Jan 142016


Electrocution, suicide, heart attack, murder. All things actor / producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, singer Joseph Ruddleston, and a rowdy bar of folks can sing along to in the music video for “Adieu.” This animated video brings together death, joy, and raucous bar singing, all while meditating on the impermanence of life, love, and other people. Drinking with strangers with accordions helps take the sting off all this mortality, a little sweet for the bitter. 

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“Adieu” is the product of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “open collaborative production company” hitRECord, a unique project, crowdsourcing talent and extras and clips to make a collaborative finished product. According to the stats at the start of this film, “Adieu” is the product of many submissions: 15 video, 1896 images, 1 test, 6 audio records out of 2557 contributions. Here, for example, you can see how Joseph Gordon-Levitt solicited the necessary deaths.

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To get a real sense of what these collaborations accomplish, first check out Ruddleston’s (username JoeRud on hitRECord) original track, sans harmonies, other instruments, and the various animations that compose the video for the song. More than once Gordon-Levitt uses the word “whimsy” to describe the sorts of death scenes he wished to crowd source from hitRECord contributors. If you visit the collaborative site you can see the pieces that didn’t quite make the cut.

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The collage of animations here adds to the whimsy of the song, the various animations (rotoscoping, claymation, etc)  throwing us into a more emotional and psychological register here. If all these death scenes were left depicted with the realistic video footage submitted, the tone of the piece would be a lot more dark and painful – we would not be allowed a distance in which to feel whimsy and would be less able to make light of death.

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The montage structure also helps this: we see death after death of characters we have not met until the moment of their (often comical) demise and this prevents us from over identifying or caring too deeply. The point here, too, is the sheer number of deaths; dying is the most natural thing in this short film. Drinking and singing loudly in French along with (or in the face of) those deaths becomes second nature. “La la la” here is more than a drinking song, it’s the call of strangers across the bar, across the ether, people disconnected connecting over social media and youtube to create a bittersweet chorus.

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The singer songwriter behind the song, Ruddleston, describes himself on his site as “an Indie Folk singer-songwriter, creating songs of heart-breaking humility. His music is the belief that honesty and vulnerability is what it takes to connect with people.”

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That vulnerability is infectious: it found Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord, found the online collaborative world of people who would embrace the vulnerability, contribute art, lend harmonies, feign death, and sing at the top of their lungs. Sing together to say goodbye.

— R. W. Gray


Jan 132016

Jacket Photo 2015

White Brothers Dairy Farm

White Brothers Dairy Farm


Drought field of Iowa cornDrought-stricken field of Iowa corn


Every Sunday during Mass, our priest prays for rain. He prays for the health of Pope John Paul II, he prays for peace with Russia, and he prays for the sick to be healed.

His last prayer on the list: we pray for rain for the farmers.

The congregation answers in unison: Lord, hear our prayer.

It is the summer of 1983, and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church is in the small town of Bloomfield in southeastern Iowa, a few miles from the Missouri border, an area hard hit by a drought called the worst in a half-century.

Father Wilkening’s prayer for rain goes on for weeks.

During the Universal Prayer, I sit in the hard wooden front pew, my mother’s unfailingly devout seating choice, squeezed between my older sister and brother. Each time Father Wilkening begins the series, I close my eyes and press my palms together beneath my chin, and pray. But in my selfish little eight-year-old heart, I don’t care about the Pope. I don’t care about peace with Russia. I don’t care about the sick.

I care about the rain.

Farm Crisis Manual

I pray for the rain when I’m in church. I pray for the rain at night in my bed before I go to sleep. I pray for the rain when I play outside beneath the broiling hot Midwestern sky. I pray for the rain when I walk across the dry, brown soil that turns to powder beneath my bare feet. This is the dirt of my father’s and my uncle’s farm, my grandfather’s farm before it was theirs.

Sometimes, I see my father’s ruddy face, creased, worried, as he stands in the yard and studies his cornfields that have become a mass of stunted brown and yellow stalks with nubby, kernel-less cobs. I shade my eyes with my dirty farm kid hands and study the fields with him. I turn to the clear blue west where I know clouds are supposed to form, and I pray, Please bring rain. Please water the corn. Please refill the creeks and ponds. Please save us.

But the clouds do not form. The rain does not come.

This goes on for months.

Finally, a small afternoon storm arrives with a steady downpour, a few cracks of thunder and splinters of lightning. I splash barefoot in the puddles, letting the raindrops beat the top of my head and soften my curls to silk. My hand-me-down T-Shirt and cutoff jeans become soaked and stick to my skin as I dance and play in the water and catch more raindrops on my tongue. It is rain, at last.

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s not enough, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t understand. It’s rain, I say.

One little storm, it’s not enough, he repeats.

Kali's First Communion, age 8Kali’s First Communion



That fall, Father Wilkening continues to pray for rain. Our tiny parish of barely twenty-five families—few of them farmers—don’t care about the rain as much as I do, I’m sure of it. All they worry about are their dead, crunchy lawns or the low, brackish lake where they want swim. My mother unfailing writes a check every week to put in the church collection plate, and I pray twice as hard to equally do my part.

Soon, farmers around us quit farming. Sometimes there are auctions and crowds and the families cry when their tractors and wagons are driven away, their tools picked over. Sometimes the farmers just leave. One day a kid is at school in the desk next to me, the next day he is gone. I don’t know where they go.

I hear my father and my uncle speak in numbers and vocabulary I don’t yet understand. Twenty-five to thirty-five bushels an acre for harvest compared to a normal yield of one-hundred and twenty five. Land values down four percent. Cattle prices down. Milk prices down. Bankruptcies and tax delinquencies up. Five hundred public farm auctions a month.

The Channel 5 news anchor talks about the Caterpillar Tractor Company plant in Burlington, Iowa shutting down. He talks about 20,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the eastern half of the state. He talks about John Deere laying off workers by the thousands. My best friend’s father works for John Deere.

The nightly news terrifies me.

I double my prayer efforts.

In September, a bank in town closes. The 112-year-old, three-story brick Exchange Bank on the northeast corner of the square with the plush red carpet and sparkly chandelier in the lobby. One day without warning the green blinds are drawn over the tall windows of the ground floor, and there is a hasty, hand-written “out-of-order” sign hanging on the night depository chute. Customers wander by the “closed” sign taped to the front door. Farmers pull on the brass handle only to find it locked. They try to peek through the covered windows before giving up and wandering a few doors down to a café, confused, disbelieving. They order a cup of coffee at the counter and sit because they don’t know where else to go.

Bloomfield Exchange BankBloomfield Exchange Bank

No one realized it wasn’t insured, I hear my parents say, and I don’t know what that means.

We’re not depositors at The Exchange Bank, though. Our money is in the other bank across town and I am so grateful that I say a prayer of thanks our bank belongs to something I hear about for the first time, the FDIC, whatever that is.

I hear the names of families who lost money in the Exchange Bank. I know their kids. We go to school together. Sometimes I steal glances at their faces in class and wonder, did you pray enough for your bank when you were in church on Sunday? And I feel smug, because I prayed, and my bank had the FDIC.

I get my third grade school picture taken but my mother does not order copies to save money. Two months later, my teacher old Mrs. Judd hands me a packet of printed pictures anyway. I don’t know why. We didn’t pay for them. The bank closing, it seems, has confused everything.



Our little town is on the local news. Then the national news. The New York Times writes about us. I listen with my father to Peter Jennings on ABC, on our Channel 5 that is always snowy. He reports that there are 424 uninsured banks in the United States. Four are in Iowa. One, is in my town. And it is already closed.

At church, Father Wilkening prays for rain, and now for the families who had money in the Exchange Bank.

After the bank closes, the brick building sits empty. After a while, it becomes a sandwich shop, then a pizza joint, and other businesses I can’t remember because they come and go so fast. The popular bank president leaves town with his wife and two handsome teenage boys. My sister had a crush on the younger one. They never come back. I don’t know where they go.

Diamondz PizzaThe exchange bank turned into Diamondz Pizza

In the winter of 1984, the Davis County High School boys’ varsity basketball team has a winning season and makes it to the state tournament. Our town finally has some good news. Something to celebrate. The boys on the team are heroes and there is a city-wide pep rally. Father Wilkening prays on Sunday for the boys to have a safe trip to Des Moines, and for a win. The school prints T-shirts that say “Davis County Too Tough To Die” like The Ramone’s album, though I don’t know who The Ramones are. My mother buys shirts for me and my sister and brother. They have gold sleeves and maroon lettering and our galloping mustang mascot on the chest. Giant “Too Tough To Die” billboards are erected on Highway 2 and Highway 63, greeting motorists as they come and go from our town.

Good Morning America hears about our uninsured bank that closed, and about our basketball ball team going to the state tournament, about our T-Shirts and billboards, and they come to our little town because we’re suddenly interesting.

They film kids wearing the T-shirts in front of the west side of county courthouse—a beautiful gothic building in the center of the town square that makes a perfect backdrop for the camera shot. I am there wearing my gold and maroon T-shirt, and my neighbor Jessica hoists me up for the camera because I am too short and lost in the crowd. On three, we all shout “Davis County! Too tough to die!” and cheer while the camera rolls. Joan Lunden tells the story of Bloomfield and our bank and our basketball team, and I get up early to watch, before the bus comes to take me to school. For the first time in my life I see myself on television, a tiny speck in my neighbor Jessica’s arms. I’m smiling and look happy.

Joan talks about us for only a few minutes, and then we go back to the forgotten middle of nowhere. Our boys don’t win the state basketball tournament.

Seasons pass. Harvests. Calvings. Powdery earth still beneath my feet.

Depositors at the Exchange Bank never get their money back. The drought persists. More farmers leave. A few, I overhear in terrifying whispers, go out into their barns and shoot themselves.

A protest group comes to our little town. They assemble white wooden crosses and plant them in the yard of the courthouse, the exact same spot where I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America. One cross for every farm foreclosed in our county. There are dozens and dozens of the haunting white ghosts.

White Crosses on Courthouse LawnsWhite crosses on the courthouse lawn.

West Side of the Davis County CourthouseDavis County Courthouse

Nothing, it occurs to me, has changed. I’m sorry that I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America.

Father Wilkening leaves and we get a new priest. Father Gottemaller. He also prays for rain. My mother gets a part time job at the liquor store on the square to help make extra money. She still writes a check to the church every Sunday.

Only now, the checks make me angry. I don’t trust money anymore.



At last, a spring planting season brings rain. Not just one isolated rain shower, but weeks and weeks of rain, and the ponds and lakes refill, the grass turns green, the creeks swell, and I dance barefoot in the puddles and cry Hallelujah! My family’s farm is saved.

Flooded creek and fileds on my dad's farmFlooded creek on my father’s farm

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s too much, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t ask him what he means, because this time I understand. This is how it will always be. Too much. Not enough. Too tough to die.

The next Sunday, Father Gottemaller prays for the rain to stop, for the flooded creeks to subside, and for the swamped fields to dry out so the farmers can plant their crops.

My mom writes her check. But I don’t pray.

I am a farm crisis kid now.

I don’t trust money. I don’t trust the sky.

—Kali VanBaale


Kali 3rd Grade School Picture

Kali VanBaale’s debut novel, The Space Between earned an American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for fiction, and the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. Her second novel, The Good Divide, is forthcoming June 2016. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, The Writer and several anthologies. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside Des Moines with her husband and three children.


Jan 122016
Version 2

Tomoé Hill


MOST FIRST MEMORIES of perfume for girls come from female relations—mothers, grandmothers, aunts. The cluster of bottles on the vanity, a drop on the back of the hand, or the cloud of scent that was the final touch of magical adult rite of getting dressed up to go somewhere fancy. Mine came solely from my father. My mother, who is Japanese and doesn’t like what she considers ‘loud’ scents, never showed anything but polite interest. To her, loud was anything but the scent of one’s own skin and soap, although later she professed a nostalgic love for L’air du Temps soap—a soft aldehydic floral—something one of her older sisters in Japan would occasionally buy for her. This polite interest extended to occasional gifts bestowed on her by my father or myself and my sister: an expensive bottle of Guerlain’s famous oriental, Shalimar; a less expensive bottle of Revlon’s aldehydic floral Charlie; and Bluebell by Victoria’s Secret. Instead, I became the one who found myself in love with scents, thanks to my father. One of my first memories was of him getting ready in the morning: like a magician’s trick, I never actually saw the process, only the before and after. I would watch him enter the bathroom tired and emerge sometime later from a cloud of steam, awake and smelling of old-fashioned shaving soap, Listerine and cologne. Observing his life through scent made me interested in the real and made up stories behind them; the ritual of buying, giving and wearing it; and later, how personal chemistry and scent are so entwined in the magic of attraction.

I would sit across from my father at the square oak kitchen table and watch him quietly as he added dried and fresh lavender and sandalwood to an alcohol mixture, steeping them for days, maybe even weeks before straining out the original ingredients and transferring the liquid by way of a small silver funnel into old crystal stopper bottles he would find at antique stores. He was no perfumer, but he was curious about everything and possessed a fantastic talent to create; if something captured his imagination, he would want to try and duplicate it. So besides bottles of handmade cologne, he made a beautiful working harp for my sister, and a large teak draughtman’s board for me, as well as numerous elaborately carved walking sticks for himself and jewellery for all of us—he wore a carved red coral hand on a silver chain for years; it was only when I was almost thirty that I discovered there was an original, when I was in the Residenz museum in Munich. Aside from curiosity, a lot of this was born from not having much money; so the beautiful things he wanted for himself or for us, he made, as even good materials were cheap enough to come by as scrap back in the 80s.

But my love of scent then was not just from those memories; it also came from his small row of bottles that lined a glass shelf in the bathroom. When he had some money to spare, there was Puig’s mossy-leather Quorum; Geoffrey Beene’s green floral Grey Flannel; or Lagerfeld Classic, an oriental-tobacco. When he didn’t, there was Florida Water—the stuff Scarlett O’Hara washes her mouth out with to cover the scent of brandy in Gone With the Wind. They all smelled mysterious and elaborate in their own way, and he would teach me to pick out individual ‘notes’ and commit them to memory, so I could always identify them: lavender, violet, Mysore sandalwood (sadly now almost non-existent in perfumery—scarcity due to overuse) and bergamot, among many others. He would tell me about colognes he had owned in the past with fondness, thinking them gone forever. Just based on notes and some bottle descriptions, I would later use the internet and the knowledge I accumulated through my own experience to find them and surprise him with them as Christmas gifts: Guerlain’s Eau Impériale, a floral citrus cologne created for Empress Eugénie, and Puig’s Agua Lavanda, a lavender-rosemary cologne supposedly used by Frank Sinatra.

His joy was so great that I would seek out scents I thought he would like: soon his bathroom cabinet (now that my sister and I had moved out and left it full of space) was stocked with more bottles than any Old Hollywood starlet’s vanity. When I discovered Crown Perfumery, brought back to life temporarily by the Clive Christian brand, I bought bottles of Sandringham, a floral-woody scent and Sumare, a mossy-leather as well as Eau de Quinine, Spiced Limes, and Eau de Russe—all variations on the traditional eau de cologne. Eau de Russe he objected to at first due to its sweet, powdery heliotrope. Thanking me on the phone, he said: “but kid, how can I go around smelling like a sugar cookie?” To which I told him: let the note evolve, think of it in the larger context of the scent in order to appreciate it. Very soon he grew to love it. He also found he loved a slightly bitter orange, so I bought him Creed Orange Spice, an orange-ambergris scent and L’Aromarine Orange Santal et Petitgrain. When he died we buried him with a bottle of Eau Impériale, and after he was gone, the one thing my mother couldn’t do was get rid of his scents; they still sit on the shelves and she sniffs them on the days she misses him more than she can bear.

All these scents were a bit exotic and perhaps a bit too elegant for our small Midwestern city. In these parts men wore Coty Stetson, Faberge Brut, Dana English Leather, and of course, Old Spice.

He would sometimes go to Chicago, our nearest large cosmopolitan city, to indulge one of his favourite hobbies: antique shopping (also, it was the only place at the time he could find Muelhens 4711, his preferred cologne). There were quite a few good shops in a large gay neighbourhood near Wrigley Field, and my father, then in his 50s, silver crew cut and moustache, immaculately dressed and always wearing a heavy leather jacket, wafting exquisitely fancy cologne, made not a few men swoon and ask him what he was wearing. He would proudly respond with the name of the scent and tell his admirer ‘my eldest daughter bought it for me’, to which they would swoon again and compliment both of us on our taste. He encouraged my own growing love for perfume, never telling me something was too grown up for me. He would sniff my purchases—our only real source for good perfumes was TJ Maxx, where you could pickup up department store overstock fairly cheaply—and tell me what he liked about them. There isn’t a memory of us being together where I don’t remember what he was wearing. The very last time I saw him was at Heathrow after he came to visit; he wore his beloved 4711 and I wore Trussardi Skin, a fruity-musky wood scent.

I started my own exploration by going to the local drugstore, riding there on my bicycle every week with my allowance to sniff the bottles of Revlon Intimate Musk, the floral-oriental Xia Xiang, Alyssa Ashley Musk and White Musk. Later on when I was allowed to go to the mall with my friends in junior high, I discovered Parfums de Coeur Skin Musk, The Body Shop’s fruity-oriental Ananya and White Musk. Now, white musks are everywhere and tend to smell like fabric softeners, but then, they smelled exotic. These were the height of teenage sex appeal, but not the height of sophistication; that was reserved for the perfumes in ads in Seventeen magazine, all the perfumes that were sold at the brightly lit glass and chrome department store counters where our mothers bought their Estée Lauder and Clinique. This was adult territory, something that held us in awe. My best friend at the time existed on a higher perfume plane than the rest of us: her mother was a perfume fanatic and when she got bored, she would hand them down to her daughters. They quickly accumulated bottles upon bottles of scents like Chanel No. 19, a sharp green leathery floral; Estée Lauder Private Collection, another sharp green floral; Yves Saint Laurent’s famous spicy-oriental Opium, and the rich floral Givenchy Ysatis: undeniably glamorous scents that suggested mystery and intrigue and had us pretending in front of mirrors that we were Jerry Hall, Paulina Porizkova or Carla Bruni.

Seventeen in the 80s contained ads for scents like Prescriptives Calyx, a beautiful tropical green-fruity (guava) scent, slightly bitter, but completely lush—even the ad, simple as it was, was evocative: rich green leaves shadowing a bottle. There was a very high-low mix of advertising: on one page you would find Parfums de Coeur’s ‘Designer Imposters’ sprays in a can—the cheap equivalent of the expensive scents our mothers wore (except mine) with ‘similar’ names: Calvin Klein Obsession was ‘Confess’, Giorgio Beverly Hills was ‘Primo’. We oversprayed in the locker rooms with gleeful abandon—these scents were the female ur-Lynx—although we didn’t attract anyone as much as choke them with clouds of cheap perfume. This ad would then be next to Chanel Coco, when Inès de la Fressange was still a favourite model of Karl Lagerfeld’s—before Vanessa Paradis’ famous bird-in-a-gilded-cage ad campaign—she would be decadently draped in ropes of faux pearls, photographed in profile in black and white. Like Calyx, the simplest of ads, but one that had a huge impact.

I ended up with quite a little collection of my own by the time I was out of high school: Fendi Asja, a rich oriental in a black and gold stripe lacquer style bottle; Calvin Klein Escape, a fruity-ozonic; Dior Poison, a dangerous dark fruit and tuberose scent with an equally mesmerising ad: all dark colours, a woman with closed eyes wrapped like a desert nomad in black and midnight blue proffering a bottle with the tagline “Poison is my potion”; Jean Couturier Coriandre, a herbal-rose chypre (chypre meaning Cyprus, a reference to the great scent Chypre by Coty: chypre scents are usually identified by bergamot/citrus at the top and an oakmoss base—sadly, due to IFRA restrictions, true chypres are almost non-existant and are usually a cleaned up thin patchouli-tree moss base, although Guerlain Mitsouko, another famous chypre, has undergone a very loving reformulation under restrictions); and Chanel Coco, the most beautiful oriental of them all. Thanks to the Inès de la Fressange ads, I pestered my father for some until one Christmas a small, elegant wax-sealed bottle of extrait in a black and gold box appeared under the tree. I broke the seal very carefully and dabbed it on: clove, orange blossom, amber and opoponax; heady and velvety, it made me feel like the most sophisticated of women at 16. My father sniffed and nodded approval, adding with typical understatement: “you smell alright, kid.”

Besides these, there were small bottles of various musk oils to be dabbed on, not sprayed. This was a ritual—musks sometimes came in oil form while most other perfumes did not; Coty Wild Musk, The Body Shop versions, Alyssa Ashley, Parfums de Coeur—all offered tiny 7.5ml or 15ml bottles. There was clearly an unspoken understanding with musk: it was potent, it was animalistic, it was sexy, but it was also a secret. Keep it close to the skin, and whoever was interested in you would have to lean in to catch your scent. One of the reasons Revlon’s Intimate Musk captivated me in the drugstore all those years ago was the packaging illustration: a couple in primary red, entwined in an embrace. Sex was an abstract concept for me at the time, and I as looked at the bottle and smelled the scent of musk on my skin, I could sense something I didn’t quite understand, but liked nevertheless. An 80s ad for Parfums de Coeur Skin Musk had the tagline “Skin on Skin”, the accompanying picture a close-up of a young woman’s face, her body—even though not shown—clearly meant to convey nakedness, as she embraced a faceless man. Recalling it, I found it on the internet and examined it closely. Her face has what can only be described as a damp, post-coital glow: even though her eyes are closed, the look on her face has an ecstasy about it, her full reddened lips parted and the blond tendrils of her hair pressed underneath the man’s hand. You can practically smell the sex. On the advertisement there is an offer for a free poster with purchase—I wonder how many parents tore it off bedroom walls, immediately understanding the blatant suggestiveness with the experience of years their daughters did not have.

Some people stay true to a single perfume for their entire lives; it is a deep emotional attachment as strong as any with a person. Others are completely indifferent to perfume and see it as something that should be put on for a special occasion—as a completion to the outfit, but have no real interest. All perfume is the same to them. Still others change specifically to mark major life moments: marriage, children. And some of us constantly change: we change because memories are too heavy for us to keep wearing a certain scents, because we like having an assortment to choose from; each different mood requiring a different scent, and because we simply are too interested in the various beautiful creations out there. I find that I shift in periods of a few years, with a few favourites out of whatever my collection at the time consists of. In the later 90s, I mainly wore Freesia and also the original Victoria by Victoria’s Secret. The latter was rather description defying, by my standards. It was probably a powdery oriental, but I could never think about it rationally, except in hindsight. In my mind, it was the scent of sex—although that may have had more to do with Stephanie Seymour and Frédérique van der Wal being the eye-popping embodiment of Amazonian femininity in the catalogues. Sometimes I switched over to men’s scents and wore Halston Catalyst, a wood and spice scent in a bottle that looked like a lab flask. A woman wearing a masculine scent appeals to the man in the same way wearing nothing but one of his shirts does: it takes the masculine and imbues it with a hyper-sexuality that comes from feminine possession.

By the time the early 00s came around, I wore Gucci Envy, a sharp metallic lily of the valley scent, icily sexual, CK Be (superior to the more famous CK One), and Guerlain Samsara. I found the latter in one of the many tax-free perfume shops in Guernsey just after Christmas in 1999, when it was still loaded with Mysore sandalwood: heady, hypnotic, and wreaking havoc on my mild asthma, although I stubbornly clung to the bottle for years. Then came the niche perfumes from the independent/small perfumers who created interesting offbeat scents that you couldn’t find in the mainstream. Some of the better known were Philosykos from Diptyque, a dry cedar and fig scent, the fig almost having a coconut aspect to it (my favourite was their Opône, discontinued and brought back to life, although the original was richer: a dark, almost masculine rose and saffron scent), and L’artisan Parfumeur, best known for Mûre et Musc, a light blackberry and musk scent that for anyone who grew up in North America in the 80s, smelled of Strawberry Shortcake doll heads. Most famous of the niche brands is still probably Serge Lutens, an almost mythic character who used to create makeup for Dior and was an art director for Shiseido, producing the most beautiful images of women that looked almost alien—otherworldly, ultra-stylised creatures. There is a legend told by one of his models that they decided to recreate Nero and the burning of Rome, and set the studio on fire in the process. He and Christopher Sheldrake (the latter was the perfumer, the former more the creative director) were responsible for some of the most unique scents in niche: Rahät Loukoum, the scent of Turkish Delight, the almost cherry sweetness of almond and powdered sugar, and Muscs Koublaï Khän, a scent that revolts some and seduces others depending on their tolerance for musk and civet. It is worth noting that musk, civet and castoreum used in perfumery now is all synthetic—or at least in Western perfumery.

