Nov 162015



An almost lethal dose of high school anxiety, peer pressure, and girl gangs courses through the veins of Sofia Coppola’s second short film “Lick the Star.” Coppola, best know for films like Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and The Virgin Suicides, throws us into a terrifying world called the seventh grade via a protagonist with a broken foot (her father ran over it by mistake and she’s been out of school for a few days). Our wounded protagonist arrives at school via car, in an opening driving shot reminiscent of the French New Wave’s Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, with the streets of Paris replaced here by suburban driveways.


Seventh grade is a feral fighting pit where the young women are on the brink of enacting a plan to poison the boys in the school inspired by the book they love, V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. As the protagonist / narrator notes, a lot can happen in a week (“Missing school is like a death wish”) and she’s arrived back to the fighting pit with a broken foot. It does not look good for her, and vicariously us, the wounded gazelle(s) on the edge of the herd.

In one of the more endearing moments in the film, the teen girls study the boys, what the boys eat, attempt to learn the numbers to their combination locks. All ostensibly to poison them, but there is something about the boys that intrigues them, so they seem undecided about which one to poison first. Indeed, their intent may not be to murder, but just to slow the boys down a little, assert an ounce of control in this volatile and unpredictable high school world.


There’s something here too that subverts typical gender constructions of young women, repressive constructions to be sure, so that when young women do rebel in films or act out they become a site of horror or something to be feared: Ginger Snaps, Heavenly Creatures, Pretty Little Liars. So much for the sugar and space and everything nice; Chloe and her rat poison have other plans.

The girls’ anthropological stakeout anticipates Coppola’s later film The Virgin Suicides in which the boys are the ones fascinated with the five mysterious Lisbon sisters. Both films construct the other gender as an unknowable, unpredictable and almost threatening place just out of reach. A longed for, unapproachable truth.


In “Lick the Star,” the young women seem equally perplexed with their own gender, in awe and fear of the antagonist, rat-poison wielding queen bee of the seventh grade, Chloe. She is the one girls give up their seats for, shoplift for and play minion to. Sparkly eyelids, a noir-lipsticked assassin’s smirk and ironically coy ponytails all caught in slow motion as she arrives at the school, her kingdom.

Even in this early film, Coppola’s sense of style finds flourishes. As Anna Rogers notes about Coppola in Senses of Cinema, her mise-en-scene “creates an affecting and primarily visual style, often at the expense of extended dialogue, this same style also serves to cover, but only partially so, the spectre of something dark and insidious.’

Stylistically the film resembles Truffaut’s 400 Blows in other ways too: the film is shot in black and white and the classroom shots recall its school shots. There, however, teachers and adults of all sorts provide the tyranny to revolt against. Here, the other seventh graders are the ones to fear. Thematically, too, the film has an anti-establishment air and flirts with the criminal impulse (they steal the rat poison, they break into the boys’ lockers and they plan to poison them and they smoke behind the bleachers, a crime so great that when our protagonist is caught the principal changes her status to “non student.”


What unfolds for Chloe and our one-footed protagonist suggests power and popularity are fickle and flux. Ultimately this plays out as the tension between the desire to belong and the fear of becoming an individual, isolated. This anticipates Coppola’s later explorations of isolation, in Tokyo hotel rooms and beside Hollywood pools. Yet after this short, all that adult ennui looks like kids play next to having to eat lunch alone in seventh grade.

— R. W. Gray


Nov 152015


Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist,
and nothing about his world is meant to be. — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel and Grau, July 2o15
176 pages, $24.00


Ihave been pulled over by police twice, and during neither occasion was I afraid for my own safety. This minute fact of naïve privilege alone marks me as a person who thinks he or she is white—boilerplate borrowed by Ta-Nehisi Coates to describe those who plunder, or at least pursue the Dream, or at the very least do not have to waste costly energy on worrying about the physical sanctity of their body because of its skin color.

The celebrated Atlantic National Correspondent’s recent book Between the World and Me is an epistolary pseudo-memoir that strikes chords faster than they have time to reverberate. It is pamphlet-like in size and scope, poetic and lyrical at times, while delivering a series of theses to his teenage son Samori on how to grow into consciousness as an American black man.

Coates is wary of and disgusted by me, as well as anyone who thinks s/he is white, and also anyone who thinks slavery is merely an unfortunate legacy of a country’s rich history. Of those who are aware that the history of the United States is steeped in bloody injustice, many will write this fact off as analogous to any other empire’s national narrative. Ironically given the mythology, Coates makes the case that America really is exceptional—in how dependent was its nation-building on the backs of black bodies. Where Coates’ mesmerizing treatise strikes deepest is in his reminder that still today we live the legacy of slavery, that we build financial centers on unmarked black graves. Coates would no doubt agree that even the public embrace of his pseudo-memoir carries strands of paternalism. But he wrote this book anyway, no doubt aware of how it would be received. History rolls on—or pretends to; even as I write this I am exploiting Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Rather obviously, many reviewers have focused on Coates’ assertions that racism still exists today. When not in the crosshairs of police officers’ guns, young black men serve as cogs in the prison industrial complex[1] But to stop there is to have read superficially in both senses of the word. Coates delivers here a powerful book about race, but also a treatment of the universal challenges of growing up and raising a child.

His polemical memoir, brief but expansive, consists of three parts, embedding miniature essays within anecdotal scenes. Part I is the most didactic, offering at least four major arguments:

Thesis 1: “Your life is so very different from my own. The grandness of the world, the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you.”

A very real generation gap exists between today’s young African-Americans and their forebears—Coates’ son can almost, occasionally, forget for a second his racial identity. His grandparents and parents could not:

“When I was about your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not. […] I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. […] I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”

Thesis 2: “You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us.”

The generation gap is connected to the fact racism has become even more insidious, and schools are complicit in this. The schools vilify Malcolm X and praise nonviolent Freedom Riders, white folks whose consciences comfort those who feel the score has been settled.

One of the highlights of Between the World and Me is the provocative treatment of the U.S. public education system. It is impossible for a teacher or administrator to read Coates’ account and not feel something—ashamed, indignant, inspired, depressed.

One question I ask my students is which they think came first, race or racism. Sadly, much of the struggle for consciousness Coates describes is lost or nearly lost before children have reached the age at which they can distinguish between history and propaganda. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” he states. This should no longer be controversial, yet it will ring hollow to so many who believe racism a mere wrong turn in the road of racial history.

All good educators should likely acknowledge the force of Coates’ incisive assessments of weak schools, and the powerlessness of earnest teachers: “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense—ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. […] The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

Part of the problem, Coates explains, is of course social—teaching French to a 7th grader is pointless if that student is worried about hunger. But Coates’ educators never bothered to present school as an intellectual experience, making it instead another test the like of which he encountered in the streets:

“Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later […] I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them. […] Why—for us and only us—is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies? This is not a hyperbolic concern. When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

Thesis 3: Privilege reeks no matter the color—the growth of the black middle class engenders a risk of poor blacks being forgotten. Samori’s generation must fight harder than ever to combat the mythologizing of slavery as a necessary evil in America’s history:

“The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. […] You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Thesis 4: This third argument segues fluidly into a somewhat existentialist, somewhat Marxist section that employs universal language of exploitation, alienation, and struggle.

“What matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable. […] Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

Despite the obvious connection between Coates’ language and Jean-Paul Sartre and Karl Marx, his primary influences are the thoughts and poetry of Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, W.E.B Dubois—who knew a thing or two about consciousness. And these writers come through not only in the politics but in the style of this book. Coates’ writing has a searing, poetic quality:

“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. ‘Slavery’ is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved.”

The dangerous streets, Howard University and its eye-opening library, the immense cauldron of New York City, the attack on the Twin Towers, and a visit to Paris all feature in Coates’ evolving education. In France, Coates momentarily believes himself rid of his American burden. Of course, though, he realizes his experience of injustice is replicated elsewhere, across the globe. This last he connects to how the Dreamers’ plunder has contributed to global warming—which could not be more salient in a letter to the next generation.

And we never forget that this brief but broad book is also a letter to a son. Particularly touching are Coates’ descriptions of the women who furthered his self-education. He writes of a young Howard undergrad: “I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness. But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else—that love could be soft and understanding; that, soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.”

Part 2 and Part 3 flesh out the ideas and imagery of Part 1. Focusing more on police violence and the deadly shooting of Prince Jones, Coates connects the legacy of slavery to today’s dysfunctional body politic, one in which white and black bodies are not equal except in some (not all!) legal texts. Samori witnesses the horrific acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer, just as his father did the killer of Jones.

Coates’ deft image patterning helps structure the letter beyond his life’s chronology. Plunder and the Dream are the two most prominent. Plunder appears a dozen times, loaded with references to slavery and to capitalism. The Dream appears as a confluence of the classic “American Dream” and the dream/illusion/fantasy of those who “think they are white” (originally Baldwin’s phrase). Coates describes white suburbia, which some readers will confuse as purely an image of whiteness—it is actually an image of wealth, which rests on the backs of whiteness and blackness: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” Coates uses the image of a “galaxy” to illustrate the distance, the chasm between the Dreamers and himself. With the shooting of Prince Jones he ties in the plunder, the Dream, and the policies that keep ghettos and the legacy of slavery alive even today:

There were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. And there is no difference between the killing of Prince Jones and and the murders attending these killing fields because both are rooted in the assumed inhumanity of black people. A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.


Earlier I bemoaned those whose reading of this as a “race relations” book is superficial. But the scariest thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterful Between the World and Me is the patronizing response from some reviewers, a frankly frightening response—that Coates is too mad, too unforgiving, and that he is somehow in the wrong when he paints all whites, all cops, all Dreamers, with the same brush. For crying out loud, the whole point of the book is that many cops, many Dreamers, continue to this day, subconsciously or not, to paint black bodies with the same brush.

These responses veer dangerously close to the implication that the reviewers see Coates as an “angry black man” whom the establishment will patronizingly compliment for his articulateness. Others write that Coates does not sufficiently acknowledge how far the country has come. They scold him for not proposing policy solutions. The book is full of and is itself a solution—a rejection of gerrymandering, of stop and frisk, of stereotyping disenfranchised black youth as somehow more dangerous than a white man with a gun. These reviewers reek of liberal white guilt being challenged. Deeply embedded in their critique is either a lack of understanding about how history works; an ignorance about how U.S. policies continue to ghettoize, threaten, and rob undereducated people of color; or a lack of self-awareness and racial consciousness.

By the end of the letter, Samori has changed slightly, from Coates’ son to his brother—from pupil to fellow combatant. Those who misunderstand or underestimate this powerful book should reread passages like the one in which the author redefines the struggle:

“We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”


“Do not speak to me of martyrdom,
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
I don’t believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
And violets like castanets
will echo me.
—Sonia Sanchez, quoted in Coates’ epigraph to Part 1

In a rare move, Random House pushed up the book’s publication from September to July after the June 17 shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, SC, allegedly by a young white idiot. I could not take my mind off the Charleston massacre even as we learned of the carnage meted out on Paris’ nighttime revelers this Friday, allegedly by young non-white idiots.

I was born in Suresnes, France and work at a French-American school. I have friends and family in Paris—my uncle works not too far from the Stade de France. Colleagues and students at the school I work for are mourning. As the profile pictures of my Internet friends turned blue, white, and red, I thought of Coates, Charleston, and Paris, and felt ashamed of such symbolism. The Internet giant’s employee who dreamed that one up will probably cash in a wonderful bonus. The plunderers’ flag flies on.

Of course I weep for France, but that is separate and private. What I weep for publicly is the blatant exploitation of ignorance, sentimentality, and/or privilege. Trying to make sense of human violence and suffering is probably pointless, but as I went to bed Friday night, I looked to Coates’ book and wondered what colors would have adorned the flag of those massacred in Charleston. There are no colors, no flags, to protect the world from itself.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The U.S has the highest incarceration rate in the world 716 per 100,000 in 2013 [via Wikipedia]; in 2009 there were 2.1 million male inmates in the U.S. and 60% were black [via Wikipedia].
Nov 142015



I have three bookcases full of poetry books in my house, one whole bookcase taken up with hefty anthologies like The Oxford Book of American Poetry, along with classics (thank you, Homer, Chaucer, Blake, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman) and Collected Works (thank you Auden, Moore, Brodsky, Merrill, Heaney) and books about the craft of writing. The other two cases, however – a total of twelve shelves, 30″ each shelf – are filled with individual “slim volumes” by poets with a few books out and with, often, long teaching careers and honorable but minor reputations.

A remarkable number of 1/4″ spines can fit into 360 inches, especially when they’re mostly paperbacks, as mine are. There are a handful of poets whose early hardcover books I’ve lusted after and, bit by bit, collected (thank you, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur) and another bundle of hardcover books written by professors and mentors whose work I love (thank you Richard Kenney, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds.) I have a nice stack of books by friends (thank you Walker, Wing, Hoogs, Whitmarsh, Cornish, Arthur) and I have my own poetry books for children plus copies of reviews that my adult work has appeared in.

The remaining space is filled with books by poets who have won some fine contests, gotten published, gotten some buzz, earned teaching positions, generated enough excitement to establish a loyal (usually regional) cadre of followers, but never really become “major” poets. Each one of those books has elegant, finely crafted poems in it, poems which are idiosyncratic in the best way, that is, with an identifiable, strong voice. Just as most books by well-known poets can be uneven, these books by lesser known poets can be uneven;  that’s as true for the reading of an individual book by Auden as it is for any one of these many “slim volume” poets. There are poems I pass by after one reading, but there are also poems that reach out and grab me by the collar and shake me to my bones. There are poems I share with friends – a grassroots effort that mimics my approach to politics: support who and what you love. Buy their books. Talk them up. Cross fingers.

I wonder sometimes whether, if submitted to a blind “taste test,” some of the best poems that stay quietly within the covers of these slim volumes  might not be mistaken for the writing of poets with much heftier reputations. And, as usual with this series about “undersung” poets, I wonder about the whys and wherefores of “success” in general. Did (or do) these poets long to be well-known, or were they satisfied professionally? Did they dedicate themselves to mentoring and thus forget (or express contempt for) the process of self-promotion? Did they battle with good-old-boy systems? Did they know the right people, and – if they did – did they use the right people in order to get ahead? Did they quit poetry and move on to anything less disappointing or better paying or fresher or simply different or…? Did they suffer poetry fatigue? Were they simply in the right place at the wrong time, wrong place at the right time? Did their gender or ethnicity present stumbling blocks? Were they shy? Were they, ultimately, satisfied by poetry, or would they rather have been fishing, playing the trombone, painting? Was publication enough? Did they – or do they, for those who are still alive – want more? “Success” – is it really counted sweetest by those whom it bypasses? Does it really interrupt that “sorest need” which Dickinson said was required in order to “comprehend a nectar”?

Here are five poems, one from each of five separate books I pulled randomly off my shelves. I’ve purposely left out biographical details about the five poets, though you can easily click on their names to get further information about them. Some were winners of the National Poetry Series competition or the Walt Whitman Award, several earned fellowships like the Guggenheim, one was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize,  most earned residencies at respected workshops and retreats, as well as State Arts Commission awards. Some are still publishing and can expect their reputations to continue developing. But for reasons that continue to elude me – and, of course, the reasons are multiple rather than simple – the names of these poets are relatively unfamiliar to most poetry readers.

Yet I think these five poems measure up to most of the contemporary poems in the Oxford Book of American Poetry – they are precise, original, layered, large, and full of leaps that take the breath away. They use language beautifully and, though not formal in terms of rhyme or meter, they are “musical” – like the best musical compositions, they care about the sound they make, and like the best humor, they increase in appeal when spoken aloud with just the right emphasis.  In what way do the poems in well-recognized anthologies surpass these five? I haven’t figured it out. Can it be as simple as personal taste – is that what the best anthologists do, insist on including what they like? If so, are we unduly influenced, are we struggling to “like” work we don’t actually like (and what is that thick volume of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems doing on my shelf if his work doesn’t appeal to me; is it there because J.D. McClatchy likes it? Because Harold Bloom likes it, David Lehman likes it?) “Success” – is it counted sweetest, Emily, by those who go all out trying to achieve it? I’m curious to see what the readers of Numéro Cinq think.

—Julie Larios



Throughout the night the sky
had been wild with stars.
Then in the morning came an instant
when the hills sharpened, and grew shadowless,

and the world seemed no casual
enterprise of creation. From beyond the hills
rose the soft pillars of light,
until, as if caught by high winds,

they wove and interwove, and became
the bright, close fabric of sky.
Later came a burst of warm rain,
but by sunset the light had cleared,

and at the tip of one needle of the white pine
that shaded the front porch, a drop of rainwater
trembled. It was clear
as ice. It contained a fierce,

quivering image of the sun.
The light drew back, and back,
and with no further evidence of breath
the sky was precisely as it had ever been.

John Engels (from Cardinals in the Ice Age (Graywolf Press, 1987)


John Engels


Language with Pony Track

You’d think the rich stink of pony
would rule the senses, but violets, sunflowers,
hollyhocks draw the eyes which dart
from the shaggy Shetland’s horrible privates,
a-drop and a-swing like the backstage works
of St. Ag’s, to a bank of tiger lilies, those carroty stars.
Two girls, the sides of their sneakers
worn away, wearing tattoos of water paint
rubbed on with spit, check it out:
the heaven of leather, fried onions, and music,
five houses from where, with no eyes for flowers
or horseflesh, their father’s face reaches
the texture and twitch of skinned hare.

Catherine Doty, from  Momentum (CavanKerry Press, 2004)


Catherine Doty


Saint John of the Cross

He is not here in Fontiveros, Spanish Nebraska
of his birth. The red brick granary fills
with nothing but wheat, and the empty plaza
has forgotten the name of Juan de Yepes,
grandson of Jews, though it contains a statue
of his alter ego, Saint John of the Cross.
Even bound by the thinnest of golden threads,
the soul’s inexplicably bound. Leashed
in the cell, the whips of the holy friars
scourged him as he knelt, three times a week,
at dinner hour, nothing to eat but cruelty.
When he finally saw Christ, He was
falling toward him, His arms stretched back,
coming out of their sockets for love of him.

It’s clear why he left Fontiveros —
his love for mountains conceived by this
dreary view — but no one knows how he escaped
from prison. Or why love finally drove
him back. Sick, he asked to be treated
in Ubeda, for he knew no one would cure him,
the bishop would curse him: he could die
inferior, die unknown, die suffering greatly.
Only love can heal us, opening our hands 
to a darkness that we keep trying to let go…
How happy he was, always leaping free of the cell —
Fontiveros, Salamanca, Ubeda, the World —
singing softly, no longer having to tear out
the feathers that kept sprouting from his limbs.

Rebecca Seiferle from Bitters (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)

Rebecca Seiferle

Rebecca Seiferle



Glossy ibis, says the guide setting her tripod
on pavement, training the lens for the birdwatchers
to fix the downward curved bill and spindly legs
of the wader. I can’t help but itch
to get closer than this tailored birdwalk. Once

I rode to low marshland with a friend. The horses
mucking up to their knees, parting the brushy alders
where there wasn’t any trail. We gave them their heads,
trusting their instincts to get to dry land.
On the far side we rested, the woods

glowing with rust and lemon. We sat. Reins dropped,
the horses leaned to fidget the leaves.
Wind thickened in the evergreens. Then the quiet cracked —
wings that loud slapped the air — brittle legs
arrowed through weeds to land not five feet away.

The great blue heron, eye fired toward shore,
where we held our breath. Even when
we began to speak, edging slightly closer,
she stayed. And something in her lack of fear,
the fix of one black iris on us — horses,

woman and man alike, kept us in our place.

Alison Hawthorne Deming from Science and Other Poems (LSU Press, 1994)

Alison Deming

Alison Deming


The Arbitrary Angel

It’s born in that sudden
spark between things: a yolking
of oxen and egg, the music
of shells and high seas.

And so it rises, of course
capriciously, a sexless
Venus from a salty meringue
masticating your good mind

until you’re determined
to do it justice — even as
the microwave sounds
like a garbage truck in reverse,

the pencil a small animal
filled with lead but still
running, running, running
everything down.

Gilbert Allen, from Driving to Distraction (Orchises Press, 2003.)

Gilbert Allen

Gilbert Allen


Nov 132015
Harper Lee

Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Sometimes, iconoclasts are far more valuable than the creaking icons they destroy. Harper Lee has done well to disillusion her readers—. — Jeremy Brunger


Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee
288 pages ($27.99)
ISBN: 978-0062409850


Early on in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise, now grown into worldly womanhood since her juvenile escapades as Scout in Maycomb County, Alabama, is being chastised by her aunt Alexandra over her potential marriage partner and childhood sweetheart, Henry Lincoln. Alexandra, earlier glimpsed in the Pulitzer-winning To Kill a Mockingbird as the family bitch, says “We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash, which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when they were born and were all their lives…You can’t call them anything better. The only reason Henry’s like he is now is because your father took him in hand when he was a boy, and because the war came along and paid for his education. Fine a boy as he is, the trash won’t wash out of him.” Atticus, Jean Louise’s lawyer father, is now crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, though he remains as spry as ever. Her brother, Jem, is dead of a bleeding heart. The most absurd thing in the world is always its people. Jean Louise is an image of the Southern version of The New Woman, several decades displaced from the Northeast’s Jazz Age cultural eruptions. Jean Louise prefers to reference Freud and the married men who take on psychiatrists’ couches instead of taking up mistresses, rather than referencing the Bible. The novel opens with an image of modernization: the black residents of Maycomb County finally have television antennae. But, alas, Maycombians are people who have never experienced the narcissistic injury of Charles Darwin’s biology, who think the “white trash” epithet was a meaningful term replete with the gravity undue to it, who reckon not the deep time of geology but the all-too-ephemeral time of family lineage. Time has caught up with Alabama’s most famous residents, who rank with Jesus, Harry Potter, and Karl Marx as the most recognized figures in the literature of the West.

The central tension in Harper Lee’s novel is the meshing of old with new, of experience with memory, of reality with romance. It isn’t badly written, either. The prose does not read like a first draft; but if it did, that fact would only solidify Lee’s reputation as a master writer of the Southern region. Images from old Southern culture—now largely displaced by standardized Hollywood and New York boilerplate, as with the rest of the country’s bygone eccentricities—constantly appear in the dialogue: the Israel of the prophets is as alive as ever, as is the concept of sin (though Jean Louise takes it in stride). The sum of human misery is measured in theology, not metrics. Shakespeare is coincident with the law. The metaphysical age has not yet dispersed into the Federal Materialism. Life has not yet succumbed to the utter cheapness of our twenty-first century, though its depth is built on the facade of social grace of people who have nothing better to do. One wonders, with a raised eyebrow, whether our time is better than their time; and no viable answer of worth can possibly be forthcoming. The clean churches of Maycomb strike most of us as strangely as the soothsaying, snake-handling pits of the Pentecost, as do the quiet rages of its people, who could probably name the Founding Fathers but not Jefferson’s slaves. Perhaps the exception to this time warp is Dr. Finch, Jean Louise’s uncle, who feels more at home in the Victorian era than in Maycomb’s. Because of his wide, nigh-insane learning—he is a racist of the books, while his brother is a racist of the heart—he defies the silly and sheer localness of the town’s prejudices and predilections toward the temporal and the mundane.

But Go Set a Watchman is not merely a novel of time and place. It is a time-paradoxical bildungsroman six decades in the making. Although it was written before Mockingbird, it is the proper sequel to that classic, since tragedy—and this is a tragic novel, for even the Finch family’s house formerly belonged to a “a renowned lady poisoner”—is the necessary consequence of human life, something which only fools manage to escape. Decay happens, as does disillusionment. No family is truly happy, because whatever binds families together is made of the stuff of pathology and myth, not mythology and pathos, though once synthesized they come to much the same thing. Lee writes with the slow verve of a woman who grew up in the same South she writes about, where the Christian doctrine of degradation pervades nearly everything. Now a New York woman, eminently modern, she comes back to Alabama to find that her roots are dirtier than she suspected, though she finds them more real than life in the big city. Having exchanged the soul of Israel for the soul of Athens, she finds the mire of Southern heritage burdensome: she cannot interact with her backwards family with the easy grace others manage (not that the tomboy Mr. Peck knew ever did), with the sole exception of her father Atticus, whose benevolent patriarchy remains intact. There is no music in Harper Lee’s novel, though its music is implied.

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning…

So writes Eliot of St. Augustine, in The Wasteland, as he depicts the ancient trip from countryside to city center, which has so long underwritten the young person’s mental revolution. Augustine, too, came to the city from a backwater; but, unlike Jean Louise, he came to regret his praise of novelty and reverted to the intensity of his native religion. Jean Louise did no such thing. Of course, Atticus, like all of our parents, proved not to be the man she thought he was when she was growing up. He is just a country lawyer who at one time thought the human spirit was universally benign and who came to think so no longer. The Southern progressive family man, who defended the honor of Tom Robinson—to no avail, as Tom was shot to death—turns out to regret the integration of the black and white communities. At one point Jean Louise sees a “carload of Negroes” careening around a bend, and Henry Lincoln—the replacement of the father in her Oedipal series—remarks that they assert themselves because they finally have enough money to buy used cars and thus constitute a public menace. Of course, Jean Louise and Henry later go skinny-dipping in the heart of God’s country. Elsewhere, Lee references the repressed and the “Young Turk faction” of Maycomb’s Methodist church choir, no doubt slyly winking to a contemporary and left-wing audience. In other times and other parts of the country, the New Lights would have been received more gently; but not in the South, where social and official politics remained savage for far too long, despite such internal contradictions as liberal tendencies. When even the anti-dogmatic liberals are racists of the brightest stripes, one wonders how human society prospers.

The religious overtones of the Southern culture of Jean Louise’s childhood come out in full force with the concept of revival. Lee writes, during a flashback to Jean Louise’s days with Jem and Dill, that “revival time was a time of war: war on sin, Coca-Cola, picture shows, hunting on Sunday; war on the increasing tendency of young women to paint themselves and smoke in public; war on drinking whiskey—in this connection at least fifty children per summer went to the altar and swore they would not drink, smoke, or curse until they were twenty-one; war on something so nebulous Jean Louise never could figure out what it was, except there was nothing to swear concerning it; and war among the town’s ladies over who could set the best table for the evangelist.” This is small-town religion, divided among “Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian” congregations, not unlike today’s right-wing support for spiritual warfare. So goes a passage about a church briefing:

From the time of Jean Louise’s earliest ecclesiastical recollection, Maycomb had sung the Doxology in one way and in one way only: Praise—God—from—whom—all—blessings—flow.

Coca-Cola—metonymic for the psychotic churning of pan-regional capitalism—was on par with the demons as sex was, and perhaps more destructive, since the churches could condone the one under certain conditions. Atheism was not the exercise in humanism it is today; it was the locus of “disrespectful quarters,” presumably the whores, drunks, and tax-cheats of the town, who did not uphold the civic mythology of little Maycomb. Lee inserts a sly reference to the counting of angels on pinheads in this scene, painting the Baptist Reverend Moorehead as a pedant more concerned with philologic accuracy than a social message: “the wages of sin is death or the wages of sin are death?” This bores the children, of course, because Christianity was not concocted for disputation, but for the veiled utility of social control; its worth could never be boiled down to the job security of argumentative pastors from the northern parts of Georgia or from below the line of Dixie. It does not matter that medieval theologians never actually worried about angels on pinheads, since the wages of sin themselves proved ethereal. Success, as it has always been, was a result of accident, connection, and talent, not a matter of human goodness. Corruption was already rampant even in the decent households of Maycomb. Judgment, vicious classism and racism, and God-bothering were already the chief specters haunting these parts. Jem and Jean Louise are one-parent children (Dill, the doppleganger of Truman Capote and later an Army ensign, is a no-parent child)—the fact of which makes even Atticus shed a tear, a fact with which we are now quite familiar—whose religion pales in comparison to their need for security. Much as how Tom Robinson, a Christian man par excellence, would die at the hands of no-account racists, the deliverance unto justice would be grounded not in God’s law but in man’s. Transcendence could never be doctrinal for these provincial people, since the doctrines were no more than a long game of scofflaw.

At one point, Jean Louise finds one of her father’s books, The Black Plague, which he brought home from a Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. She compares it to the literary taste of the Nazi Goebbels and expresses the deepest shame that her father would read such a thing. Of course, her father was steeped in the law classics of the ancient world—Tacitus, the literary founder of national racism, would not be out of place in his library, nor would rationalists like Socrates and Cicero. The Black Plague is nihilism masquerading as systematic reason in a world that still believes in racial essentialism.  Dr. Sussman’s The Myth of Race, a study of the history of scientific racism published by his Harvard anthropology department, is a good contemporary foil to such pseudoscience as The Black Plague. Nevertheless, Harper Lee is—contra criticism—only being realistic in describing Atticus as a scientific racist, as such ideas then permeated Western culture, from the centers of science to the most time-warped counties like Maycomb. Even the progressives believed in racial segregation as a means of progress, since inferior races could not but help themselves from being determined by genetic and social death; the paternalism, and the patriarchy, of the work is but a literary expression of what posed then as the scientific mind. People would be hard put to think of macroeconomics instead of personal failing, and what could be more personal than the color of one’s skin? Jean Louise was not raised in chaos like so many in the impoverished South, then and now, but the thinking that produced her milieu was. After all, people still named their children after General Lee or President Lincoln. Citizens’ councils are for people with nothing better to do than to conceive of themselves as citizens in the polity; Atticus, an old man, is exemplary of the type; Henry Lincoln is only following suit. These are the people who would go on to buy into suburbia and white flight, for the lack of understanding of macroeconomic trends. These are the people who could not recognize evil where it stood, if it stood gasping in whiteface in the homes of the agricultural middle class.

The same people are now denying of senility, with their own families raiding their accrued fortunes, rather than the oft-despised tax officials, in the modern day. Jean Louise “wished she had paid more attention” to those citizens’ councils, “but only one glance down a column of [New York] print was enough to tell her a familiar story: same people who were the Invisible Empire, who hated Catholics; ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one-hundred percent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash.” In short, the Klan lived in Maycomb, whether it opted for the white hood or the white, pressed suit. Jean Louise, upon learning of this development, falls into a mental spiral and runs to the same courthouse where Atticus had defended Tom Robinson. Such a scene is beyond reality, of course; it reeks of a winking author in search of emotional profits, though it is one of few such graspings in the novel. In reality, Jean Louise would have nodded at such a development and thought it normal; she never would have doubted that her father found more meaning in paranoia than in justice. One is more apt to think of parentage as a form of preternatural death, as a spectroscope of what is to come. In the courthouse, Jean Louise reminisces on William Willoughby, a judge “bleeding slowly to death in the midst of abundance, for his life’s blood was poverty.” The dialectic of misery and the law has perhaps never been put plainer. Harper Lee ends the chapter with a wanton admission of the theme of childhood loss, but such loss would have been plain to Jean Louise by such a point in her life. To have even gone to New York from Alabama suggests the thing in the first place: she was trying to escape the clutches of her youth for the full vigor of modernity the Big City represented. Such a narrative is daily recounted by the women of the South who dare to get away from the scarred and bony hands of history, even if they do tend to return to its storied pages. Rarely do they do so innocently.


