Sep 162015


In Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson’s flirtatious threesome of short films Candy, a young woman named Candy (played by Blue is the Warmest Colour’s Lea Seydoux) finds herself the love interest of two best friends, Julius and Gene. The two filmmakers filmed the trio of films for fashion house Prada’s perfume, Candy.


The homage to Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is obvious, Seydoux even resembling a young Jeanne Moreau. Here the tone and style is more playful, absurd even, inescapable overtones of a Wes Anderson film (for a more length exploration of Anderson’s style see this Numéro Cinq introduction to his short film “Hotel Chevalier”). Where Moreau’s Catherine at times in Jules et Jim seems more antagonist than protagonist – her tempest storms and desires things the two men seem to weather together – in this short film Candy has Catherine’s dynamism, but seems more insistently a traditional protagonist.


In the first film (above) she treats the men to a film and is keeper of the popcorn, reserving a healthy mouthful for herself.

In the second, she refuses their competition, takes the cake, and has them all dance.

And in the third, perhaps most key, we see that she is the only character who struggles here, as she explains the two men’s limitations to the women in the salon.


Certainly it’s not much of a struggle, and why be conflicted when you can just choose both, she eventually shows us. The last frame strongly emphasizes this. She is again centre frame. She has taken the all-of-the-above option.


The films are brief, there is no significant story development except the three flirting, and what conflict there is is fluffy as candy floss. The films are meant to tease more than please, though by the end it seems impossible not to want Candy too.

— R. W. Gray


Sep 152015



(1) Introduction


He kissed her, lay down beside her on the bed, his face to her face, and tenderly and slowly and gently took her, moving to and fro between the two passages offered to him, finally spilling himself into her mouth which he then kissed again.

“Before I go I’d like to have you whipped,” he said, “and this time I ask your permission. Are you willing?”

She was willing.

“I love you,” he repeated.

“Now ring for Pierre.”

She rang. Pierre chained her hands above her head by the bed chain. When she was thus bound, her lover stepped up on the bed, kissed her, penetrated her again, told her that he loved her, then stepped back onto the floor and nodded to Pierre. He watched her writhe and struggle in vain; he listened to her moans develop into screams. When the tears had finished flowing, he dismissed Pierre. From somewhere deep within she found the strength to tell him again that she loved him. Then he kissed her drenched face, her gasping mouth, released her bonds, put her to bed, and left. (Story of O, Pauline Réage 46)[1]

STORY OF O IS OBSCENE. It reminds me I am a prude with respect to certain standards, because the text often saddens and horrifies me. But there is no denying that I love it, that I have fallen in love with it. It is structurally intricate, and it enacts a philosophical concept I am, for whatever reason—since the genealogy of my interests is as opaque as anybody’s—deeply invested in. Assujettissement is a French term which designates both the process of becoming a subject, a self, and the process of becoming subjected. The two processes are bound in the word, synonymous and simultaneous. The two processes, in the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault, are one. In what follows, I would like to track this concept’s presence in the pages of a text which horrifies me and which excites me and which I love. This is an ambivalent essay: It gulps down so much poison in the process of its merrymaking. The poison is a necessary condition of its merrymaking. One loves to hate, but even critique, which is devoted to the object it criticizes, which lavishes it with the most intense of its attentions, which parasitizes it and assumes it as a basis for synthesis, is love.


O is the text’s protagonist. The proper name is visually suggestive. It is a nullity, a zero: nothingness. It is an evacuated figure: ‘empty,’ but also ‘open’ to the outside, a positive feature. It is true that when one considers O, the character, and Story of O, or O, the constitutive text/world that saturates her, allegorically, O’s obscenity eases. In the text, O’s lover presents her for prostitution within the limits of a clandestine, male-run society. O agrees to her prostitution and to the subsequent consequences of her enslavement. Soon torture, which was never supposed to yield pleasure (“[I]f you do tie her up, or whip her a little, and if she begins to like it—then that’s no good either” [Réage 10]), becomes the source of O’s deep subjective satisfaction: “However astonishing it might seem, that she might be ennobled, that she might gain dignity from being prostituted, continued to amaze her. It illuminated her from within…” (Réage 45). It seems as if O’s willed passivity might then be read as having a liberating effect, and that the text could be parsed as an allegory for a liberating form of self-death, or self-overcoming: The self negates itself in order to free itself (perhaps from itself, or perhaps from a power which functions through the self).[2]

It might seem strange to consider self-negation a positive, or necessary, gesture in the first place, but there are a few intellectual frameworks which motivate the idea that it is: Nietzsche, for example, promoted self-death as an anecdote for nihilism; he urged his fellow—though he was loath to call them fellow—nineteenth-century, German subjects to become other than they were, to relinquish their sickliness and become gods. That is to say, he urged them to pull up their pants and make their own values, given that values were nowhere to be found (God was dead, after all). Self-death becomes an even more complicated imperative in light of Foucault’s work.

Foucault, of course, obliterated the difference between the subject and its surrounding social world. The social forces which seem to exist outside the subject actually, in his schema, created its subjectivity in the first place and make use of that subjectivity as a means to their own normalizing ends. No one forces us to behave. We help power along: we regulate ourselves. You are forced to write enough essays as a youth and you might actually come to take pleasure in the process. You begin to write in the absence of an injunction from without. For your own joy. Your joy has been disciplined into you: power enters you and perpetuates itself through you by giving you a skill. In the Foucaultian schema there are different ways that power ‘gets into you’ (though there is no ‘you’ before power generates you, before it sculpts you as an entity with particular capacities and desires).

Disciplinary practices inject themselves into your psyche. For example, in school, you are forced to sit in a certain way, to work in a certain way. You are punished when you deviate from the norms of correctness and appropriateness; you learn how to behave ‘properly,’ which is just to say ‘normally’; you learn how to think ‘well,’ which is just to say ‘normally’; other possibilities are foreclosed.

Social forces are woven into the very texture of selfhood by means of language, or discourse, as well. Language bestows the categories, narratives and logics we use to interpret ourselves and our experience. We are all strangers to language. It precedes us and we ‘pick it up.’ It conditions how we think, what we think, what we can imagine, and in doing so circumscribes what we can be. It was not always possible to be ‘traumatized,’ for example; ‘trauma,’ the category, only came into being at a particular point in history. Sometimes language can pigeonhole us: we need to appeal to a category to be recognized, socially—we need to claim we are ‘depressed,’ say, to get the time off work, to have access to the means of assistance—but the category itself does not quite capture our experience in its particularity and, basically, insofar as we are only what others can recognize or articulate us as, obliterates our particularity (the category is reductive, in other words). My mother was in a rough place, once, and needed help; they wouldn’t let her into the hospital without a diagnosis, without a label of some kind (it’s an administrative thing); they slapped one on (‘bipolar’), and, ever since, my father, who she was in the process of separating from, at the time, has been convinced that she’s ‘crazy’ (at some point, invoking her label, he had convinced all the neighbours to write her off too).

Increasingly, images make up the matter, the texture, of consciousness as well. Think of the anorexic, who experiences her desire for thinness (a social symbol for willfulness and self-control) as the most essential, authentic aspect of who she is. The connections between thinness and willfulness and thinness and self-control have been forged in various cultural documents which are supposedly outside her (glossy advertisements, for example), but she would not be who she is without them; they have laid the ground for the very desires and pleasures which define her, or which she appeals to in order to define herself (these documents are in that sense inside her; they are her).

When the anorexic strives for thinness, understood as a cultural ideal, conformity to which, within certain limits, yields various social rewards, she is acting in ways which further the aims of normalizing social forces; she is subjecting herself to these forces through the very exercise of her agency; social forces have, like a band of bad guys, hijacked her will, have coopted her very pleasures and desires for their own purposes. They can do so because they created these pleasures, these desires, in the first place. Significantly, the anorexic’s agency is nevertheless still her agency. It is precisely because the subject, in Foucault’s story, is thoroughly saturated with subjugating social forces—it is precisely because her agency is just power’s agency—that self-death seems appealing: The anorexic, for example, must literally become another person in order to wriggle out of the particular grip normalizing power has on her: she must stomp out, relinquish, betray her Self, her own desires.

Yet, for Foucault, it is never the case that we fully escape power; power is at all times subjectivity’s necessary condition (if we were not worked over by social forces, we would simply not be selves—we would simply not be). Still, power can function in ways which are more rather than less conducive to flourishing (it might not be so bad, for example, to learn how to write an essay, but it will always suck to starve yourself to the point of death). Social forces, assuming the form of a particular self, manifest as the contents of a particular psyche, mediated and modified by that psyche, can have unanticipated effects. Stated differently, the self, formed by social forces, by power, can, as it exists through time, either sustain these forces or subvert them, can consolidate them or send them swerving off course. Imagine your life as a timeline. You are not the same person over time. You change, and, in the Foucaultian schema (Judith Butler’s version), this means power renovates you, creates you anew. Each time it’s time for a new renovation, each time you die, or teeter on the brink of becoming other than the self you are (or, as Butler would put this, each time you “turn” back on the power that formed you), there is an opportunity: You may come out on the other side of “death” (the self you were is gone, but, biologically, you persist) and it may be the case that you are still power’s bitch, at least as much as you were before. Or it may be the case that you find yourself behaving and experiencing your life in ways which do not seem to simply flow from the self you were or from the particular way you were circumscribed—limited, or delimited, as a subject, a self—by forces beyond you. You’ve swerved. You are still power’s bitch, but to a lesser degree. You’ve hijacked the forces that formed you; they are your calculating and controlling parents and you’ve dashed their dreams, mutilated their vision for you. But, really, it’s not just about you being a rebel (though it doesn’t hurt to be one). Power, mutating as if it had a duplicitous agency of its own, is the same phenomenon—differently described—you’ve reductively recognized as the effect of your will. You didn’t mutilate your parents’ vision; they mutilated their own vision for you. Or: you mutilated it, but they did too.

I mentioned above that Story of O could be read as an allegory for a liberating kind of self-negation (for a subversive kind of assujettissement, or “turn”): O wills her own passivity (or, we might say, dies: she willfully relinquishes her Self); she agrees, at all points in the text, to be a slave, to let her lover’s agency wash over her, and her subjugated state, along with all its accoutrements (pain and more pain), comes to give her great pleasure and satisfaction. On this reading, O “turns” back on the forces that created who she was; she transforms, becoming power’s bitch to a lesser degree. Although I like this idea—Lisa Robertson proposes something like it when, in Nilling, she suggests that O has an anarchic trajectory—in this essay I want to pursue the opposite line of thinking: O still “turns” back on the forces that created her: she “dies” multiple times, or serially becomes a new self, but her transformations do not amount to emancipatory appropriations of power. She comes out on the other side of self-metamorphosis and she’s just as much power’s bitch as she always was. Actually, she’s even more whipped, both literally and figuratively.

As an allegory for a subjugating process whereby selves become selves—as an allegory for a non-subversive kind of ‘assujettissement’—Story of O is meticulously attuned. This is what impresses me about the text, or is the real fulcrum of my fascination with it. I wanted to do a detailed reading that would highlight the ways in which the novel works as such an allegory. My reading hinges on the idea that the presence of pleasure is compatible with the presence of power: Pain might yield pleasure and satisfaction in Story of O, but if power, as a Foucaultian would understand it, produces our very pleasures and desires, then it seems that the fact that we take pleasure in something in no way implies that, with respect to that thing we take pleasure in, we are more, rather than less, free. It is possible to be both perfectly gratified and power’s bitch simultaneously (recall the anorexic, who, after all, is quite pleased with herself; she strives to protect her disease). Pleasure itself, in Story of O, and just in general, is problematic. Agency, in this text, at all points, just is self-subjection. O transforms, again and again, but she transforms stagnantly. That is, O never loses power’s directions; she burns them into her arm and then follows them carefully.



(2) Discourse, Discipline, Subjects, Bodies

 The ‘Always Already’ of Power

We begin at the beginning, which has always already begun. The temporal structure of O’s inauguration into slavery is similar to the temporal structure of Butler’s ‘turn.’ The ‘turn’ is just a figure Butler appeals to in order to shed light on the process of self-formation, which is irreducibly enigmatic: The self only becomes itself when it “turns” back and takes up the power which is said to form it; power only becomes power when the self relates to it. There is, of course, something fishy about how the process is formulated linguistically: A self is said to ‘turn’ back on power, and this turning back is supposed to make power what it is. But the self is not supposed to exist “prior” to the workings of power: power, in the Foucaultian schema, is supposed to produce the self. The way “the turn” is formulated in language, then, implies that a self turns back on power before that self even exists, or that power pre-exists itself, since power is supposed to form the self, but it is the self which supposedly makes power possible in the first place by “turning back.” The ‘turn’ is haunted by a postmodern version of the chicken or egg question; it has a mysterious, ‘chicken or egg’ temporal-structure (it’s not clear what comes first; it seems as if both the chicken and the egg come first and come later). The subject seems to precede itself and power does too. In Story of O, power similarly precedes any instance at which power is imposed.

Story of O, in fact, has two beginnings. The text as a whole begins as follows: “One day her lover takes O for a walk…” (3). Having read the text in its entirety, one cannot, upon arriving at this sentence a second time, fail to recall O’s final abasement, for in the last chapter her pubic hair is removed and she is led about naked on a leash. The leash, fastened to an iron ring that Sir Stephen, her second owner, has had permanently attached through a hole made in her left labium, is in fact a dog’s leash (196). An inscribed disk has been attached to this ring and, together, these ‘irons’ “dangle a third of the way down her thigh” (166). “[W]ith every step, [they swing] back and forth between her legs like the clapper of a bell” (ibid). Yet, even before O is physically fitted with a leash and irons akin to dog tags, she is being taken for a walk…

Reading the first version of the introduction, one is struck with O’s vacated quality, with her passivity. She says very little, and what she does say only appears in the text indirectly, as reported. The rest of the text is saturated with René, her lover and first owner’s, utterances, most of which take the form of commands: “Get in,” he says. O enters a suspicious vehicle that has been waiting for them on the fringe of the park. “Unhook your stockings” (4). “Undo your garter belt” (ibid.). O similarly obeys. It becomes clear that she has already learned to anticipate René’s desires: Initially thinking that he is about to kiss her, she slips off her gloves (3). After she has been inaugurated into slavery—this is done at the prison/chateau ‘Roissy,’ which is O’s destination now that she is in the car—and she is allowed to return home, we learn that O knows, from pre-Roissy life, “that her lover likes to find her in the living room by the fire when he comes home in the evening” (61-2); she thus curls up there accordingly.[3] Presumably, this is pre-slavery behaviour as well, and we know that it is common for those who are oppressed to be familiar, not only with the language and manners, but with the preferences of those who oppress them. Perspicacity, in the context of oppression, is less a virtue than it is a survival method (compare Lorde 114). We learn that, even before being trained to make herself constantly and in every way sexually available to Roissy men—her “primary task,” her “only significant duty” is, she is told, “to avail [herself] to be used” (15)—O would never wear anything but a nightgown to bed, or if pajamas, then never the bottoms; this is because René “always slept to her left and, whenever he awoke, even in the middle of the night, he would always reach a hand toward her legs” (32). In the vehicle on the way to Roissy, O is in other ways anticipatory: she is silent and motionless (4), qualities the rules and disciplinary practices instituted at Roissy are meant to instil. Though in the vehicle O is aware that René has not actually forbidden her to do anything, she “doesn’t dare cross her legs or sit with them pressed together” (ibid). It is no coincidence that these are actions expressly forbidden to her once she officially becomes a slave. O, the unfolding narrative, is just a concretization, a physicalization, of what has already taken place in O, the character, psychically in advance.

In the vehicle in the first version of the beginning, O “rests her gloved hands on the seat, pushing down; bracing herself” (4). She is bracing herself for something outside the limits of her own will and agency, something to come, and yet something which, in coming, will make manifest an otherness that is already intimate, that is already her. The car stops in front of the Roissy mansion and, once it does, O, having been denuded in ways appropriate to the occasion—for one thing, her underwear, which would otherwise inhibit access to her, has been taken—is directed to get out and walk, in the absence of an usher,[4] to the door where she will receive further instruction. In this version, significantly, she is trusted to obey; she is already—has already been constituted as—the sort of subject who will obey, who will guide herself, willingly, along the trajectory power has placed her on; she is, that is, already the sort of subject who will experience and understand her self-direction along such a trajectory as a free act. The imagery in the first version of the beginning is, in this respect, noteworthy: René cuts away O’s brassiere, such that, under her blouse, “her breasts are free and naked, like her belly and thighs are naked and free, like the rest of her, from waist to knee” (5; my emphases). Contrast this with the second version of the beginning, in which O is blindfolded and bound before being led up the few steps to Roissy. The co-existence of these two beginnings is consistent with the ambivalent, or paradoxical, structure of subjection/autonomy on the Foucaultian model. Although the temporal constraints of written text make it such that the two versions do not exist for the reader simultaneously, I want to suggest that, insofar as both versions nevertheless exist as ‘the beginning,’ they are essentially equivalent, or participate in a ‘this AND this’ logic: O’s autonomy (she walks to the door by herself) is just O’s subjection (she is gagged and led) differently described. This can be the case when a sinister but remarkably economical form of otherness creates a self which can do the work of regulating itself, of subjugating itself. But otherness is various: subjugating power is one form it assumes, but the self can also transform—itself and power—salvifically when open to, or when injected with, otherness.[5] What sort of otherness inhabits O at Roissy, then? What revenant rears its head there, having always already reared it, in the car and well before it was time for her walk?

Bodies and Souls

Disciplinary power, that reticulate form of power coursing between nodes that are subjects, institutions, and constellations of practice and discourse, takes as its point of application, and manifestation, the body. Reinstituting the temporally dubious figure of the turn, and following Foucaultian parlance, we can say that the body “first” worked over by power is what “then” gives rise to the self-subjugating, and so body-subjugating, soul. Butler suggests that ‘the soul,’ in Foucault, is something discursively akin to the psyche spoken of in psychoanalytic discourse (85): it is an internal, subjective space, delimited partially as a result of what objects are made viable for its investments, or are conversely prohibited. Linguistic categories and the social norms they steep in condition the field of viable investments and prohibitions; normative heterosexuality, for example, and the categories that shelter it make same-sex love objects taboo, and this gesture makes possible certain forms of subjectivity. Underlying Butler’s speculations is a Freudian conception of melancholy in which the loss of an object fallen from grace is denied: rather than cease to love the object, rather than reject and eject it, the ego draws the object into its own ambit where it is preserved and where the hatred that would otherwise be directed toward it is turned against the self. This melancholy, which, in Butler, becomes another figure for the turn of assujettissement, is more figural than experiential: it figures the dynamic foreclosure on which the subject is founded, and, as such, is indicative of a prior discursive curtailment of the field of possible subjective investments. Story of O, while verbose on the subject of disciplinary power’s productive grip on the body, is seemingly reticent on the subject of how discourse is implicated in the production of subjectivity. We rarely, for example, hear how others speak of O, and though the moments they do speak of her are telling—in the social world, the condition she finds ennobling is reduced time and time again to that of a mere whore—I want to suggest that the bulk of the discursive labour in producing O, in her subjection, has to do with a normative heterosexuality that is never spoken of but follows O, in the course of her reflections, where it exists as the trace of an order that is never problematized. Roissy is the allegorical space, the space that is, in a pseudo-sense, prior to the subject, where this tacit discursivity enters the flesh through its training.


Roissy Panopticon

Bentham’s Panopticon is a model prison and emblematic, for Foucault, of disciplinary power as a functioning mechanism. It is an explanatory model, an allegory for a battery of techniques that, through the distribution of bodies in space, through the control of their time and movements, as well as their visibility, produce docile, self-regulating subjects. The fact of the Panopticon’s existence, or inexistence, is thus superfluous; the Panopticon only figures what has already happened more or less invisibly in the social “outside.” Roissy, which O enters and leaves within the confines of the text’s first chapter, is, likewise, I suggest, superfluous. It is significant that it is situated, as far as the unfolding of the narrative is concerned, and like the Panopticon, “prior” to the subject: O was ‘O’, was subjugated, prior to Roissy and would have been O independent of having gone there, where her enslavement was rendered ‘official.’ Stated differently: before Roissy is Roissy still.

Feminine forms of embodiment, like all forms of embodiment, are produced, only the disciplinary practices that produce them are not identical to those spotlighted in Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon. Sandra Bartky, redressing Foucault’s gender blindness, outlines a handful of practices geared toward producing specifically feminine bodies. The practices she names produce bodies as ornamented surfaces for display, produce bodies of a particular size and configuration, and produce bodies whose gestures and motions are constrained. Roissy avails itself of both these disciplinary practices and those emblematic of the “original” Panopticon, particularly those relating to spatial partitioning and light. Roissy, then, is a torqued panopticon.


1. The Body for Display

Immediately upon being admitted to Roissy, O is ‘done up’ by two female slaves; their express purpose is to teach her how, without their assistance in the future, she is to do up herself. They set her hair “just as hairdressers would have” (6), apply her makeup, redden her sex and nipples, and apply a scent to various bodily crevices. The clothing O receives later on is attached to a set of complicated instructions: skirts are to be folded in particular ways and pulled to different heights at different times (a skirt might be tucked up in the back, for example, when she is strolling outside). O is fitted with a collar and wrist bracelets, as well. These are ornamental and instrumental: they are attachable to chains.


2. Body Re-sized and Re-configured

O’s first body modification comes after one of the Roissy initiates, having plunged himself into her anus, insists that she is too tight. O is subsequently made, “for eight days in succession,” to wear, during a specific interval in the evening, a dildo “held in place by three little chains attached to a leather belt circling her haunches, held, that is, in such a manner that her internal muscles are unable to dislodge it” (43). Once the dildo is no longer required, Réne, her primary owner at this point—other men use O, but, as he explains, they do so only by proxy, as extensions of him—professes that he is happy that she is “doubly open” (44). After O is passed on to Sir Stephen, her waist is also permanently modified via a successively tightened corset. Once she is through with the corset, her waist is so slim that she seems “ready to break in two” (165). Part-way through the tightening process, it is almost possible “to circle [her] waist with…ten fingers” (149), and yet the width of her waist is nevertheless deemed unacceptable (152).


3. The Body Constrained in its Movements and in Space

At Roissy, as I have already mentioned, O is commanded to keep her thighs parted. She must also, for essentially the same reason (she must remain open/available), refrain from sealing her lips. O soon discovers that conforming to these injunctions outside of Roissy is rather difficult and requires “a constant effort of attention…[which] forever reminds her…of what her condition really is” (57-8). In Roissy, the use of her own hands, unless enlisted for male purposes, is denied to her. Men whip her not so much to “make [her] suffer pain, scream or shed tears,” but in order “to confine [her] to [her] bed for several hours every day” (17). When in bed, O is attached to the wall by a chain linked to her neck collar; the length of the chain makes it such that O can “only move to the right or left of the bed, or stand up on either side of the headboard” (23). Iris Marion Young has suggested that women in Western industrialized societies are taught to conduct their activities within an existential enclosure: The space available to them has a greater radius than the space they would typically inhabit; it is as if there is a bubble around them, beyond which they are not permitted to move (see 13). In Roissy we find this lived bubble in the earliest stages of its inculcation.

In the world beyond the text, there may very well be an ambivalence that attends the bubble’s functioning: Young points out that a woman facing perpetual threats of objectification, violation and rape may avail herself of such an enclosure in order to keep others at bay (read: on the outside), that, in other words, the constricting enclosure is precisely where she can remain free (18). There is another impetus to confect the bubble as well: Whereas men are free to walk loose-limbed with long strides, free to leave these limbs agape on park benches when they recline, women luxuriating insouciantly in the same forms of ‘openness’ are purportedly ‘asking for it’ (ibid.). In O, ‘open’ body comportment in women (e.g., open legs, even while sitting, open lips) is likewise a form of so-called ‘asking for it,’ though a mandatory one founded on mandatory feminine complicity. The ‘bubble’ in the text is equally coopted back into the services of subjection: Roissy makes it semi-permeable, such that masculine forces can move in and out, while feminine forces, always already confined within it, can do neither.


4. Discipline and Punish: Space, Light/Visibility, Self-Regulation

In Roissy, both the way space and bodies in space are distributed and the way space is ornamented significantly further disciplinary ends. The chateau is a nested, Russian doll of locked wings and hallways. Entry-ways are guarded. The walls in the Roissy hallways are done in red tile. In prisons, and in accordance with certain findings in psychology, blues and greens are deployed on interior surfaces in order to keep prisoners subdued and calm. Red, conversely, agitates, evolutionary theorists speculate because of the connection the colour bears to shed blood.[6] Roissy’s colour scheme, as a disciplinary tactic, then, follows an unconventional prison’s-logic: A psychologically-grating constant, compared, at least, to blues and greens, it is explicitly oppressive. O happens to have the same red tiles in the rooms in her home, a detail which supports the idea that she was steeping in Roissy before she had ever encountered it; seeing the tiles again when she returns home gives her “a shock and makes her heart beat faster” (56).

Roissy also exploits visibility as one of its principle disciplinary techniques, and this despite the fact that the women of Roissy are not scrupulously observed by men at all times. At night, for example, with the exception of a valet who is employed to come in and whip them for a few minutes, they are left chained up alone in their rooms. Even when left to solitariness, however, there is the suggestion that they are, potentially, at any time, being spied on: On page 7, an only quasi-omniscient narrator alerts the reader to the possible presence of peepholes. Peepholes are to Roissy what the central observation tower is to the Panopticon. The observation tower is inhabited either by an all-seeing someone or by no one, though it is impossible, from the prisoner’s location, to determine whether it is one or the other; the prisoner thus finds him/herself pinned to proper comportment: s/he behaves because it is always possible someone is watching. Compared to the Panopticon’s prisoner, the Roissy slave finds herself in an exacerbated predicament: She, like that prisoner, is isolated from other prisoners—she is forbidden to so much as speak to the other women—and she, like that prisoner, is a potential visual constant, positioned so as to never see what is potentially seeing her, and thus located so as to imbibe that potential gaze in such a way that, taken up into her, it forms, “for the first time,” her self-regulating soul or conscience (she behaves too). But there are a number of other ways she is seen without being seen as well: She may be spied on in isolation, is blindfolded when tortured, and, beyond this, is prohibited at all times from looking the men in the complex directly in the eyes. In Roissy, a slave’s gaze is not only directed negatively via prohibition: its range of motion and its corresponding capacity to ‘see back’ is further limited, stream-lined, as it were, toward male members. Literally: The Roissy masters wear ridiculous tights that leave their genitals exposed, O is told, “for the sake of insolence, so that your eyes will look there and nowhere else, so that you will come finally to understand that there resides your master, your lord, to whom all of you is destined, above all your lips” (16).

As Bartky notes in her analysis, the feminine subject produced by power often engages in rituals that produce feminine bodies—she does her makeup, diets, etc.—voluntarily. This is just another way of saying that she has become a self-regulating subject, that her consciousness itself has taken on the structure of the Panopticon: “In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: They stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. Woman lives her body as if seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” (72). Reading O, one gets the perpetual sense that, conversely, O is regulating herself in the presence of an actual, rather than internalized other, and that, though O does make some effort to refrain from ‘gazing back’ and from crossing her legs—though she is a hopeless recidivist in these regards—for the most part, it is an external agency that is imposing disciplinary rituals on O’s body. Her subjection, in this limited sense, is never converted into an ‘always already subjected,’ and thus vexed, form of agency.

There is a certain sense, then, in which O, the narrative, considered from beginning to end, remains in the allegorical, conditioning space “prior” to the subject, a sense in which Roissy reaches through the text in its entirety, just as the Panopticon, though it is only a figure, is said to permeate society in its entirety. It is no surprise, then, that the Roissy-red tiles show up throughout the text, not only in O’s home, but also in a villa in southern France, where Sir Stephen, once she has passed into his ownership, brings O to vacation, and where the visual economy characteristic of the Panopticon is reinstituted as well[7]: The villa is piece to a larger ploy on the part of both René and Sir Stephen to secure fresh blood for Roissy. They have O bring Jacqueline—a model/actress O knows through work (O is a photographer), whom she also finds irresistibly attractive—so that Jacqueline may be observed and, ultimately, ensnared. Jacqueline’s presence at the villa is also supposed to serve as a means of satisfying Sir Stephen’s desire to see O caress a woman. In line with this, the bedroom O occupies at the villa, and in which she engages sexually with Jacqueline, is separated from Sir Stephen’s “by a partition which looks full but which, behind a trompe l’oeil latticework and trellis, is transparent: by raising a shade on his side, Sir Stephen [is] able to see and overhear everything that [goes] on in the room as if he were standing right next to the bed. Jacqueline, caressed and kissed by O, [is] in full view…” (178). O, in the room, is also fully visible to Sir Stephen, seen by him without seeing (though she hears, senses), and, already invested in her subjection, feels “fortunate indeed to be constantly exposed…constantly imprisoned by his gaze” (194).


To be sure, a mix of disciplinary power and sovereign power is at work in Roissy. Or perhaps sovereign power is just enlisted in the service of articulating the allegory of assujettissement via disciplinary power. Sovereign power is a reified power wielded by a subject or some set of subjects over life: it is power to end life. Disciplinary power, in contrast, is faceless, un-wieldable and shelters life, actively producing its signs: if it makes bodies docile, it does so through investiture: it improves them, makes them useful, and in doing so makes them more obedient. We have already come across the suggestion that, in a Roissy-tempered world, the phallus is sovereign; O, subject to this sovereign (through whatever master or owner), dispossessed of her self, is not only, as she insists, “[given] to love,” but also, perhaps, “brought…very close to death” (40). The punishment O is made to suffer (mainly in the form of whip lashings) seems, in some respects, moreover, of the kind a sovereign would mete out: a king quarters the would-be regicide or leaves threatening bodies alive, perhaps lashing them, at any rate marking them publicly so that others know he has the power to bring death, though he refrains from it now. We would expect disciplinary forms of punishment to capacitate rather than scar the body, and although it is true that O and the other slaves are subjected to a ‘corrective’ micro-economy of punishment[8] it is not obvious that they become more efficient, or more skilled, as a result: O tells us that at Roissy she learned “not to be in a hurry” (68). The non-sexual duties women at Roissy perform—“sweeping, putting the books back in place, arranging flowers, or waiting on table” (15)—are, moreover, minimal and undemanding, and this is because their primary, utterly exhausting, and, in the end, ‘only significant duty’ is to make themselves sexually available. Whereas in a Panoptic society a body’s compliance is positively correlated with the level of its induced usefulness, in a Roissy-governed society a body’s compliance increases with use: a docile body, there, is less useful than it is usable. Whatever skill a Roissy slave is imbued with by dint of having to learn new rituals of dress, by dint of having to perfume the body and apply makeup to it, by dint of having to habituate to unfamiliar and uncomfortable modes of bodily comportment are subsidiary to rendering the body visually consumable and physically penetrable. And again, these women, tortured, are possibly brought close to death, and not only the death of the self, “the delirious absence from herself” O insists she is brought close to, in her ecstasy (40). There is a sense, then, in which the power at play in Roissy is negative, annihilating, and yet, it is also conceivable as disciplinary power proper, that is, as productive. It is productive power insofar as it institutes an obedient, self-subjecting, desiring self.[9] This will become apparent as we track O in her subjective development.



(3) Love and Order

If the subject is made possible by subjection, if subjection is, as it were, the subject’s sinew, does it follow that the subject desires its subjection? If the subject is invested in itself, in perpetuating, in iterating itself—these sinews—as a consistency, is this the same as desiring subjection? It is possible that the subject does not conceive of each iteration, of power’s renewal, as self-subjugation, but then, it might come to. It is possible that some other sociality might be scooped up in the subject’s rolling forward, confecting in the subject some other desire, one to sit alongside and antagonize those always already formed. How else might “the subjection of desire require and institute the desire for subjection” (PL 19), and how else might we think the site, the pseudo-fissure in which this requirement might be discontinued? Butler names another desire—the desire for social existence—as a desire exploited (also created?) by power in its institution of the desire for subjection, particularly the kind of subjection accomplished under the banner of an identity category. Perhaps the peculiar relation of attachment one might have to an acquired skill—peculiar because there is a sense in which we are not attached to our skills but are them—is similarly implemented to be exploited (see Bartky 77). Susan Bordo suggests that culturally-concocted anxieties (such as those having to do with weight or body-image) play a similar role: the subject engages, not in what it sees as frantic attempts to regulate itself or maintain its subjection, but in what amounts to the same: frantic attempts to reduce its anxiety. In the logic governing Réage’s text, it is ‘love’ that functions to keep the subject bound, to bind the subject’s desires to the very notion of being subjugated.


Love Logic

O, whipped senseless, then left alone at Roissy, thinks of those engravings in history books in which long-since dead prisoners, having been whipped already, are shown chained to walls. The narrative voice bleeds with her thoughts: “[O] did not want to die, but if torture were the price she was to pay for her lover’s love, then she only hoped he was happy because of what she endured” (27). “Since she loves him,” she has “no choice but to love whatever emanates from him” (33). Since she loves him, she wants whatever he wants, only because he wants it (112). Since he loves her, she consents to torture: “since he loves her, she trembles, acquiescent” (33). These disturbing formulations deserve to be unpacked; they imply that O’s will, O’s consent, though properly her will, her consent, has already been colonized. Her consent is impelled by love, but what is love, and in what respect is it in turn chosen, or not chosen?

René tells O upon her return from Roissy that she must not begin to think of herself as free, “[e]xcept in one sense: she is free to stop loving him and to leave him immediately. But if she does love him, then she is no longer free” (56). This formulation is repeated with an important transmutation at another point in the text: Some time after O is passed on from René to Sir Stephen, the latter tells her: “if you’re mine you have no right to refuse my commands. But you also know you are always free to refuse to be mine” (171). At this point in the text, O does not refuse his commands, for she has come to love him. But between the moment René utters ‘you are free to stop loving me’ and the moment Sir Stephen claims ‘you can refuse to be mine,’ we learn that, within the text’s logic, ‘being owned’ is just what it means for a feminine subject to love: one may not love initially, but once one is owned, one will love. If love is what binds one to one’s ‘being owned,’ then ‘being owned’ is what, in a vicious circle that is not quite tautological, binds one: Not only ‘I am owned, therefore I’m owned,’ but also ‘I am owned therefore I want to be owned.’ ‘I love; I’m owned.’ ‘I’m owned; I love.’ For the masculine subject of Réage’s text, to own, rather than be owned, is what induces love. The narrator reports that René “had so often told [O] that what he loved about her was the object he had made of her, the absolute disposition of her he enjoyed, the freedom that was his to do with her what he wished” (84). In line with this, Sir Stephen, who does not initially love O, comes to love her after he’s abused her body for a time; the more he ‘personalizes’ her body, the more his love grows: he actually only begins to vocalize his love, which O has already detected in non-verbal cues, after he has had her branded with his initials and fitted with custom irons (see 167). The more he loves her, moreover, the harsher his treatment becomes: “insofar as his love and desire for her were increasing, so his demands on her were becoming more extensive, more exacting, more minute” (139). O does not initially love Sir Stephen either, and so when he tells her that she is going to obey him without loving him and without him loving her (89), this gives rise to “a storm of revolt” (89). O fights him, screaming, when he takes her. Resistance to Sir Stephen is possible at this point in a way that, because of the workings of love, it is not possible with René, precisely because she does not love Sir Stephen. And yet, the more he possesses her, the more she finds surrendering to his orders “completely fulfilling” (139) and the more she comes to love him—she is murmuring as much by page 190. By the time René stops loving her—an event that, significantly, caps the gradual cessation of his use of her body (see 147), and a possibility that, before Sir Stephen colonized her body, had caused O great anguish—O no longer cares. O, used all the more brutally by Sir Stephen, has been affectively transferred to him as well:

What was René compared to Sir Stephen? So many ropes of straw, anchors made of cork, so many paper chains: such were the veritable ties by which he had bound her to him…But what reassurance, what delight, this iron ring which pierces the flesh and weighs eternally…the master’s hand which lays you down ruthlessly on a bed of rock, the love of a master who is capable of taking unto himself that which he loves without pity. (185)

In the text, then, it seems masculine love is voluntary in the sense that the masculine subject can choose what it owns, or choose what it wants to own; feminine love, no more the effect of the feminine subject’s will than of her whimsy, is taken. Before Roissy, O was in love with René, and this is because “René threw himself at her like a pirate” (95). More than this, O “revelled in her captivity, feeling…far down into her heart’s and body’s secret recesses, bonds subtler, more invisible than the finest hair, stronger than the cables with which the Lilliputians made Gulliver prisoner” (ibid.), bind her to this pirate. O’s subsequent trajectory with Sir Stephen, then, is only a more torturous recapitulation of O’s trajectory with René, who owns her already but, upon prostituting her for the first time, is “delighted to discover that the pleasure he reaped from [hurting, humiliating, and debasing her] was even greater than he had dared hope, and had increased his attachment to her, as it did hers to him” (33; my emphasis).


Melancholy Miasma

‘Love’ in O is thus a vicious circle looping through what I’ve called masculine domination, on the one hand, and what I’ve called feminine submission, on the other. It ropes these poles together, since a vicious circle self-perpetuates its tightening. Recasting Butler’s account of melancholy gender formation, I would now like to contradict myself slightly, to suggest that love, in O, plays out against a mute backdrop of compulsory heterosexuality, but heterosexuality conceived strangely, so that it is bears no salient, or at least straightforward, connection to either sex or gender categories.


1. Sex, Gender, Proprietors and Property

Less than the idea that male bodies consort with female bodies, and vice versa, invariably, and less than the idea that masculine subjects consort with feminine subjects, and vice versa, invariably, ‘heterosexuality’ in O implies that dominant subjects relate to submissive subjects, and vice versa. It implies that, invariably, owners, who, with respect to the owned, are only (as in exclusively) owners, relate to the owned, who, with respect to their owners, are owned only. I have been calling ownership ‘masculine love’ and the state of being owned ‘feminine love,’ but the text gives us reason to contest these terms. This is because it confuses stereotypical sex-to-gender designations, and does so partly through a second confusion: it beclouds the very terms ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ sometimes with the help of sex-categories.

O seems ambiguously feminine. She is bisexual—her desire for women is described as “strong,” “real,” and “profound” (100)—and though she engages in stereotypically masculine behaviour with her female lovers, her actions are “carefully calculated” and stem “from a certain childishness [rather than] her conviction” (ibid.). When she courts her female friends, she doffs her beret, helps them out of cabs (99), and, in general, displays “tough-guy manners” (95). Beyond this, she relates to women, when she relates to them sexually, as a hunter—her desire for women, we are told, doesn’t “go a great deal further that the thirst for conquest” (95). She admits that she loves “the perfect freedom” she experiences when she pursues women (ibid.), and that what she enjoys about Jacqueline—that is, once the latter has become her lover—is “the use of a girl’s body, a body with no strings attached” (193). Despite all this, she frequently repeats that what she sees in the women she loves is a reflection of her own submissive self (194). Scrutiny can juice this text: Is it a feminine self that sees a submissive reflection, and is it also a feminine self that engages in carefully calculated dominating behaviours, while at the same time feeling subjectively at odds with them? What is the relationship between the subject, its identifications and its overt behaviour, if identification and overt behaviour are equally performance, and the subject is precisely what is performed? What are the relations these terms bear to the subject’s sexed-body? O dis-identifies with the stereotypically masculine behaviour she executes; she is thus not quite dragged into the field of stereotypical designations that open around her behaviour. She is not quite rendered masculine. But if we take performance theories of self seriously, then her masculine behaviour is not quite controvertible, and O is not quite rendered feminine either.

