Mar 202014


Patrice Leconte’s La fille sur le pont  (Girl on a Bridge) tells the story of Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a knife thrower, who returns to a certain bridge in Paris looking for suicidal women to be his assistants, for they, usefully, have nothing left to lose. When he meets Adele (Vanessa Paradis), he finds more than an assistant, he finds a woman who might as well be throwing the knives back.


Though I encourage you to see the whole film, there is one three-minute scene that stands on its own as a well-wrought short film. In this scene, Gabor throws knives at (or, more accurately, near) Adele. The scene derives its power primarily from the intense anxiousness of Gabor and the ecstasy of Adele.

We begin in the audience and then we pinball between the knife thrower, the target, and the faces of those who watch enraptured, fearful, and envious. Much of the pleasure in this scene is derived from the expressions of others in a way similar to  Woodkid’s “I Love You.” The chorus of faces in this film that layer and shape how the story is told: the face of a woman in the audience as she leans to see better and, backstage, the various circus performers, the small woman with the massive floral headdress and the stricken clown with the oblivious dog. The circus performers, more than the others, instruct us to be fearful, because they do this for a living every day but they seem worried.

We are all of them and yet we are not simply them. The camera lets us behind the sheet and in a medium shot we get to see what Gabor cannot: Adele’s ecstatic experience. We also see what Adele cannot, in close-up: Gabor’s concern, his worry, his focus. Later in the film, Adele and Gabor are able to communicate with one another over great distances, letter writing to one another without the writing, and this seems possible because of their intense connection. This moment reads us back to the theatre and the knife throwing where we, the audience, were caught between them and the sheet lightening connection to the enraptured onlookers. We see we inhabit the air between them all and were, perhaps, amorousness itself.


Of all the spectators in the montage, it is particularly Irene, the woman backstage dressed somewhat like a showgirl, who stands in counterpoint. Irene gives us every indication that she is vicariously deriving a great deal of pleasure from the spectacle. She is identifying with Adele. Does this envy encourage us to also identify with Adele’s pleasure or does it just make Adele’s pleasure more real? Regardless, what plays across her face is a pleasure both envious and nostalgic, as though she too once knew a pleasure like this.

The worried faces, we find out at the end of the scene, were right to worry: one of the knives has nicked Adele and drawn blood. It is for Gabor an admission that he can’t see the way he used to. It also foreshadows that he cannot see Adele clearly enough and this might not bode well for them.

For Adele, the cut is more complicated. What would be different if every knife had lodged perfectly around her and there had been no cut? This is in some ways the knife thrower’s version of Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler.”

what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar

The ecstatic joy on Adele’s face seems connected to this, wounded, the experience now written on her body. Indeed, if all the love songs tell the truth, then the amorous experience threatens the lover the way the knives do here. There is always the threat of loss of the self but the pleasure of being made specific.

12 The Girl on the Bridge(La fille sur le pont) 1999 Vanessa Paradis, Daniel Auteuil

That the film is presented in black and white makes this a nostalgic cinema with a hankering for the way romances used to appear on the silver screen. This coupled with Marianne Faithful’s broken glass and whisky vibrato creates a peculiar tension between the nostalgic and the primal. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, its take on romance stands in resistance to the current take Hollywood has on the genre:

Occupations like knife-throwing were not uncommon in silent comedy, but modern movies have become depressingly mired in ordinary lifestyles. In many new romantic comedies, the occupations of the characters don’t even matter, because they are only labels; there’s a setup scene in an office, and everything else is after hours. Here, knife-throwing explains not only the man’s desperation to meet the woman, but also the kind of woman he meets, and the way they eventually feel about each other.

What Ebert is essentially saying is that Leconte here presents a romance that is specific. This is echoed in Gabor’s act of knife throwing. He cannot throw the knives the same way twice. We see him study the contours and outlines of Adele’s body before he pulls the white sheet over her to begin. She has become specific. Even the gesture of pressing his index finger to her forehead pins her in that specificity.  Amorous discourse is this battle between the specific and the generic. When “I love you” is the most cliché thing one can say, the rest must conspire to free the sublime experience from the generic.

— R W Gray


Mar 182014


In the heart of Tuscany the age-old rite of the hunt for wild boar rages long and lethal. Every Saturday and Sunday from November through January hunters converge in the hilly country spreading beyond the shadow of Siena’s Duomo. Men gather—no women in their number—with dogs and rifles, knives and bullets, walkie talkies and cell phones. Outfitted with modern equipment, today’s hunters are but a few in the long line that stretches back through the Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the days of Caesar and Odysseus. Ancient Roman reliefs depict boar hunts, while one tale recounts how the ancient Greeks baptized an island in honor of the beast; this was Kapros, now called Capri.


This morning, to one side of Monte Maggio, or May Mountain, men section off fields and cassocks, swells and dips. They pull numbers from a bag, assigning post to pursuant. Then the fifty or more shooters, tiratori in their camouflage, wind through the woods. For kilometers they tramp, then for hours they wait in their appointed spots along one side of the drifts and dales, rifles skyward. When a boar draws near they shoot ahead, never sideways, where fellow tiratori hide. No friendly crossfire tolerated. Meanwhile, twelve canai, doghandlers with their packs of sniffing hounds and growling terriers, park their jeeps on the far side of the woods and set off across the expanse toward the line bristling with tiratori. Scouring and routing, the men and their dogs startle and flush the boar, propelling them forward.

Boar Hunt Underway

Boar Hunt Underway

On the periphery of this elaborate orchestration today: my father-and law and I. I’m armed with my camera and am tolerated only because my father-in-law is a hunter of long standing. “We don’t want to end up on the front page of the animal rights group paper,” his comrades say in jest, but just barely, when they learn that he’s brought me here to take photos of the hunt. Siena with its Palio where horses are often injured in the famous race around the square in town already attracts a fair share of unwanted attention by animal rights advocates.



Today the canai’s dogs rootle through the woods above Celsa castle. The owner is an Aldobrandini prince who lives in Rome. Weathered marine pine line the avenue to the entrance. Someone has opened a couple of windows facing the sun. In the summer the castle is open to the public but now I wonder if the prince has come to his country estate for Christmas vacation. Or perhaps a maid is simply airing mildew out of the stony rooms on a bright and sunny winter’s day.


Hounds howl and bark and then several shots ring out. One who has lost the scent emerges onto the road near the abandoned carabinieri station that once controlled the area. When Monte Maggio was a tougher place, three-quarters of a century or more ago, bandits lurked here and the carabinieri chased them. After that, during the war, partisans hid in the caves. The Black Shirts and Germans hunted them.

The dog runs in circles, nose to the pavement. A woman in a Jeep spots it. She tries to lure it into her vehicle with a length of jerky.

“Scandalous,” she says. “Poor dog could get hit out here on the road.”

My father-in-law suspects she’s part of an animal rights group. He thinks she’s trying to sabotage the hunt by rounding up the dogs.

“But I bet she eats meat,” he says. “Probably pappardelle with wild boar. Take a picture of her license plate.” Then he pulls out his phone and calls il duca—the duke—one of the canai. The man’s not really a duke; it’s a nickname he’s earned one way or another. I suspect it has something to do with his less than genteel ways.

“A lady’s trying to lure one of the hounds into her car,” my father-in-law says. “Over here, on the road by the carabinieri station. We’ve got her license plate number. But maybe you should send someone over.”

I can hear il duca cursing into my father-in-law’s ear. No run of the mill obscenities though; he insults saints and the Virgin. Then he wants to speak to the lady. My father-in-law passes the phone over. It turns out that il duca and the lady know each other.

“Okay, I won’t. But get it off the road,” she says into the phone. In the meantime, the hound has already run off, back into the woods, having found the scent.



My father-in-law started hunting here when he was eighteen. Sixty-seven years he’s been hunting. At first, he hunted for hare and pheasant. He kept his own bird dogs—Jack and Tom, English names for Italian hounds—in a pen behind an old stone farmhouse. Then in the sixties when boar populations grew and overran the woods, he gave up Jack and Tom and turned to boar hunting. He loves the woods out here on Monte Maggio. He knows every centimeter. He comes when it rains, when it snows, when it’s warm and sunny like today. He’ll still keep coming as long as he’s able. He’s not sure how much longer that will be. He won’t think yet about when the hike, the interminable wait, the bad weather and the mountain itself will conspire to keep him home.


He goes to the woods for the peace, he says, and for the camaderie after. But best is when he’s the one to bag the prey. You can tell when the boar approaches. The dogs’ howling grows loud, the brush and bramble tremble. You take up your gun and aim, but only when you see the boar’s dark eyes. If you shoot into the waving thicket you risk killing a dog. You face that beast—black and fierce and angry, ringed by thirty or more frenzied dogs.

I imagine the jolt. I think the hunter’s heart must whip like pine boughs in a windstorm.

“No,” says my father-in-law, “it’s not like that. At least not for me anymore. You feel a strange sensation, but it’s more wrapped up with blood and life, the ebb and flow.”

“I see,” I say even if I don’t quite.

We find a break in the woods. “Here,” my father-in-law says. The hunters will pass by on their way back to their cars, parked on the rim of the road behind us. “We’ll wait here. Then you can shoot them as they hike through.” He grins. He likes how we’ve turned the tables on the hunters. I grin back.

We wait. Then we wait some more. While we wait we pull ivy off old oak and pine. Bark flies, red bugs scuttle, the air fills with sap, the sun shines through branches in filmy snatches. “Is this what it’s like,” I ask him, “when you’re a tiratore? Do you tend to the trees then too?”


“No,” he says. “Not when you’re stalking boar. You can’t make noise. You can’t smoke. You can’t eat. You can’t even pee. You wait ever so quietly for that one brief moment when you squeeze off a shot.”


After an hour or more, we hear voices. Men surge forward. One short, chubby hunter, a middle-aged man nicknamed Smilzo, or Skinny, drags a small boar up the path. My father-in-law thinks Smilzo’s boar may weigh 30 kilos—if that. Since Smilzo shot it, he will get the ears, tail, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and tusks in addition to his share of the meat which will be divided equally among all hunters present. “In Tuscany,” he says “no part of the boar goes to waste. Make sure you write that.”

We follow the hunters to their shack in the woods. They roast sausage and steaks they brought from home, drink Chianti and exchange tall tales. My father-in-law recounts how we rescued several dogs from an army of animal rights do-gooders. Listening, il  duca insults several more saints. Smilzo describes how his boar almost tore his leg off. Feroce, or Ferocious, a small man whose real name no one remembers, scoffs. Burlacche, or Wiseass, jokes about Smilzo’s small boar and how it couldn’t have torn off a toenail.




Butchers gut and section the carcasses. Hunters light cigars, cigarettes and pipes. Hounds wait in small trailers, their noses poking out through bars. Two canai discuss returning to the woods with their dogs to look for a boar that someone swears is wounded.

My father-in-law’s cell phone rings. It’s my mother-in-law. She’s been keeping lunch for us even though it’s almost 4 p.m.


“You get what you need?” my father-in-law asks. I nod. We say goodbye to il duca, Smilzo, Feroce, Burlacche. On the way home he tells me the menu. Polenta with stewed wild boar that he shot last season.

“Okay,” I say. I realize I’m hungry after hours of tramping through the woods. Eating the kill is part of the ritual. And my mother-in-law is an ace at stewing boar. It’s fiery and rich; red pepper in the sauce is one of her secret ingredients, a tribute of sorts to the animal itself.


When my father-in-law and I first met, he wasn’t sure how he felt about having a foreigner in the family. I wasn’t sure how I felt about someone who thought killing was a sport. Over the years we’ve gotten to know each other. Now he’s warm and proud to show me where he loves to spend his weekends from November through January. And I’m glad to have had the chance to witness this chapter in his life, one that won’t go on forever.

 —Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian

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


Mar 172014

Karen Mulhallen

Code Orange is a hospital term, a warning to staff indicating a bomb threat, a radioactive spill, a person with mental issues is loose in the halls of the hospital. Sometimes it means everyone should evacuate a soon as possible. Karen Mulhallen’s “Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” is among other things a meditation upon the possibility that we are living in a Code Orange world, that we should all get ready to evacuate, though in the event she finds moments of beauty even in the midst of war.

…………………..…some old god
rising  tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves

Karen Mulhallen is an old friend, a child of Souwesto (as am I), that triangle of cultural territory that stretches south of Toronto to Windsor and north to Alice Munro country. She is a Blake scholar, founder and publisher of Descant Magazine in Toronto, and a prolific poet, undersung, protean, brilliant. I edited her collection of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and wrote the introduction, which you can read here, and tells you all you need to know.


I began to write the Code Orange poems as a response to the invasions of Afghanistan and the media flurry of photographs. There was such a disjunction between what one saw and what one was told to see that the formality of the quatrain seem to create a frame around the physical beauty, a beauty which was destroyed not only by the Taliban, but also by all the invading forces. “The Elegy” which follows on the death of the book man, and perhaps on the death of libraries, also required some classical interventions. Iambic pentameter, but also blank verse stanzas in the way of Milton’s Paradise Lost with intervention within passages of psalmic structures, their repetitive harmony: “perhaps he felt, perhaps he felt.” Throughout the whole suite I was drawn to the hymns of my childhood, spent on hard pews, snuggled in damp proximity to my nana’s big black sheared beaver coat on cold wet snowy days. And finally, as I moved through the whole sequence I felt a need to explore other stanzaic forms, the two-line, the four-line, even for moments William Carlos William’s three-lined, stepped stanza. I needed all of these to contrast to the media bullets which were pervading my consciousness as I wrote. My most recent title for the sequence is “The Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” since to emblazon is to embellish, but to blazon a body is to hack that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.

—Karen Mulhallen


To emblazon is to embellish
but to blazon a body is to hack
that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.


In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore, (by and by),
In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.


Two gates there are that give passage to fleeting dreams;
 one is made of horn, one of ivory.
The dreams that pass through sawn ivory are deceitful,

 bearing messages that will never be fulfilled;
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are future truths for the dreamers who can see them.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XIX



The First War

Afghanistan, first war of the twenty-first century
in our shame little did we anticipate the rewards
those dailies pounding out
the propaganda brought us

faces of startling beauty. Some man,
some woman, some children, each assembled
so that Vermeer waking from his northern grave
would have gasped with joy.

Here a lip, there a profile,
always the superb curve of the head
blowing demonic rhetoric to smithereens,
not by a smart bomb,

but by a smarter one, some old god
rising  tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves

and tunnels and frescoes, in the rubble
of the Valley of Bamiyan, his hands
resting on the knees of his crossed legs,
his pakhool brim rolled and set

at a cocky angle, his thumbs and first fingers
forming an eternal oval, the other
six fingers extended to catch the rain
of his own blessings.



Revolutionary Meeting at the Royal Ontario Museum

After we met you, under the Moorish cupola,
in the foyer of the palatial Art Deco museum.
After we stood silently, Simon, Mairi and I—
Simon, Jewish, Glaswegian, a Londoner,

Mairi, his wife, Christian, Scottish, a Londoner,
I, the Canadian, mongrel yoking of Mediterranean
and  Caucasus, sea, desert, mountain: people of the book all.
Have we given away too much?

You come rushing in, lanky like a colt, getting its first legs,
your wonderful smile, your brown teeth,
late, held up by an eager interviewer,
asking more and more and more.

We ascend to the restaurant, overlooking the street,
four displaced persons, one a refugee, all perched
in Toronto’s shopping danger zone, where clothes
change hands for thousands of dollars,

and begin to order lunch, but first, you say, something to drink—
La Heim, Prosit, Cheers. I give you Simic, Louvish, Lakowitz,
Laucke, MacDonald, Nejedsky, Nelles and Naylor.
You don’t eat much, and Simon doesn’t drink,

so Mairi and I do our best to right the balance,
as you begin to discuss artillery and your interview.
You are wearing a black sweater and black jeans.
You are always in black, I’ve noticed, and the two of you talk

about your brothers, the right wing Israeli—
the father  Moishe Dayan’s right hand man—
and the Bosnian General, you spoke to him only last night,
carefully, evading the war, your exile, your Moslem wife,

your children. Your beautiful thin face, its Oriental eyelids
heavily laced, like the intricate ethnic lines of a Serbo-Croatian-
Bosnian-Montenegrin topographical map. You are used to interviews,
and your brother whom you love, so you talked of fishing,

never mentioned the two-page spread in Le Figaro
that other morning. You’ve been on the road two years
fleeing the war, Italy, Belgium, Scotland, England,
Canada. Now here, Toronto, a real pause,

Luna, and Darius, happy, Amela, not too lonely;
you always out front, on the road, on the stage.
That long Parisian print interview, the war,
the death of your mother, the sorrow of Sarajevo,

opening it that morning, having poured out your heart,
to find opposite your own hollow cheeks, bloodshot eyes
creased and rimmed in wrinkles, your brother’s round
well-fed cheeks, greased and smiling like a pig.



The Bookman’s Passing

The sinews no longer hold flesh and bones together—
these are all prey to the resistless power of fire
which burns the body to ashes, once life slips from the  bones;
and the soul takes wing as a dream takes wing,
and afterward  hovers to and fro.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XI

There is something final about an obituary.
Not the brief death notice.
It is the testimonials—a sentence or two, please—encapsulating—
What would you say he was?
How was? How important?
How would you characterize? When did you meet?

And then the career path, marriages,
significant others.
Born on a farm, you say? A real horse trader?
Shaggy. Loved to smoke and drink…never before noon—
Are you sure?

Cancer, a pity—common enough these days—
So, a generation—
But wait a minute—a library—nearly a million volumes—
manuscripts—pictures, ephemera—
The house that Richard built.

There were many stops on that last road.
Sometimes you were at home, taking the sun on your deck.
Enjoying a drink at last, after so much treatment.
And your hair, beginning to grow back, whisps of white beard.

St Michael’s Hospital, where I came early one morning,
bearing the Farmers’ Market  flowers.
Your face smeared with peanut butter, yoghurt—
who would have thought you’d have an appetite?
But you were farm bred, all appetite:
The dance of libido and intellect, a real farm bred appetite,

and that’s the nature of a true horse trader.
You got it, sport those cowboy boots, that Stetson hat,
stompin’ Richie has got the mojo,
and he’s making a whole world of words.

Mount Sinai Hospital where meals appeared punctually:
Breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 12:30, dinner at 5 p.m.
Marie on the bed holding your head,
Sweetheart, sweetheart, I am here.

And first you were eating. Emptying the trays,
the meals, the treats from Harbord House,
and other friends’ small packaged offerings.

But there were no nuts at the last stop, at Perram House,
except the bereaved. The end of life hospice,
no charge, and no expectations.

I feel like I am in transit—
     You are in transit.
I am crossing the border, the time zone between north and south.
You can’t come here because you would disappear—
     I will meet you anywhere.
Last sighting, Wednesday, Toronto, Perram House,
heading for Room 8, 4 Wellesley Place.

The pick up ambulance arrives promptly at 10 a.m.
In the street, in front of Perram House, a film is being shot
as the ambulance arrives from Mount Sinai hospital.

The attendants move him out of the ambulance.
They carry him across the divide, between the film crew,
the cameras, the electrical lines, the catering van and dressing rooms,

the outside and the inside, the before and the after,
the now and the not now.

They are nearing the front  door of Perram House;
the elevator to the second storey is out of order:
Perhaps he felt the air in the street, as he became agitated.
Perhaps he felt the hesitation at the portal.
Perhaps he felt the line between then and now, before and after.
Perhaps he sensed the beginning of an ending.

Nothing convenient in a death.
Moments later, in the parlour, he died.

The parlour, they said, was just like home.
Pavilioned in splendour,
like the Ancient of Days,  girded with praise:
So the earth with its store of wonders untold
bountiful is—what tongue could recite
how streams from the hills, descend to the plain
………………………………..and are sweetly distilled, in the dew and the rain.



Suburban Hospital

For the past two days I had been thinking about the story
told to me by a friend last Wednesday evening.
It was a story about a doctor, a Chinese woman
who had examined a very young girl in the emergency department
of a suburban hospital  in the north east of a large urban centre.

The girl had bleeding from her anus; the doctor found a two-inch tear.
It was odd, she thought, how could there be such a tear?
As she talked to the girl, who was nearly silent,
she noticed that her head was tilted strangely,
her neck tipped to one side.

The more she looked at her, the more uneasy she became,
not about the anus, but about her head.
She called another friend, a doctor with access to an MRI machine,
and she sent the girl for an immediate MRI.

The results were astonishing.
On one half of the girl’s head there was a tumour
which was growing down the neck  from the brain stem.
It was a tumour of the sort sometimes found in AIDS patients.

She called in the girl’s mother; she talked to the girl.
The girl had been repeatedly raped and sodomized,
first by her father, and then by her father and her older brother.

The mother denied the story; the girl refused to repeat it for the police.

There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall
where the dear lord was crucified, who died to save us all.



The End of September

Early evening, and we meet to talk over the last events.
You said, you said, he said, he said,
I said, I said,
………….the years
………all have their lists, and learn
….learn to put aside lists, list to
the list, what’s at issue here,
what’s to be seen,
seen, seem, scene, difference,
different desires, different capacities,
sense, a sense, the sense of an ending:

Arranged I wait, as the light falls,
as the light falls on College Street, in Toronto.
…..A yellow room, the waiter’s sickled skin,
your face, your face with its tiny lines,
my face
…….our years together:
Hail, hail and farewell.



How Beautiful With Earrings

I was thinking of that afternoon
when Nancy and  Ethel and I sat in the sunlight
of the gravel court of those old barns
with the raised garden beds and espaliered trees
at the Priory of Notre Dame d’Orsan
and drank champagne

and of Nancy and Ethel and me on another afternoon
or maybe it was all one afternoon
or maybe I have merged all our afternoons
seated at tables on the gravel court
near the green glade in Nohant by George Sand’s house

and Nancy was wearing a black and white printed dress
and at her throat and on her ears
a necklace and earrings also in black and white—
some geometric design of African origin
in bone and wood

and as Nancy smoked, the sun dappled in the courtyard
and we three talking in the grace of that softness
and the light falling all around and the green glade
just beyond and the raised beds
just over there

and the little puppet theatre just inside the house
a house where she had loved the composer
but insisted on wearing the trousers

and I exclaim how beautiful you are
Nancy in pools of light, Nancy in black and white
here in this speckled gravel place
Ethel does not miss a beat chimes
so beautiful no sense jealousy.

Then, it is a fall day, New York, noon,
Gramercy Park brunch, Ethel’s ninetieth year,
her small apartment, her crazy driving
from Connecticut, her beautiful gold earrings,
how beautiful Ethel in old
gold earrings, Adam swooping her up
in his  long strong young arms, so beautiful
farewell  oh green eyed creatures
of the green glades, farewell.



In Slow Motion

Seeing you at table, a lunch
before Christmas, wondering if you remember,
surprised that I have.

You are much taller than I remember
I much smaller than I feel
as we walk west  along Bloor Street
that summer night

decades ago, a summer evening,
my blue tube top, my long white
silk skirt, turquoise Hawaian shirt,
long black straight hair,

pushing my white bicycle
along the wide sidewalk west
from the great glass hall, out
of the Courtyard Café

into the gentle night, from the glitter
and the Basque salad  you conjured for me
when it was no longer on the menu
and we talked and talked

and someone once said we were meant
for each other, but it was never so,
so out of the dining room, out of the hotel
in slow motion toward my white apartment

in slow motion toward my golden bed,
in slow motion, in slow motion
holding your cock, remembering her bangs,
as we kiss and part.



The Writer’s Saturday Night

Sure enough over night the canal had frozen
and there was ice in the Ottawa River
when I awoke after an evening at dinner
at the residence of the Turkish Ambassador;

I was due to read later that day
at the Sasquatch Performance series
and all the way  here I’d dreamt I’d forgotten my book
but read Jean Rhys over and over

learning who called the shots, who cringed,
who felt the need of a fur coat for cover.

I was on a bit of a roll with Sea Light
and with the Chateau Laurier;
I had a champagne cocktail in the bar
then headed out to the Ambassador’s house.

Darkness was coming at the Sasquatch bar
the house was full and I dove right in
opening up with the light on the lake
and the birth of the world. Water, water, everywhere

time bound in to the flow of the tides.
There was an odd smell as I surfed my text,
but the audience was rapt
and I kept right on

to the final ebb and flow of the surf.
Then they took me sweetly by the hand and asked me to
come back again to read to them, real soon,
but I knew I had done my last gig in a subterranean space

with a backed up sewer
and I hopped back on that rolling train
right down  to my lake and the city
where the lights never go out.



Cherries in Snow

The man in The New Yorker  ad
seated on a folding wooden chair

scarf tied in a knot at his neck,
shows cherries in the snow.

He holds a single cherry by the stem
in the  fingerless glove of his left hand

and in his right a simple wooden bowl
brimming with fruit.

He leans back on the chair
boots barely laced, legs splayed—

a good cap upon his head.
He is looking out at us.

Contented, conspiratorial smile,
dark beetle brows.

A friendly face, intelligent
shrewd but not unwelcoming.

The snow is white, a few trees
visible in misty distance near horizon.

An admirable open tweed top-
coat, ditto knotted sweater.

He is wedged right at the front of the magazine
just after a photograph of Ralph Lauren

advertising his own American—Made in England—
Purple Label Collection.

Cherry man has slipped in to The New Yorker
just before the Table of Contents

which this month, September,
and not winter, as in his photograph,

features men in blue and asks
Are we too hard on cops?

Should we take the kids out of the jails?
What really killed Princess Di?

Is the new Getty Art Centre too  good for Los Angeles?
Can technology set Tibet free?

And so, with a kind of crazy piety
he holds his piece, leans back

offers us cherries in winter,
peaches in spring.

It’s not about weather,
it’s packaging.

And for that he’ll answer to the world.

You bet.

 —Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen has edited more than 150 issues of Descant magazine. She has published eighteeen books, including books of poetry, and collections of criticism, as well as two visual arts catalogues.  Her essays on the arts have been published in North America and Europe. A new volume of her poems is due out from Black Moss Press in Fall of 2014.


Mar 152014

DSC_0046Photo by Will Johnson

Meet Shepps and Gwen, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon avatars, young and punk, but without even a hint of the aura of glamour that seemed, briefly, to redeem the stars. This is a love story of a decidedly bent sort, droll, fiercely witty, Rabelaisian, candid, amoral, real. Did I mention real? Susan Sanford Blades is a discovery. Her story has panache. She spanks out line after quotable line as if she speaks in aphorisms. “This one lied due to the unbearability of truth.” “Parenting is simpler for the absent.” Sentences carved out of the ether but anchored in an incredibly convincing, grubby, and hilariously inept reality. “She let him come in five minutes, tuck his limp sea cucumber into his pants, and slosh away because Gwen was twenty-one years old and beautiful boys didn’t need to try.”



Shepps appeared at Pluto’s Diner carrying a duffel bag stuffed with Dorothy’s Rainbow posters and a roll of masking tape. He wasn’t an official band member but they let him play second bass sometimes. They’d adorn him with a black spiked wig and track marks on his forearms—a nod to Sid Vicious that guaranteed him a Nancy after the show.

Pluto’s offered two waitresses that day for the young and horny gentleman wandering Cook street with a stomach for grease. Tiffany of the two-inch tall sprayed-straight bangs and bra-less, off-the-shoulder sweaters and Gwen of the bleached-blonde witch’s broom and ever-moist Fire Red pout.

Shepps introduced himself to Gwen as the lead singer of Dorothy’s Rainbow but she had a nose for liars. Shepps couldn’t command a sentence, let alone a stage. Boredom and intrigue for this flop-footed sprout drove Gwen to let him lie to her at a booth in the corner while he drank glass after glass of apple juice. He told her he dug the band but wanted to quit. He bemoaned his toad voice. The girls. Every night like a line up for the dole outside his van—myriad desperate faces with ready palms. Shepps’ lies endeared him to Gwen. This one lied due to the unbearability of the truth.