Harper Lee writes of Jean Louise’s father that “Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its reward were the respect and devotion of all who knew him.” He was no prophet of damnation (the Old Testament is today lived out by the Christian Fundamentalists and by certain of the Marxist ideologues who wish above all for earthly vengeance); he was a simple country man, a lawyer by practice if also by accident, who lived a human life how most human beings do: because he had to and to the best of his ability. What some might call baggage and others flaws, he lived with as his fallen nature as a man. He had fallen in love with a woman fifteen years his junior—with no regard for the streak of unhealth or white trashiness—and produced children by her. She died of her heart, as her son Jem would later die by his. The viscera of the scene belies its sentimental content, since people really do die by heart defects all the time; it is one of human health’s ticking clocks that rings especially loud in the South’s Tobacco Belt. As if Jorge Luis Borges had increased the population of the world instead of its copyrights, “Atticus killed several birds with one stone when he read to his children, and would probably have caused a child psychologist considerable dismay: he read to Jem and Jean Louise whatever he happened to be reading, and the children grew up possessed of an obscure erudition. They cut their back teeth on military history, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, True Detective Mysteries, The Code of Alabama, the Bible, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.” They were literary children no matter their aspirations. To be raised in deep thought is to be raised to think deeply. Such is the situation of brooding progressives. Jem of the Mockingbird era achieves adolescence and begins “slicking back his hair with water and dating girls,” no longer having time for his younger sister, though his heart beats on the clock.

All Jean Louise has for company is her father—perhaps the loneliest man in Maycomb County and brother to the most learned, Dr. Finch—an Alabaman Freud—who teaches her the value of thinking of herself as a sexual being, rather than as a permanent child. Her father had sent her to a women’s college, but such an entity was misfit for her: it could only teach her the surface of manners, not the depth of human being. “What would Atticus do?” In one of the strongest passages of the novel, Harper Lee recounts of Jean Louise’s thinking that “All she knew was that she felt sorry for the people her age who railed against their parents for not giving them this and cheating them out of that. She felt sorry for middle-aged matrons who after much analysis discovered that the seat of their discomfort was in their seats; she felt sorry for persons who called their fathers My Old Man, denoting that they were raffish, probably boozy, ineffectual creatures who had disappointed their children dreadfully and unforgivably somewhere along the line.” What better, and bitter, few sentences to describe the Southern condition than these last? How many people were born Southern in place but not of soul, who wanted to experience the newer things of the world and yet refused to, who grew used to hating life too young, who blamed their accident of birth, rather than the agency of their conscience? It is not destiny that snares and damns some people. It is peace. Knowing that the people she grew up around were little better than that which they condemned—there is at one point a reference to mother-daughter incest and the intrusion of the welfare state—convinces Jean Louise that whatever moral superstructure she thought governed the little world of her childhood was but a figment of convenience.

The human being is born for conflict. It is in our very biology, already prepared for death at birth. Give us a gathering, and we are prepared to witness an execution: we smile not for pleasure but to flash our shortened incisors. “Had she insight,” Harper Lee writes of Jean Louise, “could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.” But color blindness is a fiction, even in fiction, when it comes to the old South. Young people were taught by elders to reflect on race, to reflect on history and the desert of damning of subaltern people. Women were warned that to consummate sex with black men was to enter among the devils; men were warned that to make friends with black men was to ruin their sexual readiness for marriage and to ready themselves for the taint of alcoholism. To sight blackness was to sight the color of criminals, of American outlaws, before a time when Americans accepted “outlaw” as a vision of deliverance from illegitimate constriction. In this, Harper Lee is disingenuous, though her prose style is immense. She once represented the future of American race relations in the realm of art—though Richard Wright did it better with Native Son and with more obvious courage, two decades before Mockingbird; to repent from such a forward view for her supposed color blindness suggests Harper Lee is mistaken in her characterization of Jean Louise’s own progressivity. No Southerner of that era was really color-blind, as few are now, not least the author or her fanbase at the time of Mockingbird or her imagined characters in our time of Watchman. Perhaps she can be forgiven this sleight of hand, since she is an author of fiction, but it certainly does not strike the reader as realistic. Griffin’s experiment in color blindness, Black Like Me, was not written as medicine for citizens of the North. Jean Louise, no matter her later education in the anti-Fascist canon, would have grown up a racist in Maycomb, no matter how liberal her bent. As she says to Henry Lincoln at one point of flirtation, “I just don’t want my world disturbed without some warning.” Who ever did? Like many resentful children of the white middle class, Jean Louise feels her birthright is sold from under her—her birthright to a just world, in which all things balance—but such a balance proves for her as false as it ever did for the trash of the county or its racial minorities. In the real world, one must believe to the point of delusion to believe that all is just; the gifted know the world is an incremental mountain of wrongs upon wrongs. Even the young men who read Harper Lee’s original novel or watched Gregory Peck’s classical intonations of the Ciceronian type became lawyers who largely gassed themselves to death in the garages they had mortgaged on hope.

Later, Jean Louise meets Zeebo, one of whose sons is facing charges for murder, and his lawyers. Atticus has consulted with him for legal work numerous times—in cases of bastardy, the text implies—but he has since given up the ghost because of all the racialized trouble inflaming the South. Atticus believes the NAACP to be a troublemaking entity rather than an entity of law and order. Jean Louise, to her credit, thinks of it as a saving force in Southern life and jurisprudence. Frank, Zeebo’s son and her family’s servant Calpurnia’s descendant, is “on a waiting list for the Tuskegee Institute,” a message doubtlessly included for Harper Lee’s knowledge of Tuskegee’s infamous experiments with syphilis. Jean Louise does not even know how old Calpurnia is, and neither does Calpurnia. Barefooted Helen, Zeebo’s wife, remarks that he has “done got old,” as though a great fatalism pervaded the lives of the poor in Maycomb County. Entangled family lives of the sort with which we are now familiar existed then, as they do now; recognition of them was another matter entirely. Harper Lee’s conscious nodding toward such shifts in culture gives the reader too much cognizance where there should be plot. But, just as her first novel was one of social message, so is this one, and sometimes plot gets in the way of message. After all, our world has its plots and will always have them, but, when the messages dwindle, those plots might very well be entertained for the worse. The Blues was invented by such people, who knew America for what it was and what it largely remains.

It is little wonder that scholars often remark the one true musical form of America is the Blues. Where most Americans are chattel—and always have been—in service, if not in name, music can transcend the divisions which law cements. If there is proof of God, it comes to man in music, for such proof carries little weight otherwise. From Billie Holiday to Langston Hughes, tragedy built upon tragedy has informed the country’s artistic conscience. Holiday died a drug addict, a Jewish sympathizer, and a rape victim, and gave us some of our most beloved songs. Her tastes were thoroughly American, as ecstatic as the High Church beatifics of the pitching Presbyterians of her era, recording lung-work for the Divine (compare both, and bother God as to whose art was higher, the quietest of sinners or the loudest of the pious). Of this treasure alone did one gain Southern merit. Hughes—a gay man permanently at odds with civil society—was a fellow traveler with Marx and Lenin, who announced African-American entry into the disunited worlds of labor strife and irreligion. Harper Lee, a woman of great learning in literature and law, no doubt intended for such connotations to appear in her novel. To mention Tuskegee is to mention social revolution without mentioning it. She mentions Coca-Cola about as often as James Baldwin did, which is to say Coca-Cola capitalism had more power over people than their own consciences. The sprawl of modernity had its victims, and it had its products: Jean Louise became one of them. Calpurnia—a practical slave, like many motherly black women of the era—has more dignity than the white trash of Maycomb. “Had the earth stopped turning, had the trees frozen, had the sea given up its dead, Jean Louise would not have noticed.” I confess my own family, during the 1960s, long before I was born, had such a woman in domestic thrall, her name now forgotten to anything but state funeral registries. My grandfather earned six-figures working for a motor company and thought a black servant an appropriate form of surplus. Calpurnia is not just a relic of Harper Lee’s imagination; she is a reflection of the real life of the era’s white middle class who, it turns out, died deaths just as miserable as anyone else’s, despite their grandstanding pretensions. Heart attacks kill even the weary who thought they had behaved in strictest measure with the Dispensations. Écrasez l’infame.

Calpurnia does not hate the Finch family for having the power to do good and failing in that power, at least according to how Harper Lee paints it. But one can only wonder how deeply bitterness can reside before it begins to present symptomatic good manners. The British socialist Bertrand Russell once wrote that barbarians have the best manners. I have known men of Southern breeding who, once they clear six-figures for the first time in their family history, denounce the rest of humanity as trash because the stamp of their lowly origins might show through. Their horse teeth show through nevertheless. Human dignity is born of suffering, not of breeding, nor of pretense: the dignified often have no other proof that they are human in an inhuman world. Calpurnia is the novel’s figure of Christ, who bears her cross in peace. Perhaps such symbols should be spurned. The region is worried about race war, Jean Louise learns. Had there been a race war, justice might have learned to spurn symbols and to quash its prejudices. This is an era where one learned Santa’s Little Helpers were really exploited proletarians from far, far away and from nearby, who—from fear of being thought shiftless—engaged in shift work. What slave to racism ever gained from politeness, even in the gain of dignity?


The issue of marriage comes up, and Harper Lee’s treatment of the problem leads the enlightened reader to think she is a Marxist feminist of the respectable variety. She depicts the “Perennial Hopefuls” of the not-yet-married quadrant as people who do not conform to Maycomb’s small-minded conception of human union. Who can blame her? The wives Jean Louise knows are more concerned about the husband’s bottom line (and their own) keeping up with the Joneses’—just as ignorant of everything worthwhile as the rest of the county and just as miserable, except for the reasons behind the civic charade. These women marry because manners demand it. They are repressed beyond the line of ill health. They marry because they have nothing else to do and know no other manner by which to feed themselves. They count themselves the courtiers of Maycomb’s rituals: do how they do, or do no other. But Jean Louise, fresh from a civilization so diverse it hurts with it, cannot help but look upon these country dunces as but figures in a time warp. Even the women who took time getting married, and so took on the “strays,” find little comfort in her worldview, though these last most mirror her own standing. These are people who think of Mobile, Alabama, as a center of culture. It is little wonder Harper Lee degrades them so, as with the light of time they should be degraded. Even the “Amanuensis Club,” a no-lipped venue for the lonely bookish to come together, is based upon the legal practices of slave sympathizers who thought black letters equal in essence to white letters, but for their reading public.

Compared to New York, the small hometown and its social ripples must seem like former centuries demanding countenance in the newer. Small people—who can easily be good people, but who choose not to be good people—often choose to be small people who do active evil. Goodness is a product of leveling borders and of sharing minds, not of damning some and profiting from others. These women of Jean Louise’s acquaintance, so tiny in the universe it did not even recognize them, probably went to sleep at night knowing they counted for nothing of more gravity than their husband’s ejaculations. Their flesh counterparts thought the era eternal—their culture, their references, their values, their children and grandchildren—and aged as Harper Lee did. They died with as much history in their graves as the people they abhorred and with the barbs they heard hissing at them as they were lowered at their wakes. Many mortals mourned them, but many more will mourn Harper Lee.

When one differentiates between ignorant Southern gentlemen and ignorant Southern strays, one can little hope for value between such similar poles, for the mainstay of one culture is the straying of another. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Harper Lee no doubt recognized some several decades between the publication of Mockingbird and that of Watchman. What is so intense to some isolated people is so silly to others who are more learned in the ways of the world. The small women of Maycomb may not be devils in cheap dresses—their limitations are their own, as all of our limitations are—but some, like Jean Louise, dare to break such absurd codes. Inevitably, those who break them return to a world so alien they know not where they come from or to where they return. An estranged world is a world as cold as a married one, to which any aging spouse of 2015 might admit. The values of old are always the evils of today; if this function is not one of biology, it is one of culture. Anyone bored in Maycomb might have desired a “good nigger trial,” because why watch shooting stars upon the hills generously arranged by God? God was absent from the get-go. The women who cried over a wedding of selfsame Janes and sob-story Joes would not have cried over a funeral of niggers, and on such shiftless sands the South of Harper Lee ought to be damned entirely. The only Job she ever knew was a black woman named Calpurnia. Human suffering was so commonplace these innocents could only paint it on the palette of folk knowledge, for thereby alone could they displace it. Barbarians do have the most elaborate of manners, having nothing else: even Atticus, whom time has caught in its clutch, aspires to his grave soon enough.

Atticus engages in a deep conversation with Jean Louise concerning the Constitution and states’ rights—one a reasonable defense of the body politic, the other the tiredest of rhetoric. Having never read Schopenhauer on the immaturity of the Christian religion, Atticus declares the black people of the South remain ever yet in their childhood. Paternalism is one thing when it comes to minorities, but it is another thing entirely when it comes to the Federal government: Dr. Finch, his brother, tells Jean Louise that the source of conflict over civil rights is the intrusion of government into local affairs. Of course, the Federal government produces problems and is an example of injustice in itself. But such injustice pales in comparison to the normal prejudices of Maycomb and every county like it. Backward people announcing the backwardness of their neighbors ought to elicit the laughter of Jean Louise, now that she has received a New York education. It only serves to enrage her: she curses at her father for the contradiction of his intellect and his sentiment, since his logic, once cast iron, has become unapologetically repellent. The machine of selection has come home to roost with Maycomb’s most famous lawyer. Although its local color is childish in the eyes of the rest of the country, its own peculiarities become coincident with the will of God. Such places have always fostered such delusions. These are the same people, Atticus included, who would now moan about states’ rights on the issue of gay marriage. Having little of worth in their lives except the rote repetition of biological sustenance, Maycombians would construct a grand narrative outlining why their lives were undermined by the activity of Big Government and its formal sponsoring of deviance. One could as soon imagine the humbly clad denizens and wage slaves of Maycomb reciting “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” were they around today. These are people who retire after having spent their lives in boring work, around boring people, and having boring children. Then they die even more boring deaths. They are the salt of the earth, which has been sold from underneath them, for their lack of empathy—a concept relatively newer than brimstone—with people just as damned as themselves. Their lack of empathy need only issue from the Hell that is other people.

The novel’s ending is the weakest part of Harper Lee’s efforts. It is not only weak, it is unconvincing. Jean Louise makes up with her family—her “spleen and vapors” disappear—after realizing that she has to disengage herself from Atticus, because she alone can develop her conscience. But racism is not so gentle a family trouble as that. It ruptures families, and it does so permanently. The bitterness and cynicism it implies do not exist in a vacuum: racism speaks to a way of thinking so absolute and sociopathic that one can either live with it in bad faith or one cannot. The sheer ease with which the Finch family discusses racial segregation and Anglo-Saxon history ought to surprise readers from without the American South and liberals within. The theory of social control behind such ideas is Draconian and deadly; that they historically pervade the social fabric so thoroughly—and still do, on the lower frequencies—speaks to the nightmarish culture that fostered them. Ask an elder about the good old days and hear the frank reply “What was so good about the good old days?” Like the Baadher-Meinhoff complex, the liberals of Jean Louise’s generation knew the epistemology they inherited was so rank it had to be discarded, not synthesized. Though her uncle cautions her that there is no such thing as collective consciousness, she finds more truth in Jung than in Moses.

Laws produced by corrupt people are themselves corrupt, inevitably. Walter Benjamin once wrote about “The Destructive Character” who, rather than reform, prefers the destruction of codes that do not conform with moral reality. Sometimes, iconoclasts are far more valuable than the creaking icons they destroy. Harper Lee has done well to disillusion her readers—many of them now in old age, who in their youths went on to battle injustice with either law practice or drugged bohemia—because illusion can only ever serve the interests of power. Law is that which prevents terrorism, but it does disfigure people. Liberals would do well to note that novels can change this world no more than the canons of law can, that most people are born serfs and shall die serfs, and that hope without the fatalism born of misery is but the sigh of wishful prophets. Were there justice in the human species, it would not take decades to accrue, but instants to occur. However, Harper Lee has written a good novel—one deserving of note, certainly, and, above that, study. The Mockingbird novel that purported to change the consciousness of middle class Southerners did just that; its published hindquarters, long in the issue and overmuch controversial in coming to daylight, will, too.

— Jeremy Brunger



Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at

Nov 122015

Radojkovich pic


Milk Teeth

“GOT A JOB FOR YOU, Ruby,” Uncle said.

“What is it?”

“Cleaning an old woman’s house.”

“Will she be there?”

“No, she died. Can’t rent out the house til it’s sorted,” he said. “A hundred a day in the hand.”

“I’ll get my overalls.”

We drove along past renovated bungalows with new stone fences, and turned down a street leading to a cul-de-sac of shabby square-front cottages.


“Needs a coat of paint,” Uncle said. “First things first. Throw everything out, then we’ll fix it up.”

He drove off. I walked around a rubbish skip left on the verge and went up the path past a huge lemon tree with a plastic chair underneath. A silvery cat sat on the chair.


The cat jumped down, fixed its round gray eyes on me and began kneading the ground.

I opened the front door a crack. The cat slipped inside. The hallway looked as if the guts of an op-shop had blown in on a storm. Tiny flickerings caught my eye – things too small to be seen. I gave the door another push: a handful of white beads dropped to the floor. The beads unfurled then squirmed away beneath a blob of newspapers. I picked up the newspapers, squashing the maggots under my boot.

The sooner I got stuck in, the sooner I’d be done.

I filled the skip with bundles, books and broken bits of furniture. By lunchtime I’d cleared the hallway. I sat under the lemon tree eating a sandwich. The cat nipped at my ankle.

“You hungry?”


I put a piece of cheese on the ground. The cat turned up its nose.

The next day I brought milk for the cat, pouring it into a dish. It didn’t touch it. It followed me into a bedroom, silent as a fish.

I hauled a stack of boxes across the floor scattering cockroaches. I squashed as many as I could underfoot.

A bird whistled outside. An icy trickling feeling crept down my arms. I turned. The cat drew up, staring at the top box.


It didn’t move.

For some reason, I grabbed the box, setting it down on the floor and looking inside. Balled up sanitary pads! The cat leapt away as I strode off to the skip.

“Hoho,” said a man walking past carrying a miniature dog. “About time that place got cleaned up.”

“Did you know her?”

“Bitter cow. Slipped and fell on her arse. Should’ve been put into a home years ago.”

Grrrrr, said the dog. The man bent down, kissing the top of its head. “Good luck to you. You’ll need it.”

I went back inside. The cat waited by the boxes, it hissed when I picked them up. I was about to toss the lot when I noticed a bright blue embroidered flower on a rag stuffed in the box. I pulled the flower – it was the corner of a knotted cloth. I untied the knot and a pair of little woollen mittens dropped on the floor.

I knelt down picking up the mittens, folding them back into the cloth, leaving the bright flower on the corner just as the old woman must have done. The cat’s eyes were on me as I slipped them into my overalls.

I opened the bedside cupboard, dragging free a bundle of crepe bandages. Three pairs of secateurs tumbled out. Next came huge knickers, hairbrushes, a fur-lined slipper. Where was the other one? I was rummaging through socks and apple cores, when I felt a pressure at my back as if the old woman were actually standing behind me.

“How’s it going?” asked Uncle.

I swung around.

He laughed. “Didn’t mean to give you a fright. Thought you could do with a lift home.”

We went down the path. He inspected the skip. “Reckon we’ll get it all in one.”

I glanced back at the house, the cat was watching from the porch. “When’s the SPCA coming?”

“What for?”

“Her cat.”

“She didn’t have one.”

The following morning I went into her kitchen. It reeked of stale piss and cabbage. I opened the window, breathing in fresh air. Clouds swept past. Sunlight burst through. There was a flash behind me. I saw a glass vase on the table, it looked as if a candle was flickering inside. I picked it up. A gold change purse lay at the bottom. I unzipped the purse, turning it upside down. Four tiny teeth fell into the palm of my hand.

I stood stockstill, staring at them.

The cat swished against my leg, meowing.

“Jesus, god!” I dashed outside as if I knew where I was going.

I stopped by the lemon tree, quivering with cold, although it wasn’t a cold day.

The cat stood beneath the tree, kneading the ground.

I picked up a stick and dug. I lay the teeth and mittens in the hole, covering them over, patting the earth flat.

I rose and stepped back.

Sunlight soaked into me.

That night, a little girl came to me in a dream. “Thank you,” she said, and then she was gone.

Head in the Leaves

I REACHED THE RIVERBANK before Mum and crept under the willow tree we always sat next to. Sunshine shot through the leaves lighting golden cicada shells stuck to the trunk. I carefully plucked off the lowest one, the next highest, then gave a start. A man’s head trembled in the leaves, a shimmery see-through head that looked as if it had been made from jelly.

“Eric?” Mum pushed aside the branches.

I pointed at the head.

“What is it, love?”

Couldn’t even squeak a response.

“Best have a swim before afternoon tea.”

I rushed off.

“Not too deep, now.” She sat on the blanket and opened a book.

I waded in up to my stomach and felt chopped in two; my top half sweltered, my bottom half was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet.

When I looked, the head was still in the leaves.

I went in deeper, to my armpits, my neck – until I was just a head, too. Then I sank down and an oily brown silence covered me. I felt swallowed, drowsy. The current slowly spun me round…my chest burst and I thrashed to the surface.

I ran to Mum who wrapped me in a towel and hummed to me.

From that day onwards, the man’s head was always in the leaves like a piece in a picture puzzle.

“Can you see anything in the willow?” I’d ask playmates.


“Oh, nothing – thought I saw a nest.”

Then we’d run to the river. Around the curve to the left, the water pooled in rusty shallows. We’d look for elvers that sometimes slithered over the stones like strings of silver glue. Around the curve to the right, the water rushed to the sea, a hundred miles away, which I’d never seen. I’d sometimes stare at the vanishing point, wishing Mum and I could go there – even though my friends said men caught ten foot eels upriver.

Mum wasn’t a swimmer. She liked sitting by the willow, reading biographies of singers and composers.

Even in winter, when no-one else did, we went to the river. We’d huddle in our heavy jackets, noses turning pink, eating egg and parsley sandwiches. I’d throw my crusts at black swans who’d lumber over stinking of slimy reeds.

I always felt the head watching us.

I’d walk along the river’s edge until Mum was a dark dot.

It was icy on the plains in winter and in summer they were dusty and stunk of silage. If the wind came from the west, it brought the groans of cows and shrieks of fencing wire. If it came from the east, it brought the clickety-clack of the afternoon train. When you’re twelve years old, stuck in a small town, the loneliest sound in the world is the whistle of a departing train.

I’d trudge back to Mum, train wheels turning in my chest, wondering how on earth I would ever get to the city?


Mum did bookkeeping for local farmers. We were poor, yet she made me feel like we were rich. Her opera records, a stomach-sinking embarrassment in front of the other boys, felt luxurious when we were on our own. She’d stand at the sink peeling potatoes to Delibes’ Flower Duet. She’d neatly feed the stove with wood, shell peas and move the frypan back and forth to stop our lamp chops burning – all the while practicing trills, slowing down the two notes then gradually increasing the speed until the trill made me think of a hummingbird hovering in one spot.

She often mentioned my father – Bill planted the jasmine, she’d say. Bill bought the radiogram. Bill never warmed to Wagner.

She made it sound as if Bill was about to open the door and step inside.

Water off a duck’s back to me. He’d died before I was born.

Occasionally I’d look at their wedding photo in the lounge. His face was half-hidden, the brim of his hat shadowing his jaw.

Eventually, I got a scholarship to study engineering in the city.

On my last day in town, Mum had the flu so I walked to the station by myself. I passed Susan Frost outside the dairy. In a loud whisper, she turned to her friend and said, “His Dad topped himself down by the river.”

My head swam, but I put one foot in front of the other all the way to the train and climbed aboard.

The whistle blew.

The wheels turned.


My life transformed in the city.

I lived in a house of students. I went to lectures in the day and worked in a pub at night. I discovered nerdy girls – and that they were keen on nerdy boys like me.

Some mornings when I was shaving and the mirror steamed up, I’d draw the outline of my head in the mist. My heart would speed up. I’d think of going to see Mum.

She came up when I got my degree. “You’re launched, son,” she smiled and sang La Traviata’s Libiamo – mortifying in front of my flatmates.

A week later, she died in her sleep.

I caught the next train.

The house was overgrown by jasmine, it had tumbled through her bedroom window leaving countless flowers turning brown on the floor. The kitchen reeked of rancid butter and the fridge no longer shut. I couldn’t fill the jug because the sink was full of dishes soaking in grey water.

I was shocked at the degradation. How little help I’d been.

I trudged to the riverbank and glimpsed Mum sitting by the willow.

Trick of the light.

No head in the leaves, either.

I heard her singing the Flower Duet – long liquid notes that swept into a sustained trill, and pivoted back into melody.

I went closer to the water. Ducks turned in half-circles on the current.

Sunlight caught the river where it turned to the sea just as the chorus faded away.

—Leanne Radojkovich

Leanne Radojkovich was born in New Zealand and lives in Auckland.  Her stories have been widely published online and in print, and have won or been commended in various competitions including Ireland’s Fish Short Story Prize and the National Flash Fiction Day NZ contest.  She also shares her work on YouTube and SlideShare and posts flash fiction street art – PinUps – in phone booths, shop windows and public spaces.


Nov 112015


What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.” —Jason DeYoung


Joy Williams
The Visiting Privilege
Knopf, 2015
490 pages, $30.00


“Life is an eccentric privilege” is a misunderstood comment in Joy Williams’ story “The Wedding,” but it might do as the pithiest of credos for Williams’ fiction. Life is an eccentric privilege…and then you die, because her stories never let you forget that because we have life, we also have death. It might be the clearest meaning her fiction imparts.

Bleak, nervy, unsentimental, hilariously at times, The Visiting Privilege combines three of Joy Williams’ previous short story collections with thirteen new stories, for a total of forty-six tales. The hangover from mainlining these stories over the last few weeks reveals an overwhelming array of narrative talismans, inimitable plot strategies, and philosophical undercurrents, the latter of which Joy Williams delights in undercutting, exposing our dumb, fragile humanness. “There are philosophers who maintain we are not our thoughts and that we should disassociate ourselves from them at every opportunity. But without this thought, I would have no experience or the world and even less knowledge of my heart,” the narrator says in “Dangerous,” one of the new stories.

Joy Williams has been up for just about every award an American writer can get but has brought few of them home. Her first novel, State of Grace, went toe-to-toe with Gravity’s Rainbow for the National Book Award; her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead, was nominated for a Pulitzer. I bring this up not to shame Joy, but to urge those who haven’t read her work to do so. She’s worth it. Strange and dark, her stories and novels make their foundation in realism, but then you never know quite where they will lead to. Most stay firmly planned in the “manifest world,” while others drift off toward the uncanny. What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying perhaps a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.”

The Visiting Privilege is a hefty retrospective of Joy Williams’ short fiction. Just about all of the stories from her previous collections—Taking Care (1982), Escapes (1990), and Honored Guest (2004)—are included. Some stories have been edited out, some rearranged from their original order. All told, it’s nearly fifty years worth of fiction. Dipping into the collection will get you if not a masterpiece, a guaranteed peach of a short story. But viewed as a whole, The Visiting Privilege tells a kind of narrative on its own, that of Joy Williams’ development as a published writer.

The collection opens with “Taking Care,” a story she as said was her first “good” story, one that Rust Hill, her future husband, would accept for his literary journal Audience. Many of the narrative fetishes and tics that will follow Joy Williams are present here. The focus is on the one character most stuck in his current situation—a minister/father. He is worried about his wife who is dying and his daughter who is truant—gone to Mexico to have the nervous breakdown she’d seen for herself in the “stars.” Clearly the daughter is having the more dramatic and busier life, but Williams chooses not to follow her. The protagonist is held duty-bound to his community and church, he is responsible for the “care” of his grandbaby and wife. It’s a story about the human family, with the specter of death always in the background. Like all Williams’ stories, it also honors the inscrutability of existence, as she describes the old mother’s illness: “Her blood moves as mysteriously as the constellations.”

The prose of the early stories is tightly wound, often with the simplicity of subject-verb-object as its underlying foundation. Take for instance these few sentences from “The Lover,” a story about a young woman trying anything to keep a rather disinterested man from leaving her:

The girl becomes a lover to a man she met at a dinner party. He calls her up in the morning. He drives over to her apartment. He drives a white convertible that all rusted out along the rocker panels. He asks her to go sailing. They drop the child off a nursery school on the way to the pier. She is two years old now, almost three.

This humble pattern pulls the story along with lines that so aptly describe the human heart that they’re often hard to move past: “The girl thinks about the man constantly but without much exactitude.” These early stories frequently derive their structure from thematic or temporal iterations instead of a single conflict, effectively building an uncommon density in short story form.

As the collection progresses, the prose loosens, and becomes more and more chatty. ‘Off-plot’ sequences become more daring. The horror intensifies. Insidious and scalding stories like “The Little Winter” and “Rot” speak to the outlandishness of life. In one a girl asks to be kidnapped by her mother’s ailing friend and succeeds; in the latter, a young woman recognizes her future will remain in stasis after her much older husband rebuilds a rusty Ford Thunderbird in their living room. He calls it a work of art.

In “Cats and Dogs,” a story appearing for the first time in this collection, Joy Williams offers up this blistering (and hilarious) paragraph, which is a good example of her more recent longer, looser style of writing:

She had no admirers at present. Since leaving her parents’ home at eighteen she’d experience two brief marriages—one to a Ritalin-addicted drywaller, the next to a gaunt, gabby autodidact, brilliant and quite unhinged, who drank a pound of coffee a day, fiddled with engines and read medieval history. After their parting, he flew in a small plane he had built to Arizona and found employment as a guide in a newly discovered living cave. Daily, he berated the tourists by telling them that every breath they took was robbing the cave of its life, even though each of them had gone through three air locks and was forbidden to touch anything or take photographs. People didn’t mind hearing they were well-meaning bearers of destruction, apparently. According to him, he was the most popular guide there. She was amazed to learn that people liked him. She certainly hadn’t.

It’s hard to think of another writer who could venture as far afield as she does in this paragraph, most of which has little bearing on the actual plot.