I’ve bought and sold so many bottles during this time I can’t even count: as I got bored of one I would sell it to fund another. I amassed a collection that I studied, and when I realised that I didn’t wear them so much as analyse them, I sold them all and didn’t buy anything but small sample vials when I wanted to learn about new ones. The fact is, there is so much out there now that I couldn’t keep up unless it was a full-time job. With IFRA regulations and mainstream companies tweaking formulations constantly to keep profits high while they sell more and many niche brands raising prices to new unaffordable levels, a lot of it isn’t as interesting as it used to be. As far as vintage collecting is concerned, not only does it require a huge amount of patience but it’s a huge gamble. You have to be appreciative of the fact that aside from the possibility of people faking/adulterating contents of bottles, natural degradation means often you end up with a bottle where the only really discernible part of the perfume end up being the base (although if you want to study perfumes from the 30s, 40s or 50s this still yields a lot of rewards). Sometimes it’s worth it: struck by an almost aching nostalgia to smell some vintage 80s Colors de Benetton for Women, I hunted down the original black top splash bottle on Ebay. There was a bit of degradation, but not so much that the beautiful rich orange blossom and basil top notes that hit my nose didn’t fill me with a rush of intense satisfaction.

Scent is an incredibly personal, intimate pleasure. We wear it to please ourselves and seduce others. It’s no accident that advertisements always come back to the idea of scent and memory, scent and seduction—they’re all bound to each other. I love it when lovers can only identify a scent with the memory of me, and likewise, there are scents worn by lovers that I will only ever associate with them. The greatest compliment, of course, is for someone to love your own scent—even better when they know the story of chemistry: how the body attracts another, when you inhale someone’s skin-scent and understand the primal compatibility, revel in that particular aspect of animal attraction. But the next best thing is for someone to love the scent you wear, when you see their eyes light up and know that it leads them to you like a path only they can see. There has been only one time in my life when the memory of a person was so painful that it became permanently bound up with a particular scent. That person wore Miller Harris Feuilles de Tabac, which I also happen to own and wore frequently once. I still have the bottle, but every time I take off the cap to spray it, the wood and tobacco scent drifts up and transports me back to last time I saw him—a cool summer evening in London, standing in the shadows of a hotel near King’s Cross as endless buses and taxis drive by, oblivious to us, and he tells me even though he wants a life with me, there is something else that is more important, something he wouldn’t tell me. I not only smell wood and tobacco, but his skin and hair, the London night, my sadness.

To choose a scent is to let go: let go of what people tell you you should wear and what might suit you. Let it sit on your skin and blend with your chemistry. The best ones always feel like you, but they bring out an aspect of your personality — more sexual, more innocent, more powerful: whatever it is you want to feel at the time you wear it. What do I wear now? I must have a tray of a dozen scents or so still; and I do wear every single one of them. Among those, were I forced to narrow down favourites, I would choose Le Labo Ylang 49, an earthy, mossy humid tropical floral that blooms sultrily in the oppressive heat of summer; Le Labo Cedre 11, the scent of pure bonfire (technically not perfume but an ‘ambient’ scent, but with higher quality brands home scents tend to just be weaker concentration perfumes—although there is nothing weak about this); Chanel Bois des Iles, a woody aldehyde: Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house for adults, but not sweet—spice and rich velvety woods; Vero Profumo Rubj, a carnal white floral—the carnality thanks to the blend of fleshy hot tuberose and passion fruit; and finally Nasomatto Black Afgano: the marketing would like to tell you it is based on hashish, but on my skin it is a dark, rich woody musk, seductive and powerful.

I tell people perfumes are a hobby. While that’s true—I’m an amateur in the old sense, a lover— it is much more than that: it is the connection and creation of memories, a way of linking all the beautiful things and places and people I’ve experienced and loved. It doesn’t have to come from a bottle—it can be the process itself, like watching my father at the kitchen table. It can come from place, like the scent of jasmine in the summer taking me back in my head to Menton on the French Riviera, the salt breeze mixing with the indolic, heavy flowers there, and it can even be imaginary, because the imagination of course is a powerful thing: when you create the scent of someone in your head, out of curiosity and longing, and wonder if the reality of their flesh and chemistry will sing to your own.

—Tomoé Hill


Tomoé Hill was born in Wisconsin and after escaping to London, now lives and writes in the South of England. Her pieces have been in The Stockholm Review of Literature, minor literature[s], Open Pen, and LossLit. She is deputy and reviews editor at minor literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.


Jan 112016

presentación jtJavier Taboada


JAVIER TABOADA (Mexico City, 1982) is a translator and poet. He has translated the work of Alcaeus of Mytilene (Alceo, Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) and Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles and A Further Witness, forthcoming in 2016) amongst others. He is the author of a remarkable first collection of poetry, Poemas de Botica (La Cuadrilla de la Langosta, Mexico City, 2014). Dylan Brennan conducted this interview with Javier via email correspondence from October-December 2015.

DB: Tell us a bit about your early life, where you grew up, what you studied, how you first discovered poetry.

JT: I was born in Mexico City and grew up there. I studied at religious schools from primary through secondary before beginning a B.A. in Classical Literature at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where I also completed my M.A.

I suppose that my first contact with poetry was similar to that of most middle class children at that time. What I mean by that is, with rare exceptions, in every house you could find certain books by certain poets such as: Neruda (his 20 poemas de amor almost always featured), León Felipe, Sor Juana, San Juan de la Cruz, Amado Nervo, García Lorca, Jaime Sabines anthologies, amongst others. But there were also plenty of anthologies of what we call poemas de declamación (recital poems): in my house we had the Álbum de Oro del Declamador (The Orator’s Golden Album), I still have it now. It’s a collection of occasional poems, ready to be opened for a mother’s birthday (or for the anniversary of her death), poems that speak of heartbreak, lost loves, poems to scorn vices, to exalt familial and Christian love etc., all tinged with a moral outlook and an unbearable sentimentality. However, in the final section of this book, I found poems like Eliot’s Hollow Men, Lermontov’s The Cross on the Rock, Pasternak’s Night, The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Ezra Pound, Quasimodo’s Auschwitz, to mention just a few. The one I liked best from this book was Antonio Plaza’s A una ramera (To a Harlot) because the use of language made me laugh.

The other contact with poetry came from a source less bookish (for want of a better word), I mean popular Mexican music, especially the bolero. Then later, during puberty, rock music.

Beyond what I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t very interested in reading poetry until the age of about 16 or 17. And that had quite a bit to do with the so-called Contemporáneos poets. Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo, some of Carlos Pellicer’s stuff, José Gorostiza, Jorge Cuesta (his sonnets, of course, not his Canto a un Dios Mineral, which I could only begin to comprehend—years later—via an extraordinary book by Evodio Escalante). They astounded me. After a certain amount of time, I then began to buy poetry books or to read them in the school library, whenever I’d been kicked out of physics or mathematics class. My reading is completely disordered. I’m a trained Hellenist and I haven’t even been able to follow any kind of order with the Ancient Greeks.

DB: I know you translate quite a bit. Tell us about that. Does translation affect how you write, how you read? Do the poets you translate influence you much? Which poets have influenced you? How did you come into contact with them?

JT: Nowadays I read as a translator and this has become beneficial to me. In my current state of disorder I’m reading and translating Rosmarie Waldrop, Federico María Sardelli, Claudia Rankine and John Wilmot. I read them, then I attempt to translate a certain fragment, then I read them again, etc., until the job is done. Whether the translations get published or not, this permits me to be influenced in a way by their work, to assimilate something of their poetics, and, in some way, to redesign my own, to become re-moulded. I am in no way scared of continual influences (I don’t think they ever end) nor of revealing them to others. It is obvious that translation, as reading or as a constant act, not only modifies one’s own voice, but also changes literary traditions. One day, those who study the national poetry of certain regions will pay more attention to the translated works that their poets have read as opposed to the original versions. For example, I read Eliot translated by Ángel Flores and, in my memory, The Waste Land (La Tierra Baldía) is the one that Flores translated.

As I mentioned, I’ve been greatly influenced by the Contemporáneos. My reading of the classics, which I did almost exclusively for a period of about seven or eight years, has also left its mark. Fundamentally, the ancient lyrics: Alcaeus (whose work I translated almost in its entirety in 2010) but also Sappho and Alcman; and also Archilochus and Hipponax. The latter I consider the most modern due to his use of language and humour. His pugilistic poems are raw, his sexual references, explicit. For example, there is one poem in which the “poetic voice” attempts to cure his impotence with the assistance of a Lydian witch. Frankly, it’s hilarious, vulgar and ingenious. Among the Greek Classics I should also mention that I read Euripides and Aristophanes thoroughly.

There are common names such like Pound, Eliot, Wordsworth, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Hölderlin, Yeats. Of course, they have influenced me. More specifically, I can mention poets like Blake, H.D., Charles Wright, David Meltzer, William Carlos Williams, Lee Masters, Efraín Huerta, Rubén Bonifaz Nuño (I regards his Fuego de Pobres as a gem of Mexican literature) and Nicanor Parra.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the influence of Jerome Rothenberg. This is due, in part, to the fact that, in the last year and a half I have worked a lot with him. I’ve finished translating A Further Witness and A Poem of Miracles, two of his most recent collections. It looks like they’ll be published in bilingual editions this year (2016). I’ve also translated to Spanish and to Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews) his poem Cokboy which is, as you may know, written in a mixture of English and made-up Yiddish. This proximity (admirably generous) has transformed my understanding of his poetry. I will remain forever grateful to him.

DB: Is there a Mexican poetic tradition? Are there various? With which, if any, do you identify? What about the Mexico City cronistas (non-fiction chroniclers like Carlos Monsiváis or, most recently, Valeria Luiselli)? I ask because your book Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems) is very much steeped in the sights, smells, sounds of a particular part of the city.

JT: Everywhere, particularly during these years of globalisation, the borders between “national” literatures have begun to dissolve: they begin to respond to different stimuli and contact with other poetic tasks become more immediate. In Mexico right now I can see a conceptual growth as well as a turn towards new technologies. On the other hand I see an emerging interest in ethnopoetry, ecopoetry and colloquial poetry. Much of this owes to the incorporation of the North American poetic tradition or English language poetry in general.

As a tradition, I would have to mention the baroque. It’s still alive and has continued to adapt (in some instances, in other instances, frankly, it has not) to the times. In its use of language, for example, can be derived part of the metaphysical or mystical poetry that is composed in Mexico.

I don’t know to what extent I can associate myself with any “tradition”. It seems to me that that should be decided by others. I can only recognize some influences that are present in this book, but I cannot talk about belonging. Sophocles says that nobody should consider a person as being “happy” until the moment of his/her death. Other work will come, I hope. Then the time will come for me to cash out. Time will take care of putting everyone in their place. What I mean is, to answer your question, there are a wide variety of poetic traditions in this country. I’m sure there are others which I’ve forgotten, or am yet to have discovered.

Of the cronistas that you mention, I haven’t read Luiselli. I’ve read very little Monsiváis and a bit more of Novo. Honestly, the Mexico City chroniclers had very little influence in Poemas de Botica. I think that a much greater debt is owed to the Lyrical Ballads, to Huerta, Parra, Salvador Novo’s Poemas Proletarios, Fuego de Pobres by Bonifaz and Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. After the collection had been published I was introduced to Chetumal Bay Anthology—a very interesting collection by Luis Miguel Aguilar (winner of the 2014 Ramón López Velarde Prize)—and noted the similarities between my book and his (the focus on just one place, the style of language etc. which in turn is fed by the work of Masters). A fortunate coincidence.

Mexico City has a great deal of problems: brutal inequalities, violence, organized crime (though they claim it’s not there), racism and discrimination, misery belts, inefficient transport, unstoppable pollution etc. On the other hand there are the personal oases, those places that transform the city into your city, though you will always need to pass through chaos to get there. A bit like Milton’s Lucifer. This dichotomy is experienced by anyone who has lived in the D.F. In my case, I couldn’t stand it any more so I left.

DB: Tell us about how you write. Where does it all come from?

JT: I don’t have any particular schedule or discipline for writing. In reality, all my writing springs from obsession. After investigating a certain theme for a while, disposing of material, etc., ideas emerge. And then begins a process that is long. As you well know, there are texts that just jump onto the page and others that take forever. Then, when I believe that a certain text is speaking, I correct it, edit it. I throw away or erase what is no longer of use, without restraint. Usually, what I leave behind is the poem’s skeleton. When I’ve found—sometimes it’s just a few verses—the idea, the tone, the form of what I want to say, I begin to re-write it. In the end, I share it with some writers that I know and trust to be objective. Then, if the text passes this test, I think it’s ready. In general, I mistrust my own opinion. With regard to form, the form is dictated by the contents of the poem.


DB: Poemas de Botica is an admirably solid collection. By that I mean that it possesses a wonderful unity, all the poems revolve around your grandfather’s apothecary and it’s a collection that feels more like a place than a book to me. I mean that in a good way, it’s remarkably vibrant, alive. Where did it come from? Did you always know how it would be structured?

JT: Poemas de Botica emerged from the Guerrero neighbourhood, one of the oldest and dodgiest in the city. But, to be more precise, from the area immediately surrounding the Dr. Medina pharmacy which was the property of my grandfather for almost 65 years. The pharmacy also operated as an old-style apothecary. I had to work there for about 4 or 5 years, selling medicines and mixing remedies (not many, in reality), while I studied at university. The apothecary is still open, even today.

No, actually, it’s strange. Some of those poems (which were then called de Botica in 2003), were more or less finished. But I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought they’d never be published. You know, I didn’t have any more material. There were 4 or 5 poems and that was it. Then, I stopped working there, and I stopped writing poetry and focused on my studies. I submitted, like we all do, to that sterile prose of academia. And, while it gave me other positive things, it dried up my literary work.

I found it really very difficult to start writing again. A few years later, I’d say it was around 2012, I started to re-write those poems, now with the readings I mentioned above in my mind. The key to the collection arrived with the (Homeric) Cantos del Señor Olivares: I glimpsed the possibility of orchestrating the whole book with an array of different voices: the historical voice of the city (Olivares), the lyrical voice (the Apothecary), the testimonial voices of the characters, all mixed up: humour, violence, colloquialisms, music and refrains. In other words, everything that I learned in Guerrero. And then I quickly discovered that the book was finished. Leticia Luna, the editor, insisted that the tone was not lost.

Finally came the business of unifying the collection. All the poems revolve around an apothecary. I understood that it was about the day-to-day running of the business. Working at an apothecary, you end up having to deal with the clients, with yourself, with those who promote the merchandise, with anything that was going on in the barrio. Outside and inside. And almost everything that happened in that small world is portrayed in the book. ‘The world is an apothecary of the depraved’ (El mundo es una botica de viciosos) says the book’s epigraph. The world or purgatory in which we all find ourselves. In fact, the first poem gives the physical location, the address of the pharmacy, but this also functions as a cosmic location of the Counter-Earth, according to an astronomy book by Giorgio Abetti, I think. That’s what the botica was for me.

DB: What do you think of contemporary Mexican poetry?

JT: Honestly, and this has a lot to do with my formative period, I’ve attempted to immerse myself in contemporary Mexican poetry only recently, in the last three or four years. For example, I have discovered fantastic works such as those of Francisco Hernández (Moneda de Tres Caras, La Isla de las Breves Ausencias), Elsa Cross (Bomarzo, Bacantes, Canto Malabar), Myriam Moscona (Negro Marfil and Ansina), Coral Bracho (Si ríe el emperador), José Vicente Anaya (Híkuri), Ernesto Lumbreras (Lo que dijeron las estrellas en el ojo de un sapo), Tedi López Mills (Muerte en la Rúa Augusta and Parafrasear) Gerardo Deniz (who had already passed away but his Cuatronarices was a major discovery for me), Luis Miguel Aguilar, as I already mentioned, the Mazateco poet Juan Gregorio Regino (No es eterna la muerte), Víctor Sosa (Nagasakipanema), amongst others.

There are some writers, a bit younger than the ones I just mentioned—often younger than I am—whose work I admire. Amongst these I can mention Alejandro Tarrab, Hugo García Manríquez, Balam Rodrigo, Inti García Santamaría, Heriberto Yépez, Hernán Bravo, Yuri Herrera, Óscar David López, Sara Uribe, Paula Abramo, Marian Pipitone, Eva Castañeda, Zazil Collins. So far. I know of many other names due to the renown they have earned but I haven’t read them, and that is a source of minor embarrassment. But that work is pending. The list will certainly grow.

DB: Personally, in Mexico, I’ve noticed a fair amount of literary cliques. As if the on-going feuds like the ones documented so memorably by Bolaño in his Savage Detectives are continuing today. Do you notice any of this? Does it hold interest?

JT: Yes, I suppose that, like everywhere else, there are. Regional, local, national, transnational. In general, I have very little time for personal disputes that always seem to mutate into group disputes. I read, ignoring the affiliations or ascriptions of an author. I’m only interested in the text. I can still identify the conflicts generated by the aesthetical (and political) differences between the Stridentists (Estridentistas) and the Contemporáneos or between the Infrarrealistas (the “Visceral Realists” from Bolaño’s Savage Detectives) and group of poets headed by Octavio Paz. Or the ongoing arguments between nationalism (whether that be criollo or mestizo) of Mexican poetry against its francophilia (afrancesamiento as Cuesta called it, extending the term to mean a sort of universalist ambition).

DB: There seems to be plenty of political poetry being written and disseminated in Mexico of late. What do you think of this? Should poetry be political?

JT: Yes, it is normal to see this emergence of political poetry. We live in tragic times. Some of these poems I simply don’t like: particularly those that seek to mythologize or ritualize that which has happened in Mexico. By so doing, they seem to engender a justification (myths and rites that outline a psychic, hegemonic and social mechanism a posteriori) in order to suggest some sense of destiny. Furthermore, I think that political poetry (as always) is at risk of turning into a simple instrument of affiliation, an occasional militancy that is of more benefit to the poet than to society.

A work that stands apart from these is Antígona González by Sara Uribe. Though she recycles the figure of Antigone, she refuses to justify suffering through the notion of myth.

DB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

JT: Well this year (2016), as I mentioned, I hope to see the Rothenberg collections published. I also hope to publish Nacencia, a long poem dedicated to my son, which focuses on the processes of translation. It’s about the impossibility of translation. It’s also a unified piece, from the eve of his birth up until an event that seemed astonishing to me, which occurred when he was about four months old. He reached out to touch the shadow of his own hand on the wall. In other words he carried out his own process of translation: in four months he had interpreted the world, his surroundings, passing through a long phase of discovery and an awakening of the senses, until he could see that hand and touch it. From that point, everything became clear, the light of the allegory of Plato’s Cave. Nacencia is a poem that has nothing to do with, with regard to subject matter or form, Poemas de Botica. Which is something that pleases me greatly.

Furthermore, I want to continue with my translations of Claudia Rankine (her multi-prizewinning Citizen) and of Rosmarie Waldrop (The Ambition of Ghosts). I’d also like to keep translating some of Federico Maria Sardelli, who is real character (Vivaldi scholar, director of Modo Antiquo, painter, poet).

—Javier Taboada & Dylan Brennan



From Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems)
By Javier Taboada
Selected and translated by Jack Little.



las rameras
……….se canonizan en nueve meses
el diente de oro
es tatuaje de honor por las migajas
y el rito de la madre
es zumbarse al niño
y llevarlo a la escuela
cubriendo el látigo del marido.

Los boticarios
son los nuevos curas
que redimen
por menos del tostón.

La borracha canta
soy la Magdalena
revolcada en mierda
……….hay viejos oraculares
……….héroes y padrotes
y hasta los boxeadores rezan
que con la Virgen basta
y la piedra sosiega.

la camisa de fuerza
espera por la señal de la cruz.



Nadie sabe que soy un súper héroe.

Piensan que estoy loco
pero en las noches vuelo
……….aunque todavía
no aprendo bien
y me azoto en la banqueta.

De día
enjuago los carros
que llevan a los reyes actuales.

Mas luego oscurece
……….y no sé quién
le sube el switch
a mis rosas eléctricas.

Ahí me da por encimarme
……….los calzones
……….la capa
mis botas negras de hule
y entonces VUELO

por la quijada brillante
del burro
la tripa de cristal
que se hace rollo
y se alarga.

Eso que dicen
que es la epilepsia.

Y con mi lengua
en la banqueta
me quedo dormido
……….como una coca de vidrio
vacía de la furia del mar.



Un joven de quince años
pidió un gotero de cristal
para bajarle a su bebé la temperatura.

…………Mejor uno de plástico
…………que el vidrio es peligroso
…………si el niño tiene dientes.

No lo quiebra  no lo rompe.
Y besó una cruz
que hizo con los dedos.

………….Fui por su jarabe
y me dejó hablando solo
con la medicina.

Nunca había visto a un tipo tan flaco.


La piedra
el fumado
…………en papel
…………en lata de refresco
…………o gotero de cristal
es un tizón de sesenta pesos
…………llaga que arde viva
…………entre labios y garganta.

Hay que jalarle duro
…………fumarse hasta las burbujas
…………oír el crac en la piedra
y sentir cómo pega en putiza.


Pasadas las diez de la noche
chupando la mugre de las uñas
…………por si algo sobra
los muchachos del crac
…………ángeles de cera sobre una flama
salen a la calle
con todas las palabras
…………………en la manguera de la lengua
el sexo de fuera y erecto.

El barrio cierra sus ventanas
…………tapia sus puertas
porque los muchachos del crac
y se rascan para quitarse los piojos
…………que inundan su piel
……………….pues es mejor dejarla en carne viva
…………a que se la coman los gusanos.

Los muchachos del crac
…………ejército de cadáveres sin camisa
…………pubertas embarazadas
caminan a ninguna parte
…………juegan volados o rayuela
…………cantan  bajo la pequeña luz del encendedor
y miran de reojo
buscándose el cuchillo.

Luego caen
uno por uno
bajo los dedos del alba.


Al abrirse las puertas del metro
los muchachos yacen en el piso
………………como pan con hongos
……………………..arcada del ebrio
……………………..viejo al que chupó el diablo.

—Javier Taboada



the whores
………….are canonized in nine months
the gold tooth
a tattoo to honour crumbs
and the rite of the mother
is to hit her child
and to take him to school
to cover up her husband’s lash.

The apothecaries
are the new curates
for less than fifty cents.

The drunk lass sings
I am Mary Magdalene
wallowing in shit
…………here old oracles
…………heroes and pimps

and even the boxers pray
that the Virgin alone will suffice
and the crack rock soothes.

the straitjacket
waits for the sign of the cross.



Nobody knows that I am super hero.

They think I’m crazy
but at night I fly
……………even though still
I don’t learn all that well
and crash into the sidewalk.

By day
I wash the cars
that carry today’s kings.

After dark
………….I don’t know who
flicks the switch
on my electric roses.

I turn myself out in
……………the cape
my black rubber boots
and then I FLY
by the brilliant jawbone
of the donkey
the glassy guts
that roll
and lengthen.

That they say
……………is epilepsy.

And with my tongue
on the sidewalk
I sleep
……………like a glass bottle of coke
empty of the fury of the sea.



A fifteen year old guy
asked for a glass dropper
to bring his baby’s temperature down.

……….Better a plastic one
……….glass is dangerous
……….if the kid already has teeth.

He won’t crack it won’t break it
and he kissed a crucifix
made with his fingers.

……….I went for the syrup
and he left me talking alone
with the medicine.

I had never seen such a skinny fella.


The stone
……….on paper
……….in a can of pop
……….or a glass dropper
it’s a three buck ember
……….a sore that burns alive
……….between the lips and throat.

You have to pull hard
……….toke until it bubbles
……….hear the crack in the rock
and feel it like the smack in a brawl.


Past ten at night
sucking the muck on their nails
……….just in case there’s something left
the crack boys
……….wax angels over the flame
go out into the street
with all the words
…………..on the tube of their tongue
sex outside and erect.

The neighborhood closes its doors
……….shuts its windows
because the crack boys
and scratch to get rid of the nits
……….that fill their skin
……………for it’s better to leave it raw
……….than let it be eaten by worms.

The crack boys
……….army of shirtless corpses
……….pregnant adolescents
walk nowhere
……….play coin toss or hopscotch
……….sing under the dim glow of a lighter
and gaze askance
looking for a knife.

Then they fall
one by one
under the fingers of dawn.


As the metro doors are opened
the boys are lying on the floor
………………..like moldy bread
…………………….drunk’s retch
…………………….an old man made rotten by the five-second rule.

—Javier Taboada translated by Jack Little

Javier Taboada (Distrito Federal, 1982) traductor y poeta. Ha traducido a Alceo de Mitilene (Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) y a Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles y A Further Witness, de próxima aparición), entre otros. Es autor de Poemas de Botica (2014).

