Dec 142016
 

Riiki Ducornet

..
An orchestral version of Mussorgsky’s  The Great Door (or Gate) of Kiev from his Pictures at an Exhibition, just for reference, since it threads through the poem as a musical motif.

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Into the Lollipop Light

Father of painted wood
as when in a brimming hour
Mussorgsky sparks the air
with harems, a souk
its beggars, a brief
swarm of bees.

The Dead.
Speaking in a dead tongue.
The Great Door of Kiev.
Father. Fork in hand
conducting.
His jade traced
with mercury.
His crown forged
of tin.

The one father who dying
asks she stay beside him.
Instead she runs into
the naked air.
Running from the father
who had abandoned her
in a place of his choosing.

(Even now such things happen.)

Exiled she
had been left to drift
between Ether and
Earth.

::::::::::::

Her father sleeps
in the spare room.
A room
unchartered and
enigmatic.
Its shadows pooling there
where two walls collide.

When he awakens
his loneliness is incalculable, a
savage loneliness
unquenchable, somehow
familiar.

Her father who
in his decrepitude
wanders the interstellar mall
bewildered by
the proliferation of irreverent
forms suspended in an
unfamiliar air.

Its parakeets
spawned in jars
all the colors of candy.
Shuddering.

In the lobby
a broken machine leaking
something sweet.

Her father on the lookout
for a thing he can recognize.
The nest of a bird.
The spine of a book.

Yet the shop girls know him
boldly call out:
Hey, there, Professor!

Tired as hounds.
Perched on the small bones
of their feet.
Their faces, the faces
of mendicants.

What’s this? she wonders.
Hesiod, he tells her.
Read it, he reassures her
if only to pass the time.
Pass the time, he says it again
his eyes spilling over.
We must . . .
pass it . . . well.

Stitched with roses
she smells of vanilla.
Out on a limb
leaning into the radiant future
craning her neck.

Say! she says. And: Oh! Professor!
Ashamed, he turns away.
She would console him
touches his sleeve
for her father is grieving.

On another day
the same girl, apocalyptic
finds him, whispers with urgency:
Sir! The ceiling!
The ceiling is about to fall!

Hesiod. He tells her. It’s lovely.
Grinning like a boy.

This is when Death enters.
Dancing sideways
his hands in his pockets.

::::::::::::
::::::::::::

In the mornings
she fries him bacon.
Make it crisp, he says
because she won’t.
(speaking of the wife
already at the mall shopping early.)

Outside the window
the day breaks open
yolk leaking across
the sidewalk, the lawn
the streets.

After breakfast
together they walk to the mall.

Above the highway
the light changes as
in the distance an
incomprehensible meadow
rises in a cloud of dust.

At the edge of town
a train shrieks
a beast from another world
entirely.

Look: Right there on the pavement
something irretrievable.

Something is the matter.
If only we could put our finger on it.

::::::::::::

He says: I’ll take you to lunch.
There’s a pub. Tables made of wood. You can touch it.
The darkness pooling beneath his eyes
even then.

The mall
Thoth at the entrance, scowling.
Yet they are fearless.
Walk right in.

Into the Lollipop Light.

In the lungs:
strange molecules.

The colors of patriotism are:
cinnabar, arsenic, sulfur, thallium.

::::::::::::

Over lunch they argue about
Carl Jung.
His dubious mysticism.
(Their moments of intimacy
have always been arcane.)

As meanwhile
in the proximate world, the girls
lost in time, weightless
ruled by uncertainty
drift among fields of
incomprehensible things.

Fish swimming in cellophane
hanging like snacks from racks.

Such small events, and yet . . .

The mall. That will one day
erupt. Shredding:
inventory, staff, Saturday shoppers.
All this.
A rosy mist.
A gritty dust.

A space as big as lies and yet
it cannot contain such a
surfeit of bewilderment.

::::::::::::

One day near the tracks
down the way
a girl reads a book—Oh! It is weird!
Yet somehow compelling

She finds a pearl
lodged in her ear—
although it is her day off
and she miles from the event.

::::::::::::
::::::::::::

She is running.
She is running in streets empty of sirens
deep in stillness
past the living
trees, beneath the
bruised moon its
diligent scribe suspended
in contemplation. The hour drifts
beneath a sudden gathering of clouds.

Her lover waiting
in an unfamiliar room.
He sees her approach.
Steps into the late afternoon.

They meet at the curb
in a confluence of rivers.
He folds her to him
as in the radiance she thinks:
children of light we stray.

They come together
in the sudden rain
beneath a sky unhinged.
Their losses sweeping down
veiling, unveiling their faces.

She says: I come to you
as my father leans into his departure.
We have a hour. An hour, only.

They are seeking
to resolve a mystery.
They are seeking
the garden at the
confluence of everything.

The colors of longing are:
white dolphin, golden toad, black rhinoceros,
pink headed duck.

All the colors of paradise.

She thinks his kiss tastes of
limes, of salt.
She thinks his face is
a star.
Together they stand in
the mammal rain.

She has known him two days.
The seconds as sacred as time and space.

They swim together in the room’s ocean
the hour licking it’s forepaws
its eyes of green gold.

The hour no bigger than
a lace wing.

A planet secure as a stone.

Everything safe within
a cage of stone.

Everything breathing
crystals of graphite.

A planet of savage power.
A girl and her lover
suspended in
a sanctuary.
A golden age reduced
to an hour.

All this.
As on another continent
a photographer catalogues
vanished species of birds.
These she finds
in museum drawers
stashed in boxes—
shoe boxes, cigar boxes—
white cotton blooming there
where their eyes
have gone missing.

A small immensity. And yet.

Some kind of impropriety.

Somewhere else a courtyard
dissolves in smoke
a rubber ball
rolls into the street
a child’s head
rolls into the shadows.

A planet smashed with a hammer like a skull.

A planet/circus ruled by clowns.

A malignant planet
the knowledge of its crimes
coagulating. Corrupting everything.

Her ankles wired together.
Her lips blue with cold.
Kept in a kennel.
Asleep in a box.
Awake in a cellar.
Concealed in the shadows.

A planet free of affliction
its surface sparking
with the luster of a thousand moons.

A planet ruled by immediacy a
tender urgency, a fearless loving.

A planet brimming with significance.
Its busses infested with sorrow. Where
beneath the bridges the penitent homeless dare not
acknowledge one another.

::::::::::::

One day a flock of birds falls to the pavement.
The next day a flock of birds falls into a meadow.
Their beaks stained blue.
Their small feet bound with wire.

Somewhere a prisoner hogtied with wire.
Left that way.
Made to breathe water.

On another day a flock of geese
come to rest on a pool of mercury.

The colors of longing are:
the hands, the feet growing progressively darker.
A red ball rolling into the street.
A white tooth found at the beach.
A shoe brought in by the blue tide.
A cinema at the end of a corridor
where an aquaintance
had received a bullet to the neck.

A planet awash in charity.
A planet up to its eyes in serenity.
Planets like beacons in the abyss.

A planet where a lover
prepares quail for his beloved
browns pine nuts for the rice
pomegranate seeds
sparking the plate.

::::::::::::
::::::::::::

When her father awakens
the world is greatly diminished.
It streams silently past.
His mind once given to rapture
the many of species of birds
their names such as . . .
such as . . . p . . .
parro . . . t . . .
parrotkeet.

And there was
a daughter.
The guilt that corroded everything.

He awakens in an enigmatic room.
One enigma after another.

This is when the tigers assemble and leap.
This is when he calls out pummeled with stones.

This is when she rises
kisses her lover’s open hands.
Collects her things, begins to run
runs oblivious of the
cracks in the sidewalk.
The cracks in the sky.

That morning she had read to her father.
Cortazar: From The Observatory.
After he had whispered
into her ear:
I will now leave the world like an eel.
His smile all at once tender and ironic.

::::::::::::

Once in the evenings
when she was small
her father would tell her
wonderful things.
How Plato believed
in a True Earth a
a True Sky—
and this
illumed by
a True Light.

Unlike our world
wedged between mud and rock
ruled by unknowing.
Light as thought
the inhabitants of True Earth
lived on islands in the air
like Laputans.

::::::::::::
::::::::::::

The last time they enter the mall together
her father says:
welcome to the Subterrestrial Realm.
He warns her of its seductive amulets
yet examines the watches
with such fascination
they are immobilized for an eternity
as if bewitched.

She can tell he is thinking of Plato
thinking of a True Earth.
(She is well acquainted with
his stubborn wistfulness.)
The ceiling, he says, will surely collapse.
But, perhaps, not today.

::::::::::::
::::::::::::

When she was a child
he told her everything is made
of molecules. But for the molecules.
They are made of something
smaller.

These in another universe
could be planets.
Their names:
Zâzêl
Hasmââl
Barsâbêl
Samiel

Sometimes she thinks
she is that child
awake in the morning’s first hour.
The floor of her room
scattered with planets.
Some have rings.
Their moons, the moments
of crystal of amber
firefox moments
firefly moments
in ceaseless agitation.

With her crayons
she draws the gods
their yellow chairs
marking the poles.
Their bright faces
unmoved by the passage
of the lunar years.

The gods. Sitting astride ostriches
the size of camels.

Every hour a planet orbits the room.

The many planets
burning the eyes.
Those with atmospheres
inhabited with things with wings.
Sentient. Philosophical.
In all the best colors.

Some planets are like Earth.
Only more so.

Their oceans so salty
you can walk
from one continent
to the next.

:::::::::::

It is curious
that such a father
with whom she has traveled so far
will abandon her.
That he, in his folly
will cut off her feet
just as the ogres are said to do.

Father. From the bottom of the well
from the corner of the room
from deep within the sea

I called your name.

:::::::::::
:::::::::::

She finds her father
as she left him
in the spare room
recumbent
like a young lion
or a child.

Folded together
his fists protect his heart.
She says: I am here.

He stirs.
Touches her wet sleeve
a wet lock of hair.
Does not ask: Where were you.
Says only: Thank you.

Just beyond the open window
the rain has freshened everything.
A handful of birds spire
scatter like seeds.

This is when his wife enters the room.
Pills sparking the palm of her hand.

:::::::::::

That night she dreams
she had not left him
had stayed beside him.
Had made him a vestment of jade
finally articulated.
Had left his face unmasked
knowing beneath their lids
the whites of his eyes were blue.
That under the protection
of the sacred color
her father would not suffer.

Yet, in other, more recent dreams
he persists, asks: Where were you?
She tells him:
When you betrayed me
I tumbled through space
like a shard of ice.
Only now have I found
my footing, can walk without reeling.
Only now have I
retrieved my name.

In her dream, the afternoon
is long over.
They are alone together.
She rises, says this final thing:

If I were still your daughter
I would sew for you a shirt
painted with bees, the eyes
of Horus.

I would cover you thus
to keep you safe.
And I would provide a map
so that you would find your way
from star to star
far from the nefarious places.

And I would assure
that a certain melody be played
one that you loved:
The Great Door of Kiev
when at the very last
your ashes were placed in the ground.

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

—Rikki Ducornet

.
The author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, the McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

.
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Dec 132016
 

cassidy-mcfadzean

x

Invocation of the Unicorn

As hunters enter the woods,
we enter the room of tapestries.
Medici’s horn in the corner

casts a gleam that seizes our vision,
a narwhal tusk masquerading
as the unicorn’s tapering wand.

The tapestries spin enchantment.
They snatch us towards the start
of the hunt,
to a hundred species

of plants and beasts. We identify
daffodil and periwinkle, perceive
witch’s broom, lady’s mantle.

Meld, madder, and woad’s
pigments of red, blue, yellow,
an artist’s bed of dyes. The tapestry

depicts origins of its own making.
The lymerer collects scant droppings
as a scout signals from behind

a walnut tree to the extant hunting
party. The unicorn is found. We see
sage leaf and orange tree, antidotes

hinting that the unicorn purifies
the fountain’s poisoned stream
from which a pair of pheasants sip.

But the unicorn can’t be disturbed
when conducting his magic.
The tree blossoms and bears fruit

in a single instance, a paradox
of fertility. Twelve hunters surround it
in conversation, their dogs in wait.

Goldfinches, a stag, and rabbits
lay before the flowing pillar spout
and the cypher AE. We puzzle over

what the enigma means. Pot marigold
under the hyena’s chin signals
disaster. Man watches animals

gather around the fountain. Ten
hunters approach the beast. The
unicorn leaps out of the stream.

An oak tree stands at center scene.
AE glowers from four corners
as elsewhere aristocratic initials

utter invocations. A castle looms
in the background. A partridge
cheeps of thievery, the hunters’

spears brandished and thrust
at the unicorn’s torso, enclosing
The beast is surrounded

by men, dogs, and greenery,
forcing the unicorn at bay.
It defends itself well. Horn

dipped, it gores a hound as it
kicks a hunter. Has the fruit
of ripe orchards turned sour?

The heron, known for lofty
flight and unperturbed by such
melee, is here made serener.

A single drop of blood trickles
from a slit in the unicorn’s coat
as spears strike from all sides.

We’ve heard only the purest
virgin can subdue a unicorn.
Otherwise, it remains invincible.

“Hail queen of the heavens.”
If the unicorn appears as Christ,
the hunter as Gabriel, the maiden

motions to Virgin Mary. We see
the mystic capture of the unicorn
in two fragments.
The handmaiden

distracts from the only cameo
the virgin makes on the scene:
a glimpse of sleeve, her slender

fingers linger on the creature’s
mane, the three enclosed within
the garden as menagerie. The scout

blows a horn from below an apple
bough, behind the gate. The spell
is broken, the unicorn captured.

The unicorn bestows one last glance
to the absent maiden that fans
his coat, missing from the frame.

Stabbed by lances, echoing
Christ’s passion, the unicorn
is killed and brought to the castle.

The scout catches blood drops
in his drinking gourd. A party
of men and women parade

the unicorn to the fortress,
its corpse slung over a horse’s
saddle, one hunter fingering

its spiralled horn. The unicorn
is depicted both in the moment
of the sword blade’s deathblow

and in the procession carrying
his corpse. His trophy bears
a crown of thorns. In an instance

we see the unicorn in captivity,
the beast fenced in, wounds
replaced with pomegranate

seeds, blood with juice,
captive but seemingly content.
A woven chain around

his neck, secures the unicorn
to a wooden pen, seated therein
amidst white irises and Madonna

lilies, carnations and clove,
orchids and bistorts, dragonflies
dashing over the wallflowers

and white thistle, the cipher’s
tasseled cord hanging from a tree,
bearing its riddle mysteriously.

—Cassidy McFadzean

x
Cassidy McFadzean is the author of Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015), winner of two Saskatchewan Book Awards and a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her work has been a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize and the Walrus Poetry Prize. Cassidy graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2015 and is at work on a second collection.

x
x

Dec 132016
 

ilhan-berk

The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. —D. M. Spitzer

book-of-things

The Book of Things[1]
Ilhan Berk
Translated by Georg Messo
Shearsman Books, 2016
310 pages, $23.00

.
Where ends, where begins The Book of Things? The straw and russet ground of its cover, the obverse where dark lines like shadows render in positive the title, in contour a tilted figure—recumbent, off-center, nude? The reverse, where dark lines form letters, sentences, text about—here, with emphatic prepositionality—the text? If the latter, the action works centrifugally: which text? The publisher’s statements at the top address Ilhan Berk’s work as “Unparalleled in the English language.” In the third paragraph, the endorsement by Talat S. Halman, the poet is identified as Turkish; Halman declares that those who delight in Turkish poetry—already as slick a category as the the mud and slug mentioned in the publisher’s description (poetry written by people identifying as Turks? Written in Turkey? In Turkish? In Roman or Arabic script, or both? With pre- or post- Atatürkic reform conventions?)—are thankful to George Messo for “faithful and artful renditions.” The reverse seems to indicate a text by Ilhan Berk that defies parallel with English language poetry, establishing an agonistic context for the work, but also a notion of the involvement of Ilhan Berk’s text within that context. However, the book does not present a text by Ilhan Berk. It presents a translation by George Messo; the obverse so testifies in a font absorbed by the palette of the ground—a painting by Ilhan Berk, as the reverse establishes—and by the much larger font for the “author’s” name, uppermost and greatest on the author’s poluchrysaic field. The centrifugal action of the reverse hurls attention from the translation presented in the book and towards another book, one written by Ilhan Berk. The Book of Things is not that book.

The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. The agonistics occur reflexively, upon the book itself, its outwardness, where translator and author, English and Turkish collide and grapple for identity. The only identity available to them, however, is that of non-identity. The play of resistance strives upon the face of the book, where the production, the book design, occludes this non-identity of the translation and a text by Ilhan Berk, a shadow text, a spectral text, elsewhere, immaterial, nevertheless haunting this text: the first leaf bears the lasting haunt of the spectral text in the title beneath—as if grounding—The Book of Things, Şeyler kitabi. Testimony of the inseparability of the two texts that constitute translation. Testimony to the separateness of those two texts: “While 1 pioneers its darkness / 2, as if slashing with a knife, divides 1 in half”; “2’s hardheartedness comes, for sure, from 1 wanting to bind everything / to itself” (Messo 168). The Book of Things comes forward as a thing, reified by its design and attempting to assert its unified identity, yet the fact of its having-been-translated resists, recoils. On the edges the identity frays: where the uppermost entry on the contents page is “Interview with the Author” (Messo 8-11), the final entry is “A Guide to Turkish Pronunciation” (Messo 309), all in English, all in translation.

Rather than project Messo’s text, as if it were a mere simulacrum of, or even further, identical to Berk’s text, into relationships with poetries of the historical moment in which Berk activated and released a Turkish language into poems—with modernist poetries, late 19th century French poetries, for example, as Peter Riley has done in his review of The Book of Things in The Fortnightly Review[2]—Messo’s translation might converse better with of those figures and their poetries seen to be of importance in a reading of Berk’s work. The work under review is, after all, not Şeyler kitabi by Ilhan Berk, but rather, Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, by George Messo. How, then, does Messo’s text comport itself with recent English translations of these poetries? To advance such a project would make use of a stereoscopics that suspends in view each author’s (Messo and Berk) context and the language matrices where their voices develop, cycle, and gestate. This question will not be pursued here, but it may provide an illuminating way to position a review or critical reading of Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things that would bring into focus the translation, its context(s) and significances.

Within and between the paratextual material, the text’s three-part architecture moves from “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” through “LONG LIVE NUMBERS” to “HOUSE.” Of these, the first spreads out over one hundred thirty-five pages, nearly half the pages of the book; the second, over ninety-two pages; the third, fifty-three pages. Each previous section exceeds its sequel by approximately forty pages; the sections diminish in a regular fashion through the book’s unfoldings. The poetry takes place as and within this architecture, in the same sense that the house is (or can be) a home, though the two are not identical. In Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, multiple ways of articulating the book’s architecture come into play, pulling at the non-identity of the house|home relation. Here are two ways of reckoning the inner-architecture:

1)    within part one, “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T,” are nine sections, most or all of which could be considered poetic sequences

2)    part two, “LONG LIVE NUMBERS,” has four sections that are not sequences

3)    part three, “HOUSE,”

1.    a.  is composed of twenty-four sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences
2.    b. is composed of five sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences.

Just as with the poems whose “meaning is seldom grasped” (Messo 22), the very organization waivers in its function as organon. Several meanings might become available, and this diversification at every level of the book may be one way of the overcoming of meaning, raised in the poem “Lyre,” which forms a condition for poetry or, at least, for talking about poetry (Messo 21); another possibility is that no meanings become available, only the bruta facta of the book. If option “a” is followed for describing the organization of “HOUSE,” the overall organization disrupts a consistency or self-similarity between parts and sections: against the reduction of parts’ lengths works the dual motion of a reduction in the number of sections from part one to part two, ending with a vast dispersal of particulars in “HOUSE.” Developing option “b,” on the other hand, would let the book engage in some of the arithmetics found throughout, but particularly in its final moment “WINDOW,” where subtraction of leaf from house gives window (Messo 282). Subtraction: take part one (9 sections), subtract the sections of part two (4 sections), and the five sections of part three remain: 9-4=5. The book both authorizes this type of scrutiny and derides it as the work of the eye:

Partitioning, encoding, freezing still.
An image predator.
Where in the house, it says, is better to see outside?
(Window believes the view is there for itself.)
Its presence too is indebted to absence.
It has grabbed the world before it.
(The window faces forward.)

Is it a child passing by?

‘A child’s passing!’ it will say. (Messo 282)

Predatory, an optics that brings things to a standstill, is the eye; the poem levels charges against the eye immediately following the subtraction of leaf from house, the book’s final arithmetic statement. Messo’s text will summon and resist this kind of operation by which the book’s organization moves along and out of the numbers. And note that the child’s passing (‘A child’s passing!’) both figures the disfiguration of the book-as-house by the overdetermining subject and prefigures the book’s own end—“Balcony, / the house’s alcoholic child” (Messo 306; underlining added), sounding “child” into the demise of paratext, the chaos of a pronunciation guide to a Turkish that isn’t there, the absence constituting, giving rise to, behind and motivating (presumably), the whole book.

The book’s organization itself animates an interrogation of its title and its section titles. An ambiguity sways across the grammatical regions of a genitive construction not fiercely determined by a context: the things’s book, a book belonging to things; the book pertaining to things, where things are the objects towards which the book is related. An undecideability hovers in the title even as the terms of a relationship stand firm: things and book, primarily; then also, a dynamics between plurality (things) and singularity (book); of generality (things) and specificity (book); lastly (but likely not finally), in an even more rarefied sense, concept (things) and object (book). In its non-linguistic moments, The Book of Things offers a figuration of this dynamics from a Christian illustration showing the modes of relation among the persons of the holy trinity (Messo 219). The possibility of the triune deity depends on both the non-identity of its elements as they relate to one another and the identity of its elements with the central term, deus. So the image composes the nexus of relations in circles for each member of the trinity (pater, filius, spiritus sanctus) triangulated around a smaller, central circle in which deus is inscribed. Each circle is an angle of the triangle, with channels connecting them with the words non est, while the channels linking each circle to the inner circle say est. The book, itself triune, finds itself reflected in and reflecting, in its own organization, the imago dei and its entanglements of being and non-being.

Within each of the three sections circulates a variety of poems and things, images of things. Early in the volume appear re-imaged objects—images of images of things such as a paint roller, a pin, jewelry, garden shears (Messo 16-17). The representations defy a single scale of reference apart from the reader|viewer’s experience of them and the near-legislated mapping of that experience onto the images as given, such that, although the reproduced image of a hairpin exceeds in size that of the paint-roller, a scale drawn from experience of those items operates against what is given and produces a dissonance. Each page contains what appears to be a collection of four separate images of things placed upon a single ground then re-imaged—photocopied, scanned, photographed—as a composition. The volume thus opens the ancient three-part distancing of mimetic art from reality.[3]

How does a viewer|reader engage such pages? Are they read? Does their arrangement address something, mean something? Turning on itself as reflexion, the following page inquires “—If objects had language, what would you want them to say for you? / —I would want every object to say, all together, ‘He’s one of us’. / I have abided by the untouchability of things” (Messo 18). And again, poem turns on itself, thing reflecting thing: “The poem is where the word disappears, the place where it is /  almost impossible to fix meaning” (Messo 24). In the book’s opening through images the word disappears and meaning is, from the outset, suspended, entered into the chaos “where reality reaches its / furthest limits in language, where that relationship between language / and reality’s other side comes to a halt, and how it comes to a halt”(Messo 21).

The more attention falls on these pages of images near the book’s opening the more evident become the different tonalities of the dissonance: the jarring and hectic strain energized by this collision of given and thought, to borrow from Immanuel Kant modes of subjective encounters with objects.[4] The collages stage an insurrection against “the subject’s sovereignty” by, in concert with the objects of language, becoming somehow object-centered and thoroughly resistant to the rulership of the “I”: the work seeks “To draw near to the subject from all / sides; but never fully grasp it; only to circle it; to start going round again / just when you draw near…” (p. 21). This dizzying cycle rattles the presumptive subject-oriented relation to things, where the subject subjects objects to the grasp and threat of its conceptual epistemics.

This relation the book seeks to undo, problematize, or at times invert. In a dialectical reversal spoken in the alternation of the title of part one from all capitals to all miniscules, the reader|viewer takes a position early in the book as a thing among and opposed to other things: “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” becomes “things that count things that don’t” (Messo 13, 15). Undoing the line-break shifts the whole phrase. Count moves from intransitive in the all-capitals instantiation to transitive in the miniscule, implicating human beings as those who count things that do not count other things, i.e. that are do not perform the cognitive operation of enumerating. But it does not seem to be an indictment. The book asks to be counted even as it cancels parts of itself, as in pages of text overlaid with “X” as if destined to be excised (Messo 221-223). So Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things reaches through and beyond itself: “Anyway, to reach out and grab the outer edges of things is to be in / the world” (Messo 255). Here—at this very moment in the book’s work, in the alphabetized three-columned (triune!) list that opens the sequence “house I” (255), the translation ruptures the spell of identity.

—D. M. Spitzer

N5

d-m-spitzer

D. M. Spitzer is currently a doctoral student at Binghamton University in the Philosophy, Literature, and Theory of Criticism Program within the Department of Comparative Literature. He  works primarily on early Greek thinking and its modern and contemporary reception and on translation theory. In August, 2016, Etruscan Press published his book of poems, A Heaven Wrought of Iron: Poems from the Odyssey. Recent work has taken the form of collaborations with his wife, Sara Shiva Spitzer, a visual artist. He live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his family: Sara and three children Maya, Ani, and Luna.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Special thanks to Sevinç Türkkan for bringing this book to my attention & for motivating me to write this review.
  2. Riley, Peter. “Poetry Notes.” The Fortnightly Review. http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2016/06/ilhan-berk/, 28 June, 2016. Accessed 29 October, 2016.
  3. Plato. Res Publica. Platonis Opera, Vol. 4, edited by John Burnet, Clarendon, 1902.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Könemann, 1995.
Dec 122016
 

john_kaag

To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine. —Melissa Considine Beck

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

American Philosophy: A Love Story
John Kaag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016
272 pages; $26.00

 

O Wild West Wood, thou breath of Autumn’s being.
Thou, from those unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed.

—“Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Shelley

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Holden Chapel, at first glance, is a small, unassuming, forty-foot, Georgian style, brick building on the campus of Harvard University. But it has a rich and interesting history as the third oldest building at Harvard and as one of the oldest college buildings in America. In December of 1741, Harvard accepted a generous donation of 400 pounds sterling from Mrs. Holden, widow of Samuel Holden, and her daughters to build a chapel on campus. The building was erected in 1744 and from that year until 1772 morning and even prayers were held for students in the quaint building and it also served as a place for intimate and engaging lectures. On April 15th, 1895 the American Philosopher William James delivered his famous “Is Life Worth Living?” essay to a group of young men from the Harvard YMCA.

William James, known as the Father of American Psychology, was the son of Henry James, Sr., the Swedenborgian theologian, and the brother of the famous American novelist Henry James. William James contemplated becoming an artist, but in 1861 he enrolled in medical school at Harvard where he eventually graduated with an MD. But James never practiced medicine and was instead drawn to psychology and philosophy and became a pioneer in both of these fields. During his young adulthood James suffered from long bouts of depression which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia. His depression and anxiety, which he calls his “soul-sickness” led him to contemplate suicide and he even overdosed on chloral hydrate in the 1870’s just to see how close he could come to death without actually crossing that threshold. It was the exploration of philosophy and his attempt to answer the question “Is Life Worth Living” that brings him out of his malaise and inspires him to compose some of the most important philosophical pieces that make up the American school of pragmatic philosophy.

John Kaag’s philosophical and literary memoir American Philosophy: A Love Story, begins with the young philosopher’s own “soul-sickness” and his frequent visits to the site of James’s famous lecture, Holden Chapel, in the Spring of 2008. Kaag is on a postdoc at The American Academy of Arts and Sciences when his crumbling marriage, the death of his alcoholic father and the stagnation of his research push him to contemplate what he believes to be William James’s most important philosophical question: “Is Life Worth Living?”

I was supposed to be writing on the confluence of eighteen century German idealism and American Pragmatism. Things were progressing, albeit very slowly.

But then, on an evening in the Spring of 2008 I gave up. Abandoning the research had nothing to do with the work itself and everything to do with the sense that it, along with everything else in my life, couldn’t possibly matter. For the rest of my year at Harvard I assiduously avoided its libraries. I avoided my wife, my family, my friends. When I came to the university at all I went only to Holden Chapel. I walked past it, sat next to it, read against it, lunched near it, sneaked into it when I could—became obsessed with it. James had, as far as I was concerned, asked the only question that really mattered. Is life worth living? I couldn’t shake it and I couldn’t answer it.

Kaag’s clipped and pithy sentences which employ asyndeton for maximum dramatic effect make this book about so much more than philosophy and literature. He is not afraid to reveal his darkest thoughts or lowest moments and he is also not above using profanity or embarrassing stories about himself to get his point across.   The style of deep, private reflection mixed with philosophical dialogue is reminiscent of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But, unlike Pirsig, who wrote computer manuals for a living, Kaag’s book is a great personal and professional risk for a philosopher whose two previous books are for a very specific, academic, Ivory Tower audience: Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition and Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism: The Philosophy of Ella Lyman Cabot.

holden_chapel_harvard_universityHolden Chapel, Harvard University

American Philosophy is aptly and cleverly divided into three main parts which recall the journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory and Redemption. Kaag’s journey starts in Part I, in “Hell,” on his way to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for a philosophy conference on William James at the Chocorua Public Library, but he gets sidetracked for the first of many times throughout the book. There is a sense of wandering and loneliness that punctuates American Philosophy and in this instance, the first real instance of meandering, Kaag can’t even bring himself to his end point which is a professional conference. Instead of going to meet his colleagues at the Chocorua Library, he stops at a German bakery where he meets Bunn Nickerson.   This kind, ninety-three-year old, local gentleman tells Kaag that William Ernest Hocking, the prominent 20th century American philosophy professor from Harvard, has an estate which is nearby and contains a unique library. Bunn offers to take Kaag there to have a look around.

The family still used the Hocking estate, which was named West Wood, in the summer, but in the fall of 2008 all of the buildings were empty of any human inhabitants and the library appeared to be utterly neglected and abandoned. A copy of The Century Dictionary from 1889, a first edition encyclopedic dictionary with more than seven thousand pages and ten-thousand wood engraved illustrations, catches his eye through the window and his decision to enter this library, even though it was trespassing, completely alters the course of Kaag’s life for the better.

Kaag stumbles upon an opportunity to heal his soul in the form of West Wood’s stone library which, upon entering, he discovers is home to more than 10,000 books. The books that Kaag finds inside this unlocked and unheated building, especially the number of first editions, are the stuff of dreams for any bibliophile. Among the rodent droppings, porcupines, termites, various other bugs and dust Kaag finds Descartes’ Discourse on Method–first edition from 1649, Thomas Hobbes’s Levithan-first edition from 1651, the complete, leather-bound volumes of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government from 1690, Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft from 1781, Emerson’s Letters and Social Aims–first edition, 1875 and on and on. To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine.

William Ernest Hocking, the owner of this vast personal library was, like his teacher William James, also a pragmatist who believed that philosophy could have an effect on real life. His personal library was a collection of not only European thinkers and philosophers, but he also amassed books that contained the thoughts of Eastern philosophy. Hocking studied with James at Harvard as well as other American thinkers such as Royce, Palmer and Santayana. In 1908, Hocking moved from his home on the West Coast to accept a teaching position at Yale and in 1916 when his mentor, Josiah Royce died, Hocking took over his chair in philosophy at Harvard. Hocking would go on to spend the next forty years at Harvard making a name for himself as one of the prominent scholars of American pragmatism. Kaag discovers that many of the books in Hocking’s library were once owned by Hocking’s famous teachers and colleagues at Harvard and some of their signatures, notations and inscriptions inside the books were just as valuable as the leather bound books themselves.

hockingWilliam Ernest Hocking

Throughout the course of Part I, Kaag’s “Hell,” he comes to the painful decision that his marriage is a mess and not capable of being saved. He leaves his wife in Boston and spends more and more time at West Wind where he becomes acquainted with Hocking’s granddaughters, Jennifer, Jill and Penny. The sisters are “surprised and releived” that someone is interested in the books and Kaag begins to catalog the massive collection and attempts to save the oldest, most vulnerable books by moving them to dry storage. As he works his way through the books he continues on his deeply personal and lonely struggle with his own purpose and existence. He writes:

In the following months I started cheating on my wife with a room full of books. I made the trip to New Hampshire repeatedly. My wife and mother—in a unison that always infuriated me—demanded to know where I was going. I could have told the truth but instead I chose to lie, making up conferences that needed to be attended and friends I wanted to visit. Up until that point my life had been so routine, so scripted, so normal, so good—but my brief encounter with my dead father the previous year had brought that life to an unceremonious end. Nothing about life is normal. And nothing about life has to be good. It’s completely up to the liver. The question—Is life worth living?—doesn’t have a scripted, public answer. Each answer is excruciatingly personal, and therefore, I thought, private.

One of the greatest strengths of Kaag’s narrative is that he is not afraid to show that his attempt to escape his wretched existence by means of the library at West Wind was not always noble or dignified or pretty. He skips meals, he neglects his hygiene, he drinks excessively, he begins to prematurely age and he sleeps out in the woods behind West Wind where he catches a nasty case of Lyme Disease. Who among us hasn’t hit a low point in our lives to which we can look back and trace our gradual ascent out of the abyss? The stark honesty of Kaag’s narrative is brave, especially for someone who is an academic philosopher, because he includes all of the ugliness of his journey from Hell to Redemption which details he could have just as easily skimmed over or avoided altogether.

The ideas and themes of American philosophy and literature which are unfolded within the pages of Kaag’s book mimic the philosophers own process of discovery as he unpacks and unfolds the wonders of Hocking’s library. One encounters James, Emerson, Thoreau, Coleridge, Camus, Royce, Whitman, Peirce, Frost and Dante just to name a few. Many readers never give much thought to American philosophers, or as Kaag notes, American philosophy is regarded as “provincial” and “narrow in its focus.” Kaag, however, delves into the pages of American philosophical writings with unbridled enthusiasm that is enhanced by his literary ability to tell interesting and engaging stories about the real lives of these great American thinkers. As one example of this, Kaag summarizes the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s struggle with the idea of freedom and the impact chance has on our choices. Peirce took issue with the emphasis of orderly design over chance and freedom that Darwin and the evolutionists promoted. The philosophical theories of Peirce’s Design and Chance are discussed by Kaag in the context of Peirce’s struggle in his personal life with romantic love. The anecdotes and stories about Peirce’s real life struggles makes what could be a dry recounting of Peirce’s philosophical pragmatism into a gripping story about a great thinker who is attempting to make sense out of his confusing and chaotic world.

Kaag spends the next year in the woods at West Wood with Hocking’s books and continues to contemplate James’s important question. As he works his way through the library he reads countless volumes of American philosophy and literature, with a few Europeans mixed in, that help him through the different stages of his emotional and spiritual journey. The most significant turning point in Kaag’s Hell is when he begins reading Thoreau and reflecting on that writer’s own retreat to the woods. Kaag becomes frustrated with Emerson’s idea of self-reliance which he feels is unattainable and unrealistic. Instead he embraces Thoreau’s example of simplicity, cultivating the earth, and turning off and tuning out all of the modern amenities that distract us from searching for real meaning in our lives.

At one point Kaag takes a break from sifting through books in the library asks Hocking’s granddaughter, Jennifer, the least “intellectual” of the sisters, if he can help her clear a field by scything. As he takes in the simplicity of the landscape at West Wood and tries to deal with this very physical task, Kaag comes to realize through this experience of scything that the process of self-discovery needs to happen for him outside of the walls of the stone library and that this process would be slow and couldn’t be forced; he learns to stop and look around him and be mindful of his surroundings and this becomes his first, significant step from Hell to Purgatory.

william-jamesWilliam James

In Kaag’s Purgatory, the subtitle of “A Love Story” is further explained through the first glimpses and descriptions of Carol whom the author confesses he should, by all accounts, have hated. By this point in the book he is divorced and his ex-wife is remarried and moving out west, but Kaag’s loneliness and isolation linger. He continues to spend hours and days and weeks at West Wind and to catalogue Hocking’s library and to save the most precious volumes from the elements. One weekend he invites Carol, a colleague of his from UMass Lowell, a Kantian feminist, who is also his rival for a tenure track academic job, to join him in sifting through the library at West Wood. Carol is married, but her husband lives in Canada so their long distance relationship gives her plenty of freedom and independence to travel with Kaag to New Hampshire on this as well as many occasions.

While sifting through the pages of Hocking’s library and taking hikes through the White Mountains together, it is evident that Kaag’s feelings for Carol become more than friendly. There is a hint in the text that Kaag, in the tradition of Dante, wants to find his inspiration, his Beatrice and he has found just such a companion in Carol. But her marriage and his general uncertainty about the direction of his life makes for an unexpected element of suspense in the midst of the book as he debates how or when he should reveal his true affections for her. Thoughts of American philosophy and James run through his mind as he is mulling over his decisions:

Shall I profess my love? Shall I be moral? Shall I live? These are the most important questions of modern life, but are also questions that do not have factually verifiable answers. For James such answers will be, at best, provisional. There are no physical signs that one is emotionally ready to become a lover or husband, auguries that suggest one will be any good at any of it. In fact, there is often a disturbing amount of countervailing evidence. But human beings still have to choose, to make significant decisions in the face of uncertainty. Love is what James would have called a “forced option”—you either choose to love or you don’t. There is no middle ground.