She let him eat her out in a booth after closing that day, his lips sticky from the apple juice. When Gwen came he leaned his head on her slick thigh and said, you’re delicious.

Gwen kept strict rules for Shepps. He could visit her at the diner but not at home. He could fall in love with her if he wanted but he could not call her girlfriend. They smeared themselves over every inch of vinyl in the diner. Gwen’s boss pulled her into a booth one morning and said, “smell the bench, Gwen. What is that? Bleach? Pancake batter?” She dipped her nostrils, shrugged and told him Tiffany closed the night before.

Gwen attended her first Dorothy’s Rainbow show flanked by her roommates Mona and Christie. Mona blew Hubba bubbles and yelled menstrual anxieties into Gwen’s ear. “Can you tell I’m wearing a pad? Is there blood showing? I felt a gush.” Christie, a Bryan Adams fan, stayed only because the bassist was cute.

Shepps played second bass to Donny. Donny ferried to Seattle every five weeks to give blood for a living and, due to his anemic state, was the most punk-rock looking member of the band. Both twiddled their E strings with the same useless fervour. The real lead singer was Damian Costello. He was not 1983 beautiful. His hair had not made the acquaintance of gel. His testicles had not been heated to the point of sterility by a pair of tight, acid-washed jeans. His beauty transcended decades. God, how he moved. Skinny and lithe as a garden hose. Johnny Rotten’s death grip on the mic stand without the toothy maw.

The after party took place in Shepps’ home—an orange Westfalia he parked at Clover Point. Donny grabbed the available flesh around Christie’s waist and took her up to the pop top. The drummer, Ricky, supplied the band with weed, a steady beat, and a throaty guffaw from time to time, but spoke little and was therefore considered sexless. Damian stretched and released Mona’s bra strap a few times then excused himself to wade in the ocean.

“Keep Mona company,” Gwen said to Shepps. “You can finger her a bit, I won’t mind.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need to pee.” Gwen opened the sliding door. “Mona, I’ve told you about Shepps, right?”

“Sure,” Mona said. “Inarticulate, likes to eat pussy?”

Damian was out to sea, knee deep in kelp.

Gwen plunged out like a spoon through Jell-O and said, “howdy,” then wished she’d opened with something more punk-rock, like oi!, then realized that was too effortful and howdy was so unpunk-rock it, in fact, was punk-rock, then felt satisfied with herself. Smugly so.

“How’d you like the show?” Damian remained at attention to the Olympic range.

“You sucked.”

He spun to face Gwen. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. ‘God Save Pierre Elliott Trudeau’? What is that?”

“I live in Chinatown on Daddy’s dime. How about you?”

“My parents disowned me when I bleached my hair.” Gwen scratched her scalp. “They still pay my rent.”

“We’re privileged Canadians. We could never be punk-rock.”

“I know,” Gwen said, then felt stupid because if she knew, why ask?

Damian yoinked a sea-salted strand of Gwen’s hair and said, “why look like Nancy Spungen? She was psychotic.” And everything Gwen had ever wanted for herself, at least since high school, shrank. “You look cute though,” Damian said. He lifted Gwen and carried her and splashed and stumbled and shimmied her onto the beach and banged her head on a rock like the furthest thing from a punk-rocker. She let him fuck her like a man who’d returned home after a day inking paper to his aproned wife and slipper-bearing dog, meatloaf firming in the oven. She let him come in five minutes, tuck his limp sea cucumber into his pants, and slosh away because Gwen was twenty-one years old and beautiful boys didn’t need to try.

Next month Damian’s coffee table supported five bags of Cheetos, an ash tray, Gwen’s bare ass, two guitars, seven pipes, Ricky’s spare change, Damian’s heels, Gwen’s heels, Damian’s bare ass, the soles of Gwen’s shit-kickers, one issue of Flip Side, seven tea lights, one burning stick of patchouli, three boogers, one wad of Hubba Bubba, and a small, terrifying white object.

Gwen pointed to the urine-soaked blue line and said, “do we want this?” Damian noodled on his guitar a few minutes, then peered over the sides of his knees toward the coffee table.

“Has it been long enough?”

“The line doesn’t disappear with time.”

“Baybeh.” Damian half-sang this and Gwen wasn’t sure whether it was a noodling emission or a proclamation of their future.


“Do-we-want-a-baybeh.” Damian sang this.

“So, no?”


“I don’t think I do.”

“Me neither.”

“Which one?”

“The killing one.”

Damian put down his guitar. Gwen watched him pull up his socks from the corner of her eye. His saggy socks. She wondered if Johnny Rotten wore socks, and if he did, were they from the sale bin at Thrifty’s, greyish white with the elastic gone.

Damian picked up the test. “Fuck, yeah. A baby. An experiment. Mind control.” He waved the test around. Conducted.

“It’s not in the stick.” Gwen raised her eyebrows. Pointed to her stomach.

He tossed the stick back onto the coffee table. “I know, Gwen.” He grabbed the waistline of her shirt. Clenched, one-handed like he was unloading hot socks from the dryer. “We’ll get married,” he said.

Gwen smiled.

“We won’t tell anyone.”

Gwen frowned.

“Except Shepps. He’ll be the ring-bearer.”

Gwen smiled. “And the flower girl.”

“We’ll make him wear a dress.”

“Such a sad flower girl.”

Shepps did not wear a dress but he grasped the flowers like a little girl. Held with index finger and thumb, flopped over to the side as though ambling to the tune of his daydreams. He brought them himself. Lavender and daisies he’d picked on the way to City Hall. “I love lavender,” Gwen said. Shepps said “I know,” though he never knew.

Gwen wore her grade twelve graduation dress—a fuschia, puff-sleeved, polka-dotted number—because punk-rock would soon die but polka dots were forever. Damian wore something Gwen had never seen. Low-cut corduroy bell bottoms he’d rolled up tight to conceal their outdated girth and a black suit jacket sized for a ten-year-old boy. He looked like a lanky giant dragging two lumpy doughnuts at his ankles. Gwen wondered if she should marry someone whose full spectrum of pants she was not yet acquainted with.

Once declared man and wife by the province of British Columbia, Shepps took Gwen and Damian to Pluto’s for a milkshake. “My treat,” he said. Shepps hadn’t been to Pluto’s since he’d last secreted into a booth. Gwen cringed at the ease with which he sauntered in, waved his wallet around, said hello to Tiffany, lingering on the Ls to flaunt his skilled tongue. And Damian. How, when Tiffany nodded toward Gwen’s shoulder soufflés and asked “what’s the occasion,” he said “it’s Gwen’s birthday.” Then turned to Gwen with a finger to his lips, as though the secret was theirs to share.

Shepps shuffled into the postnatal ward of the Royal Jubilee Hospital two days after Sara Rae Costello was born. He had always been loose-gaited but that day he seemed invertebrate. Gwen was without company, baby, or makeup. She looked less desperate-for-heroine, more desperate-to-have-her-hemorrhoids-looked-after.

“You had a baby.” It was the most punk-rock thing Shepps had ever said.

“Long time no see, Shepps.”

“How’s married life?”

“The masochist in me loves it.”

Shepps smiled and looked at Gwen as though to say you’re delicious but he said “you’re tired.” Gwen asked him how he was and he nodded and said, “good” in a sleepy elastic tone that made her not want to know how good. So she said, “good.” And they sat and looked at the walls until a nurse brought in the baby. Shepps said, “she’s beautiful. You look beautiful holding a baby. You look beautiful feeding a baby.” And they sat and looked at the baby until he said, “I should go.” He left a pile of lavender on her night stand. Typical Shepps, to bring flowers without a vase.

Sara had a sly smile Gwen loathed. The same smile Damian formed when conjuring alibis. After two years of marriage, Gwen’s nose was full of lies. Sara reserved her smile for moments of mischief. Cheerio-paste paintings on the carpet, feces on the bathroom wall. She sensed Gwen’s frustration and up those lips curled, followed by a plea for Daddy. Daddy received genuine smiles. Giggles, even. Sara offered Gwen a jowly, Churchillian scowl.

Gwen dreaded all times Sara was not close-lidded. Dread of building blocks, tea parties, empty hours. Dread of mistakes. Every motion, emotion, utterance potentially lethal. This child weighed too much. At times, she would offer Gwen respite. Run a peanut-buttered finger through Gwen’s ratted hair and pronounce her unicorn-pretty. Allow Gwen’s lips to reach the crown of her head. Succumb to sleep on Gwen’s downy stomach.

Damian had no trouble with the girl. She responded to his muted commands. Parenting is simpler for the absent. Gwen understood. Damian’s quiet disinterest was a siren to her as well.

Sara’s limbs had softened to curlicues around afghans and bears and mythical creatures. Gwen retreated to the balcony. She watched passersby and felt glad she wasn’t them. They were old and crippled. Saddled with groceries and offspring. Fashion victims. Having obvious, pretend fun. Slumping along, zombie-like as though every crack in the sidewalk were an abyss to traverse.

Gwen yelled through the bars, “who’s that trip-trapping past my balcony?”

Shepps swayed like a poplar in the July breeze. “Is that you, Gwen?”

Gwen was dishevelled, though now not purposefully. Thinner of face, thicker of hip. A small plum under each eye. Her hair long and unbleached. Squirrel brown.

“You’re not playing tonight?”

“There’s no gig.”

“Oh. Then where’s Damian?” Gwen dangled her arms between the bars. “Why don’t you come up?”

“You know why.”

“Why don’t you come up?” Her fingers grasped at the air as though to bail out the sky between them.

“Because,” Shepps said. “Maybe for a minute.”

“Five more minutes,” Gwen said. “Come in. Talk to me. Lie with me.”

Shepps lay with Gwen in her bed, a paternal palm to her hip. He told her the truth. About pumping at the Esso. She smelled his sweet and sour fingers. About quitting the band. “I don’t know if they need two bassists,” he said.

Then Shepps lied to her about a girl. Cindy or Sandy or Mindy. Worked the coffee stand at the Esso. Filled her uniform well. “Snug,” he said. She’d been to his van for a beer. He’d undone a few of her buttons. And a few more. He might take her up island, introduce her to surfing, black bears, his parents. “You don’t even have parents,” Gwen said. She pressed her palm to his palm on her hip. Gwen thought about his sickly sweet tongue. How disposable it once was. And how much depended on it right now.

—Susan Sanford Blades

Susan Sanford Blades lives in Victoria, BC. “Poseurs” belongs to a manuscript of linked short stories she’s currently working on. Two others from said manuscript have been published recently in Grain and Filling Station.


Mar 142014

Donna Tartt
This is an ancient brand of literature, reaching back beyond Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, to Daniel Defoe and the Lais of Marie De France and even further to Murasaki Shikibu, whose Tale of the Genji invented the novel more than a thousand years ago. These are the books Donna Tartt curled up with under the covers, sneaking a final chapter with the aid of a flashlight. Maybe there’s some girl doing the same thing tonight with The Goldfinch. I certainly hope so. —Steven Axelrod


The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Little, Brown & Co.
771 pages, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-316-05543-7


Describing a book you love is like describing a woman you’re in love with. Adoration turns anodyne; genuflection, generic. Of course she’s “beautiful and smart and funny.” Naturally, the book is thrilling and immersive. Words feel puny in the face of experience, tied to reality by a slender filament of connotation.

Better to just introduce the woman to your friends – or put the book into their hands.

For a reviewer it’s a daunting challenge, but an intriguing one: convey the book’s delights without tarnishing them, share the book’s story without squandering its surprises, celebrate its complexities without overwhelming the reader.

One friend of mine finished The Goldfinch and instantly started it again from page one. There was too much to absorb in one reading and she didn’t want the experience to end. One writer friend said simply “I wish I’d written it”; another said, “I feel like I did.”

For my wife it was like all the books she loved in her childhood, rolled into one: Ivanhoe and Hans Christian Andersen, David Copperfield, Nighthawks of Nantucket, Narnia and The Secret Garden and Treasure Island and more.

Donna Tartt has mentioned during interviews that Robert Louis Stevenson was a special favorite of hers, growing up, and that she loved the feeling his books gave her – the rush of story, the thrill of cascading events. The heroine of Tartt’s previous novel The Little Friend (2002) shares these predilections. The inimitable, indefatigable (and occasionally insufferable) Harriet Cleve loves Treasure Island, and maintains its spirit of adventure when she launches into some frightening adventures of her own.

For me, The Goldfinch recapitulates an even larger trove of literary tradition, from Tom Jones to Huckleberry Finn, from Pride and Prejudice to Catcher in the Rye, from Tolstoy to Capote, from Jules Verne to Elmore Leonard. Yes, along with being a Romance and a Picaresque, a novel of manners, an old-fashioned bildungsroman and a classic Hero’s Journey, The Goldfinch by the end, becomes, along with everything else, a surprisingly hard-boiled and suspenseful piece of all-American crime fiction.

For Theodore Decker the journey and the crime begin on a rainy autumn afternoon in Manhattan, when he ducks into the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother, taking shelter from a rain storm.

They wander up the grand stairway and through the upper galleries, pausing by Carel Fabritius’s small masterpiece, which lends its title to the novel it haunts, inspires and animates. The 32-year old Delft artist Fabritius was killed, and his studio leveled, by a gunpowder magazine explosion in October of 1654. The Goldfinch was one of the few of his paintings to survive the blast.

It survives another explosion, more than three hundred and fifty years later, a fictional one this time, the result of the terrorist bombing that sets Donna Tartt’s story in motion. Theo’s mother Audrey is killed, having strolled into the gift shop – ground zero for the blast. Theo had lingered behind in the Dutch Masters exhibit tracking a fascinating old man and his companion, a lovely red haired girl with whom Theo sensed an instant wordless connection.

Theo wakes up in the smoking wreckage, the girl and his mother nowhere to be seen. Staggering through the rubble, he comes upon the old man. Delirious and dying, he instructs Theo to rescue the Fabritius painting, which has been blown off the wall, a “tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust.”

The old man, his name is Welty Blackwell, pulls a heavy gold ring with a carved stone off his own hand and thrusts it into Theo’s with the words, “Hobart and Blackwell”  and the instruction, “Ring the green bell.” The old man dies in Theo’s arms. Then Theo takes the painting and the ring and flees through the shattered labyrinth of the museum, and out a side door to the street. He goes home, chased away by the first responders, hoping to find his mother waiting for him. Of course she’s not there and his life as he once knew it is over.

We are drawn into this vacuum by the precise beauty of Tartt’s prose. She has called herself “a minimalist, painting a wall-sized mural with a brush the size of an eyelash.” To understand the power of the book you have study the brush strokes themselves:

According to the clock on the stove, which I could see from where I sat, it was two-forty-five in the morning. Never had I been alone and awake at such an hour. The living room — normally so airy and open, buoyant with my mother’s presence – had shrunk to a paler cold discomfort, like a vacation house in winter: fragile fabrics, scratchy sisal rug, paper lamp shades from Chinatown and the chairs too little and light. All the furniture seemed spindly, poised at a tiptoe nervousness. I could feel my heart beating, hear the click and ticks and hisses of the large elderly building slumbering around me…And what would I do? Part of me was immobile, stunned with despair, like those rats in laboratory experiments that lie down in the maze to starve.

I tried to pull my thoughts together. For a while it had almost seemed that if I sat still enough, and waited, things might straighten themselves out somehow. Objects in the apartment wobbled with my fatigue, halos shimmered around the table lamp; the stripe of the wall seemed to vibrate.

Theo eventually makes his way to Hobart and Blackwell, an antiques store in the West Village. This is the first of many hidden worlds in the book. The store is dark, apparently closed; the green bell marks an unobtrusive side door.

When Mr. Hobart – Hobie – comes to answer the bell, Welty’s ring grants Theo admittance, and a roof over his head another glimpse of the little girl, Pippa, now recuperating from the explosion in Hobie’s townhouse. For Theo their bond is affirmed, even amplified by their joint survival, but Pippa is still too dazed to fully reciprocate his inchoate feelings.

Theo gradually drifts into the center of Hobie’s life, becoming an apprentice in antique furniture restoration.

After school amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents – “sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff” – spicy mahogany, dusty smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

Downstairs – weak light wood shavings on the floor—there was something of the feel of a stable, great beasts standing patiently in the dim. Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture, in how he talked of pieces as “he” and “she”, in the muscular, almost animal quality that distinguished great pieces from their stiff, boxy more mannered peers, and in the affectionate way he ran his hand along the dark glowing flanks of his sideboards and lowboys, like pets.

But it can’t last. Soon Theo is taken out of Hobie’s world by the bureaucracy that controls the lives of orphans (Theo’s father has been AWOL for years), and placed in the posh home of his school friend, Andy Barbour. This is another hidden world, a dark grotto of privilege, barricaded behind doormen and a long dark lobbies, gated elevators and heavy oak doors. The life inside the Barbour’s vast, gloomy pre-war apartment evokes Cheever and Chekhov – dwindling money, gin-soaked father, busy socialite mother; and a Salinger-like Glass family of squabbling siblings – the younger kids Kitsey and Toddy, older brother Pratt. It’s tricky at first. “Though nothing was required of me, still the effort to blend into their polished and complicated household was an immense strain. I was desperate to vanish into the background – to slip invisibly among the Chinoiserie patterns like a fish in a coral reef.”

All of this comes to an end when Theo’s father shows up, cheesy girlfriend Xandra in tow, and sweeps Theo away from everything he knows into a very different hidden kingdom: the deserted outer suburbs of Las Vegas, where abandoned McMansions bake in the heat beyond the range of bus lines and even fast food deliveries. Arid and bleak outside, sterile and over-air-conditioned inside, this new life would be lethal if not for the one friendship Theo strikes up at school, with renegade Ukrainian teen-age con artist Boris, who gleefully name-checks himself with every namesake from Yeltsin to Drubetskoy to Badenov.

If Hobie is the Protector in this journey, Boris is the Trickster, whose role is to disrupt, and he does a splendid job of it, right from the start, introducing Theo to pornography, drugs, and petty crime, while regaling him with the tales of his father’s oil wildcatting across Asia and South America, in several different languages.

The only stable thing in Theo’s life remains the Goldfinch, which he has carried with him to Las Vegas, wrapped and taped and now attached to the back of his bed’s headboard. Theo is terrified that Boris or his father might discover it, so he only takes it out on rare occasions when he’s sure he’s alone. But the picture haunts him, as it obviously haunts Donna Tartt and anyone else who has ever seen it. The lovely little bird is held to its perch by a delicate chain that seems to signify all the tragedy of life as well as the essence of life itself, the breath that leaves the body only to be pulled back again, over and over.

At one point Theo reads an Interpol report in the newspaper, detailing the value of the paintings stolen from the museum after the terrorist attack. A Rembrandt worth forty million was taken, but the Fabritius Goldfinch, clumsily hidden in a Las Vegas boy’s bedroom, is “unique in the annals of art and therefore priceless.”

Priceless! He had to get the priceless one. The little boy getting drunk on stolen whiskey in a desert suburb has somehow become an art thief of impossible global proportions, hunted by the FBI and Interpol. His father is a crook, too, though on a much smaller scale: a low-rent gambler heading for trouble. Eventually, Theo’s father encounters an unfixable string of bad luck. Genteel men with baseball bats appear at the front door, and his father dies in a car crash, speeding to escape his lethal creditors. Theo grabs the Goldfinch, some loose cash, and a handful of drugs to sell, and flees the city.

He winds up back in New York with Hobie, and the narrative jumps eight years into the future.

Clearly they were uneventful years: the soft fizzing of a long fuse. A chance encounter draws Theo back into the Barbour’s world, where he learns that Andy and Mr. Barbour have died in a boating accident off the coast of Long Island. He falls into a love affair with Andy’s sister Kitsey, and a trip to Hobie’s storage space in the Brooklyn Navy yards reveals a whole other side of the artisan’s art: a warehouse crammed with fake antiques. Hobie creates them for his own amusement, and he’s been doing it for decades. They are extraordinary pieces, and Theo starts selling them to the very collectors who have had such a difficult time getting into Hobie’s shop to buy the authentic articles. The deception, rather like his father’s gambling, starts out well. Theo sells many hutches and chairs and escritoires, showing a salesman’s skill and verve not unlike that which Welty built the business thirty years before. Soon Hobie’s business is in the black again. Hobie is too otherworldly to ask many questions about this financial miracle. But the truth is closing in on Theo fast.

It arrives in the person of one Lucius Reeve. Reeve’s curiosity was spiked by one of Theo’s fakes; a year of research later he’s tracked all of them down, and threatens to turn his evidence over to the police. But it’s blackmail, not moral outrage that motivates Reeve. He wants something.

“I know about the museum,” he says. “Here’s what I wonder. Why did James Hobart go about repeating that tale to everyone in town? You turning up at his doorstep with his partner’s ring? Because if he’d just kept his mouth shut, no one would have ever made the connection.”

Theo pleads ignorance, but it’s no use. Reeve is relentless. “You want me to spell it out? Right here? All right, I will. You were with Welton Blackwell and his niece, you were all three of you in gallery 32 and you were the only person to walk out of there. And we know what else walked out gallery 32, don’t we?”

The rest of Reeve’s story just sounds crazy – Theo and Hobie working together, using the painting to broker deals and raise money with thieves and terrorists all over the world. Actually, the painting is stowed safely in an East Side storage space with a load of camping equipment. Clearly someone has been hawking a forgery. Reeve offers a million dollars for the picture – against the threat of police prosecution for the furniture fakes. Theo has no idea what Reeve is talking about or what he can do.

Then Boris shows up.

At this point the plot, which has been cracking and creaking like a giant snowfield in an early spring, fissures into an avalanche and it would be unkind to reveal the events that follow in any detail. Suffice it to say that Theo is swept into the criminal world of Europe and winds up after a harrowing journey, cleaning his bloody clothes in an Amsterdam hotel room.

That moment leads us back to the very beginning of the novel, set in that same Dutch hideout. Turning to the front of the book, I wanted to see how exactly Tartt had whisked me fourteen years and thirty six hundred miles back to that rainy afternoon in Manhattan where everything started.

Deconstructing the transition brought back many of my old feelings about the author. When The Secret History came out in 1992 I read it in one frenzied gluttonous sitting, broken only for work and sleep. I loved the book but the author irritated me, as she no doubt irritated many other forty-something struggling writers who couldn’t get arrested with their work unless they happened to be carrying it in a valise when they were stopped for J-walking in Los Angeles. Tartt was 28 when the book came out, but she’d been working on it for years and must have begun it just out of college. How was that possible? Some childish part of me screamed: Me first! I have seniority! The world tilted into a grotesque carnival injustice thinking about all the languages Tartt’s book had been translated into, and all the money she was making. Of course, someone with actual seniority would have taken the whole affair with more aplomb. Well, five and then six and then seven years passed, and no new book came out and I (together with my grubby consort of the petty and bitter – which included quite a few critics and academics) began to feel better about Donna Tartt. The Secret History had been a fluke, a one-off. She was now suffering from epic writer’s block, crushed by the old sophomore slump, paying her dues belatedly but double or triple, with interest. Then, exactly ten years after the first novel, Tartt published The Little Friend. It seemed like an over-heated mixture of Intruder in the Dust, To Kill a Mockingbird and Harriet, the Spy, written not in Tartt’s dry allusive first person but in an purple pastiche third. A failure! This was getting better and better. I was actually starting to like Donna Tartt. I never read beyond the first ten pages of The Little Friend until I finished the new novel … eleven years later. Then, like Theo, I began to realize the exact nature of the situation. A Google search revealed numerous rave reviews for Tartt’s southern gothic, as well as sales figures and translation statistics that proved beyond a doubt the second novel I had dismissed was in fact another massive success. So I read the book and I loved it and resigned myself: This brilliant woman was going to write a book every ten years, and it was going to be a masterpiece and the best I could do about that ineluctable fact was wait and re-read and pre-order.  And, perhaps, write an occasional essay to express my chastised and belated awe.

To begin at the beginning, then: it starts with Theo dreaming about his dead mother, the glamorous Audrey who remade herself in the big city after a Midwestern childhood; the evocation of Holly Golightly, one of so many allusions that tie the novel into our cultural history, could not be an accident. Pippa evokes everyone from Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking to Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes:

Is she wronged?–To the rescue of her honour,/ My heart! /Is she poor?–What costs it to be styled a donor? /Merely an earth to cleave, a sea to part. /But that fortune should have thrust all this upon her!

Hobie evokes echoes of Gepetto and Fagin and Obi-Wan Kenobi; Mrs. Barbour takes on the aspect of Miss Havisham as she ages; and of course Theo is Holden Caulfield, as well as Tom Sawyer and that other Pip, the much put-upon hero of Great Expectations.

And the dream of Theo’s mother opens into the memory of his last day with her, on the hinge of a single sentence: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” He describes her briefly and the next crucial sentence slips in page and a half later: “Her death was my fault.” The final stroke happens after a one more short paragraph: “It happened in New York, April 10th, fourteen years ago.”

And we are there, with the Amsterdam hotel where we started lost in the Manhattan rain, a fading dream of the future. So we dismantle the machinery of narrative, but the mystery remains. Tartt identifies this duality when she deploys an art critic to discuss the title painting:

“But Fabritius, he’s making a pun  on the genre … a masterly riposte to the whole idea of trompe l’oeil …  because in other passages of the work – the head? the wing? – not creaturely or literal in the slightest, he takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and hand-worked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract. Which is what makes him a genius less of his time than our own. There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird …It’s a joke, the Fabritius. It has a joke at its heart. And that’s what all the greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick – but step closer. It falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing.”


And this is Tartt’s joke, too beyond the wry humor of her character’s voice, the sublime prank of all great writing: to take this jumble of twenty-six letters, arrange them into words and sentences and paragraphs, to leave you with memories more vivid than the ones you made yourself from the crude materials of your actual life, peopled with characters more vivid than the acquaintances you see every day. This is an ancient brand of literature, reaching back beyond Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, to Daniel Defoe and the Lais of Marie De France and even further to Murasaki Shikibu, whose Tale of the Genji invented the novel more than a thousand years ago. These are the books Donna Tartt curled up with under the covers, sneaking a final chapter with the aid of a flashlight. Maybe there’s some girl doing the same thing tonight with The Goldfinch. I certainly hope so.

                                                                                                                                           — Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod

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


Mar 132014


Peace quietly lends two quarters for a coffee in the hospital lounge while I wait, reading. White space percolates this lyric, while the current lull in American military actions forms the occasion of this book, Gillian Conoley’s seventh poetry collection. With poems titled “late democracy,” “[Peace] contrary to history,” and “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the work pulls one way and then pushes back another, testing the inner ground for breath. — A. Anupama


Gillian Conoley
Omnidawn Publishing
112 pages, $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-890650-95-7


Peace quietly lends two quarters for a coffee in the hospital lounge while I wait, reading. White space percolates this lyric, while the current lull in American military actions forms the occasion of this book, Gillian Conoley’s seventh poetry collection. With poems titled “late democracy,” “[Peace] contrary to history,” and “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the work pulls one way and then pushes back another, testing the inner ground for breath.

Conoley is founder and editor of VOLT, the literary magazine of Sonoma State University, where she currently works as professor and Poet-in-Residence. A book of her poetry translations, Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux, is expected out later this year (City Lights Pocket Poets Series). Previous collections include The Plot Genie (Omnidawn Publishing), Profane Halo (Wave Books), and Tall Stranger (Carnegie Mellon University Press), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Other honors include the Jerome J. Shestack Award from The American Poetry Review, the Fund for Poetry Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She was born in 1955, in Austin, Texas, where her parents owned and operated a rural radio station. Her father fought in Guam during WWII and was honored with a Silver Star for bravery and three Purple Hearts.