For deconstructive purposes, say that, before she is prostituted, the O we are given access to through O’s recollections does cling to a certain femininity—or at least, to the obverse side of an uneasy masculinity—when she possesses women. If this is so, then it is not exclusively through owning, it seems, that one becomes masculine; nor is it through being owned that, in the text, one becomes feminine. When O concedes that she loves Jacqueline, that she is “no more and no less” in love with her than she has been with many other women, she is adamant that the term ‘love’ is “the correct one…also a strong one” (102). Love is no doubt the correct term, only it must be qualified: it reflects a “thirst for conquest” (quoted above), and so it is love in the form of domination, ownership; it is the same form René’s love for O, and then later Sir Stephen’s, assumes. Thus, in a way, O, as feminine, owns in the text—she sexually possesses women—both before and when she is owned: both before and during the time she is sexually possessed and ‘actually’ owned by René and Sir Stephen. There is a sense in which she is also owned in her capacity as masculine, since she is a slave but simultaneously carries on with Jacqueline in a ‘masculine’ style. Anne-Marie, the head of Samois, the all-female version of Roissy, also owns women: she literally owns at least one girl, Claire. Anne-Marie is harsher than the men at Roissy, and we are given no reason to think that she is not Sir Stephen’s equal. She is an older woman with grizzled hair; in the culture outside the text-world this might signify that she is somehow ‘less feminine,’ and it is true that the gender-sex confusion performed by the text relies largely on meanings primed ‘outside’ the text (though this is a false exterior). In bed, her short hair pushed up by a pillow, Anne-Marie takes on “the look of some mighty nobleman in exile, some dauntless libertine” (162). Insofar as her appearance, her age, her harshness, her power, and her alignment with Sir Stephen superimpose masculinity, they buttress ‘masculine ownership’ in the insufficiently nuanced sense that I use it above; they seed it with purchase. But Anne-Marie is no more bluntly masculine than O; in some respects, she is also stereotypically feminine: She is “tender and gentle with O” in bed (163), and she is also beautiful (159). In Anne-Marie, then, we find both a form of feminine ownership and, unlike in O, a femininity that is at all times cleaved from states of being owned.

Although it seems that female characters can adopt what we can, for explanatory purposes only, call a masculine subject position (e.g., they can ‘own’ in the broad and strict senses of the verb), it is unclear whether they can adopt this subject position with respect to men. It is true that Sir Stephen relates to Anne-Marie as his equal, though he never relates to her as her subordinate. There is perhaps a sense in which male-sexed bodies function as trumps to the ‘gender’ configurations in the text: The freedom O loves when she is pursuing and engaging with women is not the freedom she possesses in her relationships with men: With women, “[s]he control[s] the game, and she alone,” whereas with men, she “never” controls the game, unless she does so “on the sly” (100). But although O controls the game with women, she also, again, sees in them a reflection of her submissive self: “The power she acknowledged her girlfriends had over her was at the same time the guarantee of her own power over men. And what she asked of women (and didn’t return, or so little), she was happy, and found entirely natural that men should be desperate to demand of her” (101). Irrespective of the fact that she dominates women, men seem to weasel their way past O in the power hierarchy, such that it is unsurprising that she is unable to “conceive of giving herself to a girl, the way a girl gave herself to her” (194), but puzzling that other girls are able to give themselves this way to O. O, unlike her girlfriends, can only conceive of giving herself this way “to a man” (ibid.). And yet, she does give herself to Anne-Marie while staying at Samois, albeit perhaps not in the same way that she would give herself to René or Sir Stephen: Anne-Marie does not own her. But then, could we say she is, like any other man affiliated with Roissy, a proxy for O’s owner(s) (see, e.g., 32)? Does O become fused to submission as soon as she enters into a relation with a male-sexed body (even if only through one of its mediators)? Is she also a gendered body when she is so fused? Or is O fused to submission simply when she enters into a relation with a body that owns? How to account, then, for who owns whom in what situation, given that O, too, has the capacity to own? After she is prostituted, O claims “that the girls she caresse[s] belong…by right to the man to whom she belongs…and that she [is] there only by proxy” (ibid.). The corollary might seem to be that a male-sexed body is at the top of the totem pole again, that women own only by proxy, but then Anne-Marie does not own Claire by proxy; rather, the men who violate Claire when she is sent to Roissy will violate her by proxy, in place of, without supplanting, Anne-Marie


2. Culturally Doomed

Sex-to-gender-to-owner/property assignations in O prove unfruitful. In Réage’s book, female bodies can own female bodies and ambiguously feminine bodies can possess ambiguously feminine bodies, but whereas in the non-text world a woman-woman relationship that is also parsed as a ‘feminine subject’-‘feminine subject’ relationship might function to confound the dominant, heterosexual regime (i.e., by proposing a homosexual alternative; Butler PL 165), in the text-world a relationship consisting of a feminine subject owning a feminine subject, since it remains premised on a stringent heterogeneity (that between ‘owner’ and ‘slave’), does not, to that extent, gesture towards an alternative erotic paradigm.

In Butler’s account of melancholy gender formation, which she intentionally hyperbolizes, one becomes feminine to the extent that one blocks women as potential love objects and masculine to the extent that one blocks male love objects. The field of possible erotic attachments becomes constricted in accordance with (heterosexual) cultural proscription—such that one desires precisely what one is not—and the ego forms in and through the process of mourning the loss of these possible attachments. Mourning, in this instance, is neither before nor after the ego: it participates in the very ‘turn’ of assujettissement, constituting the ego it at the same time presupposes. Because the prohibition of possible attachments occurs “prior” to the subject’s inception, the subject’s mourning is not properly experiential.[10] Hence a heterosexual-identified woman may not lament the fact that she does not love a woman, may not be able to imagine herself ever loving a woman, and may experience the paucity of her imagination in this regard as ‘natural,’ rather than as a cultural effect. Culture as an effecting agent disappears at the site of the subject’s emergence: ‘I could never love a woman; that is just the way I am’ (see 181 and 138).

This bizarre, affectless melancholy, ‘gender melancholy,’ exists against a backdrop of compulsory heterosexuality: it is symptomatic of the latter, is enforced by, and also enforces it (140). A specific conception of heterosexuality likewise supports and is supported by ‘love’ as it is configured in Réage’s text, or, more specifically, by the subject-positions that underlie ‘love’: O is unable to relate to, to love, or even imagine loving, ‘a dominant subject’ from anything other than a submissive subject position. She is likewise unable to love, or even imagine loving, ‘a submissive subject’[11] from anything other than a dominant subject position: she wants to pin Jacqueline “to the wall like a butterfly impaled” (104). To love in the text one must either own or be owned, dominate or submit. Attachments that assume a form other than ‘submissive-subject’-to-‘dominant-subject’ are foreclosed by the logic governing the text-world and O is culturally doomed in advance: she is a melancholic subject who does not feel ripped off in light of the fact that love, whether with men or with women, has only the one configuration.



(4) Clinamen

O’s Consent

So love is rigid and love compels. The ‘monstrous logic’ Robertson refers to in her discussion of Story of O is precisely the continuous solicitation, on the part of her masters, of O’s consent, but ‘consent,’ in this context, is necessitated by a impelled love, and so we must rethink ‘consent’ outside a paradigm in which the will, the self, and otherness are kept tidy and separate. The boundaries between what is internal and external are fraught. Roissy, as a metaphoric space concretized in the text, is caught up in this chaos; it functions within the subject while simultaneously looming on the horizon as a force that could, but need not necessarily, subdue it: There is an O before O is actually taken to Roissy and Jacqueline might be taken to Roissy, or not.

Can O refuse to be Sir Stephen’s? Not if she is Sir Stephen’s; not if she loves him. Is O free to end her slavery? Once she has entered into the contract she has already been entered into, anyone who finds her uncooperative will bring her back to Roissy (17), a stipulation which seems redundant: There is in fact no need for a return to Roissy, since Roissy is embedded in the subject as love (the very state of being owned) and love’s corollary: compliance. The text, then, leaves very little room for uncooperativeness. O tells René that Jacqueline would never agree to go to Roissy, to which he simply replies, “No? Well then,…they’ll end up taking her there by force” (148). Sir Stephen has already told O that, once Jacqueline is in Roissy, “if she wants to leave, she’ll leave” (124); what troubles this formulation, though, is the notion that Roissy (read: being owned) makes it such that the subject would not want to leave, the notion that “once inside, there would be enough valets and chains and whips to teach Jacqueline obedience” (177). In the text, being caught means it is already too late for resistance. Consistent with this, shortly after coming to own her, Sir Stephen tells O that, in all likelihood, she had not understood what she had agreed to when she consented to be his slave, but that “by the time he taught her it would be too late for her to escape” (90). By the time he teaches her it is indeed too late, for, of all abominations, she has fallen in love.[12]

The formulation ‘if you don’t agree, we’ll force you’ only ceases to be redundant at those junctures in the text in which it is the body that resists. O is asked at various points in time to agree, though the disagreeable details of what she is agreeing to are kept from her: because her body will not be able to endure what is to be done to it, consent becomes superfluous. At Roissy, René informs her: “It’s because it is so easy for you to consent that I want something you can’t possibly agree to, even if you agree in advance…You won’t be able to keep yourself from saying no when the time comes…When it does, it won’t matter what you say, you’ll be made to submit” (33). Sir Stephen similarly asks her to consent to wearing his irons, though he keeps her in the dark about how these are to be applied (120), and concedes beforehand that there is no real question of whether she will or will not wear them: “these were still orders, which there wasn’t the slightest question of O disobeying” (120). Of course, O does agree, for she is already bound in a way that compels agreement; refusal does not even cross her mind (see 74). Still, a rift evolves between what she wants for herself and her body’s responses: her body’s memory of the whip—physical fear of the whip that René had not used but Sir Stephen promises, though without specifying how often—makes it impossible for her to consent to the latter’s ownership immediately (78).


Subjective Developments: The Subject Develops

Although at no point in time does O embrace the feeling of the whip, her attitude toward the whip gradually changes. Sir Stephen is the pivot on which O as already-subjugated-subject turns, the textual threshold that streamlines this attitudinal change, along with other major subjective developments. O’s enslavement to Sir Stephen makes Roissy continuous with her everyday life: After Roissy, but before Sir Stephen, O’s life seemed to carry on as usual in the sense that there were no other men who took advantage of her, only René, and in the sense that she was not subjected to regular corporeal torture. With Sir Stephen’s appearance, however, Roissy, understood as a nocturnal dream-world—or as “reality in a closed circle,” “a private domain”— threatens to “contaminate all the habits and circumstances of her daily life, both upon and within her” (77; my emphasis). At Roissy, though O “agreed” to do as René wished, it was nevertheless simultaneously true that she was chained to her bed, chained to various stations, kept naked, whipped unwillingly and subjected to torture. O, at Roissy, was “the lucky captive upon whom everything was inflicted, of whom nothing was asked” (81). In the ‘outside world,’ and even more so with René’s solicitation of her consent to be Sir Stephen’s, O, conversely, experiences herself as fully complicit in her subjection: “Here it was of her own free will that she remained half-naked” (ibid.). Power, at this point in the allegory, is not just power applied to the body; it is power concentrated as consciousness, power that has produced the self-regulating consciousness it is manifest as. As O’s enslavement to Sir Stephen becomes further entrenched, this subjected consciousness becomes increasingly concentrated. The narrative’s unfolding only corroborates O’s premonition upon being asked to belong to him: “What had formerly only been reality in a closed circle…was no longer to be content with outward signs—naked loins, laced-up bodices, the iron ring—but to require the thoroughgoing accomplishment of an act” (77).

Before she has agreed to belong to Sir Stephen, O recoils at the prospect of being whipped, even enjoins the men to spare her from being whipped: “Oh, have pity,” she says, and, “not again, no more of that” (79). Within pages of belonging to Sir Stephen, however, she finds it “necessary, and agreeable, to be beaten” (109). By the time she has gone to Samois to have his irons applied to her, she admits that she likes “the idea of torture,” that, even though she would give anything to escape torture while being tortured, after the fact of torture she is “happy to a have undergone it, and happier still the more cruel and prolonged it has been” (155).

O’s consolidation as a subjected subject is equally manifest in O’s changing relation to Jacqueline. Upon initially being requested (ordered) to coerce Jacqueline into coming to Roissy, O is mortified. She tells Sir Stephen that it can’t be done. Without quite identifying with Jacqueline, O is nevertheless loyal to her, so much so that she is upset when René regards her as he regards any of the Roissy women: O “views as insulting to Jacqueline an attitude she finds perfectly correct and natural when it comes to [herself]” (129). She feels herself “a traitor, a spy, the envoy of a criminal organization” (134), moreover, while attempting to persuade Jacqueline’s mother to allow her to move out, into her, O’s, apartment, from which it’s one step to Roissy. Upon returning from Samois, pierced with irons and cauterized with Sir Stephen’s initials, the noble O has a change of heart. We might say, recapitulating the fictive temporality that the allegory requires,[13] that by the time she returns she has fully internalized the terms of the master’s world: She “enjoys…thinking about how she is going to betray Jacqueline,” having been “insulted by the scornful manner in which Jacqueline had eyed [a condition of which she is proud, that of] a branded and flogged slave” (178). Whatever anxiety, whatever anguish, whatever shame her condition is initially said to give rise to (see 117) has either dissipated entirely or is simply no longer referred to in the nether parts of the text. O’s “secret pride,” the “harrowing pleasure” she initially experiences as a slave (ibid.) is, conversely, carried over; it is perhaps intensified: she becomes “an ecstatic slave” under Sir Stephen (185).


Doublings and Uncanniness

1) The Beginning as End

In a way, Sir Stephen’s injection in the text figures a transition point between a body acted upon by power and a body that, having become the prison of the soul, is also a soul that imprisons the body. There are, as I’ve also argued, other respects in which O is always already a subjected subject, or is a subjected consciousness all along, and yet it still makes sense to say that she is a subject whose subjection becomes increasingly intensified as the narrative progresses. The text, in this, and in many other respects, is one of incessant (uncanny) doublings; these doublings nourish the idea that the subject exists iteratively, the idea that it takes up its subjection repeatedly, whether by diverging from it or, as in O’s case, by consolidating it, though in a new, or different way, again.

Roissy, the Panopticon, likewise returns in physical, psychological and phantasmagoric forms to be ‘taken into’ O in new ways, as if it had not been taken into her before: It resurges with Sir Stephen. It resurges with Samois. It resurges in the final scene in which, after midnight, Stephen drives O to ‘the Commander’s’ party, where she is to be put on display: “At Roissy [O] felt herself to be lost as one is at night, lost in a dream one has dreamed before and which begins all over again” (77); en route to the Commander’s party, she passes through yet another nocturnal dreamscape: “there was nothing real in this countryside which night made imaginary” (198). It is not enough, moreover, that she arrives at the party in an owl mask; O must instead metamorphose fully, becoming, in seeming actuality, a mute creature from another world (200-1). The atmosphere at the party is equally oneiric; at the party it is by candlelight that she is ogled at and probed.

The dream space breaks with dawn without breaking, just as Roissy, in the inaugural section of the text, is broken with (O leaves) though it nonetheless sweeps through the rest of text: The men lay O out on a table and possess her “one after the other” (201). Similarly, the narrative does not end. Its ending is instead iterated, perpetually, each time transformed. It is explicitly signalled for the first time midway through the text, with the arrival of Sir Stephen: “Well, here was the end, right here, just where you would have least expected it, and in the most unexpected of all imaginable forms (assuming, of course, as [O] now said to herself, that this was indeed the end and that there wasn’t some other end hidden behind it, or perhaps still a third ending hidden behind the second one)” (76-7), which, as the reader comes to see, there is and are: Beyond the two alternative endings Réage has included, there is an ending each time Roissy resurges, each time O is consolidated: “What distinguished this end [Sir Stephen’s appearance as a potential master] was the way it made recollection topple into the present; and the way, also, that what had formerly only been reality in a closed circle, in a private domain, was all of a sudden about to contaminate all the habits and circumstances of [O’s] daily life” (77). ‘The end,’ it turns out, is, in O, just another figure for ‘the turn.’


2) Who is Jacqueline?

As O is—indeed, as ‘the end’ is—successively iterated throughout Réage’s text, it seems O is only further consolidated in her subjection: each iteration only institutes a subjugated state even more grotesque and abominable than the last: there is always another ‘low’ hidden behind the ‘low’ the reader, at the time, might well conceive as ‘the all time.’ One hardly even registers that one has given up hope for O—if there had ever been hope for O, and if one had ever even thought to hope for it—so excessive is the doubling over of endings performed by the text, and so habituating this excess is. As a result, the narrative engine in the latter part of the text is transferred onto Jacqueline: what will become of her? I found myself, in my readerly subject- position, wanting her to be spared, spared the humiliations imposed by Roissy, and spared the pain and abasement afforded by a condition like O’s (some, conversely, might have been titillated to see her ensnared). And yet there are problems with, or at least ambiguities that surround, the formulation of Jacqueline as one who might be spared, as one who has not already been ensnared, as a figure, in other words, of freedom, or of an agency that has not already been compromised.

In some respects, Jacqueline, as a figure of freedom, as the swerve away from a trajectory determined by power, or as the clinamen, understood as a deviation from the rule, intersects the figure of Kristeva’s foreigner. ‘Jacqueline’ is, in fact, only a professional name, “a name for forgetting her real name [Choura] and, along with her real name” (132), her dwelling space, a “sordid and heartbreaking gyneceum” (132), in which she is confined, when she is home, with a “tribe,” or “horde” of women: her family (131). Jacqueline abhors these women (she “would [give] half her life” to forget their ‘hissing’ language [132]); hence she abandons them at the first opportunity: O invites her to move in. Kristeva’s foreigner is similarly one who has abandoned her origins and one who, additionally, though there may be a sense in which Jacqueline does this as well, reinstitutes this abandonment over and over: The foreigner remains perpetually transient (TF 4). “Free of ties with [her] own people,” the foreigner feels “completely free” (12), and also—not unlike O whipped to the point of delirious ecstasy at Roissy—dispossessed of herself: “Settled within [herself], the foreigner has no self.” (8). “Available, freed of everything, the foreigner has nothing, [s]he is nothing” (ibid.). It is not entirely the case that Jacqueline has nothing, for she is “passionately attached to whatever belongs to her—to her rose-colored pearl ring, for example—but absolutely indifferent to what [isn’t] hers” (O 136); the notion of ‘complete’ freedom embedded in this initial construction of the foreigner, moreover, needs, as we by now know, to be nuanced, though in a way that is not radically inconsistent with Kristeva’s analysis: Whatever swerving Jacqueline accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, is nonetheless made possible by power, and, as a result, is never completely divested of its historicity (see Butler PL 195). In a sense, Kristeva rhymes with this thought when she insists that the foreigner is fundamentally melancholic, a “lover of a vanished space, [who] cannot, in fact, get over [her] having abandoned a period of time” (9).

Melancholy is reconfigured in the foreigner; it does not align in a perfect way with melancholy of the kind Butler discusses, which is premised not only on ontological and erotic foreclosure, but on a tacitly negative form of affect. In Kristeva’s text, melancholy is connected to the subject’s formative and (in some ways) insurmountable history, and is also characterized in terms of a happiness that is itself happiness newly conceived, newly articulated: The foreigner cultivates an ethos of indifference and detachment, such that, while unable to fully relinquish the past, she nevertheless “retain[s]…of the past only the game” (TF 38). The affective state that emerges out of this ethos, and that reveals the self as ‘unessential,’ ‘a simple passer by,’ is “[a] strange way of being happy, or of feeling imponderable, ethereal, so light in weight that it would take so little to make us fly away” (TF 38). The foreigner is thus one who lets go, and one who is let go of. O experiences herself as relinquished, but the subjective forms she assumes (the self she was, as well as the self she does, in fact, and to the contrary, become) remain tethered to, informed, determined and limited by, a cultural formation premised on dominance and submission all the while. We have seen that this formation also, within the novel’s logic, thoroughly colonizes ‘love,’ so much so that love can only assume, from a ‘masculine’ position, the form ‘I love you because I own you: what I love is the owned object I’ve made you’ and, from a ‘feminine’ position, the form ‘I love you, therefore I’m yours,’ the equivalent of which, as O’s possession by Sir Stephen attests to, is ‘I’m yours, therefore I love you.’ It is precisely love which Jacqueline, as aloof and insensitive as Kristeva’s foreigner (see TF 7), is shielded from.

Jacqueline is fundamentally narcissistic: she has no need for the kind of reassurance O is, in the initial stages of the text, perpetually seeking out in René: reassurance of his desire for her—O is happy he is so hell-bent on exacting proof for himself of “the degree to which he possesses her” (56), and perhaps this is because his actions afford precisely such reassurance. Jacqueline, conversely, relies on no one: all she needs is a mirror (103). As Butler notes: “Narcissism continues to control love, even when that narcissism appears to give way to object-love: it is still myself that I find there at the site of the object” (PL 187). Consistent with this, Jacqueline takes pleasure in being desired if it is someone useful that desires her, or if it flatters her vanity (129): She receives O’s attentions because she derives narcissistic and physical pleasure from them and does not bother to reciprocate. When she begins to engage sexually with René, she remains similarly self-immersed: “She had never behaved like someone in love with him,” and O cannot help thinking that, even if, as is likely, Jacqueline is as abandoned with René as she is with her, “[her] surrender does not involve her emotions” (184). If love, in the text, is what traps, then it seems the possibilities that fall outside of entrapment can only be animated for one who refuses love (or at least the rigid configuration ‘love’ as it appears throughout Réage’s text). It does seem as if Jacqueline’s aloofness inoculates her, to a certain extent, from what we might call the Roissy-effect: For O, torture eventually just becomes a matter of course: necessary and even agreeable, a source of pride. Once Jacqueline, however, learns of O’s markings and lash-marks, and learns of their source, she is horrified (176). As she sees it, if she does consent to going to Roissy, it will only be to have a look, to observe the freak show (see 177).

There is another moment in the text that counterbalances O’s ‘normalized’ response to her condition as well (O is a freak, but in a Roissy-governed world, perhaps freaks are the norm?): The woman who removes her pubic hair for the Commander’s party also reacts to her scars with horror: she is “scandalized” and “terrified” (197). Is Roissy ubiquitous and normal, then, or is it localized and perverse? The text leaves the answer ambiguous: Even Jacqueline’s adolescent sister becomes enchanted with the idea of enslavement, and, at the Commander’s party, a ‘normal’ young couple approaches O, the owl, O the naked, lacerated, perforated spectacle: The “very young girl” is in a “white dress” that has “two tea roses at the waist”; she is “wearing gilded sandals” (201). She is dressed, in other words, to exude middle class innocence, and yet she listens quietly to ‘the boy,’ who tells her he will have her body desecrated in the same way O’s has been. The girl does not appear upset (ibid.). An inebriated American also approaches O at the party, fondles her, and reacts to her irons with “horror and loathing” (200). It is of course slightly odd to ask ‘What are these ‘normals’ doing at a Roissy affiliate’s party?,’ since Roissy itself is populated by ‘normal people,’ and the population is replete, one deduces, with Roissy members. In this, and other ways, the text insists, if not on the strict identity of, then on continuity between, the ‘normal’ and the ‘perverse.’ Is there, as a result, any room for Jacqueline to manoeuvre, or does the possibility of a swerve hinge on something beyond or outside of these poles, as well as the spectrum between?

Jacqueline is one who reacts to Roissy with horror and disgust. Unlike, O, she does not feel bound to René (and so cannot be bound, through him, to Roissy); she falls in love with a man who is directing a film she is in, and makes plans with him without informing René of these (she has abandoned her origins, and now she is shedding another constitutive influence). As far as she is concerned, it is none of O’s business whether or not she is in love with this man, and she tells her as much when she inquires. O purportedly inquires because Jacqueline’s being in love concerns René, but Jacqueline refuses this claim, volleying with: “What also concerns René and Sir Stephen and, if I’ve understood it correctly, a lot of other people too…is that you are badly seated” (187). O is sitting on her dress, whereas she has been commanded to sit bare-assed forevermore. How are we to read Jacqueline’s retort? Is the ‘what also’ component of the phrase to be taken seriously?: ‘Yes my being in love concerns René, but you are being disobedient, too, so shut up.’ But then, it seems that Jacqueline’s being in love would not concern René in the same way that O’s transgression would, for Jacqueline keeps him at arm’s length, whereas, as long as O loves a Roissy affiliate, as she now loves Sir Stephen, she must act in accordance with its members’ wishes. Jacqueline concerns René insofar as she can break his heart, but it does not seem as if she is owned. Should we read her retort as a refusal, then?: ‘René has no claim to me; the only thing that concerns René is what he has proper dominion over, namely, you and the other slaves.’ And yet, Jacqueline has, by this point in the text, also fallen in love. No longer narcissistically aloof, at least, to her new object of affection, does she risk being carried back (carried forward) to Roissy? In this ‘normal’ world in which she has fallen in love with a film director, a normal boy, is she just another unmarred girl at the Commander’s party?

We can pose the question in a different way if we consider that, in the text, Jacqueline functions as O’s uncanny double. Uncanniness, as Kristeva articulates it, is “a destructuration of self that may either remain as a psychotic symptom [think: repetition/stagnation] or fit in as an opening toward the new, as an attempt to tally with the incongruous [think: swerve]” (MNUB 188). The encounter with the uncanny is an encounter with an Other that is nevertheless familiar and shakes the self in the policing of its own boundaries: it is in fact an otherness in the self that has been ejected through the work of the self’s self-sculpting identifications, such that an encounter with it invites a broadening of these identifications, an expansion of the self’s purview (see MNUB 188-9). The uncanny may refer the subject “to an improper past” (MNUB 183). Before falling in love with René, O was Jacqueline: “indifferent and fickle,” she had merely “amused herself tempting the boys who were in love with her” (94). Her fully narcissistic desire to be desired not only shielded her but actively inflicted pain: it was a weapon (ibid). Subsequently, O’s indifferent and fickle behaviour is referred to, by a guilt-stricken O, as part of her ‘wantonness,’ and as such, as part of the constellation of justifications for her (present) punishment: an improper past, it has been ejected from the subject’s identificatory ambit. It is Jacqueline, then, since she is the representative of this past, who has been ejected from this ambit, and it is no surprise when O, by this time fully sympathetic with René (read: Roissy’s world and its order) and with the vision of sexual relations in which he ought not be love-stricken and desperate, but be dominant, comes to hate Jacqueline for the pain she might cause him.

In Freudian melancholy, the rejected object, again, is not actually ejected; it is rather subjected to a fissioning: it is brought into the ego where the hating energies once directed toward it (by the ego) are broken off from it and redirected toward the self. In Butler’s account, in which melancholy is assujettissement, the trace of the Other as feelings of worthlessness (or self-hatred, or even, calling to mind O, guilt) must be read as a “dissimulated sociality” (181): the various foreclosures performed in and through the cultural delineation of the realm of the possible are actually what occasions “the internal violence [and voice] of conscience” (183). O is guilt-ridden—guilty for prior fickle indifference, guilty for continuing wantonness, guilty for something, at one point we find out, she cannot quite put her finger on: “It…seemed to her that her nakedness was an atonement for something…but for what?” (103). Is her guilt, then, with its ambiguous content, precisely the trace of something foreclosed, something uncanny that, in (re-)erupting, might open O toward the new? And, if it is, then why should this something be ‘fickle indifference,’ as embodied by O’s uncanny double, Jacqueline?

For now, I would like to bracket the fact that ‘fickle indifference’ is not a possibility radically foreclosed in the world of the text[14] and simply ask: Does ‘fickle indifference’ nevertheless swerve? On the one hand, it seems to shield Jacqueline from Roissy. In other ways, it does not, however, and perhaps this is because it does not shield her from the desire to be desired: there are social norms that govern what constitutes a proper object of desire, and we might wonder if, within the domain that is the text, these are always already Roissy-inflected. Jacqueline already knows how to behave like a ‘desirable’ (submissive) subject: “No one would ever need to teach this woman anything: neither to be silent, nor to arch her head halfway back” (103-4). So acquainted is she with ‘the rules of the game’ that she warns O about the danger of wearing garters without a garter belt (“you’re going to ruin your legs” [63]) long before Anne-Marie informs her of the same (e.g., in the form of an indirect prohibition) (143). It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that one of the gowns Jacqueline dons at work, and which O photographs her in, is a gala gown “such as brides wore in the middle ages” (64) and such as only Roissy slaves continue to wear (65). Jacqueline’s fixation on O’s ring even causes O to think it is possible that “Jacqueline had been at Roissy,” and then, significantly, to wonder “why didn’t she too have a ring?” (75). Of course, O did not have a ring (read: iron sign of enslavement) prior to Roissy either: it was only bestowed once she had arrived there, and yet this did not stop René from…taking her for a walk…

Jacqueline is O’s uncanny double, an unfamiliar return of the familiar, to be sure, but if she were to interrupt O’s insularity, this “destructuration of self”—a return to fickle indifference—would perhaps best be thought of in terms of repetition/stagnation, or in terms of, as Kristeva puts this, a psychotic symptom (quoted above): an otherness that is more, rather than less, more of the same. If Jacqueline is not, then, finally, a good candidate for the figure of the foreigner, for the clinamen, then what else could serve as such a candidate? What else could swerve? O fills me with despair precisely because the logic inscribed by the text seems impervious to interruption, to change. The configuration of love itself in the text is inflexible, assuming, as it does, the one form. Our consideration of Jacqueline has revealed that resistance, within the logic of the text, likewise assumes a single form: ‘I love only myself: I do not love at all.’ What makes the text depressing, then, is that it not only forecloses the possibility of alternative configurations of love—positive attachments and forms of influence/interruption/inflection that are not founded on the existence of objects with owners, or on the discursive insistence on ‘intruders’ and the ‘intruded upon’— but also points to stagnation as the only model for a sorry and ultimately self-deceived resistance: narcissism: ‘I am never interrupted, for I do not love at all.’ One’s very existence implies that one has been, in some way, interrupted; one’s narcissism may keep one soldered to what one has always already been made into.


The Swerve

If there is an opening in O, then it is an untapped opening at the point of the text’s closure. The narrative voice marooned in white space on a final, un-paginated page reports:

In a final chapter, which has been suppressed, O did return to Roissy, where Sir Stephen abandoned her.

There exists a second end to O’s story. In that version, O, seeing that Sir Stephen was on the verge of leaving her, preferred to die. Sir Stephen gave his consent.

Recall that the text’s beginning is forked as well: either O is blindfolded and marshalled up to the chateau, or she walks to the door herself. These beginnings are equivalent, for an already subjected self’s autonomy is its subjection all the same. Is a similar equivalence to be found in the proposed “endings”? When O is abandoned, does this mean she is no longer owned, and, if so, in what sense does this signify that she is dead? ‘Death’ is dangerous, a vacuous word: The self dies without dying to become another; the self is said to die at the height of pleasure just as much as at the pinnacle of its debasement; O believed she had lost herself, but instead a subjugated self was only being further consolidated. What reason do we have for reading death at this point in the text as signifying new news? No reason at all. No reason: thus it is appropriate that Kathy Acker taps into the text here and veers.

In Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker provides her own version of O’s narrative. Acker’s O ends up in China, a name for any city, following W, her lover, who prostitutes her. W inadvertently sells weapons to a band of revolutionaries who undermine patriarchy/capitalism, his enterprise; they also beat him up severely, nearly killing him. (This is power making possible what from power strays.) W has abandoned O. Réage’s premise: ‘If Sir Stephen’s not around, then I want to be no more.’ Acker’s premise: “O speaks: If W’s not around, I don’t want to be a whore” (17). Once the revolutionaries storm the English embassy, O’s ‘health’ returns: she learns that W was part owner of the whorehouse, and thus tells us: “I no longer cared what W felt about me: all I wanted was for him to be absent from me” (21). The patriarchal order crumbles and O “[stands] on the edge of a new world” (23).

In another version (same book), O is in Alexandria and catalyzes the revolution herself: “a revolution of whores” (30) to begin “[t]he only thing in the world that’s worth beginning: the end of the world” (27). Acker’s perseveration, throughout the text, on the prospect of a new world order is significant, given, as we have seen, that it is a rigid discursive/ontological order that fortifies a subjugating form of power in Réage’s text. Acker busts open the order consolidated in that text, displacing the phallus—in Acker’s text ‘Pussy’ is king, pirate, O, treasure—displacing, in fact, many things: reason, identity, certainty, consistency. She populates her text with characters and actions that befit the ambiguity of any brink: patriarchal women, decapitated/castrated fathers, bloodthirsty freedom fighters, graveyard dwellers, men who seem to have overcome themselves, readying themselves for the new order, but who are nevertheless insidious, girl pirates who are just as, perhaps even more insidious, vicious, complicit with power… Acker resolves nothing. Instead, she locks the reader into a bemusement that is also a bewonderment: does everything change, or does nothing? Yet the canny whore-pirates of Acker’s text are one step ahead of the melancholic subject confined to Réage’s pages, since they realize that an ontological order constrains what is possible, and therefore must be interrogated: “The weight of culture: questioned and lost” (31).

Part of this interrogation is discursive: “the whores learned that if language or words whose meanings seem definite are dissolved into a substance of multiple gestures and cries…then all the weight that the current social, political, and religious hegemonic forms of expression carry will be questioned. Become questionable. Finally lost.” (ibid.) Elsewhere, the text gestures toward the transformative potentiality of disjunction: “words apocalyptic and apostrophic, punctuations only as disjunctions, disjunctions cut into different parts of the body or of the world” (36). Disjunction: not just the ‘or’ of alternatives as in Réage’s text, for Acker’s text makes use of narrative disjunction, the occasional Steinean period,[15] and, again, a crafty skewing of logic. The pirate/whores’ insight, then, is not only that they must think, or attempt to think, the very order they’ve issued from, but that thinking might involve linguistic rearrangement.

The whores become pirates precisely to perform this interrogation, to pursue the origin of whoredom (the order it’s emerged from) and to change its course (27). In a way, then, Acker’s text offers another formulation of Foucault’s ‘thought thinking itself’:

Thought does exist, both beyond and before systems and edifices of discourse. It is something that is often hidden but always drives everyday behaviours. There is always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits. Criticism consists in uncovering that thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts that are now too easy. (SIIITT 172)

Criticism does not settle things once and for all, but problematizes a subject’s previously un-problematical proceedings. The subject engaging with criticism is a troubled, dissatisfied, confused, but nonetheless active subject—a fizzing subject, even zealous, and vertiginous, falling, falling ever short of knowledge. In Réage’s text, the otherness that interrupts the self is concretely cultural; in Acker’s text, the otherness the girls quest for, where ‘quest’ is ‘criticism,’ is an otherness beyond the cultural, or at least an otherness under-determined by the cultural. This otherness is ‘thought.’ Thought is figured once in Acker’s book as a red rat named Ratski, who, elsewhere in the text, interrupts as menstrual blood. It is perhaps the pursuit of this other otherness—‘thought’—it is perhaps thought’s opening to thought—that holds out the possibility of a swerve away from Roissy and what it enables. This pursuit, significantly, occurs beyond the border of O’s original story. Story of O, it seems, has inspired the very myths which seek to double back and destroy it, and which, in doubling back, invest it, preserve it. For their very life, they depend on it. Some of us have never aspired to do anything more than pervert and corrupt, to be anything more than bastards and degenerates.

Ratski is fat because everything in the world sits inside her belly because she never sits inside any belly because, if she did, she’d tear right through it. Her fur is red…

No one ever finds Ratski: she lives inside the interstices of the world. Located between red flowers. The name of each interstice is “intellect.”

Ratski’s always on the rag.

…and so the reign of girl piracy began… (Acker 208)

 —Natalie Helberg




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_____. 1996. Pussy, King of the Pirates. New York: Grove. Print.

_____. 1993. My Mother: Demonology. New York: Pantheon. Print.

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Bök, Christian. 2002.‘Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Evanston: Northwestern UP. Print.

Bordo, Susan. 2003. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P. Print.

Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP. Print.

_____. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. California: Stanford UP. Print.

Crozier, W. R. 1996. “The Psychology of Colour Preferences.” Review of Progress in Coloration and Related Topics. 21.1: 63-72. Primo. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1988. “A New Cartographer.” Foucault. Trans. Seán Hand. Minneapolis; London: U of Minnesota P. 23-44. Print.

_____. 1988. “Foldings, or the Inside of Thought (Subjectivation).” Foucault. Trans. Seán Hand. Minneapolis; London: U of Minnesota P. 94-123. Print.

Foucault, Michel. 2006. Psychiatric Power. Trans. Graham Burchell. Ed. Jacques Lagrange. New York: Picador. Print.

_____. 2003. “So Is It Important To Think.” The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and Nicolas Rose. New York: New Press. 170-73. Print.

_____. 2003. “The Thought of The Outside.” The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and

Nicolas Rose. New York: New Press. 423-41. Print.

_____. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage. Print.

Giordana, Simona. 2005. Understanding Eating Disorders: Conceptual and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP. Print.

Heyes, Cressida J. 2007. Self Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. 1991. “Might Not Universality Be…Our Own Foreignness?” Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP. 169-92. Print.

_____. 1991. “Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner.” Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP. 1-40. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2006. “The I and Totality.” Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-other. Trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. London; New York: Continuum. 11-33. Print.

_____. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP. Print.

Lorde, Audre. 2007. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing. 114-23. Print.

McWhorter, Ladelle. 1999. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Bloomington: Indiana UP. Print.

Réage, Pauline. 1993. Story of O. Trans. John Paul Hand. New York: Book-Of-The-Month Club. Print.

Robertson, Lisa. 2012. Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias. Toronto: Bookthug. Print.

Young, Iris Marion. 1980. “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment and Spatiality.” Human Studies 3.2: 137-56. PRIMO. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.


helberg pic

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


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Pauline Réage is of course a pseudonym.
  2. Lisa Robertson reads Story of O as a similar type of allegory: the self’s agency, in her reading, is accomplished by means of the very passivity it wills for itself. Her essay on Story of O was, in fact, a catalyst for my own thinking on the subject (see Nilling).
  3. I’ve tinkered with tense here, as I have in other phrases drawn from Réage’s book.
  4. “Here is where I leave you,” René says (Réage 5).
  5. In Giving an Account of Oneself, for example, Judith Butler suggests that subjective interruptions of this kind are the crux of ethics, that “our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human” (136).
  6. See Crozier.
  7. Mirrors are scattered throughout the text as well and signal Roissy’s seepage into O’s everyday existence, where they consistently function to maintain her in her status as ‘object for an Other’: “She saw her reflection: she was naked except for the leather clogs…not much darker than the clogs she had worn at Roissy…and the ring…[S]he was alone, her sole spectator. And yet she had never felt so totally subject to a foreign will, never so a slave” (Réage 60).
  8. Disciplinary power renders and subsequently functions on the premise that a whole series of behaviours—“latenesses, absences, interruptions of tasks…inattention, negligence, lack of zeal…impoliteness, disobedience… idle chatter, insolence…‘incorrect’ attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness,” and so on (Foucault DP 178)—are punishable. At Roissy, the women are punished “at night for any infraction of the rules during the day. That is, for thoughtlessness, for being slow to oblige, for having raised [their] eyes on whoever speaks to [them] or takes [them]” (Réage 16), and for speaking to other women (Réage 16 and 36-7),
  9. Notwithstanding the aforementioned idea that, within the allegorical space which is O and which belongs to the pseudo-time of a ‘before subjectivity,’ there is another dimension to the text in which it seems that forces act, continuously and throughout the narrative, on O from without. The text’s various allegorical layers co-exist with, rather than contradict, one another.
  10. In fact, in Butler’s text, the degree to which melancholy is experiential is ambiguous, since she also makes something of the thought that the ego retracts negative, object-directed affect, turning it back on itself.
  11. It is troubling to pre-formulate, or pre-posit ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ subjects this way, if, in fact, they only come to be dominant and submissive relationally.
  12. The phrasing here is revealing: “Nothing obliged her to remain a slave, nothing except her love and slavery itself” (Réage 123; my emphasis).
  13. The language of internalization implies that something to be internalized pre-exists the subject, and that the subject pre-exists the act of internalization.
  14. It is a possibility O, in fact, lived: She lived, we can say, ‘fickle indifference’ once, if only to reject it—or if only, through her love for René, to have it stolen (see Réage 94).
  15. Andrews quotes Gertrude Stein on periods: “They could begin to act as they thought best and one might interrupt one’s writing with them that is not really interrupting one’s writing with them but one could come to stop arbitrarily in one’s writing and so they could be used…” (218).
Sep 142015


“If there is an overarching drive that threads the collection together, it’s Couto’s commitment to recognize history’s numerous flaws, and to use this history to embrace a diverse future, full of “hybridities” of both self and cultural environs.” — Benjamin Woodard


Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw
305 pages ($22.95)
ISBN 978-1-771960076


Mozambican writer and environmental biologist Mia Couto has published over 25 books of poetry and prose in his career. This work has been translated into 20 languages, and the man himself has walked away with both the Camões Prize—a sort of lifetime achievement award for writers working in Portuguese—and the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

All of this is to say that Couto is one of Mozambique’s most beloved and respected writers. And yet, despite these achievements (which also include a finalist spot for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize), the author remains a relative unknown in the United States, where I’m writing this review. In fact, I’d wager a rather large sum that most Americans would be hard pressed to locate Couto’s homeland on a map of Africa. This dig is not meant to sound elitist, or cold, but rather to explain the priorities—for better or worse—of my country, a place that prides itself on the idea of worldly dominance while simultaneously knowing very little about the lands outside its borders.

