Sep 152014

In Justin Anderson’s “Jumper,” a mid-century modern styled family is taunted and tempted by a naked stranger who troubles everything that lies beneath their well-mannered dinner. The film pays homage both to Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teruma and David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings while it more specifically pays tribute to British fashion designer Jonathan Saunders on the 10th anniversary of his label. This melange of fashion, painting, and film is characteristic of most of Anderson’s work, but in this short in particular his play between texts works perfectly with the film’s themes of repression and beautiful surfaces.


The film starts with a pool sequence that pays homage to almost every painting about a pool David Hockney ever made. Hockney’s pool paintings reveal his excitement and celebration of what he found in 70’s Hollywood when he moved there from England: an expressive, carnal, sun-bronzed eden. This creative time and the life of Hockney and his friends was captured in the documentary A Bigger Splash (1973). The  Hockneyesque pool is both something that inspires the man to strip naked and, when he climbs out on the other side, is the place where he is transformed from naked man into a profound messenger for the woman waiting.


The house wife the naked man finds on the other side of the pool stands with a pained, pleased expression, her mouth parted, as water trickles down his chest. She responds to this rupture in her life, to the excitement he provokes in her by turning away, walking back into the house, and carrying a plate of pasta to the dinner table. She walks away from her desire and in a sense all the desires and corruptions that follow stem from her walking away from this naked man. Perhaps if she had given over to her appetite, he would not have loomed over their meal, their lives, tempting them one by one. Perhaps she could have consumed him, but now he will consume them.


Anderson’s work leans into the absurd, focuses on awkward details that seem conscious of themselves as symbols while they contradictorily resist their symbolization. Water is a key example here: it is the pool he swims through; it drips off his torso, distorts how we see the dinner through the water jug, overflows on the table; the daughter sucks it from the soaked napkin and the father penetrates the jug of it with his hand and wedding finger. Water means so many things that it becomes either numinous or an empty symbol, impossible to be fixed, just like the naked man’s influence over the family.


The troubling stranger in films is both a perverse and sometimes queer trope. In the aforementioned Teorema, a man sleeps with all the members of a family and the maid, in the Argentinian Apartment Zero, a mysterious James Dean sort of figure has all the denizens of an apartment complex fall in love with him, particularly his roommate (Colin Firth), and in Holy Motorsthe enigmatic and mercurial figure who traverses a cornucopia of little worlds full of confusion and excess. There’s a masters’ thesis here.


In “Jumper,” though, the film seems less about stirring up trouble than it does the sort of tenderness and beauty that can come from connecting with this stranger, connections that seem impossible in the context of the family, even between husband and wife. Certainly Anderson employs a fetishistic camera that troubles the eye, confuses and overwhelms, but the effect I think is not horrific, but alienating, so that the moments of tenderness when they surface look like life preservers.

Anderson’s other works also marry art and fashion and he’s more recently been hired by the likes of Italian Vogue. His short “Fleurs du Mal” flirts or cruises the line between the beauty and violence of lingerie. Though his work is definitely more sexualized, there are some interesting similarities between the fashion / horror elements in some of Anderson’s films and the fashion short films made by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, her works (“Muta,” “Fish“) previously featured and written about here on Numero Cinq by Sophie Lavoie. Fashion and film seem to share a similar love for where the beauteous and the disturbing meet.

–R.W. Gray


Sep 142014

ssample01Author Photo by Sally Anne Sample Ward


Call me Magdalene. Not Maggie. Not Meg. And certainly not Dolly, for God’s sake. Call me Magdalene. Let the syllables roll off your tongue. Slowly…slowly…

Let the connotation seep into your stomach, your very skeleton, your middle there. Take a breath. Narrow your eyes. What do you want?

Think: do you really love your life? Your job…your grown children…your spouse? Is what you have now really enough for you? Take another breath.

Touch my cheek… my silver-sheathed breast…me. Keep breathing now.

Hear the raging air blowing all around us. Feel the wind’s unpredictability. Sense the precipice beneath our toes. Smell the gift. See how our bodies sway just before they’re beyond choice? How our chests cease to heave?

We fly for an instant, holding each other for an infinite moment of understanding. See the puffs of dust rise in frilly clouds that our bones make as they crack on the sun-scorched earth./

—Cynthia Sample


Cynthia Sample holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction as well as advanced degrees from University of Texas at Dallas and at Austin in mathematics and business. Her writing credits include stories published in Numéro Cinq, SLAB, Summerset Literary Review, Between the Lines, Wichita Falls Literary & Arts Journal, and others. She lives in Dallas.




Sep 132014

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.


This brings us back again to the question of repetition, if such may be seen as a question. Take Jack. The question as pertains to Jack was Jack’s fear of repetition. In our view Jack was counted a failure as a musician because Jack refused to repeat himself. He would not play or sing a number twice — never in public, that is, and rarely in private except to a restricted few — because that meant he was without any new ideas and had become the wretched musician who went on performing the same old material over and over. Such is how we saw it, and furthermore saw the same when it came to his compositions. Here, too, he failed, because if he played out a bar or two he could never bear to repeat that bar or bars a second time, the result being that all his compositions were inadequate. We had no doubts as to why this was so.

We said to Jack, Jack, you are in love with Zulu, are you not? Yes, Jack said, I am head over heels in love with that woman. We said, Well, Jack, you have told her of this love, have you not? Jack said, Yes, I have declared my adoration in no uncertain terms. We said, Well, Jack, that was our exact expectation, that you had spoken of this love, which is to say, you have said it out loud to Zulu, but there is this also, which we expect you know, a woman certainly is not going to be content with an expression of love delivered once and never again, a person, Zulu among them, requires an updating on the love question once in a while, needs reassurance, we are saying. I know what you are saying, said Jack. We said, Jack, how long have you and Zulu been together? A few days over a year, said Jack, which has been my great  good fortune. Yes, we said, but when was it you last expressed you love for dear Zulu, whom we love also? We would wager you said ‘Zulu, I love you,’ or something similar, long, long ago, most likely in the early days of your relationship, would this not be so? Jack said, I believe I can say I expressed my adoration of this woman in the very earliest days of our relationship, probably, in fact, sometime during the first hour I found myself in her presence. We said, we would expect no less of you, Jack, the fact of the matter is that Zulu has told us she was leaning against a wall and you were leaning against her and whispering this love business in one ear and another within five minutes of your very first meeting. That rings a bell, said Jack, I recall the very building we were standing against and what time of day it was, and that it was winter and snowing and we both had on these thick coats and what hell it was, how frantic we were, I mean, to get our hands beneath those coats all the while we were kissing and not aware of any other person on this planet. Yes, we said, that corresponds exactly with our sense of the event, inasmuch as we were in a Hudson’s Bay entryway watching, asking each other who that woman was Jack was kissing, how long has that been going on, when did she come into the picture? Asking such questions as that because until that moment we had all been feeling a little sorry for you because there was no one in your life you loved and never had been, so far as we knew, when we were all of us pretty well covered on that front and recognizing how lucky we were. Yet there you were suddenly in passionate embrace of this woman we had never seen before. Behaving, that is to say, in a manner we thought shocking at the time, because this was so unlike the Jack we knew that we could not believe our eyes. Jack said, Yes, I was more than a little shocked myself, and hardly believed it myself, all those honking horns and stunned pedestrians, because almost within seconds of catching sight of each other there we were pressed against the wall and fumbling to get inside those coats. Yes, we said, that is just as we saw it, the falling snow, moreover it was freezing cold out there, one could get frostbite in a minute. Well, Jack said, I don’t remember being cold, I believe it would be fair to say that Zulu and I were totally unaware of weather, although I do recall we had these little sniffles in the days following. We said, we can’t speak of that, Jack, because it seems you and Zulu disappeared for about a month, although of course at that time we didn’t know her name was Zulu. Yes, said Jack, a month, that’s accurate. We hid away in bed that full month, hardly ever eating and seeing no one. We said, Well, that brings us to our point, Jack. Jack said, What point is that, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing. We said, It well might embarrass you, Jack, our question is, well, it really isn’t a question so much as an observation. Jack said, What is this observation? We said, It is this, Jack, we were thinking surely during that month, given all that passion, you must have expressed your love for Zulu a second, third, or fourth time, however much this does not square with your obsession with this question of repetition, if that indeed is a question. Jack said, I am going to say this only once, the truth is simply that you do not understand. We said, So explain it to us, Jack. Jack said, I am sure these expressions of love passed back and forth between us during that month, and since. Where you are making your mistake is in assuming there is only one way to say I love you whereas there are about ten thousand ways of expressing these endearments, few of which I regard as repetitious, the same applying, I would argue, to what you deride as my compositions. We said, Be that as it may, Jack, or as may may be, still you must admit that now a year and some have passed and if you are telling us that in the whole of this time, these endearments firing back and forth, you have not repeated yourself, then we simply are not going to believe it, and as for that we very much doubt Zulu would confirm this ludicrous, not to say far-fetched notion you are preaching. Jack said, Be my guest then, why don’t you go and ask her. We said, Jack, old friend, it is not our intention to intrude into your affairs in the manner you are suggesting, it is enlightening, however, to learn that in matters of love you claim infinite variation, yet in your professional life you contrarily refuse to play or sing a composition more than once, which fear of repetition explains why all your creations are imperfect, worthless, a waste of time, and that’s why, to make no bones about it, as an artist you are an abject failure. Jack said, Oh, abject, am I, a failure am I, is that so. We said, How else would you put it, to which Jack said For your information I do not need to sound out those bars on any instrument since I hear those notes perfectly well in my head, thus these passages you apparently believe mandatory are rendered unnecessary for any and all judicious ears, but you deem me an abject failure even so, am I understanding you correctly? We said, Yes, unfortunately, but yes, yes. Jack said, Well, that is nice to know, it is nice to know that my supposed best friends, esteemed colleagues in the musical world, view me so unfavourably. We said, It is our contention, Jack, sad though it be, that you have not lived up to your potential. Fine, Jack said, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. We said, It is not only our opinion, we bet if you asked Zulu she would say the same. Jack said, You are mistaken, you do not know Zulu. We said, All right, we will go and ask her. Jack said, You do that, you are in for a big surprise, you will return with tears in your eyes, begging my forgiveness, I doubt I will be able to, at least not for a week or two, for a week or two your lives are going to be utter hell.

We said, We will see about that.

Jack said, Kindly take these beautiful strawberries to my darling, such is what I was sent out for, you scorpions will be first to know Zulu is having our baby.

—Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Check out Rooke’s earlier appearances on NC below:

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings


Sep 122014

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glen Sorestad in Cuba

Cuban Hand Line Fisherman

Beneath the roil and roll of the turquoise surge the restless Gulf
lies before him, an infinite mystery the young man is trying his best
to fathom, as others before him have done. He seeks to unbolt
the buried treasure chest of marine knowledge. With each flick
of his right wrist and follow-through of hand and arm, he hurls
his line and baited hook out to the limits of his developing skill.
With each cast he is a pilgrim tossing his coin with religious fervour
into a fountain of miracle. The youth has learned the timeless art
of delving below the surface of things, an unseen world in which he
has become one with the fish, so he may hear the subtlest voice
in the tension of line as he draws it, slowly, ever so slowly, back to
him, intuiting movements he can interpret only through the thinnest
monofilament, conveying its messages to his sensory receptors over
the tip of his index finger only.



The name card left atop the TV
tells us our maid has this uncommon name –
uncommon at least for us,
coming from a country not rife
with Spanish names.
So for the first few days I roll
a variety of bumbling pronunciations
off my Anglo-thick tongue, imagining
the placement of the various accents.

Her name sets her firmly apart
from the myriad Marias
and repetitive Rosas as one
who certainly cannot be easily dismissed,
nor taken lightly, one with whom
to trifle would involve risk.
Guillerucina is a name one might
expect to find on a building nameplate,
someone of considerable consequence,
perhaps even a figure of power.
We tip her well.

This afternoon when we return
to our room Guillerucina has swirled
our fresh white towels into an unmistakable swan
afloat on the pond of our bed, and fallen
alongside – a scarlet hibiscus bloom.


The Bus Stops Here

We are waiting for the morning bus
into Havana, a cluster of us from the hotel,
when one of the women indicates a man
standing near the front of the group, clad

all in white, middle-aged, a curly black
haphazard thicket of mad scientist hair.

You know, he’s got to be the first to get on the bus,
or else. He’s caused all kinds of problems with
the staff and the rest of us, says the woman,
here with her husband from Toronto.

I have noted this person for several days,
an obvious loner, anti-social, demanding.
A walking frown, he could be
from an Andy Capp comic strip

So I ask her, Does anyone know his name?
Asshole? she suggests helpfully.
Would that name be all in caps? I enquire.
No! And she becomes quite adamant.
Lower case — very, very small.


Cuban Sunset

When dusk arrives here it is no lingering suitor —
no gradual softening of light, no slow fade
to the deep, thick stillness of night.

The sun dives into the Gulf like a tossed stone;
the dark pursues, pell-mell, dragging a duvet
of night over land and sea.

—Glen Sorestad

Glen Sorestad is a Canadian poet who lives in Saskatoon. His poems have appeared in literary magazines all over North America and other countries; they have been translated and published as well in seven languages. His poems has appeared in over 60 anthologies and textbooks, as well as in his more than twenty books and chapbooks of poems published over the years.


Sep 112014


Photo 1 - J. Jacobsen


Friends, Romans, Countrymen: a word of warning— If you’re a tyrant, you’d do well to beware the Ides of March. Four-hundred years after Shakespeare offered up that phrase to theater-goers, it’s still best to avoid friendly types who gather round waiting to stab a despot to death outside whatever Capitol he controls. Sic semper tyrannis, as John Wilkes Booth reminded another crowd of theater-goers in 1865.

Writers: Odds are you’re not in control of any Capitol (nor any capital) so forget the soothsayer’s voice rising above the crowd in Julius Caesar. Had the Bard been issuing a warning to his own colleagues, he might have said, “Beware the phrase ‘a writer’s writer,’ ” because those words are like a knife between the ribs, metaphorically speaking.

“A writer’s writer” implies that the readers who most appreciate your work will be other writers – high praise to some, low praise to many, almost certain poverty will ensue, and yes, it’s the kind of praise that can bury Caesar. Upon hearing that designation assigned to them, ambitious writers – those who hope to win over a wider range of countrymen and readers, and/or those who hope to make more money – might feel as Marc Antony did, as if their hearts are “in the coffin there with Caesar.” Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, quoting a review in the New York Times, said that the phrase “a writer’s writer” is “the definition of obscurity.”

Try searching the Web for the phrase “writer’s writers” and up the names will come, the generally-agreed-upon writers’ writers (wiggle-room acknowledged), mostly contemporary: Joseph Brodsky, Henry Green, Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, James Salter, Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, Elias Canetti, Richard Yates, W.G. Sebald, Mavis Gallant – these writers often have the phrase “a writer’s writer” attached to descriptions of their work. The list goes on, of course, and is not always short; people argue for the inclusion of a baker’s dozen more, or argue their exclusion. But the list settles down to those whose names get repeated often. Putting the wrong person on the list (try naming anyone who writes science fiction) generates guffaws among the cognoscenti. The phrase “a writer’s writer” suggests a level of craftsmanship – “the art of the sentence” – not generally associated with popular fiction, much less genre fiction. “Writer’s writer” tops off an amorphous category known as “literary fiction.”

If you narrow “a writer’s writer” to “a poet’s poet” – the phrase first used by Charles Lamb to describe Edmund Spenser – you’re taken into the backroom of an even more exclusive club (whether exclusivity is off-putting is a side argument): Elizabeth Bishop is on everyone’s list, I think, and names like Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur, Allen Grossman, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa and Allen Tate make the short list of 20th-century  “poet’s poets” over and over.


The one I want to shine a light on here is Josephine Jacobsen, born Ontario, Canada, 1908, died Maryland, U.S.A., 2003, just one month short of her 95th birthday. Though she published well into her eighties, and received more attention in those later years, she remains even less well-known – less read and less anthologized – than most of the poets already mentioned.

Jacobsen’s poetry offers its readers three qualities most common to the category of “poet’s poet” – formal precision with the variety and musicality of her words, a freshness to her images, and a depth of subtext underneath the surface subject. All three of those qualities inspire repeated readings of any one of her poems; with each subsequent reading, her poems unfold and grow, unlike less complicated poems which remain relatively static each time they’re read. If you pay close attention to how she manages to do what she does, you do what good poets do, studying not just the surface of the poem but the craftsmanship behind it. Readers who want quick comfort from a poem rarely spend time with a poet’s poet because what they’re looking for is something easy. To be fair, quick comfort is sometimes nice and certainly serves a wider community. But the general public’s knowledge of the many tools a poet uses is minimal, so its desire for an “accessible” poem is maximized.

Jacobsen’s craftsmanship exceeded the abilities of less exciting poets as well as the capacity of readers in a hurry to understand. She was not “willfully difficult” as Wallace Stevens has been described. But she handled the tools available to a poet with more precision, complexity and grace than is the norm.

Of Pairs

The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive,
one, and the other; glossily perch,
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops, and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.

Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds’ stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather’s stir.

The mockingbirds are a pair. A pair
touches some magic marrow, lends
a curious solace. “Lovers” pretends
of course an anthropomorphic care
we know is specious. This is a whim
of species. Nevertheless, they come.

One, then the other, says what it has to say,
pours its treble tricks clearer
into clear air, goes; one, and the other.
In the palms’ dishevelment, the random day,
over the green hot grass, fellow to fellow:
the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.

What jumps out at you at once in the first stanza of Jacobsen’s “Of Pairs” is the pairing of words as a complement to the pair of birds being described. Hardly a line goes by without words being doubled or repeated – one/the other, respond/respond, branch/branch, one/the other (that phrase itself, repeated), flies/flies, sings/sings. The second stanza moves on to describe other birds, non-pairs, some as part of a multitude (blackbirds, crows, hummingbirds), some spared cross-species (ibis and cow), and one eerily singular (the lone man-of-war in his long arc over the sea.) The third stanza opens again by pairing the word “pair,” and adds a warning via the pairing of “specious” and “species” – we’re warned not to over-anthropomorphize the mockingbirds; in other words, we should work to understand this as similar to human behavior only when due caution is exercised. The fourth stanza, again, is all about pairing – one/the other (a third echo of that phrase), clearer/clear, one/the other (the fourth and final echo of the phrase), fellow/fellow, shadow of wings/wing’s shadow.

Unlike some poems where the echoes are less intense and less noticeable, it seems Jacobsen’s purpose here is to overwhelm the reader with pairings. The title of the poem itself announces her purpose. And nothing about the pairing apparatus is subtle, in keeping with the nature of the mockingbirds themselves, who not only pair up but who echo the songs of other birds – the pairing of birds, plus the pairing of words, plus the imitation (parroting, pairing) of one bird by another. A perfect matching of form to content.

All this Jacobsen does while sustaining the tetrameter rhythm (a four-beat line) through four six-lined stanzas, and creating a rhyme scheme of ABBACC – a pair of A’s, a pair of B’s, a pair of C’s – and what is rhyme if not a pairing of words? There are some full rhymes (wings/sings, pair/care, lends/pretends, say/day) but many more near-rhymes (perch/branch, arrive/flies, galore/air, crows/cows, war/stir, whim/come, clearer/other, fellow/shadow) which the ear picks up as both imperfect and interesting, as are the mockingbirds’ own imitations of other birds – similar, but not the same. Again, form and content “rhyme.” The noisy alliteration of those bowlegged blackbirds brassy calls – again, form (alliteration, almost always noisy) and content (blackbirds, ditto) pair up.

As for the freshness of images, who would argue that “bowlegged blackbirds” is a tired idea, or that hummingbirds stuttering and mockingbirds playing “treble tricks” are not fresh ways of seeing and hearing them? Who but a poet’s poet could come up with such an ending: “In the palms dishevelment, the random day, / over the green, hot grass, fellow to fellow: / the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.” This is what I mean by a poet’s “depth of subtext underneath the surface subject.” Depending on your circumstances at any given point in your life, these lines take on new meanings – so the poem must be read, re-read, and read again over the course of a lifetime. For each person, there is a way to weave these lines into individual experiences – what does “the palm’s dishevelment” mean in the context of a random day of happiness or sorrow? And so a fine poet releases the poem to her readers, she lets her readers make meaning, rather than the other way around. And she does it simply (though not as simply as it seems at first) by describing the mockingbirds. Musicality, fresh images, depth of meaning – each element expertly handled.

What’s even more amazing is that Jacobsen managed to sustain this level of effort and precision over a long lifetime of writing. William Meredith called her “post-cocious.” She never got lazy, she never just knocked one out or went for an easy laugh or an easy cry, as some poets do. Poor Billy Collins always comes up in discussions of accessibility; he’s the punching bag of the Formalists who don’t care for his prose-like work. I do like Collins’ quirkiness when he’s at his best – there’s no denying he brings a poet’s perspective to the world. But sweet as some of his work is, he is no poet’s poet. His lack of technical finesse and his prolific output inform how “tossed off” much of his work feels to poets who work within the restrictions of received forms. Collins charms the public, there’s no doubt about that. Poets like Jacobsen, however, charm the poets.


Effortful-ness, then, might also be a quality particular to the work of a poet’s poet, most often if the effort disappears inside the poem. Effort sustained over a lifetime, in combination with technical elegance – those are the trappings of genius. “Of Pairs” is included in Jacobsen’s last book, In the Crevice of Time, published when she was eighty-seven. Though I don’t know the precise year “Of Pairs” was written, it’s included in the section of poems written between 1975 and 1994, when the poet was already a septuagenarian (at least.) Compare it to “Terrestrial,” a poem published at the beginning of her career.


The day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.

No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.

Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
the cold pools vanish
Without resurrection.
The alien human heart, strange to perfection

Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.

Structurally, this has four four-line stanzas, with the first three lines short, and the last line comparatively long. Each last line has a caesura – a sustained pause within the long line – and the last word of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the last word before the caesura in each fourth line (dust/trust, whiten/frighten, apart/heart, own/alone.) In addition, the last word or words of each third line rhyme with the final word/words of each stanza (never/forever, resurrection/perfection, enmesh us/O precious.) Technically, Jacobsen has always done this kind of rhyming elegantly, using unexpected patterns. If you want a hair-pulling writing prompt, try to write a poem following that structure and rhyme scheme.

Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.

There – I’ve made sense of the poem in a way that satisfies me right now. Tomorrow or next year or in another ten years, I might read it again and make sense of it another way, possibly reinterpreting that word “resurrection.” That’s the gift a good poet offers us: a poem to slow down with, to re-read, to understand in a new way each time it’s read.

Though Jacobsen’s work is not well known, she did receive – finally – some of the honors her work deserved. She served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. The Sisters, a poetry collection published in 1987,was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1988. She was given a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets and awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Times Book Review, compared her to Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Jacobsen also wrote well-received short fiction; her collection of short stories, On the Island, was nominated for both the Pen Faulkner award and National Book Critics Circle award, and eight of her stories have been included in the O’Henry Prize Stories series.

When asked to assess her own work, Jacobsen said, “”I don’t really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done, rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group: I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of how I write poetry when it should be left to create organically its own individual style; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation on any grounds but those of my poetry.”

I hope you’ll search out Jacobsen’s books – In the Crevice of Time collects an astounding number of poems written over the course of sixty years, between 1935 and 1994; used and nearly new copies of the book pop up from time to time. It’s exciting to see the poems in their original volumes as well, and to judge for yourself how she developed as a writer. Don’t fail to find her book of collected essays and lectures, The Instant of Knowing, and check out her fiction to see if her achievements there measure up to her skill as a poet. I think her poems gained in strength and brilliance as she aged, and one of my favorites of her later poems – “Piazza di Spagna”— was first published in the Atlanta Review (Vol.II, No.1, Fall, 1995 – see note in comments) and then posthumously in Contents of a Minute as part of Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series. In the poem, Jacobsen uses the two characters from Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, to open up a short examination of the nature of poetry itself, placing at its core the small apartment in Rome where John Keats died.

Piazza di Spagna

Estragon says to Vladimir
(or vice versa) of happiness
recollected in distress: how
unpleasant that must be.

Ah, Estragon, ah Vladimir,
discussing loss, the poet’s
mother-lode. On the Spanish Steps
chill fingers the bone.

As the sun drops and drops,
stare across at the small,
cold, invisible room
where loss has reveled;

where loss’s aficionado
labored to grasp and hold
a green felicity,
Apollo’s summer look.

Loss has its son et lumiere
to show what it has got
and means to keep: a hundred poems,
bright blood, a girl.

It’s always risky to try to pin down what makes a poem a poem, and I like the elusiveness of this take on it – we really only hear about two essential elements, memory and loss. Maybe that’s true even today as post-Modernism pokes holes in received traditions. I’m not sure what I think of that. Jacobsen wrote another poem (“The Poem Itself”) which takes a look at how a poem “works,” and in it she offers this description: “On the shelf, by the clock’s tick, in the black / stacks of midnight: it is. A moon / to all its tides.” That, I believe completely. It saddens me to think that a poet can be undersung not because she is so bad, but because she is this good. Shakespeare gave his soothsayer in Julius Caesar a “tongue shriller than all the music,” and its true that something is needed to make certain voices rise above others. Luminous craftsmanship shines, but it doesn’t always make the loudest noise. Sic semper scriptores.