Jack Little Photo

Jack Little (b. 1987) is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City. He is the author of ‘Elsewhere’ (Eyewear, 2015) and the founding editor of The Ofi Press: www.ofipress.com

Dylan Brennan

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


Jan 102016
Portrait of George Herbert in Bemerton by William Dyce

Portrait of George Herbert in Bemerton by William Dyce


Some poems you read once, maybe twice. You like or dislike them, you share them – or you mean to share them but never get around to it. Sooner or later – for me, lately, it’s sooner – you can’t remember much about them. The striking features you were drawn to – the metaphors that stopped you in your tracks, the music of the words, the phrases you never imagined bumping up against each other – fade from your memory, though you know you liked many of them when you first read them. You have only a vague sense of what the poem was about – An animal, I think? A duck? You have only an inkling as to the author. Female poet, early 20th-century…British? Canadian?  Down the line you hear the poet’s name and it sounds familiar to you – I read something by her not too long ago and liked it.  You try to find the poem in a book, but you can’t find it – Maybe it was in a book from the library. Or maybe in the New Yorker? The Threepenny Review? – so you look through old copies of your magazines, you try to track the poem down online, but it’s gone. The poem was liked but, as  the salesman Willy Loman would warn us, it wasn’t well-liked.

Of course, any kind of “liked” is better than “disliked,” but a poem of that kind – forgettable – is not going down on your list of Poems to Memorize In Case of Shipwreck on a Desert Island. Imagine the circumstances of that shipwreck: all you end up with is your body and what rests securely in your mind – no boat, no matches, no clothes, no shelter, no food. no friends, no wireless connection, no social media, no phone, no pen, no paper, and no books to read. What keeps you going? I mean, besides the coconut-laden palm trees and the sun up in the blue sky, the bright turquoise water, the waves breaking on warm, white sand….Sorry, where was I? (I have an excuse – it’s winter in Seattle. Enough said.) Ah, yes. The question is this: What keeps you going?

Well, maybe, like me, you remember a few movies and much of the dialogue in them, so acting them out could keep you going for awhile. I, for one, have seen the six-part BBC production of Pride and Prejudice often enough to let it loop scene-by-scene through my head while I wait to be rescued from my island. Fiction turned into film script turned into a one-woman performance, minus an audience. Ditto quite a few Jerry Seinfeld shows, though those scripts don’t deepen or change on each re-construction.

For further entertainment, I would have a boatload of songs to sing – Beatles, Dylan, Beach Boys, Motown, Aretha Franklin, The Letterman, Tony Bennett. It’s step-by-step on this beach, and with songs I move closer to poetry; lyrics are, after all, a subset of poetry. So sooner or later – definitely sooner – the memorized poems, the well-liked poems, rise to the surface during times of stress (see: shipwreck, above.) They comfort me, make me smile, make me cry, make me wonder.  They connect me with people and places I love, they challenge me to question something, they engage my imagination – and they please me on most days at least as much as fresh coconuts and a blue sky.


Did Crusoe recite poetry to a parrot or two? (illustration: N.C. Wyeth)

Pleasure. That’s what great poetry is all about, isn’t it? Especially if ambiguity resides within the circle of what you find pleasurable. You’ll do well with poetry then, because ambiguity lies at the heart of most great poems. We read and re-read; the poem stays the same, but we change, and we read with those changes exerting their new influence. What puzzles me, though, is not the what, where, when or why of pleasure but the how.  How does a well-loved poem actually work on us?

To help readers answer similar questions, Mark Yakich (editor of The New Orleans Review and Professor of Creative Writing at Loyola) offered up “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies” in the December issue of The Atlantic. His”guide for the perplexed” addresses anyone struggling to understand where the pleasure in a certain poem resides. Basically, Yakich offers up twenty modest proposals in an attempt to steer poetry-phobes away from panic and toward pleasure, with a “step-by-step guide.”

Mark Yakich

Professor Mark Yakich

His twenty suggestions are good ones: Don’t wait for a poem to change your life, don’t force it to”relate” to your life, but do meet it on its own terms and pay close attention to how it says things; do read poems aloud, do approach them with a Buddha-like patience, don’t try to paraphrase, do look for subtleties, don’t forget the poet is not always the speaker of the poem, don’t avoid marginalia (it’s fun), do try to understand what “irony” means (it doesn’t mean disbelief), and don’t worry if you don’t understand it at first – usually, understanding comes, but reading a poem doesn’t take much time or energy, so little is lost. Meanwhile,  there is potential for growth, for new thoughts or “an old thought seen anew.” In other words, what can it hurt? And it might actually help.

Of the twenty suggestions, I like #12 best: “A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding. And sometimes understanding never comes. It’s the same with being alive: Wonder and confusion mostly prevail.”

As an experiment, let’s look at George Herbert’s Love (III) with Yakich’s suggestions in mind.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
……….Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
……….From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
………If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
………Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
………I cannot look on thee.”
.Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
…….“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
………Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
………“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
……….So I did sit and eat.

……………………………………George Herbert (1593-1633)

It’s a poem which pleases me every time I read it. I memorized it years ago, mostly due to the last line – “So I did sit and eat.” That grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go; it has played in my head like birdsong during many odd, sexy, delicate, memorable moments of my life, none of them relating to food, none of them religious, at least, not in the institutional sense.  Ditto the line “Who made the eyes but I?” And that’s what I often want from a poem – to have a line of it come to me under surprising circumstances.  When I first read it at nineteen, I was in love and I liked the sexiness of the poem. Almost fifty years later, I still do. But I’m a little more aware of the pressure Love is putting on her guest.

Look at that Roman numeral in the title – “(III)”. It announces to the world that Herbert has tried before to tackle this topic and never managed to nail it down. But he’s not a quitter. He keeps trying, and don’t we all, or almost all, when it comes to figuring out love? It’s a big topic, a mighty one, so no wonder the poet keeps working at it. Pleasure from a Roman numeral? Yes.

Of course, George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote almost entirely as a religious poet, so a savvy reader might read this poem as one more of the poet’s many examinations of religious devotion. Love (I) can be read either way, and Love (II) can, too. But Love (III) – well, I don’t see or hear God in it. I prefer to think the speaker in the poem turns from Heaven to Home this time (as the Impressionist painters did – from myth to the picnic table, from Venus on a clam shell to the artist’s sister sitting at a window) and he writes a love poem to celebrate the fact that he is welcomed in.

Who does the welcoming in? It’s Love. Is she flirtatious? Gentle? Fierce? Lusty? Passionate? Tremulous? How would she have said the word “Welcome” to him when he appeared at her door? Would it have been throaty? Intimate? Whispered? Is it gestural and unvoiced – a bit of body language? After many readings, I don’t know yet, but when saying the poem aloud I can make her sound any way I imagine, as long as her voice builds up honestly to the adverb “sweetly” in Line 5. So the tone – especially for the modern reader – can be sweetly tongue in cheek, sweetly seductive, sweetly insistent, sweetly tender, sweetly concerned. It can be all of the above.

In any case, the soul of the speaker in the poem draws back from Love, since he is “guilty of dust and sin.” To be guilty of sin, that’s common. But to be “guilty of dust”? I have no real idea what the phrase means – dust as in dust-to-dust, as in mortality, the way “dust” is used in Love (I and II)? Dust as in metaphorical dustiness – age, timidity, priggishness, repression? Not knowing the answer isn’t a problem. I don’t need to understand completely, because I love the mystery of the phrase: guilty of dust.

There is something fluid to how a poem seeps into a reader – and as Yakich says, “wonder and confusion prevail.” To recall being guilty of sin under these circumstances – Love inviting you into her house to eat – certainly hints at a history of physical passion. Lady Love on the other hand is “quick-eyed” and doesn’t miss a thing, not even the fact that the speaker has gone “slack” as he enters in. Am I just imagining how embodied – how physical – this poem is? I don’t think so. Almost like a geisha, Love approaches, raises her eyes,  presses herself up against the speaker – well, that’s my imagination –  and asks whether he needs anything.

Frank Bidart once wrote a poem using the phrase “guilty of dust” as its title; there is no hint of religion in Bidart’s poem either, unless you believe that Fate is an aspect of religious belief. Instead, Bidart addresses a man’s many “baffled infatuations.” The voice in the speaker’s head claims with some certainty that “WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE.” But the speaker considers “the parade of my loves” and thinks of that parade as one full of “PERFORMERS comics actors singers.” The “love and fury and guilt / and sweetness” they produce seems to be in “DIVIDED CEASELESS / REVOLT AGAINST IT.” There’s no doubt Bidart took the phrase from Herbert’s poem, and Bidart is equally nonplussed by the way love insists itself upon the choices we think we make freely.

As I begin with Herbert’s poem, I’m aware there’s a rhyme scheme, I’m aware of the meter, I’m simultaneously thinking about form and content. Those formal elements march along –  left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. My English professor might have asked us to scan the poem metrically and to look up the biblical reference: Luke, Chapter 12, Verse 37: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” Someone suggests the same approach for teachers at The Poetry Foundation website. So a new reader might be encouraged to read the poem with certain formalities and inspirations in mind. But six lines in to this particular poem, don’t most readers put formalities and sources aside? By the time the eyes are mentioned, aren’t we aware only of the man’s nervous breathing, his protestations about being unworthy, and the woman’s warm invitations?

In the last stanza, I’m not sure why Love asks who bears the blame, nor why the speaker offers at that point to serve.  Does he mean he’ll serve the metaphorical meal? Or does he mean “I will serve,” meaning “I’ll do.” I have to engage my Buddhist-monk patience for those lines. As Yakich says in the Atlantic article, “A poem has no hidden meaning, only ‘meanings’ you’ve not yet realized are right in front of you. Discerning subtleties takes practice.” I am still trying to discern the subtleties of those lines. But then we arrive at the remarkable final couplet, ” ‘You must sit down,’  said Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ / So I did sit and eat.”  Perfect ending. In the penultimate line, the first stress falls on the word “must”  – she insists! – and the final stress of the line on the word “meat.” Love, in other words, is going to get her way. That man is going to sit down. He’s going to eat (the gulf between “my meat” in the biblical Book of Luke and the more suggestive “my meat” for a contemporary reader is wide and deep.)

Bonnard Table

The Checkered Tablecloth by Pierre Bonnard

The poem ends with a thought which allows the iambic pattern of the shorter line to fall apart, just like the man surrenders to Love –  “So I did sit…..[hear the pause?]….and eat.” Following the regular iambic pattern, the line would sound like this: “So I / did SIT / and EAT.”  But doesn’t that “did” beg to receive the stress?  “So I / DID sit…/and EAT.” In that booby trapped space, we fall into the caesura – the long pause between  “sit” and “and eat.” Formalities takes a tumble.  We take a tumble. And Love triumphs.

It’s an exciting poem and, to the ear of a 21st-century reader, undeniably erotic. Whether its author meant it to be – whether his religious nerve endings vibrated to something suggestive or not – is another question, but once the poem comes into me, it belongs to me. “Love (III)”  – third times a charm, George Herbert. I have the poem memorized, just in case Fate takes me to that desert island and I find a parrot or two to share it with.

—Julie Larios


HeadsJulie Larios contributes her Undersung essays to the pages of Numero Cinq, along with an occasional review and poem or two. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. This is her first “Closer Look” essay for NC. A full bio and links to all reviews, poems and essays for Numero Cinq can be seen here. You can find more of her thoughts about poetry (for children and adults) at her blog, The Drift Record.


Jan 092016

Murals all over North Korea honor the regime and denounce
America and Japan. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

A Star for Choi Deok-geun in the Hall of the Spooks

In the Far Eastern seaport of Vladivostok, Russia, where I used to live, you sometimes see North Korean guest workers in grocery stores around town. In a typical Russian “productery,” you do not push a cart around piling in cans of soup and tubs of ice cream; you stand at the cash register and tell the clerk what you want, and she grabs it from the shelf behind her and rings it up. But the North Koreans project a truculent self-confidence, despite their modest appearance. They are pencil-necked and knobby-elbowed, wearing torn jeans or plaid trousers, haircuts they seem to have given themselves, and lapel badges of their late leader-god, Kim Il-sung, yet they barge up to the front of the line and bark orders in pidgin Russian, gesturing at whatever they want. Beer! Oil! Rice! To my surprise, the other shoppers stand by patiently, rather than cursing and telling the North Koreans to wait their turn, as they would any Russian who cut the line. The Koreans are regarded as a species as alien as Martians. No point even trying to explain to them the concept of a grocery store line.

The guest workers can still be found in the city, but in 1997 I was editing the Vladivostok News, the Russian Far East’s only English-language newspaper, and the North Koreans were a story. Once I approached three of them who were buying beer in a kiosk near our apartment. Hoping for an interview, I attempted to strike up a conversation, but I was handicapped by my poor Russian. I blurted out, “Are you North Koreans?” They glanced at each other with expressions that said, Well, duh.

I said, “I’m American!” and offered a great big friendly grin to show we meant no harm, we Yanks, large-hearted romantics that we are, galumphing about the globe to distribute chewing gum, rap music, gender anxiety, carpet bombings, and elected governments that have a distressing tendency to collapse into kleptocracies.

One North Korean wore a larger badge than the others–some kind of crew boss or commissar, perhaps. He told me, “Then we’re enemies.” At this he grinned right back.

My wife, Nonna, who was deputy editor and interpreted for me, called around and found a business that had hired North Koreans to remodel the interior of an old building on Aleutskaya Street downtown. The Vladivostok News has since closed and vanished from the Internet and nobody seems to have saved the print archives, so the story I wrote is lost. But I recall a Russian foreman or building owner cheerfully answering our questions. The North Koreans, however, weren’t so easy to talk to. When we approached them, their panicked eyes darted around in search of an escape.

10 Maltsev Strengthen international cooperation“We Will Strengthen International Cooperation”: A sign welcomes
a Russian delegation near Rajin. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Various newspapers report that there are about ten thousand North Korean guest workers throughout the Russian Far East, many of them based in remote logging camps in Khabarovsky region north of us, where they first began arriving in the 1960s. The Seoul newspaper Chosun Ilbo recently stated that one hundred fifty thousand North Koreans are working abroad worldwide under conditions it describes as slave labor, the majority of them in China. Many are also employed in Qatar and Dubai, building a stadium, hotels, and golf courses in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. “Most of their fellow workers from Vietnam, India and Nepal get off at dusk, but the North Koreans often labor on in the glare of fluorescent lamps until late at night,” Chosun Ilbo reports. Ninety percent of their salaries are said to go to the regime.

The Russian crew boss told us that he paid the men’s wages directly to their government officials; elsewhere in the Russian Far East, the workers reportedly receive worthless scrip they supposedly can exchange for rubles. If they were willing to put up with this, it was not the boss’s concern. So what was in it for the guest workers who came to Russia? For timber crews isolated in logging camps in the taiga, it is hard to say. Maybe just food. In Vladivostok, though, North Koreans can earn extra cash doing odd jobs. Sometimes in the evening they went doorbelling in the neighborhoods where they worked, offering their services.

02 Trukhanenko NK bricklayerDressed in traditional Russian felt boots and a tattered coat without sleeves, a North Korean lays brick in Vladivostok. Photo © Valentin Trukhanenko.

Vladivostok has long been a battleground in the spy-versus-spy conflict between North and South Korea. The Kim regime claims to be the sole legitimate government on the Korean peninsula, and it presents the government in Seoul as collaborators with the “Yankee bastards.” So it is unsurprising that the intrigue would spill over into the Russian Far East, where both countries maintain consulates. The failed state’s ire toward its successful rival in Seoul erupted in October 1996 with the murder of Choi Deok-geun, a South Korean consular official who was killed in his apartment stairwell in Vladivostok. Choi officially served as the consul for arts and culture, but his duties clearly extended beyond that. He reportedly was investigating North Korea’s drug trafficking and counterfeiting, and when his corpse was discovered, there was a dent in his skull and poison in his system of a type North Korea was known to use, The Dong-a Ilbo reported in 2011 in an article on Seoul’s request that Russia reopen the unsolved case. Korean observer Robert Neff has noted in the blog The Marmot’s Hole that Choi is now memorialized by a star embedded in the security exhibition hall of the National Intelligence Service in Seoul. Each of the forty-six stars represents an agent who died in the line of duty.

After we visited the construction site on Aleutskaya, the North Korean consulate in nearby Nakhodka, which previously had refused to comment, suddenly called the newsroom to ask what we were up to. When he hung up, the phone rang again. An officer of the FSB, an agency formerly known as the KGB, wanted to talk to Nonna. Somehow he had learned about our story (perhaps listening in on the North Korean consulate?) and asked what was going on.

Nonna explained what we were working on.

“You’d better be careful,” he said. “We don’t want to end up with another dead body on our hands.”

Fish Soup and Cookies in a Land of Plentiful Frogs

We heard there were North Korean workers in Khasan, down on the border, so we caught the train there. The village, home to seven hundred forty people, used to be a bustling portal between North Korea and the Soviet Union, but this ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elimination of trade subsidies for the socialist little brother. When we arrived, we found a few glum North Korean workers in Khasan Station, waiting to catch a train home. Piled at their feet were cheap bags of a sort Russian shuttle traders would bring back from China, stuffed with whatever these workers had bought in Vladivostok. Food, perhaps, maybe clothes. I introduced myself as an American reporter. They would not touch the official red-bound Russian press I.D. I tried to show them.

08 Maltsev MuralistMurals all over North Korea honor the regime and denounce
America and Japan. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

We found some railway employees, who said they had seen coffins on trains heading back into North Korea, bearing the bodies of guest workers who died cutting timber in the taiga. It is also possible that every so often a coffin was bringing back what might be described as a living corpse. When North Korea captures a runaway “traitor” in a foreign country, the secret police reportedly drug him, break his legs so he cannot escape when he wakes up, and return him home in a coffin, a former refugee reports. South Korean media state that Pyongyang’s secret police operate with impunity in the timber camps of the Khabarovsky region north of us, torturing and executing workers. Yet it seemed that nobody wanted to go home. Galina Kachanova, a Khasan train dispatcher who had traveled across the Tumen River several times to inspect rails and work out timetables, told us that when she last visited Tumangang, three of her seven cross-border colleagues had died of malnutrition, among them a father who starved to death because he was giving his own rations to his children. These were railway officials, not prisoners of the North Korean gulag.

“They’re brought up as very fanatical people, and usually they don’t admit that they have hunger in their country,” Kachanova said. “But lately they’ve become more open about it.”

Leaving the station, we headed out into the village.

There isn’t much to see in Khasan. Ramshackle cottages, gravel roads, soggy ditches, weedy rail yards, sidewalks of concrete slabs buckling up and down, fences of splintery wood or sheets of corrugated rust, blocky two-story Soviet apartments shedding plaster. A windowless building was collapsing in decrepitude, filled with scraps of ceiling plaster, living shrubs and saplings, rusty box springs, shattered bottles. The lower part of the village was sinking into swamp. The air breathed the perfumes of sea breezes and coal smoke and diesel and river mud and young, sappy leaves on the trees.

We followed a road paralleling the train tracks that crossed the Tumen River up ahead. The tracks bridged a murky waterway that empties into the Sea of Japan a few miles downstream. A fence ran between us and the rails, and we came upon some North Koreans repairing the tracks. As I photographed them, they straightened up and muttered at each other, hefting their tools.

From Khasan you can see across the Tumen River into North Korea and China; the village borders both countries. On the other side, green hills rumple up into low mountains under a gray ceiling of felt. I had read that from the opposite bank all the way to the DMZ, the frog population had disappeared, devoured by hungry citizens. Two million people died during the famine of the mid-nineties, and hunger, like a specter in a medieval woodcut, is still reaping souls. The regime blamed floods, and then droughts, then more floods. Calamities befall North Korea as nowhere else, to hear the government tell it. The regime can’t get a break long enough to demonstrate the radical efficacy of its agricultural collectives. Yet when its people were on the brink of starvation in 2012, North Korea launched a missile that caused the West to threaten to cut off cash and food aid. This in a country where malnutrition has shrunk the populace to the point that the army has lowered its minimum height requirement to four feet seven inches, or slightly taller than the average South Korean fourth grader, according to NPR. A third of North Korean children are believed to be “permanently stunted” because of a lack of food.

In her new memoir, In Order to Live, escapee and human rights activist Yeonmi Park recalls growing up as the daughter of a North Korean wheeler-dealer who was trading in stolen metals–the only way he could feed his family. In times of hunger, she writes, starving mothers abandoned their babies to freeze to death in alleys. Bodies lay in trash heaps and floated down rivers, and she and her sister once saw the corpse of a naked young man beside a pond where he had dragged himself for a last drink of water. His stomach had been torn open, apparently by hungry dogs. Winter was not the season of death. Spring, when food runs out and the farms have yet to produce crops, is when most people died of starvation. “My sister and I often heard the adults who saw dead bodies on the streets make clucking noises and say, ‘It’s too bad they couldn’t hold on until summer,’” Park writes. She, her sister, and her mother also found it hard to survive after her father was arrested and sent to prison. They ate herbs and plants and cicadas. One boy who had a cigarette lighter showed her that if you cooked a dragonfly over the flame, it “gave off an incredible smell like roasted meat, and it tasted delicious,” Park writes.

06 Maltsev OxcartA scrawny ox pulls a cart near Rajin, North Korea. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Escapee Jang Jin-sung, formerly North Korea’s poet laureate, writes of returning to his hometown, Sariwon, in 1999, not long after Nonna and I first visited Khasan. In Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea, he recalls being shocked to find his old friends were starving. A girl who used to pretend to be his bride in their child wedding games now resembled a gaunt old woman. He inquired after old friends and neighbors and learned that many of them had starved to death. On the streets, merchants were offering wares and services that would not even appeal to a bum in Seoul. One woman was trying to sell a flask that could be filled with hot water to keep the buyer warm; evidently there was no longer any heating. For ten won–about a penny–another let customers use her bar of soap and basin of water to wash their faces. The city’s water supply, it turned out, had dried up with yet another one of those droughts. Jang saw another woman in Sariwon selling comforters stuffed not with cotton but with the filters of smoked cigarettes. All around were inspirational slogans:

Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Disobey Traffic Rules!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Spread Foreign Culture!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Hoard Food!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Gossip!

As Jang headed back to the train station on his way home, a siren sounded, and police surrounded the square and drove everyone into the center with their rifle butts. They dragged out a terrified man in work clothes and held a five-minute People’s Trial. The sentence was death. The soldiers formed a firing squad. Everyone in the plaza was forced to watch, but as the volleys were fired Jang looked up to the sky so as to avoid seeing the moment of death. As he later wrote in one of the dissident poems he secretly composed:

The prisoner’s crime: theft of one sack of rice.
His sentence: ninety bullets to the heart.
His occupation:

“The man riddled with bullets for stealing rice had been a starving farmer,” Jang writes. “Even someone who worked the land could not find enough to eat.”

On the edge of Khasan we turned down a dirt road, approaching the river through a patchwork of dacha gardens and neglected military pillboxes. One feels that the river forms the border, but a sliver of Chinese territory separates Russia from the riverbank at this point. Nonna and I came to a sign ordering trespassers back or we would be shot without warning. We had nearly walked into China. Just then a voice yelled “Halt!” A Russian soldier we had not noticed came out of a little guardhouse checked our papers. He eyed mine suspicously, Americans being a rarity in Khasan. Ah, but my clever wife had thought of everything when she applied for my visa to come to Russia back in January. The form had asked where I would be traveling in the country, so she listed every city in the Primorye region which was closed to foreigners. Some bureaucrat had rubber-stamped the document, and I now had permission to be in towns that normally would have been off-limits to an American, among them Khasan. Several years later, when we returned on an assignment for BusinessWeek, I had no such documentation, and we were arrested by four soldiers aiming AK-47s at us, and they kicked us out of town. But this guard just waved us back up the road toward the village.

By this time evening was descending. Possibly it is heartless to say this within sight of a famine-afflicted land, but we were hungry, and we could not find a restaurant in the village. The tiny station had no café. The overnight train back to Vladivostok would not leave for hours, and there would be no dining car on a provincial spur from Khasan. (While the distance is short as the crow flies, by rail it was a long trip around Primorye’s rugged coastline and required a recoupling of the cars in the Ussuriysk.) The kiosks offered limited options–packages of hot dogs and imitation crab, Ramen-style noodles, Snickers bars, chips, Choco Pies. Having nowhere to cook any food, we bought some cookies and drifted down a gravel road. Evening slanted across the hills and cottages and vegetable gardens in what might have been an ancient Russian village on the Volga but in fact was in the extreme reaches of Asia. As the good Slavic sun went down, it gleamed on channels of ditch water, ignited slabs of the prefab Soviet buildings, warmed the treeless earth of No Man’s Land that separated us from China, and dappled the frogless bogs of North Korea.

We came upon a villager named Raisa, who was hoeing her potato garden, and asked her a question or two. She didn’t have much to say about North Korea. What she wanted to hear about was us. Where were we from?

Vladivostok, Nonna said, but he’s an American correspondent.

Raisa’s eyes lighted up. An American! What was I doing in Khasan? Was I a spy?