Such literary and geographical ignorance is, of course, a shame for a number of reasons. First, Mia Couto is a fine writer who deserves a wide North American audience (he’s already a proven bestseller in Africa, Europe, and South America). Second, Couto’s latest collection of essays and provocations, Pensativities, would certainly speak to the unversed American, for the concept of world identity often takes center stage in the author’s text. As Couto points out in “Languages We Don’t Know We Know”:

“Never before has our world had at its disposal so many means of communication, yet our solitude has never been so extreme. Never before have we had so many highways, and yet never before have we visited each other so little.”

Expertly translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, these writings span roughly a decade of Couto’s nonfiction work, and are plucked from three previously published books: Pensatempos: Textos de opiniãoE se Obama fosse africano? e outras interinvenções, and Pensagerio frequente. If there is an overarching drive that threads the collection together, it’s Couto’s commitment to recognize history’s numerous flaws, and to use this history to embrace a diverse future, full of “hybridities” of both self and cultural environs. For instance, in his opening essay, “The Frontier of Culture,” Couto confronts cultural illiteracy head-on, linking the issue to the lack of preparation Mozambican students receive in school. Raised primarily in cities like Maputo, these young citizens “behave as if they were emigrating to a strange and hostile universe” once landing in rural areas for University fieldwork. Couto goes on to tie this cultural remoteness to the creation of multiple citizenships within modern Mozambique, where city dwellers look down on those who live in the countryside. In addition, he sees this divide as a result of many citizens refusing to accept history as truth, arguing that Mozambique, along with much of Africa, has crafted an inaccurate, distorted history for itself, placing blame on others where it should instead look inward. “This twisted reading of the past is not merely a theoretical diversion,” he writes. “It ends up giving sustenance to an attitude of eternal victimhood; it suggests false enemies and unprincipled alliances.”

In this essay, as well as in many others, Couto reasons that Mozambicans would be better off embracing their nation’s historical faults, and that for true prosperity, all citizens would also strive to recognize their identities as not simplistic, but multifaceted. In several spots, he writes these thoughts as if providing advice to fellow writers. By way of example, “What Africa Does The African Writer Write About?” urges the writer to “deny his own self,” to become “a creature of the frontier.” Later in the collection, the author worries, “The words of today are increasingly those that are shorn of any poetic dimension, that do not convey to us any utopian vision of a different world.” Couto explains that Africans, like their writing, cannot be pigeonholed into one general, pure entity. “There’s no such thing as purity when one is talking about the human species,” he says. He sees the need for modernity as essential for the nation’s survival, but one hinged on Africans’ acceptance of living in a culturally bountiful world.

Couto’s talk of identity and hybridity saturates most of Pensativities, to the point where some may find his claims redundant. This viewpoint fails to recognize the fact that Mozambique is, as a Republic, quite young, having gained its independence from Portugal in 1975 and then toiling through civil war until 1992. Thus, it has existed as a stable independent environment for only about 20 years. When considered in this perspective, Couto’s ubiquitous musings on individuality translate as not only fair, but expected, as he is a constant witness to a country—flush with nouveau riche and mass poverty—trying to figure out its place in both Africa and the world.

Of course, not all of Couto’s essays ring true. When he tackles rap music, in “Baring One’s Voice,” he sounds largely dated in his observations, complaining that the genre has devolved into “facile rhymes” that merely objectify women and glorify violence. This stereotypical trouncing paints rap in a single color, which ultimately rails against the author’s desire to see the world as an endless prism. Similarly, the essay “The Fly or the Spider?,” which concerns Mozambican adoption of the internet, reads as if written by a technophobe. “I worry about the easy availability of magic wands, fantastical solutions that we arrive at as if they were downloaded,” Couto laments, yet how are his fellow countrymen and women to become a greater part of the global community without such technology? Though the author spins these ideas back into his stance on creating a strong citizenship within Mozambique, his trepidation seems misguided.

For every essay that doesn’t quite stick its landing, however, Pensativities offers over a dozen that succeed. “Half a Future” eloquently honors Henrik Ibsen while simultaneously arguing for women’s rights. “Waters of My Beginning” transcends continents to share the feeling of growing up in a place littered with small town dreams, and “The City on the Veranda of Time” and  “The Sweet Taste of Sura” take the form of travelogue-esque reports to dissect physical changes in Maputo and the Bay of Inhambane, as well as the impact these changes have had on Mozambicans. It is here, in these late entries, that Couto refines his overall point to its essence. When looking at Maputo, he says the city exists “on its wide veranda that looks over and into itself.” It’s a mantra that all readers can absorb, for isn’t that how we all should be motivated to live: at harmony with both ourselves and our world?

— Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Revolver, Maudlin House, and Cheap Pop. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineAlternating Current5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at and on Twitter.


Sep 132015

Dean city


Murder mile

I saw girls in ball gowns drinking wine on murder mile,
traffic passing,
the great round circus where we drank beer in your flat before
still there off the high street.

I crossed it holding hands with girls I can’t remember and
talked about my friend from Argentina.
The Caribbean men yelling by the chicken shop.

You never think of now til now,
one room begets another just the same,
one life itself, again
but something moves, things evolve
and we forget, thank god.

These streets all tapered into non-specific
City when I got here first, consulting maps. Houses and shops and sky beyond.
Stories tapered too / the known-tale-courtyard
and the end: flat shops shut up, painted onto wooden boards
The scenery of ending, hiding in the future from the now.

God that desperate lust to write won’t go until
you give up hope and then at last /can/ write, dispossessed
and outsidered, lost,
your legs take you, and what you hunted
is with you everywhere.


the city’s silvered-over to the skyline

We drive to Primrose Hill and walk over the hill


beneath the rain. You’re cold. Before a friend


was talking on and on about his money and


his records til I made him stop the car and I got out.


It rained then too, the wet boughs shining and


the grass soft underfoot, relieved. Soft pressure and percussion


overhead, I trespassed through the emptiness that


humans hate, the grey skies sighing sympathetic


and the telecom tower misted in a veil like memories of the


80s. You and I are imposters here I think


beside her, far away as


deserts and the sea, hand in cold hand,


the rain comes down around us like before


and the city’s silvered-over to the skyline.


Out of food and you

Out of food and you fading

we lay down dying

thin, white and weightless

as a breath.

The tumblers made tall

shapes in the mortuary

the cap-man peering down in

mock concern before

collapsing dash and


              twists claps and


             they all lithe and well-fed.

Our windows then were

televisions to the

sorry east end pale

light and lost souls’ hustle

blue sirens bansheed by

and lorries stole

heavy cargo off like

rockets fresh from

Palestine, the passing pressure

tightening ribs in crushing waves.

I wanted you in your skirt and

satin knickers with your classic unwell

face straight from the 19th century

pneumonia days of sweats and worrying in waistcoats

but it felt too wrong

too happening elsewhere in

places we weren’t

and people we weren’t

and I didn’t want to

wake you.

              Where we were

the ashy sheet stretched

over the chipboard frame

     —like Heat tales of

anorexics’ faces tight stretched over bone —

stopped it wrinkling into

valleys as we slept.

My boots in the

kitchen, faced the oven

where had I

bacon, or money for the gas

I would stand.

I saw myself there

In them — weighted and

bright — missed him — felt

dead and old, alone and

jagged while you tossed

your head like black salad

               humming occasional

songs of drunk girls

glee and laughing Muslim

kids walking to mosque with

wizened grandfather kind and

slow-moving, the beggars and

hookers, pimps at the bus

stop picking out hotspots;

and here are we, lost as stories.


Empty City

When the use-everything drove there, the signs


it strangers breathing again. Moving, room-source: smashing garden,

woods gone to dead long town burn


               chosen the endless thought

the sad strange forwards

beginning through, outside (read: room)

imagine garden-thousands going home,

they wouldn’ how, or Why


[For Carolina]

From your room the windows bracket the city.


The light rises at dawn and falls like a sigh into night.


The wind blows and we shiver at the thought of outside,


rain is lost on the glass, the lightning flashes


and the thunder roars and rolls over us, fading into silence beyond.


In here time ceases, we cease it, it tries but can’t reach us.


You type and I smoke, you talk and I kiss you, we hide in the dark


And outside the city lights mark out their loneliness, great spaces between.


From your room the windows bracket the city.


The light rises at dawn and falls like a sigh into night.


Porcelain girl

Porcelain girl
………………..    my tiny pupil
……….your foot into your
………………..gauze-purse all stuck through
with ashy silver
………foils pointed
through needle-tips drip run
……………………………in your ink into our lost infinities
………this dispersion space
and soft recovery sofa
………hospital bed
……………………………………. in that old room
………out where the shouting
and you safe and I safe and you
…………………take not the glittering edge
but of wit
………………………………………………… write with
………..nor do you

scrawl releasing air for safety’s sake
………..or stir my tea with that dark spoon taken
………………………………………for our cups of tea in prospectus
…………………..conversation and mothers dress or curtain picking
and grandfathers shouting at the dog
……………………………………….in fond secure passion outburst
for tis a sad thing
……… lost one

                            your deathbed power tools strewn across
some-open shirted sweating desk by candlelight on lakes we drowned in
………………………………………..       dreams
defeat all our childishness
and with their written purpose rule our loneliness

—Martin Dean

Martin Dean

Martin Dean is a writer and Poetry Editor at Minor Literature[s] (@minorlits). Follow him on Twitter @martin_c_dean

Sep 122015



SWAYING AND STAGGERING against their companions, the commuters grimly pretended that each was the sole occupant of the subway as it careened over the Northern Line tracks taking hairpin turns without slowing, scraping its sides continually and leaving small fires in its wake, fires which died after briefly lighting up the darkness of the long tunnels beneath London. While even in this miserable winter the occasional tourist’s face could be seen, at this hour the tube was crowded with workers heading home. There were labourers too, sweaty and grime-faced, adding to the stink of the close atmosphere produced by the unwashed and uncared for bodies of most of the train’s inhabitants. Bill regarded them all with disgust from his corner near the doors while waiting to arrive at King’s Cross where he could extricate himself from this sulphureous mass. He hated subways at this hour, and the only thing that took his mind off the stench while being crushed against structural pipes or the Plexiglas was to survey his fellow passengers.

In the midst of a stop a familiar couple got on, a man of about forty, neither worker nor executive. Somebody with money by his clothes, and his wife, who was wrapped in a warm coat that reached to her ankles. In her hand as always she held the white cane that at another time of day might have elicited sympathy but on this train simply reduced her to an easy mark for pickpockets. Bill had seen pickpockets nosing their way around her before, but her husband commonly got in their way. He may see her robbed yet, because her husband didn’t always pay as close attention to her as he could have.

Seeing the woman, whose husband he’d heard addressing as Edna, he tried to imagine what it was like to be blind, to be led around or always tapping a stick wherever you went. Wouldn’t be so bad not to see these faces every day, mine too. Only last week on a less crowded train he’d been reading a magazine when he overheard two black girls talking as they moved to stand in the middle of the car holding on to the suspended handles. One of them said, in not so quiet a voice as she may have wanted, “Let’s not stand next to him, he’s ugly.” He had looked over the top of his magazine to see her, his features as unperturbed as if she hadn’t spoken at all. The girl was looking at him, perhaps aware of the loudness of her voice, but as Bill didn’t show he had heard, her face wanting to broaden with a smile at what she’d gotten away with, she turned and laughed, relieved, with her friend. Inside he simmered with rage that a complete stranger should think he was ugly and say so out loud where everyone heard her. It wasn’t that he thought himself handsome. He figured he looked as appealing as anybody who had just spent eight hours in a warehouse. His clothes were stained with dirt, his sneakers were torn up and his pants were grimy. As for his face and hair, well, they couldn’t be helped. He had learned to live with them. Undoubtedly there was a bit of dust on him that he had missed when cleaning up hurriedly in order to catch the damn train, but he didn’t think some stupid girl—what is she, sixteen?—was allowed to say that he was ugly out loud. She’s no prizewinner herself, thin, scrawny, with thighs about the size around of my wrist. Jesus, talk about me, but I don’t say anything out loud, do I? And I didn’t cause any fuss.

Thinking about that again made him angry so he went back to looking at the blind lady. He couldn’t see her eyes because of the shades, her eyeballs must roll around like marbles, but the rest of her face wasn’t bad, a bit sallow, but then that’s English beauty for you, topped with short, light-brown hair. Her face had nice bones though, and the wrinkles weren’t too pronounced. Her figure he’d only seen once and it seemed okay, smaller breasts than usual for here and that was good, not bad legs. Her face when she laughed was pleasant, and her husband was always talking to her, reading the poems off the displays and just keeping her amused, yet lately his eyes strayed to another person who got pushed on the train by the crowd that waited impatiently at one particular stop along the –

His thoughts were disrupted by a familiar jolt that struck everyone by surprise nonetheless, causing a woman’s scream to burst out from the middle of the car and end in an embarrassing silence. Men cursed softly after that pause, and the metronomic beat of the complaints that invariably began after a wrenched “God!” from someone built steadily to presto fortissimo before subsiding into an uneven scattering of whining notes until even these sotto voce remarks died off leaving a quiet interlude, broken eventually by a squeak like a violin peg tightening a flat string, then the entire orchestra tuned up, slowly, and the train once again moved, the solo note from the violin taken up as a theme, hurriedly and with reckless brio, as if by musicians not willing to play one minute more than the scheduled time of a musical’s closing bars, anxious as they are to pack their instruments away before joining their friends for drinks after the performance.

These interruptions in the ride were as normal as the husband’s growing attraction to a quite beautiful girl, naturally red-haired, who used little makeup, unlike most women here. She had a tight, automatic smile, the one anybody in a large city comes to possess, and long legs enticingly wrapped today in black silk stockings with encrustations of bold silver sequins above shapely ankles. She wore a bright jacket, a blouse and short skirt that matched her perfectly, and around her neck was a gaily-coloured scarf. In the last few weeks of London’s foggy, wet winter she was dressed in pleasant, cheerful clothes as if for summer, and Bill’s mood lifted momentarily at the sight of her. He hungered for another sight of her cleavage, for he had once seen her black brassiere against her pale skin and it had scored a mark on his memory. He also realized that the husband, whose name he heard for the first time this particular day, when his wife, alarmed at a long silence on his part, called out “Eric? What?” then became flustered as her voice sounded so loud in her own ears, while her husband had been looking as the young girl adjusted her skirt squashed in a press of people surging onto the train, had been eyeing her closely but arrested his interest, swung round to his wife, looking as he did so directly into Bill’s eyes with a smug and slightly scornful proprietary look, murmuring reassurances in her ear, calming her down.

Over the course of the next weeks the husband generally paid better attention to his wife when the attractive girl was not present, as far as Bill could tell, for they were not always together on the car, and many days would pass before Bill saw either the couple or the girl, so that he received a series of pictures that seemed to jump in time when the four were on the same car together. He was conscious, once again, of the habits of the British, who would often choose the same car when going to and coming from work. When the girl wasn’t present Eric would release acerbic remarks on current events and other people who had just left the train, or else told stories he made up for her, describing an individual who had left the subway and musing about the private life this or that one might lead. His wife was constantly amused by him, yet desperation showed in her laugh. Not hysteria or anything crazy, more like loneliness, and in Bill’s mind her blindness accounted for that. She talked often about their domestic affairs, and over the usually meek voices on the train he could hear them discussing the redecorating of their home, a visit to this or that opera, a dinner engagement with close friends, never a word about children. Perhaps they had been married too late, though he looked older than her, in his forties, she probably in her mid-thirties, though an initial view of her face might make one think, like Bill had on first seeing her, that she was the older of the two.

When the girl was on the train Eric paid a great deal of time in answering Edna’s questions after asking her to repeat them above the sound of the train, responding when the noise of a sharp turn began to mount. Amid the clanging of train on track he would begin his response, the frustration of only partially hearing his reply reducing her to silence for the rest of the journey. His interest more obviously attached itself to the girl, particularly as his wife accepted that conversation had gradually become impossible on such a noisy car and increasingly received no more than terse comments from her husband.

One day Bill had located himself quite close to the couple, behind them in fact, and could smell the faint scent of their intermingled colognes. He came upon them in the middle of one of the husband’s stories. “And hunted later, as you well know, by the rabid right-wingers there, McCarthy and that sort, not an easy life. The story is that once he was headlining in Las Vegas, singing in one of those posher establishments. A club, of sorts. Just himself and a man at the pianoforte, a grand piano at that. He was singing a few light arias, some popular songs that he had made famous, and the audience loved him. In the middle of the second set, one mostly of love songs? I think. I’m sorry, dear, I don’t remember that part. Anyway, there he was and quite comfortable, so he took it into his head to sit on the piano. He was in front of it, and he took his hands, placed them on the edge of the grand piano, and hoisted himself up onto it.”

“What happened?” she asked quickly.

“The most embarrassing thing, and it’s also so funny too. He pushed himself up on the piano and then overbalanced.”

“And broke his nose!?”

“No, no,” testily, then smoothly again, “tipped over backwards into the piano, splintering the wood because of his massive weight and size, you see.”

“Dear goodness!”

“And then there he was, caught in that piano,” and at that moment they reached a stop and the girl got on. “Just a minute, dear, let’s wait for the train to start moving again, I don’t want one word left out” while looking lustfully at the girl who returned his stare and Bill felt certain for the very first time smiled back making “Eric?” colouring as he turned to his wife and in a louder voice “Here I am, where was I? Had to, wait, wait, ah yes,” and his composure regained, “there he was, his feet up in the air, waving his legs wildly. The audience thought this screamingly funny, and laughed at him as if he meant it to happen but,” as his eyes swung openly to the girl and he fixed her with a broad smile that paralleled his story but ran independently of it, her own flashing back as she stood in the crowd listening to him, “he was trapped, do you see? Caught within the piano by his weight, he then went through the piano, so you could only see his hands holding on to the piano’s frame, his feet, and his head too, where there was some blood.


“Oh, he was all right, just a scratch, and they tried, the piano player then a stagehand, to pull him out, then some other people helped until they realized there was no one to bring down the” girl’s hands playing with her long hair as she watched “curtain and he could only grunt and moan all the while the piano strings snapped around him, wood cracking and crashing.

“But Eric, he didn’t hurt himself too badly?” imagining this patently false story even to Bill in her mind as a case where someone at a disadvantage unwittingly became an object of fun.

“No, no, let me finish, and then you see,” winking at the girl with a meaning in his eye Bill couldn’t decipher but which made her flush and turn away, though not too quickly, “someone got to the ropes and brought the curtain down. Well, the audience was howling but when they heard these men and the commotion behind the velvet drapes, heard them grunting and hollering as they pushed the piano across the stage, with him saying Am I all right? My head ain’t bleeding, is it? Get me out! Get me, and of course they nearly went through the floor –”

“Oh no!

“Not the piano and him, the audience because it was so funny!” And yet his wife did not find this story humourous, even if the girl did, covering her mouth and looking with disbelieving eyes, and his wife’s drawn face, looking a little more beautiful when seen up close, could not stop her husband from continuing, because of course he told this story in a voice loud enough to carry to the girl, his intended audience now, forgetting his wife even as she trembled against the time of the train.

Things remained like that over the next week or so, the girl remaining at a slight distance, but eventually she moved closer. Bill watched her and them, Eric watched the girl, isolating Edna, and the girl watched Eric with a slight effort at discreetness. The day that she stood two people away from Eric dressed in a smart suit which complimented her figure exceedingly his wife looked around sharply, exclaiming in a voice a shade too loud for public transport, “There’s a rather nice perfume here, whose is it?” to which he replied “Some office girl, I expect,” his voice then lost in the noise of the train pulling into King’s Cross. Bill and the couple got out, Bill looking around to see the girl standing in the open door of the subway car looking purposefully in his direction. Turning around Bill saw Eric staring at her, then the crowd swallowed everyone.

Bill felt intensely curious about what qualities the redhead found attractive in the man. He acted like someone with a good bank account. But not like someone with a wife. Is that what she’s interested in? Wasn’t it a little easy to think that money was all she was after? She didn’t look like she shopped at any two-bit stores, a Sainsbury’s girl, not a Tesco’s. Where did she live? One evening he stayed on the train with her until it stopped at the British Rail station at Moorgate. She got off then and continued, Bill speculated, out of town. Maybe she was looking for someone in London itself, a man to set her up and help her buy everything she wanted. Bill thought this too easy a conclusion.

Days later chance, and the habitual choice of the English, brought them together again, each converging inside a ferociously crowded car. Bill was positioned behind the three of them, the wife and the girl on each side of the man, Bill behind the girl. This was the closest he had ever been to her and during the trip he compared the young beauty to the older woman. The man answered his wife in short bursts while working his arms free from where they were pinned to his sides, and put his right arm around his wife’s waist, at which she lay her head on his shoulder and seemed to drift asleep. Delays occurred along the line. “Probably another bastard offed himself,” from one commuter, who was answered peevishly by another with “And at this time of day too. You’d think they’d have a little more respect. Absolutely no consideration for others.” The subway remained stuck for fifteen minutes, the air poisonous, then the tube resumed its sluggish motion, allowing people to shift their limbs with relief.

As Bill changed hands, allowing one tortured arm to rest while keeping the other hand wrapped around the rubber knob suspended on coiled wire from the ceiling of the car, and as he moved his head into the path of the pathetic draught of subway air that leaked in through a small grill, he noticed the husband’s arm around his wife’s waist almost mirrored by his arm hovering around the girl’s buttocks, though he had not as yet touched her. Perspiration stood out on everybody’s foreheads but Bill thought that there might be an additional reason for Eric’s sweat. A sudden turn compressed the standing passengers into one lump, bringing Bill’s waist in contact with the girl’s shapely behind, the husband’s hand between his stomach and her back. Great, he thought, until he saw a face staring at him, not the girl’s but the wife’s. Why’s she looking at me? I haven’t done anything to her. Still, he felt embarrassed at the thought he’d had. Desire, more like it, when her ass hit my groin, boy, and could Edna read that from me, or can she feel that coming from him? Did she pick it up somehow? Now she gazed around, not seeing anything, but for a moment he wondered exactly how blind she was, then another jerk pulled them into a different configuration, and this time the long slender fingers of the husband settled loosely on the purse of the girl.

Another delay a stop later as the train pushed slowly into a station, a man holding shards of reddened wood leaving the scene of a suicide, body bags filled with what looked like round hunks of meat carried out by four bobbies, their shoes leaving faint traces on the cement, with the train cruising leisurely through the station, everyone crushed together straining for a view at the gory scene on the side of the platform. As they gathered momentum the husband’s hand began slowly fondling the girl’s behind. She turned around to her right, then behind her, flushing, glaring at Bill who responded to “You fucking pervert, get your hand off my backside” with a gesture that showed his other hand had been nowhere near her. “Well it better not be,” but she had embarrassed herself and him amongst the people there. If she knew it was that guy what would she do? The rest of the trip contained nothing eventful, for the husband’s hand retreated to his side.

Some days later the weather had warmed sufficiently for less heavy clothes to be worn, and Bill could see the husband looking eagerly around the car for the girl who did not disappoint him by not appearing. As the train was not overly crowded a carelessness in behaviour on his part became evident when she stepped on the train. She wore a long skirt and an off the shoulder top, revealing her neckline and the beginning of her cleavage. Eric stood transfixed, then started his usual conversation with his wife, though he no longer had to tell her stories as she had given up trying to hear him, defeated by the noise on this route. And maybe she knows something funny is going on, the way animals smell things before they see them. The glances between the girl and the man were frequent and she looked with brazen curiosity and challenge into his face as she stood by his side. He almost backed away but decided that with his wife on his other side rendered mute, and the noise of the train covering any sound he might make, he could take a chance, and cautiously leaned over, kissing quickly, then once more, slowly, “Eric, that smell, it’s that perfume again,” but Edna’s following words were drowned out as they roared into a station.

When he could Bill sought out the couple and the girl, and while they were aware of him his presence didn’t bother them because it was obvious he wouldn’t interfere. On a Wednesday he managed to get a seat on a two-person bench, the other spot vacant. Tired and numbed by a hard day he was unaware of anyone else in the car until a passenger sat down heavily next to him. He had been looking out the window at the pipes and wires running the length of the track when he felt a sudden sharp blow of a stick across his knees. “Jesus Christ, what the –” only to stop and see the blind woman’s face in front of his.

“I’m sorry,” her voice came out hesitantly, liquid and soft, “I didn’t mean to hit you. My husband lost his balance helping me here and I came down a little awkwardly, I’m afraid. I hope I didn’t hurt you.” He had never heard a voice so modulated and warm.

“Sure, no problem, just unexpected, that’s all.”

“Oh, you’re American, how funny. Are you here on business or vacation?”

“Canadian, not American. No, I work here.”

“Ah, I see. I do apologize for my mistake. Where’s Eric? Eric?”

“He’s trapped by everybody in the middle of the car,” supplied Bill after looking over his shoulder through the Plexiglas, her husband in plain sight, side turned away from his wife and openly kissing the girl whose arms guided his hands over her body.

“I just see his arm,” said Bill, afraid to tell what he could see.

“Oh, the dear man, he gives up so much for me.”

“Yes,” and then regretted using that word and lying for her husband who had by this time pressed the girl against the Plexiglas wall that separated them from the seat his wife was on. The girl’s back was to Bill and the man’s face leered down at her, totally oblivious to the looks from other passengers who had woken up to the fact that some kind of drama was unfolding, a rather smutty sex one in their view, although they had missed Eric dumping his wife into the seat next to Bill.

“Excuse me for interrupting, you’re not reading are you, I don’t hear you turning any pages.”

“No, I’m not, what is it?”

“Have you been in England long? Where do you work?” Bill paused before telling her the truth. As with many English people she would not think of asking a complete stranger his name.

“I’m here for a few years, just working odd jobs, to see if I like the place.” He told her briefly about his job.

“A regular job, then? I mean, you go to work every day at one time and leave at a regular time?”

“Oh yeah, five days a week, always.”

“And you can’t afford a car?”

“No, I’m always on this tube,” and a manicured ageless hand waved slightly in the air while she said, “Then you can tell me, I’ve noticed a delicious fragrance, a trifle too something or other for me, mind, that someone who also travels on this train wears, some office girl, Eric says, but that seems a little too dear for her to be able to afford. Can you smell it?”

Bill felt caught by the answers inside him. Dumb, dumb, I didn’t see that coming, and he cast a glance at the two absorbed lovers in a furious embrace behind them. I hope this tube stops on a dime and you bite each other’s tongues off. He responded slowly. “Let’s see, there’s a couple of women over there who look familiar, maybe it’s them, sorry, they’re a few seats down I mean, in the next part of the car,” and once again his sentence was chopped off when she somewhat crossly.

“No, nearer, nearer, and it has to be someone you see fairly often, who travels alone. I can smell it from here.” He looked up and saw King’s Cross approaching, thinking not soon enough.

“There are a lot of people here, and some of them are on it every day, sure. Maybe it’s a new perfume.”

“Thank you for your help,” drily, “I truly appreciate it.” He began to move from his seat. “Are you going?” He would have if he hadn’t seen that neither her husband nor the girl was moving from where they were. Should he leave the woman by herself? Would that be fair? “Sorry, I… no, it was just… I thought I saw someone I knew. I was wrong. No, this isn’t my stop.”

“Which stop is yours?”

“Elephant and Castle,” choosing a far enough away destination in order to give himself as much room as possible for leaving after the girl departed at Moorgate. He watched King’s Cross until it vanished.

“So far away to come for work, and that must be tiring. How do you pass the time?”

“Sometimes I read, sometimes I doze, most times I just think of things.”

“What things?”

“Just things, you know, things. I’d rather not –”

“Of course not, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…. I’ve always been dreadfully curious about people. Like that scent that girl is wearing, whichever one she is. She paused, considering. Whatever else she might be she isn’t stupid, Bill reflected. “Do you see my husband? Is he still standing, poor man?”

“No, I mean yes, he is standing, I just lost sight of him for a minute. He’s rather pinned in the middle of a group of fat men and one or two secretary types.”

“Rather,” she repeated, “rather, an odd word for a Canadian, you must be here too long,” her laugh sounding fresh and younger than he had heard it before. “My husband so entertains me with little stories about the people on subways whenever we go anywhere. He really is a clever mimic. When we get off at Moorgate I’ll introduce you.”

Moorgate, great, with the girl, he’ll have me with him in a cab probably talking to this woman while he screws that piece in the back seat, us sitting on those little fold-out chairs those cabs have, even now he’s got her Jesus I don’t believe this he’s sitting down with her at the end of the car. At that moment the train lost speed ominously, coming to a complete stop between King’s Cross and Angel. “What is it, Eric?” and he somehow reached her before a high note escaped her throat.

“Nothing, my dear, nothing, it’s just a delay, probably a fire on the line, one of those small fires.”

“Have my seat,” began Bill, but he interrupted him.

“Have you been bothering my wife?

“No, Eric, no, he’s not, no. He’s just been sitting here and we’ve been talking while you’ve been stranded with those dreadful Grub Street types.”

“The fat bankers and those secretaries,” put in Bill without consciously realizing until after he had said it the alibi then provided for the husband who winked as he had that time before only now it meant complicity.

“Ah yes, those men, and their dreadful… you know, dear, I’ve found out that that girl with the dreadful perfume, the one you asked about, she works at one of those job agencies, can’t make out which one.”

“But she was behind me and I could smell it,” she said with an acuteness unimpaired by blindness.

“Yes, and she met a man she knew down at the part of the car I was in. Most rude of her, she just waltzed down that crowded aisle without the slightest consideration for anyone, spraying that scent when she got there because she’s going out to dinner with someone when she gets off at the station. And,” his voice dropping conspiratorially, taking in Bill too, “she’s as big as a house. With that perfume! Vulgar woman, vulgar.”

“Why don’t you join your wife, then –”

“And what do you do? You look… dear, this is the man I was telling you about, the worker, the one who always looks as if he’s put in an incredible day’s effort. You recall me telling you about him. You do look knackered, you know. Thanks very much for the offer of your seat, now I’ll just wait until you get up and –”

“Oh, him!” She turned slightly to regard Bill. “No, he can’t, he’s got a long way to travel, Elephant and Castle, dear, and we get off in just two stops. Let him rest, the poor boy.”

“He’s strong, he can stand for a while, surely, then you can take one of our seats, yes?” I could take you out, pal, if you don’t watch your fucking lip, thought Bill.

“Yeah, no problem, just let me get by –”

“Oh, now see, you’ve made him mad, Eric, he’s tired.” The strength of her hand alarmed him as she unerringly clasped his arm. “Sit, please. Eric, don’t cause a fuss, dear, he’ll have to stand all the way if you don’t let him have this seat.”

“But are you sure? Will you be all right? He’s not—I’m sorry, no offense, you won’t mind, Edna? Are you sure?”

“Of course I am, dear. Don’t worry so much about me.”

“Fine then, I’ll just find a spot somewhere.” He went back to his seat with the girl and both looked every now and then at Edna and Bill without guilt. The train eventually limped into Angel. The crowd of commuters was larger than normal due to the delay, every inch of space taken up by loud businessmen and arguing contractors who blotted out Eric and the girl. Instead of making up for lost time by rushing to the next destination the train kept its doors open, waiting for the next load of travellers, most of whom would not be able to squeeze on. Eventually the subway listlessly proceeded to Moorgate.

“My husband’s like that.”

Startled that she knew what he was doing Bill said “Do you mean you… I don’t understand.”

“What? That he cares for me? Thank you.”

“No, I didn’t mean that, I –”

She laughed again. “Obviously you don’t have a girlfriend or wife. My husband said you spent a lot of time looking around at the women. Is that all you think we’re good for, to be looked at?”

“No! You don’t understand –”

“I gather I don’t. What I was about to say is that my husband is worried strangers might take advantage of me. And the reason he guides me around so much is that four years ago I took a bad fall and damaged my sense of balance. That’s why it’s so important for him to stay with me at all times.”

“And I’m like that, huh?” he responded, thinking, what is it about me that brings out the best in people?

“Don’t get me wrong,” and it was her turn to be embarrassed, “really, he’s only said you look, ah, rumpled and tired, not harmful, if you know what I mean. Curious, I suppose –”

“I see.”

“He meant it as a compliment,” faltering, revealing that there might be more to whatever inventive story he’d made up about him to amuse her. They travelled along, conversation stopped by her remarks and impossible anyway due to the orchestra’s fanfare of drums and trumpets as they arrived one stop short of their destination at Old Street. If he told her so much about me then he knows I get off at King’s Cross. What does he think I’m doing here? Helping him or something? The bastard.

“My husband makes up little tales about people, the ones on the train and famous people,” she inserted into a sudden quiet stretch. “He only told me that you seemed to work awfully hard, should you wonder if he said anything… else about you.” He appreciated that remark, and her old tone was back, not the one of laughter and easy speech from earlier but the one composed of lonely notes and almost inaudible sighs he’d heard on first seeing her.

“You asked me a question awhile back, let me ask you one. Do you and your husband have a car?”

“That’s a little embarrassing, for my husband, not me.” She rushed out those last words. “He had a tiny too much to drink and wrecked our car, well and proper this time, plus they took his licence away for six months. Of course, I can’t drive, and it’s fun in a way to be in a subway.”

“He only lost his licence recently then.”

“How did you know?” and the surprise in her voice was real. Bill could not imagine a voice more beautiful than hers.

“If you’d been taking this tube regularly all that time it wouldn’t be too much fun.”

“I suppose you’re right. But at the moment it has all sorts of charms, like interesting sounds and hearing all the different conversations, all of it running together, although my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Part of the accident that damaged my balance.” She bent closer to him. “There is sometimes quite an odour here, isn’t there? How is Eric doing, please?” Bill stood up and looked over the crowd. Through a momentary unravelling of a knot of people he witnessed the girl handing a piece of paper to Eric, her streetfinder out for him to see where she lived. So goddamn public.

“He’s doing fine,” as he sat down, unconsciously patting her knee, quickly taking his hand away, his gesture surprising both of them, disturbing them for different reasons. She did not talk much during the rest of the trip, saying only a hurried “Goodbye!” when her husband came for her bearing a locker-room smile across a flushed face. The girl had already left the car. Bill followed the couple out. He then went to the subway heading back in the direction of King’s Cross, using the cleaner Circle Line, and this time had an easier time getting a seat. He felt strangely disconcerted yet could not quite locate the reason for his mild agitation. As near as he could discover, it had a root in twice aiding Eric in his philandering, and he had not fathomed that action by the time sleep came over him.

All the next day he contemplated his behaviour on the subway the evening before. Why did I lie for that scum, make up a story that helped him get away with what he had been doing? And even before I knew what I was saying I gave him a way out. He must have lied to her lots of times before, been with a lot of women on the side. He’s a pretty smooth guy, can’t take that away from him. And he just knew I would lie for him, didn’t he? How did he know that? What stopped me from leaving at King’s Cross, or telling Edna that her husband was rubbing up against some sweet young pussy with everybody looking on? Well, Jesus, you couldn’t tell some stranger you’ve only talked to once, Hey, your husband’s with another woman right in front of you. What would she do? The thought occurred to him late in the afternoon that perhaps in some odd way envy had prevented him from telling his wife. Certainly he enjoyed looking at the young girl too. But her taste bothered him. How could she go for someone his age, and with a wife? She’s probably AIDS city, he thought sourly, knowing he wasn’t being entirely honest, because he wouldn’t stop some night in an alley or bedroom to slip on a rubber raincoat before screwing her. I wonder if her pussy is red-haired? Maybe gold-red. She looks like she knows all kinds of tricks, and that son of a bitch is going to enjoy them. Bill ruled out the idea that the girl was interested in money. Maybe she just thinks he’s good-looking, maybe she’s bored. It sure helps kill the time on the train, right? And maybe she, like the husband—and me too, sure—we’re just hunting for a piece of ass out of it. There’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to get humped or sucked off when she feels like it, but coming on to someone’s husband while his wife’s right in the same car, and her blind and not even able to stand straight without him, that was shitty.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that was the thing she was doing. If you could steal money from under the nose of a teller in a crowded bank, knowing no one would butt in, and that the teller couldn’t see you, why wouldn’t you? This girl, there she is, in a car full of boring men, people with nothing special, and this guy with a bit of dough gives her the eye. Maybe she’s interested, maybe just playing. Then she looks at the wife and thinks, Hey, I could go right up to him and she’d never know it. Oh, she might hear me, smell me, sure, but in a crowded car you’re gonna be close to people. I could just rub right up against him and feel what he’s got. No problem, and he wouldn’t mind. The thrill of it was that she could do it with everyone else watching, betting no one would say a word. How would the wife be any wiser? So why not.

What Bill couldn’t understand was the reason the husband started all this in the first place. It isn’t the girl’s fault if he’s giving her the eye. She was just standing there looking pretty. What was wrong with him? So what if his wife isn’t a beauty like the young one, she was his wife, for Chrissake, married to him for years. Maybe he got tired of leading her around all the time, of all the talking and that. Maybe he wanted someone who could handle things on her own, who wouldn’t be straining him every day. Still, he knew she was blind, knew about her balance problem, what the hell is he looking for? Why do some husbands, money or no money, got to screw things up for guys like me who don’t have anybody? That bitch is a looker, and he’s got a wife, so that makes two women. What’s he doing, comparison shopping? It’s probably not your first time, sport. I don’t understand it, what way is Edna no better than her? Beauty, sure, but she’s not bad-looking, a helluva lot more refined than her, or him for that matter. That voice, so lovely, smooth, maybe she sounded a little odd at times when she’s left alone, but is that enough to dump her? What was it he was looking for?

