The phrase will stick in his mind. The phrase will become his mantra and will keep him afloat in the days after Peter has gone back to his naval training.

“I like when you’re here,” the young boy says, uncertainly.

His brother turns the punt over and it lies like a turtle on the sand.

“I know. It’s tough for you. Being here with them when they’re like this. But it probably seems a lot worse for you. I don’t think they even notice that they’re arguing. It’s a way of life for them. They’d miss it if they couldn’t bicker.”

His brother smiles but the young boy feels a frozen rock lodged in his stomach.

“Hey, I’m not gone yet,” Peter laughs. “Let’s do something tomorrow. Let’s take the sailboat out and have a picnic and when we get back we’ll go to the cinema. A day away, just the two of us, all day. We’ll get up early, be gone before they’re even awake. Ok?”

The young boy smiles a big smile and his brother puts his arm around him and they do the elephant walk all the way up the beach.

I make my way, as I do each morning, through the cemetery, wandering between the stones, walking every path. I have my own reason for taking this circuitous route. It’s not to familiarise myself with the faces and names and dates on the monuments; nor is it the strange attraction of the military section of the burial ground – though I always stop there and consider the remarkable cholera of loss with which the twentieth century infected this country: the Great War; the Revolution; the Second World War, an infection that recurred with devastating consequences.

But it’s not this remembered wretchedness that is the object of my morning walk. My stopping is simply a way to justify the other stop I make on a daily basis, putting it in the safe keeping of the routine. If I linger among the war dead, then why should I not stop, too, at the grave of Nikolai Kalinnikov? If one is habit, why should the other not be just the same?

Sometimes my caution angers me. Why should a choirmaster not stop to remember his choirboy? Why should one human being require an excuse to linger at the grave of another? What is it that I fear?

Nikolai Kalinnikov will have been resting here for two years in one month’s time. His anniversary is bearing down upon us and we will remember him in word and music when the day comes round and I, perhaps, will remember him more than most. His burning eyes and sweet laughter, his energy and constant sense of fun, that occasional and guarded smile that was the antithesis of laughter. A smile that was as infrequent as it was promising.

Other than in the course of my duties, I doubt I spoke personally to Nikolai more than a dozen times in the almost three years we spent together as teacher and pupil. But when I did, I saw a different person, not the wild young thing who was always rushing; not the urchin who laughed at every joke; not the boy who was forever involved in pranks, and not the chorister whose voice was deeply beautiful. I saw a child becoming a young man; eyes that were intense and a smile that asked and promised everything.

I loved Nikolai Kalinnikov. Not with some seedy, leering intent. Not with thoughts of touching or being touched by him. Not with the intention of his sleeping in my bed, but with a love that made me happy and sought only for his happiness. I never laid a finger on his skin, never kissed his face, never considered such possibilities and yet something in that enigmatic smile made me believe that he might some day kiss my mouth, touch my skin, that he might suggest we lie together in a distant future – not here but, perhaps, on the warmer shores of my own country.

And then, one bitter morning two winters ago, he leapt, as he always did, from the open door of the city tram as it slowed on the corner beside the church. Not for Nikolai the one-minute walk from the next stop. Life was too full to waste time in walking backwards from a point that had no necessary place in that day’s itinerary.

So he leapt, as he always leapt, running to keep pace with the tram before making the safety of the footpath. I had seen him do it many times but I wasn’t there that morning to watch his legs go from under him and his knees buckle as the tram unexpectedly picked up speed. He slipped – not for the first time – and skidded on the packed ice beside the tram tracks, but on this occasion, rather than tumbling harmlessly, to the amusement of his fellows, he slid across the ice, body spinning until the force of his skull against the pavement kerb brought his fall and his life to an end.

I saw his body that afternoon. Two of us teachers were dispatched to formally identify his remains, to spare his parents the trauma. Ironically, we travelled on the very tram from which he had slipped. Someone had placed a small bouquet of winter evergreens on the rear platform from which he had so impulsively and carelessly leapt.

In the hospital we were led to the dismal morgue where Nikolai lay beneath an icy sheet. His handsome young face had barely been scratched by the packed ice, but it had been grazed by death, and I wondered whether that kind of death is any less demeaning than if his features had been ripped and burned by the sharpness of the ice. His vigorous body looked out of place in that charnel house and I thought of another emaciated body, that of a young man who had survived at another time and in a different place, and I was perplexed.

Often on summer evenings, when the young boy’s older brother was away fishing on one or other of the half-dozen trawlers based in the small harbour close to their home, he would walk down to the dock wall and stare at the distant horizon, willing the trawler bow to slice through the evening mist. And sometimes a trawler would appear and the young boy would patrol the low wall, wishing the hull to be red or blue or yellow, depending on which boat his brother had shipped on.

And once, once only, when the boy was at the harbour, the hull was red, as he had hoped, and his brother brought him on board and allowed him to assist with the unloading.

“You have a good helper there, Peter,” one of the trawler men had said.

“None better,” his brother had replied, tousling his hair and smiling at him, and the young boy had felt a pedestal rise beneath his feet and wished he could travel for ever in the light of his brother’s shadow.

But more often the young boy is sitting at the kitchen table in the silence. From outside come the sounds of summer children at play and then the silence is broken by his father’s booming rant about something or other that is of no importance and the young boy sits and listens but he does not hear. He is watching the notes that climb slowly and slide quietly, up and down the stairway of the treble clef. And as his father’s voice becomes intolerably loud, the young boy recites the words that cast a spell, silencing his father’s spitting tongue – tonic solfa; stave; staff; ledger; space; brace; rest; interval; quaver; semiquaver; demisemiquaver; hemidemisemiquaver.

These are beautiful words that have no place in his father’s vocabulary.

And he hears his mother say: “I’m not sitting here if you two can’t be civil to each other” and he’s tempted to smile because he hasn’t spoken a word but he doesn’t smile because that would bring his father’s palm crashing against the side of his face and leave his eardrum ringing, his hearing muffled. Instead, he satisfies himself with the knowledge that there is no one who can disturb the words inside his head because no one can hear their soft hum and their sharp jingle or see the way they wind about each other, one touching the next and that, in turn, caressing the next. Tonic solfa – he loves the warm encouragement of the word tonic, the way it says wellness. It touches him like his mother’s hand touches his forehead when he has a winter fever, with sureness and compassion, telling him everything will be all right. The word is there for him, as she would be. Then there’s the sharper sound of the word solfa. When he sees the word, he sees an axe head and then a very short handle and the axe head is of a gleaming, steely silver. It rests in the comfortable arc of his father’s skull. Around the silver head there’s a pool of quiet blood, fresh but not flowing. His father is sitting calmly in an armchair, the axe lodged in his cranium. He is watching television and the young boy knows his father will never shout again, never raise his hand in anger. The axe has dulled his viciousness and made him content to sit and watch whatever tripe the set beams at him. And everything is peaceful in the house. Tonic solfa, he thinks but he doesn’t forget himself; he doesn’t smile or invite the violence of the real world into the serenity of his imagination.

But sometimes he sits on the cold stairway, wishing his father would strike him, wishing his scalded skin, his shaken jawbone, the burning in his ear, the pain in his head could replace the words and tears pouring up through the dark floor of the sad, brutal world. Believing that one act of acceptance on his part, one rain of blows might wash away the stale stink of anger and frustration that hangs about the house like the smell of rotting fish. He would willingly sacrifice his eardrum or his jawbone or the straightness of his nose or the sight in his eye for an end to this cacophony. And, in the dark of night, the magic words become nothing more than a collection of letters, ineffective and useless. Space; brace; rest; interval; quaver. Mere words.

There is a photograph of Nikolai Kalinnikov in the corridor behind the church altar. It hangs in a space shaded by two pillars, so that his beautiful, smiling face peers from the shadows and seems just beyond reach.

One afternoon, some jostling boys dislodged it from its hook and shattered the glass in the plain timber frame. I volunteered to have the glass repaired and, at the same time, had the photograph copied. I put the copy carefully in the sheet music of Tchaikovski’s Happy is the man in my bedroom.

Occasionally, when by chance I pull that piece of music from the shelf and play it through, I spend a moment or two looking closely at the face of the boy I loved. Love.

Otherwise, I try not to catch his eye in the gloomy church corridor. I prefer to imagine his voice among the voices of the young men hurrying to choir-practice. And, as they crowd into the rehearsal room, I keep my eyes firmly on my roll-book, postponing the moment when I must look up and destroy the illusion that he is still among them.

“Gentlemen,” I say quietly and they fall silent and some of them smile and some are clearly concentrating and some simply wait in that great silence that precedes the music we shall sing together.

Once, when the young boy was a young man and was travelling in his brother’s company, and in the company of other young men, they were crossing a choppy sea in a small sailboat and the waves were high and the night was dark and no one seemed sure if the boat would float or sink. Peter came and sat by him and put his arm around him and whispered: “Do you remember the night we went out in the punt to check the lines and we pretended there was a storm and we rocked the life out of the old flat-bottom?”

“Yes,” the young man says.

“Well tonight is just like that. All these other guys are terrified. You and me are the only ones who know it’s all a joke. We know we’re not going to sink, but let’s not tell them,” and then Peter delivered a conspiratorial pat to encourage him to mask his terror.

“What’s going on?” John, one of the other young men, asks. Even in the darkness his face is a moon of fear.

“Nothing going on, just talking,” the young man says.

“Are we sinking? Is this thing in trouble?”

“No trouble. Peter has it all under control.”

“You’re not just saying that.”

“We’ve been out in worse, him and me, and survived. We’ll be alright.”

“I don’t understand you sea-people,” John says, his voice a little calmer. “I’ll bet you can’t even swim. I’ve heard that about sea-people – they don’t learn to swim; it only prolongs the agony of drowning.”

“I can swim,” the young man says. “I think I swam before I walked. Stop worrying. Peter will get us safely across.”

“I hope you’re right.”

And the young man smiles in the darkness because he has been infected with his brother’s optimism and belief; they have shared something private and personal. Even in the midst of all these other people, the threshing of the waves and the slap and scream of the straining boat-timbers no longer frighten him and he turns his face into the rain and laughs quietly.

Occasionally, when I’m relaxing after choir practice, sitting over a steaming mug of tea, and I hear one of the choir-boys in the corridor singing a pop song he has heard on the radio, I think of the Captain and his love of music.