Typical protagonists in these stories are wayward girls, or older women, both invariably made strange by life and circumstances. Often the women are cranky drinkers, some are attenders to community groups or patients; the children are spoiled, hyper-intelligent with imagination to spare. They are pretty much all looking for a way out of their current condition. Williams’ male characters don’t fair much better. They come in the form of secretive adolescents, older husbands, abusive fathers, aloof lovers, and enablers. One of the more interesting threads in these stories is how many yardmen there are—“The Yard Boy,” “The Other Week,” “Another Season,” “In the Park.” The progression of their depiction is somehow telling in itself, from the erotic, to the threatening, to the stoic, to emotionally lost. They are always shown as slightly simple men but with a profound touch for nature and plants.

The stories of gardeners and nature-lovers are important also because they make a common theme in Joy Williams’ stories and nonfiction. In 2001, she published a book of essays called Ill Nature, most of which she had written for Esquire the years before. They are harsh, deliberately incendiary essays on the environment with titles like “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp,” “The Case Against Babies,” “Sharks and Suicide,” and “Audubon,” with its indictment that “though his name has become synonymous with wildlife preservation, [Audubon] was in no manner at any time concern with conservation. He killed tirelessly for sport and amusement.”

In The Paris Review interview Joy Williams gave a few years ago, she said this about avant-garde writing: “real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens.” Although the tone of her environmentalism in her fiction isn’t as strident as it is in her nonfiction, it’s an essential part of it—she has taken our world’s “destruction” on. It generally appears in the form of denial. Characters want to deny or tame nature, such as in “Another Season,” in which the main character is given a small stipends and a truck to drive around a resort island to clean up all the dead animals—to make it “appear as though death on the minor plane” didn’t exist. In “Charity” its enchantment is spoiled by over-labeling: “The road led past the toilet and ramadas through a portion of landscapes where every form of plant life was explained with signs.”

Williams is wise enough, however, not to sermonize. The drama of her characters is still her foremost concern. In a little essay called “Why I Write,” Joy Williams says: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb.” And that’s The Visiting Privilege. Williams’ eye is on the spiritual and there’s an ever-present willingness to go ‘wild’ in these stories. While reading, I kept wondering when is she was going to pull back, when would she reveal it’s all fantasy or a dream. She never does. And because she doesn’t withhold, when she writes, “we’re all alone in a meaningless world,” I believe her and don’t discount it as posturing nonsense.

But here’s something small and anticlimactic: I’m unconvinced a review can do right by all these stories. There are simply too many, too much variety, too much change and range. A review of a book this formidable can only provide insufficient glimpses and peeks at the ineffable within its covers. So, I offer my personal response to this collection as a testament to its importance: At home, I have a shelf of novels and short story collections I consider vital—they are books that provide me not with clarity, but with a kind of fundamental thinking about the murkiness of human motivations, desires. I return to these often. On that shelf are books by Mavis Gallant, J. M. Coetzee, Clarice Lispector, Melville, Kowabata, others. Recently, I made space on it. The Visiting Privilege is in there now.

 Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Nov 102015

Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Dylan Brennan first moved to Mexico upon finishing his undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin and moved back and forth between there and Ireland a number of times before settling in Mexico in 2011. The poems in his first book, Blood Oranges, were written and primarily located there.

In the prose piece below, “Roma Walking Around”, Dylan and his wife, Lily Pérez-Brennan, walk the streets of the Roma district in Mexico City on a “psychogeographical odyssey” checking out places where writers had lived: “foreign writers” like Burroughs & Kerouac, Mexican writers like Ramón López Velarde & Juan Rulfo. Talking about his collection, Blood Oranges, and one of its central themes, the foreigner in Mexico, Brennan stated, “the idea of the foreigner in Mexico is more personal than the idea of an Irishman in Mexico”. The Odyssey of course is not just a journey but a journey home (and one with a violent return before peace ensues). Writing is a bit like that too, a foreigner in a strange land looking for home. In Blood Oranges, the historic and present day violence of Mexico are an integral part of the collection. Brennan is all too aware of the peaceful and violent intersection. Indeed in his translations of Salvador Díaz Mirón, a Mexican poet born in the port city of Veracruz in 1853, we read how, “The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch/like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk”. An image that sadly resonates still through the murderous actions of the contemporary drug cartels. But despite the “waste” and the “stench”, we also read how “the sun ascended through impeccable blue/ and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus.”

Brennan as translator, journeys too through a strange land — the foreign terrain of a different language — but despite the savagery and cruelty necessitated by linguistic contortion, his words ultimately reclaim beauty and peace – a homecoming even.

—Gerard Beirne


So they say he wrote Junky here. And Queer. Now the food doesn’t look too appealing. The coffee is dire. Weak and watery. There are a couple of altars. One is for Our Lady of Guadalupe, naturally. The other for a Niño Jesús, a boychild Jesus wearing a white robe and maybe a crown. Both are adorned with candles and fruit. Rotting yellow shrivelled mangoes and some light green-coloured apples. On the walls are abstract paintings of naked women with large thighs and buttocks, each one of them engaging in different ways with a sort of geometrically constructed multi-coloured snake. The peach liquor on the table in front of us is blue. I excuse myself and make for the toilet. It stinks. It’s disgusting. Maybe it smells like the kind of place where a heroin addicted writer would slap around a piss-spraying cat. No. 10, Orizaba. Was there any point to this? Let’s get out of here.


I walk with my wife Lily south down Orizaba and soon come to Plaza Río de Janeiro. In the centre of the square there’s a statue. A replica of Michelangelo’s David. And scouts and dogs. Trendy people come here to walk their pure-breeds or to let them play in the fountain. Scouts turn up on the weekends and do their scouty things. On the east side we look up at the Casa de las Brujas — The Witches’ House. Stories of a woman called Pachita and her necromancy aside, it’s easy enough to see how it got its name. Built in 1908 the architecture seems European, Germanic or French. The entire Roma district was built at the beginning of the last century as a European style residential area to support the overflow from the city centre. Hard to believe this was the edge of town back then. There’s a kind of turret that sticks out above the corner of the building and looks like a witch’s head. The dark coloured peak like a hat and the windows like a mouth. Lily tries to take some photos but it’s hard to get a good shot. Go far back to get in the whole building and the trees of the plaza get in the way. Go closer and only get that witch-head turret in addition to risking getting knocked down by passing cars.


Witches’ House. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Sergio Pitol lived in The Witches’ House at one point and I believe it crops up in his Desfile del Amor. I have yet to read his novels, but his non-fiction is full of wonder, his tales of youthful wanderings, the sad delight of nostalgia. How he goes on a cantina crawl round Old Havana, enjoyable lost and inebriated. Best of all, how he loses his glasses before arriving in Venice. Everything a blur of watershapes. The stench from the canals and the smell of incense from churches. Impossible not to be put in mind of Francisco de Icaza’s lines: Give him alms woman/for there’s nothing in this life/that can be sadder/than being blind/and in Granada. Or something like that. Not too long ago I saw a plaque with those words on a wall in Granada, Nicaragua. Wrong city but equally true. Carlos Fuentes lived up there too with the witches (Aura?) and the house is the possible location of a hidden Nazi sect in José Emilio Pacheco’s Morirás Lejos. Another novel I have yet to read but I have read his Las batallas en el desierto, an astonishing work of poetic simplicity. Schoolboy meets his friend’s exotic foreign mother. Falls in love. It’s obviously never going to work. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The novel’s epigraph. A novel that is as much about location as it is about plot. It’s about Mexico City. It’s not about Mexico City, it’s about the Roma district. City in half-light, mysterious suburb of Roma way back then.


This has aniseed in it was my first thought. The place seemed upmarket enough and 90 pesos for a sandwich is steep in this town. But marlin in a chilli and tomato sauce with a beer seemed like a good plan. It wasn’t. While the aniseed, real aniseed, added a nice touch, the sandwich was thin, soggy and flimsy. A waste of money and an appropriate end to a disappointing walk. The idea was simple enough. To head down to Plaza Luis Cabrera, for the first time, and to check out one of the houses Burroughs lived in while in Mexico City and also the house, just across the street, where Kerouac wrote Tristessa. Or at least where much of the events of Tristessa took place. The Burroughs house, this time No. 210 Orizaba, looked like a newish red-bricked squat apartment complex. The original must have been knocked down. Across the street the Kerouac place, he lived on the roof, was newly plastered white and was festooned with estate agent announcements. Completely refurbished or knocked down and rebuilt. A sofa abandoned on the pavement. I don’t know what I was looking for but it wasn’t this. Try it again next week.

SofaTristessaHouse 2

Kerouac’s residence (rooftop). Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

This time the route would be planned. There would need to be a breakfast and lunch and coffee. We would walk down Orizaba, stop in on the Junky/Queer house, continue on down Orizaba, passing Plaza Río de Janeiro, turn west onto Álvaro Obregón and stop at the Ramón López Velarde house before heading back down further south towards the other Burroughs residences and lunch. Lunch at a different place. No marlin sandwiches or overpriced beer. That was the what. The why was slightly more complicated. A psychogeographical odyssey? I’d been reading The Odyssey with my 4th year students and talking a bit about Joyce’s Ulysses, about voyages, saudade, nostos, about charting territory, about the journey not the destination being the thing, about psychogeography. They cared as much as anyone else in their position would care. I wanted to get to know my newly adopted city better. By choosing a set of coordinates, by pinning down the points on the computer screen and obliging myself to walk them I would create a circuit I’d never taken, combining areas I knew well enough with streets I’d never had any reason to walk down. As simple as that. Many famous people have lived in the Roma district—Leonora Carrington, José “Cosmic Race” Vasconcelos, Padre Pro, Fidel Castro—it’s a long list. But I chose writers. Foreign writers that lived in the Federal District and wrote about the city. Writers for whom the city was their protagonist. Just walking the streets of James Joyce’s novel, the streets of his city, my own city, that has to beat any desktop commemorative plaque. To see where Stoker wrote Dracula would be interesting. Nothing more. To walk the streets of Victorian London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is. Well, that would be something more.

Burroughs—10orizaba 2

Burroughs’ House 10 Orizaba. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

But of course Burroughs and Kerouac were off their heads most of the time and their Mexico City was all bars and houses, rent boys, whores and drugs and alcohol. No matter, it still holds interest for me. This city is a brutal work of art, a place where everything can be found. I understand, however, that the symptoms of peyote poisoning and polio are identical. Kerouac ran down Orizaba to the Plaza Luis Cabrera to lie on the ground after having a negative reaction to peyote. I walked around the little park with its dancing fountains that look great when pumping water and look like a sad abandoned swimming pool when turned off. Hard to imagine the stinking (he must have stunk right?) Kerouac lying with his face to the stars in the night-time square. Hard to imagine stars these days. Roma is gentrified now. No doubt about it. Cold brew cafés and hipster barber shops abound. Not fifties hepcats though. The new kind.


LopezVelardeHouse 2

Lopez Velarde House. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

After the Witches’ House we turned right onto Obregón and found the Ramón López Velarde (1888—1921) house, large and sky-blue. It was the second time I’d been in a López Velarde house but the first time in this particular house. Last December invited to take part in the Festival Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde in the exquisite silver-mining northern city of Zacatecas we were bussed out to his house in the nearby town of Jerez. The Mexico City version is a museum and also houses the Casa del Poeta, a small venue for book launches and readings. We were shown to his bedroom and admired his sturdy old little bed and his little shoes placed neatly at its foot and a selection of his books. We were told to open the wardrobe and stand inside it. You’ll wake one grey morning/and will see, in the moon of your wardrobe…The lines of a poem written on the inside of the wardrobe. That’s cute. He’s good. His Suave Patria is his most famous work. We were told to open the back of the wardrobe and nothing could have prepared us for what was on the other side. A funfair hall of mirrors and coloured lights. Papier maché figures and dioramas. Literal interpretations of the poems. Kitsch and grotesque. El viejo pozo de mi vieja casa—The old well from the Jerez house. Told to look inside we see the bloated mad guffawing face of a carnival mask. And so on. Who did this? Whose fucking idea was this? We were told his name. He’s a theatre man. He has a flair for the dramatic. We were told.

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Closet Lopez Velarde. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Across the street to Bisquets Obregón. Seventy years old this year the establishment started right here in the Roma district on Obregón street, hence the name. Bisquets—not what we’d call biscuits back home in Ireland, more like a scone. But the coffee is good and is served estilo chino, Chinese style. Bucareli street isn’t far from here and was known for its abundance of Chinese cafés in the previous century. Just like in Café la Habana—Bolaño’s “Café Quito”—they all serve the coffee Chinese style. They pour you a small amount of essence of caffeine, a strong pitch coloured liquid, and warn you it is strong every time. You tell them when to stop and when to start pouring the milk from a long, curly metal-stemmed jug which they frequently raise and lower to create a foam, producing at the end a tall glass of strong milky coffee. And sweetbread. Bisquets Obregón have franchises spread out across the country. But this one, in Roma, this is the original. The coffee leaves a ball of fire to cool in your centre. We stepped back out.

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Juan Rulfo. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Further west along Obregón we hit Monterrey. Where Monterrey, Obregón and Insurgentes almost converge there’s a little traffic island park called Jardín Juan Rulfo. There have been recent heavy rainfalls and the sunken park is flooded. I’ve been here a few times before. The first time as a kind of pilgrimage as I wrote my doctoral thesis on Rulfo’s cinematic and photographic work. Rubbish floats on the scummy water and a rat runs away from our footfalls. There’s a sculpture of Rulfo and a few seats. The sculpture shows him with his head stuck in a book, literally. In 1985 a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 10, 000 and, of course, injured many more. It also changed the face of the city. A well-known washing machine seller, on the corner of Insurgentes and Álvaro Obregón was brought to the ground and could not be replaced. One year later Juan Rulfo died. The spot was chosen for his posthumous park. Borges called Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo one of the greatest novels in world literature. Now rats and homeless people sleep on the benches around his head. The tiny garden smells of piss. I once saw a 1976 short film by José Luis Bolaños called Que esperen los viejos. It focuses on a young couple seduced by dreams of a better life in the big city. At the end of the film the male protagonist wanders through the dilapidated streets of the megalopolis and a voiceover is heard. This is the land that they’ve given us. But what land did they give us? The words are from Rulfo’s story Nos han dado la tierra. Rulfo’s original is about peasant farmers who have received their government-allotted portion of land in post-revolutionary Jalisco. The land they have received is good for nothing, hard and arid. The promises of a better life have dissipated. And so it is for the characters in the Bolaños film. The lure of the big city resulting in extreme poverty, worse than before. It’s hard not to think of this when walking by the Jardín Juan Rulfo and it seems fitting. The squalid cardboard beds, the shit, the rats. But Rulfo deserves better. And so do the people who sleep in his park.

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Jardin Juan Rulfo. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

From Rulfo’s park we headed down Monterrey and soon came to Krika’s bar and restaurant. It’s a decent simple place and I had a beer at the bar. Burroughs called this place Ship Ahoy in Queer and spent plenty of time and money sitting at the bar annoying strangers and friends alike with his bizarre flights of fancy he liked to call ‘routines’. I’ve only read two of his books — Junky and Queer. Like Kerouac these were memoirs disguised as novels or, at least, that’s how they seem to me. The brutality of the writing is exhilarating at times and still shocking now. The filth, the despair and, of course, the incident. The moment that moved him to write. I once drank about half a bottle of Oso Negro (Black Bear) vodka in Mexico City and got into a fight with a friend over nothing. Later on in the week, the same friend and I overheard a couple of young Irish businessmen chatting in a bar about how one of them downed a load of Oso Negro and went completely off the rails, uncharacteristically aggressive. It rang a bell. Well, thank fuck it wasn’t the gin. Burroughs drank a bottle of Oso Negro gin and, in an apartment party above “Ship Ahoy” shot his wife in the face. Shot her dead as an apple fell to the floor. William Tell. Not quite. Her name was Joan Vollmer.


Ship Ahoy. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

We were starting to get hungry for lunch so decided to keep heading south down Medellín this time to find one more Burroughs house. The street was called Cerrada de Medellín and the house was number 37. I think Kerouac crashed there at some stage. He must have. He wrote Cerrada de Medellín Blues, a poem that, typically for Kerouac and his Mexico City Blues poems, has absolutely nothing to do with Mexico and reads like a stream of gibberish. His novella/memoir Tristessa is a strange case, for me anyway. I like its depiction of the city at night, of his platonic lover friend Esperanza. It contains virtuoso impressionistic tours through the dark streets and moments of revelation. It also is punctuated by Kerouac’s inane Buddhist rhetoric (he talks of tethers while drinking himself to death) and stupid comments about Mexicans, who he seems to want to call brown Aztecs or Indians at any available opportunity. And changing her name, that was the worst. Esperanza means hope. A lost drug-addled prostitute called Hope. A poetic gift of a name ruined when changed to Sadness. He must have been insufferable. His fans tend to be too. Anyway, this house looked like it was abandoned. Like it was on the verge of total collapse. A neighbour, an old lady, came out to stand in the doorway and look at us with suspicion. Lily took photos of the house and we went closer to read the sign on the door. It was from the authorities. The building was split up into various apartments, all of then looked tenantless. The sign said that the owners of at least three flats were being prosecuted for the sale of narcotics on the premises. We needed to eat.

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Burroughs’ house – 37 Cerrada de Medellín. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan.

So what were hipsters before they were hipsters? Lily has asked me that question before. I don’t know. I suppose they were what they are now, the upper class alternative artsy crowd. I’ve been called one myself and I don’t like it because I just tend to equate the word with ‘talentless misguided dickhead’. That’s something I might just very well turn out to be and probably why I don’t like being described so. I have a beard and I write poetry and I like good coffee. I seem to fit the requirements. We queued outside a place called Porco Rosso for an hour. Essentially it sells what I imagine to be typically American food—pork ribs, mac and cheese and good beer. It’s a container with wooden picnic tables. The toilets are also made from containers and the upkeep seems minimal. On the way there we passed a beautiful early 20th century house with a plaque outside informing us that Fernando del Paso once resided within. I was about to launch into a riff about how the Beats lived in tenement style accommodations while the Mexican writers seemed to have all resided in large colonial style mansions on leafy boulevards. Then I remembered tales I’d been told of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (re-imagined as Ulises Lima in Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes) and the conditions in which he was purported to have lived. They eventually seat us and we order what seems to me to be a massive quantity of ribs and I drink an IPA from the state of Colima. Craft beers, that’s another thing. Plenty of good ones around Roma these days. When I come back from washing my hands the man and woman sharing our table congratulate me on our recent wedding. They must have been chatting to Lily. I thank them. Has anything changed they ask. No, nothing at all we both agree.

I lived in Mexico City in 2009 and wandered its streets on my own. But walking with Lily was different. The imaginary conversations I had with her were now real. We both love Woody Allen movies, even the shit ones. Midnight in Paris is a particular favourite. Eating ribs and drinking ale it hit me, what this was all about. Walking around with no particular purpose. I don’t really care where these Beats lived and got high. I care about this city and its seemingly limitless layers and possibilities. Its dirt and glimmer. Its poetry and dusk. Its smells and sounds. What I had been trying to do was to walk the streets of somebody else’s city. Burroughs, Kerouac, Pacheco. If I could dive head first into Ulysses like Kugelmass in Allen’s famous story, it wouldn’t be my Dublin in which I would find myself. If I could transport back in time like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris I could meet Frida and Diego, Rulfo and Bolaño…but it wouldn’t be my Mexico City. I mean, I can’t even enter Valeria Luiselli’s city outside of her Sidewalks and she’s my contemporary, give or take three years. The circumstances are different. A woman from a Mexican family that has grown up in South Africa—of course it will be different. No, my Mexico City must come to me naturally. What about the route I walk every day after work? From Cuauhtémoc metro station across Chapultepec down Abraham González past those magnificent closed lane streets of the La Mascota building, one hundred years old this year. Or a trip to the Oxxo past the young girls on Sullivan for a beer on a Saturday night. Sadi Carnot and the young lads that will mind your car or offer to sell you parts of another car they once minded for some other poor fool. This and so much more. So enough of planned walking. Enough of the maps and guidebooks. Enough of the footsteps of others. How is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture than can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form. It’s hard to disagree. And when you find your city you should walk it. And the city that you walk should be yours. And then, if you’re lucky, you find someone who will walk its streets with you. And then you don’t need much else.

—Dylan Brennan



Though Made Of Jade

I Nezahualcóyotl ask the following:
Do we really live rooted in the earth?

Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.
Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.

Though made of jade it gets
smashed to pieces
though made of gold it breaks ,
even quetzal feathers
get ripped apart.

Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.


I Observe A Flower

Finally my heart understands:
I listen to a song,
I observe a flower.
May they never wither!


Where Will We Go?

Where will we go
when death is no more?
And is that why I live in tears?
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.
Even the princes came to die,
people get cremated.
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.




The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch
like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk
a witness to an implausible sentence
a pendulum rhythm swaying in the road

The lewd nudity, the lolling tongue,
just like a cockscomb a high tuft of hair
all this made it seem quite funny, at my horse’s
hooves whippersnappers lazed and laughed

And this funereal waste with a drooping head
swollen and scandalous up there on green gallows
allowed its stench to carry on the wind

It swung in the solemn way of the censer
and the sun ascended through impeccable blue
and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus


The Dead Man

Like a mountain tree-trunk brought to earth.
Impressive clean forehead proud and pure.
Furrowed black eyebrows drawn by a fine line
curved to trace the flight of a sketched bird

suggesting a sky. Nose just like a hawk’s
beak, egg whiteness of hair.
The fir now greenless that fell to earth
is partly ringed in frost.

The half-closed eyelid’s opening shows
a grim and glassy twinkle of sorrow.
A gloss of wellwater rigid in depth.

I scare and scatter the flies with my scarf
and on the face of the corpse
floats an unsure shadow—
it’s the flight of a condor as well as a shroud.

—Translated by Dylan Brennan



Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

Nov 092015

SengesPierre Senges. Photo credit: Philippe Bretelle


Many ways to stuff a watermelon, many ways to fill a library — you can write one, as Pierre Senges seems to be doing, turning out about a book a year since 2000, along with countless radio plays; or you can buy (or steal) books to fill your library with; or, not really any easier, if you are able you can translate them, and perhaps get a small collection going. Slowly I am making some headway into Senges’s library, studiously Englishing it, and thus growing my own. There are lots of ways to farce up a library, and lots of ways to fill one too. Here are just a few.

                                                                     —Jacob Siefring



Somewhere Jean-Paul writes: “I have forty odd libraries in my
possession that I myself — this strains credulity —
conceived and wrote in their totality.”

The library of Maria Wutz

In 1793, this same Jean-Paul brought his character the schoolmaster Maria Wutz into the world (he joins Fibel, the inventor of the abecediary, and the trader Vagel, who sold his pustules for a bargain when he contracted smallpox). Poverty has an important role to play in these adventures, it combines with the desire to read and the imaginative faculty (should one exist) to create a personal library in the style of Jean-Paul. Since he has not a single kopeck, nor a thaler nor a maravedis with which to buy the first chapter of the first volume of a popular anthology, Wutz decides to write the books of his literary patrimony himself. “Each new book whose title he assigned he was able to consider as belonging to him”: willful appropriation becomes the poor man’s revenge on the free market, the refutation of his wretched lot, making use of the means at hand.

By over a century, this schoolmaster anticipates the author of the Quixote invented by Borges: well before Pierre Menard, Wutz parasites a book, a title, and an author whenever he feels an urgent desire to compose, as soon as it is published, and on the double at that, The Philosophical Fragments of Lavater. No sooner has an editor announced the good news to booksellers, than Wutz the omnipotent sits down to his desk to start writing — as if his private library were the proof of his responsibility: the proof of little Wutz’s authority over every written thing: Wutz, at the center, as first cause, with his manuscripts for effects, and then, all around his Original Library, all the other books, displayed in bookstores as so many fraudulent editions.


The library of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

The poverty of Maria Wutz is a poverty of fables, it calls to mind that of the shoemaker who goes off into the woods with his family to abandon there his seven children, born in a time of steady work; the poverty Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky inflicts on his character is that of Russia at the start of the twentieth century (chilly or freezing, most likely): split-soled shoes, queues, famine in the Ukraine, and artificial beets (and yet, not for everyone). An intellectual lives in a tiny room: in that room, a bed, a chair, a stove (a cold one), a bookcase, “four long boards running the length of a wall that sag beneath the burden of the manuscripts.” This cold-stove poverty apparently doesn’t preclude the possession of four shelves of books, but it’s a bliss that doesn’t last: for, in the middle of winter, Krzhizhanovsky requires his character to trade in all his books for four banknotes.

What comes next in this first chapter of The Letter Killers Club is a delicate variation on the theme of absence: with many repetitions, the dispossessed student reaches out his hand towards one of the four shelves to take down a book — a gesture implying familiarity, fraternity, and an almost leisurely routine. The first time the hand meets the absence, the effect is sad, not the less painful for the gesture’s banality — but by the twentieth time, it demands passionate spiritual exercises: now it becomes a question of inventing the vanished book. At that instant, the totally denuded library not only signifies poverty, it somehow asserts its force as library, it replaces the books’ actual presence with a potential presence, upheld by memory and experience; it permits the intellectual to pursue his work by means of his memory… oh well, so much the better if memory is approximative. The book that is present is always the exact copy, always fixed and unchanging unto itself; the absent book, like a poem in a dead language translated from other translations, or like the voyages of Ulysses, will yield various recombinations of itself from one day to the next, condescending to exist in many versions, all true, all flawed, all unfinished, still unstable, as if, by vanishing, it returned to an earlier stage of its development.


The library of Giacomo Casanova

A century before Captain Nemo would find refuge among the books he kept aboard the Nautilus, another adventurer, representative of a certain society fashionable during a certain, superannuated century, also found refuge in a library: in Bohemia, at Dux, in Count von Waldstein’s castle. Giacomo becomes the librarian there at the ripe age of seventy: the exact opposite of adventure: sedentariness instead of stagecoaches, the rules of order instead of fugues, the status of a subaltern replacing the motto Follow your god, reading by candlelight replacing romantic caresses, the dusting of book bindings replacing theatrical bluffs proffered to young girls and Emperor Joseph II alike. Casanova did not fail to oversee his own decline (the brutal metamorphosis of the skirt-chaser into a bookkeeper), but he must have remembered having been tempted many times already, over the course of his youth, by libraries: he used them as rest stops. (He even once tried priesthood — but to be a priest is to wear a half-mask, as Da Ponte surely knew.)

No one knows whether the books in the library made it any easier for Casanova to pass the time, it would have had to contain an Orlando Furioso or maybe a Quixote for that; but we at least know how writing saved him from hanging himself from the Bohemian ceiling. The stay, not at all the first, was granted when he consented to be a provisory appendage to a giant book — namely, the twelve volumes of the Histoire de ma vie.


The Library of the Congress

Borges postulates the existence in Buenos Aires of a Congress of the World representing all of humanity; the Congress is of course endowed with a library, a serious library, as serious as Argentinian intellectuals trying to compete with the letters of Old Europe — and because a library springs to mind when we need to represent the universe on a more practical scale (the size of a city block). During an initial phase, the library acquires only rare and serious books (Pliny’s Natural History); second, the library avid for totality fills up with “classical works of all genres from all countries”; finally, in the last act, when the library is overflowing, raising the principle of representation to an exact paraphrase (as impossible as a map existing at a 1:1 scale), it welcomes all books in without restriction, the good and the bad alike: the Prensa, 3,400 copies of Don Quixote, university theses (sic), account books, theater programs. Later, we will see how a library can be rich with books that do not yet belong to it — Borges, who knew how necessary forgetting is to the intelligence, recalls that a library finds its meaning in the items it lacks: lacunae without which librarians would be unable to breathe, or move.


The library of Bouvard and Pécuchet

The one thousand five hundred books Gustave Flaubert read in Croisset, or at the Rouen library, or  at the Nationale in Paris, steadfastly devoured to the point of having one’s brain metamorphosed into soft cheese, are also the books in the Chavignolles library — Bouvard and Pécuchet preside over it, just as they preponderate over their vegetable garden, spades in hand: proud in anticipation of the duty done. For Gustave, the one thousand five hundred books meant afternoons of misery in poorly heated rooms; for these two gentlemen, one thousand five hundred books assembled in a farmhouse are the promise of knowledge, accession to knowledge, or, better yet, the promise of the layman’s conversion into a savant — they contain pedagogic virtue, they are receptacles for truths, before long they will be objects of critique and renouncement: little does it matter, venerated or tossed into the ditch, books are the attribute of comfortable people: yes, people who reflect on when they will nap and have the means to show off shelves of beautiful bindings to the neighbors.

To these two gentlemen, the contents of a library are: books to read and possess, authors to boo once deification is over (booing being the amateur’s free will in the professionals’ library), a mélange of indispensable classics and stupefyingly dull volumes, teeming with pignoufisms. Like the library of the Congress, Pécuchet’s farm simultaneously contains a Pantagruel, treatises on hygiene, and the sermons of some priest — and when it comes time to buy up paper by the kilo, the dream of universalism will be fulfilled tenfold: to choose, to weed out the good from the bad will require a nerve which, thanks to their intimate knowledge of failure, these gentlemen have learned to mistrust. In the end, this will be Everything, the admirable, consolatory, formless Everything, exhaustivity joined to nothing, if not to the right edition, and the eternity of unmoving things.


The library according to Émile Borel and Arthur Stanley Eddington

Exhaustivity in writing is a dream or a nightmare wrought in the Pécuchetian style, that of a totality abolishing judgment — or in the style of Maria Wutz, simultaneously obeying the desire to read and the desire to write. Those who dread Bouvard’s old papers as much as Wutz’s graphomania will always be able to fall back on the combinatorial arts when they want to access the Great All in one of its many forms. Many years before the library of Babel, built of hexagons and exhaustion, in 1913 in Le Journal de Physique (5th series, volume 3, pages 189-196, these details admitted with a librarian’s taste for precision), Émile Borel, the mathematician, invents a metaphor that will go on to enjoy a certain success: a million apes randomly typing away on the keys of a million typewriters for ten hours every day will eventually, “before the year is up,” compose “identical copies of books of every sort and in every language kept in the world’s best-stocked libraries.” Fifteen years later, in the mind of Arthur Stanley Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World), the million monkeys become an army and “the world’s best-stocked libraries” the singular library of the British Museum. It remains to be seen if the substitution of the British Museum for all the world’s libraries is a British riposte to the pretentions of the little Frenchman Borel, or if it’s  rather a question of the intrinsic plasticity of stories, which are passed along only by mutating (mutation being a consequence, and perhaps also a cause). In other versions of the fable, the British Museum becomes the work of William Shakespeare; in still others the work of Shakespeare becomes the ensemble of the sonnets, or a single sonnet, sometimes even a single line of verse — the monkey, for his part, is ever present.