In an interview with Rusty Morrison, Conoley comments on her process of poetic inquiry: “In the longer sequence poems, “Begins” and “Peace” I found a formal construct that seemed to me to work well with the question or notion of whether or not peace and war could co-exist on an experiential plane, if we are to have any peace at all. So the short lines began to press against one another line to line, oppositionally, in a paratactic way. I love that parataxis is Greek for ‘placing side by side,’ because I called this short lyric form I started to work in “Sapphic paratactic”—that was my private name for it.”

Parataxis, according to the OED, is a grammar term for “the placing of propositions or clauses one after another, without indicating by connecting words the relation (of coordination or subordination) between them, as in Tell me, how are you?” In the poem “The Patient,” Conoley cunningly plays this unhinged element of poetic craft against firmly attached biological and material elements.

I am the patient. That is my mineral fact.

I have long term storage in double helixes

my two long polymers of nucleotides

my backbone made of sugars and phosphate groups

joined by ester bonds. I see imagist pears dissolving down

golden arms I hear needle-less the sleep aid cd’s

real violins, then float blue-black

at the eventide, injure

of the taut to and fro, cut-back

asphalt road, a path of greening twigs nourishing

nothing personal…

The poem continues for five pages, shaking loose any false adhesions. In Conoley’s paratactic tactics, the phrases are often balanced in length and only separated by the line break, not punctuation. Another five-page poem, “My Mother Moved My Architect,” takes the inquiry deeper, this time plying parataxis with the grain of the physical disconnections.

My mother moved
my architect
cutting out newspaper clippings
making the life-long collage
had I sense
I would have
papered the hallways with
instead it is an ephemeral art

a flaxen gene
her left shoulder
out of its socket

The end of the poem continues the line of inquiry through doubling of images (echoes, heads, tail lights, gloves), and then turns quietly to become an ars poetica.

My mother moved my architect
bade fair
she slipped the bolt
like the great sea chest
none of us
had ever seen open

My mother moved my architect
she made it pump and eat

She made this lake
where I come to

over-identify with the dead and call

Dear Echo to my echo,

She made me nude —sheer— and nude again
She made it interesting right up to the end

So that
I have to think what is with

these two heads blurred and blended, this veil
not seen back through

Tail lights,
white gloves with the green stain

as you entered the sunless woods
best to keep the road a little feral where the color is

and your world part dust
fed and unkilled            I am not through
being a poet or a being

What fallen ash
is the power to live

what pituitary
is the grace to keep
doing so

and what good
is temporary measure—

did you say thank you                   and were you                   thanking

The shorter poems in the sequence titled Peace use parataxis in tandem with opposites (descend v. ascend, vision v. blind, vagina v. cock, peace v. war). But in the sixth part of this sequence, the oppositional forces dissolve a bit, and the caesurae (by which I mean the spaces within the lines indicating pause) reveal time working up through the lines while the breath slips down deep.

one mystery of the breath: it does not hover

in the body but spirals

and up to two hours            in the less known

mammalian diving reflex            water must be

ice-cold            some people survive

if time began we would do it again

the lungs two oars in the middle of the ocean

Conoley envisions specific people and events in her inquiry, too, as in “Opened,” which includes references to both the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. From the second page of this six-page poem—

so that’s where

the two bullets went through.

What sphinx pushes up out of the fog in the parking lot

turning each

upon each

our moral imaginations. If it’s a gun law,

this tragedy will pull through.

And what was there to                        and did she

see, gritty blue sink of desert night sky            with her

off to the side like a wonder, or

your basic hospital room, sleep,

a solitary male nurse, a husband.

 In her interview with Rusty Morrison, Conoley explains some of her inquiry into peace and nonviolence in the process of writing this collection: “I was initially concerned that some might read the title as a call to action, or a promise of peace, somehow. The book contains neither, but is really more of an extended meditation/inquiry of the notion…. Once I began to realize what I was writing about, I started to read about the lineage of nonviolence that runs through Thoreau to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa (nonviolence) dates back to the Upanishads, 8th or 7th century BCE, which bars violence against all creatures (sarva-bhuta). I began to think about these historical figures who wrote about peace and how to get it, and how they may still operate in or haunt our lives.” In the poem “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the speaker moves between abstract reflection and the concrete actions of doing laundry and looking outside at the garden. Without shying away from the great leader’s failings, Conoley’s poem seeks balanced footing on a field of percolating magma.

Why think
God doesn’t like

pussies, cocks, girls, Gandhis           all together

well, you’d have to ask the girls,
and later

It’s a subrosa geological planet, with shifting hot mantels of tectonics,
someone should tell Einstein—
even though it’s too late—who said,
“Future generations will hardly grasp that
such a man as this walked upon the earth.”

Conoley attempts a glimpse of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Toughness of the Serpent,” which ends this way—

MLK really tired at this point.

Wonder what he’s got on his mental sky.

Moon yellow scorch of the morning iron, serene, serene

The 12-part poem that ends the collection is titled “Begins,” and it does exactly that, offering no conclusions, offering instead to launch you in a dozen different trajectories with the caffeine hidden in the parataxis—

for one eye, a small Mesopotamian figure

for one eye, a big abstract

I look, and your face is like a part of speech not spoken

a tragedy so near its comic ash

one eye is my future, one eye, my mausoleum

the divine in what is seen

in which we view only the shade of

possibility: a semi-reluctant scribe I read her book trembling

Peace holds some beautifully revealing poems in the middle of the collection, especially “A hatchet with which to chop at the frozen seas inside us” and “Plath and Sexton,” which deserve their places at the center. In these, the duality is stripped away—from the first: “what if paradise was only lifting the veil to flirt.” And from the beginning of “Plath and Sexton”:

there should have been a third
my friends and I

to not feel so incomprehensible
we were carrying your dead books

we were washed in the blood of them
but we were wanting one more

The collection’s overall organization seems to concentrate these central poems at the heart. Though Conoley claims to offer no answers, she insists on the energy of inquiry throughout her lyric. Peace lends us the price of using the percolator, even as the K-cups in the vending machine are steep.

—A. Anupama

A. Anupama

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



Mar 122014

William Gassvia This Recording

The first blue words of this book seem to form “a soft quality in the air, a color, a flutter: permanent in their passage.” Like starling murmurations on cold winter mornings, for Gass, blue is a thought without a centre; meaning softly gathers around the word the way lint collects and, at the turn of a forgotten page, takes flight. In this sense of the word, Gass writes in blue with the language of birds… —Sebastian Ennis

On Being Blue
New York Review of Books
Softcover, 91 Pages, US $14.00 / CAN $17.00 / UK £7.99


In spite of its philosophical dressing, On Being Blue is really a long essay on language written with elegant exaggeration and a self-mocking pretentiousness. First published in 1976, it reads like a flight of fancy. Gass is noticeably freer with his prose here than in his earlier fiction and he uses that freedom to explore language in its broadest sense as a way of forming meaning in the world (a recurring theme in his later literary essays). Michael Gorra, in his introduction to its republication this month, places On Being Blue within the linguistic turn of that period’s academic criticism, at a time when written English had grown ever closer to the spoken tongue. Now we’re used to taking liberties with the written word to make it sound more like speech. So I suspect few people will sympathize with Gass’s highbrow defense of the art of language, what is best described as his French aestheticism, which he masks with American grit. That being said, I’m one of those people. I believe language is more than its uses, more than the way we commonly speak. It’s figurative, too. So take a word like blue—it’s straightforward, you can point to its correlative in physical experience, it’s there. When we say it we think we know exactly what we mean. But then follow Gass from cover to cover and you may begin to see and say things differently.

First, ignore the philosophy that says there’s any strict or arbitrary relationship between words and things. Gass was a philosophy professor at Washington University, but he avoids theory here and so should we. Let’s just talk blue: “Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear.” Gass begins with this list, which he returns to over and over again.

Read it out-loud for all to hear! (No, really…give it a try.) The first blue words of this book seem to form “a soft quality in the air, a color, a flutter: permanent in their passage.” Like starling murmurations on cold winter mornings, for Gass, blue is a thought without a centre; meaning softly gathers around the word the way lint collects and, at the turn of a forgotten page, takes flight. In this sense of the word, Gass writes in blue with the language of birds—but I’ll return to this.

Now listen. Blue. Sound it out slowly. I hear a stone dropped in water as someone blows dust off a book jacket; it’s a wet syllable caught in flight between the lips that the stumbling tongue elbows. When we speak we seem to spit blue. While ink fills blank spaces with form and meaning between nouns and verbs, the physicality of the word, Gass reminds us, with tumbling breath over pursed lips, comes from the heart of language and is released into the world.

Yet of all the colours worth the ink and all the words of breath’s embrace, why choose blue? Let’s not mix words here . . . or let’s, Gass certainly does: “Whether slick light sharp high bright thin quick sour new and cool or low deep sweet thick dark soft smooth heavy old and warm: blue moves easily among them all, and all profoundly qualify our states of feeling.” The country of blue that Gass takes us to is an inner world, unfolding in language: flung past milky tooth and watered sanguine gum, dragged behind dripping nib, and tossed by battered key.

If Gass offers us a lesson here it’s that feelings, like colours, do exist; and not entirely without words, which flock and swarm and come to rest upon the world. Blue is spoken seen felt read and thought, in the world and the heart and the mind, and in all the places in-between where words collect.

Gass, a writer’s writer, chronicles this pursuit of language, which seems to dwell everywhere and nowhere and in-between the two in that place he calls blue. It’s the in-between he’s after. Just as the sky touches the ground, but only in the distance and only on clear days: it’s a shade of blue he can’t quite put his finger on. Thankfully, many writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers seem to have journeyed there or thereabouts, and some appear in Gass’s thick, dark prose.

Yet it’s the blue-hue of his own writing that caught my eye. He writes blue lists that transcend nowhere: “blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese.” Tongue-in-cheek, his rambling voice follows the booming, brazen blue smear his hand drags across the page, painting a vivid picture of all the blues that fill the world. Other times, he wrestles with language for sheer sport, producing a fearless literary slapstick between the covers. And as for the blue we find there, well . . . it’s “appropriate that blow and blue should be—at our earliest convenience—utterly confused.” It takes an author like Gass to tackle words with such rough wit and yet embrace the very sound of writing as if it were a lover’s howl.

It’s the literary equivalent of a wink and a nod, but he makes his point. Reading Gass, words get mixed up with each other and with the things they describe. But Gass is unapologetic. On Being Blue is no guide for the perplexed. Language is not so cut and dried; it’s wet and torn, coffee-stained, beaten, broken, and scorned, twisted and crumpled, contorted, thrown away, and then forgotten, lost near the tip of tongue, found by index finger and thumb, and set flying with a flick of the wrist. That is, for Gass, it takes a great deal of confusion to say or write anything that truly means something. And that’s not a criticism. Nor does it imply that great writing must be complex. It celebrates the way language sets things in relation to one another and utterly confuses words, feelings, thoughts, colours, and things.

So Gass doesn’t hold too tightly to words, but lets them fly: “blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies . . . dumps, mopes, Mondays . . . watered twilight, sour sea.” They’re all blue when spoken in the language of birds. On Being Blue will have you coughing up feathers, picking words from your teeth that don’t stick to your tongue, and, by the end, chirping like a madman until you’re blue in the face.

—Sebastian Ennis


Sebastian Ennis
Sebastian Ennis is a future law student living in Vancouver. He has a background in Classics and contemporary French and German philosophy.


Mar 112014

Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of "The Tempest" (2010), starring Helen Mirren as "Prospera." Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad."Djimon Hounsou as Caliban

Pat Keane’s casual and encyclopedic erudition has become legendary on the pages of Numéro Cinq; he’s an eloquent magician who can pull an apt argument or a lengthy quotation out of his hat as if he were ordering breakfast at a diner. After reading one of his essays, I am always asking myself, Does he ever look anything up, or does he just remember it all? It doesn’t really matter how he does it; Pat’s years of reading and writing, his vivid recall of same, are his gift to us, his readers.

This time, following his essay on Keats and identity in our January issue, Pat goes after Defoe’s Crusoe (Friday) and Shakespeare’s Caliban, also Bloom, Coleridge, and Aimé Césaire, and fashions a dense, exhaustive (he rather cutely says it’s not exhaustive at the end, but you can see him trying to get everything in) and brilliant ramble through the arguments of identity criticism of, say, the last fifty or one hundred and fifty years. This is an essay bursting its seams with ideas and fine degrees of discrimination, a book-in-an-essay, as it were, explosive, wise and generous. And it all starts with Pat simply wondering why the anti-slavery Coleridge, who loved Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, never seemed to mention the fact that Crusoe is a slaver, odd oversight.

All this is fascinating to me personally because, of course, my novel Elle is, in part, a revision of Crusoe (like Crusoe, my heroine is an agent of colonization and she finds a footprint, first sign of the Other, first inkling that she is not living in a solipsistic, all-white universe).

One small thing that I admire excessively in this essay is Pat’s habit of clearly untangling influence and school of thought. In an essay about identity, he carefully parses identity and point of view (perspective) for each of his litigants. As you will see, he begins by telling you who he is.



As we have become increasingly aware, we all have multiple identities, a plurality of affiliations, depending on context. I am a male white heterosexual American senior citizen of Irish heritage fascinated by literature in the Romantic tradition, the racehorse Secretariat, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, film noir, women with aquiline noses, and the absurdity not only of the excesses of political correctness but of the even greater excesses of the extremist wing of the contemporary Republican Party. These and similar “identities” are mostly benign, overlap with little or no friction, and are subsumed within my sense of shared membership in the human race. The danger comes when affiliations become exclusionary and fanatic, and thus subject to ideological manipulation. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, who personally experienced the transformation of “within-group solidarity” into “between-group discord” during the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1940s India, demonstrates, in Identity and Violence (2006), how, in this and similar cases, “Violence is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror” (2).

“Identity politics,” whether in the form addressed by Sen (a sectarian Islamist violence we now see threatening much of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and beyond), or in its less lethal but still problematic and potentially destructive electoral forms, is distinguishable from but often necessarily overlaps with religious, sexual, cultural, and racial “identity.” Our gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and race, though they need not be wholly determinative, obviously play an enormous role both in how we conceive of ourselves and how we respond to the world around us. That world includes, along with the sociopolitical realm, the world of art: the world artists create or reshape, and the art to which the rest of us respond.

The past four decades or so have witnessed the rise of “cultural studies,” in which attention has been focused on works marginalized or excluded by the dominant political and aesthetic ideology: white, male, and European. The more recent marriage of “new historicism,” “multiculturalism,” “postcolonial studies,” and “identity theory” has bred many books and articles urging readers, not only to expand their sense of the literary canon, but, in reading traditional canonical texts, to shift their sympathy, whatever the original author’s intentions, from the dominant to the subversive characters in literary works of art, especially novels and plays. The various agendas range from aesthetic “correction” through a humane rebalancing, to overt calls for political action to redress injustices.

Like traditional humanists, these theorists place the human subject at the center of the scene of writing, interpretation, and political action. However, the humanistic emphasis on universalism is replaced by an insistence on one’s identity as part of a specific group: as the member of an ethnic, racial, or sexual minority. In this counter-narrative to the “master-narrative” of Western hegemony and imperialism, the “subaltern” (suppressed, different, “other”) is privileged over the “master.” As early as 1950, when French colonial civil servant Octave Mannoni published Psychologie de la colonization, but increasingly in the wake of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism (1978), postcolonial writers and theorists have resisted both overt oppression and the more insidious forms of “internalization” that infect the very discourse of colonized peoples, upon whose indigenous culture has been superimposed the culture of the conquerors.

When I was recently invited to participate in a two-day panel discussion of “Identity” (the proceedings will be published later this year in Salmagundi), I found myself, now retired, casting a retrospective cold eye back on my professional life as a literary critic. When I did, I benignly envisioned a person—myself—attempting to be open and receptive, trying to discover rather than impose, even striving to be “objective”: an impossible goal, but one worth aiming for in the attempt to at least approximate what can never be fully attained. Though a practitioner of intrinsic criticism, “close reading,” I did not slight history and the sociopolitical world in which literary works were embedded. In discussing the great first-generation Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge), I always placed their texts in the inevitable context of the French Revolution—which Shelley, a second-generation Romantic, rightly designated “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.” No less obviously, in discussing in the classroom works of literature in which, for example, race or Western imperialism was an element, I stressed those dimensions in trying to illuminate the text. But in my published work, I belatedly realized, I had only occasionally engaged issues of race and identity.



They did come up some twenty years ago in a book titled Coleridge’s Submerged Politics. Though my focus in that book was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I devoted some initial attention to Coleridge’s later marginalia on a novel he had loved from boyhood on, Robinson Crusoe, whose isolated protagonist was kin to his own Mariner, “alone on a wide, wide sea.” In  reading those annotations, and at the risk of swelling the ranks of poststructuralists given to scratching their knowing heads about “not saids,” “gaps,” and “significant silences” in texts, I was puzzled that a man on record as being morally, intellectually, and emotionally appalled by slavery and the traffic in human flesh should not only say nothing about Crusoe’s slave-trading activities but should actually propose him as the “Universal representative” of humanity: an Everyman whose actions, thoughts and emotions we can all, according to Coleridge, imagine ourselves doing, thinking, and feeling (Marginalia, 1:165-67). We “get” the gist of what Coleridge is saying, but it does not take a contemporary Identity theorist to resist the elevation of Defoe’s flawed Crusoe to the stature of a representative of universal humanity.


Of course, those annotations were jotted down,  not in, say, 1795, when a revolutionary and egalitarian young Coleridge had written “On the Slave Trade,” his searing assault on the moral atrocity of slavery, the horrors of the slave trade and the Middle Passage. Nor in 1798, when he wrote The Ancient Mariner (in which for some readers, beginning with William Empson, the curse and eventual shipwreck hint that the Mariner’s ship was a slaver). He annotated Robinson Crusoe half a lifetime later, in 1830, by which time the former radical, no longer egalitarian though still an advocate of abolition, had turned culturally and politically conservative. Nevertheless, even given Coleridge’s socio-political shift, and taking into account the exercise of historical imagination by a sophisticated reader perhaps unwilling to condemn Crusoe and his creator for a sin more obvious in his age than in Defoe’s, I remained puzzled by the absence of even a passing reference to slavery and the slave trade. Of course, I realized that to push this theme exclusively would itself be a sin: a sacrifice of the splendor of Defoe’s achievement in giving the world an iconic book and popular myth that has fascinated children and adults ever since it was written. For Coleridge was surely right about a major aspect of Crusoe as “Universal representative”; though, in an age of specialization, few of us could match his ability to adapt, we all respond to Crusoe’s “practical-man” energy and inventiveness in surviving, even thriving in the course of his quarter-century on the island.

Yet I remained troubled by the seeming lacuna in the marginalia when it came to Crusoe’s slaving activities, as well as his subsequent relationship with Friday. After all, under all the shifts and oscillations in Coleridge, there seemed to me to be an abiding, and deeply moral, identity. I still think so, though the question of identity now seems to all of us, and certainly to me, far more perplexed and perplexing than it did twenty years ago. Back then I wanted to make a sharp distinction between Coleridge the political and moral Man and abolitionist, and Coleridge as a supposedly apolitical appreciator or literary Critic, sitting down to re-read a much-loved work of literature, a fable that had always fired his own creative imagination. Without succumbing to any politically correct urge to beat Coleridge about the head and shoulders for his failure to so much as mention slavery in his extensive Robinson Crusoe marginalia, I’m less able now to sustain that sharp distinction. Will the real Coleridge stand up? And he will, claiming, not without considerable justice, that there is consistency beneath the difference, an underlying identity. Yet that claim is more justifiable, and more palatable, in terms of his political shift than any Coleridgean claim to an underlying continuity regarding his shifting position on race.

Like his friend and “fellow-laborer,” Wordsworth, Coleridge always maintained that the French Revolution betrayed itself, and that their move from radicalism to conservatism reflected that Gallic betrayal. To employ E. P. Thompson’s terms, “disenchantment” rather than “default” explains their disillusionment and reactionary shift to quietism. That shift— accompanied by their insistence that the authentic agent of change was not political activism but the creative Imagination—will perhaps always inspire mixed feelings on the part of their readers, readers who are themselves politically divided. But it is almost unrelievedly painful to witness the regression of Coleridge on issues of race, from uncompromising advocate of egalitarianism and liberation to a defender, on the basis of pseudo-science and the need for societal stability, of white superiority. And yet, since he remained an abolitionist, there is still a continuum between early and later Coleridge, his identity somehow subsuming antagonistic perspectives.

Variations on that dualistic theme may obviously be found in many writers. I recently published in Numéro Cinq an essay titled “Keats and Identity: The Chameleon in the Crucible,” in which I try to reconcile Keats’s two apparently antithetical conceptions of “identity.” To name just three other peripherally interrelated cases: there is self-divided Sam Clemens/ Mark Twain, whose masterwork, Huckleberry Finn, at once reflects and opposes racism; that Mark Twain enthusiast, Friedrich Nietzsche, a relentless seeker of the very truths he did more than anyone else to undermine; and  W. B. Yeats, who found in Nietzsche a “strong enchanter” whose aristocratic brio, employment of masks, and “curious astringent joy” (Letters, 379) propelled the Irish poet out of the Celtic Twilight into modernity and political conservatism. Yet there is a continuum here as well, and Richard Ellmann was right in both titles of his pioneering studies: Yeats: The Man and the Masks, followed a decade and a half later by The Identity of Yeats.



In brooding over Coleridge’s marginalia on Robinson Crusoe, I eventually gave up trying to bridge the gap separating the author of “On the Slave Trade” from the annotator who had nothing to say of slavery and the slave trade in celebrating Crusoe as a universal representative of all mankind. Some years after publishing the Coleridge book, in the course of re-reading The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, I found myself unwilling to follow the vast majority of Defoe critics who insist on another sharp distinction: in this case, between author and character. Defoe, we are told, was “ambivalent” about slavery and “ironic” in his fictional handling of the subject. He may be elsewhere; he is neither ambivalent nor ironic in his most celebrated novel. Playing off Coleridge’s claim that Robinson Crusoe is a “Universal representative,” I published an essay titled “Slavery and the Slave Trade: Crusoe as Defoe’s Representative.”

Interior of a Slave Ship. This detailed drawing shows how the “cargo” was arranged to maximize capacity.

There I argued, to the annoyance of some prominent Defoe scholars, that while Crusoe (as mercantilist and imperialist as his creator) may not be, strictly speaking, identical to Defoe, on the issue of slavery and the slave trade there seemed little to choose between them. Crusoe, newly engaged in slave-trading when he is shipwrecked, never, in his many years of hand-wringing religious rumination, thinks to attribute his calamity to the sin of buying and selling human beings. Nor does it occur as a possibility to Defoe, who, after all, had the option of enlisting Crusoe in another line of work. Though slavery and the slave trade become tangential once ship-wrecked Crusoe has been marooned on his island, they nevertheless, as Michael Seidel observed in 1991, “hover like something of a curse” over the entire novel (Robinson Crusoe, 106), re-emerging in a more benign but persistent and unironic Master-Slave relationship once Crusoe has saved from cannibals the near-victim who will become his Man Friday.

Robinson Crusoe, chapter 23: “At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know he would serve me as long as he lived…I began to speak to him and teach him to speak to me; and first, I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life;…I likewise taught him to say ‘Master,’ and then let him know that was to be my name.”

Though most Defoe scholars insist on their author’s double-mindedness on these issues, many who emphasize his ambivalence mistake Defoe’s criticism of the cruelty inflicted by traders and owners for condemnation of the institution itself. Writing in the 22 May 1712 number of his Review, Defoe had this to say about English slaveholders in Barbadoes:

The Negroes are indeed Slaves, and our good People use them like Slaves, or rather like Dogs, but that by the way: he that keeps them in Subjection, whips, and corrects them, in order to make them grind and labour, does Right, for out of their Labour he gains his Wealth: but he that in his Passion and Cruelty, maims, lames, and kills them, is a Fool, for they are his Estate, his Stock, his Wealth, and his Prosperity. (Review, VII, 730)

Having mistaken utilitarianism for altruism, many apologists for Defoe then compound the misperception by translating his alleged ambivalence into authorial “irony” when slavery and the trade feature in the fictional works, including The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and the later Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Whatever his divided, even contradictory, feelings regarding the slave trade (expressed, for example, in his 1702 poem, A Reformation of Manners, or in such novels as Captain Singleton and Colonel Jack), Defoe adamantly defended the trade in essays, especially the series published in his Review between 1709-13. He considered the slave trade a perfectly respectable business, bought stock himself in two companies engaged in the traffic, thought it indispensable to British colonialism, and most certainly admired the profits to be made from it. Most Defoe scholars notwithstanding, when it comes to Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe on the issues of slavery, the slave trade, and white superiority, there seems less distinction, let alone difference, than identity.

Daniel DefoeDaniel Defoe

This remains essentially true even when it comes to Crusoe’s relationship with Friday: a relationship, in most readers’ memories, preserved in amber, aureoled by a soft, nostalgic glow. Though Defoe’s realism breaks through some barriers of racial prejudice and notions of primitive man, that breakthrough is severely limited by Defoe’s, and Crusoe’s, historical time and temperament. The “quest for the white man’s burden tends to end,” as Ian Watt remarked in The Rise of the Novel, “in the discovery of the perfect porter and personal servant.” The relationship between Crusoe and Friday, often touching, is hardly sentimental, and it remains as it was established from the outset. As a “first” step in communication, Crusoe, having let the man he rescued “know his name should be Friday, …likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name” (Robinson Crusoe, 209). The iconic Crusoe-Friday image is that of the master’s foot on the bowed head of the grateful but abject slave.

In their Farther Adventures, in Lisbon and London, Friday is either forgotten by both Crusoe and Defoe, whose memory of off-stage characters is notoriously short, or is reduced (as in the lengthy and gratuitous episode in “the Pyranean mountains,” where Friday clowns with the bear for the diversion of the white folk) to a comic entertainer. In his final role as “white” interpreter to the natives, Friday, having returned with Crusoe to their now populated island after an eight-year absence, is in the process of becoming just another in a crowd of native faces when he is singled out for one last task by his master. Answering, as always, the call to duty, he dies—heroically, to be sure, but more in keeping with Crusoe’s requirements, “useful, handy, and helpful” to the end. He has, in keeping with Crusoe’s imperative, proven loyal “to the last Drop.” The Master’s characteristically restrained grief is focused on the loss of a valuable servant. Revealingly, with Friday almost instantly eclipsed from his memory, Crusoe thinks at once about capturing another cannibal as a substitute slave (Farther Adventures, 73, 74).



The cost (cultural, emotional, and at last existential) to the perfect servant—never inquired into by either Crusoe or Defoe—has been imaginatively explored by such twentieth-century anti-Robinson French novelists as Jean Giraudoax, Suzanne et le Pacifique (1921) and  Michel Tournier, in Vendredi: ou Les limbs du Pacifique (1967), and by South Africa’s J. M. Coetzee, in Foe (1987); as well as by poets: Derek Walcott, in “Crusoe’s Journal” (1970), Elizabeth Bishop, in “Crusoe in England” (1976), and A. D. Hope, in “Man Friday” (1985). The most sustained reworking of the Friday-theme occurs in Charles Martin’s remarkable 14-part poetic sequence, Passages from Friday (1983), in which Friday not only speaks, but writes. And the sequence ends in an astonishing semi-fusion of identities between Master and Slave.