Kaag deliberately chooses to exclude the details of his development of an intimate relationship with Carol. The decision to keep this part of his personal life between himself and Carol is worthy of great admiration and respect—he knows that an author can cross the threshold into the type of salacious writing that is meant to sell books and Kaag stops just shy of veering into the realm of romance. Kaag simply remarks about their decision to choose love and to choose one another: “Some things are better left unsaid, and others can’t be said at all.”

But we do get a glimpse of their life together in the final part of American Philosophy which has the hopeful title of “Redemption.” Kaag finds happiness, true love and companionship and Hocking’s books find a safe haven in the library at UMass Lowell. But despite the happy ending for all persons and things involved in his journey, Kaag is still all too aware of the ephemeral nature of our existence and he acknowledges that we are responsible for making our own meaning in life with what we are given.

Kaag concludes with a reflection of his time at West Wood and how far he has come from those lonely days in 2008 when he was obsessed with Holden Chapel. In 1780 religious services ceased to be held in Holden Chapel and in 1800 it was converted into a chemistry and dissection lab for the students of Harvard medical school. Bones that were the remains of medical dissections were discovered in the walls of the chapel when it was renovated in 1990. Nowadays Holden Chapel reverberates with the sweets sounds of music as it is used by the Harvard Glee Club for practice. Kaag notes that in the Middle Ages it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings for apotropaic purposes but also because they were good for the acoustics. This strange mix of the sounds of the living occupying the same space as the bones of the dead in this small, historical chapel is reminiscent of the opening lines of Yves Bonnefoy’s Ursa Major:

What’s that noise?

     I didn’t hear anything….

     You must have! That rumbling. As if a train had roared
through the cellar.

     We don’t have a cellar.

     Or the walls.

     But they’re so thick! And packed so hard by so many

centuries…

—Melissa Considine Beck

N5

m-beck-bio-pic

Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy.

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Dec 112016
 

Dawn Promislow

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Do it. Walk down this gilded laneway—black-cobbled, shiny-cobbled—on a bright autumn day, and you will see that it curves narrowly along the quiet, south bank of the Arno River in Florence, in district Oltrarno.

There are high stone walls—gold-coloured—that curve and contain the lane, and greenery that falls from the walls, like water. And in the still midday (at a moment when you hear nearby brass bells bantering–deeply–the hour), you can walk along this curving lane, going nowhere especially, and you might come across a cat.

She’s an iron-grey cat, you’ve never seen such a colour, deep dense-grey. You can follow her as she sidles, uninterested, into a doorway. Like a woman. The doorway is black and dark, a black square in stone. You must stoop to enter, and the heavy wooden door open to the inside is hinged with thick metal, tinged, and ancient.

It’s a low-ceilinged room, stone, clad in black-grey, with dark metal shapes and implements everywhere: blunt tools of every kind and shape, anvils, and hammers, dark metal-racked. And on a large black table is a welding machine, and a man, not a young man, is bent over a hulking black form, yellow sparks flying, and there’s a din of blasting, metallic noise.

And everywhere you look there are black and grey metal forms that are sculptures, on old wooden tables and on worn wooden shelves, at every height and covering every piece of wall and space. Some are just shapes: spirals and curves, or angular and sharp. But some are animals, or people, metalled. They’ve been melted and smelted and reworked, forged and reforged, into these metalled, living creatures.

A sculpture of a boar, up on its hindlegs, startles. The boar looks startled, but you’re startled too. You think wild boars are native here, but you are not sure. All this iron, all this metal, must be native to the hills around here, extracted, a-flash in the sun, from the flint-hard earth. And if you go home you might read about how iron ore has been mined here and nearby for a long, long time.

You’re watching the grey gatto again, she’s sitting at the door now, looking out, out through the square door of light, onto the black-cobbled street. The word ghetto, which was invented not far away in the year fifteen hundred and sixteen, sounds much like gatto. Ghettos had cats, indolent, everywhere, you are sure of that.

And another man will come towards you from deep inside the stone room, he’s old but very strong, hardened like metal, and his name is Giancarlo, and his glasses flash in the dimness. Giancarlo and you do not share, between you, a language, but Giancarlo will tell you things all the same. He will tell you, in words black and barbed and unrecognizable (and musical), that he has been welding and sculpting with his blackened hands, hard hands, these many-blacked and blackened shapes and forms. He will tell you that he has been doing this since 1955, which is a very long time since it is now the year 2014. He will tell you, although you’ve guessed already, that this black-ironed, blackguard of a stone blacksmith’s room with its black stone floor has been here with all its metal work for five hundred years at least. Five hundred years, and you are certain that this gatto, this iron cat, has been here all that time too. Because she is nine-lived, or more. It’s for this reason that she is so deep grey, imprinted with soot and the black of many days and works. Gatto, come here gatto.

And you won’t want to leave this grey-black room with its iron-barred square window which lets in light, light, and a blue square of bright sky. You will want to stay here and watch how the metalled creatures are made. And meanwhile the gatto will jump up onto the deep-wooded and -blacked table in front of you, and she will roll over to be stroked by the iron-hard hands of Giancarlo, who owns and loves her. How old is she, you will ask. And Giancarlo will tell you in the language you don’t share that she’s three, but you’re not sure about that.

You think you could stay, there might be a room at the back, a black room, metalled, with a stone, cool floor. Do it.

You could be that cat. Gatto. Gatto. Old, wise (and beautiful), sidling and stand-offish.

Such a cool laneway in the golden midday sun. Green spills from the walls like water.

—Dawn Promislow

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Dawn Promislow is the author of the short story collection Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). Her poem “lemon” was short-listed for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.

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Dec 112016
 

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The prose poems brought together in this selection are infused with the landscape along the shore of the Saint Lawrence River in the south-west part of Montreal, adjoining the neighborhoods of Verdun, Lasalle, and Lachine. The section “Lachine Stations” makes a more explicit reference to the area of Montreal in the south-west, upstream from the rapids bearing the name “Sault Saint-Louis” at the time of New France. Until the opening of the canal in 1825, enabling one to bypass the rapids, Lachine was the departure point for the “voyageur” canoes, hired by the great companies engaged in the fur trade in the north-west. Those pages of “Lachine Stations” devoted to the fictional character, Jean Mongeau, sketch the portrait of one of those singular men who became voyageurs. They were inspired by Carolyn Podruchny’s book, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade (University of Nebraska Press and University of Toronto Press, 2006), translated into French by Anne-Hélène Kerbiriou, as Les voyageurs et leur monde. Voyageurs et traiteurs de fourrure en Amérique du Nord (Presses de l’Universitè Laval, 2009) – as well as the book illustrated by Gilles Bédard, Les voyageurs d’Amérique (Éditions GID, 2012). I extend my thanks to both authors, to whom I am greatly in debt.

—Pierre Nepveu

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Notebooks of Jean Mongeau,
…….summer-autumn 1803

I walked by the edge of the wood,
torn between the grain’s fervour
and the chill exhalation of ferns.

I had either to stay or to leave.

In me, life sickened
each day a bit more

and my soul was heavy with loss
God-divested and imploring
life’s grace be restored to me.

I loved you, Marie, but it was
a music unmastered, a lame plod,
my hands grasping at the void,

while voices on high called to me, fraught,
nameless, faceless voices,
and I gave heed to them in the forest, wanting
to cede them my moorings, my lodgings,
while our dog, who yapped far off
in the hay at high tide
somehow knew
he was no longer my vassal
and that he’d lost me..

*

Sometimes I see again the road leading to Lachine,
I hear the cart squeal
that carried us out of the city
weighed down with horses and tipsy sailors,
and all along the port we saw
large-skirted women whose beauty
tore at us suddenly like a farewell,
I remember having hailed one of them
with my hand, and having blushed
at the smile she tossed me,
then it was a rough forest trail
along the Sault Saint-Louis
where you felt the presence, both hidden and near,
of the humid river that would bear us,
its water luminous as a deliverance..

*

The eve of our departure we’d danced and drunk long into the night. Something held us to the land, drunk as we were and near to madness, like those sailors who in the end repudiate the sea, too wide, that renders alien, to the soul’s peril, the nearness of bodies and things. Then we left in the direction of Nipissing, the Big Water, and we were greeted by Algonquin women, all comely, save an old toothless one who smiled like the others but seemed the very embodiment of death.

***

(Inventory for loading):
– twenty rifles.
– thirty boxes of gunpowder.
– thirty boxes of lead shot and balls.
– twenty wool blankets.
– two big rolls, blue cloth, red cloth.
– knives, scissors, hatchets, awls, sewing needles, lighters.
– flour, sugar, salt, dried meat.
– two boxes of jewels: necklaces, earrings, bracelets.
– a bag of red powder to color the skin.
– mirrors, magnifying glasses, decorative porcelain, glass pearls, brass and steel wire.
– Thirty shirts, thirty ceintures fléchées.
– tobacco, brandy..

*

I kneeled a moment
in the last church
then I feared the wind
and I shivered..

*

On leaving: a baptism of peace
and light to bless two lakes.

I thought myself a new man
armoured with hope and prayers
and a providence of rocks and cascades
and fierce rains to freeze the soul,

but I found prairies first,
a great sweetness of grasses
and the night with its shrillness of crickets,
the distant pounding of a drum
rising from a village beyond the fields

I miss Maskinongé already,
but I sense a fire within me
never before felt, a strength that defies
its trials as the days pass and I reach
that breaking point where my body
must sing if it’s not to sleep,

I think of you, Marie, alone under the quilt
naked and warm in the lunar room
entering a long languorous summer
a deep fever of silence and idleness,

while far up I voyage within myself,
seeking valor in exhaustion
and knowing no more the reasons for my flight.

*

For days La Grande River
was our only home
along with the obsessive lapping of the paddles
counting the seconds and in the process
undoing all hope of reaching shore and sleeping there,
until the sudden squawk of a bluejay
entered my ear and in a trice
I stopped feeling my arms
and my hardened backside and my bent legs
and it was like a clearing inside
as if the landscape
had at last found in me
a place to lodge its light.

*

After La Grande River and the hard law of rocks
that seemed to assert on earth
God’s dominion over human failings,
we encountered the ghastly La Vase Portage,
all the world’s hardness abruptly undone
all matter molten and the ground stripped away
under our boots and it seemed to me suddenly
that evil was rampant in this place
seeking to cow our courage,
as if we’d broken faith with our own desire
for a combat on equal terms,
and against all expectations tainted the assurance
of a rugged land and pure water
that would christen us one more time.

*

(Letter from Marie Saint-Arnaud to Jean Mongeau, October 1803)

The house is empty of you but I often pass
your shadow in the dark, I feel
your breath rush upon me,
your handsome charmer’s mouth
bite my breast,
but I’d love as much
for your voice to wrap me round and shelter me
from the hardness of the world
for you said things with wisdom
and swore love with that gentle tremble
that makes men’s voices falter
when desire undoes them,
I’d like tomorrow to be filled
with your body and your hands,
and your peaceable step when at the window
I saw you going by the fields
towards the dark edge of the wood
when all the day’s power
seemed yours
as if your heavy gait
enjoined it to yield,
tell me on what river do you paddle,
on what lake and if the time is long
crossing over hills with a heavy burden
and if the black water sometimes brings you fear
and if it bears off comrades
who have not kept their footing.

*

Early morning, scarred fire, noble bones, woodland song, men’s and women’s voices among the trees. I am the dust of ages, whirlwind of the deeps, escapee from the first caves. I tremble at being what I am, do you hear me, woman of the woods, of wool woven under the lampshade and the trellis of blood that shivers in the window? Do you know the calendar of wounds and joys that appear, at times, when night and day conspire to undo order and reason, when limbs are harnessed to other limbs to shift the weight of dread? Who are you? I founder in another river that becomes another lake that becomes a new river. Sometimes the running water no longer suffices for the needs of man and sometimes supplies must be shouldered, without horses or donkeys, to sidestep death. This business destroys us, yes, but to live is something else again, and the nightly feasts, and the dried bison and the bear fat that smears our fingers. We are beset with hunger before the rock that quakes. We are mad not to bow low before this god.

*

Despite the splendor of these paddler’s arms,
it’s the soul’s indigence
and human weakness
that have brought me here
to this harsh land and load-bearing water,
the treacherousness of roots
and the astonishment of animals,
me chilled to the bone,
unnerved by rains and frothings,
loving kin to whispering grasses
and thrown full force onto stoical rocks
against which at times I lean my ear
towards the far-off realm when time
laboured sedately and in darkness.

*

Spare me this rise to climb, these slimy stones beneath my soles, this fatigue of bodies that know only steepness and stumbling. There is anguish too great for just one man, and regrets that smother the soul, when prayer’s succor is all for naught. Give me back the ardour of forests and the burning pine needle carpet, give me back cold springs and the gentle drift in the carefree bends of rivers sheltered by the sky and the brows of rocks. I see far off the great prairie open wide, riddled with mosquitoes, and the banks of the Red River where, they say, the peoples of this land grow grain. And on the lakes at night the Northern Lights cast a spell and set even the stars to dancing. You arrive wearied at the trading posts, you gorge yourself with oily corn and draughts of rum, and unknown languages rip at your heart. You never come home, and you hear in the distance a great rush of dust and sand rise up which, out of the south, foists thirst on man and beast and makes drought a primal verity, underpinning all gifts and the glories of love. Restore to me, Lord, the blessing of this desert, spare me the hard road back.

*

Rock me, rock me, take
my broken body, my routed heart
for I lost my footing,
slid on a solid stone
while seeking support,

saw the water darker
than the deeps of our souls
and the time of man
shrunk to nothing,
rock me for what remains of beauty
when the foundering sun
shuts the book of wonders,
the sweet legend of a peopled world,
while the rapids far off, their froth abated,
roar on through the night
like beasts that stalk their prey.

Rock me, woman who douses the lamp,
go to sleep now alone so as to feel no pain,
I journey on under a heavy weight
and eternity is for me a deep chill,
my solitude counts for less than your own,
it vexes even the dusk
where I seek forgiveness in vain.

— Pierre Nepveu, Translated from the French by Donald Winkler

.

Pierre Nepveu is a poet, essayist, novelist and professor emeritus at the University of Montreal. Since 1971 he has published several collections of poetry, primarily with the Éditions du Noroît, including Romans-fleuves, Lignes aèriennes, Les verbes majeurs, and most recently, La dureté des matières et de l’eau, which appeared in 2015. In addition to his essay collections dealing with Quebec literature and the literatures of the Americas, including L’écologie du reel and Intérieurs du Nouveau Monde, his is the co-author with Laurent Mailhot of the anthology La poésie québécoise des origins à nos jours, which has appeared in several editions. He published the biography, Gaston Miron. La vie d’un homme, in 2011. Several times a winner or finalist for the Governor General’s award, he is also a member of the Royal Society and the Order of Canada.

§

wiinkler-pic

Donald Winkler is a Montreal based documentary filmmaker, and a translator of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He is a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for French to English translation, most recently, in 2013, for his rendering of Pierre Nepveu’s collection of poetry, The Major Verbs (Les verbes majeurs). His translation of Nepveu’s most recent collection, The Hardness of Matter and Water (La dureté des matières et de l’eau), will be published by Signal Editions in 2018.

.

Dec 102016
 

karen-mulhallen-undated

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Karen Mulhallen age two with her parents

This is a photograph of me at about two years of age. I have been looking at this picture for the past year or so, while I was working on a collaborative essay, a chapter on twentieth-century fashion in literature. It was impossible for me to reread so many early twentieth-century books without thinking of my own mother, and her clothes and the way in which clothing was a bond between us. My mother was always fashionable, and briefly was a model for Max Factor, while she was freelancing as a journalist in the first years of her marriage, before I was born. My father was fat, very fat, as you can see, and was very lucky to have her. She is chic in her slender yellow dress, appliqued with brown velvet leaves on the chest. Her hair partially rolled in a chignon. Two things strike me about my role in this picture. I am dressed, as I was for years, in a handmade dress, this one with sweet cross-stitching. I seem oblivious to my clothing, although that might not be true. And of course my stuffed animal is a horse, which resonates with the fact I have written many poems about horses, including an entire book, Sea Horses, about the wild horses of Sable Island. Was my identity being forged even then by my dress and my accessory, a stuffed horse?

karen-mulhallen-in-crepe-dress-1942-44The author in crepe dress, with stuffed horse, 1942-44

My youngest brother David has, by default, become a sort of archivist of the family photographs. He observes that most of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me. I am the eldest of four siblings and the only girl. Is the preponderance of pictures of me because I am a girl? Because girls get dressed in pretty dresses? Because I am pretty? Because I was first born? These are all seemingly innocuous and even commonplace questions. But what do they mean?

karen-mulhallen-childhood-photos“[M]ost of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me.”

Like many women of her generation, my very beautiful and intelligent mother was an excellent seamstress. And so she dressed me, made my clothes, as a baby and a little girl. That stopped when I was an awkward and highly emotional teenager. Then, eventually, I had part-time jobs, and began to buy inexpensive and standard clothes for myself: saddle shoes, poodle-cloth skirts, white sharkskin blouses. But when I got my first real job, as a teacher in a university, my mother spent months with me going to the fabric mills, just east of Kitchener-Waterloo, and then making me suits and dresses, some from elaborate Vogue patterns. Was this because I was gainfully employed and needed to present a professional appearance, or was it because I became beautiful for the first time since I was a little girl? Now I could be a brooch on my mother’s lapel. Or, as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own remarked, women are the looking glasses who enlarge men at twice their size. Did I become again, perhaps for the first time since childhood, the looking glass enhancing my mother, after such a long wait?

karen-mulhallens-motherThe author’s mother

Here is a photograph of me at the age of 13, with my adored baby brother David on my lap. I am wearing a sharkskin blouse and a poodle-cloth skirt. David is too young to worry about how I look, to wonder whether I am pretty, or why I am not as pretty as the other girls in our small town. He loves me because he knows I love him passionately and I spend all my waking hours thinking of him, rushing home from school to take him for walks, feeding him, changing his diapers, even sharing the bed with him and his many stuffed animals.

karen-mulhallen-with-brothersThe author, age 13, with baby brother David

Here is a photograph of David sixty years later. His expression is the same, although now, like our father, he is wearing a suit and tie.

brother-david-60-years-laterThe author’s brother David, 60 years later

In the first few years of my teaching, and my brief marriage, I too began to sew. Sew independently, of my own volition, that is. Of course I had to take Home Economics in high school, although I had asked to take Shop, and sewing was part of the Home Economics curriculum. Most of my sewing, and my knitting, I took home to work on, which really meant that my mother could rip it out and redo it and advance a bit on it for me for the next day. I certainly learned to vacuum and to make tomato juice from scratch, and to embroider tea towels, all activities I have not continued. However, when I came of age the hippie era had begun. I began to sew kaftans, my mother was making macramé jewelry, and I began to sell my work and my mother’s in the various head shops, like Tribal Village, which sprang up in the city. I put away my Vogue pattern-St. Laurent suits, and my bra, and followed the trend, vintage clothing, much from my mother’s wonderful stock of 1940s and 1950s coats and outfits from Creed’s, an elegant high-end Toronto store, and 1920s and 1930s dresses from London’s vintage shops in Chelsea and the Portobello Road markets, and from my friend Mary Fogg’s Oxfam shop in Reigate, Surrey.

Here is a picture of me in a luminous green robe trimmed with fake fur, made for me by my mother. I am sewing a kaftan, the fabric featuring an overall geometric silver design, intended for sale at a local head shop.

Karen Mulhallen sewing a kaftan 1974The author sewing a kaftan, 1974

Young designers had begun to open shops in Toronto, and in London, England, in Chelsea and High Street Kensington. Those clothes too were part of my wardrobe, clothes from The Unicorn, and Dr. John’s and the Poupée Rouge in Toronto, and from Biba’s in London and from Ossie Clark.

Toronto wasn’t as swinging as London, with its mod wear for men, but Toronto did have several designers’ shops in Yorkville, on Cumberland and on Yorkville and on Bellair, and even on Avenue Road, and in the Village on Gerrard Street, and in Honest Ed’s Village on Markham Street. And the city was buzzing with the marvelous energy brought to it by the American draft dodgers. Clothing became fun, and a direct expression of the sexual revolution.

I got married in London in Trafalgar Square in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in a Unicorn orange velvet dress, its hood and hem trimmed in red fox fur. My husband wore a black velvet suit and my brother Robin, who was best man, wore one in green velvet.

There are few photographs of me in this period in these clothes; in many I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution, but here is one where I am wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s on Gerrard Street, a grey jersey top and short grey flannel skirt with gored panels in it, topped by a fake suede vest which I had sewn myself. The rather rough stitching on my vest might or might not have been intentional.

Karen Mullhallen in handmade vest and Dr Johns jerseyThe author wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s (photo by Jay Cohen)

karen-muhallen-naked-in-the-late-60s“I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution…”

So my life as a student and a teacher of literature has been from the beginning intertwined with my changes in costume and with the way in which my clothes not only signaled my identity, but also were active in its construction.

I remember even as a young graduate student visiting my parents and putting on fashion shows with my mother for my father as he sat in his armchair reading the daily newspapers. It never occurred to me then that this might be an unusual activity. While some graduate students were attentive to what characters in novels were eating, the boeuf en daube, for example, that Mrs. Ramsay serves for dinner in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, I was more interested in what the characters were wearing.

When I look again at that early picture of myself with my parents, I notice my father’s green tweed suit and his paisley tie. It is a uniform, one commonplace enough since suits became standard for menswear, after what culture critics have called the “Great Male Renunciation” in the nineteenth century. What this rather rotund phrase acknowledges was the fact that men had stopped wearing high heels and elaborate and luxurious clothing, including voluminous lace cuffs and powdered wigs as well, for a sort of uniform which has more or less persisted through the twentieth and even into the twenty-first century. Swinging Chelsea and the Haight-Ashbury hippie era and punk culture being notable exceptions.

Although my father was always rather formally attired, including English brogue shoes, shirts and ties, as was his generation, he did express himself in his choice of headgear. Here he is in a straw hat, dancing with one of my brother Robin’s girlfriends…

father-dancing-in-straw-hatThe author’s father dancing in straw hat, 1980

…and here he is celebrating St Patrick’s Day, with a hat of his own devising. He did enjoy costume opportunities.

father-with-st-patricks-day-hatThe author’s father in St. Patrick’s Day hat

In this picture, he appears to be walking a catwalk. He has an audience and is prancing in his shorts. My father often wore shorts in the summer time when he drove into Toronto to do film bookings for his cinema. He considered the wearing of shorts in the city to be a bit rebellious and in line with some aspects of his character. He also wore an Odd Fellows Lodge ring, although he never belonged to the Odd Fellows Lodge.

father-parading-with-cigar-and-shortsThe author’s father parading in shorts, with cigar

General male sobriety in clothing highlights profoundly the moment in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) when Daisy and Gatsby gather at his two wardrobe cabinets, where his shirts are “piled like bricks a dozen high . . . shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue” and Daisy begins to weep at the beauty of his many different coloured shirts.

Shirts seem to be essential masculine garb throughout the twentieth century. As a teenager I remember well ironing and folding my father’s shirts. This was a task I enjoyed and the smell of them while ironing and then the folding them gave me great satisfaction. My father wore a fresh shirt each day and had a chest of drawers, a highboy in green lacquer, built in the art deco style, something like a pyramid, dedicated to their storage.

Unlike my father’s shirts, however, Gatsby’s shirts signal his immense wealth and therefore his attractiveness. Clothing has always been a crucial signifier. The literary depictions of women’s clothing in the first half of the twentieth initially signal primarily their class, often their age, and eventually their occupation, as the roles of women, and the presence of women in the workplace, change.

In erotic fiction, of course, little changes, as the fewer the clothes, the more so-called “erotic” the portrait. When I was a graduate student everyone was reading Pauline Réage’s wildly popular novel, The Story of O (1953), which could be considered the standard for women engaged in erotic behaviour, a short skirt, no underwear, long gloves, and, in cold weather, some sort of fur coat. By the end of the twentieth century, underwear becomes outerwear, as Madonna’s Sex (1992) book amply illustrates. The question of undergarments is in itself of some interest, since, except for nightgowns, very little of these essentials make a fictive appearance.

When I began to teach in the late 1960s, there was a major shift in Western clothing and some of these shifts appear in well-known authors. The hippie movement, the rise of feminism, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and London’s Chelsea, all see male and female clothing coming closer to one another, as do hairstyles in general. The punk movement of the 70s in a sense repeats this trope, as girls dress like boys, and a little bit contrariwise. I remember when I was working on a project centred on the Palais Royale in Paris wandering through its garden and being delighted at spying a young man in a sarong topped by a tweed sports coat and shirt and tie. He turned out to be a clerk in the Jean Paul Gaultier shop nearby. Returning to London, I noticed for the first time in Chelsea men also wearing skirts with sports jackets.

karen-mulhallen-wearing-mans-cap-1974-75The author wearing a man’s cap, 1974-75

For the next twenty years or so, the reverence for couture, and the use of dressmakers who might imitate couture, also begins to erode, as fashion is democratized, male and female clothing blends, and branding takes priority, initially as a reaction to democratization. The wide availability of high street knock-offs of expensive runway creations does mean that authentic luxury brands are increasingly valued as signs of status, and their logos are worn on the outside of many garments and accessories. However, a proliferation of copies of luxury brand items, both labels and logos, ensues, and all attempts to police and patent couture and luxury design, while continuing into the twenty-first century, are more or less ineffective.

As television and film become primary channels of expression for clothing as iconic, I think a good case might be made that literature turns inward, the interior life of characters becomes central, and their external appearances, and particularly their clothing, play little part in who they are and what they do. This was a shift signaled as early as 1924 by Virginia Woolf in her pamphlet “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” where she argues against stressing the fabric of things in order instead to depict human nature. The interior life, argues Woolf, is what the novelist should focus on.

A classic and spectacular example of the rise of couture in popular media is Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York (2002)—loosely based on Herbert Asbury’s 1927 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld—where the gangsters are dressed brilliantly and memorably; male clothing dominates the screen. The costume design won an Oscar award for British costume designer Sandy Powell. The cut of the male costumes seems to reference the men’s wear of Italian designer Giorgio Armani, who has himself designed clothes for more than two hundred films including American Gigolo, The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall StreetBy 1981, Giorgio Armani had become the rock star of fashion, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Scorsese’s own father was a clothes presser, so Scorsese’s emphasis on male clothing and fashion in the film, about to be a TV series, has intriguing autobiographical roots.

My own return to designer clothing began about this time in the late 1970s–early 1980s. I was earning a living as a lecturer, and I was constantly in the public eye. Japanese and Italian designers were shaking up the runways in Paris.

The use of actors, and most often actresses, in advertisements for major luxury fashion companies in the later twentieth century, shows just how much fashion and clothing have become an important component of the commercial presentations of self, linked to class and prestige. Not that this is new, but the use of models whose financial lives are made by impersonations, in essence improvisational identities, does emphasize the importance of clothing in the construction of the public self.

In the nineteenth century, descriptions of the wearing of used clothing, what we call vintage, seemed to be confined to rent girls, who rented attractive clothes in order to sell their bodies. In the later twentieth century vintage carried with it a number of charges, a turning away from the contemporary, from luxury, from commodity culture, but also a way of taking on the past in all its guises. A deliberate looking backward, with the freedom that this engenders.

Here is a late-1970s photograph of me, taken by photographer Michel Verreault, in a vintage lace dress from the 1930s. This dress was given to me by my mother, although it is not a dress she ever wore. She had simply collected it as an antique.

author-wearing-1930s-vintage-lace-dress

karen-mulhallen-photos-by-michel-verreault-1980Photos of author by Michel Verreault, 1980

Although my doctoral dissertation finally was on William Blake’s illustrations, I spent several years in graduate school working on what is known as modernism. Two modernist writers who had a major impact on my own sense of costume were D.H. Lawrence and Djuna Barnes. In both writers the putting on of costume is a colourful putting on of identity. Each frames a scene and sets it up as in a painting. Each uses colour as well as texture to convey class, emotion, and occupation. Each has a direct relationship to the world of painting—Lawrence was an exhibited painter, and Barnes had studied at the Pratt Institute.

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D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)

The body and its clothing are crucial tropes in Lawrence’s work. In the opening chapter of Women in Love, “Sisters,” Gudrun stands out from the ashy, dark Midlands colliery town to which she has returned from art school and her life in London:

The sisters were women. Ursula twenty-six, and Gudrun twenty-five. But both had the remote, virgin look of modern girls, sisters of Artemis rather than Hebe. Gudrun was very beautiful, passive, soft-skinned, soft-limbed. She wore a dress of dark-blue silky stuff, with ruches of blue and green linen lace in the neck and sleeve and she had emerald-green stockings. Her look of confidence and diffidence contrasted with Ursula’s sensitive expectancy. The provincial people, intimidated by Gudrun’s perfect sang-froid and exclusive bareness of manner, said of her: “She is a smart woman.” She had just come back from London, where she had spent several years, working at an art-school, as a student, and living a studio life. (page 4)

d-h-lawrence-women-in-love collageD. H. Lawrence

The girls, whom Lawrence in this passage casts as incarnations of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, walk by rows of dwellings of the poorer sort: everything is ghostly. “Everything is a ghoulish replica of the real world, a replica, a ghoul, all soiled, everything sordid.” Gudrun is aware of “her grass-green stockings, her large grass-green velour hat, her full soft coat, of a strong blue color. . . .‘What price the stockings!’ said a voice at the back of Gudrun. A sudden fierce anger swept over the girl, violent and murderous.” (pages 8–9)

The sisters are both school teachers, and Ursula will become involved with a school inspector Rupert Birkin, while her sister Gudrun will become the lover of Gerald Crich. When Gudrun first sees Gerald (page 11) we are told he was “almost exaggeratedly well-dressed.” But no details of his clothing are given. His mother is described as wearing a sac coat of dark blue silk and a blue silk hat (page 11). In this scene at the church we first see Hermione Roddice, a friend of the Criches. Hermione is the wealthy daughter of a baronet; she is Rupert Birkin’s long-time lover, and a woman of intellect and culture:

Now she came along, with her head held up, balancing an enormous flat hat of pale yellow velvet, on which were streaks of ostrich feathers in natural and grey. She drifted forward as if scarcely conscious. . . . She wore a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow color, and she carried a lot of small rose-colored cyclamens. Her shoes and stockings were of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat. . . . ( pages 11-12)

Lawrence compares her to a woman in one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings with her heavy hair and long pale face, and drugged look.

Later, at the school, Hermione appears “a vision . . . seen through the glass panels of the door” (“Class-Room,” pages 34-35). She has come for a surprise visit, while Birkin is giving instruction about the sex life of plants. She speaks in a “low, odd singing fashion”: Her manner is intimate and half bullying:

She was a strange figure in the class-room, wearing a large, old cloak of greenish cloth, on which was a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar and the inside of the cloak was lined with dark fur. Beneath she had a dress of fine lavender-colored cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull green-and-gold figure stuff. She was tall and strange, she looked as if she had come out of some new bizarre picture.

In a scene in a London café, “Crème de Menthe” (chapter 6), where artists gather, an artist’s model called “Pussum” Darrington presents herself :

At Birkin’s table was a girl with dark, soft, fluffy hair cut short in the artist fashion, hanging level and full almost like the Egyptian princess’s. . . . She had beautiful eyes, dark, fully opened, hot, naked in their looking at him. . . . She wore no hat in the heated café, her loose, simple jumper was strung on a string round her neck. But it was made of rich peach-colored crepe-de-chine, that hung heavily and softly from her young throat and her slender wrists. ( pages 60-63)

The architecture and the setting of “Breadalby” ( chapter 8), Hermione’s family home, also provide a frame for dramatic presentations: “Breadalby was a Georgian house with Corinthian pillars, standing among the softer greener hills of Derbyshire, not far from Cromford.” ( page 82)

As Ursula and Gudrun arrive the house appears “like an English drawing of the old school . . . women in lavender and yellow moving to the shade of the enormous, beautifully balanced cedar tree.” ( page 83)

Hermione takes in the two sisters’ appearance:

She admired Gudrun’s dress more. It was of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes. The hat was of a pale greenish straw, the color of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black. It was a good get-up, at once fashionable and individual. Ursula, in dark blue, was more ordinary, though she also looked well.

Hermione herself wore a dress of prune-colored silk, with coral beads and coral colored stockings. But her dress was both shabby and soiled, even rather dirty.

To entertain themselves the various characters form Biblical tableaux of Naomi and Ruth and Orpah, in the fashion of the Russian Ballet of Pavlova and Nijinsky, with a panorama of costume and emotion. (page 92)

As they all go up to bed, Hermione brings Ursula to her bedroom.

They were looking at some Indian silk shirts, gorgeous and sensual in themselves, their shape, their almost corrupt gorgeousness. And Hermione came near and her bosom writhed, and Ursula was for a moment blank with panic. . . . And Ursula picked up a shirt of rich red and blue silk, made for a young princess of fourteen, and was crying mechanically: ‘Isn’t it wonderful—who would dare to put those two strong colors together—’ (pages 93–94)

fashion-timeline-1910-to-19191910s fashion timeline (via Glamour Daze archive)

In the chapter entitled “Rabbit” (chapter 18), Gudrun is hired to teach art to Gerald’s young sister Winifred at his family home of Shortlands. Gerald waits in the garden to catch sight of Gudrun. Gerald is described as “dressed in black, his clothes sat well on his well-nourished body.

Gudrun came up quickly, unseen. She was dressed in blue with woollen yellow stockings, like the Bluecoat boys. He glanced up in surprise. Her stockings always disconcerted him, the pale yellow stockings and the heavy heavy black shoes. . . . The child wore a dress of black-and-white stripes. Her hair was rather short, cut round and hanging level on her neck.

As she and the child move away to see the child’s rabbit, Bismarck, “Gerald watched them go, looking all the while at the soft, full, still body of Gudrun in its silky cashmere.” He is in love with her, but he is also annoyed “that Gudrun came dressed in startling colors, like a macaw, when the family was in mourning. . . . Yet it pleased him.”

He contrasts her with Winifred’s French governess’s “neat brittle finality of form.” “She was like some elegant beetle with thin ankles perched on her high heels, her glossy black dress perfectly correct, her dark hair done high and admirably.” (pages 245–247)

In Chapter 28, “In The Pompadour,” it is Christmas time, and Rupert and Ursula are now married, and the two couples are travelling to the continent. Gudrun and Gerald travel via London and Paris to Innsbruck, where they will meet Ursula and Rupert. Gudrun and Gerald go to the Pompadour Café after seeing a show at a music-hall. (page 397)

Pussum approached their table: “She was wearing a curious dress of dark silk splashed and splattered with different colors, a curious motley effect.”

As Gudrun flees the café, the far end of the place begins to boo “after Gudrun’s retreating form”:

She was fashionably dressed in blackish-green and silver, her hat was a brilliant green, like the sheen on an insect, but the brim was a soft dark green, a falling edge with fine silver, her coat was dark green, brilliantly glossy, with a high collar of grey fur, and great fur cuffs, the edge of her dress showed silver and black velvet, her stockings and shoes were silver grey. . . . Gudrun entered the taxi, with the deliberate cold movement of a woman who is well-dressed and contemptuous in her soul. (page 401)

Women in Love was written during the first World War and its characters reflect some of the bitterness of that time. Nonetheless, the women’s strength is portrayed in their choice of clothing. Their artistic and intellectual nature is expressed in their elaborate and individual choices of dress.

Another development in Lawrence’s work is his depiction of women in men’s roles and in male clothing. The collection of stories in England, My England take us close to the changing social status of working class women who take on men’s jobs and their clothing and male attitudes.

In “Tickets, Please,” girls work on a single line tramway in the Midlands during war time. The countryside is black and industrial. The drivers are men unfit for active service, cripples and hunchbacks. It is “the most dangerous tram service in England,” as the authorities declare with pride, “entirely conducted by girls and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or delicate young men who creep forward in terror.

The trams are “packed with howling colliers.” “The girls are fearless young hussies”: “In their ugly blue uniform, skirts up to their knees, shapeless old peaked caps on their heads, they have all the sang-froid of an old non-commissioned officer.” “They fear nobody—everybody fears them.

tickets-please-illus-from-strand-magazine-1919“Tickets, Please” illustration from Strand Magazine, 1919

The female protagonist in “Tickets, Please” is Annie. She incites the other girls to beat up on one of the male inspectors, John Thomas, who has dated each of them. They are depicted by Lawrence as furious Maenads. Annie takes off her belt and hits John Thomas on the head with the buckle end. They tear off his clothes, kneel on him, beat him, forcing him to choose one of them.

In “Monkey Nuts,” two soldiers are loading hay. The older one, about age 40, is Albert, a corporal, the younger Joe, about 23. They are not in Flanders so life seems good. Into their activities, driving a wagon pulled by splendid horses, comes a land girl, Miss Stokes. She was a buxom girl, young, in linen overalls and gaiters. Her face was ruddy, she had large blue eyes.”

land-girls-1915-1918Land girls, 1915-1918 (courtesy Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network)

The men begin to flirt with her, and she is attracted to Joe. She begins to make advances, to insist he meet her. The most memorable scene is where she arranges to meet Joe and has changed out of her men’s clothing. Now she is wearing “a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet.” This is when Albert is able to defeat her, when she is clothed as a woman. Joe doesn’t want her and she doesn’t want Albert, but Albert appears in Joe’s stead.

There is a suggestion of a homoerotic relationship between the two men, but it is not developed. Lawrence intimates that men are becoming less male and women are becoming masculine. War is a disorder in many ways. Once Albert humiliates Miss Stokes, they jeer at her, and begin to call her Monkey Nuts.