—Julie Larios


Sep 102014

WInterbach by Leanne StanderAuthor Photo: Leanne Stander

The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts. — Benjamin Woodard


The Elusive Moth
Ingrid Winterbach
Translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and Ingrid Winterbach
Open Letter
198 pages ($14.95)
ISBN: 978-1-934824-77-1


Often, we travel for the same reasons we read stories: escape, insight, knowledge, adventure. Stepping off of an airplane in a new environment offers the same opportunity for internal charge (or recharge) as the mental submersion provided by a great narrative. In both cases, home is far away—if only sometimes in the reader’s mind—and endless opportunities await engagement. So it’s no surprise that Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, originally published in 1994 but now translated for English-speaking audiences, succeeds as both a novel and literary expedition, for as Winterbach ushers her protagonist, lepidopterist Karolina Ferreira, from her urban home to the small community of Voorspoed in the Free State—a town full of singing lawyers, seductive economists, and corrupt officials—so too does the reader feel the pull of investigation. This land functions as setting and as a character, with its intense heat and unpaved roads, providing an ideal stomping grounds for Karolina and her associates. And while the novel lingers in a period two decades removed from our own, never does it read as a dated volume of yesteryear. Rather, Winterbach’s clever, fascinating meditation on gender and power echoes societal flaws still present around the world, making the volume vital and timely.

As The Elusive Moth opens, Karolina spends her days in the veldt outside Voorspoed with Basil, a part-time resident of the town who she picked up during her travels. Here, she studies moths, specifically the “distribution and breeding patterns of the moth species Hebdomophruda crenilinea,” while Basil, himself a pupil under a local herbalist, scours the land for unusual vegetation and natural remedies. In the evenings, back with society, the duo loiters at the nearby hotel bar, playing games of snooker, drinking whiskey, and observing the locals. As in the scrub fields, their critical eyes work overtime in town to separate the wheat from the chaff, finding focus on those that make the community’s ecosystem function. They make fun of some, like the sullen magistrate, or the lawyer Pol, and question the political tactics of others, particularly Lieutenant Kieliemann, who sexually harasses Karolina nightly, pressing against her until she forces him off, and his boss, Captain Gert Els. There are also the many fleeting groups that interact with Karolina and Basil: a theatre troupe secretly organizing the residents to rise against the town’s authorities, a man trying to escape his captors, and a pair of travelers who befriend Karolina while passing through the area. As these characters and engagements slowly stack up, Karolina devotes far more time to the community of Voorspoed than its desolate outskirts, dancing on Saturday evenings, striking up a romance with a man named Jess, looking for a pair of mysterious lovers in the cemetery, and investigating the men who run the small town with inordinate amounts of power. Her research shifts from moths to men.

And yet, much like the long, lazy days that it paints on every page, The Elusive Moth refuses to latch onto Karolina’s suspicions in the same way a lesser novel would. Instead of using her wariness to sprint forward in a series of action set pieces, Winterbach lets her characters meander. While Karolina supposes Gert Els of nefarious doings, she never acts quickly to call in the cavalry. Instead, she goes on long walks with Jess, or picnics with Basil. And this is one reason the novel works so well: it establishes a firm rhythm for Karolina early—some combination of research, drinking, snooker, investigation, repeat—and then rarely strays from this framework. As such, there’s an authenticity, not to mention a relatability, to this routine and the way Karolina approaches her actions. Instead of molding the generic Hollywood heroine who instantly transforms into a superhero the moment she doubts an individual, the author constructs characters that experience life as it comes, fitting in cries disbelief between rounds of snooker. Karolina does not see herself as the hero, therefore, she does not act as the leader to right wrongs.

This is not to say that Winterbach crafts a novel of little consequence. Far from it, for nestled firmly within The Elusive Moth’s brisk 198 pages are several shrewd musings on gender and power. For example, there is a certain reasoning argued by Winterbach for Karolina’s lack of heroics. Throughout the novel, Karolina’s interactions with the opposite sex tend to materialize in two forms: from those who view her as an intellectual equal; and from those who view her as a sexual conquest, complete with lustful, unwanted advances. These second encounters frequently come from men of certain high regard in the township and help reinforce Karolina’s distrust of authority. And though she never finds a way to articulate the feeling of this emotion and confusion verbally, an artist friend composes a strong definition in a letter written to Karolina, which appears about halfway through the novel:

“In her paintings she was trying to portray herself as a hero, but it seemed it was not easy for women to be heroes, she said. One could not portray a woman in the heroic style in the same way as one could a man. Anything experienced by a man—however deviant—is immediately regarded as an extension of human experience, whereas the experience of a woman remained deviant, eccentric, idiosyncratic.”

When examining The Elusive Moth with these words in mind, Karolina’s languid advancement toward the evil of Voorspoed reads less like a conscious decision of the character and more as a commentary on South African culture in the early 1990s, one filtered through the pen of a wise female, South African author. There is a suppression and degradation of women at play, one, in other words, that makes it difficult for Karolina to be taken seriously by most, and even harder to lead the charge, even within her own story, a hindrance that continues to bare its teeth in many corners of the world today.

In addition, Winterbach uses these same ideas to speak of peaceful protest in the face of abusive power. Eventually, the power hungry are confronted, and though Karolina does not head the group of townsfolk who bind together in an effort to remove Gert Els from command, she is present for their final confrontation:

“’We have come once more to bring the charge that the captain would not receive this morning,’ the man said calmly.

‘I am not accepting it,’ Els said. (His tongue heavy and cold.)

Philemon Mhlambi stepped forward suddenly. ‘You have to accept it!’ he said, and held out a piece of paper to Gert Els.

Els stepped forward too, and slapped Mhlambi’s face with the side of his hand, causing him to stagger to one side and fall down.”

The confrontation quickly heightens in intensity: Els trains his pistol on the unarmed group, and as he threatens their lives, Karolina hears an explosion from the snooker room nearby. The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts, perhaps, and placing the virtuous in a camp similar to that of women in South African culture: Regardless of effort, of desire, the truly powerful will always find a way to strike, even when facing the ultimate downfall.

In the end, The Elusive Moth succeeds thanks to Ingrid Winterbach’s fearlessness, both in penning a work unafraid to relish in the minutiae of life as well as one willing to speak to the abuse of societal power found in South Africa. The novel is wise, funny, and playful, and through its slow amble toward an enlightened conclusion, the reader is able to see reflections of today in a world twenty years old.

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Cleaver Magazine. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary Fiction, Publishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at and on Twitter.

Sep 092014

Fernando Sdrigotti Fernando Sdrigotti at Shakespeare and Co, Paris


When you are re-born in this manner it is as if all the possibilities are open; you are given a chance to re-fashion yourself into whatever shape you choose. You are your own demiurge: out of nothing, as it were, you can become everything.”
Costica Bradatan,
Born Again in a Second Language


In his film Tangos: El exilio de Gardel, Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas narrates the misadventures of a group of Latin American exiles in Paris during the early 1980s. They are a motley crew of musicians, dancers, and intellectuals. They want to put on a tango-ballet-opera about their plights, the people they have left behind, the political situation in the continent that expelled them, their present in an alien place. To sum up (albeit abruptly) a remarkable film, it could be said that their project collapses when they fail to find an artistic language that is authentic yet legible enough to garner the interest of the French public. I have no knowledge of any other film that captures the situation of the displaced Latin American intellectual or artist better than El exilio de Gardel. And the film’s characters are in Paris, in a city that due to cultural affinities, and a common history of movement in both directions, is familiar with Latinamericanness. And what if this story had taken place in London? I am of the impression that in this city Latin Americans are even more illegible. Illegible, for it is always about reading—about reading and writing, and about literature. Not that I was always aware of this. It took some time for me to realise it. And it took displacement.

When I moved to London, ejected from my country by an economic crisis (and not by a dictatorship), an entire literature to which I had previously related became nonsensical. Until then I had a very clear impression of who I was and how to read myself—or so I thought. My biography was clear: Argentinean, middle-class, of European descent like many of my fellow-countrymen, one more book among others, easy to read. Changing my surroundings to an alien place involved a process of becoming unfamiliar, of becoming illegible to myself and others. In this new context I realised the falsity of my biography, the artificiality of myself. And writing became necessary and unavoidable. If your biography is revealed as a fallacy, then why not write yourself anew? Not to arrive at any truth, but to feel in command, to exist on the safety that a gerund provides: writing, becoming, becoming through writing. Every biography is a forgery. You might as well be the author.

It is always about literature, yes. About histories, documents, application forms, legal documents. They provide you with a personal narrative or they deny you one. Back in Argentina I was (I embodied) a major literature. Soon after arriving in the UK, I was written as an immigrant and a white, other—I was minored. This was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and the most perplexing too: a whole set of certainties came crashing to the ground. What does it mean to be a white, other? Can it really explain my experience of displacement? How is an Argentinean perceived abroad? Are we really perceived as white, others by the other whites who are not others? Does it matter? How do other cultures perceive us, the others who aren’t white? And more importantly, how do we—Latin Americans—perceive ourselves—our different cultures—here? How do we read ourselves here? Do we read ourselves with the bullet points that we passively receive? I hope that we don’t. For none of the narratives that aim to crystallise reterritorialised people are in place to help them read themselves. They are in place to facilitate readability by others, a bit like a footnote in a literary translation: “X in this context means Y”. Processed or illegible—translatable or authentic.

It is always about literature. And when it comes to writing literature my experience is always the same, it is about juggling legibility and authenticity. How can I write for people who can’t pronounce my name? Should I write from the point of view of an immigrant, a white, other? An other, non white? Should I write from the point of view of one of them, those who are not others? Who am I? Where am I when I am writing? Who and where are they? How legible and authentic should my characters be? What would be the right balance? And so on. It is always about that process of negotiating authenticity and legibility and it is always most certainly a failure, because the seminal question at the end of the day is always “who is writing?”. I can’t answer this question. And that makes me feel a bit like a ghost.

Because I am a ghost myself I get the impression that I am writing for a ghost readership…“The people are missing,” says Deleuze of modern political cinema, minor cinema. For Deleuze the problem faced by postwar auteurs is that the idea of a people collapsed—postwar auteurs don’t have the safety net provided by a people, they have to invent them one frame at a time. This applies to minor literature too. The people are missing, the people as readers, the people as writers. The invisibility of the people persists, even today. And the people are not there yet, they are being written, one paragraph at a time. Maybe some people have been invented while I wrote these paragraphs. Maybe I have invented myself in these paragraphs. Maybe I am already a bit here now, a bit less of a ghost. Or maybe I erased myself even more. I can’t tell.


Some form of biography, something forged, any forgery that grants an illusory form of self-identity, is necessary. Forgery. It is always a creative process and my way of partaking in it has always been through writing. I know of much more creative people than I: those who choose to come up with a whole different persona; those who need not explain themselves-in-displacement to anyone; those happy to become a carnival, nomad chameleons, always ready to change for the audience. They are their own works of art, their own Elmyr de Hory—the uberforger—and no less of a fantasy than any of my words. I see them clinging to this or that other stereotype. I see them rejecting stereotypes. I see them tactically shedding skins. And this is no criticism. For it is possible to live in a state of fantasy, to rewrite oneself completely anew, forge oneself as many times as required. Being a good forgery is always better and more honest than being a mediocre original. It is always more desirable than assuming some of the identities you are forced into.

I was reading the paper yesterday when I accidentally fell head-first into a football article. I am not interested in sports, nor in the genre of sports journalism. Sportsmanship bores me to death and sports journalism—most of the time—confirms that it is perfectly possible to put words on a sheet of paper whilst remaining quite distant from thinking. In this article the author was “analysing” regional idiosyncrasies whilst providing a pop-anthropological account of the phenomenon of Argentineans travelling en masse to Brazil during the World Cup. The thing was a rehash of many recurrent stereotypes: that Argentineans are arrogant, that they are hated all over Latin America, that they are belligerent, that they envision themselves as more European than the rest of Latin America, and so on. Stereotypes might be popular because they contain an element of truth, however diminutive it might be. But more often than not they just provide an empty vessel, a lazy signifier through which to misread the stereotyped party (through whichever lens the reader might have at hand). It went on and on and I kept reading because I wanted to figure out whether I was reading an article written by someone incredibly myopic or cynical—it is of course possible to be both. The piece ended with full colours: “For the time being, the Argentines are making the most of what is their most emphatic annexation since Goose Green.” This line made my blood boil: I never felt like launching a naval war in the South Atlantic.

Is this the idea the British have of Argentineans? Are we perceived as a bunch of violent warriors? Is it fair to reduce a culture to the delirium of a military junta that ruled the country over 30 years ago? (This is the same junta that killed thirty thousand Argentineans, by the way). Perhaps these kinds of mindless statements shouldn’t be taken seriously. Perhaps. But we can’t deny that many people swear by this kind of essentialism. This is the type of narrative that the mass media excretes on a daily basis. The only antidote, I believe, is to balance things out, to reject any imposed biography in order to forge our own identity, however artificial and Quixotesque this endeavour might be. To write a literature of oneself and in that way to summon the people who are still missing. To bring them one step closer. To hope that, in the act of writing ourselves, we will also write readers able to read us on our own terms. The alternative is leaving the gaps open for anyone to write us into this or that reductive stereotype.


One of the most interesting effects writing in a second language has had on my life is that of English dripping into my mother tongue, affecting the way I write in Spanish, the way I think in Spanish, the way I talk. I haven’t become legible in two languages—my relationship with the word is now accidental even in the language I call my own (not that I ever really owned it). In other words, I am never at home anywhere—other words, other words. It is always about those other words that can’t be summoned when you need them. How can I explain the insulting familiarity of the Argentine word boludo to a British person? How can I explain the insulting distance of mate to an Argentinean? The page of myself is full of footnotes. And nobody reads footnotes.

Going back home also demands that I become readable. It entails that I take notice of parts of my own biography that I have deleted or edited. It entails that I acknowledge the existence of pages that have been ripped, rewritten, or written over. Back home I am always a translation of a translation, an existential palimpsest, a mess of a text. I imagine that if I ever resettled back home permanently I would have to erase and rewrite myself all over, that I would be intervened and questioned by a completely new literature, read by different eyes, and that I would write and edit myself again and again, to the point of exhaustion. And perhaps even to the point of silence.

What is it like to always live, write, think, exist in the same language? Is this even possible? Are there people out there who are always legible? Perhaps it is about different modes of illegibility—perhaps we are all illegible to an extent and for a certain audience. Aren’t we all writing ourselves all the time? Aren’t we all failing all the time? For writing is always impossible, and if it is not it might as well be unnecessary, and we should get rid of all the typewriters, word processors, and use pens and pencils only to scratch our ears or fill-in our Lotto tickets. Screw all literature—screw everything ever written. Nothing but sorrow comes from all these documents, books, application forms. Why do we insist in writing when the reader is missing? The ghost readership gets to me.

Deep inside I know that I write these words in order to bring the people to come a step closer. But I also know that I write them for myself. Not to understand myself, but to become myself, to produce myself, to keep on living, to forge myself into another forgery, the gerund I was speaking about above. Writing, becoming, becoming something through my writing, forging, fabricating, and fabulating.

— Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti: is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.


Sep 082014


The Austrian novelist, Robert Musil (1880-1942), who was trained as a mathematician, physicist, and behavioral psychologist, spent most of his career working on his magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, which, despite the thousands of pages completed, remained unfinished at his death while in exile in Switzerland. But he also wrote many essays, a few plays, a good deal of criticism, many philosophical and sociological essays, and many shorter prose pieces, including a novella and a number of longer short stories, published during his lifetime in book form and in numerous journals and newspapers, not to mention endless unpublished drafts of his novel, and for other literary, essayistic, and theatrical projects. Musil’s short prose pieces, which are a mixture of different sorts of experimental stories, of period vignettes, feuilletonistic sketches, and glosses on social and cultural issues, situate Musil within the literary, social, and philosophical concerns of his times, and show him struggling with incomparable wit and insight with problems, such as the commodification of art and culture, the sloppiness of language, the tension between individualism and conformity, and the decline of critical thinking, still very much unsolved today. These two short glosses, from the mid-twenties, which were published in 1926 and 1927 in a number of journals and newspapers, address the question of modern art, commodification, and the imprecision of metaphoric language. They are part of a collection of translations of previously untranslated Musil stories, glosses, and literary fragments I will be publishing with Contra Mundum Press in 2015.

This excerpt has been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

—Genese Grill


Speed Is Witchy!

It is always good to use words as one should, without thinking about it, that is. One can easily go on for ten sentences before a word pops up that needs to be thought about. This is doubtless a freewheeling kind of style that has about it an air of speeding traffic over long distances, and it seems that the intellectual tasks of the day can only be mastered with its assistance. But if one pays niggling attention to details, one will go flying into a hole in the language. Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.

Consider for example the phrase, “head over heels”; what an important and much used phrase in a time which depends so much on tempo! How many people use this phrase in a rush without considering how many difficulties it creates for speed? For to fall head over heels toward somewhere would be to develop such a frantic acceleration that your body would seem to be wheeling over your feet, and your feet over your head; speed grabs you by the cuffs of your pants, the law of inertia shuts down in your head, and you are torn out of yourself like a rabbit out of his hide. But when was a person ever in such a mad rush? God yes, as a child, when one ran with unsteady legs. As a boy when one rode one’s bike down a steep hill. Maybe as a knight when one didn’t really know how the quest would end. At a paltry speed of ten to twenty miles per hour! If a car or a train wanted to drive head over heels they would have to creep!

Head over heels does not express a speediness then, but rather a relationship between the quickness and the danger of the conveyance or between the quickness and the excitement of extreme exertion. The streamers have to fly, the eyes have to lather, and the flanks must cramp. But then even a snail rushes along head over heels, in an utterly accelerated snail tempo, mad cap, in peril. Secondary observations are once again always the decisive ones. It is said that a small car speeds faster than a large wagon, and the more worn down the rails are, the faster a train speeds. Even romping is a matter of habituation. We have neighbors who think it means carefully gliding along through life as if on waxed floors.

One looks around in language for more solid expressions. How would it sound, for example, if one said: “He stuck the dagger in her heart head over heels?” Even the most daring novelist wouldn’t bring that over his quill. He doesn’t know why. But he makes the dagger thrust like lightning. Quick like a thought would not quite be the correct speed for it. But a lover is with his beloved as quick as a thought and never suddenly like lightning. These are mysteries.

A general always charges in forced marches. Someone who has finally been found falls into your arms, but runs to greet you. A general director storms around; his office employee, on the other hand, enters breathless; the speed of movement has, for each of them, the opposite effect on their breath. Perhaps it also should be mentioned that one always comes flying, but is gone in a flash.

One can see that these are difficult problems. But the worst of it is that modern life is filled with new speeds for which we have no expressions. Remarkably, speeds are described using the most conservative expressions that exist. Despite the train, the airplane, revolutions per minute, slow motion, the outermost limitation of speed expressions is the same today as it was in the Stone Age; nothing in language has gotten any faster than a thought or lightning or any slower than a snail. That is a devilish situation for a time period that has no time and that believes itself called to give the world a new speediness; the apples of quickness are dangling in front of us, but we cannot seem to open our mouths.

But maybe the future will be totally different. Classically experienced speeds still do exist today, but only in places where one would least expect them, like for farmers in the country. There lightning still flies through the air, the passing car blasts through the chickens, and there are paths where one can fall on one’s nose for rushing. In the city, the only speed one still senses is that of the connection that has to be made, the haste of disembarking and the uncertainty about getting somewhere at the right time. Without the blessing of neurasthenia we would have already lost this kind of speed too, since, in the worst case scenario, the person in a hurry, instead of wheezing and perspiring vapors, relinquishes a buck fifty for a car that will do this for him. And the higher one rises in the realms of power, the quieter it gets. A turbine factory with fifty thousand volts of horse power hums almost silently, and the most monstrous speeds of technology are still only a gentle rocking. Life becomes more prosaic and practical the larger it gets. A boxing match between two masters makes a lot less noise than a street fight between two laymen, and an explosion is not as dramatic as a knifing. The great new intensities have something that our feelings cannot grasp, like rays of light for which an eye does not yet exist. But it won’t be very long before we say relaxing-train instead of express and only use the phrase head over heels when we want to describe or depict something like the evening stillness, when far and wide nothing stirs, and the rare quiet rushes over us like an ocean.



Don’t waste too much time on art! Find yourself without further ado on the pinnacle of expertise! All you need is two rules.

Always declare that a picture that does not please you or that you do not understand is old-fashioned. Don’t include anything that will let on whether you have taken it to be second or twentieth century, a watercolor or a woodcut. For one can argue about those things.

Secondly, maintain, if people ask you for the reasons for this judgment, that the painting style of the future is Intensivism. And if they ask you what this is, refuse to answer and say, that’s self-explanatory.

This is, after all, how it is always done. This is how Impressionism did it and Expressionism. I will not tell you, of course, what these two words mean; happily, that no longer concerns you. And if I tell you a bit more about Intensivism, it is not with the intention of giving you an idea of it—because, if the adherents of a movement had a clear conception of it that would paralyze their momentum —, but so that you can get a feeling about how this coming art will become the nerves, the will, and the vitality of painting; stick to this resolution, forget everything else.

In the old days people painted larger pictures than today. That was because the living areas were larger. You see how simple the rules of art are.

When we lived in castles, we covered whole walls with a single picture. Later, when we lived in a house, the pictures were 5 x 6 ½ feet at their largest. Today even massive people can only afford apartments with a few rooms, rooms only half as high as they were before, and the pictures correspondingly have a format of only 3 ¼ feet; and if, as is to be expected, the building activity in Europe stagnates for much longer, the pictures will get even smaller.

But they have not become correspondingly less expensive. From this follows that the ground and surface of the picture has gotten more expensive, the ground rent of the canvas per square inches has become larger and the same spiritual profit requires an intensivist economizing. That is the root of Intensivism.

Secondly, it demands psychic energy. Look at a landscape, and you will usually find a third, if not a half of the picture covered with air or water. Such pictures are more or less fallow land. It cannot be contested that a quarter inch of painted blue or an explanatory note are quite sufficient to let us know whether sky or water was meant; every person knows what they look like, there is nothing new about it to depict, it is just a matter of habitual waste of going through the motions. Naturally, you discover the same thing when you look at a portrait. The painter does not fill the whole picture with it, but spares himself with a background, which fills at least half of it.

I could, for example, paint you two times, or you and then after you your rival while you step on his neck, the great day when all paper securities skyrocketed, or the black day when everything collapsed. Don’t be afraid of such demands; all truly original epochs of art came about quite naturally. Consider that one can paint many pictures inside each other; but I won’t jump ahead, this art is already developing on its own. Just keep a firm hold on the wish that painting will soon turn to race horses, hunting scenes, automobiles, airplanes, and whatever you find truly beautiful, and tentatively demand that we put an end to all these underutilized spiritual surfaces.

Intensivistic life in the smallest portion of a picture, nervous surfaces, introduction of the victorious energy of modern life into the frame of the picture: that is Intensivismus! If you see something that already seems to tend toward it, then say nothing more than: but is that ever intense! If this is too hard for you, then bring your wife along, she will get it right.


—Robert Musil, Translated by Genese Grill

These short essays have been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Thought Flights, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

All original texts taken from Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009.

Intensivism. “Intensismus”. Berliner Tageblatt (1926), Der Tag (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1978), pp. 681-683, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte Kleine Prosa.

Speed is Witchy! “Geschwindigkeit ist eine Hexerei”. Vossische Zeitung (5.28.1927), Prager Presse (7.6.1927), Magdeburgische Zeitung (7.29.1927), Der Tag (9.20.1927), Vierzehn Federn (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1957), pp. 542-544, Frisé (1978), pp. 683-685, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte: Kleine Prosa.


Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.

Sep 072014

Michael OatmanMichael Oatman in London in March 2014 with Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1982 mural for the Tottenham Court Underground Station, completed the year he started college at RISD. Photo credit: Jen Kollar.


Michael Oatman is brilliant. He calls his practice “the poetic interpretation of documents,” and much like a poet in love with the lyric moment, he captures hundreds of still-lifes, bits of magic, preserving the quality of the painterly images he works with by using them in his constructions, simultaneously reverent and irreverent. He works in collage and installation, making pieces that can be extremely large scale.

His work, studio, and intellect set up a seduction not unlike a labyrinth, and shortly after entering, you realize you’ve willingly let go the thread. Time no longer exists. You want to go down every rabbit hole. His downtown Troy studio is jam-packed, floor to ceiling. Yet it is also highly organized and makes your fingers itch with excitement and curiosity. There are books everywhere. Thousands. And objects, in stacked files and bins overflowing, whose stories and histories are locked away, subject to the imagination, some known only to their collector. Oatman unlocks or reinvents these images and objects for us as painstakingly as a surgeon.