I was the first one in our town to fall under his spell but it wasn’t his music that cast it, though it was his singing that first caught my attention. I heard him perform at a reading in the back room of a coffee shop. His singing was harmless, in tune but lacking any power or subtlety – bland is the word that best describes it. At the time, he’d sing only his own songs and they, too, were bland, without identifiable tunes and lyrically nothing better than rhyming propaganda. But when he spoke, between the songs, and when he told stories, it was an entirely different experience. The words and images drew you in, taking you to the place about which he spoke. For me, it was like being back at the silent table in my boyhood kitchen. The words he used echoed the words and images I had used to keep my father’s anger at bay. They were different but their effect was the same. They had the power to render the present obsolete and make what he was saying the only reality that mattered.

It was the stories and the characters that peopled them that made his words electric. When he talked of someone he had met in a village square and what that person had said or done, I was there. The sun was toasting my back and the hot sand was caught between my sandaled toes. I was sitting on the low wall of a well. The cup he handed me was filled with clear, cold water and, as I drank from it, I felt a freshness and a cleanliness that made it different from the bottled water of the city bars and cafés.

And it had to do with more than taste or smell. It was filled with the possibilities that suddenly fell into my lap, the thought that everything need not always be the same; the notion that the generals, whose nailed boots dug into our shoulders, would not always be in charge; the belief that freedom was not a delusion. Belief was the key – I had believed in Peter when I was a boy, known that his presence would protect me from violence, silence and noise. And now there was someone else in whom I could believe, a man who was telling me that things could change and would change. His faith was infectious, his words beyond denial.

On Friday nights, after the folk-club had closed, we’d go back, ten or fifteen of us, to the Captain’s house and play music and swap songs. And sometimes, when the Captain sang, I’d strum his guitar and play the harmonica. Once or twice I put tunes to his words and we’d struggle over the compromises of song writing until the sun came up, reminding us that we had work to do.

I was a music student then and the Captain was not yet the man he would soon become. The charisma was there and the stories were there but he hadn’t quite found his direction.

Peter was living in a village just over an hour from the city. He had married and had children, built a boat shed, got into building and repairing boats. He still fished but only to feed his family and to supplement his income from the boat-building. I took him to see and hear the Captain a couple of times and I knew, very quickly, that he was as impressed as I was – more so, even.

After a couple of months, I began to recognise that the Captain’s forte was as an entertainer and the nature of the music he enjoyed was different from the music I love. Music was a means for the Captain; it is an end for me.

I was still intrigued by his stories but I could see an emerging pattern. The characters were becoming less important, the message more so. The group of friends who had gathered around him began to solidify, Peter at the helm. I stayed within the group, more out of habit than out of the commitment that Peter and Jude and some of the others possessed. Perhaps I stayed because Peter was such an integral part of the whole thing and leaving would have seemed, to me at least, like a betrayal.

Mostly, now, when I think of those days, it is as an adjunct to memories of my brother and to the recurring question of whether or not I will ever see him again. He had been my saviour and, as I grew up and moved out of the fear of my father’s pathetic need for control, as I began my musical studies, in the holidays when I went to stay with Peter and his wife and their children and watched him at work in his boat shed, I recognised how much I owed him. And the only thing I could do to repay him was to sit on the porch of his house and play the sad songs he loved on the harmonica.

Now, all these years later, I regularly wake sweating, the source of my certainty gone. I get out of my bed, strip it of its soaked sheets and throw them in the laundry basket before stretching clean, dry sheets in their place. Then I step into the shower and wash away the perspiration of fear and loss. This doing keeps my mind occupied but the warm water in the small, freezing bathroom cannot wash away the sadness that envelops me. And afterwards there come the anger and the other questions.

Who keeps their word?

Even my brother disappeared after the Captain’s death. Yes, I went before him but I kept in touch, by letter and by telephone, whereas he seemed simply to disappear from the face of the earth,

Who considers another more than they consider themselves?

If my love for Nikolai were unadulterated, would I still be here, alive and healthy and working, as his skin and flesh and eyes and hair turn to whatever it is they become before turning into dust.

In the face of failure, our lives are a lie and the lie becomes a road to nowhere. There is a moment when summer turns to autumn and a moment when autumn turns to winter, but we can never identify that moment. All we can do is recognise it after at has happened.

Once, when we were camping in the desert, I heard someone singing a song around the campfire and one of the lines lodged in my head: It’s just that I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar too. It’s one of the few maxims that has remained in my memory from that time.

“Gentlemen,” I say and the choristers fall silent, “before you go home, I want you write down some words.”

The students fumble in their bags, producing pens, pencils, notebooks, tattered sheets of paper.

“We’re ready, sir,” one of them says. “Well, all of us except Popov.”

“I’m ready, sir,” Popov says earnestly.

“Write this, please: ‘The angel said: Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.’”

Bent heads, pens and pencils moving and then a hesitation as they wait for more.

“Is that it, sir?”

“That’s it.”

“And what are we to do with it?”

“You could think about it.”

“Not a lot to think about, sir,” Popov says. “In fact I’ve thought about it.”

The others laugh.

“And the conclusion you’ve come to?”

“It’s from the Bible,” he says.

There’s further laughter and cries of: “Brilliant.” “Popov the genius.”

“Wow, did you work that out yourself, Valentin?”

The uproar seems to frighten Popov. He is afraid that I’ll blame him for the din.

“I’m not being funny, sir. It’s just that I’m not sure what we’re supposed to get from it. That’s all.”

He looks about him, willing the other boys to be silent.

“You’ve probably got all you’ll get from it – ever,” someone sniggers.

He blushes.

“It’s all right,” I say quietly and I wait for the clamour to die down. “It is, Valentin, as you say, from the Bible, from Luke’s gospel, to be precise: the annunciation.”

“I knew that, sir,” Popov says, too quickly.

“Yeah, you did! We believe you,” the voice comes clearly, sarcastically from the back of the room.

I wait, again, for silence and, finally, it falls.

“All I want is that you think about those words and I want you to listen to this.”

Reaching behind me, I press Play on the CD player and the music begins, Mussorgski’s The Angel Said.

The students listen, enthralled, their faces beaming, already mouthing the unfamiliar tune, listening for the words, wanting to sing. And then the music ends.

“Tomorrow we’ll begin work on that piece. In the meantime, think about those words.”

Notebooks and pens are put away, satchels are thrown over shoulders and the students begin to shuffle out.

Popov stands at my desk.

“Sir.”

“Yes, Valentin?”

“I wasn’t being smart with you, sir, about the sentence you gave us to write.”

“I know that,” I smile. “It’s not a problem.”

“Good,” he says but he doesn’t leave.

“Is there something else, Valentin?”

“Yes, sir, but I don’t know if it’s something I should say to you. It’s difficult, but I need to talk to someone about it.”

I look into his face, the stern face of a nineteen-year-old who is still at sea in the world.

“Would you like to come for a cup of coffee?” I ask. “We could walk to the Chay restaurant. If you like, but only if it suits you to talk today.”

“It suits me, sir, if you have the time.”

Popov packs his bag and I gather my bits and pieces and we walk together to the tearoom on the corner of the street, music huffing from the shadow of a doorway.

“One thing,” I say, as we sit down. “In here, you are Valentin and I’m Andrew. ‘Sir’ stays outside with the accordion player.”

Valentin winces and swallows.

“I’ll try.”

I order two coffees and sour cherry vareniki.

“So, are you enjoying the music?” I ask.

He nods.

“Actually, let me withdraw that question. Let’s leave ‘sir’ and ‘music school’ outside the door and enjoy our food without giving academia a thought.”

Valentin smiles and I’m reminded, for a moment, of the shadowed smile of the man I once knew, the young man dismounting from horseback, elated but cautious about sharing his elation.

The waitress arrives and the coffee and cakes are served.

“Eat up,” I laugh. “These are most definitely not going back to the kitchen!”

Valentin and I eat and drink and make small talk about the goings on in the city.

“It is ok for me to say something to you that may surprise you?” he asks.

“Of course.”

“And…”

He sputters, a crumb of cake catching in his throat, so I pick up his sentence. “And you can be assured of my discretion. What we speak of here remains here and if we speak of it again, then that will be all right, too. This conversation will have no bearing on anything that happens in the choir.”

He nods and breathes deeply, staring at his cup, uncertain, uneasy.

“We’ll have more coffee,” I say, signalling the waitress.

While we wait, I listen to the music coming from the street. The wheezing of the accordion reminds me of my own harmonica playing from twenty years before.

“I played the harmonica,” I say quietly.

Popov looks up.

“Did you, sir? I can’t imagine that.”

“Ah, we all have skeletons in the cupboard. My brother liked me to play it while he worked in the evenings.”

“You have a brother, sir?”

“Yes,” I say with more certainty than I feel. “Just the one.”

“Does he teach music, sir?”

I let the formality go, knowing how hard it is to break a habit.

“No, he builds boats.”

“That’s different. From teaching music I mean. Chalk and cheese.”

“Yes.”

The waitress arrives with the fresh coffees.

“It’s about Nikolai Kalinnikov,” Popov says quickly, once she has left.

“Really?”

“Yes, sir.”

“His death was such a waste of talent…of life,” I say. “He was a bright young man.”

“And great fun.” Valentin’s eyes are suddenly bright and more alive than I’ve seen them before. “I was in love with him.”

I say nothing, not because I’m surprised or hurt but because I’m thinking of Nikolai, remembering his smile and his hair tossing as he hurried along the corridor or crossed the street.

“I’ve shocked you, sir.”

“Good heavens no, not at all. It’s just that I was thinking of his hair, how beautiful it looked, even in death. It was still bright and full of life. I identified him at the morgue and I remember how vibrant his hair seemed. His skin was blue and lifeless, but his hair still looked as though it was waiting for him to get up and run so that it could lift in the breeze. I know that sounds strange but it’s true.”

Popov shakes his head and there is a film of tears about to shatter in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m talking too much. I came here to listen.”

“No, sir, it’s wonderful to talk about Nikolai. Some of the other fellows talk about him now and then, but almost as though they’re afraid, as though his death might be contagious. Some just want to forget the accident ever happened but that means forgetting him, denying his existence.”

“You two were close. I hadn’t known.”