The trope of the female in male clothing continues into the novella The Fox (1918), which went through several revisions, until its final form in 1923. A young soldier Henry Grenfel, who has been living in Canada, returns to his grandfather’s farm and finds two women, Nellie March, and Jill Banford living there, running the farm inefficiently. The women call one another by their last names, in masculine fashion. March dresses as a man, a tightly buttoned workman’s tunic, a land girl’s uniform, and she does the heavy work. Banford wears soft blouses and chiffon dresses. Henry decides he will have March and he comes into the women’s relationship like a fox into the hen house. One day he enters the house and March is wearing

a dress of dull, green silk crape. Her dress was a perfectly simple slip of bluey-green crape, with a line of gold stitching round the top and round the sleeves . . . She had on black silk stockings and small, patent shoes with little gold buckles. (pages 48–49)

Seeing her always with

hard-cloth breeches, wide on the hips, buttoned on the knee, strong as armour, and in the brown puttees and thick boots it has never occurred to him that she has a woman’s legs and feet. Now it came upon him. She had a woman’s soft, skirted legs, and she was accessible.

The story has a dramatic and tragic end, but the fox does get his hen in the end.

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Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)

After studying at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League, Djuna Barnes lived from 1913 in Greenwich Village, New York, and worked for several newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair and The Morning Telegraph, as a journalist, illustrator, and short story writer. Poetry and plays were also published over the next fifteen years, but most of her time in the 1920s was spent in Paris where she was part of a vibrant circle of expats, including James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. She moved to London in 1931, but then returned to America in 1941, and died in New York. Today Barnes is best known for her novel Nightwood, which was first published in England in 1936 with the strong support of T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber.

djuna-barnes-nightwood-collageDjuna Barnes

Nightwood defies the conventions of the realistic novel; its characters are all deracinated; its settings of Berlin, Vienna and Paris, and somewhere in the country in New York state, provide mise en scène for highly charged emotional encounters, presented in dense poetic language, a language so metaphorical it creates in its readers a narcotic effect. The reader moves in a vivid haze, part dreamscape, part interior landscape. One’s memory of the book is not confirmed by rereading, but what remains resonates and grows in the mind.

In addition to the vital carnivalesque role of a group of circus performers, there are six characters in the book. The guide to its world, the Virgil in this Purgatoria and Inferno, is an American named Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an impoverished transvestite whose medical bona fides are suspect; yet he is in some way a doctor of the soul, and Nora Flood seeks him out for healing.

The character who is the focus for the action of the text is a young American woman of twenty, Robin Vote. She is the lover of Nora Flood, who is twenty-nine, and of Jenny Petherbridge, a wealthy American divorcee whose four husbands have made her exceedingly rich. Robin has myriad lovers, but she is eternally questing for herself in the night and in the arms of someone new. She is described as a boy in a woman’s body.

The book opens not in the Paris of the 1920s, but in another place and time with the birth of Baron Felix in 1880. We discover him as a man obsessed with the past and with validation through the past. He wears spats and cutaway jackets and clings to the pageantry of kings and queens. In a moment we are in Paris, forty years later, where Felix meets Robin, marries Robin and brings her back to Austria where she gives birth to a child Guido and then deserts the Baron and her newborn child.

It is Robin whose appearance, whose boyish body and clothing, suggest the alterity of this night world of outcasts. We see her first in the Hôtel Récamier, where Dr. Matthew O’Connor, accompanied by Baron Felix, is summoned to attend a young woman who is not well: she lay

heavy and disheveled. Her legs in white flannel trousers were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step, her hands long and beautiful lay on either side of her face. . . . Her flesh was the texture of plant life. . . . About her head there was an effulgence of a phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water . . . the troubling structure of the born somnabule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room.

If Robin with her shocking blue eyes appears like a wild beast, her first appearance also conjures a history of painting, in the portraits of Madame Récamier, which were still scattered through this hotel at 3 Place Saint-Sulpice in 1990 when I stayed there, and might still be there to this day. Récamier was famously painted by Jacques-Louis David (1800) and by le Baron Gerard (1805), while posing barefoot, on a chaise longue, in a soft white chiffon dress, enhanced under the bosom with a simple ribbon, her hair in a soft chignon.

portrait-of-madame-recamier-by-jacques-louis-david-1800Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David, 1800

karen-mulhallen-in-slip-dressThe author wearing a summer dress, Montreal 1968

Robin’s appearance evokes this and confutes it, since she is wearing white flannel trousers and thick lacquered dancing pumps. If Madame Récamier’s bare feet, and her wearing of an undergarment as outer garment, the light muslin slip dress, symbolized the end of the ancient regime and an elevation of nature, Robin’s appearance does the opposite. She is transgendered and encased, and yet she is a danger to all. “The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a ‘picture’ forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger.” (page 41)

The Baron’s fascination with Robin comes in part from her appearance:

Her clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient. One day he learned the secret. Pricing a small tapestry in an antique shop facing the Seine, he saw Robin reflected in a door mirror of a back room, dressed in a heavy brocaded gown which time had stained in places, in others split, yet which was so voluminous that there were yards enough to refashion. (page 46)

Robin is both a modern girl and an ancient being. Her wearing of vintage clothing is transformative, as she crosses sexual, historical and vestimentary lines. Applying Kaja Silverman’s phrases from “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” we can see how Robin’s recycling of fashion waste denaturalizes her own specular identity.

Other characters also participate in this crossing of genders and epochs, even in dreams. Nora Flood’s grandmother will appear to her in fantasy as a cross-dresser, leering and plump, but also echoing the world of children’s fables like Little Red Riding Hood (pages 68–69), with the Wolf as Grandmother in her nightgown in bed. The doctor is also seen (page 85) in makeup and a woman’s flannel nightgown.

Love of the invert, we are told (page 145), is a search for one idealized gender in another, the girl lost is the Prince found, the pretty lad is a girl. And even one life form in another: Robin “a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin” (page 155), “the third sex” (page 157).

In the final scene (pages 178-179) at a “contrived altar,” “Standing before them in her boy’s trousers was Robin,” and she slides down and begins to bark and crawl after the howling biting dog.

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Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

I was spending a lot of time in England in the early 1970s, while I worked on my dissertation on William Blake’s paintings, and it was there I discovered the novels of Jean Rhys, shortly after the publication of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Looking back I have often wondered whether some of my own feelings about clothing and security, about fitting in, and being both invisible and visible, didn’t come directly from Rhys’s heroines, especially from Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie.

jean-rhys-after-leaving-mr-mackenzie-collageJean Rhys

Did my own desire for a mink coat come from my reading of Rhys’s novels, or from looking at many Blackglama mink ads in the American edition of Vogue magazine, featuring beautiful young actresses and singers at the height of their physical power?

I remember my mother asking my father to buy her a black mink coat for Christmas one year, which he did, of course. And my own acquisition of a mink coat was purchased with my share of our sale of my mother’s house after her death. I remember carrying my dog Lucy up the escalator to the Holt Renfrew fur department on Bloor Street one early winter day. I had decided that if my dog was unhappy among all those dead animals, then I would abandon my plan for a mink coat. Lucy was fine, and I purchased a Gianfranco Ferre mink coat; the Italians were still dominating the fashion runways in the 1990s. My glorious mink coat now sits abandoned in the closet in my guest room, but whether this putting aside bespeaks a new sense of security on my part or simply a shift in fashion trends it would be hard to say.

As a model and an actress Rhys was attuned to the zeitgeist. Women’s confidence and acceptability was embodied in their dress. And she knew about poverty and issues of race firsthand. The BBC documentary on Rhys’s work revealed that while she had been forgotten, like many artists, she was indeed still alive, living in poverty, in the west of England. Educated in Dominica and England, after a brief stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Rhys worked as a chorus girl, was a nude model, and lived as a mistress of a wealthy stockbroker. Eventually, she had three marriages and two children, a son who died young and a daughter. Although she had lived in London, Paris and Vienna, she died in Devon, England. Her trajectory is in many ways akin to that of Canadian author Elizabeth Smart.

Rhys’s work, written in a spare, clear style, focuses on and takes the perspective of rootless, mistreated women, who are frequently down and out in London and Paris. With her BBC-inspired rediscovery, Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) where she rewrites Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife imprisoned in his attic. Set on a small Caribbean Island, Rhys’s book addresses the European man’s fear of and attraction to a Caribbean woman’s sensuality. Locking up the woman, rejecting and humiliating her, reaffirms his power and puts to rest his fear and repulsion of his own desires.

Rhys’s ongoing concern was the political inequality of women, their powerlessness in a man’s world: “The life of a woman is very different than the life of a man,” observes Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930). It is clothing which confers power and prestige, clothing which is transformative.

At the age of 36, Julia Martin returns to London in search of money, and perhaps love, and also a home, after she has been left in Paris by her lover Mr. Mackenzie. She is careful in her clothing, hoping to make a good impression on her family and she buys a second-hand coat, regretting the sale of her fur coat which would have conferred not only warmth but status.

Julia waited for her uncle

in a large, lofty room crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs . . . .She was cold, and held her coat together at the throat. The coat looked all right, but it was much too thin. She had hesitated about buying it for that reason, but the woman in the second-hand shop had talked her over.

She thought: “Of all the idiotic things I ever did, the most idiotic was selling my fur coat.” She began bitterly to remember the coat she had once possessed. The sort that lasts forever, astrakhan, with a huge skunk collar. She had sold it at the time of her duel with Maître Legros.

She told herself if only she had had the sense to keep a few things, this return need not have been quite so ignominious, quite so desolate. People thought twice before they were rude to anybody wearing a good fur coat; it was protective coloring, as it were. (page 57)

Julia visits her sister in Acton who lives with their mother and a nurse called Wyatt. Wyatt’s clothing, her wearing a tie, her use of her last name, and her hair cut, plus the severity of her dress suggest she is the lover of Julia’s sister:

The door on the second floor was opened by a middle-aged woman. Her brown hair was cut very short, drawn away from a high, narrow forehead, and brushed to lie close to her very small skull. Her nose was thin and arched. She had small, pale-brown eyes and a determined expression. She wore a coat and skirt of flannel, a shirt blouse, and a tie. (page 68)

Julia is in London for ten days. When she returns to Paris, she is expecting a lover from London named Mr. Horsfield. When he doesn’t turn up, he sends her 10 pounds. Walking along the Seine, Julia imagines

Happiness. A course of a face massage. . . . She began to imagine herself in a new black dress and a little black hat with a veil that just shadowed her eyes.

In her mind she was repeating over and over again like a charm: ‘I’ll have a black dress and hat and very dark grey stockings.’

Then she thought: ‘I’ll get a pair of new shoes from that place in Avenue de l’Opera. The last ones I got there brought me luck. I’ll spend the whole lot I had this morning.’ . . . A ring with a green stone for the forefinger of her right hand.

She spends the whole afternoon in the Galleries Lafayette choosing a dress and a hat. Then she goes “back to her hotel, dressed herself in her new clothes, and walked up and down in her room, smoking.”

In Rhys’s work, the themes of suitable clothes, respectable clothes, and of the little black dress, recur over and over.

The little black dress as a fashion accessory emerges in the 1920s as an essential element of a woman’s wardrobe, with the designs of Coco Chanel and others. Simple, elegant and affordable, it can be dressed up or down with accessories. Before the 1920s, black was the color of mourning, and its stages allowed black and grey. Tints of purple were also popular.

Throughout the twentieth century the charge on the LBD ( Little Black Dress) changed. All of Rhys’s female characters identify the black dress as a powerful and sophisticated symbol of success. It is simple in cut and fabric. In many ways it is classless.

My own clothes closet is brimming with black clothing. This is both symptomatic of an urbanite in Western culture in the later twentieth, and twenty-first century, and also a testament to Coco Chanel’s liberation of women. Here is a portrait of my mother from the 1940s in an iconic LBD. Notice her simple accessory, a necklace with multiple strands of pearls.

karens-mother-in-lbd-and-pearlsAuthor and father with mother in little black dress and pearls

In Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (1939), Sasha Jansen in her forties comes back to Paris, a place where she once found love and then disaster. She gets a job in a fashionable dress shop as a receptionist. The shop has a branch in London and is owned by an Englishman. He comes over every three months or so, and she is told “he’s the real English type . . . Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes—I know him at once.” (page 19)

An old English woman and her daughter come into the shop. The old woman wants to see hair accessories. When she removes her hat, she is completely bald on top.

She tried on a hair-band, a Spanish comb, a flower. A green feather waves over her bald head. She is calm and completely unconcerned. She was like a Roman emperor in that last thing she tried on. (page 22)

Her daughter condemns her mother and says she has made a perfect fool of herself as usual. But Sasha feels the old lady is undaunted.

Oh, but why not buy her a wig, several decent dresses, as much champagne as she can drink, all the things she likes to eat and oughtn’t to, a gigolo if she wants one? One last flare-up, and she’ll be dead in six months at the outside. (page 23)

Sasha rushes

into a fitting- room. . . . I shut the door . . . I cry for a long time—for myself, for the old woman with the bald head, for all the sadness of this damned world, for all the fools and all the defeated. . . .

In this fitting room there is a dress in one of the cupboards which has been worn by a lot of the mannequins and is going to be sold off for four hundred francs. The saleswoman has promised to keep it for me. I have tried it on; I have seen myself in it. It is a black dress with wide sleeves embroidered in vivid colors—red, green, blue, purple. It is my dress. If I had been wearing it I should never have stammered or been stupid. (page 28)

Like her clothing, which is acceptable or not, empowering or not, Sasha says there are locations which are accepting and those which are not:

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly and streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on. (page 47)

Sasha is picked up by two Russians; “one is impressed by my fur coat.” It is all about appearance. A prosperous appearance gives a woman the strength to go on. Aging is hell, because youth is the key to attractiveness, and attractiveness means men will give a woman money. Hence greying hair must be dyed:

Again I lie awake, trying to resist a great wish to go to a hairdresser in the morning to have my hair dyed. (page 48 )

I must go and buy a hat this afternoon, I think, and tomorrow a dress. I must get on with the transformation act. But there I sit, watching the same procession of shabby women wheeling prams, of men tightly buttoned up into black overcoats. (page 63)

1927-fur-and-fur-trimmed-coatsFashionable fur coats, c.1927

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)

I met Mavis Gallant in the late 1980s and her conversation through the hours we spent together was of a piece with her depictions of women’s roles, and oppressions, in her fiction. My account of my time with Gallant was published in Numéro Cinq Magazine in September 2014.

Gallant’s From The Fifteenth District (1978) is a series of stories set during and after the Second World War. Their primary focus is a community of expats. Many of the scenes unfold on the border between France and Italy. In the first story, “The Four Seasons,” we find a young Italian servant girl named Carmela, her employer, a parsimonious English woman, Mrs. Unwin, and, next door to them, a Marchesa.

Mavis Gallant from-the-fifteenth-district-book-coverMavis Gallant

Gallant presents the contrast between these characters in her description of their dress. Carmela wears

A limp black cardigan. . . . She did not own stockings, shoes, a change of underwear, a dressing gown, or a coat,. . . . Carmela’s father was dead, perhaps. The black and the grey she wore, speculates the narrator, were half-mourning. (page 5)

As the time is just before the Second World War, there is an ongoing feud between two neighbours, the Unwins, who are Mussolini sympathizers, and their next door neighbour, the Italian Marchesa. This feud is encapsulated in the narrator’s description of Mrs. Unwin’s smock and her cigarette-stained and freckled hands, in contrast to Mrs. Unwin’s description of the Marchesa’s clothing:

Mrs. Unwin suddenly said she had no time to stroll out in pink chiffon wearing a floppy hat and carrying a sprinkling can; no time to hire jazz bands for parties or send shuttlecocks flying over the hedge and then a servant to retrieve them; less time still to have a chauffeur as a lover. Carmela could not get the drift of this. She felt accused. (pages 4–5)

Although the entire collection of stories is sensitive to the nuances of clothing, my own favourite is perhaps “The Moslem Wife” which uses a single item of clothing, a shawl, as metaphor for a wife’s apparently submissive role.

Shawls have often been associated with elderly women, with aging, and with the cold the aged feel. In Gallant’s story, the heroine Netta is young, but has begun to wear her mother’s shawl as she works with a modern adding machine at the books for her hotel. I myself began to collect shawls in the 1960s, but I have no idea how my own preoccupation came about. I still own my first shawl purchase, a purple silk Indian shawl trimmed in silver.

Here is a picture of me wrapped in this purple silk shawl but wearing a long black linen dress by Canadian designer Brian Bailey. The photograph was taken in the late 1990s.

karen-mulhallen-in-purple-silk-shawlThe author in purple silk shawl, late 1990s

My mother did not wear shawls, except occasionally as part of a specific outfit, nor did my grandmother own any shawls whatsoever. Over more than forty years my own shawl collection has grown, although I do give some away occasionally. However, I find it painful to let even one go. The shawl is a powerful symbol, and seems not to be connected with any masculine clothing symbols. There is no question in my mind that my own collection represents some important aspect of my identity, but which identity?

In Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife,” the chief characters are a second-generation expat English family who run a hotel which continues during and after the war. Netta is married to her first cousin Jack. One day she overhears an English doctor refer to her, to Netta, as “ the little Moslem wife.” Soon the idle English colony is calling her by that phrase.

Among the hotel guests are three little sisters from India:They came smiling down the marble staircase, carrying new tennis racquets, wearing blue linen skirts and navy blazers.”  Mrs. Blackley “said, loudly, “They’ll have to be in white. . . . They can’t go on the courts except in white. It is a private club. Entirely in white.” (page 59)

Gallant gracefully sketches English racism in this small moment about the colour of appropriate tennis clothes. In the end, the little girls continue to wear their blue clothes, but they stay at the hotel for their tennis lessons, rather than go to the English Lawn Tennis Club. (pages 58–59)

A shawl enters Gallant’s narrative when Jack’s mad and imperious mother comes to live with them: Netta began “wearing her own mother’s shawl, hunched over a new modern adding machine, punching out accounts” (page 60). The shawl is Netta’s protection and comfort, and it is her conduit to a sort of power line. Others however see it as a sign of submission.

After Jack leaves her alone in the hotel, and runs off with another woman to America, abandoning her and the hotel during the war: “The looking glasses still held their blue-and silver-water shadows, but they lost the habit of giving back the moods and gestures of a Moslem wife.” (page 76)

The shawl and Netta’s title as the Moslem wife, competent as she is running the hotel, overseeing the entire operation, are the symbols of her passivity in the face of her husband’s profligate behavior and her subservience to men. However, she later insists to Jack that when the Italians took over the hotel and the Germans left she was no longer the subservient female: “When the Italians were here your mother was their mother, but I was not their Moslem wife.” (page 78)

North American women’s clothing and the image of the New World girl changes dramatically in life and in Gallant’s stories. The story “Potter” is set after the Vietnam War (1975), that is in the later 1970s, in Paris. So Gallant, in this astonishing collection of stories, runs through five decades in the clothing of her characters. Blue jeans, and long shiny hair, have become part of the uniform of the American girl. Piotr, a Polish immigrant in Paris, falls in love with an American girl living off men.

The girls were Danish, German, French, and American. They were students, models, hostesses at trade fairs, hesitant fiancées, restless daughters. Their uniform the year Piotr met Laurie was blue jeans and velvet blazers. They were nothing like the scuffed, frayed girls he saw in the Latin Quarter, so downcast of face, so dejected of hair and hem that he had to be convinced by Marek they were well-fed children of the middle classes and not the rejects of a failing economy. Marek’s girls kept their hair long and glossy, their figures trim.” (page 219)

Laurie Bennett has “blue eyes, fair hair down to her shoulders, and a gap between her upper front teeth.” (page 220) She is refreshingly and casually well-groomed and makes fun of the stuffy Canadians in the form of her own sister-in-law from Toronto who “wears white gloves all the time, cleans ’em with bread crumbs—it’s true.” (page 221)

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Alice Munro (1931– )

I have never met Alice Munro, although I have seen her onstage and I once wrote a radio program for the Toronto radio station CJRT on her work which is so ironic and nuanced. Like Gallant, Munro is certainly an avatar of my own coming-of-age and costume. You never come to the end of a Munro story. Once while I was lecturing on her work in Italy, I suddenly could hear her regional cadence, which is from my own area of the country, in Canada’s deep south, southwestern Ontario. And yet of course her voice is universal.

Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) consists of ten linked tales which together constitute a bildungsroman of the protagonist Rose. Although eight of the stories were published separately in various magazines, when they were placed together Munro wrote two especially for the collection : “Simon’s Luck” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” In adding these two, she reconstituted the book in the form of an experimental novel.

Alice Munro who-do-you-think-you-are collageAlice Munro

In time span, the stories run from before the Second World War until the early sixties, although time frames are embedded in the details, rather than in specific references to historic events. Rose’s clothes in part mimic her class, and her poverty; she comes from the poor part of town, where the divide between East and West Hanratty is not only a bridge, but also what people eat for breakfast and where their toilet is located. In Rose’s house, the toilet is in the kitchen where farts can be heard as the family eats its meals.

In “Wild Swans,” on her first trip away from home, Rose comes to Toronto by train. As Rose walks through Union Station, she is remembering a friend of her stepmother Flo. Flo’s friend is Mavis who looks like the movie star Frances Farmer and so she “bought herself a big hat that dipped over one eye and a dress made entirely of lace. . . . She had a little cigarette holder that was black and mother-of-pearl. She could have been arrested, Flo said. For the nerve.” (page 69)

Mavis in her clothing mimics the appearance of the film star she resembles and goes to a resort on Georgian Bay in the hopes folks will think she is Francis Farmer herself.

Celebrity clothing, the appearance of film stars, sets one model for women. Glamour and sexuality are what it is really about, the cigarette holder and the lace and the hat dipping over the eye. They are desirable and to be avoided, perhaps even unlawful. Similarly in “The Beggar Maid,” Rose has come to London, Ontario, to university. She has the local dressmaker in Hanratty make her a suit for her new life, but the dressmaker, who is a friend of Flo’s, refuses to make it tight enough. The chapter opens with a glamorous purchase; Rose and her friend Nancy sell their blood for $15 in order to buy fashionable shoes: “They spent most of the money on evening shoes, tarty silver sandals.” (page 70). Later we see Rose wearing the green corduroy suit which was made for her in Hanratty:

The skirt of her green corduroy suit kept falling back between her legs as she walked. The material was limp; she should have spent more and bought the heavier weight. She thought now the jacket was not properly cut either, though it look all right at home. The whole outfit had been made by a dressmaker in Hanratty, a friend of Flo’s whose main concern had been that there should be no revelations of the figure. When Rose asked if the skirt couldn’t be made tighter this woman had said: “You wouldn’t want your b.t.m. to show, now would you?” and Rose hadn’t wanted to say that she didn’t care. (pages 76–77)

Rose gets a job in the college library and a wealthy graduate student named Patrick Blatchford falls in love with her. He compares her to the Beggar in Edward Burne-Jones painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Class is writ large in the clothing in the painting, the poor beggar girl in a slip and the king in armored clothing. The courtiers looking down on the girl caught within the picture frame.

Patrick says to Rose:

“I’m glad you’re poor. You’re so lovely. You’re like the Beggar Maid.”

“Who?”

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. You know. The painting. Don’t you know the painting?”

Rose studies the painting in an art book. The girl white, “meek and passive,” the King “sharp and swarthy” and “barbaric.” “He could make a puddle of her, with his fierce desire” (pages 81- 82).

In “Mischief,” Rose, now married to Patrick, begins an affair with her best friend Jocelyn’s husband Clifford, a musician. Rose has ambitions to be an actress. Patrick expects her to dress conservatively, but she wants to wear toreador pants (page 111). It is the Beat era, so black is becoming the fashionable colour for artists:

A few of the girls were in slacks. The rest wore stockings, earrings, outfits much like her own. . . . And most of the men were in suits and shirts and ties like Patrick. . . . A few men wore jeans, and turtle necks or sweatshirts. Clifford was one of them, all in black. (pages 112–113)

Rose goes to Powell River to meet Clifford. There is no bus depot and the only place to wait is on the porch of a loggers’ home for old men:

There was no place to loiter. She thought people stared at her, recognizing a stranger. Some men in a car yelled at her. She saw her own reflection in store windows and understood that she looked as if she wanted to be stared at and yelled at. She was wearing black velvet toreador pants, a tight fitting high-necked black sweater and a beige jacket which she slung over her shoulder though there was a chilly wind. She who had once chosen full skirts and soft colors, babyish angora sweaters, scalloped necklines, had now taken to wearing dramatic sexually advertising clothing. The new underwear she had on at this moment was black lace and pink nylon. In the waiting room at the Vancouver airport she had done her eyes with heavy mascara, black eyeliner, and silver eye shadow; her lipstick was almost white. All this was the fashion of those years and so looked less ghastly than it would seem later, although it was alarming enough. (page 127)

beat-girlBrigitte Bardot wearing Beat clothing in Le Mépris, 1963

Rose’s clothing, that of the emerging artist and of her own sexual liberation, contrasts dramatically with her friend Jocelyn who wears her husband’s old clothes. But Jocelyn comes from a wealthy family and has nothing to prove.

In “Simon’s Luck,” Rose, who is now a professor at Queen’s University, takes up with a man at a party. The host is wearing a “velvet jumpsuit” (page 167). This was the hippy era, late sixties: “He was looking very brushed and tended, thinner but softened, with his flowing hair and suit of bottle-green velvet.” A costume which resonates with those velvet suits of my brother and my soon-to-be husband at my own wedding in London in this era.

Novelists’ alertness to dress as exemplifying and creating character interacts with questions of commodification and branding. It’s hard to say what exactly branding is. Easy to point to the display of the logos of designers, but something else is surely afoot. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which are structured like the tales of Tolkien and the schema of Joseph Campbell, medieval grail knights’ tales, have over time and immense popularity become branding opportunities. These opportunities were certainly set in place by Ian Fleming himself, as a look at Fleming’s texts, even before the James Bond films, demonstrates.

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Ian Fleming (1908–1964)

Set during “a new era of fashion and prosperity,” Ian Fleming’s bestselling tales of Secret Agent 007, James Bond, have sold more than 100 million copies. There are 14 Bond books—12 novels and two short story collections. Films continue to be made with the central figure, Secret Agent 007, and always with at least one beautiful woman, and lots of technology—flame throwers, guns, cameras, cars, and the like. These books are one bellwether for changes in fashion in literature. Their proliferation of luxury commodities signal the shift in popular media to all sorts to branding.

The first Bond book, Casino Royale (1953), sets the template of branding, of consumer culture, of luxury goods evoked and validated by name, which accelerates through the next half century. The book is set in the Hotel Splendide, and at the Casino Royale-les-Eaux in France, at the mouth of the Somme, in south Picardy. The location is a watering hole, as Fleming describes it, in a “new era of fashion and prosperity.” This is the 1950s, the1930s depression is over, as is the Second World War.

ian-fleming-casino-royale-colIan Fleming

Everything in Bond’s world is bespoke, specially chosen, specially constructed, and expensive. Bond’s cigarettes are “a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor street” (page 22). He keeps them in “a flat gunmetal box,” which holds “fifty of the Morland cigarettes with the triple gold band” (page 49). Bond’s French aide smokes Caporals. Bond’s radio, personally delivered by a salesperson from Paris—who is in fact another secret agent—is a Radio Stentor, and his car is a 1933, 4 ½ litre battleship-grey convertible coupe Bentley ( page 30).

In the Hermitage bar, Bond sees men drinking champagne and women dry martinis made with Gordon’s gin (page 31). One man is in a tweed suit with a shooting stick from Hermès.

Bond’s first meeting with his female assistant for this mission, Vesper Lynd, displays her in a

medium-length dress of grey “soie sauvage” with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowed down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist. She wore a three-inch, hand-stitched black belt. A hand-stitched black “sabretache” rested on the chair beside her together with a wide cartwheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather. (pages 32–33)

Bond meets his CIA counterpart who drinks Haig and Haig scotch (page 43). Bond drinks a dry martini, shaken not stirred, in a deep champagne goblet—“three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold and then add a large slice of lemon peel. Got it?” (pages 43–44) He prefers his vodka made with grain rather than potatoes. His cigarette lighter is a Ronson; his weapon of choice is a .25 Beretta: “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip” (page 49). Bond’s clothing is as carefully detailed as his accessories: “single-breasted dinner-jacket, over his heavy silk evening shirt, with a double silk tie” (page 49).

Vesper Lynd’s clothes are from Paris; she has a friend who is a vendeuse and so, in the casino itself, she is wearing a borrowed black velvet Christian Dior dress. Dior had shown his first collection in Paris only in 1947, establishing Paris as a centre of fashion. The choice of Dior demonstrates just how attentive Fleming was to the luxury items of the moment. Later Vesper will say her grey dress was also a borrowed Christian Dior (page 56).

Her dress was of black velvet, simple and yet with the touch of splendor that only a half a dozen couturiers in the world can achieve. There was a thin necklace of diamonds at her throat and a diamond clip in the low vee which just exposed the jutting swell of her breasts. She carried a plain evening bag. . . . Her jet black hair hung straight and simple to the final inward curl below the chin. (page 50)

When Bond has dinner, he is precise in his order. Initially he orders the Taittinger 45 champagne, but he allows the waiter to suggest a Blanc de Blanc Brut of 1943.

“You must forgive me,” he said. “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from the habit of taking the trouble over details.” (page 53)

Near the end of the narrative, Vesper and Bond are at a family-run seaside inn. They have both changed their style of clothing.

He is

dressed in a white shirt and dark blue slacks. He hoped that she would be dressed as simply and he was pleased when, without knocking, she appeared in the doorway wearing a blue linen shirt which had faded to the color of her eyes and a dark red skirt in pleated cotton. ( page 158)

Dr No (1957), the sixth of the Bond thrillers is set primarily in the Caribbean, in Jamaica and on a small island off shore. The central female, “Honeychile” Rider, appears naked on the beach, like a Girl Friday to Bond’s Robinson Crusoe. An innocent, a sort of noble savage, she is the sole survivor of an old Jamaican family which has lost its money. Her dream is to become a New York call girl. As a child of nature, she is every man’s dream child/lover.

The villain of the text is Dr No, a recluse with a fascination with pain and a pair of pincers for hands. Most of the men on Dr No’s off shore island wear Chinese kimonos. The food in his hideout is perfect, and all the bath accessories are brand names.

Bond went to one of the built-in clothes cupboards and ran the door back. There were half a dozen kimonos, some silk and some linen. He took out a linen one at random. . . .

There was everything in the bathroom—Floris Lime bath essence for men, Guerlain bathcubes for women. He crushed a cube in the water and at once the room smelled like an orchid house. The soap was Guerlain’s Sapoceti, Fleurs des Alpes. In a medicine cupboard behind the mirror over the washbasin were toothbrushes and toothpaste, Steradent toothpicks. Rose mouthwash, dental floss, Aspirin and Milk of Magnesia. There was also an electric razor, Lentheric aftershave lotion, and two nylon hairbrushes and combs. Everything was brand new and untouched. (pages 182–183)

Confronting Dr No, the imprisoned Bond keeps his aplomb and orders “a medium Vodka dry Martini—with a slice of lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred, please. I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka.” (page 203).

The Bond novels are charming, brilliantly constructed adult fairy tales, but like all fairy tales they carry important cultural-political lessons.

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Truman Capote (1924–1984)

For me, and for many of my generation, the 1961 film of Truman Capote’s novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), starring Audrey Hepburn, captured the era. In retrospect, it seems to me like a summation of the trends found in the earlier fictions from Lawrence to Gallant. While the film is a romantic and memorable adaptation of Capote’s novella, the novella itself is a sophisticated investigation of class and character. And it is a perfect work of art. The prose is exquisite, spare, clean and evocative, and designed to foreground its central figure, Holly Golightly, a nineteen-year-old starlet, on the lam from Hollywood and her older widowed veterinarian husband with his four children, a man whom she had married at the age of fourteen.

truman-capote-breakfast-at-tiffanys collageTruman Capote by Jack Mitchell (Wikimedia Commons)
Image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly courtesy Grace Hamilton

The novella unfolds through retrospective action—a call from a bar and the barkeep Joe Bell leads the narrator to recall his life in an apartment in a brownstone, where Holly Golightly was a tenant in 1943. Joe Bell’s bar on Lexington Avenue was often used by both Holly and the narrator to make telephone calls.

Although Capote’s novel has lived on in popular mythology through the film adaptation, it is in the novel that improvisational identity is tied to clothing. And in Capote’s narrative, it makes perfect sense. Holly, after a stint in Hollywood where she was being groomed for stardom and saw the opportunity as a way to vamp herself, including learning some French, understands that dressing will be the way she rises above street prostitution. Clothing will enable her to present herself as a girl who should be given a handsome amount of money to go to the powder room.

The little black dress becomes Holly’s costume of elegance, refinement and versatility. Throughout, Capote contrasts Holly with the men she hangs out with—youth and age, innocence and experience. The men are cartoons, caricatures, criminals, bounders, chubby in buttressed pin stripe suits, sexually unrealized heirs who yearn for a spanking, skinny rich conventional South American diplomats, Hollywood agents with the money and the power and the big cigar, soldiers in uniform.

Holly wears simple understated clothes, plays old show tunes, rides horses, wears gloves. Although her living quarters are messy, like a teenager’s, she always emerges unscathed. In the opening scene in Joe Bell’s bar, the narrator looks at what Joe Bell has handed him:

In the envelope were three photographs, more or less the same, though taken from different angles: a tall, delicate Negro man wearing a calico skirt and with a shy, yet vain smile, displaying in his hands an odd wood sculpture, an elongated carving of a head, a girl’s, her hair sleek and short as a young man’s, her smooth wood eyes too large and tilted in the tapering face, her mouth wide, overdrawn, not unlike clown-lips. On a glance it resembled most primitive carving; and then it didn’t, for here was the spitting-image of Holly Golightly, at least as much of a likeness as a dark still thing could be. (page 6)

Joe Bell, the bartender who, like the narrator, is in love with her, sees “pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight . . .” (page 8 )

The narrator had lived in New York in the same brownstone on the upper east side as Holly. He notices on the mailbox, in the name slot for Apt 2, a formal printed card which reads: “Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling.” Later, he learns she had purchased her card at Tiffany’s, and he also will learn what Tiffany’s represents for Holly.

He first sees Holly late one warm evening:

She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.

She was not alone. There was a man following behind her. The way his plump hand clutched at her hip seemed somehow improper, not morally, aesthetically. He was short and vast, sun-lamped and pomaded, a man in a buttressed pin-stripe suit with a red carnation withering in the lapel. . . . his thick lips were nuzzling the nape of her neck. (pages 10–11)

Holly’s clothing presents her as demur and innocent and refined:

She was never without dark glasses, she was always well-groomed, there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and grays and lack of luster that made her, herself, shine so. One might have thought her a photographer’s model, perhaps a young actress, except that it was obvious, judging from her hours, she hadn’t time to be either. (page 12)

One evening on his way home, the narrator noticed a cab-driver crowd gathered in front of P.J. Clarke’s saloon, apparently attracted there by a happy group of whiskey-eyed Australian army officers baritoning “Waltzing Matilda.” As they sang they took turns spin-dancing a girl over the cobbles under the El; and the girl, Miss Golightly, to be sure, floated round in their arms light as a scarf.” (page 13)

Holly smokes “an esoteric cigarette,” charmingly called by Capote, Picayunes; she “survived on melba toast and cottage cheese”; “her vari-colored hair was somewhat self-induced. . . . Also, she had a cat and she played the guitar” and had “white satin pumps.

He often hears her playing her guitar while she dries her hair sitting on the fire escape.

She played very well, and sometimes sang too. Sang in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy’s adolescent voice. She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma! which were new that summer and everywhere . . . harsh tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie. (page 14)

She chooses older men, established men, with money: “I can’t get excited by a man until he’s forty-two. I was fourteen when I left home” (page 16). Although all the men around her are unlike one another, none is young. Rutherford “Rusty” Trawler is “a middle- aged child that had never shed its baby fat . . . his face had an unused virginal quality . . . his mouth . . . a spoiled sweet puckering” (pages 28–9).

Holly’s place of peace is Tiffany’s whenever she is down, whenever she gets “the mean reds,” not the blues but worse.

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. (Page 32)

Holly’s world is her absent brother Fred, who is a soldier, and the men, including O.J. Berman, who was her agent when she was in training for film, along with her model friend Mag Wildwood and Mag’s South American boyfriend.

He’d been put together with care; his brown head and bull fighter’s figure had an exactness, a perfection, like an apple, an orange, something nature has made just right. Added to this, as decoration, were an English suit, and a brisk cologne and, what is still more unlatin, a bashful manner. ( page 39)

Holly keeps her room like a girl’s gymnasium, but always emerged “from the wreckage pampered, calmly immaculate with her lizard shoes, blouse, and belt.” (page 43)

audrey-hepburn-breakfast-at-tiffanys-trailerAudrey Hepburn, screenshot from trailer for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (via Wikimedia Commons)

Holly is a Manhattanite, but she is still rooted in her hillbilly past. She goes riding in Central Park, wearing jeans which were then still farm work clothes, not city wear. When she is arrested for her alleged role in a drug-smuggling racket she is wearing her riding costume, tennis shoes, blue jeans and a windbreaker. In the newspaper, the photograph of her shows her wedged between two muscular detectives, one male, one female:

In this squalid context even her clothes (she was still wearing her riding costume, windbreaker and jeans) suggested a gang-moll hooligan: an impression dark glasses, disarrayed coiffure and a Picayune cigarette dangling from sullen lips did not diminish. (page 71)

Her iconic black dress re-emerges when she goes to the airport, leaving NYC, fleeing her bail on the charges of helping the drug racket of underworld mobster Sally Tomato, to whom she made weekly Thursday visits in Sing Sing prison: “Holly stripped off her clothes, the riding costume she’d never had a chance to substitute, and struggled into a slim black dress.” (page 84)

And in that moment the genius of Coco Chanel, inventor of the LBD, is reconfirmed.