Oatman’s influences, surprisingly (and not) include Cage, Duchamp, and Hitchcock. His installations are utterly immersive projects, and he’s constantly got things in the works. Many of you will have seen one of his recent pieces, a four-year collaborative effort, “All Utopias Fell,” installed at Mass MoCA. It includes jars of tomatoes his mother canned, a stationary exercise bike from the seventies, power tools, a record turntable and collection of vinyl records, and a fascination of knobs, gizmos & do-dads, which remake odd instrument panels. Of course there are books, among hundreds of other items, housed in a re-purposed Airstream trailer, whose outside is graffitied with phrases including “Ignore alien orders,” “One word changes everything,” and “Build your wings on the way down.” This trailer has become a spaceship, a satellite that has crash-landed, and the collection inside & out tells the story of a man.

We get the feeling that Oatman’s work is suffused with his biography. Because he is so deeply engaged in the world around him and in art as a means of communication, I was inspired to speak with him primarily about collaboration and connection.

  —Mary Kathryn Jablonski


“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

—Marcel Duchamp

Mary Kathryn Jablonski (MKJ): Michael, I see here in your studio that you’re working on a new collage using images of cloaked body parts. They remind me of Nina Katchadourian’s “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” and make me want to ask you, what would you do if you were trapped on an airplane for twenty hours?

Michael Oatman (MO): I’ve had that happen before. 38 hours one time to go to Montana, and it only took me 27 hours to go to Easter Island, the most remote place in the world. I’ve been in that kind of situation. I’d probably get everyone on board to do something together to kill time, because everyone’s got a video camera on their phone. Also, what I used to do a lot of when I was waiting, when I didn’t have a car, when I was a student, I had my sketch book, and I’d just draw. Everybody. Bus stations, train stations, airports, waiting to get on the subway. And I find when I travel I sometimes go back to that a little bit. I like drawing people. For me, it’s not part of my work any more, but occasionally I’ll draw the figure. I taught it for 10 years, but the kind of drawings you get out in the world are really different from the kind of drawings you get of the body in the studio. Sometimes a body makes a scene seem more real somehow. I don’t live in a sketchbook quite as much as I used to, but I think Nina’s really figured out something hilarious.

MKJ: Yes, I especially love the clandestine “Bucklehead” photos of other passengers reflected in her seatbelt.

MO: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I just saw the movie, Finding Vivian Maier. It’s about a woman who was a self-taught photographer who produced over 100,000 images in her lifetime. Quintessential street photographer, easily as good as Robert Frank. She was a nanny to make her money, but she also wanted a job that wouldn’t take up a ton of her time, that would get her out onto the streets all day, so she worked for seemingly dozens of families from something like the 1940’s until the 90’s, maybe longer. 50, 60 years as a nanny. Sometimes you can tell she had a Rolleiflex that you looked down through the top of. It was easy for her to take pictures with no one noticing her. But other times it’s clear that the subjects are looking right at her. She had the ability to get people to trust her enough to take that photo. It’s a wonderful movie.

But going back to the visual relationship to Nina’s things. What I obviously like about those photos where she mimics the Dutch Masters… These photos I’m currently working with are actual pieces of diseased skin that the doctors or authors of the book (titled “The Jacobi Dermachromes”) framed out with cloth to look a bit like relics. They’re kind of honoring the disease and the person by beatifying it, and that’s what I really like. I did some work many years ago with images from life saving manuals, and in all these scenes of mayhem with broken legs and bones sticking through arms and people unconscious and bleeding, everybody, including the victims, looked so calm. And that was something I drew on.

Similarly, what I like about these diseased skin images is the devotional quality, and that is actually how I think about the images I use in my collages. Generally speaking, the pictures that I’m using, nobody cares about anymore, because everything on the Internet is a photograph. Why have a painting of a sea urchin or a horseshoe crab when you can have a photo of it? The illustrators that I use whose work comes mostly from between the 1920s and 70s made everything by hand, by painting. I guess it’s a little nod to the fact that I used to be a painter, so I really like images that started as paintings and ended as reproductions in books. With this project, in breaking my own rule, I’m working with photographs, but I feel like they’re altered enough by the process of being framed out with the fabric around the figures, and the hand coloration, and the separations for printing, that they feel more like illustrations to me than straight photographs.

Collage parts in preparation as decals, studio view, 2014

Because there are often hundreds of illustrators in one image that I make, and it has to work somehow, I’m trying to maintain the “official quality” of these original picture sources, which were so authoritarian, and at the same time, confidence in the judgment of the selector.

MKJ: Your work seems at once nostalgic and futuristic. In that way it reminds me of some of Margaret Atwood’s novels, The Handmaids Tale, Oryx and Crake. And all of your work, whether the two-dimensional wall pieces or the three-dimensional installations, I see as collage.

MO: That’s interesting, kind of “fugistic.” It’s funny you say that you see all my work as collage, because I now call the collages “flat installations.”

And I have these new frames that my dad has been making, which nobody’s written about yet. It’s really interesting for me because I’ve always commissioned my folks to make work for my projects, so I’ll hire my mom to do sewing or my dad to do carving or knife making or frame making and I’ll ask for 10 frames, as I did recently for this piece called “The Branch,” which is 30 feet long, which Ian Berry commissioned for the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. My dad made these rectangular frames that I kind of assembled together on the wall in the form of a branch. But two Thanksgivings ago he called me excitedly to ask if I was coming home for the holiday, saying he had this idea he wanted to run by me, an art idea he didn’t think anyone had done before. So I went up to Vermont and he had this beautiful drawing on vellum, a drafting of a Native American thunderbird shape. And he said, “I’ll make these shapes and you fill them.” I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years, for him to propose a project. Because it’s always been, “Dad, I need this. It’s this dimension. Here’s how to make it.” Now he’s picking the shapes: fish, butterfly, bat, thunderbird, anvil. I guess I influenced him on the anvil [see bio: Falling Anvil Studios].

He just gets them done whenever he gets them done and delivers them, and he’s an amazing resource. But it’s a real challenge, because the way that I’ve been working with imagery is in the classical manner of the Renaissance model: single viewer, a scene that unfolds in the world. I generally don’t make pieces that are pure abstraction, although I’ve made a few. One was in a Tang show and called “Code of Arms,” which was a human DNA helix. It’s pretty abstract, but it was still made out of pictures of things. Or a piece I made titled “Germinal Velocity.” Having the shaped edge means that you’ve really got to work with it or ignore it in a fantastic way. It’s been an opportunity for me to think dynamically about what’s been going on. It’s also given me an opportunity to change scale.

3-Germinal Velocity “Germinal Velocity (by the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising),” 2013, collage on paper with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman.

Like in this new piece, it’s not a landscape in a traditional sense, the zoom-out of the surface of the earth, but when I began to move the butterfly frame around, I realized that Africa fit in the upper right hand corner and the rest of it was blank. It’s a piece kind of about the butterfly effect, you know, the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, changing the weather, and this is more like a creature of human invention, the Pegasus, which is the Mobil Oil Corporation mascot. I’ve been collecting them. So they’re kind of the storm spiraling out. The working title for this piece is, “Convenience Storm,” a play on convenience store, which is a place where you get things like gasoline, cigarettes, condoms, beer. This piece is a bit about convenience store culture, a weird “Ode to Stewarts,” our regional shop, and I’m sure I’d be shocked if I learned how much I spent at Stewarts over the years. This piece is still very much in progress, and I’m not sure where it’s headed. I think things started to snap when I got the red working with the rest of the colors in the map. This is going to be one of the pieces in my upcoming show in October at the Arts Center in Troy with Colin Boyd called “Abecedarius,” which, as you know, follows a kind of A, B, C format. We’re each taking 13 letters of the alphabet and making a work, and we’re going to do one ampersand work that we make together.

4-Convenience Storm in process“Convenience Storm,” 2014, collage on map with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman. Process, studio view.

5-Convenience Storm - process detailDetail view of “Convenience Storm,” 2014, in process.

MKJ: Has it ever felt forced to you to have your father make the frames first and you having the task of filling them? Have you ever dreaded the challenge or has it thrilled you instead?

MO: Totally thrilling. And what’s really thrilling is his process. He finds a shape online, so my non-computer-expert Dad has been surfing Google looking for animals. He’s thrown a lot of things out there that we’ve decided weren’t so great. We thought a manta ray was good, but he couldn’t really find a geometry that he liked. He thought a shark might be interesting, but it was a little too goofy. And then he found this bat, and it got stylized, not quite like the Batman logo, but it’s very baroque. I asked him years ago to find a way not to cast a shadow as much with the frames, and he came up with this bevel on the surface, which tapers down to about a quarter of an inch. Previously it was a three quarter inch edge. I asked him to start making frames like this when I came back from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw these really plain frames around Dutch paintings. I’d been teaching that semester in Rome and took a trip to Amsterdam to meet my then wife. In Rome the frames were like somebody threw up on them and then gold-leafed it, but in Northern climes they wanted this severe Calvinistic frame. So that’s what my father and I started doing, and we just painted them black instead of the Jacobean brown, which he was using earlier.

His process includes finding an image and printing it out at home. He goes to an old fashioned Xerox place, blows it up, then uses his 30-60-90 triangles, protractors, and other tools, as he averages the geometry. I think you have to admit that it’s a very good configuration of that shape, and I hope to actually show these drawings that he made someday, because I love them: the graininess of the Xerox and the calculations of the angles written at each point. I think this frame has 32 compound angles. Not only is he beveling the surface, he’s mitering each angle, you know, it’s 25 degrees, 60, 15, 45, 30, 60. It’s a lot of work to make these frames! So I really appreciate it, and I’m glad we’re finally getting to do something that’s a real 50-50 team effort. I’d long hoped to do a project with my whole family, my brother included. He’s in finance, but he was great at sewing when he was younger. I want to do an “Oatman Family Robinson” type show, where they would make everything. We would make everything together. That may happen someday.

MKJ: I made the assumption that when you work in the studio on your 2-D collage works it is a very solitary, meditative practice, based on the exacting quality of your cutwork. In the project “Beautiful Moths,” even the book you cut is intact! At Mass MoCA, however, the wall label for “All Utopias Fell”  reveals an amazing collaboration of over 20 names. I recall thinking that the canned tomatoes in that installation must have been your mother’s. I was going to ask you to speak about the differences between the (seeming) privacy of your studio practice and the social, collaborative aspects of your installation works, yet you’ve just been describing the blurred lines between the two, haven’t you?

6-Beautiful Moths“Beautiful Moths,” book.

MO: There were way more than 20 involved in the Mass MoCA piece; like maybe 60. And, yup, Dad grew the tomatoes; Mom canned them! Well, if my dad continues to make these shaped frames for me I’d be happy to work in nothing but the shapes, although I do have a lot of projects that are earmarked already for rectangular frames. It’s a really good question. I used to do the installations completely by myself and then my ambitions got bigger and museums wanted bigger pieces, and I had longer time frames within which to work. Now, I’d probably say that I wouldn’t do installations without working with a lot of people because I like it. I get to be like a director on a film. When you work with a lot of people you have to have a certain control over the overall project, and I think you also let go of a lot. And that’s much more surprising for me. There’s much more of a chance element if you say to a student, “All right, if you want to make a video for this piece, make a proposal and we’ll include it in the reel.” If I’m asking a helper use beer labels to make them into a kind of wallpaper in the ship, and they get to determine what the layout is, then I get to be surprised by that. My longtime editor that I worked with for many years is a former student. He’s now editing out in Hollywood. He began to know what I was interested in after awhile, so he could do a lot of work on his own that would be in the vein of how we’d work together. I miss that relationship greatly, and I’m looking to rekindle or replace that, working with a new editor. But I think collaboration is interesting not just because of the high, but also because of the surprise. That’s why I do it now.

I’m currently working on a big project for Toronto with my friend Brian Kane, an artist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, curated by Denise Markonish from Mass MoCA, titled “Nuit Blanche.” It has changed, because of venue changes and budget changes, literally a dozen times. It’s been super-interesting, and I think we’re going to have a great project in the end. We’re also collaborating with Paul De Jong, the cellist and former member of the now disbanded group The Books. He’s an amazing composer, studio craftsman, and performer. This sort of “secret” project is being deployed at Union Station for 12 hours only, at a sunset to sunrise art festival, on October 4th. It’s deeply collaborative, curatorially, and even in terms of working with the city managers. It has had its challenges and its delights, and I think that’s the nature of collaboration. I don’t know of any collaborations that were completely smooth. I think they’d probably not be so interesting.

MKJ: I want to know if you conceal yourself in your works, particularly your collaborations, or if you reveal yourself. Of course, most viewers who walk into the Airstream at Mass MoCA must ask if Michael Oatman is the hermit.

MO: When I was an undergraduate student I was churning out a lot of stuff. After I was a freshman and chose my major, which was painting, I was making a lot of collages, and I think it was my friend Todd Bartel who pointed out to me one day that every single image that I’d been making had a hand in it somewhere. Sort of, the Hand of God, or maybe the Hand of the Maker. It was a symbol that had crept in, and hands were in sculptures and pointing down from the sky and jutting into frames. Ninety-five percent of what I made that year in prints and collages and paintings had no full bodies, not even heads or faces, but hands coming into the frame. And once I saw it, I began to do it in earnest to try to figure it out. I guess I began to see it as a reluctant portrait in a way, but also mentors, parents, and partners, an absent body. Later, when I was making paintings in graduate school that were all about bodies, they were very distanced. Even later still, I used imagery of objects used by the body, the tools of a surgeon or artist. If there was a body in the picture, it was often an unconscious body or disembodied body.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the great tiny piece by Rauschenberg called “Portrait of Iris Clert.” I think the story is that he was supposed to be in a portraiture show featuring this woman in particular, and he telegrams the gallery, addressing Iris Clert and saying basically, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so / Robert Rauschenberg.” Her name was in it. His name was in it. Her picture was nowhere to be found, and it was just this completely conceptual move. Remembering that piece has been useful in answering this question. I do get asked a lot where I am in “All Utopias Fell.” I think that the short answer is that my biography drives a lot of the material and image choices. Not any readily available facts about me, not my own image, obviously. It’s really how sensations, stories, memories from my own life help me make choices for what’s going to go into a piece, and that’s beautifully indirect. That piece at Mass MoCA on some level is about a romantic relationship that ended, on some level it’s about historical figures that have influenced me. In the stained glass there are references to Tom Phillips, author of The Humument, my girlfriend in college, and my mentor, Alfred DeCredico, both of whom are now gone. There’s also reference to Chinua Achebe, author of When Things Fall Apart, who was alive when I made the window, but recently died. His book is also in the installation. You know, it’s riddled, riddled, with personal information that is not easily obtainable by the viewer, because I don’t think it needs to be, but it needs to be there for me to make a choice about something. For me it isn’t every work that’s deeply autobiographical, but the large ones tend to be. I’ve made something like 24 installations in my lifetime now, some big, some small.

MKJ: “All Utopias Fell” is actually a project in three interrelated parts: “The Shining,” “The Library of the Sun,” and “Codex Solis.” Let’s talk about the solar panels/coded text aspect, titled “Codex Solis.” I recently attended a wonderful panel talk at the Arts Center in Troy on The Creative Process, and among other things the discussion touched upon topics including success & failure, submission & rejection of works, and intrinsic value of the work as well as public recognition. So often you speak about art as a form of communication; would this piece be a “failure” in your mind if it were never deciphered? Or, if it is deciphered and publicized, does that devalue the piece in your mind? Or, is its value intrinsic, making these issues irrelevant? How do you process this piece?

MO: If it’s solved is it a success? If it’s not solved is it a failure? Or if it’s solved is it a failure? If it’s not solved is it a success? Actually, one person has solved it. The analogy for “Codex Solis” for me is a Duchamp piece called “With Hidden Noise,” which I think is one of his greatest contributions to the idea of art. It is two plates of metal with a ball of twine in between, and there’s some French and English words on the top and bottom of it, and right before he closes up the two metal plates with four bolts, he gives it to his friend and patron Walter Arensberg, and tells him, “Put something inside and don’t tell me what it is.” That’s what Arensberg does, and supposedly nobody’s ever opened it. It’s highly unlikely in the world of curious people and conservators that nobody’s X-rayed the thing. People have speculated that, well, Arensberg wasn’t a particularly risky guy intellectually, and probably knowing Duchamp’s interest in chance, there’s a die or coin or something related to chance hidden in there. They’re good guesses. They may be totally off base. Hopefully we’ll never know. In my mind, that’s the perfect artwork: where the artist makes something extremely deliberate, and there’s a great deal about it that he doesn’t know. That’s what I want to do.

In “Codex Solis” I still know what the message is. I had to look for it in a very unorthodox way. It had to be a certain number of characters. I could have as many mirrors and blank spaces as I wanted, but I had to have a certain number of solar panels. It took me six months to find something that would meet the electrical load of the piece, which is a weird requirement, kind of Duchampian. And I needed something that would relate content-wise to my overall project. It’s not something that I wrote. It’s something that I transplanted into the piece. Now, would it have been a better piece if someone else chose the text? Probably, on some level, because then I wouldn’t know what it is, sort of invisibly beaming into the heavens every day.

I think that the person who solved it generously decided to keep it to himself, because to answer your question, something will change when it is revealed. I think it will be interesting for people, some more than others, to know what it says.

MKJ: Yes, yes. Toshiko Takeazu also made closed ceramic vessels, inscribing the inner walls with hidden messages before she sealed and fired them. One final question, Michael. Does your artwork ever teach you things about yourself?

7-Who Me- Pornithology series“Who, Me?” (from the ongoing series “Pornithology”), 2014, collage on paper, 10″ x 13″.

MO: All these books to look through… It can be wildly inefficient, because I stop to read. I cut things out and leave them in a pile and forget about them and come back to them, and don’t quite remember what they were for specifically, but they take on a new meaning, and that’s a sort of gift of working with physical material. There are a few in this folder titled “Pornithology,” birds and guns and things I think of as a perversion of the birds through human weapons. But I also make deliberate notes and sketches. Almost every collage or installation has anywhere from a few to hundreds of drawings. Then there’s like a rule that comes along. Like the Moth Book Rule of removing only shaped things. For instance I wouldn’t bother to remove rectangles from the dictionary, but if it’s a book of birds and they’re in that shape, then that’s a much more interesting book to cut out. Otherwise, I would never tear a book apart, but I’m choosing books that are beautifully laid out, and there’s an acknowledgement that the designer, the illustrator were masterful.

I think that the studio is a place of great discovery. I don’t even know if I’d call it learning as much as I’d call it discovery. It’s not knowledge in the way that I’m consuming it. It’s trivia. I would say that there’s loads of interesting trivial information, lots of experience that happens in the studio. I don’t think I’d do it if there weren’t some sort of payoff of consciousness or realization or growth. Certainly the studio has been a very sustaining part of my life. The first thing that saved me was probably reading. The second thing that saved me was an outlet for ideas. But the studio is always like an old friend.

There’s second hand smoke knowledge in the studio all the time. But I learn a lot more in the collaborative works, from other people, students, teachers, friends, audience members, people who start out as audience members and become collaborators. They’ve seen something and they get in touch with me and want to become involved. I try to think, if there’s a place for them that would be great. It’s an easy decision to make, because help is help and it’s going to change the piece. It’s going to change the way I think about it.

— Michael Oatman and Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Michael Oatman was born in Burlington Vermont in 1964. He received his BFA in painting from RISD in 1986. His installations integrate thousands of found, modified and handmade components, including artifacts of material culture, painting, drawing, video, sound, food – and objects at the scale of architecture. These ‘unvironments’ have been installed at museums, public spaces and private homes.

His collages, also realized on a large-scale, typically contain vast numbers of hand-cut images culled from discarded and unloved books – children’s encyclopedias, scientific texts, product and armament catalogs. His father, a carpenter, makes the frames. His rigorously researched subjects include genetics and eugenics, capital punishment and prisons, the history of knowledge and the exploration of space. Often using large amounts of material from archives, libraries, flea markets, garage sales, abandoned stores and the collections of private individuals, he refers to his practice as ‘the poetic interpretation of documents.’ He has also written about art and has curated several important exhibitions, most notably Factory Direct, a new version of which was mounted by the Andy Warhol Museum in 2012.

Similar to the Situationists’ notion of the dérive, his works often begin with an aimless foray into psychogeographic terrains, on foot, in a car, or occasionally by dreaming. In order to perform his research he has posed as a salesman, pollster and journalist; sometimes this playacting gives way to legitimately operating as a private detective, technician or personal assistant.

In addition to his studio and post-studio practices, Oatman teaches first-year and thesis in the School of Architecture at Renssealer, in Troy, NY. His Extreme Drawing course – as well as seminars on Duchamp and Hitchcock – are popular, even with students from non-art disciplines. He has also taught at Harvard, The University of Vermont, SUNY Albany, St. Michael’s College and Vermont College. He has been a visiting critic at RISD since 1986.

Oatman’s installations are ‘context-specific,’ and demand from him a total immersion into physical location, sonic/haptic realms, local history and the personal stories of those he encounters in the process of making a work. He is prone to collaboration, and, since 2004 has worked with gifted students under the name of Falling Anvil Studios. Privileged to study with Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, the most significant conceptualists/social activists of the 1980s/90s, he has also studied with Ana Mendieta, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Edward Mayer, Jim Dine, and his RISD mentor, Alfred DeCredico.

Oatman has shown his work extensively in the U.S. and abroad. Recent projects include All Utopias Fell, a permanent commission for MASS MoCA, which opened in October 2010; a large-scale commissioned collage for the newly opened Wellin Museum at Hamilton College; a recent book for graphic design firm id 29, and a long-term outdoor video environment. He is represented by Miller/Yezerski in Boston, MA; Lenore Grey in Providence, RI; Stremmel Gallery, in Reno NV; and Mayson Gallery in New York, NY.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals includingSalmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Sep 062014



It was through Phyllis Springer and Goksin Sipahioglu, the owners of the celebrated photo agency SIPA press in Paris, that I met Mavis Gallant.  This was in the 1980s.

Mavis lived in the apartment next to Phyllis and Goksin on the left bank near Boulevard Montparnasse, not far from 27 rue de Fleurus.  In that same apartment building in those days lived the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, with whom I had no encounter.

I had been staying in Paris above a couscous restaurant on rue Xavier Privas that I shared with fullback-sized cockroaches.  In those days I drove a yellow deux chevaux I named Colette.  I would park her where I could, changing places in a failed attempt to avoid parking tickets, but at least not being towed.

Some days I’d buy a lunch from un marchand de rue and, with a bottle of vin de pays, take my meal on Square du Vert Galant, a point on l’Ile de la Cité where I’d watch the bateaux mouches on the Seine.  One such lunch I saw a barge going up the river packed with cars; Colette was among them—-in fact, on the bow, like a figurehead.

It took three days of my poor French and 300 francs to free her from the Fourrière, a kind of dog pound for cars. Later, just before I left Paris, I put an AV sign in the windshield and sold her to a sous chef of Café de Palais on Place Dauphine. Adieu: Colette.

Sometimes Phyllis and Goksin would invite me to join them for dinner at a restaurant where they were habitués. It was at one of those meals that I met Mavis: La Marlotte? Brasserie Lipp? Closerie des Lilas? Probably La Marlotte, as that was not far from where they all lived.

It was at that meal that Christiane Amanpour stopped to say hello to Goksin and Phyllis; she had worked for them at SIPA before she turned to television reporting.

—He is a great photographer, she said to me, putting her hand on Goksin’s shoulder. Do you know that? I said I did. And Mavis is a great writer, she continued.  I said I knew that as well.

I had, like almost any American author who writes short fiction, read Mavis’s stories in the New Yorker. Along with Salinger and John Cheever in those days, you could earn multiple graduate degrees in creative writing by reading these authors. At one point I typed (on a manual typewriter, it was that long ago) parts of stories from all three to see what they had accomplished, and how they did it.  I learned, among other things, what a fine sense of local detail these writers had:  Salinger for the parks and subways of New York City; Cheever for the upstate suburbs with roaming lovers and Labrador Retrievers; Mavis Gallant for the rues of Paris; her stories were their own Plan de Paris.

Also at that first dinner, Phyllis asked Mavis if she had walked that day. Paris has many rainy days, and that had been one of them.

—I walk every day in Paris, Mavis said. It is how I fetch my stories. Not to do so would be impossible.

Years later, when she was crippled by arthritis and diabetes, Mavis’s agent made her a Christmas gift: a year’s worth of taxi rides so she could continue fetching her stories.

I imagine her with the notebook of her writer’s mind open through her eyes as she has the driver take her toward Place de l’Odéon, and then down where the students rioted in 1968. The next day the taxi is driving her across the Seine toward the Hotel de Ville in the 4th, past the apartment buildings and cafes and art galleries of her characters, and beyond: to Pere Lachaise in the 20th–all the time Mavis not looking where she had been in her previous work, but where in her mind’s eye she would be setting new stories once she got back to her writing.