“Not in choir. We were careful not to be too close in choir – people talk and snigger. We didn’t want that.”

“I understand.”

“Every day I pass his photograph in the corridor and every day I think about him, sir, and I don’t just miss him as a friend. I loved him. I loved the way he kissed me. I loved touching him. Does this make any sense, sir?”

“It does,” I say, thinking again of the young man on horseback but thinking, too, of Nikolai.

“He liked you, sir. Not that we don’t all like you, but he talked a lot about you.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

I can feel my own eyes filling, so I drink deeply, the bitter coffee cauterising my senses.

“How do I go on, sir? Does it get any better or does the pain ever get any duller or do I give up?”

“I haven’t seen my brother in almost twenty-five years,” I say. “I have no idea if he’s alive or dead, but I can’t give up. I need to go on believing that I’ll see him again.”

“I thought it would be easier, sir, by now. I thought things would have become more bearable but they just seem to be getting worse.”

“I don’t believe, if you truly love someone, that their loss ever becomes bearable. You learn to accommodate the pain; I think that’s as much as you should expect.”

And then we are silent and each of us in turn sips his coffee, an excuse for avoiding speech, and the music outside stops and, a few moments later, I see the accordion player pass the window of the coffee shop.

“I’m sorry for taking so much of your time, sir. I needed to tell someone. I don’t know what else to say but I’d like if we could talk again, if you didn’t mind, sir.”

“Nothing at all to be sorry about, Valentin. Of course we’ll talk again. I’d like that. Nikolai was a fortunate young man and so are you – you had each other and you will always have each other.”

“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”

Outside, darkness has descended. We walk to the street corner without speaking and stand at the spot where Nikolai died.

“Will you pray for me, sir?” Popov whispers.

“I think they shovel my prayers into the bottom of a bucket with the ash from hell,” I say.

He laughs.

The tram rail hums at our feet. We walk together to the tram stop.

“Thank you for the coffee and cakes,” Popov says.

“You’re most welcome.”

A tram judders into sight and eventually squeals to a halt beside us.

“This is mine,” he says.

“Safe travelling. And we’ll talk again about Nikolai, about anything. Nothing will ever change what was between you. That’s a wonderful thing. Love is never truly lost,” I say.

He smiles gently and I can understand what Nikolai saw in him. And then he’s gone and I turn and trudge slowly back towards my flat, avoiding the cemetery, taking the longer way through the evening streets, remembering the sound of harmonica music and something that was a long time ago. And I think of Valentin and Nikolai and I know that soon it will be time for me to think about going home to the warmth of the summer sand.

— John MacKenna

———————-

John MacKenna is the author of fifteen books – novels, short story collections, memoir and poetry. He is a winner of the Irish Times, Hennessy and Cecil Day Lewis awards. His novel Clare, based on the life of the English poet John Clare, will be republished by New Island Books in their Classic Irish Novels series in spring 2014. His new novel, Joseph, will be published in autumn 2014, also by New Island.

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

Jan 062014
 

Segura

Mauricio Segura’s Eucalyptus, part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, is a novel about identity and ownership, a narrative that drops a (relative) stranger into a (relative) strange land and lets the skeletons tumble from the closet. This may sound familiar. And yet, Segura avoids the clichés normally associated with these kinds of stories, twisting Eucalyptus into a strange, existential whodunnit. As I wrote in my review, “Segura isn’t quite interested in ‘you can’t go home again’ platitudes. Rather, he finds fascination in more oblique questions: What is home? Who truly belongs to a parcel of land? And it is these queries that make Eucalyptus an adventurous, hypnotic read.”

The following excerpt comes from chapter two, chosen because it does a great job representing not only Segura’s skills at immersing the reader in location, but also the thematic ideas of identity and ownership that pervade the narrative. There isn’t much one needs to know to appreciate this snippet: Alberto, Eucalyptus‘s protagonist, has just traveled to Chile with his young son, Marco, to bury his father, Roberto. In chapter one, the duo come across Araya, Alberto’s uncle, who tells Alberto a tale that paints Roberto in a cold light. As chapter two opens, Alberto and Marco are waiting for Roberto’s sister, Noemi, to meet them.

— Benjamin Woodard

Eucalyptus

In the middle of the afternoon, tired of waiting for Noemi to come back, tired of the stale odour in the house, Alberto took off in the pickup with Marco. His elbow propped on the open window, he watched, through the rear-view mirror, the light wind at play in his son’s hair. When he turned into the Avenida Pablo Neruda, a flash of sunlight created a blinding spot on the windshield, with a rainbow-coloured aura. He passed square after square, and although on many of them youngsters were playing football or marbles, although the benches shone bottle- green, although no litter was lying about, they all seemed drab, desolate. Was it the concrete covering the ground? Or the smog that, like an ulterior motive, darkened the city in full daylight?

He parked the pickup in front of a glass building, in which were reflected the movie theatre’s heavy columns, encrusted with dirt. He bought some fried cheese empanadas, Marco’s favourite, in a nearby grocery store, and they ate them in the shade of a palm tree, on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. As the fountain shot its jet of water towards the sky in a deafening cloud, he scanned an election poster on a lamppost. “Francisco Huenchumilla, Concertación candidate for mayor of Temuco. Para un ciudad próspera.” He wondered if Temuco had ever had a native mayor. Behind them, music from another time, childlike and gay, drifted into the square. A man with a hand organ was drawing all eyes. On his shoulder, a monkey munched peanuts and made faces. When he saw Marco watching the show, wide-eyed, Alberto remembered his first impressions of the city when, after having left Chile at the age of four, he returned with his family. At the time everything seemed dirty and old-fashioned; the cars, the excessive pollution, the shifty faces of the street children, the cadaverous features of the women kneeling on the sidewalk, selling Kleenex or mote con huesillo. And then, during the same visit, he went from one extreme to the other: he suddenly felt as if he were being reunited with a buried part of himself. He didn’t want to leave. But this honeymoon didn’t last: people, his extended family above all, made him understand that he was not quite one of them, that in certain respects, perhaps the most important, he was too gringo, a remark they let drop, sometimes in jest, at other times in all seriousness. Since then, he had never felt at home either here or back there.

A little girl, her hair held back with pink ribbons, was walking with her mother, a balloon in her hand. He bought one for Marco, and made a knot for him at his wrist with the string; from that point on his son kept his eyes on the balloon, a smile on his lips. They strolled, and soon came on itinerant sellers of every age, set up in front of a shopping centre, behind wool blankets on which were displayed miniature tanks, lighters, ballpoint pens, underpants. Alberto told himself that Araya’s story was not at all surprising. He was like that, his father, totally unpredictable, loving to spring surprises and to make a scene, seeking always to protect his moral and material independence.

“And what are going to do now your papa’s dead?” asked Marco.

The question pulled him up short.

“Don’t worry about me.”

And he tried to smile.

“Fleurette says we go up to heaven when we die.”

Fleurette was his schoolteacher.

“You think Abuelo’s going to heaven?”

“If he behaved well, yes. If not, perhaps no.”

“Did he behave well?”

Alberto shrugged his shoulders.

Then, a bit farther on:

“Papa, but why did he die, Abuelo?”

He met his son’s eyes.

“Are you going to die one day, too?”

He nodded, yes.

Seeing his son’s concern, he added:

“Don’t bother about that. It won’t be for many years. We’ve lots of good times ahead of us.”

He gripped his hand a little more tightly.

*  *  *

Back in his grandparents’ house, he went upstairs with Marco to the room where his father was laid out. Abuela, still sitting in front of the window, raised her head and blinked her eyes when they appeared, her wine-red manta accentuating her slumped shoulders. She stared at them, knitting her brows, then with a movement of her chin she ordered Alberto to introduce himself. When he revealed his identity, she repeated to herself, “Roberto’s son,” as if she no longer remembered Roberto but didn’t want to admit it. After a moment, as Alberto became conscious of the dim light surrounding him, she asked him curtly to leave, because the real Alberto was a boy living in Canada “who’s no bigger than that,” she said, stretching out the fingers of one hand. He replied that he was the boy, that he had visited her four years earlier. But she made a dismissive gesture with her index and middle fingers, indicating that he should leave. Then he took out of his pocket a watch with a chain, a present from his grandfather, went up to her and held it out. She took it, weighed it, and stared for a long time at the motionless hands, as if memories were working their way bit by bit up to the surface of her mind.

“It doesn’t work anymore?”

“For the last few days, it stops and starts. It has to be repaired.”

She gave it back to him, and venturing a smile, she said:

“It’s really you, Albertito?”

He held the watch and got on his knees at her feet. With her rough fingers, she patted Alberto’s hair and cheeks. He looked at her face, which, despite her yellowed eyes, despite the ravages of time, brought back to him a torrent of memories, of when he was Marco’s age and she kept him with her for entire days, before the dictatorship chased them out of the country again.

“You look more and more like Roberto,” she said, mussing his hair. “Do you have his character, too?” she asked, teasingly. “Ay, Dios mío, I hope not!” she added, smiling.

He returned her smile and pushed his face up against her skirts. He felt her own special odour attack his nostrils, one of wool, of tenderness, and of a madness she would not concede. He kept his eyes closed, persuaded that when he opened them he could remove himself from this oppressive climate of mourning.

She gestured to Marco that he should come near. Caressing his hands vigorously, as if she could not believe the softness of his skin, she asked him where his mother was. When the child explained that she had stayed in Canada, she looked at Alberto the way she used to when she was going to scold him.

“I’m not wrong, then?” she said. “You are like Roberto?”

Continuing to pass her hands through his curly hair, she raised her eyes to the ceiling and, in a stronger voice, as if she were addressing a large audience, embarked on a confused tirade against men and the desires that possess them like evil spirits. An evil she traced back to her dead husband, and her husband’s father, and his father before him. She went on with her monologue, digging deeper into the family’s past, and recalling, as she never failed to do, their ancestors’ arrival from Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, from an idyllic village called Monastir, today Bitola, at the heart of Macedonia. And Alberto was treated to the entire narrative of the family’s founding, only now it was timely, because although he knew it was a romanticized version, he needed to hear this story of emigration, of a flight by boat against the backdrop of a great conflagration, of the persecution of the Jewish community, and the decadence of the Ottoman Empire. Then, losing the thread of what she was saying, as if suddenly she had come back to herself and the weighty concerns of the present, she went silent. Her eyes darted this way and that, while at last tears ran down Alberto’s cheeks.