As we move toward the conclusion of the book-length poem, Crusoe and Friday together build a means of escape: a great canoe, wrecked before it can be launched. The loss of the canoe and thus of “Deliverance,” prove “1 Disaster/ too many” for Crusoe, who grows absent-minded, and given to wandering off with his jug of raisin-wine. On one drunken expedition, he falls, eventually succumbing to his injuries—despite Friday’s nursing and prayers, notably including a repetition of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “Take ye & eat/ of my owne flesh in the Remembrance of me” (XI).  Martin may be remembering that Derek Walcott’s Crusoe, seen through the eyes of a descendant of Friday’s, is said to have altered “us/ into Good Fridays” who pray, “parroting our master’s style and voice…converted cannibals/ we learn with him to eat the flesh of Christ.” Having presumably (though we are never quite sure) reverted to cannibalism, a barbarous version of identity, Martin’s Friday, alone and without orders to obey, turns artist, carving wooden figures, both European and cannibals. But soon, suffering another and proto-Marxian crisis of identity, he grows alienated from the artifacts he has created, finding “no place for Friday in what Friday made; /then I was suddenly stricken….” (XIII)

First in feverish dreams, then in apparent reality, self-divided Friday, rigged out in Crusoe’s goatskin and hat, carrying “his Rifle & his Powder-Horn,” and “his Umbrella,” approaches that point on the island where his former Master had originally saved him from the cannibals. Friday is on a quest, but why and whither he cannot say:

For it was not I who set owt, nor was it him,
Nor was it the both of us together;
I know not who it was; but, as in my Dream
Of the Night befor, when I was neither

Master nor Friday, but I partook of each,
So was it that Morning. Whatever my Intention
I find myself walking on that Beach
to-ward that Poynt which I have earlier mention’d

and when I pass it by un-harmed, I collaps
upon the Sand    I lay ther in great Fear
for a good long Time   no savage Shapes
assail mine Eye   no screeching payns mine Ear (XIV)

Though, as the poem had confirmed from the outset, there is no hope of returning to his true “home,” Friday, at poem’s close, at last takes imaginative possession of the “inchanted Island” formerly ruled by Crusoe, of whom Friday would seem to have “partook” in more senses than one. Appropriately, his passing of the critical Point “unharm’d,” and his final assertion of liberation from savage sights and colonialist sounds (“no screeeching payns mine Ear”) signal Charles Martin’s thematically-related allusion to Caliban’s imaginative possession of his enchanted island in Shakespeare’s Tempest: his enjoyment of the sounds that “hum about mine ears” in the exquisitely un-savage passage in Act III of The Tempest, beginning, “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (III.ii.131-32).

Title page of "The Tempest," the first play in the "First Folio," 1623Title page of “The Tempest,” the first play in the “First Folio,” 1623

And Caliban knows the isle, knows it as his own. As he had earlier cried out to Prospero, his initial liberator become his tormenter after the attempted rape of Miranda, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother,/ Which thou taks’t from me/…Which first was mine own king” (I.ii.331-42). One might point out, accurately, that Sycorax originally took the island from Ariel, a delightful and freedom-loving spirit hardly likely to stake out, as Caliban does, a possessive, indigenous claim. Thus Caliban’s claim has merit; but while Charles Martin’s Friday takes possession of the island, Shakespeare’s Caliban will again be dispossessed, carted off with the others to Milan, where he will perhaps resume his interrupted tutelage under Prospero: a prospect less incongruous when we put aside for the moment his brutish gabble and recall the beauty of that speech which not only describes but exemplifies the beauty of the island’s “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Like Martin‘s Friday and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Shakespeare’s Caliban has a touch of the artist about him. He will, to be sure, cut a very strange figure in Milan, but, as Shakespeare may hint in the final words he gives to him (“I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace”[V.i.294-95]), the half-human, even “demi-devil” Caliban may be both educable and, unlike the incorrigibly villainous Antonio and Sebastian, redeemable.

However we judge Prospero’s tone, he does say, “This thing of darkness, I/ Acknowledge mine” (V.i.275-76): an observation taken up and amplified by Aimé Césaire in perhaps the most striking of the many postcolonial Latin-American and African re-envisionings of Shakespeare’s play, one in which the cleavage between Master and Slave, Prospero and Caliban, is replaced by Identity. Writing in 1990, Stephen Greenblatt noted that it would take different artists from different cultures to “rewrite Shakespeare’s play and make good on Caliban’s claim” (“Culture,” 232).  He was thinking of the Cuban critic Roberto Fernandez Retamar’s Caliban and Other Essays (trans. 1989), and of other cultural critics who, contending with Shakespeare, choose Caliban over Prospero and Ariel. Greenblatt may also have had in mind, along with other postcolonial re-writings, Césaire’s reimagining of The Tempest in a play in which the identities of Caliban and Prospero are fused into a unity resembling yet different from Friday’s hallucinatory “partaking” of both himself and Crusoe in Charles Martin’s Passages from Friday.



Like Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest has become a critical and cultural battleground, perhaps the most prominent site for combat between aesthetic and historicist readers. Exercising the hermeneutics of suspicion, many New Historicists depict intrinsic readers who insist on giving priority to what is actually there in a text—say, the text of this Shakespeare play—as both knowing and sinister: “hegemonic” reactionaries conspiring to keep the text’s “real,” if unintended, political meaning from being uttered. That “real” meaning, usually conveyed inadvertently by a politics-effacing author, typically has to do with the dominant (Western) culture’s sexist, classist, and racist suppression of its victims. Even more than Defoe’s novel, The Tempest has been the prime text for postcolonial theorists to insist on a shift of sympathy, whatever Shakespeare’s own intentions, from the dominant to the subversive character, from master Prospero to the enslaved Caliban. For decades now, The Tempest has been criticized, revised, and politically re-envisioned by directors, cultural critics, and creative writers. Last year, the Theater Department at my own college mounted a production of the play in which Caliban’s mother, the evil hag-witch, Sycorax, referred to but absent from Shakespeare’s play, was a central on-stage figure, the practitioner of a sorcery indistinguishable from Prospero’s!

Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban “The Enchanted Island: Before the Cell of Prospero” (Henry Fuseli, 1797)

In the case of The Tempest —its island set in the Mediterranean but reflecting Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” and of contemporary accounts of shipwreck and salvation in the Bermudas—Latin-American writers have been particularly active pro-Caliban revisers, beginning with Nicaraguan Rubén Dario’s 1898 essay “The Triumph of Caliban.” (Two years later, Uruguayan statesman José Enrique Rodó identified Latin American culture with Ariel.) As early as 1904, W. T Stead had objected to the imperialism represented in the play and sided with indigenous cultures; but a resurgence of interest in anti-colonial readings followed Octave Mannoni’s influential Psychologie de la colonization (1950), earlier mentioned, which was translated more pointedly into English six years later as Prospero and Caliban. Most notably, Aimé Césaire of Martinique in 1969 rewrote The Tempest in his own play, Une tempête, adapted for a Black Theater, and first performed in Tunisia (where Alonso’s daughter Claribel became queen in the wedding that set Shakespeare’s court party to sea in the first place and so subject to the magical storm conjured up by his magus). Césaire’s Prospero is a white master, Ariel a mulatto, and Caliban a Black slave; while Echu (named for the Yoruba god) threatens to “smite with his penis.” In Une tempête, Caliban, unlike resistant but non-violent Ariel, is an advocate of revolution, a Malcom X to Ariel’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Declaring that “now it’s over,” Césaire’s Caliban rebels against the hated “image” imposed on him by Prospero, and finally threatens that “one day,” he will raise his “bare fist” against his Shakespearean master.

Aime CesaireAimé Césaire

In Césaire’s revision, a fusion of Western surrealism and his own vision of négritude, master and slave end up trapped on the island when the others have left. After many years together, indicated by the curtain’s being lowered halfway, then raised, Prospero appears in semi-darkness, “aged” and weary. “Ah well, my old Caliban,” says he, “we’re the only two left on this island, just you and me. You and me! You-me! Me-you!” In having Prospero suddenly think of himself and Caliban as indistinguishable, Césaire at once (as we’ll see in a moment) echoes Shakespeare’s play, and, as Joan Dayan suggested in her 1992 essay “Playing Caliban: Césaire’s Tempest,” undermines the idea that either the “original” Shakespeare play or his own  have priority. In his Prospero’s “You-me! Me-you!” fusion, she argues, Césaire “recognizes the force of mutuality, the knot of reciprocity between master and slave, between a prior ‘classic’ and his response to it.” This “labor of reciprocity” accounts for “the complexities of Césaire’s transformation: a labor that defies any simple opposition between black and white, master and slave, original and adaptation, authentic and fake.”

At the same time, Césaire, who, for all his postcolonial revisionism, seldom loses sight of the play he is adapting, may be recalling those lines already quoted from the final moments of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Indeed, Césaire’s “You-me! Me-you!” fusion may also have influenced Charles Martin’s later variation on the theme, when, at the end of Passages from Friday, the speaker-writer tells us that he is neither himself nor Crusoe, nor both together; “neither/ Master nor Friday, but I partook of each.” Martin’s Friday and Césaire’s Caliban might seem to flesh out, even fulfill, the reluctant concession of Shakespeare’s Prospero: “this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine.” But Martin’s Friday seems to have literally consumed Crusoe, and by the time Césaire’s Prospero finally claims identification, Caliban himself has disappeared. The last word the audience hears—echoing and altering Caliban’s delusory and ignominious cry of “Freedom!” at the end of Act II of Shakespeare’s play—is the genuinely triumphant offstage cry, “LIBERTY!” (in Philip Crispin’s translation) or (in Richard Miller’s) “FREEDOM!!”—the distinctive Western value, as Orlando Patterson demonstrated at length in his award-winning two-volume Freedom.

The factors informing such rewritings—ethnicity, economics, social class, colonial history—are among the historical and perspectival elements that condition our responses to the world, and to texts. It is hardly surprising that some readers—politically engaged postcolonial readers of The Tempest, for example—will want to creatively fill in perceived absences and silences in ways that remold the text nearer to their own heart’s desires. In the Age of Theory, a poststructuralist era largely shaped by Nietzsche, most of us will agree that literary texts are not verbal icons hermetically sealed off from the world. They reflect and are influenced by the social and historical contexts in which they are complexly anchored, and they require readers, similarly influenced, to “actualize” them in what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a hermeneutic or dialogic “fusion of horizons” (Truth and Method, 320). The danger is that in in “recontextualizing” a work of art, we may temporally limit it to its own, now “outdated,” historical moment; or that, in properly asking questions from our present socio-economic horizon, we will also impose answers on the past. Either way, we can hardy avoid inflicting aesthetic injury in the process.

Often, New Historicist readings, whatever their many illuminations, are closed monoreadings that risk losing the palpable poem in the attempt to recover sociopolitical realities the original author supposedly tried to evade. Marxian theorists—for example, Pierre Macherey in A Theory of Literary Production—insist that these silences and absences are inevitable, ideologically predetermined. Deconstructionists invariably find text-unravelling aporias; what many New Historicists must look for, and invariably find, in “privatized” poems is the effaced “public” dimension, the vestigial politics still lurking in the unspoken but no longer quite inaudible subtext. The claim that often follows, whether explicit or implicit, is that, having ferreted out these buried meanings, we have succeeding in “decoding” the poem, revealing its “absent” and therefore primary level of meaning—the interpretation having the highest priority. In the case of The Tempest, the admonition of Frank Kermode (one of the play’s two best editors, the other being Steven Orgel) is pertinent. Even when the political dimension is actually there, in Shakespeare’s text—however blind earlier readers seem to have been to the layer of meaning often over-emphasized in our own age—these relations, though they exist in the play, should be “secondary to the beautiful object itself” (Shakespeare’s Language, 300).



In concurring with Kermode that our actual “highest priority” should be aesthetic, I am not suggesting a simplistic return to the art-for-art’s-sake school of rarified, Paterian “Appreciation.” In the specific case of The Tempest, I would not go as far as one of my own cherished mentors, Harold Bloom. Inveighing against the contemporary critical trends he dismisses (deliberately echoing Nietzsche’s famous condemnation of ressentiment) as “the School of Resentment,” Bloom declares: “Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the two visionary comedies—A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest—these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed. Erotomania possesses the critics and directors of the Dream, while ideology drives the despoilers of The Tempest.” These characteristically judgmental sentences open the chapter on The Tempest in Bloom’s 1998 study, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He goes on to make it clear that he is open to such creative re-visitings of the play as Robert Browning’s remarkable dramatic monologue, “Caliban upon Setebos,” and W. H. Auden’s prose address, from The Sea and the Mirror, titled “Caliban to the Audience,” which, though “more Auden than Shakespeare,” catches, as Bloom acknowledges, much of Caliban’s “dilemma” and his “pathos.” What stirs Bloom’s Nietzschean wrath are the political reconfigurings I’ve already mentioned, specifically the transformation of Caliban, “a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature,” into “an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter,” a move Bloom dismisses as “not even a weak misreading.”

Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of "The Tempest" (2010), starring Helen Mirren as "Prospera." Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad."Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of “The Tempest” (2010), starring Helen Mirren as “Prospera.” Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film “Amistad.”

This condemnation is less political (Bloom is on the permanent Left) than an allusion to his own long-held literary theory, which celebrates strong, but decidedly not weak, “misreading.” From The Anxiety of Influence on, Bloom has famously apotheosized the “strong reader,” one who brings to bear his own personality, and reads the work of others above all to stimulate his own creativity. Bloom has repeatedly acknowledged that his theory and practice derive primarily from two exemplars: Emerson and his disciple Nietzsche. Emerson insists, in “The American Scholar,” that there is “creative reading as well as creative writing,” and announces, in “Uses of Great Men” (in Representative Men), that “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.” At the very outset of Ecce Homo (in the chapter “Why I Write Such Good Books”), Nietzsche claims that, “Ultimately, nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows.” (He then goes on, perhaps “inconsistently” but certainly prophetically, to complain that anyone who claimed to understand his work “had made up something out of me after his own image.”)

This Emersonian-Nietzschean line of revisionary reading Bloom labels “antithetical,” this time borrowing his term from Yeats, who famously contrasts an italicized and preferred  antithetical to the primary; who called Nietzsche his “strong enchanter”; and who declared in his 1930 diary, “We do not seek truth in argument or in books, but clarification of what we already believe” (Explorations, 310). Bloom champions “strong” misprision (misreading), repeatedly asserting, from The Anxiety of Influence on, that “really strong poets can read only themselves,” indeed, that for such readers “to be judicious is to be weak.” Bloom’s dismissal is therefore all the more damning when he insists that the post-colonial reinterpretation of Caliban “is not even a weak misreading; that anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all. Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists—the usual suspects—know their causes but not Shakespeare’s plays” (Shakespeare, 622).

One of many sinister Calibans

Without rejecting it, I would qualify the indictment. Those “suspects” are reading the play, but reading it badly, allowing their political “causes,” which really are implicit in Shakespeare’s text, to become primary rather than remaining, in Kermode’s term, “secondary.” The stock of Prospero, that valorized magus and Shakespeare-surrogate of much of the earlier criticism, has fallen in the twentieth century. Postcolonial critics have charged that the admiration of Prospero so prominent in the nineteenth century reflected a willful evasion of crucial aspects of the play. Though Prospero retains majority support, his (often justified) harshness, always there in the text, has become more evident, both to readers and, depending on the director, to theatergoers. Having become more sensitive to the irascible, bullying aspects of Prospero, many have consequently become more sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed, subjugated, and always fascinating Caliban. Bloom himself describes Caliban as “poignant” and applauds Auden for stressing his dilemma and pathos. What Bloom resists is the determinism, ideological and theoretical, of the political readers and re-writers of The Tempest. For them, Caliban, suppressed not only by Prospero, but by Shakespeare as well, must be the play’s hero. Here, the return of the repressed takes the form of Identity politics, returning with a vengeance.

Detail from Henry Fuseli's engravingDetail from Henry Fuseli’s engraving



It is, in general, an intriguing poststructuralist phenomenon that so many who theoretically pronounce texts indeterminate—bereft of authorial meaning, with text and interpretation alike determined by the inevitable linguistic gap between signifier and signified, by temporal limitations, by political ideology, class or gender bias—also, in practice, repeatedly claim to have decoded, “unmasked” or “exposed,” what is “really” going on: what a play such as The Tempest “conceals” as well as what it “reveals,” even to “correct” what has been “distorted.” As Richard Levin asked in 1990—cocking a mischievous eye in his PMLA article “The Politics and Poetics of Bardicide”—who is more guilty of what the indeterminists dismiss as “hubristic objectivism.” Is it those who believe that literary works are written by actual authors whose meanings (intention having become achievement) are there in the text, to be interpreted? Or is it those for whom the “hermeneutic vacuum” left by the Death of the Author must be filled by “a universal law” that “dictates what one must look for, and must find, in every [text]?”

I would add, in the case of The Tempest, what may be too obvious to need saying: that Aimé Césaire has every right to recreate Shakespeare in forging his own work of art, especially since Une tempête, as Malcolm Bowie noted in reviewing the 1998 Gate Theater production in London, “is not simply a new reading of Shakespeare but an original play of astonishing power.” But for the most part we are dealing with cultural revisionists who, having not found the political subtext of The Tempest adequately expressed, are compelled to “foreground” or “privilege” it in ways which—however creative,  illuminating, and even liberating—inevitably distort the original play. Both as an “immoralist” moralist and as a philological “good reader” able to “read off a text as a text” without “falsifying it by interposing an interpretation,” Nietzsche (going, in this passage from The Antichrist §52 and its original formulation in The Will to Power §479, against his usual insistence on “perspectivism” and “interpretation”), would approve of Bloom’s enrollment of such revisionists in “The School of Resentment.” For the crucial Nietzschean concept of ressentiment—stemming from the contrast introduced in Beyond Good and Evil §260 between “master morality and slave morality,” and fully developed a year later in On the Genealogy of Morals—has to do with frustration, psychological and political, arising from a sense of inferiority inseparable from subjugation. Of course, to again state the obvious, this is precisely what postcolonial “appropriations” of The Tempest set out to rectify, focusing inevitably on the subjugated figure that seems to embody both the plight and the hope of the victims of colonial oppression  To quote Cuban Fernández Retamar’s famous and defiant rhetorical question: “what is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?” (Caliban and Other Essays, 14).

Finally, in terms of the revisionist act of creative reading performed by Césaire in Une tempête: the philologist in Nietzsche would probably concur with Milton’s famous distinction in Sonnet XII: there are those  that “bawl for freedom” and “still revolt when truth would set them free./ License they mean when they cry liberty.” FREEDOM/ LIBERTY! cries Césaire’s Caliban. The cry is thrilling as an expression of belated, if incomplete, postcolonial liberation; but it “means” (not as a legitimate act of creative rewriting, but as a dubious act of literary interpretation) “License” in regard to the original Tempest. To be sure, as New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt remarked in 1990 (the year he borrowed from Caliban the title of his collection of essays, Learning to Curse), Shakespeare’s imaginative mobility, genius, and empathy enabled him “to display cracks in the glacial front of princely power and to record a voice, the voice of the displaced and oppressed, that is heard scarcely anywhere else in his own time.” If, Greenblatt concludes, “it is the task of cultural criticism to decipher the power of Prospero, it is equally the task to hear the accents of Caliban” (“Culture,” 232).

And that’s true, too. But nothing is got for nothing. One version of what Amartya Sen titularly juxtaposes as Identity and Violence is the textual violence that can be done, and increasingly has been done, to the last masterwork completely written by Shakespeare, of whose authorial death rumors have been greatly exaggerated. Just as he went against the prejudicial grain of his age to enable us to hear what is most moving in the speeches of Othello and Shylock, Shakespeare intended that we should hear the authentic accents of Caliban. But even in a play as mysterious as The Tempest, we can detect an overarching authorial intention. Intentional fallacy notwithstanding, an author’s intention is not dismissed even by such radical linguistic skeptics as Nietzsche and Derrida. The latter, founding father of deconstruction, refers to authorial intention as an “indispensable guardrail…protecting” readings from going over the cliff, into that abyss of wild excess otherwise sanctioned by his notorious term “freeplay” (Of Grammatology, 158).

We want and need to hear the accents of a disinherited and exploited Caliban, as Shakespeare clearly intended we should. But not if amplifying Caliban’s voice through the filtering ear-trumpet of modern Identity politics comes at the cost of distorting the play Shakespeare actually wrote. I may find more difference than identity between early and later Coleridge in dealing with race, and more identity than difference between Defoe and Crusoe on the issue of slavery. Though Césaire’s “Adaptation for a Black Theatre” may be “based” on Shakespeare’s play, we are obviously intended by its author to find more difference than identity when it comes to the treatment of Caliban in Une tempête, a revolutionary text that is at once an adaptation and a despoiler of The Tempest. We will be moved and instructed by both plays; but, in the end, we should render unto Césaire the things that are Césaire’s, and unto godlike Shakespeare the things that are Shakespeare’s.

N.C. Wyeth illustration of Robinson CrusoeN.C. Wyeth illustration of Robinson Crusoe



This brief essay, as personal as it is “scholarly,” makes no attempt at an exhaustive examination of the vast body of modern criticism that has focused on the cultural, historical, and political aspects of The Tempest. For those who wish to pursue the subject, the following provide excellent starting points.

The Tempest and Its Travels, ed. Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman (Reaktion Books, 2000), brings together specially commissioned critical essays on the play’s various contexts and intertexts; the volume also includes poems and visual images. Along with excerpts from Césaire’s play, the editors include excerpts from two other stage versions: Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten’s Otra Tempestad, put on at The Globe (London) in 1998, and Tempest(s), staged at the Terra Nova Theater Institute in Copenhagen the following year. Arguing against the dismissal of anti-colonial readings and “appropriations” of Shakespeare’s text, Peter Hulme insists that such readings and stage-performances “do, actually…speak to the real text.” We should “listen to them and write a place for them in Shakespeare criticism” (233).

In a study illuminating the “New World” aspect of Caliban, Hulme had earlier explored that historical context, discussing colonial encounters between Europe and the Native Caribbean from 1492-1797. See Hulme, Prospero and Caliban (Routledge, 1986). The origin of the figure of Caliban and his disparate metamorphoses in stage history through 1993 is expertly examined in Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (Cambridge UP, 1993), and in Constellation Caliban: Figurations of a Character, eds. Nadia Lie and Theo D’haen (Amsterdam, 1997).

A year earlier, Jonathan Hart, going beyond both an ideal Prospero and a heroic Caliban, and attending to the play’s various genres, explored the interaction of the “political themes” of authority and rebellion (or freedom and slavery) with “the romance themes of survival, regeneration, and wonder.” See Hart’s “Redeeming The Tempest,” Cahiers Elizabethains (April, 1996): 23-38.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead, 1998.   

Bowie, Malcolm. “Island Infamy” [review of Une tempête] TLS (9 October 1998), 22.

Césaire, Aimé,  Une tempête, “Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest—Adaptation for a Black Theater.” Translated by Richard Miller (Online:, and by Philip Crispin (in 1998, for the Gate Theater production, and published by Oberon Books).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Marginalia, vol. 1, ed. George Whalley. Princeton UP, 1984.

____________________. “On the Slave Trade,” in Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion, ed. Louis Patton and Peter Mann. Princeton UP, 1971.

Dayan, Joan. “Playing Caliban: Césaire’s Tempest.” Arizona Quarterly 48 (1992), 125-45.

Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Angus Ross. Penguin, 1965.

__________. The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, in vol. 3 of the 14-volume Shakespeare Head edition of Defoe. Basil Blackwell, 1927.

__________. Defoe’s Review, ed. Arthur Wellesley Secord. Facsimile Text Society, 22 vols. Columbia UP, 1938.

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak. Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar” and “The Uses of Great Men” (Introduction to Representative Men ), both in Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. Library of America, 1983.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. [1960] Seabury Press, 1975.

Greenblatt, Stephen , “Culture,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, pp.225-32. U of Chicago P, 1990.

________________.  Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. Routledge, 1990.

Keane, Patrick J.  Coleridge’s Submerged Politics. U of Missouri P, 1994.

_____________.  “Slavery and the Slave Trade: Crusoe as Defoe’s Representative,” in Critical Essays on Daniel Defoe, ed. Roger D. Lund, pp. 97-120. G. K. Hall, 1997.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2000.

Levin, Richard. “The Poetics and Politics of Bardicide.” PMLA 105 (1990): 491-502.

Mannoni, Octave. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Praeger,1956.

Martin, Charles. Passages from Friday. Abbatoir Press, 1983.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. pp. 565-660. Viking Press, 1968.

________________. The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. Random House, 1967.

Retamar, Fernández. Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker. Minneapolis, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, Arden Edition, ed. Frank Kermode. Routledge, 1964.

__________________. The Tempest, Oxford Edition, ed. Steven Orgel. Oxford, 1987

Seidel, Michael, “Robinson Crusoe”: Island Myths and the Novel. Twayne, 1991.

Sen, Amartya, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Norton, 2006.

Stead, W. T. “First Impressions of the Theatre.” Review of Reviews (October, 1904): 360-67.

Thompson, E. P. “Disenchantment or Default: A Lay Sermon” [1969], reprinted in Thompson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. Free Press, 1997. pp. 33-74.

Walcott, Derek, The Gulf: Poems by Derek Walcott. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press, 1957.

 Yeats, W. B. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade. Rupert Hart-David, 1954.

__________. Explorations. Macmillan, 1963

 — Patrick J. Keane

Patrick J Keane 2

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


Mar 102014


Bianca Stone is an amazing poet/comic creator/illustrator/hybrid/amalgam artist who, yes, changes the weather a bit because she goes where she pleases, much like Anne Carson, with whom she collaborated on the book Antigonick (New Direction, 2012), Carson’s translation of Antigone. Stone has a new book just out, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), and she has great genes, being the granddaughter of the of the poet Ruth Stone. We have today an interview between NC’s own amalgamated poet/artist Nance Van Winckel and Bianca Stone, delightful and knowing. Note especially Stone’s analogy between drawing and the poem on the page.

And when I draw—poof! There’s suddenly a physical thing there, that can talk, that can move. And I take advantage of that. The body itself, the air around the body, the expression on the face—these things can work just like a poem. Speaking, but not saying everything.



NANCE VAN WINCKEL: In some of your comics the text can seem suggestive of a state of mind, a thinking-feeling condition. I’m thinking of, for example, “It’s like there’s a house in my skull with a woman waiting for someone to resurrect and take her outside.) The artwork itself, however, often gives this more “lyric” text a kind of narrative context: a physical space, characters, and situation. Can you comment on your own sense of how narrative and lyric impulses combine for you—in process and/or technique?


BIANCA STONE: I’ve always had a great love of narrative. But I prefer also to allow surrealism in to complicate the narrative. I think that’s just how our minds work. In my poetry comics it’s the perfect space to explore the two. You have the push and pull of the visual image (which is so much more immediate than words), and perhaps work against the literal. And against abstraction.

That line you mentioned, for example—how could I possibly draw that without wrecking the imagination of it? I don’t want to draw it. I want to imagine it; more importantly, I want the reader to imagine it. So I draw something that lies beside it, so to speak, like another line of the poem. So that it moves forward, avoiding the didactic, the static.

NVW: Regarding the Practicing Vigilance Series in Notnostrums.

“No coins left in heaven/ you say every day/ to the coin-operated wind.”

In this series I especially like how you get at one’s impulse to “speak,” to give voice to inner turmoil, “someone’s lipstick burning in your skull.” The bats in this series fly like bits of language into the urban brew-ha-ha. Many of your poem comics seem to be haunted by what I’d call “incomplete linguistic transactions.”

Bianca StoneVigilant

BS: I love that you imagined that the bat was bit of language. Because isn’t language, in a way, an image? Especially a poem—which uses the page like a canvas, and appreciates white space, the shape and sound of words, the drop at the end of a line. It’s beautiful for the eye (or perhaps hideous to the eye).