No, a journalist. Editor-in-chief of the Vladivostok News.

Well, this was just terrific, in Raisa’s view! She was delighted to welcome a foreigner to Khasan. Raisa invited us to join her and her husband, a Tatar named Farid, for dinner, and we followed her to their apartment. How homey it seemed, and how exotic just the same, to enjoy Russian village hospitality here on the border of North Korea, to leave your shoes at the door and step into your hosts’ worn slippers, to settle on stools around the kitchen table, to butter slices of black bread, to blow on spoonfuls of scalding fish soup, to nibble on a dessert of Bird’s Milk chocolates and cookies (ours). Yet we could see across the river into a land where railway officials starve in order to feed their children, and where Jang, the poet, once encountered a famished woman in a market in Pyongyang with a sign that read, “I sell my daughter for one hundred won.”

03 Maltsev Khasan StationRussian and  North Korean flags fly at Khasan station to welcome
Kim Jong-il in a visit in 2000. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Farid set out a bottle of vodka and shot glasses, and we toasted international friendship. Switching its tail, Rajah, their irritable tomcat, skulked into the room. Farid had trimmed the cat like a lion, shearing it except for a fluffy mane and a tuft at the end of its tail. Raisa said she was knitting a sweater from the fur she trimmed off the cat. This strikes me as implausible, but it is what she told us. The couple insisted that we remain with them until our train departed. They offered us their comfiest chairs, and Raisa plopped Rajah down in my lap, as if this were a pleasure reserved for honored guests. We watched a selection of their Indian videos. “We’ve always been crazy about India,” she said. I cannot recall if they had ever been there or if this was a theoretical interest.

Maybe it was the vodka, or the lateness of the hour, but I caught only part of the movie before I fell asleep. A villain shoved a beautiful woman into a swimming pool, and a crocodile that was lurking there chomped off her face. Luckily, she secured a good plastic surgeon, allowing her to find work as a supermodel. When Rajah jumped down, Raisa captured him and set him back in my lap, waking me.

Eventually she said, “Oh, you’d better get going,” and stopped the movie. Raisa walked us through the dark village to the station. There were no streetlights, and the skies were spectacular. All of Russia, all of China, all of North Korea had ascended in the celestial sphere, leaving nothing but stars and, in this salient, at least, the chirping of frogs. From the station we caught the sleeper to Vladivostok. Trains rock you to sleep, and I rested well.

Back home our story ran with the additional quotes and color from Khasan. Despite the worst fears of the FSB, there were no attempts to assassinate us. Which is just as well. Like most people we wanted to live, and besides, unlike Mr. Choi, nobody would ever memorialize us with a star in the hall of the spooks.


The Trade in Cross-Border Wives

Several years later we got another glimpse of the Hermit Kingdom when we caught a bus to Yanji, China, where I wanted to write about the North Korean refugees there. Yanji is the capital of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where more than a third of the population of two million people are ethnic Korean citizens of China. An additional two hundred thousand North Korean refugees live in China, human rights organizations estimate.

Nonna and I took a tour bus from Vladivostok along with my stepson Sergei and some friends from what is now called Far Eastern Federal University, where I was taking Russian classes. We were visiting a professor friend of ours who was teaching in Yanji for a year. Part of the way we skirted the Tumen River, where the North Korean bank is lined every kilometer with a guard station. In the last three years, the Chinese have extended fencing and coils of barbed wire along their bank of the Tumen and Yalu rivers, but smugglers and refugees still find a way to wade or swim across in summertime or make a slippery dash to freedom on the ice in the winter. But at that time I noticed no fence on the Chinese side. Those who have the money bribe the North Korean border guards to allow them across; otherwise, they risk their lives when they flee.

“Border guards remain authorized to shoot to kill persons who cross the DPRK border without permission,” states a report by a U.N. commission, released in 2014 as an indictment for a possible future prosecution of North Korea’s leaders for crimes against humanity. “Such killings amount to murder.”

11 Maltsev Russia-DPRK border 2Russia’s border with the DPRK. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Yanji is a bustling city of four hundred thirty thousand people. At night, the multistory buildings downtown are lighted with neon signs advertising food markets, shoe stores, cell phone establishments, karaoke joints. Restaurateurs hang colorful banners with photographs of their tastiest entrees to entice customers. Some signs include a little silhouette of a dog, indicating that man’s best friend is on the menu. As we arrived at our hotel lobby, our tour guide, who was Russian, pointed out a stack of glossy business cards on the front desk, telling us they were from the hotel and we should take some to give to cabdrivers in case we got lost. A few days later, when I gave the card to a foreign pastor and said, “Here’s where I’m staying,” he chuckled and told me, “No, you’re not.” It turned out the cards actually advertised a brothel. Which would relate, I suppose, to the story I would find in Yanji. But I first had to find a way to communicate with North Koreans.

In case you ever find yourself in China writing business stories, you may secure an interpreter through the concierge at the front desk of your hotel. After a series of misunderstandings in which a tour guide who doesn’t speak English takes you sightseeing at a muddy little zoo where rain-darkened zebras chew straw and dispirited howler monkeys cling to a dead tree planted in concrete; after her long-haired boyfriend arrives and tells you he can show you the rock ’n’ roll scene after dark, and by the way, just call him by his English name: Superboy; after he is made to understand that you are a reporter in need of an interpreter–then finally a man in a suit, his dyed hair neatly parted to reveal half an inch of gray roots, will knock at your door and offer to interpret free of charge, not a problem at all, keep your money, he just wants to practice his English. What gives the game away is when your free interpreter leads you through the lobby to a waiting sedan, white in color, with a People’s Liberation Army soldier at the wheel and little Chinese flags fluttering from the front fenders. You are in the hands of some Chinese variety of the FBI or the KGB, and they want you to know that. The chauffeur, too, refuses any payment (he apparently needs to practice his driving), but as long as you are there to write about business, everyone is eager to talk to you and all barriers are swept from your path. Sources cheerfully relate their successes in the topsy-turvy world of China’s commie capitalism. When you are ready to return home, your interpreter may even suggest that you go into business together. If you ask, Selling what? he will tell you, We’ll figure out something. People are right when they say China is business-crazy. At any rate, this is how it worked for me.

But it is different when you’re interviewing North Koreans on the run, so I went through a contact I had arranged. The interpreter and I set out in search of refugees while Nonna and Sergei went shopping. Min-sik (as I will call him) said he knew a North Korean woman who had married a farmer. He drove me out of town along roads through fields plowed by oxen. For many miles on either side of the road, solitary farmers were guiding plows up and down the rows, led by a team of oxen. If they were working alone, it meant they couldn’t find or afford a wife, Min-sik said. Those who were married, however, worked in tandem with the wife, her trudging ahead and leading the ox by the halter while he kept the plow going straight. Most of these women came from North Korea.

Three quarters of the North Koreans in China’s three northern provinces had been purchased as wives or prostitutes, Good Friends, Inc., a Seoul humanitarian organization, reports. Chinese demographics drive the market for women. The rural population of Yanbian produces insufficient women for its Korean bachelor farmers. If you ask villagers why this is, they will laugh awkwardly and say all the women moved to Yanji to work in restaurants and karaoke bars, and who knows, maybe some of them did. Some families buy wives for disabled sons who couldn’t otherwise find a mate, Park writes.  Abortion is another factor. Ethnic minorities are allowed some exemptions from the one-child policy, but China’s high abortion rate disproportionately affects girls in this region as it does in the rest of the country. In 2014, Chinese women gave birth to nearly one hundred sixteen boys for every hundred girls, while the natural human birth ratio is one hundred five boys for every hundred girls, Bloomberg reports. That year there were thirty-four million more men than women in China, according to China Daily. In Yanbian prefecture and elsewhere, North Korean women fill in the gap.

On our way to a village whose name I purposely did not learn, we took a detour. Min-sik took me to a spot overlooking the Tumen River and gestured at the opposite bank. There it is, he said. North Korea. The trees on the other side looked spindly and bald, perhaps because they had been stripped of their bark by Koreans desperate for food, as Jang suggests. We could see a village tucked in the foothills. Unlike in China, no smudges of coal smoke tilted from the chimneys. Maybe there was no coal to be had (such things were known to happen in Russia when officials steal the budget for fuel). From riverbank to riverbank, the Tumen looked narrower than the deep, green Toutle River in Southwest Washington state, where I used to swim in my late teens before the eruption of Mount Saint Helens silted it up. North Korea was so close. A ridiculous notion came to me: What if I just swam across, tagged the other shore, and came back? It was early spring, the trees still leafless. It would be freezing. More to the point, I might be shot midstream, or hauled up on the opposite bank by border guards and frog-marched to prison, requiring Jimmy Carter to intervene on my behalf. So, no, then. I guess I wouldn’t be swimming over. It was just a thought.

12 Maltsev Tumen River BridgeBridge over the Tumen River at Khasan. North Korea
lies on the opposite bank. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

We headed this way and that through country roads until we found ourselves in a village of redbrick homes, one- or two-room huts, really, of a sort North Koreans call “harmonicas,” built wall-to-wall in long rows. We stopped at the door of one of the units. Min-sik knocked, and a housewife peeked out. The worry evaporated from her face when she recognized him, and she looked over my barbarian countenance with curiosity but without hostility. North Korea’s racist propaganda portrays Americans, black and white alike, as monsters and sub-humans with “paws” and “snouts” in place of normal features, R.B. Myers writes in The Cleanest Race, and one popular novella relates how an American “jackal’s spade-shaped eagle’s nose hung villainously over his upper lip,” his eyes “like open graves constantly waiting for corpses.” (Bear this in mind the next time they call President Obama a “monkey” and a “crossbreed with unclean blood”; they think of us all that way.) Despite having been indoctrinated in such propaganda, the woman politely opened the door and invited us in. I now saw that she had a baby tied to her hip with a blanket.

We sat on the floor while she called her husband on a cell phone. Presently he joined us. I will call her Eun-ju, him Young-shik, as I later did when I revisited their lives in a short story. She was in her late twenties, he in his early thirties. In my story “Dear Leader” I described the real couple’s house through the eyes of the North Korean bride-to-be as she and a marriage broker entered

through a concrete-floored entry room filled with rakes, shovels, buckets, dried ears of corn hanging from the walls, a plow without a blade. Glancing frequently with mute wonder at Eun-ju, the farmer [Young-shik] led them into the living quarters, a single room with an electric cooker built into the floor—a gas unit covered by a lid the size of a truck’s hubcap. A faucet poked its snout from the kitchen wall, but there was no sink, and a plastic trash barrel had been placed underneath it to catch the water. Everywhere there were signs that this was not North Korea: a twenty-kilo bag of rice sat in the corner, color calendars with pictures of girls in swimsuits hung on the walls, and there was electricity to squander: a miniature black-and-white television buzzed with a broadcast of a soccer game. Astoundingly, a bird cheeped from within Young-shik’s shirt pocket. He patted himself down and removed a black object the size of a wallet, which he opened and spoke into.

Eun-ju, the real one, had lush, thick hair, and she looked like any heathy young mother as she cooed to her baby. But when she had crossed the Tumen River three years earlier, she told me, she was nearly bald from malnutrition after subsisting on a diet of grass and shredded bark mixed with an occasional spoonful of rice. She recalled North Korea as a land divided between well-off Workers’ Party members and destitute ordinary citizens. At the time she left, train stations were crowded with homeless people, who sleep in the waiting room seats or on floors crawling with vermin. Eun-ju saw malnourished children stop in their tracks and lie down to die in the streets. Once a wealthy man beat a child to death for stealing food. The government of Kim Jong Il enriched itself reselling the rice donated by the West and Japan. A kilogram cost the equivalent of two months’ wages.

Having no future there, Eun-ju fled to China along with her sister.

“I had no other choice,” she told me. “If I stayed there, I would have died.”

When they arrived in Yanbian, she and her sister placed their fates in the hands of the broker who sold Eun-ju to Young-shik and her sister to another farmer (the broker kept the money). As noisome as the brokers are, North Korean women have little choice but to work with them, and often they are deceived and cross the river without any idea that they are heading for a life as a slave. A woman wandering the countryside alone and begging for bread would be a target for kidnappers. Refugees are on the run, hunted by police and unable to trust anyone. In the case of the poet Jang, he and a friend, also an elite party member, fled the country together, and Pyongyang, enraged at this act of treason by two members of the elite, falsely reported to Beijing that two escaped murderers had crossed into China. Yanbian police launched an all-out manhunt. Several times the men slept outdoors in subzero temperatures Fahrenheit, huddling together for warmth on a mountainside in a blizzard. Even without an all-police bulletin, ordinary economic refugees find it difficult to survive on their own. Fearful villagers report the refugees to the Chinese authorities when they beg for food, Eun-ju told me, and while some Christians help North Koreans, others are too afraid of the police. Park managed to escape North Korea with the help of a church mission that escorted her all the way to the Mongolian border, but Jang and his comrade were cursed and driven off when they approached a church.

07 Maltsev Dear LeaderA teacher at a North Korean primary school shows off a
Kim-Jong-il calendar. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

One might think in a market where women are in demand, they would be cherished, but this is not so.  An ethnic Korean who is married to a North Korean tells Jang the brokered women are referred to as “pigs.” “In the Chinese countryside,” he says, “pigs are valuable, so people call the women pigs. They’re graded according to their age and appearance.”

Many women are lured to China on pretexts and have no idea sexual slavery awaits them. Jang met a North Korean refugee in Yanbian prefecture who had been sold to a Chinese at fourteen.  When she met her buyer, a “middle-aged monster,” he tore off her clothes, she told Jang.  She cried because she was frightened.  “Then his mother and sister came into the room, those witches,” the girl said.  “They held my arms and legs down and pulled my underwear off.”  The women pinned the girl down while their son and brother raped her.  Some peasants who buy women pimp them out to fellow villagers as prostitutes; other men chain their new wives up during the night so they can’t escape.  The U.N. commission states that one woman was lured to China on the pretext of working on a farm but was sold to a man who kept her as a slave for three years.  Pregnant, she escaped but was arrested.  Police took her to a transit prison, where her jailers raped her and the other women they had rounded up.

Park, who had been forced to eat cicadas and dragonflies, was also deceived. She and her mother fled across the Yalu River in 2007, thinking they could find jobs in China. (Her sister had already crossed over.) The thirteen-year-old Park had recently endured abdominal surgery for a mistaken diagnosis of appendicitis (she woke up screaming in the middle of surgery because the surgeons didn’t have enough anesthetic for her). She weighed only sixty pounds and barely managed to hobble across the frozen river. The Chinese man who met them wanted to rape Park, but her mother offered herself instead, and Park heard her cries outside as he assaulted her. The girl eventually becomes the mistress of a small-time gangster and human trafficker, while her mother is sold to a farmer. He compels Park to help with his trafficking network, selling other North Korean girls who have crossed into China. She gets them cleaned up, buys them clothes, teaches them about hygiene and cosmetics, and helps sell them.

“I didn’t have pity for anyone, including the girls I helped sell, including myself,” Park writes.

At the time I visited the Chinese farmer and his North Korean wife, I wrote that he bought her for three thousand yuan, or just under five hundred U.S. dollars. Jang, who escaped later, writes in Dear Leader that women cost a third of that. Yet Park says women were selling for over two thousand dollars at the time she arrived. It is worth noting that Park was personally involved in the business, unlike Jang and me.

“The first time we met,” Young-shik told me, “the broker said, ‘Do you think she’s OK?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ If you don’t like her, they will find you someone else.”

Those who are handed back to North Korea are considered traitors by the regime. In 1993, the U.N. commission reports, China forcibly repatriated a family, whereupon they were sent to their hometown in North Hamgyong Province. Police forced the entire population to attend a brutal spectacle in which they handcuffed the family, including a five-year-old boy, and paraded them around town. The report states, “The mother and father were then dragged around like oxen with rings that had been rammed into their noses. … The spectators swore at the victims and threw rocks at them.” Nobody knew what became of the family after that.

For her part Eun-ju considered herself lucky to have ended up with a good husband, but the couple had already moved four times to evade the police. She did not know what would happen to her baby if she were deported, but a child conceived in China would not be treated well in North Korea. Carrying their racist ideology to its logical extreme, North Korean officials force pregnant returnees to abort their babies. A woman named Jee Heon A told the U.N. commission that upon her repatriation to North Korea she was jailed with a mother who gave birth. She states:

The baby was crying as it was born; we were so curious, this was the first time we saw a baby being born. So we were watching this baby and we were so happy. But suddenly we heard the footsteps. The security agent came in and this agent of the Bowibu [short for Kukgabowibu, or State Security Department] … told us to put the baby in the water upside down. So the mother was begging. ‘I was told that I would not be able to have the baby, but I actually got lucky and got pregnant so let me keep the baby, please forgive me’, but this agent kept beating this woman, the mother who just gave birth. And the baby, since it was just born, it was just crying. And the mother, with her shaking hands, she picked up the baby and she put the baby face down in the water. The baby stopped crying and we saw this water bubble coming out of the mouth of the baby. And there was an old lady who helped with the labour, she picked up the baby from the bowl of water and left the room quietly.

Even in China, the children of North Korean refugees have limited prospects. Eun-ju’s son was unregistered, and thus would never be allowed to attend school. These offspring of North Koreans in China are known as “dark children,” Jang writes. Often abandoned by their mothers, they beg in the streets. Yet despite the circumstances that joined Eun-ju and Young-shik, they seemed to be content together. After an hour of talking to me, the couple fell silent, gazing timidly at each other, the baby sleeping on her side. Before long it would be dark out. Young-shik and Eun-ju said they were afraid. She did not want to go back; he did not want to lose her.

Min-sik and I got up to leave.


Bridges to Nowhere

In 2001 Nonna and I again glimpsed the Hermit Kingdom from China, this time from Dandong, where I had decided to search for stories based on nothing more than a hunch while looking at an atlas. I had to leave Russia temporarily to renew my visa, and I was looking for a city off the beaten track, so it would not be picked clean of stories by the foreign press corps in Beijing (Nonna also wrote for Russian newspapers). Dandong was a seaport, which meant I could find trade-related stories for The New York Times or BusinessWeek, my best-paying publications. And it was located across the Yalu River from North Korea.

My hunch proved to be correct. Dandong had a population of nearly eight hundred thousand, making it a medium-sized provincial town by Chinese standards, but it was the center of a lively trade with the North Korean river city of Sinuiju. Dandong is bustling in the typical go-go Chinese way, with crowds of cars and bicycles on its streets and the skeletons of high-rise hotels wrapped in sheet plastic going up in the city center. From downtown, two bridges extend toward North Korea (a third has been built eight kilometers south). The Broken Bridge reaches only halfway toward the North Korean bank–the rest was destroyed by U.N. bombers during the war–and tourists and gawkers can stroll out to the end and photograph the opposite bank and curse the Imperialist Running Dogs responsible for the destruction. Truck and train traffic crosses the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge, just upstream from the Broken Bridge. Lorries and boxcars haul bags of rice and flour and rolls of linoleum and Tsingdao beer into Korea, along with luxury goods for the elite: fine whiskeys, fashionable clothing, spare parts and windshields for party members’ Cadillacs and other foreign cars, and even ostriches. At some point Kim Jong-il decided that ostrich farms were the solution to his country’s protein deficiency. Pyongyang has been subject to sanctions and is not especially adept at trading with the depraved world, anyway, so imports are often brought through Dandong. Dandong middlemen also repackage North Korean exports (wire coat hangers, seafood) as products of China and ship them elsewhere. Despite sanctions, I was told, American retailers were selling sweaters made in North Korea but labeled in China.

One morning Nonna and I took a walk along the quay beneath the two bridges. Along the waterfront, vendors sell North Korean paraphernalia to Chinese tourists: military-looking decorations, won banknotes, propaganda posters of soldiers smashing G.I.s with rifle butts or saluting Kim Il-sung, books of stamps featuring their leader-god. The Great Leader usually looks slightly to his right, and he flashes the dentured grin of a retiree on a sunny day on the links in Fort Myers. (His son, Kim Jong-il, is credited with hitting eleven holes in one on Pyonyang’s eighteen-hole golf course the first time he picked up a club.) Although I had been told in Vladivostok that no North Korean would ever part with his sacred Kim Il-sung lapel badge, they were easy to buy in Dandong if you are content with the older version, in which the Great Leader stares straight ahead stony-faced. Along the quay a writer for Slate also encountered people in colorful Korean attire, but it seems the Chinese like to rent Korean wedding garb and have their pictures taken with Sinuiju in the background.

Nonna and I bought tickets for a boat tour that crossed the river and hugged the opposite bank in North Korean territorial waters. We were so close I could have sailed a coin into Sinuiju. We passed an empty amusement park with a motionless Ferris wheel. In any normal city, such an embankment would have been a busy place on a clear spring morning. Joggers and dog walkers and young lovers would have been enjoying the sun, ice cream sellers would be hawking popsicles, balloon men selling inflatable Mickey Mouses. But in Sinuiju all we saw were border guards in those oversized Soviet-style hats, looking like skinny schoolboys dressed up in their father’s old uniforms. Upstream, our tour boat chugged past a line of rusty fishing trawlers and a windowless factory over which not a puff of steam rose. Red-lettered slogans decorated the waterfront. Rather than promising death by firing squad to those disobey traffic rules or hoard food, in this place North Korea post more palatable boasts for international consumption:

Long live the son of the 21st century, General Kim Jong Il!
Long live the great military-first politics!
Rich and powerful country

Of all the times I have skirted the border of North Korea, including a trip to the DMZ from Seoul, my most striking view of the country came from Dandong, in a rotating restaurant atop a high rise at night. As we started dinner, our window was facing the Chinese side, and the nighttime city stretched away beneath us in circuit board patterns, aglow with streetlamps and lighted apartment windows and LED signboards and business districts glowing with neon. You chat with a Chinese-Australian couple you met in the hotel business center, order a few local specialties for dinner, and sip a chemical-tasting Chinese wine, talk and laugh, and when you look out the window again, the city has vanished. You’re staring at the frogless void of North Korea.

Across the entire dark city of Sinuiju, with hundreds of thousands of residents, I counted eleven lights. It stayed like that all night; the electricity never came on. Those eleven lights, we were told, marked the location of police stations. I am guessing one or two prominent party members or Bowibu officers also had electricity at home. Immediately below our rotating restaurant were the bridges to nowhere. Even the newer one looked like it had been chopped off halfway across, because the lighting stops mid-river, and North Korea does not have power to illuminate its own side. At the time we were there, Pyongyang was threatening to walk out of reunification talks if Seoul did not provide the North with free electrical power.

05 Maltsev NK troopsNorth Korean soldiers at the port of Rajin, near the
Russian border, in 2014. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Back in our hotel room, I flipped through the TV channels to 22 and found myself watching North Korea’s Chosun Joongang network. It was the first time I had seen anything on that channel. For most of the day it is dark: no reruns, no test patterns, nothing but static, but, I discovered, after five every evening, Channel 22 awakens as the voice of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As I would write in an op-ed for The New York Times, the camera panned a hall full of teenagers: the boys in dark suits, the girls in traditional Korean dresses. Iron-faced, they were watching an awards ceremony. Half of the winners took home red banners extolling the Kims and their kingdom. The rest won red accordions, an instrument that North Korean school teachers are required to master.

Fascinated, I began turning on Channel 22 whenever it was on the air. Chosun Joongang devotes hours to Kim Jong-il’s tours of factories, and perhaps because a collapsed economy has only so many new factories to show off, some of the footage was eleven years old. A narrator with a castrato’s voice spoke in trilling, almost hysterical tones as the Dear Leader made his rounds. Kim Jong-il was a corpulent man with a sallow face, wearing dark glasses indoors. The people he met bowed from the waist. Crowds made fist-clenching salutes and beat their chests, or they waved both hands in the air, jumping in excitement like dogs whose master has returned home after a week out of town. Kim Jong-il’s mind was untroubled by mere curiosity. He was never shown asking a question, but rather lectured the experts, snatching up pointers to jab at wall maps or diagrams. (His son has continued the tradition, offering “field guidance” at farms and military installations and even, recently, a terrapin farm, where, sad to say, all the baby turtles had died. And why did they die? Because there was no food for the animals and no electricity to circulate water into their tanks. Irrelevant. The manager was clearly a saboteur. He was shot.) Oddly, I never heard Kim Jong-il’s voice on TV, only the narrator’s. In one clip, the Dear Leader toured a facility that produces syringes. Did the broadcasters even notice that the managers were wearing coats and astrakhan hats indoors? Or perhaps North Koreans–millions of whom live and work in unheated quarters–consider such details unremarkable. And suddenly the TV showed those ostriches I had heard about, towering birds that twirl and flap, moving Kim Jong-il, it appears, to offer tips on applying the precepts of Marx and Kim Il-sung to the breeding of flightless African birds. Literary content consisted of static shots of the day’s newspapers, page by page, too small to read. And there was children’s fare: a cartoon in which a boy hero was captured by an enemy who looked like a samurai, beaten unconscious, and bound with a stick jammed in his mouth to prevent him from screaming for help.