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Bret Easton Ellis (1964–)

The literary movement into branding, and not merely into luxury, takes a grotesque turn in Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991). As so often we ask ourselves, are artists the recorders of what is, or the makers of what must be? How to distinguish the permeable membrane?

bret-easton-ellis-american-psycho-collageBret Easton Ellis

In Ellis’s best-known third novel, the central figure is a serial killer, a Manhattan business man called Patrick Bateman. The novel presents itself as a satire on the consumer culture of late twentieth-century America. Of interest is the extreme form of fashion branding, perhaps for satirical purposes. Every single page presents myriad brands to the reader who becomes enveloped in a haze of consumerism. The examples which follow are not unique, but characteristic of each page of Ellis’s text.

I go into the bedroom and take off what I was wearing today: a herringbone wool suit with pleated trousers by Giorgio Correggiari, a cotton oxford shirt by Ralph Lauren, a knit tie from Paul Stuart and suede shoes from Cole Haan. I slip on a pair of sixty-dollar boxer shorts I bought at Barney’s and do some stretching exercises . . . (pages 72–73)

I run in place for twenty minutes while listening to the new Huey Lewis CD. I take a hot shower and afterwards use a new facial scrub by Caswell-Massey and a body wash by Greune, then a body moisturizer by Lubriderm and a Neutrogena facial cream. I debate between two outfits. One is a wool-crepe suit by Bill Robinson I bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a cotton shirt and pleated wool rousers by Alexander Julian, with a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass. The Julian might be a little too warm for May but if Patricia’s wearing this outfit by Karl Lagerfeld that I think she’s going to, then maybe I will go with the Julian, because it would go well with her suit. The shoes are crocodile loafers by A. Testoni. (pages 76–77)

The scene goes on, names the wine, the wine cooler, the Steuben glass animals on the glass top coffee table, the Wurlitzer jukebox, and so forth. When the date arrives, she is not wearing her Karl Lagerfeld suit: “But she looks pretty decent anyway: a silk gazar blouse with rhinestone cufflinks by Louis Dell’Olio and a pair of embroidered velvet pants from Saks, crystal earrings by Wendy Gell for Anne Klein and gold sling-back pumps.”

In a way it is a dispiriting, even tedious text. But the point is made, and the question is raised—consumerism reigns, and we must ask ourselves if James Bond was a licensed killer, whose own predispositions/or taste ran to branding in every way, how different is this New York financier?

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Patti Smith ( 1946–)

I confess I am in the multitudes who adored Patti Smith’s heartbreaking memoir of her time as a young person with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. Her writing is immediate and tender, evocative and visceral. Published in 2010, and deservedly award-winning, Just Kids takes us back more than forty years and it recapitulates many of the earlier themes of twentieth century clothing: the importance of black clothing, the development of Beat and hippie culture in clothing, the elevation of used clothing into vintage, the merging of male and female styles, and the influence of films on the way women dress. And in clothing styles, Smith’s book captures many of my own sartorial shifts through the same decades.

patti-smith-just-kids-collagePatti Smith (photo on left by Nate Ryan for Minnesota Public Radio)

In Patti Smith’s case, another rich vein is not only the importance of film stars and their dress, but also the impact of art, of literature, of literary figures, of musicians and of visual artists on one’s personal styles. As she herself says, “I was full of references.”

Just Kids is an artistic triumph, and a rich history of an important period in Western culture, when the centre of art shifts from Paris to New York city. Although Smith’s book’s primary focus is a little more than a decade of New York culture, 1967–1979, her narrative takes us up to the death of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989.

When Patti Smith arrives in New York in 1967, she is wearing dungarees, a black turtleneck, and an old second hand gray raincoat (page 25). Looking for work, she describes herself as cultivating “a good beatnik ballet look” (page 29–30). “It was Friday, July 21, and unexpectedly I collided with the sorrow of an age. John Coltrane . . . had died.” The boys in the village wear striped bell-bottoms and military jackets, the girls are wrapped in tie-dye.

Flyers paper the street with Country Joe and the Fish, and Paul Butterfield, and The Electric Circus.

For her trip to New York and away from her nuclear family, Smith’s mother had given her a white waitress uniform and white wedgies. A uniform, not experience, will make her a waitress. Smith abandons the uniform (page 35); she and Robert Mapplethorpe dress like other hippies of the period.

She wears beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, he a sheepskin vest and love beads (page 47). They listen to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Joan Baez, Tim Hardin and Vanilla Fudge.

Film and literature as well as the hippie movement influence their clothing choices. She gets a job at a bookstore, Charles Scribner’s, 597 Fifth Avenue, and her costume is modeled on Anna Karina’s clothing in Godard’s 1964 movie: “My uniform for Scribner’s was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights, and flats.” (page 55)

Smith and Mapplethorpe search out used clothing in the Bowery, “tattered silk dresses, frayed cashmere overcoats, and used motorcycle jackets.” ( page 64)

patty-smith-and-robert-mapplethorpePatti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (photo by Judy Linn)

After the shooting of J.F. Kennedy, Mapplethorpe buys her “a white dress for Easter. . . . It was a tattered Victorian tea dress of handkerchief linen.”

Reading Genet, Mapplethorpe abandons his hippie costume, and becomes obsessed with sailor’s uniforms and those of Japanese kamikaze pilots ( page 70). Cocteau, Genet and The Diary of Anne Frank animate their imaginings and their choices.

They stop living together for a time, and she takes to wearing dresses and waving her hair; he to dressing in a long oxblood leather trench coat. It is 1968. ( page 73)

In 1969, Smith and Mapplethorpe and other friends begin to hang out in what was known as the Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City and The Factory, all part of Andy Warhol’s world, an artist-friendly world. One of their friends, Sandy Daley wears London designer clothes.

Sandy didn’t have a diverse wardrobe but was meticulous with her appearance. She had a few identical black dresses designed by Ossie Clark, the king of King’s Road. They were like elegant floor-length T-shirts, unconstructed yet lightly clinging, with long sleeves and a scooped neck. They seemed so essential to her persona that I often daydreamed of buying her a whole closetful.

I approached dressing like an extra preparing for a shot in a French New Wave film. I had a few looks, such as a striped boatneck shirt and a red throat scarf like Yves Montand in Wages of Fear, a Left bank beat look with green tights and red ballet slippers, or my take on Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, with her long black sweater, black tights, white socks, and black Capezios. . . . I had the attention span of a hopped-up teenage boy. (Pages 118–119)

One day at the automat in her gray trench coat and Mayakovsky cap, Smith meets Allen Ginsberg (page 123) who takes her for a pretty boy.

The sixties were coming to an end. Robert and I celebrated our birthdays. Robert turned twenty-three. Then I turned twenty-three. The perfect prime number. Robert made me a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary. I gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather. He wore the skulls, I wore a tie. We felt ready for the seventies. (page 131)

And ready for a life as artists along with Viva Superstar, Diane Arbus, Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke.

When someone at Max’s Kansas City comments that her hair is like Joan Baez and asks her if she is a folksinger, she decides to cut her hair; she cuts out pictures of Keith Richards (page 140).

My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet . . . Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.

She gets a job playing a boy at LaMaMa theatre in the East Village: “I was dressed in my Song of the South getup—straw hat, Brier Rabbit jacket, work boots, and pegged pants” (page 141). Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan are part of her world.

“We were invited to a fancy dress ball hosted by Fernando Sanchez, the great Spanish designer known for his provocative lingerie.” Loulou and Maxime de la Falaise send her a vintage gown of heavy crepe designed by Schiaparelli: “The top was black, with poufed sleeves and a V-neck bodice, sweeping down into a red floor length skirt. It looked suspiciously like the dress Snow White was wearing when she met the Seven Dwarfs.” (page 194)

The Schiaparelli dress is too small, so she dresses completely in black, finishing off her costume with pristine white Keds. Running shoes become iconic additions to the costumes of the New Age.

This was one of the most glamorous parties of the season, attended by the upper echelon of art and fashion. I felt like a Buster Keaton character, leaning alone against a wall when Fernando came up. He took me in skeptically. “Darling, the ensemble is fabulous,” he said, patting my hand and eying my black jacket, black tie, black silk shirt and heavily pegged black satin pants. “But I’m not so sure about the white sneakers.”

“But they’re essential to my costume.”

“Your costume? What are you dressed as?”

“A tennis player in mourning.”

Fernando Sanchez gives her a slot in his upcoming fashion show. “I wore the same black satin pants, a tattered T-shirt, the white sneakers, modeling his eight-foot-long black feather boa and singing Annie Had a Baby. It was my catwalk debut, the beginning and end of my modeling career.” (page 195)

patti-smith-in-white-shirtPhoto by Ruven Afanador

French poetry, photography, contemporary music, especially rock and roll, contemporary poetry and fiction, French New Wave films, all come together in her choices of clothing: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Yves Klein, Duchamp and Man Ray, Enid Starkie (pages 225–226)

It is 1973, and she plans her clothing for a trip to France, a pilgrimage to the grave of Rimbaud.

I decided to go in October, the month of Rimbaud’s birth. Robert took me shopping for a proper hat, and we chose one of soft brown felt with a grosgrain ribbon. Sam sent me to an optometrist where I was fitted for National Health-style spectacles. Sam gave me enough money for two pairs, considering my penchant for leaving things behind, but instead I chose an impractical pair of Italian sunglasses that only Ava Gardner could pull off. They were white cat’s eyes, nestled in a gray tweed case stamped Milan.

On the Bowery I found an unconstructed raincoat of Kelly green rubberized silk, a Dior blouse of gray houndstooth linen, brown trousers, and an oatmeal cardigan: an entire wardrobe for thirty dollars, just needing a bit of washing and mending. In my plaid suitcase I placed my Baudelaire cravat, my notebook; Robert added a postcard of a statue of Joan of Arc. Sam gave me a silver Coptic cross from Ethiopia . . . Janet Hamill . . . a handful of blue glass beads—scarred trade beads from Harar—the same beads that Rimbaud had traded—as a cherished souvenir . . . Thus armed, I was ready for my journey.

It’s mid-1970s, she is performing, and Mapplethorpe has become a successful photographer. Her costumes shift again: “black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my Kelly green silk raincoat and a violet parasol… (page 241)

Then for the cover of her album Horses (1975), Mapplethorpe takes her picture. Influenced by artists Jim Morrison, Peter Reich. Jimi Hendrix,

I went to the Salvation Army on the Bowery and bought a stack of white shirts. Some were too big for me, but the one I really like was neatly pressed with a monogram below the breast pocket. It reminded me of a Brassai shot of Jean Genet wearing a white monogrammed short with rolled-up sleeves. There was an RV stitched on my shirt. I imagined it belonging to Roger Vadim, who had directed Barbarella. I cut the cuffs off the sleeves to wear under my black jacket adorned with the horse pin that Allen Lanier had given me. . ..

I finished getting dressed: black pegged pants, white lisle socks, black Capezios. I added my favorite ribbon, and Robert brushed the crumbs off my black jacket. . . . I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. (pages 249–251)

—Karen Mulhallen

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Photo Gallery I: The Author, Travelling in Style

karen-mulhallen-on-karl-marxs-graveSitting on Karl Marx’s grave, 1974-75

karen-mulhallen-at-petra-jordan-1992At Petra Jordan, 1992

karen-mulhallen-at-the-equator-in-ecuador-wearing-missoni-pantsuit-peter-fox-shoes-and-aboriginal-plains-earrings-1993On the equator in Ecuador, wearing Missoni pantsuit, Peter Fox shoes and Aboriginal plains earrings

karen-mulhallen-wearing-robert-clergie-mulesWearing Robert Clergie mules

karen-mulhallen-in-venice-wearing-betsey-johnson-dress-2005In Venice, wearing Betsey Johnson dress, 2005

 

Photo Gallery II: The Author Wearing…

karen-mulhallen-wearing-italian-silk-dress-at-tiff-1977An Italian silk dress at Toronto International Film Festival, 1977

karen-mulhallen-wearing-n-poal-in-toronto-1980An N. Peal cashmere sweater from Old Bond Street, London; in Toronto, 1980 

karen-mulhallen-wearing-victor-costa-dress-from-joy-cherry-1992A Victor Costa dress from Joy Cherry, at Truffles restaurant in Toronto, 1992

karen-mulhallen-wearing-indian-dress-1996An Indian dress, 1996

karen-mulhallen-wearing-pearls-1998Pearls, 1998

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Dressing the Twentieth Century, a Bibliography

Pauline Réage, pseudonym for Anne Declos (1907–1998)
xxStory of O (1954) New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.

D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)
xxWomen in Love (1917–1920)
xxEngland, My England (1921) Stories: “Monkey Nuts”(1919);
xx“Tickets, Please” (1919)
xxThe Fox (1923)

Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)
xxNightwood (1937)

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)
xxThe Letters of Jean Rhys (1931–1966), edited by Francis Wyndham and
xxDiana Melly. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.
xxTigers Are Better Looking. Stories. (1927–1967) London: Andre Deutsch, 1968.
xxQuartet. [Original Title, Postures] (1928) London: Andre Deutsch,1969.
xxAfter Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. (1930) London: Penguin, 1971.
xxVoyage in the Dark. (1934) London: Andre Deutsch 1967.
xxGood Morning, Midnight. (1939) London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.
xxWide Sargasso Sea. (1966) London: Andre Deutsch 1974.
xxSleep It Off Lady. Stories. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)
xxFrom The Fifteenth District (1979)

Alice Munro (1931– )
xxWho Do You Think You Are? (1978) Toronto: Penguin, 2006.

Ian Fleming (1908–1964)
xxCasino Royale (1953)
xxDr. No (1957)

Truman Capote (1924–1984)
xxBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Voices,
xxOther Rooms,
New York: Modern Library, 2013.

Bret Easton Ellis (1964– )
xxAmerican Psycho (1991) New York: Vintage/Random House, 1991.

Patti Smith (1946– )
xxJust Kids (2010) New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

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

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Dec 092016
 

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Traditional values and modern manners continue to clash throughout the pages of this engrossing book, leading to a shocking yet thoroughly appropriate finale. —Natalia Sarkissian

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The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma
Ratika Kapur
Bloomsbury, 2016
192 pages; $16.00

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India Gate, Hauz Khas, Gurgaon, Barista in SDA, Shefali Sweets, Greater Noida, Shoppers Stop—these are the signposts that pepper the opening pages of The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, Ratika Kapur’s brilliant and darkly comic novel about globalization and womanhood in 21st century India.

The names of these places speak of an ever-modernizing century New Delhi. The India Gate, the country’s memorial to the 82,000 fallen soldiers of WWI, was inaugurated in 1931 and sits astride the 19th century Rajpath. It is where today’s residents flock on Sundays, buying balloons or toy helicopters for their children and eating ice cream. The Hauz Khas neighborhood, one of the most affluent in South Delhi, is built around a medieval core. In addition to a 14th-century mosque, madrasa and royal tombs, it boasts art galleries, bistros and designer boutiques. Gurgaon, a satellite located thirty-two kilometers southwest of New Delhi, is witnessing rapid urbanization. Offices of many Fortune 500 companies now occupy the area’s mushrooming glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Likewise, cities like Greater Noida have grown rapidly to accommodate the vast inflow of newcomers with apartment buildings, some even with 24-hour-a-day water and electricity. Meanwhile, Barista in SDA (a café in South Delhi) sells Italian espresso, Shefali Sweets sells fine chocolate, while Shoppers Stop (an Indian chain akin to Zara and H&M) sells department store merchandise.

It is against this backdrop of the old versus the new, of tradition pitted against modernity, that the first person narrator, the thirty-seven-year-old receptionist in a posh Gurgaon gynecologist’s office, Mrs. Renuka Sharma, meets a stranger and her life takes a series of unexpected turns.

As befitting the global age and the theme of the novel, Mrs. Sharma’s husband is an absentee physiotherapist who has gone to Abu Dhabi to work and provide for his family. Gone for seventeen months when the novel opens, he earns a good salary that is totally tax-free. Frugal, he saves his money and then wire-transfers it to Mrs. Sharma’s bank account. Meanwhile, she lives with their fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. Since she is a traditionally dutiful wife and daughter-in-law, she has shifted to an apartment where she can also live with her in-laws during her husband’s absence, keeping watch over her father-in-law’s diabetes. But the sari-clad Mrs. Sharma is also technologically savvy; on Fridays and Sundays she Skypes with her husband on her Dell computer. Likewise, she is also contemporary in her ambitions:

One day when my husband and I save enough money, I will start a training academy for Office Management, Computer Proficiency, Personality Development and Grooming, Business English, everything

She therefore willingly makes the sacrifice to live apart from him, choosing to ignore the voices of those who would pity her.

People are always saying to me, Oh ho, you poor woman, your husband is so far away! Oh ho, you poor woman, you must be missing him such a lot! Oh ho, you poor woman! and what not. It is true that he is far away [….] And it is true that I miss him. But what can I say? We have duties. As parents, as children, we have duties. I could keep my husband sitting in my lap all day, but when my in-laws grow older and get sick, who will pay for the hospital bills? The government? […] And what about my son’s education? […] Bobby has to do his MBA because he is going to work in a multinational company or an international bank.

She knows that in order to realize her dreams she can’t afford to take a wrong step. “Watch your step. Watch each and every step you take,” she says. But fatally, she doesn’t heed her own advice.

Although she claims she never talks to strangers, one day, after a young man at the Hauz Khas Metro station does her a small kindness, she quickly decides there’s no harm in thanking him. After all, his shirt is wrinkle-free, his pants have a very nice crease up the center of each leg and he wears a nice, striped tie—the kind she buys for Bobby. And days later, when the man, Vineet, asks her to go for a coffee at Barista, she agrees because it’s just an innocent outing. There is nothing wrong with later riding in his company’s limo and helping him choose an apartment to buy in Greater Noida. Nor is there anything amiss about accepting an invitation to go for an ice-cream on a motorcycle to India Gate.

But even if she claims there is nothing wrong with meeting Vineet, Mrs. Sharma lies to her in-laws, telling them she is going out with girlfriends or is working late. At the same time, she also lies to Vineet by omission: “I am a wife and a mother of a fifteen-year-old boy. This he does not know. And he does not have to.”

But most importantly, Mrs. Sharma lies to herself:

Who is he to me? He is just some man who I saw on the Metro, and I don’t know how, but we started talking to each other, and I don’t know how, but we have become something that is a little bit like friends, and that is all. We go on short outings together. That is all. And he has not even bothered to ask me anything about myself. If he does ask me, which I don’t think will happen because he seems to be the type of person who does not care about such things as your father’s name, your husband’s name, your address, your work and what not, but if suddenly for some reason he does ask me I will tell him.

Yet Vineet doesn’t ask her. As time goes by, Mrs. Sharma still keeps quiet. She doesn’t volunteer information about her troubles with her adolescent son who is misbehaving and needs his father. Nor does she tell him about her longing for physical closeness that the magazines in the gynecologist’s office where she works say is legitimate—even for women. She continues to see Vineet, keeping her secrets until events force them from her, rationalizing that she is merely following her husband’s advice to take a break from the pressures of “holding up the ceiling” of their home and nurturing their family.

…[M]y husband is probably right. From time to time everybody has to take a little holiday from this life, from all the big and small everyday things […] Maybe that is why I enjoy meeting Vineet. During those times, all the small, little difficulties of everyday seem far away

For the most part, she manages to avoid introspection, however, she does briefly reflect on how she has broken with tradition and done something unusual. But she soon closes the door on guilt and the skeletons that are fast accumulating in the closet: “I have become a bold woman. Still, what does it actually mean? What is a bold woman? What does she do? Isn’t she just a person who, like the men around her, does certain things without feeling scared?”

And thus, Mrs. Sharma continues forward along the course she has charted, not watching her step, not holding up the ceiling. Traditional values and modern manners continue to clash throughout the pages of this engrossing book, leading to a shocking yet thoroughly appropriate finale.

The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma is Ratika Kapur’s second novel; her first, Overwinter, which investigated the upper class of South Delhi, was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Kapur, who originally worked in publishing as a fiction editor, has said in a recent interview with The Hindu that she found inspiration for The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma while riding the Metro. Sitting in the ladies’ car, she began wondering about the middle-class women she was observing. Reflecting on the state of writing in English in India, she also realized that none of it addressed this ordinary urban population. Instead, it was, she says, all about the exotic or the elite, including her own work.

One of this novel’s biggest challenges was posed by the language itself. Kapur wanted to use English in such a way that it was flavored by the urban Indian middle class, but without turning it into a parody—a challenge faced by all those who write in English about non-English realities. As she eloquently explains in the interview:

Wondering what this Hindi-speaking middle class [was] thinking is how I got started. The problem was the prose. […] I spent probably two years trying to get the voice right. I was basically trying to create a specific kind of prose aesthetics that would give voice to lives whose intimacies are coloured in Hindi, but whose ambitions are articulated in English. […] I didn’t want to do that quaint, cutesy […] patronizing prose. I wanted to collapse that distance between the English writer and her Hindi-speaking subjects. The idiom of this book doesn’t actually exist. Ever since Raja Rao, we have been grappling with that question: how do you capture in English an experience that has been lived in another language?

That the author succeeds admirably attests to her acute sensibility. One of her tools toward creating Mrs. Sharma’s particular, vivid voice, is to flavor Mrs. Sharma’s speech with genteel titles—bhaisahib, mummyji, papaji, Vineetji—drawing the reader into an intimate space. Another is to refer to places and things with acronyms without giving explanations—SDA, IIT, BeD—treating the reader as an insider, a friend, a confessor. But it is the style of the sentences themselves—the breathy, delicious sentences, the declarations that the reader knows are rationalizations—that render Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma with its unreliable narrator truly memorable.

In today’s global world, with significant others frequently posted across the globe, many of Mrs. Sharma’s experiences and dilemmas are not unusual. Traditional values all over the world are increasingly under fire. The sympathetic reader shakes her head, sighing, sometimes wryly smiling, but not condemning. Kapur deftly shows that separation and loneliness are the 21st century’s hard rows to hoe and she does it with grace.

—Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian-001

Natalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications. She divides her time between Italy and the United States.

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Dec 082016
 

Composer David Smooke and toy piano Composer David Smooke and toy piano.

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The toy piano will be the first thing you notice. (Toy piano? I asked. Yes, I was told. Not miniature. Toy. ) Composer David Smooke (1969) plays the toy piano, inside and out, and in doing so transforms the way you’ll think about sound.

The toy piano, even when it’s played like a piano, doesn’t sound like a piano. It sounds like childhood itself: tender, vulnerable, plastic hammers tapping metal rods, absent the rich overtones that accompany a larger piano’s notes. A typical adult hand looms, enormous over its keyboard. The performer must crouch, knees to chest, on a miniature piano bench, in order to play it.

And then there’s the way Smooke exploits the possibilities of the instrument: removing the piano’s lid, he tears into the metal bars that the piano’s hammers are meant to strike, pulling at them (bowing them) with strings or wire, strumming them gently with the back of his fingernails; or rubbing the soundboard with pieces of metal. In conversation, Smooke is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh. He currently teaches at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, and has taught on the faculties of Ohio University, the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University, the Merit School of Music, the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, the Birch Creek Music Performance Center, and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony Workshops. It’s clear he has a deep fondness for his work with students, and a gentle gift for supporting them without leading them off their own way.

We’d initially scheduled our conversation for the first week in November, planning to talk by Skype from his office in Baltimore to my own in Western North Carolina. Smooke’s latest CD, “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” had just been released in October, and features the Peabody Wind Ensemble, Karl Larson, loadbang, the Lunar Ensemble, and Mike Parker Harley as well as Smooke himself on toy piano. The title piece is a concerto written for toy piano and a wind ensemble (played here by Smooke with the Peabody Wind Ensemble and its conductor Harlan Parker.)

Smooke had sketched out a preliminary list of discussion topics—interesting, provocative topics posed by the nature of his compositional structure and techniques—but by the time our conversation occurred, the U.S. elections were over and our political landscape dramatically, irretrievably, altered in ways that we’re still struggling to address. As we arranged a time to talk, Smooke wrote “I feel like any conversation needs to revolve around why we’re doing art in today’s world….”

David Smooke: There is really nothing else to talk about these days, is there?

Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t think so. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice when I was preparing that you actually wrote about this back in 2010.

David Smooke: I did?

Carolyn Ogburn: You did! You had a student who came to you asking why, of all things that were going on in Schumann’s time, composers were writing about their individual love difficulties rather than addressing the political upheaval of that time. You wrote: “During a time of intense crisis I find myself questioning the utility of experimental music within society. We spend countless hours honing our craft, and yet we can’t heal an open wound or build shelter. Of course we have Churchill’s famous (yet apocryphal) quote in response to a proposal to cut arts funding during World War II, ‘then what are we fighting for?’ Still, our art appears to pale in the face of a disaster of these proportions.”

David Smooke: That’s really funny! I don’t remember writing about that at all, but it sounds like the sort of thing I would say.

Carolyn Ogburn: And now?

David Smooke: So, I teach class on Wednesday, first-year undergrads, and all of last Tuesday night I was thinking, what do I say to these undergrads in the morning? I really had to think through, what am I doing? What are they doing, what are we doing, and what can I convey to the students, some sense of music being important or not important at this time. If it’s not important we should just get out, and if it is important, how do we talk about it?

And I guess what we ended up with was just the idea I think so much of what’s going on these days is that people just don’t hear each other from either side, and we’re kind of denying the humanity of people they see as the other, that’s clearly what’s happening with the All Lives Matter response to Black Lives Matter….but it also is part of what makes it so easy for people on the left to dismiss the people on the right who do feel abandoned in our society. The arts can allow us to bridge that divide and to communicate with each other in a way that’s meaningful.

David SmookeDavid Smooke

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I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity.

Carolyn Ogburn: So, one of my own fascinations is communication as a social phenomenon. One person explaining their truth is not communication, at any level. So then, I guess maybe the question comes back to the accessibility of art. Something that’s often said about arts in general is that they’re not relevant, they’re not meaningful. How do we bridge that divide while maintaining that aesthetic that actually says what the artist wants to say.

David Smooke: Yeah, well, when you talk about accessibility…I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity. Accessibility should be more about making things available. Making the art, literally, accessible. I’ve seen time and again just where people are absolutely moved by difficult art that they have access to, that approaches them, that meets them, in their home.

And especially with music! I mean, look at death metal, punk music, music that plenty of people love, in all sorts of different communities…so how is my music harsher than Metallica? In a way I wish it was! But there’s something about, there are aspects to the rituals around the Metallica concerts that make it more accessible to people without necessarily making it easier.

Carolyn Ogburn: That’s a good distinction. Maybe the frame, the packaging?

David Smooke: In classical music, that’s something we’re always talking about. We have all these rituals that are necessary for silence. I mean, silence is necessary for acoustic music but they (the rituals) really serve to make music inaccessible to most people.

Carolyn Ogburn: Don’t you think there is something about elitism that is not all bad? It allows certain conversations to be had…

David Smooke: Well, there is such a thing as expertise! I think there’s a healthy way of looking at elitism, and there’s an unhealthy way. Where the whole idea of…you know, I would rather be operated on by someone who has a certain amount of training before they open me up. But then where I think the whole idea of expertise can be misused is, a lot of people use it to say, Itzhak Perlman is a better musician than Dr. Dre. And I’m not sure that you can really say this.

Carolyn Ogburn: And in terms of expertise, when confronted with political situations, it seems to me that a political response would be one that’s firmly placed within your area of expertise.

David Smooke: Yes.

Carolyn Ogburn: Did that make sense?

David Smooke: Yes. What you’re saying is that for me to make a salient political response, I can’t sit and argue with people over which climate studies are the best ones, but I can present art in a way that can make a difference.

David Smooke with a tiny birdcage

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On Hierarchy

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think there’s also something political about the form of music itself? And by that I mean, many times music is presented with various amounts of hierarchy. I think about music in the church in this way…One tone, from which emerged polyphony, then melody with supporting base, reflecting changing power structures. And there’s also a way that music has of allowing, or even demanding, a variety of voices occurring all at once, on a stage.

David Smooke: Well, you just raised two interesting issues.

Carolyn Ogburn: Oh, good!

David Smooke: So hierarchy is everywhere in music, especially in western music, so much of the basis of music is hierarchal. From about 1750 through the 20th century, composers were using a system they called tonality. The first time someone tried to define tonality, the way that he defined it was to say “tonality is hierarchy.” And, of course, meter is also hierarchy.

In the 20th century, going away from those systems was phrased politically. Composers talked about it politically. Composers talked about emancipating dissonance from its function. Its (dissonance’s) function was its need to resolve, so to free it, literally, literally freeing it, was emancipating it from its hierarchy.

So you have hierarchy in the music itself, but you also have hierarchy in the way the music is presented. In an orchestra, you have a conductor, and everyone has to look to the conductor and the conductor’s interpretation. Which also goes to the each member of the orchestra has to bring their own expertise, but they’re subsuming their own expertise under the expertise of the composer and conductor. They think of themselves as servants within the hierarchy.

That’s the sort of thing that my music’s trying to get away from. following that more 20th-century notion of tearing down those walls. I do a lot of improvisation, totally free. I will sit down with a bunch of people, and none of us will have any idea what anyone, including himself, will do. This prompts a whole series of responses which can turn into…anything…which really is the most egalitarian way of making music.

But I’m also a composer, who writes notes and gives those notes to other people to interpret. Which goes back to all of those issues. A lot of music on the CD is music I wrote, give to other people. So other people take the music, they go and learn the music, they come back to me and say, I’ve made this choice, what do you think? And I give them my opinion, I like that or I didn’t like that.

There’s a famous—phenomenal—composer, his name is Haas, who came out in the New York Times as a dominant, and he and his wife talking about their relationship where he’s a dominant, and she’s a submissive. (She’s also a writer and a BDSM educator.) She’s very aware of all the political ramifications of that, and she also happens to be African American, and it happens to be the (white) male that dominates the (black) submissive woman. I guess it kind of goes back to the dominant composer thing of the composer being the one who rules the submissive performers.

So I guess I bring that up only to point out just how fraught all these relationships can be.

Carolyn Ogburn: And in a way, the fact that you’re thinking about this, composing and performing with a certain amount of self-consciousness about the fraughtness of this relationship, does that transform that relationship in some way…

David Smooke: Yes, exactly.

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21 Miles to Coolville

Carolyn Ogburn: I was really struck by “21 Miles to Coolville,” both the music and the video piece you made for it.

David Smooke: The video was taken from an older, live performance. But the piece itself is on the new CD too.

Carolyn Ogburn: I was thinking about what the political statement was in that piece. I think the visual, and how the visual was described, that this was a part of the country that has come under scrutiny in the last few weeks, meaning rural, or Appalachia (which is where I’m from) and the way in the piece, as the wonderful joy of the road trip kind of settles, you get to Coolville and Coolville is not what you expect.

David Smooke: So, I was living right near the sign (21 Miles to Coolville) and of course it’s a joke. I mean, Coolville! But also I was teaching there, and most of my students were from there, from the general area. And they were lovely, just lovely, the sweetest kids, who were so ready to learn and work hard and have their minds blown, and just meet ideas. And we had SO much fun in the classes. And yet in the community—in Athens, Ohio itself—I always felt very much like an outsider. Not among my students, who could not possibly have been more welcoming. But in the community…I mean, I’m skinny. I don’t think there was a single person my height who weighed less than 50 pounds more than me, just like I so stood out in my skinny-ness. And I stood out in my Jewishness. I felt both an outsider, and someone who was very welcome.

I was very aware that this is where these people who I really adore came from, and yet going there it was also clearly a place that had seen better days. So trying to feel, as an outsider, being careful not to be condescending, which is so easy to do and so often felt. Every interview I’ve ever seen with Trump voters has described this phenomenon, this feeling of being condescended to. But also trying to recognize that this town at one point was probably really thriving and that time had passed. And there were still things there that were well taken care of, but other things…so really just trying to see it as it was, rather than idealizing it in some way, poor Appalachia or…

Carolyn Ogburn: Would you call that political?

David Smooke: A year ago I would not have, and now…absolutely. Absolutely. It’s funny because so much of American art is based on this notion of Appalachia. It’s at the center of our idea of America. But when art takes place in Appalachia it seems to take one of two forms. Either an idealized form of America, or “Oh, look at the poor people.” And either way…these are people. I mean, now, just looking at people, Appalachian people, just as regular people seems like a political statement.

Carolyn Ogburn: Is your choice of instrument in any way a political statement? Because it’s kind of punk.

David Smooke: I mean, I grew up a punk and goth, right? So…yeah…Just so you know, I’m kind of looking that way because have a toy piano sitting right there, and I keep looking at it…

So again, it’s one of those things that’s yes and no, I think of it as this kind of idealized childhood that no one I know actually had. It seems representative of childhood possibilities, to take that use it in a way that both recognizes and subverts that. So often with these childhood instruments you see, like, toy piano played slowly and everything becomes eerie, or childhood singing with a lot of reverb becomes a horror trope. But literally, it’s deconstructing the instrument to see what else it has in it. So it’s taking this toy and making it sound like a crying beast, so in that sense, yeah, mining the depths, and I guess that’s mining the depths of childhood, but I think it’s a more roundabout sort of politicism.

Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t know that that’s less political for being roundabout…

David Smooke: Well, I try to be careful. It’s hard in art because there’s a fine line between art and agitprop, or propaganda. When the political statements become too clear or too specific, it can often become less effective because it becomes then very specific to that moment.

Carolyn Ogburn: How did that conversation with your students go, on that Wednesday morning?

David Smooke: It was one of those things where it was absolutely necessary…when I have these conversations, I never try to answer. It’s more raising the questions, put out there, to them, if they have things they want to do, come to me and I’ll help them. I had a similar conversation with my grad students. But I think right now everyone’s trying to think just how they’ll respond. I think it will take a while.

Carolyn Ogburn: It sounds to me to that you’re creating a safe container for people’s feelings, and hinting that music may have a place in this process.

David Smooke: And also recognizing that it’s a question whether or not music has a place in this process. And all these years, I don’t know that. There aren’t any good answers for how to create art that’s political and good art.

Carolyn Ogburn: And yet these conversations are so important to have. Especially, I think, the conversations that don’t have answers. How do you explore that?

David Smooke: So, for me, a lot of it begins at home. My wife is a fiction writer, Elise Levine. She’s absolutely brilliant, and thinks through things incredibly deeply. Her ideas are so important to me and to help me formulate my own ideas, going back and forth with each other on these things. And I have a lot of friends who are not musicians. One of the things I love about Baltimore is the arts community here, so we talk to artists and writers and musicians and everyone brings their own things to the table. And then also I think the key thing is to not to expect to get answers but just to follow through with questions and see where things lead. To help the people who are trying things but also to recognize that there’s never one thing that’s ever going to be an answer.

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think an individual comes up with an answer for him or herself? Like, maybe these talks are less about a shared response than a manner of working through what an individual response might be?

David Smooke: Absolutely. And that’s also tied to teaching, because in any classroom, everyone will perceive material differently from everyone else. There’s never any single way of looking at things. I have a student that I’m working closely with who is giving concerts where the proceeds all go to food banks. I have another student that I’m working with who did an opera about the youngest person ever executed in the US. And these are all important projects, right? I mean, I would never write that opera, I would never think to do concerts supporting food banks, but food is important, and talking about these issues of American history are important, and we need every one to be doing their own thing and to be finding their own way through it. That’s the thing! There’s just so much work to be done in our own society.

Carolyn Ogburn: There’s so much work to be done and the work needs us all…

David Smooke: Exactly. And it needs people who are going to put their heart and soul into that aspect.

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“Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”

Carolyn Ogburn: You’ve just put out a new CD called “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” whose title piece is based on the collection of miniature crime scene models created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee. How did you come across the Nutshell Studies?

David Smooke: So, they’re in Baltimore, and when we moved here, a friend said, “You’ve got to check these out.” I was already working with toy piano by then, and I thought, this is just too good of a title to pass up. But we were here for about 5 years before we actually went.

Carolyn Ogburn: I’m fascinated by the scale. The tiny piano you play, and the tiny models of death…

David Smooke: To me, it goes to everything that’s about what I do with the toy piano. The dollhouses, or dioramas, are children’s things that aren’t for children at all. They serve a very clear, scientific and meaningful purpose. So that very much mirrors the way I try to use the toy piano,

Then the fact that the scenes that are both bucolic and lovely, but simultaneously horrific, depending on what aspect of it you’re looking at. Going back to the way certain sounds on the toy piano are so nice, or then mining these other sounds. And this expansion of…well, you’ve got this very small instrument that has to be amplified, because in this context (the piece is a concerto for toy piano and wind ensemble) it never would have been heard. You’ve got all of these people playing these instruments that have hundreds or even thousands of years of instrumental technology behind them that have been absolutely perfected, and they’re all then put underneath this toy. So it’s expanding the toy, and contracting everything else.

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think about that as political?

David Smooke: You know, Carolyn, I think these days everything comes back to politics. Everything is vulnerable. I guess it never wasn’t, but I think it’s more important to think through these implications, and to make these implications clear. And so, yes, talking in a visual way, right? It’s very much about perspective and scale, that idea of the small becoming large, the large becoming small, but everyone being unified, working together towards this thing, and dissolving, and all these kind of different interpersonal relationships. It’s exploring interpersonal relationships, which these days feels very political.