The library of Thomas De Quincey

A library no single man could ever exhaust: it might become proverbial, it represents an infinity of books compared to the reader’s smallness — it belongs to the British Museum, it might be the equivalent of the library composed by a million chimpanzees over the course of a single year. Infinity signifies humanist generosity, the incontinence of editors, and the strike force of the public authorities (when libraries are a cultural affair of the State). The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time — to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery,” but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”


The library of Thomas Browne

Being a catalog, it must take the form of a book, but the library building could be deduced from a certain number of pages found between Urne Buriall (a meditation on death and funerary receptacles) and The Garden of Cyrus (in which it is the quincunx in question). Its title is Museum Clausum, its more explicit subtitle Bibliotheca Abscondita: the reader finds therein (to quote Browne himself) “some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living” — and among these remarkable books, a poem in the Getick language by Ovid, a detailed account of Hannibal’s march across the Alps, a fragment from Pytheas, instructions to create a demon, Seneca’s letters to Saint Paul, and many other marvels. (To add dubiousness to dubiety, a contemporary edition of the Museum includes a translator’s extrapolation: a fraudulent addition, the opposite of kleptomania.)


The library of Seleucos

According to an Armenian tradition passed down down to Mar Ibas and reported by the philologist historian Luciano Canfora, as Xerxes’ successor Seleucos “ordered all the books in the world to be burned, so that time could be reset to begin with him” (we recognize all the books in the world as an imperial or puerile exaggeration, just as we know that wiping the slate clean is in men of power a sign of weakness). To all the libraries assembled since Alexandria, small and large, authentic and spurious, we must then also add the many absent libraries: a perimeter traced in the soil, the residuum of a catalog, footprints of soldiers stamped in the ashes. Canfora notes that the idea of the library is inevitably tied to the idea of its destruction — or to put it more clearly, obliteration is part and parcel of our way of understanding libraries. He mysteriously adds that the conflagration arises “as if a greater force were intervening,” to destroy an organism that has become impossible to control: “uncontrollable, because it reveals an infinite capacity for growth, and also because of the equivocal (often forged) nature of the material that poured into them.” This hypothesis of an expiation of the fake by fire has a seductively romanesque quality to it, seductive like the apocalypse of Sardanapalus, as it links counterfeiting to the fires of ancient Rome and Alexandria — but it can also leave us feeling perplexed.


The library of Don Quixote

Sardanapalus organized his own private apocalypse, dragging maids, mistresses, and gold pieces all into the same pyre — against his will Señor Quijano organizes one of these expiatory fires too, in his farmyard: his library was the occupation of his lone nights, it was the vehicle of his hallucination, it was his merchant marine and the description of Spain from a certain point of view, but then, it was consumed in a cloud of smoke. But, however unhinged he is, Don Quixote knows that books sometimes outlast their auto-da-fé: that’s the advantage of existing in numerous copies in various locations, the libraries repeating themselves here and there, with variations.


The library of Aristotle’s inheritor’s inheritors

By turns, conservation can prove destructive, even fatal: I’m referring to those elderly archivists who were suffocated under a mountain of books, and the paradoxes of conservation too: after a certain point has been passed, conservation runs counter to reading. The heirs of Neleus, who inherited Aristotle’s library, set out to save their master’s treasure, lest it should end up one day on the shelves of the royal library; those clever, obstinate fellows had the idea to dig a hole somewhere under the house, and to bury the scrolls there, then forget them, quite purposefully, with the sense of a job well done — the humidity, rodents, and other vermin hoarded the bequest, which is to say, reduced it to dust.


The library of Diodorus

Bibliotheca historica is the title he gives his book, an honest way of owning that his chapters are a compilation of other chapters taken from elsewhere, and that Diodorus is one of those historians at the table, or geographers hunched over their atlases, a habitué of the libraries like the rest (Pliny, that other compiler of talent, gives Diodorus credit for not lying about his work’s contents as much as he did about his working methods).


The library of Moby Dick

Melville, we know, compares whales with books; he begins his Moby-Dick with ten pages of extracts taken from a universal patrimony. The white whale on one side, an entire library consecrated to cetalogy on the other, suffering from their distance, demonstrate the difficulty of establishing a link between a series of words and a thing. (Anyways, according to William Faulkner (William Faulkner according to Pierre Michon, that is), Moby Dick never read Sigmund Freud’s books, nor William Shakespeare’s  plays — to swallow them, contain them, that’s a whole other story, though.


The library of Réjean Ducharme

He used to visit the municipal library on his bicycle, or the bookstore rather, in a landscape singularly rare in books, so far from Alexandria (his inventions might be born from these hours spent sifting, these treasures for his island life). The extracts at the start of Le nez qui voque compete with, or parody, or pay homage to the library of Moby-Dick: we would think we were hearing a transcription of the New World Symphony for a single ukulele (the exact same ukulele played by Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, directed by Richard Fleisher).


The libraries of François Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, and Gilbert Sorrentino

The first is Saint-Victor’s in chapter VII of Pantagruel, it contains the Pantofola decretorum (The Slipper of the Decrees); the second belongs to Doctor Faustroll and contains the first; the third is in Mulligan Stew, and contains a 1001 Ways to Stuff a Watermelon (the character who catalogs it “makes no claim to completeness, since there may well be other materials in those rooms that do not exist”).

(The stuffing is contained in the watermelon, the watermelon in the 1001 Ways, the book of the 1001 Ways within the library, the library in a house of indefinite form, the indefinite house within a novel with the title Guinea Red — the novel Guinea Red floats in Mulligan Stew, Mulligan Stew takes its place on a library’s shelf, and the library, who knows, maybe among the ingredients for a watermelon stuffing.)


The library of Miklós Szentkuthy

Twenty-five thousand volumes, twice what the Nautilus’ library contained, were how Miklós Szentkuthy got through half a century of Hungarian Communism, with that manifest autarky which an abundance of reading secures — and to those twenty-five thousand volumes Szentkuthy had time to add the one hundred thousand pages of his journal, now preserved in the Archives of the literary museum of Budapest, entrusted to the conservators to guard their secrets and reveal them only a quarter-century after the death of its author, which is to say — now.


The other library of Alexandria

Ptolemy, who spent pharaonic sums to have masterpieces copied and fill up his library, was once informed by a man of letters, a half-idealist, half-jokester, that much of the world was still full of books to discover and hoard — which shows how a library is rich, too, with the books outside its walls.

—Pierre Senges translated by Jacob Siefring

“Plusieurs façons de farcir une pastèque” was originally published in French in fall 2013 in les écrits, a Québecois literary journal, issue 139.


Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over sixty plays for radio. His erudite fictions often unfold in the margins of other texts as historical commentaries and hypothetical reconstructions. He is the recipient of prizes for Ruines-de-Rome (2002) and Veuves au maquillage (2000), as well as for his radio work. His longest novel, Fragments de Lichtenberg (2008), is forthcoming in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. His most recent book, Achab (séquelles), is published by Éditions Verticales and considers the lives of the white whale and Captain Ahab in the aftermath of Moby-Dick.



Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator. His translations have appeared in Gorse Journal, Hyperion, The Brooklyn Rail, and Vestiges. His criticism and reviews have been published in The Quarterly Conversation and Golden Handcuffs Review and other outlets. His first book-length translation, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, is forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press. He keeps a blog at



Nov 082015
xAnne_Hutchinson_on_Trial Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia



Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia


There may be no more eloquent contemporary defender of Calvinism and the Puritan tradition than the 2012 National Humanities Medal recipient, Marilynne Robinson. In prize-winning novels from Housekeeping (1980) through Gilead (2004), and Home (2008), to Lila (2014), Robinson swims against what Yeats called “this filthy modern tide.” She does so more explicitly in essays, collected in The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010) and The Giveness of Things (2015). Her 1994 essay, “Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry,” appeared in the Summer 2015 special issue of Salmagundi, celebrating that magazine’s 50th anniversary. I encountered it there at the same time that I happened to be reading, also for the first time, “Mrs. Hutchinson,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1830 sketch contextualizing and dramatizing the 1637 civil trial of Anne Hutchinson. It seemed to me that one remark of Robinson was refuted by both sides involved in what Hawthorne rightly calls the “remarkable case” of that  multifaceted woman—variously described as an antinomian dissenter, pioneer proto-feminist, trouble-making rebel, and champion of religious liberty. The Puritan civil court pronounced its verdict on Anne Hutchinson on the sleety evening of November 8—378 years ago this very day.

In “Puritans and Prigs,” Robinson distinguishes between shallow contemporary values (fashionable, judgmental “priggishness” in various forms) and the richness of an ancestry some progressives contemptuously spurn as “puritanical.” That misused adjective, itself an example of linguistic “priggishness,” has had the unfortunate effect of causing far too many Americans to glibly dismiss a civilization which, while it flourished in North America, established, as Robinson claims, “great universities and cultural institutions and an enlightened political order.” Puritan civilization achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity, and mass prosperity; in short, what Robinson summarizes as “happiness,” at least as it was conceived of in pre-modern days, before being reduced to mass consumerism and sexual liberation. Not, not at all, that the actual as opposed to the caricatured Puritans were opposed to sexual happiness or, for all their seriousness, to joy in general. But whole volumes of scholarship devoted to the history of New England Puritanism (and of the related Quaker tradition in Pennsylvania) have been trumped in the popular imagination by H. L. Mencken’s witty, unforgettable, and (ever since he uttered it in his 1949 Sententiae) widely accepted definition: “Puritanism—The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Marilynne Robinson’s antithesis between Prig and Puritan sets an advantaged, judgmental contemporary “elite,” distinguished by politically correct discourse, in stark opposition to the old Puritan Elect, “chosen by God in a manner assumed to be consistent with his tendency to scorn the hierarchies and overturn the judgments of this world.” Though Robinson’s social and ecological agenda, stressing responsibility to others and to the earth, seems “liberal,” it is, she insists, in the tradition of Calvin, whom she cites on our responsibility to our neighbors, and whose imperative she quotes directly: to “embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love.” No political conservative, Robinson is nevertheless telling in targeting liberal smugness, one of its distinguishing marks being disdain for those who have failed to keep up with every nuance of ever-changing politically correct language. This exclusionary tendency of progressivism leads her to the following sweeping claim (defensively hedged by a double qualifier regarding Calvinism): “I have not yet found a Puritan whose Calvinism was so decayed or so poorly comprehended that he or she would say to another soul, I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” Really?

Since I was reading these words at the very time I was engaging Hawthorne’s “Mrs. Hutchinson,” it occurred to me that Anne Hutchinson, hardly an obscure figure, would have provided Robinson with a preeminent example of her sought-for-in-vain Puritan. For Anne Hutchinson most certainly did say to others—indeed to the male Elect governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony itself—“I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” And there is a related but far wider point on which I disagree with Marilynne Robinson. Her cogent defense of Calvinism in general and of the Puritan tradition in particular, though it provides a contrarian and tonic corrective to some mushy secular thinking, passes over the somber, brutal cruelty of which the Puritans were capable. Worse yet, she implicitly accepts much that is theologically inhumane and repellent, above all, the doctrinal insistence, derived by Calvin primarily from Augustine, on original sin and the eternal punishment of most of humankind: the ultimate and everlasting exclusion from the “circle of the elect.” But it is time to turn from Robinson’s defense of Puritan tradition to the subject indicated by my title: the dramatization of the trial of Anne Hutchinson by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American writer most ancestrally and thematically haunted by the darker aspects of that tradition.


Born on the 4th of July in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne came into the world  associated with two major events of colonial history: the 1776 declaration of the colonies’ independence from England, and, almost a century earlier, the Salem witch trials. His earliest American ancestor, William Hathorne, who arrived in Salem in 1630 with John Winthrop, was a magistrate noted for persecuting Quakers; his son, John, another prominent Puritan judge, tried and condemned Salem witches in 1692. In his writing, Hawthorne (who probably added the “w” to his family name in part to distance himself from such ancestors) is unsurprisingly preoccupied with hidden sin, guilt, and the individual’s confrontation both with the larger community and with evil. A loss to his biographers, but a benefit to his art, his own religious views remain ambiguous. He later characterized his forced attendance as a boy at Salem’s Meeting House, where his ancestors had worshiped for nearly two centuries, as “the frozen purgatory of my childhood,” and, as an adult, he attended no church, subscribed to no orthodoxy.

Yet it’s no wonder that perhaps his most perceptive admirer, the author of Moby Dick, famously singled out in Hawthorne “his great power of blackness,“ finding in his friend that “Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” Hawthorne’s was indeed, as Melville recognized, a “deeply thinking mind,” and it produced fictions (sketches, short stories, novels) rising from mere “romances” to some of the most profound psychological explorations in American literature: texts in which there are seldom simple answers, and several modes of perception and interpretation remain open to attentive readers. The origin of these multiple perspectives is, of course, the open or inconclusive point of view of the author himself, both as a man of his particular ancestry and psychological temperament, and, more importantly, as an artist.

To cite the most notable example: after 165 years of general perusal and scholarly study of his masterpiece (and the first great American novel), The Scarlet Letter, it is still difficult to determine precisely what Hawthorne himself, caught between the Puritan and contemporary worlds, believed regarding Hester’s behavior. He is unwilling to commit himself: either to fully approve of her sexual rebellion against unnatural restraints, as many romantic Transcendentalist individualists did and as most contemporary readers do, or to align himself with the strict moral code and harshness of Puritan judgment. The aesthetic result is to simultaneously liberate and burden us, his readers, with the task of interpretation. Though also true (despite their symbolic names) of the characters of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, even of little Pearl, it is this suspended or divided judgment regarding Hester that makes this novel, somber but no moral tract, an endlessly fascinating work of art.

The same is true of Hawthorne’s ambivalent stance toward Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), another woman subjected to Puritan judgment. His admiration of her intelligence and audacity is mingled with criticism and at least partial concurrence in the verdict of the court. In both texts, Hawthorne seems as conflicted, or as adroitly balanced on the historical wind, as Andrew Marvell in his magnanimous description of the doomed king on the execution block (“He nothing common did or mean/ Upon that memorable scene…”) in that greatest of public poems, the “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” or in Yeats’s equally public and equally double-minded group-elegy, “Easter 1916,” which, like “The Second Coming,” consciously echoes Marvell’s imagery and dual perspective.

Hawthorne’s perspectivism (Marvellian, Yeatsian, almost Nietzschean) seems nothing if not modern; and yet, at the same time, those “visitations” Melville mentioned characteristically took, in Hawthorne’s fictions, the “shape” of parables and allegories—devices seeming to some, even at the time, rather old-fashioned. The same might be said of his prose. Hawthorne’s literary style, very much in the opulent rhetorical mode of the 18th century, is too often syntactically complex, inflated in vocabulary, over-loaded with latinates. Sometimes such rhetorical inflation was employed, as in Jonathan Swift, in the service of wit. Of a clergyman who had predicted that the world would end in 1843, Hawthorne mockingly observed that he appeared to have “given himself up to despair at the tedious delay of the final conflagration.” At other times, the humor was inadvertent or misplaced. The simple description, in an early draft of his story “Ethan Brand,” of a “great, old dog,” was heightened in revision so that the poor creature became a “grave and venerable quadraped”—precisely the sort of “poetic diction” Wordsworth had ridiculed four decades earlier in his famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

It must be added, of course, that Hawthorne’s formal and highly “finished” rhetoric is usually as lucid as it is orotund. Employing an answerable style, he produced two fully realized novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and, writing in his distinct and unmistakable manner, such wonderful shorter fictions as (to choose a dozen) “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Snow-Image,” “The Wives of the Dead,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” “Ethan Brand,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” and “Feathertop.” Nevertheless, and not infrequently, Hawthorne’s tendency to linguistic expansion led—as F. O. Matthiessen noted three-quarters of a century ago in American Renaissance—to diffusion of detail and consequent confusion for the reader. Though he laments and chuckles over Hawthorne’s “grave and venerable quadraped,” Matthiessen never mentions “Mrs. Hutchinson.” But we need look no further for an example of misplaced elaboration than the dreadful opening sentence of that sketch: “The character of this female suggests a train of thought which will form as natural an introduction to her story as most of the prefaces to Gay’s Fables or the tales of Prior, besides that the general soundness of the moral may excuse any want of present applicability.”

The opacity is less attributable to literary allusion than to convoluted rhetoric. Even for readers familiar with Gay and Prior, this introductory sentence is a syntactical dragon at the mouth of the cave. Hawthorne is trying to say that, as in John Gay’s Fables (many of them aimed at moderating the behavior of the “female sex”) and in the format occasionally adopted by Matthew Prior (a poem followed by “The Moral”), there is a “moral” in Anne Hutchinson’s “story,” indeed an instructive precept of such “general soundness” that it supersedes the absence of any particular details that may not seem immediately relevant. But if the author were someone less notable than Hawthorne, and the case of Anne Hutchinson of less intrinsic interest, only the hardiest reader would forge on to the next sentence.


That didactic opening initiates the prologue to the specific case of “Mrs. Hutchinson,” a preamble which, whether making the prosecution’s case or meant to provoke dissent, raises questions of perspective. Is the “we” here Hawthorne speaking in propria persona? or the voice of an unreliable “narrator”? The content and tone presumably reflect some of the author’s own complaints about “female” writers. What are acknowledged to be “slightly exaggerated” forebodings—that these “ink-stained Amazons” will assume an even more public role, in a “period” from which the speaker hopes he will “be gone hence ere it arrive”—are surely to be taken, as the wit and hyperbole suggest, with a pinch of salt. He seems considerably more serious about the dangers of women obeying “the inward voice.” The long “Introductory” to The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom House,” is integral to an understanding of that novel. In his preamble to this sketch is Hawthorne loading the dice, or inviting resistance? What light, if any, does the prologue, with its apprehension about inspired women going public, cast on Hawthorne’s presentation of the character of the most public, inwardly inspired female Puritan dissident, and on her trial as portrayed in “Mrs. Hutchinson”?

We’ll return to the preamble, but our main interest is in the story it ambiguously precedes. Historically, and as recreated by Hawthorne, this “remarkable case” is part of an archetypal conflict: between individual and community, rebellion and conformity; between an “inner,” higher law, signaled by the “inward” voice and light, and society’s external law; between truth and delusion, freedom and thought-control. And there is a subtheme—from Antigone through Joan of Arc to the present—of the lone woman among male antagonists. Like his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson (the great champion of self-reliance against the forces of conformity), Hawthorne was fascinated and frightened by the formidable Margaret Fuller. As already suggested, he had similarly mixed feelings about Anne Hutchinson, whose civil trial in November, 1637, he dramatized in this sketch (The later religious trial, on 22 March 1638, simply confirmed the guilty verdict.) The same ambivalence evident in “Mrs. Hutchinson”—fascination and admiration mingled with reservation and judgment—reappears two decades later in Hawthorne’s depiction of Hester Prynne, the half-Calvinist, half-Emersonian heroine of The Scarlet Letter. We may devote a few moments to the central figure of that 1850 novel before returning to the central figure of “Mrs. Hutchinson.”


Hester Prynne2

However well we may think of her, Hester considers herself stained by sin and justly burdened by shame and sorrow. This is hardly the case with Anne Hutchinson. At one point, however, Hester characterizes her adultery with the inadequate Dimmesdale as an act of mutual “consecration.” The community around her at the time condemns her transgression; Hester regrets rather than repents of her sin, and, significantly, it is in her mouth that Hawthorne rightly puts the visionary anticipation of a future female “angel and apostle” who will—“when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s good time”—reveal a “new truth,” establishing “the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness,” and “showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!” Anne Hutchinson, who had fifteen children, knew all about marital sex, and would certainly have endorsed Hester Prynne’s establishment of “sacred love” on the foundational concept of a “new truth” superior to received dogma on sex and on the treatment of women.

But seeking parallels for Hester, we are as likely to look forward as back, and to fiction as much as to history. Hester anticipates Hawthorne’s own (Margaret Fuller-based) Zenobia in The Blithesdale Romance (1851) and Miriam, with her mysterious past, in The Marble Faun (1860). Hester is also a precursor of Henry James’s magnetic Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, and of the bold heroine of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. There is no question that Hester’s self-reliance, greatness of spirit, and balked but still brave and vital sexuality impressed her own creator, winning enough of divided Hawthorne’s admiration to turn him from a “mere” romancer to a novelist of almost unparalleled psychological depth.

The first great heroine of American fiction, Hester is infinitely superior to the men with whom she is involved: her sensitive, conscience-tortured and cowering lover Dimmesdale and the cold Chillingworth—the elderly husband from whom she had been separated when they sailed in different ships for the New World. Having survived shipwreck, he emerges from the forest disguised, driven by diabolical vengeance, and determined to expose the secret father of Hester’s child, Pearl. The corrosive impact of Chillingworth on the life of Arthur Dimmesdale is a significant aspect of the novel. But it is, of course, Hester herself who matters most to Hawthorne—and to generations of readers, even to most contemporary younger readers for whom Puritan moral strictures and sexual guilt may often seem more quaint than compelling.

The communal condemnation of Hester Prynne is “puritanical” on overtly sexual grounds; the communal condemnation of Anne Hutchinson was on overtly theological grounds. Gender, however, was a huge factor in both cases, cases  linked by Hawthorne. For in the very audacity of her self-reliance, Hester is a fictional analogue of the admirable if unrestrainable Hutchinson, specifically alluded to in “The Prison Door,” the short opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter.

At the threshold of that prison, the “black flower of civilized society,” there grows, we are told, “a wild rose-bush,” its fragrance and fragile beauty suggesting to the entering or condemned prisoner that “the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.” One of its flowers, imagined presented to the reader, might, in the chapter’s final sentence, “symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.” The rose-bush had “survived out of the stern old wilderness…long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally over-shadowed it,” but what was its own origin? Perhaps, “as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door.” Before being banished, Hutchinson had indeed, between her two trials, civil and religious, been imprisoned, as had Hester, by the Puritan authorities.


Unknown artist. Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston. From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. LC-USZ62-53343From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

How had it all come about? Husband and eleven children in tow, Anne Hutchinson had emigrated from England three years earlier, following to Massachusetts the dynamic minister John Cotton—grandfather of Cotton Mather of the Salem witch trials and an ancestor of the mother of Emerson’s second wife. There she quickly became the most famous or notorious woman in American colonial history: the fiercely independent and charismatic religious dissenter who, along with brother-in-law John Wheelwright, defied the male elders of her Puritan community. Hutchinson emphasized not only salvation through divine grace rather than good works, but individual intuition and a rejection of that primal Augustinian-Calvinist concept: original sin. Denouncing the colony’s clergy (with the exception of Cotton), she threatened divine judgment on the leaders and the land itself were she to be hindered in her ministry. Under questioning on the final day of her civil trial, she claimed to be directly inspired by God, heeding an “inward voice,” illuminated by an “inward light.” Judgment was passed, and she was banished from the colony.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocJohn Wheelwright, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law. Attributed to John Coles Sr. (1749-1809) who copied the image from a c. 1677 portrait by an unknown artist. via American Antiquarian Society via Wikipedia

Drummed out of the Bay Colony and finding refuge in Rhode Island, Anne, her husband, children, and some of her followers established a religious community. After the death of that husband (dismissed by Hawthorne as, “like most husbands of celebrated women,” an “insignificant appendage of his mightier wife”), and restive in Rhode Island, Anne Hutchinson pushed on to the Dutch territories, “where, having felled the trees of a virgin soil, she became herself the virtual head, civil and ecclesiastical, of a little colony.” But followed, “her enemies believed,” by “the anger of Heaven,” she came to what Hawthorne calls an “awful close.”

With fourteen of her followers, Anne Hutchinson perished in an Indian massacre in what is now the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx (hence the Hutchinson River and Parkway). The mistaken slaughter (the Algonquians, including a group called the Siwanoy, intended vengeance against the Dutch) occurred during an evening prayer-session at her home, with most of the Hutchinson children among the victims. “In the deep midnight, their cry rang through the forest.” The one survivor, Anne’s nine-year-old daughter Susanna, was captured, adopted, and raised by Wampage, penitent chief of the Siwanoy war party. That “circumstance” did not, Hawthorne concludes, go “unnoticed by our stern ancestors, in considering the fate of her who had so troubled their religion, that an infant daughter, the sole survivor amid the terrible destruction of her mother’s household, was bred in a barbarous faith, and never learned the way to the Christian’s Heaven. Yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met.”

John Cotton Hutchinsons mentor original unknown - Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via WikipediaJohn Cotton, Hutchinson’s mentor. Original unknown – Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via Wikipedia


That is the final sentence of what is less a short story or historical account than a “sketch,” a favorite Hawthorne genre, here combining fact and imagination. The slightly uneasy relationship between historical synopsis and the creative, more “fictional” evocation of local and courtroom detail is signaled by such awkward signpost-sentences as, “We shall endeavor to give a more practical idea of this part of her course,” and “We shall here resume the more picturesque style of narration.”

However we categorize it, “Mrs. Hutchinson” begins, as earlier noted, with a preamble (“hinting” at “sentiments which may be developed on a future occasion”) revealing Hawthorne’s (or the narrator’s) less-than-liberated conception of the role of women in society, whether Puritan society or his own, circa 1830. “There are,” we are told, “portentous indications, changes gradually taking place in the habits and feelings of the gentle sex, which seem to threaten our posterity with many of those public women, whereof one was a burthen too grievous for our fathers.” The allusion to Anne Hutchinson, whose intellectual powers are not only acknowledged but demonstrated in the sketch that follows, is itself followed by the assertion that “Woman’s intellect should never give the tone to that of man, and even her morality is not the material for masculine virtue.” The narrator (who will shortly revisit the contrast between virtù and “virtue”) fears an “evil, likely to be a growing one.” He envisions a time when “fair orators shall be as numerous as the fair authors of our own day.” Women have set aside their needlework to take up the pen, “ink-stained Amazons” threatening their male rivals until “petticoats wave triumphant over all the field.” Given this comic hyperbole, are we meant to share or resist his fear of what worse evil will follow when they enter fully into public life, trading the delicate if paternalistic “respect” of men for a dubious “fame”?

We, or women at least, are admonished (in revealingly prurient imagery fleshing out the earlier implicit contrast between male virtù and female “virtue,” or chastity) that there is a “sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world, with indications by which its inmost secrets may be searched out” (italics added). What is normal in a man is “irregular” in a “woman,” who, “when she feels the impulse of genius like a command of Heaven within her, should be aware that she is relinquishing a part of the loveliness of her sex, and obey the inward voice with sorrowing reluctance, like the Arabian maid who bewailed the gift of Prophecy.” The Arab-Christian Sajah, who declared herself a prophetess after the death of Muhammed, but later repented, is here held up as a warning to women who yield to the inward voice—women such as “the celebrated subject of this sketch,” Anne Hutchinson, who had also hearkened with dire consequences to a voice she claimed to be that of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The very next sentence, in which Hawthorne launches the specific tale of the titular Mrs. Hutchinson, informs us that she was “a woman of extraordinary talent and strong imagination”—the latter quality, augmented by the “enthusiasm” of the times, prompting her to “stand forth as a reformer in religion.” Even in England, though restrained by the milder Cotton, “she had shown symptoms of irregular and daring thought.” Once arrived in Massachusetts, “she bore trouble in her own bosom, and could find no peace in this chosen land.” She held weekly meetings, promulgating “strange and dangerous opinions,” above all, challenging the authorities by asserting the superiority of her own inner light. Thus, she threatened the “very existence” of the Puritan community, based on unity and stability.


Following that signpost sentence offering to give a “more practical idea of this part of her course,” we are presented with “a summer evening,” with “dusk” settling “heavily” upon woods, waves, and the peninsular colony, increasing the “dismal aspect” of that “embryo town,” its houses “straw-thatched and lowly roofed,” its streets “still roughened by the roots of trees, as if the forest, departing at the approach of man, had left its reluctant footprints behind.” This is early Boston, said to have “drawn tears of despondency from Mrs. Hutchinson, though she believed that her mission thither was divine.” Hawthorne’s camera moves closer, to focus on a particular house, then a room, where a plainly attired middle-aged woman, her dark eyes “kindling up with a gradual brightness,” is preaching, surrounded by an engaged audience, whether disapproving, or challenged, or inspired.

Four men among her “hearers” are mentioned by name: the young recent governor, Sir Henry Vane, a Hutchinson enthusiast; John Cotton, her former and formative mentor, now wavering in his support; one Ward, who thinks to diminish her message by frivolous wit; and Hugh Peters, “full of holy wrath,” barely able to contain himself from “rushing forward to convict her of damnable heresies.” He is foremost among the sterner ministers present, frowning and whispering among themselves as she “unfolds her seditious doctrine.” Representative of some others in the audience is one “whose faith seems shaken in those whom he had trusted for years; the females, on the other hand, are shuddering and weeping, and at times they cast a desolate look of fear among them.” But many hunger for the “bread” she offers; and “young men lean forward, fiery and impatient, fit instruments for whatever rash deed may be suggested.” What is the subversive message, delivered with “eloquence,” that stirs all these disparate passions?

The woman tells them (and cites texts from the Holy Book to prove her words) that they have put their trust in unregenerated and uncommissioned men, and have followed them into the wilderness for naught. Therefore their hearts are turning from those whom they had chosen to lead them to Heaven, and they feel like children who have been enticed far from home, and see the features of their guides change all at once, assuming a fiendish shape in some frightful solitude.

Exposing what she claims the people were feeling—that the colony’s leaders were false prophets, less saintly than demonic—was too much. Such proceedings “could not long be endured by the provincial government.” Though impressed by Anne Hutchinson’s intellect and audacity, Hawthorne understands the other side of the conflict, may even concur that she not only challenged the theocratic leadership, but presented an existential threat, endangering the very survival of the colony. “When the individual feels, the community reels”: thus spake the thought-controllers in Huxley’s Brave New World. But, in religious terms, the challenge to established order presented by divisive individualism has roots much deeper than modern dystopian fantasy. The primordial unity of Christianity, whether dated to Peter’s rock, to the Church Fathers, or to the wedding of religion and state under Constantine, remained an ideal that still inspired, however paradoxically, considerable nostalgia among the very Protestant Reformers who had shattered that original unity. When Separatists separate, the centrifugal process gathers its own momentum. Once harmony is violated, the process ends, potentially, in chaos, with multiplying sects either flying apart or consuming each other. Discussing celestial “order” and “degree” as reflected in the “unity and married calm of states,” Shakespeare’s Ulysses famously observes, in the war-tent scene of Troilus and Cressida: “untune that string,/ And, hark, what discord follows.”