That evening he boarded the train with his familiar companions, the first time they had ever been together two days in a row. As it was one of the warmer days at the end of winter people were wearing less bulky coats and had discarded hats and gloves. Eric was nattily dressed in an expensive Italian mid-weight suit while Edna had on a more casual dress that for the first time exposed some of her neckline, though she did wear a light coat wrapped around her. All eyes were on the girl, however, every male hormone activated by her attire. Her hair had been swept up to reveal ivory skin and prominent shoulder bones. Her black dress had a collar around the throat, then was backless down to the middle of her spine. A deep slit a little too wide for modesty opened her chest to view from where the collar ended to just below her breasts. The entire garment ended below the knee and from there pale stockings revealed the perfection of her legs. Bill assumed she was wearing garters. A fur coat lay to her side, not the best fur, but one obviously saved for special occasions. What would Eric think of this, he wondered. If he feels like I feel his cock’s a little uncomfortable right now. Eric nodded to Bill, whispered to his wife, then beckoned him over. Warily he approached.

“Edna has a favour to ask,” and Bill backed away suspiciously. “I have a business appointment in Hampstead, about some investments, and my wife has to get back home. I’ve arranged to have a friend meet her at King’s Cross to take her back to our apartment. Would you be so good, we were wondering, since you don’t get off until Elephant, if you could just stay with her to help her off the train?” His smile was almost real. “It would only delay you ten minutes, fifteen at the most.” Tempted to say no, Bill saw Edna’s face, her smile tentative, her face pulling anxiously at the edges as it must always do when she thinks she’ll hear a no.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Wonderful, good, you see, dear,” and her saying “Thank you, I didn’t want to drag Eric away from such an awfully important meeting.”

“I’ll make sure you get a seat,” Eric said, and as the train pulled into Hampstead led them to the place where the girl and her coat were. “Excuse me, Miss, would you mind terribly if my wife sat there? She has a problem with her balance.” The girl got up and put on her coat without a word, and Eric pecked his wife before leaving. A moment later Bill idly turned around to see where the girl had gone but she was not in the car. Glancing out the window he saw her disappear arm in arm with his companion’s husband. Furiously Bill twisted his attention away to stare at Edna, who today in her pale summer dress appeared quite vulnerable.

“Did he get off all right?” she asked with a slight touch of worry.

“He got off all right.” To himself, He’ll be getting off all right in a little while, too. Christ, what an idiot.

“How are you?” he began. She responded pleasantly, and eventually Bill asked her why they always took this train.

“Oh, it isn’t always this one, is it? Although we English are pretty predictable. Well, you see, we have an invalid friend of mine who lives near the tube station, she’s just gotten out of the hospital, having had a… woman’s operation, you know, and she feels quite sad. I try to visit her as frequently as I can because her family lives away. She’s so lonely, and I know how…. Then we head back home for a late supper.” His curiosity satisfied, Bill and Edna talked about other topics until the train pulled into King’s Cross. Bill got out with her and looked for the friend she had described who would pick her up. Twenty minutes later she had to sit down, dizzy, and Bill’s patience was thin. “Are you sure someone is meeting you here?”

“Why yes, Eric called a friend this morning to arrange it.” Probably took the phone off the hook and pretended to dial, thought Bill. Hello, Tess? Yes, I have a wife who needs picking up at King’s Cross. She’ll be with a dirty-looking sucker named Bill, a Canadian. You’ll have no problem recognizing them, a blind dizzy woman and a grime-streaked young fellow. Don’t worry if you can’t find them, or don’t make it, they’ll be able to get home on their own. Ha ha ha.

Bill got up when Edna said she felt better. He realized she was close to crying, that she had probably never been on any arm but her husband’s for years. Frightened to death I’ll let her trip or knock her down myself. Is this what he doesn’t like, her reliance? Always having to worry about her? Is she always this afraid? Or does she think he’ll never come back if she lets go of his arm?

“You okay?”

“I’m… fine, yes, but I think….”


“Could you tell me where we are, I need to know, or… please take me to a phone booth, I’ll call a friend who’ll take me back, she should be home now.” Bill walked with her to the telephones. There was no answer at her friend’s.

“How far do you live?”

“About fifteen minutes’ walk.”

“I’ll take you there,” at which she pulled back as if he’d touched her knee.

“No, that’s not necessary, thank you, I’ll…,” trailing off into a trembling silence.

“You’ll what? I’m not going to leave you here to be mugged or something.” Don’t say things like that, he thought, or she’ll really be scared. Think, think.

She acquiesced after a few minutes to his guiding her home, although he kept the pretense alive that he was a stranger to this part of London, more at home in Elephant which he had only been to once. Edna guided him, and the quarter-hour walk extended to forty-five minutes, made longer by her pointing out this shop there or that one there, the map of this area a Braille grid in her head for which she had no coordinates. She could tell you the stores and sights, but to find them on her own? No chance. Bill remembered a movie he’d seen about a blind white girl and a black man, Sidney Porter was it?, and how he helped her and she loved him. Her parents didn’t care enough to teach her to get around a city, making her like Edna, helpless. They made their slow way along, a young man rougher looking than he was escorting a trembling, older woman whose staccato raps with her cane underscored their conversation.

He must have had this planned, keep her nervous and occupied all the way home so she won’t think too hard about where he might be gone. When I see him next time I’ll bust him so hard he won’t be able to screw a light bulb. What am I doing here with his wife? Why am I babysitting her? Boy, he had my number pegged. A sucker born every minute –

“What are you thinking?”

“What? Nothing. Just looking for your street. Like I said, I haven’t been in this area before, I usually –” and caught himself as he was about to say “go in the other direction,” instead finishing with “only visit other parts of town.”

“It’s nice here, isn’t it? Such a difference, Eric tells me, when you come out of King’s Cross and go to Islington instead. I enjoy the park so much in the summer, and on days like today when it’s warmer than normal, it’s so nice. I know the flowers are out, the smell is so wonderful.”

“When is Eric’s meeting over? I mean, you won’t be home alone for long, will you? Or are you used to that?” He wondered if she might get alarmed at that question, or whatever the hell it was she felt when Bill said what he thought were innocent things. He was curious if there were any other surprises waiting for him along the way, like holding her hand until her husband could drag himself away from that girl’s bed. He looked at her face to gauge the response, surprised that a great deal of the nervousness that had been there at the beginning of their walk had disappeared.

“Not until late. The friend he mentioned invited him to supper, and after that some other people who deal with stocks and such are getting together there. Apparently it’s about an important opportunity Eric has been looking at for a while. I don’t know precisely when he’ll be home. As for me, well, you probably don’t think the blind can get around at all, but I know every inch of our flat, renovations and all.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it, you know.”

She softened, her arm clinging a little more tightly to his, as a consequence of which he almost ran them into a pole. He shook his head and stopped thinking how this March light and this false spring day combined to wipe years away from her features. Though it was slightly chilly now she preferred the breeze wrapping around her to the coat’s protection, and her dress fluttered merrily in the wind. At length they reached the apartment, not normally a walk-up, but as the lift—elevator, he said to himself—didn’t work he helped her up the stairs. “How do you,” hoping she wouldn’t take it the wrong way, “make your way around the apartment with your balance like it is?”

“You don’t give people like me much credit, do you? There are chairs there, and tables, lamps, couches, that sort of thing. Eric made sure all the furnishings were placed in such a way that I always have something to hold on to or lean against,” which Bill could see as the door opened and she turned on the lights.

“You know, I’ve never talked to a blind person before, I don’t know how you get around. You’re not very understanding,” fighting back churlish strains that might seep into his voice, “of what someone who’s never led anyone around might wonder about. I’m sorry for asking what are probably dumb questions but I just don’t know the answers.” She was silent as she navigated the room adjusting lights and temperature, closing and opening blinds and doors, turning the radio on to a classical music channel.

Bill watched her move around from room to room, waiting for some moment to say goodbye without leaving her to wonder if he had indeed left. “Can I get you a drink?” she called out from what he presumed was the kitchen, “some tea or coffee, unless you’d prefer something stronger?” She appeared back in the room. “Ah, good, you’re still here. Sometimes I can’t tell when people are in the room but I always know when they’re in the same room as I am. What about that drink?”

“No, I don’t think so, I think I’ll be on my way.”

“Yes, you have a long ride, don’t you? And I suppose you’ll have to cook your own supper when you get back? My goodness, it’s,” as she felt her wristwatch, “late, isn’t it? I didn’t realize how much time we’d spent getting here from the station. What time will you get home? It must be a good hour or so before you’ll eat. Stay here, since you’ve been so kind to help me. I’m sorry about what I said. I didn’t think that it was hard for someone to know what things a blind person can do, I’m so used to Eric being around.

“I don’t think that, I probably should get going, you know,” unable to walk away from her as she stood there, feeling in part sorry that her night alone was due in part to his furnishing Eric with a cover yesterday. He had become involved and felt obligated to see this evening through. I’m curious about her, and them too, yeah. It hasn’t been much more than a piss-poor day anyway so I might as well clue the thing up halfway right.

“I already have dinner on,” she said in the silence, “it’s in the microwave, timed, and Eric always puts in more than I can eat, he thinks I don’t eat enough. Maybe he likes them with a bit more flesh.” Lady, that girl with the tissue-box dress he’s squiring around as we stand here definitely has a bit more where he likes it than you do, with your catching his thoughts about her before they took more explicit form than he would have wanted. Clearing his throat he agreed to stay and asked where the toilet and washroom were, returning a few minutes later cleaner and relieved. She had changed while he was away into a casual green blouse and black slacks which replaced her fragile demeanour with something more confident.

“Do I,” blushing, “look askew?,” laughing at her words. “Sometimes my hair goes everywhere when I change in a hurry, and I can’t always tell if what I’ve got on matches. I leave,” giggling, “my clothes around a little too negligently, Eric says, so I’m not sure what’s where sometimes.

“You look… fine,” he said, not sure whether to tell her of a missed button on her blouse that showed unblemished skin where her bra had been.

“Do you like this gray top? I bought it only a few days ago, and I have a green one like it because Eric said it looked good on me.” The result was that he could not find a way without embarrassing them both to tell her that when she bent over to pick something up, or moved to one side or another, he could see more of her breasts than either person would likely feel comfortable about. A few minutes later they sat down to eat and he could focus on learning more about them while they talked.

Eric was a stockbroker who retired recently in order to care for her and to enjoy the considerable success he had had in his business. Through schemes and an occasional gamble he had taken their money and parleyed it into something approaching wealth, getting out of the game, as he called it, while he had his health. She had been blind since birth and when she married Eric only six years ago had given up all thought of children due to her not being able to care for them. She detested the idea of governesses, nurses, and maids. It turned out Eric was unable to father children and both had resigned themselves to being uncle and aunt for their few nieces and nephews. I’m not so sure she’s not hurting over that. She was thirty-seven, he was forty-three, now he’s screwing a girl twenty years younger while I’m sitting here at his mahogany table eating off expensive china and drinking out of fine crystal. Not bad for a stock boy, but he’s a stock boy too, and he laughed for the first time in days. “What is it?” she asked, joining in with him once, after careful editing, he told her what he had found amusing.

Despite his earlier sentiments he had a good evening with her, and over Irish coffee they talked about her childhood, her dead parents, Eric’s care for her—a topic she referred to often, which grated on Bill’s nerves and made him wonder how much she actually knew abut him—and of lighter subjects, such as trips and aspirations. Not surprisingly she had many when a young girl. Now she was content. “Married to a handsome, successful man, who has the most delightful family and friends, and who is fiercely protective of me, you know. If he knew I had a man in here, a handsome young man, especially, well,” she laughed a delightful scale, “he’d have something to say about that, oh yes.”

“What makes you think I’m handsome?” he asked, not out of vanity as much as puzzlement.

“Oh, as, well you see, he’s told me about you – didn’t I say that? Perhaps not. And he –”

“You said he told you I looked rumpled and tired, that was what you said. I know. I have that kind of memory. Phonographic, I think it’s called.”

“No, he told me, yes that’s right, he –”

“It doesn’t sound like something a man would say, somehow.”

“You don’t know my husband –”

“No, but I know men, and they don’t call other men handsome to their wives, maybe they say, I suppose you’d call him handsome, if you go for that sort of a face, or whatever it might be. That’s what I think,” and as before he wondered if he had said the wrong thing.

No, you’re right, he didn’t, he—there’s no need to… it was from your voice and how you treated me, even when I was saying those rude things to you, I’m sorry again, it seemed as if you might be handsome. Not like I understand movie stars are handsome, but—you know what I mean.”

“I think so,” and this time it was Bill’s turn to be a little dry. Her face fell and she shifted uneasily in her armchair.

“May I ask you something?,” her timidity ensuring his positive response. “This is so awkward. May I feel your face, to see you, if you understand? Please.”

He looked at her and thought, If those glasses were off would I see your thoughts? She was waiting. “Are you sure about… do you, is it what… Jesus, it is awkward,” he laughed, and that dispelled their reservations. She moved quickly to the couch and sat next to him, then slowly placed her hands on his cheeks.

“You shaved this morning.

“Yeah, I did.”

“And cut yourself, as one finger brushed his throat.”

“Where?,” and he put his hand up to check for himself, to feel her soft dry hand under his, and to hear her say “I made that up. It used to drive…. Now, keep your head up and let me see what you look like.” It was hard to do that as her proximity on the couch let him look at her as well, examining her face, her neck. “Chin up for just a moment, please,” his eyes seeking against his will her breasts that were now much closer to him, her aureoles faintly visible when she moved. Couldn’t she feel a draught, then realized this was the first house in London that was warm in the winter. She couldn’t tell, could she? Could she? Her mouth was close and he could see the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she concentrated with her fingers.

“Maybe I was wrong about you the first time,” and he felt disappointed, “but not now,” and she slowly took her warm hands from his face, returning them to her sides. She settled back in the chair. “You are handsome, but not only for how you look. If I take these glasses off I know people can’t bear looking at me, I can tell from how quiet everyone becomes. It’s what you are like that made me right, and how you look, but mostly, that you aren’t uncaring. It may be your culture, because we English aren’t too caring sometimes to people we don’t know, or even people we do know. Except for Eric, and some others.”
“I don’t know, he practically whispered, “some people where I come from aren’t that warm either.”

“You must find it hard here, not having anyone who respects and loves you like I have Eric,” she said unsteadily, to which he could only reply “Some people are a little unfriendly. Not like you,” and he could only look at her while she rested, her face having lost the strain he had become used to seeing, a face that had lost ten years since earlier this evening.

“Can I ask you something? Can I see your face?”

“You mean my eyes. I never show them to strangers, not even friends, unless—but yes, you can, I don’t know why,” and she leaned into him. He took her glasses off gently and looked at her, then her hand raised his to her cheek below her right eye, saying hoarsely “I have to have people look at me as I look at them,” and he stroked her face wordlessly.

After a minute he put her glasses back on. You have a beautiful face, he would have said if she did not get startled easily, so consequently remarked, “I think your husband is very lucky,” which he meant but thought it struck her in a peculiar way, and she eased herself up with “How about some red wine?,” and the evening continued. When he left two hours later he thought about assholes who have a nice woman waiting home for them and screw it up with a girl who you meet on a train, but abruptly stopped. I want to have her, don’t I? Isn’t that what this is all about, he got there first? Resentment burned inside towards Eric who had succeeded where he hadn’t. Her soft skin and attractive figure, what else could I feel? This miserable line of thought occupied him all the way home.

The next week he had to work late, and decided to reward himself with a night out at a much-talked about club on Saturday. Around one in the morning he glimpsed Eric and the girl. A step down for him, pretty normal terrain for her, it looks like, and they can do what they want here without anybody saying anything. Gossamer threads of lace reined in her breasts, the sides were scooped out of her dress, and a slit up the leg to the top of her thigh allowed his hands inside. Soon she was on his lap and by watching very closely Bill observed him unzip his fly before she settled on him, pretending to dance over him to the music blaring from immense speakers. Who’s watching her now, he wondered, obscured by the gloom of his corner at the booth adjoining theirs. “Get rid of her, why don’t you? Fucking hag, she’ll ruin you, can’t you see that? You want to take care of her the rest of your life? Now settle back, let me finish off.”

“I’ll be damned if that’s the way things stay.”

“Right, right, now you see, it’s better that way, only do it soon.

“No, no, it’s not that easy, children, lawyers, contracts, property, you don’t understand the ties.” Why is he lying about this?

“But don’t you want me, and this, every night?,” the flurry of drumbeats from the dance floor forcing their words back into the booth, Eric trapped in the discord with her legs wrapped around his waist, one hand rubbing the side of his head.

“I think I’m bleeding from that noise, the percussion, can we get out of here?,” grunting and pushing against her while she let him up and they argued across the floor out into the cool night air.

On Thursday Bill took the same car as he always did, seeing the couple’s backs as he waited for the last of their party to come on board at the next stop. Edna was pale and cloaked in her long coat, the winter weather having returned, her husband irritable but managing scattered remarks. When the girl got on he expected Eric to ignore Edna entirely and moved up for a better view, the girl seeing him first. She ignored Eric, motioning with her head to Bill who, confused, made his way to her. “Look, get talking to her for a minute, would you, luv, I’ve got to talk to Rick,” flashing a mechanical grin and looking away while she waited for him to do what she asked. Bill decided to do so out of curiosity, feeling suddenly tense. He made his way through the crowd and was about to say something when Eric spoke first.

“What the hell do you want? After getting my wife drunk you come around and act like we’re friends. Is that your game? I don’t appreciate it, lad.” Her face wore a strange look of contentment and something indefinable, blended with sympathy and wistfulness.

“I’m sorry, Eric’s so jealous, about the other night.”

“Be quiet, Edna. Don’t think I don’t know what you were up to, trying to get her drunk, a woman with her conditions. You’re lucky we don’t press charges. Get away, get away from us!”

Bill made his way back to the girl who, like the other passengers, had heard Eric’s tirade. “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know, what a bastard,” and he realized her anger was with him and Eric. “What the fuck are you staring at? Goddamn pervert. You get off doing it to blind ones, do you? You’d been looking at her with that stupid dreamy look for how long? Then you fucked her, he says, and what am I left with? He went back to her once he knew about you. You screwed me out of what I wanted.”

“You knew what he was going to say?”

Her face changed. “No, I just had to know what he wanted, me or that bitch. Now I do. That’s all. Now just keep the hell away from me, understand?”

Bill retreated to the back of the car. What did Edna tell Eric? What did she make up on her own? The drinking, the missed button, could he have made something of that, something that never happened? Then it came to him that the indefinable look in Edna’s face might be one of victory in winning her husband’s attention back from the dangerous distractions she had sensed were connected to the perfume and his silences. She thinks he’s back with her like before because he holds her and gets angry at me for something he has to know didn’t happen. As soon as the girl wanted him to leave Edna the fun was gone out of having her on the side. He only wanted a mistress who wouldn’t want anything from him, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts searching around again.

Another, less pleasant, thought occurred to him, that perhaps Edna had purposely used that evening’s dinner to pretend she had been interested in someone else. The drinks, the loosened blouse, her touching his face, her natural intelligence, all could be convincing, and if she embellished things even a small amount Eric would be convinced that at some time she could find a lover, and feel threatened at a sudden show of a type of cunning he had presumed not possessed by her. Or, and this was worse, perhaps she had wanted something to happen that night between them, waited for him to take a cue from her actions. But being friendly with some man didn’t mean trying to get in bed with him, just because you were alone, and maybe she only wanted to see if he would try something with her. Bill tried pushing these ideas away, abruptly refusing to think any more about how he felt. Huddled in the back of the car he regarded the others. The girl stood glaring at the ads, the floor, the ceiling, playing with her hair absent-mindedly. The couple were close together, Eric casting black looks around to make sure Bill was not near, arm tightly embracing Edna, she nestled into his shoulder, murmuring into his ear from time to time. He had lost that face he’d thought of for so long without fully knowing it, until this moment when he could view it for only a few minutes more, what it meant to him, her softness and fineness, her curiously appealing unease in the world, all gone for good. He left at the next station taking with him a last glimpse of her delicate features and exquisite hair, the touch of her hands on his skin burned in his memory, already missing her musical laugh, missing that instrument he had seen briefly at rest once between her husband’s acts.

—Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Sep 112015
Kathy Page2

Kathy Page


Mitch has been waiting all week for Tara to get back to him. Only when in the water is he separated from his phone. It’s lucky, he thinks, as he punches in the code to disable the alarm and lets himself in, that he has to be here. The pool rested overnight, and now lies smooth, ready to give him a break, to take him elsewhere as it always has. Outdoor, indoor, underground, rooftop, exclusive, inclusive, filthy, sparkly-clean, Olympic, twenty-five metre, salt water, UV – any pool will do. Mitch has his favourites but Fourth Street, with its banner: “Home of the Sharks” is the one he thinks of as his. Twenty-five metres, eight lanes, three metres at the deep end, it’s housed in an ageing and never splendid building, yet still seduces him with that turquoise glow, with those threads of reflected light knitting and releasing themselves in a dance that is both loose and contained. The pool promises buoyancy and escape; it taints the air with a tang of chlorine (fainter these days, due to the UV) to which he has no objection at all.

He pulls off his sweatshirt, dumps his backpack on the floor, and pushes through the door at the back of reception on to the deck. The air is warm and moist. Condensation gathers on the picture windows that look out into the woods. The hum of the ventilation and mechanical systems seems oddly loud when the pool is empty, but it is always there, lurking deep beneath the shouts and splashes that bounce themselves to mush between the water and the walls and mount to a crescendo at about four in the afternoon: it is a kind of silence that you only hear if you’re there first or last thing, when the swimmers have gone and the water is, as now, very nearly still, waiting for a dive to break its surface, for the dive which will connect Mitch to all his other dives, and to all the waters of the world.

For a racing dive, you climb on the blocks, which angle towards the water, one leg at the back one at the front. You keep your back straight, offer your chest and the heart beating steadily inside it to the water. Waiting, you push with your legs and you pull back with your arms so that when the light flashes and the buzzer sounds, you spring forward with doubled force. Your arms come back to your sides but right away you bring them up so that they point your way in. You hyper- extend, tense your core and extend your legs so that once your fingers part the surface, you slice into the water and enter it without wasting any of the power you put in to the spring. You’re looking for horizontal distance. On the other hand, diving for diving’s sake from a platform or a springboard depends on the take-off, but is all about the flight and the entry. Straight, pike, tuck, free: it is, when you get down to it, mainly about being in the air, and that has never interested Mitch.

The water closes behind him. He kicks hard, stays under for three quarters of a length before he surfaces, ready to start the routine that will set him up for the day: practise what you preach. Swim the swim. Well, Mitch likes what he does. Whatever happens with Tara, he’ll hang on to that.

“And whatever she says, you are going to have to be fine with it,” Annette told him last night when he couldn’t sleep and tried to slip out of bed without waking her. They sat up and talked in the dark.

“Yes,” he said, “but still…” He stared straight ahead, out of the window, picking out the shapes of the garden trees he’d planted, but he could feel Annette studying at his face. Beneath the sheets, she put her hand on his leg.

“And either way, it’s just good she agreed to think it over.”

“I know.”

“And it will be fine for Tara, whatever she chooses to do.” Annette took her hand from his leg, touched his face, made him look at her, pulled him into a kiss, offered her body for him to forget himself in. Afterwards, he plunged into oblivion and did not wake until the alarm sounded at five. Her side of the bed was empty, and he found her hunched over her tea in the kitchen downstairs, looking every bit of her age. Five, O! More importantly, five years older than him, which these days she could not forget, whereas, left to himself, he would. A decade ago, when he was thirty-five the gap had seemed like nothing at all. In five years’ time it would be that way again, or even something to celebrate: if the years were laps or miles, you’d be proud of them, for heaven’s sake! But the thing is, they’ve not had kids of their own. They met that bit too late for that.

“So then I started worrying,” Annette said, “but not about Tara. One way or another, Mitch, she’ll be okay.”

“Don’t worry,” Mitch told her, “I promise you, the last thing I want to do is drink.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Annette said. She was worrying about the potential impact on their relationship. It was all connected, she said.

“Please. Just don’t,” he said. Running late, he squeezed her shoulder and hurried to the car.

He’d been with Annette for about a year — they had just bought the house – when Tara first showed up on a Friday, late afternoon. He was teaching a shared lesson and noticed a family come on the deck. The mother, skinny, had thick blonde hair and a pierced belly button; the man stood very tall and fit. A tattooed dragon coiled up his arm. The girl Mitch put at about seven, and they’d dressed her in a turquoise bikini — Why, he asked Annette later, do people do that? He watched as the mother, showing off her own figure in a similar suit, crouched down, felt the water, mock-shivered, stood again. For a moment, all three of them waited in a line at the shallow end, considering the expanse of water ahead of them. Then the little one threw herself in – not exactly a dive, and perhaps the lifeguards weren’t looking, or else they let it go. She surfaced, gulped some air and hurtled towards the deep end, her hands smashing into the water, but fast – and, the thing was, it looked messy as all hell, but she pretty much had the stroke: face in, the arm’s reach coming right from the hip the twist of the neck, the timing. It was all there, ready, and Mitch just had to stop and watch.

He didn’t know it then, but nature versus nurture was a topic he and Tara’s mother would in the coming years return to many times. Of course, he’d tell her, you need to train. But some people start from a better place. Height is good; long limbs and big hands and feet are a tremendous asset (look at Mr Phillips, now!), and some (not necessarily the same ones) just have a better constitution and a more efficient metabolism than others. To some extent the lack of any of these assets can be overcome with hard work and the right mindset… But an understanding of how to move in water, feeling the physics, not knowing it – that’s probably innate, and, he’d tell her, that feeling is worth more than anything and it is the very best place to begin. That’s what he’d say, and certainly it seemed to him as he stood waist deep, watching, that this girl had more than begun. She was halfway up the pool before her mother jumped in after her, breast-stroking along with her head up, arms and legs out of sync, fighting her own efforts every inch of the way.

“Tara,” she shouted, “wait! You’ve got to be able to stand!”

Forget that, Mitch thought, as Tara closed in on the end rail, slowing down a bit, but not much. She was pushing it – another thing not everyone wants or is able to do. The two boys in the water with him, for example, were time-wasters, reluctant to go a hairsbreadth out of their comfort zone, and therefore doomed to progress at a glacial pace, but there were ten minutes of the lesson left so he turned his back on Tara and went back to the drill for the dolphin kick.

“That kid could go a long way, very fast,” he told Annette in the evening. “Could be a great swimmer. I’m absolutely sure of it. And I could help. I feel like I should. It’s weird. I’ve not felt like this before.”

After the lesson, he dried off and pulled on his Coach tee shirt for maximum professional effect. The new family were back in the shallows, and he went right over and squatted down.

“That’s some awesome swimming you do,” he said to Tara, then looked at her parents. “Who taught you, your dad?” The man with the tattoo laughed.

“Afraid not, ” he said. “You’re looking at the world’s worst.”

“Her cousin taught her in the lake,” the mother said.

“You’re a bit of a fish,” Mitch told Tara. “How old are you?”

“Seven and a half,” she said. She was looking right at him, had been ever since he came over. It was clear to Mitch that she very much wanted to hear what he had to say.

“One thing,” he told her, “try keeping your hands like this, and sliding them in forwards without a splash, then you can pull more water… See? Angle them like this. It should feel like you’re pulling and the water’s pushing back. But don’t quite close up your fingers. Like so. You’ll catch more water. Feel it? That’s the way.” He turned back to the mom.

“You know, she might enjoy our swim team.” He kept his tone light, even though he had a very serious feeling about it.

“We’re not really joiners,” she said, and looked away. There was no point in being pushy, and, as he explained to Annette, it was all too easy for parents to think you were some kind of pervert, especially once your hair started to thin: these days, he said, it’s probably better all round to be female, but some things can’t be helped. Thank God, Annette said. So Mitch didn’t ask whether they were passing through or new to the area, or where the kid went to school. He just grinned and backed off.

“Mitchell McAllister,” he told them as he stood up. “Here most mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Enjoy the pool.”

“It’s freezing!” Tara’s mother said. They did keep the water cool. That was what swimmers needed. Management appreciated the needs of the club, plus those few degrees saved a fair bit.

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” he told her, smiling. “You’ll soon warm up.”

“Maybe I’ll never see them again,” he told Annette.

Back then, the house took up all their free time. That night they were painting the lounge in Ivory and Arctic Moss. He was on the ladder, she was cutting in by the baseboard. They each craned their necks to look at the other.

“Well,” she said, “let’s see how it goes,” and there was a feeling that they had agreed to something, though neither of them knew exactly what.

A week or two after their first meeting, he ran into Tara’s mother in the lobby. Her hair was wet, and she had a rolled up towel under her arm; a nice woman, he thought, but a little too thin and too intense, her eyes shiny-bright, the angles and planes of her face more like sculpture than flesh. He was just arriving, she was on her way out.

“Hey, Mitch, right?” she called out. “We chatted the other week. Tara pestered me to bring her back so she can show you her new arms. She’s been practising in the air.”

“Cool!” he said, feeling his heart rate pick up: excitement, self-justification, hope –a cocktail of many things.

“Well,” she shrugged, “it’s a half hour drive, and we have a lot to look after right now. Fencing the yard, keeping the darn chickens alive, re-plumbing up the house. We just can’t make too many trips. And I’m not a fan of your freezing water! So finally we made it – and then we missed you. Sabrina, by the way.” She offered her hand.

“I start later on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,” Mitch explained as Tara emerged with her dad from the family change-room. Josh: Mitch shook his hand, too. It was cold still from the pool.

“Scoot back in I’ll watch you now,” he told Tara. The parents looked at each other.

“You two stay dry,” he told them. “Get a coffee, tell Chris it’s on me. Five minutes, okay?”

She jumped right in, looked up at him. She was waiting for his say-so, but at the same time he had a feeling she was in charge. Okay, he thought, I’m yours.

“Up to the end and back,” he told her, “but remember, it’s not a race. I want what’s called good form. I’ll walk up on the side here and I want to see you make your hands go in perfectly and pull back the water just as I told you, every single time.” At the end, she was breathing hard which told him she had tried for speed and form, and that her endurance needed work. But the hands were perfect, and her eyes sought his: How was that? What did you see? What next? Show me! They were blue-grey eyes, big, the same as her mother’s, but her gaze was untroubled and they picked up some of the colour of the water. She was all about what came next, about being in the water, about wanting something from him and wanting even more from herself.

“Attagirl,” he beamed back at her. “You got it. Next time I’ll show you the flip turn.” He picked her out a decent pair of goggles from the lost and found and told her to ask her parents to get her a one piece and book her in for a free trial lesson: that way, they wouldn’t have to get wet themselves.

There was another long gap and then over the course of a six week set Tara learned her dive and turn, and the beginnings of a pretty decent fly. They started on her dive.

“It’s like I’m giving her what she’s wanted all her life,” he told Annette. “Amazing. Totally committed. But she needs to be part of something.”

Maybe she needs other kids to swim with, was how he would put it to Sabrina.

“If your folks do say yes, at this time of year you’d practise every day before school and the dry land training Tuesday and Thursday, after school. Meets, that’s the races, are every month or so until the real season starts and you don’t have to come to every single one. Later it gets to be a little bit more. But we do take August off. You need talk it over with your mom and dad.” Take a deep breath, he told himself. Submerge… Hold it. Let it out very slowly. Wait.

Depth is about the water pushing in on you and separating you from the familiar world. Some of those drawn to go deep want none of the careful calculation of pressure and gasses, the attention to time and meticulous checking of equipment that scuba entails; they prefer to extend their innate physical capacities as far as possible and dive free of equipment, with just a lungful of air to sustain them and a dangling rope to help them find their way back up. A free-diver learns his or her body as if it were both friend and enemy: how deep it will willingly go, how to push it further, how to increase lung capacity and oxygen absorption, how to slow the heart beat and move without wasted effort; to evaluate, accept and transcend pain.

Mitch once witnessed a free-diving record. He was on the crew of the Shirley, waiting for Herman Fischmann (could you make up a name like that!) to surface. He held his own breath in sympathy, but managed only two minutes. He burst into tears when the bloke’s shaven head emerged ¬– it was like seeing a baby born ¬– and on top of that he felt a kind of water-man kinship, though personally he was not especially drawn to depth. For him, it’s speed, economy and distance, not depth, not so much. But he certainly understood the dedication involved.

He knew that Sabrina and Jason did not quite got where – who ¬– Tara was, but he had high hopes that they would.

“If you think about it, what I ask of these kids is no different from, say, learning the piano,” he told Annette. They had the new kitchen in by then: granite, gas stove, the lot, and made a point of using it.

“Hmm… You don’t have to play piano at six-thirty, travel half an hour to get to it and pack your breakfast,” she said, which was fair enough.

Annette owned Valley Fitness, the gym in town. She had it first with her ex, then on her own; she was hoping to sell it before too long. She was a keep-fitter, not an athlete, but she understood training and competition.

“I’m not strict,” he continued. “Intrinsic motivation is where I come from, not carrots and sticks. After a year, I expect a little more, and so on. And she’d lift the whole team: it’s not just about the obvious athletes. Some kids are signed up to get a bit of exercise, others for the friendships, but then once they are in, it changes, and some of them suddenly take off. They all get something out of it. But with Tara, I have to tell you, I’m thinking the Nationals in a few years and then looking right ahead to the Olympics in 2016.”

“That’s an awful long way to look,” Annette said. “What about here and now? Could we forget Tara for an hour so?” He grinned back at her and complimented her on the salmon she had cooked, tried to bring his mind back to the two of them and the here and now, but the truth was he could not forget: even when he did not think of Tara she was there, waiting in the back of his mind. And before long it got to the point where both he and Annette dreamed about Tara, her times, her moments of victory, but also things like injuries, forgetting her suit, losing her goggles, or beginning to struggle for her breath. Many times, in his sleep, he dived in and rescued her.

You must do whatever the lifeguard says, Mitch always tells his swimmers, and use your common sense: don’t swim alone. Remember that water, however much you love it, does not love you back. It simply does what it must do according to the laws of physics and the conditions at the time, and while it is essential to life, it can also end it, and swiftly, too. Humans are not amphibious… How can you tell if someone is drowning? he asks. Hardly anyone has ever had the right answer: swimmers in distress splash and shout, but drowning itself is silent and swift. There’s just not enough air to make any noise. The head goes back, the arms spread out and push down on the water until for a moment or two the mouth breaks free of the surface, exhales, gasps – but then it goes under again. With each surfacing the inhalation is smaller, the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood greater, the arms weaker, and in a minute or less it’s impossible to surface at all; water is inhaled and the larynx constricts, sealing the air tube to protect the lungs. The brain, starved of oxygen by now, soon shuts down – though the victim may still be resuscitated, if pulled out of the water and treated before cardiac arrest occurs.

In order to flush the carbon dioxide from their lungs and so delay the breathing reflex triggered by its build-up, some swimmers hyperventilate before a distance or depth dive. It’s a high-risk strategy, since the diver may black out due to oxygen deprivation before they feel the urge to breathe. Typically, these drowned divers are found, too late, on the bottom of the pool. So, no panting and gasping before you dive in, he tells his swimmers, and no breath-holding contests: I know what I’m talking about, believe me. And even though you are going to be excellent swimmers, please wear your flotation devices when you row across the lake or go sailing with your uncle. Suppose the boom swings and knocks you unconscious before you fall in? And by wear I mean buckle it up…

Sabrina and Jason’s overgrown acreage and 1910 farmhouse with authentic shingles came cheap, but they had to install fences and drains, fell trees, extract rocks from the soil, and then plant five hundred grape vines and two hundred lavender bushes, all at the same time as trying to run a web design business, grow their own ultra-healthy food, including chickens, without using chemicals, and raise a family. Eventually they would be showing visitors round on tours and tastings as well, and Sabrina would be making and marketing organic lavender products: oil, hand cream, soap and such. Big dreams and laudable aims, was how Mitch put it to himself. You never knew how things would turn out, but it sounded to him like a miserable amount of work, unless you had money behind you.

“Nice property,” he said when they showed him and Annette around.

“I wish you hadn’t put this team idea in her head,” Sabrina said. “All that time spent on one thing, especially at this age, seems crazy! The reason we chose home-schooling is to avoid competitiveness and peer pressure and have her enjoy her childhood.”

“Well, yes,” Mitch said, and met the eyes fixed on his face, the mottled grey irises darkly ringed and suspended in blue-tinged white. His feeling was that Sabrina desperately wanted to do the right thing, but had no instinct for what it was. Part of her knew this, but another part, the part mainly in charge, did not.

“There is all that,” he said. “And it would be a big commitment. And you’re her mom, so you know best. The club is competitive, but it’s not just about competition. It’s very sociable. They work hard and they have a lot of fun together – that might be a big plus if she’s mainly with you guys. And some people just naturally like to strive. Look at it this way: she’s competing against herself right now. It might be healthier to let her do it with other kids around.” He kept his voice light. “Why not just try and see?” he said.

“Remind me,” Sabrina said, still locking eyes with him, “how on earth did we get to be having this conversation?”

“You showed her the water,” Mitch picked up on her tone and pulled her towards the laugh they’d share, “that’s probably where you went wrong.”

Her whole body softened when she laughed.

“She’s beginning to understand. But I can’t tell her too much at once,” he told Annette.”

In training, the body is pushed beyond its limits. It suffers, then reconstitutes itself. Muscles strengthen and develop a tolerance to lactic acid. Lung-capacity increases. The heart grows in size. At the same time, understanding of the stroke accumulates. Young swimmers begin with a general impression, and move into the detail. As each new element is assimilated, the swimmer reaches a plateau, or even loses ground before progressing further. The mind too must remake itself.

Mitch swims the sets that he’s written on the sandwich board for his faster swimmers: five hundred metre warm up. Pull four times 150. Swim ten times 100 intervals. Kick for 500, then kick fifteen times 25 metres, intervals. Five hundred butterfly, five hundred choice. He’s working his way one stroke at a time towards the finale, towards sprint 100, 75, 50, 25 with a fifteen second recovery. These days, some of his swimmers are faster than he is.

He working hard enough that the air tastes very sweet when he gets to rest. Water rushes past his ears, his breath’s bubbles burst around his face; each time his ears surface there’s gasp of his inhalation, the sudden emptiness of the air above the pool. When his hands meet the tile another turn begins… The hands of the deck timer mark each second as it passes and sometimes, for length after length he thinks of nothing at all, just feels the stroke.

Though not today. He’s remembering that first time he saw the pool at Braeden Manor: no deep end, the water opaque, unused lane dividers tangled together at the far end. The windows along one side were almost obscured by the bushes and creeper growing outside. A faded sign pointed out that students who swam without a qualified life guard present did so at their own risk. He remembers how his heart lifted, how he almost cried when he saw it. Just the sight of the water, the thought of being immersed.

People evolved from fish. In the early weeks of pregnancy, the human embryo develops the beginnings of gills, which later become part of its ears. Air-breathing and lungs evolved in fish as a way of coping with oxygen depleted waters. It makes perfect sense to Mitch that our brains and bodies carry traces of the distant, aquatic past, and this must account for the affinity some feel for water, for individuals with extraordinary skills. Those free divers, for example: no one can really explain how they descend on a single breath six hundred feet below the surface, much less why they are drawn to sink to such lonely and dangerous depths. Yes, their lungs are more capacious than average, but even so, after fifty feet, they’re compressed to all but nothing, and theoretically, after three or four minutes, all those divers should be dead. Some do die in their attempts, but most live… It’s quite possible, Mitch thinks, that this is because they have retained some fishy capacities, some metabolic trick that scientists don’t yet understand – and it’s got to be the same for exceptional swimmers like Tara. They see the water and feel its pull; they know what to do because it’s buried somewhere in the fish part of their brain.

He volunteered for 5.45 pick up in the mornings and said he could find another parent to drive Tara home after practice.