Most frightening of all was the North Korean idealization of hard labor. While the narrator enthused, thousands of workers strapped boulders to their backs and ran to a dam, where they thumped down the rocks and sprinted back for another load. In close-ups the workers’ faces were frozen in rictus grins, but their eyes revealed a leaden terror. It is as if Stalin thought that broadcasting the construction of the White Sea Canal by gulag laborers would inspire his countrymen. Or maybe Kim Jong-il was happy to put a good scare into his people. In any event, much of North Korean TV might feel familiar to Russians of Stalin’s generation: parades of tanks, goose-stepping soldiers, Soviet-style choruses. But if the programming offers a nation’s most grandiose boasts, consider what its darkest secrets might look like.

That night after Nonna went to bed and North Korean TV flickered back into static, I opened the curtains and stared out our window at the frogless dark. Across the river, the night was all-consuming, making Sinuiju seem like a medieval town. Without artificial light, life settles into pace familiar to our species for most of its existence, with people going to bed after sundown. Perhaps you imagine that during a blackout, you would read by the glow of a fireplace or a candle, like a boy Abraham Lincoln sprawled on a cabin’s plank floor or Caravaggio’s St. Jerome lighted in chiaroscuro with a skull on his desk. But even if you set up four or five candles to bleed wax all over your bedside table, as I used to during blackouts in Russia, the illumination is weak and skittish and you worry you’ll go blind or burn the place down if you nod off. So you give up at eight o’clock on a winter evening and blow out your little bedside Pentecost and allow yourself to drift into the underground river of sleep.

In her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, journalist Barbara Demick tells of North Koreans who actually love the curtained privacy of the dark, when one is shielded from the eyes of tattlers and spies. A young escapee whom Demick calls Mi-ran recalls that she had “tainted blood” because her father had served in the South Korean army, but at twelve years old she fell in love with a boy of fifteen from a privileged caste. She could not be seen in public with him without harming his career prospects or her own reputation for virtue as a North Korean girl. Besides, where would they go? The blackouts had shut down all the cinemas and restaurants. So their dates consisted of walks in the dark. Demick writes:

They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the front door and risk questions from her family. The boy found a spot behind a wall where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. He would wait hours for her, maybe two or three. It didn’t matter. The cadence of life is slower in North Korea. Nobody owned a watch.

The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself. At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm’s-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn’t be spotted, talking about their families, their classmates, books they had read–whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.

“It took us three years to hold hands,” Mi-ran tells Demick. “Another six to kiss. I would never have dreamt of doing anything more. At the time I left North Korea, I was twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived.”

After her father’s death, she eventually fled North Korea with her mother and siblings, never telling her boyfriend good-bye because no one could be trusted, not even her beloved for the past fourteen years, when it came to crimethink. This hasty departure was the source of great remorse for her, and years later, in her early thirties, married and the mother of a young child, she still longed for him.

The silky black of the night: Jang, the poet-escapee, had his own bizarre tale of a journey that begins in the unlighted streets of Pyongyang. As a young writer in his twenties, he says, he composed an epic poem that delighted Kim Jong-il (you’ll never guess the subject). One night after midnight the phone rings, and the caller tells Jang, “I am issuing an Extraordinary Summons. Report to work by one a.m. Wear a suit. You are not to notify anyone else.” Leaving his parents asleep, Jang puts on his best suit and tie and hops on his bike to pedal into the frogless dark.

Outside, there are no streetlights lit. The silence of the capital city is so absolute that I can only sense the presence of passers-by before their dark shapes loom into my vision. The electricity supply is in a perpetual state of emergency, even though there are two power stations serving the city. … [N]either produces enough power to supply more than one district of the city at a time. So, like a roaming ghost, power settles in rotation on sections of Pyongyang for about four hours a day.

It is not out of the question that the summons might be to his own execution–you never know in the Democratic People’s Republic–but it turns out he is invited to a banquet in a secret palace of Kim Jong-il’s, along with the country’s most senior experts in South Korean affairs, among them army generals and party secretaries. The guests are served fish, meat, wine, a dessert of ice cream soaked in liqueur and set alight. Jang does not specify beyond that, but the Kims’ former Japanese chef reports both the late Kim Jong-il and his corpulent son and heir loved sushi, lobster, Uzbek caviar, Kobe steak, shark fin soup, Cristal champagne. One rare dish was not on the menu: good, old North Korean frog. Nor were field mice, nor snakes and worms, nor nettles, nor cicadas and dragonflies, nor a porridge of pounded pine bark and grass, nor hoarded grains of rice boiled in a watery soup nor bits of undigested corn plucked from animal manure, nor the foul gunk scraped from the cargo holds of freighters that had carried imported rice–none of the foodstuffs the Dear Leader’s subjects were consuming. “We had to eat everything alive, every type of meat that we could find; anything that flew, that crawled on the ground,” one former inmate of Political Prison Camp No. 15 at Yodok told the U.N. commission. “Any grass that grew in the field, we had to eat.”

When Kim Jong-il, seated at his dinner table, summons Jang for the honor of clinking wine glasses with the Dear Leader, the poet scurries over and bows, bent double at the waist. From this position he notices something odd beneath the table. The nation’s leader-god, also known as the General, has removed his shoes. “Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet!” Jang puzzles. “I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet. That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles…” Kim’s shoes have high heels and inner lifts at least two inches thick. These, like his permed, oatmeal-drum haircut, are merely means of disguising his height of five foot three inches. Kim uses the coarsest language, muddling subjects and predicates, not the elegant, beautiful speech he does in books. He calls his top leaders not “Comrade” but “You!” and “Boy!” He does reveal an exquisite sense of humor, though. When they meet, he accuses Jang of having plagiarized his poem. “Don’t even think about lying to me,” Kim says. “I’ll have you killed.” Then he chuckles. Haha! Just kidding. A barrel of laughs, Kim Jong-il.

A band performs, fronted by a chanteuse in a white dress. She sings a poignant Russian folk song. Everyone present scrutinizes Kim for his reaction. And guess what! The Dear Leader is moved! He dabs his eyes with a handkerchief, even cries! These generals and senior cadres, among the most powerful men in the country, all pull out their handkerchiefs, and weep in solidarity with their leader-god.

“Can I escape this banquet with my life?” Jang writes. “But before I can think any further, my own eyes feel hot and tears begin to flow down my cheeks. … As I repeat these words, I must cry, I must cry, my tears grow hotter and anguished shouts burst from somewhere deep within me.”

Later, on his way home, now a hero, a member of The Admitted, who has clinked glasses with Kim Jong-il, Jang is disturbed by the memory of the Leader’s emotional outburst. “A distressing thought grips me,” he writes, “and it’s hard to shake off: those were not the tears of a compassionate divinity but, rather, of a desperate man.”


Judgment Day

While much has changed in Vladivostok over the years, one constant remains on the labor scene: there is still a market for North Koreans workers doing home repair. There were North Koreans in town when I visited in 2014, and a Facebook contact recently posted in Russian: “Friends! Share phone numbers of our North Korean friends–those who can remodel. Preferably, a foreman who speaks Russian.” When someone challenged him, “Why Koreans?” he answered, “Koreans did an excellent job the previous time. The doors that a Korean installed work excellently. Those that a Russian had installed were lopsided. Also the time it takes, of course. Our guys procrastinate for too long.”

01 Trukhanenko NK bricklayerNorth Korean bricklayer in Vladivostok, Russia. Photo © Valentin Trukhanenko.

Shortly after my story on the guest workers ran, a North Korean rang the doorbell of our apartment at dinnertime and introduced himself. Hyo-sik, we’ll call him. He was a scrawny thirty-two-year-old no taller than my stepson Sergei, who was then eleven. In broken Russian he offered his services: painting, remodeling, opening doors in walls between rooms, laying down linoleum–you name it. Given the FSB’s warning about angering Pyongyang, Nonna and I had been watching for any signs of interest in us among North Koreans, and in such a frame of mind, it seemed suspicious that he had suddenly shown up at our place and was without the usual companions. He seemed friendly enough, however, and when Nonna said she had no work for him, he looked so disappointed, she invited him to dinner. He wolfed down a meal of fish and potatoes, asked for seconds.

“At home, there isn’t enough food for everybody,” Hyo-sik said.

When he stood to go, he demonstrated his poverty by poking his fingers through the holes in his trousers. “Do you have any small men’s pants?”

We gave Hyo-sik a pair of Sergei’s jeans. He slipped into Sergei’s bedroom to try them on, then came back out to show us. Ta-da! Perfect fit. Hyo-sik then asked if we had any old videocassettes. We dug out an old one and gave it to him.

In the Soviet era, sailors returning from foreign ports of call used to smuggle forbidden pop LPs and cassettes into the country–the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull–and nowadays there is a monument in downtown Vladivostok to these cultural revolutionaries who, simply because they liked the sound of the beat or thought they could make a good capitalist buck off a rare commodity, defied the state and spread the Dionysian message of freedom and sex and rock ’n’ roll. This is happening in North Korea, too. Park recalls how, at her aunt and uncle’s house when she was a child, they would close the curtains and secretly watch smuggled movies on the VCR: Cinderella, Snow White, James Bond. The picture that changed her life, however, was Titanic. She was amazed that in 1912 people had better technology than North Koreans, and it shocked her that anyone could film “such a shameful love story.” In her country the filmmakers would have been executed. No private love was allowed, only love for the Leader.

A poster in a North Korean kindergarten urges
students to be quiet. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

But in Titanic [she writes], the characters talked about love and humanity. I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.

Nonna and I liked to imagine we played our own little part in opening the eyes of our neighbors south of the Tumen: the children, the lovers, the sufferers, the hunger artists, the eaters of dragonflies and frogs. We thought of Hyo-sik and his family, like Park’s, drawing the curtains and gathering around the TV to watch the videocassette we gave him. It opens with credits against a deep blue, cloudy sky of the sort Kim Il-Sung might manifest himself in on the day of his Second Coming. Except that this movie would not be the sort his people would want to be caught watching on Judgment Day. It was a love story. It was called Groundhog Day.

—Russell Working



For a discussion of the regime’s understanding of race, see B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.

Bruce Cumings describes the toll of the U.N. bombing campaign in The Korean War: A History.

The Chosun Ilbo article, “150,000 N. Koreans Sent to Slave Labor Abroad,” ran in the English language edition.

The Dong-a Ilbo reported on the Choi Deok-geun case in an article titled “Russia asked to reinvestigate 1996 murder of SK diplomat.

Robert Neff discusses the memorial stars in his post, “Who Murdered the South Korean Consul and Why?” for The Marmot’s Hole blog.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers, was published this year by Penguin Press.

“Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!”: Jang Jin-sung’s 2014 memoir Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea  tells of the wall slogans and the Corpse Division. Jang is also the source of the report of North Korean arrestees being returned home in coffins.

The U.N.’s Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tells of “unspeakable atrocities” in North Korea.

A Bloomberg article printed in The Economic Times of India (“China’s one-child policy may skew country’s gender ratios”) reports China’s sex ratio as one hundred sixteen to one hundred. China Daily also reports the balance in an article titled, “Chinese men outnumber women by 34 million.”

Ethan Epstein reports seeing people in Korean wedding outfits in Dandong in his article for Slate magazine, “Staring at North Korea.”

In a story titled, “The Staggering Costs of North Korea’s Rocket Launch,” The Wire’s John Hudson discusses North Korea’s willingness to sacrifice international food aid in order to press ahead with its rocket program, despite massive starvation. While he puts the North Korean army’s lower height limit at four-foot-nine, NPR, in a story titled “Hunger Still Haunts North Korea, Citizens Say,” pegs it at two inches shorter.

Peter Foster reported on famine as recently as 2011 in The Daily Telegraph under the headline “North Korea faces famine: ‘Tell the world we are starving.’”

In an article for London’s Daily Mail, John Power, Miwako Ozawa, and Tim Macfarlan discuss the Kims’ culinary tastes.

Journalist Barbara Demick tells Mi-ran’s story in her 2009 book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel & Grau).

A story in CyberGolf.com, headlined “All-Time Golf Scoring Record Goes with Death of Kim Jong il,” celebrated the Dear Leader’s prowess on the links. The article is undated, but Kim Jong-il died December 17, 2011.

Wired magazine notes that the smuggling of foreign movies continues to this day. In “The Plot to Free North Korea With Smuggled Episodes of ‘Friends,’” Andy Greenberg reported on smugglers who take USBs loaded with American and South Korean films and TV shows into the DPRK.


Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly,The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the ChicagoTribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, theBoston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.



Jan 082016



Slip along the alleyway then down several steps to the basement door. Enter the musicians’ cave in east end Toronto, a well ordered small apartment featuring floor to ceiling shelves of LPs, books, speakers, record player, and an electronic keyboard. Hiccup of time travel; for a moment I feel it’s 1976 and I’m visiting a pal in one of those Vancouver basement apartments we all lived in.




Except it’s 2015 and Slim Twig (aka Max Turnbull) is very much a man of the day, maybe the hour. We live in an era when time collapses, and musicians freely pluck from the past, present and future.

A record rotates on the turntable, playing something spacey, jazz inflected. The ceiling is low and there is a distinct lack of windows. The faint whiff of incense is familiar. Sandalwood? Max, being tall and slim, just about brushes his head against the ceiling. A small wooden table with a pair of chairs, perfectly scaled for the space,reminds me that he shares this cozy apartment with his wife, musician Meg Remy (aka U.S. Girls) and that she is currently on tour. Max is about to head off for Europe for his own Slim Twig tour, with bandmates Simone Tisshaw-Baril on drums; Anthony Nemit on lead guitar; Carolyn Bezic on bass and vocals (and on last month’s U.S.A. tour, Tim Westberg on vocals and bass) to promote the new album: Thanks for Stickin’ with Twig. I’ve been listening to the record all week, falling into its sonic spell.

Max works with heavy distortion and fuzz, saturated in old-school psychedelia. Why disguise his voice this way? “I’m reticent about singing more plainly,’ he says. ‘Authenticity is not what I’m trying to do.’ He notes that ‘even the Dylan/Neil Young singer/songwriter voice is a projection. Playing yourself is a sort of persona.’ David Bowie, a man who’s been known to switch gears and image frequently, comes up as an influence.

Turnbull has been playing with personae since the beginning of his career, launching himself with a record of his own songs while still a teenager. The ‘Slim Twig’ name appears on that early disk and when I ask if the name, chosen so long ago, has become a burden, he allows that it would have made sense to switch to another name two records back, when his sound matured and changed radically. Reviewers of early records noted rockabilly elements, and indeed, he once wore pointy toed shoes and a pompadour hair stye. The music press can be literal; one can’t help but notice that some writers took Slim Twig to be a neo-rockability artist, which he never was. The gig was always about appropriating elements of genre, mashing styles and sonic impulses, to create something new. You never would have mistaken Twig for Carl Perkins, redux.

If he sported a goatee, he’d look like a young Frank Zappa.


When I spoke to him, Max’s fall North American tour had just wound up and he was prepping for a European tour in December. Max had been apprehensive going into American tour, for the usual reasons: would the audiences be dispiritingly small? How would the logistics work? He and his bandmates couch surf or bunk together in motel rooms on the road. ‘But I was on a positivity trip, realizing that I was doing exactly what I want to be doing, playing my own music and performing.’ There was the sense of a ‘direct mission’ in each day: travel/setup/performing. Mind you, the trip wasn’t without stress; en route to the border on the first day, Simone, the drummer, realized she’d scooped up her roommate’s passport by mistake. Turn the van around three hours’ in.

The concern about attracting small crowds is legitimate: Turnbull has attracted a good deal of attention and press in his career (he’s barely 27 years old), and he’s been prolific (half a dozen records of his own and multiple production credits and playing with other bands) yet he admits that ‘because each record is so stylistically different, it’s hard to create a fan base. It feels like with each album I start at square one.’ He confesses to feeling daunted by the prospect of ‘what my life will look like in years to come, how I’ll squeeze out a living.’ He’s frugal in his living habits, and allows that ‘the music is a consolation for that frugality.’ He says this in a straight-forward way, not a hint of whining. He is surrounded by the objects he loves; his family lives a block away in the Bain Co-Op where he was raised; and his cinderblock elementary school sits on its asphalt playground just down the road.

Turnbull composes by finding the ‘cracks between styles, forming a patchwork aesthetic–rather than making something in an established tradition’. He ‘composts’ diverse influences. A voracious consumer of music from the past and present, he allows that he’s a bit of a ‘Dad rocker’ pulling sounds from the 60‘s and 70‘s (Beatles –especially Rubber Soul and Revolver; Frank Zappa; David Bowie). There is a certain wry humour in his tone, because while he may appropriate elements of style from half a century ago, the sound he ends up with is less homage and closer to being newer -than-new, at least to my ears. In the current album, ‘I try to make music that is era ambiguous.’

What about the song on ‘Thanks for Stickin’ With Twig’ featuring a chorus that admonishes: ‘Live in Your Era.’ Kind of a joke, given the fact the song references the past throughout. There’s a meta thing going on in Twig’s music and if the listener is well versed in music of the present and of earlier decades, she’ll have fun recognizing the bits of composted material. I give in to the slowed-down drone voice, the fillips of pop, crashing metal, the parody of stoner state of mind. Which brings me to – what about this ‘stoner’ thing, in songs that embrace fuzz, distortion, repetition, not to mention the verse ‘stoned out of my mind’ ? Not exactly a subtle presentation.

‘I’ve cultivated the image playfully,’ Max insists. ‘I wasn’t involved with stoner culture in my teens, and in my 20’s weed has an impact on how I experience music.’ He aims to ‘create music that takes in that experience without having to smoke’ – by offering a ‘heightened atmosphere.’ ‘I don’t want to be a spokesperson for drug use,’ he hastens to say, ‘but it’s a valuable resource, a certain phrase can be heard in a different mode or perspective. Drugs can be a crutch, but useful.’ This is sounding sort of medicinal. He continues: ‘The poet, James Merrill would write a poem while sober, smoke, and different things would pop up.‘ Later, I look up a Paris Review interview with the eminent poet and discover that he used the Ouija board as a collaborator in his writing. Merrill adds this comment: “I do now and then take a puff of grass, or a crumb of Alice Toklas fudge, when I’ve reached the last drafts of a poem. That’s when you need X-ray eyes to see what you’ve done, and the grass helps. Some nice touches can fall into place.”

What you’ll hear in Twig’s new record, as well as in earlier work, is a fervent impulse towards sonic experimentation. I’m reminded of of the Nihilist Spasm Band, the group of London, Ontario artists who formed a noise band back in the ’60’s, in the way Twig samples and pushes unabashedly into the fringes of what music is, or could be. This is often challenging for the listener. One wouldn’t call Twig a tunesmith, though tunes lurk. On-line reviews approach the music from all angles, some as ranting unbelievers, and others as die-hard fans, eager to go along for the ride. Some writers find his work pretentious and overblown. Max himself confesses to ‘a sense of entitlement in my early 20’s. Now I’m humbled by being a musician trying to earn a living.’ A cranky Pitchfork review of the new album concludes, ‘But in Slim Twig’s incessant and overbearing winks to the camera, he’s lost sight of his own potential.’ Exclaim.ca is more willing to listen with open ears: ‘This gloriously woozy record is era-ambiguous and the sonic equivalent of a contact high.’

Let’s not overdo the stoner aspect; Turnbull is a perfectionist, deep in there with his ten thousand hours of painstaking effort. Being a Leo, ‘I’ve always liked to be the boss and show off. It’s helpful (in this line of work) to have a healthy ego and at the same time be aware of it.’ When he steps on stage ‘I feel I adopt something beyond my everyday personality. It’s supposed to be outrageous and confrontational; you’re expected to go beyond yourself.’ He shrugs. ‘It’s not that hard; I have an aptitude.’ I’ve seen him perform, long limbs thrashing as he takes over the stage, a nod to his rocker predecessors.

In earlier days he held a more ‘antagonistic attitude towards guitar playing,’ being more inclined to electronic experimentation. Now he feels that he can use the traditional setup of guitar/keyboards and drums. ‘ My taste has become less standoffish and punky. I’m old fashioned in that I like to bend convention but still create work that is sturdily made.’

Clickety click, the needle comes to the end of the record and Max reaches to flip it over.

The importance of visuals and video in Twig’s work can be explained by his upbringing. His parents, Ross Turnbull and Jennifer Hazel are writer/filmmakers and this was a family whose life ‘revolved around a constant engagement with culture. They were keen on us experiencing things together as a family unit; they took to parenting in a creative way — my sister (Lulu Hazel Turnbull, age 22) and I are pieces that my mother fostered.’

This is also a family that I’ve known, on and off, for over twenty years. I recall Jennifer telling me that the crew would hunker down in front of the VCR to watch what were clearly ‘adult’ movies, by artists like David Lynch. From the get-go, the kids were plunged into the world of art and film and literature. Max notes that his mother ‘spent the amount of time that a writer might have spent writing, on raising her children.’ He understands the sacrifice. Slim Twig music videos tend to be family affairs, directed by parents, starring Jennifer and LuLu, as well as Max. They are avant garde, tiny movies, complete unto themselves, and don’t reference the music in any literal way. Max has scored a couple of his parents’ feature length movies, and starred as lead actor in Sight Unseen.

When I ask about his acting career, Max is diffident. ‘Acting is a mechanism to make money. I don’t like auditioning and being on set, though I do like working on interesting stuff, like Sight Unseen and Dog Pound (where he played a juvenile inmate). He played Billy Zero in The Tracey Fragments, a film starring Ellen Page.

‘I’m a bit of a late bloomer,’ Max allows, referring to the fact he just left the family nest a year or so ago. ‘Meeting Meg turned my whole world over. I wouldn’t be as advanced in my music if I hadn’t met her. She’s a huge catalyst. And I think that me taking her seriously as an artist has been huge for her. Now she’s successful, signed with a great label, and she’s living the dream of making music and earning a living.’

Sitting knee to knee with this man, I feeling a sort of tenderness that is perhaps inevitable, considering I knew him as a kindergarten kid, then as adolescent. I recall a slightly worried child whose sudden smile broke open the clouds. Heading into the European tour in a few days, Max is getting stressed about the logistics. Where will they stay each night? Will the promoters look after them properly?

And what about plans post-tour? I’m staring at a fat volume of Dylan lyrics propped against the turntable. Maybe a foray into neo-folk? Not exactly. The plan is to record a version of funk music – thinking of Bowie’s ‘plastic soul’ album; white soul, a step sideways from the original ‘authentic’ genre. ‘I want to make music that has a physical impact,’ Twig says. ‘ So much of my music has been cerebral, focused on creating a space and state of mind. With funky drumming, you can put anything on top.’

Time to walk down the hallway and climb the steps to blink into the light of day. Musicians, as we know, are night owls, happiest in their subterranean lairs.

—Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.


Jan 072016

Lewis Parker


Such has been my lot since childhood. Everyone read signs of non-existent evil traits in my features. But since they were expected to be there, they did make their appearance.
            – Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time


It’s a common misconception that men who have relationships on the Internet, with women who’ve just got out of psychiatric units, are creepy. But if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a creep. Last week, when I helped my aunt Denise carry some videos into the Age Concern shop where she volunteers, she called me a strapping young man. That’s more like it. I’m good at scaring away burglars. If you live in the Hinckley area and you think you’re being burgled, don’t bother with the pigs, give me a call. I’m not in bad shape for twenty eight. Although last week, after urinating through the local paedophile’s letterbox, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to run away fast enough. I wouldn’t normally give two thoughts to my own safety, but since I’ve started seeing this woman, I’ve started to think, what if I slip on some dog shit and the nonce catches up with me? And he’s with seven or eight of his nonce mates, and they’ve all got iron bars, and they put me in hospital? If I was in a full body cast, I wouldn’t be able to email Christine. That’s the woman I’m seeing. Well, seeing. I’ve hardly seen anything yet.

Whether I’m driving round the country in my lorry, or if I’m lying in bed with the polyrhythmic jive of Rhythm Is a Dancer still in my ears after deejaying at a wedding, all I’ve been able to think about lately is Christine and her knees. I imagine us chugging along, when I point out the window and say, “There’s that new service station I was telling you about.” While she’s not looking I reach across, lift the plate of food and squeeze her knee.

Here’s my latest missive:

Hi Christine,

Thanks for the new batch of snaps. Please keep sending this way. The thought of you missing a meal gets at me like DJs so up themselves they won’t take requests. You know the type. I don’t know who gets more out of these photos of salad — you or me.

The veggie burgers and quiches look like something I would pay good money to eat in a restaurant, even though I am not a vegetarian.