— Mauricio Segura, translated from the French by Donald Winkler

————————————

Born in Chile in 1969, Mauricio Segura grew up in Montreal and studied at Université de Montréal and McGill University. A well-known journalist and documentary filmmaker, he is the author of three novels and a study of French perceptions of Latin America. He lives with his family in Montreal.

Donald Winkler is a Montreal-based literary translator and documentary filmmaker. He has translated books by the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, the philosopher Georges Leroux and the novelists Daniel Poliquin and Nadine Bismuth. Winkler is a three-time winner of the Governor General of Canada’s Award for French-to-English translation.

Jan 052014
 

Segura

Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus
Mauricio Segura, translated from the French by Donald Winkler
Biblioasis
150 pages, $15.95
ISBN 978-1-927428-37-5

In Mauricio Segura’s third novel, Eucalyptus, a middle-aged man returns to his homeland for his father’s funeral. This, in and of itself, does not make for a unique narrative: countless books, films, and songs have forged similar paths. But what’s arresting about Segura’s vision of this well-worn trope is that he undermines the expected—the revelation of past discretions, the outsider element of “the arrival” after time away—to remark on far greater themes of identity and place. As the slender volume shuttles along with breathtaking execution, eventually taking the form of an existential whodunit, one gleans that Segura isn’t quite interested in “you can’t go home again” platitudes. Rather, he finds fascination in more oblique questions: What is home? Who truly belongs to a parcel of land? And it is these queries that make Eucalyptus an adventurous, hypnotic read.

Alberto Ventura, the novel’s protagonist, is a character not unlike Segura: a Chilean writer who, as a child, migrated to Canada with his family after the 1973 coup-d’état, avoiding the long and violent Pinochet régime. As the narrative opens, Alberto and his young son, Marco, travel from Montreal to Temuco in southern Chile to bury Alberto’s father, the bombastic Roberto, a former political force and current farmer of eucalyptus trees, whose passing comes as an unexpected shock. Over several whirlwind days, Alberto—who remained in Canada after his parents and brother returned to Chile in 1990—is greeted by family and friends and is educated on his father’s shadowy final years: his murder of a young indigenous employee, his love affair with the daughter of an indigenous chief, his separation from those he once loved, his flashbacks to his brief time in prison during the coup. And as Roberto’s history unravels, through declarations both remorseful and bitter, distraught and frustrated, Alberto questions the nature of the man’s passing. Though theoretically killed by an untreated internal hemorrhage, after Alberto discovers a long, puzzling scar on Roberto’s body—“like a snake, zigzagging from waist to chest” (63)—he is convinced that treachery is afoot.

Armed with nothing but his own convictions (“Why waste your time looking into the death of a man who spent his whole life humiliating you?” his uncle Pedro asks at one point [108]), Alberto strikes out to cull information on his father, and as he ping-pongs from homes to police stations to Roberto’s abandoned compound, Segura’s writing adopts strong cinematic elements that spark a narrative rhythm. Here, recollections of characters seamlessly segue, à la a film dissolve, into representative scenes: we hear Roberto’s business partner recollect a moment, for example, only to then submerge into that moment, seeing the world as Roberto sees it, hearing his voice as he speaks. These transitions occur regularly, one or two per chapter, and create a strong structure for Alberto to explore. They are also quietly understated, luring the reader and resulting in a ghostlike journey: passing through bodies, into minds, and then back again. And as Alberto assembles these memories, he is forced to decide which version of his father is genuine. Is he the brute? The egomaniac? The quiet hero? Does it matter?

Thematically, Segura patterns Eucalyptus with constant nods to the idea of invasion and to the fragility of the place one calls home. These themes provide not only additional narrative rhythm, but they also elevate the story, convincing the attentive reader that learning the cause of Roberto’s death is far less important than the exploration of what we all consider ownership. The argument is introduced on page one. Alberto, driving into southern Chile, passes over a bridge:

That’s it, he thought, I’m here. He lowered the window to savour the elusive, vaguely clinical odour of the eucalyptus bordering the Pan-American Highway, and told himself that even his knowledge of the southern flora, he owed to his father. (1)

Not only does Segura deliver Alberto, the stranger, to Chile in these opening lines, but he also offers here the first taste of the eucalyptus, a non-native tree. Farmed on large plantations by Roberto, the eucalyptus peppers the remainder of the manuscript and becomes an analogy for invasiveness and destruction as the novel progresses. “This tree, with its phenomenal growth and undeniable qualities, has…done irreparable damage in some parts of the region,” Alberto is told (130), yet these charges also pervade the thoughts of those Alberto encounters: to some, Roberto has destroyed; to the indigenous Mapuche, Alberto’s entire family is part of the problem. Relationships between Roberto and the Mapuche fluctuate wildly. And while Alberto himself feels misplaced throughout Eucalyptus, paranoid of his foreignness, of his own impact, he recalls his own family lineage, the ancestors who arrived in Chile after a long journey from Andalusia. The Ventura name, like the eucalyptus tree, settled in this country for reasons of prosperity.

And yet, towering over all of Segura’s characters is the Llaima Volcano, the true possessor of Chile. An omnipresent hulk ready to wipe the slate clean, Segura employs Llaima to, again, continue the thread of place and invasion: the volcano threatens to erupt and swallow the region, rendering moot all of the questions provoked by Alberto’s quest. Llaima even taunts Alberto at one point, as Segura writes:

And so Alberto feasted his eyes, as his father had so often done, on the dramatic glow of the sunset, and when he raised them he saw (God in heaven, was he hallucinating?) Lliama emitting a delicate wisp of grey smoke in the form of a question mark. (112)

In this moment, it is as if the gods are looking down on Alberto with not a beacon of hope, but with a shrug. And conceivably that’s the ultimate goal of Segura’s Eucalyptus, for while the case of Roberto’s peculiar death, stuffed with contradictions and unusual characters, spryly marches forward, there is a certain sense, by novel’s end, that the real mystery to be solved skews closer to the experiential: why we end up in the lives we live.

Benjamin Woodard

——————————————————

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

Jan 042014
 

Dad photo

“Saltwater Cowboy” is a sharply perceived portrait of an extraordinary father, a man who served in the Navy, served on ships, all his life and left his son an indelible image of competence, courage, devotion and panache. Joe Milan lives in South Korea; this is his second contribution to NC. It’s a wonderful addition to our growing collection of fatherhood texts (we have a series of set essay topics — see them all here at Numéro Cinq Anthologies).

dg

My father said his life started at nineteen, the moment he decided to join the Navy. On a muggy August afternoon, he was sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels on a porch with a guy everyone called Bud. About halfway down the bottle my father blurted out, “Let’s go join the Navy.” They roared down the country roads in my father’s 60’s Datsun truck with holes in the floorboard, over the low hills of houses and trees where there are no dogs – only hounds — between the square plots of soybean and cotton, and into town to the recruiting office.

The recruiter showed pictures of girls and oceans and beaches and elephants of the Pacific and had them take the test and sign the papers. Two days later, after his family disapproved and said they wouldn’t let him go – “try to stop me” – my father and Bud were on a bus to Chicago and boot camp. They stayed the night in a motel along the way, and in the morning when my father woke, Bud was gone. Bud went home.

My father always left out everything that happened before that moment on the porch. For me, scraping the memories for stories my father told me when he had too much to drink, the moment my father’s life truly started was in a break room in a factory. After dropping out of high school, he worked at a rubber plant, constantly bombarded by chemical dust that stuck to his skin like paint. Once in the break room during lunch, a co-worker, who had lived his entire life in town working at the rubber factory, stood by the punch clock for a long moment. He looked around the room at the men in overalls, then down at his timecard. He muttered and then dropped to the tile floor, dead. Stroke.

* * *

Bedtime stories for me were Navy stories. Often they started when I asked about his tattoos, the cross anchors on his hands, the ships at full sail and winking girls in scanty sailor uniforms on his arms and shoulders. “Well, I got this one when we were pulling liberty in…” I heard about Singapore, Subic, Perth, Bangkok, well before Washington DC or New York. Every room was smoky. Dust trailed the speeding jeepnies and tuk tuks. Gun shots rang off in the distance. Men with names like Dirty Dan, The Fighting CB, and Matta gulped burning whisky and broke the empties on the dirt road and howled at the sky. Men fought over pool games and threw each other out of windows that had already lost their panes.

“Why, Dad?”

“That’s what young men do, have a good time,” he said. “It was fast living, boy. Real fast.”

My father, adventuring through these places, was as mythical to me as a Hollywood cowboy. And like a cowboy, he told me about vastness of space – blue fields of ocean instead of the prairie. The ocean could be as still one moment and stampeding over the deck the next. My father lived in the thick of dangerous waters and tumultuous towns.

At work

If my father had faith in anything, it was that he could handle ships. There could be a twenty-knot wind out of the west, the port engine could die on the ship, the navigator could panic since the pier cleats weren’t where they were marked on the chart, and my father, looking out the window, could drive an eleven hundred foot carrier along the pier softly. “It’s what I do,” he would say. Within ten years of joining the navy, he had moved up the ranks from a sailor mop jockeying on the deck to a harbor pilot who docked ships into port and sent them out to sea.

Sometimes, when I was about ten, my father brought me to work. I rode the tugboats that dropped him off on Trident Submarines that he guided out into the dark tree-lined fjord of Puget Sound. When the job was done, the tugboat would come alongside the moving submarine and he would jump, without a lifejacket, back onto the tug as if it were nothing. As if one slip couldn’t send him under the icy water and the wake couldn’t suck him under to the propellers.

On the way back, my father would ask the tug captain if they’d let me on the wheel. I never wanted to be on the wheel. But soon I was grasping onto the wood handles, trying to not to hold my breath, steering the boat. “Just follow the wake of the other tugs,” he would tell me.

Advice from my father was always the same. On jumping from the high dive, “Just jump. Just go and do it.” On going to college, “Make it happen. Go and do it.” On becoming a writer, “Well, go and do it. Write.” Sometimes he added, “The worst thing you can do is overthink it, boy. Educated people sit around asking why the wind is blowing you toward the rocks. You don’t have time to ask. You just look out the window and react. Make a decision. Life doesn’t have time for you to worry it right. You just go out and do it.”