“All right, then,” Sabrina said. Tara’s arms were wrapped around her waist. “It’s very kind of you to help. I can’t promise, but we’ll take you up on the month’s free try-out.”

That was it. A month later Tara formally joined the Sharks: sixty swimmers from six to seventeen, their coach, Mitchell McAllister, assisted by a series of university students and volunteers – brilliant, abysmal and everything in between. Josh, they decided, could manage the evening sessions. He could sit with his laptop and work while she trained. A bit of time out for you, Mitch pointed out to Sabrina.

“I don’t particularly want that,” she told him, but she returned his smile.

At the first meet, both parents leapt to their feet, yelling and cheering. At last, Mitch told Annette, they saw it: how swimming against someone good could take four seconds off Tara’s time; how close to each other, how grateful rivals can feel at the end of a hard race.

Soon Josh was asking questions about interval versus sprint and making up spreadsheets on his computer, to the point that Mitch had to rein him in. Though Sabrina, who had yelled just as loud, once came up to him at the coaches’ bench where he was packing up his things, and said, “Thanks, Mitch. But this whole thing is weird. What the hell is it about?”

“Being in the water,” he told her. He pointed out how Tara liked the fun stuff, too, water polo, the pyjama swim, all that. That she was not full of herself. Just happy. She was learning how to encourage those in the team who weren’t sure they wanted to be there. The training and the competition, he explained as they climbed the concrete steps and finally emerged from the fuggy humid air into the late afternoon sun, would provide her with many life-lessons: how to decide what she wanted and work for it, short and long term. How to deal with setbacks. “Swimming is a way to find out who you are,” he told Sabrina. She seemed to take it on, but she didn’t often come to the meets after that.

Sabrina missed seeing Tara win the 200 breast, a stroke she’d learned from scratch with Mitch. It’s all about timing, he’d told her: the amount of glide, the moment to pull the arms back, getting the kick and the reach to work together. You begin by thinking it through but in the end, you learn to feel when it’s right. In the pool that afternoon, Tara pushed a v-shaped wave of water ahead of her and overtook her rival in the first of eight lengths.

At the end, she gripped the rim of the pool, heaving for breath. Mitch, watching from the coaches’ bench, knew that she’d be disqualified for not touching properly on her second turn. He watched the white-coated official zone in on Tara as she went to pick up her towel. The woman, hugely fat, squatted down to Tara’s level, holding onto the railings for support. Quite a picture, the muscular little girl who knew how to part the water and pull herself through it with the minimum of wasted energy, the woman who had to drag the equivalent of another person wrapped around with her, day in, day out. On the face of it, Mitch thought as he watched the thing play out, you’d say the wrong one is giving advice here, though the fact is a lot of these amazing little swimmers end up as beached whales in middle age. Tara, he thought, would be bright enough to do the math. She was a great kid all round. She stood straight and looked the whale-woman in the eye. He wished he’d brought a camera with him.

Then she was there in front of him. Subdued, but no tears yet.

“DQ’d,” she told him, looking to see how he took it. Her time, 1:22, would have been a meet record.

“Bad luck, great time!” He watched her break into a grin. Later, he’d explain to her that every disqualification is a gift, and that by the end of the season, she would have her time way further down: it was a given, really, if she just did what he asked of her, and kept on growing, which she surely would, and did.

Annette sold her business and began to come along on the meet weekends. She helped pack up the car, took photographs for the website, and looked after the younger swimmers, the girls especially. Once Sabrina had the twins and needed Josh home to help, it was often just the three of them in Mitch’s car, making jokes, talking things over.

But the first two years were in some ways the best, because then all of it was so fresh, so very exciting. Tara qualified for Provincials with times almost two seconds faster than required. She would have been seeded first, but couldn’t go because of a trip already planned to visit to Josh’s parents in Ontario.

“Of course that comes first,” Mitch told Sabrina. They were in her kitchen; she’d invited him in for coffee when he dropped Tara off. “No problem,” he said, raising his mug as if in a toast, and he more or less almost meant it. He saw her jaw relax as she let go of the fight she’d been preparing for, though the next morning at 5:45, Tara red-eyed, was crying up boulders next to him in the car.

“I hate my parents!” she spat out as they turned into the freeway.

“Whoa!” He glanced across, then grabbed her shoulder for a moment. “They didn’t know. And who pays for all this? Who brings you here, who washes your towels? All you’ve got to do is wait until next year.”

“Next year?”

“Next year, you could be six seconds faster. You’re eight,” he told her. “You have nine more years of Provincials. Missing this one will save you from getting bored. And remember, you’re part of a team. All this year, you’ll be pulling the others after you and speeding them up, too.”

Actually, he was sure she’d be in the Nationals by twelve or thirteen. And when she did get to her first Provincials she beat all records and ended up with three gold medals, which she wore to the team dinner that night. The skin on her face looked taut, almost as if it had shrunk, and her eyes were very bright. She looked more like her mother, he thought. There was something other-worldly about both of them.

“I’m starving!” Tara told him as he passed by where she was sitting with her friend Alice and both of her parents. Sabrina had protested earlier about the unhealthy choice of restaurant but now she waved at him and seemed happy enough.

“Good to see you wearing your jewels,” he told Tara.

“Did you get medals like these?” she asked.

“Not at your age, no,” he told her, “I didn’t get any hardware until I was much older than you.”

“Why not?”

“I was never in a team at school,” he said, moving on.

He had not always been Mitch, though there was no need for Tara to know that. He grew up under the name of Sebastian McAllister, in England, the only child of an actress and a history professor who believed that from beginning to end, their son’s school experience should be intellectually stimulating, rigorous yet also creative and free. There was no need for Tara to know Mitch’s story, but Annette had required detailed background information. Comprehensive life-story exchange had been part of the deal. And was quite probably worthwhile, he admitted once it was done.

“They were prepared to pay through the nose,” he told her, “but nowhere was good enough.” Sebastian, as he was then, attended four different elementary schools before ending up at Braeden Manor, a cutting edge progressive secondary based in an Arts and Crafts style mansion in Hampshire. It was famed for its dedicated staff, small classes and picturesque, wooded environment. There were professional quality art rooms, laboratories and a well-equipped theatre, in which, despite or because of his mother being an actress, he had absolutely no interest. Braeden was a boarding school, and by that time, he was happy enough to leave home.

“Would he go for arts, languages, or sciences? Perhaps he’d prefer some middle ground between the two? Philosophy? What about the Law?

Braeden’s teachers were on first name terms with their pupils, who were encouraged to create their own curriculum. There was endless freedom, provided it was something intellectual or artistic that you wanted to do, but the school was too small to field teams for any of the local leagues and sports hardly figured at all. In any case, the feeling was that team games were warlike and suspect; the life of the mind was what they were there to explore and the body figured only as an aesthetic object or the subject of scientific enquiry. Physical Education took the form of recreational tennis and occasional runs over the fields, and, tacked on to the side of one of the older buildings, was a neglected twenty five metre pool which students who knew how to swim were allowed to use provided a waiver had been signed.

“That pool saved my life,” Mitch told Annette, on one of their early dates, a hike up the mountain. “They meant well, but it’s tough having parents who ignore what you are. They wanted me in Oxford, never understood that books bored me, much less how I loved the water. By the time I got into swimming, I’d stopped telling them anything. There was the pool, and I was in it, timing laps, practicing how to breathe, growing my shoulders. I got a book, The Science of Swimming, and worked from that. Can you imagine learning technique from a book? But it was a good book, and taught me everything. The strokes, how to train. I still think it’s the best… I timed myself and kept a log. No one took much notice. Perhaps I’d like to make it into a science project? Well, perhaps.

“Poor grades saved me from Oxford, but university of some kind seemed unavoidable. I picked Bristol for its pool, and persuaded them to let me try out for the swim team. I wasn’t quite good enough. If I’d started proper training and competed earlier, they told me, I’d have had a decent chance. Fuck this, I thought, it’s my life. I went AWOL, took off, for years: Turkey, Thailand, India, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand…”

“I’d love to go to New Zealand,” Annette said. And maybe they would. Because it was getting to the point that he couldn’t go on coaching, year on year forever, and financially, a time would come when he would not have to. For a while now, he had had it in mind that he’d at least semi-retire in 2016. Go watch Tara in Rio and leave it at that, that’s what he had been thinking.

The last part of the mountain trail was steep. They passed through old forest and he’d drifted away from where his story was going… In water, he told Annette, you learn yourself. Who you are. How far, how long you will go, what you think and feel as you set yourself on a course, just you and it. Water is always stronger than you, even when you’re the best you can be, and if you make a mistake, it is waiting to fill you up. And if you’re drunk, you shouldn’t swim, especially in the dark, however warm the water and the air and however beautiful the glittering firmament above.

Between Sebastian and Mitch he went by a variety of names. He had been that tanned guy picking grapes, selling sunglasses on the beach, or fish, or worse; he was the bloke running the little boat over to the island, or taking tourist money to see the turtles hatch. Also, he had been that guy passed out on the beach. He did the necessary to keep moving on from one sweet spot to the next, and at the same time he found his own way down and out of his own head. He sent only occasional postcards home.

By chance Mitch arrived at Lake Taupo at the time of an open water meet: a whole scene he had no idea about. Short haul swimmers wear out fast, but he could still train for distance, and had been, informally, for years. So he took up open water competition and for a while it gave a shape to his life: training, and saving for the race fees and travel from one event to the next. And between times he set out solo, crossed bays and straits, swam to distant islands, rested and returned. Though he still drank. But at least when he came to grief it was the in the Mediterranean, and not the North Sea. A yachtsman who’d done a lifesaving course fished him out.

“Chance in a million. I’d passed out, was probably a minute away from death. I remember him slapping my face then going back to pump my chest some more. I vomited up half the ocean. And after that, I went home. My father was dead by then. Mum put me through detox and rehab: nine months, lord knows what it cost. I changed my name to Mitchell, and I met Laura, who brought me back to Vancouver. We lasted almost six years, and here I am now, five thousand miles away from where I began, on the Pacific rim, coaching the swim-team at the Fourth Street pool.”

“What about your mother?” Annette asked. By then, they were sitting at the summit, the city, fields islands and sea spread out below them; the sky, intense cerulean, wisped with puffy clouds. Not a bad view to be sitting in, not at all.

“Annual visit and talk on the phone. She’s forgetful now, lives in a retirement complex with helpers, and is lined up to move into care. She’s never stopped calling me Sebastian. And the way she puts it is that I’m a teacher… She forgets the divorce and tells everyone including me, that my Canadian wife and I live near Vancouver. Some things just stay out of shape and you have to let it be. It’s about as good as you could expect.” Mitch put his hand on Annette’s shoulder, and she leaned in to him. Her story, which had come first, was simpler: a father no man could live up to; difficulties with men who found her too assertive. One of the many things he liked about Annette was that she did not judge or argue with what he’d made of his own tangled experience. She didn’t try to tell him what it all meant.

By the time the twins were toddlers, Tara’s parents had put the property with its lavender and baby vines up for sale. Bad timing: it was on the market for years, but before Tara got to the Nationals, they’d managed to cut their losses and sell it to another set of hopefuls. They moved to the edge of town. Tara got to go to regular school. Jason had a job in IT but they were struggling financially.

“It sucks, but we just can’t come,” Sabrina told Mitch. Her voice was tight and he guessed she was holding back tears. “It’s what to do with the twins and the cost of the flights out east.” Annette offered to donate her flight to whichever parent most wanted to go; Sabrina said they’d be too embarrassed to accept.

“Really, they’re splitting up,” Tara told them on the way to the airport. She sighed, examined her hands in her lap. Mostly she looked older than twelve, though sometimes it went the other way.

“First Mom was bringing the twins to watch and Dad was staying home, then it was the other way around. Now they’ve sent Charlie and Louie to stay with Aunt Karen so they can take the time to try and talk things through, just the two of them. I don’t care.” She glanced at him in the mirror, her ponytail whipping to the side as she moved her head.

“I guess you’re better off without them around,” Mitch said, “if all that’s going on. That’s probably what they think, too.”

“No,” she said, her voice wavering, “it’s not. They just couldn’t agree.” He gripped the wheel as if to throttle it and managed to say nothing. Annette twisted right around and put her hand on Tara’s knee.

“Well, kiddo,” she said, “that sucks. But you know I have a very loud voice and I’d like your permission to cheer for three when you’re on.”

“Sure,” Tara said. Her shoulders seemed to relax a little; she looked out the window. Planes were taking off and landing, and the runways shimmered in the heat. “Do we get a meal on the flight?” she asked, and Annette said no, but she had brought chicken pasta and banana bread in her carry-on.

At the hotel, Tara and Annette shared, leaving Mitch in a room on his own. Mitch barely slept, could only hope that Tara was drinking enough and visualising as he’d taught her to, each stroke of the race, every breath and every single turn, in real time. The feel of the water and the wall of the pool, the sounds, her time on the clock. It had been proved that the same neurons fired whether you were visualizing or swimming for real. You must make a memory of what you wanted to occur.

“You can either let stuff get to you,” he told her when they said goodnight, “or you can say, none of that comes in the water with me. Just swim.”

A 6:30 warm-up. An hour and a half later, she appeared on deck sheathed in her turquoise and black knee-skin. She looked for him and Annette, gave them her thumbs up salute, then as soon as they’d returned it, looked back at the water and rolled her shoulders. She was about in the middle for height, Mitch noted. There were no real giants, no surprises. But he thought she looked pale. No, ¬¬¬¬Annette said, it was the light, they all did except the black girl from Toronto in lane three. And they were all brilliant – he and Tara had studied the stats. This was where you met your match, which for the hundred free was Josie Georgeson, lane five, next to Tara in four: their times were a whisker apart. Across the board it was tight: the race was down to who wanted it most and had best accepted and nurtured that knowledge, fed and groomed it, let it take residence in their mind, day and night – but also on who had a bad day, not enough sleep, or too much going on at home.

“On your marks.” Eight of them, strong, slim and streamlined in their racing suits, climbed up onto the diving blocks, adjusted their goggles and bent to grip the edge. What was she thinking? Of the water, the strokes ahead of her? Of nothing at all?

When the light flashed and the buzzer sounded the swimmers sprang from the blocks, hung for a split second in the air, then sliced into the pool; they came up together. Buried in the crowd’s roar Mitch was counting her strokes, yelling Ra! Ra! Ra! and praying for the turn, because with this talent, a perfect or an imperfect turn would make the difference: arm, arm, tuck, kick up your butt, stay compact in the roll, feet slam the wall, push, rotate, yes! She surfaced half a length ahead of the rest. Mitch and Annette were on their feet with the worst of them, roaring as she came in almost a tenth of a second ahead. She yanked off her goggles to see her time. Mitch was in tears. It was not her fastest, but it was better than anyone else’s and it had got her through. It was good to keep something in reserve. They worked their way down through the sea of parents and coaches.

“Cool!” she said.

“Very cool. Good work! You’re well in,” he said as Annette handed over the recovery drink; she nudged him and he backed off, managed not to say, in a choked voice, I’m gonna be so proud of you. Though as it turned out he was: Two golds, one silver, and one bronze over a long three days: emotionally exhausting in the very best way. The pool and the hotel, the heats, finals, food, drink – it was as if nothing else existed. After dinner, they returned to the rooms and watched old Disney films. And then it was over, and they cracked jokes and gossiped all the way home.

When they got there, things changed. Josh did not appear. In the hall, Sabrina explained to Mitch and Annette that things had been falling apart since before the twins were born. She and Josh were pulling in different directions, couldn’t agree on anything; it had always been that way to some extent and was even part of the attraction. Now, with the three kids, it wasn’t possible any more, not even bearable. Not for her. Counselling was useless. They were going to split. They were aiming to do everything fairly and with as little pain as possible. The twins would stay with Sabrina. Tara could choose where she wanted to live. Either way, there would be plenty of flexibility.

“I’m very sorry,” Mitch told Sabrina. She grimaced, shrugged, turned away.

“I don’t want to live with either of them!” Tara told Mitch when she called him later that night. “Can I come live with you and Annette? You guys are a such a lot of fun.” And now he wonders: supposing they’d said yes, sure, come right on over, we’ll work it out somehow? Supposing they had taken her in? How might things have turned out then? But instead, he called Sabrina.

“Look,” he said after he’d let her know what Tara wanted, “I’m just letting you know. If we can help in some way, please say and of course we’ll do what we can.”

“I think we’ll be fine, but thank you, Mitch,” she replied. Did “we” include the kids? he asked Annette. Couldn’t they have waited a bit, given how long they’ve waited already?

Tara did not choose. She moved between the two homes. After six months, Josh decided to move to Toronto for work. He pointed out that it would make sense for Tara’s training, if she wanted to come too, and by then, she did.

“She’ll keep in touch,” Annette reassured Mitch. He wasn’t convinced, but she did. She called or Skyped pretty much every week, and wrote Mitch long emails packed with details about her training. They still got to watch her major events. She was in a documentary about young athletes, and on TV several times. Her new team practiced in the varsity pool and at the Olympium, great fifty metre pools. School went well and she was being tipped for college scholarships. She was sixteen, and almost six feet tall, with the perfect swimmer’s build. She kept her hair in a pixie cut, for convenience, she said, but it looked great on her. There had been two boyfriends, both swimmers, but neither relationship seemed intense or disruptive: they were probably too tired to get up to much, Annette thought.

After the move, Mitch found it uncomfortable running into Sabrina and the twins at the grocery store and realizing that in many respects he knew far more about her daughter than she did. There was that on his side, and something else on hers, a distance that seemed like restrained hostility. Did she think it was all his fault? Did she blame swimming for the breakup, or at least for the loss of her daughter? Blame him, in fact? Annette thought it very likely, though he hated to think that way. He’d always liked Sabrina. Still, it was Tara that mattered.

“The coaches here aren’t any better than you. Mitch,” she’d told him. “But the thing is, there are three of them.”

“Well they must be doing something right,” he pointed out. It was all going very well, come 2013.

It’s properly bright outside now, almost time for the lifeguards and then the early swimmers to arrive, dropped off by whichever white-faced parent drew the short straw that day. And Mitch has swum the last sprint; he’s feeling the workout, and he’s had enough waiting. He just wants Tara to call as she promised she would, and he wants to say – well what? He’s said so many things in his head that now he doesn’t know what’s best, or even exactly what he thinks. He just wants to hear her voice. He goes, dripping, straight back to reception, and digs the phone out of his backpack.

Nothing. Doesn’t she owe him some respect?

Kelly the receptionist gives him an odd look as she comes in and turns her screen on: semi-naked colleague dripping in office.

“I’m going to get a coffee,” he tells her, makes for the door, then returns for his shirt. During the five-minute drive he remembers something Tara said when she called a week ago with her news: Suppose I was pregnant, what would you think then? I’d be fucking furious, he’d thought.


“I’m not, by the way.”

“Well, I’d be wanting to know how you felt about it… And to be honest, I’d be thinking, well, babies are great, but that is something you could do anytime over the next two decades.”

He had wanted to say:

Look, sometimes it’s hard to honour your gift, but you’ll feel better for doing it in the long run.

You’ll never forgive yourself if you turn away now.

This is just a blip.

Just hang in there a bit longer and it’ll feel good again.

Hang in three more years.

Get what you came for, then quit.

Why would you not do this?

You are so very, very lucky¬!

How dare you throw your chance away!

“But the thing was to handle it so that she didn’t get backed into a corner. “Look,” he said eventually, “It’s a big decision. Just do this one thing for me. Take a week to think it over every which way one more time, then call me again.”

She said yes.

So where is she?

He should get some breakfast, but can’t decide what. He stirs cream and two sugars into a cup of strong coffee, carefully fits the lid to the cup, then drives back to the pool. He carries the coffee to the little outside area where there are picnic tables and some play-equipment. He places the phone on the table about a foot away. I’ll drink this, he thinks, and then I will either call her and say What the hell? or smash this fucking phone with a rock. He enjoys the idea of the rock: it’s ludicrous but that does not mean that he won’t do it.

The taste of the coffee, its sweetness and temperature are perfect; he drinks slowly, pausing between mouthfuls to look at the pool building, the yellowing rhododendrons sprawled against it, the car parking area with its forlorn planters and lamps. He waits a little before taking the last mouthful. And then it’s gone, and the phone rings.

“Hi, Mitch!” her voice, light and even, gives no clue as to what she’ll say. “You okay? Got a few minutes?” He doesn’t mention that he should be at work.

“So, like you said, I’ve thought it over. “

“Great, Tara.”

“Well, Mitch… I am a hundred percent certain that I’m not stressed. Or in love. And I’ve not over-trained. It’s a fantastic program and they switch things up a lot. And it’s definitely not Max’s or Roxy’s or anyone’s fault that I’ve come to feel this way. They’re great coaches. I talked to them a few weeks ago, and they said to take a break and see if it freshened me up. I’m on my third week of the break now, and I really like it. I really, really like taking a break. And they sent me to a sports counsellor twice a week. Basically, I’m thinking, maybe I’ve swum enough?”

A counsellor once asked Mitch what the water represented for him and when he said nothing, suggested it might be the womb.

“Tara–” he begins, but she doesn’t stop for him.

“Of course, yes, there’s the Big O. And the Pan Am. All these goals I’ve had, we’ve all had, for years. And it’s been great to look forward to, but Mitch, my motivation’s zilch. I’ve lost interest. In winning stuff. In the podium. It’s like, done that.”

But no, Mitch thinks, you haven’t! You’ve got very close, but turned away, which is a completely different thing. He knows he’s right. Also, that it is worse than pointless to say so. Tara’s voice does not waver as she continues: “I don’t hate it, as such, but I don’t feel the pull any more. You just can’t train, you can’t get there unless you really, really want what’s at the end of it… It’s changed. I’ve changed. At first I ignored it, then I freaked out, but now it’s fine, I think. Good, actually. Because why not? Why can’t I be something different? I want to think about new things. The environment, stuff like that. And Mitch, it is so cool to pick up a book and not fall asleep by the end of the second page.”

You have your whole life to read books!

She’s still talking: how she might do volunteer work, and wants to see the world, not just the 50 metre pools in its major cities and the corridors of budget hotels. Could go to Guatemala. Bhutan. Thailand. Peru.

Beware of open water! Wear the life-jacket!

She’s thinking that when she’s earned some money. How? She’ll make some long trips, journeys that include biking, kayaking and camping, but also spend time in cities.

Always learn some of the language. Travel with someone. Buy your own drinks, and watch them!

“I feel awful about disappointing you all. But it is my life. I feel,” Tara says, her voice growing slower and less certain, “like I’ve ended a very long swim. When you climb out of the pool and stand on dry land ¬– you know that soft, heavy feeling while your body adjusts? Odd. And it is scary, because who am I without the water? What’s left of me? I have no idea. But I want to know. And Mitch, I don’t want to fall out over this. I really, really, don’t. Are you hearing me?”

He wants to advise her to at least keep her fitness up – after all, who is he to her if not her coach? He wants to tell her that in six weeks or even six months time, if she changed her mind she could probably still come back. But he takes a deep breath and says none of it.

“Yes,” he says and small as it is, that word comes hard, but then it’s done. The tears that course down his face are a relief. “Loud and clear. Got it, Tara.”

“Cool!” she says, her voice bright and free. “Thanks so much for everything, Mitch. I mean that. I’m heading west in a few weeks time. Guess I’ll visit you guys then.”

“All right, Tara. Take care.”

It’s over. He sits head in hands, alone on the bench outside the pool, his swimmers inside waiting for him, his face wet: it’s a strange feeling, a kind of passionate emptiness, an unexpected calm. Shock? Relief? Release? In any case, the best thing is to keep moving. Mitch stands, slips the cup in the trash and goes back in to the pool.

“It’s just how and what it is, and good luck to her, but I can’t pretend to like it,” he tells Annette later, the pair of them folded into each other, pressed close, rocking back and forth.

“It’s could be the best thing ever for her.” Annette pulls back a little so she can look up into his face. “And now, we have a truly empty nest… Please, Mitch, don’t you dare turn us into a cliché. Let’s go somewhere together, soon. Let’s get away and start thinking about something else.”

He has two weeks coming up. She’s thinking about Iceland. It’s mild and light almost all night long in August. You can cycle right round. It has puffins, geysers, hot springs, black beaches, all sorts of pools. You can scuba dive in the Silfra rift, swim in Viti lake.

Sure, Mitch says. It does sound great, though it’s not cheap, and somehow they don’t make the booking right away.

About a week later, he glimpses Sabrina and the twins in the grocery store, ahead of him in the tea and coffee aisle, and it floods through him: how much she must have been through, how much she has had to let go. He catches up with her in produce, and asks her if she’s heard from Tara. She nods and pulls a quick smile, meets his gaze.

“Apparently Josh took it very badly,” she says. “But she said you were just great… Once she knows where she’s going next, well, we all know she’ll work hard for it.” They’re standing quite close. Her face is open, relaxed. He’s not seen her like this before.

“I worry,” Mitch finds himself saying, “that as time passes, she may miss the training routine itself far more than she expects.”

“You could be right.” Sabrina touches him on the shoulder and her hand rests there a second or two. “Mitch,” she says, “when Tara gets back, we’ll do dinner or something with you and Annette.” Then she gathers up the twins and pushes her cart on towards the baked goods.

It’s such a soft but sudden feeling – something like waking up, something like his first sight of the Braedan Manor pool or of Lake Taupo, something like déjà vu: the sensation of what used to be turning itself, in the space of a breath, into the beginning of something else.

—Kathy Page


Kathy Page‘s current love is the short story, but her fiction ranges widely in both form and content. Paradise & Elsewhere, her 2014 collection of fabulist fictions, was nominated for the Giller Prize and short-listed for the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction. Her six novels, include the grittily realistic Alphabet (a finalist for the 2005 Governor General’s Award), The Find (a 2010 Relit Award finalist), and The Story of My Face (long-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize). Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, a novel that interweaves realistic and fantastical elements, will see Canadian publication in the fall of 2015. Two more collections of stories are forthcoming.

Sep 102015


Vibrantly alive with the ancient spirit of the Mediterranean world, Rossend Bonás Miró is a Catalan poet, traveler, and teacher. For decades he has worked as a translator, interpreter, and lecturer in many countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Spain’s Ebro Delta region. Bonás is also the cofounder—along with fellow Catalan poet Arnau d’Oms—the pen name of Joan Vernet i Ribes (1952-2014)—of the independent press Els llibres del Rif (Rif Books). This press has been the imprint for several volumes by both poets.

Bonás published his first book of poems Preuat ostatge de les ciutats d’Orient (A Precious Hostage from Eastern Cities) in Barcelona in 1975. Another book of his poems El Emir de Tortosa (The Emir of Tortosa) (2003) was printed in the southern Catalan city of the same name where he lives when he is not making one of his regular trips to villages in the Moroccan Rif and Atlas Mountains. In fact, Bonás says that each of his books has been printed in a different city. Other volumes of poetry over the years have included Tothom ho sabia (Everyone Knew It) (1986) and Mercader d’essències (Essence Merchant) (1992). Summertime 2015 finds Bonás in northern Morocco, editing his forthcoming book of poems Perdut en la gentada (Lost in the Crowd), due to be printed in Tangier.

An artist of eclectic interests whose mission is to help build bridges of cultural understanding, Bonás uses both his Catalan given name Rossend and his adopted Arabic name, Rashid––as well as its Catalan cognate, Raixid.

In addition to his numerous books of poetry, Bonás has also collaborated on the creation of an illustrated Spanish-Arabic vocabulary book for students, about which he and the other authors write: “We hope that this book can be another channel for improving communication and understanding to build with the inherent richness of diversity, a better world where respect and peace hold sway.”

His ideals and poems echo the compassionate spirit of the great medieval Sufi poet Ibn Arabi (1165 – 1240) of Murcia, who wrote:

My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
a temple for idols and the circling pilgrim’s Kaa’ba,
the tables of the Torah and the scrolls of the Quran.

I follow the religion of Love:
whichever way Love’s camels turn,
that is my belief and the faith I keep.

In addition to a body of poems fascinated with the human spiritual journey towards union and understanding, and the non-human life of creation and the natural environment, Bonás is also a student of art, history, and culture both traditional and contemporary. He publishes his articles regularly in Fotent’s Blog ( A son of Iberia, he is naturally fascinated with the intersection of European and Arabic influences that informs Spanish history, as shown in recent posts about the aesthetic power of Islamic art; the Spanish outpost city of Tétouan on the shore of North Africa; and the powerful, geometric compositions of glazed tile work of al-Andalus, ancient decorative art that influences Spanish and Portuguese design sensibilities down to the present day. Other postings by Bonás have focused on such important Catalan artists as the painter Joachim Patinir (1480-1524) whose landscapes were influenced by Hieronymous Bosch; the photographer Francisco García Cortés (1901-1976) who was a correspondent for the EFE Agency in Tetuan, a graphic collaborator on Diari d’Àfrica and an official photographer for the Spanish High Commission in Morocco; the great artist Antoní Clavé (1913-2005), a master painter, printmaker, sculptor and stage designer; and the painter and poster artist Josep Renau (1907-1982). Bonás’ fascination with the specific personality of different cities is evident in a recent post he wrote about the poetic symbolism of windows, with photographs of the many beautiful and different styles of windows in his city of Tortosa. His love of people and places also inspires a keen, clear, critical voice concerned with the problems of multinational socioeconomic policies that degrade life for many and prevent cultures from living healthy, progressive lives:

As his friend and collaborator Arnau d’Oms (Joan Vernet i Ribes) said about him:

“Rossend Bonás’s poetic work goes hand in hand with his life, and thus, he has written poetry in the same way that some trees drip sap, and others provide us with lovely shade, while others give elderflower to clear our sight.

His books, published outside of commercial circles, are like rare jewels. Unusual discoveries. Simple, yes, but illustrated or designed by other artists.

Bonás is Catalan from Catalonia, where most people are not of any single race, although he claims to be among those with the deepest roots in this small country of transitions and permanences, with Iberian, Roman, and Saracen roots.

In his own style, he again mixes the unimagined with the unthinkable, the sacred with the profane, and recreates that time when the southern lands of Catalonia were Muslim and the northern frontier of Al-Andalus.”

On the matter of poetic composition, Bonás himself states: “The first raw material of poetry is sound, and that sound causes the reaction in the human brain. Over time, the reader knows that poetry, to capture all its nuances, should be read aloud. Or rather, should be recited or declaimed.” However, he affirms, there are those who read silently and “delight in pure literary love of the word, of the prosodic devices, of onomatopoeia, repetition and polysyndeton.” Either way, as far as the poet’s role in this relationship goes, Bonás contends that “When you finish a poem, you lose it, it’s no longer yours, you relinquish your authority over it to whoever reads it.”

In that spirit this article presents a generous offering of Bonás poems, selected by the poet himself, in their original Catalan and translated into English, which should provide readers with a splendid introduction to the verses of this timeless, visionary seeker.

— Brendan Riley

Als seus ulls

veig pregoneses
que no sé si hi són
ni si altres les veuen.

I see her eyes
deep proclamations
so deep I doubt
nor know if others see them.

* * *

Aquest vent que apareix
i desapareix sense avisar,
com els mals moments arriba
i, al cap de poc, se’n va.

Però torna,
insistent i regular,
i un bon dia fa tombar
la fulla més resistent
de garrofer o d’alzinar.

This wind that appears
and disappears without warning
comes like the worst moments
stays a while, flows away

But it returns
regular, insistent
and on any good day
it comes to tumble
the most resilient leaves
off the oak and carob trees.

* * *

Ígnia cabellera.
Encesa torxa
de rulls en cascada.
Volcànica lava.
El foc, semblava
que el diua per fora.
Però no, i ara!
És dins que cremava.

Her igneous hair
a burning torch
curling cascade
Lava from the volcano.
Like she was dressed
in a mantle of fire
But no, the perfect inversion
She was burning from the inside out


* * *

Wadi Lau I

Sota les palmeres de fulles remoroses
voldríem desxifrar el missatge del vent.
I a l’aigua de les sèquies, silenciosa,
espurnes de llum treu la lluna creixent.


Wadi Lau I

Under the palm trees’ murmuring leaves
we try to discern the wind’s message
And from the silent water pools
sparks of light engender the rising moon


* * *


—Si som en el temps,
que és moviment,
consiència pura;
si som consciència
en el còsmic moviment
i si és aquesta consciència
un privilegi…
¿per a què el vull, Senyor,
què n’haig de fer?—
rumia el pastor
mentre es bressola el ramat
amb la lenta i greu monotonia
dels cicles naturals.
-¿I no haguera pogut ésser
consciència d’ase o d’ovella,
i no haguera pogut ésser
atzavara, poniol, insecte
o la primera figa
que l’estiu madura?

If we reside in time
which is motion,
if we are consciousness
in the cosmic movement
and if this consciousness itself
constitutes a privilege
Why do I desire it, Lord
What business is it of mine?
Thus wonders the shepherd
while the flock meanders
with the slow solemn monotony
of the natural cycles.
And would not have been possible
consciousness of donkey or sheep
and would not have been possible
agave, mint, and insect
or the first ripening
fig of summer?


* * *


El pecador, que no en tenio prou amb el perdó, demanava, a més a més, l’esperança.

¿O hauré de veure com m’apago,
trista, anònima i lentament,
sense tan sols el comfort plaent
de l’esperança, resignant-me,
com el ruc corbat sota sa càrrega?


The Sinner, Not Satisfied with Being Forgiven, Asked For Hope As Well

Or will I have to pretend how I fade,
sad, anonymous, and slowly,
without even the pleasant comfort
of hope, resigned like the donkey
plodding beneath its heavy load?


* * *


Exposició col•lectiva d’Art basada en poemes de R. Bonàs

Aquesta exposició és el resultat d’una proposta en la que 12 artistes fan una lectura gràfica dels poemes de Raixid Bonàs.


Seguim en aquest món serè
enduts per remolins de passions
banals i no gens descabellades,
en un estiu accelerat que,
tot just començat, ja és ple.


La ment, ¿pot fer avinent
l’oblit de mi mateix
amb el ‘jo’ treballat
tan àrduament?


Seguint els cagallons
de les cabres de l’Olimp
pujàvem pels camins
flanquejats de margallons
baladres, atzavares i pins.


La realitat dels fets tossuts i quotidians
desafia, il•lògica, candor i fantasia.


Si simple titelles som
de la gran representació
al Teatre Universal…

moveu-nos els fils, Senyor,
que puguem representar
moltes funcions
en Vostre Honor
i per a satisfacció de tots!


Com descriure el dolor tens i larvat
després d’una separació definitiva?

S’endu el vent el lent treball dels anys
i l’íntim plaer de la mútua companyia.


Collective Art Exhibit based on the poems of R. Bonás

This exhibit is the result of a proposal in which twelve artists perform a graphic reading of the poems of Rossend Bonás.


We endure in this serene world
driven by whirlwinds of banal passions
still sane not at all hare-brained,
in an accelerated summer,
one freshly inaugurated
yet already teeming full


Can my mind be called
to recall my self-inflected
oblivion with the oh-so
arduously overwrought “I”?


Following the dark pellets dropped
behind by the goats from Olympus,
we pushed upwards along the paths
flanked closely by palmettos
oleander, agaves, and pines.


The reality of all
our stubborn daily deeds
illogically defies
candor and fantasy.


If we are merely marionettes
of the great representation
at the Universal Theater…

move our threads, Lord,
so we might mirror
a purposeful multitude
of movements
in Your Honor
meant to satisfy all!


How to describe the tense
and tightly wrapped pain
a dark cocoon
after a definitive separation?

The wind carries away the work of years
and the intimate pleasure of mutual company.

— Susana Fabrés Díaz & Brendan Riley


Rossend Bonas3

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Susana Fabrés Díaz is a teacher and artist. She wrote the first, working draft of these translations from the Catalan.

Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

Sep 092015

16_BBallengee_w_great turtleBrandon Ballengée with an endangered alligator snapping turtle. Photograph by Peter Warny.


The Wampanoag people of eastern Massachusetts had a tradition of digging a hole at the site of an important event. A member of the community would then be tasked with maintaining that hole and, once a year, telling the story of what happened there.

History, as we understand it today, is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Restless now, rootless, we add to this story, decade after decade, embellishing and embroidering, until, in time, it takes on a life of its own, staggering out of the woods or fields into the halflight, out of the bars or towers or conference rooms into the glow of headlights, streetlights. It feels alien, other. We squint our eyes. This is not who we are. This is not who we were. This has nothing to do with me.

There are many reasons to dig holes.

We plant crops, we plant trees—and why not? We want food, we want shade. We need a place to bury our trash or hide our treasure. Where else should the bodies go? But in these instances we cannot ignore the underlying expectation of exchange, the ritualistic reciprocity: what is removed shall be replaced, what we hide will stay hidden, what we plant shall grow. A seed into a tree. A body into a laser-etched NASCAR headstone.

The Wampanoag cut into the earth where, and in a time when, the earth mattered, and by leaving that cut, by refusing to fill it in, instead filled the landscape with memory, fusing narrative with the land, entwining story and place. For generations the responsibility was passed on: to tend the hole, to tell the story.

Most of our monuments consist of objects added to the landscape: cenotaphs, statues, plaques. Loss symbolized by addition, the absence of something commemorated by the presence of something new. Perhaps we’re afraid of looking into the void created by the lives, the people, the time, the whatever it is that’s gone missing. In this disconnected culture, stories wander placeless. Memories have no home. We seek replacement rather than understanding.

Brandon Ballengée is an artist, biologist, and activist who has dedicated himself to tending absence. Absence, it could be said, is his medium. The disappearing and extinct species that have been and remain his inspiration and focus, in both his artwork and his scientific research, could not have hoped for a better reciter of their stories, linking them to place, but also time, time past, time running out.

Last spring’s Armory Show in Manhattan brought welcome attention to Brandon’s work, specifically to one of his various ongoing projects, Frameworks of Absence. Since 2006 he’s been researching animals that have gone extinct in the Americas over the past four centuries, selecting prints contemporaneous with the species’ demise and then painstakingly cutting the creature’s image from the page, leaving a hole.

There are holes everywhere.

With climate change already threatening the environment, with overhunting and habitat destruction continuing nearly unabated, with predictions that a new mass extinction event is underway, Brandon wants us to see what we’ve already lost, to mourn so that we might act. He is telling a story, a story of this place, of any place made less wild by the disappearance of its insects, animals, birds, all the things that make it a place. This is our story, as it turns out, and it’s one we need to hear.

The Frameworks of AbsenceThe Frameworks of Absence. 2006-Ongoing. Artist cut and burnt historical artifacts. Installed at the Armory Show, New York, NY, 2015. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.


Brandon and I conducted this interview via email starting in late spring, corresponding through the first few weeks of August. He is passionate and thoughtful, and despite the grim context of his work, retains an admirable and hopeful optimism. What follows has been condensed and edited.


DARREN HIGGINS: As I began to think about your work and consider what questions I wanted to ask you, I noticed that my six-year-old son was outside studying insects and creating habitats for the ones he caught. So I’d like to start by asking about how you came to be interested in studying nature. You said in a recent interview that “I had a lab in my parents’ basement and I had an art studio in our barn.” Did you ever consider any other career, or was your path set from early on?

BRANDON BALLENGÉE: From my earliest memories, I was always fascinated with aquatic animals and insects. I would document and draw them while trying to understand how they worked and lived. At one point I had so many aquariums in my bedroom that my parents moved me downstairs—they were worried that the floor might fall through! This is where the basement lab came from.

DH: And when did art enter the picture? It sounds like your interests in science and art have always been intertwined.