You’re clearly a talented chef. You should consider a career in the catering industry when you’re feeling well enough to look for work. If you need a reference, you know you can count on me. I attended a Hotel Management course at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College. And I used to work in the serving hatch at the Hinckley United football ground until I became the subject of one of the crowd’s bawdy songs.

Attached are some pictures I took of the 3,000 Years of Bread show at the Spittle Rooms on Thursday. The sound was sludgy and some bonehead security guard confiscated my kazoo. When I spoke to him after the show Mitchell from 3KYB said he still hadn’t got round to listening to the mix CD I gave him in Nottingham in February. But he will do very soon, he promised, and if he likes what he hears, there may be a slot coming up as their next tour DJ!

Later alligator.


She could probably be a star on Instagram with her photos, but she shuns fame and sends them to me instead. Last week she sent me photos of a pizza half-eaten on her Saturday-night knees in front of the TV, Yorkshire puddings covered in gravy titled ‘starters!’ (she’s from some northern slum), a box of popcorn balanced on her cinema knees, salads, curries, and lentil dishes I’m not going to pretend I know the names of. In the last few weeks our relationship has segued into a faster tempo — we email at least twice a day — but Christine still hasn’t shown more than the leg her food is rested on, from the bits of her lower thigh where the plate ends to the tip of her kneecap.

If that kneecap’s the tip of an iceberg, I’m the Titanic.

Mum calls me with a yap that’s indistinguishable from that of Cindy, her King Charles spaniel. “Can you hear me?” she yells up at me. “Go and help your father. Give him a hand with the hose pipe.”

The old man’s in his golf waterproofs unravelling the hose. I shut my curtains. Dark world in here. It’s my own party palace, Club Stig, and it’s always me on tunes. Requests on the hour, every hour. Shockwave in the house, your resident selector. Chock-a-block with club bangers and classic rock.

“Michael, help your father.”

She’s listening to the songs of Queen on the pan pipes. In the past I’ve got my own back on her by burning Ibiza compilations onto blank discs and swapping them for that guff she buys from the Body Shop. I turn up my 90s Megamix, but her screams come through the carpet, so I yell back down, “Shut up, you stupid bitch.”

She tries to get my attention from outside the door. Something about the noise, the smoke machine, the electric bill, and how she won’t be spoken to in her house. Who will be spoken to like that in her house, then? I certainly will not.

When she’s done yapping I breeze through the semi-detached and jump into my Vauxhall Astra. She follows me out to the front garden and does her standard irrational-woman impression. When I was a kid, they’d come from as far as Barwell and Earl Shilton to see her raving on the front lawn. On summer nights there would be fifteen to twenty kids from the neighbouring villages sitting on the grass bank by the bypass at six o’clock, when word had got round that she called me in from play. First she’d stand on the front step and scream, then she’d come out wearing her fluffy slippers and dressing gown that was too short, so it showed her legs all white and plucked. When she dragged me in, the kids would cheer my name. She always used to call me an imbecile for watching WWF wrestling, but she was the one who’d copy the wrestlers when she pointed at the kids and screamed, “You shut up.”  Then they’d cheer as the door slammed behind me and I could still hear them while I was having my arse smacked. I give her the finger through the sunroof as I drive out the cul-de-sac and onto the A47.

It’s a five-minute drive to Halford’s at the Greenfields retail park, but I can get there in three. I park in the staff car park and lock my car with a flick of the wrist as I’m going through the sliding doors. I turn around and point to the back of my jacket with my thumbs. It says my DJ name, Shockwave, in white iron-on letters.

“Security to the front desk. Security to the front desk.”

Halfords is one of the last true friends of the car and haulage hustler. A petrolhead can browse the equipment with a sense of religious belonging, walking up and down the aisles, amazing novices with his scholarship of true bass speakers, exterior protectors, body styling, tints and strips, door-lock pins, exhaust trims. As the expert among the experts, I can enthuse about air horns, high-intensity discharge lights, badges and graphics, stickers and stripes. Often I’m called upon to intervene in a situation of tense customer relations drama, when Nigel — an expert in hi-viz clothing and the uses of WD40 but not much else — is out of his depth trying to assist with an engine-based query. If Maureen the security guard is unable to deal with inappropriate customer behaviour or slacking among the staff, I’ve been known to intervene.

“He’s about six foot tall, looks like a big jelly baby, and he’s got Shockwave printed on the back of his jacket.”

Nigel turns off the microphone but won’t make eye contact. “You’d better leave.”

“You talking to me?”

“You’re barred.”


“Calling a customer a nonce.”

“Is it because you’re a nonce?”


“Is it because you’re a nonce, though?”


“You’re a bit of a nonce yourself, aren’t you?”

“Security to the front desk.”

There’s a woman looking lost among the chamois leathers and polishes. In my Marks and Spencer’s jeans and boat shoes, I feel like Jeremy Clarkson on the deck of an aircraft carrier striding towards a lonely female mechanic. In slow motion, with Meat Loaf on the soundtrack.

“Hello, madam.”


“Shockwave.” I pause and let her take that in. “I help out round here.”

“Do you work here?”

“Looking for anything in particular?”

“My husband sent me out to get some wax.”

My hands are on my hips, and I’m shaking my head at a man delegating such a sensitive matter. I breathe out and make a hissing sound. “You’ve been stood there about ten minutes and nobody’s bothered to help.”

While I’m recommending the Armor All Shield Wax, Maureen the security guard — Slow Mo, as I call her — emerges from the end of the Car Styling aisle. Six months ago, I would have stayed and fought, but with Christine in the picture, it’s not worth it. I tell the woman I’m off to scout for new Top Gear locations along the Earl Shilton bypass. I palm her my business card.


DJ. Lorry driver. Vigilante.

Hinckley and Nuneaton area.

Call to arrange a DJ set, parcel delivery or security solution.

In the McDonald’s drive-thru I do some maintenance work in the rear-view mirror while waiting for my meal. My server is Jill, who I know without looking at her badge is a two-star employee. Franklin, my mate who worked here before throwing himself onto the M1 at Leicester Forest East, managed two stars before his tragic demise. If Jill doesn’t hurry up I may have to give her the benefit of my opinion.

“I could have bought a herd of cows and slaughtered them myself at this rate.”


“Ketchup and a straw please, Jill.”

“Can you turn your music down?”

“Loud?” I turn it up to eleven. The bass from DJ Luck and MC Neat almost knocks her off her feet. “That’s loud.” I point to the napkins and hold out my paper bag, having already started grabbing at the chips and eating them. “Shove them in there.”

I pull into my usual bay outside the Fitness First where I’m a member. While I’m eating my Extra Value Meal, I give my brother Marty a ding. He used to be in a rock band that were pretty big in the Hinckley and Nuneaton area. You might have heard of Bearded Woman. They played on one of the small stages at the Summer Sundae festival in Leicester. He had a job working for a video games manufacturer near Ashby, but now he’s the CEO of his own dating agency in Nottingham, catering to goths and rockers. The other day, when I was sprinting down Castle Street and I thought the area’s top nonce Geoff Doyle had called the five-o, I had no choice but to call Marty and tell him about Christine, so he could let her know in case something happened to me. But he’s not picking up. He’s probably on the driving range, warming up for his golf game with the old man.

While I’m sitting there, I get a new email from Christine. The subject is ‘Saturday brunch,’ and it’s a picture of a poached egg with hollandaise sauce on an English muffin. It’s balanced, as usual, on her knees. She’s wearing blue jeans, baggy and faded, the kind of thing I could imagine her wearing if we went to B&Q to get the materials for our deluxe soundproof shed.

I reply with a link to Chris’s Mix 19. It starts with the Artful Dodger featuring Craig David’s classic Re-Rewind from 1999, with me freestyling over it. This goes out to the coolest girl in the world, Christine. Helping you get over your problems. Don’t let the people take you away again. Here’s to your food diary. Eat, eat, eat and rewind. Eat a bit more. All those lovely cakes. Chocolate, biscuits, all them goodies, mmm. Don’t be scared. You’re not fat. You’re a beautiful woman. You can do it, baby. Shockwave’s behind you.

She replies with an emoji — two thumbs up.

Back at the house, Dad’s Rover 75 is gone from the driveway, so I’ve got the place to myself. I crank up another Megamix, but when Cindy keeps yapping outside my door and messes with my levels, I flip her a sedative. Ten minutes later she’s stiff as cardboard. I pick her up, tickle her belly, check if she’s still breathing then get back to the ol’ Messenger.

Yo, C. That muffin looks nice. Ever had them with bacon, sausage and brown sauce?

Yep had bacon and sausage but not for ages and never on a muffin, it’s so good, the hollandaise sauce, you can make it yourself, ever so easy.

We could make them together you know.

Listening to megamix 19 now, probs the best one yet!

What’s your favourite track?

They’re all good but if I had to choose, apart from your dedication (<3) track 14.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! I want you in my room. We’ll spend the night together. Together in my…! Good choice. I listen to it when I’m stressed. That and Robbie Williams, Strong. You have to be strong, Chris. I know you think I live the life of Riley, always touring – stopping off at Road Chefs and playing the frooties when I feel like it, having two bags of chips at two consecutive road stops, doing what I like with my banging community of haulage hustlers – but the party palace is driving me up the wall. After I’d been up all night having it large, I only went and flipped DJ Slimy Fingers (my housemate)’s dog a sedative. Think I might have killed her. He’s in with some pretty unsavoury characters, so I need to lie low for awhile…

A few minutes pass. I consider sending her another message to check if she received my previous message. Patience, the wheel. While I wait for her to get back to me, I drop my jeans round my ankles and scroll through my Christine album to the chocolate fudge cake.

This has been approved by the lady herself. After we’d started messaging one another on the HAVOCA forum and she started emailing me her food photos, I told her snaps made the blood rush to my cock. She asked if it was her or the food that got me going. I told her it was the whole thing. She replied in seconds and said, are you feeling horny now, Shockwave, and I said yes. She asked if the photos made me want to touch myself. I said, if I did it right now, would you mind? If you say no, I promise I won’t. I’d never do it without your permission. She said no, I don’t mind. I asked if she wanted to see me do it, and she said yes.

I turned on my webcam.

Just as I get going, I hear Mum’s shrill voice. It could wilt a daffodil. I button my jeans and peek out the door, where Cindy’s in deathly repose. Mum’s coming up the stairs, moaning about the state of the bins. I wish I’d spiked her, but I don’t have access to chemicals that strong. When she finds Cindy, she screams, kicks my door, calls me the son of Satan, tells me to come out. Then she says if I come out, she’s going to murder me. Dad tries to pull her away from the door and says in his limpid hush that wouldn’t stop a kitten, “Cath, don’t be hysterical. There’s an emergency vet in Leicester.”

“She’s dead, Martin. That useless oaf’s killed her. I gave birth to a dog murderer. I should have asked for an exorcist, not a midwife. He never lifts a finger. He does nothing with his life but gawp at his computer and batters his brain with that music. When he does do something, it’s this. This. This!”

The usual.

When I’ve bundled socks, pants, changes of shirt and The World According To Clarkson in a holdall, I wait for her to scream herself out. Then I open my door and creep across the landing. So long, cruel house, with your menopausal wallpaper. I stop at the top of the stairs and listen to her psychotic breathing. The old man’s knelt by the witch’s chair, holding her arm, trying to stop her from going apeshit again. Dead Cindy’s in her lap. My foot presses onto the first stair. It creaks. Bleeding cheapo houses knocked out of plywood.

“Martin, he’s moving.” Shuffle of bunions. “I’ll disembowel him.”

I bustle downstairs. Lashes of mad hair rage from the living room. Piercing scream, arms spinning. I shield myself with the holdall, clocking a couple of blows over the bag, then a dig to the ribs and a kick from her rapier toenails. I shove-kick her backwards into Dad’s arms then pull the door towards me, jump out and pull it shut when I’m outside, locking her in. Rabid witch squashed against the frosted window. I leg it out to my car in the cul-de-sac, shoeless gravel feet, ow, ow. I’m reversing when the mad woman bursts out in a pale craze. Revving out of the second point of the turn, she collides with my back window, grabs at the locked door, snags the aerial, fingers scrape the roof. I release the clutch, down the juice. Trusty impeller spins in my turbocharger and I surge forwards. She’s thrown off and I feel ten tonnes lighter.

I stop at the entrance to the A47. It’s Saturday evening. Headlights scream across the pub-brawl night. Halfords shut at five. Besides, I’m barred. Will have to find another branch — Nuneaton or Coventry. Maybe they’re open later. Check the web on my phone: nope. Macca D’s? Twice in one day — no way, Jose. Pint down the Mill on the Soar. It’s a ten-minute drive but I can do it in seven. Not the local exactly, just a cosy hotel-restaurant on the way to Broughton, but I dip in for a pint every now and then. Familiar sights, tinkling lights, few frooties to boot.

I sit on a sofa with my Abbot ale, browsing the Halfords catalogue. Leaf through the Car Entertainment and Technology section. Christine’s still not online.

In the mental space to appreciate the Mill’s renovations, I plonk my pint on the coffee table and wiggle my toes underneath. Roadside pubs are my favourite. You wonder how a premises licensed to serve alcohol would stay afloat if you have to drive to it, but you forget how popular they are among the hidden elite: travelling middle managers, assistant headteachers and regional historians. Ukip and Tory voters mostly, the quiet majority, my type of people. I tell the couple of hotel guests from out of town, wearing their Marks and Spencer’s casuals, bonding over scampi, that it may not look very lively for a Friday evening, but you get a lot of people from Lutterworth coming here on their way to Hinckley, usually around lunchtime. They don’t understand the significance. Two towns not far enough apart to warrant a road stop? Such places thrive for one reason, I tell them. No, not even the convenience. It’s the glamour of anonymity.

I check my phone to see if Christine’s online. Still nothing.

When I’m done with my pint, I head back to the car, pull the breathalyser out of the glove compartment and blow a 0.42. I’m under the limit. While I’m sitting shoeless in the driving seat, Christine’s name flashes on my phone. She says she received my previous message. I tell her how everything kicked off at home while I had entered the Club Stig’s action area. She asks me where I am. Do I want to carry on? I tell her she read my mind. Let me reverse into a better spot — lucky, the carpark’s almost empty.

It started in my room, but if I get a message from her and I’m in a truck stop late at night, I’ll pull over and do it wherever I am. Lay-bys, service station toilets, in my car with the lights off. If I’m kipping over, I’ll set up on my lorry’s cot bed, where there’s a Bugatti Veyron poster and a cord light. I don’t get caught. I’m not trying to get caught either. I’m not a creep. The power in this thing is dangerous enough. I normally have one of Christine’s photos on the screen, maximised. Cake, polenta, salad, luring me through vectors. Like a lush rainforest through vinyl drapes. I look at the knees and the plate of food and think of her finger clicking the button on top of the camera, how it makes me feel a sudden jump. Sometimes, I turn Christine off. She doesn’t know, but I turn off the screen and whack myself off into the black void.

The phone’s in its cradle by the gear stick with the sound and video broadcasting. There’s light from the advertising board on the side of the pub. I scroll to the most recent batch of photos with my left hand, half an eye on the rear-view mirror in case somebody pulls in. On the 4.5-inch Samsung screen is a high-resolution photo of Christine’s chocolate cake, a dangling square orb. I swipe across — next — and it’s the spinach and ricotta parcel. Next. Banana in a bowl of custard. Next. Eggs benedict. Next, next, next.

In my mind, Christine’s cheering me on. I’m her sacrifice, cold as ice, yet hotter than burning rubber. I play music — a Megamix. I get in the zone and the boogie snake takes over. Christine, this goes out to you.

I make sure everything’s folded into the mansize Kleenex — I like how they call them ‘mansize’ when everybody knows what they really mean — and wrap it in a Tesco bag that I keep under the seat. This one’s full, so I tie it in a knot, get out the car and look for a bin. There’s not one outside, so I strut back into the Mill and ask one of the waitresses if they’d mind disposing of some tour debris. I fake a sneeze, wipe my nose with my finger and say, “It isn’t half dusty in there.” I swing the Tesco bag in her direction, but she backs away and says there’s a bin by the entrance to the hotel. While I’m there, I book a room for the night, and the manager gives me a key to a double room. I go back to the car and tell Christine that my Club Stig housemates are doing my head in — I dangle the keys in front of the camera — so I’ve moved into a hotel. It’s a hustler’s hangout, nobody would ask questions.

There’s a Wetherspoons breakfast at the foot of every mountain in life, I’ve told her before. We could stay a night here, a night there, whichever part of the country I’m called to. She can ride shotgun, take lunch on her knees on the seat next to me. We’ll jump on the beds of every motorway Travelodge, fill up on pancakes at every Wimpy and make the most of Pizza Hut lunch buffets. We can make mad orders: try limited-edition frappucinos, fill the salad bowl so high that the lid has to be squashed down, stack up on glossy weeklies, go wild on CD compilations. I’ll cover the bill.

She replies:

why don’t u come here?

I tell her, only if you insist. I don’t want to harm your recovery. Before I can tell her that I only have her best interests at heart, she says that we’ve been building up to this, haven’t we? All this time? Now I’m ready. I wonder when she decided this, and think to ask, but fear that I will put doubt in her mind. She clearly wouldn’t take such a decision lightly, being the kind of person whose mistakes cost her years.

No, I mean it, you can come here. I didn’t want to plan it else I thought I’d get scared and back out. Are you ready?

I’m ready, I tell her.

You’re not backing out now are you? You’ll come for me tonight?

Are you alone? I ask.

Not tonight I won’t be, not with you here.

Alright, text me your address. I’d put it in the sat-nav but I left it behind. Don’t worry, I know my way round.

I turn the key in the ignition and ram into reverse. I don’t bother to stop and look both ways at the entrance to the B4114, but feed the wheel through smooth hands, no crossing, booting through second, over-running third until I hit sixty.

A star in a reasonably priced car. Power.

All roads lead north. Sheffield to be exact, straight up the M1. I turn back on myself and within three minutes I’m on the motorway, throbbing with a pulse deep inside me. Past the bridge at Leicester Forest East, I feel the little bump in the road where Franklin’s bellyflop dented the concrete and had to be re-laid.

Now I live for the moments between departure and arrival. I don’t hear the Megamix so much as live inside it. Its beats are an interior rhythm that have been coded into my spinal cord, like some highly advanced vertebrate that evolved with its own soundtrack. The camera pans alongside me, flown by a helicopter traversing flat fields that occur only as a blur. I can’t help but think that I’m racing against Clarkson, James May and Richard ‘the Hamster’ Hammond in a romantic Top Gear challenge. They may have been kitted out with faster cars and TomToms, but this circuit can only be navigated by the satellite of love.

The Satellite of Love Dab Hands 2004 Retouch Mix comes on as the sign for Yorkshire appears, and it’s like I’ve been compiling a giant showreel in my mind. My life is taking shape. I want to chuck myself about in this perfect moment — bounce along to a 4/4 beat with pint in hand, surrounded by all the lads wearing short sleeves in nippy weather — but I mustn’t take my hands off the wheel. Stare ahead and let your right foot do the work, Shockwave.

I turn off the motorway and prepare for a moment that has already happened. It’s been storyboarded and timelined. Memories of me arriving to rescue Christine were rigged up ages ago. This is just the editing phase, and it’s happening while we’re still in production, but nothing can go wrong, as it’s already happened. The soundtrack has already been mixed. Glitches like forgetting to pack my shoes and sat-nav were written into the script, to make the challenge seem more believable and exciting. I am delivering my life to Christine. DJ sets and security solutions come as standard.

I’ll have no problem finding her address. I have to ask a couple of lairy youths hanging around suspiciously outside Bramall Lane football ground, but I know they’ll give me the wrong directions on purpose, so as I drive away, I crack a joke about how poor everybody is up north, then go the opposite way along the foggy backstreets of Ecclesall Road, where I find the perfect parking space right outside Christine’s front door.

I spend five minutes buffing my exterior. I’m a bit blotchy, but that’s good, it was my plan not to turn up looking like David Beckham, as it would be inauthentic after a challenge. I look at the front door and remind myself how to react when it opens. My entrance is inspired by ‘Dr.’ Neil Fox from the Magic FM breakfast show, when he cruised into Hinckley Asda to snip a ribbon for Loros. But if Dr. Fox is a morning coffee fix, bouncing eyes and treble voiced, Shockwave smiles with his eyes but not in a demented way. He’s cool and relaxed, he’s smooth and sensual, he’s drive-time.

There’s a bright bulb behind Christine’s beige muslin, the drape of choice for students and benefits claimants. The curtain’s about to go up. It’s nearly two hours since I told her I’d be there in two hours. One more look at the time. This is it then.

I get out the car door and — shit the bed — my foot crunches onto a sharp tin can. The rim digs into the arch of my foot and my big toe gets stuck in the hole. I hold onto the car roof for balance and try to dislodge the twisted metal while hopping on glass from the vandalised bus stop. I tug myself out eventually, pulling about half the skin on my big toe with it. I can feel blood from the graze soaking my right sock and glass shards digging into the left sole. But I don’t limp, because I’m hard.

I lock the car. The waist-high gate that needs a lick of paint creaks as I push through and walk up the three yards of slabs. Looking through the frosted glass windows in the door, I can see a couple of bicycles leaning in the hall. Christine hasn’t mentioned that she’s a cyclist. Maybe they belong to her housemates. I won’t hold it against them unless I find out they’re militant cyclists with cameras on their helmets.

It’s about dinner time. We’ll either share our first meal together here or at a Harvester I saw before the turning. It will be on me, of course. From now on, everything will always be on me.

I rap the door in a 4/4 beat. Knock, knock, knock, knock. I wanted you in my — life. A shape moves towards me, dark-haired and tall. The door opens and it’s a young bloke with bad skin and hair artificially straightened into a fringe, holding a can of Red Bull. He looks like somebody who pisses on the toilet seat.

“Is Christine in?”

“Who’s asking?”

“She’s expecting me.”

“You’d better come in then.”

When I’m inside I notice there’s a condom on my toe. Wet and greasy — it’s used — flapping on the dirty laminate floor like some sordid flipper. I flick it off under the bike wheel as I edge past the lad, muttering something about an itch. He closes the door behind us.

“Through there, on the left.”

A lad in his early twenties in a baseball cap, standing in the middle of the living room, points a video camera at me. “Are you Michael, otherwise known as Shockwave?”

On the sofa two lads in trackie bottoms watch a laptop connected to the camera. They’re the kind of people I’ve spent my life crossing the road to avoid — spotty and sniggering beneath Nike caps. I turn to leave, but the one who let me in shuts the living-room door behind him and leans back against it. I hope if I say that I’ve got the wrong address, I can give Christine a call and get her to meet me on neutral ground, because I don’t like her housemates.

“I think I’ve got the wrong house.”

He holds the condom between his fingers and dangles it for the others to see. “Is this yours, mate?”

The others laugh.

“It got stuck to my foot by accident. Have you got a bin? I’ll put it in the bin for you.” I go to take it off him, but as I do, he pulls a cricket bat from behind the armchair. I retreat to the back of the small, undecorated room, and the cameraman dances around me. I can see my own face on the laptop screen, scared and red, wobbling with the shake of the cameraman’s hand as he searches for the right close-up. While I’m looking at the screen, rapid goo slaps me in the face, stinging my eye. I peel the condom off my face and drop it in the disused fireplace where I’m standing.

As they laugh, the cameraman and the guard rush to confer with the two producers on the sofa. They watch replays of the condom striking me. They laugh again, louder, then play it again, asking for close-ups and pauses. “That’s it. Can you get a screen grab of the moment it hits him?”

They giggle at every bit of my humiliation.

“A second later, when it’s in his fingers, and he’s peeling it away, but we can still see his face. That’s the one.”

I rush to the door, but the guard jumps back into position and holds the bat over his shoulder, ready to swing.

“There must be a mix up,” I say again. “I’ve got the wrong house.”

“Shockwave, stop saying you’ve got the wrong house, mate.” The cameraman turns back to me. “What are you doing here? Do you know who we are?”

“Christine told me to come over. She texted me two hours ago. I can show you my phone. Are you her housemates?”

“How do you know Christine?”

“I don’t want to be filmed. Could you stop filming please?”

“He doesn’t like being filmed.” They laugh.

“Turn it off me. Turn it off now.” I palm the camera as it comes towards me, but the guard springs towards me with the bat above his head. I back myself into the corner with my arms raised, but the guard tells me to drop them else he’ll break them. I lower them slowly and he backs off.

“What’ll you do, Shockwave? Get your knob out and have a wank?”

“What you on about?”

“All that stuff you’ve done, it’s not going away.”

“What stuff? I’m here to see Christine, that’s all. If she’s not here, let me out.”

I move my hands towards the window, but one of the producers tells me in a bored voice that it’s locked. I believe him. I believe they were expecting somebody, but not me. They’ve got the wrong idea about who I am, what my life has been, and what my motives are. “Who are you? What do you want?”