Carolyn Ogburn: Yes…

David Smooke: I mean, I keep coming back to this idea of agitprop. There are certainly great examples of political art.…this composer David Little, who has been writing Soldier Songs, Dog Days, absolute political statements that certainly has meaning that goes beyond it. And then there is art that we wish were outdated! Like, Guerrilla Girls and Feminist Uprising should feel outdated, but art institutions are slow to change and it doesn’t feel outdated. So I don’t want to go against the idea of making clear political statements. I mean, Bertolt Brecht still works.

But for me, I guess it goes to what I like in art. I tend to like things that are a bit more obtuse, they give up their secrets a bit more slowly. Where you might get one thing at first, and it might lead to another thing and another thing. One person will look at it and say, it’s clearly making this statement, and another may say, No, I think it’s making this statement. Ideally, it’s making both.

Carolyn Ogburn: I wanted to ask you about structure.

David Smooke: Ooooh! I love talking about structure.

Carolyn Ogburn: So music is a temporal form, and you talked about using the trail. and then you’ve got the alphabet series…you’ve got these restraints, that are not the sonata form or the 12-tone series or the fugue. So, tell me about structure.

David Smooke: (laughs) Tell you about structure.

Carolyn Ogburn: Sorry, yeah, I guess that’s a bit broad…

David Smooke: No, no. I just, it’s just that we could be here until morning and I could still be going another five days…So going back that question you raised earlier about hierarchy. Tonal music is all about exploring the hierarchy in a very specific way. You mentioned sonata form: sonata form is based on the drama of having this pitch that you begin with, dramatizing the motion away from the pitch, and dramatizing the return. It’s very much a journey away from and back to that note as being the drama. So when we get into more recent music, we don’t have that idea of dramatized motion toward or from that note anymore. When I was younger I really very much liked that idea of linear structure, having a structure that begins somewhere and would take a listener through from point A to point B…C….D…., and I could pull you along, walk you along that line. And that’s just not as interesting to me anymore. The same way I like ideas that can be interpreted many different ways, I like structure that has something that can be held onto but that doesn’t feel inevitable, but instead it feels surprising. A lot of movies I like have that sort of structure. Gus Van Sant, these experimental works, My Own Private Idaho, or Gerry, which are formally all over the place, and that idea in a movie or fiction, that it’s not necessarily linear. And so my music plays with that. Even without tonality, there can still be a sense of climactic moments, or music that goes to a specific spot.

But sometimes that gets boring. Not everything needs to build to something, or go to somewhere. So with structure these days I’m trying to explore various ways of moving through time and space with the idea that yes, things are related and interconnected, and the interconnections don’t necessarily don’t need to go from A-Z and if they do, it might be for a reason that’s placed on top of it.

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‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was’

.Carolyn Ogburn: One of the pieces you’ve included on this new recording (‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was,’ based on an alphabetized story by the Baltimore-based writer Michael Kimball written under the pseudonym Andy Devine) is a story written entirely in alphabetized words, many of which are repeated multiple times.

David Smooke: That alphabetized story is a great example. I think that there is some sort of extra story structure beneath it. The part on the CD is just a small excerpt; the whole piece is an hour long. When you look at the whole story…for example, the word Dad is only said once, but the word Mom is said 100 times. And so you start to get the sense of these relationships, and it does go somewhere even though the story isn’t linear, but the form of it is absolutely linear, in a way that’s absolutely meaningless.

I have a piece that I’m writing down right now that’s my experience of a trail that’s right near my house. I literally recorded myself running this trail and that will provide the background structure for the piece. The idea of the run is something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, because when you’re running on a trail, on the one hand it’s absolutely linear, you’re literally going from Point A to Point Z. But on the other hand, what happens on the trail, along that path, is unpredictable and random. I guess that’s where the structure comes from; it comes from the experience of the natural world. You’re out on a trail, and you don’t know what kind of bird you’re going to hear when you round the bend, or you don’t know what tree you’ll see. Your experience from moment to moment is entirely predictable, because on the one hand you’re putting one foot in front of the other and you know where you’re going; and on the other, moment to moment, it’s entirely unpredictable. And even when you hear a bird calling, and you know, oh, that’s a mocking bird, and it’s going to make that sound four times, it doesn’t always do it the way you expect.

Carolyn Ogburn: And you don’t know what that means, because we can’t interpret bird song in that way.

David Smooke: And the sounds as you’re moving through it, some birds might be moving towards you, or away from you. And there might be crickets, and you might be moving towards the stream, or away from the stream. And all these things, linear and nonlinear things, we’re okay with that experience. So the constraints, when there are constraints, tend to be very much about here is the path, but in a way that in a moment on the path, anything can happen.

The other thing I’m working on right now, the main focus, is doing more solo performance, creating longer structures so that I can go tour. (Laughs) You know, “Have toy piano. Will travel.” I’ll be playing various places over the next few months, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and I’m working on a few others. It goes back to that whole hierarchal thing. I’ve been feeling more comfortable lately being in the music rather than handing things off to people and saying, Go and do it.

Carolyn Ogburn: Are those two different hats to be the composer rather than the composer/performer?

David Smooke: Well, yes and no. There are ways in which they’re very similar. The structure is very similar, but the way I create the piece is very different, because when I’m writing a piece for other people to play, I’ll write it out with pencil, then put it into a computer, and go back and forth, and each time it feels like the end of the world because it takes so long to craft everything, but when I’m writing something for myself to play a lot of the crafting of it is just exploring the sound and seeing how it feels. There’s a lot more flexibility in the moment.

But, you know, I got to work with great people on the project (Nutshell Studies). It’s amazing to me to live in a world where people spend their lives learning their instruments to such a level where they can do anything, and they want to be part of projects where they have to do things that they don’t normally do. And also Scott Metcalf who recorded all of it was just absolutely amazing. This music that just rolls around in your head for awhile, to then to have it sound as good as it does amazes me. And I hate to say “as good as it does” but I guess the best way to put it is, I don’t like the sound of listening to my own music. Once it’s done it’s done. I just like to get it out of my desk and move on to the next thing. But now every time I listen to it, I’m just amazed by the artistry on it. I feel very lucky to be part of a community where people put their effort into something like this.

—David Smooke and Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

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Dec 072016
 

eamonn-sheehy-use-on-top-450pxEamonn Sheehy

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The Killing (Listowel)

The narrow lane was once a main road that wound its way into the north Kerry market town of Listowel. But at this stage, it was carpeted in green overgrowth with chaotic brambled verges, and abandoned to us. My cousin in his late teens walked ahead. While me and my other cousin sharing the age of nine, followed behind nervous and excited in the early morning sun. We stopped by a wooden shed at the side of the laneway. In here, behind some chicken wire, lay the ferrets buried in the warmth of their straw nest. My older cousin handled the small fiery creatures with care. He wore stiff metal-like gloves. We stood back cautiously. Two ferrets, one black and one silver-grey, were eased in turn into a sturdy timber carry case. The ferrets were animals we knew demanded respect and they had ours without question. They were not to be messed with or to be trusted.

A warm and fresh country breeze carried the dense smell of grass as we walked on. Coming off the laneway, we climbed over a ditch and into the field on the other side. The three of us then entered a valley, sunk deep and hidden between the mountain folds; moving through the scrub until the sky overhead disappeared. We then found ourselves standing under a canopy of twisted, dark green branches. Running uphill over rough ground and past small streams, we meandered through the small forest. Birds sang above us in shrill competition; an orchestra in surround sound. The large burrows were badger dens; wide oval openings in the ground. Their dark tunnels ran deep into the earth. We peered in cautiously. Then one of us crawled in to see how far we could go, hoping to find a secret world hidden from sight – and hoping the badger was out to lunch. But in no time fear started to grip, and we retreated back out of the burrow in a panic. We have all been told. Badgers go straight for your nose when they attack.

The smaller burrows are rabbit holes. These are visible everywhere as we continue toward the exit of the little forest. Emerging out of the shade and into the sun, we continue the trek towards the top of the field. Bees buzz amid sunburnt red ferns now dried and limpid. Here, another ditch is again dotted with small rabbit burrows. I look back at the tangled jungle of thick nature. Downhill, beyond the little forest, I can see the small green laneway leading back to the house which looks like a delicate miniature from this height.

My older cousin lays out the nets at an angle from the ditch. He then carefully lifts the black ferret from the carry case. Its slick immaculate coat shines in the sun. The Ferret – the hot steel of nature. Jumping from his master’s hand onto the grass with a bounce, he is off at speed towards the rabbit burrows. A high pitched curling. An unnatural sound. It was the first time I heard a rabbit scream. The ferret burrows while eating into live flesh. The main strategy is to flush the rabbits out into nets, club them, and then sell them at the Saturday market. But sometimes, during these blood rabid home invasions of sorts, the ferret claimed its prey first. I stood back towards the centre of the field, stepping away from the sound of the killing. My older cousin reached for the carry case, bringing the second ferret out into the sunlight. Lean and muscle-primed, its slick silver hair glistens while its snout flavours the smell of the country air, freshly tainted by the scent of drawn blood.

§

The Nineties (Abbeyfeale)

T

he crystal sharp cold blasted across my teen’d tender face, while I tried to stay on the tarmac between rumbling trucks and tractors. Each morning I straddled my Raleigh racer and peddled like hell down the weathered, half crumbling road to school. There I had a small network of friends; offbeat, misaligned, marginal. For each of us, everything in some way was slightly collapsed. And we each had our clashes to contend with.

The gang of overexcited school boys came pounding down Main Street on a mission; and it was all because of me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or frightened. I was in a bit of a state. My stomach was light with nerves; a sickening adrenaline rush had me nauseous. Denis had been a splinter in my side for a good while. He was a tall teen, a year younger than me. Pushing and punching his way through school in a botched attempt to find place.

I wasn’t exactly sure how it all came about, but we were set to fight at four o’clock in the basketball court behind the primary school. Perfectly chosen. It was well away from passing eyes. A fight was always planned in advance of around two days. Just to give your teenage brain something to mull over. Something to tear yourself up about and wrestle with; before it came down to some real tearing and wrestling. I was well psyched by fight time. I had a plan mapped out in my head. Denis was a boxer. And with that came his long reach, trained fists and a vague semblance of strategy. I planned to go in swinging. Right into his torso and leave him no room to pick me off with fast punches. I was going to dig deep into his side and stomach, wind him, and get the whole thing over with. I had hoped we could ‘reason’ it out. But reasoning was a non-runner. When it came to a fight, it was a case of carrying it through to the end. Reasoning meant losing face. Fighting it out, even if you lost, would in some way cement your worth; bolster your standing. That’s what this was really all about. Rites of passage or some shit like that. And I was stuck with it.

The fight managed to bring everyone together. Whether you were a pacifist, a fighter or a thinker; everyone came to watch. Small nerdy John stood on a bench trying to secure a clear view through his thick glasses. Next to him, stood his bully, Kevin – swelled with excitement, going foot to foot with his usual droopy smile. Padraig was perched behind them. An academic-minded young man, he was greatly respected by everyone in the school from the rascals to rejects. On a higher bench for that sweeping view, he stood with a frown; quietly concerned, taking in the whole shambolic nature of the event.

Denis now stood out in the blazing sun of the basketball court in fight mode. And as my focus shifted onto him, the rest of the crowd became an abstract vignette. Denis circled, fists held high to his smiling gob. The gradual first moments of the scrap had stirred up a hot reeling tension; an unyielding growing momentum. The excitement of the forty to fifty boys had now broken into an all-out war cry. A staggering chanting teen-machine mob of testosterone and flailing limbs frantically circled Denis and myself.

A few missed swings and some spinning punches from the hungry crowd, and we were off. I rooted myself in the arc of Denis’s ribcage as much as I could; punching as quickly as I could. The line of vision became tunnel. Sounds into muffle. And my punches seemed to fall dull. I heard no squirms of pain. I wasn’t sure if I was making an impact. A bunch of bare knuckles connected with the side of my face and I was back out in the open yard again. Denis didn’t miss the chance. Some fast, long jabs to my head, and a fist of hard knuckles hit me square in the face; left and then right, one after the other. His height was making things difficult, and I began to crumble.

An avalanche of pain came down across my forehead. It was followed by a swift gush of blood running straight to the top of my nose. ‘Keep your guard up! Keep your guard up!’ came the taunts from Denis as punches came over his cracked beaming smile. Another jab connected with my jaw, and I hung again out in the open; a glorified punch bag. I ran straight for him, barging through awkward hands, and scored a punch to the head. I then raised my elbow forward and pushed back his long lanky arms. I swung a fist into his stomach and forced his weight backwards onto the ground. Lying on his back, blood flowed from his nose. I could kick him into the head or square into the stomach. But that would be bad form right? I wanted him to know I now had the chance to take him out, to hurt him and win. ‘Are you going to stay down!?’ I shouted. I was all tense; frazzled and red faced. Shaky voice. ‘Well?!’ I said it again, except harder this time, crunching out the words through gritted teeth and teary-victim eyes. Denis looked up nodding; squinting at me, humiliated. A gob of red spit lands on concrete.

I step back breathless and stupefied, and the crowd around us began to came into view again. I turned for my school bag in the corner. The evening sun washed through the metal grey sky and onto the yard. Then came the shard through the newly won calm; a hard crunching smack into the back of my neck.

§

Risk (Limerick)

I

n the city, the rush of the wind propelled our tripping highs as we sped down the street on our bikes. In the warm summer evening, the sky above formed a tight hood over our electric cloud of humid euphoria. Our feet light on the turning peddles. We turned up some time in the late evening. Dropped our bikes outside in the gravel, and then stood in the boiling chipper in front of the menu for ages. Fresh young faces with large darting eyes; heads cocked up to the bright listings of snack boxes and meal deals. The mind was flooded, reaching bubbling. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Our expressions had all timed out.

Dave stood tall next to me, his mouth agape looking up at the glowing menu and lanky in his dark green army jacket. He had a brown envelope stuffed in his pocket, with magic mushrooms recently picked from the hills around his native Dingle. Dave was off his head at the best of times, a bit of a punk but he could be a bit of a prick too. We tolerated him though. James stood next to him. Shorter and nerdier; and very stoned with his ‘Where’s Wally’ striped hat hanging off his crown. Ellen and Donal were next to him, holding onto each other, in love and beaming with smiles. And I rattled away on my usual dose of LSD, little square tabs of cartooned paper called Tasmanian Devils. Potent, precious and long lasting. What a bunch she had to be dealing with.

She came out from inside the counter and asked again with a mock ‘pleading’ tone. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Her voice drifted into my dripping consciousness. The curtains drew back and I came out of the trance. Sweaty brow. It was good she asked or we’d be standing there all night.

Back at the house and deep into the trip, I was now in wild colour. Over powering smell of plums and sweet chewing gums. A dark excitement seizing. Sitting on my bed and looking out the window, a large bus covered in thick brown mud, indicators flashing to turn left, pulled out of my front garden. I smoked to ease the tension. Then a blue train ran through my room.

In the early hours I was on my way home, and I was being followed at a constant, tense pace. The man also on a bike, stayed behind in the near dark at around the three hundred metre mark. I rounded corners and peddled on through a series of sleeping avenues, and he was still pinned to my trial. Home came into view ahead. I dragged the bike through the gate of the house, banged it in through the front door, after eventually getting the key into the damned lock, and quickly looked behind me to see a road empty and quiet. This was me, in a not too uncommon struggle, trying to elope from a stoner evening elsewhere; trailed by shadows. These were the realities of my imagination, and the fictions of my daily life. It took four months of sitting in a darkened room to regain my smile after all that carry on. Breaking glass moments still occurred in my head – less frequent as time went by. Then the summer broke through the curtains.

The bar was in full bloom by 7pm; slightly rowdy with a ragged mob of rockers. The bar staff were barely keeping up with the call for pints, and Carly hung from the end of the bar waving a ten pound note briskly in the air at the nearest barman. She glanced back to us with a cheeky smile, her ass swaying from side to side before us. We sat back on the couches and low stools around a table, swanning pints and filling the ashtray with chain-smoked ciggs. We had only dropped the yokes an hour beforehand, but were all on the train to blitzville. The drink was flowing down easy. Our group was getting more animated in excited conversation. Everyone dreams. And these abstract strands were seeping in quickly to our little corner; taking full form. They fell out of our heads onto the table like gold chunks, which were anxiously picked up, held aloft and analysed with intrigue by the whole group. The rest of the bar bumped and staggered around each other while wave after wave of Led Zeppelin washed loudly over the bar. Drinks splashed softly from generous pint glasses around the table as we whoo’d and haaa’d into the evening.

The lights were dim but the room warm and crowded. Beats pulsed through the smoke machined club of twisting flesh dancing to house, off-beat alternative sounds and dub reggae. We danced on the floor, then took to the pumping heart of the club – a small stage reeking of weed – when the rhythms of a Happy Monday’s acid track burst through the airwaves. ‘The Termight’s Club’ was in full rave. It operated above an old cinema off limerick’s main O’Connell Street, and was the sole alternative to the stagnation of mainstream nightlife. Four flights of stairs from the main entrance, a few more drinks downed, and our heads were in ‘the zone’. I laid on the dancefloor all goo’d out of it, cha-koo’ing confidently, blissed out as others danced in swirling lights around me. Laura laughed while gripping my arms, trying to drag me upright, in order to evade the prowling bouncers. Distracted, she came down to her knees and contended to try and pry some sticky chewing gum from my straggly fair hair. I lay back with my head on her lap. The gum, lime green, was glued into the strands. She pulled at the tangled mess, and a sharp pain came to my scalp. She was well into the challenge of freeing my hair from the gum, ignoring my pleas to leave it – “sur feckin leave it beee!” But our little operation of two was now on the bouncer’s radar. Our bright dilated pupils shined up at him through the disco lights.

I was quickly heaved up from the corner of the dancefloor and slammed through the crowd toward the door. My head glowed on, as we left Laura behind, confused and gum-fingered. “Take it easy I’m going alright.” But the bouncer’s hard tugging and jerking of my limbs went on; waking me up to more pain as we went. As we banged through the nightclub doors he gripped me hard. And as we quickly took the first flight of metal stairs downwards, I knew this guy was going to be a fucker to deal with. He was tall and bald, but not an old man – athletic in his late twenties. Decked out in black bouncer gear, he stopped at the top of the second flight of stairs. His arm gripped tightly around my neck and closed harder on my windpipe. ‘Leave me go you fucking Nazi!’ And then he held me out, kicking my legs free of the steps into the drop below. I swung from his tough muscled elbow, my legs kicking for ground below. The jolt across my throat sent me into a surge of pain. And then he left go, dropping me into the fall of the metal stairs.

§

Night Train To Moscow

T

he Russian train system is a robust and efficient institution in a country where other basic services barely survive. It is the bloodstream of the nation and an embodiment of the Soviet dream. The sheer number of possible train routes, taking you mostly anywhere across the Russian Federation is a wonder in itself. Down into the Stan countries of Central Asia, into the Russian Far East or up into the anonymous Arctic Circle cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.

Today’s journey was going to be small in comparison. A twelve hour leap from St Petersburg to Moscow. An overnight journey between two iconic cities. This, for many, is the start of the monumental Trans Siberian Railway. But shoe stringing it, I was on board with the cheapest ticket going. It had old, seated style carriages. There were no intimate sleeper coupes with cosy bunks here. And for most Russians this was typical. Seated by the window, I watch the carriage slowly fill up as the minutes count-down to our departure. My rucksack is stashed overhead, with a small day bag tucked underneath my seat, awkwardly making for tight leg movement.

A tall girl with long black hair takes a seat next to me. Long legs in black jeans awkwardly placed in front of her. She nods with a smile and says something in Russian. I nod back unsure. The carriage is now full and everyone is getting organized to settle in. Once bags are put away, head cushions are tucked in to place and tickets lay on laps for inspection. The carriage attendant, suddenly and unexpectedly, throws me a little plastic bag. It hits me on the head. Half startled and with the little bag in my hand hands, I turn to the girl next to me.
‘What is this?’ I ask her.

‘It’s your blanket’ she laughs.

‘Ah yes, I see’ I reply, trying to not look too lost amongst Russian train etiquette. I pull open the packaging and reveal the little blue blanket.

As darkness fell, the train rumbled on. In the half light of the carriage, passing through abandoned suburbs and black forest, a repeating pattern of dark and white washes over the girl. We were getting on well as we navigated conversations in pigeon English and Russian. She was near my age; in her late twenties. After midnight we moved out to the tight space of the gangway. We had bought two beers from the concierge and had slipped quietly out of the sleeping carriage. She towered over me while we stood smoking. Still tied to the language barrier we drank and asked names, countries, jobs, destinations. Moscow, Nina, an office worker. She was coming back from a weekend with her family in St Petersburg to her work in Moscow.

Back in the carriage, she was now sitting slightly turned toward me. Although not really aware of it, I was the same; turned toward her just a little. Flashes of the passing night showed her form. A dark warm shadow with a subtle smile. A face in zoetrope; her eyes looked me over with searching curiosity. As the darkness of the carriage started to merge with the slow embrace of sleep, we started to glide closer together; face to face, bright eyes on bright eyes.

In the morning I watched half-awake through the smudged windows as Moscow’s suburbs drifted past. Swathes of silver industry ran on for miles, with the grey steely sky hanging low over the early hours of the day. I was captivated by the size of the city, a historic sprawl. It was a full-on megacity. Nina guided me out into Moscow’s Leningradsky train station with her long stride in skinny jeans. I followed her towards an open cafe.

‘The metro closed to the city. Not open yet. We can have coffee, here? This is where I get collected.’ Nina said.

I had to wait 15 minutes for the metro doors to open to the public.

‘Cool, coffee it is. Who are you waiting for?’ I asked.

‘My boyfriend, he’s from Kiev, lives in Moscow.’

Standing there in front of the boyfriend, his broadness unnerved me. He was just as tall as Nina, but didn’t have a word of English. She wrapped her arms around his neck in affection. I stood there perplexed and uncomfortable. With a firm handshake, I said hello in Russian, and he smiled back ‘Zdrasvuta’. He was getting an update from Nina. An Irish holiday maker in Moscow… I was on the side-lines for this discussion. I really did feel the need to move on.

Greetings administered, I walked out into the push and tug of the metro. The morning rush hour starts here, in a boundless flow to the city centre. Millions flood towards the start of their day. My rucksack was tied firm on my back. I held my place in the crowd, as everyone squeezed in towards the ticket sellers who were ready with blank expressions behind their windows.

The rucksack felt heavier when sandwiched midway in the shifting human mass. I tried to stand firm. We heaved forward, and then slightly back. The mass staggered as one to the left and then to the right, wedged tight, until somebody eventually popped into the vacant spot in front of the ticket window. As I shuffled slowly toward the ticket seller, I began to feel my rucksack tug downwards. A sudden jolt, spaced by some brief seconds, was followed by another. The pull, too overstated to be my pushy neighbours, had intention. A little boy was working away at the pockets of my rucksack. Barely able to see him, I tried to turn around, arching to get a look, while at the same time trying to stay steady. The little boy moved easily between the shuffling legs of the masses. He had sought out my rucksack for poaching. He stood directly on my blindside. I pushed back to shake him off, which only annoyed those next to me. The boy was focused and he wasted no time. A cap covered his head and shielded his face, and he was now busy trying to break one of the lower rucksack pockets. The zip wouldn’t budge, stuck under the stress of a horde of dirty socks.

He was like a stowaway in my bag, and he was nearly in the pocket at this stage. Seconds later, like a dropped pin in a bowling alley, he went flying across the floor. And at the same time I got pulled backwards through the crowd, spun around and steadied. It was Nina’s boyfriend. He had dug his way in through the columns of commuters; my bright red rucksack in his sights. As he ripped me back out of the scrum my heart sank and I feared for a Moscow-style head-slapping. He then started waving a card in front of my face, swiped the electronic gate and pushed me through the opening into the metro with a laugh.

—Eamonn Sheehy

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Eamonn Sheehy writes nonfiction that jumps into the deep side of travel, culture and counterculture. His work has appeared in YourMiddleEast.com, Kosovo 2.0 magazine, The Sarajevo Times, The Bogman’s Cannon and others. His first book, Summer In The City State – Ceuta To Tangier Through Fortress Europe, was published in 2016. He is currently working on his second book, Stealing Life, depicting the grating boundaries of youth, set against the backdrop of travel through Russia. Eamonn also produces The Rockers Guide radio show, exploring the punk-alternative underground, for Clonline Radio in Clonakilty, West Cork, Ireland, where he also resides.

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Dec 072016
 

bennets2

.

Les Murray Ate My Nintendo

and my Sega. He was eating a
bowl of petrol. He was wiping
his ears and teeth. He was
kinda piggin out

the needle was just 4
my DMs Moon. ZeuSs is why

Britannia ABSOLVES fro
bro serious Monkey bars

drink Over and nacho sweats

we could glitch forever
in thatched oblivion, Questions
growling on
segaaaaaaaaaaaa

.

ragGed in the sea. .(spress).

.

LaFayette or Macy’s

(lonely views)

You had me at needles
don’t they sweat, swiping
their castles across the ponds

.

(girls who are hot)

Tomorrow you

(h0t air)

.

Piroshki, Piroshki

only you, knows me de

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The Milky Ways

You cast your aspersions elsewhere in this strip club, mister! This is a classy joint. So if you don’t have two quid now bugger off. The street opened up for him. The trees and the bees. So, fox fox crawled up, into the conversation, convalescent cross scents, laid out, a million, billion, no one, stops. Carry him home, the voices sing. Carry him home. This is the way you control the Vittro. The wayward retail plays and the night queen spreading the stars.

.

Up since 4, 4 days ago

salted chocolate
orange  tea, i ha sailed
the trembling, blow-meat seas. And I have blue trousers sports ones on
last night’s pizza scattered for my mouse

burning spoons

.
through the afternoons. The old
Jackass Seer, stolid with icebergs,
Laid down the seas with mermaid

….so yelly

….eye-contact talk-dirty-vid. Don’t stress. I know what a bird sounds
like.

.

Concrete jungle where dreams
……………..done ??

hope to meet you

in /new York!
our knives and forks.
ever fluid and
back0 bent in da Baby Cor

i don’t need no
fucking broccoli. The sound
of the sauce. So Nets Slow

signal kinda almost lost
in peckham flat. Levers
Go down my throat. I
lecture the lemurs. And
Cast the Dreaming Body.

The rich curtain
a local barfly Cry Cry
get a sub nxt door,
why not?

heckle

vomiting a uni

pass, friend. pass.

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—Russell Bennetts and Rauan Klassnik

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bennets1photos by Colin Raff

Russell Bennetts is the editor of Berfrois and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. His books include Relentless (2014) and Poets for Corbyn (2015).

Rauan Klassnik is the author of Holy Land (2008), The Moon’s Jaw (2013) and Sky Rat (2014). They are the co-founders of Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

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Dec 062016
 

green_loving_2048x2048

green

Loving (1945), Henry Green’s fifth and best novel, is set on a sprawling estate in Ireland during WWII. It centers on the servants who keep the place running, especially Charley Raunce who, in the novel’s opening pages, ascends to the position of butler, and who uses his promotion to woo one of the housemaids. The war is far away, but it suffuses the text: the mostly English characters fear a German invasion, feel at once grateful and guilty that they are away from the Blitz, and fret endlessly about whether they should return home.

The following excerpt shows off many of the qualities that give Loving its odd and enduring charms: delight in dialogue and the rhythms of speech (“Holy Moses look at the clock… ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy”); arresting images and disorienting syntax (“Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives”); and a peculiar refusal to describe states of mind with certainty (“He appeared to be thinking”; “Apparently he could not leave it alone”). Above all it introduces a novel that is busy with life, bursting with small instances of pilfering, lying, and spying, but also of laughing, eating, and, of course, loving.

—Dorian Stuber

 

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Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch. From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.

One name he uttered over and over, “Ellen.”


The pointed windows of Mr. Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.

Came a man’s laugh. Miss Burch jerked, then the voice broke out again. Charley Raunce, head footman, was talking outside to Bert his yellow pantry boy. She recognized the voice but could not catch what was said.

“. . . on with what I was on with,” he spoke, “you should clean your teeth before ever you have anything to do with a woman. That’s a matter of personal hygiene. Because I take an interest in you for which you should be thankful. I’m sayin’ you want to take it easy my lad, or you’ll be the death of yourself.”

The lad looked sick.

“A spot of john barley corn is what you are in need of,” Raunce went on, but the boy was not having any.

“Not in there,” he said in answer, quavering, “I couldn’t.”

“How’s that? You know where he keeps the decanter don’t you? Surely you must do.”

“Not out of that room I couldn’t.”

“Go ahead, don’t let a little thing worry your guts,” Raunce said. He was a pale individual, paler now. “The old man’s on with his Ellen, ’e won’t take notice.”

“But there’s Miss Burch.”

“Is that so? Then why didn’t you say in the first place? That’s different. Now you get stuck into my knives and forks. I’ll handle her.”

Raunce hesitated, then went in. The boy looked to listen as for a shriek. The door having been left ajar he could hear the way Raunce put it to her.

“This is my afternoon on in case they take it into their heads to punish the bell,” he told her. “If you like I’ll sit by him for a spell while you go get a breath of air.”

“Very good then,” she replied, “I might.”

“That’s the idea Miss Burch, you take yourself out for a stroll. It’ll fetch your mind off.”

“I shan’t be far. Not out of sight just round by the back. You’d call me, now, if he came in for a bad spell?”

Charley reassured her. She came away. Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives. That door hung wide once more. Then, almost before Miss Burch was far enough to miss it, was a noise of the drawer being closed. Raunce came back, a cut-glass decanter warm with whisky in his hands. The door stayed gaping open.

“Go ahead, listen,” he said to Bert, “it’s meat and drink at your age, I know, an old man dying but this stuff is more than grub or wine to me. That’s what. Let’s get us behind the old door.”

To do so had been ritual in Mr. Eldon’s day. There was cover between this other door, opened back, and a wall of the pantry. Here they poured Mrs. T.’s whisky. “Ellen,” came the voice again, “Ellen.”

At a rustle Raunce stuck his head out while Bert, farther in because he was smallest, could do no more than peek the other way along a back passage, his eyes on a level with one of the door hinges. Bert saw no one. But Charley eyed Edith, one of two under-housemaids.

She stood averted watching that first door which stayed swung back into Mr. Eldon’s room. Not until he had said, “hello there,” did she turn. Only then could he see that she had stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair. “What have you?” he asked pushing the decanter out to the front edge so much as to say, “look what I’ve found.”

In both hands she held a gauntlet glove by the wrist. He could tell that it was packed full of white unbroken eggs.

“Why you gave me a jump,” she said, not startled.

“Look what I’ve got us,” he answered, glancing at the decanter he held out. Then he turned his attention back where perhaps she expected, onto the feather in her hair.

“You take that off before they can set eyes on you,” he went on, “and what’s this? Eggs? What for?” he asked. Bert poked his head out under the decanter, putting on a kind of male child’s grin for girls. With no change in expression, without warning, she began to blush. The slow tide frosted her dark eyes, endowed them with facets. “You won’t tell,” she pleaded and Charley was about to give back that it depended when a bell rang. The indicator board gave a chock. “Oh all right,” Raunce said, coming out to see which room had rung. Bert followed sheepish.

Charley put two wet glasses into a wooden tub in the sink, shut that decanter away in a pantry drawer. “Ellen,” the old man called faintly. This drew Edith’s eyes back towards the butler’s room. “Now lad,” Raunce said to Bert, “I’m relying on you mind to see Mrs. Welch won’t come out of her kitchen to knock the whisky off.” He did not get a laugh. Both younger ones must have been listening for Mr. Eldon. The bell rang a second time. “O.K.,” Raunce said, “I’m coming. And let me have that glove back,” he went on. “I’ll have to slap it on a salver to take in some time.”

“Yes Mr. Raunce,” she replied.

“Mister is it now,” he said, grinning as he put on his jacket. When he was gone she turned to Bert. She was short with him. She was no more than three months older, yet by the tone of voice she might have been his mother’s sister.

“Well he’ll be Mr. Raunce when it’s over,” she said.

“Will Mr. Eldon die?” Bert asked, then swallowed.

“Why surely,” says she giving a shocked giggle, then passing a hand along her cheek.

Meantime Charley entered as Mrs. Tennant yawned. She said to him,

“Oh yes I rang didn’t I, Arthur,” she said and he was called by that name as every footman from the first had been called, whose name had really been Arthur, all the Toms, Harrys, Percys, Victors one after the other, all called Arthur. “Have you seen a gardening glove of mine? One of a pair I brought back from London?”

“No Madam.”

“Ask if any of the other servants have come across it will you? Such a nuisance.”

“Yes Madam.”

“And, oh tell me, how is Eldon?”

“Much about the same I believe Madam.”

“Dear dear. Yes thank you Arthur. That will be all. Listen though. I expect Doctor Connolly will be here directly.”

He went out, shutting the mahogany door without a sound. After twenty trained paces he closed a green baize door behind him. As it clicked he called out,

“Now me lad she wants that glove and don’t forget.”

“What glove?”

“The old gardening glove Edith went birds’-nesting with,” Raunce replied. “Holy Moses look at the clock,” he went on, “ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy.” He whipped out the decanter while Bert provided those tumblers that had not yet been dried. “God rest his soul,” Raunce added in a different tone of voice then carried on,

“Wet glasses? Where was you brought up? No we’ll have two dry ones thank you,” he cried. “Get crackin’ now. Behind the old door.” Upon this came yet another double pitiful appeal to Ellen. “And there’s another thing, Mrs. T. she still calls me Arthur. But it will be Mr. Raunce to you d’you hear?”

“’E ain’t dead yet.”

“Nor he ain’t far to go before he will be. Oh dear. Yes and that reminds me. Did you ever notice where the old man kept that black book of his and the red one?”

“What d’you mean? I never touched ’em.”

“Don’t be daft. I never said you did did I? But he wouldn’t trouble to watch himself in front of you. Times out of mind you must have seen.”

“Not me I never.”

“We shan’t make anything out of you, that’s one thing certain,” Raunce stated. “There’s occasions I despair altogether.” He went on, “You mean to stand and tell me you’ve never so much as set eyes on ’em, not even to tell where they was kept.”

“What for Mr. Raunce?”

“Well you can’t help seeing when a thing’s before your nose, though I’m getting so’s I could believe any mortal idiotic stroke of yours, so help me.”

“I never.”

“So you never eh? You never what?” Raunce asked. “Don’t talk so sloppy. What I’m asking is can you call to mind his studying in a black or a red thrupenny notebook?”

“Study what?” Bert said, bolder by his tot now the glass he held was empty.

“All right. You’ve never seen those books then. That’s all I wanted. But I ask you look at the clock. I’m going to get the old head down, it’s me siesta. And don’t forget to give us a call sharp on four thirty. You can’t be trusted yet to lay the tea. Listen though. If that front door rings it will likely be the doctor. He’s expected. Show him straight in,” Raunce said, pointing with his thumb into the door agape. He made off.

“What about Miss Burch?” the boy called.

“Shall I call her?” he shouted, desperate.

Raunce must have heard, but he gave no answer. Left alone young Albert began to shake.

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In the morning room two days later Raunce stood before Mrs. Tennant and showed part of his back to Violet her daughter-in-law.

“Might I speak to you for a moment Madam?”

“Yes Arthur what is it?”

“I’m sure I would not want to cause any inconvenience but I desire to give in my notice.”

She could not see Violet because he was in the way. So she glared at the last button but one of his waistcoat, on a level with her daughter-in-law’s head behind him. He had been standing with arms loose at his sides and now a hand came uncertainly to find if he was done up and having found dropped back.

“What Arthur?” she asked. She seemed exasperated. “Just when I’m like this when this has happened to Eldon?”

“The place won’t be the same without him Madam.”

“Surely that’s not a reason. Well never mind. I daresay not but I simply can’t run to another butler.”

“No Madam.”

“Things are not what they used to be you know. It’s the war. And then there’s taxation and everything. You must understand that.”

“I’m sure I have always tried to give every satisfaction Madam,” he replied.

At this she picked up a newspaper. She put it down again. She got to her feet. She walked over to one of six tall french windows with gothic arches. “Violet,” she said, “I can’t imagine what Michael thinks he is about with the grass court darling. Even from where I am I can see plantains like the tops of palm trees.”

Her daughter-in-law’s silence seemed to imply that all effort was to butt one’s head against wire netting. Charley stood firm. Mrs. T. turned. With her back to the light he could not see her mouth and nose.

“Very well then,” she announced, “I suppose we shall have to call you Raunce.”

“Thank you Madam.”

“Think it over will you?” She was smiling. “Mind I’ve said nothing about more wages.” She dropped her eyes and in so doing she deepened her forehead on which once each month a hundred miles away in Dublin her white hair was washed in blue and waved and curled. She moved over to another table. She pushed the ashtray with one long lacquered oyster nail across the black slab of polished marble supported by a dolphin layered in gold. Then she added as though confidentially,

“I feel we should all hang together in these detestable times.”

“Yes Madam.”

“We’re really in enemy country here you know. We simply must keep things up. With my boy away at the war. Just go and think it over.”

“Yes Madam.”

“We know we can rely on you you know Arthur.”

“Thank you Madam.”

“Then don’t let me hear any more of this nonsense. Oh and I can’t find one of my gloves I use for gardening. I can’t find it anywhere.”

“I will make enquiries. Very good Madam.”