BB: I have always loved to draw. Drawing was always a natural way for me to try to understand the world. Growing up, I would spend hours looking at the illustrations in field guides and zoology books. Later, as a teenager, I became very influenced by modernist paintings—Motherwell, Kline, Rothko, and others were big inspirations. I even began making large-scale abstract paintings, focused on composition and asking how the eye can be moved through a two-dimensional plain. I was also interested in how colors and forms can influence feeling in a work. I still utilize these formalistic considerations while making art.

Science and art are both ways to explore and understand the world outside and within ourselves. They are often viewed as dichotomous, even complete opposites, coming from one or the other side of the brain; however, human beings are not solely “right or left brained”—we are far more complicated and interface with the world poetically as well as pragmatically every day. Creativity manifests itself through both art and science. The fields are complementary, not opposites.

That said, one of the most challenging times in my life was sorting out how to combine art and science academically and, later, professionally. As an undergrad, I managed to take courses in both and then found a dual Swiss/British graduate-to-Ph.D. program, which let me fully combine my practices in art and science. Here my scientific focus concerned causes and potential impacts of developmental deformities in frogs and toads within agricultural landscapes in England and Canada.

My desire to work with amphibians was a response to the current population crisis they face as more than 40% of known species are considered in decline and more than 200 species have gone missing in recent decades. These are ancient marvels of evolution with a wonderful array of shapes, forms, colors, and behaviors. They are “keystone” species to our terrestrial ecosystems, meaning that when they are gone many other species are impacted. They are disappearing so fast. It is both tragic and alarming. My series of artworks, Malamp Reliquaries, is my artistic response to this study of deformed and declining amphibians, as well as hopefully a means to inspire people to help protect these amazing creatures.

01 BBallengee_DFA156.PersephoneDFA 156: Persephone. Unique digital-C print on watercolor paper. Cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California, in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions. 45 7/8 x 33 7/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

DH: You mentioned species in decline—disappearing or missing species. I’ve been focusing on extinction in my own work recently, which is, I think, one reason why I found your Frameworks of Absence project so profound and moving. How did the idea for that first come to you?

BB: The death of our friends, family, and ourselves is very hard for us to comprehend. Even further, the permanent loss of a group of organisms is an almost abstract idea. So how does one give visual form to this absence? For years I have attempted to create art that captured this phenomenon. I experimented sculpturally using preserved specimens backlit to create silhouettes, to suggest species decline and loss, such as in An Illustrated Key to the Fishes of Jamaica Bay ca. 1974- 2024 AD (2002-04) and the installations the Apparitions (2009-ongoing) made with taxidermy specimens lost in natural-history-museum collections. Also, in my work Collapse (2012), empty jars were placed among a myriad of marine specimens to recall species loss.

02_BBallengee_CollapseCollapse. Installed at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY, 2012. Mixed-media installation including 26,162 preserved specimens representing 370 species following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Glass, Preffer, and Carosafe preservative solutions. 12 x 15 x 15 feet. In the background: Vertical Fall in the Winter call that dances in the spring nocturnal… 2010/12. From the series A Season in Hell. Unique digital Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum. 64 x 90 inches. Photograph by Varvara Mikushkina. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

For two-dimensional works, I first tried to depict extinct species by drawing silhouettes of them using Japanese ink. Then ink was use to cover depictions of now-gone species in old field guides. Yet the black mass still had visual form. Influenced by Robert Rauschenberg, who erased a piece by Willem de Kooning, I later tried erasing out the animal depictions. The remaining traces of pigment created a kind of ghost-like image, but still there was a presence.

In 2005 I carefully cut a pair of passenger pigeons out of an old guide using an X-Acto blade and surgical scalpel. The altered print minus the avian forms created an intricate structure, still beautiful but incomplete. Visually, this created a kind of void in the picture-scape, like the actual loss of species from real ecosystems. I had found a way to frame absence.

Brandon Ballengée - Framework of Absence - RIP Passenger PigeonRIP Passenger Pigeon, 1937/2006. Artist-cut page from the 1937 first edition, Macmillan Publishing Ltd.’s John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches. Photograph by David W. Coulter.

DH: How do you decide which creatures to focus on? And how do you select the artwork to cut out?

BB: For the last two decades I have been collecting information on extinct and declining species. For the Frameworks of Absence, I maintain a database that groups lost species by continent, era, and taxonomic group. My goal is to create a Framework of Absence for each known species that has gone extinct during the Anthropocene.

For selecting the artwork, it is a matter of finding a print or artifact produced at the time in history when the species depicted disappeared. In some cases, these prints are the only visual and physical presence remaining of the species.

DH: I’m really curious about that process: Why do you choose to use an original print, for example, instead of a facsimile? And, as I understand it, you also burn the image that you cut from the print…

BB: Using original historic prints or artifacts is a fundamental concept underlying the Frameworks of Absence. Such “real” artifacts resonate history—a shared time with the species they depict and the cultural landscape of our own species at that moment in history. As the depictions are removed, the Frameworks of Absence create a void in our own history attuned with the loss of actual species gone from nature. I then burn the depictions of the lost animals. This is a personal cremation ceremony that connects me to these lost species.

The Frameworks of AbsenceThe Frameworks of Absence, 2006-ongoing. Funerary urns, ashes. Photograph by Michael Ahn.

The ashes are placed into black glass funerary urns etched with the name of the lost species. People are then asked to scatter the ashes in the place where the species lived. This scattering of ashes is meant as an individual embodied experience for that person—meant to be a deep and transformative experience. I call these rituals Actions of Mourning. Releasing the remains of others is a powerful and life-changing event, a reminder of our own mortality and the fragility of all life.

By cutting such historic objects I hope to question our sense of value. Such artifacts have worth, often in the monetary sense, but more importantly in the sphere of human history and our changing attitudes along with behaviors towards the natural world. As Aldo Leopold said, “We stand guard over works of art, but species representing the work of aeons are stolen from under our noses.”

11_BBallengee_RIP Pied or Labrador Duck-cuttingBallengée cutting a burnt hand-colored stone lithograph, “Pied Duck” (Labrador duck) by John James Audubon from the limited Amsterdam edition of Birds of America, etched glass urn, and ashes. Photograph by Anthony Archibald J.

As we currently find ourselves in the middle of a human-caused mass extinction event re-evaluating our collective value systems and ethics is paramount. Each of our individual everyday actions has an impact on ecosystems and the greater living community. Some positive and some negative, each action in a sense is a value judgment, what we choose to hold dear and protect.

DH: Ritual clearly plays a critical role here. Can you expand a bit on its importance to your work?

BB: Our lives are filled with daily rituals, although these now, in the technologically enhanced world we live in, often commonly involve interfacing more with the virtual than the physical. The late philosopher of science Edward Reed discussed the loss of direct learning experiences in post-technological societies and stated that direct physical or embodied actions of inquiry were becoming “endangered.” More recently, author Richard Louv has talked about a growing “nature-deficit disorder” among youth and adults resulting from an increasing disconnect with experiences in the natural world. The result is a widespread non-understanding of ecosystems, other organisms, and even ourselves as part of a living community. Our connection to nature is becoming absent. In response, I try to engage audiences physically and mentally through actions.

The Actions of Mourning are ritualistic, but not in reference to specific procedures in a religious sense nor grounded in any particular set of beliefs. Instead, they are personal actions that participants perform, when and how they decide. Such intimate actions are a transformative means of connection to other species living and gone.

Likewise, through my participatory ecological field surveys, Eco-Actions, I connect people to local ecosystems through physically immersive experiences, collecting data on aquatic species and reflecting on these experiences after. Philosopher Bruno Latour discussed the idea of science being performative. With my Eco-Actions, participants perform science to study ecosystems while being reminded through art that they are a living part of a larger whole of life.

07_BBallengee_Eco-actions_Lough_BooraLough Boora Eco­Actions, 2010. Eco-Actions (public field trips) in Lough Boora, Ireland, in April 2010, organized by Sculpture in the Parkland in celebration of International Save the Frogs Day. Photograph by Kevin O’Dwyer.

DH: Can you talk about your Book of the Dead? Is it a kind of companion piece to the work itself? Do you see it growing into a book in its own right?

BB: It is a complementary component to the overall project. Here pages of the book show close views of the animals’ faces from pre-cut depictions of the Frameworks of Absence. Conceptually, readers look into the eyes of the lost species to have an interpersonal experience. It is available for download for free here.

DH: You referenced Aldo Leopold earlier. In one of his essays, he writes about the numenon, or the essence of a place—”The grouse is the numenon of the north woods.” What do you think has been, and is being, lost with these extinctions?

BB: What’s being lost is our collective legacy as living beings among a huge community of other living beings on this remarkable planet.

DH: But what happens to places when they lose their presiding numenon? Though there is no one alive who can remember the wild “biological storm” (another Leopold line) of the passing flocks, what is North America today, for example, without the passenger pigeon?

BB: Sadly, it is less profound. It’s a less profound place. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the skies darkened by passenger pigeons or the lesser-known Rocky Mountain locust.

RIP Rocky Mountain Locust: After L. Trouvelot, 1880/2015. Artist cut and burnt halftone lithographs, etched glass urn, and ashes, 14 x 27 3/8 inches. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

RIP Rocky Mountain Locust: After L. TrouvelotDetail: RIP Rocky Mountain Locust: After L. Trouvelot.

However, we still have a wonderful diversity of life and ecosystems here in the United States. For example, the Appalachian Mountains alone account for the highest diversity of salamander species on the planet. Although, we have already lost at least one that we are aware of—the Ainsworth Salamander, which disappeared from Mississippi.

RIP Ainsworth’s Salamander: After James Lazell, 1998/2015. Artist cut and burnt photolithograph from scientific publication, etched glass urn, and ashes. 12 7/8 x 15 7/8 inches. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

Much of this richness of life we still have is under imminent threat and it should be a national priority to preserve these species and the habits they need to survive. Such actions would transform the role of our species and are ethical, as suggested by Leopold when he came up with his idea of the “land ethic.” As he stated, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Leopold suggested a paradigm shift in outlooks toward nature, ourselves, and seeing the connection between the two.

DH: You are an artist and a biologist, but you’re also an activist: Do you hope to influence your audience in a particular way?

BB: Yes, to inspire discussion and actions toward conservation. Often people feel that environmental problems are too large and too widespread for individuals to make a difference. This is absolutely not the case. All of our individual actions every day have an influence on ecosystems and biodiversity: what we chose to eat; how we live; where we live; how we travel; if we own land, what to do with it; how we discuss these ideas with others; and on an on. We are part of a larger living community and can individually and collectively make large differences.

In the 1990s environmental workers Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz came up with the concept of “post-normal science,” which suggested using the tools of varied disciplines and the expertise of local stakeholders to address complex social and ecological issues where risks are high and results urgent. Today we find ourselves globally in a “post-normal” situation, as such siloed disciplinary approaches fall short. However, stakeholders from diverse backgrounds working in creative collaborations can bring increased complexity to real-world problem-solving.

DH: I imagine that it can sometimes be a challenge to strike the right balance between art and activism.

BB: When I first began exhibiting my work in NYC in the 1990s it was critiqued as being too “activist” or “science and not art.” As a result, I primarily exhibited work in Europe for almost a decade. Times have changed now, though, and the U.S. art world seems to be more open and supportive of conservation issues addressed through art. Globally, climate change, species loss, and ecosystem collapse are much more a part of our collective vernacular now. Perhaps this growing awareness and concern for the environment is an emerging adaptation for our own species survival.

DH: Do you chose galleries or exhibition locations based on who you might have a chance to reach or influence?

BB: As much as possible, I try to exhibit works in venues that allow me reach audiences with different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds from my own. It’s important to start to have a dialogue, look for common ground, and realize that we all as humans have an equal stake in what is being lost ecologically.

10_Eco-actions_TroyTroy Eco­Actions. Eco-Action (public field trip) in Troy, NY, in August 2014, with residents from the underprivileged North Troy neighborhood in collaboration with the Sanctuary for Independent Media. Photograph by Kathy High.

DH: Despite any progress that’s been made, I admit that I can’t help but fixate on what’s being lost. I started thinking of this earlier when you talked about the Actions of Mourning, but I wonder, at the risk of ending on a dark note, do you, yourself, mourn? And is mourning a critical element in your work?

BB: Yes, without mourning there is no remembering. In the remembering we can choose to take steps to stop further loss of life through our everyday actions and long-term planning along with creative means of conservation. Such actions are just, the time is now, and our own long-term survival along with that of numerous other species is at stake.

As conservationist Laurens van der Post said, “If life on earth were to survive, not a single man, plant, bird, or animal must be allowed to lose its life except through some great necessity of life itself. And in the losing all men should join in with every plant and animal and bird to praise it and mourn its passing as that of something infinitely precious that had given life the service for which it had been conceived and rendered itself well.”  Let us not forget so that we may save.

RIP Glaucous Macaw: After Gustav MützelRIP Glaucous Macaw: After Gustav Mützel. 1878/2014. Artist cut and burnt hand-highlighted chromolithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes, 18 5/8 x 14 5/8 inches. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

—Brandon Ballengée and Darren Higgins


Darren Higgins

Darren Higgins is a writer, editor, and artist living in Waterbury Center, Vermont, with his wife, two sons, and a cat who never comes when she’s called. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has written poems and stories for a variety of publications, essays for a couple of local newspapers, and commentaries for Vermont Public Radio.  


Sep 082015
Mistral 7

Gabriela Mistral – Nobel Prize Ceremony – 1945

Icame to the poetry of Gabriela Mistral through the back door – that is, through her poems for children. As a teacher of graduate students who wanted to write for children, and as someone writing poems for children myself, I was drawn to her cradle songs, her “round dances” and “Tell-a-World” poems, and her “trickeries,” especially the ones that offered up strange images or that went directions that contemporary American rhymes for children do not  often go.


A Tasso de Silveira

Dame la mano y danzaremos;
dame la mano y me amarás.
Como una sola flor seremos,
como una flor, y nada más.

El mismo verso cantaremos,
al mismo paso bailarás.
Como una espiga ondularemos,
como una espiga, y nada mas.

Te llamas Rosa y yo Esperanza;
pero tu nombre olvidarás,
porque seremos una danza
en la colina, y nada mas.


For Tasso de Silveira

Give me your hand and give me your love,
give me your hand and dance with me.
A single flower, and nothing more,
a single flower is all we’ll be.

Keeping time in the dance together,
singing the tune together with me,
grass in the wind, and nothing more,
grass in the wind is all we’ll be.

I’m called Hope and you’re called Rose;
but losing our names we’ll both go free,
a dance on the hills, and nothing more,
a dance on the hills is all we’ll be.

[unless otherwise noted, translations are all by Ursula LeGuin from her book, Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.]

Mistral’s rhythms (especially as translated by LeGuin, who catches both sound and sense perfectly) remind me of the work of Walter de la Mare (“I must go down to the sea again, / to the lonely sea and the sky….”), another writer whose poems for children can inhabit and haunt us.

Most of Mistral’s children’s verses were published in a book titled Ternura (Tenderness); I found a dusty copy among her poetry for adults (and literary criticism about her work) at the graduate library of the University of Washington – my public library didn’t have it. I searched that volume out because I wanted to study how Mistral did it, how she managed to make the leap and bring a certain oddness to her verses for children. While teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to try to “strange it up” in order to make their work less thin and Seuss-like, more haunting, less Hop-on-Pop. Mistral knew how to do that; it’s a worthy goal for people who think, as Maurice Sendak did, that children can handle more than we give them credit for.


Una rata corrió a un venado
y los venados al jaguar,
y los jaguares a los búfalos,
y los búfalos a la mar…

Pillen, pillen a los que se van!
Pillen a la rata, pillen al venado,
pillen a los búfalos y a la mar!

Miren que la rata de la delantera
se lleva en las patas lana de bordar,
y con la lana bordo mi vestido
y con el vestido me voy a casar.

Suban y pasen la llanada,
corran sin aliento, sigan sin parar,
vuelan por la novia, y por el cortejo,
y por la carroza y el velo nupcial.


A rat ran after a deer,
deer ran after a jaguar,
jaguars chased buffalo,
and the buffalo chased the sea.

Catch the ones who chase and flee!
Catch the rat, catch the deer,
catch the buffalo and the sea!

Look, look at the rat in front,
in its paws is a woolen thread,
with that thread I sew my gown,
in that gown I will be wed.

Climb up and run, breathless run,
ceaseless chase across the plain
after the carriage, the flying veil,
after the bride and the bridal train!

We can almost see the children’s game being played out on the playground there, but the poem has the combination of eeriness and sing-song cadences that Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and James Fenton’s “Out of the East” have. Mistral’s poems for children are not always sweet and catchy, nor are they hyper-kinetic with wordplay. They might be called quirky and – at their darkest points – unsettling. That’s true, too, of the oddest and most haunting nursery rhymes we have in English (think “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”)

Mistral 1

Gabriela Mistral – Her First Communion


Que sopló el viento y se llevó las nubes
y que en las nubs iba un pavo real,
que el pavo real era para mi mano
y que la mano se me va a secar,
y que la mano le di esta manaña
al rey que vino para desposar.

Ay que el cielo, ay que el viento, y la nube
que se van con el pavo real!


What if the wind blew and bore away the clouds,
and there was a peacock flying in the clouds,
what if the peacock came to my hand
and my hand is going to wither,
and this morning I gave my hand
to the king who came to be married;

O for the sky, O for the wind and the cloud,
all gone with the king’s peacock.

That poem has something of Wallace Stevens in it (“The palm stands on the edge of space. // The wind moves wind in the branches. / The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”) and something of George MacDonald (author of the classic At the Back of the North Wind.) There are folkloric elements, fantasy elements, and a strong flavor of the fabulous.

When Mistral published Ternura in 1922, she had already been teaching for twenty-two years but was only thirty-six years old. She had been supporting her mother and siblings since she was fourteen, managing to write and publish poetry while she did. A tragic love affair (her lover killed himself over accusations of embezzlement) led to the publication of a book of sonnets (Sonetos de la muerte / Death Sonnets) that won the Chilean National Poetry Prize and established her reputation throughout Chile, all this when she was barely twenty-five years old.

mistral 2

Some critics consider those sonnets her best work, and though they are technically accomplished and passionate, I find her later work more precise, more secular, less sentimental, less florid, and so more connected to the world of senses than to emotional abstractions or questions of religious devotion. After the publication of Ternura, she moved to Mexico, where she tried to help the new Obregon administration establish a post-revolutionary education and library system nationwide. She never again returned to Chile to live, though she represented it as a diplomat in many countries. Neruda studied under her at one point, and both of them, though well-known for their attachment to Chile, spent long years abroad. Though Neruda’s exile was forced, Mistral’s was voluntary. She died in New York in 1957.

Mistral 10
As I say, I came to Mistral through the back door. Knocking on the front door, I would have encountered a steelier poet, a more complicated Mistral: Nobel Prize winner, self-styled exile but world citizen, diplomat and activist (the proceeds of the sale of one of her books went to help Basque children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War), renowned educator, and fierce guardian of her personal privacy. “Gabriela Mistral” was not actually the poet’s name – it was used as the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, born in 1889 in the Elqui Valley of Chile’s Andean Mountains, in the small farming community of Vicuna. Lovely as the more poetic explanation of her pseudonym is (referring to the Archangel Gabriel and to the mistral wind which blows across France toward the Mediterranean Sea), most biographers suggest that the name was chosen to honor the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the French poet and philologist, Frederic Mistral, also a Nobel Prize laureate.

Choosing an alternate way to approach her work allowed me to detour around some of her earlier sentimental work and arrive at what I think her strongest poems for adults are, those published later in her life. The series of poems called “locas mujeres” (crazy women), which includes some of my favorites, was published in Lagar (Winepress), Mistral’s last book of poems. By then, she had lost not only her lover but several friends and a well-loved adopted son to suicide. I have an unpublished manuscript of poems for adults titled “The Madwoman”; it’s only natural I would be drawn to those poems of Mistral’s. Looking at a woman’s perspective on the ordinary objects and routines of this world, once she has some kind of emotional and mental dislocation, is intriguing to me, though not quite as personally motivated as it was for Mistral. Randall Couch, author of the book Madwomen: The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral (he translates the poems – a few of them uncollected at her death – as well as introducing them and addressing the task of translation, both in general and in particular) says that these poems are among Mistral’s most complex and compelling, written “at the height of her powers.” I agree.  Couch goes on to say that Mistral “bends the bow of poetry, a frail weapon against the unhinging of consciousness, into strange new forms.”


Para nadie planta la lila
o poda las azaleas
y carga el agua para nadie
en baldes que la espejean.

Vuelta a uno que no da sombra
y sobrepasa su cabeza,
estira un helecho mojado
y a darlo y a hurtárselo juega.

Abre las rejas sin que llamen,
sin que entre nadie, las cierra
y se cansa para el sueño
que la toma, la suelta y la deja.

Desvíen el agua de la vertiente
que la halla gateando ciego,
espolvoreen sal donde siembre,
entierren sus herramientas.

Háganla dormir, póngala a dormir
como al armiño o la civeta.
Cuando duerma bajen su brazo
a avienten el sueño que sueña.

La muerte anda desvariada,
borracha camina la Tierra,
trueca rutas, tuerce dichas,
en la esfera tamborilea.

Viento y Arcángel de su nombre
trajeron hasta su puerta
la muerte de todos sus vivos
sin traer la muerte de ella.

Las fichas vivas de los hombres
en la carrera le tintinean.
Trocaría, perdería
la pobre muerte de la granjera!


For nobody she plants the lilac,
prunes the azalea,
for nobody carries buckets
of water that reflect her.

Turned towards someone taller
who casts no shadows,
she pulls up a wet fern frond,
plays at giving and taking back.

She opens the shutters though no one calls,
no one comes in, she shuts them,
and wears herself out in the dream
that takes, and frees, and deserts her.

Turn aside the water of the spring
that finds her groping blindly,
scatter salt where she sows,
and bury her farm-tools.

Make her sleep, put her to sleep
like a stoat or a weasel.
when she’s asleep lower her arm
and blow way the dream she dreams.

Crazy Death goes reeling
across the world, drunk,
changes paths, twists fates,
makes earth his dream.

Wind and Archangel of her name
brought to her door
the death of everyone she loved,
and did not bring her own.

Living human poker chips
jingle as he runs.
He must have lost it on a bet,
the poor farm wife’s death.


We all know that a poet, no matter how well his or her books sell in America, will be under-read. The readership for poetry in this country is so small and fiercely segmented, so specific to individual tastes and trends, that we assume a meeting of any poet’s fan club will be sparsely attended (relative to the loyal fan clubs of Stephen King or Barbara Cartland.) This is as true for Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, whose books sell well considering they are full of poems, and whose fans include people who don’t normally read poetry, as it is for a “poet’s poet”  like James Merrill or Elizabeth Bishop. Poetry, no matter how well it sells, is not a best-seller in America. So the idea of poet-as-beloved-symbol-of-her-people and “Mother of the Nation” is a bit hard to comprehend.

In 1945, Gabriela Mistral became the first South American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was cited by the prize committee for “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idyllic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.” Or, as The Poetry Foundation puts it, “[Mistral] will always be seen as a representative figure in the cultural history of the continent.” Scholarly books of criticism, written by critics who are well aware of the need to be politically correct, still use the slightly objectifying term “la Mistral” when referring to Gabriela Mistral (imagine Pablo Neruda being called “el Neruda”!) and she is often referred to simply as “Gabriela” in the Hispanic communities where her children’s poems are sung as lullabies and read in school, and her reputation as an important educator is sustained.  In some segments of Latin American society, Mistral’s reputation paints her with such a saintly or other-worldly brush that she is basically desexualized, not unlike the “mistral” wind her name conjures up, strong but cold. In truth, very little is known about her private life, despite many poems and a large body of personal letters having been poured over for decades by scholars.

What we also know about Mistral is that in South America, at least, she is not undersung; in fact, she’s ubiquitous. Schools are named after her, songs are sung in her honor, festivals and prizes (for poets and teachers) are named after her. Her image was placed on the 5000-peso Chilean bank note (now affectionately called a “gabriela”) in 1981; it has also appeared on stamps throughout South America. When she died and her body was returned to Chile, the Chilean government declared three days of national mourning, and hundreds of thousands of people attended her memorial.

Mistral 5

Mistral 6

Mistral 8 _1957_Ecuador_stamp

Mistral 9

How can a poet born in the Western hemisphere, one who received the Nobel Prize for Literature mid-century, one whose work has been well-translated and reliably kept in print in English, one whose work still reads as modern and relevant, one whose gender might serve as a point of pride for feminists — how can she remain not only undersung among general readers of poetry but among American poets themselves? On the other hand, when I told my sister that I was working on an essay about the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and that I was worried, as I had been about a previous essay in the Undersung series about Eugenio Montale,  whether Nobel laureates could actually be labelled “undersung,” my sister reminded me that 25% of all Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth. I guess it’s no surprise Gabriela Mistral is not a household name from Maine to California. Assuming that a large percentage of practicing poets actually know which heavenly objects orbit which, it’s still true that many American poets have never read Mistral’s work  – certainly not in its original language.

We’re a lazy bunch here in America, second-language-wise, despite the fact that whole sections of the government now print their official documents in Spanish and English. We’re a bilingual country without a bilingual population – bilingualism is taking its own sweet time to catch on.  Hurry up, I feel like saying to my compatriots, learn Spanish and be ahead of the crowd! The benefit of doing so would be not only the ability to converse with and stand together with a growing portion of our fellow countrymen, but the ability to read Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Vincente Aleixandre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Camilo Jose Sela, Jose Saramago, Miguel Angel Asturias (all nine are Nobel Prize winners) and yes, Gabriela Mistral, in the language their work was written in. The current state of affairs seems to suggest that since Robert Frost said (I’m paraphrasing) that poetry is what gets lost in translation, we’ve given ourselves permission not to read translated poetry. After all, if Frost was right, what would be the point? Translated poetry would be an oxymoron. Thank God a few poets – oxymoronic, slippery fish – manage to reach our shores from time to time and make a contemporary splash: Wislawa Szymborska springs to mind, as do C.P. Cafavy and Czeslaw Milosz. But it’s not the feast we might enjoy if we were less Anglocentric. We have an unfortunate history of undervaluing anything  — or anyone — that is outside the mainstream, as Langston Hughes understood when he translated this poem by Mistral:



The green and yellow parrot,
the saffron and green parrot,
called me “ugly,” squawking
with his devilish bill.

I am not ugly, for if I am ugly,
then my mother who looks like the sun is ugly,
the light that is part of my mother is ugly,
and the wind is ugly that sounds in her voice,
and ugly is the water that reflects her body,
and ugly is the world and He who created it…

The green and yellow parrot,
green and shimmering parrot,
calls me “ugly” because he has not eaten,
so I take him bread and wine,
for I am getting tired of looking at him
up there always posed, always shimmering.

—Julie Larios



Julie Larios writes poetry for both children and adults; several of her poems have appeared in the pages of Numero Cinq but she is proudest of her faux-translation “A Cow’s Life,” submitted five years ago to NC’s First Ever Translation Contest. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series. Her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq has previously highlighted the work of R.F. Langley, George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid, John Malcolm Brinnin, Ernst Jandl and The Poet-Novelist.

Sep 072015

Chris Hedges

The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system. —Tom Faure


Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
Chris Hedges
Nation Books, May 2o15
304 pages, $26.99


Drones, the Patriot Act, stagnant real wages, failed public schools, a compliant press, the state’s shutdown of the Occupy movement, Citizens United, Stand Your Ground laws, stop and frisk, Ferguson, fracking, wiretapping, and the continuous mistreatment, often violent, of minorities, women, and particularly trans people. That’s just the tip of the U.S. iceberg. Then you’ve got the rest of the Earth: poverty, hunger, slavery, and injustice—compounded by the effects of global warming.

We’ve heard it all before, and the liberal mainstream has given up due to cynicism and lack of imagination. The lack of a simple solution dispirits idealists. The politics may be boring, but the situation is dire.

Chris Hedges’ Wages of Rebellion, published in May by Nation Books, reminds us of just how dire, chronicling a litany of anti-constitutional practices undertaken by the U.S. government, often in service of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism,” a state run by corporate interest. Hedges does not offer any policy-based panacea, the absence of which will disappoint those looking for quick fixes. Indeed, this important book is more a mix of genres. Over his years of international reporting, Hedges has spoken to rebels like Axel von dem Bussche, Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal, guerrilla fighters, hackers, defense lawyers, Occupy members, and others who toil in the name of social justice. By way of the theories of Gramsci, Havel, Mandela, Baldwin, Paine, and Kant, the book is a series of portraits of these dissidents and rebels, exploring whether a true revolution is in the offing and who the main agents of change would be.

Hedges’ central thesis is that revolution cannot be purely intellectual. He examines the character trait Reinhold Niebuhr called “sublime madness.” Hedges quotes Niebuhr’s declaration that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’” Liberalism is too rational, fearing the emotional component necessary, Hedges and others argue, to revolution. The possessor of sublime madness has foregone the mores of the state in favor of universal moral laws—embracing Kantian dignity and duty despite public ridicule and, frequently, violent retribution.

If there’s one thing you can count on in mainstream political discourse today, it’s that it will be dismissive of unquantifiable notions such as truth, love, passion, and fairness. Probably, this is because political discourse is so widely corrupted by neo-liberal ideology, which looks down on these notions with impatience or, sometimes, an embarrassment born out of, I think, fear and insecurity. Liberalism too often allies itself with one of humanity’s more exploitable capacities: rationality.

These abstract notions and their emotional cousins that receive this lazy derision are precisely what those yearning for revolution must not overlook, according to Hedges. An emotional force is the true catalyst—a force born out of misery but also frustrated expectations. Herein lies a major obstacle to any potential New American Revolutions. The masses are placated because their expectations are not frustrated to a large enough extent. They are sipping caloric Starbucks Frappucinos, commoditizing their digital avatars via the strict norms and algorithms of Facebook, freely handing over to corporate interests their valuable political and commercial data. The poor are angry, yes. But the middle class is sedate.

At Columbia University—a bastion of fascist anarchism, if you believe Bill O’Reilly—a standard introductory macroeconomics course includes on its syllabus, as would be expected, the vastly influential thinker John Maynard Keynes. Bravo, Columbia, you lefties! But Keynes makes up perhaps 2 percent of the syllabus, and he is the only economist featured who offers any critique of the supply-side economics pipedream known as the trickle-down effect. As an 18-year-old student, I was shocked and confused by the lack of rigorous critique of neoliberalism initially offered to undergraduates.

As Hedges notes, faith in the trickle-down effect plays an important role in the global takeover of corporate interests in politics, policy, and culture. The idea that the rise of the elite will benefit the weak is very compelling, for multiple reasons. There’s only one problem. The people “benefiting” from the elite’s exploitation of labor and resources are not the weak who can’t help themselves. They are the middle class—those hanging on by a thread as real wages decline and citizen rights become hollowed out. The weak? They’ve already been eliminated.

A similar dynamic is in play with regard to race. The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system.


The result is the totalitarianism of the invisible hand. Real wages have not increased in decades, millions of people, especially minorities and especially African Americans, are incarcerated thanks to Bill Clinton’s easy-plea-one-two-three, and even if Black Lives Matter takes off, the Keystone XL Pipeline will probably contaminate millions of people’s water on its way to contributing catastrophic greenhouse gases to the environment.

Hedges posits that revolutions happen, not when the people are subdued by total abjection, but rather when they have had a glimmer of hope. Raised expectations follow technical innovations and a rise in the standard of living—this is when the failings of the state, and its all-too-frequent efforts to smother dissent, fuel the fire of rebellion. Much of the battle is invisible, residing in the language and metaphors of the people. Organizing and community-building facilitate the evolution and sharpening of a language necessary to articulate the emotion awakening in the people.

Another key factor, Hedges writes, is the use of nonviolent civil disobedience. Descending into violence or property damage legitimizes the state’s violent response in the eyes of the masses, whose emotional reaction is so key to the success of the revolution.

The growth of social media might offer a beacon of hope. However, Hedges writes, even in this relatively promising domain, dissident leaders fear the state’s ability to infiltrate and control virtual space:

It is only through encryption that we can protect ourselves, Assange and his coauthors argue, and it is only by breaking through the digital walls of secrecy erected by the power elite that we can expose power. What they fear, however, is the possibility that the corporate state will eventually effectively harness the power of the internet to shut down dissent.

Hedges’ book is a multidimensional, somewhat scattered, consistently incisive exploration of the psychological and linguistic margins upon which any revolutionary fervor might explode in the coming decades. Its critics have rolled out the hackneyed rebuttal: “well, if not global capitalism, then what?” Their claim is that Hedges does not offer any new ideas, dismissing as recycled his calls for civil disobedience and labor organizing. But, just because he doesn’t offer a structural alternative to neo-liberal ideology, that does not make the status quo acceptable.

Besides, the main weakness of Wages for this reader is that it’s simply not terrifically written. Too many instances of awkward syntax break rhetorical flow. Hedges is very thorough—the bibliography offers a comprehensive education on the anarchist critique of both capitalism and communism, as well as on the litany of injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government against its people and those abroad—but he also has a tendency to repeat himself, which can be challenging to a reader seeking the next step of the argument. At other times, Hedges does the opposite, veering into hyperbolic leaps of logic without sourcing data—odd, given his assiduous sourcing otherwise—or leading the reader step by step through the argument.

But these are quibbles, because the book is a political manifesto of sorts, not, say, a piece of literary fiction—yet they do matter, because the book could have been more ambitious. It flirts with cultural criticism at times, elevating the discourse on fanatical capitalism to the metaphorical and literary levels—notably, drawing analogies to Moby Dick. But then Hedges either pulls back intentionally or loses interest in the metaphorical thread, I can’t tell which.

Herman Melville’s odd masterpiece is an ode to the ocean and, though his narrator Ishmael warns against viewing the tale as an allegory, a frightening portrait of capitalism as seen through the whaling industry. Captain Ahab, a fanatical sea wolf, is hell-bent on killing the eponymous great “white whale” that took his leg. Ahab is prepared to forego the massive profits of the whaling expedition as he focuses his energy and his men on finding and destroying this one whale. His language contains sublime madness, which is unfortunate for the crew, all of whom will drown because of Ahab’s charismatic quest. Starbuck, the first mate, is one of the few who expresses doubts about Ahab’s plans for the Pequod.

Ahab's white whale has become a popular metaphor.

Ahab’s white whale has become a popular metaphor. Cartoon by Dave Granlund.

The crucial moment comes in Chapter 36 when Ahab enthralls his poor, exploited crew with glorious visions of killing Moby Dick. Ahab notices Starbuck’s uncomfortable look. He invites Starbuck to respond, in full view of the crew. The first mate initially expresses his worry over consigning the entire enterprise to his “commander’s vengeance.” Ahab rebukes this swiftly, using revolutionary language (my emphasis added):

How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Starbuck folds. He lacks the sublime madness (which, interestingly, Ahab does possess, as Hedges acknowledges) or language of rebellion to mutiny against his commander. He bemoans that Ahab has “blasted all my reason out of me!” Hedges writes: “Starbuck especially elucidates this peculiar division between physical and moral courage. […] Moral cowardice like Starbuck’s turns us into hostages. Mutiny is the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. And mutiny is our only salvation.” Hedges makes a compelling argument that today we have too many Starbucks.

Much of Wages focuses on cataloguing the injustices meted out by the state, only reserving a portion of its energy for portraits of rebels and an exploration of this sublime madness. Hedges does not explore with sufficient force how the quality might develop and how those possessing it will harness their passions and wake the masses out of their slumbers. What does emerge, though, is a compelling spotlight on those who are in the trenches today.

“You can’t fight power if you don’t understand it,” says Abu-Jamal from prison. Better understanding can only aid the cause—but until the corporate state trips up in its successful smothering of the will to understand, there’s little chance sublime madness will penetrate the middle class; without this, any real wages of rebellion will continue to stagnate against the inflation buoyed by mainstream narratives of capitalist ideology.

—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.



Sep 062015
Secretariat via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia


Kentucky Derby 1973

Preakness 1973

Belmont Stakes 1973


TRIPLE CROWN WINNER American Pharoah’s recent loss in the 2015 Travers Stakes has, I’ve noticed, occasionally been accompanied by the erroneous remark that the greatest of all Triple Crown champions, the incomparable Secretariat, had also lost that race in Saratoga, the fabled “graveyard of champions.” This misstatement, coupled with the off-hand comment by Donald Trump a week earlier that “Secretariat wasn’t one of the best,” have combined to propel me back to the summer of 1973, to recall at least some of my memories of Secretariat, and to finally record something of the impact he’s had on my life.

In terms of direct, visceral experience, my relationship to Secretariat is reducible to a furtive touch and a mere breath. Yet a similar experience with the great California-bred Swaps—winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby (his owner ignored the other two Triple Crown races) and 1956 Horse of the Year—so affected Bill Nack that it led him to a career that resulted in, among other accomplishments, the writing of the definitive biography of Secretariat, the basis of the widely-viewed 2010 film. Bill and I have become friends, discovering that we have at least two things intensely in common. He is, I quickly learned, an informed appreciator, and public reader, of poetry, not least the poetry of Yeats, the poet whose work I happen to know most about. But Bill is also, of course, not merely enamored of Secretariat, but the world’s leading expert on the horse. That brings us back, again, to that annus mirabilis, 1973.

Though Secretariat had been the phenomenon of that summer, just as The Donald has been the rather-less-glorious phenomenon of the summer of 2015, Big Red had competition for the nation’s attention in 1973. That was also the summer of the Watergate hearings, which I watched on television in the recreation room of Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University. At the time, I was a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar taught by Harold Bloom, already as spectacularly outstanding, indeed unique, in the world of literary criticism as Secretariat had swiftly become in the world of thoroughbred racing.

The national malaise attending Watergate and the dismal winding-down of the tragedy of the Vietnam War had, for many in the country and not only sports fans, been alleviated by the brilliant performances of “the People’s Horse.” It was not only his power, dazzling speed, and breathtaking come-from-behind style that made Secretariat so popular. He was extraordinarily intelligent and curious, with a playful personality almost as noticeable and appealing as his sheer physical beauty. Magnificently muscled, the “perfect horse” or “horse that God made” had a chestnut coat that shimmered like copper in the sunlight. The photos of him that appeared on the covers of three national magazines in a single week have become collectors’ items. The June 11, 1973 Time cover, one of four framed portraits of Secretariat hanging in my home, shows him looking directly at us, eyes alert, ears pricked. The words to the right of the picture say it all: SUPER HORSE.

Time cover

In a curious parallel on the personal level, my despondency in the summer of 1973 over the painful breakup of the most passionate relationship of my life had been relieved by the exhilaration of working with Harold Bloom and, even more, by the thrill of watching Secretariat win the first Triple Crown in a quarter-century. Of course, he not only won; he set records in all three races. Those records still stand more than four decades later; and his culminating performance in the last and longest leg, the Belmont Stakes—winning by 31 lengths in an almost miraculous 2:24 flat—is almost impossible to imagine ever being matched let alone beaten.

But back for a moment to those remarks made in 2015, first Trump’s.

The author of The Art of the Deal brazenly claims that his exaggerations and outright falsehoods are “innocent” utilitarian untruths; the end justifies the means, he argues, and hyperbole is effective salesmanship. His art of the deal continues in the current presidential campaign, with the media-savvy huckster playing fast and loose with facts, while touching, with uncanny insight and precision, more than a few nativist nerves and appealing to a much larger Washington-weary constituency, alienated and frustrated by political polarization and dysfunction.