In the years that followed our first dinner, Mavis and I would eat entre nous at restaurants that her characters and mine frequented; she would order from my fictional menu, and I would order from hers–both being true to our characters. Because of the writer she was, and because of the writer I was, her characters were much better fed than mine.  Tant pis. At least I ate well, and in her company had bright and witty talk.

At one such lunch (at Le Cherche Midi I think because it was open on Sunday), she lectured me that I was not a writer because I did not make my living as one; beyond that, I taught creative writing, which is not how writers learn. I said I knew the latter from reading her stories.  She smiled.

As if to compensate for her rather pointed points, she ordered a split of Chateau D’ay (the appellation delighted her given the company), and toasted the quality of my fiction: très amusant, which was high praise, as she thought herself a comic writer. Très belle: To Mavis Gallant, after all these years I toast both the woman and her fiction, as if the two can be separated which, had you watched her walking through Paris in the rain (as I did one day on my way to join her for lunch, her head turned here and there to see what would become the facts of her fiction) you know is, thankfully, impossible.

 —Robert Day

Bob DayRobert Day in Paris

Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love premiered here on Numéro Cinq in its entirety as a serial novel and will be published in fall 2014 by Mammoth Publications. Prior to that, his most recent book was Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”


Sep 052014


Gallant and MulhallenMavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen


Three months after my conversation with Richard Landon, Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, Mavis Gallant and I were able to meet at the radio station to discuss her work in anticipation of my broadcasts on her writing. We spent an entire day in the recording studio and saw one another two more times that week, off record so to speak. I found her both candid and open.

And our subsequent talks, after the tape machine was turned off and we had changed context, bore out my sense of her deep intelligence and her compassion. In rereading her stories to prepare these pages for Numéro Cinq, I found another quality, which perhaps I had been too young, or too anxious to take in — her comic, even madcap, sense of human folly.

In “The Four Seasons,” the first story in From the Fifteenth District, there is a six-page scene where a substitute priest in the British colony in the south of France is being lessoned in manners and morals, and the classics and the Bible, and of course, really, on their expectations, by his new parishioners. They have informed him there is no need to change the signage which advertises “Evensong Every Day at Noon.” They warn him about his sermons: “I hope you are not a scholar, Padre. Your predecessor was, and his sermons were a great bore.” And finally, on telling him it is time for him to leave, his host says, “Well, I’ll expect you’ll not forget your first visit.”  “I am not likely to,” says the young man.

Mavis Gallant and I began to talk in the CJRT art deco studio on Victoria Street in Toronto in the morning of Wednesday, October 11, 1989. It was just past Canadian Thanksgiving, a festival which carries very specific culinary rituals, as will become later important in my brief epilogue to this narrative. The small art deco building on Victoria Street was one of a group of exquisite art deco structures in downtown Toronto, which have since been torn down. The signature building, which still stands, is just up the street at the corner of College and Yonge, the former Eaton’s College Street. Another exquisite building is at the south west corner of Gerard and Yonge, formerly a bank, now a pub. It’s impossible to think about Gallant without thinking about cityscapes, since she is so much the writer of urban life, and she chose to live the greater part of her life in a city, Paris, which has not pulled down its signature architectural structures willy-nilly.

— Karen Mulhallen



As it had been with with Richard Landon, the focus of our conversation was initially her collection From The Fifteenth District (1979), nine tales set in Europe after the Second World War. We began with” The Moslem Wife,” and Gallant read part of the story, explaining its context as she read:

Mavis Gallant (MG): The story is set in the south of France before the war and this couple, Netta and Jack Asher, owns a hotel. Just as the war breaks out Jack gets to America, but Netta is left behind, and she tries to look after the hotel, and she also has his mother to look after, and a lot of different things. She starts to write him a letter, which she never sends, but she keeps trying over and over, because what she has experienced is so remote from anything he’s been living. So she starts to write — the letter she’s been writing in her head for many years. She is in her father’s business room, wearing a shawl because there is no way of heating any part of the hotel now, and she tries to get on with the letter she’d been writing in her head on and off for many years:

“In June 1940 we were evacuated” she started for the tenth or eleventh time, “I was back by October. Italians had taken over the hotel.”

MG interjects: You must understand, that the Italian army had occupied that part of the South of France, then in 1943 the Germans occupied it.

“Italians had taken over the hotel… When the Italians were here we had rice and oil. Your mother, who was crazy, used to put out grains to feed the mice. When the Germans came, we had to live under Vichy law, which meant each region lived on what it could produce, as ours produces nothing we got quite thin…. This true story sounded so implausible that she decided never to send it. She wrote a sensible letter asking for sugar and rice and for new books; nothing must be older than 1940.”

MG: That’s all true you know, that’s all based on truth, the Red Cross people who took a German skull away as a souvenir and the Italians who were there when the Germans took over because the Italians had suddenly switched sides in 1943 and then they were put in the hotel and just left there. And the local people took them water, something to drink, because they hadn’t been all that bad, they hadn’t been anything as bad as the Germans who came in.

Karen Mulhallen (KM): Netta feels the same way, doesn’t she?

MG: The hostages who were taken for shooting at the Germans as they were retreating were all young boys and they were all taken and shot along the wall of a café and left there.  There were all these true stories.

KM: Where did you get them?

MG: Well, I lived there on the border.

KM: When it was happening?

MG: Well, no, not when it was happening, but shortly after, and I knew lots of people and they told me all sorts of stories.

ghallant younger

KM: Do you keep notebooks of people’s stories and go back to them?

MG: No, I keep a journal and anything you write down you’re apt to remember, and anything you’re told more than once you remember. One time you might forget, but when people tell you the same things over and over, they stick.

KM: Were you in Europe when all these things were happening and were still vivid for people?

MG: No, I was in the post-war period, but the whole coast was still bombed and the Germans were in the hills behind and they were shooting at each other, and the town was pretty well shot up. They didn’t begin to build again until late fifties.

I went to Europe in 1950, five years after the end of the war, so it was still the post-war period.

KM: Is that the time in which you first began to write full time, in which you decided that would be your career?

MG: No, I decided that before I left Canada, and so I went away in order to do it.

KM; So there was a kind of coalescence of history and your own decision. Do you think that might be one of the reasons why history is so essential to your stories, not just the fifties?

MG: I can’t judge whether it is or not; the reader has to judge. Certainly a book like From The Fifteenth District is entirely European history, but I wasn’t conscious that I was doing it until I started to put the book together. Then I was able to put in chronological order stories, or a story that begins with the war.

An incident in the stories that was true takes place in “The Four Seasons.” It is the story of a little Italian girl named Carmela who works for a British family. They run away because they have to go home and they say to her we’ll pay you when we come back, after the war. My story doesn’t go on from then, but after the war they paid her in devalued money. It was disgraceful. I used to look at them in the market and I used to think you’re not going to get away with that. I’m going to write about you.

KM: Did you use their names?

MG: Oh, no, there’s never anything recognizable.

KM: So it’s the bare bones of the story?

MG: It’s not exactly as it is in the story — she was a bit older than my character, and the geography isn’t exact. That’s one of the rare stories though that is lifted from an instant, where somebody said this and I thought I’m going to write about this. That’s rare.  Most of the time it’s imaginary.

KM: And was that in a way to avenge her?

MG: Well, I remember when she pointed them out to me in the market — she said those are the people — I thought they shouldn’t get away with this.

KM: How did you know her; was she still living in the town?

MG: She was working for me, for everyone.

KM: In the story she goes back to her mother, doesn’t she? and is afraid she will be beaten.

MG: Well, her mother did beat her, because she came back with no money, and her mother didn’t believe the story. That part’s true.

KM: What about the ice cream? She eats ice cream and eats her way into heaven?

MG: I guess that part is invented.

KM: It made me want to go out and immediately eat ice cream.

MG: She was someone who was a good gardener. She did all sorts of things like that and worked by the hour for people. She died there. That was her life.

Mavis Gallant

KM: When you organized From the Fifteenth District, there were stories that you had written over a long period, six or eight years?

MG; Yes, they were stories from the seventies.

KM:  Did you decide on the order of the book, since the stories wouldn’t have been written with an eye to the collection?

MG: Yes, I put them in that order. Where the book was best received was in Germany. I’d like to know why. You would think with all the German parts they would be very touchy, but they were enthusiastic. So that was very interesting and now they are going to translate The Peignitz Junction.

KM: They want to examine their own history?

MG: Yes, but from a Canadian?  That’s what is so interesting.

KM: There has already been a wave of young German filmmakers scrutinizing their history, and it hasn’t stopped, has it?

MG: No, it hasn’t stopped. I don’t mean reviews but translations. Germany figures in all my war stories, for example “The Latehomecomer,” and they have been enthusiastic about my view of Germany, and have said it should have been published in German. I am barely German-speaking, I speak like a child of five or six, but it has been astonishing for me. If this sounds like boasting, don’t use it, because I don’t mean it that way. But they said, at last a European writer, and that was astonishing.

KM: I’m trying to think of the German name for latehomecomer — Spätheimkommer? So you have given the feeling of German with the name of the story.

MG: I just translated the word into English, but what it means now mostly is people who are disappeared into Russia. Originally my book was called The Latehomecomer,  but I couldn’t use that because readers would think  it was about a German who disappeared into Siberia or something. From the Fifteenth District is a title that doesn’t translate into German, so it was what was chosen.

KM: But by choosing that title, changing the title, they’ve also given the book a different emphasis, haven’t they?

MG: Well, in France it was called The Four Seasons. You can’t translate From The Fifteenth District, just doesn’t make any sense.

KM: Where is the fifteenth district? I thought I should try and find it on a map of Paris.

MG: It’s imaginary, but there are small things that are not, yet it is completely imaginary. At one time I thought I would like to write some stories set in the fifteenth arrondisement. It’s the largest, in a sense the newest in Paris. It’s so new that it has no cemetery. It’s where people go to live when they can’t find a flat, so it’s the most mixed area, it has no class, it’s neither upper nor lower nor middle. So everybody who can’t find a flat will find one there. It has no character. Somebody told me it had no cemetery and that gave me the idea of the living haunting the dead.

It’s something completely new with no settled character. I was really thinking of it as a metaphor for Europe, for Modern Europe. I also got the idea of the living haunting the dead from the wife of a poet. I don’t know why widows of poets always say, he couldn’t write a word without me, you know, or he couldn’t paint unless I was in the room, or he couldn’t…whatever. I thought, I wonder what they feel like in heaven, these poets and writers and so forth. Can they hear this? And there’s not a word of truth in it: he couldn’t paint, I had to be there to look at everything he was doing otherwise he was miserable. I thought what if they go and complain, the dead, and say look at you. Shut these people up, there’s not a word of truth in it. That’s what it grew out of.

gallantMavis Gallant. Photograph: Jane Brown, The Guardian

KM: And Irina, in the last story “ Irina,” is she such a widow?

MG: Well, no. She doesn’t say he couldn’t write without me, on the contrary.

KM: But she does say she couldn’t leave him, when Mr Aiken wants to know why she didn’t?

MG: Well, it’s probably true, and she had five children. It’s not all that simple.

KM: And there’s the scene where her husband cried because she doesn’t butter his toast properly. And of course her lover cried because she doesn’t leave her husband. There are a lot of men crying over her.

 Let’s talk about Irina. It’s the last story in the collection. She seems to me to be an immensely sympathetic character. One feels a great love for her. Her appearance in the doorway with her blue eyes and her short white hair, holding her dressing gown gripped at the collar. The way she looks at her young grandson at the end and she seems to understand young people, how they feel.

MG: Yes, people who understand young people usually are not sentimental about them at all. I’ve noticed that people who are sentimental about children don’t understand them, they’re trying to make the children enter into a fantasy life  of their own. She is a woman who is not sentimental.

KM: Is she based on anyone at all or a mixture? She gives that remarkable speech about women of her generation, how they’re really packages. It’s an amazing set of observations about women being packages and owning nothing.

MG: She is a mixture of characteristics. Those observations are mine. Those are things I’ve noticed. I remember asking someone in France “Why didn’t you leave?” and she said “Well, I’ve no money.” And I said, “You had a dowry,” and she said, “Well, he has it now.” So these women were often stuck because they couldn’t earn their living.

KM: So as you said a moment ago, it’s not that simple.

MG: But there are European women who have gone out and taken any job, the way a Canadian woman would. A Canadian woman might say I’d rather scrub floors than that, and she meant it. But it’s inconceivable even now in Europe.

KM: Is it just a different sense of who you are?

MG: It’s inconceivable. I gave an introduction to some friends to a Canadian architect. They came back and were very shocked because his son had a paper route.

They couldn’t understand how the son of an architect in Montreal had a paper route. I explained, well he wants a boat and his father says he’ll have to pay for most of it himself. That seemed to be very ordinary. And then they said, but you said he is an architect and his son sells papers on the street, like a common…You know it was inconceivable to them.

KM: Mavis, that allows me to ask you my next question, which is about the very real differences among the different nationalities in your stories. With “The Latehomecomer” you have a sense of a working class German family.

MG:  When I began to be interested in writing fiction out of Germany, I was only interested in the working class and lower middle class. Intellectuals cannot tell you anything at all in my view in any country. I’m not being anti-intellectual and stupid, but they don’t know anything. I’d rather anytime have lunch with a working journalist to find out things, but even there there’s a limitation, they’re busy, and they see a bit too much.

I didn’t think the working class was a victim of what happened in Germany, they were a part of it, of the movement, not out  of evil-mindedness, but out of a deep depression. I don’t mean that the industrialists didn’t put money into the Hitlerian movement, but I don’t think that having lunch with an industrialist would have got me anywhere, whereas meeting these people on a friendly basis, I did find things out. The only thing that interested me was finding out from them, because a victim can only tell you what happened to him.

You know you have to know what was going on in the mind of a man in the firing squad. I don’t pretend I ever did find out, but I got enough to satisfy my interest a bit.

KM: I think what you are saying is that the different classes have a completely different value system?

MG: They do anywhere.

KM:  In North America the architect’s son can sell papers on the street?

MG: But that doesn’t mean that he is going to marry a working class girl. Necessarily a different thing. Unless she’s been to the same university as he has, or something like that. It’s more fluid in North America but it’s pretty snobby too.

KM: Yes, the class system is still here; do you think it is easier to see it in Europe?

MG: It exists everywhere, probably in societies I know nothing about. When I first went to Europe in 1950, the class structure was distinct. I couldn’t stand England for that reason. In fact I loathed it. I couldn’t bear to stay there because it was so contrary to everything I admired or believed.

gallant mah

KM: In your stories, characters who are expatriates are in a sense out of class, aren’t they?

MG: Except among other expatriates.

KM: So then the class system kind of kicks in again.

MG: There was a British colony in the south of France, and it was like ancient Egypt, you know, with a pharaoh, and there was always something very amusing about it.

KM: What about Eric Wilkinson in “The Remission?” He’s able to adapt to different accents.

MG: He floats up and down and we don’t really know very much about him except that he can act a bit.  The view of the others in the British colony pretty well fluctuates with his fortunes.

KM: And the kind of curry he can cook for dinner! They pay him five pounds, don’t they? They offer him a fiver.

MG: It’s been a long time you know…

KM: Now Gabrielle Baum is also an actor.

MG: That’s my favourite story in the collection: “Baum, Gabrielle, 1935—(  ).”

KM: It’s a lovely story.

MG: It’s really about Montparnasse more than anything else and the changes and it’s through the sixties.

KM: Yes, I was going to ask you if it wasn’t about the whole feeling of the changing district. La Méduse — is that the name of the bar, and the old car seats, and so on?

MG: In the sixties and the seventies all those English style pubs came in and orange lights. There were scenes for recruiting for the Resistance TV and film productions. A series of five episodes or so. I actually used to go to one or two cafes there and someone did come in and say in a very practical way, “I want 12 Polish Jews for deportation.” And everybody was saying me. Me, me, me. I couldn’t do that. And then somebody would say: “Don’t take him. He doesn’t look Jewish.” They usually picked Yugoslavs for nearly everything, but I’ve forgotten why. They were great drifters. There were actors who did these bit roles and they would try and get a speaking part because they’d get more money. And that was why there were so many of these long deep silences in French films. They just didn’t have to pay them much if they didn’t say anything!

KM: Now that story ends with something about age. Gabrielle says his father lived to ninety. How does he feel about that?

MG: I think he thinks he has lots of time. He’s an actor and he works all the time. He’s not a drifter. He always lives in the same place, he won first prize at the Conservatory and so forth. But you know there are an awful lot of actors who are unemployed. There is 90% unemployment. And he does have that mystery in his life, of what became of his parents. They just disappeared, probably picked up by the police. I don’t say I know because I am seeing from his point of view, so I can’t pretend to know more than he does. But I think anyone reading it would guess that his parents have probably been picked up in the street one day.

KM: They were in the south of France weren’t they?

MG: There was a point where it was a free zone, and then the Germans occupied the whole thing, I think that was in 1942, so everyone was at risk. People were picked up in the street.

KM: And then some people had left early enough to get to South America. Is that what happened with the uncle, that he had gotten out earlier? And he seems to despise Gabriel’s parents for not having gotten out earlier.

MG: Yes, he seems to have gotten out before the war and feels they dithered.

KM: Why is that your favourite story?

MG: Because of Montparnasse and the kind of people in it. When it was translated I reread everything and I recognized the Montparnasse of the sixties and the seventies. I think I had it right.

KM: Have you noticed Paris changing in the years you have lived there and how do you feel about any changes?

MG: Oh yes, it has changed and I regret the decline of Montparnasse. But those things have to happen. There are still cafes.

KM: That’s one of the things Gabriel talks to Dieter about, isn’t it, the changes?

MG: It’s nothing to the changes now in the architecture. When it comes to hideous architecture, the French are the champions.

KM: Some people, for example Prince Charles, would say the English are the champions.

MG: Paris has not been destroyed anything like London. Prince Charles has superimposed a painting of London as it was, I think it was a 17th century painting, over the skyline today, but you could put an old painting of Paris over today’s Paris and still find a lot of it. And there are some new buildings which are beautiful, like the Arab Institute. And the Pyramid in the Louvre. They’re beautiful.

mavis-gallant by Jane Brown the GuardianMavis Gallant

KM: Let’s go back to “The Latehomecomer,” which is written in the first person. I think that’s a surprise to have the narration in the first person after reading several stories in the third person. Generally in the stories there is the feeling of knowing everything the narrator seems to know. That’s an exhilarating thing about your writing.

MG: Well, I just wanted to tell it that way, more intimately, from his point of view throughout. But his mother is from her point of view. In the letter she says, “I was your mother.” That’s much stronger in English than in French. In French it doesn’t mean anything.

KM: In English, it’s like a sudden bolt.

MG: And I’m not a writer in the French language and I don’t do my own translations. If I wrote first in French I might know a way of doing it, but I don’t. The humour doesn’t come through in translation either, at least not much.

KM: When you write a story, do you work from the characters? How do the stories come to you?

MG: As images of the people. “The Remission” was the first of them. I remember this because I kept my notes, which usually I tear up. I saw the family getting down from the train, there’s nothing like that in the story, but that was the first image. I saw them getting down from a train arriving in the south of France with three children, the mother and the father and the 1950s clothes and suitcases. I had a sort of image and I built from that.

KM: And then did you begin to imagine what their lives were?

MG: You don’t imagine anything; it just comes to you. For a few days after that things come out of the air, you write them down, and then it stops, that onrush of several days, and then you have to work from there.

KM: Is there any time in which you know a story will be with you, a specific period in which you work, a special time of the day?

MG: In general, I work everyday. If I have an idea for something new, you don’t control the time, it just rushes in. On the whole, I get up and I work, that’s what I do, I write and even if it’s going badly I just sit there. I usually eat lunch around 2 p.m.

When it’s going well, it’s perfect, and when it’s not, it’s an awfully long time.

KM: Do you stay with a story until you feel it’s done, or do you write several at once?

MG: I work on several things and come back and then when it’s done, it’s done. When I am getting to the end of a story, I don’t do anything else at all.

KM: You’re immensely prolific; I ‘m sure other people have said this to you. There are hundreds of stories.

MG: Isn’t it funny, I think I’m not prolific. There are over a hundred stories, but not hundreds.

KM: In 1978, there were a hundred, and there are so many uncollected. You have twelve books.

MG:  There are still some which are uncollected, from 1985 on. But I want to publish a novel before I publish another collection, and I’m working on one now.

a-dreyfusAlfred Dreyfus

KM: Tell me about your Dreyfus book?

MG: How much do you want to know? First, it wasn’t my idea, but it was the American publisher, Random House, who asked me if I wanted to write about the Dreyfus case.  I accepted without realizing. I’m not an historian, it’s not my training, my training is journalism. I was a journalist all through my twenties, and that’s how I look at the world a bit. I accepted because I thought, well, probably no woman has ever done anything like this. Although I knew about the case, I didn’t know what I know now. I knew Alfred Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted of treason and I knew he’d been sent to Devil’s Island. I didn’t know for how long. I knew that the French writer Émile Zola had written passionately about this in a newspaper article which had the famous heading “J’accuse,” I accuse. I knew he had had a famous lawyer named Fernand Labori. I knew that he’d come back and more or less disappeared. But it ended there. I knew nothing more about him.

I looked it up in a French encyclopaedia to get a beginning, and I saw it was a huge fresco of French society. I became wildly enthusiastic about it and I said I could do it I thought in two and a half years. Famous last words. Two and a half years later I was still looking, looking things up, meeting people and carrying on

It was an extraordinary experience for me to do the research, which is done. In fact if someone came along with some startling thing, I don’t even want to hear it. I’ve done my research, its miles and miles of notes and stories and interviews. I got in at the right time, because Dreyfus’s daughter was still alive. I couldn’t work from documents, because I didn’t want to write the books I was reading. They told me about the case, but they didn’t interest me. I wanted to know about the people.

I used journalistic techniques. I took my telephone and my notebook and I called every single person I knew in France who was French. Everyone. I mean people I had not talked to for years. I asked do you have anyone in your family who had a connection to the Dreyfus case? And then I began to be more general, have you any Jews in your ancestors and don’t say no right away but ask your grandmother. I got people who had been Jews at that time. People who had descendants whom I knew and who often didn’t know their own life history. Do you have anyone in your family who were officers at that time? Don’t say no, ask your grandfather.

640px-AlfredDreyfusDreyfus with his family, 1905. via Wikipedia

In about three weeks, I had Dreyfus’s daughter, and I knew all about Esterhazy’s daughters — he’s the villain of the piece; he’s the one who was the German informer, not poor Alfred Dreyfus. I had the daughter of the man who’d been chief-of-staff in the army and who worked against Dreyfus. I had that generation of elderly people, all defending their fathers, whichever side their fathers were on. Those loyal daughters, and believe me this is something — no matter what side their father was on, he was right.

The great help to me was Dreyfus’s daughter Madame Jeanne Levi. I didn’t get to her right away. I’d asked a book seller I knew whether anyone among her customers or clients might be connected  to the case. She called me and said I have a customer who is a great niece or something by marriage. I only met two people who knew my work or anything about me, so I went in as a complete stranger. She read English and read The New Yorker, so she knew a bit about me. That was a great help. The others didn’t know any English, and so I just came on as a foreigner really. This woman was the first. She looked me over. Then she invited me to lunch to look me over. Then she invited two of Dreyfus’s grandsons, who were both doctors, and their wives to dinner, to look me over. Then one of the grandsons, one of the doctors turned to his cousin, it was rather dramatic, and he said, “You may make an appointment with my mother to meet Madame Gallant.”  This man’s wife took me aside and said you are not going to get anything out of that family— they have a policy of total silence. I said, well then, I will have to work without them, but if I can talk to them, that would be even better.

So then I was taken to tea with Dreyfus’s daughter, who was a stunning elderly woman. She was in her seventies, with white hair and she looked like an English woman to me. I can’t explain why I would have taken her for an Englishwoman of a certain class. She had blue eyes, lovely white hair and she was very, very straight and rather solid and very careful. She didn’t know much about me and we talked about general things. She showed me a few innocuous souvenirs and at the end of the tea she said, “Je suis à votre disposition.”  I am at your disposal. Wow. So I waited more than two months, as I didn’t wish to push her and then I called.

I came and I brought her a box of chocolates. It was Monday and the florists were closed, or maybe there was some other reason why I didn’t bring flowers. I said to myself elderly people like sweets. She was delighted and said that her mother never let them have candy because they were afraid it would be poisoned. Anti-Dreyfus. People sent boxes of chocolates for the children, but she always threw them out. So they were brought up very, very strictly, and in her old age chocolates were a treat.  She could have gone out and bought herself chocolates, but they were brought up in such a way that they wouldn’t, would ever self-indulge. It was quite an experience for me, and here I am old self -indulgence herself in contact with this rather rigid view. In the end, I had her going to restaurants with me, and eating desserts and carrying on. I loved her dearly. She died ( 1893-1981). She helped me a lot, a lot!

57990974Dreyfus and his daughter Jeanne, 1910. via Clioweb

KM: When will the book be done?