And when I draw—poof! There’s suddenly a physical thing there, that can talk, that can move. And I take advantage of that. The body itself, the air around the body, the expression on the face—these things can work just like a poem. Speaking, but not saying everything.

And often I’ll use poems for a drawing that perhaps need a little more. That aren’t done enough to be on their own. I’ll be using a poem, and take a line out because suddenly, while it’s all alone on the page, I realize it’s not strong enough. Thus, it often creates the non sequitur method that you find in more experimental comics and poetry. But also that method resists the narrative and allows more for music.

Some day soon I’ll be making a comic that’s much more narrative…that’s more a prose poem.


NVW: You say that in your poetry comics you “want to use the image as another element of form in poetry.” Could you talk a bit more about this text & image “gestalt?”

BS: Again, one is constantly resisting “illustration, ” in its traditional definition. You don’t want to draw what’s being said, because that’s redundant.

It’s damned abstract to talk about, frankly. An image as a line in poetry—it doesn’t make entire sense! But I believe it.

BlackTightsBlack Tights

NVW: Regarding Antigonick, your collaboration with Anne Carson, is it true you didn’t even see her written text until after you’d done the illustrations? But of course you no doubt knew the play. Did you come away from this project with any new understandings about the collaboration process?

BS: Not entirely true! What I did see (read, spend hours with) was Anne’s text. I had it beside me while I did the art. I worked from it, as I do with all my poetry comics.

However, Anne and Robert Currie didn’t show me the hand-written text until I was finished. And then Currie magically came up with a method to put the images and text together.

Collaboration is hard. Very hard. You make endless false starts, and you spend a lot of time alone, weeping internally, worrying about everything. But then you come together and put things together like a couple of curious, eager architects. You step back and you have this one giant product. And you’re so proud. Your ego isn’t too wrapped up in it, because you all did it together.

It’s something that you do with people you trust artistically, and emotionally. And it makes you a better, more humble person.

NVW: I loved the poem “Elegy with Judy Garland (and Refrigerator).” I so admire how the language synchs with the music and the graphics. The intermix of drawing and film, of music and voice-over make for one of the better poetry videos I’ve seen. Does the poem come first, and then the animation take shape around that? And is poetry video a main direction for your work these days?

BS: I’ve always loved making videos. Ever since I was a teenager and had a massive VHS camcorder. The past few years I’ve been doing it again, and it’s really something I’ll keep doing.

It takes a long time. But the main things to remember are:

1. Use a good, finished poem.

2. Make a high-quality recording of it. (Read it well. Read it slowly.)

3. As I preach in my poetry comics, avoid “telling” the poem. Let the poem speak for itself. Use ghosts of subjects in your poem, but not verbatim.

Then comes all the hard work of figuring out the visuals. I’ve developed a kind of stop-animation process with my drawings, which is time consuming and bizarre. The process itself is a kind of performance piece (drawing free-style with a camera blocking half my view; trying not to move the paper or my camera.)

Thinking of the video-making process as part of it will slow you down, and help you make a better video.

A lot of poem videos are kind of awkward…it’s important to pick the right tone (music, sounds, title font, footage).


NVW: I know you’re the granddaughter of Ruth Stone, a poet who’s near and dear to my heart, and I know too that you’re running the foundation to make her Vermont house a writer’s retreat and artist space. Could you talk a bit about how her life and/or her poetry have influenced your own? In your video, “Because You Love You Come Apart,” I could swear the first voice is Ruth’s.

BS: YES, the first voice is grandma’s voice, with me pantomiming it. She was an amazing reader.

Well, how to begin with this….grandma’s poetry is the most important poetry to me in the world. Her voice, her words, her love, is why I’m a poet.

I’ve written a lot about it. But to kind of sum-up, I spent my childhood with her (living with her in Binghamton while she was teaching there, traveling to readings, spending summers with her in Goshen, VT). We wrote together all the time, read her poems out loud; created together. I was raised by a single mother, so we spent a lot of our life dependent on my grandmother. My whole maternal family really revolved around her.


Since her house in Vermont has always been a haven for her writing, and for students, poets, artists (and of course my mother and aunts), I’ve always dreamed of making it into a writer’s retreat. Sadly, the house needs about 500,000 worth of renovation (it’s also a historical landmark, so that price includes the parameters of restoring such a house). People tell me to tear it down, and I just want to scream! I wouldn’t dream of it! I’ve been toiling away with whoever will help, raising as much money as we can, trying to save it. All her writing and books and my family’s history is in there, getting eaten by mice and consumed by the elements. This summer I’ll be up there full-time. I’m going to get married there!

Honestly, anyone who can, please donate here at the Ruth Stone Foundation site and read more about what we’re doing.


NVW: I know you have a new book, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, just out with Tin House/Octopus Books. Does it include visual art? Or did visual art—your own or others—inspire the poems in the book?

BS: I did the cover. (Which, I at first said I wouldn’t do, because art sometimes trumps words.) But besides that, it’s all about my poems. However, you’ll notice in the book that several poems are also poetry-comics and/or poem-videos out in the world.

I’ve been looking forward to my first book for a long, long time. I was patient in the end, waiting until I had it right. Now I’m thrilled with the whole trajectory of my poetry. I just wish grandma were here to see it.

—Nance Van Winckel & Bianca Stone


Bianca Stone grew up in Vermont, and graduated with an MFA from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. She is the author of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), several poetry and poetry comic chapbooks, and is also the illustrator of Antigonick, (a collaboration with Anne Carson). Her poems have appeared in magazines such as American Poetry ReviewTin House, and Crazyhorse. She lives in Brooklyn.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, andGettysburg Review. She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon ReviewBoneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review OnlineClick this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
Mar 092014

author photo color

Your Moon Cover

Ralph Angel is a brilliant poet, master of the laconic veering toward silence. Like his beloved Pierre Reverdy, he writes lines that turn your mind inside out, something always yielding to its opposite, presence and absence intertwine.

I painted the walls and the ceiling an even white.
Then I knocked out a wall.

The words emerge from the white space of the page, hesitant, whispered into the silence, uncertain of return. Melancholy, mysterious, precise.

These are poems from Angel’s new book, Your Moon, just launched from Western Michigan University’s amazing press New Issues Poetry & Prose.




In one breath of air
I swam to the bottom of the ocean and brought back the earth.

I painted the walls and the ceiling an even white.
Then I knocked out a wall.

On the lake a swan folds herself into her wings
forever.  It was that

time of year.  The snakes are making rain.


Being Back

Sooner or later I am out folding chairs again, and so
leave myself behind, though flirting
with an angel a few stairs
above me
feels just as real
and keeps things moving.

A golden retriever licks my hand.  It’s Christmas
in Chicago.  The family’s here
and from the cemetery
there’s talk of food
and family.

It’s flat
and cold in Dallas.  And then a bursting
cloud of grackles.

An old man pees himself.  His wife
takes her seat and thanks me.  In Louisville,
Kentucky, a baby’s
handed me.

In Seattle (must I go there, too?), I’m here
for you, and I know

I won’t be back.


The Traffic Is Going Down the Hills

The traffic is going down the hills
above the city to the harbor

and back again, past the statue
of a goddess poised

in her abandon.  Her arms
hang to the side

without touching her body.

At her feet a beautiful young girl
holds a plastic bag

in her hand, ready to pick up
her pet’s


Little sister, arranging
bottle caps.  Little brother, back

and forth you run
from one side of the pier

to the other.

Oh young mother
pulling your thin dress

to yourself

and tighter.

 —Ralph Angel


Ralph Angel’s latest collection, Your Moon, was awarded the 2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize. Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 received the 2007 PEN USA Poetry Award, and his Neither World won the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. In addition to five books of poetry, he also has published an award-winning translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song. Angel is the recipient of numerous honors, including a gift from the Elgin Cox Trust, a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award, the Willis Barnstone Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Foundation fellowship and the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association. He lives in Los Angeles, and is Edith R. White Distinguished Professor at the University of Redlands, and a member of the MFA in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His personal website is here.


Mar 082014


In 1996, less than a decade after the major state-run publishers closed during the revolution, the Romanian publishing house Humanitas, philosopher-owned and focused on critical nonfiction, published a suitably cerebral novel by the name of Orbitor: Aripa Stângă or Blinding: The Left Wing. Its author, the poet and essayist Mircea Cărtărescu, had spent the previous decade firmly establishing himself as one of the foremost figures in Romanian literature. The Left Wing, which Archipelago Books published in late 2013 as Blinding, is the first in a trilogy of books which seek out a greater human consciousness by uniting memories of the past with intimations of the future in a prophetic, far-seeing present. Humans lack a fundamental symmetry, Cărtărescu proposes in Blinding, and in this way we are like butterflies with only one wing.

Blinding focuses on that wing of the past, a thing wrought of memory and nostalgia. In a way it is autobiographical: the narrator-protagonist is Mircea Cărtărescu, and much of the story revolves around his childhood in Bucharest and his parents’ experiences in the Romanian capital before he came into being. But Blinding is welded together by fantasies and hallucinations. When facts are scarce and memories end, Cărtărescu fills the pages with his dreaming.

The following excerpt, featuring Cărtărescu’s future parents Maria and Costel (here they’re just young romantics) as they explore bombed-out factory wreckage in the wake of a pleasant movie date, shows the author’s talent for sliding casually into the realm of the unreal. Maria, feeling as if she has been chosen for this purpose, has just called down an elevator from a shaft that is miraculously still standing – the Allies bombed Bucharest heavily in the Second World War in an effort to disrupt railroad lines and destroy oil reserves – and when the glowing chamber reaches the ground, the doors open and this is what emerges.

The excerpt is published with permission from the publisher, the amazing  Archipelago Books. See my review of the novel here.

—Adam Segal


Inside the walnut-paneled car, between the crystal windows that doused the area with prisms and rainbow iridescences, seated on a little chair, was a rubicund, naked woman, blinding in the milky maturity of her skin, who held in her arms, like a swan and just as heavy, an immense butterfly with a thick, velvety body, six nervous legs that ended in claws propped on the woman’s breasts and stomach, a round head with enigmatic eyes, and a proboscis rolled up like a clock spring. The wings, unable to unfurl completely in the tight space, lined the car with an electric blue that hurt your eyes to look at, like the flame of a welding torch. The woman was at least forty years old. She had rings under her glassy, intelligent eyes, her breasts turned slightly toward the ground and their bluish curves were marked with small blue veins, and her stomach was creased with several deep folds. Her hair had grown down to the ragged floor of the elevator and the last tendrils were spread on the ground, wrapping her right thigh in curls and distinct locks. A subtle scent, dissolving rapidly in the sweet spinning of spring, wafted from her icon-like pose. A large, melancholic Omega was gouged between her eyebrows.

For a long time, she barely moved, staring at the two young people surrounded by the crepuscular light. When she stood, they sensed the fully female power of her hips. Her delicate webs of dry, curly hair did not quite cover the curved whiteness of her pubis, marked by a vertical velvet fissure. Released from the confining walls, where it left blue smudges like eye shadow, the butterfly beat its wings several times. Unfurled, they were more than three meters across. Although the woman held on to it as strongly as she could, hugging her arms around its ringed body, it still managed to pull itself free, to circle like a bird of prey over the vacant lot and rest, finally, on the warm wall of the house at the end. With its wings spread almost as wide as the yellow wall, it basked a few moments in the already rubicund rays of the sun, and then it brought its wings together and rested like the tail of a gnomon, casting a peaked shadow over the dandelions and chamomiles growing at the foot of the cracked wall. The underside of its wings took relief in the light that fell on their veins and nerves, a much paler blue below than the one above. Over the house’s pointed roof and chimneys, on the stillafternoon sky, blue, just visible, was the thin fingernail of the moon.

“You are Maria,” the woman said, stepping outside the box where she had waited for twelve years, feeding the strange infant from her breast, and dreaming, maybe, or gazing in a trance into the mirror on the elevator car wall. Because the mammary glands and tear glands are skin modified by the same hormone, the butterfly had fed alternately on tears and milk. Now the woman walked gracefully on the warm sidewalk, enveloped in spring. Costel and Maria walked very slowly, on either side of her, down the empty street. “Charlie told me about you. We only met for a moment, but he was able, in that moment, to tell me everything. The years from that time until I met you have passed so quickly, it’s like I was in a book and the author wrote ‘and then twelve years passed’. . . Just that much, as long as a phrase, an endless phrase that enclosed my child and me in a vial of liquid time. When I was young, I read the fairy tale about the djinn trapped in his bottle for millennia, and I quaked wondering how it was possible to experience something like that, the silence and endless stillness, your mind devouring itself in convulsions, nails growing into the heel of your hand, until they came out the other side, teeth plunging savagely into your tongue just to feel something, and from time to time, powerful hysteria rising inside you, dissolving you in its poisoned acid. . . So much better to choose the nameless tortures of a true, honest, inferno, with concrete objects that smash your mouth and crack your eyes and rip your kneecaps from your flesh! Even screaming, even writhing, you know you exist, that you are in history coming from somewhere and going somewhere, albeit another horrible suffering.

“It was different with me, it’s different with women. I lay in my chrysalis like a hard-shelled louse, degenerate, just a stomach full of fat and eggs, without eyes, without nerves, without hopes or expectations. Not like a consciousness that follows a thought to its end, then remains empty until the end of time, but like a thought from another, much greater someone, like a letter in a book, like a dot of color in a painting. I did not suffer, because I am woven from suffering; I did not think, because I am part of another thought, the fantastic intellection at the root of the world. My message is encoded in me, it is me, the way the host is the Savior, and the words of this message, meant only for you, are my fingers, lips, hips, spleen and vertebrae and large intestine. How odd, to live through someone else’s history, as though you were a dream creature, created entirely by the mind and yet complete, with personalities and desires, and with brown eyes with green flecks, without interiority, and which does not think, see, hear, or know it is alive. To be a secondary character in someone else’s novel rather than the enormous world of your full complexity, to be only one who brings a tray with a letter. To Hell with your heart and vulva and beliefs! Did you deliver the message? You will never appear again, not in this book or any other. And still, how pleasant it is to bear a message of good news. . . To be the Angel, kneeling with folded wings, speaking with a different kind of vocal apparatus than humans have, amidst the sounds of a triangle and carillon: ‘Rejoice, Maria!’ And then dissolving, not to disappear forever, but to return to the Intelligence whose fold you were, as though the fold would flatten or the smile depart, leaving the face serious, smiling only in its celestial eyes. . .

“I, this crumple in the sheet, this pleat of the Divine. This imperfection, this shard. This negativeness, which, much more blinding than beautiful, exceeds the flesh and mind in monstrousness. Ringworms, scorpions with translucent tails, octopi, abyssal fish that are all teeth, spiders and scabies, hunchbacks, lepers, cretins and newborns with only one eye in their foreheads are all less hideous than a beautiful woman in the splendor of her youth. For she is a piece plucked from God, a biopsy of his organ of light, a painful lumbar puncture that squirts a jet of liquid. She leaves a cavern in perfection, and she travels a much greater distance than monsters or any nightmare. It is terrible to possess beauty. Over twelve years I often looked at myself in the mirror, until my sin, my greatest and most unforgivable sin – because arrogance is another name for beauty – became clear and unbearable. Such joy I felt to find, now and then, a ring or wrinkle! Such a relief when my forehead was blotched with freckles! And when a pimple appeared on my lip, I was happy for days; it was as though a supernova had exploded in the abysses of constellations, destroying shameless matter, filling entire parsecs with blood. Aging, I offended the Flame less and less, my spark gained more and more of the delicate texture of ash. That’s all, all I wanted to be: a letter in a book, a snowflake of ash. . . Blessed, then and welcome may my double chin be, my sagging breasts, stretch marks, and varicose veins. I feel my beauty ebbing out of me like plasma, illuminating my contour and returning to the Beauty of the limitless one. . .”

Costel and Maria came to the end of the street, with the grand odalisque between them, her nipples turning wine-scarlet in the declining light. They stopped, contemplating the vanishing point of the nearly deserted boulevard. Some groups of young people passed occasionally, high school students with caps and briefcases, college kids with their hair combed flat over their heads, girls with their hair all in curls and eyebrows oddly plucked, their “eyebrows abroad,” as Tomazian teased on the radio; you might see a gentleman with a lavalier, a cane in hand, and a suit so elegant you wondered if time had gone backwards and the “Befores” ridiculed in magazines had become the “Afters.” Even though people passing by smiled at the three of them – they’d stopped at the corner, by the storefront of a funeral home, with a coffin leaned against the wall – nobody seemed to notice anything unusual. Walking on tip-toe, with her hair down to the backs of her knees, the last ringlets tickling the soft flesh there, oval like a closed eye, the woman from the elevator seemed to be made of honey-colored air. Maria suspected, despite their passivity, that everyone else could see the woman just as well as they did, but she matched so well the odd, nostalgic corner of Bucharest and the nightfall that she didn’t register in their minds. Her image descended directly into the obscure depths of their emotions and dreams.

They turned back, passing the unmoving houses again. Behind the curtains and windows covered with blue paper, a light would appear here and there. Maria remembered, charmed, the wonders in her landlord’s room on Silistra: dolls with pink and blue dresses, vases with painted feathers, pictures of wooly kittens. . . There could be so much of this kind of beauty behind every one of those curtains! She would never lose the taste for knick-knacks, macramé doilies, little framed photos: and in ten or fifteen years, on Ştefan cel Mare, she would fill her house with little angels, squirrels or kaolin ducklings, at two or three lei apiece, bracing herself resignedly for her husband’s sarcasm: “You brought another hen? If you won’t throw them all out, I will, just wait!”

“I had no childhood or youth. I page through my memory pointlessly, the way you pointlessly try to remember the eternity before you were born. Yet, there is a gray light there, a nuance somewhat lighter than the black we use for nothingness, and which, without representing, without showing something, signifies that the apparatus exists through which something might show itself. There are blind people who know they used to see, but, through an accident of fate, do not, and there are others who have no knowledge of any lack, for whom sight is unimaginable, the way we cannot imagine what we would feel if a sensory organ opened in our forehead like a flower, or if we grew bushy antennae like a moth. I always knew I was made to exist, full in body and mind, like the large, limpid eyes of the blind or dead, but also that I could not perceive existence. What does a millipede perceive, hanging in a slow spiral beneath a rotting leaf? What can a paramecium, writhing in a cup of tea, sense of the world’s spectacle? I experienced and sensed only that much for more than twenty years, as though I lived within the vague and mediocre dream of a railway clerk. I probably whimpered all night, wrapped up tight in wet diapers, struggling to get my hands out. I think I later went to school and shoved my classmates during recess, and I dirtied my nails with ink, and my cheeks and even my tongue. . . Or maybe I was sweet and awkward at thirteen, when anyone could do anything, embarrassed and revolted by the painful growth of my breasts. . . putting my first pad in my shorts and feeling, with more and more irritation, the wetness there. . . Maybe I was courted by a carbuncular apprentice who carried my books home and clowned around. . . I have no idea. None of this even weighs as much as a film that my mind confuses with all the others when I emerge from the dark theater, squinting my eyes against the August light, the sparking windshields and shop windows full of colored inscriptions. I only know this much: until the bombing I was, for a year, the elevator operator in this office building of a RomanianGerman petroleum corporation. For a whole year, eight hours a day, I sat on my little chair, opening and closing the elevator door, sliding the iron gate over, pushing buttons, carrying the clerks and their perfumed secretaries up and down, without any thought beyond doing this my whole life and then retiring from this less-than-two-square-meter box. Day after day within the four walls, thinking that I could have been a worker in a fertilizer factory, spitting out my lungs after a couple of months, or a waitress carrying ten plates or eight pints of beer at once with my butt bruised from pinching, or a whore bearing all the pigs and drunks on earth. . . So, at least I had a chair to sit on, at least, sometimes, the polite gentlemen smiled (even though they would try to touch me almost every day when, to my horror, one would enter the elevator alone and I had to take him to the top; sometimes I even had happen what any operator will tell you is normal: a gentleman shows you something before you can close your eyes, and you end up – you, a virgin with romantic dreams – with that pink stalk on your retina, unable to get it out of your mind, crying through the night on your lonely bed), at least the air smelled of cologne and Havana cigars. . . I had my proud moments and small satisfactions: I thought everyone admired the way I could stop the elevator, with a quick, decisive motion, right at the floor, not a millimeter too high or low. . . In the evenings, after the corporation closed, I would go, with my stiff back, through the ash of the streets, and, after a dreamlike hour of walking, reach my room, where I curled up on the bed like a kitten. I never saw anyone, never went out. Sundays it always rained, and all I did was sit by the wet window and look outside, at the yard behind the house, and watch the single tree there shake under gusts of rain. But I would not get lost in reveries or lamentations like other unmarried girls. Too great was my lack of experience, too obvious that all I touched turned to ash. It became ever clearer, precisely because no one chose me, that I was a chosen one. Not the Chosen One, because I sensed how small and weak I was. But still, something was going to happen, there would be significant moments, or hours. I would exist within a story, even if it wasn’t my story. It would give me coherence and dignity within a world, even if it was the most illusory world of all. Because you get reality from a story, not a substance. You could be carved in stone and not exist, lost somewhere inside endless dunes. But if you are a phantom in a dream, then the great light of the dream justifies you, constructs you. And there, in the story twisting in the mind of a person sleeping, you are truer than a billion inhabited worlds.

“And when, one evening in spring-summer-fall-winter (I had lost, if I ever had it, the thread of days and seasons) I found myself stuck in the top floor of the elevator shaft, with the electricity suddenly cut and a diffuse smell of fear floating around me like an arabesque of cigarette smoke, I knew at once that my astral moment had arrived. The sirens howled deafeningly outside, it was like you could hear, in a metaphysical sense, the engines of the approaching bombers, and when the quakes and explosions began, like a summer storm when the scary lightning flashes and you taste metal on your tongue and the children scream with their heads under blankets. This kind of blinding flash of lightning disassembled, in a single blow, the brick and lime flesh of the building, leaving only a skeleton of beams and black mesh. Up on the top floor, in my box of wood and crystal, with nighttime Bucharest around me, violently illuminated, from time to time, by the anti-aircraft guns and the ravishing explosions of carpet bombing. In contrast to the disaster below, a massive crystal moon, in its first quarter, wove itself around me like a motionless spider’s web.

“Then I took off my clothes, and I stood completely naked to await my winged groom, there, in the narrow nuptial chamber. He knew I was there, before he saw me from his cabin, he sensed the pheromones emanating from below my stomach (he felt with his brain, not his nostrils, because the brain is no more than the monstrous blossom of the olfactory bulb), and he dove toward my ziggurat of grease and metal. Suddenly he was in my cabin, blond and naked, with butterfly wings between his shoulder blades, his penis erect, powerful and golden, his dog tags on a silver chain around his neck. I clung to him and everything became luminous, fabulously colored, as though we had entered the mystical aura of a chakra with dozens of petals. When he broke my seal, he inserted in the center of my abdomen not only an ivory liquid, but also complete knowledge, as though his cannula of supple flesh had become a cord of communication between our two minds, through which, in a flash, we said everything to each other, we knew everything about each other, from the chemistry of our metabolisms to our complexes, preferences, experiences, and fantasies. He was Charlie Klosowsky from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was accompanying the bombers that took off almost daily from an airbase in Malta. A lieutenant with almost a thousand hours of flight time in the supple Spitfire which, through an ingenious mechanism, fired through propeller blades that rotated so fast they became invisible, he had flown many times over the Balkans and Romania. He had watched the steel cylinders of the Ploieşti refineries explode and the stations at Câmpina crumble to bits as though made of matchsticks. He had run through the sky, like he was playing tag, with IARs and Stukas; he had seen flak tear balls of fire and black smoke from a bomber’s stomach, and the mushrooms of dust grow, three thousand meters below, on scratches as abstract as a map of the earth. It was like he had done nothing his whole life: held the joystick, pushed the triggers of his guns, and looked at the indicator panel, alone in his cabin, for hours and hours, just as I, in the elevator cabin, pushed buttons and watched the succession of floors. We both rose and fell, and neither of us had memories or a life of our own. We had come into the world (but which one?) only for the moment of our coupling, like two insects, in a halo of concentric circles of light. And that was how we would always be: standing, stuck together, united above in our gazes and below by that seminal cable, through which we felt millions of bits of information invading me. We stayed like that, in that closed circuit, in that wheel through which the man flowed into the woman through her sex and the woman into the man through his eyes, even when we released each other, even when he stepped backwards and took a moment to gaze at my belly and breasts, both wet with sweat. I looked once more at the curly hair on his chest, also wet, and his soft sex, and then he was in his ashen cabin again, and he was completely ashen, like in a black-and-white film from wartime, racing on through the calm or cloudy skies with the planes of enemy hunters, shot down the same day or surviving until the depths of old age, bouncing grandchildren on their knees and telling them how they fought in the war. Who cares?

“As for me, I stayed in the cabin, aging for twelve years, and raising my child. From the beginning, I felt it in my uterus, first like a revolting larva, with, fortunately, soft mandibles, frightening to look at. I saw it, as though my stomach had turned to crystal. It ate my placenta like a worm eats a cabbage leaf. Then it grew limbs and its wings budded in its armpits. And from one day to another it became a butterfly. It spread through my uterine canal like the showcase of an insect collection, its proboscis sucking at the gelatin plug that separated it from our world. It was born completely wrapped in its wings; it came out dirty with blood and placental liquid and its own feces, that I had to clean afterward, for days on end, with my saliva, tears, and milk. After a week it was puffy and fresh, with sparkling eyes, and it spread its wings, which had room then to curve freely through the space between the mirror and the grill. At first, the tips of its wings were not more than two hand-widths apart, and their blue didn’t flash like it does now. It was a female which must, someday, reach maturity. I combed my fingers daily through the soft fur on its belly, and I felt, near the last rings, how the tubes were growing that would fill the air, for hundreds of kilometers, with scents only their antennae can perceive. Pheromones: a single molecule suffices for one cubic kilometer of air. Yes, soon I will have suitors for my little girl. . .”

The suitors appeared, but they looked so pitiful! Passing the last five-story apartment block before the lot, the three people watched, amazed, behind the tower of black mesh, a scene from a fantasy. At the far end of the lot, the entire wall of the house was covered with butterflies. In the center, its enormous wings wide and sparkling, rested the elevator woman’s grand butterfly. Its knob-capped antennae symmetrically framed the window where the old woman with a sucker in her mouth reappeared. Around its immense wings, placed symmetrically and in an orderly fashion, were countless other butterflies, each one unique, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, making up a carpet of ravishing beauty. Even in the distillated twilight, the colors glowed like glass, yet velvety, in soft nuances that merged and separated, making waves, turning toward a unanimous brown and flashing again in green, azure, lemon, mahogany, and carnation, so pure that you would have thought that they were the flames of a quartz prism, or that they were the light of dawn, like a needlepoint of drops of dew, on a violet crocus. The moon above showed its strong, sharp peaks.