Hutchinson’s was, as Hawthorne tells us, a “remarkable case,” but it was hardly without precedent, and it has been repeated in various forms. It was, Hawthorne insists, a case “in which religious freedom was wholly inconsistent with public safety.” In a more liberal age, such dissent could be tolerated, but the “principles” of the early colonial period, “an illiberal age,” indicated “the very course which must have been pursued,” both by “worldly policy and enlightened wisdom.” Fleeing religious persecution in the Old World, the Puritans had crossed a perilous ocean and achieved a precarious toehold in the New: a harsh, alien landscape. If they were to survive in this “frightful solitude,” they must neither disperse nor allow their religious experiment to splinter in sectarian schism. Hawthorne succinctly and rather beautifully epitomizes the Puritans’ particular participation in the wider and deeper irenic impulse to maintain Christian unity and stability based on reason and peace (the English translation of the Greek eirene):

Unity of faith was the star that had guided these people over the deep, and a diversity of sects would either have scattered them from the land to which they had as yet so few attachments, or perhaps have excited a diminutive civil war among those who had come so far to worship together.

With opposition to the establishment diminished by the removal of Vane from office (he would depart for England, never to return), and with the “wise and pious” John Cotton recognizing that his opinions were “unhappily discordant with those of the Powers that be,” the stage was set for a trial. A “Synod, the first in New England, was speedily assembled, and pronounced its condemnation of the obnoxious doctrines” of Anne Hutchinson, who was “next summoned” (perhaps mistakenly, more likely for dramatic purposes, Hawthorne reverses the actual order of the religious and civil trials) “before the supreme civil tribunal.” It is at this point that Hawthorne resumes “the more picturesque style of narration.”


The hall in “New Towne” (later Cambridge) in which the Elders meet, “sitting in judgment upon the disturber of Israel,” is humble: “rude benches,” a floor of axe-hewn wooden planks, roof-beams that still “wear the rugged bark with which they grew up in the forest.” Had he been writing seven years later, Hawthorne would surely have noted a striking coincidence: for it was in a new but almost equally humble wooden building on the exact site of this log church that, in 1837, Emerson would deliver his signature lecture, the Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar.” That second declaration of American independence demoted conventional “tuition” (allied with mere “understanding”) in favor of self-reliant “intuition,” characteristic of “genius,” and associated with the Puritan and Quaker inward light. “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else,” Emerson confided to his cousin, David Haskins. “I believe in the still, small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He was fusing God’s “still, small voice” as heard by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ insistence that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). In the Phi Beta Kappa address, Emerson celebrated an America in which “each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” Echoing his British Romantic mentors, Carlyle and Coleridge, especially the latter’s democratic and religious emphasis on “each and all,” with “every man the Temple of Deity,” Emerson was also, in effect, championing the claim of immanent and unmediated revelation for which the Puritan Elect had tried and condemned Anne Hutchinson on that very spot precisely two hundred years earlier.

In a more radical endorsement of that doctrine a year later, again at Harvard, this time in the Divinity School Address, Emerson imagined Jesus saying, in a momentary “jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’.” What is needed, Emerson told the shocked clergy present among the thrilled young graduates, is direct, unmediated vision. Each neophyte preacher in the audience, fortified by the God within him, is to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”

For his radical proclamation of inner-light self-reliance and insistence on “reading God directly,” Emerson was not, unlike Anne Hutchinson, banished from Massachusetts, nor was he tried for heresy, as his contemporary Abner Kneeland had been. But three decades would pass before the “mad dog,” “blasphemer,” “infidel,” and “cloven-hoofed pantheist” (charges he endured with characteristic equanimity) was invited back to Harvard. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from his alma mater following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint thyself at first-hand with Deity.” If her scalped and burned body could rise from its grave, Anne Hutchinson would be entitled to smile, grimly but triumphantly.


We can return now to the rugged site of her civil trial, as vividly recreated by Hawthorne. The hearth of “unhammered stone” is heaped with blazing logs. “A sleety shower beats fitfully against the windows, driven by the November blast, which comes howling onward from the northern desert, the boisterous and unwelcome herald of a New England winter.” There are, within the hall, other boisterous, unwelcome, and violent forces threatening the community: “Here are collected all those blessed Fathers of the land, who rank in our veneration next to the Evangelists of Holy Writ, and here also are many, unpurified from the fiercest errors of the age and ready to propagate the religion of peace by violence.”

The “highest place” among the Elders is occupied by John Winthrop. It was Winthrop, leader of the Puritans arriving in the New World on the Arbella, who, seven years earlier, had referred, in a now famous shipboard sermon, to the incipient colony as “a city upon a hill,” a beacon of light and example to all. (He was aware that many would be monitoring their success or failure, not least England’s rival colonial powers, the Spanish and French.) Winthrop had, in May 1637, resumed gubernatorial power, following the brief governorship of Vane, an astute aristocrat and adherent of the free-grace movement represented by Cotton, Wheelwright, and, above all, by Anne Hutchinson. As presiding judge at her civil trial, Winthrop is described by Hawthorne as “a man by whom the innocent and the guilty might alike desire to be judged, the first confiding in his integrity and wisdom, the latter hoping in his mildness.”

Next mentioned is past and future governor John Endicott, an ambiguous hero in the tale “Endicott and the Red Cross,” here depicted as a zealot “who would stand with his drawn sword at the gate of Heaven, and resist to the death all pilgrims thither, except they travelled his own path.” There are others, but Hawthorne presently zooms in on the central figure, initially stressing her intellect:

In the midst, and in the centre of all eyes, is the Woman. She stands loftily before her judges, with a determined brow, and, unknown to herself, there is a flash of carnal pride half hidden in her eye, as she surveys the many learned and famous men whom her doctrines have put in fear. They question her and her answers are ready and acute; she reasons with them shrewdly, and brings scripture in support of every argument; the deepest controversialists of that scholastic day find here a woman, whom all their trained and sharpened intellects are inadequate to foil.

Aside from that unconscious, half-hidden “flash of carnal pride,” the portrait is admiring, even reminiscent of Jesus defeating or deflecting the theological challenges of his rabbinical enemies. But Anne Hutchinson is not only a woman of sharp intellect and deep biblical knowledge. Along with an acute mind, she possesses, and is possessed by, the inward voice and inward eye of an enthusiastic, perhaps fanatical, true believer. The court confrontation intensifies, and

by the excitement of the contest, her heart is made to rise and swell within her, and she bursts forth into eloquence. She tells them of the long unquietness which she had endured in England, perceiving the corruption of the church, and yearning for a purer and more perfect light, and how, in a day of solitary prayer, that light was given; she claims for herself the peculiar power of distinguishing between the chosen of man and the Sealed of Heaven, and affirms that her gifted eye can see the glory round the foreheads of the Saints, sojourning in their mortal state. She declares herself commissioned to separate the true shepherds from the false, and denounces present and future judgments on the land if she be disturbed in her celestial errand. Thus the accusations are proved from her own mouth. Her judges hesitate, and some speak faintly in her defence; but, with a few dissenting voices, sentence is pronounced, bidding her go from among them, and trouble the land no more.

Of course, “trouble” followed the exile. Her path through Rhode Island led to the Dutch territories, and to Anne Hutchinson’s “awful close” in that bloody massacre in which the one survivor, her daughter, became a captive of those who had mistakenly slaughtered her family. Some comfort may be found in Hawthorne’s own compassionate “close.” In contrast to the schadenfreude and vindictiveness of some Puritan judges, confident that the banished woman had been justly pursued by “God’s anger,” Hawthorne ends on a note of elegiac consolation. Though little Susanna, raised by the Siwanoy, “never learned the way to the Christian’s Heaven,…yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met.”

Massacre William Cullen Bryant's A popular history of the United States, 1878Massacre from William Cullen Bryant’s A Popular history of the United States, 1878


What is there left to say about the ultimate significance of Anne Hutchinson’s “remarkable case”? I’ll conclude by focusing on the obvious, her place in a long tradition of male judgment of women, and, less obvious though already suggested, on Anne Hutchinson as an unacknowledged precursor of Emerson—who claimed, in his central epiphany, “I am part or particle of God”—and of what we rightly think of as the Emersonian spiritual and poetic tradition in America.

The colonial-period documents collected by Ruether and Keller in Women and Religion in America (1983) stress the book’s titular theme. The female editors note that Anne Hutchinson’s trial, though the most famous, was not an isolated phenomenon, but instead “represents the fate of a large number of New England women of her generation who received similar judgments before the law.” Like many later victims of European and New England witch-hunts, Anne Hutchinson was a midwife and healer; but the principal reason, or rationalization, behind her perhaps pre-ordained condemnation was her assertion, under intense questioning, of immediate revelation: her claim to hear—directly, without the mediation of church authorities—the voice of God. Asked, on the final day of her civil trial, how she knew that her inward voice, the voice of her conscience, was truly of “the spirit,” she posed a counter-question about the near-sacrifice of Isaac:

Mrs. H. How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?
Deputy Governor. By an immediate voice.
Mrs. H. So to me by an immediate revelation.
Deputy Governor. How! an immediate revelation.

As the exclamation suggests, that is the crucial moment: the moment at which, in Hawthorne’s phrase, “the accusations are proved from her own mouth.” For it was this claim to direct revelation that justified her further claim: possession of the power, that “gifted eye,” to distinguish between true spiritual leaders and false, the latter exemplified by the male accusers presently sitting in judgment of her.

Accusations like theirs were also “proved” in two other “cases,” both, as in Hutchinson’s case, combining the rebellion of the individual against the powers that be with sexual politics, theology, and immediate revelation. The parallel likeliest to come to mind is the trial of Joan of Arc, the medieval heroine unskeptically eulogized by Mark Twain, for once shorn of his cap and bells. Under duress that dwarfs Anne Hutchinson’s, Joan refused to yield, insisting to the fiery end on the truth and spiritual origin of her “voices.” But the first and most famous figure to privilege a higher, spiritual law (themis) above the civil proclamations of authority (nomoi) is Sophocles’ Antigone. When, in his great essay “Experience,” Emerson sought to define what he repeatedly refers to as “spiritual law,” he repaired to the locus classicus and earliest statement of that law: Antigone’s arch response to Creon (Antigone 455-57) that she did not think that his laws—even if he is a king with the power to sentence her to living entombment—could countermand “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws”: laws which are immutable, divine, and, on the human and therefore subjective level, intuitive.


HUTCHINSON Statue Massachusetts State House Boston Cyrus Edwin DallinHutchinson Statue, Massachusetts State House, Boston, Cyrus Edwin Dallin

Thus began the West’s long history of freedom or anarchy, truth or delusion, an “inward” history eventually fusing inner-light Protestantism, German Idealism, and British Romanticism, culminating in a distinctively transatlantic emphasis on self-reliance and divinity within. The central American figure is, of course, Emerson. “Shall I not treat all men as gods?” he asks, only to be responded to by D. H. Lawrence (in a review of Stuart Sherman’s 1922 book, Americans): “If you like, Waldo, but we’ve got to pay for it, when you’ve made them feel that they’re gods. A hundred million American godlets is rather much for the world to deal with.”

In this reductio ad absurdum of schismatic multiplication, every man not only his own sect, but his own godlet (American “exceptionalism” run amuck), Lawrence is having some jocoserious fun. Yet even our most devout Emersonian, Harold Bloom, acknowledges being as troubled as he is fascinated by his hero’s fierce affirmation of the autonomous self, conceding that Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” Bloom is silently but aptly echoing a graphic image from Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter,” a poem in which the self-reliant, divinized soul, recovering “radical innocence,” learns “at last that it is self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is heaven’s will.” Yeats couples with this Emersonian alignment of the self with God, a warning—resembling Hawthorne’s admonishments in his preamble to “Mrs. Hutchinson”—about women entering the public arena. Thinking as always of his Muse, the political firebrand Maud Gonne, who bartered her cornucopia “for an old bellows full of angry wind,” Yeats declares: “It’s certain that fine women eat/ A crazy salad with their meat/ Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.”

Bloom enlists Yeats’s “Prayer” in this rare moment of reservation regarding Emerson in his 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? And, for Bloom, America’s daemonic wisdom, substantial fare mixed with crazy salad, is to be found principally in its great poets: Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane and, above all, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Identifying the “Me Myself” with divinity, Whitman is (in “Song at Sunset”) “ecstatic to be this incredible God I am.” Whitman is, of course, a disciple of Emerson; as, only slightly less overtly, is Wallace Stevens, whose Canon Aspirin announces in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (canto 8 of the final section): “I have not but I am and as I am, I am.”

Declaring that “before Abraham came to be, I am” (John 8:58), Jesus had dared to utter the name of Yahweh, self-described in Exodus 3:14 as “I am who am” (eher asher ehyeh). Audaciously repeating the forbidden name three times, Stevens, like Whitman before him, consciously participates in the divinity-within tradition of one part of Emerson. Torn between antinomies, defined by what he calls “polarity” or “contradiction,” Emerson oscillated between passive, uninspired states, when he was no more than “a weed by the wall,” and sublime moments when—“become a transparent eye-ball,” the “currents of the Universal Being” circulating through him—he participates in divinity. That moment in the opening chapter of Nature is the most celebrated, or notorious, Emersonian epiphany. But there are others. “A certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being.” And he adds, a few sentences later: “In certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He.”

The “wandering light” that, at certain “auroral” moments, revealed to Emerson his divine origin, and, in his “ultimate consciousness,” his identity with God, was recorded in a journal entry of May 26, 1837. Precisely two centuries earlier, Anne Hutchinson, though never claiming to be a godlet, told the Puritan elders judging her how she had long been “yearning for a purer and more perfect light, and how, in a day of solitary prayer, that light was given.” This inward light endowed her, she claimed, with the capacity that would condemn her: “the peculiar power of distinguishing between the chosen of man and the Sealed of Heaven”—in short, between a truly spiritual Elect and the “unregenerated” men who had been chosen by the Puritan community to “lead them to Heaven,” only to see (in Hawthorne’s dramatic synopsis of the accusation she levelled against her accusers) “the features of their guides change all at once, assuming a fiendish shape.”

The official transcript of the civil trial of Anne Hutchinson ends with the following exchange between the presiding judge and the defendant. Governor Winthrop: “Mrs. Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.” Her final response, “I desire to know wherefore I am banished,” is silenced—despite Winthrop’s personal “integrity,” “wisdom,” and “mildness”—by the “fiendish” voice of inexorable and tyrannical authority: “Say no more, the court knows wherefore, and is satisfied.”

The forces of the status quo, of established authority, are always “satisfied” when the courageous but dangerously disruptive—often women—are silenced. No matter how many penetrating questions they may have raised, and challenges they astutely responded to, Antigone and Joan of Arc had heard the same words that later shut off Anne Hutchinson: “Say no more, the court knows…and is satisfied.” The “divinely chosen” members of the Elect, however idealized by Marilynne Robinson, do not always reflect God’s tendency to “scorn the hierarchies” of the world, at least not when they themselves constitute one of those hierarchies.

And yet we also remain, like some members of that Puritan court, suspended between awe and fear, admiration and wariness of Anne Hutchinson—impressed, as was Hawthorne, by her intellect, passionate intensity, and courage, but inevitably uncertain as to whether the “light” given to her was in fact “purer and more perfect,” or, as the majority concluded on that wintry day in 1637, the result of “delusion.” Reading about her claim to an “inward light” and “inward voice,” we wonder as well. Was her revelation, which clearly provided “bread” to some, too mixed with crazy salad for a communal meal? Our guide on this occasion is Nathaniel Hawthorne, and our own uncertainty reflects the duality of that notably “inconclusive” artist himself: here, as always, balancing conflicting perspectives and leaving, not the final judgment, but the final interpretation, to his readers.


Coda. Hawthorne would remain a perspectival thinker and a writer more given to options and innuendo than to absolutes. Nevertheless, by the time, two decades later, that he wrote The Scarlet Letter, he seems to have moved considerably closer to approval of his “Mrs. Hutchinson.”

As mentioned earlier, Hawthorne suggests, at the end of that novel’s opening chapter, that there is “fair authority for believing” that the rose-bush that grew by Hester Prynne’s prison-door “had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson.” Following that hint, I have already suggested a connection between Hutchinson and Hester, a hint worth fleshing out. When, in Chapter 8 of The Scarlet Letter (“The Elf-Child and the Minister”), the Reverend Mr. Wilson asked little Pearl, “Who made thee?” that precocious and perverse imp, though Hester had often spoken to her of her Heavenly Father, “announced that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bunch of wild roses that grew by the prison-door.”

The child figures as well in Hawthorne’s most direct association of these two women. In Chapter 13 of the novel, “Another View of Hester,” we are introduced to a great change in the heroine of The Scarlet Letter. Once the most reviled of women, condemned to wear the scarlet A as her badge of adulterous shame, Hester gradually emerges as a model of virtue and, in her public role, an angel of mercy to those in the community in need. Her interior life was also transformed as she increasingly turned to thought, to speculation both deep and ‘bold.” That thinking remained private; she never became an activist. But were it not for Hester’s need to care for and educate Pearl, we are told that

it might have been far otherwise. Then, she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Anne Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess. She might, and not improbably would, have suffered death from the stern tribunals of the period, for attempting to undermine the foundations of the Puritan establishment.

It is not too much to say that, at least in retrospect, Hawthorne’s early “sketch” of Anne Hutchinson can be seen as a test-run for his fully matured story of another bold woman. Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s masterpiece, also suffered, not death, but condemnation at the hands of a Puritan tribunal administering the stern law of a colony destined to survive despite, or because of, the suffering of the individual who violates a sacred code of that community.

—Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane 2

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


Nov 072015

Samuel Archibald, via Ottawa Citizen

What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from. —Mark Sampson


Samuel Archibald (translated from the French by Donald Winkler)
213 pages, Paperback $19.95 CAD
ISBN: 978-1-77196-042-7


TO BEGIN, YOU NEED TO KNOW what Samuel Archibald’s Arvida is not. From what you might gather after a quick glance at the back cover copy, this book – which has been shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize – could be a quirky little album of short stories centred around thinly fictionalized characters in the real-life industrial town in Quebec from which the book takes its title. You may surmise that, as per the model for such a collection, these characters’ exploits intersect through the collection in predictably unpredictable ways, and accompanied by a familiar, nonthreatening theme humming just below the surface – something about how small-town life can be at once suffocating and impossible to let go of. We have, after all, seen and read and honoured many short story collections that have done exactly that.


Archibald – and, by extension, his English translator, Donald Winkler – would already deserve a wheelbarrow’s worth of kudos for this book’s nervy, expertly rendered sentences, its polished prose. But what separates Arvida from its peers, what casts it in a blinding hue of originality, and what probably attracted the attention of the Giller jury in the first place, is the fact that Archibald so thoroughly subverts many of our expectations about what this kind of short story collection can do, or should do, or dares to do. Arvida is not a series of interlocking tales forming a larger narrative arc; it is not a gently designed pointillism of stories painting a bigger picture. You need to know what this book is – which is a cacophonous display of multiple styles and approaches, a flawless showcase of different tonalities and modalities, and, most of all, a book unafraid to wear its founding inspirations on its sleeve. What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from.

Take, at random, the story “In the Midst of the Spiders.” Hemingway is all over this piece, what with its terse sentences, brief core interaction, and sharp sliver of realism. Archibald’s unnamed narrator (presumably from Arvida) is hanging out in an airport, given the unpleasant task by his employer to confront a fellow worker, a travelling salesman named Michel, and fire him. Michel is at the height of vulnerability – “[f]ifty-two years old, a sick wife, and three daughters in university” – and does not take his termination well. It’s a brutal conversation these men have, with one delivering a ruthless and disinterested execution upon the other. But Archibald, in a very Hemingwayesque way, counterbalances this with the narrator’s more gentle memory of the fragile spiders creeping around his home garden, saying, “he took them in his bare hands and dropped them delicately onto the leaves.” It is a gentle, beautiful juxtaposition to run against what happens in that airport lounge.

You will find an equal amount of realism in the story “América,” a tale about a band of misfits from Arvida attempting to smuggle a woman from Costa Rica into the United States via the Windsor-Detroit border. Their plan is sound but the men’s vices soon undo them, and they are stopped by edgy border security (the tale is set in the summer of 2002) and thwarted. This piece is reminiscent of the another Giller-nominated Biblioasis title, Alexander MacLeod’s 2010 story collection Light Lifting. In “América,” you will find the same obsessive drive in the narrative, an unrelenting focus on a singular task, and characters who try to escape their desires but cannot.

Yes, realism plays a role in both Arvida the book and Arvida the town, a small community built in the early 20th century around an aluminum factory. In the story, “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness – Arvida II,” Archibald establishes both the parameters of the town’s landscape and the tabula rasa from which it sprung:

The sinuous and labyrinthine designs of the town’s streets, the proximity of the bosses’ houses to those of the foremen and workers, the big parks at each corner, and the flanking of the houses of worship by two schools and a skating rink, everything in Arvida attested to the fact that this model town was the little utopia of a billionaire philanthropist, built from scratch right in the middle of nowhere.

But it is this sense of both a real place and a nowhere place that allows Archibald to unleash his prismatic imagination and take an unfettered approach to capturing his hometown in fiction. Realism slips away in a number of these piece. The tradition of ghost stories, for example, looms large at a number of points. In the story “Antigonish” two men from Arvida take a road trip to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail, and one falls conveniently asleep while the other discovers a ghost-like figure haunting the side of the road. Magical realism appears in the story “Cryptozoology,” a tale about the men of Arvida trying to track down a mythical creature haunting the forest beyond the town; it is also about how these men come to process mythology itself.

Proust is also here. He plays a big role, as you would expect, in the story “My Father and Proust – Arvida I.” The schism in this tale is between abundance and paucity (“My father no longer lacks for anything, but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it”), and the story is about how change – including, perhaps, a shift in one’s economic fortunes – can bring with it both progress and depraved behaviour. In this piece, Archibald allows us to contrast the expansiveness of Proust’s oeuvre with the scantness, the precision, of a short story.

So diverse are the narrative tactics in Arvida that Archibald even allows himself to include a story set on the other side of the world and, seemingly, unrelated to the goings-on in the town of Arvida. The piece “Jigai” takes place in early 20th century imperial Japan, and involves two women – Misaka and Reiko – who kindle a relationship based on lesbianism and, shockingly, horrific mutilations. These women maim each other as a kind of protest against the oppressive, patriarchal, misogynist culture that permeated so many aspect of imperial Japan. This oppression is relayed through an incantatory phrase repeated throughout the story, “I came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in my pockets.” It is an apt maxim, as the carrying of stones (or pebbles) in a woman’s pockets is a metaphor for her oppression – particularly her sexual oppression – in East Asian culture.

With the air of a genuine Japanese folk tale, “Jigai” pivots when the women of the village, instead of being horrified by these disfigurations, begin to mimic them as their own protest against the men in their lives:

The repugnant mutilations that Misaka and Reiko inflicted on flesh became a fashion, an uncontainable compulsion, an enchantment, and there was no way to break the spell, not in reasoning with the wives, or in crying after them, or in trying to shake them out of their torpor, or by beating them.

Readers should prepare themselves for some extremely graphic imagery in this story, but they should also prepare themselves to ask how “Jigai” – so strange, so elliptical, so distant from the Quebecois sensibility found in other pieces leading up to it – fits into the bigger project of Arvida. There is a hint, perhaps, that the story alludes to some unspeakable violence decades and thousands of miles away, and with his groundwork in unfettered storytelling already laid, Archibald, somehow, makes it all work.

Naturally, I don’t want to give the impression that this book is all creepy ghost stories and bodily violations. Arvida has also, in several places, some extremely funny scenes, reminiscent of Kingsley Amis and, perhaps, P.G. Wodehouse. The story “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” tells a light-hearted tale of retired NHL players (including the Quebec icon Maurice “Rocket” Richard) coming to Arvida to play a local team. The story, replete with David Foster Wallace-like footnotes, (another obvious influence on Archibald), is full of brassy dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments.

Speaking of humour, there is also the story “The Last-Born,” a piece about, among other things, masculine loyalties and screwing up one’s life, that comes with this paragraph of unalloyed comic genius:

That night, Raisin took part of Martial’s five hundred dollars and went to buy a lot of beer at the corner. He walked as far as the baseball field … sat on the players’ bench, and downed, one by one, the twenty-four bottles in the case. Zigzagging home, he looked like a domestic bull to which one had administered a powerful sedative. At the steps of the Blackburn, his cat, which had again run off, was rolled into a ball in front of the door. Raisin grabbed the cat by the skin of its neck, kicked open the door, and heaved it inside. In the air, the terrorized animal, which was not a cat but a skunk, emptied its sphincters full force, showering Raisin and the walls with a foul liquid, part ammonia and part excrement.

I only wish I could say I’ve never been that drunk.

Of course, the best story in this collection, the real crown jewel, is a decidedly darker tale called “Home Bound.” In it, an alcoholic man becomes obsessed with a dilapidated house, which he buys and then moves into with his wife and daughter. It becomes apparent that the house – with its hidden rooms and sinister crannies and nooks – may very well be haunted. The house soon drives a wedge between the man and his wife. The influence here is over-the-top obvious: if you don’t spot Stephen King’s The Shining on virtually every page, you should probably resign your reading life right now. But what makes “Home Bound” such a gem – beyond its impeccably crafted characters and spot-on atmosphere – is the way Archibald can work in the King (not the mention the Shirley Jackson) influences without making the story come off as derivative of them. There is a pristine originality in the prose and positioning of this piece, one that transcends its clear-cut antecedents. Unlike The Shining, “Home Bound” hinges on a very human reversal, a fatherly betrayal involving a cliff, a trusting daughter, and a dead dog.

To say that Arvida skewers our expectations of a “linked” short story collection would, of course, be a gross understatement. So pungent are the stylistic shifts and contrasts in this book, that the less-generous reader may feel a bit baffled by them. But the reason this book has been such a success – 25,000 copies and counting sold in its original French; its nod from the Giller for the English translation – is because it breaks new ground in that very genre.

Indeed, it may be fair to say that we’ll never look at a linked short story collection quite the same way again.

—Mark Sampson


Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.


Nov 062015

Kristin Ohman


Oliver was a fine black and white jack rabbit. He lived in a cage in an apartment in the Projects, a tiny rural slum plunked down like a set of shabby two-storey dentures around a parking lot on the outskirts of Barre, Vermont. Oliver’s cage had been about the right size for him when he was a baby, but he was full-grown now, and barely had room to turn around. That was annoying enough, but even worse was the fact that there was nowhere to piss and poop except in his own soggy straw bed. Hubert was supposed to let him out every day, but when he got out, Hubert would cuss him for trying to leave his scent around the living room. Oliver would take advantage of his moment of freedom to rapid-fire as many poops as he could before Hubert grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and flung him back in his cage. Sometimes Hubert got too stoned to remember Oliver for days at a time, until the stench became unbearable. Oliver didn’t know any other life, but even so, he suspected he’d been short-changed.

Hubert Bartlett didn’t have much of a life either. The apartment in the Projects was under Denise’s name, and since they weren’t married and she was on Section 8, she was not supposed to have anyone living with her. That meant she had the power to turf him out at any time, and she would remind him of this whenever they argued. They had two disability checks coming in, so they should have been alright; where did it all go?

Hubert spent most of his time in a closet he’d fixed up as a shrine to the Delta Force, who had discharged him honorably. He was in his closet now. He’d been in and out of hospital ever since his last stint where the grunts called him Granddad. He was bald except for a straggle of mouse-colored hair around the base of his skull, and his eyes were sunk in their sockets. He was only forty-nine, but he looked about eighty.

His hands shook as he fired up his bowl, and he cursed as the flame burned his blackened fingertips. He’d flirted with crack and smack and LSD, but in the end he was loyal to his good old weed, which was just as well, because his son, Bert Jr., was a dealer. Hubert had a lot on his mind, and he was glad his woman had gone off shopping, so he had the place to himself. The apartment had been small when it was for just the two of them, but then Denise’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Amber, had moved in, with Oliver. And do you think she would clean up after him? Hell, she never cleaned up after herself – she left bloody tampons dripping all over.

I’ll kick both those whoring bitches out, he fantasized. And that damn rabbit!

He breathed out a plume of undulating smoke, watching it curl over the updraft from the heater. Outside snow was falling, big floppy flakes that merged with the slush on the ground. The Projects were swathed in gray: the empty swings, the token sycamore. Crows were the only birds that stayed through the winter, crowding around the open dumpster, fighting over blocks of territory like teenage gangs.

Inside was gray too. All the apartments were painted gray inside and out, so that none would be better than others. To paint your walls any other color would be ruled defacement. Gray was supposed to stay clean, but that’s only because it was dirty to begin with. Hubert was wrapped up in a khaki blanket in his closet, staring at a rack of khaki and camouflage uniforms. Further adornments of his sanctum sanctorum included a peg-board with war medals, his greasy beret on a milliner’s blockhead, a fat-bellied Buddha, an American flag with a fringe made by bullet holes, and a four-inch scrap of metal they’d pulled out of his left arm.

This weed was a waste of time. He was remembering the blast they used to get from that hashish, a mellow blast that left you bouncing on pink fleecy clouds, defying gravity. But what could you expect? Barre was a long way from Kabul.

And then it started in again; faces coming in and out of focus. The phantasmagoria. Most of them were dead. Some of them were still alive, living ghosts. Boys younger than his son was now had died, and he survived. Survived, that is, in a closet in an apartment that wasn’t his own, in the Projects which should have been a prison, breathing the sour milk sweat from the dairy. What for? Hell, he thought, I’d go back now if they called me up. Get out of this shit-hole. Women. I’d like to see how long Denise could get along without me.

Just then the front door opened, and he heard Denise’s clumpy boots scuffing the mat. Her dyed-red hair escaped from her woolen cap in frizzy Brunhilda braids; her bulbous eyes were blotted with mascara. She thumped her bags down on the lowest step of the stairs and called out “Shroom?” (Hubert was her little mushroom.)

Hubert stashed his pipe, jerkily batting at the swirl of smoke, and called down, “I’m in here, Hon.”

They were broke as smoke, threatened with having the phone and electric cut off, and that damn woman couldn’t stop shopping. Like she was addicted to Walmart. But Hubert wisely said nothing; he went down and gathered up the shopping bags. He greeted her with a cracked blistery smile that showed half his teeth missing, the remainder rotted and yellow. His smile twisted into a frown when he saw Oliver.

“Who let that damn rabbit out?”

“Oh, let Ollie run around for a bit.”

It was a small gesture of rebellion against patriarchal authority on her part, to trip the hook open with her toe on the way in. And anyway, she wanted to be Oliver’s friend. It was her favorite game to let Oliver dance a figure-eight around her ankles. Oliver had scampered behind the couch, where Hubert grabbed him and hauled him out by the hind leg. It was back in the cage for him, and the top clamped down good and tight again. Oliver pawed the bars, but there was no point in protest. He whirled around three times, but then settled resignedly into a corner and eyed Hubert with reproach.