He shut the great door after. He almost swung his arms, he might have been said to step out for the thirty yards he had to go along that soft passage to the green baize door. Then he stopped. In one of the malachite vases, filled with daffodils, which stood on tall pedestals of gold naked male children without wings, he had seen a withered trumpet. He cut off the head with a pair of nail clippers. He carried this head away in cupped hand from above thick pile carpet in black and white squares through onto linoleum which was bordered with a purple key pattern on white until, when he had shut that green door to open his kingdom, he punted the daffodil ahead like a rugger ball. It fell limp on the oiled parquet a yard beyond his pointed shoes.

He was kicking this flower into his pantry not more than thirty inches at a time when Miss Burch with no warning opened and came out of Mr. Eldon’s death chamber. She was snuffling. He picked it up off the floor quick. He said friendly,

“The stink of flowers always makes my eyes run.”

“And when may daffodils have had a perfume,” she asked, tart through tears.

“I seem to recollect they had a smell once,” he said.

“You’re referring to musk, oh dear,” she answered making off, tearful. But apparently he could not leave it alone.

“Then what about hay fever?” he almost shouted. “That never comes with hay, or does it? There was a lady once at a place where I worked,” and then he stopped. Miss Burch had moved out of earshot. “Well if you won’t pay heed I can’t force you,” he said out loud. He shut Mr. Eldon’s door, then stood with his back to it. He spoke to Bert.

“What time’s the interment?” he asked. “And how long to go before dinner?” not waiting for answers. “See here my lad I’ve got something that needs must be attended to you know where.” He jangled keys in his pocket. Then instead of entering Mr. Eldon’s room he walked away to dispose of the daffodil in a bucket. He coughed. He came back again. “All right,” he said, “give us a whistle if one of ’em shows up.”

He slipped inside like an eel into its drainpipe. He closed the door so that Bert could not see. Within all was immeasurable stillness with the mass of daffodils on the bed. He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk. He held his breath. He had the top left-hand drawer open. He breathed again. And then Bert whistled.

Raunce snatched at those red and black notebooks. He had them. He put them away in a hip pocket. They fitted. “Close that drawer,” he said aloud. He did this. He fairly scrambled out again. He shut the door after, leaving all immeasurably still within. He stood with his back to it, taking out a handkerchief, and looked about.

He saw Edith. She was just inside the pantry where Bert watched him open mouthed. Raunce eyed her very sharp. He seemed to appraise the dark eyes she sported which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water. He stayed absolutely quiet. At last she said quite calm,

“Would the dinner bell have gone yet?”

“My dinner,” he cried obviously putting on an act, “holy smoke is it as late as that, and this lad of mine not taken up the nursery tray yet. Get going,” he said to Bert, “look sharp.” The boy rushed out. “God forgive me,” he remarked, “but there’s times I want to liquidate ’im. Come to father beautiful,” he said.

“Not me,” she replied amused.

“Well if you don’t want I’m not one to insist. But did nobody never tell you about yourself?”

“Aren’t you just awful,” she said apparently delighted.

“That’s as may be,” he answered, “but it’s you we’re speaking of. With those eyes you ought to be in pictures.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Come on,” he said, “if we’re going to be lucky with our dinner we’d best be going for it.”

“No, you don’t,” she said slipping before him. And they came out through this pantry into the long high stone passage with a vaulted ceiling which led to the kitchen and their servants’ hall.

“Now steady,” he said, as he caught up with her. “What will Miss Burch say if she finds us chasing one after the other?” When they were walking side by side he asked.

“What made you come through my way to dinner?”

“Why you do need to know a lot,” she said.

“I know all I can my girl and that’s never done me harm. I got other things to think to besides love and kisses, did you know?”

“No I didn’t, not from the way you go on I didn’t.”

“The trouble with you girls is you take everything so solemn. Now all I was asking was why you looked in on us while you came down to dinner?”

“Thinkin’ I came to see you I suppose,” she said. She turned to look at him. What she saw made her giggle mouth open and almost soundless. Then she slapped a hand across her teeth and ran on ahead. He took no notice. With a swirl of the coloured skirt of her uniform she turned a corner in front along this high endless corridor. The tap of her shoes faded. He walked on. He appeared to be thinking. He went so soft he might have been a ghost without a head. But as he made his way he repeated to himself, over and over,

“This time I’ll take his old chair. I must.”

He arrived to find the household seated at table waiting, except for Mrs. Welch and her two girls who ate in the kitchen and for Bert who was late. There was his place laid for Raunce next Miss Burch. Kate and Edith were drawn up ready. They sat with hands folded on laps before their knives, spoons and forks. At the head, empty, was the large chair from which Mr. Eldon had been accustomed to preside. At the last and apart sat Paddy the lampman. For this huge house, which was almost entirely shut up, had no electric light.

Charley went straight over to a red mahogany sideboard that was decorated with a swan at either end to support the top on each long curved neck. In the centre three ferns were niggardly growing in gold Worcester vases. He took out a knife, a spoon and a fork. He sat down in Mr. Eldon’s chair, the one with arms. Seated, he laid his own place. They all stared at him.

“What are we waiting for?” he said into the silence. He took out a handkerchief again. Then he blew his nose as though nervous.

“Would you be in a draught?” Miss Burch enquired at last.

“Why no thank you,” he replied. The silence was pregnant.

“I thought perhaps you might be,” she said and sniffed.

At that he turned to see whether he had forgotten to close the door. It was shut all right. The way he looked made Kate choke.

“I heard no one venture a pleasantry,” Miss Burch announced at this girl.

“I thought I caught Paddy crack one of his jokes,” Raunce added with a sort of violence. A grin spread over this man’s face as it always did when his name was mentioned. He was uncouth, in shirtsleeves, barely coming up over the table he was so short. With a thick dark neck and face he had a thatch of hair which also sprouted grey from the nostrils. His eyes were light blue as was one of Charley’s, for Raunce had different coloured eyes, one dark one light which was arresting.

The girls looked down to their laps.

“Or maybe she swallowed the wrong way although there’s nothing on the table and it’s all growing cold in the kitchen,” Raunce continued. He got no reply.

“Well what are we waiting on?” he asked.

“Why for your precious lad to fetch in our joint,” Miss Burch replied.

“I shouldn’t wonder if the nursery hasn’t detained him,” was Charley’s answer.

“Then Kate had better bring it,” Miss Burch said. And they sat without a word while she was gone. Twice Agatha made as though to speak, seated as he was for the first time in Mr. Eldon’s place, but she did not seem able to bring it to words. Her eyes, which before now had been dull, each sported a ripple of light from tears. Until, after Kate had returned laden Raunce cast a calculated look at Miss Burch as he stood to carve, saying,

“Nor I won’t go. Not even if it is to be Church of England I don’t aim to watch them lower that coffin in the soil.”

At this Miss Burch pushed the plate away from in front of her to sit with closed eyes. He paused. Then as he handed a portion to Edith he went on,

“I don’t reckon on that as the last I shall see of the man. It’s nothing but superstition all that part.”

“And the wicked shall flourish even as a green bay tree,” Miss Burch announced in a loud voice as though something had her by the throat. Once more there was a pause. Then Raunce began again as he served Paddy. Because he had taken a roast potato into his mouth with the carving fork he spoke uneasy.

“Why will Mrs. Welch have it that she must carve for the kitchen? Don’t call her cook she don’t like the name. There’s not much I can do the way this joint’s been started.”

The girls were busy with their food. O’Conor was noisy with the portion before him. Raunce settled down to his plate. Agatha still sat back.

“And how many months would it be since you went out?” she asked like vinegar.

“Let me think now. The last occasion must have been when I had to see Paddy here to the Park Gates that time he was ‘dronk’ at Christmas.”

This man grinned although his mouth was watering in volume so that he had to swallow constantly.

“Careful now,” said Raunce.

Kate and Edith stopped eating to watch the Irishman open eyed. This man was their sport and to one of them he was even more than that. In spite of Miss Burch he looked so ludicrous that they had suddenly to choke back tremors of giggling.

“It was nearly my lot,” Raunce added.

“It couldn’t hurt no one to show respect to the dead,” Miss Burch tremulously said. Charley answered in downright tones,

“Begging your pardon Miss Burch my feelings are my own and I daresay there’s no one here but yourself misses him more than me. Only this morning I went to Mrs. T., asked leave and told her,” but he did not at once continue. The silence in which he was received seemed to daunt him. With a clumsy manner he turned it off, saying,

“Yes, I remember when I came for my first interview she said I can’t call you Charles, no she says ‘I’ll call you Arthur. All the first footmen have been called Arthur ever since Arthur Weavell, a real jewel that man was,’ she said.”

He looked at Miss Burch to find that she had flushed.

“And now I make no doubt you are counting on her addressing you as Raunce,” Miss Burch said in real anger. “With Mr. Eldon not yet in the ground. But I’ll tell you one thing,” she continued, her voice rising, “you’ll never get a Mr. out of me not ever, even if there is a war on.”

“What’s the war got to do with it?” he asked, and he winked at Kate. “Never mind let it go. Anyway I know now don’t I.”

“No,” she said, having the last word, “men like you never will appreciate or realize.”

—Henry Green

Copyright © 1945 by the estate of Henry Green

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henry-green

Henry Green (1905 – 1973) was the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke. He was the author of nine novels, most notably Loving, Party Going, and Living.

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Dec 062016
 

henry-green

I would argue that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time.—Dorian Stuber

green_loving_2048x2048

Loving
Henry Green
New York Review of Books, 2016
224 pages; $14.00

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The English novelist Henry Green wrote nine beautiful and elliptical novels, all worth reading, but Loving (1945) is the best of them, indeed, one of the best English novels of the 20th century. This new edition—part of a welcome plan to reissue his works in the US—is cause for celebration.

Loving is set during WWII at a sprawling estate in Ireland called Kinalty Castle. Kinalty is owned by the ironically named Tennant family; fittingly, the Tennants are newcomers who have purchased rather than inherited the property. Mr. Tennant is dead; his son is fighting in the war. Mrs. Tennant lives with her daughter-in-law, Violet, Violet’s two small children, and a large group of servants.

In classic upstairs-downstairs fashion, the masters are not particularly important in the book (indeed, they are off in England for much of the time). Instead the servants are front and center, and we follow their sometimes rancorous, sometimes affectionate relationships. There’s Charley Raunce, recently ascended from the position of footman to butler, full of bluster and fear and the occasional kindness who finds himself out of his depth when a flirtation becomes something more. There’s Agatha Burch, the much put upon head housemaid, who oversees Edith and Kate, the two lovelorn under-housemaids. There’s Mrs. Welch, the alcoholic and suspicious cook. There’s old Nanny Swift, who took care of Violet as a girl and now looks after her girls. There’s Albert, the pantry boy, naïve, kind, and touchy. And there’s Paddy, the Irish lampman (the house has no electricity), who only Kate troubles herself to understand.

Much of the material for Loving came from Green’s childhood; servants had always been part of his life. Born Henry Vincent Yorke in 1905—he took his deliberately banal pseudonym as a way to separate his writing and business lives—Green grew up at Forthampton, the family seat in Gloucestershire.

In his memoir Pack my Bag, Green claims, “Most things boil down to people, or at least most houses to those who live in them, so Forthampton boils down to Poole, who did not live in but was gardener about the place for years.” Young Henry was fascinated by Poole, even though the man did not like Green’s mother and spoke badly about her to the boy. (The family legend is that he never forgave her for making him bowl sugar beets across the lawn for her to shoot at.) Green, who adored his mother though he seldom saw her, was torn apart by these calumnies yet unwilling to repudiate the one who made them.

It seems that Green knew already at a young age what he would explore in this novel in particular: that loving is a messy business, bound to lead to hurt feelings. In his life and writing alike Green was at home with complexity, especially in terms of social class. Green, who memorably described himself as “a mouthbreather with a silver spoon,” at one stroke both acknowledging and ironizing privilege, said that his childhood taught him “the half-tones of class”. It’s fair to say that Green knew the family servants, to whom he devotes the first pages of his memoir, better than either his mother, whose primary interests were shooting and riding and with whom the boy spent only one precious hour a day, or his father, a formidable Victorian polymath who pursued an interest in archaeology while running a company that cleverly manufactured both beer-bottling equipment and bathroom plumbing.

Young Henry was sent to Eton, where his contemporaries included Eric Arthur Blair, who would himself take a pseudonym and publish under the name George Orwell. Later he went up to Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh and shared rooms with Anthony Powell. He hated both schools. At Oxford he drank a lot, went to the movies twice a day, and wrote his first novel, Blindness, before leaving without a degree. He went to work the floor of the family factory in Birmingham, an experience he fictionalized in his second novel, Living. Later Green moved from the factory floor to the office, rising to become managing director.

Green published his memoir in 1940, when he was only thirty-five, because he was convinced he would be killed in the coming war: “surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.” Happily he did live, and even thrived. He published five books during the war years and during the Blitz served courageously and happily in the Auxiliary Fire Service. But Green’s production slowed markedly after the war. He wrote three more, increasingly laconic books (the last two composed almost entirely in dialogue). Then, after 1952, silence, even though he lived for another twenty-one years. Jeremy Treglown, Green’s excellent biographer, vividly describes him in his last years as a vagrant in his own home, drinking because he couldn’t write and unable to write because of his drinking.

The downward trajectory of Green’s life is at odds with the sly pleasures and enlivening strangeness of his prose. The first thing readers of Loving will notice is its vivid dialogue. Here’s Edith revealing to Kate her feelings for Raunce:

‘All right then I’ll learn you something, Edith said and she panted and panted. ‘I love Charley Raunce I love ‘im I love ‘im I love ‘im so there. I could open the veins of my right arm for that man.

And here’s Miss Burch responding to Kate’s half-fearful, half-longing speculation about what would happen to them should the Germans invade:

‘Mercy on us you don’t want to talk like that,’ Miss Burch said. ‘You think of nothing but men, there’s the trouble. Though if it did happen it would naturally be the same for the older women. They’re famished like a lion out in the desert them fighting men,’ she announced.

These examples are moving and funny and a little alarming—characteristic of the emotional roller coaster the book puts us through. The absence of punctuation paradoxically makes the pauses and emphases clearer. Green delights in the clichés and hackneyed images (“I could open the veins,” “They’re famished like a lion out in the desert”) of speech without looking down on the speakers.

But the novel’s narrative voice is even more memorable than its representation of speech. To be sure, narration is simply opposed to speech in the novel. Sometimes narration apes the agrammatical or idiomatic qualities of speech, such as when it uses adjectives as adverbs: “He picked it up off the floor quick”; “He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk.” Sometimes it takes on the rhythms of speech, its unpunctuated flow: “Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives.”

But sometimes the narration is stranger than anything we find in its speech. Whereas the latter aims at clarity, the former finds meaning in obscurity. Such uncertainty is especially true of its unsettling of traditional English-language syntax. In this example from early in the book, Kate and Edith come across Paddy asleep in the old stables. The windows of this room are covered in cobwebs. As, it seems, is Paddy himself:

Over a corn bin on which he had packed last autumn’s ferns lay Paddy snoring between these windows, a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed.

Note the excess of qualifiers in the first half of the sentence: Paddy snores “over a corn bin” and “between these windows”; the placement of that last modifier emphasizes the phrase “snoring between these windows,” which highlights in a peculiar, excessive way the specificity of an action. “Snoring,” after all, is hardly dependent on place. (In fact, the verb here is not “snoring” but “lies snoring”: the inversion of subject and verb—“Over a corn bin… lay Paddy snoring” is odd, almost archaic.) Also typical, and related to this ambivalent specificity, is the demonstrative “these” rather than the definite article “the,” a tendency the critic Frank Kermode once described as Green’s way of hinting that the text is singular, not easily reducible to something else.

Certainly the most singular quality here—though it is in fact typical of Green’s style—is the sentence’s unstable grammar. The sentence pivots (or collapses, as the case may be) on the comma after “windows.” What comes after it—“a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed”—seems at first to be a subordinate clause, but on re-reading proves to be something else, something agrammatical. Adding that ungainly phrase “and which” turns this subordinate clause into the dominant clause for the sentence’s final bit of information. Bewilderingly, “web” is both a predicate referring to Paddy (it is strung from a lock of his hair to the sill above) and a subject in its own right (it rises and falls as he breathes). On a first reading we expect the final “and” to connect “above” to another preposition (so that it would read something like: “the sill above and beyond him”). When this expectation is foiled, we stumble over what comes next, the adjective clause “which rose and fell as he breathed.”

Green’s prose disguises its strangeness as ordinariness. He’s not an overtly ostentatious writer. Yet his ostensibly straightforward prose is profoundly unsettling and unusually hard to parse. The longer we pause over a sentence like this one the weirder it seems. In this way, he reveals himself to be one of the most genuinely experimental writers in the English tradition, writing prose that both demands and resists interpretation. (Webs being a conventional figure for interpretation, we could read the spider webs in this scene as a joke about our felt need to make sense even of things that resist sense.)

What is true of Loving’s syntax is true of its use of plot and character as well. Neither of these attributes is as straightforward as it seems. In general, Loving is not much concerned with plot. Even the question of whether Raunce will get together with Edith—the event that most approximates a conventional plot arc—is supplanted by the more intriguing but more difficult to answer question of what the two even want from each other. Several subplots are braided around the Raunce-Edith relationship, each of which rises to a crescendo of antic complexity that would be more at home in a P. G. Wodehouse novel but each of which fizzles out before coming to any resolution.

Take, for example, the business with the peacocks. The castle’s extensive grounds are ornamented by some two hundred of the birds. When they suddenly disappear, Mrs. Tennant summons Raunce for an explanation. Raunce, new at his job and insecure, as well as constitutionally shifty, does not want to tell her what has really happened: namely, that the nephew of the cook, a belligerent nine-year-old recently evacuated to Kinalty from London to escape the bombing, has strangled a peacock that had the temerity to peck at him, and that Paddy, the Irish lampman, has locked the rest of the birds up for safekeeping.

In his interview with Mrs. Tennant, Raunce equivocates about the convoluted, variously incriminating event. Unsatisfied, Mrs. Tennant continues to mull over the matter. She confides to her daughter-in-law that Raunce seemed afraid of something, adding:

“Frightened of what I’d like to know? I put it to Raunce. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say.”

“Which is just like the man,” the younger woman interrupted. “Always hinting.”

Violet’s insistence here reflects her unshakable belief that everyone is always talking in code about her affair with a neighbouring landowner. The exchange between Mrs. Tennant and Violet is typical: Loving’s characters repeatedly talk at cross-purposes. But the passage is unusual in that by explicitly referencing hinting it talks openly what is otherwise hidden: that Loving challenges our interpretive abilities. Everything is a hint, nothing is a clue.

The novel’s distinctive narrative voice is particularly vexing. Unlike many writers of the period, Green doesn’t have much use for free indirect discourse: his third-person narration doesn’t slip into and out of the perspective of particular characters. We rarely have access to what characters are thinking or feeling. Consider a passage in which Raunce studies the notebooks left behind by the previous butler, Eldon, and learns that Eldon has been systematically cheating his employer, for example about her whisky:

Not only had Mr. Eldon never credited her with the empties, that was straightforward enough, but he had left whole pages of calculations on the probable loss of the volatile spirit arising from evaporation in a confined space from which the outside atmosphere was excluded. He had gone into it thoroughly, had probably been prepared for almost any query. Charley appeared to find it suggestive because he whistled.

Admittedly, we could read this material as coming from Raunce’s perspective: the aside “that was straightforward enough” could certainly be his. Yet the passage’s use of names is puzzling: we might expect Raunce to call Eldon “Mr.” but he in fact is anything but deferential to his predecessor’s memory. Something like “the old man” would have fit better. And why Charley, rather than Raunce, which is what the text usually uses? Moreover, the description of the evaporation—“the probable loss of volatile spirits”—doesn’t sound like Raunce at all, he’s nowhere near that articulate. Are we supposed to think Eldon has written something like this in the notebooks that Raunce is parroting, as if reading aloud? Impossible to say: we know almost nothing about Eldon.

But the strangest thing here is the passage’s final sentence. Just when we would expect the prose to inhabit Raunce’s consciousness most clearly so as to tell us what he makes of the situation, we’re left with nothing but uncertainty: Raunce “appeared to find it suggestive.” Why doesn’t the text know?

Green answered this question in a radio interview from the 1950s:

And do we know, in life, what other people are really like? I very much doubt it. We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure? … We get experience, which is as much knowledge as we shall ever have, by watching the way people around us behave after they have spoken.

For Green, art follows life. All a narrator can do is to observe what people say and how they behave and then make guesses about the relationship between them. Loving is littered with such expressions of narrative uncertainty:

“Well now if it isn’t Arthur,” this man said hearty and also it appeared with distaste.

“And that reminds me,” he went on seeming to forget he had just given another reason for his presence.

Then she added as though unable to help herself, “It should do you a mort of good.”

Miss Burch fixed a stern eye on Kate so much as to say a minute or so ago just now you were about to be actually coarse.

“Ah Mrs Jack,” Miss Burch put in as though sorrowing,

“It was Edith,” he answered at random and probably forgot at once whom he had named.

On the one hand, these narrative amplifications tell us much more than a simple “he said” or she replied.” Moving down our list of examples, we learn that one man dislikes someone called Arthur, though he pretends he doesn’t; another man can’t keep his stories straight; a woman is at the mercy of her (at least ostensible) concern for another person; and so on down the list.

And yet on the other hand they tell us much less. We learn only that characters seem to say things in a particular way, with particular consequences or implications. “Seems” and its variants “Seeming” and “seemingly” appear regularly; they are accompanied by similar expressions of doubt: “it appeared,” “so much as to say,” “as though,” “probably.” We always have to choose between the specificity of these descriptions and the hesitant manner in which they’re offered. Whenever the narrative tells us something it casts doubt on that telling.

This is, to say the least, disorienting for the reader. When Edith and Raunce argue over whether to give back a missing ring they’ve stumbled upon, Edith throws the ring into the fire before hastily rescuing it:

“Ouch it’s hot,” she said, dropping the thing on the rug. They stood looking down and from the droop of her shoulders it could be assumed that her rage had subsided.

Are we able to ignore the suggestion that Edith is no longer angry? Once the hint’s been made, aren’t we forced to take it? But hints can’t be hints if they’re really just disguised orders. We have to hear the “it could be assumed” as much as the “her rage had subsided.” Loving doesn’t let us naturalize its repeated qualifications. We have to take them seriously, for the book’s aim is to force us not just to read about but also to experience the uncertainty that its characters feel towards each other and in relation to their historical moment, in which it is by no means clear how the war will end.

This uncertainty is mirrored in Green’s title. Whether we take it as a gerund or as a progressive verb, “loving” is hard to pinpoint. The noun would refer to an abstraction that doesn’t just apply in a single case. The verb would describe a continuous action nullified or completed were it ever to stop and therefore without beginning or end. Words like “loving”—Green titled several of his novels in similar fashion: Living, Party Going, Concluding—suspend meaning. Like Raunce in Violet’s description, they are “always hinting” but never resolving.

I would argue in similar fashion that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time. True, he was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and possessed like many modernist writers a brilliant, inimitable style. And yes, he had gone to school with or traveled in the same social circles as many of the leading writers of the 1930s and wrote social comedies that sympathize with the working class. Yet Green is neither a modernist nor a social realist. He wriggles free of categories, the true strangeness of his prose not always evident until we slow down to see it has been hiding in plain sight.

Yet it wouldn’t be right to say, as earlier readers have done, that Green is like no one else. (The American novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, for example, famously called him not a writer’s writer but a writer’s-writer’s writer.) Instead, Green is like a handful of other English writers from the middle part of the century who don’t fit into prevailing narratives of twentieth century literature, writers who subtly distort realism without abandoning it, writers like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, and Barbara Comyns. Like them, Green hints that there is still much to be discovered in a literary tradition too often thought of as timid and unadventurous.

—Dorian Stuber

N5

ee5dd2a0-4260-4ff5-bcca-eb49f4d01f3c-3

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Dec 052016
 

elsa-crossElsa Cross

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This month’s edition of Numero Cinco finds our newest addition to the NC masthead, Dylan Brennan, speaking with translator Anamaría Crowe Serrano about her work with Mexican poet Elsa Cross. They discuss Serrano’s involvement in bringing Cross’s work to an English audience, as well as the difficult decisions translators must make when doing so. 

After the interview, we have a selection of poems by Cross, both translated from the Spanish by Serrano and in their original language.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Dylan Brennan (DB): How did you get involved in this project?

Anamaría Crowe Serrano (ACS): I’ve been involved with Shearsman Books for several years, first with a collection of my own, and then with translations of some of Elsa’s poems that were included in a Selected Poems in 2009. The editor, Tony Frazer, publishes several titles in translation every year – as well as collections in English and the Shearsman poetry journal – and at some point he asked if I’d be interested in expanding on the original translations I had done. I didn’t have to think about it twice.

selectedpoems

DB: How much did you know about Elsa Cross beforehand and how much did you have to learn as you went about translating?

ACS: I had met Elsa in London at the launch of her Selected Poems, so I knew a little about her. She teaches philosophy of religion and comparative mythology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and has published extensively, but I am always curious about the person behind the biographical note. It’s a bonus when I can make some connection with the poet I’m translating because I like to enter the poet’s world. In some ways translating is a little bit like method acting – for me, anyway – in that I like to absorb the poet and his/her mood if I can, in order to translate the work as faithfully as possible. It means that I adopt a slightly different persona each time I translate a different poet, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not particularly experimental with the text of the translation itself.

What struck me about Elsa during our conversation in London was that her poetry reflected her personality: gentle, contemplative, self-assured. It seemed that the mysteries and uncertainties inherent in the world around us, which philosophy constantly probes, rather than cause angst, in some paradoxical way provide a source of strength for this poet. I got a sense that she accepts that not everything can be known, and there’s comfort in that place of acceptance. The idea of immersing myself for several months in Elsa’s poetic world and worming my way through her raw material was very appealing. As I’ve said, I had already translated some of the first section of Beyond the Sea, so I was familiar with Elsa’s style as well as the setting for the poems. Her collections are often written against the backdrop of a particular locale which works as an anchor for her thoughts. In Beyond the Sea, we find ourselves in Greece. The sound of waves, cicadas in the afternoon heat, plants stirring in the breeze, wings flapping, ancient ruins, are a constant accompaniment, like a leitmotif, to the philosophical thoughts and questions posed in the poems.

DB: Did you get in contact with Elsa Cross to discuss the poems? If so, how was that? Did she have any role in the translation process?

ACS: Yes, I did. I think all translators have questions about the text, so it’s an advantage to be able to ask the poet directly. In this case Elsa was very generous with her answers, clarifying specific words or images or nuances, such as what kind of “filo” she meant in the first line of poem 5 of “Dithyrambs”. I wasn’t sure if it might be a blade, a trickle of some sort, a thread… It’s wonderful to be able to consult the author because it means that the end result is as close to the intended meaning of the original as it can be; there’s very little guess work on the translator’s part, although individual lexical choices and phrasing are ultimately subjective. In my experience, poets are always happy to collaborate with the translator if they can because a translation can seem quite alien to the poet. Poets get attached to their specific lexical choices and even to the spaces between them. Every word of the original is so charged for the poet that it can be a terrible disappointment to realise that the translator has misinterpreted something that is very meaningful to you as a poet. Having some control over the translation process goes a long way towards assuaging those concerns.

Elsa’s English is excellent, which meant she could make very useful suggestions. The draft translation that was emailed from Dublin to Mexico City and back many times is peppered with comments ranging from uses of the definite article or prepositions or possessive adjectives, to whether the translation should include footnotes for words such as “tezontle”, to what the subject of a particular verb is (given that it’s not always specified in Spanish, which can sometimes allow for ambiguity, whereas it must be specified in English, destroying the ambiguity).

Over the years I’ve come to think of a translation as the child of both the author and the translator. A translation contains the linguistic DNA of each through a process that explores language at a microscopic level. When the translator can work with the author, the symbiosis is more complete: the child resembles both its parents more closely than it might had there been no collaboration between them. In Beyond the Sea, Elsa’s input was so valuable that I suggested the cover should read “translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano with the author”, but she was too modest to want to claim any credit for the translation.

beyondthesea

DB: Is translating poetry something you find easy or do you find it agonizing at times? What about the Greek elements of the book? Something you had to research or was it all known to you already?

ACS: Sometimes you come across a poem that you can translate quickly; the words just come to you and the result is satisfying. But those occasions are rare. Usually it requires many hours of thought – more than might seem apparent from the length of a poem. The end result that appears in print is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that tip lies the bit the reader never sees – the process – which for a collection could be up to a year’s work. But I absolutely love translating. (The only thing I agonize about is the inadequate pay, completely out of line with the hours and skill involved in the process.) Lines or words that are problematic might take several days – or longer – but the process is hugely enjoyable, like trying to solve a difficult brain teaser. The funny thing is that often what seems relatively easy to translate, where the language itself is simple, might turn out to be the hardest thing because you want to avoid using a particular word (if it had been used before), or you want to keep the rhythm of the line nicely balanced and the literal translation won’t work. In the second line of poem I of “Las cigarras” (Cicadas), for example, the line reads: “las cigarras empiezan sus odas lentas” (literally: the cicadas begin their slow odes). There’s nothing complicated about the language here, and “the cicadas begin their slow odes” is acceptable in English except for the fact that I didn’t like the strong vocalic assonance of “slow odes”. If you say it aloud it sounds like you’re trying to say something with an egg in your mouth. I’m conscious of the phonic effect of words, so semantic exactitude doesn’t always satisfy my ear. The problem then is that there are so many synonyms of “slow”. It took me ages to finally settle for “unhurried odes”, which also reflects the lilting, languid rhythm of the original.

There are many references to Greek mythology in the collection, some of which I was familiar with, and some not. A quick online search can clarify that a kouros is a free-standing statue of a young boy, often a representation of Apollo, and while any reading of these poems is richer if you are familiar with the Greek references, from the point of view of translation, once I could find the English equivalent, lack of detailed knowledge about artefacts or gods was not a significant problem.

DB: Any crossover with your own work, similar themes or styles?

ACS: Not really. The work I translate is quite different in theme and style from my own work. That has happened by chance, but I’m not sure I’d like to translate someone’s poetry if it reminded me a lot of my own. It’s nice to take a break from the usual preoccupations and discover other ways of writing, images that would never have occurred to you because they’re very foreign or because they come from a discipline that you don’t often engage with. The process of discovery adds to the pleasure of translating.

DB: I’d love to know of any difficult translation decisions, if there were any for you, what were they, how did you go about resolving them?

ACS: The use of idioms often poses problems for the translator, of course, resulting in the classic case of something being lost in translation. There was one instance of that in this collection with the word “cántaros”, which are clay pitchers or jugs for water or wine. It appears as the title of one section in “The Wine of Things” and is also repeated in several poems in a general way. But it’s also used in the expression “A cántaros”, which means “cats and dogs”, as in “it’s raining cats and dogs”. Clearly, when it’s used in Spanish to mean “cats and dogs”, none of the generic English translations works. It’s a shame because it means that the repetition of the word throughout the entire section is slightly lost. Not only that, “cats and dogs” has a totally different connotation in English compared to the Spanish “cántaros”. Cántaros are receptacles, for a start. The fired earth they’re made from has some echoes of antiquity and domestic labour. In comparison, “cats and dogs” sounds completely trivial at best, and if we take the origin of the phrase to be related to Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower”, where cats and dogs drown in the downpour and flow along the flooded streets, then it’s completely disgusting. Either way, it won’t work as a translation. Another option might be “pouring” or “pouring rain”, but you lose the image of the container. In the end, I opted for “Bucketing”, even though the tone is a bit colloquial.

That presented yet another problem. The cántaros of the title should ideally be the same word that is used in the poems. I had opted for “pitchers” as a generic translation, with “bucketing” when referring to rain, but I didn’t like either of these as a section title. I suppose I might have settled for pitchers and been forever dissatisfied with its ambiguity had I not mentioned the problem to Elsa. Her solution – to use the Greek word “kantharos” – seemed perfect. Not only does it encompass all versions of kantharos (jugs, pitchers, buckets), and is in keeping with the Greek setting of the entire collection, it slightly elevates the tone of the more common “cántaros”, making up to some extent for the fact that the idiom is lost in English.

The other translation difficulty that arose was in the Aeolides, Oceanides, and Nictides sections. Here, the poems are of haiku-like brevity, often beginning with a verb conjugated in the third person plural (“they”). The subject is the daughters of the wind, sea or night, depending on the section in question. The fact that Spanish does not require the subject pronoun to be stated – because it is incorporated in the verb conjugation – allows for a profusion of lexical diversity in each poem. Here’s an example from “Eolides, 7”:

Despeinan
…………..al joven eucalipto
hacen caer sus resinas
……………………………..sobre los barandales

Zumban amorosas
como abejorros
………………….en el hueco de las cañas

Llenan la mirada de hormigas amarillas
……………………de la avispa

English, being a language that requires the use of the subject pronoun, would transform each of the verbs (Despeinan, hacen, Zumban, Llenan) into “They uncomb”, “they make”, “They buzz”, “They fill”. Repeating the subject pronoun in each line of such a short poem creates unpoetic monotony compared to the breezy freshness of the Spanish. Avoiding the subject pronoun so often – there are many of these poems in the collection! – was probably the single greatest challenge that required various different solutions. Sometimes I use the subject pronoun once at the beginning but don’t repeat it for the second verb, in the hope that it will be understood to be implied, or I use gerunds for subsequent verbs. That’s what I did in the above example (They uncomb, making, Buzzing, Swarming):

They uncomb
…………………….the young eucalyptus
making its resin drip
…………………….on the handrails

Buzzing, amorous
like bumblebees
…………………….in the hollow stalks of canes

Swarming our gaze with yellow ants

On other occasions I changed the word order and/or the grammatical function from active to passive so as not to begin a line with the subject.

Someten a su ritmo                         (They subject…)
………..las flores encrespadas
………..el lomo de los cerros

Todo lo vuelven piedra lisa                      (They turn everything…)

becomes

Rimpled flowers
and hilltops
………..are subjected to their rhythm

Turned by them to smooth stone

DB: What do you think of the poems? How would you describe the book to someone down the pub? Why should people read this book?

ACS: If you don’t know Elsa Cross’s poetry, this book is as good a place to start as any. It’s a bilingual edition, which is always useful for the reader. Cross is considered one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets and has been praised by Octavio Paz for her interplay of complex thought and clarity of expression. In my opinion, this is the key element in her work. There’s a strong sense of the poet sitting still, absorbing her surroundings through the senses first of all – sound, sight and touch in particular – as if she were meditating, then very deliberately using these senses as a conduit to something deeper. Small details of nature, or of a Greek statue, have the potential to reveal something worth knowing, but the slightest sound or movement, even too much sunlight, can shatter any meaning that might be contained in the moment (“meaning becomes / an incongruous stroke, / a particle that marries with dust.” Stones, 4). The elusiveness of meaning marries with vivid imagery ever so delicately, even when the poet paradoxically finds the image devoid of meaning. Take, for example, the opening of poem 3 of “Cicadas”:

The night swings
on the call of owls hooting.
Flapping,
words heard in a dream
……………………………take flight
at the sound of the first cicada
now fitfully cutting
……………………the silence of dawn.

Words wanted
……………………beyond what they are—
yet when we try to grasp them
their flight is slowly undone
………………………………like ritual gestures.
They empty of image,
are no more than voice—
……………………gloomy alliterations
……………………in a lower key,
resonance,
……………………the sea’s craving for its creatures.

I love her exploration of the ambiguity of what is real and what isn’t; her allusions to Dionysian indulgence, for which the poet clearly has a preference (“The only instrument is passion”, Cicadas, 4), counter-balanced by Apollonian ideals that are harder for humans to achieve (“You light up everything, / but who sees your shadow?” Offerings, “Paean”); the mysterious absence on occasion of a figure that seems to be central to the poet (“a presence not present”), whose footsteps she follows only to find that they disappear “mid-step”.

The book itself is divided into two sections: Beyond the Sea, and The Wine of Things. In keeping with the Greek theme, the first section is a series of Odes, while The Wine of Things contains dithyrambs that read, among other things, as a contemporary homage to the gods. The multiple layers of striking images, connotation, mythology, and the contemplative quality of these poems makes them endlessly fresh and appealing against the soothing backdrop of the Aegean.

DB: Tell us about yourself and your own work, what you’re working on now and what’s next.

ACS: At the moment I’m going through literary labour, waiting for a few books to be published. A collection of poetry is due out any day with Shearsman and will probably be available by the time this article is in print. It’s called onwords and upwords, and is a collection in which I continue to tease out the technicalities and function of language, and play around with form. I want to find different modes of expression all the time, which is quite hard – for me, anyway.

There’s another collection pending publication that was written with actress and poet Nina Karacosta where we challenge each other on a phonic level, with words in Irish (for Nina) and Greek (for me) to which we have to apply some kind of meaning in poetic form. That was a fun project, partly because we worked very closely together, spending a few weeks of the year deep in discussion, bouncing ideas off each other, developing a pattern of work that suited that particular project.

I’ve had these two collections in the pipeline for a while, along with Elsa’s book, and have found that I can’t think about the next project until I have these out of the way, so I haven’t done much writing recently. But I do have an idea up my sleeve which I might try to work on if I get some time. It should be a move away from poetry, though hopefully it will have poetic elements and, at the very least, I’d like it to be uncategorizable as a genre. I might approach it differently to my usual way of working. I work freelance, so my day is not dictated too much by a routine. I can usually write whenever I feel the need. One thing, though, I hate long hand! I hate the visual mess of text scribbled out, arrows pointing to afterthoughts, not being able to make out my own handwriting the next day… The pc ensures I always have a clean text in front of me. I edit and re-edit every line as I go along so that by the time I’ve written the last line, the poem is pretty much as I want it. I rarely make changes afterwards.