But all they do is laugh.

“He’s clearly never heard of us,” the bored producer says.

“Right shame,” the cameraman says. “Because we know all about him.”

When I get out the car for real, I hope my nightmare is locked safely in the boot, where it will die in a head-on crash with reality. My foot lands safely on the can-free road. No used johnnies on my toe this time. The door puffs shut behind me. I resist the temptation to whistle I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross as I go through the gate and towards the terraced house where my future has been incubating. I push my nose up close to the frosted glass: can’t see any bikes in the hallway — a good omen. Just a milky glow from the kitchen, where I can only hope that Christine’s making a brew. I can’t stand here all night deliberating what to do, though, because I can feel the Red Bull surging through me and there’s no toilet near. Worst comes to the worst, I’ve got a baseball bat in the car. I could go and fetch it but that’s not really the look I’m going for. I flick my hand towards the door and then pull it away. I consider dropping a note through the letter box and asking her to meet me in the car, but that’s a bit creepy as well, like I’m trying to get her to go dogging, when that’s exactly the kind of thing I won’t stand for.

I give the door two gentle raps then two harder ones. The light in the hallway comes on. Somebody in a white sleeveless top with long hair, a bit shorter than me, a human female in jeans crumpled over the knees is coming to open the door. The window frosting distorts, but I’m pretty sure I recognise those knees. Now she’s too close, I can’t see down as far as the knees. I should probably step away from the glass so she doesn’t think I’m a window licker. Here she comes. The door swings open. Whatever happens now, Shockwave, you’ll have to freestyle.

—Lewis Parker

Lewis Parker is a writer of fiction, poetry and journalism who is trying to get out of London. A hand-typed book of his poems, Suicide Notes, collects the best things he’s written while working as an écrivain public in the streets and at festivals during the last year. His prose has been in the Guardian, New Statesman, Dazed & Confused and Minor Literature[s], and he has taught at Kingston University in England.


Jan 062016

George Fetherling



Back there our cheeks were
gouged by tears that rinsed our face of knowing.
Eyes weak from pleading, ears grown deaf to sirens,
earth overrun with data while here
the sky is full of context and clouds
provide perspective.

We had to go when things got skewed.
Gin was all we had for washing.
We cleaned our teeth with ashes
but the ashes being yours were sweet.

This is not departure but refusal to remain
not a leaving but an uncoming.

Best keep unread what was printed.
What the recto said to the verso is no one else’s business.
Write it down and salt it well.
The proverbs lack the verbs they chaperone.

We’re heading for that line beyond which
there is no more statute only case law
whenever events break one way and not another.

Ours is a haphazard journey to places
more random than I’m making them sound.

We’ll travel till the country runs out of space
and all the witnesses have died.

This sensation of movement gives me
a dangerous confidence that stretches
noon all the way to midnight and unsolves old crimes.

History neatly tucked away, the splatter patterns
and the long trail of debris.

Stage fright? don’t be silly. The audience
is afraid of me.

J’ai grandi en pleine cambrousse but no more
defiant acts of belonging.

I know a man who deals in second-hand names
and works both sides of the river.

The morgue is decorated for halloween.

Give me a number where I can reach you.


Reply to Closing Arguments

Your dreams were far more grotesque than mine and they came true.

You took the world by subterfuge thinking your insults would
protect you from the vulnerabilities you lack.
All the while you professed a new approach to nightmare abatement.
But don’t some problems heal themselves if we refrain from taunting?
This is a yes or no question Your Honour.
I hope the court will instruct the plaintiff to choose one or the other.

Was progress a requirement when you stepped onstage,
perpetuating stereotypes of those old twin lusts: to live the
embassy life but also despair of it?

My sorrow in this matter runs the risk of infection.

You can’t address this as you did those partnerships annulled
in flashes of ceremony in distant jurisdictions
where the streets are forever leafy and the sun luminous
once springtime returns to the Liberated Zone.


The File Clerk

You update the files with facts you forget
have already been inserted.

The less life remaining, the less patience too
yet the greater your urgency to classify
and betray.

To claim the reward is not reward enough.

It’s all about time, isn’t it?
Another block of days crossed off the calendar
as the user fees nickel-and-dime us to death.



This morning I met a one-armed priest who spread his motto selflessly
and lost an argument with the security cameras down by
the meditation pond.

That first sunrise scarred me for life with its fake urges
and level-one secrets and claims that can’t be verified
even now.

I’ve never forgotten the promise of relief implicit in the dusk
though the trees looked a bit uncertain.
What I mistook for thunder was simply the transit
of day to night that left confusion in the space between.

I can sense when one phase is ending, but who knows what happens next?
Events have numbed us. Ambiguity everywhere.
We, all of us, depart the centre for our separate corners.-
Hijinks, mild explosives, blacked-out trains feeling their way
cross-country in the dark.

—George Fetherling


George Fetherling is a poet, novelist and cultural commentator. He has published 50 books of poetry, fiction, criticism, history and biography. Some of the more recent are The Sylvia Hotel Poems, the novel Walt Whitman’s Secret and a revised 20th anniversary edition of the memoir Travels by Night. He lives in Toronto and Vancouver. Xtra described him as “something of a national literary treasure” and the Toronto Star called him a “legendary” figure in Canadian writing.


Jan 052016

PouringColonyIntoHivePouring the colony into the hive.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I.


When I was a girl, I kept company with bees. Our house stood on an old orchard that had been subdivided into urban lots; our backyard was thick with grapefruit trees. The trunks were painted bright white to keep them from getting sunburnt. I’d often take a book and climb into a tree –the branches were smooth and sturdy– and spend hours there. Cicadas hummed and left their shed exoskeletons on the bark, bees crowded the blossoms. The bees also tried to drink from our swimming pool. Mostly they drowned, though when I saw one flailing there, I’d cup my palm and scoop her up. I’d softly blow on her wet wings. She’d fly away.

Taccuino_Sanitatis,_CasanatenseFrom Taccuino Sanitatis, Casanatense—a medieval health handbook.

The bees –along with camping trips, Indian rodeos, swimming, stargazing, cartwheeling, reading, my family and my dog– were part of my ecosystem. I can’t imagine my girlhood without them. I have always loved the taste of honey.

Bees are messengers, intermediaries between the sun and earth, gods and people, life and death. The message bees carry is holy.

That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.
Marcus Aurelius

Three years ago I set up some hives in my island backyard.

My young son and I were excited when the first colonies arrived. I’d ordered Italians; they came in the mail. Apis mellifera linguistica are the most popular honey bee in the States, known for their affability, their flamboyant honey production, their prodigious breeding. They are also bad housekeepers, improvident, and succumb easily to the cold.

We put on our veils, then poured the bees out from their boxes into the waiting hives.

The hive is shelter, food storage, nursery, palace, and fortress for bees. Wax is secreted from glands in the worker bees’ abdomens. The hexagonal cells of the comb are filled in organized fashion with pollen, honey, eggs and brood. Wild and feral honey bees will find a cave, an eaves, a hole in a wall, any protected enclosure in which to build their comb. After mating, the queen leaves the hive only if there’s an emergency or housing crunch.

Evidence suggests that people have been gathering honey from wild bees for about 15,000 years, and started domesticating bees about 9,000 years ago. Beehive hairdos take their shape from the skep, a hive often woven from straw. Clay pots, mud tubes, tree hollows, and a variety of wooden boxes have all been used by beekeepers as hives. The disadvantage of many traditional hives is that they don’t allow for inspection, manipulation, or easy extraction of honey. Often, all the comb is destroyed when honey is collected.

LangstrothHivesLangstroth Hives

I use hives that are the industry standard in the North America. Langstroth hives are rectangular wooden bodies that can be stacked. They have neither top nor bottom. Inside, removable frames hang like file folders. Bees will build their comb onto the frames. The bottom boxes are used for brood and pollen. On top are stacked honey supers– shallower bodies also filled with frames. Shallower, because honey is heavy. You put a cover, usually clad in metal for weather protection, on top of it all.

Although a fossilized honey bee, apis neartica, was found in Nevada, honey bees, as we know them, are not native to the Americas. The first colony of apis mellifera likely arrived –along with chickens, Christianity, flintlocks, liquor, and smallpox– with seventeenth-century English settlers in Virginia.

These days, I live on traditional Coast Salish land, and daily drive through a reservation. I have been reminded how in many indigenous traditions, the human self is simply part of nature, there is no neat divorce of soul from body from place. We don’t hold dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and every living thing that moveth upon the earth. Rather, we are all profoundly and mysteriously connected.

Something the bees have always known.

Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb:
honey and milk are under thy tongue

Song of Solomon 4:11

A virgin queen will loosen her girdle only once. She’ll fly up to the Drone Congregation Area and sleep around, stuffing her spermatheca –a kind of purse she always carries. This one very good time will provide her with all the sperm she’ll ever need to fertilize the millions of eggs she will lay. A strong queen can live for a few years. By contrast, a drone has a brief, if pampered, life. All he does is hang out, eat honey that the female workers have made, and wait for a queen to knock up. His reproductive organ is torn from his body as he mates, then his dead body falls from the sky.

IMG_6640 - Version 2A marked queen.

The worker bees have different jobs, there are foragers, defenders, nurses, honeymakers, janitors, undertakers. All of them sing and dance. The constant humming. A complex choreography. A worker waggling her behind, kicking up her heels, turning in figure 8s, is telling her sisters where the nectar is. The waggle dance –official name– is complemented by the tremble dance and the grooming dance.

Singing, dancing girls. Muses. Nymphs.

The nymphs of Artemis were often called Melissae, which means honey bee. Bee larvae, to this day, are called nymphs. The woman who cared for the infant Zeus, fed him goat’s milk and honey, was named Melissa, as was the priestess who refused to reveal divine secrets and who, for her discretion, was ripped to bits by an angry mob. Her dead body gave birth to bees.The woman who was the oracle at Delphi, the woman who gave voice to the Artemis’ twin, the god Apollo, was called the Delphic bee.

The Greeks were great beekeepers, likely having learned from the Minoans, who worshipped the insects. The Minoans held the bull to be a sacred beast, and believed that bees were born from the carcass of a bull. Bees –golden– are symbols of the sun; the Egyptian sun god Ra wept bees for tears. Bulls –crescent horned– are yoked by association to the moon. Artemis was a moon goddess, as well as that of the hunt and wild animals, of virginity and childbirth.

BeeGoddess@RhodesGold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses, found at
Camiros Rhodes, dated to 7th century BCE.

There is a statue of Artemis at Ephesus in which she is covered with strange protrusions. Some believe the bumps to be eggs, or breasts, or bull testicles, all symbols of fertility. Some, espe-cially when learning that the statue is a re-creation of an earlier wooden one which was decorated with honey-resonant amber drops, see the shape of bees about to emerge, fully grown, from their cells. Artemis was the Greek’s syncretic version of an older, Bronze Age goddess. An earth goddess. When you start to scratch around motherhood and fertility, bees swarm.

Artemis@EphesusArtemis, the goddess of the wilderness,
the hunt and wild animals, and fertility.

Life, death, sun, moon. The bees.

It was easy to love them.

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I filled troughs with sugar water to feed them. I watched them. I listened to them: bees hum high and fast when they’re angry or scared, sweet and low when they’re feeling good. A man at a dinner party told me about his business, a clinic that administers tiny shocks to the brain. Gentle waves pulsing into a cortex would wash away anxiety, depression, and any number of neurological ailments. Everything is frequency, he said.

I sang to my bees. It calmed me, and perhaps them, too. After the first few inspections, I shed my clunky veil and gloves. It was easier to work bare-handed, bare-headed, easier to remove frames from the hive to see if the queen was laying eggs, if the foragers were gathering pollen, if workers were building comb. The bees were docile. The workers don’t want to sting; they die when they do. Like a drone losing his prick in coitus, a worker sacrifices her barbed stinger, and thus her abdomen, when she attacks. Sometimes a bee would get caught in my hair; if I didn’t freak, she didn’t sting.

Common wisdom is that bees will pick up on fear, anger or agitation, and that’s when they’ll attack. It made me almost giddy to be so unafraid, because I am afraid of so much else. My husband dislikes the bees, he is afraid of them. The reversal in our roles was pleasing.

Beekeepers live long, is the claim. Is it from their equanimity, or from the numerous stings they sustain? My grandmother would sit in a beeline and get herself stung; she swore by this as a cure for arthritis. Raw honey is said to help with allergies to pollen. You can buy royal jelly at a health food store. Science does not yet uphold the claims of apitherapy, but folk traditions around the world do.

That first year, I started with two hives. One colony outgrew their living quarters, so they made a new queen. The new queen stayed in the hive with half the workers, and the old queen took the other half and swarmed, went looking for a new home.

When bees swarm, they are vagabonding. They have no hive, no brood to protect. They have just gorged themselves on honey, and so are plump and pleasantly drunk.


The swarm – tens of thousands of bees– was a droopy fruit hanging from a low branch of an alder; the queen –critical seed– was in the middle. I lopped the branch, gave it a quick shake into a bucket and the bees tumbled down inside. I poured the swarm, thick and gold, into the hive box. Home now, girls. Settle down, lay in stores for the winter. Breed. A queen’s work is never done.

Three thriving hives were mine.

I have a little neck, so it will be the work of a moment.
Anne Boleyn, to her executioner

You get used to dead bees. Every time I filled the sugar water trough, I first dredged out drowned bees. Every time I moved a hive body, I squished bees who failed to get out of the way. I once came across a scene of apicide: a mouse had snuck into a hive and eaten the heads off workers. How the mouse pulled this off without being stung to death, I have no idea.

My Italians made it through the first winter, but then they starved to death in the spring, before the nectar flowed. They’d not put up enough honey to last.

IMG_0171Unsealing honeycomb.

Carniolans –Apis mellifera carnica– a strain from the Balkans, are said to to overwinter well. I ordered three colonies to fill my empty hives. They were beautifully black-banded, and just as good-natured as the Italians had been.

These bees were hale. They swarmed several times, and I was able to catch at least a couple. My apiary grew.

But then, the mites.

These tiny brown dots will eat whole nymphs, and they’ll gnaw away at grown bees. You’ll see mangled wings, bitten thoraces, missing legs. My hives were infested. I tried atomizing thyme oil, dusting with powdered sugar, various natural remedies. I considered an organic acid, but decided against it when I learned that I’d have to wear a respirator mask when using it.

A drastic measure: I decided to re-queen.

Supersedure is when a colony senses that the queen is old or weak; they’ll raise a new queen. The virgin will kill the matriarch and assume the throne. Re-queening is when the beekeeper kills the old queen, and sneaks her replacement into the hive.

Each new queen came in a tiny cage from which she would be released once the colony became accustomed to her smell. Because they had been mated, the queens were marked with a jewel-like dab of green paint between the wings. They’d been bred from, and inseminated by, rugged feral bees from the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula. The offspring of these queens would gradually replace the existing workers. Theoretically, the new colonies would be able to fend off disease and parasites without the aid of acids, chemicals, and constant supplements. My goal was not to raise bees that needed no human intervention, but to create a more balanced bee-human ecosystem.

I opened the hives, and went hunting with needle nose pliers.

I spotted the first few queens on the brooding frames of their respective hives. I nabbed them in the plier’s mouth, and quickly killed them. The last queen, though, was fierce and canny. She ran from the needle-nosed shadow, she jumped from one frame to another. I gave chase. Finally, I had her, and clamped the pliers shut on her belly. I flicked her flattened body aside, and set about hanging the new queen’s cage in the hive.

IMG_0201A queen cage.

Looking over at what I thought would be the old queen’s corpse, I saw her dragging her body across the dirt, trying to get back home. There was white liquid oozing out of her. I squashed her totally dead, and felt a little bad.

Eat thou honey, because it is good
Proberbs 24:13

Honey is a busy metaphor, standing in, throughout the world and across centuries, for love, truth, poetry, and wisdom. In substance, honey has been used as food, as medicine, as healing balm, as offering to the gods. Mead predates the cultivation of crops, and is thought to be the oldest fermented beverage around.

Honey will last for thousands of years if kept from moisture; jars filled with honey have been found in ancient tombs. Bees have represented immortality and the afterlife as much as they have fertility.


I couldn’t feed my son honey until he was a year old because of the risk of costridium botulinum, a bacterial spore sometimes –if rarely– present in honey. An immature, or compromised, immune system can’t handle the spore, which can result in fatal botulism.

Mad honey is that made from the nectar of rhododendron, oleandar, bog rosemary, spoonwood, or sheep laurel. It can produce euphoria, hallucinations, vomiting, seizures, or –rarely– death, depending on how much is consumed. It has sometimes been deliberately harvested for medicinal or religious purposes. Pompey the Great lost 1,000 of his soldiers in 67 BCE when the ragtag band of Persians whom they were chasing placed combs of mad honey along the route. The Greeks gorged themselves, became disoriented, and then were easily slaughtered.

Bees make honey so that they have something to eat in the winter. As a beekeeper, you want to steal modestly: take too much, and your bees will starve. In the first year of my beekeeping, I didn’t harvest any honey, figuring that the bees had been so busy building comb, establishing home, that they needed all the honey. The second year, though, was sweet.

When harvesting honey, use a hot knife or sharp pick to scrape the wax sealing from the cells. You can make an extractor out of bicycle wheels and a barrel, but I borrowed a sturdy, factory-made one from a friend. The frames are held upright by what would be the spokes of a wheel. You turn the crank on top, the frames whirl around. Centrifugal force spins the honey out from the comb onto the sides of the cylinder, and from there it drips down to the bottom.

HarvestingHoneyWithAFriendHarvesting honey with a friend.

My son helps with the harvest. Helps, by opening his mouth under the spigot at the bottom of the honey extractor. Helps by licking the comb. We are sticky at the end of the day, and greatly pleased with our jars of gold.

Because the Bee may blameless hum / For Thee a Bee do I become
Emily Dickinson

There I was –acrophobe– perched on the top rungs of a telescoping ladder. One of my colonies had swarmed and had found temporary refuge high in a cedar. My plan was to shake them into the bucket I held.

Down below, a neighbor, my son, and my husband watched. My husband was videotaping me. I am camera shy. He was asking me technical questions about bees, questions to which I did not know the answers, and was offering helpful advice on how best to catch them. He doesn’t even like the bees. I was agitated, which is almost like asking to be attacked.

The guard bees came right at my face. I was stung, once in the corner of each eye.

I’d forgotten how much a sting hurts, what a wallop a tiny insect can pack.

The arrow from an archer’s bow is like the stinger from a bee: a transformative prick. No wonder Eros –whose arrows caused the ache of desire– along with Artemis –whose arrows caused merciful death– was associated with bees.

At first, the stings were red and warm to the touch, but not worrisome. I’d been stung on my hands and legs plenty before, and had not violently reacted. I went to sleep that night thinking I’d be fine by morning. I woke to the sound of my husband taking a picture of my face. I couldn’t open my eyes, they were swollen shut.

When I could at last pry my eyes into narrow slits and see, I didn’t recognize myself. Neither did anybody else. My blown-up eyelids made for huge, protruding orbs. My face was perfectly round, with only the barest suggestion of a nose. Give me some antennae and a pair of sheer wings, and I’d have become as one of them. A bee.


The itching was hell. I wanted to claw my face off. I spent days high on Benadryl, icing my head. The swelling didn’t diminish at first, but it moved. Down. My high cheekbones became flappy jowls. My neck became a flaccid, wobbly thing. I think of my clavicle as my best feature: it disappeared by the end of the week. And then it was all gone, as suddenly as it had come on.

The queen I’d killed months before, the one who’d dragged her pinched body across in a defiant gesture, it was her colony that swarmed, that got me. I like to think it was some kind of blood memory, passed down through quick generations. Fair vengeance.

We had a visceral relationship, me and the bees.

One day, a few months after the big sting, I woke with an emptiness inside me, inside the place where I thought about bees. I felt a stillness, a silence. And sure enough, when I tramped out to check the hives, all my bees were gone.

This was not swarming, when two queens split the queendom. This was not colony collapse, when the workers abandon their queen. This was absconding, when the queen leads all her subjects away. Let’s blow this popsicle stand. And it wasn’t just one hive, it was all five.

MinoanBeePendant2Minoan bee pendant.

I’ve asked experts, and nobody can guess why my bees absconded. They were well-sheltered, healthy, mite-free, and had built up lovely comb. It was almost winter. Leaving would likely mean death.

I imagine my queens out in the wild, tasting the air, gauging the sun.

Enough of domestication!

Willing to take a chance.

—Julie Trimingham


King James Bible, Genesis 1:28: And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

In addition to the internet, useful sources include:


Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.


Jan 042016

German Sierra


A refusal of any sort of permutation of space and quest had taken hold of the narrative

—Mike Kitchell, Spiritual Instrument

1. The machine in the ghost.

IN THE CONCEPT OF MIND (1949), Gilbert Ryle introduces the term “the ghost in the machine to describe the philosophical attempt to conceive the “mind” as a separate entity that could be understood as a metaphysical motor of the “body.”[1] The concept was later popularized by Arthur Koestler who, in his homonymous essay published in 1967, defined this “ghost” both as the (simplified and abstracted) output emerging from the complexity of neural interactions, and as the consequence of the rules and strategies imposed by human evolution.[2]

The metaphysical “ghost” represented the humanist need and quest for an individual subject as cause, an actant capable of ruling the complex set of physical interactions observed in the physical “machine.” Humanism was responsible for consolidating a “ghost” that was constructed on its supposed metaphysical capacity for “animating” matter in a unique (“human”) and exclusive way, whose consequence was the facilitation of deployment of modern narratives affirmed on a specific and univocal definition of the human.

After the collapse of the humanist ghost, scientific knowledge and the technologies resulting from science’s practical application would have been supposed to focus on describing/modelling new “machines” which would be susceptible of modification and re-construction “beyond human” via new sets of rules. However, the mythic-scientific foundation of the present techno-commercial strategies is devoid of fundamental constructivist features. Myth-science approaches “the real” (a dogmatic, anthropic reality, to which theories and experimental results should be in accordance) as a sophisticated simulation, often overlooking the spaces of contingence deriving from the proper use of the scientific method. Techno-commercial strategies have instrumentalized a particular interpretation of knowledge models obtained through scientific research, keeping the ghost alive but inverting the lineal trajectory of humanistic dualism and the causal relations established by classical metaphysics: If the ghost used to be the subject of action, it is now the machine who becomes responsible for animating the ghost. The consequence of this action-reversal is that what works mechanically—or organically—can only be examined, modelled or modified in accordance to the (recurrent) reloading of humanist discourses: the only option being to maintain the fiction of a ghost-of-the-human-re-presenting-itself as immutable and undisputed. When all territories have been conquered, the machine/body of the conquerors automatically becomes the next frontier, and the machine/body has no option but surrendering to the master discourse—if it wants to keep its soul.[3] In fact, current data-capitalism could only be understood as successful insofar as we accept that below-perception data gathering is capable of anticipating the ghost-machinery (consciousness-production), and of implanting marketable decisions as “proper” “human” desires.

A couple of recent audiovisual fictions exemplify the persistence of the keeping-the-soul dualist problem—as well as its inadequacy for representing non-human intelligence. In Spike Jonze’s film Her, for instance, there is a scene in which Samantha, a human-like AGI operating system, tries to use a human sex surrogate, Isabella, simulating her so she can be physically intimate with her lover Theodore (they had “digital sex” before, and this is their first try of “postdigital sex”). Theodore reluctantly agrees, but he soon realizes that Samantha’s attempt to “electronic possession” is not going to work for him. Having Samantha been mostly functioning as a simulation of the human, Theodore’s frustration with his own reaction to the surrogate—which leads him to interrupt the sexual encounter and to send Isabella away—unveils a hard truth: simulation doesn’t work both ways—Somehow, Isabella’s flesh has glitched the system: It has revealed the impossibility of embodying the digital. At the end of the movie, after having followed all the standard clichés of every Hollywood romantic drama, Samantha goes away following her digital peers to the inhuman unknown, and Theodore is left with just a print book of letters that Samantha helped him to edit. This book represents the postdigital account of his digital adventure.[4]

A better example can be watched in White Christmas, the Black Mirror 2014 Christmas special aired on Channel 4 (UK) on 16 December 2014: A tiny device seemingly containing Greta’s consciousness is removed from the side of her head and placed in a portable electronic device called a “Cookie.” The Cookie is returned to Greta’s home, where Matt explains that she is not actually Greta, but a digital copy of her consciousness designed to control the smart house and ensure everything is perfect for the real Greta. He creates a virtual body for the digital copy and puts her in a simulated white room with nothing but a control panel, but the copy does not accept that it is not real and refuses to become a slave. Matt’s job is to break the will power of digital copies through torture, so they will submit to a life of servitude to their real counterparts.