MG: A fortune -teller in Bangkok told me it was the last thing I’d ever do. That doesn’t encourage me much. I can’t tell you when. I think that would be tempting fate. It’ll be done certainly. I’m not going to spend half my life on something I’m not going to finish, didn’t finish.

KM: How long have you been working on it?

MG: Many years.

KM: I won’t ask you anymore!

MG: But I have learned a lot and I haven’t any startling conclusions. I do have things that I think are interesting about what people were like who populated the story. Dreyfus is an enigma because everyone is so contradictory about him. But I think I’ve a clue as to what he was like. It’s a clue: he’s a man who’s very nervous. Tension. He always speaks of “my damned nerves” in his letters. “If only I could control my damned nerves.” But he’s all of a piece, he doesn’t flounder all over the place. He was a pathetic figure in a way, yet it was the last thing he wanted to be.

KM: But you must be very interested in this story even if it is a book you were asked to write?

MG: I could have wound it up a long time ago, but it would have been the book I did not wish to write. I am not going to turn in a book that I do not wish to read. It’s a very difficult thing I have done. The first third is an essay setting the case in its time, and explaining. Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian Jew and he was also an officer. What is an Alsatian Jew; what is a Jew in France; what is an officer? I begin with the officer, because— you won’t believe me— it was the most important. Nobody can understand the Dreyfus case who doesn’t know what it meant to be an officer in the French Army at the end of the nineteenth century. It explains his behavior, it explains  the way in which he almost went along  with the thing out of loyalty to the army. Things that are inconceivable to us today. As for the religious side of his life, I can only trace it through letters, his letters. There’s a point where he says at the beginning: “I trust in God. God will get me out of this; it’s the God of mercy and so forth.” And then one day he writes, “God has abandoned me.” Whew. Finished. There’s no more mention at all. Someone who is all of one piece lost his faith, it’s obvious. That’s interesting to me, but it’s not interesting to anybody else. I mentioned it to people, and they say well who cares? Well I do, because you can’t judge a man, or a woman. But we’re talking now about a man: every attitude has to come into it. The attitude to religion, the attitude to money, the attitude to his wife, the attitude to women, to his country, to history. I’ve read books that said he was a snobbish officer. He wasn’t snobbish at all. He was an officer. He had it in the blood. Some men are like that. I’m not like that; I’m a pacifist. So it was even more interesting for this pacifist to encounter a military man. That was fascinating to me. And people’s memories of him varied. His daughter adored him; he was so kind to her. Other people found him stiff, cold, sometimes inexplicably cold. But it was a horror of sentimentality, and a horror of people gushing, and a horror of people crying all over him— he would just freeze.

I interviewed two women, witnesses, one was a hundred years old, the other was 99. The one who was a hundred remembered being at one of the first gatherings — we would call it a party — when he came back from Devil’s Island. Everyone applauded when he came in, which embarrassed him, and then a woman rushed up to him and flung herself into his arms, well not his arms because he kept them at his sides, and said: “Oh Captain Dreyfus, the dream of my life has been to meet you. Now I am meeting you, you’re my hero, and you’re my this and that.” And he didn’t answer. And she became hysterical because she thought he had turned to stone or he was dead, or something had happened. And she went on and on and he didn’t answer.

And she had to be led away in hysterics. He just stood there; he was incapable of saying that’s enough, or calm down or anything like that. He was all of a piece. He just didn’t answer. People remember him and his family with his watch in his hand.

Dinner was at 7:30 p.m. and not a minute before and not a minute after.

He was a military man, and a loving father, and a loving husband. I think all these things have to be put together.

mavis-gallantMavis Gallant in The New Yorker

KM: Mavis, are there writers who have been important to you?

MG: The writers that are important are those you begin to read as a child. I’m convinced of that, quite serious about it.  The wealth of books in the English language for children was extraordinary, well-written, with style. Like Lewis Carroll. I regret that children read less and that they are not read to and that they are taught to read so late and so badly I think the Swiss psychologist Piaget is going to have to answer for a lot in heaven. There must be a wicket they go through in heaven for what they had to do with a child’s education. And they are going to say: “Are you the man who started them reading at seven? Purgatory for you!”

KM: Piaget and B.F. Skinner together? I wanted to ask you about Tolstoy?

MG: Oh that goes on and on, but the basic English style comes from the first books you read. Then you begin to read more and more widely. I read the Garnett translations of Russian writers rather young, but I don’t mean at twelve, but older. I read an awful lot of that, and Chekhov was probably very important, although at the time you don’t know that. You just read them.

KM:  Because you have been talking about the war, and about a man, his society, his religion, his profession, I was thinking this is the way — I am sure people have said this to you before — this is the way Chekhov thinks, this is the way Tolstoy thinks. You do see a human being in a total social, political religious context. Not all writers do.

MG: If I started to think that I was anywhere close to these people I would think I was paranoid, and I would go instantly to a psychiatrist and ask him to bring me down to earth. So, no, I have always thought it is my journalist’s training.

KM: To see the total context?

MG: Yes.

KM: The reason I’d asked you earlier about how you write is because it seemed to me that when I pick up a story by you and I look at a single sentence, the sentence seems to include the world, there is a total context all the time.

MG: I don’t like reading things that aren’t set somewhere. I don’t like never never land.

KM: Do you travel to all the places you describe, for instance Berlin, Budapest? Are these places you have visited?

MG: You are living in Western Europe, and so earlier yes. In the last few years I‘ve been coming more to Canada and to North America.

KM: You’ve written many stories set in Canada.

MG: If I stay here a while, I go back and I just bubble up. I lived here in ’81, ‘83, ’84. I had a very good time. Do you think the city has changed since then?

KM: Yes it has.

MG : In what way?

KM: There’s tremendous destruction of the city itself and there are many more homeless people. And the class distinctions are much sharper.

MG: I haven’t been where the homeless are, because I’ve been around the university.

KM: You’re in the ‘shopping danger zone’.

MG: And I go wherever I’m going in a taxi.

KM: Your Paris Notebooks were recently published and in them you discuss 1968.  Could you say a little about that moment in French history, which you experienced directly and which speaks so tellingly to your intense scrutiny of French society?

MG: There’s a passage in the book which comes directly from my journal. On the twentieth of May, 1968, I saw people hoarding. The reaction of the people of Paris went straight back to the war. Whenever there is a crisis in France, you can tell it’s a real crisis because sugar disappears from the supermarkets. It’s striking. You go to the supermarkets, and all you get are the grains of sugar on the floor. People were frightened that if there was a civil war, food would be missing. I’d never seen that kind of public reaction.

Later in the diary I mention a shop owner who, when the wind turns, puts  up only right wing magazines. And I remind him of what he’d been thinking about two weeks before and he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

gallant again

KM: Mavis, you live in Paris, and you write in English in a French environment. How do you keep your English intact?

MG: Well, it was never a problem until a year or two ago. I don’t speak enough English. Most of my friends are French-speaking. If they are foreigners, we speak French together, because it’s what we have in common. Of the Canadians whom I see and talk to, there’s Joe Plaskett, a Vancouver painter. But there aren’t many Canadians because they don’t form colonies, they’re all very independent, each going off by himself and so forth. But I never had trouble maintaining English until my work was translated into French, about two years ago. Last year the first books were published, and the year before I was reading the proofs of my own work in another language, helping with the translation, my own ideas expressed not as I expressed them. Then I had a lot of trouble with English, I began to think in French syntax. I wasn’t thinking in French, I was thinking in English with French syntax, which is completely different. I had to take strong measures, and I mean strong, otherwise I would have had to leave the country altogether.

KM: What did you do?

MG: Well, these might sound odd, but I don’t read or speak any French at all until I’ve finished working for the day. I read only an English newspaper, I listen to the BBC news. At 7:45 every morning CBS American News with Dan Rather. It’s with French subtitles but it’s in English. I watch a bit of it, not the whole thing. It’s also the only place where I can get any Canadian news. I read only in English. I have to get on the English track in the morning, listening, reading. I’m probably alright now, but I’ve gotten into this habit of a year and a half. I don’t answer the phone in the morning. From lunch on, it doesn’t matter.

KM: Do you dream in English?

MG: Both, but I had to do that. I thought it was the most drastic thing to do, but it helped.

KM: Created a kind of barricade?

MG: It’s like two tracks. I had never before confused them. I had never used an Anglicism in French, put English words into French, used English syntax in French. If I do that in English, it’s a bit of a joke. Sometimes you are joking and you use some French words in English. You know we say hors d’oeuvres or détente, and it’s not really thought of as French. It was a question of the syntax, which is completely different. I don’t think it would have lasted, and I do think it just came from reading those proofs. I read French all the time and it has never impinged. But my own work in French had a devastating affect on me.

With the third book, I didn’t help nearly so much. I read it quickly to see if there were any real semantic mistakes, but I don’t read it for mood, tone, tense, etcetera. I thought even if it’s wrong. even if it’s a betrayal, it’s dangerous, too dangerous for me.

KM: Do you have a translator that you trust in France?

MG: I did, but when I was in Vancouver a short time ago, I met a woman at the University who is writing her MA thesis on the betrayal of my work in French. She calls it betrayal. It is a question of mood, of tense, of using verbs in a different way, and so forth. And I said to her, well, you are probably right, but I can’t do anything about it. I will correct actual mistakes, where I’ve said geranium and they think it’s nasturtium, but the rest I simply can’t cope with. I thought that would interest you?

KM: It does, and in French Canada today this is a constant question, isn’t it, about the relationship between the French language in Quebec and English.

MG: Well, I maintained mine for nearly forty years with no problem. So it certainly can be done. I never never had any problems at all.

KM: It’s also interesting that it just came at this particular phase…

MG: It’s seeing the images. When you read someone’s work, you see images. The author cannot provide what’s in his head. You provide the images. When I read my own work, I see my original images. But seeing my original images in another language was as if two railway tracks went together.

KM: Thank you very much, Mavis, for your generosity.



I saw Mavis Gallant three more times after this long day of interviewing and taping.

We went for lunch at a French bistro, then located on Queen Street West in Toronto. At that time, Le Select had bread baskets strung over each table with clothes line tackle. Luckily the main dining room was full and the waitress decided to squeeze us into a small front window area. We sat near the entrance to the alcove and settled in to talk about Toronto and her time here and Janice Keefer’s recent book on her work, when the waitress asked me to pull in my chair so some other clients could get by. After she left, Mavis commented that it was interesting that the waitress did not ask the table next to us to pull in, which would have been equally effective in freeing up passage. The next table was occupied by two men in red ties and grey business suits.

We talked as well about aging, what it means for a woman, and about Gallant’s own intention to stay full-bodied to preserve her skin, and about her love of pumpkin pie. It was a few days only after Canadian Thanksgiving and Mavis was staying in The Windsor Arms Hotel, then and now a chic hostelry in the most expensive shopping district in the city. On Saturday, I made my way to the St Lawrence Farmers’ Market and then drove up to The Windsor Arms with a fresh baked pumpkin pie for Mavis. She was delighted, of course, because there was no pumpkin pie on the menu at The Windsor Arms Hotel.

Years later, I ran into Mavis at the Writers’ Suite in the Harbour Castle Hotel during the International Authors’ Festival. I was with my friend Nancy Huston, each of them had flown in from Paris to read that week, and the suite was crowded with writers from all over the globe. Mavis was sitting on a sofa, surrounded by admirers, but she seemed delighted to see one, or perhaps two familiar faces. We began to chat, but then a well-known Canadian poet began to drunkenly declaim and to threaten to punch out another poet, so the three of us, rather wistfully I thought, said good night. I never saw her again, and the notes from her unpublished Dreyfus book, I understand, were still stuffed into a closet on her death this past February, as fiery battles shattered the Ukraine. She was a writer who belonged both to Canada and to the world. We will not see her like again.

gallant photo by Nott & Merrill

—Mavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen


Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of  Toronto.


Sep 042014


rlandonRichard Landon—Photo: Rick/Simon


In late 1988 I was hired to develop a series of year-long programs on current Canadian fiction for the Toronto radio station CJRT, now exclusively a Jazz FM station. The station had had an earlier program on Canadian fiction, but it was felt it was time to update as a new crop of writers had emerged, as indeed they had.

I drew up a list, I underwent a series of interviews and trial tapes, and I took a year off from my main gig, which was as a professor of English at a Toronto university. It was an intense year, 1988-89, both for professional and personal reasons, but my focus was the studio and an accompanying workbook for students who might want to enroll in a credit course connected to my programs, and we were off to the races.

Mavis Gallant was one of a distinguished company of writers and critics and visual artists whom I invited in to the studio to be interviewed.  Of course I wanted the writers to speak for themselves, but I also wanted to have others speak to them, and about them. I spent two days with Mavis Gallant in the fall of 1989, both in studio and in the city proper, but in the summer before I met her I interviewed Richard Landon (1942-2011), then Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, where Gallant’s papers are held.

I felt a conversation with someone who knew her work and also knew her would help me in my planned interview. Over many years of my reading Gallant, I had found her both intriguing and enigmatic. I hoped for some guidance and for some basis for comparison. I wanted to know about the contents of her “living” archives, that crucial period where an artist gets to make a choice about what is to be saved by deposit and thereby directs future commentary and research. And some of the questions which arose in this interview with Richard Landon would surface later in the fall when I spoke directly to Gallant herself.

Although most of her writing life had been spent in Europe, Gallant had been frequently in Canada. Richard Landon knew her well, and was also intimate with her work and of course her papers. He seemed ideal, both as a reader and a scholar, for an introduction to Gallant’s extraordinary talent and her working methods.

— Karen Mulhallen


July 27, 1989

Karen Mulhallen (KM): Richard, I’m looking at a xerox copy of a very brief note from Mavis Gallant. I don’t know when this note was written, it’s not dated, but it is something to do with From the Fifteenth District, Mavis Gallant’s collection of nine stories published in 1979. Toronto. What are these two xerox sheets I have in front of me?

Richard Landon (RL): This is a note Mavis wrote when she sent a batch of her papers to the Fisher Library. Her papers come in little batches and sometimes she puts in notes that are either explanatory or give critical comments from her on the material. Sometimes they are about who edited her work for The New Yorker, normally William Maxwell. This note is amusing, because one of the characters in the title story in From  the Fifteenth District is a social worker named  Alicia Fohrenbach who turned out to have a real life counterpart in the United States.

KM: What does she say in this note? Can you decipher it for me?

RL:From the Fifteenth District was written and published in 1978 and in it the name Alicia Fohrenbach was invented. I received several letters from a Doctor Alicia Fohrenbach in the U.S., a psychologist. These coincidences often arise and are tricky to handle. Luckily Dr. Fohrenbach was willing to believe that I had never heard  of her. However, as she had graduated from some institution called Regius, the coincidence was more than close. This is one of my favourite stories, but my readers were baffled and irritated by it. MG” The reference is to the hospital from which Mrs. Ibrahim is being discharged, which is called Regius  Hospital.


KM: Yes, I see the passage, a little past page 165 at the centre of the collection, probably in all editions? It is curious, more than an odd coincidence. Writers are, I think, prescient. Do you think Gallant is sensitive to the possibilities of intuiting things. After all, one of the stories is about ghosts.

RL: I think she is. I don’t know that she would claim to be prescient in that way at all, but part of her technique is the accumulation of detail, which is one of the most impressive things about her writing, its precision. There is an easy recognition on the part of the reader of things you don’t normally think about. She describes people’s fingernails, small incidents, very precise details of a scene — I suppose the accumulation does somehow give a notion of prescience.

KM: In rereading the stories in From The Fifteenth District, I noticed sentences that didn’t seem to belong to paragraphs. And it’s just what you’ve said, all that detail by the end of a story is in many ways overwhelming. She does this too with metaphors.

I was looking at the opening story, “ The Four Seasons,” just at the end of the fourth section, page 28: “ ‘That’s not our property’ Mrs Unwin cried. The man said ‘You hired me and I am here,’ and kept on sawing.”

This is a scene where the Marchesa’s date tree has grown up again, and Mrs. Unwin is  feeling the perfume fumes from the tree are noxious and she has a successful court order against the Marchesa and her tree. The Marchesa has long ago left her garden and so in comes this local to cut down the tree, and he decides he will not just cut down the overhanging branches but will cut down the whole tree and he breaks through the fence. That’s why Mrs. Unwin says, “ That’s not our property.” Meanwhile in the scene we’re reminded of the chauffeur of the Marchesa. The Marchesa has fled before the coming Allied forces. Mussolini’s war activities are failing, so people are leaving the country as Hitler is failing. The Marchesa has fled because, despite her Italian title, she is an English woman. Her chauffeur hangs around the garden like an abandoned domestic animal.

The chauffeur had walked the Marchesa’s dogs, and on the road there is a convoy of army lorries moving like crabs on the floor of the ocean. You think my goodness what are these army lorries doing? And we haven’t seen him before. And why are the lorries described like crabs in the ocean. Then you realize that the whole story is shot through with these images of the sea, and the maid Carmela looks out to the sea and is afraid, and then she’s underwater. It’s such an accumulation of detail — the sea, the army, the Marchesa’s dogs, her chauffeur, all together. And yet that’s got nothing to do with the cutting down of the tree at the beginning of the whole movement.


RL:  But it is not the sea as most people notice the sea; it’s quite threatening and boring, and is often described as a line on the horizon and as unattainable. There is always a road or a railway between them and the sea. It is this sense of alienation which they have by some kind of accident in a particular situation. They’re stuck. The Marchesa might get away, but no one else does.

KM: You know she got away because the story begins with her eating ice cream and anybody who eats ice cream in this story is going to get out some way!

RL: But the principle characters never get out. There’s a kind of universal rootlessness about many of the stories. The one that most affected me on rereading is called “Potter.” It’s quite long, one of the longer ones, about the Polish poet and lecturer in Paris and his American lover, Laurie Bennett, and his reaction to her going off with someone else.

It’s a more complete story in some ways because it has a movement of plot. Laurie goes off to Venice, he’s devastated, and a good deal of it is describing his reaction to her leaving. He then has his visa revoked — he’s lecturing in Paris — and at the same time she sends him a postcard telling him she is coming back. The end of the story is about him going back to Poland, from which he might never again emerge, whereas she thinks she’s resumed the relationship. It sounds a bit banal, but it’s the way it’s expressed that is extremely impressive. It’s quite haunting.

KM: What do you find impressive?

RL: Her observations about how people react to each other and to external forces, and even to the city of Paris, to the weather. It all has a real accuracy and is recognizable. You think that’s right, I would never have expressed that, but in fact, that’s how I might feel.

KM: And Mavis has the girl misspelling the word ‘separate,’ which really impressed me. This is the kind of girl who can’t spell in her love letters: “We’re seperating forever,” she says. And in another she described him as a “really sensative person.”

RL: Yes,  it’s those details..

KM …which are her talent?

RL: Yes, in a real way.

KM: Do you find alterations, revisions in the manuscript?

RL: I have here the first three pages of typescript of a story in From the Fifteenth District.  It’s pretty clean.

KM: Does she write long hand, does she type, does she word process?

RL: She mainly types and then corrects in holograph, that is by hand. She might write drafts, but what we get at the Fisher Library is essentially what is sent to The New Yorker magazine. It’s edited there and then sent back to her. So you get two kinds of marks, her corrections and the odd suggestion by an editor with the technical notes about how to set it for printing.


KM: How did Fisher acquire these papers, which are an ongoing collection, aren’t they?

RL: Yes. It began when the University of Toronto invited Mavis Gallant to be Writer-in-Residence, in 1980, I believe. She wasn’t able to take it up then, but she did come in ’83-’84 as Writer-in Residence, living at Massey College. Shortly after she was invited she wrote to ask whether we would be interested in having her papers, which she wished to give to us, saying in one of the letters she strongly disapproved of writers selling their papers.

KM; That’s interesting, so she just gives them to you. That’s unusual.

RL: And, of course, there is no tax advantage for her either because she  lives in France.

KM: Do you have other writers who have simply given their papers?

RL: Josef Skvorecky, David Solway, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee.

KM: In all those cases, there are also tax advantages.

RL: Yes, they do get evaluated.

But obviously, for Gallant, this is a conscious decision. There is no particular association with Toronto, except that she remembered it from the 1950s. Not everyone’s fondest memory…! One would have imagined because she grew up in Montreal, went to school there, worked there briefly, before going to Paris, which was about 1950, that her Canadian association would be directly Montreal. She did explain that she objected to the Quebec language law and that sort of thing. I think she came to Toronto, was impressed by the city, because it had changed. It would be hard not to be impressed by the difference between 1950 and 1980.

KM: There were no park benches in 1950.

RL:  Right, and so she started sending, every once in a while, a little batch of papers. Mainly corrected typescripts, galleys, some correspondence, which relates directly to her work. Eventually I hope we will get her journals. She adapted her journals for articles on the 1968 disturbances in Paris, and I do hope to see more of them.

KM: So there are no letters, no personal papers, mementos?

RL: My impression is that whatever she decides to give us of that kind of material will be very consciously chosen. She’s not just going to scoop everything into boxes and send it. She will direct, in a way, future critical or biographical work on her.

KM: So an archive can be quite diverse. If you have six archives from six writers they could be quite different in composition. What is your impression of Gallant as a personality. She’s directed, careful, controlled, not only in her prose, brilliantly so, but as a personality.  Is she uniform, enigmatic?

RL: I found her fascinating. First of all, physically she’s quite beautiful and obviously was stunning when she was younger. She’s very direct and a bit quirky. She likes to ask questions that catch you slightly off guard.

KM: You’d like that!

RL: Yes, she asked me to lunch one time. Out of nowhere, in general conversation, she asked me, “What had the men of Canada done to women?”

KM: What did you say?

RL:  I said I didn’t feel I could take responsibility for every man in the country.

KM: What did she mean?

RL: She was asking what was wrong with the women. She’d been traveling around on a promotion for one of her books. Macmillan had sent her across the country on planes, trains, and so on, and she’d fallen into conversation with women. She asked them questions about what they did, how they were feeling, and she found most of them terribly depressed. and the cause seemed to be their relationships with men. So she developed this little theory that the men of Canada were oppressing women, in a kind of spiritual way. This was a new concept to me, and certainly the women I know don’t seem very oppressed. I think she was exploring something in her own mind. That’s another impression I have of her, that she was always exploring, thinking about things, and that someday parts of it would emerge, not this conversation particularly, but some aspect of it might very well come out in a short story. That was one of her methods of working; she talked to people; she listened to what they said, but she asked questions that elicited responses she thought would be interesting.

KM: So she’s one of those people who don’t shut the world out, who keep on processing?

RL: That was my impression. She could be great fun, funny, quite witty, very sharp-tongued. I went to a reading with her one time, she was terribly nervous before, although once she started the reading she was fine, and afterward we sat around and drank wine for hours, and she chatted with people, told stories; it was very amusing.  She got to interview [Maurice] Duplessis because she was so gorgeous. No other reporters could get in to a private interview with him. He obviously fancied her. Funny stories, like that.

She was very engaged with the students, with the junior fellows, when she was at Massey College. They were obviously very fond of her, and people talked to her a lot. She lived in college, and people would drop in and see her. I think she was somewhat less impressed with some of the other people she met around the university.

However, she also said she didn’t get any writing done, although when she’d come to be Writer-in-Residence, part of her plan was to finish her Dreyfus book which she’d been working on for years. She found she couldn’t do it, because her time was taken up or broken up. When people sent her things she read them seriously and commented. She took the job of Writer-in-Residence seriously, I think.

KM: Yes, I think she did. One of the writers I’m interested in and whom I’ve interviewed for these programs is Rohinton Mistry.  In fact he got his start the year she was Writer-in-Residence and sent her a story, one of his first, and she sent it to Leon Rooke who then published it in a New Press Anthology. That was perhaps Rohinton Mistry’s first publication, and after that he just took off. Within a few years he had a Penquin collection of stories, and so that was Mavis.

She’s one of the few writers I’ve heard of who has taken the Writer-in-Residence job with great seriousness. People are in and out of that job everywhere. I know Elizabeth Smart had a position out west and I think enjoyed it, but was not engaged in the way Mavis was. I know Graeme Gibson had a Writer-in–Residence position at the University of Waterloo and I understand he wasn’t very much on campus. It’s the kind of job where the writer decides how to do it.

RL: That was the first time Gallant had lived in Canada for any extended period. She is a Canadian citizen and comes back a lot and is very conscious of being Canadian. More of her books are appearing here and she comes for promotional tours as well. But she has chosen to travel.

At the University of Toronto she was here the whole year, so living on campus, was more engaged than someone coming onto a campus once or twice a week.

KM: Have you been to her home in Paris?

RL: I have never visited her, although I would like to. I am going there next month, but it being August I assume, like the rest of the French, she will likely have left town.

KM: I have been to the house of a friend of hers on the edge of the Marais, Joe Plaskett, who is a painter from Vancouver. There was a group of people who emigrated at the same time and Mavis is close to Joe. He lives near the Place des Vosges in a medieval house which is actually two yoked together. I think she lives not far from Joe. For these programs, I have also talked to Virgil Burnett, who’s part of that group of people. People came and went, but Joe and Mavis were two Canadians who stayed and gathered other people around them over the years. Why do you think she stayed in Paris?