With poetry, I never have an overall vision for a book when I start. I write in response to some unconscious need to address individual issues, although in the process of writing, the form can take precedence over the substance. That’s what I discovered was the unifying element in onwords and upwords – hence the title. However, for the next project, I have a better sense of where it might lead. The reason for that is that, unlike with poetry collections, I have a theme in mind for this next experiment. I’ll put a few ideas together during the summer, a general skeleton. If it has decent limbs and a backbone I might try and flesh it out.

Another project I have to tick off the to-do list is a novel I wrote many years ago. It’s called The Big e, and has been fully edited and ready for publication for a while, very frivolous and fun, and unlikely to have a sequel or to appeal to publishers, so I’ll self-publish it at some point. With that, I was pretty structured in how I wrote, trying to get something on paper every day, usually in the morning. The fact that the writing went on for about three years didn’t really appeal to me, even though it’s fun to live in the parallel universe of your characters for extended periods and see things through their eyes. Overall, I prefer brevity, even when translating. I’ve translated a few novels and have found that the process becomes a bit tedious half way through because you still have another 150 pages left and will have to spend another few months with the same characters.

For translations I have a deadline that I stick to very rigorously. With poetry it’s always a generous deadline because poets and publishers of poetry understand the need for time to allow a text to settle (not so in the case of novels where there are commercial demands that don’t apply to poetry). I work methodically, setting aside the time I will need for a first draft, followed by a few weeks where I put the translation aside and forget about it so as to come to it from a fresh perspective for a full edit. During the first draft I put together whatever queries I have for the poet, incorporating the answers when they come back so that after the full edit I can send the manuscript to the poet for an overview. There are always more queries and comments at that stage. I go through several complete edits before the manuscript is ready for the publisher, and when it comes back for proofing I make additional final changes. Even after publication I wish I could make more changes. The process is never finished for me. I’m rarely fully satisfied with the result but have come to accept that a translation can only be the result of the translator’s reading of the original text at one particular moment in time. Tomorrow, the translator’s world view and state of mind and experience of language will have shifted ever so slightly.

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cross_ntx_leer

Selections from Beyond the Sea, by Elsa Cross, translated from the Spanish by Anamaría Crowe Serrano.

From Beyond the Sea

WAVES

1

Your face appears.
Sinks into milk,
like the well-begotten Lamb
………………………………………….in the Mysteries.

The fire approaches without touching us.
Blue more intense
than the elation building towards the islands.

Trembling,
as if behind smoke,
…………………………………your face appears.

The conch mixes the sea
with wonder itself
…………………………………in our ear,

waves surging
………….where the mind’s islands navigate,
flashes—
……………………Beyond the sea.

Movements of thigh and hip
tentatively outline
……………………………….a dance.

…………..The sea stretches
…………………………………in unbreaking waves.
Movement—
the last vowel
……………………….reverberates in the ear.
…………..The sea stretches
…………..beyond time
…………..…………..immovable.
A tremble,
…………..…………..an echo of movement—
hushes
and speaks to us
…………..…………..in its other tongue,
like that fire burning within,plays and spreads
until it quietens in a vertical ray.
Omnipresent,
…………..…………..the language of touch without hands.

.

4

A manly sound, that language of the islands.
Strong syllables,
…………..…………..honed vowels
like colours separating the sea from the crags.

Island emerging from nowhere,
place where no one is born
…………..…………..…………..or dies.
Only the course of its ground is followed,
piling its broken signs
…………..…………..…………..…………..on the grass—
stelae
unfold their argument on the waves,
…………..hold it,
…………..…………..bend it, withdraw it
…………..…………..—seduce the eye—
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..repeat it.

The music of that tongue rises to the retentive ear,
and the ear stays open
…………..…………..…………..in its intoxication—
maybe it translates the tumble
…………..…………..of the wave rushing to die on the sands,
or the delight
…………..…………..of she who is born from the spray.

Is there anything that does not come from the sea?

Names that don’t attract death
…………..…………..…………..but maybe sweeten its arrival:
…………..…………..She of the Delectable Voice
…………..…………..She of Nascent Desire
…………..…………..She Bathed in Light—
…………..…………..…………..…………..She the Inevitable.

.

5

Silent women,
chiselled plaster on the wall
…………..…………..…………..—asymmetries.

From the crest of a moon
olive trees balance
…………..…………..…………..precariously
as evening declines.
Summer carts make their way up
…………..…………..…………..…………..to hillside houses,
and with the setting sun
a bright snake
…………..…………..—a bicycle lamp—
meanders through the vineyards.

Venus and the waning moon
…………..…………..…………..…………..in conjunction
light up the waters.
The island
copies the shape of that half-moon
bending its back
…………..…………..…………..between two ridges—

 remains of its body float
…………..…………..…………..like charred bones.

Thus the sea of dreams joins or devours
fragments of the divided substance.

On the wing of an insect the fabrics of vision:
the city twinkles
…………..…………..through veils of plumbago,
over beaches almost blurred from view.
In enclosed courtyards
the light seems to rise from a hidden well;
desires gleam—
…………..…………..such is the accumulated transparency.
And the memory of a disaster.

Fragments of consciousness
emerge
…………..………….. and submerge
…………..like those islands.

.

CICADAS

5

Jellyfish lesions on skin,
as if each cicada
…………..…………..were stabbing with a hairclip
or armies of ants were leaving burning trails
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..in their wake.

Pale skies as summer unfolds.
And all that light,
…………..…………..the whiteness of a marriage bed,
those terraces where the night slips in
on a silver thread,
…………..…………..inaudible strumming,

are all still there,
when we’ve been around
the crest of the new moon
…………..…………..…………..at one end of our heart.
And the sea—
at twilight it takes on
the colour of our golden wines.

The wineskins are empty.
The hour bites our temples,
disrupts
…………..the journeys;
what we gave and didn’t give each other
sparkles
…………..under the sun as it moves away.

No sea as blue,
no light
…………..as white,
even though that splendour
may already have held
…………..…………..…………..the caress of darkness.

 .

From The Wine of Things

NICTIDES

9

They are repeated insomnia
a little sting
…………..………….. the flapping
of memories not sheltered
…………..…………..…………..by presence

 .                 

10

They are a white shadow
innocence in the yellow phrases
…………..…………..…………..……….of a dying man
the catastrophe of the voice

.

11
They are vague emotions
…………..…………..…………..in the stillness of the day
hollow bells

mist crouching
…………..…………..in your chest
like a doubt

.

12

They are transversal signs
…………..…………..…………..withered tributes
fragments lifted from the debris

They are hidden diamonds

.

THE WINE-RED SEA
(On the Dionysus Kylix)

…………..…………..…………..…………..for Ursus

O waves so red,
confluent streams
…………..…………..where grapes and dolphins almost meet,
and the vertical mast,
now trunk and branches,
…………..…………..…………..spreads its arms east and west.
And the dolphins freely swim
…………..…………..…………..…………..—old sailors
guarding the vessel.
And the sail bulging white
…………..…………..…………..under lavish grapes,
and the graceful ram at the prow,
what beach are they pointing at?
where will they dock
…………..…………..…………..if the blissful god
neither charts the course nor guides
but merely sips
the pleasant breezes
…………..…………..and the scent of the wine-red sea?

§

De Ultramar

Las Olas

1

Aparece tu rostro.
Se hunde en leche,
como el Cordero bienhallado
…………..…………..…………..en los Misterios.

El fuego se acerca sin tocarnos.
El azul es más intenso
que la ebriedad creciendo hacia las islas.

Tembloroso,
como detrás de humo,
…………..…………..…………..aparece tu rostro.

El caracol mezcla el mar
al propio estupor
…………..…………..en el oído,
oleaje donde navegan
…………..islas de la conciencia,
destellos—
……………Ultramar.

Movimientos del muslo y la cadera
esbozan al tiento
…………..…………..una danza.

…………..El mar se extiende
…………..…………..en olas que no se rompen. 

Movimiento—
la última vocal
…………..…………..reverbera en el oído.

…………..El mar se extiende
…………..más allá del tiempo,
…………..…………..…………..
inamovible. 

Temblor,
…………..…………..eco del movimiento—
calla
y nos habla
…………..en su lengua otra,
parecida a ese incendio de adentro,
juega y se difunde
hasta aquietarse en un rayo vertical.
Omnipresente,
…………….lenguaje del tacto sin manos.

…………..

4

Sonido varonil, ese lenguaje de las islas.
Sílabas contundentes,
…………..…………..vocales definidas
como colores que separan el mar de los peñascos.

Isla salida de la nada,
lugar donde no se nace
…………..…………..…………..ni se muere.
Sólo se sigue el decurso de su suelo,
que apila sobre la hierba
…………..…………..…………..sus signos rotos—
estelas
despliegan en la onda su argumento,
…………..…………..lo sostienen,
…………..…………..…………..lo curvan, lo sustraen
…………..…………..–seducen al ojo—
…………..…………..…………..…………..lo repiten.

La música de esa lengua sube al oído retentivo,
y el oído queda abierto
…………..…………..…….en su embriaguez–
quizá traduce el tumbo,
…………..de la que corre a morir en las arenas,
o el gozo
……………de la que nace de la espuma.

¿Qué cosa no viene del mar?

Nombres que no atraen a la muerte
…………..…………..…………..pero tal vez endulzan su llegada:
…………..La de Voz Deleitosa
…………..La que Despierta el Deseo
…………..La Bañada en Luz—
…………..…………..…………..…………..La Inevitable.

…………..

5

Mujeres taciturnas,
cinceladuras de yeso en la pared
…………..…………..…………..…………..–asimetrías.

Desde una cresta de luna
los olivos se equilibran
…………..…………..…………..precarios
en el declive de la tarde.
Suben las carretas del verano
…………..…………..………………hacia los caseríos altos,
y al ponerse el sol
una serpiente luminosa
…………..…………..…………..–fanal de bicicleta—
ondula en los viñedos.

Venus y la luna menguante
…………..…………..…………..…………..en conjunción
iluminan las aguas.
La isla
copia la forma de esa media luna
quebrando su espinazo
…………..…………..…………..entre dos puntas—
restos de su cuerpo flotan
…………..…………..como huesos calcinados.

Así el mar del sueño junta o devora
fragmentos de la sustancia dividida.

En un ala de insecto los tejidos de la visión:
la ciudad parpadea
…………..…………..en veladuras de plúmbago,
sobre playas que apenas se distinguen.
En los patios cerrados
la luz parece ascender de un pozo oculto;
brillan los deseos–
…………..…………..…………..tanta la transparencia acumulada.
Y una memoria de desastre.

Fragmentos de conciencia
emergen
…………..y se sumergen,
………..como esas islas.

…………..

LAS CIGARRAS

5

Huellas de medusas en la piel,
como si cada cigarra
…………..…………..punzara con una horquilla
o legiones de hormigas dejaran rastros quemantes
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..de su paso.

Cielos pálidos al transcurrir el verano.
Y toda esa luz,
…………..…………..esa blancura de tálamo,
esas terrazas por donde entra la noche
en un filo plateado,
…………..……………..rasgueo inaudible,
siguen allí,
cuando hemos recorrido
la cresta de la nueva luna
…………..…………..……….en un extremo del corazón.
Y el mar—
toma al crepúsculo
el color de nuestros vinos dorados.

Los odres están vacíos.
El vino muerde ahora la sien,
trastorna
…………..las travesías;
lo que nos dimos y no nos dimos
brilla
…………bajo un sol que se aleja.

Ningún mar tan azul,
ninguna luz
…………..tan blanca,
aunque ese esplendor
ya llevara consigo
…………..…………..la caricia de lo oscuro.

 …………..

De El vino de las cosas

NICTIDES

9.

Son insomnio repetido
un pequeño aguijón
…………..…………..………….. revoloteo
de recuerdos no amparados
…………..…………..…………..…………..en la presencia

…………..

10.

Son sombra blanca
la inocencia en las frases amarillas
…………..…………..…………..…………..del moribundo
la catástrofe de la voz

…………..

11.

Son emociones difusas
…………..……….en lo inmóvil del día
campanas huecas
niebla que se agazapa
…………..…………..en el pecho
como una duda.

………….. 

12.

Son signos transversos
…………..…………..…………..homenajes marchitos
trozos levantados de los escombros

Son diamantes ocultos

…………..

EL MAR COLOR DE VINO
(Sobre el kílix de Exekías) 

Para Ursus

Oh mar tan rojo,
corrientes encontradas
…………..…………..casi juntan racimos y delfines,
y el mástil vertical,
vuelto cepa y sarmientos,
…………..………..abre brazos a oriente y a poniente.

Y van a su albedrío los delfines
…………..…………..…………..………..viejos marinos
custodiando la nave.

Y la vela tan blanca que se abomba
…………..…………..…………..bajo las uvas pródigas
y el espolón gracioso de la proa
¿hacia qué playa apuntan?
¿en dónde atracarán si el dios
…………..…………..…………..……….dichoso
no marca ruta o guía
y solo bebe
los vientos placenteros
…………..…………y el aroma del mar color de vino?

— Elsa Cross, translated from the Spanish by Anamaría Crowe Serrano

.

.

Elsa Cross was born in Mexico City in 1946. The majority of her work has been published in the volume Espirales. Poemas escogidos 1965-1999 (UNAM, 2000), but a new complete edition of her poetry appeared in 2013 from the Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico City. Her book El diván de Antar (1990) was awarded the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1989), and Moira (1993) won the Premio Internacional de Poesía Jaime Sabines (1992), both in Mexico. Jaguar (2002), is inspired by different symbols and places of ancient Mexico. Her more recent books form a trilogy: Los sueños — Elegías, Ultramar — Odas, and El vino de las cosas, Ditirambos.

Her poems have been translated into twelve languages and published in magazines and more than sixty anthologies in different countries. She has also published essays. She has a M.A. and PhD in Philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she holds a professorship and teaches Philosophy of Religion and Comparative Mythology.

In 2008, Elsa Cross was awarded the most prestigious poetry prize in Mexico, the Xavier Villarrutia Prize, an award that she shared with Pura López-Colomé.

§

Anamaria Crowe Serrano

Anamaría Crowe Serrano is a poet, translator and teacher born in Ireland to an Irish father and a Spanish mother. She grew up bilingual, straddling cultures. Languages have always fascinated her to the extent that she has never stopped learning or improving her knowledge of them. She enjoys cross-cultural and cross-genre exchanges with artists and poets, the most recent of which is her participation in Robert Sheppard’s EUOIA project and her involvement in the Steven Fowler’s ‘Enemies’ project.

She has published extensively and her work has been widely anthologised in Ireland and abroad. Her publications include Mirabile Dictu (blurb, 2011), one columbus leap (corrupt press, 2011), and Paso Doble, written as a poetic dialogue with the Italian poet Annamaria Ferracosca (Empiria, 2006).

Anamaría has translated some fourteen books, including Elsa Cross’s Beyond the Sea for Shearsman Books.

.

Dec 042016
 

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Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to a few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end. So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar . . .      — Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe

He remains hidden, even from a good height, completely hidden by stooped bodies. Hidden, too, from below by figures advancing on all fours. One sees only a great many arms swooping down from above like a flock of surgeons, or else the pack nosing in underneath, like famished dogs.

At a distance, the athletic mass, skin taut and glistening, is a picture of harmony. Zooming in, however, disorder becomes unmistakeable. Everything slithers and twists, strains and reaches, gaps no sooner open than are filled with muscle. A lock here, a grip there, the combat of calves, the tension of jaw and sinew. Limbs sliding and slapping, weight bearing down relentlessly. A tremendous struggle. Clash, flexure, friction. Welts, contusions, concussions. And, rising from the thick of it, a smell of intimate aggression.

They are coming in from all directions just to touch him. Though they have not laid eyes on him, they carry with them some image and know the principles he is to embody. Whether he appears real or ideal, he attracts them just the same, as a magnet does metal filings, or a sweetmeat does ants.

What I can see from the observation tower erected for foreign observers I describe for you. The occasion of my visit to the Republic of Opferling is, as you know, the induction of the prince-elect. My movements have been closely monitored since my arrival. Security is on maximum alert for the length of the ceremonial. All other government functions are suspended. Citizens cannot be interviewed at this time, no officials are available for comment, and we handful of reporters are strictly proscribed from comparing notes. I am thus left to my own devices, and nobody here seems to care what ideas I come away with.

In such conditions, with so little to go on, reporting stretches the imagination. Before we know it we have also stretched the truth. My report will of necessity be a short one.

It is the local tradition that the new prince receives a public “blessing” from the electorate before taking office. The custom, representing an archaic form of republicanism, is widely known and notoriously misunderstood. To an outsider looking in, it is even more cryptic for being conducted entirely out in the open.

The confirmation ceremony extends over many days, and takes a most bizarre form: tactile accolade. A tangible connection is sought by each and every member of the polity. Should the prince die from exposure to all this physical attention, which is almost to be expected, the Opferlingen simply choose another, repeating their rite until, eventually, a survivor is installed as ruler.

Even stranger than this primitive business of rubbing the body of the prince is the way the multitude goes about it. There is no procession, no filing in and taking of turns. They press forward in the most confused fashion, stripped to the waist on account of the heat. Their numbers swell and ebb depending on the hour—all the regulation I can discern.

On the other hand, the crowd’s focus and dynamic make a stampede unlikely. Contact with the future leader is clearly with them a matter of contest. But it is a fight from which but one man can emerge as either winner or loser, and that is the prince.

From the great heaving jumble comes a soft moaning. The occasional whimpering cry merges, if my ears do not deceive me, with distinct sighs of pleasure. Do they belong to him? Finally a brief parting of the masses reveals something—a nude torso that can only be his—horizontal upon a kind of altar. I am allowed only this glimpse.

Everyone craves to feel it, all want a piece of it. And as long as they want it, it is there. They have their hands all over the supine idol. In a casual onlooker who stumbles upon the scene by accident, the lustful noises could easily produce disgust. But to a reporter, whose job is to get beneath the skin of these people and track what is going on, their undulating motion soon seduces, their energy becomes irresistible, and the urge to join in can barely be repressed.

By this point, the incumbent offers no more resistance to their caresses. As the sun dips low on the horizon, those nearest the center of the fray appear blood-red, their bare chests and shoulders smeared with some kind of pigment.

The prince’s body, on view now beneath the sloping sky, bathed in the sun’s waning glow, looks beatific. I find the thought of running my hand across it, of pressing against it, strongly arousing. Touch has in the body one great organ; can the senses of sight, hearing, smell, or taste boast as much?

There is of course more of him I cannot see. I imagine my palms gliding slowly over the mounds and bulges, exploring valleys and hollows, fingers tracing orifices, probing them… Should I be embarrassed by these fantasies? Is it not my place to participate, if only imaginatively? I stand with my notepad conscious of the guard, who like the Capitoline Brutus looks both watchful and eternal; he has seen it all before: the concourse below, the foreigner with notepad in hand and eyes transfixed, pulse accelerating.

I see clearly now: those thronging about him are smeared with his blood. There he lies, the sacrifice, limp and ruddy, like something flayed or badly burnt. I look away as the spectacle begins to turn my stomach. There is a clear limit to being a mere observer, unable to go down among them.

The more flesh is fondled the more it chafes. Even caresses eventually draw blood. These are not the manicured feelers of aristocrats, but the rough paws of workers and warriors. In this constant turnover of hands, no scab can form on the raw skin of the prince. The experience must be quite painless—except when a drop of sweat falls on the vast wound that is his body, sending through it a visible shiver. When this happens, in a sympathetic reaction everyone encircling him convulses as well.

The ambiguity of the sounds coming from the direction of the prince owes much to this saline sting. Pain articulated upon bliss, articulated upon pain… Truly, I have little pity for the man. His is only an exacerbation of what we all feel, his potential reward much greater.

Will anyone put an end to this senseless orgy? Has it not gone on long enough? But it is obvious it will take as long as it does. Each must get their share.

None of it is really surprising, I must say. I heard tell of the cruelty of these people more than once. In person they do not disappoint: clustered like vultures around their prey, hardly any meat left on him to satisfy their voracious appetite. Is this the community of brothers descended from the primal horde? Is it really all a re-enactment of the founding of civil society? The “prince” here is little more than a carcass, an inanimate object—not a credible stand-in for a despotic patriarch, whose children gang up to kill him for denying them sexual satisfaction. The old account is unilluminating and I am forced to discard it.

Everything is permitted. There are no rules, no stroke is too indecent. All of it is equally obscene. The Opferlingen are unusually strict in everyday sexual mores. To me the prince might be a living relic, a martyr worthy of public veneration, but he is subject to treatment normally beneath the dignity of his “subjects.” Let me be clear: this is no carnival, with merriment and overturned hierarchies, presided over by the Prince of Fools. They are acting out the lowest human urges—possibly to exorcize them, but without a doubt to make a political point that still remains obscure.

I bring back the following explanation, pieced together from snatches of overheard conversation and the intelligence I received from you. With only the rudiments of lingua opfer, I was engaged more than anything else in guesswork.

The Opferlingen do not regard their ritual primarily as a collective endurance test. Competition for access to the desideratum merely affirms their commitment to the common good. The whole event is above all a symbolic measure against the abuse of state power. It is meant to immunize the people against idolatry and the prince against corruption. The carnal experience of submission, the total surrender of will, is to act as a moral brake on the head of state. Has not everyone in the realm seen him naked with their own eyes and, moreover, ravished him with their hands? It is that same flesh he displays to the public; there is no separation, no other body. It is through and through a res publica, a public thing (the art of governing needs the whole man). This all-too-natural body must shudder at the memory of its humiliation at the hands of the multitude. It must internalize that sensational vulnerability as transparency. In this new nakedness, it is as though the prince wears nothing at all. The least attempt to conceal the truth, the merest deceit or malfeasance, would be plain to anyone from the bearing of a ruling body that has undergone such radical exposure. At once penetrating and superficial, the words of this body require no interpretation. It speaks a language the prince cannot command. Its compromising truth is felt throughout the body politic; his deposition is swift, and followed by execution.

Alas, I had no occasion to verify this explanation. A new prince has been proclaimed and must have assumed by now the duties of government. I, however, cut short my visit, unable as I was to shake off the impression of what I had witnessed, from which the subsequent inauguration would have been an unwelcome distraction. After all, it is not often one sees a sovereign bleed through his robes like meat wrapped in paper! But this, I hope you will forgive me, was not an image I wanted to take away with me.

Let me conclude with my own thoughts on what, in the end, is so unique to Opferling. Was ever another monarch as violated, let alone molested, in the name of legitimacy? The disgrace of the Charleses and Louis pales in comparison to the lawful use of this prince by his people. If all touch power, does it gain luster, is it polished to a higher gloss? Or is it, to the contrary, eroded? What sort of popular sovereignty is at work in Opferling? Does it really express the general will of its people? We know that warfare is with them the highest principle; their attainments in all other areas of culture may be undistinguished, but their art has reached an apex with the citadels. This instinct for domination, the wanton group abandon I have described, seem to support the view that the Opferlingen are brutes.

And yet, are we not more implicated in grasping after power? From the butcher to the artist, are we not after it in some way? Compared with us, are the Opferlingen really after it? Are they not, perhaps, before it? Their odd and disturbing custom is, as I learned, the fruit of revolution, an overturning of centuries of state barbarism. The people of Opferling were once the victims of tyrants, at least in the official record. The sound-walls lining the main road into the city tell the story in murals: scenes of torture, slavery and degradation, each indistinguishable from the next. On the inside, it is reversed: miles of graffiti depicting leaders in shameful poses while a jubilant populace goes at them with unspeakable relish. In my country, the perpetrators of such acts would be summarily put to death. But in Opferling, one can easily imagine the greatest perverts as close advisors to the king.

Tonight, I shall sit down to dinner with friends and tell them about all this. They know I was away, but would not believe me if I told them where I had been, let alone what I had seen there. Few have imagination for the truth of reality; most prefer strange, mythical countries and circumstances they know nothing of. By these their imagination is not merely stretched, but expanded. Yet one suspects that their capacity for truth must suffer a proportionate loss.

And even if I wanted to tell the truth, you do not allow it. I am forced, once again, to tell the truth as fiction, as one might a journey among headhunters. And what use, I ask, is hearing the truth in this way, without the faintest credit for its veracity—what use other than to reduce truth to the unimaginative? This I must accept if I am to say anything at all.

So I will relate my mission to my guests as a nightmare, after which we will laugh and drink to you, O Lady and Master. And for your sake, as well as ours, we shall not think of it again.

—S.D. Chrostowska

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S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission (2013),  and Matches: A Light Book (2015).  She teaches at York University in Toronto.

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Dec 032016
 

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A Symposium on Love

“Damn the word,” said Justine once. “I would like to spell it backwards as you say the Elizabethans did God. Call it evol and make it a part of ‘evolution’ or ‘revolt.’” — Justine, Lawrence Durrell

Age is an evolution – or devolution – of lust.
To be lost in revolt, as one must be growing up,
invites erotics into the palace of the family.
Air spiked with ecstasy. xWe all know it.
So voluble in bed might signify lust
or politics, depending on whether
you live in a hovel, where the velocity
of wildlife, certainly a mouse, about its vital business
shadows the movements of governments,

or a hotel, hovering over the chasm
between mountains, where we stopped.
Olives. Lupine. The sound of violins
through the balcony window, resinous,
heard through steam: treatments for the liver.
Into the porches of our ears pours music
reverberating through marble spaces. “That old man
wants to live,” whispers a medic,
mopping up. His vulpine mask is a blur
through silk curtains as he bends over
to lave bodies slippery with oil. He cares for us.

Here, in the mountains, where we feel free,
olives are served in gin straight from the freezer.
The menu reports that olev is an alternative,
a citrus fruit found in the garden below.
A solo viola with piano plays at a wedding on the patio.

Is olev a word in another language,
an oval fruit used in a harvest ritual,
a kind of citron, a renewal, a stand-in for love?

Maybe instead you wrote, “Nearby some wedding party is tuning up.
It’s hard to hear their voices. We’ve enough lunacy on this balcony
overlooking the ceremony to interpret youth and age. Drink up!”
She whispers, “I’ve loved you for half my life.”

To reprise: voluble in bed can signify
the exhaustion of lust and the birth of politics
depending on where you live, a hovel,
or next summer’s hotel on a coast, where olives are eaten
crushed with oil and tomatoes on pasta. Viols can be heard
from a balcony overlooking the river.
In a hotel notebook become a diary you can signify a place
where you stayed one summer, the air an oven
you entered to make love or sleep.
Your bed linens were streaked with damp.
Remember oval windows above his elbow,
trimmed with red and yellow light? I don’t.

A mirror in the corner showed us at the moment
we became another person, tiny and contorted
for a few beats, who might change into
a dolt with a scar, or a dwarf,
a violinist of genius but peculiar, hard to reach
until the world called out to him and he went.
He appears tonight on the program.

Let us return to the moment, please.
Your new partner is to be found at the next table,
voluble, thank God, after months of silence.
What’s he onto now? Oh, the volume of trade
on the stock exchange. I’m interested. Are you?

Here, in the mountains, after sunburnt children with their dogs
are put to bed, conversation veers toward the intimate.
Of course the subject is money. A plunging market.
What’s to be done? Be patient. The people will speak.
Vox Popular in November. The new black may be white.
Be patient. “I grew up in a Victorian melodrama,” overheard,
might seem to change the stakes. For me, at least.

In a corner of the room, under satin swags
that frame the mountains, three women lean
toward the axis of their table and whisper.
You can barely hear their hisses over the swipe
of VISA through the bar machine.
If you . . . you’ll disappear . . . Escape?
But how? Where do they think they’ll go?

Meanwhile the elderly are falling in love.
You can. Erotic is the reverse of deathly.
Dour Mr. Thanatos rents out accordions
at base camp if you’ve a mind to dance.

And while we’re speculating here,
if you have a comrade with a mind so rigid
you can hear the crack on the page as you read
his work, what can you do at 8,000 feet?

Maybe you can write some evolved and looser squiggles
to depict the guy on the plane en route, in the next seat,
depressed because no one will talk to him
so his head droops onto his chest
seemingly ready to be released into a basket.
Wasn’t that the French Revolution?
That guy only wanted to convert us, not seduce.

Nearby some wedding party is tuning up.
It’s hard to hear over his voice what they’re saying.
Certainly we’ve enough lunacy on this balcony
overlooking the pool. Drink up!
A bridesmaid hands over a hanky. The best man is a she.
Their fathers link arms. Their mothers smile.
By now we’re sobbing into tissues and taking pictures.

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Surely next comes midlife revolt. What do you think?
Oh look. A moose lopes over the top of the mountain.
The bell for dinner sounds. I’ve a mind to bolt
this place. Echoes reverberate on the balconies.

You know, I’ve loved him for half my life.
At the end, it seems the rest of the relatives died.

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Autobiography

I’ve stolen a chair for you, sawed off the arms.
For breakfast stirred up plovers’ eggs. xOnce
I flew to the moon in order to press your hands to her face.

I strung a magic key around my neck for my roller skates.
On my feet they clanked, threw sparks on the sidewalk.
My mom wore an apron when she wasn’t wearing gloves.
I wore silk to the dance, midnight blue with a keyhole neckline, a soft bow.

I married for the childbed and didn’t die.
I walked out the door on my own two feet.

Alaska wove color through the sky.
The dog sled team at a full run shat frozen turds that missed me.

Up again at night I learned hot milk beats tea every time.
The walls, all color, wore well and framed up paintings I accumulate.

My house has four bedrooms.
Much of my life is over.
Pleasing others is my greatest sin.
When my ribs knit I swore never again to surrender. I lied.

My knee healed with a scar.
Four husbands vanished on horseback but the crops didn’t fail.
Winter is a season like any other.
Now spring is all. Spring, moving into summer.
Sleep in wind, in voices.

What’s under pressure breaks out in cactus flowers.
Ants abound in the arroyo and coyotes.
Some of what I couldn’t stand to lose I lost.
In every room a pencil.

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Meditation

I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t
Who’s talking?  Shut up, compassion.

Put on socks and shoes meditation

Walking meditation
…………Once around the desert
…………no dog, nobody

Counting heart stones meditation
…………in the basket, on the ground

Walking the dog meditation
…………out loud, out loud: listen dog.  Metta

May i/she be safe may she/i be happy may she be/feel well may she live/die lightly

Gratitude meditation:  each day a white stone
…………picked up by the front door by the back garden
…………put down on the ground white stones to a make a mouth:

…………If my mouth were as wide as the seven seas
…………it would not be enough to praise Thee

Be quiet.  Make lunch. Notice the thumb, the work of the thumb. Notice the edge of the
…………knife blade

Wash the dishes meditation.  Metta

may our friend be safe may she be happy may she be well may she live/die lightly

I can’t sit still                 death death death death.  I can’t i can’t i can’t i
…………Who?
…………May she walk in the shadow of death and fear no evil thy arroyo rock and thy
cottonwood staff      comfort

Breathe breathe / breathe breathe

Rausch means soul means breath   is breath   is soul
…………breathe breathe / breathe
…………until the body/ stone
…………fractures
…………to release

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One Toe, Crooked

Let me tell you how it is with me:
a bad back, spine like a snakeskin
shed in the shadow of a pinelet,
weakened innards, a liver fit for soup,
and a brain the size of a lentil.   The worst
is the one toe, crooked like a staff
carried too long by shepherds.

One day, a fine mid-autumn
with sun’s eye full open against air’s chill,
I took to the woods to find my dinner.
What with one thing and another
I swayed and shimmered my way along
the path, gravel sticking to my knees from a fall,
my felt shoes catching stones.
But still, I got to the gate where geese cross
coming home from the pond.

What would do me that night?
I was one only, with an oven fit
for a child with money, my prize.
Each night I lit it with a fagot
of wormwood and some willow leaves
with an iron basket suspended over the fire.
Good for roasting corn and potatoes.
Tonight I was hungry against the chill coming.
No ice yet, that was full winter
but now a clutch of eggs to boil in the kettle?

Truly then I saw a girl
lovely as a stalk of silver grain
come around a corner that an oak made
with my barn wall. She carried a bundle
squirming like a peck of tadpoles
and clutched to her chest a stack of books
bound with a strap. She saw me
as a wraith and ran. Was I a wraith?
My toe hurt like hell itself gaped open.
But Ectoplasm I wasn’t. Plain flesh.
Still, she was afraid. Then I could see her babe’s
mouth open, its cries louder with each bounce,
the flannel it was bound with coming loose.

As I watched, standing bent over my toe,
she dropped the books. The belt around them opened.
Pages fanned out on the ground
like parchment put to flame.

What did all this mean in the daylight?
The girl, her babe, the lost books cascading
and over everything pain ascending,
covering our light, all that hope,
the future somehow gone dark as a cavern.
I bent over the mess, began to gather it up.

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Truncated Sonnet

The woman once upon a time
put on pajamas under a cloak of feathers.
Instead of in bed she swam on the Grande, a swan.

Breakfast in the sun room
raspberries from the gardens (paths, stones, silver props)
clotted cream sour on the table, an etched spoon.
After a while she dropped her knitting along with the gun.

Childhood during war, so many novels and hunger.
The dead stayed invisible, quiet as usual.
She read the London Times and swallowed.

Somebody yelled, “What do you think I mean?”  Hit the table.
She puts aside her food, leans forward to say:

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Yom Kippur Crumbs
………………………after Sandra Gilbert

Forbidden mash, sweet in our aging body
I stole chunks from the communal table, at dawn

You are the profane yeast of my sins
disintegrating, flowing away under our resolve

The breathed air made you stale, thirsty for water
as we are, here in the desert of our actions

Be the emblem of our resolve:
make bitter the sweet yearning, for cruelty

Dissolve the sour milk in our middens
to empty our stomachs of sin.

Stale loaf, you’re bread from my kitchen
I purge from the shelf, carry to the river
to cast upon waters

You’re promise for an emptied day
of sorrow. No more will I gulp you

as toast to begin a day of distractions
Your molds will float down the waters

to redeem my thoughtless actions
make room for loving kindness

I will hope to absorb as well as give out.

—Hilda Raz

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Hilda Raz lives in Placitas, New Mexico, where she is poetry editor of bosque magazine and series editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen endowed poetry series at the University of New Mexico Press. She is Glenna Luschei Professor of English and Gender Studies, emerita, at the University of Nebraska, where she was editor of Prairie Schooner and founding editor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prizes.  Her work has been widely published in twelve books, many anthologies and journals.

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Dec 022016
 

hallucineMovement Is The Antechamber Of Hallucination 32” x 40” 28.3.2016

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The daughter of glow-worms painting portraits of mysterious females and the reindeer’s ghostly double, all perfectly cracked like glass, like an intrusion, like a flight into the obscurity of uncharted whispering. A slight touch on the shoulder, the movement of an affair between invasion and emanation, the pitch of bone against bone, faces merging in the moisture of a single word chosen among all the others. A vampire word…

*

Clarity is often a flower burning a table out of a corpse, an immoral sense of having secretive codes, acknowledgements of a tentative gambling, a mere walk in the park. The spores of wild animals, the crawling of your flesh, light growing on water. Words like landmines.

*

The glow between living and ceasing to live, emulates the long-legged cascade in her whispering circuitry, the gaze of rain is corrupted film, caught in the act, disguised by pleasure purring in gradually brightening passwords. The catapult of an unfinished sentence, turned to provoke, to stroke and latent in state, the light separates your body from its own darkness.

*

The ancient horned flower of your psyche attracts the devoted milking machines, the aboriginal veins of a fabric that propels your footsteps as determined as her threads slipping into light, vanishing in the blink of an eye.

.

navigateAnd still the navigators 38’ x 38” 27.6.2016

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Dark and greedy, the always secret and ever vanishing body of torrential mirroring.

*

Dark gravitational assignations seduced into amulets the color of glass, evolving in sequential chiaroscuro, tempting blood where (in the Manor of Sighs) the barbarian sign language seizes the images of your being in the rich, antiquarian lucidity of your extinction. Your face, or the features of night in the fever of graceful spirits that still come to drink the liquid of life out of your hands, the pendulum… An evening of theater runs ahead…

*

Trapping belladonna between the lines, between her legs, between phases, to embrace the blindness of your murmuring, pushing out between her lips, the lost hermeticism of albino checkmates.

*

Black pyramid of erratic nights, sphinx crystal for abnormal motion, language absorbed by light hibernating in darkness, invisible shield, hormones of endless fusion and refusing to chalk the edges of bodily words taking root. On a street corner in another country, where the wheels of dance herald small but irreplaceable transgressing devices, shedding deceptions buzzing with veiled faces. You are sleeping with the enemy, unafraid and glorious.

*

An intimacy of longing dwells in us like words that have no meaning, but animal cries, torn linen, a loving defiance…

.

sirensSirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016

Sirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016*

One superb maneuver is the moon under your skin that pivots on the bones of a spider’s web, when it shines in the eyes of the animals that come close to you for light.

*

Bright calipers of the alloy-laden arch, light-birthing heaviness, a fire between the air and the water, the arc of the dive into disappearance. Desire is not beautiful, but an invisible flame, a knife thrust into the heart, a moment of oblivion. The figure is translated, disfigured and set spinning into the tall and languid codes of light, violent codes, aching darkness of codes deceiving stature… who is dismantled. Words pulled out of lead. Breath of crystal. The rain of deer in the plateau of whispers…

*

A bright spirit made of wolves, a throat in the fountain of analogies.