The golden, naked woman opened her mouth wide, until the curved tip of her tongue became visible, held from below by a flap of skin, and she let out a piercing sound. The great butterfly abruptly lifted from the wall, blowing away the others with the beat of its azure wings. It turned again over the vacant lot and threw itself, like a hawk diving at a field mouse, onto its mother’s breast. The velvety body was almost as long as she was. The woman held it in her arms and turned to Maria: “It will be soon,” she said, smiling so sadly and strangely, that, years later, that smile would reappear to Maria in her nightmares. And, before the young people could recover, the woman pushed the butterfly into the elevator. She knelt before the girl, large and heavy, wrapped in her fibrous hair, and kissed her right hand. The lips on the back of her hand appeared to release a volatile substance that rose into Maria’s brain and, for a moment, made it sparkle. Costel saw clearly (but he would soon forget) a crown of light around the temples of his beloved. The woman rose and turned, showing her imperious hips, with her dark, almost animal, vulva beneath them, and went into the elevator cabin, sat again on the chair and took the butterfly back into her arms. In all this time, the air was so dense with the other thousands of lepidopterae that the two of them simply breathed them in, pulling them into their nostrils and lungs, feeling how they fluttered in the alveoli, and exhaling them again into the dusk. But in the end, together with the almost complete nightfall and the apparition of the first stars on the summer sky (since it had become, without doubt, summer, and the night was hot and scented), all the butterflies flew into the elevator, as though into a luminous trap, filling the space completely. Behind the grill, the woman and the great butterfly were no longer visible. Maria closed the metal door, and the elevator slowly started upwards, making the tower of pitch tremble. At the top, it stopped beneath the great wheel, and it would have become completely invisible if the moon hadn’t beat blue light on its crystal windows.

Maria took her dark young man by the hand and set off, overcome with sadness, through the spectral streets, toward home. They crossed the city in little more than an hour, hardly speaking. Costel was completely focused on the small, damp palm of his girl, whose fingers twitched at the caresses of his own. The heat intensified and the trees along the streets smelled of fleshy leaves and sap. A tram would pass on its way to the train yard at Vatra Luminoasă, rattling and shaking on the rails. Garbage men filled bins beside scavengers, and the street cleaners stood in twos and threes, leaning on their brooms and smoking. Some factories had their workshops illuminated and inside pieces of machinery twitched: the night shift. They came, finally, to Colentina. From the soap factory came an unbearable smell of rancid fat. They went two more stops on the tram, passing the short and dilapidated houses, covered with tarred cardboard like garages. Costel, who had been enveloped by the endless afternoon, almost without his knowing, in an egg of translucid yet impenetrable amber – because to intuit a miracle you need a different synaptic make-up than the step-by-step macramé of short strings in the left hemisphere, and Costel was a true believer in the left hemisphere, the logician of melancholy – hummed a song to himself that at the time was on everyone’s lips:

And one, and two, and nine, and ninety-nine,
Tell me, Gardenia, tell me,

and he wondered again what spring or lever to push to make Maria’s neck muscles contract and turn her gaze toward him, so that later, through another adroit maneuver, the way he worked the metal sheer in the ITB plant, he could provoke at least a little smile, at least one gentle lift of the cheek bones, or that complex and ineffable coordination of peribuccal and periorbital sphincters that produced an expression of tranquility. He was four years younger than Maria, and in his still-virginal mind, he pictured a large table, like the one for logarithms, sines and cosines in the musty book he had in his room, a table of the thousands of gestures, words, corporeal shifts, facial expressions, hairstyles, clothes, shoes, cigarettes, cirrus patterns, cloud cover, constellations, political events, sidewalk chips, flashes of memory – matching all the possible reactions of the female youth, in a direct, unequivocal, and immutable relation. But it took hundreds of parts of this mechanism, activated at once and in synchronization, for her to graze his poorly shaved cheek with her hand, hundreds of thousands of meshing gears and transmitting belts for her to embrace him, and (here, Costel had no doubt that all his mechanical aptitude would not help him at all) a mechanism vaster and more complex than the universe, with more components than there were photons running through space, for Maria ever to say to him, “I love you.” The table, as yet, included very few certainties, many hypotheses, and a host of erasures and revisions. It stretched, step by step, in unforeseeable and heteroclite directions.

They entered a tangle of streets on the right of the main road, through the darkness that smelled like dirty wash-water . Crickets chirped, dogs barked, and from time to time an old man in a beret poked his head out of his gate, looked up the street and mumbled something. Then he closed the gate and disappeared into a vault of grape vines. In other yards, people were eating outside, around a table covered with a cloth, under a light bulb hung over a branch. Thousands of flies and mosquitoes glinted as they flew around the bulb. But most houses were silent and dark already, covered with a powder of stars.

A triangular piaţa, dimly lit by a streetlight, had a round place in the center with flowers and a cheap statue of a plaster soldier, smaller than life-size, with his gun raised. One hand had fallen off long ago, leaving a stub of rusty iron, the kind used to reinforce concrete. It was an unspeakably sad place. Entering it, you grew just as pale and immaterial as everything around you. But exactly there, Maria stopped, turned toward Costel and said seriously, almost angrily, “Kiss me.” The Bănăţean felt his mind make a popping sound and the world order shake. The effect came before the cause and time ran backwards. In a moment, he tossed the limitless table into the fire, since it foretold nothing, and he abandoned himself as living prey, to the other hemisphere, where contradictions disappear within a tender light, a universal solvent. He awkwardly took the girl by her waist, the way he’d seen in movies, and he tried to open her mouth with his lips and tongue, but she resisted, and their kiss was a typical 1950s kiss, romantic and almost chaste, the way everyone imagined their mother and father kissing before they came into the world. And that’s what it was: a Hollywood kiss, with mimed passion and no drop of eroticism. Even the light on Maria when they let each other go and Costel could see her face directed up at him, seemed studied, like a lighting effect meant to emphasize her sparkling eyes and her teeth as perfect as yesteryear’s divas’. Maria had not put her arms around Costel’s neck but held him lightly on the shoulders, as though they were dancing. She didn’t know why she had told him to kiss her. Maybe it was fear. She had thought again and again about the woman with the butterflies and her terrible message. She was chosen, she didn’t doubt it – but for what? And why her exactly? Lord, she thought, it’s frightening to be chosen, to feel the angel’s finger point toward you like a dagger. To feel that you have left the obscurity of your freedom behind, that you are in the light, that you are observed, every moment of your life, and that nothing belongs to you, not even your own soul. It is so extraordinary for the gaze of Someone so powerful and incomprehensible to stop on you, that it doesn’t matter whether you are chosen for beatitude or torture. We should pray, daily, in hope and despair, “Lord, do not choose me, Lord, never let me know you, do not keep me in your book. . .” Maria trembled with fascination and horror, because from now on, she could not escape. Yes, out of fear she had kissed the apprentice, fear she would love him and marry him and stay with him her entire life. How clear it was! She looked at the young man carefully, as though for the first time: was he even worth loving? Was he going to be the man of her life? She saw black eyes and pale cheeks and sad lips. Suddenly, she was indifferent to it all. “Why her exactly? Why her?”

They parted, after they had talked a little more, holding both hands, at the gate by her house on Silistra. It seemed like they were deep at the bottom of an ocean, that the stars were just the reflections of waves under the moon of another world. The oleander in the yard was sweet and dizzying. They kissed again, their lips barely touching, and Maria went inside. In their wire cage, the peacock and the peahen pecked a stump of wood. Marinache ruffled his wings in sleep, sensing the girl pass, but his squawk stopped in his throat, and his comb rested pale and soft, hanging over his beak. A few windows, covered with blue paper, were lit, and there were men’s and women’s voices, talking quietly or arguing. The girl went up the narrow stairs, in an almost total darkness, down the hall that creaked terribly with every step, and unlocked the door to her room.

Through the window comes the moon,
It comes into our room,

she murmured, because, actually, the scythe of moon threw a bluish light on the floor and side of her bed. She felt, all at once, terribly alone. She curled up on her mattress, pulled her sheet over her head, and fell asleep, after weeping like a child for a long time.

Costel had stayed a bit by the gate, inhaling the suffocating air of the slums, where the peppery smell of the stars mixed bizarrely, nostalgically, with barking from far-away dogs. His hands in his pockets toyed with a few coins, turning them between threads and crumbs. Maria. For him, Maria was the woman with the butterflies, even her lips were the butterflies every man waited for mystically, and which he had tasted there, beneath the piaţa’s dim lightbulb. Like through sparkfilled stillness, the image of his beloved, completely psychic (because even though he had held her, Costel would never have dared to imagine that he would one day master the empire of tissues, glands, and memories that carried the name Maria, and to whose ports he would send galleons loaded to the masts with hopes, gazes, caresses, sperm, dusks, a desperate flotilla of impossible communication), ran drop by drop through his venous system. It reached his heart, now surrounded by the rays of the moon. From the auricles it rippled into the ventricles, and then it was shot by a powerful contraction into the jugular arteries, where it separated into thousands of filaments and tubes that pushed their tiny fingers into his brain and wandered through the axonic pipes. Billions of identical Marias in glucose tunics housed themselves like parasites in every starry cell and every glial cell like enchanted spirochetes, they met in halls and corridors and merged one with another, like beads of mercury, into the greatest and most hieratic Sea, until, in the supreme hall, on the brain’s supreme throne, framed by griffons, a single, immense Maria shook again, reflecting the pleasant bas-relief of the skull, under which she barely fit, and where she was venerated by a deceased Polish poet from two centuries ago. After the light went out in the girl’s window, Costel lit a cigarette and went back through the sweltering labyrinth, starting at every shadow. With each step, he felt his skull wobble gently, like a gyroscope.

Soon, the night became suspect. The muddy streets multiplied, and the stars above were not the same. They were dull and close like naïvely painted scenery. The fences, where he ran his fingers, absentmindedly, began to shine like cardboard. The houses blurred their barely visible outlines, becoming unformed mounds of earth, and the dogs’ barking rarified and spread over scales in ever slower glissandi. “What the hell?” said the young man, passing a hand through his hair. His hair was now as dense as a piece of rubber. When his hand fell over his face, he felt dull, softened features, as though modeled in porcelain. Even the visual space seemed full of cobwebs. Costel looked, like a sleepwalker, at his left hand: his fingers were shrinking into his palm. In a flash, he realized that he had left the Story, that he had reached the wings, where everything was crosshatched, a world barely formed, its space and time still budding. He continued moving forward, until there was nothing left of him but the forward movement. The world now was dirty and diaphanous, like modeling clay when you’ve mixed all the colors together, all the figurines, all the trees. Soon, any property would be reabsorbed into the final matrix: the night. Which also dissipated into the unthought, the unwritten, the nonexistent. Into the white page, above which I lean, and which I will no longer desecrate with the obscene seed of my pen.

—Mircea Cărtărescu, Translated by Sean Cotter


Mircea Cărtărescu was born in Bucharest in 1956. Cărtărescu began his writing career in his early twenties, and soon became a celebrated cultural icon for his poetry. Cărtărescu has written of his youth in Romania as living in a sort of prison, because of the pervasive communist oppression and because he subsequently could not conceive of a reality beyond Romanian life, excepting what he read about in books. In 1990, the year following the revolution, Cărtărescu left Romania for the first time and visited several cities across the US, an experience whose massive shock left him feeling “as miserable as a Kafka character” and greatly impacted his writing. Cărtărescu continues to be prolific in poetry, fiction, and essay, and has won a number of international prizes including the Berlin International Prize for Literature, the Romanian Academy’s Prize and the Vilenica Prize. This is the first time any of Cărtărescu’s Orbitor trilogy has been published in English


Mar 082014

The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. —Adam Segal


A Novel
Mircea Cărtărescu
Translated by Sean Cotter
Archipelago Books
Paperback; 380 Pages; $22 US/$24 CAN


There is an extinct volcanic cinder cone a few blocks from my house, named Mount Tabor after the mountain in Israel where Christ, according to tradition, experienced transfiguration. At 636 feet, less than one third the elevation of its Holy Land namesake – dwarfed in the daylight by Mount Hood, which looms white-peaked in the distance like an imprisoned moon – the average hiker can hardly expect to undergo a divine metamorphosis on Tabor’s summit, crowned as it is by westward-pointing statue of newspaperman Harvey W. Scott. But the view sure is fine. Fine enough that some nights ago a friend and I stole up to the summit to sit on a bench and observe.

Through a deltoid clearing in the pines we watched a slice of Portland: the flickering boulevards, the nigrescent scar of the Willamette, the glowing city, the softly lit clusters in the hills beyond. Suddenly the focus broke, the wind died, and we were overtaken for that moment by some otherworldly turbulence. If I were a believer I might have called it a communion with God. But, mind tempered by a book I’d been reading, I supposed instead that it might have been an intimation of Something Else, a fleeting whiff of a world beyond human perception.

That book is Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing. Originally published in Romanian in 1996 as Orbitor: Aripa StângăBlinding takes place – nominally, anyway – in Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city. This is where narrator-protagonist Mircea (Cărtărescu) lives in a dark apartment and writes; this is where most of Mircea’s characters hail from or eventually find themselves.

But the novel’s true setting is hardly a physical one: Blinding occupies a liminal space between lucid “reality” and the imagined. It is a subjective empire built of memory, nostalgia, and absurdity; as well as the crushing anxiety that results from imagining all that may exist beyond the grasp of human sensory organs. Though where Blinding really exists, as Cărtărescu is keen to remind us, is simply in words on a page, words bled from the mind of one lonely man. In a passage that haunts the rest of the novel, Mircea – for it is the fictional stand-in who allegedly writes the book – concludes an early chapter chronicling the fabulous origin story of his grandfather’s rural village thus:

The bar was a place to toast the Devil, the Lord’s little brother… to kill each other with tomato stakes over a woman, to hold vigils over old men in agony, so that they wouldn’t have to die without a candle on their chests, and to look for rainclouds in the sky, all without ever imagining that, in fact, they weren’t building houses, plowing land, or planting seeds on anything more than a grey speck in a great-grandson’s right parietal lobe, and that all their existence and striving in the world was just as fleeting and illusory as that fragment of anatomy in the mind that dreamed them.

Cărtărescu’s prolific and continuing career as a poet, novelist, and essayist began in the late 1970s. He carries the torch of Onirism, a Romanian surrealist literary movement that flourished in the 1960s but was soon quelled by government censorship. “Oneiric,” a charismatic little word signifying something dream-like, is a frequent guest throughout Blinding’s multitudinous pages.

For simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to refer to the novel as Blinding, although The Left Wing is actually the first book in the Orbitor trilogy, followed in 2002 by Corpul, (“The Body”) and concluded in 2007 by Aripa Dreaptă, or “The Right Wing.” I find myself wishing the title had not been translated; Orbitor is a gorgeous word, stately and majestic. In an interview with Bookforum, Cărtărescu explains, “Orbitor is a special word in Romanian, it signifies both a dazzling light and a mystical light, and I wanted to do something mystical, something without any similarity to any other book in the world.”

“You do not describe the past by writing about old things,” Mircea muses in the novel’s introductory sequence, “but by writing about the haze that exists between you and the past.” If this is true, then Mircea’s haze is unlike any I’ve yet to encounter. It is a concealing mist, at once luminous and opaque, out of which nearly anything might emerge. Cărtărescu’s vast imaginative potential is essentially unhindered by the fact that Blinding is loosely framed as memoir. “I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies,” says Cărtărescu in an interview for The Quarterly Conversation, adding, “When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.”

So it should hardly surprise that Blinding struggles like a proud and cautious beast against traditional summary. We learn of Mircea’s mother Maria and her life as a young woman brought from the countryside to work with her sister in a Bucharest factory before and after the Allied bombings during the Second World War. We learn of Ion Stănilă, the state-employed statue-cleaner and onetime admirer of Maria who soon finds himself an agent of the Romanian secret police. And of course we learn, in dizzying, anxiety-ridden bursts, about Mircea: his multiple hospitalizations, his dreams and writings, his struggles to make sense of his own life as it relates to all human life and to all incomprehensible existence. These storylines, along with dozens of others, drift into and rise out of one another freely and without warning.

The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. This symmetry would offer us a heightened consciousness and make us all prophets, or angels, or gods. “Yes, we are neural embryos, tadpoles caught in atavistic organs… How strange we will be when, like cetaceans, we complete our departure from the firm earth of inert flesh and adapt to the new kingdom, where we will bathe in the mental fluid of enormous knowing…” Blinding is a psychedelic dream of transfiguration.

So keen is Cărtărescu to remind his reader of the butterfly’s symbolic power that the insects appear in almost every scene, not as saccharine representations of sunny summertime innocence but as winged behemoths trapped under vaults of ice, as loyal children fed on human milk, as subterranean monstrosities whose piercing proboscises bore into brains and deposit eggs straight into the victim’s mind. But Blinding is a gallery full of recurring images. Nipples and vulvae are frequent visitors (“All around the walls of the granite vagina where we traveled”), alongside machines wrought of bone and blood, and organic bodies composed of concrete, rebar, marble, steel. Towering statues of disfigured humans stand as reminders of our imperfections, monuments to the blindness we don’t even realize we suffer from.

Mircea’s revelries, though they hinge on familiar images, know few limits. “There were ghost towns there,” he says of his mental space, “villas with crystal columns, and torture chambers with instruments of gold. There were crematoria with violet smoke coming from their chimneys. There were Flemish houses lining canals where cephalorachidian fluid flowed lazily.” Cărtărescu has a vocabulary that seems to press against the very limits of human knowledge. “Three quarters of the books I read are scientific books,” he admits in the Bookforum interview. “I’m very fond of the poetry you find in science. I read a lot about subatomic physics, biology, entomology, the physiology of the brain, and so on.

And it shows. Human knowledge drips from the pages, it seasons every sentence, one’s hands get sticky with it. Exploring the wreckage of a bombed-out factory elevator, Mircea’s mother “held out her hand with such grace that it seemed to cascade from her body, like a pseudopodium full of florescent corpuscles.” This is a rather concentrated sampling, but it is hardly a misleading one. Cărtărescu weaves together a massive interdisciplinary lexicon and uses it to build marvelous structures of text. While reading I often felt that were I to earn a degree in biology, or medicine, or pure mathematics, I might gain something new from the novel each time I returned to it with fuller understanding.

Yet just as Cărtărescu masters the protean majesty of the dream world, he also faithfully recreates its almost claustrophobic sense of unknowability. Blinding is a difficult text, one I predict some readers – those partial to conventional storytelling and a more cohesive narrative – might find alienating. No one is more aware of this fact than Cărtărescu himself, whose narrator-persona “Mircea (which Mircea?)” sees himself “writing a demented, endless book, in his little room,” and elsewhere ponders “my senseless and endless manuscript, this illegible book, this book…” Is this a genuinely apologetic aside, and does the author truly find his work to be unworthy, or is it part of the game Blinding is playing with identity and self-reflection? I suspect these options might not be mutually exclusive.

The novel’s finale takes place in an unspeakably large hall with a mirrored floor, billions of doors leading to everywhere on Earth, and a central light source that is “a column of pure, liquid flame.” It is, on one hand, an exposition of technical brilliance. With unapologetic prose, Cărtărescu crafts a hellscape that – in terms of utter visual insanity – rivals Bosch’s depiction of the underworld in The Garden of Earthly Delights. And yet, after all the hallucinatory voyages of the first few hundred pages, the novel’s culmination left me oddly underwhelmed. The horrific butterflies, the rhetorical inclination toward duality, and the constant transmutation of organic bodies; after so many encounters these images begin to lose some of their wonder.

In an early scene, Mircea visits a woman whose scalp is adorned with arcane tattoos. He loses himself in the tattoos. In a segment that mirrors the way one might approach this very novel, Cărtărescu writes, “exploring any detail meant you had to choose one branch, ignore the rest of the design, and concentrate on just one detail of the original detail, and then a detail of the detail of the detail. This plunge into the heart of the design could be deadly for one’s mind to even attempt.” Mircea, scouring the scalp for hours, massaging it and entreating it, eventually sees “Everything, and everything had my face. Looking directly at the middle of the fontanel, I saw my face in a convex reflection.” Spend some time with Blinding. Search its pages, approach it from new angles, get lost in it. Then please, tell me what you see.

—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.


Mar 072014


I kept hearing his name, usually associated with the question, “Have you read…?” Have you read Reality Hunger? Have you read the new Salinger biography? Have you read How Literature Saved My Life? I believe the word is buzz.

By almost any standard, David Shields has been enjoying quite a ride. Since 2010, when Vintage Books published Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Shields has written or edited 5 books. Most recently, he co-authored Salinger with Shane Salerno.  Shields also appeared in the PBS documentary produced and directed by Salerno.

On occasion, Shields has been pilloried by the controversy surrounding Reality Hunger, a book comprised mainly of appropriated and loosely attributed quotes by various writers and artists. He is unabashedly proud of the book, calling it one of his most personal and passionate. After exchanging a series of emails and speaking with him on the phone, what becomes readily apparent is that Shields cares intensely about reading and writing. His books are an extension of his deep abiding search for meaning, an exploration he calls a ‘radical epistemology.’

Shields’ writing pushes boundaries, often enflaming critics and detractors. At the same time, his style continues an ongoing conversation with literature that is certainly not new. Our interview ranges from Stanley Kubrick to Walter Benjamin, from Virginia Woolf to J.M. Coetzee, from V.S. Naipaul to David Foster Wallace. Shields is a prolific writer, a thoughtful and deep reader, and an artist not afraid to transcend boundaries.

–Richard Farrell


RF: Anne Carson writes, “I’ll do anything to avoid boredom.”  There’s a similarity of intent between Carson’s work and your work.  And what’s interesting is that you both do a lot of the heavy lifting for you readers, so that what is produced is anything but boring. The work appears effortless, but I suspect the exact opposite is true.

DS: That’s high praise, on a number of levels. People say, “Oh what did you do, come up with this clever idea and then look for passages that would fill up the book?” I don’t see how that kind of book would be any good. It would just been a one-trick pony. A lot of my friends, quite justifiably, think of Reality Hunger as my most personal and my most passionate book.

The book began when I started teaching a graduate course in fiction-writing at the University of Washington. I had this huge blue binder of full of quotations of stuff I really liked: passages from Heraclitus to D’Agata that were articulating and embodying what began to feel like a new aesthetic: not fiction, not as journalism, not scholarship, but essay as “radical epistemology.” Work that uses the frame of “nonfiction” to explore the most serious questions about existence: What’s real? What’s knowledge? What’s memory? What’s truth? What’s a self? How much can a self know about another self?

So I was gathering all these quotes. The packet was full of repetitions of the same quotes, misspellings, doodles. I started organizing passages into little rubrics or chapters. And year by year this course packet deepened, and then I realized I had the rough draft of a book, at which point I really went to work on it.

It’s a strange book. People think it was some kind of IED, some sort of attention-getting mechanism, but I thought twenty people would read it. I thought it would get published by a university press. It was intended for fellow writers and readers and students: for those of us bored by conventional fiction and conventional nonfiction, here’s a way forward. But because of the book’s purposeful withholding of standard citation, the book developed a kind of bad-boy aura.


RF: You take the novel to task pretty hard in places, but I don’t think you’re attacking the novel so much as you’re attacking genre. Is your argument more about genre than it is about fiction versus nonfiction?

DS:  Right. One of the book’s epigraphs is from Walter Benjamin: “All serious works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” I think it’s so ridiculous that so many people who are supposedly serious writers get praised for being Dickensian writers or Tolstoyan writers. Dickens and Tolstoy were great writers, but the reason they’re great is that they pushed the form forward, “altered the face of an art form” in Pauline Kael’s phrase. This is even truer for Flaubert or Virginia Woolf or Beethoven or Monet or Picasso.

I listened to a guide in the National Gallery who was asked what makes Mark Rothko a great painter. And the guide ended up saying, “Rothko’s great because he changed the weather for everyone who came after him.” Everyone afterward had to deal with Rothko. That’s the standard I’m trying to hold up for myself and fellow artists. It’s not that I have some minor quarrel with writer X, Y, or Z. The novel is supposed to be something new. That’s what “novel” originally meant. And yet it’s become unbelievably formulaic. I really care about the future of literature, and I’m trying to push it in an exciting direction and away from a dead direction.

RF: I wrote a portion of my critical thesis in graduate school on Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties.”  I read it and treated it as fiction. After all, it was included in a story collection. But then a classmate of mine treated the same piece as a nonfiction list essay.  This really annoyed me for awhile, until I recognized how little these distinctions mattered. It’s simply an elegant piece of writing.

DS: The only thing that matters is how Michaels arranged the material into a meditation on how the private narcissism of the fifties became the public violence of the sixties. I think that’s all that really matters. Plath. Catullus. Berryman. Whitman. We grant poetic license to the speaker. I’m seeking the same freedom for the essay as we’ve always had for the poem.


RF: Patricia Hampl talked about starting out as a nonfiction writer.  She said they didn’t know where to put her books when she first started out. I know you quote her in How Literature Saved My Life. I had the chance to spend some time with her in Vermont a couple of years ago and heard her say that it shouldn’t be called creative nonfiction, but non-poetry, because the writing is closer to poetry.

DS: I think I quote her in Reality Hunger rather than in the later book. She talks beautifully about how related the poem and the essay are. Both are meditative, contemplative, consciousness-drenched forms.

I’ve learned a lot from Trish. So many people, when they write an essay, think if they just the story of what happened, that in itself is compelling, but it’s not. Hampl is very good on this, as are Gornick, Lopate, D’Agata.

The essay is a meaning-making machine. That’s what’s so exciting about it.  It says, Okay, I served in Fallujah or my sister is an alcoholic, whatever the situation is—some aspect of dramatic existence. But then what the essayist has to do is to wrench that into meaning, often by wiring the material through the self, by making the self complicit with the experience. It’s not reportorial journalism; it’s not academic scholarship, although it might partake of both. You’re trying to arrive at nothing less than wisdom, which I think is what makes the form so, so exciting.

If you write a bad essay, people think, I really don’t like you. But if people really like your essay, and you’ve said tough-minded things about yourself and others, and people still connect to you, that’s a very serious embrace between writer and reader. That’s a serious, existential act. You actually have made the world significantly less lonely. David Foster Wallace is really great on this: We’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. You can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And writing is a bridge constructed across the abyss between the loneliness.

Wallace goes awry when he goes on to say, “Don’t worry, all the little contrivances of fiction are hoops we can jump through and still cross the abyss of human loneliness.” It’s completely obvious that far and away Wallace’s best work is found in his essays.

Did Trish Hampl critique anything of yours?

RF: She read a fiction story of mine and tore it up pretty good, but that opportunity, to have such an experienced writer cut through all the “workshop bullshit” and tell you the truth—that was invaluable.

DS: It’s interesting that you mention “workshop bullshit,” because it’s absolutely the prevailing mode of contemporary literary discourse. Just read “major” reviewers: they’re basically still reviewing work according to the workshop model, which for me has nothing to do with what it feels like to be alive now. There are works of fiction that definitely surprise me and that I love with all my heart and soul. Say, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

RF: I once heard Robert Vivian talk about “vestibular space,” which is the space you pass through before you enter the sacred places you write from. Do you ever contemplate your vestibular spaces?

DS: I do unbelievable amounts of research before I sit down to write, even something quite short. I gather all this material, and I just gather all the notes: stuff from the web, books that I read, journalistic reportage. I develop this huge, very rough, very loose, inchoate mess of stuff. I find that a terribly useful process. That’s my vestibule, for sure.

Then I just marinate in it, to mix metaphors. I just spend a huge amount of time with that material. I develop material around a very broad topic: death or love or art or celebrity. Then I try to find the very occasional passages that have for me some potential, some life. I often color code the passages, endlessly rewriting them. Then I try to put the passages into a trajectory both within a chapter and within the book. In a way it’s not time- or cost-effective, but I need that endless luxuriating in the material. Other people can apparently just sit down and write a five-thousand word essay and, in a way, I’m just amazed they can do that. It’s not the way my mind works. I seem to need all those data points, just to hold in my hands. A box of rocks, say; I find the 127 rocks that really glint and throw off light. Then I shape the rocks, sharpen them, and then I put them, very crucially, into the right order. For better or worse, that’s how my mind thinks.

RF: There’s a documentary about Stanley Kubrick called Boxes; it documents the trove of material the great director gathered around him when shooting a scene. For one particular scene in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick had thousands of photographs taken of doorways and gates in England. He spent months documenting and examining these photos for a single shot in a single scene. I think there might be some resonance between Kubrick’s method and your own.