But, to extend to Trump the fairness he seldom extends to others, his remark about Secretariat was not directed at the horse’s legendary performances on the track but at his lesser performance as a stallion: a testosterone-centered category in which the supermodel-collecting billionaire has always flaunted his own prowess. At the overflow August 21 rally in Mobile, Alabama, where Trump made the casual reference to Secretariat, it was in the context of his characteristic boasting about his own brilliance. On this occasion, referring to his “family’s intelligence,” he announced to the crowd that he “believes in the gene thing.” It was thought, he continued in his usual teleprompter-free stream of loose association, that Secretariat “couldn’t produce slow horses. But Secretariat wasn’t all that great, if you want to know the truth.”

From the documentary Penny & Red: the Belmont Stakes extended cut

The slur, as usual with Trump, was a half-truth. It’s true that Secretariat never produced a horse of his own caliber (what sire could?), thus disappointing the unrealistic expectations of some who had invested in that expensive $6 million syndicate and were dreaming of miraculous progeny. But he did in fact sire some stakes-winning colts and a series of remarkable daughters, most notably, the 1986 Eclipse Horse of the Year, Lady’s Secret, who won many Grade 1 races and dominated the field in that year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic. She is one of the few fillies ranked among the 100 top thoroughbreds. Another of Secretariat’s daughters, Terlingua, became the dam of Storm Cat, the most successful sire (his breeding fee at the peak of his stud career was $500,000) in thoroughbred history.

Though it is as a broodmare sire that Secretariat has left his most enduring mark on breeding, he did produce several fine colts as well. His son Tinner’s Way had lifetime earnings of over $1.8 million. Another, Risen Star, was beaten (along with all the other boys) in the 1988 Kentucky Derby by the sensational filly, Winning Colors, who ran wire-to-wire. But he came back in the remaining Triple Crown races, taking The Preakness and then romping to victory in the Belmont, in what was then a time second only to that of his daddy. Another son of Secretariat, General Assembly, won a number of stakes races, most dramatically the 1979 Travers, in which, on a sloppy track, he set a new record, 2:00 minutes flat: a mark that still stands, both for the Travers and for that distance, 1¼ miles, at Saratoga.

I was there that wet day, cheering on General Assembly in the performance of his life, but also in what I saw as an act of poetic justice: payback for the medical fluke that, a half-dozen years earlier, had prevented his father from adding to his Saratoga legacy following his Triple Crown triumph earlier that summer.



I had been in love with Secretariat from the first time I saw him in the flesh and, in fact, actually touched him. That was in Saratoga in early August, 1972, in the minutes leading up to the Hopeful Stakes. I was at the paddock rail when a man standing to my immediate right pointed his camera at Secretariat. With Ronnie Turcotte in the saddle, the beautiful two-year-old, already a camera-conscious star, strode to the rail. I instinctively raised my hand, then thought better of it; after all, he would be on the track competing in just a few minutes. However, Turcotte, with a resigned and understanding nod, gave me the green light. When I stroked that muscled crest of a neck, Secretariat turned and looked right at me with those intelligent eyes. I felt the warmth of his breath on my bare forearm. Hopeful Stakes

The young colt then went out and ran the most dazzling Hopeful Stakes in the history of a race often thought of as a preview of the following year’s Triple Crown competition. He broke languidly, then, in a sudden, breathtaking move, surged past eight horses, exploding from dead last to first in little more than a furlong. He would do the same thing the following year, in The Preakness, making the other horses look as if they were standing still as he rocketed by. But by then he was a mature three-year-old. When he made that huge move in the Hopeful, I was jumping up and down, yelling to everyone near me that we were watching the future Triple Crown champion. My friends laughed at my premature enthusiasm, but I wasn’t just responding to that unprecedented burst of speed; I was still conscious of having stroked him, still feeling his breath on my arm. Bill Nack has said that he can still remember the life-changing moment when Swaps, the first horse he loved, breathed on his hand as he was stroking him. From the day I touched Secretariat and he breathed on me, I was similarly smitten for life.

The other half-truth I referred to was a claim made in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s failure on August 29. Secretariat, too, we were told, had lost at Saratoga, with the implication sometimes explicit: that he had “lost” the Travers.

American Pharoah did indeed lose the Travers. Bill Nack, recently asked to contribute to a special American Pharoah issue of the horse magazine Equus, told the editor that he was not the right contributor since he could not bring himself to rank the horse among “the greatest in history”; the editor invited him to write instead about a few of those he did so rank. Pharoah’s performance in the Travers may confirm Bill’s skepticism, conveyed to me in an email full of wonderful anecdotes about the golden age of racing.

Prior to the Travers, not even that email could steer me off Pharoah. I was at the track and noticed, from about 40 feet away, that he was sweating as he headed out for the big race, and it seemed clear, even though he led for almost the entire trip, that he was running tired. As his trainer, Bob Baffert, observed even as he graciously complimented the winner, his horse “did not bring his A-game.” No wonder—having been flown back and forth across the country in a matter of three weeks. Following his Belmont win, capping the first Triple Crown in 37 years, Pharoah had won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth handily, with his jockey, Victor Espinoza, coasting in the final stage of the stretch, saving his horse for what we all hoped would be the Travers. It was well known that Baffert didn’t like Saratoga, whose track-surface he considers deep and demanding; and Saratoga’s reputation as the “graveyard of champions” had been painfully demonstrated to him in past attempts to win the Big One at the Spa. Baffert had saddled five strong horses in previous Travers Stakes, winning only once, in 2001, with the great Point Given.

It was probably the combination of a dazzling work on August 22 at Del Mar, Pharoah’s home track in California, coupled with the NYRA decision to sweeten the Travers purse by $350,000 to $1.6 million in an attempt to lure the colt back across the country, that convinced the owner, Ahmed Zayat, and a more reluctant Baffert to run their horse in the Travers.

On top of the cross-country travel, Pharoah was not given sufficient time, less than three days, to acclimate himself to Saratoga. In the race, even in the lead, he did not seem his usual smooth self. Challenged at the head of the stretch by Frosted, he struggled, but regained the lead. That was the moment to close the deal, and many of us thought he was about to. But having beaten back the challenge by Frosted, Pharoah could not hold off the late rush of Keen Ice, who had also closed on him in the Haskell, cutting his lead from 5 to 21/2 lengths. But, with that race won, Espinoza had eased back. In the Travers, in sharp contrast, he was whipping Pharoah hard. But the horse was spent; Keen Ice passed him in the final seconds, to win by a full length.

His schedule may have been mismanaged, but the 2015 Triple Crown champion had his shot at the Travers and was beaten fair and square. In 1973, Secretariat had never gotten his chance. After easily winning the Arlington Invitational in Chicago, Secretariat was scheduled to run in both major races at Saratoga, the Whitney and the Travers, and was overwhelmingly expected to win both. Coming back to the scene of his triumphs as a two-year-old in the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes, the Triple Crown champion was welcomed as a returning hero. The Saturday of the Whitney Stakes, August 4, was declared Secretariat Day; the town was festive, draped in his blue and white colors, and—he lost!

In an astonishing upset, he was beaten by Onion, trained by Allan Jerkins. When those of us watching in growing dismay finally realized that Secretariat, who came in second, wasn’t going to storm past Onion in the stretch, a shockwave of disbelief spread through the grandstand, stunning an adoring crowd that had come to see the triumph, on his way to the Travers, of the greatest thoroughbred since Man o’ War—whose only defeat came as a two-year-old in the 1919 Sanford at (of course) Saratoga, losing to a 100-1 longshot unbelievably but aptly named Upset.

In the eerie silence that followed my hero’s defeat, I left the track in tears. It turned out that Secretariat had not simply been the victim of Jerkins as “giant killer” or of Saratoga as the graveyard of champions, however well-earned both those reputations were. Secretariat had failed to fire in the stretch because of a virus he had been incubating, a low-grade fever that—salt in the wound—also prevented him, as he further sickened, from competing in the Travers.

His son would help make up for that by winning the Travers in the fastest time ever recorded. But that would be six years in the future. The immediate compensation for the numbing disappointment of the Whitney came just a month later, and I was there to see Secretariat’s astonishing recovery. What was originally intended to be a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge, had been cancelled when both horses unexpectedly lost. Instead, a star cast was assembled for the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup Invitational.

Along with Riva Ridge and Onion, the talented field included Annihilate ‘Em (the actual winner of the 1973 Travers), Canadian champion Kennedy Road, and the 1972 three-year-old champion, Key to the Mint. I was at Belmont on that September day when, with his stablemate coming in second, Secretariat galloped to victory in 1:452/5, setting a new world record for 11/8 miles on dirt. Once again, I left the track after the feature race—again in tears, but this time tears of joy.

Secretariat via Zenyatta

Secretariat in retirement, running for the fun of it



Such tearful reactions may seem excessive to those who don’t share the passion some of us have for truly great horses. So let me try one more story involving tears and Secretariat. This one takes place not long after 1989, the year Secretariat, suffering from incurable laminitis, was humanely euthanized (yes, I wept that day, but that’s not the tale of tears I’m about to tell). I was visiting Saratoga, to see friends and to take in some races. Walking on Union Avenue, I noticed that one of the great houses was serving temporarily as a museum. I went in and was immediately struck by a splendid bronze in the middle of the room.

Secretariat statue

Perhaps two-thirds life-size, it depicted Secretariat immediately after winning the Kentucky Derby. Having just broken the old Derby record (Secretariat’s 1:592/5 still stands), the horse is pumped. Turcotte is in the saddle, gripping the reins, but one feels the strength pulsing under him. Even Eddie Sweat, his groom and the man who knew “Big Red” best, can barely restrain him. Fluent in bronze, Secretariat’s muscles are sharply delineated, his eyes dilated with excitement. The sculptor had caught perfectly the stunning surface beauty of the horse and the flexed power throbbing beneath that rippling coat.

via Horseguru

Noticing me admiring it, the curator walked over and asked if I had a minute for a story involving the sculpture. Unsurprisingly, I did. She told me that the piece was not commissioned but a labor of love, begun by the artist on a much smaller scale, but gradually possessing him until this seemed the minimum size to convey his sense of the horse. When it was exhibited, the sculptor arranged for Eddie Sweat to be flown up from Florida, where he was still working with horses.

When Eddie arrived, the sole black man in a white world of brie and chablis, he walked directly to the sculpture. He proceeded to circle it, slowly and repeatedly, without saying a word and with no discernable facial expression. At last the sculptor, concerned (the curator told me) by the lack of overt response on the part of the man who knew Secretariat most intimately, walked over to him.

“What’s the matter, Eddie,” he asked nervously, “You don’t like it?”

His eyes never leaving the sculpture, Eddie said simply:

“That’s him; that’s him.”

The sculptor, so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room, later told the curator that lavish praise from the most distinguished art critic in the world could not have meant as much to him as those four words from Eddie Sweat.

Eddie Sweat and SecretariatEddie Sweat and Secretariat

The artist was internationally renowned equine sculptor Edwin Bogucki, who had first conceived of a tribute to Secretariat after seeing the horse in retirement at Claiborne Farm, just months before his death. Later, to reproduce the horse in his prime, he examined photos, made sketches, and took measurements. Ron Turcotte was always to be included in the piece. But when Bogucki saw a photograph of Eddie Sweat, alone and in tears, having just surrendered his beloved “Red” to Claiborne to begin his retirement, he knew that no depiction of Secretariat would be complete without the man who knew and loved him best.

The magnificent life-size version of this sculpture is now on permanent display in Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, the entrance to which is guarded by a statue of Man o’ War, its pedestal resting on the transposed grave of the only horse in thoroughbred racing history that can be considered Secretariat’s equal.

Secretariat’s own grave is nearby, at Claiborne Farm. Traditionally, even a champion thoroughbred’s body is cremated; only the symbolic head, heart, and hooves are buried. Secretariat was given the rare honor (shared only, as far as I know, by Man o’ War and the greatest of all fillies, beautiful, doomed Ruffian) of being buried whole. Even the oxygen-crunching organ that powered him to records—revealed in the necropsy to be the largest equine heart ever measured—was returned intact to his body. Visitors to that grave who also happen to love poetry may be reminded of the opening and closing lines of Wordsworth’s sonnet evoking immense power at rest: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty…/ And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

Last video of Secretariat

—Patrick J. Keane

September 2, 2015


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).


Sep 052015

Poets outside The Poet’s House, Portmuck 1995. Photo by Todd Rudy.

The Poets’ House was established in 1990 by American poet Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late husband James Simmons, a senior Irish poet, literary critic and songwriter from Derry. Created initially as a centre of excellence for the study and writing of poetry in 1990, it began offering MAs in Creative Writing awarded through Lancaster University in 1994. Martin Mooney (an Uimhir a Cúig featured poet) joined as an additional faculty member.  Located first in Portmuck, Islandmagee, Co Antrim, the centre later moved to Falcarragh, Co Donegal. Visiting poets included Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Paul Durcan, John Montague, and Carol Ann Duffy. For many years Michelle Mitchell-Foust, a student and later poet-in-residence, lectured there on contemporary American poets. In this month’s Uimhir a Cúig, both Janice and Michelle share their memories of the Poets’ House and naturally enough, there are poems galore. It is a particular pleasure to publish a number of James Simmon’s poems here. As another Uimhir a Cúig featured poet, Thomas McCarthy wrote: “Ulster poetry without Simmons would be unthinkable, and any discussion of Irish poetry that omits him falls flat on its face… In a destitute time his independence of spirit is exemplary and profound.”

I had the good fortune to spend two weeks at The Poets’ House in Portmuck in 1995 (in fact, you can see me shouldering my way into the photo immediately below!)  –  fond memories indeed.

—Gerard Beirne



Janice & James Simmons with poet Paul Durcan (right) outside The Poets’ House, Portmuck. Photo by Todd Rudy.


In 1980, I came to Ireland on an extended holiday and saw a castle in Lough Eske. The castle was for sale, and after having been the assistant director of the Frost Place in the United States, I thought that I would like a place as majestic as this castle to house the voices of American and Irish poets. The Poets’ House wasn’t to be for another ten years, when I visited Ireland again and discussed my idea with people at the Project Art Center. I wanted to acknowledge and foster the differences among poets writing in English in a writing center in Ireland where poets could discuss craft and process.

In 1990 that center was born, the brain child of me and my partner James Simmons, who believed in my visions and joined in my journey to realize this one. The Poets’ House in Port Muck, Islandmagee, Country Antrim opened to poets from all nationalities, all walks of life. The house looked out onto the Irish Sea, and beyond that, Scotland. So the workshops in our center would look out onto pods of dolphins in the little harbor beyond our doors.

At first, there were only a few gathered. During its first summer term, the poets in residence included Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Anthony Cronin, Paul Durcan, Peter Sirr, Derek Mahon, Moya Canon, Paula Meehan, Theo Dorgan, Simon Armitage, and Carol Ann Duffy. Among the students were Matthew Donovan, Daryl Armitage, Nessa O’Mahoney, Denise Blake, Moyra Donaldson, and Michelle Mitchell-Foust, who came back to The Poets’ House as an American Poet in Residence after being a student in the program. Each session that followed that first year had an American Poet in Residence, and these poets include Sherod Santos, William Matthews, Jean Valentine, Roger Weingarten, Ralph Angel, and Billy Collins.

The Poets’ House sessions, three a summer, were structured as lectures, workshops, and readings, with each day featuring a different poet. The poet lectured in the morning, conducted a workshop in the afternoon, and gave a reading in the evening. Students had one day off per week so that they might have the opportunity to travel to gorgeous destinations as part of the course– places such as the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle. Students from all over the world learned from an array of topics, including Irish folklore, the sounds of Irish birds, science poems, the God vision, and curse poems. Students learned of poets of all periods and all languages, such as Lorca, Pound, Rilke, Dickinson, Mandlestom, and Dante and Dante’s revisionists. For years, students heard Michelle Mitchell-Foust’s lectures on contemporary American poets who are women who question of boundaries of twentieth-century poetry: Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Susan Howe, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, and Ann Lauterbach. The days were rich with poetry, and the nights were rich with singing. James Simmons was a gifted poet and singer, and under his direction, we sang for the faculty and students and with them, and we created an environment that lent itself to the growth of poetry.

After three years, we knew that the Poets’ House could be expanded to include an MA program, the first in Ireland to be awarded for creative writing. The Poets’ House partnered with Lancaster University to build this graduate program. The program graduated sixty students, among them Heather Wood, Paul Grattam, Joe Woods, Matt Donovan, and Adrian Fox. Our faculty included Martin Mooney, Medbh McGuckian, Paula Meehan, Bernard O’Donahue, and Eilean Nichuilaanain.

Suffice it to say that no program in Ireland or America at the time could provide the kind of experience that poets at The Poets’ House could provide. With the Simmons family at its center, the summer and MA courses educated poets at the same time as they fostered them. No one, not even the faculty, left The Poets’ House without being touched by the magical foundation it provided.


Leaving America

A child’s question — Who am I?
A new self in the Old World; I’m changed.
The arm of a wild Atlantic still before me.
Does it matter which —
Bar Harbor or the mouth of Belfast Lough?

Seals sometimes come into harbour
and occasional letters from home.
The seals, I imagine, are messengers from Maine.
They rise from the water, their funny heads
tilting sideways like dogs listening.
They say: ‘Cape Porpoise is full of tourists —
you don’t miss it.’

And I can imagine the Shetlands out there —
Otters in the blue inlets that glow with afternoon light.
If l close my eyes I can see further:
the fjords of Northern Europe,
mountains and midnight sun.
Our house looks eastward.

The final vision is, always, our snowy bed —
the high grazing fields above us,
the water, rock and harbour wall below.

I’m home and dry.

This is an island, her people calling out to sea.
All other lands are imagined, all other peoples.
These boundaries are defined by nature.


My urge to move west has left me.
Maybe I’ll never see California.
Lately, I’m hesitant to leave home;
to leave Portmuck for Belfast.
My gardens are beautiful in the spring sun;
gold and green and full of birds
whose songs I’m still learning.


I’m leaving America.
This is more difficult than I imagined.
First there was poetry and then love — they came easy.

At the beach I can just hear,
rising from the voice of water,
muffled as the sound inside a shell,
the chant of the Arapaho
or New England’s native Algonquins.
Sometimes they sing louder
and sound better from this distance
than all the old songs of the Irish.
I recite out loud the Indian place names I remember:
Wampanog Trail, Lake Winnepesaukee, Squam,
They tell of familiar earth, of forest before plain —
colder winters, hotter summers, extremities.

All choices made and no regrets
here is the Atlantic before me —
the same big shining sea.


Energy To Burn
in memory of James Simmons

I walk by the sea: it has the power
to wash away years.
It is fierce with life.
Blue green waters thunder and foam
hurling down the long strand at Tramore.
Yesterday a small dolphin
flesh torn and gnawed,
lay dead on the strand.

Wary with life I understand
now why my mother would call me
away from that element that swept her
and two of my kindergarten sisters out a mile;
her powerful, desperate tread keeping them all afloat
until the coastguard lifted the three
from deadly cold west Atlantic waters

where I swam too.
I swam until brine burned tongue and lips.
I could fly in that element
and leapt in the waves and glided
ignoring the terror of sharks,
ignoring the power of the ocean tides and currents,
fierce in that water, as children must be fierce.

In the office my feet still tread sand,
I walk beside that element, my blood in the same salt balance
with storm turquoise of swelling water,
its white churned crash,
alive with energy to burn.


The Word Made Flesh

I was teaching the Roethke poem
where the glass house is a boat enduring the storm
when the moth landed. I should have stopped talking
and pointed the moth out, but couldn’t.

The moth was an angel of the afternoon
stopped for a moment between the cherry
and the climbing rose. An emperor moth the size of my hand
rested on the white wall of the cottage back garden.
A great arc of sunlight caught the moth’s wings.
The eyes of the wings were flowing deep blue­ —
almost indigo, swirls of white made an illusion of spinning;
the spinning earth then;

in miniature on the wings of a moth whose body
the colour of sunset and of the night sky
is doomed as we to brief life-caught in the light of an afternoon
to be a sign for seasons, for day and years.

—Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons

James Simmons, Portmuck. Photo by Todd Rudy.


The Rat Under the Roses

My daughter says, ‘Don’t smoke, Daddy.
It frightens me.’ I love that young lady;

but how can I curb my pleasure, be suddenly stealthy
with life, given I’m still strong and healthy?

The stale air gathered in each good lung
resonates on the vocal chords. Anna’s fright
is part of a puritan fashion that I must fight
with words and music. These good songs will be sung.

We sing. `The rat under the roses’, and Ben’s joke
is to search the bushes. I smile and smoke.


The Island Again

The season slid from Winter to the next,
snowdrops and crocus to hawthorn blossom, the hum
of bees, then pansy, rose, chrysanthemum.
The whole happy gamut hardly vexed

by touches of blight, of failure in leaf or root.
Gooseberry followed strawberry, the few we rear,
on till we watched the blackberries appear,
wild in the hedges, we were gorged on fruit

making our last surveys of our estate
before the snow. Oh the longevity
of the wild briars that never fade away,
but bloom, bear fruit, shrink back slowly and wait.

Our lives seemed overtaken by one flower.
Night-scented stock was event after event
so huge and satisfying, a cloud of scent
enveloping everyone at the front door,

any old life, its irritations and pride,
frozen, melted, raised up in the flower-smelling.
The two of us at the dark door of our dwelling.
The two of us at the dark door of our dwelling
Looking at nothing, that imminence outside.


How Poems Come


Outside, above my left shoulder
was their bedroom window,
the one he heard his wife through
when she opened the far door
of the porch that morning.

Van Macklin worked it all out for me…
a lovely old lady scholar, wearing
her learning light.
She sat up all one night
trying to make sense
of one of my misspellings,
`wain’ for `wean’.
She is a source
of laughter and respect.

Anyway, in that poem,
his wife woke the first bird
to sing that day,
him still in bed upstairs
brimming with bad temper
or love, or thinking poetry.
The one sound he heard
was the door opening—
her steps on grass were silent.
His curiosity is good fun.
He wrote, ‘neither was song
that day to be self-begun.’


I urge my students to really work at rhyme
because, of poems I know by heart, most
have the sound there marking out the time.
Unweeded inspirations plus compost
is not organic—the garden goes to seed.
An artificial shape is what they need;

but if the lore of traditional form is lost,
like Berryman, be haunted by its ghost.

`Why not say what happened?’ was one excuse
for self indulgence, we hard men staying loose;
but how do you know what happened, how can you say
the truth without that drum-beat in your ear?
So we read Hayden Carruth’s poem for Ray
that Adrian loves, colloquial,
truly unbuttoned, as crazy as fox Cal,
and trained by reading Frost and Shakespeare



The pale green of coastal water, shallow
over sand, were Janice’s eyes today.
Her broad back is freckled. Going grey
early gives her a luminous ash-blond halo.

Years ago, I imagined an itinerant younger brother
kissing awake a sleeping girl who shrieked.
This is what happened to me in my first week…
and now that wakened princess is my lover.

My kisses etcetera released her from the spell
of marriage to a violent, sick young man
that her upbringing taught her to stick by;
but the years didn’t seem to have taught me well.

I wasn’t ready yet to act the part
in a story I never wanted to hear,
and yet I couldn’t close my ears.
I had to listen, and I learnt by heart.

—James Simmons

Michelle Mitchell-Foust reads ‘Hunter Gatherers’ at The Poets’ House, Falcarragh – introduced by Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons

On my first day of teaching at the Poets’ House, I found myself in an old Irish one room house-turned conservatory. At the far end of the room was a fireplace with a turf fire smoking. That end of the room got light from a window. On the windowsill, the tea was brewing. Before me sat a group comprised of an Irish bilingual senior citizen farmer, an Irish mother of seven, a younger Irish mother and her ten-year-old child, a distinguished Irish gentleman from the town, who was also an Irish language speaker, a young Irishman from Belfast, and several graduate students, one from Canada, and two of my former students who had come from the states at my suggestion. The graduate students were enrolled in the course as part of their M.A. in creative writing through Lancaster University.

In every way, the setting was ideal, complete with the sea outside the window. And the mix of students was something I was accustomed to from my teaching of creative writing classes at Fullerton College in California, only the Poets’ House had significantly fewer English Learners. I would be delivering a lecture in the morning, which might include a writing exercise, and conducting a workshop in the afternoon. I would give or attend a reading in the evening. I knew from my experience of attending the Poets’ House courses as a student what student expectations might be like. I also knew that students from Ireland and students from America and Canada would expect different things and acquire different facilitating.

I knew that all of the students were eager to have an audience for their work, and they were a mature group of people (even the child seemed wise beyond her years). Therefore, I knew that they would respond well to a supportive and constructive workshop setting, which is a necessary community for each writer. They would benefit from my completion of an M.A. and a Doctorate in Creative writing, where I had the opportunity to teach creative writing classes at University of Missouri-Columbia. I had a fairly traditional approach at MU, having students bring in copies of poems for written and verbal critique by myself and their peers in a workshop environment. I would later teach themed creative writing courses and cross-genre courses. And I would make writing and its process the focus of our time in the classroom, with 40% of the time dedicated to critique. I wrote a book-length manuscript of my own prompts for this purpose.

In the Poets’ House workshop, issues of syntax, diction, and form were open for discussion. We paid special attention to the nuances of point of view, as they are outlined in Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint, considering the telepathy and the global reach of the discourse. Readers made suggestions for revision and developed their critical evaluative skills. It was especially exciting to discuss the richness of the Irish language and its elasticity as well as the many American slang terms and colloquialisms that turn up in poems. On occasion I also asked students to discuss poems in affinity groups. I supplemented this course with reading in poetry texts such as Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order so that students had a resource for the terminology and the genre conventions as well as examples of the forms. (Reading is as important as writing for students in writing classes!) I did not lecture the class on prosody, preferring instead to discuss relevant craft issues as the need arose during our discussion of the poems.

One of my fondest memories involves one of the writing workshops in Donegal. A student brought her little daughter and her daughter’s friend along, so I decided to have the students write out ghost stories as a warm-up or a pre-writing exercise, so we all broke up the circle to travel to places around the house. The little girls went under a bush in the back yard to do their writing. When we all came to together, I started with the little girls. The one with the red hair had a wild tale of the “Fenchi”. She said she had found the most frightening book in the world, and she had taken it to school to scare all of her classmates with the “Fenchi”. The book said that if you put a piece of furniture, such as a chair, in the wrong place in your house, the “Fenchi” would come for you. Even as the girl read her story, she shivered with her residual fears. It took some discussion for me to discern that the little girl was talking about a book on Feng Shui! The book based on the Chinese customs for “harmonizing your living environment” absolutely terrified the girl and her classmates!

Furthermore, for our course in Donegal, we also had access to an impressive library of contemporary Irish, English, and American poetry at the Poets’ House. But the primary texts were the students’ poems. Where the challenges came in involved pacing and rigor. American students were use to faster-paced courses with more stringent and involved writing and reading requirements. They were quicker to use the poetry vernacular and to refer to schools of poetry. Irish students were especially strong during discussions of poems; they liked to take their time during their critiques, and they were better read than their American peers, so that they were able to draw from their readings during their verbalizing of recommendations. These strengths on the part of all students made for excellent teaching experiences.

During the ten years that I taught at the Poets’ House during their summer sessions, I had the opportunity to team-teach the workshop with other Irish poets and American Poets-in-Residence. For one summer course, I taught with Billy Collins, and it was an extremely rewarding experience for everyone involved. We were able to take a few “field trips” as part of this course, including a couple of memorable ones to a 7th century grave yard about a mile from the Poets’ House, where one American student was able to find an ancient ancestor’s grave, and we saw a rainbow at midnight. Because we teachers were working with the students each day of the course for the entire day and evening, we could refine our discussions and make sure that students received feedback in a group settling, on field trips, and during one-on-one conferences with me. The Poets’ House was the optimal setting for teacher-student communication about the students’ creative process.

As a Professor of English, teaching literature and creative writing, my pedagogy asks for dedication to educating as a question of human communication and its improvement and preservation. I resist the notion that education employs only a transmission of knowledge. We are talking about human communications that are working their way toward the beautiful and the sublime.



These look on: the magpie fanning
over the road’s descent to the sea
whose brown jellies and dolphins look on,
and on the road farther along,
the red cows, the miles of animals
lying down, whose backs make a soft sea
of their own in the green. They look on
to the open window in the poets’ house
where the music comes from.
There’s a tree inside the house,
and a guitar and toy swords,
and a family, two children and a dog,
and more people and more whose every atom
joined to take this beauty down.

—Michelle Mitchell-Foust


Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons was born in Boston and took her MA at the University of New Hampshire. She is a former Assistant Director of The Robert Frost Place in New Hampshire. In 1990 she co-founded The Poets’ House in Portmuck, Co Antrim. She received The Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in 2009 and The Royal Literary Fund Bursary in 2010. She has published five collections of poetry, her most recent being St. Michael and the Peril of the Sea (Salmon Poetry).


James Simmons was born in Londonderry in 1933 and died in Donegal in 2001. He taught for three years in the sixties at Ahmadu Bellow University, Nigeria. On his return he lectured in drama and Anglo-Irish literature at the New University of Ulster. He founded and edited the literary journal The Honest Ulsterman. He published numerous poetry collections of poetry with The Bodley Head, The Blackstaff Press, and Salmon Poetry. The Selected James Simmons (edited by Edna Longley) was published in 1978 (Blackstaff Press) and Poems, 1956-1986 was published by The Gallery Press in 1986. He published a critical study of Sean O’Casey (New York, St Martin’s Press, 1983) and released four LPs of his songs.


Michelle Mitchell-Foust is an American poet whose published works include Circassian Girl (Elixir Press), Imago Mundi (Elixir Press). She and Tony Barnstone edited the anthologies Poems Dead and Undead (Everyman Press) and Monster Poems: Poems Human and Inhuman (Everyman Press), which will be out in September, 2015. She was a student at the Poets’ House in 1992, and an American Poet in Residence at the Poets’ House for ten years.

Sep 042015
Larry Fondation

Larry Fondation


Traditionally, novels tend to have a single central character, the focus of the action — the protagonist. All other players in the drama are ancillary, even peripheral. The trajectory happens to — and centers upon — a single person.

Yet in this quickened era — the epoch of text and email and social media — events affect many people simultaneously, en masse and all at once.

By and large, fiction has not kept up with the contemporary change of pace. Music and the visual arts have been more advanced in this regard. Since Marcel Duchamp and Cubism, painting and sculpture have sought to represent — and to not represent (e.g. abstraction, conceptual art, etc.) — the multiple cacophonies of the rapid world. As far back as 1952, John Cage’s “4’33″” represents the apotheosis of radical music, stemming from the dissonant and atonal movements of the earlier 20th Century, not to be outdone by jazz or rock.

Despite the radicalism of other art forms, most contemporary literature, especially American literature, remains rooted in the forms of the 19th Century. Seemingly skipping glibly by the advances of Beckett and Jean Genet, Donald Barthelme and Pierre Guyotat, Ron Sukenick or even John Dos Passos, writers such as Jonathan Franzen (and most others atop the literary bestseller lists) revert to the forms of Flaubert and Balzac and Henry James. Perfect perhaps for 1900; less fitting for 2015.

Meanwhile, many other current writers (usually published by the small presses) now seek a new form for new times, just as Alain Robbe-Grillet and others did more than 50 years ago with the nouveau roman.

I am by no means alone, but I am certainly among those writers looking for new ways and means to reflect our times.

I have published five books of fiction in the U.S. – three have been translated into French and published in France, with my 4th due out there in 2016. Not a single one of my books has a single narrator or even a solo protagonist. I’m not sure this is on purpose, really; but a choral voice is what comes out of my pen.

Urban life seems to me to be marked by a multitude of occurrences, of discontinuous incidents and syncopated rhythms. Traditional narrative arc works well for certain kinds of portrayals. But not necessarily for the jumble of urban living, especially living on or close to the streets. Indeed there a lot of unintended consequences in contemporary life on both large and small scales. I try to approximate the discontinuity with short, stark vignettes that I hope, when taken together, add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I don’t want to write in a trendy way or to mimic social media conventions, but I do want to try to find new means to communicate.

In a French review of my first novel (Angry Nights in English; Sur Les Nerfs in French), critic Frederic Fontes called the book an “unidentifiable literary object.” The description was a compliment, and I took it to be so.

In English language reviews of my second book, Common Criminals, novelist Barry Graham wrote: “…this is not life as we normally read about it in books — this is life as we actually live it.” (Detroit Metro Times) …. and Matt Roberson, in an insightful essay for The American Book Review, called the texts: “… Shocking and shockingly strong pieces.”

Stories and pieces — but what is the book as a whole?

When pressed, I describe myself as an “experimental realist.”

What I mean by that term is that I try to write in the rhythm of my times — in the way that the gangster rap group NWA depicted Los Angeles and Compton in the late 1980s and early 1990s – in musical idiom that matched their reality.

In other words, I am trying to find new forms. In a sense, it harks back once again to Duchamp — the found object, objet trouvé. Now — in words, not pictures — that means hard, fast, and staccato.

In a Rain Taxi review of Unintended Consequences (my 4th book), Canadian novelist Jeff Bursey wrote that the texts told the tale of Everyman, limning the stories of the seldom-heard, and often-neglected “Greek Chorus,” rather than the well-known stories of Oedipus or Antigone.

In yet another review of the (same) book, Tony Rodríguez wrote: “… (Fondation) doesn’t level the playing field with books found in a similar genre. Plainly stated, (he) aggressively razes the genre (crime writing, literary) and seemingly creates something new.” (East Bay Examiner)

In my view, these critics get it. Indeed they nail it dead on. I am not trying to write traditional — or even “postmodern” — novels, and I am not writing “short stories.”

The idea that animates my work is the notion of a “collective novel” — in French, “un roman du collectif.” From my vantage point — in the inner city of Los Angeles — the “new, new novel” should not be the story of a single protagonist, not the tale of one man or woman — but rather the fictional “biography of a place,” a tale of a tribe, the Iliad more so than the Odyssey — Las Meninas, by both Velasquez AND Picasso.   Not either/or; rather both/and.

In my view, the post-realist book of fiction is an “ensemble novel” — a collage, owing more to Alberto Burri and Robert Rauschenberg than to Henry James.

Twentieth century French novelist Raymond Queneau opined that all Western literature was derived from either The Iliad or The Odyssey. Despite the fact that we are so clearly now living in an Iliad world, our literature largely ignores the vast number of ordinary men and woman playing at the corners of the stage.

The contemporary British poet Alice Oswald has written a book of poems based on The Iliad – only she has removed the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon and retained only the stories of the lives and deaths of the bit players. In The Guardian (U.K.) review of Oswald’s book (Memorial: An Excavation of The Iliad), critic Sarah Crown writes: “In [Oswald’s] version, the absence of the monolithic main characters leaves the histories of the foot soldiers who died in their shadows exposed and gleaming, like rocks at low tide.”

In a time of historic economic inequality and the deaths of countless poor people in worldwide wars, both civil and international, it is indeed time for the chorus to have its say. To paraphrase Barry Graham, it’s life as we live it now.

—Larry Fondation


Mass Migration of the Homeless (Novel Excerpt)

They packed up their tents and their cardboard boxes and everything they owned, all now and all at once, and they began to move. They put their things in shopping carts and in backpacks and in anything else mobile and nothing else changed except they were on a march. The dirt brown smog still blocked the San Gabriel Mountains and there was of course still no way to see the sea.

“Who said for us to go?”

“It is time to go.”

Later, no one could say where those voices came from.

Yet no one ceased to follow the sourceless command.

Dare is an awkward word, one destined to ambiguity and the ash heap. Doubt fares better. Nonetheless doubt in complete abeyance causes stirrings still.

At each step something was left behind: a shoe, a blanket, a memento mori, gravestones at Old Granary. Samuel Sewall is my hero.

From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust is no more than the 1st Law of Thermodynamics and vice versa.

But the shopping carts continue to roll.

The Army of the Ragged crosses Central Avenue and soon approaches Main, barricades at the gates, barbarians hard to find.

The trucks full of immigrants dispatched to gather back the stolen shopping carts meet resistance around Broadway and have no choice but to turn around.

The dreadlocked blonde girl is cuter than most. We stop along the route, pause along the pathway.

“What prompted this march?” I ask stiffly.

Through one bend of earshot and through the same refraction of the honeybee’s eye, she says, “We must move on.”

Another listen, ears bent 90 degrees, and she says, “I don’t know.”

Either way, the caravan approaches Main Street.

People are drinking Veuve Cliquot at Pete’s Café. The widow watches warily.

Time stops.

The LAPD intervenes.

But there is no time to go home, no turning back.

Godel is triumphant.

The parking meters are full of remnants, stuffed with memorabilia.

Soon to be capped, the contents captured for all time.

The migrants do not get to Flower Street, let alone Figueroa. They magically turn up at MacArthur Park.

Shopping carts are unpacked, tents are reassembled.

Police presence vacates as the sun sets, officers off to greener pastures.

We de-camp.

Clara Bow dances at the Park Pavilion.

We fuck in the dark hotel. Nobody’s paid the electric bill, nor for running water. Darkness is so romantic, candlelight hard to find. Moonlight is scarce. Her thighs are so pale they shine.

Nothing changes.

Little changes.

Everything changes.

The tent I pitch is not my own.


Though not studied by Darwin to my knowledge, crows are said to be the smartest birds. I rarely fear the ravens that gather on the electric wires and perch on the telephone lines. O’Casey’s crows steal hen-house eggs with impunity. Is it blue or rose, Picasso’s “Woman with a Crow” of 1904? Or right in between? Crows crack open nuts using traffic, deploying signals — stop, go, walk, don’t walk. This in Sendai, Japan. While across a thousand seas, Betty bends a wire. Not to mention New Caledonia.

Gleb returns home, to Dasha, but all is gone, all has changed, everything gone to shit. Livestock roam the streets, factories barren, most men dead, all life ravaged. I want to live in Pleasant Colony. I know what I am talking about, dammit!


The Eviction (Short Story)

The house
It’s the last night
She has a bottle of wine
Helicopters fly above us
Let’s fuck
She says
I worry and struggle to respond
The bank and the realtor
Lawn signs
Elections and evictions
No difference
Revolution deferred
Sand scrapes my face
In the last night in my backyard
I love her
Tonight is different
Divorce shows on TV
Watching intently
Looking at the news
I hear your point
Earlier she’d gone to the salon
Nails sharp
The Exodus from Saigon
Better than now
She comes close to me
The Abbot in full control
We did not prepare
The Marshals arrive in the morning
I cannot get hard
Monks and morning
Stars require night
She persists
We will not live here anymore
Limits approach zero
I drink her wine
Light dawns over darkness
No reason the night should end
She has my cock in her mouth
I try to prolong
Not the moment but the history
My mother says we can stay with her
Mother’s nails are long
She has her price
Sequester is approaching
I can pay her bill
The Borgias didn’t last
Real estate in the desert
Value lost
I love my mother
I love my wife
The Ganges is an end game
I stagger to the stereo
Lou Reed, the Gap Band, Tame Impala, Cody Chrdnutt
Will the pawn shop pay?
She pulls her pants down
She takes off her bra
She talks dirty about my mothers fingernails
I cannot help myself
The truck comes in the morning
Eight o’clock
I can’t come prematurely
A Catalogue of deaths in the desert
I’ve always hated sand
Sleeping in the truck
Both looking at the sky
The stars invisible
Streetlights blurring light
Next steps
Is she mine?
I have books and plants
I’m sad about the Children’s Crusade
Savanrola was not all bad
History sucks
She makes love to me
We have a home no more.


Mistaken, misbegotten (Short Story)

Mistaken, misbegotten —
They gather in the parking lot.

The streetlights flicker on and off,
The power almost gone.

She looks at me like Circe;
I chew the plant leaves of my own accord.