Denise was humming, also eying Hubert reproachfully, as she emptied her shopping bags in the kitchen. Only then did she take off her coat and shake off the snow. She smelled her hat – damp wool and hair spray – and draped it over the heater in the kitchen. Then she snuck up behind Hubert to throw her arms around his bony shoulders. He cut off the embrace by leaning forward to turn on the television. He flipped through the channels on the remote till he came upon a mosaic of indigenous faces; it was a show about the Maya on the Discovery Channel.

Hubert settled in to watch the turning of a gigantic calendar wheel, while Denise retreated to the kitchen. She would have preferred to watch The Price is Right, but the Andean panpipes in the background were both cheery and soothing. Hubert slouched on the overstuffed sofa, looking beyond the television screen to focus just short of infinity.

The phantasmagoria was running its endless loop of faces in his brain again. The lucky ones were dead; the ones who were still alive – broken, like him. The strong ones who never cracked in Afghanistan, cracked when they got home. He foreshortened his focus enough to see Denise’s back to him in the kitchen. What did she know about real life, he sneered. Playing at being a housewife as if she’d never been a crack-head, playing at being a mother as if she’d always wanted that kid, playing at being her daughter’s sister. Who was she kidding? She’d never been under fire. Never been put up against a wall to be shot, only to have the blindfold taken off her eyes at the last second, to find a circle of towel-heads laughing at her. He had. He had scars, inside and out. He’d tortured his share of towel-heads though, right back at you. But who would understand that?

“You want pork chops for dinner, Hube?”

“Don’t burn them like you did last time.”

His smell-brain was indelibly impressed with the stench of burning flesh. Kandahar. He’d frisked the bodies.

Hell, I’m getting bad, he mused in a sane moment. It wasn’t any of it her fault. A compassionate impulse got him up to lurch into the kitchen, squeezing Denise so tight she squealed in protest. He nuzzled her neck and uttered the greatest compliment he could think of: “How’s my little veteran?”

She pushed him away. Pork chops, frozen peas and instant mashed potatoes lined themselves up on the counter obligingly as if waiting to be shot.

“Amber’s going out to a movie with Doug,” she said.


“So we can have a nice evening to ourselves.”

“That stud of hers is a waster. Waste-of-time asshole. If it were up to me he’d have no balls left to play with.”

“Well, it’s not up to you. Anyway, he’s better than most of them that’s been snuffling around. And he’s got a good job.”

“You call driving a van for Capitol Candy a good job?”

“It’s better than no job,” she said pointedly. (Half of Barre’s youth worked for Capitol Candy. The other half didn’t.)

“The end of the world is coming, don’cha know?” snarled Hubert.

“Oh? When’s that then, Hube?”

“One Rabbit.”

“What do you mean, ‘one rabbit?’”

“I mean that’s the day the world ends, on the Mayan calendar, at midwinter. They just said that on the television. It’s the end of a cycle.”

“Well, in that case it’s the beginning of a cycle, too,” she said optimistically. “What goes around, comes around.”

They were playing at being grownups, playing at being man and wife. One time he had woken up to find his gnarled fingers tightening around Denise’s plump neck. She was mewling. Like a kitten. Amber came hammering on the door asking what was going on. Just a dream, go back to sleep. He couldn’t remember the dream, just a shadow-shape he was wrestling with, swarthy, bearded and alien, like those pop-up figures the rookies used for target practice. Usually his dreams weren’t as bad as his waking fantasies. She’d threatened to leave him if he ever did that again.

The pork chops were sizzling nicely now, making everything real. Soon he was eating them, favoring the good teeth on his left side. “You got them right this time, for once, Hon,” he admitted grudgingly.

They settled in to watch a video. The curtains were drawn tight and the heater was on full blast. The video ended and they sat there not talking. Denise didn’t even ask Hubert if he liked it. She took out her knitting, and Hubert was lulled by the click of her needles. He settled in to a rerun of the apocalypse, without a plot. The clock was digitating dumbly on the wall: 9:00, 9:30, 10:00, 10:30. At 11:00 Amber burst in with a blast of damp air, chattering inanely. “And isn’t Doug cute?”

Denise had tried to get her to call Hubert “Dad,” but Amber had made a pukey-face and called him “Dickhead” instead. He wanted to go upstairs and hit his bowl again, but Denise would complain if he fired up in front of Amber, and the closet was off-limits when she was home – part of their little charade of being a happily married couple. So he sat there sucking his tooth-gaps instead of his pipe. At 11:30 they went to bed.

But the house stayed awake. The heater hissed, the pipes hummed, the fridge coughed its death-rattle. Oliver was alone in the dark room with its appliances glowing like fireflies. This was the worst time for Oliver, when his legs jerked of themselves, and his paws furiously scraped at the iron mesh, and his sharp teeth ground at the metal. His jiggling of the cage drowned out the hiss of the heater, the hum of the pipes and the rasp of the fridge. Somewhere out there, beyond the bars of his cage, beyond the inward-pressing walls, far beyond the dull overarch of clouds, there was a moon. A moon big and round, with rabbit features etched on it like a Mayan glyph. The night was his by right.


Morning came, dull and gray, and Oliver heard the shuffle of Denise’s slippers on the stairs. She switched on the light in the kitchen and turned up the thermostat. Oliver heard the coffeemaker start to burble. He heard Denise cursing as she burned the toast. Gray light suffused the living room as she drew the curtains back to reveal a row of identical gray apartments across the parking lot. He pawed furiously at the mesh again, this time to signal that he was hungry. But Denise had a hundred things to do before she remembered she wanted to be Oliver’s friend.

Hubert came down next, grumpy as always in the mornings, and plopped himself down on the sofa. There he sat unblinking as Denise brought him a mug of black coffee with two heaping tablespoons of sugar. He wore a khaki undershirt and light blue pajama bottoms, slightly open at the fly, just showing a fringe of pale brown pubic hair. He lit up a cigarette, one of the cheap ones called Garni, but which he called “gurneys.” He left it burning on the edge of the side table while he lit up another. Denise scolded him and put out the first gurney. Hubert shrugged.

Last to arise was Amber, in a second-hand nylon negligee with purple pom poms, yawning and stroking a large teddy bear. She aimed a twisted smile in the direction of Hubert’s open fly. Ignoring the burnt toast and scrambled eggs, she poured herself a bowl of cornflakes and heaped it with sugar.

“Euugh,” she winced, “that rabbit cage stinks!”

“Well whose job is it to keep it clean?” asked Denise. Hubert had learned long since to leave any attempt at discipline to Amber’s mother.

“I can’t do it. You know it makes me feel sick.” It was no wonder it should make her sick, because she’d just found out she was six weeks pregnant. So no one was going to change the straw in the cage, and Oliver had kicked most of the soiled stuff out. Little round pellets had rolled all over the floor, under the television and behind the couch and even as far as the stairs. Some were already trodden into the carpet.

Hubert chained another gurney, muttering, “Goddamn liberals,” apropos of nothing.

“George is coming by to take me shopping,” announced Denise.

“What the hell for? You went shopping yesterday,” growled Hubert. “What’s up with you and George, anyway?” It was curious how George was always there to do favors for Denise.

“But I didn’t get new curtains. That was what I went out for.”

“We don’t need fucking new curtains.”

“Well, I say we do. Anyway, it’ll come out of my check.”

“So who’s going to pay the gas and electric?”

“Oh come on, Shroom!” She ingratiated herself by slipping a plump arm through his bony one. “It’s only five more days ’til the Social comes through. Kiss, kiss?”

“Kiss, kiss,” he harrumphed.

But they had a shock that day; the gas was cut off. They realized it only when it started to get cooler and cooler, and the heater failed to hiss. Hubert went to turn the thermostat up. Denise called George to bring his Coleman stove for them to cook on. The water heater was gas, so no showers, but they weren’t in the habit of taking showers every day anyway. But if the electric were turned off, there would be no television, which would be a disaster. Not even the radio. And they would be needing candles later, Denise was thinking out loud. But Denise would still go shopping and get her new curtains.

Oliver didn’t mind it getting cooler, in fact he welcomed it. But nobody remembered to feed him all day long, much less clean out his cage and let him run around. Amber went off with her boyfriend (Doug, or maybe Larry). Denise went shopping (actually she was huddled over the woodstove in George’s trailer running her mouth about how bad Hubert was getting, forgetting things and not knowing where he was and they never made love any more).

Hubert was left alone with Oliver. He glowered at the rabbit and then slunk off to his closet to toke the last of his weed. That was bad, not just because he was now out himself, but he had smoked all the pot his son had supplied for him to sell, and now he owed Bert Jr. money. Bert Jr. had gone off to live with his mother all those years, so it had been a way to reach out to his dad to do business with him. Well, damn that little prick anyway, he’d tried to call him twenty times and the little asshole hadn’t called back all week. Hell, he owes me!

Hubert went on scraping his pipe, getting out the last of the clinker; you know you’re hard up when you’re down to smoking clinker. Some reward for all he’d done for his country. Who got the shakes every night? Who reran a loop of the apocalypse in his brain?

The whores in Kabul were useless. Filthy, ugly, pathetic limp dolls. They moved like molasses and looked like mules’ asses. What’s worse, they tried to make you feel guilty for stealing what was left of their virginity, which wasn’t much. But behind every one of those stinking virgins you could see a whole clan of angry towel-heads. Afghanistan is fucked up the asshole. This country is fucked up the asshole. Goddamn liberals! Afghanistan was a quagmire. Every army since Alexander the Great had sunk into it like millstones. Those wretched mountains ate men. Think of all those Ruskie tanks up to the gunwales in sand – that should have told us something. He reached for his beret and pulled it down over his eyes. Had his head shrunk? Damn that headshrinker at the V.A.!


Oliver settled down to a troubled sleep, but was awakened by the unusual cold. It was past dark and no one was there. No hiss from the heater, no rasp from the fridge, no rumbling snores. The electric was on strike in sympathy with the gas; all the little electronic fireflies were dark. The stillness was uncanny. He blinked to make sure he was awake. Everything seemed new, full of possibilities. What did it mean? He crouched very still, but there was nary a sound.

When his ears bobbed up, something felt funny; the top of his cage was loose! Oliver didn’t wait to be told that this was his big opportunity. Boldly, like he’d always known just what to do, he pushed open the lid, twisting the hook with his nose. His heart thumped. He froze with just his nose sticking out of the cage, listening for the thud of footsteps. Softly he kept on pushing, and before he knew what was happening, he was over the top and onto the floor. He padded quickly behind the sofa, and listened to the eerie silence from this new hidey-hole. Still no sound. He crept out onto the carpet. Ecstatically he sprayed and pooped and ran in little circles. A chill wind was sweeping into the room, like someone had left the door open . . .

The clouds had thinned to small scudding wisps, and through the wide-open door a moonbeam beckoned. Oliver poised on his back legs, paws up in prayer. His ears made the V sign at the moon, and with a hop and a skip he was gone.


“How should I know where that damn rabbit went?” sputtered Hubert. “Who left the fucking door open?”

“Oh, poor Ollie! He’ll never survive out there.” Denise wrung her hands.

Amber hid her guilt for leaving the door open, with sobs. “You let my rabbit out, you dickhead! I hate you!”

“Oh, for Chrissake, when did you ever give a hoot about that fucking rabbit?” grumbled Hubert. “Who always ended up mucking out that shit-hole? All that rabbit ever did was piss and shit anyway. If we do find him, he’s going straight to the fucking Shelter.”

“But think of all those dogs out there,” wailed Denise. “And there’s the road! He’ll get run over, for sure.”

The morning was crisp and clear. It was midwinter day; dog tracks criss-crossed everywhere, but a fresh blanket of snow had buried Oliver’s footprints. A crow cawed mockingly from the bare branches of the lone sycamore. The Projects suddenly seemed a vast labyrinth, and the surrounding fields beyond even vaster. A rabbit could be anywhere.

The night had been magical for Oliver. He had heard the dogs howling at the moon, but oddly enough he had no fear, even when one came snuffling up to him. They were creatures of the moon, like him. They sang to the moon; he danced to their singing. Zigzagging among the parked cars, in and out and around the children’s swings, he tired himself out. He found some vegetable parings, delightful, much better than his dry pellets. Then he hunkered down under a moldy discarded armchair behind the dumpster and fell asleep, safe and warm.

Amber made a sign to stick on the telephone pole outside their front door: “Lost – Black and White Rabbit – $10 Reward.” Then she flounced up to her room, lay down on her flower print bedspread with a pink quilt over her, and put on her headphones to listen to Usher.

Denise had bought a frozen chicken, forgetting that they only had the Coleman stove to cook on, and now she had cooked up some spicy Italian sausages instead, the thawed remains from the defunct freezer. They were burnt on the outside and raw inside; no one could eat them. Hubert went back to his closet to stare at his flag, and Amber helped herself to cornflakes.


Alone in his cubicle Hubert was back fighting the war. It was dirty. No one knew just how dirty. This new army they were supposed to be training, of Afghanis just out of diapers. Hopeless. They should have been training the Taliban, they at least had a will to fight. The Taliban were the sons of the Mujahedin, who had whupped the asses of the Ruskies. There were still rusting Ruskie tanks half-buried in the skree from the mountains, sprouting desert brush.

But his job was not to locate and annihilate the Taliban, his job was to pretend to eradicate the opium fields, while seeing that the profits were diverted from the Taliban to certain characters behind the scenes in the U. S. This was an op even his buddies in Delta Force didn’t know about. He was the linkman for a certain Mr. Wally, who was raking off an awesome profit from the farmers and keeping the troops supplied with heroin. Hubert rode the crest; he used but he didn’t let himself get hooked more than a little course of methodone couldn’t fix.

Samy was a middleman. He looked like those pop-up targets, swarthy and mean, with a puffy pendulous lower lip. There was no doubt he was double-dealing – he was in bed with the Taliban, literally; Samy liked boys. Hubert’s job was to wipe him out, orders straight from the head honcho, Wally. Hubert looked a lot younger then, and still had most of his hair; he’d mentioned to Wally that Samy had come on to him. Off the base there was a warehouse with a back room stocked with a tank of whiskey, where officers and a few privileged Afghanis hung out. The Afghanis got more of a buzz from the whiskey than they did from the heroin; just the way they were constituted, Hubert guessed.

The plan was to lure Samy there. He’d been there many times, making deals, shooting up and drinking whiskey. Taliban boys or Yankee boys, it was all just more variety to Samy. Hubert had a syringe full of sodium thiopental to waste him with, and a private room where they wouldn’t be disturbed. It was pretty sordid – not up to the standards of your typical brothel – but there was a siphon for the whiskey, and two needles full of smack, a dingy divan with an assortment of oversized pillows, and a spittoon.

All went according to plan; they shot up, and Hubert let that slimy little fag butt-fuck him. Then he returned the favor. It was better than the best sex to slide through that sleazy flesh, knowing all the time he had his victim’s death right there in his kit. He chuckled to himself, to think how Joe Public in the States would be shocked to know what the special forces were doing to preserve their freedom.

He looked at the sleeping form of Samy. His skin was sallow and ghostly where it had been covered up by clothing. Hubert pretended it was Osama bin Laden. Something to boast about. He took out the syringe, whispering “This is for 9/11, motherfucker,” and shot him up for good. But he couldn’t quite manage to get the slimy butt-fucking out of his head long enough to gloat. He vomited voluptuously, like a dog.

Dawn. He was in that zone where good and evil are confounded, like there is no difference – it’s all the same thing – it just is. But some slender thread of consciousness brought him back to his body, which was lying there naked and limed with shit, still in the embrace of that naked corpse. He saw the trail of vomit between the divan and the spittoon, shimmering silver like a river seen from the top of a distant mountain by moonlight.

What happened next was surreal; he looked up to see the face of a little Afghani girl, about five years old, staring at him from the doorway with big brown eyes. Where the hell did she come from? She stood there solemnly, just looking at him. She was human.


No one called about the rabbit. It didn’t take them long to forget about Oliver. Even the “Lost” sign that Amber had tacked on the telephone pole got soggy and ran in the early spring rain. The snow was reduced to grayish jigsaw pieces around the Projects. Hubert threw the rabbit cage in the dumpster. The old armchair where Oliver had hidden had been hauled away long ago. The first crocuses came up through the tag ends of snow.

Denise baked herself a cake out of a box to celebrate her thirty-ninth birthday, but there was just her and Amber to eat it. Amber was over her morning sickness and was eating ravenously now; she had broken up with Larry when he was caught stealing baseball cards from Capitol Candy, so now Doug could be the sole dad for her little boy. She dyed her hair red to match her mom’s.

Hubert was in hospital again after another attempt to strangle Denise in her sleep, and she was determined not to let him back in the house. But now that she had declared herself available, George stopped coming round, and she was stuck in the Projects without wheels; George had promised to teach her to drive, too, the rat. Still, she thought, it was good to be just her and Amber and the baby, and somehow they would get by.

Oliver never once looked back. He made it across the highway, past the stinking dairy to the big meadow, and disappeared into the woods. He dug himself a burrow under a pile of birch logs. Many times he went hungry, but never as hungry as he had been in his cage in the Projects. He had the whole world to piss and poop in, so he was joyous and free. But Oliver’s joy ran over whenever he saw the moon in full; etched on the moon’s mottled face he could just make out the glyph for One Rabbit, laughing down at him. For one rabbit at least a new cycle had begun.

—Kristin Ohman


Kristin Ohman has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. “One Rabbit” is her first publication.

Nov 052015

1 circus closeup 2

HE STILL STARES AT ME after forty years, the man holding the rope, with a look that even at this poor resolution can only be violation. And the woman with the lithe body, seemingly naked in her light-colored tights, frozen in the moment of lifting a knee and raising both arms in air, preparing for flight, for ecstasy, or for some other abandon, still has her back to me, as does the man beside her, touching, guiding, helping in some way.

2 Circus

They are rehearsing for a circus somewhere in a court or square in Paris—I’ve forgotten where—and the sight was something interesting, behind the scenes, which, walking by and finding an opening in the tent, I thought I should take a picture of. The woman is practicing for a leap—onto a passing horse circling the ring?—that she will perform one night alone without the help of the two men or the safety of the rope, effortlessly, flawlessly, for our breathless wonder. This must be my violation. The supports and imperfect attempts, diminishing, distracting, meaningless, must be kept hidden and not be exposed.

I was 20 and had taken a year off from college. My expectations were bright but empty, undefined yet blinding. I had no good reason for being there and no idea what I would do next. Taking pictures itself was a matter of reluctance and indecision. I didn’t want to appear the tourist so seldom carried my camera. Nor could I find convincing purpose. I had slight knowledge of the city, little insight, and superficial experience, all that my pictures could reveal. Besides, everything had been photographed many, many times before by practiced journalists and artists with a better eye. Or I could just buy postcards. Still there were days when I gathered resolve and went on random expeditions throughout the city, firing away with stuttering abandon.

Paris itself was having a rehearsal of sorts, and there were tents, scaffolds, ropes, safety nets, and helping workers everywhere. The city was in the last stages of the Malraux plan to restore its historic buildings and clean its face to the world.

3 Scaffold 3

4 street scaffolding

Demolition of Les Halles, the centuries old market, was nearly complete, leaving a pit—le grand trou—the city debated how to fill.

5 Les Halles 2

Paris was the setting for Touche pas à la femme blanche!, Marco Ferreri’s farce that appropriated our history to portray the influence of power and money, the decline of native ideologies. I saw it when it came out. In the climactic scene Custer’s last stand is staged in the pit, a failed performance.

6 Les Halles Pit

It was 1973 or 74, a stalled time without much to distinguish it. France was adjusting to its declining influence and, like the rest of the western world, was in recession. The passions of May ’68 had calmed, though there were still some protests in the streets, many against our involvement in Iran and elsewhere. Last Tango in Paris and La grande bouffe were also playing in the theaters, movies sounding contemporary ennui and excess, two terms of the stall.

My pictures themselves were subject to accident and corruption, resulting in images that were excessive or indeterminate, all boring, imperfect attempts without any hope of spectacle. I bought an inexpensive, used manual rangefinder for the trip and an exposure meter, also cheap, which I didn’t know how to use well. I shot 400 ISO black and white film so I wouldn’t need a flash for interior shots and only had the negatives developed. But also the shutter was faulty, which I didn’t discover until it eventually broke, so exposures decayed gradually, erratically. I didn’t know what I had until I got home and enlarged the negatives—grainy photographs with blurred or dim or dark images, underexposed or overexposed, with excessive sharpness or faltering contrast.

I could ascend heights to get the larger view and gain perspective

7 vista 3

and see the vast, reasoned grid of ministries, French bureaucracy, revealed in sharp outline, and the labyrinth of narrow, old alleys released into wide boulevards, the plan of Baron Haussmann, its argument between the state and its people.

8 vista 2

The suspicion has been leveled that Napoléon III wanted to broaden the streets to make it easier to bring in troops. Paris is an open encyclopedia of a millennium of debates between rule and chaos, between the passion for order and the order of desire. Read a history of Paris and the streets fill with shouts of protest and run with blood.

But I could only see the order of order, not its basis, nor the life it might contain, and the relationship of the present order, newly freshened, to past and present disorder or to anything else was hazy.

9 vista 1

Fragments from the distant past were preserved but, eroded by the centuries, only revealed rough figures and uncertain structure.

11 Cluny thermes

Everywhere, well preserved, the buildings of faith. The structures that held them up and allowed the light to enter

12 buttresses 1

faith’s entry, its sharp contrasts of dark and light, right and wrong, up and down

13 dark church exterior

its followers

14 Apostles chartre?

its overarching beliefs.

15 churchover door

Inside, however, current practice came out only vaguely mysterious or dark, absent

16 church dark windows

or was flickering, wavering.

17 candles church 1

Faith’s monsters, though, still interest us.

18 pair of gargoyles

I did feel safe, however, walking the streets at any hour. And I did have some exposure to all walks of life, from the derelict to working class to the upward rising, even to an established family who traced its roots back to Roman days, but in all cases I saw an economy and tentativeness I hadn’t known growing up in the U.S. More unsure were the faces of the immigrants from beyond France’s borders, lured to the city during better times with better chances of employment.

Contrast my black and white pictures with pictures of Paris now, their confident display, their bright colors. Compare them with what we see in Paris itself, the sharp, clean lines of its monuments and buildings, the polish and refinement of the restored neighborhoods. But look, too, at the neighborhoods where it may no longer be safe to walk, most on Paris’s borders, where the immigrants now mass in simmering dislocation and disaffection, where there are breaks into violence, what you see in the movie La haine. And watch Entre les murs, where cultural conflict erupts in a middle school classroom.

It’s what cities have become, spectacles for our wealth and containers for our contradictions and exclusions. The decay and violence of the latter, however, can divert us and give our lives texture. Paris has its policier EngrenagesSpiral. We have our own, The Wire, etc.

There were intimations of the future, towering abstractions, void of past reference.

19 tour Italie

La tour Super-Italie. It was the Montparnasse tower, however, just completed in the heart of Paris, that most broke the city’s low skyline and raised the most protests. Pomidou, however, looking forward, wanted his towers, and more were on the horizon.

20 vista from park

It’s what our cities have also become, platforms for rising skyscrapers of soaring ambition, solid yet ethereal, forward gazes that look past us, past themselves, past anything we can see.

Not long ago I digitized the negatives and stored them on my computer. Processing them raised problems and questions about purpose and procedure. How could I bring out what wasn’t materially there? How could I soften total black or bring contrast to the chemically faint or still the blurred motions? Should I edit the imperfections in the negatives or the dust spots gathered from years of storage? Make adjustment for the shifts brought by electronic transfer? I had no guidelines and couldn’t decide, so left most the way they came out on my screen.

21 boatSeineLight

22 blur

What is the relationship of my pictures to reality? There are the realities of time and place and light—when I took them, where the sun was, what was in the sky—none of which can be easily determined or precisely defined. There are also the realities of my imperfect skills and uncertain motives. Add to those the mechanical reality of my failing shutter and the reality of chemical reactions in the film and the reality of electronic translation. These are all realities, defined by human nature and natural laws. How do they add up? Which takes priority? What relationship do they have with any larger picture? Why are my pictures any more or less real than any others?

There are no answers to these questions.

There are no pictures of me standing next to anything as I never asked someone else to take my camera. Here’s me, here’s Notre Dame. What is the purpose? What is revealed or qualified by the juxtaposition either way? I can’t imagine what pose I might have made and even now don’t want to strike one. Nor are there pictures of the people I met, though I remember many well, most with fondness, and I have written about them. Capturing them unannounced might only have exposed moments of reserve or indecision had they dropped the mask they showed the world to protect themselves. Taking a picture of the mask would have been pointless as it tells nothing. Pulling a camera out before them would have forced them to make a face and represent a relationship with me that may not have been well defined, or may not have existed. Or, worse, coerced a smile when they may not have wanted to give one. And if a moment of joy escaped or closeness emerged, why take the life of either and freeze it on film?

Yet what I most saw in Paris without notice or reflection, what my pictures most show, what I have added to in the decades since, is that our lives are largely spent in motion, the stall of going somewhere and being put on hold, the arrow that comes between a and b

23 trains

or in mere process, employment that may not engage us, that wears without renewal, where we are absorbed without thought

24 quai?

or in idle ways to pass the time

25 boules

or in gray repose

26 park fountain

or in random movement without relationship or interaction.

27 Street scene 2

28 Street scene 1

We are not rehearsing for anything. The French have a saying to express the tedium, métro, bureau, dodosubwayworksleep—that countered liberté, égalité, fraternité or left it hanging in air and dissolved any distinction one might make in time and place. Yet still we practice and try to perform, to fly and project beyond ourselves, or think we are trying. Our attempts at rehearsals are eternal, but eternal only in the sense that the spectacle they might lead to or we think they might lead to always lies beyond us and flees us everlastingly. Yet we can always count on this eternity, and also on this article of belief: it leaves our options open.

Most of Paris was still close to the ground, however, and the mansard roofs with their many attachments still capture our imagination and encourage us to look up.

29 roofs 1

And this is my revelation at last, after forty years: it is the spectacles that are illusory and in them we get lost.

But the place that most comes back to me really wasn’t anywhere. I lived in a working class neighborhood in Arcueil, a commune on the southern border of Paris. The landlord and his family lived on the first floor and rented out the second, where I had a room and others came and went. One day, for no reason, I pulled out my camera took this picture of the backyard

30 Backyard

about which I have written:

I am sitting at the kitchen window with a bottle of wine, looking out. The small plots behind the houses on my street and the houses on the next are enclosed by a grid of rough block fences, squaring the backyards and joining them. Each yard has something that distinguishes it, and the rural influence remains here, just outside Paris—a vegetable garden, pens and sheds for animals. Someone has chickens, someone else a goat. Also sheds for storage or some personal labor, hidden. In my yard, a swing set the owner’s daughters no longer use, a rusting memory of childhood. There is nothing else to see, other than a high-rise apartment building in the distance, modernish and sterile, not even the setting sun, off to the side and behind several houses. There is no streaking light in the sky, no dramatic break of clouds, no place for saints or angels to sit or stand, no chariot on which to descend, nor the lurid glare from war or revolution, just a pale blue diminishing into grayness. The world is silent, save for an occasional ratcheting cry from the goat, the flutter and coo and cluck from the hens. As the sky darkens, cats come out and negotiate the grid of walls and climb the roofs of the houses in their liquid, feline stealth.

I have no thoughts of leaving the window. I feel I have found a place, feel myself in place, but it is not a place I can name. I think about nothing, don’t even think to think, have no thoughts of that day or of the past months or the years coming, of who I am or what I want or what I am supposed to do. I do not feel depressed. I do not feel anything. I only feel alive, and all I am aware of is the quiet hum of existence in the lingering light.

I was not alone. I am not alone. I will never be alone.

To put yourself in this moment is not an act of humility, or contrition, or the backward arrogance of denial. It isn’t anything, and being there is doing nothing. To try to locate it is to get lost, as it isn’t anywhere and everywhere at the same time, perhaps to realize the error of trying to find, of location.

We could use what this moment reveals to build a philosophy, even a religion, but could just as easily use it to tear apart all thought and faith. It is only by tearing the self apart and seeing what is left, however, that we can start again and rebuild and try once more to think, and wish, and believe.


—Gary Garvin



Some of the cathedral pictures are of Chartres. Parts of the text, the quotation, and several pictures come from my essay “Above the Roofs of Paris, a Non-Memoir,” which appeared in Fourth Genre, Vol. 17, Number 1, Spring 2015. It is available at JSTOR, is excerpted at Project Muse, and can be found here.

George Packer, in “The Other France,” The New Yorker, with the Charlie Hebdo slayings in mind, recently provided an update on immigrant dislocation in the suburbs of Paris, specifically Department 93:

For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation.



Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.


Nov 042015



“You’re more James Franco than James Franco.”


“Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”

I had, but I let the man keep speaking, and I let the other man to his right keep nodding.

Everyone, in fact, was nodding, shaking, vibrating. Heads, feet under tables, dollar bills, British pounds, seven different mobiles in various degrees of battery life. The blue and gold coat of arms hanging outside the Applebee’s where we’d been sitting, flag flailing in the wind.

We were in Cannes, it was 2011, and earlier in the morning, Lars Von Trier had been forcibly escorted out of the festival. Something about racist comments: Hitler, the Second World War, Jews — something about something.

“And when you are in my film, you won’t be acting,” the nodder, Wiktor, cut in. “You will be reacting. You will have forgotten all about ‘Chris Campanioni.’ You’ll simply be Sam.”

“Duncan,” the other one volunteered. His name was Bob. He was pale and lumpy, and his green golf shirt had sweat marks across his chest and under his arms.

“Really?” Wiktor said. “I pictured him as Sam.”

“You know what?” Bob looked at me. He stopped shaking. Everything seemed to stop. Unless I’m only remembering it in slow motion.

“What?” I asked, genuinely interested. I was holding a half-full highball, and I even put it down, letting the condensation form a halo around the glass’s edge on the fake porcelain table. Pausing to reflect on the image.

“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”

I had to laugh. This was a production, even if none of it was actually being filmed. I had met Bob on Facebook and all it took was a cappuccino at Café Orlin on St. Mark’s a week earlier for him to sell me on the idea of the movie he wanted to bring to Cannes, the movie and me, and the idea of course. It was first and foremost (and forever) an idea — and I’d decided to bring my friend, Eric, along for the ride, or whatever the ride afforded us, because we were as good friends as I could think of. As good friends as friends could be.