RL: I don’t really know except that it suits her. She has, I think, a fairly highly developed sense of the advantages of a certain kind of isolation. If you live somewhere where you are comfortable, and she obviously is in Paris, but it’s not what you grew up with, it’s easier to investigate in a fictional way; it gives a kind of perspective. Most of her stories are set in Europe, often in Italy or France or sometimes Germany. She did publish that volume called Home Truths ( 1981), which was about Canada, but it still had that sense of distance. I think she finds it useful.

I read an article she wrote for a magazine, a description of Paris. It was in a series by various writers describing places they lived. Hers was very evocative, but it was mainly about Paris in the winter. It rains all the time, it’s dark. It’s only light from 9-10 a.m. Then it’s dark from 10-3 p.m. or grey, and then it’s really dark. The impression was of rain dripping on stone, greyness and the river. There are photographs too. There’s something that speaks to her from the city itself. Although I am sure she has been asked why she stays, I have never read or heard the real answer.

mavis gallant 866

KM: Did she not talk about being in exile when you spent all that time with her?

RL: I think she doesn’t consider herself in exile in the normal sense. She just considers herself someone who lives somewhere else, who did it deliberately when she made her career as a writer. She has been publishing primarily in The New Yorker, so her audience has been in the States and in Britain. From the Fifteenth District was reviewed as her emergence in Canada, but her books were not before then published here. The dust jacket quotes all of these Canadian writers saying how wonderful she is, so they all knew about her — George Woodcock, Mordecai Richler, Morley Callaghan, Alice Munro and so on, but nobody else did.

But, of course, that ignores the audience of The New Yorker. She published her first story there, in 1951, I think, and virtually everything she’s written has appeared there since. The audience of The New Yorker is about half a million readers, and it’s international, not just Americans, and a good many Canadians. So in a sense she was recognized in Canada and  it is slightly surprising  that a publisher didn’t pick up her stories and collect them and publish them earlier.

The New Yorker connection is interesting. I have been mulling this over: Are you born a New Yorker writer, or do you develop yourself  in such a way that you’re a natural for The New Yorker. The manuscripts which I have looked at don’t have any evidence of The New Yorker imposing its famous style.

KM: Not from the sheets we have in front of us anyway.

RL: What is the influence of someone like William Maxwell or the other editors at The New Yorker, not just on Gallant but on a whole series of writers?

KM: Alice Munro? Woody Allen?

RL:  That’s right. Every time you read something by them you recognize that it reads like a New Yorker piece.

KM: It’s an important question. Writers perhaps unconsciously adjust for their market. I heard of Mavis Gallant  in ‘63 or ’64. She was introduced to me by Miriam Waddington who was from Montreal and knew Mavis. So I started reading her then, and, of course, I thought of her as a New Yorker writer. I was just a student, and just beginning to read those sorts of magazines. Do you think there is a New Yorker style, which Mavis fits into, or perhaps she has helped to create it, too?

RL: I think both those things are true.  When she sent in her first couple of stories, someone there recognized that here’s someone who writes  the kind of fiction that we’re identified with, that our readers want, and we should seize that, and they did. It is true that there are several writers who are so closely identified with The New Yorker that you don’t see them as publishing anywhere else.

KM: And Alice Munro as well. Is it the condition of alienation, when we think about these stories?

RL: Partly that, alienation often in terms of the stories themselves, in terms of the style. Part of The New Yorker style, to me, is that nothing ends, it’s soft.

KM: I was going to say that they wander off.

RL: That’s right, they sort of stop…

KM: Never mind Aristotle, down with Aristotle…

RL: Certainly Gallant has that, always enigmas at the end, so that it could could either way, and it’s strongly suggested that the way it is going to go is not the nice way.

KM: Something we were talking about earlier is detail. When you think about a New Yorker essay, whether it’s on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson,  or tomatoes, or the rebuilding of Avery Fisher Hall, any New Yorker essay has more detail than any human being could possibly process. That seems to be to be a keynote of that magazine’s writing. And that also seems to me to be American. Like the social science novel. An American popular genre is so detailed so that people feel they get something for their money. In The New Yorker they get something for the time invested reading. They learn that tomatoes are gas-fired in upper Florida and so on. I think in most New Yorker fiction, including Mavis’s, the detail really serves the end of the story, but it is a feature of that kind of writing.

RL: Yes, sure.

KM: Do you think it is fair to say that’s an American contribution to 20th century writing — detail?

RL: I don’t know.

KM: You don’t have to go on record. You can back out…

RL: I don’t know about that, but the difference between non-fiction and fiction in The New Yorker is not that great. It’s recognizable as New Yorker stuff and her style suits that.

KM: Let’s talk about the two writers, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, who are very different writers, I think. Munro has a tremendous identification with and compassion for her characters. With Gallant there is a distance, she has them on a pin, or is looking through a glass.

RL: I think that’s probably true. With Munro you do feel her engagement with one character or another. With Gallant the relationships are unconsummated, people are observed  but what they are doing with each other often isn’t working either. Yet the descriptions are impressive.


KM: Is there a moment in From the Fifteenth District where characters seem to connect with each other, or with the reader?

RL: In “Potter” they do. The Poles in Paris, like Potter, or Piotr and his cousin, Marek. The relationship is close but they don’t fully connect in the sense that everyone is coming or going. And the people who are really there are always described in terms of hanging around the cafes.

KM: …or the train station…

RL: Being there physically and being somewhere else mentally and spiritually is an aspect of her characters. What’s really going on has only a token amount to do with the physical circumstances. It doesn’t have to be Paris, except that obviously she can describe Paris better because she lives there. But she will describe in great detail small places in Italy, for instance, where presumably she has spent some time as well.

KM: The Italian Riviera, or the point where Italy and France come together, figures in her stories, doesn’t it?

RL: Yes, in fact that’s one of the points that’s made. How can you tell what is Italy and what is France? They speak French, but the signs are in Italian. Right now it’s part of Italy, but about 75 years ago it was part of France, and who knows what it might be in the future. This is part, I suppose, of European alienation. There is a whole series of countries which haven’t always been there in that form. It would be interesting to ask Mavis what she thinks of 1992 and the grand new Europe. I dare say she has some opinions about it.

KM: I’m sure she has opinions. I wonder what she thinks of Mrs. Thatcher!

RL: She does have very strong views about French politics, and I did talk to her a couple times about that, but always her view is a real Canadian connection, which is curious and amusing. She invented a persona for herself, the name I can’t remember, but when she hears something on the radio that involves Canada, or sees something on television, she phones the stations and asks to talk to the producers, and even politicians and sets them straight, as in that’s not what it’s like in Canada, that’s a wrong interpretation, you really should get this right. So, in a way, she’s a kind of unofficial Canadian conscience.

KM: A gazetteer?

RL: Yes. I think she enjoys that a lot and realizes probably that the French don’t listen very carefully. I don’t know that she’s had any real political effect, but it amuses her to correct them about what is really going on. During the 14th  of July parade she was on television with Peter Mansbridge describing it. A friend told me that a float went by that was meant to represent the French colonial period, and Canada had a small part of it, and she said, “That’s not right, it’s the wrong period.” Of course, Canada wasn’t a colony of France at all, and then CBC cut her off. I wish I had heard that comment. I wouldn’t think of Mavis Gallant as someone to describe a parade to you, but it was an inspired choice. I’m sure that what she said, or at least what they let air, was very interesting and pertinent. She observes the French in that way as well. She wrote quite a lot about the school teacher who had an affair with one of her students — was her name Gabrielle Russier, is that right?— she’s also been very much involved in researching a book on Dreyfus.

KM: That Dreyfus project has gone on for more than a decade, hasn’t it?

RL: A long time. It’s been imminent for several years.

CaptureDégradation d’Alfred Dreyfus” from Le Petit Journal, Supplement Illustré no. 217, 1895 via Forward

KM: She’s working on archives, and letters and journals, isn’t she?

RL: And she met the daughter, who might not be alive now, knew her quite well.

KM: Let’s quickly review what happened in the Dreyfus case and try and put it in context. It’s in the 1890s in France and he was drummed out of the army as a Jew and imprisoned.

RL: And Émile Zola took up his case and wrote “J’accuse” and then Dreyfus was brought to trial and was released and then put back in prison.

KM: It was an enormous trial wasn’t it, with many transcripts?


RL: It’s one of those grey scandals which the French cling to forever. A hundred years later, it’s still fresh. It’s been written about many times and there are at least half a dozen books in print.

KM: There’s a long essay by Sartre, and all kinds of people who try to come to terms with this event.

RL: I think to be a respectable intellectual in France, you must. Mavis has new evidence, has seen some new material, which suggests a new interpretation.

KM: Obviously, it’s an ongoing project for her and a sign of her membership  in an international intellectual community, which is also how I see other people’s engagement with the case. Do you think that is her motivation, or could there be more personal reasons for her being involved, interested?

RL: Well, at some basic level, she is doing historical journalism, and she was a journalist.

KM: So she’s not Jewish; she went to a convent school?

RL: In fact, those potted little biographies for her books always start by saying she went to 17 schools. The first one when she was four was a convent, and there were altogether 17 in Montreal and the eastern United States.

KM: Was she kicked out of them?

RL: Next time I see her I’ll ask her, why 17? There must be some story there. Her father moved around? She was a quarrelsome student? She must have approved the figure 17,  because it appears on everything.

KM: There are so many enigmas for me about Mavis Gallant:  the 17 schools, the rootlessness, which is paradoxical as she is very rooted in one city, which didn’t begin as her own, and her seeing herself as a Canadian. Her characters move around, and then there is the very specificity of her details, which contrast with the rootlessness of the feeling in the stories. And that’s true all through the collection From The Fifteenth District. And it is set in a very specific district, the 15th arrondissement. But the stories themselves are set all over Western Europe, and yet that title story is a ghost story, for heaven’s sake, characters don’t even live there. They live in “other space.” So there are all these paradoxes at work.

Obviously, she’s kept on writing and I think she’ll continue to surprise us. If she is engaged with the Dreyfus book and it gets finished, she is not only doing historical journalism but making her mark on intellectual history, which is what the Dreyfus case is really about, isn’t it?

RL: I think that’s probably true. How consciously she approaches that I’m not sure.

KM: I think that’s one thing you feel with Gallant’s work, her tremendous intelligence. You don’t necessarily move toward her, she’s hard on her characters, there’s not immediately a great sympathy, although there is ultimately compassion, and you feel her intelligence, and it’s admirable.

RL:  She makes many people nervous, I think, because she’s very sharp and bright, so people feel a little hesitant about meeting her, about what she’s going to say to them and will they feel they have something silly or stupid. She wouldn’t do that but people think she might. It’s that general feeling that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, that you ought to kind of watch it. When she’s talking to you, she listens carefully, and you need be conscious about what you say. Not because she’s going to write it into a story, but because she’s listening carefully, and she’s critical.

KM: Someone said something similar about Virginia Woolf, whom I’ve always assumed wasn’t critical, but listened very carefully. In Woolf’s time, they would say she was a person who could elicit your darkest secrets, and she would use them. Not against you, but they would be used. In that way she was dangerous, and I would think the same about Gallant. Writers are observers; there’s no doubt about that anyway. But certain writers could elicit your secrets and your wariness could make you blurt out things. And perhaps those things might in the end be used against you.

RL: I’ll always be careful what I say to writers.

KM: I’m delighted to hear that!

The papers Gallant is placing at the Fisher Library are not full of personal details, but you would think so much of the information in her stories comes about through her keeping notebooks about people, and then using these notes later. It’s exciting to think that her work comes out of a kind of memory repository, rather than something else.

RL: Well, she doesn’t keep things for the sake of having 97 boxes. When she gets a letter, I am sure she doesn’t keep it unless it matters.

KM: So the Fisher collection is small but important?

RL: Yes and it has been used and is likely to be used more. There is a book on her.

KM: Janice Kulyk Keefer, Reading Mavis Gallant? I haven’t read it.

RL: Neither have I but we keep track of the people who use the collections and there’s already a whole file folder of people who have looked at her papers for one reason or another.

KM:  So a critic or a student will come and look at the papers, and then they’ll be able to deduce her working method among other things?

RL:  Yes, they might. I think anyone doing anything serious on her would have to be in touch with her, as you wouldn’t find enough in the papers, although it depends on what you are looking for. It’s a conscious archive, which I rather like, because it means a writer has taken some real responsibility rather than leaving it up to a curator or an archivist to decide at some point in the future what is to be saved and so on.

KM: You actually get rid of materials that people give you?

RL: No, no we don’t, but someday someone’s going to have to. The mountain of paper will become overwhelming to the point where someone will have to make real decisions and that probably won’t be me. Every writer varies so much, but it’s interesting, that someone so consciously forms her archive. So her archive is a little bit like her stories.

KM: I was going to say it sounds as if she is all of a piece. She’s a highly conscious and a highly responsible person. That certainly sheds a very important light on her, because I don’t think you know her as conscious or responsible from her stories, so some of these other things are very very important.  Thank you, Richard. I am very much looking forward to talking to Mavis Gallant next.

—Richard Landon & Karen Mulhallen

Richard Landon (1942-2011) was the Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and Professor of English. He taught courses on aspects of the history of the book and bibliography for many years in the University of Toronto’s Graduate Department of English and the Faculty of Information. Among his publications are Bibliophilia Scholastica Floreat (2005), Ars Medica (2006), “Two Collectors: Thomas Grenville and Lord Amherst of Hackney” in Commonwealth of Books (2007), “The Elixir of Life: Richard Garnett, the British Museum Library, and Literary London” in Literary Cultures and the Material Book (2007), and articles in the History of the Book In Canada (2004-2007).

Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. Douglas Glover edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and several of her poems have appeared on the pages of Numéro Cinq.



Sep 032014

Bydlowska What Women WantPhoto Credit: Jowita Bydlowska


I get up to close the curtains. Lit-up against this darkness we must look like a dinner-party diorama.

“I was cutting the umbilical cord and I just thought to myself, that’s it buddy, it’s all over now.” Rick laughs so hard the table shakes.

“What’s over?” Helen, his wife, says. She doesn’t look at Rick.

“Oh, you know. Life as you know it,” says my husband. “I’m kidding, Babe.” He smiles at me.

“Although there are many good things about it. Milk breasts,” says Rick.

Helen gets up and goes into the kitchen where she stands by the stove. I follow her.

“Do you have any cigarettes?” she says when I come in.

“I quit.”

I open small drawers punched into the kitchen furniture. Candles, string, tape, sunglasses, a Valentine’s Day card. You are my love and my life.

“The one fucking night we get to spend time with each other,” Helen says and shakes her head.

“There are old Marlboros in a drawer somewhere,” I say and find them. “He’s just drunk. They’re both drunk.”

“We should get drunk,” she says.

“Look what I found.” I show her the Valentine’s Day card. “He thought I was joking.”

“Were you?”

“I don’t know. Yes.”

She lights her Marlboro.

I turn on the kitchen fan.

“My grandmother told me every woman wants her husband dead eventually,” Helen says.

“The black fantasy.”


“The white is when you dream of your wedding.”

“That’s right.”

“’You’re supposed to just wait it out. It’ll turn. Secret to marriage.’ My mother.” I say the first part in my mother’s voice.


We don’t say anything for a while. We can hear Rick and my husband laugh in the other room. They are probably still talking about breasts. Milk breast. Breastfeeding breasts. Leaking breasts. Breasts.

“Are you trying to be writers again?” Helen says.

“He’s reluctant. He thinks it’s a waste of time now.”

“Oh. What an idiot.”

“I don’t know. He says, either you really do it or you’re just dabbling. Anyway, we plan to try again this summer. But it’s hard with Emily,” I say and think how there still isn’t anything I’d like to write about anyway. Maybe a children’s book, something about penguins.

Helen looks away, her face distracted. “I can’t do this anymore,” she says.

She turns on the tap and holds the cigarette underneath it.


“This,” she points with her chin towards the dining room.

I put my arm around her shoulders and she leans her head against me. She smells of Marlboro. “Christ,” she sighs.

We go back to the dining room.

Back in the dining room, Rick says, “Genes. Helen’s second cousin gave birth to a retard. They call a child like that something else now, but let’s be honest, that’s what we all think when we look at a child like that. What?”

Helen’s eyes are closed.

I watch the candle wax slug slowly toward the tablecloth. I stick my finger underneath it like a child. The burn is pleasant, quick then it’s gone.

My husband shows his bottom teeth in a yikes-smile, “Bro.”

I’ve never heard him say that, bro.

“No, but really, bro. The wife’s brother, right? And the husband’s aunt? And yet, they still chose to go natural. What a legacy. All I’m saying is that genes are not always the best thing to preserve. There was an unusual aggregation of you know in their family.”

Rick sits back and stares at Helen.

I try to imagine him on top of me. I used to be able to but now I no longer can.

“Nina says you might try to write this year again,” Helen says. “What about the book that you were working on?”

“I’m looking at some cottages,” my husband says. “I’ve lost that manuscript.”

“No, you haven’t,” I say, unsure if he has.

“I have.”

“Well, write something new then. You should write about us,” says Helen.

“Write what?” I say.

“About him,” Helen says.

Rick says, “I don’t want to be written about.”

“You know how the saying goes, ‘If you don’t want to be written about, don’t have a dinner with a writer?’” Helen laughs.

“Not true. We would never write about our friends,” says my husband. “Anyway. Nobody’s writing anything. Maybe Nina is.” He tops our glasses.

Helen takes a big sip of her wine. “I would,” she says and stares at Rick. “I would write about my friends saying shitty things.”

“I wouldn’t,” I say.

I would.

“Why do you want to be written about anyway?” my husband says.

“I don’t really. I’m just saying we should be careful. Everyone should be careful around writers,” Helen says and laughs again.

“In that case, you have nothing to worry about,” says my husband.

“Good,” says Rick. “We’re so boring and predictable anyway.”

“You are,” Helen says.


Later that evening, my husband has sex with me.

I worry about our daughter coming into our bedroom, seeing us.

I wait for the break in thrusts, when he rests his body on top of mine, and I ask him to close the door.

He gets up and closes the door.

I turn off the light.

He lies back down beside me and runs his hand from my collarbone down to my thighs.

“Let’s just go to sleep,” I say.

“Sure. Whatever you like.” He kisses my neck. He pushes against me.

“I’m sleeping,” I say and help to put his penis back inside me.

He thrusts.

I fantasize about repainting our bedroom, the whole house. When he’s gone.

“Nina,” he whispers into my neck.

His body feels like heavy rubber on top of me. A rubber man. It’s not anything he’s doing or not doing.

He stops. “What is it?”

“I’m not feeling it.”

“Oh, baby,” he says as if I needed consoling.

“Sorry,” I say.

He kisses me on the lips; his tongue is aggressive. He grabs the back of my head in the way I used to like and he pushes himself further inside me staring hard into my eyes.

“How does this feel?”

I smile.

Lately, there have been a lot of articles about my husband raping me. Not about my husband specifically but about husbands who rape. The grey area of consent, the drunkenness, the middle-of-the-night inserting, this – what is happening right now.

I don’t feel raped. Many women are speaking up about it. The articles are asking women to speak up. But there’s nothing to talk about. It’s only biology. Traditional marriage: women belonging to men. We sleep next to men with our vaginas right there. What do you expect?

I’ve never stopped him before and I never would. I am not traumatized. I don’t interpret the sex in a negative way because magazines suggest I should. The articles are horseshit.

He is done now.

He wipes his cum off of my thighs, lovingly.

It is moments like this, of tenderness, that are important. I collect moments like this now because every little bit counts, every good thing between us is precious because there are so few of them.


Before I had my daughter, I went to Mexico with my father for an All-inclusive vacation.

It was there that my father told me about his father who moved his mistress into the house while the rest of the family was on vacation. Because of that my father as a young boy was homeless for two months and lived in a motel.

That’s why, he said, as if his past was enough of an excuse to explain what he had done to my mother, why he’d left. But it was okay; I didn’t care. We were all grownups now. I had my own life to fuck up.

On our vacation, we swam and sun-tanned on the beach during the day.

In the evenings at the resort, I watched my father take photographs of the local girls dancing in sequined costumes on the stage.

You could see their nipples through the cheap fabric. The girls were beautiful – young and with black hair, dark skin.

There were free drinks everywhere. Everything smelled and tasted of coconut.

On Christmas Eve, a band entertained the tourists in the cafeteria. Jingle Bells and Holy Night.

A young woman dressed as the Virgin Mary sat on a roll of hay and held the beach ball under her robe beatifically.

There were live chickens and rabbits and a donkey. At one point, one of the chickens escaped the enclosure and ran around the cafeteria.

My father got up and chased the chicken with the other tourist men.

A young guy from the band caught the chicken.

It’s Pedro he always does this. He laughed.

The guy’s English was perfect, I thought, just a little bit of an accent.

The reason why I was on an All-inclusive vacation with my father was because I needed to decide if I was going to leave my husband.

I decided yes.


He was picking us up at the airport and when I saw him, I felt nothing. He was just a guy picking us up at the airport.

He drove my father to the train station. My father was going back to Montreal where he said he lived with a woman, not anybody I would know.

My father told the story about the chicken, how he caught the chicken.

Before he got on the train he hugged me and whispered in my ear, I never stopped loving your mother.

It sounded like a bad line from a movie. It upset me but I said nothing, just hugged him back.

On the way to our house, my husband talked about how much he missed me and how a houseplant died and how he replaced it so I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference but he had felt guilty about it, which is why he was telling me.

I thought about how I didn’t want him to talk. Or how we shouldn’t talk about houseplants because we needed to be in a serious mood. How the shyness of seeing each other at the airport was a good prelude to seriousness and how he was ruining it now with his chatter.

But I said nothing.

After the plant story, he talked about something else, some product launch he attended or a gallery opening. Jokes, who he saw, who got drunk and sloppy.

At home, I unpacked all the sand from my suitcase, and he came up behind me and put his hands around me.

I moved his hands and wrapped them around my neck.

I pressed my back against him.

He said, Whoa.

Whoa, I said.

He said, You smell of coconut.

Tighter, I said.

He did it tighter.


I wanted to feel actual pain, bring myself back to him. But he would never squeeze as tight as to hurt me.

I wanted him to. I wanted him to be someone else – a guy who could hurt me.

—Jowita Bydlowska



Jowita Bydlowska is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016.


Sep 022014

sarah micSarah Clancy


When asked to contribute poetry to Uimhir a Cúig I was enthusiastic, but on reading the second part of the request, namely that I might also provide a few thoughts on slam or performance poetry in Ireland I grew a little more hesitant. With thoughts of writing this commentary and of my own reluctance to be categorised I conducted a brief and very unscientific survey on my Twitter and Facebook accounts to ask various writers and performers what they thought performance poetry actually is in an Irish context. The overwhelming trend in response was a rejection of the definition of ourselves as purely performance poets or ‘slam’ poets. Many of my fellow writers indicated that the difference between page and ‘performance’ poetry was whether or not our work was memorised and performed to an audience, and for me that is nearly as narrow as classification of performance poetry in Ireland can go.  I don’t particularly want to get into the much-flogged-hackney debate about which form of poetry is more poetic, nor do I want to go over the much-mentioned or mis-mentioned role of spoken poetry in Ireland and literature’s history. Instead I’d like to tease out (with the help of all the people who gave me their opinions) what performing poetry is like here and some of what (other than the obvious) divides and unites the page and stage methods of delivery.

It is irrefutable that a writer personally delivering their work in public has a whole range of what I’ll call emotional manipulation ‘tricks’ at their disposal if they chose or learn to use them:  they have their physical presence, they have their tone of voice, eye contact or lack of it, they can dictate the pace of the poem, insert poignant pauses and depending on how their appearance or manner engages the audience they can add layer after layer of meaning, wit or irony to words that are absent if, as with traditional printed poetry, a quiet reader sitting alone has to interpret a piece unaided. Conversely though, as someone who was dragged around to literary events from a young age I heard many readers, poets in particular who were terrible, terrible readers of their own work and whilst I forgive some of them – (the ones who were nervous or who really wished not to be in the public eye) there was frequently a type of soul destroying reading where the hefty profound pauses between words and thick silences supposedly laden with meaning at the end of each utterance presented poetry as some type of Latin mass to which some people had access and the rest of us never would.