She tells me the victory at Plataea still weighs heavily on her mind;
I let her know that I have stopped thinking about it .

The flavors are all pungent now;
Everybody here has wished for adoption —

At one time or another,
Or evermore.

We move inside to darkness,
Then some lights turn on, though darkly, dimly.

I once was lost at sea, she says;
“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.

As a soldier, I never surrendered.
Perhaps my time has come.

She will drink with me but I can never touch her;
I tap her glass with mine.

Out there: the sounds of gunfire;
Here it seems quiet perhaps.

The band begins to play.
She pulls out a knife.

“Will you die for me?”
“Yes,” I say.

We are not in Spain or France, but the music is basque:
Alboka, Txistu and tambourine.

She motions me to stand and I do;
She dances beside me without touching me, and I follow her lead.

Time is decades earlier;
I don’t want to know where I am.

Her dark hair is much shorter than mine;
Her long nails glisten in the inconsistent light.

I believe in infinite divisibility, the definition of atom notwithstanding —
She has me now.

I try to find things to say;
We order another bottle of wine.

“You know that you’re remanded to me tonight?” She says.
“I know,” I say.

I pay our bill;
We leave into darkness and night.


Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar.

Sep 032015




Like light from the stars, all’s been decided,
nothing to do now but watch.
The time between stars is vast,
but the sky shows them all at once,
an impression, the spirit of the thing,
like a field of frail hair-stubs on the plain
urn of the head. An impression
of an ancient vessel with its slight fault-lines.
I peeled a golf ball, in the days
when it was rubber-bands all the way,
not gel in the center, down to
a marble-size ball near the end made of
only itself, fiercely spirited.
My golf-ball head, my memento mori.
Stay, I say to my head, looking back at me
in silence. Stay, I say to my love,
who runs his hand across his memories.
Always, he says, even though I am inside-out,
pink and surprising, burning
with the residue of past civilizations.



It is raining here. If we flew to Vegas
it might not be raining, but everything
would be so different, rain would be
the least of it. Water is dripping off
the roof right in front of our eyes,
repeating, as if we were idiots, “See,
it’s raining.” If it’s not raining where you
are, you can imagine our rain, individual
drops coming so fast they merge into
a pale roaring through the downspout.
While you’re at it, you might imagine
sheep in the field, wet but not soaking,
because of oil in the wool. Happy enough.
And lots of scattered rocks, because we’re
in Grasmere, in a B & B called “Raise View,”
with blue hills through the rain. We
don’t care if it’s raining because we’re in
Grasmere, and that’s part of the ambiance.
How nice that we’ve gone there, if only
for the moment: that morning with
the delicate teacups and scones, and rain.



I was just thinking about the paradox of the word chemotherapy–that it’s healing/curing: therapy, a word whose root has very much to do with care also–ministering; in the Iliad and Odyssey even a squire could be called a therapon–
the one who administered to the hero, putting on and taking off his armor, etc…

And chemo is chemistry, potentially substances that aren’t normally
encountered in the body…But you know what? I thought a little further in my
nerdy little etymological brain, and I believe the “chem” part, taken from
alchemy, is originally the Egyptian [khem], which is the precious fertile earth
from the Nile flood, the black gold from which alchemists tried to derive the
metal gold.

So, that may be something. “Ministering to the body with precious black-gold
…………………………………..–my student Ela

The molecule that oddly binds to a cell’s
hollow tubes, that holds them in paralysis, that stops
…………..their wild replication.

That requires all the bark from one rare yew
in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to save
………… person. Also the home

of the rare northern spotted owl.
Now you’re up against the press of need, of cost.
………….The bloody essence, the drug-war

of it. Everyone’s stake. Don’t sleep under the yew
if you don’t want bad dreams. In ancient English graveyards,
………….where the yew’s planted

over graves, rats die. Let the roots
talk to the dead, as the Druids did. There was the woman
…………..who only touched

the hem of Jesus’s robe and was cured.
Likewise, it turns out that simple needle-cells grown
……………in fermentation tanks,

a brew, an essence, is enough. But will this
life be saved? Won’t it? I ask this with reverent earnestness,
………….as the complicated foreignness

enters my small vein, chilly as a stream
through underbrush: Taxol, making a pressure, an ache
…………..farther down my arm,

where the nurse places a warm pack
to loosen the valves, the barriers, to keep death’s molecules
………….going where they’re meant,

into the deep forest of the body,
mine, mine, only one of me in existence. Who touched me?
…………..Jesus asked, so subtle the solution.


Blue Angels

………….When, for example, you’re running
the lint roller all over your black dress
before the party, up and down to the hem,
you may notice the grace in this preparation,
its turning and gathering,
the tiny flecks that look black against
the white but looked white against the black,
and that strangeness may make you smile,
a small thing, but it’s as if the sky cracked
open a bit, the sky that all your life
keeps trying to draw close,
like bedcovers.

Angels can come from anywhere,
a host from inscrutably high tearing straight down
toward your ice cream, your partially
melted scoops, one Dutch chocolate, one salted
caramel, before they turn and climb, leaving
the sky split open in their wake.

Angels can also nose-up and slide
as if they had no care in the world down
before they slowly right themselves, a sign
to you that righting is the proper
thing, really—the mundane engines, right to left,
left to right—the other an aberration.
Still, the one you cheer for. The steep climb,
the riotous splitting away
into a sky-flower of vapor trail.



A fawn the size of a cat with long legs was left
in the tall grass in her yard. Mothers do that
until the fawns can keep up—they come back
and get them in early evening. M— knew it was there
because it stood up once. So sweet!
She waited all evening for the mother to come,
the reunion, the way they nuzzle and the baby nurses.
Around 9:30 a doe came and left. Then two more
came and sniffed. The fawn has no smell.
Usually it stands and they spot each other.
It got dark and then cold, cold rain,
even lightning. M— was in agony, truly.
She lived so far out of town, each event was hers,
only. How was the fawn to survive
without the mother’s warmth?
She felt she was in charge of life,
……………………, it was the weight
of watching, the inability to look away.
It was her country that had abandoned its delicate
balance, the armored tanks, the night-vision
goggles. Nothing but window-glass between her
and foreclosing darkness. Should she try
to warm the fawn in her studio?
What if the mother came? All night she lay,
worrying. She almost got up several times, as if
stirring and pacing would solve this.
At 6:30 a.m. she went out. The fawn was gone.
Mother? Coyotes? Then she saw
the mother’s hoof-prints with the tiniest hoof-
prints beside. For a moment she felt
shallow-rooted, with nothing, nothing in sight,
to show her how to withstand
such violent alternations, such grace.

— Fleda Brown


Fleda Brown’s eighth collection of poems, No Need of Sympathy, (BOA Editions, LTD) and her collection of essays, Growing Old in Poetry, with Sydney Lea (Autumn House Press) came out in 2013. Her memoir is Driving With Dvorak, (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Professor emerita at the University of Delaware, past poet laureate of Delaware, she lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.

Sep 022015

Mark Jay Mirsky




I was going to say, “hating” but that sounds grandiloquent, as if there was something massive, majestic, in the weight of who I have been.

No such luck.

Gravity was not holding me down in the bed.


Nor the thought of those perfect round twin globes of yours.

Above, below.

I have been watching the energy level drop lately, the bounce of electrons, so that it’s hard to roll out of the sheets and rise up. Science tells us that this may be a general phenomenon. It’s not just me. It means the critical mass has dissipated further, passed out of the universe, space, in a loss of gravity that is accelerating our expansion towards nothing, absolutely nothing—Einstein’s “Cosmological constant” which became his nightmare.

We aren’t made of much anyhow it seems. More of that later, but the statistics shows that everything we know about and identify as “matter,” every bit, is only a possible paltry five percent of the universe. And this together with all manner of whatever else makes up everything we know for sure of, or can postulate with any assurance might exist, according to the physicists, is rushing. It can’t get away from itself fast enough, every moment faster and faster through the vast space of the galaxies. Yes, the negligible five percent of the universe that Science in the year 2004 thought we were made up of (who knows what the future will bring?) together with the rest of all of space and time’s normal matter; protons, neutrons, electrons, our bodies, minds, thoughts; everything we can touch and feel—sand, rock, water, the swell of your belly (no matter how much I want to stop and stroke it) was expanding faster and faster like the skin of a repulsive balloon into emptiness from which there is no return.

This is our birthday card from Science, with a capital S

On a more intimate level, a former student writes that her new teacher is, a light unto the universe. This latest professor, predictably “a brilliant woman,” has taught my student finally to “feel, express herself,” explicated texts that “make everything obvious,” and promises to make my former charge’s life “worthwhile.”

After this last, my student adds—a barb to points just scored—a meager phrase in which she acknowledges my “brave effort” a year ago to help her.

Why did she do this?

I never touched her belly. Never even thought about it. Not seriously.

Negative gravity, repulsive gravity, in some intricate flip-flop Science tells us is going to do us in.

Science, which is supposed to make things clearer, has concentrated on Dark Matter in the past few years. Dark matter! O Massa! Words like these are sheer metaphor. They say everything.

Science, which is supposed to shine light into darkness, tell us what lies in there, or out there, be a lamp unto the universe, speaks “darkly.” The best it can do is spin me around with the table of elements in a Black Hole.

Just as a matter of political correctness couldn’t Science have spared us the Black Hole, packed all the Dark Matter into one “White Hole,” “Rainbow Hole”? Wouldn’t that brighten life on the “Event Horizon”—the thought of a wild burst sucking us into the Mother of All Holes?)

Didn’t the Elizabethans think of sex as a form of happy extinction?

I am ready, however, to pass quietly into the Dark Matter and be done with it deep in a Hole.

You had denied me even a gentle movement of my fingers over your belly.

You didn’t need to say anything, just shudder, and I felt it.

Negative gravity.

Negative gravity is responsible for the measurable disorder into which I am disintegrating as I speak.

Negative Gravity is a repulsive force.

This explains why you didn’t just let a tremor of repulsion brush “it “when I put my hand on your belly charmed by its youthful shape; but turned your haughty eye on me.

Why did I have three children, embark on a university career, write six novels, four of which are presently gathering dust on my shelves?

Was it all just a futile battle against Negative Gravity? There is a more terrible threat than just Negative Gravity looming over my bed. Einstein in a discouraged moment imagined it, dismissed it but too late. (He understood the consequences of letting it into the scheme of things).

Einstein remained an optimist. Getting along, in the eyes of the world a lonely old man—he took off his socks. Imitatio Einstein. I intend to go out on Third Avenue without socks. (In former days, Third, or the Bowery, was the haunt of old men without socks or shoes too for that matter. Were they reaching toward a further asceticism, a horde of sun burned gurus? Third below Fourteenth, under the old, lamented subway ell, avenue of intoxicated Einsteins!) What did Einstein on his legendary walks without socks think of his nightmare, the Cosmological Constant? Its bugaboo—negative gravity pushing things apart in the whole universe, between me and you?

Watching my children’s movie fables, Lord of the Rings, etc., a heap of rubber Boogie men and their dragon mounts, push out of the corners of the family toy chest, I sigh. Happy Days are Here Again. At four and a half the Atomic bomb went off unexpectedly and with it proof that my toy chest only held a negligible fraction of nightmare. Every ten years the shadow on the horizon looms larger, proof of the expanding universe. Atomic explosions, then Hydrogen, followed by Black Holes, and looming, the Cosmological Constant—acceleration towards chaos!



Every person carries a locked box full of forbidden thoughts, acts, possibilities with them, you think hurrying to your appointment with the young woman. She has alternately teased you—brushing her long limbed body against yours so that the heat of her lithe excitement passed into your legs and lap sodden with the beer she poured continually from the cask brought at her request—then lightly pushing you away, finally responding stiffly when you took her hand to say goodbye.

At the end of the evening, the box feels empty though on the way over its secrets threatened to burst the lid.

Why is the box empty? Symmetry would seem to underlie the cosmos. As she withdrew her excitement in you, an electrical spark flickered fainter and fainter toward her. You noted the lines burnt under her eyes. The disorderly charm of her hair dissipated and left it simply unattractive, a bird’s nest. Her description of her present boyfriend who was not sure what he felt toward her seemed more and more to fit your own feelings for her and the decision she articulated to simply withdraw from this man, ill matched it seemed except for that initial rage of voluptuous desire, and spend the time instead in books was exactly what you recommended to yourself as you walked, weightlessly, from her front door.

Entropy suggests the arrow of time in some models of the universe. In the most accurate modes of this one so far, all things process toward greater disorder and appear to fall apart.

What had been in the box for that brief moment when it seemed to contain not just an irrepressible amount of energy, but the secret of time turned back, bending the powerful arch of its arc? At least in your eyes you saw from another angle, one in which you could recover youth.

Is each human body a cosmos in which the story of the universe after the Big Bang is enacted? In the world of chance or planned encounters does the body set the individual spinning from the tight order of conception and birth to the disorder of death?

O it was too abstract!

Touching her breasts you had wanted to feel them swell with the promise of excitement she could not contain, and wanting that same lightning thrust from you to her. She drifted off into sleep instead. You got up bewildered, leaving her peacefully passed out on her couch.

Why had you come there though, feeling as if you held in a locked box what you missed previously? Was it the words, sentences that seemed to vouch for what you had missed, touching her breasts’ perfect tips, the sudden charge of pleasure, blinding, transfixing them both?

“Beyond time lies cold space and what does that imply?”

She is mute.




How can you tutor her into seducing you? Try to break the silence? “Words, yes words are what allow human beings to escape into another dimension, even if it is an illusion. Dante is taught that lesson in his The New Life, by the “women who have intelligence of love.”

“‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.’”

“Are you going to give a lecture?” she asks.

Why don’t you go to the bathroom now? you grumble in your thoughts, anticipating her question, your reply. “Take The New Life with you.”

It’s hopeless. The copy you brought last week lies bedraggled on the couch. She is immersed in Home Economics, “How to Catch a Husband.” Nevertheless, your fingers strum over the little silver cords.

“‘Women who have intelligence of love!’ Why does the Florentine address with these particular words those teases of the 13th century?”

You hope your barb is sinking into her creamy flesh. You declaim. “Tall, slim young women, still unmarried, they gather at a street crossing, then walk to and fro together.

“They have all been to the right school.”

Her nose twitches. She is still insecure about not attending an Ivy League institution. Good! It’s unfair, cruel, but for a moment you have her. “‘Laughing among themselves,’ Dante tells us, the women exchange secrets in the street. One of their schoolmates is now locked behind the bedroom doors of marriage, but she, Beatrice, obviously confides to these abettors of Love, instructors in the arts of mystical courtship. Dante has advertised his broken heart. Prepared himself with wan expression, suppressed groans as these daughters of the best families approach. Courteously, he pretends to encounter them by accident. Con cio sia cosa che per la vista mia molte persone avessero compreso lo secreto del mio cuore, certe donne.

You read the Italian from the copy you gave her, retrieving it from the cushions. As she looks puzzled you are forced to speak plain English. “When that thing was so in my face that many people had understood the secret of my heart, certain women . . .

“Do you talk about me?” you want to ask. “If so, to whom? To what do you admit? Can’t you see that I am making a fool of myself for you?

“Why do you stare at me?” she asks taking another swig from the can in her hand, looking up at the ceiling. She has seen nothing in your face or chooses not to. Dante’s “secret” doesn’t interest her.

Why am I here? You ask yourself, but mutter, “Fortune.”

“Fortune?” she echoes, a dutiful but bored chorus.

“Dante claims Fortune brought him by the knot of heartbreakers parading up a street where they sweep along, daily, gossiping.

“Fortune? Do you believe that?”

A pause. “Or his story about encountering Beatrice’s friends ‘in the street one day’ quite by chance?”

“I didn’t get to that part, yet,” she sighs.

You try to greet her where she sits across from you, reclining in a collapsing armchair, as if she was one these women, girls in grace but beyond their years (nineteen, twenty?) in sophistication. Dante’s appreciation is summed up in the words he speaks aloud to the young woman and you apply it to her, crying out, “Donne gentili.”

A wrinkle of boredom in her brow signals to translate. “One might ring a series of adjectives, Women who are gentili—‘noble, elegant, well bred, heartbreakingly lovely.’ One steps out of the circle to mock. ‘She called me by name. “Dante, Alighieri, to what end do you love this, your lady, since you are not able to endure her presence? Tell us, for certainly, one may agree that the end of such love is bizarre, novissimo.”’”

You taste the condescension in that phrase, “novissimo.” “I could translate, ‘strange, novel, singular, most unusual,’ but somehow I feel the throat of Dante’s speaker warbling the ess’s, her eyebrows raised, and so, ‘bizarre.’”

The young woman you address ignores your hint. Instead she echoes, “To what end?” It has an ominous ring.

You ignore her question and go on. “‘When she had spoken these words, not only she, but all those who were with her, began to observe me, waiting for my reply.’

You take a deep breath, hoping in the silence the she opposite will express some interest, in your explication of La Vita Nuova (for a week now you have been praising it as a manual of secret love), or at least respond to the suggestion that through poetry she can engage in an elaborate dance with you.

“He sets the donne gentili a riddle. ‘Ladies, the end and aim of my love was but the greeting of that lady of whom I believe you are speaking; wherein alone I found that bliss which is the end of all my desires. And now that it has pleased her to deny me this, Love, my Master, of his great mercy has placed all my bliss there where it will not come to less.’”

By this time, you are convinced it will “come to less,” at least this evening, but continue as if you could achieve the force of irresistible, positive gravity with words.

“Dante has changed the subject. They have teased, ‘Why should you pay attention to a woman whose beauty so upsets you that you cannot bear to look at her?’ Dante complained that Beatrice will not longer look at him, but, no matter, he has found a source of ‘bliss’ that is just as good as her greeting.” You hope for a stir of curiosity.

“‘Then those ladies began to talk among themselves; and as I have sometimes seen rain mixed with the beautiful snow fall, so I seemed to hear their words come out mixed with sighs. And when they had spoken among themselves awhile, again, she addressed me.’

You listen. You hear no sigh, just the sip of beer against her lip as she guzzles her sixth can. You wonders if she is letting you go on because she is dead drunk.



You go on with your Dante since she has abandoned you, to speak of the noble young woman. “‘She addressed me,’ which indicates that we are to fill in for ourselves the silence in the street, the sighs in the circle of women who no longer laugh, but feel for the young man who stands before him, sighing himself softly, so he hears it as a hush on the pavement. That image of death, the snow mingles in Dante’s head with the incessant cold rain as beautiful, comforting. The princess among the young women, who mocked his behavior as ‘bizarre,’ takes up the poet’s challenge. ‘This lady who had first addressed me, spoke these words, “We pray you tell us where this ‘bliss’ abides?

“Dante’s reply is arrogant. ‘In those words which praise my lady.’

“The young woman, who is the arbiter of the group, now trumps him. If your speech is true, those words describing your condition, would have been fashioned with another intent.’”

The young woman gets up from the armchair. “I’m sorry, she says. I have to go to the bathroom.”



He thinks he has been rebuked and given a lesson in courtship. Either he is lying to them now, or his poetry has fallen short of his intention. He has been whining in his verse. These young women in the street, the friends of Beatrice have administered a shock to his pride both as a poet and a young man intent on love. In plain vernacular they sum up his problem, ‘This is no way to woo her or any one of us. What praise is this talk of earthquakes, this perpetual weeping? Our beauty should cause joy not misery? Stop whining!’”

“Should I stop?” you ask. She has come back from the bathroom in the interim and waves you on. The pause has taken four or five minutes, in which time you have decided with the poet to take another tack.

“Dante’s tongue is frozen for several days as he admits. He still wants to write poetry, but now he doesn’t know where to begin. When he does, his “words” are different and he addresses them in gratitude to, “Women who have intelligence of love, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.” “Refined and sensitive in love,” one translator proposes, but it is the lesson that Dante is referring to, and therefore the ironic echo of the pedantic, addressing the young women as students echoes in his compliment.”

I am counting on your intelligence too, you think, for something to come of this.

“It is a ‘love so sweet’ Dante sings about now, that it threatens as the musical rhyme comes tumbling, ‘to make lovers of you all.’ Don’t stop, dear words, my verse, he cries, with anyone vulgar, but ‘solo con donne o con omo cortese,’ ‘only with women and men of refinement,’ who can help. ‘Sensitive,’ the translator offers in English for the Italian of ‘cortese. linking it to his previous ‘refined and sensitive,’ ‘Stop and sing only to those who are themselves lovers.’”

“Love is with his lady, Dante is sure. She is already in love, not just with one, but many. Can she begrudge Dante Alighieri her marvelous greeting that transforms all who receive, who obtain just the glance of her eyes?

“How does Dante know this?” you ask out loud.

She is mute with alcohol but you supply the answer. “The circle of young women buzz in agreement. ‘Love and the heart that is gentil, gracious, /are but one thing,

“‘Beatrice, you are consumed. I feel it. You radiate love.

“‘You and love are the same thing!’ Dante cries aloud. And Beatrice’s friends go singing this.”


“Are you leaving?” she asks.

“Yes” and you mumble at the door, hoping for a reaction, Despite the fact that she let The New Life you gave her, get soaked in the rain while she trekked around the city with a boyfriend, she might have thumbed a few pages in it. “I can’t endure your presence.”

“What did you say?”

“Were you listening?”



It is the cosmological constant that is at fault here. Gravity working against us: everything flies apart. I have to use the force pushing me out of existence to assert itself. Reverse engineering of a sort.

“Come into the shadow of this red rock, Jack and Jill. I will show you something… Entropy!

“Jill, let me rest my head on your tummy.”

“I am reserved for a great one of the land,” she whispered. It came out a bit more crudely when I asked, persistently, why I was no longer allowed proximity to what lay under her clothes, or even flashed out between her belt line and her blouse, as pure temptation. In fact she said nothing at the moment when I made the gesture in the direction of her belly button. It was earlier, discussing a fellow poet’s attempt to book a hotel room for the two of them in a city where he was giving a lecture, that she remarked, “Who does he think he is? If he were a great writer, I would consider it.” She laughed, tossing her head, seeing me nod in agreement with her admirable taste.


Later, not much later, maybe a minute or so, I understood her attitude toward my own talent, implicit in this regard.

I tried to scare her with the Cosmological Constant. “Gravity is coming to get you,” I warned. “You better watch out.”

Gently, very gently, I explained how her belly with the rest of the universe was expanding and that soon it would not be fun to spread my palm over it.

“No, no,” she cried, truly convinced, in awe of the approaching Constant. I congratulated myself. I prepared to snuggle up when she whipped out a cell phone and called a girlfriend. She was ready to curl up in a hidden dimension but not with me—“words, words, words,” floating free of gravity.



“Words are things” is the insistent refrain of the testament of Moses.

It is those laughing words of hers that have filled the box and he has lived in them for a moment, building in their dimension a hidden abode, resting, from the speed of light bearing him off in his own trip toward entropy.

His own words had weight as well for a moment. Our narrator felt that, but also the danger of extending his fingers: trying to fix her in their web instead of what he had just recited—rhymes meant to vibrate in her now as if he had reached into chords running through her musculature where she responded in delight.

Why follow up those delicate tremors that passed between them in the air at a space of six, seven feet with the brutal thrust of knees, wrists, assuming he pinned her on the floor, couch—or pushed her back into her bedroom, with the emergence of a third party insisting on a corporal, probably unwelcome entry.

Still one wants words to do things. Wants words to translate into mass, and mass into energy. Dante, who pretended to take comfort in his lines of poetry tripping through the streets of Florence, sees words in their character of sounds, images, as only the first stage in his courtship. Academics rarely hear Dante’s wry humor, as he appears to bow his head and accept the rebuke of his beloved’s girlfriends, resign himself to being hopelessly removed from her body’s pleasures in the wake of her marriage.

Words pass though the windows, and come like a fever’s germs on the lips and tongue of those who repeat them, the magical rhymes which go on singing, singing in the ears of Dante’s Beatrice. She locks herself in her bedroom the better to hear them, as they inscribe themselves in memory as a code that turns the body to desire as the secret strings of the genetic code.

This is Dante’s string theory. It works if one is to believe the testimony of La Vita Nuova. Beatrice unites with him in perfect union, indivisible symmetry; if one can specify mystical love in contemporary syllogisms.

Is string theory nonsense as physicists try to understand it? No one knows for sure. The tropes of Science served Shakespeare, Dante, but the box of words, which my personal pronoun carried back and forth to her apartment in the East Village, is empty.

The spirit has fled the vowels. The consonants lie collapsed.

What did she write?

“I miss you.”

What did he read into that as it flew into the box?

“Snuggle up”?

“I have ten dimensions, only three exist in space and a fourth in time. Find me!

“Most of me is missing.”

The “dark matter” in the box begins to move as he thinks about it.

How about the “dark energy” that seventy percent of the universe that’s really missing?

No, better to stick closer to what one might be able to grasp, the twenty five percent he can guess at.

With words though, he is down to the five percent of real matter, since they generate sound waves, measurable amounts of energy expelled at her from his voice box. And the words held in memory? Don’t they flash in tiny electrical currents each time he thinks of them?

Don’t they summon up the smooth touch of her skin, as she lay back naked against him on the bed? He can feel his pleasure again at her high, small breasts and the curve of her buttocks against the mattress; the way the classic line of her face recalls a fragment of classical statuary; its nose roughened in the excavation after a millennium or two under the earth. He wants to enfold himself in her porous marble and take flight.

What energy had given the image the power to make him whirl, giddy, barely holding on to the box for a moment?

Like a speck of quantum matter, in being observed, it had changed direction, spin, position.

There, and now, it was gone.

—Mark Jay Mirsky


Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

Sep 012015

V0048935 Women wearing crinolines set on fire, ca. 1860, lithograph Crinolines on fire, 1860, Creative Commons Image


THIS STORY HAPPENED when I was in my mid-twenties. Like most sensitive young men I was full of romantic notions about all sorts of things. Especially famous writers: most fascinating to me at the time was Oscar Wilde. I was also curious about my family roots, in this case in Ireland. Given these preoccupations I was in the completely wrong place (the cornfields of Iowa), doing the wrong thing (studying for an interminable degree in god-knows-which obscure American modernist poet). I was feeling isolated and claustrophobic in the fishbowl of Iowa City – which was pretty enough and even cool enough thanks to the Workshop students, but which was neither sufficiently old nor charming. Added to this my father had just died unexpectedly at 49. I mourned his death by making rash, unpredictable choices.

So one frosty Iowa spring morning, seized by the desire to abandon my sensible, funded graduate program and pursue my unfunded obsession with Wilde in Ireland, I acted. I withdrew from all my courses and forwarded my small inheritance to the financial department of Trinity College, Dublin. I remember having in mind a particular epigram of Wilde’s, something about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Even the gutter part sounded romantic. I was confused, as I say, and overrun by the fever of romance. But that’s how I found myself enrolled the next autumn at the university attended by Wilde (and Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker, and many other writers I admired), specializing in Wilde, at a research centre bearing Wilde’s name, in the very house where Wilde was born. (Let’s forget for a moment what happened later: when Ireland and I, having squandered all our money, were subjected to the meanest form of austerity.)

My first term at Trinity had its highs and lows. Academically speaking, it was an inauspicious start: mostly spent in smoky Northside pubs, listening to moody Irish ballads, falling prey to infatuations, drinking too much, lying spread-eagled among the cigarettes and broken glass on the pub floors of Nighttown – that sort of thing. I was attending very few lectures, and still fewer sober.

Yet somehow I soaked up, along with the beer and whiskey and gin, more literature than I ever knew existed. I read voraciously, either in my green leather nook at the back of the Stag’s Head or, like the feckless student narrator in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, in bed all day while I nursed a hangover: not only Wilde but Joyce and Behan and O’Casey and Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston and Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly (who was one of my teachers). I waded through the mystical mire of Yeats’s A Vision and read the notorious Black Diaries of Roger Casement, the colonial civil servant turned human rights activist and gay Irish revolutionary, who was caught running guns from Germany to Ireland and executed by the English for treason in 1916. My blood ran black and white, and my eyes puffed up from the strain of reading fifteen hours a day.

It was a grand time and I was enjoying myself immensely. But something still nagged: I wanted to stake a formal claim on my ancestry. So I went down to the Passport Office in Molesworth Street near the National Library to obtain my hereditary citizenship. A kind and maternal woman in her fifties named Maebh took my case. She told me what to do and I brought her all the necessary documents, culled from the detritus of my dead relatives and carried across the Atlantic: certificates of birth, marriage, and death. There was one yellowed piece of parchment written in a calligraphic hand that predated the Irish Republic itself. She stamped all her stamps and scurried back and forth from her window to the ancient photocopier while I stood by and watched. Then my application was complete: the last thing she said before she rang the bell to call the next in line was “Welcome home, son.”

By that time St. Patrick’s Day was drawing near, and feeling now exceptionally Irish I decided to write to my great aunt and arrange a visit. Edna, my grandfather’s sister-in-law, was an ancient woman from Sligo whom I’d never met and who lived alone on a farm in County Monaghan just south of the border. I wrote her a proper letter, straining to remember my cursive script, and a few weeks later she wrote back. She invited me to come up for the long weekend. Leaving the party behind I walked down to the Bus Éireann station on Friday morning and caught a bus going to Belfast. I got off a few hours later in the small town of Clones – where Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy was filmed – and found the place respectable enough, if a bit cold and grey. My first thought was: No wonder they left. But one of my grandfather’s brothers had stayed, and now his wife Edna, a robust widow in her eighties with thick glasses and gumboots, was standing there waiting for me. She said hello without offering a hug, and drove us in a battered Mercedes back to the farm at Smithboro, the place where my grandfather was born.

I knew by now not to expect much of the legendary family farm, and in this lack of expectation I was not disappointed. There had once been a larger house, Edna told me, the one where my grandfather lived until he was nineteen, but it had been torn down in the sixties. In its place was a small and sensible two-storey stucco house. There were a few crumbling outbuildings to add a bit of romance, several sheep on the front lawn that Edna called “pets,” and some large enclosures behind the house which held five bulls and two or three horses. Edna said that although she lived alone there were a couple of local men who worked the farm, and her niece Ruth, my father’s cousin, stopped by almost every day. Inside the house was a mix of the very old – sombre furniture that, having survived the long journey, would never leave – and the strikingly new, including a huge television positioned directly opposite a sleek black leather lounger.

On Friday night Edna served fish fingers and boiled potatoes and milk for dinner. Since it was just the two of us we ate in the kitchen, and afterwards we retired to the living room. There we sat, Edna in her lounger and me on the lace-covered sofa, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne and saying very little to each other. I was beginning to realize that, unlike the Dubliners I had met, Edna was a woman of few words. I remember trying to ignore the silence by focusing on the film, and noticing that John Wayne’s trousers were pulled up higher than any trousers I’d ever seen on a man.

But eventually during a long advertising break we started to talk. She told me the history of my family, once prosperous “gentlemen farmers” now reduced by emigration and economic crisis to this lonely widow living in a few rooms of a modest country house. We touched on education – Edna surprised me with the news that she had attended Wesley College, a Methodist boarding school once situated on the edge of St. Stephen’s Green – and then about particular Irish authors (Shaw was a graduate of Wesley). I asked Edna if she had seen any famous productions of the plays of Wilde or Yeats or Shaw or Synge at the Abbey or the Gate. She indulged me as much as her failing memory would allow: she had definitely seen something scandalous by Shaw.

But I also learned another, more shocking family history – one that was loosely tied up with my own. It was the story of Oscar Wilde’s two illegitimate half-sisters. Wilde’s father, William Wilde, was a notorious philanderer, and he had children hidden away in houses up and down the country. Two of these children, Mary and Emily, had lived on the farm, or “estate,” next to ours. They had died together – shortly after Oscar’s seventeenth birthday, though it is unclear whether he even knew of their existence – in a tragic fire in that very house. On October 31st, 1871, during the last dance of a country ball, the hem of one sister’s – Emily’s – crinoline evening gown had suddenly burst into flames. Crinoline was notoriously flammable: so much so that this sort of death was not uncommon. Hundreds of young women seem to have died in similar fires during the nineteenth century. In this case the other sister, Mary, tried to rescue her, but she was also wearing a crinoline gown; both sisters received mortal burns. William Wilde, Edna told me with a sideways glance, had been spotted at the graveside in the weeks after the funeral, wailing openly in his grief. He never recovered, she said. He died a few years later, a broken man. Not unlike his son after prison, I thought. What a tragic family.

The story came up completely by accident. Not long after I arrived, I had noticed a dust-jacketed copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde sitting primly on a doily-covered china cabinet. Ellmann, the American son of a Jewish Romanian immigrant father and a Ukrainian mother, was Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University from 1970 to 1985. (He also passed through Trinity College, Dublin.) Ellmann wrote the definitive biography of James Joyce in 1959 and a dozen other books on famous Irish authors. He also published an anthology in the 1960s that strongly influenced the study of literary modernism – especially its slant towards Irish writers. Along with The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a fellow Yale graduate and Hibernophile, Ellmann’s The Modern Tradition shaped the modernist canon for decades afterwards.

I had taken down several of Ellmann’s books from the stacks at Trinity library during my first two terms. In particular I recalled spending a week in bed around Valentine’s Day, sick with a humiliating case of adult chicken pox, reading his edition of Joyce’s fascinating and filthy letters. I guessed he might have written about Wilde reluctantly, being unsure what to do with him: Wilde was modern, but not exactly a modernist; he was gay, which Ellmann seemed to have difficulty talking about; and unlike Joyce or Yeats, he seemed to have left his Irishness behind when he left Ireland. In fact, as I later learned, Ellmann struggled with the biography through the last two decades of his life. As fate would have it, Wilde was not only Ellmann’s last subject, but also his crowning achievement. Ellmann died in 1987, the same year the book was published, and Oscar Wilde was posthumously awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. (The book was later used as the basis for Wilde, the biopic with Stephen Fry giving his uncanny performance as Oscar incarnate.)

I knew most of this at the time, and I was delighted to find an object of common interest, so I asked my aunt about the book. Edna was dismissive at first, saying it had been sitting there for a decade gathering dust. After some gentle prodding, however, she told me the story of how the book had found its way into the house. Ellmann had come to Ireland to research the book, and one of his stops was Monaghan to investigate the story of Wilde’s sisters. As Edna told it, he had lain in wait outside the local church on a Sunday, and when the congregation emerged Ellmann started asking if anyone knew the story of the sisters’ death. Someone pointed to my great uncle and said, “Ask him, he’ll know.” So Ellmann interviewed my uncle about it, and when the book came out he sent a signed copy as thanks. And there it sat, long after Ellmann and my uncle had gone.

The story of Wilde’s sisters that my uncle told Ellmann is a sensational one, reminiscent of something Gwendolen Fairfax would read on the train. The first published account of the story appears in a biography of William Wilde by T. G. Wilson in 1942. Yeats’s father recalled the sisters’ death in a letter in 1921 – so the story was probably familiar to the small world of Dublin society. At the same time, some of the obscurity surrounding the events stems from discretion on the part of the authorities when dealing with sensitive matters involving people of significant social standing. From reading several accounts, including the one my great uncle gave to Ellmann, I learned that the births of Mary and Emily Wilde were indeed out of wedlock (that antiquated yet evocative phrase) but they predated the marriage of Oscar’s parents. At the time of their death Mary and Emily were wards – like Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest – of William Wilde’s eldest brother, the impeccably named Reverend Ralph Wilde. The Reverend Ralph, who christened Oscar, was rector of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat: the parish church that my family attended in Monaghan. The neighbour’s house, where the party took place, belonged to a local bank manager named Andrew Reid. Reid was the man who had taken the last dance with Emily and then tried in vain to extinguish both sisters when their dresses caught fire.

The night itself, October 31st, seems to have been a party to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain in Ireland. It was most likely attended by the well-to-do landowning families in the area, from neighbouring estates like ours. (I asked whether it was likely that anyone from our family had been present, but Edna just shrugged indifferently.) There was plenty of alcohol, and the party went on late into the night. Accounts of the event differ, with some even calling it a Christmas party. Some accounts also describe there being snow on the ground: Reid is said to have rushed Emily outside and rolled her in the snow to put out the flames, while Mary ran around screaming frantically until she collapsed. There is no mention of snow in the official inquiry, but then the inquiry also gives the family name not as Wilde but “Wylie.”

The aftermath of the tragedy was, if possible, even more gruesome than the terrible accident itself. The sisters remained in the house, as was the custom at the time, where they were treated for the severe burns they had both suffered. To die on Halloween night would have been merciful: instead they lingered on for days and weeks at Drumaconnor. Mary, the younger sister who had tried to help, died first, on November 9th. Her death was kept a secret from Emily, who was also near death, to spare her the shock; nevertheless, three weeks after the accident, on November 21st, Emily also died.

Oscar Wilde, that pioneer of camp sensibility, was not one to respond to tragedy with too much sentiment. One of the most famous remarks attributed to him is the one about the death of Nell Trent, the angelic child in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Wilde is said to have quipped: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” (The child’s death in the popular serial story took everyone by shock: before it was revealed, people were said to have lined the docks in New York, shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive?”) In The Importance of Being Earnest, the supremely unsentimental Lady Bracknell, on hearing that Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing is an orphan, declares: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The same could be said of sisters.

It is hard to say with any certainty what happened that Halloween night, at the end of the party when most of the guests had left. Events were intentionally covered up, and details were kept to a minimum to avoid scandal; the story that was passed down in the neighbourhood, and that my great uncle told Richard Ellmann outside the church, was likely filled in and smoothed around the edges with the passing of time. Was there really snow on the ground in Ireland on October 31st? Was it Emily who danced with the host, or Mary? Who else was in the room? How much had been drunk?

The story ends in the tiny churchyard of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat parish, two miles from Smithboro, County Monaghan, where I drove with Edna that Sunday to visit the graves of our ancestors before catching the bus back to Dublin. In the car on the way Edna repeated a story I had already read in Ellmann’s biography. It was the local legend of the “woman in black” – thought to be the girls’ mother – who visited the graves regularly for twenty years after the tragedy. Oscar Wilde also used to tell the story of a woman in black. Wilde, who was still a teenager at the time, recalled an unknown woman’s visits to his house during his father’s last illness. The woman would come into the house and kneel by William’s sickbed, while Oscar’s mother stood by watching without interfering, apparently knowing that her husband and the woman, who shared a tragic bond, had loved each other deeply.

We entered the churchyard through the wrought iron gate and explored separately in silence. Edna’s hands were clasped behind her back, her head bowed. Right away I noticed that among the names on gravestones that I could read – Arthur Brady; Henry and Anne Finnegan; Robert John Bole and his wife Charlotte, who had emigrated to Alberta and whose bodies had been returned for burial here; Martha Brown, Ruth’s mother – at least half were marked by my family name. There was Thomas Hanna, and Stephen, who died in 1835, and his brother James, and their sister, whose name I couldn’t read. Edna pointed out the grave of another great aunt, Amy Elizabeth, whom my sister was named after. I knelt in the grass and took some pictures. The grave of Mary and Emily was there too, and I photographed it. In contrast to their younger brother, whose famous tomb I had seen once in Père Lachaise cemetery, the sisters were all but anonymous, their gravestone untended and overgrown and lost to time.

Years later I went back to Smithboro and the churchyard of St. Molua’s. Things had improved. The Oscar Wilde Society had erected a new monument beside the old one to mark the Wilde sisters’ final resting place. The simple stone read:

In Memory of
Two loving and beloved Sisters
MARY WILDE aged 22
who lost their lives by accident
in this parish in Nov 1871.
They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their death they
were not divided
(II Samuel Chap. I, v 23)

Emily & Mary - half sisters of Oscar Wile. Original stone on right.Julian Hanna photo

—Julian Hanna



Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.