* * *

When my father retired from the Navy they gave him a party, a handshake and a shadow box filled with his service ribbons and brass plates recounting my father’s time in navy, most of it as a pilot. Piloting was what he wanted to do again. He studied charts, took tests and improved his maritime licenses. He applied for piloting jobs and flew out to Florida and Virginia for interviews. Each time he came back disappointed. And so we stayed near Seattle, not far from my father’s last duty station. Waiting, my father worked part time jobs, as a captain or a mate on ferries, tugboats, and science ships in the icy waters of the Northwest. There were a lot of days he didn’t work. On those days with a coffee in hand, he sat on the porch and watched the neighbor’s cat hunker behind the cul de sac sign and take a dump.

That’s also when people my father knew started dying. Bud was first, lung cancer. My uncle, my father’s brother, cancer. That one startles me even today. For the first and only time in my life I saw my father cry. After he hung up the phone, he clung onto my mother and me in the dark end of the hallway of our house. His face was hot and he heaved for air. My uncle died at fifty-four.

After eight years of trying, and waiting, he became a pilot again in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was an October evening in 2003, after docking a couple of ships my father came home and had his first heart attack. On the phone he talked about his cholesterol levels as he would with tide tables or how much draft a ship had. Only when he had a physical would he signal his worry with a sigh and a “I gotta go, boy.” On the next call, “Boy, have a drink on me. The doctor said I’m in better shape then those twenty year old skulls on the ships I pilot.”

My parents came to see me in Korea to find me battered in the hospital. I had flown off a mountain bike crashed into a tree leaving my chest and spine a tangled mess of rattling broken bones to be fastened back together with bolts and plates of titanium, and someone else’s bones. The doctors told me I was lucky and I was: I would walk. I was alive. My father sat next to my bed, quietly rubbing the tattooed cross anchors on the back of his hand. Finally, he struggled out, “Sometimes a man has to know his limitations.” A line from Dirty Harry.

Rope ladder

* * *

After my parents separated, my father told me about a dream he kept having about a ship he had served on before he became a pilot. My father had taken the old and mothballed ship out to be sunk for target practice. The ship went down, then his shipmates from my bedtime stories – the same ones from that very ship – started dying. Diabetes. Suicide. Heart attack. It wasn’t just his old shipmates. A pilot from a nearby port in Hawaii fell off a rope ladder while boarding a ship and was sucked under the waves. My father started wearing life jackets. My father hated life jackets.

“I keep seeing it,” he told me over the phone, “just like it was after we had hung off the sides and painted it. I’m there on the pier with my sea bag over my shoulder and I’m about to go up the gangway and the old chief stops me. ‘Sorry boats, Milan,’ he tells me, ‘not your time.’ I can see them, my shipmates, hollering at the seamen, getting them heaving on the lines, the boatswain whistles blowing. Then I see them all go, steaming away, leaving me alone on the pier with the seagulls dropping clams.”

Then came the skin cancer. Small spots like freckles on his bald head got radiated, leaving little pink scars. It also had burrowed into his ear canal. The doctors took it all out and covered his earhole with a flap of skin from his leg. “They might take my job from me. Might say they I’m not fit to pilot,” My father worried over the phone. I told him if that happened, we’d just open a bar in the Philippines and drink cheap wine. “I wouldn’t survive a week.”

The last time I visited him in Hawaii, we went shopping at a maritime store for fishing caps to keep the sun off his head. He would try a hat on and look at the mirror, shake his head and put it back. I said that we could get a sombrero. He could be the Mariachi Pilot. Then I asked him, “Do you feel like you’ve lost something? Like you’ve lost a bit of breath?”

 He caught me off guard. “I don’t know, I guess. It’s like I lost something I can never have back.” He picked up a yellow fishing cap and looked in the mirror. He looked pale. He looked scared.

* * *

In college, I worked in film production. After the movie sets were torn down, when the only remains of the spectacle were naked concrete and traces of sawdust and sand, I’d always get a feeling that I was tiny and couldn’t say where the props had really been. I got that same feeling at my father’s memorial. There was a photo of my father from the bridge wing of a ship, grinning while looking down at the camera. He looked so happy. Yet, before I noticed the grin, I saw the life jacket.

One day I sat down at my desk and wrote this:

As the last hours of streetlight sliced through the blinds, my father stared up at the ceiling. Old photos in clean picture frames look out from the shelves. His shadow box is gathering dust. After a few sips of Kona decaf coffee, he sat and took his blood pressure. The machine groaned and tightened. It beeps and he wished he could still hear it without the muffle. The numbers say it’s a little low.

The harbor’s July air is thick and full of salt and diesel exhaust. The roads were still black from the morning mists. The waters rippled off the piers and the docked ships. From the wheelhouse of the tugboat steaming through the channel toward the job, my father didn’t notice the Arizona memorial raising its flag above the sunken hulk. His thoughts were on the job, and the depths of the harbor, the draft of the ship, and the breeze from the northeast. 

A cargo ship deep in West Loach waited for him. It was a complicated job that would need all his focus. His strategy is to pull the ship from the pier with tugs, back slow and turn the ship 90 degrees, using the tugs, avoiding the other ships and the unseen shallows. Once the ship was in the channel he could drive the ship past the last turn and out to sea. The job was like moving a semi-truck  out of a full parking lot, on ice, without brakes, with ball bearings instead of wheels, and little go carts pushing the trailer to keep it between the lines.

As he climbed the rope ladder to the access hatch in the wall of the gray hull, he clenched his teeth. Men can fall off into the green abyss. Big ships like this give men heartburn. They can smash into the pier or run aground. Lines from the tugs could part and whip back onto the deck. Anything can go wrong; everything can go wrong.

The sun broke through the clouds and it was hot under his life jacket.

 On the bridge, my father smiled, and shook the captain’s hand. Harbor Pilots are faces of calm. The ship’s engines hummed and the crew checked the computer screens and hustled the lines. From the bridge wing, the tugs were small, as if they hadn’t grown up yet. He swallowed, keeping in the tension, focusing on the images burned in his mind of where and when each movement would begin and end.

The tugs heaved and the ship growled and shuddered as propellers started backing. Coffee brown silt swelled up staining the water. The ship had a deep draft and the bottom wasn’t much deeper. Lines moaned, water churned, radios crackled, my father’s forehead beaded with sweat. There was a knot twisting and tightening inside him.

For an hour my father crisscrossed from the port bridge wing to the starboard and back again, gauging distances, calling corrections to conn, and to the tugs. He fought sudden breezes, the ever-changing depths, the weariness of his body. Then finally, it happened. They cleared the tight loach and were moving toward the channel to the last turn and the ocean.

With the job essentially done, he looked down from the bridge, past the anchor winches and the stanchions of the deck to the dark green water just ahead. This is when he would laugh. A country boy from the fields of Tennessee had moved a mountain of steel.

But as the adrenaline faded, he didn’t laugh. When the ship made its last turn at Whiskey point, the point where the harbor opens up to the unending field of green then blue water of the Pacific, where the white caps clapped all the way to the line where the water splits with the cloud splattered sky, he looked up and knew he had gotten the ship out safely. And that was it.

Whiskey PointThe approach to Whiskey Point

—Joe Milan

————————————————-

Joe Milan 3

Joe Milan has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA; his most recent landing is in Seoul where he writes and teaches at the Catholic University of Korea. He is a recent graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program.

Jan 032014
 

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redel450

Woman Without Umbrella
Victoria Redel
Four Way Books
88 pages, $15.95
ISBN-13: 978-1-935536-24-6

Woman Without Umbrella slips out the door barefoot in spite of flash flood warnings. Without interruption is my recommendation when reading this, Victoria Redel’s third collection of poetry.

Redel is also the author of four books of fiction, most recently a collection of stories, Make Me Do Things, from Four Way Books. Her award-winning novel, Loverboy, was adapted to film in 2004. A native New Yorker, Redel earned her MFA at Columbia University and was a student of Gordon Lish: as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Lish published her first book. In an interview with Leah Umansky, Redel reflects “I’m a poet more driven by the sentence than by the line, and I’m a fiction writer driven more by language than plot.”

The first poem in this collection is titled “The Way It Began,” and the second one is “The End.” These two poems are separated by two blank pages and a page with an ampersand, an indication of Redel’s skill in measuring and compressing time and space in the length of the collection, in the space and interaction between poems, and within single stanzas.

From this energetic opening, the collection would seem to explode outward, way beyond structures. In fact, the next poem begins with “The roof collapses.” David Orr, in his most recent article “On Poetry” in the NYTimes Book Review, concludes “poetry, unlike churches and fortresses, has never loved a wall.” Here, poetry loves a wall but for different reasons entirely, as Redel shows in “Woman Without Umbrella, Unseasonable.”

All month her city sweats and sticks,
women and men stripped down to a snarl, it’s too fucking hot.

These are steamy low-key days, south of the border,
hot-to-the-touch afternoons,

burning cement walls built for pressing him up against.

The poem next is “Suddenly,” which begins “A month after turning forty-five, every last egg in her body / is a Rockette doing the can-can. Use me use me use me, they cry.” And it goes on, describing the woman at the crosswalk, warning off any nearby men. The next poem, “Woman Without Umbrella,” begins with “Thus she waited at the corner / for the light to change.” The manipulation of time between month and month is exhilarating, as is the way Redel focuses the space, from the wide-angle view of the city to the particular woman standing on a corner.

The poems “Upgrade” and “Bottom Line,” which are a little before the halfway point in the collection, is a glorious reflection on the nature of the heart and our relationship to it, which seems sometimes strange to say, as though we could remove ourselves from it enough to say “to it.” But in Redel’s hands, this manipulation of the view through time and space is masterful. In “Upgrade,” Redel shows us the “I want,” incessantly asking, clawing-for-something heart, the font of all desire. Apart from the heart, in the wonderment of considering it—

I don’t want a refund to say it didn’t fit, never worked, or worked at first,
then in fits and starts, the switches useless, gears stripped. No, I don’t want

Customer Service, a Claims Department, complaint letters, an exchange
or credit toward the latest model, an upgrade or Lifetime Parts Replacement.