These type of readings now seem to be an endangered species however (thankfully), and I put this down to the good influence of a whole gang of poets who are interested in both the written and performance aspects, particularly the ones who encourage other writers (people such as Kevin Higgins, John Walsh and Lisa Frank of Doire Press, Stephen Murray, Dave Lordan, Colm Keegan and Stephen James Smith) These ‘crossover’ poets (and writers) are threateningly at-large on the small literary circuit here at the moment. For any writer going off to do a public reading there’s a great risk now that you might be faced with being billed with Kevin Barry hamming  his way through a variety of his character’s voices, or with the fury and passion of Dave Lordan unleashing his vernacular poetry or ‘frags’ upon you, or with Elaine Feeney’s warm demeanour tricking you into thinking you are in safe hands before she launches into the creative and fearless deconstruction of everything middle Ireland holds dear from the GAA to the catholic church, you might find yourself lulled by Billy Ramsell’s Cork accent and mesmeric voice as with limitless ambition for what language can be made to achieve, he tries to describe music more musically in words than the music can describe itself in notes. If like me you are totally prudish about hearing sexual exploits described in public, you might find yourself squirming beside our adopted Canadian Dimitra Xidous as she takes a totally un-Irish relish in describing her own and others genitalia and how they might combine in a range of inventive ways mostly related to food. There are many other poets just as impressive and engaging that I could and should include here for mention but those will be enough to indicate that in Ireland, the notion of performing your poetry or writing is by now firmly ensconced within the literary scene rather than an outside element. Perhaps it was always like this and I just went to stuffy readings? Several of  the writers mentioned above are award-winning ‘page’ poets who have published collections of their poetry as well as being performers (except for Kevin Barry who is an award winning short story writer and novelist and Dave Lordan who is a playwright and prose writer as well as being a poet).

Whilst there are exceptions to every bold statement I might make about performance poets in Ireland, you will see from the above that it is safe to say that a lot of the poets here who regularly or irregularly perform their poetry are, at the very least as concerned with their written, published work as with their performances. I am even going to hazard a foolhardy statement and say that for the most part even in ‘competitive’ performance poetry in Ireland as represented by long-running annual events such as the Cuirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam Championships, the North Beach Nights Series and the All Ireland Grand Slam Championships (which feeds qualifying candidates through from events held in each province of Ireland) the successful poets[1] seem to owe more to traditional lyric or narrative poetry than they do to rap or hip hop or the influence of the Beat poets, as seems to be the case in other perhaps more culturally and ethnically diverse countries.  We seem here too, to have less of the ‘confessional element’ that I have seen and heard in popular spoken word from North America. Yes we have lots of people with poems about gender and sexuality and politics and bullying etc. but generally here to be successful in competitive events or well received at the others, people’s personal experiences need to be put through a spin-cycle of imagination and deflective imagery that I haven’t seen evident in competitive performance poetry from the US or Canada. This is also the case in many social settings in Ireland though; we are not generally straight or forthright talkers about emotional issues.

For context, a word or two about my own stance on things; I am often described as a performance poet and I vary between being amazed that anyone would call me a poet at all and between being unhappy with the restriction implied by the label. I started to pay proper attention to my own desire to write creatively in around about 2009, and now five or six years later, a relatively short time in the life of a ‘poet’, I have had two full length collections of poetry published and have another one The Truth and Other Stories due out this month. I am not making any claims for the merits or standard of my various emissions – that’s something any interested others can assess as and when they want – what I am saying is that for someone who gets variously described as a slam poet, a spoken word poet or a performance poet (even by my own publisher) I have actually published more written or page poetry than many people who are described as poets without any of the various prefixes attached, and sometimes if I am in that kind of humour, I wonder why should be the case.

In my own writing, I don’t consider the page and performance poetry as separate things and I don’t generally consider which arena or form I am writing for at all when I sit at my computer or scribble in a notebook. I write very instinctively and sometimes when I am finished I find that I have captured something in a way that I like, and sometimes I haven’t.  In the latter case I usually delete it. The ‘finished’ poem then, if it survives my delete button, will sometimes be a piece that lends itself particularly well to the immediacy of performance in public, but in fact if I have written a poem that to my own standards is one to keep then even if it’s not a performance ‘hit’ it should almost without exception, be able to be read or performed aloud in a way that maintains its rhythm and meaning. This does not mean that I’ll necessarily perform the poem in public; what it means is that if it sounds wrong, awkward or uncomfortable when I read it aloud to myself then I haven’t finished it, and I need to adjust or rewrite or rethink whatever lines jar either on my tongue or in my ear.

Speaking personally again, for me if a poem is to be effective in a noisy bar or other public space filled with the circulating thoughts and movements and concerns of others it needs, in some way to be able to claim and own that space. It’s a mistake though to think that performance poems need to be strident or obvious or raucously funny. Often a quiet, eerie poem can silence an audience much better than a more in your face piece.  In a lot of cases with poetry-performed-out-loud-in -public when the performer is doing a whole set rather than just one piece they can usually establish a connection with the audience by presenting some familiar or accessible work and in doing that they can in a way ‘earn’ the right to have more complex or less immediate pieces heard, and in this way anything, even the most obscure or un-crowd pleasing poems, can be aired without losing the engagement and energy that comes from connecting with an audience.  This all sounds weird perhaps, but if compared to a singer songwriter or a band it’s very familiar to us: they play a few old favourite or hit songs or even a cover version (the crowd pleasers) then they play their new material to introduce it to their fans, they let it sit and then they’ll play a few more hits to send everyone off satisfied. This works in performance poetry too. If you’ve gained an audience’s trust and attention they’ll come with you to places they wouldn’t necessarily chose to go by themselves.  I have no proof of this, but I suspect that sometimes when a performance goes well you can get an audience to engage with a poem they may have skimmed over or not bothered to read in your book.

William Wall a novelist, poet and friend who responded to my Facebook question pointed out that for him the flip side of the range of ways a performance-poet has of communicating through poetry is a slight over-determination. In some cases the reader or the audience is told what to feel about the poem, often in no uncertain terms and so the ambiguity or the space for a reader to interpret or respond to a poem themselves, (which is perhaps one of the chief defining criteria of a piece of art) can sometimes be lost or diminished. In terms of detailing differences between the page and stage forms, I think this is a valid point; that page poetry may well retain a capacity within its ambiguity to access the sublime in a way that is very rare in ‘performance’ poetry.

The first two poets I ever saw give what I would call a ‘performance’ of their work in public were Rita Ann Higgins and Maighread Medbh. Both of these poets and those first performances I heard are useful to put the theory of performance poetry as overly-deterministic to the test.  That both are woman is not a coincidence; some of what struck me about both events (which took place some years ago) is how unusual it was or unfortunately still is, to have woman claiming and occupying stage space for their own work on their own terms.  I am not sure how Medbh would self identify if we asked her to classify herself poetically, but I do know that Rita Ann Higgins does not claim membership of any ‘performance poetry’ sub or supra strata in Irish poetry.

Despite the fact that I mostly agree with Wall’s point regarding the narrowing of creative ambiguity when poetry is performed, I’d have to make an honourable exception for Maighread’s work, which certainly keeps one luminous eye on the  sublime. I first saw her perform in the quiet reserved venue of Galway City Library during one of the Over the Edge Series of readings run by Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar Du Mars and she took the space at the front of the room and through presence, energy and movement as well as through the intensity of her poetry created a charge and a level of discomfort amongst the audience that fascinated me- this was not consoling poetry.  I didn’t and still don’t find her poetry immediately accessible. On the page or computer screen I find her work resonant and deeply unsettling but each time I have watched her in the flesh performing I have been moved and impressed by her bravery. Hers was a performance of poetry that blew space open rather than summarised or encapsulated any particular event or experience.

Staying with that point about the possible loss of ambiguity in performances or readings it is worth looking at some of the ways a totally deterministic performance of a poem is in itself (or can be) an act of imaginative creativity. For me a fine clear example of this was that reading by Rita Ann Higgins some years back (I think it took place at the Cuirt International Festival of Literature).

In a crowded room filled with the type of people who attend literary festivals (myself included) she read her poem ‘Some People’. She left no wriggle room for anyone listening, it was her poem, her hook and us her audience were on it.  The poem begins:

Some people know what it is like
to be called a cunt in front of their children

It then continues to describe a litany of demeaning, horrible and sometimes absurd things that some people and their children know before finishing in magnificent understatement:

and other people don’t.

The closing lines and in fact the silence that lingered after them perfectly captured the unbridgeable gap between the majority of her audience and the people who the poem speaks about. As a member of that audience I had no doubt at all that I was one of the ‘other people’.  In this case the poem in question also works brilliantly on the page but it works there in a way that is different from hearing it read aloud in public:

In public it is a direct, confrontational and political act, an intervention in polite discourse.  For a woman to stand on stage at a civilised poetry reading and say the word ‘cunt’ in the way it is used in this poem; as an insult hurled at a woman in front of her children is not business as usual. Right from the off we were far, far out of our comfort zone. The impact of the physical presence of a woman writer standing there and using either her own personal experiences or witness, and her willingness to be personally publicly identified with the demeaning experiences she describes is immeasurably greater than the effect of the words on the page alone.

On the page parts of the poem are amusing, striking and inventive, but performed, in person they are devastating.

The reason I highlight this particular poem is to point out what I see as something vital in poetry that is performed and that is that it necessitates a willingness on the part of the poet to be personally identified with what they have written.   In my experience in effective or good performance poetry there is no dispassionate distance available to the poet because it is that distance (which IS available as an often effective device within page based poetry) that will diminish a performer’s chances of connecting emotionally with an audience.  Even if performance poems are not autobiographical in any strict sense, when they are performed by their writers themselves the creative aspect of the writer’s personality is being demonstrated in a physical public space and that in itself is an intimacy that the remoteness of the covers of a book can help to shield us from.

To a large extent (and possibly a matter for me to take up with my psychologist rather than here) most of my own public interactions in any sphere are performative but what causes me stage fright and nervousness quite often is that in performance poetry even if I am not the ‘speaker’ in any particular piece and even if, as is usually the case my poems are not a verifiably true reportage of anything that has actually happened, every time I stand there and perform one of my own poems, I am exposing my own vulnerable creativity and allowing it to be linked back to my own physical presence, my actual body and voice and demeanour while I stand there on the spot.  For me that is the best thing about performing my own poetry and for me that is the horror of performing my own poetry.  Whilst having a book or a poem published is hugely thrilling to me it is something that happens at a distance, whereas performing is hyper-personal.  In one final point it is worth mentioning that like most writers I know, the making public of my writing either in performance or in a publication (or on Facebook which is my bad habit) is actually a side effect. What I am actually addicted to (other than reading which is my first love) is the act of writing, the excitement of inspiration and moments of realising that inspiration into something that didn’t exist before I wrote it and hopefully each time into something that doesn’t mimic what I have written before. Yehaw, that’s what that feels like.

—Sarah Clancy



For Lazarus, whose alarm clock is ringing
For Elaine

In the terminal’s time warp the sun-on-glass glare
and the lack of appropriate places to sleep
have me left bug eyed and pacing static-filled corridors
that send sparks through my fingers and hair
when I touch things (or if I touched things) and I’m thinking
of how we came to be each others others and
how it is that people like us come to mean things to each other.
Without knowing it does so, the heat from the sun’s kiss on
the plate glass windows licks at my neck and like it, you and me are helpless
our warmth spreads without any permission, we’ve no borders,
no boundaries and we’ve been friends since we met
so I can say; Lazarus get up out of that because I want to talk to you about how
I’d resolved to be only one person all of the time but then
a woman came in to my ninth floor hotel room and stood
at the window looking down at some city or other beneath her,
I (or the me I was using) stayed at a distance with my back
to the wall and across those great acres of room space and bed space
and sheet span I watched the light burnish her edges;
her ribcage, her jaw and the fine hairs on her arm
and as the evening grew gentler I watched the rise and fall
of her breath while the day itself melted and Lazarus
I wanted to go to her but this me that I’ve chosen to be
all of the time now didn’t know how or where to begin,
I didn’t believe that my static filled fingers could touch her
and that she might welcome it and I wanted to tell you
that I mightn’t be able to stay being me in situations like this
where I have all the ingredients gathered and measured
and then I forget how to cook them (if that was in fact,
me there in the bedroom and not one of my minions)
and I’m saying this because I’ve learned that staying one person
isn’t straightforward and sometimes being truthful is less accurate
than having the courage to act the part beautifully,
and Lazarus I want to tell you whenever you get up
that I might not be able and I know you’ll know what I mean
because we are each others others and we know things
Lazarus, it’s high time you were up.


It’s the Dark
A poem for my selves

On this day of halogen and helium
we are dodging shadows
our eyes squinting against late afternoon sun
but it’s with us, despite the whiteness;
it’s a hand not held
in a dark bedroom, of a dark house, on a dark street
where no one ever thought to leave a light on for us
it’s every unblown birthday candle
a school of sorts, an education,
it’s a taunting lane with pine trees and a wind channelled down it,
it’s the terror that made our fat legs pedal faster,
made us flee it,
as if in the bright lights of the kitchen hours later
we still wouldn’t feel it
it’s that car journey we didn’t want to go on
those other headlights sweeping past in freedom
and our relentless windscreen wipers beating rhythm
to the place we swore we’d never get to
on a morning night wouldn’t relinquish,
it’s a bridge in an inferno crumbling
and I can tell you there’s no crossing back over
it’s the confessional where we don’t know what to say
or even who to answer
it’s a hundred pagan folk memories;
nameless because they never tried to conquer it
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
and it’s best to leave it be.


Sad Bear’s Dance

In the middle of a critique of post-feminist lit the academico asked for examples
she cased the joint for samples. ‘You there in the corner’ she pointed ‘how do you
and like I do when put on a spot I back-answered, retorted; ‘as chat ups go,
that one’s a keeper, and I’m really liking the cut of your jib’. She insisted excitedly
that I was manifesting a notably insidious strain of patriarchy and said; ‘Sisters
and the few selected males amongst us, can you see how our specimen is acting
unwittingly contrary to feminist interests… Seems she’s internalised, oh yes she’s
……….aping it.
Picking fleas from my fur I said well in the interests of political correctness, are we
here gender or sex? And she; ‘Whichever, I’m asking are you an X or a Y and if
……….you’re happy
with that designation or do you feel you’ve been put in a box?’ Never till now, I
……….was thinking
but yer wan just wouldn’t be stopped; ‘I’m asking did you learn it or just be it,
speaking, science we’re talking, not myth?’ And I said ‘Oh science is it? Why didn’t
……….you say?
Well you’ll be happy to know I’m empirical, a walking experiment and I propose
……….that there are
waaaaay more letters than that. I’m a boy if you want, a man for all seasons and
the moon calls I’m her bitch, I’m a wave that never comes far enough in, an eight
……….year old child
in a dress, in my father’s high heels call me princess — and sure while we’re at it get
on your knees for your king, and if we’re talking here subject and object then I’m
……….the rent boy
you’ve always wanted to bugger, I ‘m a work in progress – might never be
a construction fallen foul of the bust, so come on in with your cork board and
sure I’ll prostrate myself for your pin- why wouldn’t I when I’m my own favourite
blank canvas, an artwork unfinished and I’m thoroughly glad of your interest –
……….here listen,
yea I know — Eureka! We could begin our own travelling freak show and go out
on the road if you want, we’ll meander through small towns and hamlets and
and when the crowds surge I’ll get my kit off oh yes I’ll perform to entice them
while you pocket our ill gotten loot, then later when it’s quiet and they’re gone,
I’ll slow dance on your chain like the saddest of bears until someday, when
I’ll about face and savage you, in that way no one ever predicts, however often
this rictus of captive and victims’ enacted, and I’ll be happy at it let me tell you,
happy as a striped jacketed monkey transplanted to the coldest of streets, ‘cos
I’m a one trick pony reading up on peripheral vision, realising she has it and
asserting that I can grind any organ I wish, and I trust that answers it?’



Your tight lips and stubborn back
and the sound of our dinner dishes
being none too gently stacked
have sent me outside
to sneak a cigarette
in the closest thing a summer night has
to darkness.

My match strike flares
and blinds me for an instant
as I guiltily inhale.
Down on the bog-land
below our house
there are car lights moving slowly,
then going out.
A door thuds shut
and no other sound comes up.

Close-by my ear I hear
your barefeet lubdubing like my heartbeat
across the wooden kitchen floor.
My nicotine plumes fray
then disappear,
and on the uplift of the breeze
an acrid petrol smell
mingles with the gorse, wildflower
and wet earth fumes.

In the morning all there is
is wood smoke and a few blackened patches,
otherwise the gorse bushes
stand out flag-yellow
and unmolested.
Bogland doesn’t always burn
that easily, even after
a surprise late night baptism with petrol
up here, where we are,
a sly sea mist can sneak
in to douse it
so it’s left to smoulder
neither burning nor put out
like we are
like we are.


 —Sarah Clancy


Sarah Clancy is a page and performance poet from Galway City. Her first themed collection of poetry, Stacey and the Mechanical Bull, was published by Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and further selections of her work were published in 2011 & 2012 by Doire Press Galway. Her first full length collection of poetry Thanks for Nothing, Hippies was published by Salmon Poetry in April 2012 and was launched at the Cuirt International Festival of literature that year. It has since become a poetry bestseller. Cinderella Backwards a CD of poetry by Sarah and her fellow Galway poet Elaine Feeney was released in December 2012.  Her forthcoming collection The Truth and Other Stories is due out from Salmon Poetry in September 2014.

She has had success in slam or performance poetry circles winning the 2011 Cuirt International Grand Slam Championship, twice coming in as runner up in the North Beach Nights Grand Slam Series (2011& 2012) and in 2013 she was runner up in the All-Ireland Grand Slam Championship.  She has also been placed or shortlisted in many page-poetry prizes including the Listowel Collection of Poetry Competition, the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the WOW awards and the Over the Edge Poetry Competition. In 2012 she received second prize for her poem ‘I Crept Out’ in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition judged by Matthew Sweeney.


Sep 012014

LMMLucy M. May

One morning I stood on a big round rock and put a heavy rock on my head. I was willing to be still, balanced on the rock and balancing the other rock on my head, but in order to keep it together I had to keep a very slight movement, a tiny dance, going on between the two rocks. That went on for many minutes. No one else was awake. —Simone Forti


Lucy collageHuddle, Loeb Student Center, New York University (1969)[1]

In the landscapes surrounding the hippy commune near Woodstock, New York where she briefly lived, Simone Forti spent a year of her twenties balancing on stone walls and observing the movements of the world. This is how she began becoming a legendary dance improviser, musician, creator of “Huddle”… In her 1974 classic Handbook in Motion (Contact Editions, 1998), Forti recounts:

One morning I stood on a big round rock and put a heavy rock on my head. I was willing to be still, balanced on the rock and balancing the other rock on my head, but in order to keep it together I had to keep a very slight movement, a tiny dance, going on between the two rocks. That went on for many minutes. No one else was awake.

By paying attention to minutia, Forti’s explorations tie up the essence of what a ‘big’ dance might also achieve, in a single, simple act. Something succinct enough to fit in a drawing, a photo frame./

thisisadanceThis is a Dance: For Simone Forti
Dance by Lucy M. May. Photo by Patrick Conan (2013)

Forti was my muse when I stopped in a national park in Croatia last year and asked my boyfriend to take a picture. I lay face down into the trunk of a tree that had grown out the side of a hill horizontally. Patrick tipped the camera to set me upright. “This is a dance,” I said to myself, as he clicked me into place.


In his book of essays on experimental choreography, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (Routledge, 2006), André Lepecki discusses a trend in dance criticism that laments any “down time” interrupting the constant flow of gestures in a dance. He cites New York Times Senior Dance Editor Anna Kisselgoff, who seems to feel that any stilling of motion threatens the very nature of dancing.

As a dancer, I embrace subtlety and especially stillness as integral to my work. Being still is not a “betrayal” of movement, as Lepecki theorizes. And a choreography that takes the form of a photograph therefore is not an oxymoron.

In Larry Lavender’s handout from the 2013 American College Dance Festival Association Conference, the admired scholar and professor defines the contemporary practice of choreography as “possibilizing the presence of people in places.” This necessarily vast definition suits the diversity of what is being made today in avant-garde dance, which includes as much idea as action, as much inactivity as activity, as much challenge and discomfort as pleasure and satisfaction for the viewer, as much happening off stage as upon it…

Lavender goes on to say that “Dance [capital D] is one of the approaches to choreography, and “a dance” is one of its possible outcomes.” So long as people’s bodies are inhabiting a space in time, a dance might be happening.

GertrudeLeistikowGertrud Leistikow performing in a meadow near Ascona, 1914. [2]

In Germany, both slightly before and after the First World War, dances were made for still photographs: figures caught in a landscape or an interior. The photographs circulated as part of an international culture of the body and movement. During that time, author Karl Eric Toepfer writes in Empire of Ecstasy : Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935 (U. of California Press, 1997), that “dance was a cosmic force that was only partially visible in dance performances as such.” Toepfer cites dances imagined by writers Ernst Blass and Paul Van Ostaijen as well as approaches to dance that were about cosmic bodies and forces of nature in the multifaceted movement work of Rudolf Laban. “[W]hen dance assumes this sort of metaphorical identity,” he continues, “its meaning, its power to liberate, derives as much from its image and from ideas about it as from witnessing dance performances themselves.” Performers collaborated with photographers to hold the entirety of their dance inside a single cell of film back then.


While I was studying at The Rotterdam Dance Academy in Holland in 2006, dance artist and pedagogue Gabrielle Staiger taught me ways of using physical constraint to create meaning and emotion; following techniques developed by English choreographer Lloyd Newson and his DV8 Physical Theatre company. Just as Christian Bök limited himself to only one vowel for each chapter of his experimental poem Eunoia (Canongate, 2008), we spent afternoons dancing in pairs while limited to only one physical point of contact—back to back, hand-to-throat. We set out to discover what distillation of meanings might emerge from the physical relationships we restricted ourselves to. The results were often stunningly efficient and potent. Creation can be a game of closing oneself into a space in order to find surprising ways out, by driving the imagination to seek new possibilities.

Yvonne Rainer’s silent six-minute “Hand Movie” is a fine, danced example. From within the boundaries of a rectangle of celluloid, the renowned choreographer and film-maker (who emerged alongside Forti and the New York City cohort of the sixties and seventies) made her iconic film while confined to a hospital room. Her palm and fingers behave as surrogates for the body she could not use to dance.


The series of danced photographs included below is the product of a challenge I posed to choreographers from several places and time zones. I asked them all to create a dance, following Simone Forti’s inspiration, within the confines of a single photo frame.

Today’s dance makers ask us to pay attention to detail, to open our vision wider than the proscenium, to take in everything that is going on both outside and within our own bodies as spectators. If a dancer’s constant motion is stilled, if her movements are restrained or contained, something is not necessarily out of order—complexity can be uncovered in the simplest proposal if we look closely.


An Underground Dance by Dana Michel (Montreal).

DanaMichelPhoto of Dana Michel, taken by Mathieu Léger (2014)

The edges of the photo are littered with evidence of family: birthday card envelopes and balloons, the feet of an office chair and sofa, a baby blanket. At its centre, Michel is radial in a baby’s starfish posture.

Infants first learn to roll over by following others with their eyes. Michel gazes up towards her witness, pre-expressive, lips slightly parted—a sign of release. The comfort and familiarity of Michel’s outfit flow all the way to her curled fingers. She doesn’t reach for the edges of the space, but is only passively oriented in relationship to them. Her limbs kick out towards the skirting objects blindly, which gravitate like moons around her belly. All elements lay on the floor, ceding energy into the ground on a snowfield of spotless wall-to-wall carpeting.

Underground is a place of endings, stillness, recharging… As the winter solstice marks the pause between finality and new gestation, Michel’s dance in her parents’ basement could be one of winter energies, marking the drawn-out conclusion to her own childhood and her son’s infancy.

Michel writes:

photography jokes can fuel us for years. it’s a very lucrative energy source.

i wear all my old shit that i don’t care about when i’m at my parents’ place.  it feels nice to be an asshole sometimes. my favourite thing in the world sometimes is to layer on asshole amounts of layers of clothing when i’m cold. i have bad circulation. and it’s cold as fuck in that basement.

the balloons in the background were leftover from my son’s first birthday party. balloons depress me post-celebration. they just won’t go away.


A Shape-Shifting Dance by Jacinte Armstrong (Halifax)

JacinteArmstrongPhoto and dance by Jacinte Armstrong (2014).

From her vantage point above the late spring earth, Armstrong’s movement plays out on an invisible Z axis. The spectator is invited into a game of peek-a-boo across the open space between her body and the ground. We step into Armstrong’s sandals, adopting her skin. Our shared shadow is a wraith interacting soundlessly, weightlessly with the landscape. It embraces a cluster of onion flowers that leap out of an armpit.

Armstrong’s dance is driven by the senses. Smell, taste and light sensitivity guide her towards the plant and into a sunlit tango with her double.

The onions are briefly entangled in a ring-around-the-rosie as they sense the light and shade pass over them. They might be adjusting their length and reach too, however slightly.

Armstrong writes:

The score was to feel the sensory/body experience of communing with the plants and wind, while asking the question “is this a dance?” with my eyes. Then the sun came out and revealed the outline of my body with the Alliums resting on and decorating my shoulder. It went away shortly after. Ephemeral. Then I ate one of the Alliums with a Daylily chaser.


A Dance of Entirety and Infinity by M. Eugenia Demeglio (Cornwall, United Kingdom)

Dance by M. Eugenia Demeglio.[3]

Demeglio stands like a patient lightening rod in the centre of a sunny field. She is central, distinct, immovable yet human-sized: we relate to her.