Two years earlier, in 2009, we were living together in Hoboken when the power went out across town for a week. There was nothing else to do but go to bars in Manhattan. Bars, restaurants, cafés, anywhere that had light, and preferably, heat. Returning home one night, a block away from our apartment, we had something else to do: each of us staring down the barrel of a gun. I know nothing about guns. It could have been a .357 Magnum or a toy pistol.

It wasn’t dramatic: it just was. The movies, those gunfights, those tense moments, being held up in the movies is always so much more dramatic, so much more real. In real life, everything feels flat. I don’t even think I was afraid. I didn’t have time to think about death, to think about life. I was silent. Maybe I was imagining it happening in the movies, trying to will it into being somehow more poignant. That’s the problem with movies. Unless that’s the problem with real life.

“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”

Bob repeated it, probably considering that I was hard of hearing or just hadn’t understood what he meant. What he meant was that I looked too dark to be a “Sam” — or a “Duncan” for that matter. My agents, past and present, were always telling me to stay out of the sun. Unless I was at a casting that called for Hispanic or Latino, which everyone in the industry used interchangeably.

I felt like I should say something; I wanted to say something; I didn’t know what to say. I only knew I wanted to say, to speak, to utter a few sounds together.

I said nothing. I did nothing, but write in my notepad, which I had been carrying with me since my evenings as a copy editor and reporter at the Star-Ledger. Remnants from a different life, which was the same as this one, just garbed in different clothes.

REPORTER NOTEPAD was etched across the front. Most of the pages were blank, but they were gradually becoming crowded with words. And like many other scenes, I eventually re-fashioned this one into a chapter of Going Down. I didn’t include the bit about Juan. Some names changed, others didn’t. I fictionalized the real in order to make it feel more real to me. It seemed like the best way to approach an investigation into the fashion and newspaper industries, two disparate worlds which meet to mete out fabrication. Manufacture it, sell it, reinvest the profits.

I put my hand around the highball again, lifted the glass, reflected on the image, the imprint of the surface.

“We are talking about creating an art film,” Wiktor interrupted. I was doodling in the notepad now, sketching a vision of Wiktor as Rasputin, because the two looked alike, at least on Google Images, if I looked from one and quickly to the other. Back and forth, from the digital to the physical and vice versa, just like that. “We are talking about bringing this message of consumption to the world.”

Movie-making is the transformation of living beings into dead images that are then given life by being projected on a screen. Movie-going is watching dead images coming out of a projector, twenty-four frames per second. Taking a photograph, at least, implies no such passage. The photograph is already dead.

I had thought that working as a model had transformed time into a circle, a cyclical exchange of repetition and recurrence. The only days that made any sense to me any longer were today and tomorrow. Everything else felt impossible to keep track of, points and spaces that were simultaneously long and short, flowing into and out from one another. But it wasn’t just my experience in the fashion industry that had changed time; it was also our culture, the technological processes we’d adopted. Bought and sold, and sold out to again. Time as it is represented in the world of images — selfies, snapchats, vines, and countless other self-interested glimpses — is instantaneous and fleeting. Quickly forgotten.

The last decade of my life has been filmed, photographed, streamed, and sold back to mass culture. I get paid for it but it isn’t just me who’s doing the buying and selling. It’s all of us; it’s all of our lives.

Authentic experience has been replaced by fetishized experience; existence becomes object. And actual experience is surpassed by talking about it. But not just talking about it, re-distributing it to the whole world, stamped and packaged in a Facebook or Instagram post. A new skill learned on LinkedIn.

We are selling ourselves back to ourselves.

And still—

We are desperate for the next new thing, the thing that feels real enough to touch, in a way that no touch-screen can achieve, not realizing that we ourselves are capable of authenticity, not realizing that we ourselves can become it.

The next new thing.


I remember being in grad school, sitting in seminar, driving home afterward, into the dark and silence and the night, and wondering just how desperate I could become, just how much desperation I could endure. I had the firm conviction that I had no idea what I was doing there, that I wasn’t writing anything worthwhile, or at least anything worth reading, that I had nothing else to look forward to.

I was stupid enough to believe that everything I’d ever done was already past me, that I had outlived my own adventure, that I would not have anything else to look forward to. On these night drives home, I’d turn up the music as I zigzagged through the Bronx, and I probably would think about moments like Cannes, moments like being in the hotel lobby of the JW Marriott on the Promenade de la Croisette, arriving from Buenos Aires[1] in time to see Lars Von Trier escorted out of the Palais. The only time that’s ever happened, someone expelled from the film festival, then and now.

I will never be here again, I thought then. But I was wrong, because I’d said the same thing in 2008, when I made an afternoon stop in nearby Villefranche. My parents and I hiked the stony Nietzsche Path into the village of Eze and then explored the Vieille Ville, taking pictures and tasting cheese we’d neither heard of nor could pronounce. When I made it back, I tried to imagine the differences between Nice in 2008 and Nice in 2011. There were none, not even my breathless proclamation that I would never return, which was probably repeated in the driver’s seat of my Kia as I crossed the George Washington Bridge.

Cannes in 2011 seems like a fitting entry point into thinking about self-commodification in our post-capitalist world of 2015. So much has changed, except everything. Everything at the festival was for sale; everything was a money game. Bob the Producer brought me to Cannes on someone else’s dime and had me meet Wiktor, the Director-To-Be, as well as a couple (nameless) Saudi financiers (Bingo!), and another actor who’d play le second role.[2] All that was missing was the movie. And still, the money was everywhere. We were spending it and shelling it out to anyone who wanted to take a business card and invite us to dinner or a party on the beach — one of many along the Croisette every evening, which always followed the day’s screenings.

The things we value and the things we pay for have always resided on perpendicular roads. But at the festival, everyone seemed to value payment, the ability to pay for things. People and things. Within a few hours of meeting him, Bob had Eric employed as his personal assistant, sending him off on errands (“print more business cards”) but mostly just having him stand there, making sure people could see him. Making sure people could see the role of Personal Assistant to Director — and especially, Director.

Social media capitalizes on our innate insecurities by removing them from the equation. Say hello, ask me out, say, even, you love me. Taking a photo in private to re-present to anyone else without having to look at them in the eye is a way to circumvent self-doubt. Everyone wants to show and be seen, but I never realized our natural inclination toward exhibition until I was the one on display.

And while the news on display, scrolling across flat screens throughout the festival, showed nothing but sloping quarterly reports and rising unemployment, money was being thrown around like it meant everything; like it meant nothing.

It wasn’t the first time we’d passed Go and collected two hundred dollars. The Eighties and Nineties manufactured a reality that everything that exists exists to be bought and sold, traded in and re-produced. Overnight, North American culture[3] became masturbation and Photoshop. But it’s not enough to simply identify the strains of a society of commodities and narcissism; I’d rather we look at the effects this society produces on how we treat each other and ourselves, the relationships we have and the degree of intimacy we allow ourselves to have.

What happens when every part of a life becomes a product to be sold[4] when every person becomes an object?

Rainer Maria Rilke instructed us in the art of being alone, urging his pupil in Letters to a Young Poet to seek solitude to better find the self. Except in 1902, there was no such thing as omnipresence, at least not in everyday life. Everyday life in 2015 means gazing and being gazed, an unremitted act of reciprocal voyeurism. How can we know ourselves if we are never truly alone?

It should be no surprise that so many of today’s Millennials are facing challenges steeped in identity. In an era of surveillance, media misrepresentation, catfishing, cult of celebrity, and wish fulfillment, what sense of self do we have besides one that is not our own?


I was drinking a martini and eating caviar, or at least putting it in my mouth, stainless steel spoon as small as my thumb, trying my best to swallow.

I loathe both of these things. But it was what the scene called for. Dry martini, vat of caviar, a goblet of rocks.

What the scene did not call for was me in my underwear — blue briefs, yellow trimming— but that’s where I was, or at least what I was wearing, staring down a long stretch of dumbstruck waiters and one stern-looking maître d’.

I was never very good at acting, even though I never thought of it as being hard. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t very good at it. It’s not hard. You just do what the director tells you. They tell you everything to do. In modelling, it is the same, except the photographer is the one calling the shots. Unless it’s the art director. And then things go amiss, just because so many people begin to speak at the same time and no one, no one listens to anyone but themselves.

So in a sense, I knew all about following guidelines, curating an image, radiating it toward an audience that would either consume it or ignore it, or refract it toward their own audience, multiplying and distorting the image the way light floods a prism.

I knew all about what it meant to produce a bid for approval, the same psychological element that is at play whenever anyone commits a photo of themselves to their social network. Like it, share it, pass it on. Take a screen shot and re-tweet it. Or spend your time sorting through hundreds of images for that top shot to compete with the one you’ve just liked, likely not acknowledging the possibility that everybody else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing. Alone, or at least in private.

I’ve always just done what was asked of me in public, while in private done what no one ever thought I could do, writing about my desires and fears and feelings, real sensations of everything that when produced in an action or gesture or any sort of physical movement, seems actually to melt or fade or recede. Reality became more like an impression than an imprint, a prism that twists and alters depending on the angle of the curve and the speed of the light. I was watching in the dark of the cinema again. I’d reach out; I’d never know what I might grasp, except for the roles we are obliged to play and the roles we ourselves have created.

As early as 1975, Michel Foucault wrote about the power of surveillance as a disciplinary apparatus, panoptic observatories which would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. But post-global culture is not just about being watched, it’s also about being commanded to perform. The fundamental question of identity: “Who am I?” has been replaced by “Who am I pretending to be?”

It is tenuous; everything is tenuous, and at Cannes, I began to understand that even I had no control over the performance any longer; I had built an image of me that would outlast me. In truth, the image didn’t just outlast me. It replaced me. The same way that today, our carefully curated online presences replace our physical ones. The same way that our generation will look back on our lives in sixty years and there will be plenty to see. Probably we only wish we would have lived it too.

Its all fun and games has become Its no longer fun even if its all a game.

“And for your next magic trick?” Bob asked, turning to me with one arm raised in feigned amazement.

Probably the only great feat I ever achieved was to allow the leisure class to read the kind of literature that affronted their very lifestyle. That’s real subversion, I think. To trick someone into unwittingly contributing to the demise of the culture they love is like using the language of the spectacle to dissolve the spectacle.

But I hadn’t done that then, not then, not yet. So I just smiled like I always do, letting go with another pre-fab long, loud, laugh.

“You do whatever it is you want, right?” Bob returned. Waiters were hovering like goldfish, lips as wide as their eyes. A few feet from my crotch guests were dining on what looked like soufflé. It could have been bread pudding from the box. “Whatever it is you feel like doing at that moment.”

I nodded.

“Always being myself,” I replied, grabbing my towel and trudging off toward the pool, where the sun was starting to pierce the clouds.

“Well,” Bob slurred, following with a martini that spilled, once or twice, on diners’ feet. “It doesn’t count as stripping if you just show up naked.”

“I thought this is part of the performance,” I mouthed, not bothering to turn around, “or is it a free show?”

Bob shook his head and scowled, hands in his pockets, fumbling, I figured, for his wallet.

“We pay to be here, man.”

I nodded. Bob was right about one thing, at least, even if it wasn’t him who actually paid. But payment was permission after all. It was the only password anyone needed, then and now. And for a price, you can have anything, or at least the illusion of it.

You always get what you pay for.


Tracing our fascination with celebrity and our accompanying patterns of narcissism is analogous to bullet-pointing key moments in cinema. First there was movement, then sound, then color. And then things got really definitive in HD. Everything became louder, crisper, more real. Close enough to touch.

Likewise, celebrities were strangers, people the audience could worship precisely because they had the things we did not. They did the things we wanted to do but never would. Maybe they even did the things we do, every day, except even the mundane began to look magnificent in Technicolor and with the right framing Everything, it turned out, was better on screen, even the things that were edited out in post-production to live again as supplementary materials. We were passive worshippers of the cult of celebrity. We adored these strangers not because we wanted to be like them, but because we wanted to be them. Worship and replace. Wish fulfillment.

But really, we don’t want to replace God anymore; we want to replace ourselves.

Close enough to touch.

And our wish is granted through any device with an Internet connection.

When Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979 he could have only guessed at the degree of self-absorption in today’s Millenials. We’re the unique generation. The generation raised to believe we are all very special. One reason why we look up to celebrities, why we worship fame, is because we know it will set us apart. It will make us somehow different, fulfilling the promise bestowed by our parents and the silhouette of a gold star in their hands. But the greatest danger we as humans face is actually thinking we are all very different from one another. The greatest danger we as humans face is perpetuating the myth that “disconnect” is our default setting.

Yet still we curate, sifting and selecting a seemingly singular experience, tailoring the image we convey to the world and also the images we want to see in it, the soundtrack playing on our headphones, the moods and emotions we want to feel through each song, the movie we are producing, directing, and starring in, in our minds. In the age of proliferation and replaceability, is our abundance of content actually saying anything?

When I think about the festival today, I think about the noise and chatter, the constant eruption of action — action for action’s sake. To speak and be seen; what mattered — what always matters — is the eyes. Quantum mechanics calls it the Observer Effect. We act in accordance with the people watching. If no one’s watching, we don’t exist.

Noise and chatter. Periodic eruptions. Everyone speaking loudly and at the same time. Everyone speaking English the way Americans do in Italian films from the Sixties. So loud and boisterous. So boring.

“I can’t tell if you have excellent emotional control or none at all,” Bob once told me. And it was only because I was so often inside myself. It was only because I would often watch and listen, instead of speaking in return. It would take me so much longer to finish writing it all down.

Even the sky began to act in accordance with the principle of noise. The last day of the festival, as everyone was leaving, abandoning the set for another one, the barrage kept coming.

Voluptuous rain. Enter thunder. Enter the great big bowling balls of the gods. Drizzle, drizzle. Eyes like a goat. Everyone would be staring, stunned to stillness — brief as it might be — looking at me as if they were expecting me to say something. Looking at me as if there was actually something to be said.

When I was younger, I used to be afraid of the camera. Not in the way that certain Native Americans and Aborigines are: I didn’t think it stole your soul (I didn’t know any better then); I was just afraid of the sound. Taking a picture was like a small explosion. The bang I expected but which never came the moment I was facing death for the first time.

Nowadays, taking a picture, capturing an image, takes no time at all. Takes no sound either. Silence.

The skylight dimming and shifting. Questions slipping between us and clinging to our waists.

Four years ago, I took a photograph in my camera eye and tried to preserve it, re-work it, turn it into fiction so it could be more real to me; so it could be more real to you.

The rest is rust and stardust.

—Chris Campanioni


Chris Campanioni is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and new form journalism at John Jay. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013 for his collection, In Conversation, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best First Book for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He is also the author of Once in a Lifetime, a book of poems from Berkeley Press. Find him in space at and @chriscampanioni or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Perfunctory five-day detour through South American for pre festival “texture”—or more than likely, a decent tan.
  2. Bob didn’t look far. He cast our server at Café Orlin, right after he asked him for the bill.
  3. And wherever North American culture is available to be consumed.
  4. Pecuniary or otherwise.
Nov 032015



Joanna Walsh (also known as the flâneuse Badaude) is a British author with a number of other creative identities. She is an illustrator, a fiction editor for the notorious webzine 3:AM (slogan: “Whatever it is, we’re against it”), and also runs the award-winning twitter account @read_women. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Walsh towards the end of the summer and into the fall about a couple of her recent publications: Hotel (published in September with Bloomsbury) and Vertigo (out in October with Dorothy, a publishing project). Her pornographic fairy-tale cycle, Grow a Pair (Readux Books), launched in October as well, and although we do not touch upon it much in the following, it deserves a spotlight too:

Grow a Pair is a feat of imagination: It is not a rapunzel plant stolen from the witch’s garden, for example, which sets these stories in motion, but a dick stolen from the witch’s dick-bush. Gender congeals and then is swiftly liquidated; sex-parts are set free to roam. Three big, secluded, forest-dwelling dicks attempt to construct three cunts, not out of sticks and straw, but out of matchsticks and Jell-O. The second dick wouldn’t know a real cunt if he saw one; the third dick would, and sees one, but decides he prefers Jell-O. Do I detect a trace of cultural critique? Most definitely, though it is laced with other meanings which do not settle. I could précis and précis, but I won’t go on: the pleasure’s in the details, in the small twists and turns.

Hotel hits upon a more tortured mood; it is both philosophical and enigmatical. There are different ways you could summarize what’s going on in its pages. The speaker (the book is a memoir, but a creative memoir) is a reviewer of hotels who finds herself ‘hotel surfing’ for a fairly prolonged period of time, partly to escape a marital shit-show at home. The writings which spin out of her stay muse on the nature of ‘home,’ the nature of ‘the hotel,’ the possible presence of the home in the hotel (or ‘Hometel,’ as one of the pieces is called), of the hostile in hospitality, of the hospital in the hotel, and so on.

Vertigo, a short story collection, meanders through a number of different scenarios: A woman out to purchase a dress in Paris ends up reflecting on what it means to appear to another, and on the conditions of appearance: Does one, by dint of having become habitual for the other, also become old? A petulant man waits for his order in an oyster restaurant, ready to strike out, the woman across from him notes, at anyone: at the waitress, or even at her, for his delayed meal. Young mothers are birthed by their children, become other people and perhaps self-estranged, not least because they are defined relationally, after their children are born. Each story in the book is acutely psychological. Each story is aglitter with pain and insight; often enough the pain it depicts arises on the part of women and in response to male behavior and the conventions of a heterosexual (and asymmetrical) world.

A similar kind of pain saturates Hotel. I think it is true to say that, in both Vertigo and Hotel, you can cut frustration with a knife. Something feels about to blow. But these works give us intrigue in addition to bleak affect. One of Walsh’s great gifts consists of the impeccable observations and novel phrases she hands us: “There is a hole in my side into which someone else’s desires fit” (Hotel); “There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it” (Vertigo); “I am anxious to redistribute—especially—food I know diners have previously rejected: leftovers, anomalous items: boiled carrots, a spoonful of hot sauce, a single tinned apricot. I do this by introducing them into stews, pâtés, and other dishes. These additions are not in the original recipes and sometimes they ruin a meal, though in ways the eaters can scarcely identify” (Vertigo); “Perhaps he is not the burglar I’ve planned for but a junkie, a drunk, a psycho. I am more comfortable with a drunk or a psycho: his passion, when I counterattack, will answer mine” (Vertigo). Moments of blazing perspicacity, creativity, intelligence, and dark humor are insanely abundant in her writing; they pop at every turn: like nails in the sand: like diamonds in water.

— Natalie Helberg



Natalie Helberg (NH): I thought we could begin with Vertigo. It seems to me that the stories in this collection spiral around a set of related ideas. In the story which shares the collection’s title, the narrator tells us “Vertigo is the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” It is a state, she says, without anchorage, in which one pitches “forward, outward and upward.” In a sense, ‘vertigo’ is linked to relocation, particularly to perspectival relocation: what we saw from there, we now see from here. In line with this, “Vertigo,” which is, for the most part, written in the first person, includes italicized paragraphs which switch the mode of narration to the third person. Displacement is a prominent theme throughout the rest of the collection as well, as is misplacement (one story’s narrator, for example, suggests that she is “not the right teller,” the right narrator; the children in the story “The Children’s Ward” “do and say nothing childlike” and there is the sense that they, perhaps, do not belong there, in the ward, at all).

Were there particular themes — relocation, displacement, misplacement — which catalyzed the writing, or did you discover them in the writing after the fact? To what extent do you write with an idea in mind?

Joanna Walsh (JW): It’s interesting that you mention relocation and displacement. I’m fascinated by prepositions, words that tell us about where we are and about our relations to other things—or people. Prepositions tend to be vague: they can mean several things at once and are often grouped differently in different languages. I wrote a story, “Hauptbahnhof” (in Fractals), about German prepositions, in which the narrator is always confused about how to locate herself, especially regarding a man she (believes she) is waiting to meet.

I’m interested in kinds of subjectivity, especially in relation to the people we live with. I’m not sold on some of the methods we’ve been given. The French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes that subjectivity is essentially relational (prepositionary?), that “Who are you?” can only be answered with “and who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together? Thanks to which milieu? What between us (entre nous)?” (“The Three Genres”).

I don’t ‘envisage’ my work. I’m not a writer who sets out to construct something according to a proposition. I’m attracted to the idea of chance but, for me, to set it up in my writing would itself be a less organic, more formal exercise. I see my work as finding things out, as excavating, drawing things together, more than as constructing something. It’s a delicate process, like threading a needle, and like threading a needle you have to keep very still when you’re doing it, and make just the right sorts of movements.

I notice common themes in my stories often only after I’ve written them: I could do a critical reading on myself. That kind of exercise can be fun, and sometimes it’s useful: I notice things I should pursue. But I’m very obliging, far too ready to create theories around my writing in response to questions, like a patient who is ready to talk about herself in the third person with her doctor, and this is tempting, but it’s also dangerous: she could die from it.

vertigo cover

NH: When you say, above, that you’re “not sold on the methods we’ve been given,” do you mean the methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings, or the methods we’ve been given to conceive of subjectivity?

JW: It’s difficult to separate those two, because I think the idea of ‘methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings’ already involves some concept of subjectivity, so I mean both. I guess what I really mean is that I’m annoyed by the popular idea that a self should be a united thing. I’m always trying to find ways to reproduce the effects of subjectivity in writing: the way different moments can coexist within it, how time for a 45-year-old is different from time for a 5-year-old, and how time is also distributed across place through all sorts of things like actions and habits, so spaces become different too.

NH: The fact that you’re interested in prepositions makes so much sense. The works you sent me seem focused—on inter-subjectivity, yes—but also on language itself: its parts, its forms, its genres, on figures of speech, and so on. In Grow a Pair, synecdoche becomes playfully literal: In one tale, a princess is waiting for her one true cock, which could just mean she’s waiting for a prince-guy, if ‘cock’ stands in for him, but the cock in the tale is severed from the prince and becomes autonomous. There is textual support, moreover, for the idea that it was an autonomous nuisance all along. It is a whole unto itself, not merely a part standing in for a whole.

JW: Well, that’s reverse synecdoche, perhaps… I think I sometimes have a problem seeing the big picture, but yes, I’m attracted to ideas around wholeness and fragmentation, and boundaries. Well, I refuse to pull myself together…

NH: In both Hotel and Grow a Pair, you seem particularly fascinated with the pun. In Hotel, part of this fascination seems to be linked to an interest in the Freudian uncanny, which implies both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the homely and the unhomely (the familiar in the unfamiliar, the unhomely in the homely). Freud, of course, appears in the text, and his notion of the uncanny is mentioned. The text’s linguistic play fortifies the connections between dissimilar concepts like home and hotel, hospital and hotel, and so on: “Dora is a physical case. / KM is a mental case. / I am always escaping. I am no more than a suitcase.”

JW: I’ve been told that etymology and puns are not reliable roads down which to develop arguments, but I can’t resist them. A pun is a sideways move on language: homonym rather than synonym. Hotel and hospital really do share a root name, as religious institutions once served as both. I like it when language peels away from meaning and engages in other kinds of relations with itself. Maybe it’s a kind of escape, or, because both meanings remain present, something that only looks like escape but is an idea held in tension: even unrelated meanings evoked by puns sit side by side and the reader can’t help but make some kind of link: that’s a reader’s job. I’m probably occasionally guilty of using homophones to leap from one side of the road to another (and maybe they can go no further), but most of the puns in Hotel deliberately convey joint meanings. The suitcase pun sounds like it’s at the lighter end: sonic and throwaway, but it also goes back to Pan(Dora)’s box (all women are cases of one kind or another).

grow a pair

NH: Hotel is marketed as part memoir, but the chapters in it become so fanciful, with movie stars (Mae West, Groucho Marx), continental philosophers (Heidegger), and names associated with classic psychoanalytic writings (Freud, Dora) turned into characters, too. The chapters sometimes have the feel of an essay, but at other times they take on something like the form of a screenplay (e.g., we’re given a cast of characters and their roles before several of the texts get going). The lines the recognizable characters are given are sometimes quotations from their own writings. That being said, I thought your use of Heidegger activated a sense of the uncanny in the text as well: When Heidegger shows up, discoursing on home and dwelling, he seems both entirely appropriate (since the chapters in the collection pivot around the notion of ‘home,’ which they are trying, to a certain extent, to unfold) and odd (since Heidegger used the language of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling’ to hit at something entirely unrelated to the more everyday sense of home which Hotel seems preoccupied with): You’ve spliced Heidegger—very fruitfully—into concerns which are foreign, or unfamiliar, to him.

JW: It was important to me that Freud, Heidegger, etc., as characters, said only what they wrote in their texts (I like the idea of trying to re-hydrate a person from his or her dry pages). I’m also interested in misattributions and misquotations, though, in Hotel, I always let the reader know when there’s no reliable source for a statement.

Heidegger seems to be at war with nouns, and at home with verbs; Heidegger’s is an interesting crusade against language. His idea of dwelling is etymological: the path it goes down in English is very different from the path it goes down in German.

NH: I feel I should insert a sheepish laugh here. I guess I should quit trying to analyze your texts/prove, so to speak, something about them/pin them down/make them solid and scrutable. I understand that that can be a very violent gesture (it’s so limiting!). I think a lot about interpretation and what it means to track motifs and themes and try to put them together. It’s one of my favorite ways to engage with texts, and often I can’t help but do it (there’s a kind of hermeneutic pleasure, I think, I’m pursuing), even though I realize that a good text isn’t one that lends itself to definitive interpretation, and even though I recognize that any interpretation I come up with must ultimately dissolve. The act of interpretation is for me something like a game; it is a way for me to engage deeply with a text at a given time (it provides a focus for my attention to the text), though without exhausting the text, and while leaving open the possibility that I will return to the text in a different way in the future.

JW: I find family resemblances and Venn diagrams useful ways of visualizing meaning, and I think you can use these to think about reading too. It’s probably inevitable that each reading will draw particular things from a text, so that a reader can use, as a handy way of categorizing it, a memory-tag—but with good writing this will shift if you reread, or even as you remember reading. The best texts are open to a range of interpretation: anything that starts and ends with the author’s intention will die very quickly, or its words might become purely decorative: then you can put it on a T-shirt and things become less about how the text is read and more about what it looks like: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. But while there’s a reader, even of a T-shirt, some kind of meaning’s always waiting, like the faces that form in clouds, or the patterns in the carpet.

Hotel cover

NH: I want to go back, for a moment, to the fact that, in Hotel, you’re using theorists as characters and redeploying what they’ve written as dialogue. It seems that part of your creative process is connected to a reading practice. Your writings seem to have steeped in theory to a certain extent; they seem to have, to use your language, drawn theory in. You mentioned Irigaray informs your concerns with subjectivity as well. How do you see the relation between reading (theoretical and other works) and writing? I know Kathy Acker is one of your influences, and that for her the two acts were indissociable.

JW: I like theory (as a—for want of a better definition—‘creative’ writer, am I even allowed to say this?). I like theory that’s written as if it’s ‘creative’ writing. I like Christine Brooke-Rose, and Maggie Nelson, and Denise Riley and Anne Carson’s criticism as well as their poetry and fiction. They acknowledge what language does even as they are using it: they don’t try to pretend it’s some kind of neutral tool. I like Acker’s methods. They’re not straight cut-up (maybe that’s an involuntary pun). In The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula, there’s nothing coldly experimental about the way she rewrites classic texts, and the result has in no way the alienating effect of many other cut-ups. But her work, commenting on what it remakes, is always criticism as well as fiction. I like her emails with McKenzie Wark, which are all voice—voice whose artifice is very natural and whose naturalness is very artificial—which constantly undermines itself and turns itself over: it is irreverent and then surprisingly reverent by turns so that, in some ways, she seems to be holding a conversation only with herself.

NH: It’s funny that you mention the correspondence between Acker and Wark. I’m just reading that. The idea that Acker seems at times, in the correspondence, to be conversing with herself is interesting, too. There’s a line from Hotel that seems to be haunting me: “I have suspected for a while that some people talk to the page because there is no one else they can talk to any more.” The writing scene that Acker was embedded in in San Francisco was and continues to be very community-based, so much so that the communal scene itself often enough becomes the subject, the content, of the work: writerly names are named in the writing itself and in a way become signatures which indicate where the reader can place this work on the literary map; ‘gossip’ gets in and becomes art, even becomes explicitly framed as art (I’m thinking of Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto and even, in the broader American scene, Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too). Anyway, scenes like that are conducive to such fruitful collaborations and dialogues: there are others to talk to, and this talk may make it onto a page. Then there are writers like Anne Carson, the lone wolf types (though she is constantly communicating with the dead writers and thinkers she loves, constantly incorporating them into her own thinking and art). I wonder if you might tell us about your own relation, as a writer, to community. When did you begin to write, and, when you did begin, were you surrounded by others who wrote, or did you only begin to come into contact with writers later on? Are you a lone wolf type, or do you have writing relationships which fuel your practice?

JW: The emails show Acker as lonelier than I’d have expected: she complains about it (though this might simultaneously be a seductive pose, and I do often think of works of fiction—in which I’d include emails and letters—as really elaborate secondary sexual characteristics). When I started writing, I was completely on my own. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the things I was doing as ‘writing’ in any formal sense. One of the reasons I’ve stayed with writing is the people. I used to be an illustrator: that was lonely. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s because some illustrators have a different approach to using words. I suspect I also found it isolating because of the economic structure of illustrative work: there are no ‘readings’: you seldom connect with your audience; work is usually commissioned in response to writing, often as the last stage in a publication process, and you rarely meet the author, get to exchange ideas or influence their end of the process. Some illustrators work in studios, but I prefer to work alone, with access to collaboration and discussion when I need it. I like emails and all forms of disembodied communication (except phone: I like writing, really: g-chat, Twitter; I’ve fallen in love by email…). I find talking face-to-face intoxicating—with the right person. There are a few people I write to about writing and the writing about this can itself become something creative: a game, something with a texture of its own…

acker460Kathy Acker

NH: I’m curious about what your relationship to the materiality of a text or book is, especially in light of the fact that you’ve worked as an illustrator. Do you relate to creative writing—text on a page—as if it is a visual object, a thing, for lack of a better word, with a visual dimension which sits alongside its other dimensions? No one would ever space an illustration you’ve handed over to them differently, for example, in the way that they might space a piece of text you’ve handed over to them differently, or change its font and so on (though maybe poetry is conventionally more respected than prose as far as preserving the original spacing goes). It’s unusual for writers to have a hand in designing their own books these days—it’s just not how we divvy up the labor, culturally. Do you ever find that division—writers versus designers—frustrating? Could you speak to these questions in connection with Hotel, which seems to sit on the page in a very interesting way, perhaps partly because of the way that short quotations are interspersed, or distributed, between the text’s paragraphs?