DS: I’d like to watch that documentary, but it also sounds like a bit of a cautionary tale. One can definitely get trapped in one’s own processes. I certainly like some Kubrick quite a lot. Dr. Strangelove is great, as is Lolita.  But there are some films in his last couple of decades in which he got so attuned to his own mental processes that the work suffers. I’d have to go back and watch all of Kubrick.  For all I know, those films hold up beautifully.  He’s obviously a major artist.  But I can see how, in this process, which I do, and which Kubrick does in his own way, there’s a real danger that that all you’re doing is staring at your own reflection.

That risk interests me, but I work incredibly hard to avoid those traps.  I try to make sure the work is about something more than my own reflection.  If you write a poem, there is a danger that you’re performing only a series of technical verbal maneuvers; when you write a novel, there is a danger that you’re only carnival-barking, merely entertaining. And if you write personal essay or even literary collage or collage essay, you run the risk that you “writing only about yourself.” You want to go so deeply into yourself that you come out the other end into a “universal” space, or as Montaigne said, “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition.” That may sound grandiose, but in the great essays, we recognize that nothing less has happened.

RF: A lot of the experimental work pushes boundaries.  That seems to be what you are drawn to, both as a reader and as a writer.  Is that true?

DS: I’m definitely not interested in experiment for experiment’s sake. V.S. Naipaul says, “If you want to write seriously, you have to be willing to break the forms.” Coetzee deconstructs his own work: it’s not great because it never deformed the medium in order to say what only he could say. If you’re not doing that, why bother? Writing ought to be a deadly serious act of investigation and exploration. It shouldn’t be you with your little sewing kit trying to make a perfect little hand puppet. “Is this workshop-worthy? I’ve put all my soldiers into a perfect order, but I’ve produced this perfect little dead thing.” That can’t be a living model.

—David Shields & Richard Farrell



Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

David Shields is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen books, including The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be DeadSalinger (co-written by Shane Salerno); Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications; Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington. His work has been translated into twenty languages.


Mar 062014

Montale 1970Montale and Friend

First, a few disclaimers: My knowledge of the history of Italian poetry is limited.  There is Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I studied reluctantly in college and have only grown to appreciate over the years, especially the brave and foolish translations that try to bring Dante’s terza rima forward from rhyme-rich Italian into rhyme-impoverished English. After Dante there is…let’s see…Petrarch and his sonnets, with their non-Elizabethan rhyme scheme, and… Boccaccio was a poet, wasn’t he? But all I remember of Boccaccio is that he wrote The Decameron, and those are stories written in prose.

At this point I have to jump from the Middle Ages up to the 1800’s – there was an Italian poet named Leopardi, but I know nothing about him, only his name and that he lived around the time John Keats lived. There it is: in one jump, five centuries of Italian poetic tradition lost to me. In the 1900’s there was someone named Campana – or was Campana Spanish? No, Italian, I think. And there was definitely a modern Italian poet named Ungaretti but I’ve never read his work – or was Ungaretti a woman? No, a man, I’m sure. I remember thinking his name sounded like an expensive espresso machine.

So in writing about Eugenio Montale, a Nobel-Prize-winning poet few North Americans have heard of, I admit freely that I am not a fluent guide, only a fan. I don’t know the traditions that his work springs from.

11/12/1960  Eugenio MONTALE nel salotto di casa sua (1896 Genova - 1981 Milano)  Poeta italiano FARABOLAFOTO 391103

I do know he was born in Genoa in 1896 and died in Milan in 1981. Growing up, he spent holidays with his large family in Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre villages which hangs dramatically from  the cliffs of Liguria, a landscape that shows up literally and metaphorically in much of Montale’s poetry. I know he had a contentious relationship with Ezra Pound, who was arrested for treason after a pro-Fascist stint as a radio broadcaster in Mussolini’s Italy (Montale was famously anti-Fascist, forced from his job after refusing to join the Fascist Party.)

In preparation for this look at Montale’s work, I consistently ran up against the term “hermeticism” to describe his circle of poets. Hermeticism? And specifically Italian hermeticism? The term was tossed around casually enough and linked to French surrealism, but I had to go to the Encyclopedia Britannica for a solid definition (“…modernist poetic movement originating in Italy in the early 20th century, whose works were characterized by unorthodox structure, illogical sequences, and highly subjective language.”) In other words, the poet locks himself into his poems and leaves the reader out. Since I disagree with that assessment of Montale’s poems, I don’t believe it’s the reason behind why the poet is not well-known here.

One credible reason might be his late-in-life pessimism, seldom far from the surface. In fact, his Nobel Prize lecture is not the most optimistic of speeches, ending on this downbeat note: “It is useless then to wonder what the destiny of the arts will be. It is like asking oneself if the man of tomorrow, perhaps of a very distant tomorrow, will be able to resolve the tragic contradictions in which he has been floundering since the first day of Creation….” Poets with a reputation for pessimism are not embraced warmly by the general public. (As counterbalance to this reputation, try the charming video at this link, which shows Montale having a great time with an interviewer, then reading a section of Ossi de seppia which begins, “Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro, /arida, rivolgendomi, vedro compirsi il maracolo….” (Maybe one morning, walking in air / of dry glass, I’ll turn and see the miracle occur….”

Montale - Nobel PrizeMontale receives the Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden

Another contributing factor to his lack of popularity here is this:  Even North Americans who love poetry – and practice it – are sadly uninformed about individual poets (and whole schools of poetry) beyond their borders, including poets who have achieved fame at a broad international level. Is it the fault of our insularity – an ocean wide and deep at each edge of our “sea to shining sea” – and of our misguided sense of exceptionalism in general? Maybe the triumph of English as a global language has become a linguistic substitute for the defunct geographical concept of Empire. If that’s true, we can claim our ignorance is due in part to our superiority – an oxymoronic (and ridiculous) conclusion. Or maybe our educational system simply fails us, and we are left with wide swaths of ignorance in certain areas, including the learning of foreign languages to begin with. Maybe I shouldn’t even say maybe to that.

There’s one more possibility I can think of, a more attractive one which does less finger-wagging and makes me less embarrassed by gaps in my education, and that is the one Robert Frost offered: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  If we accept the idea that the key element which distinguishes poetry from prose is its musicality (and not just those line breaks) then we have to accept the idea that translations which cannot capture the cadences of the original are, to a certain extent, failures. As Iris Murdoch said after being questioned by someone about her translations of French poetry, “The activity of translation…turned out to be an act so complex and extraordinary that it was puzzling to see how any human being could perform it.”

Adequate literal translations – yes, those are possible. Brave attempts to reproduce formal elements – rhyme and meter – and make them work alongside the literal translation? Yes, those exist and are laudable. But can we ever hear and know, at a visceral level – heartbeat and hoofbeat – the effect of a poem whose original language is not our own? I’m not sure. I suspect not. And maybe it is this – translation’s intrinsic failure – that makes us avoid poetry written in other languages. Vladimir Nabokov said it well in his poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin”: Reflected words can only shiver / Like elongated lights that twist / In the black mirror of a river / Between the city and the mist.

Which brings me back to my reading of Eugenio Montale, the great Italian poet of the 20th century, whose translated poetry deserves to be much more widely read, but whose name usually evokes the response “Who?” His poems seem to me to be filled with music.  Though I don’t speak Italian, I do speak Spanish, and I’ve always thought that the Latinate origins of those two languages helped me in my reading of Montale. But is my sense of its musicality justified?

Here is the original Italian of one of his most famous poems, published in his first poetry collection, Ossi di seppia  (“Cuttlefish Bones”), in 1925.  The English translation follows. To my ear (as I imagine it read aloud by someone who speaks fluent Italian) it sounds like river water rippling around well-polished rocks:

I Limoni

Ascoltami, i poeti laureati
si muovono soltanto fra le piante
dai nomi poco usati: bossi ligustri o acanti.
lo, per me, amo le strade che riescono agli erbosi
fossi dove in pozzanghere
mezzo seccate agguantanoi ragazzi
qualche sparuta anguilla:
le viuzze che seguono i ciglioni,
discendono tra i ciuffi delle canne
e mettono negli orti, tra gli alberi dei limoni.

Meglio se le gazzarre degli uccelli
si spengono inghiottite dall’azzurro:
più chiaro si ascolta il susurro
dei rami amici nell’aria che quasi non si muove,
e i sensi di quest’odore
che non sa staccarsi da terra
e piove in petto una dolcezza inquieta.
Qui delle divertite passioni
per miracolo tace la guerra,
qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza
ed è l’odore dei limoni.

Vedi, in questi silenzi in cui le cose
s’abbandonano e sembrano vicine
a tradire il loro ultimo segreto,
talora ci si aspetta
di scoprire uno sbaglio di Natura,
il punto morto del mondo, l’anello che non tiene,
il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta
nel mezzo di una verità.
Lo sguardo fruga d’intorno,
la mente indaga accorda disunisce
nel profumo che dilaga
quando il giorno piú languisce.
Sono i silenzi in cui si vede
in ogni ombra umana che si allontana
qualche disturbata Divinità.

Ma l’illusione manca e ci riporta il tempo
nelle città rurnorose dove l’azzurro si mostra
soltanto a pezzi, in alto, tra le cimase.
La pioggia stanca la terra, di poi; s’affolta
il tedio dell’inverno sulle case,
la luce si fa avara – amara l’anima.
Quando un giorno da un malchiuso portone
tra gli alberi di una corte
ci si mostrano i gialli dei limoni;
e il gelo dei cuore si sfa,
e in petto ci scrosciano
le loro canzoni
le trombe d’oro della solarità.

William Arrowsmith is probably the best known translator of Montale’s work, but the following English translation of “I Limoni” is by poet Lee Gerlach (who also deserves to be more widely read.) I prefer it especially for that wonderful turn of phrase “the jubilee of small birds,” which Arrowsmith translates as “the gay palaver of birds”:

The Lemon Tree

Hear me a moment. Laureate poets
seem to wander among plants
no one knows: boxwood, acanthus,
where nothing is alive to touch.
I prefer small streets that falter
into grassy ditches where a boy,
searching in the sinking puddles,
might capture a struggling eel.
The little path that winds down
along the slope plunges through cane-tufts
and opens suddenly into the orchard
among the moss-green trunks
of the lemon trees.

Perhaps it is better
if the jubilee of small birds
dies down, swallowed in the sky,
yet more real to one who listens,
the murmur of tender leaves
in a breathless, unmoving air.
The senses are graced with an odor
filled with the earth.
It is like rain in a troubled breast,
sweet as an air that arrives
too suddenly and vanishes.
A miracle is hushed; all passions
are swept aside. Even the poor
know that richness,
the fragrance of the lemon trees.

You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.
You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
in every facing human shadow
something divine let go.

The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

As much as I admire this translation, it’s clear that the music in the first stanza alone – the long “e” rhyme of all those internal and end-line words (ascoltami, i, poeti, laureati, si, nomi, usati, bossi, ligustri, acanti, erbosi, fossi, ragazzi, i, ciglioni, ciuffi, negli, orti, gli, alieri, limoni)  has been lost. Does Gerlach’s free-verse English have a subtle music of its own? It does (“Tedious, winter burdens the roofs, / and light is a miser, the soul bitter.”) But does this evoke, much less reproduce, the music of the original? Can we say we understand what Montale does with sound in his poem by reading this translation?  No.

Montale - Lemon Tree“…the yellow lemons fire / and the heart melts….”

In fact, the more aggravating question might be this: Do we understand the sound register of the original at all? Or do we romanticize the Romance languages, pleased by their multisyllabic flow, believing them to be mellifluous just because we are accustomed to the monosyllabic chunks of granite that English inherited from its Anglo-Saxon ancestors? Montale himself felt his native tongue was weighed down by exactly what I take to be its quickness and its flow, saying once that he fought “to dig another dimension out of our heavy, polysyllabic Italian.” One critic I read said he would have to go all the way back to Dante to hear an Italian poem as guttural as “I Limoni” (specifically referring to the doubled consonants in many of the Italian words.)

Guttural? That surprised me as much as the word “hermetic” did when applied to a poem which feels so wide open, accessible, and generous-hearted.  Maybe “guttural” in this case suggests a sprung rhythm I can’t quite hear, in the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Montale read and was influenced by.  If so, the translation provided here fails in a more serious way, since Hopkins (“fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings, / landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough….”) is nowhere to be found in it. I’ve wondered at the translatability of Hopkins – Montale was only one among others who attempted to translate the English poet into Italian, a formidable task considering Hopkins’ penchant for vocabularies and phrasings that were Germanic.

There might be poets who are singularly unsuited to translation into particular languages. And maybe the whole idea of what is “lost in translation” has less to do with poetry and more to do with cultural constructs in general; that is, maybe the failure of some translations (“Translation is the art of failure,” said Umberto Eco) is not only a failure of sound reproduction but of emotional connotations, linguistic anomalies and cognitive connections.  The way we think (and so, the way we hear and process language) is determined by our mother tongue.  It’s enough to make a translator throw in the towel – but thank goodness, some do not. If translation is our only access to certain poets, isn’t a flawed attempt better that no attempt at all?  For anyone who wants to explore issues of translation more deeply, try reading Douglas Hofstadter’s quick essay, “What’s Gained in Translation,” as a teaser to get you interested in his doorstop-size book, Le Ton Beau de Morot: In Praise of the Music of Language.

In any case, I don’t hear Hopkins in Montale’s “I Limoni.” And I can’t quite see the “obscure” nature of Montale’s poems that so many critics moan about. Yes, his poems are deeply personal. No, his frame of reference is not everyone’s – it includes his wife, his lovers, a landscape (Liguria) we are not completely familiar with, and politics that we are only marginally aware of. Montale was a firm anti-Fascist, and some of the allusions in the poetry will go over the heads of people unfamiliar with how those political issues played out in Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  We have to pause and hunt a bit to understand a few of the references. Easy, no. But “characterized by unorthodox structure [and] illogical sequences” as the Encyclopedia says?  I don’t see it.

Maybe this is just a case of a poet’s work being ahead of its time, in the way paintings by Paul Klee might have seemed indecipherable to those who loved Monet.  To put it in a more contemporary frame, maybe people two generations out will be reading the work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and wondering why people (me, for example) once thought of them as non-linear, illogical and difficult. It pleases me to think that the critics might be wrong about the “difficulty” of Montale’s work.  As the poet himself once said, “I have never purposely tried to be obscure and therefore do not feel very well qualified to talk about a supposed Italian hermeticism, assuming (as I very much doubt) that there is a group of writers in Italy who have a systematic non-communication as their objective.”

My goal is not to argue with literary critics but to encourage the reading and enjoyment of Montale’s work. You don’t have to figure out whether his poetry is fluid or guttural, emotionally open or hermetically sealed. It’s intriguing and worthwhile, no matter what labels are attached to it. I am all for reading any poet who calls nature “rough, scanty, dazzling” and who says, “I wanted my words to come closer than those of the other poets I’d read. Closer to what? I seemed to be living under a bell jar, and yet I felt I was close to something essential. A subtle veil, a thread, barely separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil, that thread: an explosion, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this remained an unreachable goal. And my wish to come close remained musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic. I wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence.”

Montale published only five books in fifty years of writing, so he was not prolific. I’ve brought this up previously as one possible cause for poets being under-appreciated, though the spacing of books is less the issue here than the suspicions we all have about translation in general. But consider the lovely English translation (by William Arrowsmith) of  “Il fuoco e il buio” :

Fire and Darkness

At times, because of dampness,
gunpowder fails to flash, and sometimes
catches without matches or flint.
A pocket lighter with one drop
of fluid could do the trick. And anyway
there’s no need for fire at all,
indeed, a good sub-zero curbs
that boring great-grandmother, Inspiration.
She was none too spry a few days ago
but she managed to disguise her wrinkles.
Now, ashamed of herself, she seems
to be skulking in the folds of the curtain.
She’s lied too often, now let darkness,
void, nothingness fall on her page.
Rely on this, my scribbling friend:
Trust the darkness when the light lies.

If you have only one book of Montale’s work on your shelf, it should be The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977; the entire collection is translated by William Arrowsmith.  It’s still possible to get the poems in individual volumes: Ossi di seppia (“Cuttlefish Bones”), Le Occasioni (“The Occasions”), La Bufera e altro (“The Storm and Other Things”),  Xenia and Satura; it’s interesting to see how different translators handle the original Italian (poets Charles Wright and Jonathan Galassi take on the task with different collections, and Ghan Singh both translates and analyzes Montale’s work.)  But The Collected Poems, set out in the chronological order in which the poems were published, offers both Italian originals and English translations (on facing pages for easy comparison) and it is carefully indexed with both Italian and English titles of poems, making individual poems easy to find. The real genius of this collection for anyone interested in translation is the section containing William Arrowsmith’s notes – 107 pages of them in a 793-page book. In an age where translators rarely get any public recognition for their work other than their names in smaller-than-average font on the title page, that kind of permission given the translator – to go into the particular nuances of translation and the frame of reference of the original – is exhilarating. As poet and critic Rosanna Warren says in her introduction to the collection, “In each phase, [Montale] invented new ways of putting poetic language under stress and of realigning poetry with prose.” Warren, by the way, goes on to praise Arrowsmith for what she calls his “idiomatic, surging versions, ever alert to the pull and swerve of the original.”

Here’s one more small poem to pull you Montale’s direction:

My Muse

My Muse is distant: one might say
(and most have thought it) that she never existed.
But if she was my Muse, she’s dressed like a scarecrow
awkwardly propped on a checkerboard of vines.

She flaps as best she can; she’s withstood monsoons
without falling, though she sags a little.
When the wind dies, she keeps on fluttering
as though telling me: Go on, don’t be afraid,
as long as I can see you, I’ll give you life.

My Muse long since left a store room
full of theatrical outfits, and an actor costumed by her
was an actor with class. Once, she was filled
with me and she walked proud and tall. She still has
one sleeve, with which she conducts her scrannel
straw quartet. It’s the only music I can stand.

For all his insistence on the inadequacy of language to capture the true essence of anything (he called it “inexpressibility”) Montale managed to use the tools of language with grace, clarity and power.

— Julie Larios

 Author Photo

Julie Larios 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. 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. In addition, she has published four books of poetry for children. She lives in Seattle.

Mar 052014

LydiaDavisPhoto by Theo Cote

122 stories make up the volume, broken into 5 sections, and throughout, pockets of theme gradually surface—travel, loss, subconscious thought—and ostensibly unrelated pieces lock together to form intriguing puzzles that call into question life, happiness, and memory. — Benjamin Woodard


Can’t and Won’t
Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
256 pages ($23.00)
ISBN 978-0-374-11858-7


he stories of Lydia Davis tend to challenge the general notion of what most consider “story,” rarely following a recognizable structure—rising action, climax, dénouement—and instead focusing on brief moments and recollections, some of which take up no more than a single line of text. Because of this, Davis’s narratives hew closer to that of vignette or prose poem than fiction, lyrical interludes designed to impact without the fuss of narrative webbing. But while this argument holds weight visually, it falters in that it constrains the idea of fiction to that of firm rules and chartered courses, muffling the elasticity and wonder of storytelling. In a 2008 interview with The Believer, Davis defined “story” as any writing with “a bit of narrative, if only ‘she says,’ and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader.” This classification is a fine way of looking at the oeuvre of the author herself, for though her stories always contain some form of protagonist—even if said protagonist is the speaker of the story’s lone sentence—they purposefully dodge other expectations, shuttling the reader into an unfettered territory of language and verbal exploration. In Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s fifth collection, due out next month, the author continues to push the boundaries of narrative. The book is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author’s overall style—short narratives, with the occasional longer piece—while simultaneously expanding her vision. 122 stories make up the volume, broken into 5 sections, and throughout, pockets of theme gradually surface—travel, loss, subconscious thought—and ostensibly unrelated pieces lock together to form intriguing puzzles that call into question life, happiness, and memory.

Two story cycles, peppered throughout the text, anchor Can’t and Won’t. Both are quite strong, and in each, Davis plays with the concept of preserving the past. In the first, “dream pieces,” snippet narratives recall the nocturnal fantasies of Davis and her family and friends. These are, as one might expect, odd, but they permit Davis, so often clinging to the tangible, the opportunity to stray from reality, to bend the “regular” world. In “At the Bank,” patrons win cheap arcade prizes for guessing the correct amount of change in their deposits (“…I choose what I think is the best of them, a handsome Frisbee with its own carrying case.”). “The Piano Lesson” concerns a woman wishing to learn piano from her friend. She is given the assignment of learning several pieces, with the plan of meeting in one year’s time for the actual lesson. And “Swimming in Egypt” explores deep-sea tunnels that lead to the Mediterranean. What’s so very interesting about these stories is that, like all dreams, they contain unspoken meaning and do not follow logic. Still, Davis meets all moments of absurdity with complete seriousness, presenting each vision with little embellishment, acting as agent between the cerebral and the page, refusing to attach meaning, or to shape each discharge into a clear picture. As a result, these pieces float as if engulfed in haze, clues to an unknown psyche, snapshots of moments originally intended to not live on, but to evaporate with wakefulness.

Conversely, “Stories from Flaubert,” a 14 story sequence composed of material culled from letters between Gustave Flaubert and his lover, Louise Colet, sees Davis again seizing upon past events, but using these junctures to create parallels between old and new, breathing life into moments of universal emotion. Translated, modified, and arranged by the author, these works both capture the language of Flaubert and remain complimentary to Davis’s modern narratives. Narrative echoes between the two allow Davis to reach across 160 years and demonstrate how little human thought and reaction have matured, how, regardless of advancement, there are many questions—particularly those of the mind, of life and death—that endure, haunting the human condition. One striking example of this comes in “The Visit to the Dentist,” in which Flaubert, after travelling to have a tooth pulled, passing through a former execution ground, is haunted by his subconscious, which fills his head with images of the guillotine. This same process of storytelling—building through subconscious connection—flourishes in Davis’s non-Flaubert story, “The Force of the Subliminal,” where a conversation about birthdays sparks a series of triggers, leading the protagonist to interrogate the path in which she processes thought.

A beautiful illustration of Davis’s writing at its sharpest, and perhaps most accessible, comes in the story “The Language of Things in the House.” Here, funny, playful translations of the noises produced by household items (“Pots and dishes rattling in the sink: ‘Tobacco, tobacco.’”) find juxtaposition with italicized passages of narration trying to make sense of each translation:

Maybe the words we hear spoken by the things in our house are words already in our brain from our reading; or from what we have been hearing on the radio or talking about to each other; or from what we often read out the car window, as for instance the sign of Cumberland Farms; or they are simply words we have always liked, such as Roanoke (as in Virginia).

The result is a story with equal parts humor and gravity, one that introduces ideas of language and compels the reader to acknowledge and consider the way in which we as a people go about daily routine. Again, the concept of subconscious thought returns, creating another narrative echo, but the piece also, and this is something Davis is extraordinary at, paints a story within the blankness of the overall narrative, for the lack of information concerning the narrator (is it Davis? someone else?) creates a vacuum that requires the reader to mentally construct the life of the speaker. The point of the narrative is less that of the written text—though the written text is quite intriguing—and more that of the person writing.

Can’t and Won’t’s numerous fictional complaint letters—at 6, there are nearly enough to qualify as a third story cycle—continue to exploit the concept of “the writer” behind the story. In all but one—“The Letter to the Foundation,” at 28 pages, fills in most narrative gaps—the intention is not to present the reader with a list of why, say, a vegetable manufacturer should redesign its packaging (“Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer”), or to submit to a confectionary company evidence of weight shaving in its products (“Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company”), but rather to create curiosity in who exactly would write such letters, as in “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.,” where “Lydia Davis” takes umbrage with a company peddling a paid-inclusion vanity compendium:

You said that in researching my qualifications, you were assisted by a Board of Advisors consisting of 10,000 “influential” people living in seventy-five countries. Yet even after this extensive research, you have made a basic factual mistake and addressed your letter, not to Lydia Davis, which is my name, but to Lydia Danj.

The passage is deadpan comic, yet it further raises questions as to the motivations of the writer. Why, exactly, would someone take the time to write such a missive? What does this say about “Lydia Davis,” the character? Why enshrine this particular sliver of history through word? When examining these narratives with such a thought in place, each letter gains an enormous amount of dramatic heft, shaking away any coldness presented in the calculated, measured physical text. This abutment grants an immense amount of pleasure, and a slight case of uneasiness, for the unknown writer—mysterious, eccentric—lingers long after the story has completed.

At the center of Can’t and Won’t is a long story called “The Seals.” Like a distant cousin of Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, the story covers a very short amount of present time—in this case, a portion of a train ride down the East Coast—yet delves deep into memories, constructing for the reader a solid, palpable relationship between a woman and her deceased family members. As Davis’s protagonist, entombed in a train car, periodically moves or looks out the window, she recalls her sister and father, and the combination of real-time experience and remembrance is highly effective, providing Davis a showcase to meditate on the idea of bereavement. At one point, her character proclaims to the reader:

That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died, I know that, and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by—but now it’s time for you to come back. You have been away long enough.

This decree, both heartbreaking and selfish, cuts to the bone and drives the narrative, yet the sentiment acts as an umbrella shading the entirety of the collection. For with Can’t and Won’t, Davis deftly hones the art of looking backward, of calling the dead to life, of retaining the moments in life intended to remain fleeting. The result is a tapestry of method, style, and structure, all with the same objective: to possess that which has passed, to capture the lost and the unidentifiable.

Benjamin Woodard

Benjamin 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 and on Twitter.



Mar 042014

2014 bio photo colour doireann

It is well-understood that the language we speak shapes our perception, the structure of the language affecting the ways in which the speaker conceptualises his or her world. In this regard, bilingualism has been shown to have many cognitive advantages including an additive effect on a person’s creativity. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a bilingual poet writing both in Irish and in English, exemplifies this. Although the written poems appear on the page in a single language, the thought processes to create them are borne of a far more complex interplay. I like to think of this interplay occurring in a type of cognitive marshlands, a ghostly transition zone between water and land with its own unique emotional ecosystem. Doireann’s poems, it seems to me, dwell in that world, and emerge from it like a rare and endangered species might emerge from its wetlands habitat through an early morning, low-lying mist.

— Gerard Beirne

My poem Waking gives voice to a woman waking up in the recovery room of a maternity hospital. At the core of this poem is the sense of disorientation, loneliness and loss that follows a miscarriage. This is an experience that is, sadly, not unfamiliar to me, personally.

I chose to dedicate Waking to the memory of  Savita Halappanavar, whose  appalling death while under the care of the Irish maternity system left many in shock. She was admitted to hospital while suffering a miscarriage, and despite her repeated requests to terminate her pregnancy, she was denied the procedure that would have saved her life. Savita’s death led to many protests both in Ireland and abroad, where protestors demanded a review of Irish law that prevented her from accessing the abortion that would have saved her life. I would wish nothing more for Savita than to allow her the treatment she needed in order to wake up and draw breath, and it angers and saddens me to live in a country where a woman must die in order for society to effect essential constitutional change.

I am very grateful to the talented filmmaker Peter Madden for interpreting my poem visually with a sensitivity that I believe honours those many, many women who each year suffer the pain of miscarriage in silence. The haunting soundtrack is an original musical composition by guitarist Stephen Moore that adds further depth to the collaboration.

Glaoch/Call is a consideration of modern life and love. I am intrigued by the multiple paradoxes of contemporary life — we are more connected than ever through technology, and yet there often remains a fundamental disconnect between us, an emotional distance, a fundamental interpersonal detachment. This poem arose from dissonance between these opposing constructs, and our collaboration in film seeks to further explore this matter.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Recovery Room, Maternity Ward
(for Savita Halappanavar)

The procedure complete,
I wake alone, weak under starched sheets.
As the hospital sleeps, my fingers fumble
over the sutured scar, a jagged map
of mourning stitched into my skin —
empty without and empty within.
Cradling my hollowed womb,
I trace this new wound and weep.
The only sound I hear now is the fading retreat
of a doctor’s footsteps, echoing my heartbeat.