Even now, broken, chipped, in pieces, pieces lost, worn out, the original
gone—there are times, still, it comes back to me whole and I am amazed

by what is beyond fragile, by how elaborately and generously, wrecked
and beyond repair, we made use of our hearts all those years. And then.

The way her lists topple into other lists here is the glory of it. The first stanza’s list repeats the words “fit” and “worked,” and uses the assonance of the short i sound for intense energy from the start. And we don’t know what she’s talking about yet, as the second stanza takes us into Customer Service for this broken or defective thing. Third stanza, and this list parallels the first with the short-i sound in “chipped” and the repetition of “pieces.” Then in the beginning of the third stanza, “even now” starts to shift the poem away from its initial “I don’t want” and into the amazement of “and then.”

“And then” is a force in this collection. I found myself following it, catching it hiding here and there, and finding its inverse flying around in certain dark corners. For example, we move from “And then” at the end of the poem “Upgrade,” to the beginning of “Bottom Line”: “As when my father goes back under / and the doctor comes out to tell us he’s put a window in my father’s heart.” Perhaps this is the most extreme example of the way “and then” propels the reader through this collection. Or maybe it’s in the poem “Later Still, Then,” where Redel begins, “What if I told the husband everything. / How I leaned against a shoulder on the raft. Later, still. Or years earlier. And then.” In the poem on the facing page, two of the lines begin with “then.” The poem titled “And Then” precedes a page with an ampersand, which precedes the three-and-a-half-page “Kissing.” That is followed by another page with an ampersand, followed by “Holy” which begins “Then I went to a party and danced like no tomorrow.” And next comes “And, Finally,” and then “Gorgeous Present.” And this is still nowhere near the end of the book.

So, back to “Kissing.” The poem begins with a potent first line, “The first surprise of your mouth on mine.” Then it steams up quickly with a glorious list of the places where:

On streets, on staircases, in bathrooms, in the backs of cabs, in a field, against that wall and that wall and that wall, down on the floor, my hair caught in it, in hotel beds, in a borrowed bed, and in the same bed night after night after year after night, through an open window, under pines, under water, on a raft, in rain, salty with ocean, a peck at the door, a have a good day.

Our mouths, prepositional.

From this point, the poem delves beautifully into every aspect of that description, “prepositional.” Mouths act as prepositions indicating another place, “like there is another room inside and then another room inside.” Alternatively, kissing mouths are prepositional to each other, introducing the irresistible action of offering and taking: “suddenly you are turning me saying, / ‘Give me your mouth,’ and I am giving you my mouth.” The poem takes the grammar reference further with these lines: “A fluency, accented, each vowel and consonant exactly formed. / Sudden native speakers.” Later in the poem, we consider “A private syntax. / Pun and slang, slip of tongue, intentional.” The reader wonders whether kissing is a metaphor for language or if it’s the other way around.

Redel’s list of mostly prepositional phrases uses alliteration and assonance in tight sequence at the beginning of the run, and then repetition of “wall,” “bed,” “night,” “under,” “on,” and especially “in.” There’s that wall again. And that raft. Within single lines of the poem, the repetition of a word strikes the right notes of sound and insistence. In “Kissing,” this doubling of words within the line occurs with “eyes,” “mouth,” “room,” “taste,” and “drifting,” which is in itself an enticing list.

Paired with this virtuosity of metaphor and pattern is Redel’s exquisite attention to imagery and sensory detail.

Like something windy, like good weather. In winter, our mouths the
warmest place in the city.

Kissing like nobody’s business.

A lower lip flicked by teeth, pulling back just a little to breathe
together.

 And, then, all twitch and pull and ache.

If this were a review of a novel, I’d have to stop here to avoid spoilers. In her interview with Leah Umansky, Redel said “I see Woman Without Umbrella as having a kind of narrative arc and so the thread of poems using the same titles is a consideration of time. And though “Woman” in the title is singular I think of this as a book inhabited by many women both contemporary and historical.” A couple of stanzas toward the end of the collection stand out as fine examples of Redel’s repetitions and resulting conversion of these materials into something sublime. In “Smoking Cigarettes with Brodsky,” the last stanza evokes “and then” with the surprise of “and yet.”

I’m just learning desire makes us sometimes lovely,
always idiotes. And yet. And yet. And yet
Joseph smokes another cigarette.

The first half of “Monet’s Umbrella” gives it away, too.

I didn’t have to kneel down by the roadside lilacs
and I didn’t have to go walking this dawn in Riverside

with the dog sniffing wet dirt and the red tail hawks
nesting over the Westside highway on-ramp

to know that without even trying Sweetness returns
without a Monet umbrella or a proper scarf around its neck

and that when I rush to bring Possibility indoors for a hot tea
it gathers me in for a dirty-minded kiss.

Redel’s “and then” has become “and that when” here. And there’s that kiss again, suggesting with its capitalized “Possibility” an Emily Dickinson poem, which begins “I dwell in Possibility — / A fairer house than Prose –”.

Redel leaves us in a cozier place at the end of the collection—in a theater after the show, considering the “riveting” special effects, as you might after reading this book without intermission. The deluge of brilliance in this collection could turn manhole covers into geyser spouts, recycling bins into white-water rafts, and then—who needs an umbrella?

—A. Anupama

———————————–

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

Jan 022014
 
Steve Almond Photo by Sharona Jacobs

Steve Almond Photo by Sharona Jacobs

I first met Steve Almond in the late ‘90s when he participated in a panel discussion at the Boston Public Library about the state of publishing.  Unlike his more conciliatory co-panelists, Almond let loose with a spirited evisceration of an industry that pushes lackluster, commercially viable efforts over work created by hardworking craftspeople digging for literary truths.  Almond came off as cynical, even bitter, though by the end of the event, he was the guy we fledgling young writers in the audience wanted to be.  Almond was a renegade.  A true artist.

Nearly two decades later, Almond has become a household name (at least among literary circles) and a local celebrity in Boston where he makes his home.  He has been an adjunct professor of Fiction and Non-Fiction at Boston College and Emerson College, and a creative writing instructor whose classes consistently sell out at Grub Street, a non-profit organization for Boston-area writers.  He has also become an enviably content family man – as opposed to the self-loathing cad he admits to being in his youth – a state that makes his lingering cynicism even more poignant.

As a writer, Almond is intimidatingly prolific.  He has written ten books of fiction and non-fiction, including 2010’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, an essay collection about his years spent as a “drooling” music fanatic, and God Bless America, his most recent collection of short stories. Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, a memoir tracing his lifelong obsession with sweets, won a host of awards and was selected as a best book of 2004 by Amazon.com. His stories and essays have been featured in countless publications, including Tin House, Ploughshares, Salon.com and Playboy magazine, and have won him innumerable honors including the Pushcart Prize.

What’s most amazing about Almond is his versatility; the same writer who can write gut-busting predictions for 2014 (Pope Francis becomes a Unitarian, Miley Cyrus gets a tongue infection) can also break your heart, for instance, in his short story, “First Date Back,” about an emotionally damaged war veteran’s doomed love affair with a flight attendant.  Almond is known for his sharp wit and penchant for tugging at the seams of a complacent American culture. But beneath his deliciously witty, sometimes harsh tone lies an enduring faith in humanity. Almond loves us all though we occasionally piss him off with our tendency to ignore our better angels.

 — Laura K. Warrell

§

Laura K. Warrell (LW): One of the qualities that stands out in your work is how present you are as an author.  As readers, we know so much about you – what you consider to be your weaknesses and obsessions, the botched relationships you suffered in the past and the marriage and family you enjoy in the present. Like Vonnegut, one of your literary heroes, you’ve written yourself deeply into the work.  What does this do for you as a writer and what do you think it does for the reader?

Steve Almond (SA): Writers are always making themselves known; it’s just how overt they are about it. Any good art is coming from a writer’s deepest preoccupations, anxieties and concerns and sometimes directly from his or her memories and fantasy life.  For instance, there’s no way to separate J.D. Salinger from Holden Caulfield.  Caulfield wasn’t just out there in the cosmos waiting for Salinger to happen onto him. He was a figment of Salinger’s imagination, an expression of Salinger’s deepest anxieties and sorrows, a fictional disguise. Holden Caulfield is considered a beautifully imagined character, but really he came from the deepest precincts of Salinger’s psyche.  Any decent artist is revealing the deepest part of who he or she is.  In my recent nonfiction, I write overtly about my life and opinions.  It’s not sublimated into fictional characters.  But even if it was, it would still be me.

LW: Do you think it’s possible to write too much about the self, perhaps to the point of self-absorption?

SA: What lifts work away from solipsism and self-absorption is the author’s attempt to understand and endure feelings – sometimes difficult, even unbearable feelings, and sometimes feelings so ecstatic and wonderful they’re unbearable in a whole other way.  Focusing on the self doesn’t make a work self-absorbed. What makes a work solipsistic or self-absorbed is a superficial focus on the self in a way that is self-concerned without being self-interrogating or self-aware.

LW: So, if you’re engaging with a text as a writer or reader and the work isn’t compelling or engaging, is it possible the author just isn’t present enough?

SA: A writer’s career is marked by the work that made it out into the world, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are all the shitty drafts he or she wrote, the failed novels and projects that never got published. Those are places where the writer just didn’t dig deep enough.  In my case, it happens when I haven’t known or loved the characters deeply enough to successfully write about them, so I produce work that tends to settle for cleverness over real emotional engagement, there’s a certain show-offy quality. That’s the definition of sentimentalism: asserted emotion.  Emotion that’s not dramatized by the character and his or her experience but is asserted by the author.  That’s an attempt to make the self known but it’s a failed attempt.  I’m saying that as somebody who makes a lot of failed attempts.

LW: Part of what makes your work come alive is a kind of underlying obsession, which manifests in two ways.  You write with a wonderfully obsessive attention to detail and you also write about what seems to obsess you – music, sex, candy.  How important is obsessiveness and/or obsession to writing?