JW: I find writing different from illustrating: the gaps are in different places: I don’t mean literally, but the gaps I use as a writer to work with the reader. Illustrating other people’s texts, I find myself playing around these gaps. I don’t illustrate my own work because that would involve somehow second-guessing myself as I was writing.

The page layout in Hotel is excellent: those chunky chapter and section headers, and the elegant, slightly square, page format. It was very important to me that the ‘screenplay’ parts of the book—where characters like Freud and Heidegger have ‘conversations’ with the narrator— looked like a screenplay: centered, in a Courier font, with the names of the speakers in capital letters. When I sent my final manuscript to Bloomsbury, I had formatted it very carefully. They proofed it, and sent it back to me with all my formatting equally carefully removed… luckily they were happy to put it back.

I’ve never experimented with breaking up the page in ways that are outside the conventions of typography, but I do find paragraphing, use of italics, line-spaces, etc. important: I think most authors do.

NH: The ‘fragment’ seems to be one of the central forms you’re using in Hotel. There’s also another form that’s marvelously conspicuous: the postcard form. Two pieces in the text, “Marriage postcards” and “Postcards from 26 hotels,” are assemblages of postcards. These postcards are, of course, not literally postcards, so I wonder if you could elaborate on what they are: How are you conceiving of them, and how did you stumble upon them or invent them as an organizational unit for these pieces? They seem related, in some way, to the fragment, though they come with a different set of associations: They imply an addressee, for example, and actions of sending and receiving in a way that fragments do not, or at least do not necessarily.

JW: The “26 postcards” were written at the beginning of the process of writing Hotel, as a kind of warm-up exercise, though I didn’t really think of them in that way at the time because I don’t like to formalize how I write, so maybe it’s better to call them one of many approaches I tried. In the end I put them at the end of the book, though there are also some postcards half-way through. There are lots of approaches to communicating with an unseen correspondent in Hotel, because there’s a lot in the book about the difficulties of communication, and especially the difference between talking (and the ‘talking cure’) and writing, and also corresponding. There’s a lot in the book about email, and g-chat as well as postcards. Dora writes a suicide letter, then, attempting no harm against herself, puts it away in her desk where her parents—to whom it is addressed— discover it. I quote Freud, who “remembered seeing and hearing that among people with hysterical mutism, writing vicariously stood in for speech. They wrote fluently, more quickly, and better than other people did.”


NH: You mentioned that, when you started writing, you were hesitant to conceive of what you were writing as writing. I wonder whether you could elaborate on that. Was this because the form the writing assumed was unconventional, or was it because you didn’t think that what you were writing about was the stuff of ‘real’ writing, or something else? I’m curious about how our conceptions of ‘real’ writing are formed and about what informs them. In an interview you did for The Fem, you spoke of rendering seemingly insignificant experiences in words as a feminist gesture of sorts. Other writers have felt it necessary to invent, inhabit, and validate forms of their own. Is the writing you are doing now continuous in any way with the writing you were doing earlier on and which you did not, then, conceive of as legitimate writing? Has your conception of ‘real’ writing shifted over time?

JW: It was definitely to do with my conception of what writing was, and a conception of what a person like me might be allowed to write. I have a degree in English literature, but I had no framework for reading as a writer. I was not inspired by a lot of the writing I saw around me: this is partly why I now read a lot in translation, as well as a lot of books published by indie presses who are more willing to publish unconventional works. The realist novel is just one form amongst many.

Ideas that stood in my way (as they do for many women) included a notion of what was important, what could be discussed, and where, and how; the idea that writing about family, domesticity, and romance should be confined to certain genres (even to special places, and ways of writing, within the ‘genre’ of literary fiction); as well as the notion that literature should be ‘improving’ or tell the reader about something ‘interesting.’ This is why I’m so interested in writing female voices that are internal monologues. At the moment I’m writing a voice that doesn’t know itself, that has no real vocabulary for expressing its desires, or identifying its distress, but which is able to reveal these nevertheless.

NH: Your interest in internal monologues is definitely apparent in both Vertigo and Hotel, though both texts also make use of other modes of narration as well. There are pieces in Vertigo, for example, which expertly navigate and exploit the fine line dividing the first person and the third person point of view. I mentioned the title piece, “Vertigo,” above. Another piece, “Vagues,” seems to start off in the third person: an oyster restaurant is described in detail, the narrative voice comes to fixate on a man sitting at one of the tables, but eventually the third person gets sucked into a first person perspective: The woman sitting across from him, who has been narrating the whole time, speaks of herself: she says ‘I.’ We only realize that she’s been narrating once she does. The shift in point of view perhaps helps to convey the woman as a particular kind of self, one that risks being forgotten (though everything, the whole narrative world, is filtered through her).

JW: Yes, I’m interested in how we use language to convey ourselves, when words are such worn-out, borrowed things that it’s easy to think of ourselves in the third person. It’s pretty much impossible to use language without quoting, if not directly, then by referencing a sensibility: you find yourself talking like a newsreader, or a teacher you once heard, or whatever (to quote Vertigo, “I say ‘you.’ Of course I mean ‘me.’”).


NH: Could you tell us more about your next project? A voice that doesn’t know itself, that lacks a vocabulary for expressing its desires, but which somehow conveys them seems like it would be very challenging to write! How are you approaching the task?

JW: I want to do something new (to me, at least) in every project, so I don’t think about approaches beforehand: the writing process is all about evolving techniques to cope with what I’m exploring. In the next thing, I’m writing about a teenager, someone whose memories are limited in terms of timescale but are still very sharp and intrusive. She’s relatively well-read, so has a wide vocabulary, but has little of what people would conventionally call ‘life-experience,’ though she has experienced her whole life up to that point. I want to look at the quality of that overlooked experience, and at how she expresses it, knowing, herself, that it’s not conventionally valued.

NH: It seems that both Vertigo and Hotel are circling around the figure of a distressed, even suffocated, female subject. In Vertigo, this figure is manifest as a number of different characters (that is, in the different stories that make up the text), while in Hotel, it is manifest as one subject, whose subjectivity is itself distributed across, or manifest in and as, a number of different textual forms (postcards and diaries, among others). There is even definite crosstalk between Vertigo and Hotel on the subject of home—the former text includes the rather dark consideration of home and family history, “Claustrophobia.” Hotels are not alien to Vertigo either. They—the infamous ‘they’—say that some poets write the same poem their whole lives. I wonder what your own relation is to returning to familiar themes in new ways. Repetition with difference. The new project sounds like it might, to a certain degree, be this kind of return. Do you have any reflections on what is sometimes the need to write and rewrite and rewrite (or any other concluding thoughts)?

JW: Well ‘suffocated’ is a good word, because I think I do have a thing about breathing, like in the claustrophobia story, and in Hotel I write a lot about Freud’s patient, “Dora,” who stops speaking: speech being another thing that comes out of the mouth. I’ve had attacks of claustrophobia a few times, including one where I was staying somewhere and had to sleep downstairs on the sofa, because I couldn’t stay in the bedroom; I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, but even at the time I found it quite funny.

Someone I once met told me, “You just write how you write.” He was a writer but quite a different sort from me, and I didn’t know him for long but that stuck with me: why worry? There’s no point writing anything that’s not felt urgently. I’m always writing about home and family, and love, and escape, and identity; I think those are big enough topics for anyone.

–Joanna Walsh & Natalie Helberg



Joanna Walsh is the author of the story collections Fractals (3:AM Press; 2013), Vertigo (Dorothy, a publishing project; 2015), and Grow a Pair (Readux Books; 2015), in addition to the creative memoir Hotel (Bloomsbury; 2015). She also illustrates, edits fiction for 3:AM, reviews books for various journals, and promotes writing by women using the twitter account @read_women, which received the Women In Publishing’s 2014 New Venture Award.

 helberg pic

Natalie Helberg won the 2015 Robin Blaser Poetry Award. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.


Nov 022015

E_Sunhats (1949)Sun hats, 1949


B_Photo - Across the valley (Photo credit Anne Quested)Across the valley (Photo credit Anne Quested)

WE LIVED ON THE HILL. From our gate we could see far across the valley to the mountain. Everyone called it Terrible Billy though its real name was Mount Terrible. At the foot of the mountain was our town, Werris Creek, just three miles from home. At night we watched the lights sparkling, mainly street lights and those at the loco yards where steam locomotives shunted the freight cars. In summer I slept on the veranda. The night sky shimmered and I heard trains puffing slowly up the valley.

The coal mine was further down our hill, hidden by gum trees. It was small and inconspicuous as pits go, with the boilers beside the rusty corrugated iron shed that confined the steam engine. All day I heard it in the distance, groaning and hissing as it wound the steel rope that heaved the coal skips from the tunnel. I could smell the black coal smoke that billowed from the chimney stack.


Going to Town

We sat in the battered utility truck, my big sister and I, looking out for the pit horses as my father drove down the paddock, jolting along the track as far as the cattle ramp. The tar road started there, a narrow pot-holed strip that went all the way to town beside the railway track. We had to get half off the road if we met a car. Sometimes we saw Tommy Windsor on his tractor, ploughing a paddock, or Mrs. Fred Jones milking her nanny goat in the lucerne patch. Mr. McClelland shuffled out of his old wooden house to close the railway gates across the road. It would be a freight train, perhaps bringing coal from our pit or wheat from the silo. The passenger train didn’t come through until lunch time. Occasionally we had to wind up the windows because of the smoke and soot as the locomotive chuffed past. We waved to the driver in his greasy clothes and maybe saw his mate shovelling coal into the furnace.

J_Our town Werris CreekOur town, Werris Creek


We ran into the schoolyard and up the slope trying not to trip on the cracked asphalt, but we always had skinned knees painted with orange Mercurochrome. If the boys had rung the bell, we joined the juniors, standing in front of the big kids, ready for assembly. The sun was hot at nine o’clock in the summer. Our headmaster, Mr. Porter, would be on the retaining wall at the edge of the playground with the other teachers. They lined up on either side of the flag pole. The sixth class boy battled with the flag then hauled it up the pole. We saluted, shoulders back, and sang ‘God Save the King’ for George VI who lived in London on the other side of the world, and ‘Advance Australia Fair’, or ‘There is a land…’ but I didn’t know the words except for the chorus: ‘Australia Australia Austraaaaaaalia’. It made me feel funny in the chest like I was going to cry. We recited the school pledge which to me was a jumble of words, then sang the school song. ‘Werris Creek Central School’ were the only words I managed to make out. I just sang ‘la la la’ when I didn’t know. Mr. Porter would shout, ‘School dismissed!’ like they did in the army and we marched away to the crackling sounds of a brass band issuing from the tinny loudspeakers. Sometimes it was ‘The British Grenadiers’ or ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, other times ‘Waltzing Matilda’. ‘Swing those arms. Lift those knees. Left right left right.’ We marched round the playground and eventually up the wooden steps into school.

C_On the swing in 1948 - my sister pushing (Insert before 'Going to Town')On a swing with my sister



In Kindergarten I played in the sand tray with Noah and his animals and drew on a small blackboard with broken chalks, or opened my book and traced the fish with a wobbly line and coloured the hippo with blunt pencils. Then I danced on tippy toes and stomped like the giant, or sang about little nut trees and kookaburras sitting in old gum trees. We all slept on blue mats after lunch then played with big wooden blocks and it was three o’clock and time to go home.

But my father would be doing the mine inspection. He couldn’t collect us for another hour. I’d go to my sister’s Second Class room. They didn’t finish till half-past-three. Mrs. Boram gave me a special drawing book. I drew pictures with pastels in delicate colours, not like the red, white and blue of those broken chalks. On the first page I drew flowers with long stems, beautiful petals and ladybirds. ‘Bring your work here and show me,’ Mrs. Boram said from her desk at the front. ‘Just a minute,’ I called back. I still had more ladybirds to draw. ‘Don’t “just a minute” me, young lady,’ she said, looking fierce. ‘Bring your work here immediately!’

One of the big boys from sixth class ran across the playground and rang the bell at half-past-three. I walked down to the gate with my sister. Her name was Dora. We sat on our school ports or played hopscotch for ages till my father came in the ute. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we walked over to the convent straight after school for piano lessons with Sister Paula. I thumped away at middle-C and Jesus looked on from the wall, with his bleeding heart.

D_Rag Dolls & Curling Rags (1949)Rag dolls & curling rags, 1949



At lunchtime we sat in the school playground on splintery benches. Bees buzzed overhead in the pepper trees. I’d have an apple and Vitawheat biscuits with butter and Vegemite. I squeezed the biscuits together and out through the tiny holes wriggled lots of butter and Vegemite worms. No one else (except my sister) had Vitawheat biscuits with worms. Sometimes I swapped for slabs of white bread and jam or half a cream bun. I didn’t tell my mother.

On Fridays we bought lunch from Mrs. Munson at the sandwich shop across the gravel road opposite the school gate. I got a baked bean sandwich or sometimes egg or devon or tinned sardine. In winter it was a pie or sausage roll with tomato sauce. My mother said, ‘Now don’t you go buying lollies. Buy an apple.’ But I just had a big round All-Day-Sucker for a penny instead. It changed colour as I sucked. I took it out often to see what colour it was. Soon my fingers were multi-coloured and sticky. The lolly didn’t last all day but sometimes it lasted so long I still had it in my mouth when we went back into school. ‘Are you eating?’ Miss Barwick would say. If the lolly had shrunk to the size of a small bead, I crunched it between my teeth and swallowed, but sometimes it was too big and I was caught. ‘Show me,’ she’d say and I’d open my mouth. She’d look disgusted as she peered in. She’d say, ‘Put that in the bin!’.

Sometimes I bought pink sherbet instead in a small white paper bag with a short liquorice tube like a straw. The sherbet fizzed as I sucked it in. It made my teeth go pink and my tongue go red and the liquorice made my lips go black and my fingers too. Sometimes I bought a long black liquorice strap. I spent the rest of lunch time chewing on it and pulling faces to scare everyone with my mouth, tongue and teeth all black. Sometimes it was a small paper bag of Conversation Lollies – tuppence worth. They were flat, in different shapes, with a message on top like ‘I love you’ or ‘Be my friend’. I offered them round in the paper bag like a lucky dip.

F_With my big sister and a friend ('1949')With my big sister and a friend



Mr. Cox was the dentist. He had a moustache and wore a white coat. I went down to the Railway Institute after school with my sister and lined up with the other kids. He was only there on Mondays. His room was tiny like a walk-in closet and there was a big chair like Nippy the barber’s. I clambered up and he leant the chair back and said, ‘Now open up’. He peered into my mouth with his little round mirror on a stick and his spiky probe. If he found a hole, he said, ‘Now this won’t hurt,’ and he pedalled away with one foot to make the drill turn and I heard a ‘whirr whirr’ sound like a bicycle. I felt the drill slowly grinding into my tooth. It made a horrible noise in my head. Sometimes I jumped because it hurt but mostly it didn’t. He mixed grey stuff on a little glass tray and rammed it in the hole. ‘Now have a good rinse,’ he’d say and I swilled my mouth out with the pink water and spat in the dish. One day he was poking about in my mouth with his finger and he said, ‘Now bite’. He started to remove his finger and I just didn’t think. I snapped at his finger because I thought I was going to miss. I bit it – hard. He was very cross but I couldn’t see why. He said ‘bite’ so I bit – and there was nothing else there to bite, only his finger.

G_The Railway Institute (mentioned in 'Dentist')The Railway Institute



It was First Class, when I was six. We sat in desks with curly cast iron legs, lined up in rows facing the blackboard. We kept our books on a shelf under the desk. That was the year I learnt that time extended further back than ‘the olden days’ when ladies wore long dresses like Scarlett O’Hara and there were coaches and horses like on the biscuit tin. Before that, Miss Kievis said, there were cave men who lived in caves and rubbed sticks together to make fire and didn’t wear clothes unless it was cold. Then they wore animal skins. I drew tiny cave men in my book. She didn’t mention what came before that. Not a word about dinosaurs. I didn’t find out about dinosaurs until I saw them at the pictures, killing the cave men.

H_Friends ('1950')Friends, 1950



The dunnies were across the playground under the pepper trees. There was no roof, just a high corrugated iron wall round the battered wooden cubicles. I could see the sky through the branches above and got wet when it rained. It was the same in the boys’ only they had a urinal as well. Mr. Porter said at morning assembly that the boys had to stop peeing right up the walls. The bees roared in the trees but the blow flies roared even louder. I ran in holding my breath because of the smell. I tried not to look down into the sanican underneath the wooden seat because there were masses of maggots writhing, especially when there was a heat wave.

The nightcart turned up when the cans were full. Sometimes it arrived when we were in the playground. We watched from a distance as the big filthy boy took each slopping can on his shoulder out to the truck and returned with an empty one. We held our noses and said ‘pooooh’ and the sixth class boys jeered and laughed until the job was done and the old truck revved up and disappeared down the lane. The new cans reeked of Phenol and for a few days there were no maggots.

Sometimes there were squares of cut up newspaper hanging on a rusty nail behind the wooden cubicle door but more often there was no paper at all. We could bring some from home. If we ran out, or forgot to get it from our school port before coming out at recess or lunch time, we weren’t allowed back inside to fetch it. We scouted round the garbage bins to find some, maybe old lunch wrap or something, and the blow flies buzzed and swarmed round. We washed our hands outside, under the tap over by the weather shed – cold water, no soap, but we could bring that from home too. I had a little bag for my soap. I kept it in my pocket, together with some paper and a handkerchief. But some kids had nothing; they didn’t even have shoes.



In Second Class our reading book was full of animals like the platypus, the wombat, the dingo and the kangaroo but I struggled with the words. And there was the Race for the Stars, a big chart on the wall with everyone’s name. ‘If you do good work you’ll get more stars,’ Miss Beavis said. But everyone else was getting lots of stars; I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting many. And they won prizes but I didn’t get any. That was the year Dora and I learnt a piano duet from ‘Teaching Little Fingers to Play’. I had the bottom part. Mum said we weren’t playing loud enough, but we played so loudly on the night of the open-air concert, the nuns said they could hear us at the convent, and that was over beyond the Presbyterian church.

I_Me aged 7 with a small cousin ('1951')Me aged 7 with a small cousin


Cold War

When I was seven I saw something remarkable through the small square panes of the Second Class window. It was a jet trail. I’d not seen one before. It was far up in the blue sky like a streaky cloud, so high I could barely make out the plane in front, just a tiny glint in the sunshine and the trail growing longer like toothpaste coming out of a tube. Robert sat at the desk beside me. He said it was a jet trail because he’d seen one in Life Magazine and a jet plane too, and on the newsreel at the pictures. We rarely saw planes in our skies. If we saw one when we were in the playground, we waved and shouted to the pilot but he probably couldn’t hear. They were small planes with propellers. Once we even saw a helicopter. The day we saw that jet trail, Robert said, ‘It’s the Russians coming,’ but we didn’t tell Miss Beavis because we were supposed to be getting on with our work. We’d heard grown-ups talking about the war and the Germans and the Japs but that war was over and my uncles were all back home. Now it was the cold war and the communists with their hammers and sickles and the Russians who made trouble with the Berlin blockade, whatever that was.

Mr. Muir owned the cafe opposite the pedestrian bridge that went over the railway to the train station. My father said Mr. Muir was a red hot communist. I didn’t know what a communist was. We sometimes spent time in the cafe talking to old Mr. and Mrs. Muir and their son, Kevin, after my father collected us from school. Kevin had a girl friend called Daphne who was the waitress. She wore a white apron and cap. My father talked and laughed with Daphne as he leant on the Laminex counter, but they didn’t talk about hammers and sickles. I’d have ice cream in a fluted glass dish with sticky strawberry topping, crushed nuts and a wafer triangle, and maybe a malted milkshake with a straw, to fill in the time.

One day I wandered out to the back room. There were heaps of newspapers stacked on a shelf. They had strange letters and words printed on them and photos of soldiers and tanks parading through crowded streets, and fat old women wearing overcoats and headscarves in the snow. ‘Can I take this home to show Mum?’ I asked Mr. Muir, waving a paper at him. When I got home, my mother said, ‘A Russian newspaper! Where on earth did you get that?’ It was only an old newspaper with foreign writing but she thought it was something to do with this cold war. She told my father he shouldn’t be going to Muir’s cafe. He just laughed. ‘Half the blokes at the pit are bloody commos,’ he said. ‘They’re always waving the red flag.’ But I didn’t see any red flags.



Third Class was my last year at the Werris Creek School. I was eight and I had a crush on Ken Hays. His father owned the dairy. I posted him a letter during the Easter holidays but he didn’t answer. He pretended not to see me when we went back to school. At the end of the year Miss Barwick had some of us line up in the playground. She photographed us with her Box Brownie camera. She said we were her shining stars.

We’d learnt about explorers. They mostly got lost in the desert or died of thirst or were speared by Aboriginal people. Nobody mentioned all the Aboriginal people killed by white settlers in those early days. I didn’t even see this at the pictures though I saw lots of American Indians being killed by cowboys, and we all cheered. Gloria was in my class. She was an Aboriginal girl. Her skin was like chocolate. She had a big smile and gleaming white teeth. My father said her father was lucky because he worked on the railway and they lived in a railway house down near the loco yards. Other Aboriginal people weren’t so lucky.

K_Miss Barwick's stars (1952)Miss Barwick’s stars, 1952


Picture Show

On Saturday afternoons we went with our friends to the pictures in town. We called it the matinee. We sat at the back and ate red Jaffas full of chocolate, or Minties or sometimes it was Fantails which were chocolate coated toffees. My sister saved the wrappers because they had things on them about the film stars. There were hardly any grown-ups, just children. The lights went out suddenly and we cheered as the curtains opened because we saw Hoppalong Cassidy riding Silver, and the Mexican bandits hiding behind boulders. Then Hoppalong was galloping across the desert after the baddies and we shouted ‘Come on Hoppalong’ and stamped our feet with all the kids and jumped up and down, raising the dust from the bare floor boards while Jaffas rolled under the seats. Some man would yell, ‘Pipe down you kids’ and we went quiet for a while. Then we were laughing at Felix the Cat, or Tom chasing Jerry, in colour. Next we saw the serial with robbers stealing the treasure and falling into the snake pit or sinking in quicksand or being trapped in a cave with moving walls covered in spikes that slowly closed in. Just as the heroine was about to be impaled, the screen seemed to flash open and the voice said, ‘Don’t miss the next thrilling episode of – The Drawn Dagger’, or whatever it was. We came out of the pictures so excited and I had nightmares for weeks about snake pits or boiling oil.

On hot summer nights we went to the open-air picture show which had a neon sign over the entrance. It said ‘Talkies’ in red but the ‘T’ often didn’t light up so it said ‘alkies’. That sign was old then, at least from the Thirties, my father said, and it was now the Fifties. The theatre was surrounded by a high battered corrugated iron fence with the silver screen at one end and the corrugated iron entrance door and ticket office at the other. There was a dirt floor and we sat in deck chairs under the stars with our parents. The big kids came with their friends.

There were pepper trees round the perimeter. When I was bored with the film or there was too much kissing, I looked up at the black velvet sky and saw the Milky Way and shooting stars or maybe looked for the Southern Cross, or watched the possums clambering in the branches overhead. I heard the puffing locomotive’s whistle and the crash of the freight cars being shunted in the loco yards.

Sometimes the projector broke down and a few electric lights came on at the back. We talked to our friends and ate tiny pink musks or got fruit flavoured Jujubes stuck to the rooves of our mouths while we waited. Kids ran up and down the aisles until the lights went off and the film started up again. The picture show man flashed his torch to make the naughty boys sit down.

Once I was unlucky because the old canvas seat started to rip. My bottom sank through and my knees ended up level with my eyes and someone had to pull me out. I watched the scary movies between my fingers so I could cover my eyes if I couldn’t stand it, like when King Kong was climbing the Empire State Building in black and white. I cried at the end of ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ with Greta Garbo. Everyone cried in ‘Lassie Come Home’ and when Bambi’s mother was killed in that fire, and it wasn’t in black and white – it was colour.

—Elizabeth Thomas


L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.


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wang ping 2


What Is Magic? Raul Asked

The bird sings because it has a song in its throat
We move because we have a dance in our spirits
The wind blows to play with the rivers and valleys
The raindrops fall as messengers upon the earth
The fish swim because it has an ocean in its belly
The children run because they have the world under their feet

This is the secret of magic
Hidden in our minds
The people and their small things
If all taken, what would we miss?
The rustle of oak trees at dusk
The foaming river from the window
The smell of the children running home
Cheeks red from the snow
The little thing you say that’s not funny
But I laugh anyway just because…

The birds can’t be imitated
The flowers can’t be colored
The sea can’t be dammed
The mountains can’t be spoken

This is the sound of magic
Running in our veins
Moving the sky and earth
Passing through us like rivers
All the noise on earth will die
But not this silence of faith
This innocence persisting to believe
To see more than what can be seen


Our River Temple

At sunrise, I row. This morning the river is choppy. Behind me in the bow seat, Master K is silent. I feel his patience, my own frustrations. My body is slow, slowing down to the change of the season, a dam of dampness and heat building to shore against the oncoming of a cold front.

I’ll give myself needles tonight, I tell myself, to dredge the damp and alleviate the stagnation along the liver and gallbladder meridians.

Master K has a grand piano in his grand living room that makes its own music when a key is played. He bought it after his wife left with their two children. When snow falls on the Mississippi, he goes to Thailand, meeting the local women, fighting with the local men. When the river thaws, he comes home to row and carves. Master K is also a master carpenter. He eats vegetables only and raw, for thirty years.

The river heaves. Our boat cuts the waves…

Along the riverbank, jeweled weeds stand next to stinging nettles and poison ivy, an antidote for the burnt skin. Their translucent stems look like human bones and joints. Plants resembling human organs will heal those organs, I learned from my herb master, like strawberries for the heart inflammations, pears for cooling the lungs, and avocados to warm and moist the uterus. Will the jeweled weeds ease the pain in joints, and connect a torn tendon or ligament?

Master K sprinkles a seed into my palm. It’s tiny, a period at the end of a sentence.

“Touch it, gently, with your fingertip,” he says.

It explodes in the center of my palm and flies off.

“The seed contains so much energy. Just a touch, and it takes off.”

We come out of the water drenched with the river.

“How did I do this morning, Master?

“You didn’t do worse,” says Master K, smiling.

Later I learn from my friend that in Philippine, it’s called Makahiya, the shy one, the reticent one; their nerve endings open to the slightest suggestion.

In my herb class, I learn that the seed is called touch-me-not. It soothes inflamed hearts and heals scattered spirits.


Sonnet I

The geese are painting the sky with a V, my lord
The Mississippi laughs with its white teeth
How fast winter flees from the lowland, my lord
And how’s the highland where songs forever seethe?

At the confluence, I sing of the prairie, my lord
My joy and sorrow soar with rolling spring
Its thunder half bird, half mermaid, my lord
No poppies on hills, only ghost warriors’ calling

Today is chunfeng—we say shared spring, you equinox
Two spirits, one on phoenix wings, one on lion’s seat
Across the sea, kindred spirits, my lord
Prayer through breaths, laughing children on the street

Let’s open our gift, acorn of small things
Let river move us without wants or needs


Sonnet IX

No one claims rivers at the end of game
Swans trumpet from Head of the Mississippi
Along the trails—snow, dogs, woodpeckers–same
Difference as children slide with whoopee
Laugh, and rivers rumble like summer nights
On sandstone bluffs, lovers watch crew boats dart
Like insects. Walking on water is not a sleight
Of hands but an instinct, echoes of distant stars
And sturgeons charging without food or sleep
Keep going, says the master, one stroke at a time
Breathe between waves…his voice steep
from tumors, yet he stands, furious and sublime

What arrow points us to grace, here and now?
A swan’s touch, neck bending into a bow


Sonnet XIII

For Chen Guangcheng, the Blind Lawyer from China

This is my eye—blindly—in the river wild and fast
Through the steely gaze, towards a promised freedom

Rumors storm, back and forth, between ocean currents
Machines clank to grind a small man’s plea for freedom

Not for asylum or paradise, not for money or fame
All I want is a room in this giant country, a freedom

To take children to school, to guide my sisters out
Of the maze, free to be mothers again, free

To raise the young, grow old in peace, a place where
Hunger, prison or death can’t blackmail freedom

Where the poor, the blind, the small and defeated
Can live in dignity and joy. Freedom is never free

Must pave with eyes, ears, hands…brick by brick
With a heart willing to bleed till it breaks free

—Wang Ping


Wang Ping was born in Shanghai and came to USA in 1986. She is the founder and director of the Kinship of Rivers project, a five-year project that builds a sense of kinship among the people who live along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers through exchanging gifts of art, poetry, stories, music, dance and food. She paddles along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, giving poetry and art workshops along the river communities, making thousands of flags as gifts and peace ambassadors between the Mississippi and the Yangtze Rivers.

Her publications include Flying: Life of Miracles along the Yangtze and Mississippi, memoir (forthcoming from Calumet Press), Ten Thousand Waves, poetry book from Wings Press, 2014, American Visa (short stories, 1994), Foreign Devil (novel, 1996), Of Flesh and Spirit (poetry, 1998), The Magic Whip (poetry, 2003), The Last Communist Virgin (stories, 2007), all from Coffee House, New Generation: Poetry from China Today, 1999 from Hanging Loose Press, Flash Cards: Poems by Yu Jian, co-translation with Ron Padgett, 2010 from Zephyr Press. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (2000, University of Minnesota Press, 2002 paperback by Random House) won the Eugene Kayden Award for the Best Book in Humanities. The Last Communist Virgin won 2008 Minnesota Book Award and Asian American Studies Award.

She had many multi-media solo exhibitions: “We Are Water: Kinship of Rivers” a one-month exhibition that brought 100 artists from the Yangtze and Mississippi Rivers to celebrate water (Soap Factory, 2014), “Behind the Gate: After the Flooding of the Three Gorges” at Janet Fine Art Gallery(2007), “All Roads to Lhasa” at Banfill-Lock Cultural Center(2008), “Kinship of Rivers” at the Soap Factory(2011, 12), Great River Museum in Illinois(2012), Fireworks Press at St. Louis(2012), Great River Road Center at Prescott (2012), Wisconsin, Emily Carr University in Vancouver (2013), University of California Santa Barbara(2013), and many other places.

She collaborated with the British filmmaker Isaac Julien on Ten Thousand Waves, a film installation about the illegal Chinese immigration in London, the composer and musician Bruce Bolon, Alex Wand (Grammy award winner), Gao Hong, etc..

She is the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, New York State Council of the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, the Bush Artist Fellowship, Lannan Foundation Fellowship, Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, and the McKnight Artist Fellowship. She received her Distinct Immigrant Award 2014.