Ní cheanglaíonn
…………………………aon chorda caol,
aon sreang teileafóin sinn níos mó.
I réimse na ríomhairí,
………………..ní thig liom
do ghuth a bhrú níos gaire do mo chluas.
Ní chloisim tú ag análú. Anois, ’sé an líne lag seo
…… t-aon cheangal amháin atá fágtha eadrainn
agus titimid
……….as a chéile
……….arís eile.



No slender thread,
………………………………no telephone cord
binds us anymore.
Now that our computers call each other,
…………I can’t
………………… your voice to my ear.
No longer can I hear you breathe. Now, we are bound only
…………………………… a weak connection
and we break up
……………………………..and break up
………..and break up.


Frozen Food

“The Iceman was carrying a sloe, presumably to eat” –Mandy Haggith

In the frozen foods aisle I think of him,
as I shiver among shelves of plastic-wrapped pizza,
green flecked garlic breads, chunks of frozen fish.
I touch the cold wrappers until my fingers
tingle, until my thumbs numb.

Strangers unpacked his body in a lab and thawed his hand.
His long-frozen fingers unfurled one by one,
his fist finally opened, let go,
and from his grasp rolled
a single sloe.
Ice-black with a purple-blue waxy bloom,
it waited through winters and winters
in his cold fingers.
……………………………………………………….Inside the sloe,
……………………………………………………..a blackthorn stone.
………………………………………………………Inside the stone,
…………………………………………………………….a seed.

In a frozen aisle, white on glass
I watch my breath freeze.


The Ledger

a sonnet for Edna O’ Brien

This chapter begins in a pharmacy.
Over the counter, you smooth prescriptions,
weigh powders, pass parcels. You nod shyly,
greet customers, mix tonics and potions.
Yellow liquid pours into glass bottles—
here, cures come from chemical addition.
All summer, you study, fill tins with pills,
dispense tablets, count coins, make medicines.
Summer blooms fade and fall. Rain returns. Bored,
you think up tales with each cream you concoct.
Every time the bell rings over the door,
you conjure symphonies of secret plots.
Name—ailment—payment. Pencil strikes paper,
filling the ledger, each word a step to your future.


In the University Library, I open the Book of my Finger

I study the same words again and again.
Smells of damp tobacco and beeswax polish
hover over a hundred desks of beech.
A sudden incision slices my skin,
splits my fingertip—a narrow breach.
The wound is so thin that it barely bleeds
but the slit stings, insists that I look again.
My cracked fingertip turns inside out.
Broken skin become walls, white-limed, gritty.
In the split, the red roof of a cowshed peaks. Doubt
rusts in my blood. I can’t live in this city.
On my palm, a road through streets and roundabouts
leads me home. Under beech trees a bee flits, free.


Radioactive Relics

Her papers still hum
in lead—lined boxes labelled Curie
in the Bibliothèque Nationale:

boxes filled with jotters
filled with the spools and loops
and curlicues of her hand

page after page of trials and tests
ideas in metamorphosis
the gleam of polonium and radium
the slow glow of understanding

a century later, her papers
still set our Geiger ticking
like a metal heart.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet based in Ireland, writing both in Irish and in English. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally (in France, Mexico, USA, in Scotland and in England). The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her bursaries in literature. Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair  are both published by Coiscéim, and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart  is available from Smithereens Press. Doireann was the winner of a Wigtown Award (Scotland) in 2012. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) and her pamphlet of poems in English Ouroboros was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).  

peter bio photo

Peter Madden graduated from IADT National Film School, Ireland in 2011. Currently working in photography and video advertising, he also works in short documentary, short film and music videos, editing the award winning short documentary ‘Rose’ in 2011.  His own directorial pieces have been screened at Irish and international film festivals. He works with two media based companies; Replayhouse and Little Beast, and has just recently co-created MadBag Films, all based in Dublin, Ireland.


Mar 032014


Kay Henry was also a student in that (now famous) cnf workshop during the winter Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (see my introduction to Melissa Matthewson’s essay yesterday) in January. Both Kay and Melissa responded to the writing prompt: think of lists as a device, as a structure, and read Leonard Michaels’s story “In the Fifties” as a prompt. My co-leader, Patrick Madden, and I were both interested in nudging students away from narrative and into a focus on form. As Viktor Shklovsky, the great Russian Formalist, said, art is a device; literary writing is content filtered through a set of structures. Proto-writers tend to have one structure firmly and somewhat unconsciously (to them it appears intuitive) fixed in their minds. It’s fun and enlightening to try a different form; sometimes the effect is like a lightning bolt.

Kay Henry’s essay, “In Dubai,” hews, in tone and sentence structure, to the Michaels’ model. She throws in a nice list in the third sentence (suddenly we’re in the land of detail piled upon detail). She eschews narrative connectors and simply presents a series of quick mini-stories. The stories are about people, the surprise and warmth of contact. In a brief space, she describes the human relationships that give the lie to the stereotypes and the racist assumptions that litter public debate.



In Dubai we belonged to the 85%. Only 15% of the population was Emirati. The rest came from South Asia, mostly; also the Philippines, and a few from other Gulf countries, Europe, and Australia. Not many were Americans. The high-end malls were peopled by shoppers in saris, kurtas, robes, jeans, full burkas, business suits, tank tops, sundresses, shorts, sweatsuits, and, at the indoor ski slope, parkas. Once on the beach near the sail-like Burj al Arab hotel, I walked by a woman in a full black abaya, complete with face veil, standing in conversation with a blond woman in a string bikini. The blond was smiling. The veiled woman pointed to something in the water. The blond shaded her eyes to look and nodded her head.

My husband Nas speaks fluent Arabic, but most people on the street and in shops did not. More spoke Hindi than English. Still, we figured out how to rent a house, set up utilities and phone service, and pick up mail at the Post Office.

Zayed University gave us a furniture allowance. We frequented sales in the homes of departing expats and bought heavy armoires and a chest of drawers carved with camels and painted gold. We felt like newlyweds.

At first my students all looked alike in their nearly-identical black robes. I tried to identify them by handbags and jewelry, but they all had several handbags and a lot of jewelry. After six months, I knew them all, and could recognize even the veiled ones, even across the courtyard.

I bought liquor at a government shop behind a blank storefront, browsing the dark aisles with my cart and, at the register, presenting my state-issued liquor permit to the Filipina check-out girl.  I was allowed 40 litres a month.

I walked the dog in the early morning as the muezzins sounded the first calls to prayer. Workers in white kurtas rode their bicycles to the mosques, gliding by soundlessly, half asleep. Sometimes thick fog covered the desert.

One student invited me to a family wedding. The women and men celebrated in separate rooms, and the band was on a stage in the middle, hidden by curtains so the performers couldn’t see the women. The women took off their abayas and danced in their jeweled dresses. A young woman in a tight beaded gown, hair in an up-do and make-up thick and precise, came toward me and kissed me three times on my right cheek. I didn’t know her. Then I did: it was my student, dressed for a party, not for school.

The founder of the country, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, died during Ramadan. His citizens mourned, truly mourned. The government shut down for three weeks. Not many months later, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, died in Australia of a heart attack. Once again, the people were in deep mourning. “This is new to us,” an Australian colleague told a local woman in our office. “We hate our leaders.” George W. Bush was in his second term as President.

We got time off for all the Muslim holidays: the Prophet’s birthday, the Prophet’s ascension, National Day, the Eid holiday following Ramadan, and 8 weeks off in the summer. At Christmas, hotels erected lavish trees and choirs sang carols from the balconies.  We worked on Christmas Day.

Nas negotiated with purveyors in the gold souk, noting the posted market price per gram, weighing his possible purchases on the jeweler’s scale, and rarely paying more than 5% above the cost of the metal no matter how ornate the workmanship. Sometimes this required repeated visits. He bought me earrings and necklaces and a new wedding band early in our stay, before the price of gold rose nearly 20-fold, so high that even the wealthy locals were complaining. We became friends with a jeweler in the Sharjah souk, 11 miles away. Altaf would load his briefcase with gold and diamonds and come to Dubai once a week to inspect his workshop, walking through the crowded lanes of the old city as if he carried a sack of cabbages instead of a fortune in jewels.  The streets were safe then.

We hired a maid and a gardener. We didn’t need either, and we didn’t pay them very much. Our maid, Mala, taught me to cook fiery Sri Lankan dahl into which she would crumble handfuls of dried chilis.  Our gardener spread a vile-smelling paste on the ground between the bougainvillea plants. “Municipality fertilizer,” he said. Raw sewage, I thought.

I fell in love for a while with a date farmer whose fringed dark eyes regarded me frankly from beneath his keffiyeh. I found milkweed on his farm and he told me the butterflies liked it. The milkweed made me homesick and I fell in love with the man who understood why. We never touched, not even when he brought me a parting gift of dates.

On the day my husband and I left Dubai I took a book about dogs to the 12-year-old Emirati boy who lived down the street. He was afraid of dogs until he met ours. I handed the book to the family’s maid, the same one who fed the boy platefuls of fat white macaroni in the late afternoon. Often when I walked by, he would put down his plate and come to pet the dog, careful to extend his hand first as I had taught him.

We arrived in New York and drove in a rented van across the country to Missouri. The second night, while passing through Ohio, we saw a camel silhouetted against the setting sun. We really did, both of us. For weeks after our return, the headlines warned of Dubai Ports World and their bid to take over the management of six U.S. shipping hubs, previously run by the British. Debate raged over whether our national security would be compromised. The Emirates had become an enemy. People said to me, “You got home just in time” and “Wasn’t it awful being a woman over there?” And especially, “You must be so happy to be back where it’s safe.” On television, members of Congress detailed the horrors of what would happen if “the Arabs” took over our ports. In my living room, friends admired my gold jewelry, but asked no questions about my students.

—Kay Henry


Kay Henry studied French and English literature in college and then embarked on a long, left-brained career in executive education.  She recently retired as Associate Dean at Washington University’s Olin Business School.  Her profession enabled her to travel widely, and she has lived and worked in France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.  Kay and her husband Nas divide their time between Missouri and Spain. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Mar 022014

Photo on 2-19-14 at 1.35 PM
During the last winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Patrick Madden and I co-led a creative nonfiction workshop. Besides the usual group discussion of a student manuscripts, we found time to do some teaching as well, focusing on trying to nudge the class away from the general student obsession with narrative, with just getting the true story down. We tried to get them to think about something else while they were writing, things like technique, genre, and tradition. In the first (of six) workshops, we talked briefly about the use of lists in composition (lists in sentences, lists in paragraphs, and list as structural devices). Then we directed the class to read Leonard Michaels’s short story “In the Fifties,” an autobiographical story (might as well have been called an essay), plotless, apparently, a list of events and characters he met. Then we invited the students to write an imitation, or at least use the idea of a list and the Michaels story as a springboard for launching themselves into their own material.

After a week, in the last workshop, the students read out their  essays, cobbled together in a few days interrupted by workshops, lectures, readings and revelery. The results were spectacular, beyond expectation (it was an unusual class to begin with). Two seemed eminently publishable. Today I am publishing the first (the second, Kay Henry’s “In  Dubai,” is here), “Ten Ways to Leave” by Melissa Matthewson, a lovely, poignant evocation of a relationship in the leaving of it, charmingly written, rich with detail (in so brief a piece), startling  and profound in its emotional honesty. And, of course, you can barely see the influence. Such is the nature of influence; good writers take an influence and make it their very own thing.



She could go out the back door and down through the yard marked about in roses with hips and the overgrown grass, the juniper slope, the limestone soil and past the jungle gym where the children play out their dreams of kings and queens and kingdoms ruled with swords, fire, dragons, and sometimes happy endings.


She hears a story one afternoon and can’t forget the image of a woman walking the highway at night, alone, having left her husband standing in the parking lot of a store where he has chosen smoke instead of love and so she thinks she could leave with that same kind of drama: treading the turnpike while he watches her from a convenient store window, the road spread out before him like a long strung out piece of thread that will unravel the more you fuss with it, the more you tear at it with your fingers.


She could go while he is sleeping, but she thinks that would be unfair and doesn’t he deserve just a little bit of reason? If she did leave that way, she could sit on the bed first, the children sleeping in the other room, and watch his chest swell to the night, put her hand on his mouth, see every part of him move in dreams or nightmares, something she’s never done, never even been curious about, which makes her wonder. So maybe when the ice thaws, she’ll sneak from the bed tiptoeing through the house to the door and exit into a landscape of disquiet, apprehensive of the choice to go, but surely confident in the fantasy she holds in her mind.


She left him once for Montana, driving up the north highway and over the mountains into the snow and that was it for awhile. She lived alone in a new place and she thought this was life chosen well, but she missed him remembering when they drank beer on porches while watching cars and bicycles and stars heavy with sky. From there, she went on talking to her sheets at night, grabbing the pillow for his absence.


Maybe they could go for a hike, climb to the top of a mountain and look out from there, the way they did with their children once, the spread of all that grass and rock and peak, the wildflowers just then a new thing. They ate lunch: cheese, chocolate, salami, crackers. On top of that mountain, the wind picked up and it blew their children’s hair and they pointed their fingers to their house in its blue painted wood, just over the three ridges to the west where they could barely make out its slant and hold in the distance. They picked ticks from their hair because they lay in the grass laughing at the sky and it was spring remember. Yes, she thinks they could go for a hike and she could leave him there with the children on the mountain. She could remember him cutting cheese into slices on his knee listening for any movement in the manzanita.


Or maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe they should just be straight about it—sit on the couch together over coffee, or more likely, a drink: bourbon, ginger, bitters, a little lemon, the kind she always makes for him in a small glass with ice. She might sit with him and look out the window and over all that they’ve done together, everything they’ve created, and still know it is all lost to the past anyway. Maybe she would cry. Maybe he would too. Or maybe there would be no tears. Maybe they would have used up everything they had in the build-up to that moment, so that at that point, the fatigue of a relationship overcomes them and they are quiet in their chairs in that room when the shadows take over the floors and the walls and all that is heard is the empty burden of what is absolute then: the love having gone a long time ago slipped from them when they weren’t paying attention.


She could remember how they never did take a honeymoon. She could remember how they watched a sunset over the water in Baja one time when they thought they knew love. She could go like a butterfly. Or the coyote they saw in a field, trotting in from a distance and surely the postman would stop in his wagon if he came along. They watched from the car, the animal poised in dangerous pursuit of its prey, all of it in the last flicker of day until the coyote ran up into the frustrated hills without dinner, without anything to take his hunger away.


Or she could remember how they left Homer’s tomb one morning in Greece, the Aegean spread out behind them like a blue map made up of what they couldn’t know. She could remember how they brushed their teeth on his grave. She could remember how they spit. She could remember how they held hands. She guesses that staying is a probability because of just these memories, that story, those moments. She considers their weighted history over and over again and really, she thinks the complicated details of leaving are the only things that keep her there still. It’s the mechanics, she’ll say.


She thinks then about the train she once took through France, through Switzerland, through Spain. She rode the early rail and left him in Brussels, though she lingered in the entry to the hostel before she left, sat down on the couch, pulled him to her, let his head fall into her lap, their cheeks flushed from pints of beer. He walked her to the station through a storm and when he left, she sat on the depot floor wishing for coffee and one last night next to him in bed naked and in love. She can’t recall that feeling now. She can’t conjure it in this tired, cold place of leaving.


She could leave by writing the departure. Maybe that’s the best way. Like here. There could be any number of scenes: stomping out of the restaurant throwing her napkin on the floor; sneaking out through the window too late when another man waits in an idling car; running away as if in pursuit chased by children or thieves or…; in the car early in the morning with just the sprinklers and newspaper man; or a surprise retreat when he returns from an errand, the house packed up, or just her things packed up, the door slightly ajar, her coat waiting on the couch, hands fumbling with the zipper of her sweater or her earrings and she thinks perhaps this is the most obvious choice, the most conventional and unoriginal of all departures, the one and only way she can retreat and leave behind the safest thing she’s ever had, this story that was never supposed to end in this way, at this point, in this now.

—Melissa Matthewson

Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in TerrainUnder the Gum Tree, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Hothouse, and Camas, among other publications. She holds an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Mar 012014

Robin Oliveira

Passion may be the very essence of romantic love, as it is of art, thus Berthe and Mary’s torment becomes as vital to their overall happiness as pleasure. The lyricism with which Oliveira conveys this fact – in particular, through dialogue and narration – illustrates the dual nature of love, for instance when Mary and Degas share an intimate moment and she notices that “he smelled of graphite and oil and turpentine; he smelled of work, of Paris, of all of art, everything she wanted.” —Laura K. Warrell

I Always Loved You

I Always Loved You
A Novel
Robin Oliveira
Penguin, $27.95


In a literary culture where explorations of romance are often relegated to lightweight, Hollywood–ready love stories with contrived happy endings, Robin Oliveira distinguishes herself.  Her latest novel, I Always Loved You, is romantic in the truest, most intellectually compelling sense of the word. The narrative travels elegantly across the topography of love while simultaneously exploring the agony and exultation of the human experience as it manifests in life and art.  The relationship between artists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas sits at the center of this novel set amongst the salons and exhibition halls of Belle Époque Paris, which means Oliveira has given herself a challenge unique to writers of historical fiction: faithfully representing a time and cast of characters readers know well while also telling a story that is fresh and contemporary. Oliveira meets this challenge masterfully while also creating an air of romance too often missing in modern fiction.

This is Oliveira’s second novel. Her first, My Name is Mary Sutter, won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, while she was writing it, and the Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction after it was published. I Always Loved You is a story about another strong-willed Mary forced to find her way in male-dominated society. Oliveira considers women’s struggles among men as “one of the unifying conflicts across cultures,” one which she likes to showcase in her work.

Indeed, Mary Cassatt was a quintessential woman of courage.  Not only did the young American painter uproot her life in Philadelphia to relocate to Paris alone, but she also managed to become one of the only women to exhibit alongside the likes of Degas, Manet, Monet and Pissarro.  In I Always Loved You, Cassatt is presented as a headstrong female who bends to no man’s will and even overwhelms her male counterparts with her pluck. After Degas introduces her to the impressionists at a salon, Mary realizes “what it was to be a woman at a party in Paris.  One either fed the men or was consulted about the time, but was not expected to speak beyond pleasantries.” She asserts herself by openly disagreeing with Émile Zola’s views on literature versus art, suggesting the writer’s work is “less vivid” than Degas’ paintings, then watches as Zola’s “wine-flushed face blushed an even deeper shade of vermillion.”

But it is her friendship with Degas that constitutes the greatest conflict of Mary’s life. Though the true nature of the artists’ relationship remains a mystery to this day – Cassatt burned all of their correspondence – Oliveira places them in a will-they-or-won’t-they love affair in which Mary’s desire for Degas occasionally surpasses her desire to create art, while Degas’ obsession with his work drives the lovers together and apart for years.

The novel begins in 1926 after Degas has died and Mary is sorting through boxes of old letters made up of “so many pages, you would think they had been in love.”  The narrative then steps back to 1887 after Mary has returned to Paris to build a life having studied briefly in the city the year before.  She attends a salon with her friend Abigail Alcott, sister of Louisa May, where unbeknownst to her, she is ogled by Edgar Degas. Unbeknownst to Degas, this attractive woman is Mary Cassatt whose painting he admired weeks before at an exhibition.

Later, an introduction by a mutual friend seals their shared destiny. Mary asks Degas, whose work she also admires, whether he believes art is a gift, to which he replies, “Art does not arise from a well of imaginary skill, obtained by dint of native ability…Art is earned by hard work, by the study of form, by obsessive revision. Only then are you set free. Only then can you see.”

This is the first in a lifetime of conversations about craft, and most interestingly the notion of “seeing,” in which the lovers engage, grow intimate and fight.  Degas proves to be an unpredictable, argumentative cynic and wayward friend who nonetheless adores Mary and her work. He brings her into his circle of artist colleagues where Mary cuts through “the clannish nature of Parisians” with her challenge to Zola. Though her path to acceptance by the circle is bumpy, she eventually becomes an integral part of one of the most celebrated communities of artists and thinkers in Western history.

Through the course of the novel, Mary struggles with her muse and attempts to mold her art to the conventions of the time until Degas inspires her to stay true to her singular vision. In her creative life, she experiences great successes and humiliating failures, while in her personal life she struggles with her family, including a sick sister and disapproving father, who come to live with her in Paris. All the while, Degas flits in and out of her life, fawning over her one moment then maintaining his distance the next.

A subplot between Édouard Manet and painter Berthe Morisot, the wife of Manet’s brother Eugene, reinforces the novel’s overarching theme of elusive love. Manet and Morisot spend the novel stealing glances, sneaking away for trysts, smiting one another with jealous jabs and suffering the consequences of choosing fidelity to family over true love.

I Always Loved You is not romantic simply because it deals with matters of the heart, but because Oliveira adheres to many of the attitudes and aesthetic qualities of romanticism: an emphasis on the self and creative freedom, the elevation of the human soul and pursuit of wonder, the use of extravagant language to reflect the poetry of life and an acceptance, even glorification, of the agony of existence. The characters exemplify the romantic notion that pleasure, beauty, love, even artistic achievement requires pain to be meaningful and real.

Oliveira develops the romantic soul of the novel through the ideas and choices her characters make, and the lyricism with which she tells their stories. Degas acts as a champion for the self and the struggle for art over commerce. Several times during the course of the novel, he withdraws his work from exhibitions, even if it puts Mary and his friends in difficult positions, because he prioritizes the private experience of creation.

“Nothing public matters,” he tells Mary. “What matters is what happens inside the studio. Your work. That is where genius lies, where it is born…It is not born on the walls of an exhibition.”

Mary begins the novel striving for recognition outside of her studio but only discovers her individual style, and consequently finds success, once she heeds Degas’ wisdom, abandons the “academic values” set by the establishment and “renders a portrait she knew the Salon would undoubtedly reject.” Mary is blissful whenever inspiration strikes, but in true romantic fashion, also feels “a wash of sadness, for that sensation happened rarely for an artist, and was in turn fleeting.” Her work becomes as rewarding as it is “punishing,” just like her love for Degas.

Of course, love is at the heart of the novel, especially the love emotionally faithful women feel toward emotionally faithless men like Degas who is too egotistical to love. After a frustrated Mary asks him, “Do you love anyone, Edgar?  Anyone at all?” Degas ponders the question; “Why not love her? Why not say it? What had quickened when he had kissed her had at least been lust. But he was not a romantic man.”

Meanwhile, Manet is simply a cad, parading his lovers in front of not only his loyal wife but Berthe, the woman he loves. Berthe is torn between a tempestuous affair with Manet and a dependable marriage to a devoted husband, who just happens to be Manet’s brother; “I have found a good man who will forgive me anything, even the gossip of others. Even the truth.  What, then, was love? The incessant whisper of passion, or the tedious murmur of caring? The ragged tear at your heart, or the gentle caress that rendered you safe? Perhaps there was no one thing that was love.”

Passion may be the very essence of romantic love, as it is of art, thus Berthe and Mary’s torment becomes as vital to their overall happiness as pleasure. The lyricism with which Oliveira conveys this fact – in particular, through dialogue and narration – illustrates the dual nature of love, for instance when Mary and Degas share an intimate moment and she notices that “he smelled of graphite and oil and turpentine; he smelled of work, of Paris, of all of art, everything she wanted.” The exalted feeling with which the romantic lover relates to her mate is exemplified by such hyperbolic language: Degas does not simply smell like a man she loves but he smells like the world and everything in it Mary cherishes. When he disappears in the weeks following their intimacy, she thinks, “all things she would abandon at the slightest encouragement if he would only grasp her wrist or whisper, I missed you.” Oliveira’s novel lays bare the inherently romantic nature of elusive love, which makes lovers experience the ecstasy of union and the torment of loss again and again.

Likewise, the tragedy of unfulfilled love has greater consequence in a well-lived life than love fulfilled as suffering makes life meaningful. Mary, still smarting from the cruelty Degas has inflicted upon her, asks Berthe whether her relationship with Manet has been worth the pain. “Live without having loved?” Berthe answers.  “I don’t know if I would have wanted that…I can’t help that I love him.  I wish that I could, but no amount of wishing has made it so.’”

This romantic spirit is further accentuated by the presence of light, and by extension vision, as a recurring image in the novel.  Light plays a major role in the evolution of the plot as these artists are inspired by, work by, covet and capture light, thus, it features heavily in their interactions with one another and their work.  “‘I’ve visited your country,’” Degas tells Mary when they first meet. “‘The light was horrid.’” Later, the lovers see the light hitting the Seine a certain way and “longed for a brush to record it before it slipped away.”

Oliveira uses light to symbolize the characters’ internal experiences and artistic impulses. When Berthe’s father dies she agrees to marry Eugene because “all the light had gone out of the world” while a character in the midst of dying feels “the light trickling away.” Light finds its way into the novel through other words: glimmer, shimmer, glare, flickering, brilliant, luminous, reflect, brighten, candle, sunlight.

But Oliveira’s most stunning handling of light is how she uses it to tell her story the way her characters use it to paint. She manipulates the light in the rooms and streets to give texture to the scenes, for instance when Manet confesses to Berthe that he has contracted syphilis and the “dull light” outside the window makes “pale marble of his hands.” Oliveira uses light to signal changes in mood as well, like when Degas breaks the news to Mary that he has called off the publication of a journal they created together and “a cloud passed over the sun, casting a cool shadow over the lake, dulling the reflection of the trees in the water.”

In yet another scene, Mary has been weakened once again by Degas’ cruelty as “the glimmer of the candle [in the room] fading now, and with it all her vague dreams of a life lived beside this man…The flame trembled in its puddle of molten wax and went out, rendering the studio a place of shadows and depth.”  These scenes are as provocative and beautifully rendered as the paintings the characters create.

Certainly, light enables one to see and when, in the beginning of the novel, Degas tells Mary she must learn to “see” in order to create great art, she becomes obsessed with clarifying her vision. Oliveira uses sight as powerfully as she uses light: Mary wonders if she “would she ever truly see” and later realizes in order to do so she must “unsee” everything she has known before, from her creative habits to her view of herself and the world.

“Paint what you see, paint what you love,” Degas tells her, suggesting that artistic vision and love are one in the same or are at least rooted in the same place in the human soul.  Perhaps then it is no coincidence when Mary finally finds her way that Degas tells her, “You’ve painted love…You must never paint anything else. You have found it. Your obsession is love.” How ironic that Mary is able to paint love and Degas is able to see it in her work, yet they are unable to experience it together.

Even more ironic is the fact that both artists are going blind. In the beginning of the novel, Degas is being fitted for special eyeglasses because there is a hole in his vision casting dark shadows. Blindness has stolen from him “the mass of things, their shape-ness, their roundness, their solidity. Edges wavered and blurred and doubled until forms became hallucinating shape-shifters, liquid impersonators of what had once been reliable, immutable matter.” Once again, the richness of Oliveira’s narration paints a vivid picture of the world seen through the eyes of an artist.

Certainly, there is no way to know whether Oliveira’s portrayal of her characters and their relationships are completely faithful to history but in the end it doesn’t matter. I Always Loved You is an engaging read because the author has recreated a world of romance and color populated by characters whose challenges mirror those of modern times. But for all the characters’ musings about artistic integrity and creative freedom, perhaps the words spoken by Manet best capture the novel’s enduring message: “It is love, my frightened ones.  Love.”

—Laura K. Warrell


Laura K. Warrell

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