SA: Everybody comes into life as an obsessive.  Obsession is the default setting of how human beings think and feel.  When babies are hungry, they are obsessively hungry.  Obsession is the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction, and it’s the defining quality that allows us to produce and consume art. But our obsessions are socialized, cajoled or shamed out of us.  You’re not supposed to admit to having all these overweening, out-of-control, sometimes self-destructive feelings. But obsession isn’t there to fill your mind and spirit with junk; it’s a mode of consciousness. Artists are people who, by and large, are able to access that obsession and go straight at it, surrender to it, in the interest of trying to figure out why they can’t move past a particular experience or relationship dynamic or even a kind of food.  For me, writing Candyfreak was about getting to a place of such desperation as a writer, such unhappiness and self-loathing, that the only thing that could get me to the keyboard was writing about something I was naturally urgent about and felt all sorts of obsessive, wondrous feelings towards.  But what makes the book interesting, if it is interesting, is that it’s really a book about depression.  I thought about the role candy had played in my life and realized every incident from my childhood and adulthood was not just about pursuing happiness but also finding a path away from despair.  If I had just tried to write a fun, carefree book about candy it might have been clever but I don’t think it would’ve resonated as deeply with readers.  Good autobiographical writing proceeds from the question ‘am I going to be okay,’ and the sense of that being in some doubt.  That’s what inspirational memoir is all about: reassuring the reader everything is going to be okay.

LW: Sex also features heavily in your work; even when you’re talking about issues entirely unrelated to sex, you manage to sneak in a reference.  In your essay, “How to Write Sex Scenes: The Twelve-Step Program,” you suggest that these sexual moments are less about eroticism than “desire and heartbreak.” Is this what allows you to write so frankly about sex while maintaining a sense of depth and purpose?

SA: The question is whether as a writer you’re settling for self-regard over self-awareness.  Are you navel-gazing, or in this case, genital-gazing rather than peering into your own dark corners?  When I write about sex, I’m basing it on what it’s like as a real person to be in sexual situations.  Sometimes it’s wonderful, happy, physically ecstatic and intimate.  But every time there’s doubt: about the relationship, about yourself, body shame, all the stuff that’s fucking real.  There’s a certain kind of writing, including some of my more cheeky writing, that tries to portray sex like a sitcom and only glances in the direction of the deeper moments of self-loathing, doubt, or anxiety about our own pleasure or our capacity to give pleasure or whether we’re going to be lonely all our lives.  That’s fucking scary shit.  All I’m doing is saying, ‘yes, it’s scary,’ and when my characters go through it I try to draw from the parts of myself that are still kind of haunted by that.  Other authors make other decisions.  But if you slow down in the parts that are sad, awkward, shameful or painful – and yes, it’s hard to do but that’s where the equity is as an artist – you’re building these psychologically and emotionally reliable onramps to the moments that really matter.  And that’s the point.  My argument is that the sadder it gets, the funnier it gets.  The comic impulse arises from tragic feelings, it’s the way we contend with tragic stuff.  It’s a little moment of self-forgiveness.

rock and roll save

LW:  One of the essays I especially love from Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa” in which you deconstruct the lyrics of the ‘80s hit “Africa” by Toto.  On one hand, it’s a funny look at a somewhat silly piece of music.  On the other hand, it’s a political piece about American culture.  What was your process writing it?

SA: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is about worshipful fans, people who idolize musicians and get really attached to the soundtrack by which years of our lives are defined.  I put lots of things in the book to counterbalance my visits to obscure musicians who I think are awesome with the more esoteric stuff I wanted to talk about.  “Africa” is a good example of how the music of particular songs is so great we don’t even listen to the words.  A good backbeat and melody conquer everything.  I loved “Africa” and listened to it, I had a Toto album, I’m not disavowing that the song is an ecstasy tablet for your limbic system.  But when you really listen to the words, they seem to encapsulate so much of what’s completely fucked up about American culture.  If you want to understand the level of pathology, delusion and American colonial privilege as we lurch toward the end of our imperial death spiral, listen to that song.  It’s a great instance of how completely privileged, self-ennobling and insulated from real suffering we are. That’s all I was trying to say, though it’s really not fair.  The songwriter wasn’t writing a political manifesto, he was writing a pop song.  But I think the reason it gets a lot of credit, why the CBS Morning show plays it in their tribute to Nelson Mandela is because it’s exactly what America is built on.  The song doesn’t offer real depth, but an appearance of depth by name checking an impoverished continent with lots of starving people.  It’s a deeply cynical way of being in the world and typically American.  My radar aims toward those kinds of white-hot, pulsing quasars of hypocrisy.

god bless

LW: Your short story collection, God Bless America, begins with an epigraph from Max Lerner, which says, “America is a passionate idea or it is nothing.”  There are many ways to interpret the work and themes this book explores, but what stood out for me was the characters’ loneliness.  There were a lot of lonely people in this book and, moreover, people with small dreams they couldn’t seem to attain.  How do those ideas and Lerner’s quote fit into your view of America?

SA: Maybe this sounds depressing but that is America.  One of my favorite books is John Williams’ Stoner, which is this quiet book about an academic who, we find out in the first paragraph, never made any great marks, never made any great impression on his students or colleagues, is utterly forgotten by history.  And you sort of think, ‘God, what a loser’ but then you realize that’s 99.9% of us.  We might dream big but in our lives, we’re mostly known only by the people around us and most of our big dreams don’t happen.  America’s a sort of factory producing these dreams of big fame and unconditional, universal love but that’s not really how most people experience life. Instead, they struggle in day-to-day ways with small petty grievances.  Our fourth estate is in such a mess now because we have a bunch of people who are really good at exploiting those grievances, anxieties, fears and sources of rage.  We have such prosperity but we’re so pathologically greedy about it.  Despite our good intentions on a personal basis, we have social policies that are ridiculous, inhumane and just cruel and heedless.  So we end up with an unhappy civic culture.  How does that happen?  Well, it’s a bunch of lonely, unhappy people not listening to their conscience.  There are moments in which individually people are beautiful and do wonderful things, but as a collective, we’re profoundly unhappy.  Just turn on the TV and you’ll see it.  It’s impossible to live in this country and not be distressed thinking, ‘goddamn, we’ve got all this shit and we’re less happy per person than precincts of the world where people are struggling to get enough nutrition and where there’s a significant risk of violence, and those people live more happily than we do.’  That’s a big mystery and this collection is my effort to understand it.

LW: One of the stories, “The Darkness Together,” about a mother and son whose peculiar relationship is exposed when they meet a stranger on a train, is such a satisfying read though, unlike your funnier work, it’s sad and emotionally heavy.  So are there stories which you can’t “write funny,” not so much because of the subject matter but because the stories themselves don’t trigger the comic impulse?

SA:  You could write a story like “The Darkness Together,” with humorous elements: the sexual anxiety of the kid, the mother’s blindness to her weird, seductive mojo.  It’s not so much the material as it is the posture you have toward it, the attitude you take, the emotional space you’re writing out of.  Sometimes it’s looser and more relaxed, and humor becomes part of it.  And sometimes the emotional space is more sober.  I wrote this collection during a dark time in American history, the Bush years, and maybe a dark time in my personal history.  So a lot of the stories are more serious.  At readings, I find myself saying, ‘sorry, these are not going to be rip roaring funny.’  What I admire are writers – Vonnegut, Lorrie Moore, Sam Lipsyte – who are able to be funny/sad, who recognize those two travel together.  I like to write in that mode, that’s my natural terrain.  It’s how I deal with my own unhappiness.  But sometimes you write them straight.  But yes, it’s a collection where readers shouldn’t expect to snort milk out of their noses.

LW: Do you know when a piece should be written with a more serious tone or does it just come to you that way?

SA: I have an idea for a story and as it takes shape, I just say, what if, what if and what next.  Sometimes it arises with a serious question or I’m taking it seriously, looking at it straight without comic forgiving.  I’m just going to go to the dark shit, no joking around.  For instance in “First Date Back,” I’m writing about a soldier who’s just come back from a political conflict.  He’s guarding a secret and thinks he’s fallen in love with a stewardess on his flight home.  They have a brief relationship in which the combination of his craziness and her sensible attempt to hold him at bay collide.  Anything can be written in a way that has comic aspects to it, I could’ve done it with this story.  But the attitude I had imagining this guy and his deluded love affair, how the affair collides with or provokes this destructive secret he’s trying to keep inside, that was a sobering series of thoughts.  There was no Steve Almond humorous tap dancing going on.  I was getting closer to the truth, looking directly at it and trying to imagine the few hours those characters had together.  Of course, marketing people don’t like how I won’t write the one funny book or the one sad/serious book.  But I like that I have serious stories like “The Darkness Together” and “First Date Back” along with funnier stories like “A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve” that clearly gets at serious stuff while giving the comic impulse free reign.

LW: You teach a class called “Funny is the New Deep” and also wrote an essay under the same title.  You say “prophecy” arises from distress and suggest that “the (literary) prophet is an idealist unable to silence his disappointments.”  How do you help writers, who might not have such easy access to those places of distress, pain and longing, get to those depths so they can write about life, sex or anything else in ways that are funny and deep?

SA: All you can do as a teacher is give permission and make it okay for students to go there, even to reward them for doing it.  It’s trickier when you’re talking about stuff people are conflicted about letting out of the bag, like their sense of humor.  A student may say, ‘I’m a serious person, I built my identity around being a serious person.’  But that doesn’t mean he or she has no sense of humor.  It’s just a quieter, more concealed sense of humor.  A sense of humor is just a bio-evolutionary adaptation, something human beings require in order to live with all the bad data rolling around their brains and hearts.  It takes different forms.  All I’m doing as a teacher is giving people permission and inspiring them.  I say, ‘actually, this classroom is the place where I want to know how fucked up things are, and I want you to tell the truth about the things that matter to you the most deeply.  In whatever form, in whatever tone.’  You can’t force people but you can make the decision desirable by making it clear that it’s a safe space to get into the shit and show examples of people doing it successfully: here’s what I mean by creating a strong narrator or what I mean by the comic impulse and how it operates in people’s work, this is what I mean when I say the sadder the work is and the more bruising its truths, the funnier it becomes.  What I admire in other writers is their effort to tell the truth and pay attention to the world around and inside them, around and inside their characters.  That’s what makes the language beautiful.  So I tell students not to worry about being a beautiful writer and just tell the truth about what’s rattling around inside them.  I’m always pleasantly shocked by how able people are to do that when you give them permission.

LW: Is it ever hard for you to be funny and deep?

SA: I struggle all the time getting at the darkest stuff in my own self and life, maybe because I’m still feeling guilty or confused or just frightened of it.  But that’s what a career in writing is about: expanding the number of things you can be brutally honest about.