*

Neither life nor death, but the same descent, the same loping, transfiguring, moving across the edges highlighted in ivory as bright as sunlight clutching at animal optics, scavenging, sight-shaping all the female phantoms in a row, crawling with antlers through the moth-memory of an escape hatch bigger than the either and the or… where the bell-veil toys with the heretic and his contraries, introducing a vow worthy of destruction, sealed with a kiss.

*

Highly unreasonable notations raise pinnacles outside of the hour, narrate plumes, positions of sleep. The air spirals and sudden sparks. Your body of the orchid feast, thief of the mask. Night hood. “Teach me how to kill, and I will teach you how to love…” Only the wail of silence, in acrobat, even yourself hieroglyphing in lunar light.

*

The slow movement of her hand, the reflections cast by night, travelling by déjà vu.

§

The visual works I make are photo-based digital collages created in Photoshop, using printed media scanned into the computer, then using many layers, cloning, erasures. This allows taking the essence of collage quite beyond cut and paste. It becomes a much more fluid conjuration of matter, transforming the everyday into a magical space, where anything is possible. The sizes of the images are always approximate. Although, usually larger, depending upon whim. Since these live on the computer, they are subject to change.

—J. Karl Bogartte

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elbogo

J. Karl Bogartte, born September 8, 1944, of Dutch and Irish descent, is both an artist and poet, schooled in anthropology, photography and various esoteric traditions. He has been an active participant in international surrealism for more than 50 years, and cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions.  He presently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bogartte, is both an artist and poet, having published eight books of poetic writings: The Mirror held Up In Darkness, The Wolf House, Secret Games, Luminous Weapons, Primal Numbers, A Curious Night For A Double Eclipse, Auré, The Spindle’s Arc, and Antibodies: A Surrealist Novella.  Long aligned with international surrealism, Bogartte is also a cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions. His work has appeared in the following anthologies:  ANALOGON #65, Melpomene, Hydrolith #1 and #2, La vertèbre et le rossignol #4, Peculiar Mormyrid #2, Paraphilia,  and The Fiend online journal.

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Dec 012016
 

Michaelangelo torment-of-st-anthonyMichelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Standing aside from the busy doings of mankind, and drawing NIGH to the divine [pros to theio gignomenos], he is rebuked by the multitude as being out of his wits, for they know not that he is possessed by a deity [enthousiazon].
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX— Plato, Phaedrus

NEARLY mad, I found myself yet able to throw out a hand to ward off the foetid apparition which pressed so close.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxXXXX H. P. Lovecraft, The Outsider

The pattern he has selected may seem queer, out of the way, and VERGING on insanity; but this happens because it is isolated from its inner context, and is appraised mechanically and superficially, by the outer and conventional measures of normality. Very often, the inward aim of the dynamic patterns animating the lives of such apparently insane persons is God, or Truth.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxXXXX Meher Baba, The Wayfarers

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Madness, an obscurely essential theme in The Cloud of Unknowing, appears there in several modes traversing the boundaries between human, God, and devil.

First, there is the madness to which all demons are driven by “the werk of the soule,” the apophatic forgetting of creation and dwelling in the cloud or darkness between oneself and God.[1] “Alle seintes and aungelles han joie of this werk, and hasten hem to helpe it in al here might. Alle feendes ben wood whan thou thus doste, and proven for to felle it in alle that thei kun” (3).

Second, there is the madness to which phantasmatically deluded contemplatives drive themselves under the devil’s guidance by perceptually confounding and inverting the natural order of corporeal and spiritual things. This spiritual mis-work “is neither bodily worching ne goostly worching. . . . it is a worching agens kynde, and the devel is the cheef worcher thereof. And it is the rediest way to deth of body and of soule, for it is woodnes and no wisdom, and ledith a man even to woodnes. And yit thei wene not thus, for thei purpose hem in this werk to think on nought bot on God.” Not sensing the true mystical or hidden prepositionality of spiritual ascent—“how a man schal drawe alle his witte withinne hymself, or how he schal clymbe aboven himself”—they “turn theire bodily wittes inwardes to theire body agens the cours of kynde; and streynen hem, as thei wolde see inwards with theire bodily ighen, and heren inwards with theire eren, and so forthe of all theire wittes, smellen, taasten, and felyn inwardes. And thus thei reverse hem agens the cours of kynde and with this coriousté thei travayle theire ymaginacion so undiscreetly, that at the last thei turne here brayne in here hedes.” Thus set in error, the contemplative falls prey to the devil who, hiding under this distorted remembrance of God—“the mynde of God wol he [the devil] not put fro hem, for feerde that he schuld be had in suspecte”—intensifies and validates the delusion with “fals light or sounes, swete smelles in theire noses, wonderful tastes in theire mowthes, and many queynte hetes and brennynges in theire bodily brestes or in theire bowelles, in theire backes and in theire reynes, and in their pryvé membres,” so that without the intervention of a “merciful miracle” they “schul go staryng wood to the devil” (51-53).

Third, there is the pure madness of the devil’s essential infernal nature whose direct sight instantly causes permanent madness, which the Cloud-author addresses in the context of judgmental religious zealotry and the loss of discretion. Persons suffering from this condition are deceived by the devil, who “ful wonderfuly . . . wol enflaume here braynes to meinteyne Goddes lawe, and to distroie synne in all other men.” Reproving everyone, they “sey that thei ben steryd therto by the fiire of charité and of Goddes love in theire hertes. And trewly thei lighe, for it is with the fire of helle wellyng in theire braynes and in theire ymaginacion.” While not defined as madness per se, this inferno-critical zeal formally participates in the devil’s own nature, as reported by “some disciples of nygromauncye . . . unto whom the feende hath apperid in bodily licnes.” For when the devil thus appears, he always has “bot o nose-therel, and that is grete and wyde. And he wil glady kast it up, that a man may see in therate to his brayne up in his heed. The whiche brayn is not elles bot the fiire of helle, for the feende may have none other brayn. And yif he might make a man loke in therate, he kepeth no beter; for at that lokyng he schuld lese his witte for ever” (55). So, as the devil “figureth in some qualité of his body what his servauntes ben in spirit,” such indiscreet reprovers “have bot o nose-therel goostly,” in contradiction with the naturally split nostrils of humans that “bitokeneth that a man schulde have discrecion goostly, and kun dissevre the good fro the ivel, and the yvel fro the worse, and the good fro the betyr” (55).

Fourth, there is the near or virtual madness of the real mystic who, in working to destroy the final and foundational obstacle between himself and God, namely, the “the nakid wetyng and felyng of thin owen beyng,” goes “ni wood for sorow.” “Alle men han mater of sorow, bot most specyaly he felith mater of sorow that wote and felith that he is. Alle other sorowes ben unto this in comparison bot as it were games to ernest. For he may make sorow earnestly that wote and felith not onli what he is, bot that he is. And whoso felid never this sorow, he may make sorow, for whi he felid yit never parfite sorow. This sorow . . . makith a soule abil to ressseive that joye, which revith fro a man alle wetyng and felyng of his being. This sorow, yif it be trewly coseyvid, is ful of holy desire; and elles might never man in this liif abide it ne bere it. For ne were it that a soule were sumwhat fed with a maner of counforte of his right worching, elles schuld he not mow bere the pyne that he hath of the wetyng and felyng of his being. For as ofte as he wolde have a trewe wetyng and a felyng of his God in purtee of spirit, as it may be here, and sithen felith that he may not – for he findeth evermore his wetyng and his felyng as it were ocupied and fillyd with a foule stynkyng lumpe of himself . . . – as ofte he goth ni wood for sorow; insomochel, that we wepith and weilith, strivith, cursith, and banneth, and schortly to sey, hym thinkith that he berith so hevy a birthen of hymself that he rechith never what worth of hym, so that God were plesid. And yit in al this sorrow he desireth not to unbe, for that were develles woodnes and despite unto God” (44).

robert-fludd-utriusque-cosmiIllustration from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi (via Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in the principle of necessity at work within this de facto mystical typology of madness. Why? Because I do not see that there can be any real theory of madness, any intellectual vision of it, that is not a knowing of its necessity. Seeing madness for what it is means seeing that it must be, its self-identical immanence, at once in itself (the space wherein the mad one, to truly be mad, must be mad, really at his wits’ end) and in relation to madness’s own end, what it is driving one to (the space where the mad one is mad for some mantic reason), in this context, hell or God. Nietzsche expresses this necessity, identifying madness as a vital condition for noetic novelty, the only way new ideas become real: “when . . . new and deviate ideas . . . again and again broke out, they did so accompanied by a dreadful attendant: almost everywhere it was madness which prepared the way for the new idea . . . Do you understand why it had to be madness which did this? Something in voice and bearing as uncanny and incalculable as the demonic moods of weather and the sea . . .? Let us go a step further: all superior men . . . had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad.”[2] Crucially, Nietzsche’s words attend without nomination to a kind of Quixotian play or indetermination between actual and virtual madness, indicating a subtle relation between madness’s noetic necessity and its nearness, a secret intersection between the power and the proximity of madness.

Such is the dynamism that is communicated between the hands and madness, for example, in the clenched and hidden hands that reveal a turning of the manual power back into the mind.[3] Likewise, Augustine’s mind reaches for a hand to hold still the heart in a vision of the real Present: “Who will hold fast the human heart so that it may stand and see how eternity, standing beyond past and future, speaks both past and future? Is my hand capable of this? Or can the hand of my mouth accomplish such a great thing through language?”[4] The hand of madness, the haptic nearness of its power, is a matter of present time. Its necessity pertains to the temporal substance that is neither chronos or aiôn but the too-immanent dilation or stretching open of the present beyond the limitations of past and future. The need to be mad is itself the nearness of the active or creative present, a must-be that belongs, not to the twin hallucinations of instant and eternity (the duplex apparitional phantasm of what is always/never passing), but to the more original and universal now that demonically exists beside them, that attends like weather from a cosmic outside and waves from dark inner seas. Madness is so intimate with time, so fiendishly present to it, that it is radically reasonable to say that madness is time. Discover this equation. It is the broken, present-at-hand yet paradoxically nevertheless and all-the-more ready means of warding off the foetid apparition, the foul stinking lump of oneself, which presses so close.

The identity of time and madness is visible in Augustine’s perpetuated remark about time’s inverted apophatic intelligibility, its being known in negative unknowing, that is, not negating that you know, but in purely negating, as if in absolute spontaneous preemption, that you do not: “What therefore is time? If no one [nemo] asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone questioning me, I do not know.”[5] The literal meaning is supreme: time is known in the negative-without-negation presence of a nemo, a not-man (ne + homo) who asks what is time, a question posed by nobody. Time is known mantically, through a positively mad intuition whose madness lies in its having no time to be about time in the form of answer to anyone’s question, in its necessarily being a knowledge that answers (to) no one.  The explanation of time to someone, by contrast, is a negatively mad ignorance, the madness of an explaining that eclipses knowledge of the explained.[6] Note the formal similarity between such knowing of time through no one’s query and the negative, solely monitory wisdom of the Socratic daimon, never named as a spiritual entity, but only as an impersonal but familiar divine sign—a prophetic presence whose singular doubling of identity is occasionally there yet never inoperative (Socrates says it always [aei] warns him) and thus deeply analogous to consciousness itself as a necessary, inevitable dilation of the momentary, so that there is, for example, time to do anything.

Time-madness identity is more clearly visible in Meher Baba’s speedy distinction between God, man, madman, and mast (divinely mad person): “Mind stopped, is God. / Mind working, is man. / Mind slowed down, is mast. / Mind working fast, is mad.”[7] Here it is the temporality of mind itself that ontically modulates between God and human on a spectrum of madness (though it should be emphasized that the ‘human’ has no genetic or historical specificity in his evolutionary cosmology; it simply means the form in which the development of consciousness is full and thus capable of God/Self-realization). The human, vis-à-vis self-conscious divinity or God, is flanked by opposed but temporally correlative forms of madness such that its own ordinary operative nature looks like only a median mind-speed, a mediocre or B-minus madness that both ensures practical functioning and displaces radical development. Doubly framed by insanity and God-intoxication, the human emerges as a utile but essentially obsolescent state of time. “Level-1 or world space,” writes Nick Land, is an anthropomorphically scaled, predominantly vision-configured, massively multi-slotted reality system that is obsolescing very rapidly. Garbage time is running out. Can what is playing you make it to level 2?”[8] Land’s term garbage time eloquently captures the complex of an expiring or evaporating state (perforce ungraspable as such from within its sanity-to-itself and perceivable only in near-madness) in which production of and concern for refuse are constitutionally fused into self-obsolescence or being-garbage. And there is every reason to keep open the comparison here between the anthropocenic ecological echo of the idea—the spectacle of homo sapiens garbaging itself to death—and the negative or tensional complicity between mystical madness and filth. Just as the cloud-dwelling contemplative goes nearly mad for sorrow over his own foetid facticity as the only and ultimate escape route out of individuated existence,[9] so is global eco-emergency a form of mass secular and semi-insane mystical sorrow expressive of deeply vexed impatience with, and desire for, intensified immediacy of the forced temporariness and disposableness, or more essentially, the necessary disposality, of human-being. Note furthermore the important psychic link between sorrow, or affective counter-volitional refusal,[10] and refuse as what is rejected and cast away. Here is found the weird paradoxical link between madness and filth, the madman’s personal affinity for dirt that is grounded in rigorous and essential indifference towards it, an indifference that may radically express or be rooted in real mental cleanliness, the perfectly careless purity of a playing soul that will not be washed, yet a non-innocent purity strangely continuous with the deathly seriousness of someone who must be clean of oneself.[11] “I forgot danger, reason, and cleanliness [says a Lovecraftian hero] in my single-minded fever to unearth the lurking fear.”[12] And filthiness too is a matter of proximate affinity: dirt itself is clean. So near-madness can be visualized as the achievement of a purifying and essential cleanliness of being-in-dirt. Or as St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

teodor-axentowicz-the-anchoriteTeodor Axentowicz, The Anchorite (via Wikimedia Commons)

To see the necessity of madness in the Cloud of Unknowing demands, not diffusive explaining or theorizing, but the single-mindedness of envisioning or theorying the unitary time of its fourfold appearance, intellectually entering the wholism of its must-be. In other words, seeing this madness with the radical, transcendent-immanent literalism of photography, described by Laruelle as “a hyperphenomenology of the real” that thinks the “undivided giveness of the apparition,” the givenness that “is the thing itself in-its image, rather than the image-of-the-thing”[13]—a blind but open visioning homologous to knowing when no one asks or answering via questioning-by-camera. Such seeing is itself proper to the supreme, unconquerable ordinariness of mysticism as a mode of vision that finds ultimate truth in a flattening of knower and known which inversionally releases, like a Petrine cross, the infinite and total intensive depth of reality.[14] “The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me.”[15] I.e. the eternally identifying vision-in-One whose durational projection is the proverbial too long it takes to go mad looking in a mirror. This is the world where the image looks back,  a capacious no-place whose abyss sees into you and the lovely reflection loves Narcissus. Similarly, perceiving the Cloud’s madness is needing to see it all-at-once, in a way that makes it look back as the very mode of its perceiving, in the inescapability of a now that is not instantaneous but fluidly frozen or solidly dilated, just as a photograph, or the multiple sense of medieval scripture, finds different forms pressed within a unitary temporal plane. A vision of necessity that madly intersects with the necessity of vision itself and thus also sees the moment of vision within the principle of madness.

All these criteria are precisely confirmed in the Cloud’s four-form scheme, which stretches the unwitnessability of madness itself between the pure fiery dementia of the demonic brain and the supremely proximate madness of the ecstatic mystic so that what-madness-is, its substance, is prismatically refracted across the space between human and demon, the entities who are photographically close, one to the other, in each definition of madness the text provides. This proximity is itself co-substantial with time, insofar that demon, as fallen angel, is simultaneously what negatively precedes and preconditions human and what perpetually strives to retard its afterlife towards chronic sub-eternity or damnation—a striving that is formally inseparable from and providentially bound to what it inverts: spiritual aspiration towards the eternal present.[16] The near-madness of existential mystical sorrow, dangerously shadowed by the rigorous volitional logic of the desire “to unbe . . . that [is] develles woodnes and despite unto God,” is the perfection or more properly apotheosis, of this proximity, its extremest realization that at once fulfills and fatally exceeds all other instances of it in the moment of becoming-divine. It is the anagogy or being raised up of the four senses of madness, the one that realizes and shows the necessity of their identity. Read this way, the real mystic is revealed to be, not one of several distinctions, but the truly immanent human as a madly inverted experientia crucis, a heretic body constituting—and needing to constitute as its only way out of itself—the upside down crucifixion of time. Not an essence, but a unitary hybrid never once and now no longer human, a friendly no-one or ‘nameless wild one’[17] for whom near-madness is not a flirtation or perilous approach of the mind towards its loss, but the putting-to-use or wielding of the very necessity of time as an operational nearness, the turning of time into a virtue or power by letting it fall to a never-ending halt. “Live more and more in the Present, which is ever beautiful, and stretches away beyond the limits of the past and the future.”[18] This near- madness—inverted name for intimacy with true, singular sanity—is the human becoming capable of being mad. Hanging in effortless liberatory flight, its body stretched across the intersection of the evolutionary or human need to ‘become what you are’ and the chaotic or demonic ‘desire to be everything’, this weirdly inevitable creature here touches all at once the four temporal dimensions of its loved torment. From this perspective what matters is not what each intellectually ‘means’, but the immediate and as-if neutral significance of their time-structure.

crucifixion-of-timeAuthor’s illustration of the Crucifixion of Time

At the right hand: the non-stop continuity that must end of demon-tormenting contemplation, that is, allegorical time, time whose truth lies in signifying other than it is. At the left hand, the instantaneous once-and-forever singular moment of looking through the devil’s nostril, that is, literal time, time whose truth lies in perfect and unique irrevocability. At the head: the illusory false present of perverse, seeing-what-you-do-not-have aesthetic imagination, that is, tropological time, time whose truth lies in the projection of what one must do/become. At the feet: the let it be now of mystical impatience, refusal of every this for the real Present, that is, anagogical time, time whose truth lies in absolutely untimely suspension—heels kicking at everything.

The necessity of being at one’s wits’ end is a pure necessity, a necessity without object, and thus a necessity that only frees one more and more from being a subject of needs. Near-madness is the only alternative for staying close to being what one must.

On the other hand, Firdawsi reports in the Book of Kings that the followers of Mazdak, the heretical 6th-century Persian wise man, “were planted there head down, with their feet in the air, like trees….If you have any sense, [he says] you will not follow Mazdak’s way.”

—Nicola Masciandaro

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nicola-masciandaro

Nicola Masciandaro is Professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and a specialist in medieval literature. His non-pseudonymous works include The Voice of the Hammer (Notre Dame), Sufficient Unto the Day (Schism), and Floating Tomb (Mimesis).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1997). References are to chapter number.
  2. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. Maudemaire Clark and Brian Leiter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), §14.
  3. For artistic examples, see Sander L. Gilman, Seeing the Insane (New York: Wiley, 1982), chapter 3.
  4. “Quis tenebit cor hominis, ut stet et videat, quomodo stans dictet futura et praeterita tempora nec futura nec praeterita aeternitas? Numquid manus mea valet hoc aut manus oris mei per loquellas agit tam grandem rem?” (Augustine, Confessions [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951], 11.11).
  5. “Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio” (Augustine, Confessions, 11.14).
  6. Note how the logic identically applies to madness as explanation for all-too-intuited horror: “madness . . . was the explanation spontaneously adopted by everybody so far as spoken utterance was concerned; though I will not be so naïve as to deny that each of us may have harboured wild guesses which sanity forbade him to formulate completely” (H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, [New York: Modern Library, 2005), 38). That time itself a horror is a maddening horror is of course central principal of this work: “the labyrinth of rock and masonry that clawed up corpse-like through the eternal ice . . . we felt that we had established an unprecedented and almost blasphemous link with forgotten aeons normally closed to our species . . . we were wandering amidst a death which had reigned at least 500, 000 years, and in all probability even longer . . . The pictorial bands . . . had an artistic force that moved us profoundly notwithstanding the intervening gulf of vast geologic periods. Their method of design . . . embodied an analytical psychology beyond that of any known race of antiquity” (46-56).
  7. The Wayfarers, 19.
  8. Nick Land, “Meltdown,” in Fanged Noumena, eds. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (London/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence, 2011), 456.
  9. Cf. Hegel’s understanding of the necessity of madness (for development of higher rationality) as expression of contradiction in individuated being – “The necessity of madness, that is, the necessity of going through the stage of madness, is due to the fact that ‘the soul is already in itself the contradiction of being an individual, a singular, and yet at the same time immediately identical with the universal natural soul, with its substance’ (Enz. 164, 125)” (Ferit Güven, Madness and Death in Philosophy [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005], 37) – and Levinas’s definition of the grounds of escape: “escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même]. . . . It is being itself or the ‘one-self’ from which escape flees, and in no wise being’s limitation. In escape the I flees itself, not in opposition to the infinity of what it is not or of what it will not become, but rather due to the very fact that it is or that it becomes” (Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003], 55). Rosmini comments on Hegel: “What reason could we find for this whim that being would have to negate itself, to refuse to recognize itself, to make this mad attempt to annihilate itself?” (Saggio storico-critico sulle categorie e la dialettica). See also Nicola Masciandaro, “The Sorrow of Being” Qui Parle 19 (2010): 9-35 and “Eros as Cosmic Sorrow: Locating the Limits of Difference in Julian of Norwich’s Divine Shewings and The Cloud of Unknowing,” Mystics Quarterly 35 (2009): 59-103.
  10. “[C]um . . . dissentimus ab eo quod nolentibus accidit, talis voluntas tristitia est” (Augustine, De civitate Dei, 14.6, ed. Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb, 5th ed. [Stuttgart: Teubner, 1981]) [sorrow is the will’s disagreement with something that happened against our will].
  11. “From general standards of society, religion, health, morality and so forth, cleanliness of body and mind are indispensable. It is, however, very easy to keep the body clean; but cleanliness of mind is very difficult indeed. The more one gets attached to body cleanliness for merely selfish reasons, the less are the chances of having a clean mind. If, however, one is given up wholly to mental cleanliness, which means becoming free from low, selfish, impure desires and thoughts of lust, greed, anger, backbiting, etc., the less is one’s mind attached to bodily needs and bodily cleanliness. All this applies to ordinary persons. Now of the five types—God-merged, God-intoxicated, God-absorbed, God-communed and God-mad—the God-absorbed and God-communed can more or less keep their bodies clean. Their minds are almost automatically clean due to their being absorbed in God, or in communion with God. But the God-mad, the God-intoxicated and the God-merged all invariably have dirty bodies, live in dirty surroundings, and may have dirty physical habits. A God-mad has a clean, pure mind. A God-intoxicated has a mind, but no thoughts, for his mind is simply enjoying the intoxicated state. A God-merged has no mind—he is fully merged in God. So in these three cases their mental cleanliness and purity cannot be questioned. Now why should their bodies and environments be dirty? You will find that the majority of ordinary mad people have very little consciousness of their bodies. So if an ordinary mind, when mad, does not pay attention to bodily cleanliness, then the three types of God men, who unconsciously or consciously know all the universe to be zero, body to be a shadow, and whose minds are absolutely unattached to the body, cannot be expected to keep their bodies and surroundings clean. When the mind does not pay attention to the body, the body, naturally, automatically survives and looks after itself. Now because of a kind of universal working on the gross plane, a sort of automatic attraction takes place, which causes a man who is indifferent to cleanliness to be attracted to place himself in dirty surroundings. He does not purposely choose an unclean place, but tends to gravitate towards it, for he is himself quite indifferent either to cleanliness or to dirt on the physical plane. For those who are God-mad, God-intoxicated, or God-merged, this dirtiness does not affect their health, because the mind is not attached to the body. For these souls, good or bad, cleanliness or dirt, a palace or a hut, a spotless avenue or a filthy gutter are all the same, and they are driven into any of these places according to circumstance. It is natural for a mast to have a dirty body, and it is natural for him to be driven to dirty surroundings; but if the devotee of a mast happens to give him comfort and cleanliness, he takes it because it is forced on him—but he is quite indifferent to it” (Meher Baba, Wayfarers, 33-4).
  12. H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear,” in The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Penguin, 2004), 75.
  13. François Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photographyi, trans. Robin Mackay (London/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence, 2011), 95.
  14. “They hanged him this way and he began to speak. ‘Learn ye the mystery of all nature, and the beginning of all things, what it was. For the first man, whose race I bear in mine appearance (or, of the race of whom I bear the likeness), fell (was borne) head downwards, and showed forth a manner of birth such as was not heretofore: for it was dead, having no motion. He, then, being pulled down—who also cast his first state down upon the earth—established this whole disposition of all things, being hanged up an image of the creation wherein he made the things of the right hand into left hand and the left hand into right hand, and changed about all the marks of their nature, so that he thought those things that were not fair to be fair, and those that were in truth evil, to be good. Concerning which the Lord saith in a mystery: Unless ye make the things of the right hand as those of the left, and those of the left as those of the right, and those that are above as those below, and those that are behind as those that are before, ye shall not have knowledge of the kingdom. This thought, therefore, have I declared unto you; and the figure wherein ye now see me hanging is the representation of that man that first came unto birth’” (Acts of Peter).
  15. Meister Eckhart, Complete Mystical Works, Sermon 57.
  16. The inversion is precise in Dante’s representation of hell-dwellers as permanently blind to the present, as Farinata explains in Inferno 10.100-8. Infernal knowledge advances only towards a frozen chromos, pure archivicity: “tutta morta / fia nostra conoscienza da quell punto / che del future fia chiusa la porta” (Inf 10.106-8) [all our knowledge will be dead from that moment when the door of the future shall be closed]. Cf. worry as a displacement from the present that demands absolute release: “Worry is a necessary resultant of attachment to the past or to the anticipated future, and it always persists in some form or other until the mind is completely detached from everything” (Meher Baba, Discourses, 3.122).
  17. “One bright Sunday, as he was sitting withdrawn and deep in thought, there came to him in the calmness of his mind the figure of a rational being who was sophisticated in speech but inexperienced in deeds and who overflowed with rich ostentation. He began speaking to the figure thus: Where do you come from? It said: I never came from anywhere. He said: Tell me, what are you? It said: I am nothing. He said: What do you want? It answered and said: I want nothing. And he said: This is very strange. Tell me, what is your name? It said: I am called nameless wild one. The disciple said: You are well named ‘the wild one’ because your words and answers are completely wild. Now tell me something I shall ask you. Where does your wisdom take you? It said: to unrestrained liberty (Henry of Suso, The Little Book of Truth, Chapter 6, cited from Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, ed. and trans. Frank Tobin [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989], 326). A hyper-negative liberty that must be distinguished from the deferred nothing-but-not-yet offered by nihilism: “That one must lose sight of names and nouns does not suggest that one must turn away from the world, which predication does serve to organize. The Nameless Wild One merely turns from this world when letting go the conventional delusion that this one is the only world possible (”Nameless Wild One: The Ethics of Anonymous Subjectivity – Medieval and Modern,” Common Knowledge 12 [2006]: 219-251).
  18. Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing [Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publication, 1963], no. 37.
Dec 012016
 

capture

Much work at NC goes unheralded. Our Senior Editor Fernando Sdrigotti gets his name on hardly any of the contributions he makes to the magazine, yet he is indefatigable and inspired in his curatorial duties. At the Top of the Page this month we are featuring a little of Fernando’s own work (essay and fiction) but also work by several of the wonderful writers he has brought to the magazine, writers like Jeremy Brunger (now on the masthead himself), Tomoé Hill, Chris Campanioni, Martin Dean, and Agri Ismaïl. There are many others, but these must stand for the rest.

Nov 262016
 

Michaelangelo torment-of-st-anthonyMichelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The last issue of Volume 7, the end of the 7th year — we’re calling it the Hallucination Edition because, well, you’ll see; it’s a bit twisty, startling, destabilizing and hallucinatory. I’ve always been interested in the madness/mysticism nexus (R. D. Laing and Carlos Castaneda were my spirit guides). It pops up in my novels especially: Hendrick N.’s mad conversation with his Iroquois torturer in The Life and Times of Captain N. (“Becoming a savage is like entering a swarming madness. But it might redeem you.”) and the heroine’s mysterious and alarming (hallucinatory) transformation into a bear in Elle. And I was dipping into The Cloud of Unknowing the other day when I happened to discover the brilliant scholar and writer Nicola Masciandaro. I read some of his things on Academia, then contacted him, and Lo!, he had a piece on madness, mystical knowledge, and The Cloud of Unknowing pristine and unpublished. If this was not the Forces of the Universe aligning, I don’t know what is. But it’s also one of those dreamy confluences, hallucinatory in itself. Like the world and my mind are talking with my knowing it.

The necessity of being at one’s wits’ end is a pure necessity, a necessity without object, and thus a necessity that only frees one more and more from being a subject of needs. Near-madness is the only alternative for staying close to being what one must. —Nicola Masciandaro

nicola-masciandaroNicola Masciandaro

hallucineJ. Karl Bogartte: Movement Is The Antechamber Of Hallucination 32” x 40” 28.3.2016

Also we have these images and texts, both swirling and surreal, one of the images actually called The Antechamber of Hallucination, from J. Karl Bogartte, lunar, lapidary, and loony (surrealism marks the line between madness, art and wisdom).

An intimacy of longing dwells in us like words that have no meaning, but animal cries, torn linen, a loving defiance… —J. Karl Bogartte

elbogoJ. Karl Bogartte

Chrostowska_s_d_retouched_scaled_croppedS. D. Chrostowska

S. D. Chrostowska returns to our pages with a story called “Opferlingen” — a nightmare otherworldy vision of obscene rites of kingship and power.

Everything is permitted. There are no rules, no stroke is too indecent. All of it is equally obscene. The Opferlingen are unusually strict in everyday sexual mores. To me the prince might be a living relic, a martyr worthy of public veneration, but he is subject to treatment normally beneath the dignity of his “subjects.” Let me be clear: this is no carnival, with merriment and overturned hierarchies, presided over by the Prince of Fools. They are acting out the lowest human urges—possibly to exorcize them, but without a doubt to make a political point that still remains obscure. — S. D. Chrostowska

Dawn PromislowDawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow’s story “Cat” — all too brief — gives us a vision of Florence, an intensely concentrated sculptor working over his metal, striking sparks, and a gray cat winding through the shadows.

And everywhere you look there are black and grey metal forms that are sculptures, on old wooden tables and on worn wooden shelves, at every height and covering every piece of wall and space. Some are just shapes: spirals and curves, or angular and sharp. But some are animals, or people, metalled. They’ve been melted and smelted and reworked, forged and reforged, into these metalled, living creatures. —Dawn Promislow

David Smooke with a tiny birdcageComposer David Smooke

Our intrepid contributor Carolyn Ogburn interviews composer David Smooke, the man famous for performing his own works for the miniature piano.

I mean, I grew up a punk and goth, right? So…yeah…Just so you know, I’m kind of looking that way because have a toy piano sitting right there, and I keep looking at it…—David Smooke

karen-mulhallen-wearing-indian-dress-1996Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen grew up in a brilliant, artistic, cultured, writerly family in Woodstock, Ontario, a gilded place. But her mother taught her to make her own stylish clothes; she grew up with a sense of style, taste, and fashion at her fingertips. In this issue, we have a hybrid essay, part memoir, part catalogue, and part exploration of fashion in fiction (there is also a great collection of personal photos).

But when I got my first real job, as a teacher in a university, my mother spent months with me going to the fabric mills, just east of Kitchener-Waterloo, and then making me suits and dresses, some from elaborate Vogue patterns. Was this because I was gainfully employed and needed to present a professional appearance, or was it because I became beautiful for the first time since I was a little girl? Now I could be a brooch on my mother’s lapel. Or, as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own remarked, women are the looking glasses who enlarge men at twice their size. —Karen Mulhallen

elsa-crossElsa Cross

In Numero Cinco, our Mexician lit series, we’re featuring poems by the brilliant Elsa Cross, translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano. Not only that, but our Mexico contributor, Dylan Brennan, conducts a wide-ranging interview with the translator.

They are a white shadow
innocence in the yellow phrases
…………..…………..…………..……….of a dying man
the catastrophe of the voice

—Elsa Cross, translated Anamaría Crowe Serrano

john_kaagJohn Kaag

Our splendid new production editor Melissa Considine Beck has transferred her prodigious talents to book reviewing, this time giving us the lowdown on John Kaag’s philosophical memoir, his encounter with an almost forgotten library, 10.000 books in an unheated New England stone house.

Kaag stumbles upon an opportunity to heal his soul in the form of West Wood’s stone library which, upon entering, he discovers is home to more than 10,000 books. The books that Kaag finds inside this unlocked and unheated building, especially the number of first editions, are the stuff of dreams for any bibliophile. Among the rodent droppings, porcupines, termites, various other bugs and dust Kaag finds Decartes’ Discourse on Method–first edition from 1649, Thomas Hobbes’s Levithan-first edition from 1651, the complete, leather-bound volumes of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government from 1690, Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft from 1781, Emerson’s Letters and Social Aims–first edition, 1875 and on and on. To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine. —Melissa Considine Beck

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

wiinkler-picDonald Winkler

Donald Winkler has translated a fascinating historical poem by the great French-Canadian poet, Pierre Nepveu, three-time winner of the Governor-General’s Award for poetry and nonfiction.

Early morning, scarred fire, noble bones, woodland song, men’s and women’s voices among the trees. I am the dust of ages, whirlwind of the deeps, escapee from the first caves. I tremble at being what I am, do you hear me, woman of the woods, of wool woven under the lampshade and the trellis of blood that shivers in the window? —Pierre Nepveu, translated by Donald Winkler

nepveu-picPierre Nepveu

 

bennets1Rauan Klassnik & Russell Bennetts

This is an amazing first: dual or dueling poets, collaborative or conspiratorial poems, mad, surreal, comical, by Rauan Klassnik and Russell Bennetts.

salted chocolate
orange  tea, i ha sailed
the trembling, blow-meat seas. And I have blue trousers sports ones on
last night’s pizza scattered for my mouse

—Klassnik & Bennetts

ducornet01_bodyRikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet wrote me shortly after the news came out that Leonard Cohen had died. She said she’d written a poem “as big as a small truck” that seemed to have echoes and rumours of Cohen through it, as if she were dreaming out her mourning onto the page. I wrote back: “Send small truck.” (This is how the editorial work at NC gets done.)

They come together
in the sudden rain
beneath a sky unhinged.
Their losses sweeping down
veiling, unveiling their faces.

She says:  I come to you
as my father leans into his departure.
We have a hour.  An hour, only.

—Rikki Ducornet

cassidy-mcfadzeanCassidy McFadzean

Cassidy McFadzean is a Canadian poet, discovered and solicited for us by our new poetry co-editor Susan Gillis.

A woven chain around

his neck, secures the unicorn
to a wooden pen, seated therein
amidst white irises and Madonna

lilies, carnations and clove,
orchids and bistorts, dragonflies
dashing over the wallflowers

and white thistle, the cipher’s
tasseled cord hanging from a tree,
bearing its riddle mysteriously.

—Cassidy McFadzean

eamonn-sheehy-use-on-top-450pxEamonn Sheehy

Eamonn Sheehy I met on Twitter. I am increasingly surprised at how much you can intuit from a couple of 140-character texts. You can guess tilt, torque, and taste. We moved from tweeting, to DMs, to emails, and suddenly I had these excerpts from his memoir-in-progress for our Irish series Uimhir a Cúig.

The ferret – the hot steel of nature. Jumping from his master’s hand onto the grass with a bounce, he is off at speed towards the rabbit burrows. A high pitched curling. An unnatural sound. It was the first time I heard a rabbit scream. —Eamonn Sheehy

hilda-raz2-500pxHilda Raz

And from Susan Aizenberg, the American side of out dual or dueling poetry editors (collaborative and conspiratorial), poems from Hilda Raz.

Age is an evolution – or devolution – of lust.
To be lost in revolt, as one must be growing up
invites erotics into the palace of the family.
Air spiked with ecstasy. We all know it.
So voluble in bed might signify lust
or politics, depending on whether
you live in a hovel, where the velocity
of wildlife, certainly a mouse, about its vital business
shadows the movements of governments…

—Hilda Raz

 

henry-greenHenry Green

We have a new reviewer starting out this issue (well, two, counting Melissa Considine Beck).  Dorian Stuber was suggested by Joe Schreiber, and we are very glad he spoke up. This is a terrific read and a great introduction to the work of Henry Green.

Young Henry was fascinated by Poole, even though the man did not like Green’s mother and spoke badly about her to the boy. (The family legend is that he never forgave her for making him bowl sugar beets across the lawn for her to shoot at.) Green, who adored his mother though he seldom saw her, was torn apart by these calumnies yet unwilling to repudiate the one who made them. —Dorian Stuber

green_loving_2048x2048

ratika-kapurRatika Kapur

And from Natalia Sarkissian, somewhere in Italy, we have a review of Ratika Kapur’s trans-cultural novel The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma.

One of her tools toward creating Mrs. Sharma’s particular, vivid voice, is to flavor Mrs. Sharma’s speech with genteel titles—bhaisahib, mummyji, papaji, Vineetji—drawing the reader into an intimate space. Another is to refer to places and things with acronyms without giving explanations—SDA, IIT, BeD—treating the reader as an insider, a friend, a confessor. But it is the style of the sentences themselves—the breathy, delicious sentences, the declarations that the reader knows are rationalizations—that render Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma with its unreliable narrator truly memorable. —Natalia Sarkissian

private-life

And there is, gasp! MORE! (At my wit’s end. I dunno, being the editor here really is hallucinatory, schizoid, and surreal, also kind of fun.)

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