Demeglio acts as an extra-sensory dowsing rod, connected to the sky, the earth and to herself in between. She seems to sense an inner mantra that streams through her body, into the earth below her bare feet and up into the cloudless blue sky above her pointed index. But she also seems to be listening for other human voices.

“Every movement,” Demeglio writes, “is the language through which new meanings can be collaboratively generated with those who witness. The process is transparent. Everything is inherently contextual.”

Demeglio is in a timeless state of consciousness although the sun circles temporally around her, using her body as a sun-dial. It must be late afternoon, but the dance has no beginning or end. I am reminded of performance artist superstar Marina Abramović’s idea behind her four-month-long sitting performance “The Artist is Present”: Abramović saw herself as a mountain to which people would come. She would not move. Demeglio has chosen to be a vector through which our language might pass forever, in the permanency of the photo.


An Everyday Dance by Justine Chambers (Vancouver)

JustineChambers Dance by Justine Chambers, Photo by Katie Ward (2014).

Chambers’s dishwashing dance is caught in mid-stride. Her action is, of course, very familiar, but the frame of the photo catches attentiveness in the pinpoints of her black irises. She sees where she is going but is also anchored to where she has come from with strong shoulders and an open chest. The apex of the gesture is paused; the sweeping blur of her arm shows a honed pathway, made precise over time by repetition.

The softness of the camera focus, the primary colors of the scene—red, yellow, blue—bring an artlessness to the piece that invites a close-reading of details and a mindful contemplation of the moment.

Several performers and choreographers of 20th century New York post-modernism (Trisha Brown, Bruce Nauman, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer) focused on the meticulous repetition and accumulation of mundane actions to structure their work, alongside Philip Glass’s minimalist compositions and John Cage’s Zen Buddhist contributions to music. Their  methodologies, motives, practices and modes of presentation have changed shape over time, but an ongoing interest in the beauty of dailyness and unspectacular events has held sway through several generations of dance-makers.

Chambers’s Family Dinner collaboration with the Task Force collectiveis “an immersive dining performance” for an equal number of performers and audience. It literally brings the practice of art-making around a dinner table, where the temporary “family” unpacks the choreography of actions surrounding the collective making and consuming of a meal.[4]



A Circulatory Dance by Diego Agulló (Berlin)

DiegoAgulloA Circulatory Dance by Diego Agulló (Berlin). Flow Chart by Diego Agulló (2013). Click on the image to view a larger version.

Agulló’s dance of concepts cycles clockwise. Branches snap off into corners. Its movement is directed by arrows that guide the eye and the mind around thickets of symbolic words. Agulló seems impelled by an inner restlessness to say what he knows. He engages us in a charged exchange of symbols across our synapses.

There is an effort to control the relative position of each element in the map. Words cling tightly to the sweep of the designed trajectories. Agulló sifts logic out of chaos but the position he holds balances precariously. The weight of the corpus of words seems to tremble against its structure, and the upheld posture might collapse if the movement stops—as Forti discovered in her rock-balancing micro-dance.

Conversion and translation are Agulló’s blood flow, necessary to the life of his dance. Its movement is propelled by a basic systole/diastole: the back-and-forth insistence of movement felt by all living things, in the human need for dialogue. It is endangered by the stasis of a short circuit.

Agulló writes:

Movement is a guarantee of preventing ossification. Ossification is the process of hardening that leads a system into stagnation and potentially into a dead end. […] translation is also a process of giving an intelligible form to what has no name. This can be considered the mission of art and philosophy.

How to learn to control the oscillatory movement? Perhaps the question should rather be: how to dance the oscillation? How to become the choreographer of your own life trajectory?


A Seeking Dance by Katie Ward (Montreal)

KatieWardDance by Katie Ward, Photo by Justine A. Chambers (2014)

Ward’s face is turned away. Her whole spine bends towards the curve of the tree’s trunk. She and the tree share their ‘natural inclinations’ and arch in unison towards one another. We are granted privileged spectatorship of this intimate dance.

A tiny interstice remains between Ward’s left fingertips and the bark of the tree. In that inch, there seems to be a subtle exchange in progress. A garland of the chestnut’s leaves cascades down, contributing to the conversation. Her fingers are antennae that sense and impress upon the matter at hand.

“In my current work, via sophisticated and naïve surveying techniques,” Ward writes, “I explore properties of REALITY: matter, interconnection and imagination. I am inspired by my own intuitive leaps and imaginative versions of scientific explanations… I embark on explorative adventures, where the outcomes are unknown…”

Meanwhile, the man-made architecture of Ward’s sandals and the fence hidden in the greenery are left behind. In the moment of Ward’s intention towards her tall dance partner, straight lines and pre-fabricated structures are of little importance. All of Ward’s physical attention is thrust towards those few interceding millimetres between her body and that of the other. She trusts that something is there to be discovered.

—Lucy M. May

Choreographer Biographies

Spanish artist and self-described dilettante Diego Agulló lives in Berlin, researching the intersection between pedagogy and art. He creates contexts for learning and practicing theory across art and philosophy. He understands choreography as a practice of infiltration, which he applies through interdisciplinary work. His essay The Mischievous Mission intends to problematize the notion of professionalism in the arts.

Jacinte Armstrong is based in Halifax, NS and is newly the Artistic Director of Kinetic Studio, a Halifax-based organization that provides support to Nova Scotian dance artists, and presents a series of showings featuring artists from across the country. She is currently a co-founder and member of SiNS (Sometimes in Nova Scotia) dance collective, a dancer with Mocean Dance, as well as being her own man.

Justine A. Chambers is currently making and playing out of the Ten Fifteen Maple field house in Vancouver, a space she shares with four other artists situated in Hadden Park. She is a choreographer, dancer, teacher, facilitator and maker of things. Recently she has collaborated on the creation of works with Marilou Lemmens & Richard Ibghy, Brendan Fernandes, Jen Weih, battery opera, and Rebecca Bayer. She is one of four facilitator/mentors for the Vancouver Contemporary Art Gallery Youth Mentorship Program and was invited this spring to be a guest lecturer at Emily Carr University for Art and Design for the course The Act of Emotion.

M. Eugenia Demeglio is currently living and working in Cornwall, UK, where her practice includes movement and improvisation performances, installations, participatory events, videos, community projects and (body) sculptures. She is an Associate Lecturer in Dance Training at Falmouth University and also enjoys delivering improvisation workshops for non-dancers. “I like to think of myself as a strategist, creating frameworks for individuals to feel free within them.”

Dana Michel is a choreographer and performer based in Montreal, Canada. Her practice is rooted in exploring the disorderly multiplicity of identity using intuitive improvisation and image creation. She has been making and internationally touring work for the past nine years and her newest solo, Yellow Towel, premiered at the 2013 Festival TransAmériques in Montreal to critical acclaim.  It was singled out as a remarkable production at American Realness Festival in 2014 by the New York Times.

Katie Ward is an independent choreographer dancer and most recently a teacher at Concordia University’s Dance department, who lives and works in Montreal. In 2008, along with Thea Patterson, Peter Trosztmer, and Audrée Juteau, Katie founded an artists group The Choreographers, who co-created and presented Man and Mouse and Oh! Canada. Her piece Rock Steady was presented in Lennoxville (QC), Créteil (FR), Maubeuge (FR), and Nottingham (UK) between 2010 and 2012. She presented her new solo The How and Why Machine in October 2013. A new group work, Infinity Doughnut, has creation residencies at Dance4 in Nottingham (UK) and in Créteil (FR), and is slated for performance in the fall of 2014.

Lucy M. May is a New Brunswick-born contemporary dancer based in Montreal. Her work—including choreography and performances in films and multimedia installations, site-specific creations, work alongside musicians, DJs, VJs, visual artists and archivists, and a dance with a horse—has been presented in Canada, Holland and Sweden. May has performed further abroad as a member of Compagnie Marie Chouinard since 2009. Her persistent desire to contribute to her communities has her presently experimenting with new movement training forms and writing frequently for the Canadian publication The Dance Current. She teaches as often as she can.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Photograph by Peter Moore, Score by Simone Forti (from Handbook in Motion, p.58-59)
  2. Dance by Gertrud Leistikow (from Hans Brandenburg, Der moderne Tanz, 1921, reproduced in Empire of Ecstasy).
  3. Digital photograph by K. Scott taken in a meadow near Helford Passage (2014).
Sep 012014

Rheims Cathedral on fire.

The novel is called The Martial Artist, and it’s based on the life of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playboy, war hero, proto-fascist statesman and sometime prince of pirates on the Dalmatian coast. This story is being narrated by D’ Annunzio himself in 1923 to his ex-lover, Eleonora Duse, once the most famous actress in the world, who has come to visit him at Il Vittoriale, the museum-palace on Lake Garda where Mussolini keeps him a virtual prisoner—and figurehead of fascism. In this reminiscence he is telling Eleonora about his first visit to the Western Front in 1914. D’Annunzio was instrumental as a propagandist in bringing Italy, which was supposed to be neutral, into the war on the Allied side, and later fought with great distinction in all three services (he became the most decorated Italian of the war, although he enlisted at the age of 52.)

—Garry Craig Powell


First Battle of the Marne, September 1914

The Peugeot waiting at the kerb outside my hotel in the Marais is as shiny and black as the carapace of a beetle. It coughs politely as Bertillon, the owner, cranks the starting handle with his gauntleted hand. Rocco, my valet, loads the trunk with leather suitcases and lays hampers on the back seat. I have had him pack petit-fours, tongue, caviar, paté de foie gras, fruit in abundance, as well as baguettes, pain au chocolat, eau minerale, and a bottle of burgundy for Ugo Ojetti. The engine growls, but before Bertillon can reach the driver’s seat he finds that I have beaten him to it. What is more, Ojetti, in a plain grey suit and trilby, is already in the passenger’s seat beside me. With his upturned moustaches and malevolent monocle, he winks at me.

—Mais monsieur, —Bertillon begins. —I understood when your friend engaged to hire the car that I would be driving.

I fix him with a lordly look. My eyes pierce the Frenchman’s with the certainty that I will be obeyed. I am wearing English riding breeches with puttees, a russet overcoat trimmed with yellow fox fur that curls like a collar of gold around my neck and ears, and a tweed motoring cap.

—I always drive myself, —I say. —You need not fear. I am a superb driver.

Although Bertillon declares he has never before entrusted his machine to anyone, he relinquishes control as if he has no will of his own. He is a plump little creature, as white and doughy as a bread. He climbs in the back, and the bête noir is soon lumbering along the lanes of Picardie. The roads curve like banderols, those ribbon-like pennants one sees in paintings of medieval saints. Pigeons burst from the hedges as though the wing of an angel has suddenly opened, and fall around us in grey squalls.

With my high celluloid collar—oh, so uncomfortable!—I sit erect at the wheel, my shoulders squared like a horseman with a handsome seat. We drive through villages of smashed shops and houses. In one of them we stop and stretch our legs. It is a ruin, deserted: it would touch some archaeologist of the future. On a stucco house-front, blue shutters flap in the wind, banging lazily against the wall. In another dwelling, roofless but intact on one side, a pile of rubble on the other, there is a toothless cottage piano, a vase of artificial flowers such as the gypsies make from pipe-cleaners and silk, and grimy dolls lying on a dusty carpet like the victims of a massacre. Back in the car, leaning forward nervously, M. Bertillon talks incessantly about the brutality of the Germans. I am not listening. I look at the farmhouses, the still-smoking stubble and black sheaves of wheat, the skinny Frisian cows with swollen udders. We see a couple of human corpses, a fat old woman reclining on the grass verge as if taking a nap, and a bony old man on his knees beside her, his face in the grass as if he were grazing, his arms at impossible angles. Then a boy, face down on the road, legs flung out, stiff as a cardboard puppet. Ojetti sighs, moans, perhaps weeps. Bertillon keeps saying Mon dieu, mon dieu, les sauvages. I feel nothing. Too many live, as Nietzsche says. We need this blood-letting to purge us. My heart thumps, excited at the car’s power and speed, or because I will soon be at the Front where I will finally see Death and discover my mettle. Or is it because I am still remembering yesterday afternoon with Mme. Fournier-Kasinsky? It was a routine seduction, nothing out of the ordinary, except that for a bourgeoise she was quick to take to the pleasures of oral love, and surprised me by flinging open the drapes on the windows, although she was naked, apart from her black silk stockings, which were embroidered with cherries.

—You don’t mind the neighbours seeing us? I said. ˗˗˗The lights are on.

Tant mieux, —she said, pouting her lips like a spoilt schoolgirl. —I want them to see us. J’en trouve très passionant. Et vous?

I felt as if I were onstage in a cabaret in the Pigalle. But yes, it was exciting. The smell and taste of her sweaty armpits, the stretch-marks on her breasts and belly—for some reason I cannot get them out of my mind. She raised her upper lip in a sneer as I fucked her, repeating mon Dieu, mon Dieu, as if she were unable to believe what was happening, yet never once looking me in the eyes, which I found disconcerting. So what? Could it be that as Death draws near, the urge to procreate becomes imperative? I must find a prostitute in Soissons or Rheims, I decide as I drive. No, the primitive urge is not merely more imperative, but more significant, more numinous. As the car clatters along the narrow lanes of Picardie between the high hedges, a procession of women flee past, most of them nameless, even faceless, though I recognize many: Splendore, Giselda, the two Marias, wife and Gravina, Olga Ossani, Barbara, you, naturally, Alessandra, Giuseppina, Nathalie, Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubinstein, Romaine Brooks, Luisa Casati… Perhaps it is the faces of these women, it occurs to me, that I shall see on my deathbed, and not the spines of my books. Maybe my loves have invested my life with meaning.

But the rumblings and detonations that I assumed was distant thunder are growing louder, and judging by the Frenchman’s agitation—the man yaps like a lapdog—I have been mistaken. A bombardment is underway. We pass muddy army trucks, marching infantry, pack-horses, and tents in the fields, including one with a red cross. The landscape becomes lunar, drained of colour, blighted. Blasted trees stand like scribble against a grey sky. Craters pock the desert surface. Dead horses and mules lie on their backs like beetles, their bellies inflated, their legs in the air.

—So now we are at the Front, Monsieur, we have seen everything and we can turn around, —Bertillon says in a high, strained voice. —N’ est-ce pas?

I speak to Ojetti in the middle of the Frenchman’s utterance, pretending not to have heard him. Ugo keeps up a gay and lyrical banter as we reach the outskirts of Soissons, driving along roads lined with rows of little brick workers’ houses, and factories and warehouses, and elm-trees, dogs running in a frenzy, and a line of blind soldiers, each touching the shoulder of the man in front of him. We pass a parabola of big black nests: in each slumbers a plane. At a barrier a corporal halts us and inspects my pass from General Galieni.

˗˗˗The Germans are shelling the town, ˗˗˗he says. ˗˗˗Do you not hear?

˗˗˗Are you saying we cannot continue?˗˗˗Ojetti asks.

˗˗˗You may proceed, ˗˗˗the soldier says, ˗˗˗although you will probably be killed.

I thank him and put the car in gear, ignoring Bertillon’s womanish wailing. We climb a low hill, winding past carts filled with the wounded, and from its crest gaze upon the city: the twin spires of the cathedral reaching for the grey sky like imploring hands, and between them, it seems to me, an angel balancing on the roof. Without pausing, I take my hands off the wheel and stretch them towards it. All is beautiful. Suddenly there is a flash, like sheet lightning, and the air breaks, buffets us. One of the spires has gone. Now only one arm is raised to heaven, one arm and a mutilated stump. I cry out to the wounded in the carts, who, it seems to me, are bleeding on behalf of that bloodless stone.

Presently we are in the main square. A pond of blood pools in the middle of it: a scarlet man and a scarlet horse lie glistening in it. I halt the car. Beside the red lake is a smashed mess of broken wood, wheels, leather harness, bones and hunks and strips of meat, the remains of a team of horses. Bertillon begs me to turn around and leave at once. One of the towers of the cathedral has been neatly sliced off at the level of the roof of the building; the other still points to the sky like the arm of a prophet. Out of one of the houses a French officer comes running. Even with his crested helmet on, he looks like a teacher or a professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses, but he shouts furiously as he reaches the car:

—Who the hell do you think you are? What the hell are you doing?

—We are here to watch the bombardment, —I tell the lieutenant with a slow smile. —We have a safe-conduct pass from General Galieni.

From the pocket of my coat I extract the pass and wave it at the officer. He snatches it.

Frowning, the Frenchman reads. His eyebrows rise and he shoots a look at me, at last taking in the pointed beard, the waxed upturned points of his moustache, the penetrating eyes.

—You are M. Gabriele D’Annunzio, the writer?

—At your service.

—Monsieur, allow me to express my surprise. I am the greatest of your admirers. I have read all your novels, seen all your plays; it is only your poetry that I don’t know well, because little of it has been translated into French. But what am I saying? I am desolated by my rudeness. Please forgive me.

—Of course.

—I only wish I had a volume of yours here, so that I could beg you to sign it.

Le Triomphe de la Mort would be appropriate, no? Can you tell us where the battle is?

The lieutenant’s eyes widen. —But this is the battle, M. D’Annunzio. You are in the middle of it. The Germans are less than a hundred metres away, over there.

—Excellent. Might I be permitted to give some cigarettes to the men?

—Naturally, monsieur. You may do anything you wish, though I must warn you that it is very dangerous to remain here.

Bertillon chimes in: —You hear, monsieur? It would be prudent to leave at once. It is very dangerous!

—Don’t tell me you are afraid, Bertillon, ˗˗˗says Ojetti.

Bertillon clutches the secretary’s shoulder with a hand like a talon. —I am mortally afraid, monsieur. Are you not?

Ojetti smiles, impervious to fear, casting an ironic glance at me. I climb out of the car, pocketing the keys in case Bertillon decides to leave without us, and take a big blue box of Gauloises I have brought with me from the back seat. The lieutenant points to the house he has come from, and trots in that direction. Bertillon scampers after him, his arms flailing as if he were falling off a cliff. Ojetti and I follow like men out for a Sunday stroll. When a shell whizzes past or bursts in the air, we gaze around with dreamy expressions. On reaching the shelter of the house, we find two platoons of poilus, who eye us with amazement and disdain, then with amusement and camaraderie, when they discover that I am the playboy they have read about in Le Petit Parisien, Le Matin, and other illustrated papers. As I open the box and throw cartons of cigarettes at the men, they cheer and shout ribald remarks:

—So what’s La Duse like in bed, eh? Big tits? (That is exactly what they said.)

—How does it feel to have Rubinstein’s legs wrapped round your neck, I want to know!

Il est tant petit, ce gentilhomme.

Il doit être grand là bas, où la taille a plus d’ importance. Tu sais ce qu’ on dit des italiens.

He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.

—How about changing places with me, Italian? I want to ride Isadora Duncan. Just once!

—You lucky little bastard!

—And this is how he does it: by writing fucking poetry. Right? You talk about tenderness, and sighing, and the deep pools of their eyes, when all you’re after is getting inside their knickers. Have I got it right?

I grin. —You have discovered my secret.

—But what the fuck are you doing here? a poilu asks. —Are Italians all mad?

—We are mad with love for our Latin brothers and sisters, —I say, with a manly nod at Ojetti, who nods back, —and mad with hatred of the barbarians from the north. I have come here because I want to see the war for myself. And this is my pledge to you: I will not rest until Italy is fighting beside you. I will use my voice to convince my countrymen that they must do so. And if I succeed, I swear I will fight alongside you myself.

While I am speaking, the men grow quiet and stare at me with an intensity I know: at my first speech in Venice—remember?—I learned I had the power to move people deeply with my oratory. When I am finished, there is a moment’s stunned silence. Then the lieutenant cheers, everyone joins in, and soon everyone is crowding around me and Ojetti, slapping our backs and shaking our hands. These are the first steps to the alliance.


That night, while I visit a backstreet brothel—I have a ferocious Fleming, a tall redhead with a heavy chin who allows me to tie her to the bed but has the temerity to bite me back when I sink my incisors into the freckled white flesh of her shoulder—that very same night, Rheims Cathedral fulfils itself in flames. I am a celebrant at that great, sacred rite.

No, not the night before, my love, but that same one. You are obstinate! And your memory has never been accurate. Yes, I am sure.

And what’s more, strange to recount, I am there too. You can read the accounts in the newspapers. “Monsieur D’Annunzio sat calmly taking notes in his automobile while the conflagration lit up the night sky.” I read it myself in Le Matin or Le Petit Parisien, or perhaps Le Journal: so it must be true, eh? Surely you are not accusing me of making this up?

I remember the dizzying, dazzling flash, but no crash—only an eerie, preternatural silence, an eager, expectant silence, as when the mob gathers in the square beneath the guillotine with bated breath to hear the head of the innocent roll into the basket. Finally there is a crash so loud that I feel it more than hear it, like a box on the ears, a blow from a heavyweight. The earth shakes; the air ripples. From the roof of the cathedral an aurora borealis of flame pours and waves, a cauldron of colour, crimson, orange, butter and black. Sparks fly among the stars.

Someone, Bertillon or Ojetti, tries to stop me, but I cannot help myself. Like a man mesmerized I stumble towards the conflagration at a stately pace. Bertillon is screaming, Quel désastre, quel désastre, quelle tragédie! He squeals at me to stop, but I reply, or perhaps only think, Can you not see how beautiful, how perfect, this is? I hear Ugo guffawing. Perhaps I sleepwalk? As I step into the church, the great rose window, lit by the fire outside, starts to rotate, and the colours of the stained glass—the richest reds and blues, the deepest purples, yellows and greens—are liquescent, sublime. Some madman is still inside, playing a Bach cantata on the pipe organ while the window slowly spins like a kaleidoscope and the fire crackles and spits. Beside myself with ecstasy, I pick up a shard of stained glass, a stone flower, and a strip of twisted lead. I stuff the last two in my pockets but hold on to the thick gold glass as if it were a talisman, choking and spluttering as the smoke billows around me. Rafters rain from the ceiling, forcing me to retire from the glorious spectacle, but not before seeing that a miracle has occurred: the building is freed by the fire from the burden of its weight, and the entire edifice, this vast stone ship, is sailing unmoored into the oceanic sky. Church and firmament are one.

Outside once more, as the fire consumes the roof and I hear the groans and bellows of crashing timbers and masonry, Ojetti appears, Disque Bleu Caporal alight in his lips, to drag me away, shaking his head. I tell him my rapture is not merely aesthetic, for this holocaust is a rebirth, a resurrection, the soul of France is undergoing a Messianic awakening. I have never needed a God to prop me up or comfort me, but there is a spiritual exaltation in all this. It reminds me of the night I hired the organist in St. Stephen’s cathedral at Mulhouse in Alsace, where I had gone at night with Tom Antongini and two bovine Alsatian girls, and sat in the chilly dark for hours listening to Buxtehude and Bach, never once thinking of fucking—or very well, rarely thinking of fucking. Later, when I found myself in a half-timbered inn room with that blonde dairymaid, practical and matter of fact as she was as she took off her clothes, she turned into an ethereal creature, a fleshy seraph like one of Raphael’s, a nebula of stars spinning from her grey eyes like the silken threads of a spider’s web, and I found that I was floating on a vast, sunlit cloud, beyond Time, rippling aloft with that cool-fleshed creature, far above the world, impossibly slowly, impossibly gently; I knew sex as sacrament, just as the fire was a sacrament.

What really happened the night Rheims Cathedral burned? Did I hallucinate my recollection of being there? I would consume cocaine when I became a fighter pilot, to stay awake, but that was later. Could I have been in two places at once? The artist can; the super-man can. I only know what burns on the altar of my memory. No man knows more.


Certo, Eleonora, they accuse me of lying, of making things up, as if that were a crime. The literalist swine say that the next day I did not see with my own eyes the dead poilus bound upright, to stakes, in bands of ten, in mud and blood-spattered uniforms, their puttees lacerated by barbed wire, their boots broken, cheeks sprouting stubble, open eyes staring like those of soulless madmen. I did not smell the stench of soiled drawers, of stale sweat; nor did I hear the buzzing of the flies around the open wounds. When I said that this sight reminded me the fasci, the rods bundled around an axe on ancient Roman coins, they did not believe me. I only pretended to see and think these things, the pettifoggers insisted. I invented this image of the fascio because it was such a potent symbol, the axe the bringer of life and death, the soldiers standing together like staves around it, strong and stiff even in rigor mortis. This is what they do not understand: that an act of imagination can transform reality. I dream, therefore I am.

—Garry Craig Powell


Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell was born and educated in England, but now teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His linked collection of stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which is set in the contemporary Persian Gulf, was longlisted for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He is completing the novel The Martial Artist, whose protagonist, Gabriele D’ Annunzio, was in real life the most famous writer and playboy in Italy, as well as the most decorated war hero, a pirate leader, the founder of a short-lived utopian state on the Dalmatian coast, a proto-fascist statesman, and eventually a prince.