LW: In your homage to Vonnegut, you talk about the writer you “wished to become” back when you were a younger man.  How close are you to becoming that writer?

SA: I still struggle everyday with making time, paying attention, figuring out the big mystery of how to write on a bigger scale.  Maybe stuff inside me is blocked but it might also have to do with having a family and wanting to give love and attention to them.  That’s going to take precedence over my art.  The people I admire – Dave Eggers, Jess Walter, Anthony Doerr, Cheryl Strayed, Aimee Bender – they’re able to give to their art and, it seems, to their families’ lives and even to their social conscience.  Those people are heroes to me.  I hope I’ll start to follow their example and live up to what I can do as an artist.

—Laura K. Warrell & Steve Almond

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Laura K WarrellLaura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music and University of Massachusetts Boston and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.

Jan 012014
 
Herbert Read

Hulton Getty Archives

The Green Child is a triptych of allegories…
The little book is part Arthurian legend, part Candide, part Plato,
strung together with the expertise of Barthelme.

0green

The Green Child
Herbert Read
New Directions, October 2013
208 pages, $15.95

What do you do when the stream of time—which has always, in your memory, flowed forward, or at least in a certain, unwavering direction—one day appears to have taken upon itself to reverse course and headed in the opposite direction? Do you follow the current as it traces its way back to its source?

This is just one of the various mythopoetic—not semantic—possibilities that puzzle the Quixotic hero of Herbert Read’s The Green Child, an entrancing fairy tale of the highest order. The British critic’s only novel, it was originally published in 1935 by Heinemann, then introduced to the American public by New Directions in 1948, with a lovely afterword by Kenneth Rexroth. Now New Directions has reissued it with an introduction by Eliot Weinberger.

Once a renowned Marxist-cum-anarchist literary critic, Read has faded out of the fickle canonizing history books—but those he influenced have not. A Bunny Wilson of his time, Read counted T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Stravinsky, and Picasso as friends. He died in 1968 remembered as a knighted anarchist and mediocre poet, but he was first and foremost a prolific critic who celebrated (and in some cases, helped launch) Eliot, Barbara Hepworth, the British Romantics, the early Surrealists, Carl Jung, and Jean-Paul Sartre in equal measure.

The Green Child is a triptych of allegories. After faking his own assassination, General Olivero—a.k.a. Schoolmaster Oliver, in his native England—returns to his homeland out of existential angst and curious boredom. While walking along a favorite path of his, he notices that the stream no longer runs from, but rather towards, the old church. Heraclitus knew that one can not step into the same river twice and Olivero does dip his hand into the stream,  perplexed as he is into a dualist examination of his own senses, his memory, his existence.

“For something like an hour Olivero remained as if transfixed to the white railing; for the whole structure of his memory was challenged.” A few pages later the small quest continues: “He was now quite certain that his memory had not deceived him, and that the direciton of the current had actually changed. The reason was still to seek. He recrossed the culvert and took the path which led round to the back of the mill, to the dam and the weir.”

In this first of three parts, he follows the stream until he discovers the green child, a waif-like woman of verdant tint, held captive and forced to drink lamb’s blood by what turns out to be her husband, Kneeshaw—who, as a boy, wound his teacher Mr. Oliver’s model train too tight and broke its spring, leading to the schoolmaster’s early-life crisis and departure[1]. When he sees this tortured woman, Olivero’s revolutionary instincts kick in and he frees her.

The little book is part Arthurian legend, part Candide, part Plato, strung together with the expertise of Barthelme. Though the largest section of the book (Part II) tells the story of how Olivero became, rather passively, the president of a Latin American colony, The Green Child is not strictly speaking a satire, but rather more celebratory—like an ode to form and tradition. That middle section, which switches to Olivero’s point of view, plays with the inspiring ideas and military improvisations of a good revolution. The narrative is complete with its own hybrid Declaration of Independence and Constitution, geared toward the Marxist language of Historical Materialism. We see here Read’s skepticism of bourgeois liberal revolutions, of the ease with which the “display of intellectual arrogance” of one leader can quell the spirit and judgment of a people. In his introduction Weinberger notes Read’s cynicism about American democracy:

One of the most curious characteristics of this people is their complete misunderstanding of democracy. They do not believe in equality, but in “equality of opportunity.” They confess that again and again, with pride, without realizing that “equality of opportunity” is merely the law of the jungle, that they are not egalitarians, but opportunists…

Olivero’s conquest of the fictitious Roncador colony comes down to a matter of necessity. Self-assured, European, he is mistaken for a revolutionary when he steps off the boat from Cadiz: “Though oppression had engendered the spirit of rebellion, yet the agents necessary to organise and lead such a popular movement were completely lacking.” After twenty-five years of rule, Olivero has his little republic running like a well-oiled machine. Bored and devoid of existential meaning, he plans his escape—because, indeed, he must escape, cannot simply walk away from the machine he has helped erect.

But this political adventure is sandwiched between a myth—a reimagined story of the green children of Woolpit, which Read had praised as “ideal fantasy” in his 1931 English Prose Style.  And just who is this green child?

Feeling infinitely tender towards such a helpless victim of man’s malice, Olivero lifted one arm and began to chafe the bruised wrist. It was then that he noticed a peculiarity in her flesh which explained her strange pallor. The skin was not white, but a faint green shade, the color of a duck’s egg. It was, moreover, an unusually transparent tegument, and through its pallor the branches of her veins and arteries spread, not blue and scarlet, but vivid green and golden.

In one margin I noted, “she’s a fucking mood ring.” At another I marked, “E.T.?” She is passive—like Olivero in his rise to dictatorship—and turning yellow, dying in the domestic prison her husband has created. She only lights up when she can spend time by the stream, in the woods. Kneeshaw had found her so compelling in part because of her lack of sexuality: “He could not conceive that anything so feminine (and therefore so strongly attractive to his masculinity) could be without what we in the learned world call sexual characteristics, and the blind motive of all the attention he devoted to the Green Child had no other origin. It was a research into the mystery of the Green Child’s heart. But pursued in a dumb instinctive fashion.”

The story begins and ends with Olivero and his perplexed existence in a vacuum of time. The book is thoroughly existential, every sentence infused with Olivero’s psyche, the story resembling a dreamlike escape from Plato’s cave, in which Olivero accompanies the green child back to her home under the water basin from which his stream originates (and now ends), his eventual Socratic mausoleum. When Olivero rescues her, he first becomes maître to her sauvage, until she leads him to the end of this stream. Once they descend, in Part III, under the water, they do not die but instead enter a new world, the one the green children came from (an ideal). The green child has returned to her people, indicating that Olivero would like to live among them. Then Olivero separates from his alien guide and moves deeper into the grotto-like world, alone, in search of the highest of existential meaning.

The village sign showing the children.  Photo by Rod Bacon

The village sign showing the children. Photo by Rod Bacon

Can a critic, well, create? It’s a fallacious question[2] that The Green Child will fail to answer. Without a doubt the first part is superior to the later ones—scholars suspect he might have penned it in a single sitting. The novel is at least an exquisite illustration of what one can do with a mastery of language. As Rexroth wrote, “certainly the book is one of the most sustained products of conscious rapture in our literature.”[3] The writing is economical yet expansive, imbued with a diction that cannot but purposely invoke other writers’ narratives. Perhaps it takes the mind of a critic to craft such different textures as:

He sat listening to intimate sounds—voices in the soft dialect he had spoken, the click of a raised latch, the rattle of a milk-pail, the chiming of clocks in the houses; and underneath all these occasional sounds, the persistent lapping of the stream in its pebbly bed. A white railing opposite him ran along the edge of the stream, and presently he got up and went across to this railing, and leant against it as he gazed down into the rippling water.

and

Kneeshaw had lived a life of isolation. He was unread and almost inarticulate, facing the problems of life with direct instincts, acting from day to day as these instincts dictated. He was now faced by a man who obviously belonged to another world—a world of easy speech, of ideas and sentiments, of complicated experience. There was no natural impulse to communicate with such a man. But tragedy drives us beyond natural behaviour, on to a level where imagination and phantasy rule.

and

I answered blindly, at first with the desire to be complaisant. But I had not taken these three steps before I perceived that I had entered on a strange path, which led I knew not whither. Never had I been more conscious of my destiny, that obscure force which drives us to impersonal action, to the surrender of the self to the event.

The heavy presence of Read’s influences and interests lends the allegory an openness to very different interpretations—Freudian, Platonic, anarchist—that bear the mark of either quiet genius or a lack of control. I cannot presume to know. What I know is that Read’s writing and the world he creates carry such crystalline purity that the story, in its own fabulous way, works. I’ve certainly never read anything like it. They don’t make them like they used to, I guess. Here’s one for the lovers of nature, myth, and the finally solitary individual’s quiet, fatal search for wisdom.

—Tom Faure

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Tom Take 4

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

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. My favorite passage of the novel, a brutal and not uncaring articulation of the teacher’s despair: “‘It was a little thing, but it broke a tension in me. My mother was dead; I disliked my father. I had never planned to spend my life as a village schoolmaster, a calling for which I had neither the physical nor the mental aptitude. I thought I might become a poet, but my poetry was gloomy and obscure, and nobody would publish it. I felt impotent and defeated, and longed for external circumstances to force action upon me. I struggled feebly with the ignorance and stupidity of you and your companions, but as I had no faith in knowledge, my only desire was to leave you in possession of innocence and happiness.”
  2. Then why ask it? As Weinberger’s introduction explains, the question of whether Read could or should write fiction is a pertinent one. Ford Madox Ford had recommended he become a novelist so “as to avoid turning your soul into a squirrel in a revolving cage.” Read went literally to the woodshed (in his garden) and turned out the retooled myth in about six weeks. The book was very well received by some, deemed inscrutable or boring by others.
  3. Rexroth writes: “The sheer perfection of the writing is very rare in English since the loosening of standards in nineteenth-century fiction […] Landor wrote this way, and Bagehot, and Mill, and Clerk Maxwell, and various explorers and scientists, but the novelists mostly have forgotten how.” Later, Rexroth throws down the gauntlet: “I am not going to tell you the meaning of Read’s allegory—the secret of his myth. […] All myth, all deep insight, means the same as and no more than the falling of the solar system on its long parabola through space.”