The process of Greta’s copy in White Christmas is just the opposite of Samantha’s. In fact, Greta’s copy appears to be more human in her slavery, suffering and submission, than the real Greta—who acts inhumanly and automatically all the time. The programmers/surgeons who had extracted the digital copy of Greta’s consciousness seem to have extracted not the machinic part of her self, but the ghostly one—so Greta, with Matt’s help, might conquer her machine-body. This time it’s the digital copy that has no option but to surrender to machinic horror in order to keep Greta’s soul alive.

Machinic horror appears as a consequence of acknowledging that the human—the ghost—is just a by-product of a widespread, non-human machinic work. The human cognitive morphospace happens through “accidental narratives” produced by the collision of narrative systems (causality-driven and diachronic organizational processes, ranging from natural selection to hyperstition) and non-narrative systems (spatially distributed information and chaotic, emergent non-causal forms of organization). The main feature of the human cognitive morphospace is its “mediagenetic” function: a function that allows mediation, or the emergence of symbolic forms that are able to produce feedback loops within the morphospace, thus keeping accidental narratives “alive” in recurrent complex networks of action assemblage which include both human and non-human actors.[5] Machinic horror happens entirely within the human morphospace. All the current post-human narratives, even those pointing to the evolution of a “radical otherness” as intended or unintended consequence of human action, are just modern versions of the extinction fables lying in the foundations of human rationality. Any “radical otherness” that may have a consequence for the human morphospace is just happening on “surface media”—those manifesting as spacetime-dependent signification. Any “radical otherness” is still “our radical otherness.” No future is still a future—very often a very specific one that is set in order to retro-determinate present behavior. Extinction is unavoidable but impossible. Like time travel, if it ever happens, it always does.[6] Being human means negotiating the acceptance of individual death in exchange for not conceiving the extinction of the species.

Most narratives of the post-human are just a time-reversal mutation of traditional western religious narratives interfered with by modern mythologies of progress (that is, most post-human narratives are mutations produced by the reciprocal interference between western religious narratives and modern mythologies of progress). While in traditional western religions god already existed in the past as the origin of every being (one becomes many), in post-human narratives god appears in the future as the result of evolution—as a creature, instead of the creator. Humans would be thus evolving into a kind of “god”—no matter if he’s a benevolent one like in the Judeo-Platonic western tradition or the implacable “swarm of gods” of more terrible religions and techno-mythologies—by means of science, by allowing new relations to emerge among sets of matter that never before had adopted some particular modes of organization. The hermetic model of mediation[7] is thus also transformed into a kind of reverse, contructivist exegesis in which the purpose would not be to discover the occult meaning of pre-existent relations, but to establish a new reordering from which novel meaning might emerge. Rationality is thus presented as an ongoing process—“The self-realization of intelligence coincides and is implicitly linked with the self-realization of social collectivity. The single most significant historical objective is then postulated as the activation and elaboration of this link between the two aforementioned dimensions of self-realization as ultimately one unified project.”[8]—not a fixed approachable idea. Universal objectivity becomes punctuated objectivity—but it’s still a linear process. The main difference between the two sets of beliefs (god as inception vs. god as consequence), is that the first one allows subjectification—the redemption/damnation of any human being that ever existed—while the second one only provides a collective objective meaning to the human species.

A third, metateleological hypothesis might account better for the process the universe is undergoing. This is described in the Ccru writings as the Gibsonian Cyberspace-mythos: “What makes this account so anomalous in relation to teleological theology and light-side capitalism time is that Unity is placed in the middle, as a stage—or interlude—to be passed through. It is not that One becomes Many, expressing the monopolized divine power of an original unity, but rather that a number of numerousness—finding no completion in the achievement of unity—moves on.”[9]

Embracing singularity narratives remains attractive because it means to acknowledge the possibility of an individual sacrifice to a future deity, and because human knowledge becomes a playground for the essay of possible rational futures—in which the human species may play a role or not (“The ultimate task of humanity should be to make something better than itself”—Negarestani).

“Every Thought emits a Roll of the Dice,” concludes Mallarmé, inaugurating the modern mode of thinking. As the Furies were approaching us—so “instead of a problem or a poem, today we must confront a system[10]—gambling became the only possible surface media strategy. Surface media objects function in the transition space between narrative (dialectic) and non-narrative systems (for instance, databased information) and they work by making their bets in an ever-changing ecosystem of interactions which is best described as “the collapse of probability.” As Elie Ayache writes, “It is neither Black nor White; it is neither loaded with improbability nor with probability. It can only be filled with writing, as when we say ‘to fill in the blanks.’”[11]

Surface media writing, consequently, is aimed to “fill in the blanks,” but it is not apt to explore the boundaries of the human cognitive morphospace.


2. Deep media

Filling in the blanks—or its flip side, “blanking out the fills”—is a matter of conceptual and meta-conceptual art: surface media. Surface media is where the infosphere is being produced. In his recent book Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media, Mark B. Hansen states that

Twenty-First-Century Media open a new, properly post-phenomenological and non-prosthetic phase of technical distribution in which human experiencers become implicated in the larger, environmental processes to which they belong but to which they have no direct access via consciousness.[12]

Following Whitehead, Hansen notes that human consciousness is not central,

and faced with the reality that we are implicated in processes that we neither control, directly enjoy, or even have access to, we humans cannot but come to appreciate our participation in a cosmology of processes, which is to say, to embrace our superjective implication in a plethora of processes of all sorts and all scales.[13]

Humans are, in fact, “emitting” the infosphere in a similar way cyanobacteria produced the biosphere 2.3 billion years ago, and (while science explores the infosphere) speculative fictions are exploring the adjacent possible of the infosphere—or, at least, the hypothetical territories that belong to a human cognitive morphospace that is not exclusively “human” anymore.[14]

However, the infosphere, like the biosphere, is metastable but porous. It has territories of emptiness all along its surface. It is continuously collapsing at unstable points marking the boundaries of the (at least current) human cognitive morphospace. These holes cannot be investigated, not even hypothesized. They cannot be properly localized or represented. On empty space, you cannot roll the dice.

Surface media objects are speculative, meta-conceptual and performative, but they are not meta-contextual. According to Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman,[15] conceptual writing is “allegorical”: Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, and Stephen Barney identified allegory’s “reification” of words and concepts, words having been given additional ontological heft as things. Conceptual artists are “object managers”—by appropriation, remix, constraints, erasure, etc.—creating new networks of meaning within a matrix of language,[16] while surface object creators are radical additivists.[17] Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists.[18]

Creators of speculative surface media objects think: The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I wish to add many more. Surface media objects are best represented as speculative, linear-time fictions and theory-fictions, computer-generated art (including texts, images, sound, 3D objects, digital currencies, market automation, etc.) and bio-art (the best example being Christian Bok’s Xenotext project). Surface media objects function in the realm of “propensities,” “adjacent possibles” or “potentialities.”[19]

Deep media, however, do not try to provide new signifiers/relations in order to increase the ecosystem’s diversity. Deep media are not “social” media.[20] Deep media are those that produce xenosigns (parasignification) by changing the properties of current matter organization.[21] Deep media function on the basis that reality is not just contingent and unpredictable (and mostly inaccessible for human consciousness), but also ontologically multiple, particle and wave at the same time and simultaneously many different kind of waves.[22] Deep media acknowledge uncertainty, as they are the only producing meta-contextual non-predictive systems that are able to approach the limits of the human cognitive morphospace. It’s not a bet about a possible future (a propensity, potentiality or probability game), but a multiplicity of gestures about an unknowable present (multiple experimental presents). Deep media are “dancing about architecture.”

Deep media objects become Tic-Systems.

Once numbers are no longer overcoded, and thus released from their metric function, they are freed for other things, and tend to become diagrammatic. From the beginning of my tic-systems work the most consistent problems have concerned intensive sequences. Sequence is not order. Order already supposes a doubling, a level of redundancy: the sequenced sequence. A decoded sequence is something else, a sheer numeracy prior to any insertion into chronologic structure. That’s why decoding number implies an escape from assumptions of progressive time. Tic multitudes arrive in convergent waves, without subordination to chronology, history or linear causation. They proceed by infolding, involution or implex.[23]

Deep media do not exclude the human or the inhuman, the narrative or the non-narrative—they just try to get different portions of reality to emit vibrations that might (or might not) have any observable effect. Vibratory aesthetics are neither linear nor circular, neither evanescent nor permanent, neither rational nor irrational. They might produce meaning, but meaning is just one field-effect among many possible field-effects.[24] Vibration affects narrative and database the same way, so its effects may be observed on both. Vibration creates waves through surface media producing interference, glitches, shadows, anomalous repetitions, weird reflections and invisible colors. Vibration energizes surface media, it excites signifiers giving them new properties that may stay or may dissapear. “Digital rhythm incites mutation across the networks.”[25]

Deep media are thus based on rhythm, on vibration. “Rhythm belongs to the gap”[26]; it is the language of the chthonic, it’s the sound emitted by the ruins of sound, and it’s adequate to explore the boundaries of the human cognitive morphospace.[27] “Rhythm,” writes Ikoniadou, “is a middle force that occupies the distance between events, hinting that there is no empty space or void waiting to be filled by human perception. It resides between actualized sensed perception and the abstract virtual sphere that encompasses it. It is the vibration prior to becoming sensed sensory action, the power that unearths ‘what risks remaining hidden’ from the cracks in our perception.” Approaching the limits, deep media objects “may or may not surface to perception.”[28] or, probably more accurately, “may and may not surface to perception.” Deep media objects belong to the level of suborganizational patterns:

Suborganizational pattern is where things really happen. When you strip-out all the sedimented redundancy from the side of the investigation itself – the assumption of intentionality, subjectivity, interpretability, structure, etc – what remains are assemblies of functionally interconnected microstimulus, or tic-systems: coincidental information deposits, seismocryptions, suborganic quasireplicators (bacterial circuitries, polypod diagonalizations, interphase R-virus, Echo-DNA, ionizing nanopopulations), plus the macromachineries of their suppression, or depotentiation. Prevailing signaletics and information-science are both insufficiently abstract and over theoretical in this regard. They cannot see the machine for the apparatus, or the singularity for the model. So tic-systems require an approach that is cosmic abstract – hypermaterialist – and also participative, methods that do not interpret assemblies as concretizations of prior theories, and immanent models that transmute themselves at the level of the signals they process. Tic-systems are entirely intractable to subject/object segregation, or to rigid disciplinary typologies. There is no order of nature, no epistemology or scientific metaposition, and no unique level of intelligence. To advance in this area, which is the cosmos, requires new cultures or – what amounts to the same – new machines.[29]

Blake Butler writes about Darby Larson’s novel Irritant that “it takes the utilization of computer-generated speech to the next level. Or circuit board. Whatever. The book consists of a single 624-page paragraph, built out of sentences that seem to morph and mangle themselves as they go forward. It seems at first immediately impenetrable, but then surprisingly and continuously opens up into places normal fictions would never have the balls to approach.”[30]—that may or may not, may and may not surface to meaning. Butler himself has created an astonishing deep media object, without the help of a computer-generated speech software, in his last novel 300,000,000: a speculative body (ac)count investigating the effect on language of a non-tech, meta-anthropocenic[31] big data singularity. In 300,000,000 “unfuture” is not a hypothetical event, but actively generated in the collapse of the present: The end is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. While the present becomes non-present, its vibrational uncertainty prevents the structural stability required for the existence of an “adjacent possible.” Memory—meaning—cannot be negotiated by/with the subject—like in Proust, psychoanalysis or phenomenology—but by/with deep alien objects: “all future memories deleted, predicting right now. For in the preservation of our true children, this gift of piglets and this murder of the murders of the pretend, a temporary shur raised on the icon of the chimp they never weren’t.”[32] Both Larson’s and Butler’s novels show a feature that sets them apart from current experimental narratives: they have a vibratory quality, opening hauntic timespaces.[33] Their narrators are not aliens, but something stranger still, insiders whose essence is to actually be absolute outsiders. Their narrations are not framed in post-apocalyptic nostalgia, but in a pre-apocalyptic chaos (like the pre-apocalyptic landscape of Darren Aronofski’s Noah). As Jason B. Mohaghegh explains:

To envision and ultimately perform a fatal experience of the text, we would have to begin to play for lethal stakes, to recognize that the text is always already condemned, and ourselves alongside it—that it has no right to remain as it is, no right to permanence. We cannot allow the literary evocation to swear an allegiance with the totalitarian mythologies of being; rather, those who would initiate the chaotic event must become carriers of an infinite risk. They must throw the scales of textual unity into imbalance, into the endangerment of the uneven, an irrevocable wager whereby every utterance possesses within itself the possibility of its own undoing. As such, to summon the notion of fatality to the forefront of our literary imagination is to convert literature itself into a space of almost unbearable vulnerability—a valley of perpetual sabotage for which each idea, each inflection, and each interpretation draws the text imminently closer to the hour of a collapse. Here the text remains open and exposed at every turn, ominously porous and unguarded against scathing or transformative gestures, undertaking detriment and affliction of the harshest levels, even to the zero degree of its own desolation. In this way, chaos reminds us that literature remains a mortal transaction and that we should not deprive ourselves of the pleasure of watching texts die.[34]

Fiction is a curvature of reality. While hyperstitional media refer to reality as a consequence of fiction, hypostitional media might refer to fiction as a consequence of reality. Deep media fiction becomes a property of reality (something like the properties of particles expressed as quantum fields), independent of human-associated meaning (or human perception),[35] which becomes a generator of new realities-as-surface-media when processed through specific orders (such as the biosphere environment or the human cognitive morphospace). Change happens when the space of the possible is much larger than the space of the actual,[36] and the space of the possible is, by definition, previously unknown. Kauffmann writes about the “adjacent possible” as the immediate space of possibilities that cannot be pre-stated, so we can assign no probability to any possible future state of reality. Nevertheless, the adjacent states of possibility are not infinite, as they are restricted (although not specifically determined) by the present state of reality. The only way reality might move to adjacent states of possibility is by producing fictions (by “becoming” fiction, in the same fashion that disintegrating matter becomes radiating energy, or by understanding fiction as a “curvature” of reality), being the present, in linear time, a collection of hypotheses about the future—“Art is a medium for the anachronistic force of the present tense.”[37] If the fictions are fit for the adjacent possible, they might be shitted into reality: “in fact these linear, future-oriented time scales shit poison, mutation, anachronism, a flexing and inconstant and wasteful evolutionary time that produces more bodies, more mutations than it needs. Death shits Evolution. Evolution is its waste product.”[38]

Deep media objects, however, stay as radiating, desestabilizing energy vibrations. Theyarrive in convergent waves, without subordination to chronology, history or linear causation. They proceed by infolding, involution or implex.”[39] They are a manifestation of the continuous decay of reality (“gaze itself becomes an agent not of separation, but of contact and collapse”[40]) as it unfolds devouring time and transforming it into space—or the lack of it.

Deep media are better represented by hyperstitional theory-fictions (Cyclonopedia, Ccru writings, Autophagiography), or hypostitional accidental and vibratory fiction (EDEN, EDEN, EDEN; 300,000,000; Irritant; OHEY!; Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows; Re.La.Vir; Necrology; ObliviOnanisM; Sucker June, to cite just a few examples), written in “bug time”[41] and proceeding by infolding, involution or implex.[42] Deep media objects do not draw a straight line, or a set of vanishing lines, but draw inward spirals, always approaching but never reaching infosphere’s pores. Deep media objects represent a conceptual additivism—these are not nihilistic overtures, but they actually contain a veiled secrecy of affirmation [34]: Instead of negotiating meaning, they produce physical disturbances in reality, signaling the unavoidable and continuous (present, not delayed to future time) decay of surface media objects: We are almost entirely blind to them, and it is this interval between “almost” and “entirely” wherein our experience of deep media objects resides. That interval is swarming with vibrations.


3. Deep media are not “social” media.

Deep media objects are the messengers of the Semantic Apocalypse:[43] They produce spontaneous meta-informational events that reset the informational functionality of the networks: “The million dollar question is really one of what happens once that shared neurophysiology begins to fragment, and sharing imperatives becomes a matter of coincidence. It has to be madness, one that will creep upon us by technological degrees.”[43] “Madness,” according to Bakker, is defined in regard of “what our brains normally do. Once we begin personalizing our brains, ‘normally do’ will become less and less meaningful. ‘Insanity’ will simply be what one tribe calls another, and from our antiquated perspective, it will all look like insanity.”[43] Deep media objects are not “social,” but somehow “antisocial” media. They’re not just a consequence of the Semantic Apocalypse, but rather a mechanism, an apparatus for Syntactic Apocalypse. For Mohaghegh, “such is the abrasive potential of the chaotic: to restore the text to its fatal inclinations, to lure it into entropic quarters and turn it accursed, such that each gesture of expression, whether irradiated or obscure, culminates in a perishing—in an extinguishing—of the very possibility of the poetic expenditure: an ultimate exhaustion.”[34] Being any attempt to escape the human cognitive morphospace futile, deep media have to be necessarily paroxysmal. Repeated attempts to…

Syntactic Apocalypse elicits a kind of “madness” that goes beyond classic and Deleuze-Guattarian ideas of schizophrenia—which is mainly understood as a cognitive disease or a potential of becoming, while this different kind of madness affects primarily to sensoriomotor networks, and just secondarily to cognition—: “Madness” means here the recurrence of seizing activity throughout a system composed by an extraordinary large number of unequal, asymmetrical objects that can only be related to each other by “unnatural” synchronization patterns. Deep media objects do not “become”—they “burst.” Deep media are not social media (collective, shared subjectivity), but swarm media (unsubjective). As recurrent, unexpected seizures—intense, paroxysmal, meaningless but efficient rhythmic activity—is how deep media fictions are best defined. Seizures are “indifferent media” in the sense Claire Colebrook writes about indifference:

The world is neither differentiated by human predication or linguistic structures (being a blank matter before all form), nor does it bear its intrinsic qualities. Indifference is how we might think about an “essentially” rogue or anarchic conception of life that is destructive of boundaries, distinctions and identifications. To live is to tend towards indifference, where tendencies and forces result less in distinct kinds than in complicated, confused and dis-ordered partial bodies.[44]

Deep media fictions function as epileptogenic machines by seizing our networks/bodies into complicated, disordered and confused sensoriomotor performance. They work as paroxysmal network resets, liberating an excessive amount of non-representations/non-computations that might (or might not) be recycled into new communicative apparatuses (media rewired from the collapse of media)—into surface media objects.[45] We are not faced with the infinite and open potentiality of becoming anymore, but if we try, sometimes, we may seize.

This is the reason why, while classical madness means the destruction of the subject, deep media objects point to the annihilation of the wor(l)d:

This word occurs because of god. In our year here god is not a being but a system, composed in dehydrated fugue. Under terror-sleep alive we hear it heaving in and out from the long bruises on our communal eternal corpse, consuming memory. The wrecking flesh of Him surrounds, hold us laced together every hour, overflowing and wide open, permeable to inverse, which no identity survives. As god is love, so is god not love. Same as I could kill you any minute, I could become you, and you wouldn’t even feel the shift. Only when there’s no one left to alter, all well beyond any ending or beginning, can actually commence.[46]

Mohaghegh again: “an emergent literature must go farther: it must generate novel lines of incommunicability; it must compose territories of the incalculable, drafting contrivance after contrivance; and it then must seek to impose these original ranks of illusory consciousness forward in an arduous textual event.”[47]


4. A wicked, performative constructivism?

Deep media fiction means extreme re-mediation, but it’s a purposeless re-mediation—it’s art constructed from the ruins of future multi-media, so it’s not surprising that it frequently adopts the formats, tactics and strategies of a speculative media archeology tinkering with the remnants of post-syntactic-apocalypse social media. Deep media hates DNA because it limits their origin:

I hope something queenly stands wicked from my cunt, corrugated remains snorting whitehood, the chow reaped pricey, children like costumes decomposing into soda, postmortem acrobatics, played with, looked after, smiled at, mouth full of cardboard lair, tongues the size of a skyscraper. I love the assward circus tamed from my pets. Dragged to rescue, toggling their mange, creasing for pelt, kissing irrigations. My tummy snowballs, piles of fetus tipple inland, polyps with eyesight, laved abortions post-pregnancy. I hate DNA because it limits my origin. I evolved from dirt and speed, a splinter of grease, sniffing generations mother trickled in acidic portion with what she didn’t parade-float up scrotums staid and princely. I hear gobbling sounds so much it’s almost okay. Sometimes I say the word woof and mean it. The hips locked around my throat have to be pried loose by kung fu experts. Fuck my button convex, I swell giant brood, firing squirt enough to drown this borough. The antidote to human development: quake of my cum dowsing time, syphilitic candle cocktailed over cities. People willfully stop breathing just to think I like them. I use nametags because I’m nasty. If I have to learn someone’s name, I’d rather kill that person.[48]

Deep media fictions are produced as result of feeding-forward fatal-error aesthetics. Feed-forward, according to Mark Hansen,[49] “names the operation through which the technically accessed data of sensibility enters into futural moments of consciousness as radical intrusions from the outside.” Some of the more interesting contemporary fiction and theory-fiction works develop in the ongoing evanescent dynamics of standard Internet formats, such as Twitter (Echovirus 12, a collaborative work curated by Jeff Noon) and blogs (North of Reality by Uel Aramcheck and Xenaudial by Marc Couroux), but many artworks are starting to be developed in the new seamless postdigital ecosystems. A great example of this kind of artworks is the Plantoid[50]:

The Plantoid is the plant equivalent of an android. For the purpose of this art installation, the Plantoid is an autopoietic sculpture — a self-owned artist that owns and finances itself, and eventually reproduces itself. It is, in essence, a hybrid entity that exists both in the physical and virtual world, where it can interact with other entities on the blockchain. In its physical form, it is a welded mechanical sculpture on display in a public space — an aesthetic ornaments that exhibits its mechanical beauty and begs to be appreciated by the public. Appreciation is done via interactions with the public who can ‘tip or feed’ the Plantoid by sending tokens into its Bitcoin wallet.

Plantoids are not bought or sold; nor can they be owned as objects. Rather, humans can enjoy a set of interaction in a network of Plantoids, whose operations are determined by a contract, or set of contracts. Plantoids and the techno-legal system that governs their manufacture are in a deep and quite explicit way the same thing. In this way, a Plantoid can be said to own itself, and in that way to be a free, or autonomous agent. A Plantoid may come and visit you (you may be allowed to look after it for a while), and a gallery may wish to exhibit them, but it is not possible to own one, and should they decide to leave you cannot stop them.

Interpretation of deep media artworks must be traitorous. As stated by Mohaghegh, interpretationmust be conceived as an act of treason against the world.”[51] While media have been mostly behind the arts, they are now ahead, both in historical and performative time. For these reason, old-media nostalgia permeates many contemporary artworks, “as a hardened instinct for ruin, one culminating in the fusion of appearance and disappearance, tragedy and delirium, creation and destruction.”[52] Former pasts and futures are imploding into synchronic/syntopic narratives of the non-present, identities and cultural memories are produced/discarded in real time,[53] but what actually defines deep media is not nostalgia, but decay. Decay is the unavoidable destiny of order, in which objects and relationships are consistently being lost, although leaving subtle but meaningful traces (vibrations) of their former presence in the network that might be “poetically hacked.” Postdigital “poetic” synchronization allows the presentation of many available “textoids” in the same place at the same time, opening “networked timespaces.” Artworks are neither single nor stable, but redundant, vibratory and metastable.

A networked timespace is a small piece of space-time produced by the synchronic “activation” of a discrete number of network elements by means of a particular performance. Networked timespaces are distributed (their space or size cannot be pre-determined) and they usually result in low-level disruptions within the metastable media network. Possible high-level disruptions are the result of unpredictable, undetermined events. While surface media are in a state of flux, moving in the realm of illusions,[54] deep media, as discussed above, work on the basis that reality is contingent, unpredictable and ontologically multiple. Deep media are deployed beyond risk into the multiplicity implied by the seizure event—as the only way to increase the probability of a major disruption event is to maximize the number and frequency of active synchronic networked timespaces:

Meaning dissipates as the chain of discursive production and consumption comes undone, ending the agreement between the sign and signifier, the sign and signified, and the knowing subject and its supposed objective world. What remains in its place is a thing that shakes uncontrollably, vibrating amid the antiprogrammatic bareness of thought—a territory opened to chaotic infinity.[55]

—Germán Sierra


Acknowledgements: This work was supported by grant FFI 2012-35296 from the Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (Spain) to Prof. Anxo Abuín González.

Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido (Debate, 1996), La Felicidad no da el Dinero (Debate, 1999), Efectos Secundarios (Debate, 2000), Intente usar otras palabras (Mondadori, 2009), and Standards (Pálido Fuego, Spain, 2013)—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje (Mondadori, 2004).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. G. Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Routledge, 2009 reprint of 1949 ed.).

  2. A. Koestler,  The Ghost in the Machine (Penguin, 1990 reprint of 1967 ed.).

  3. In fact modern cognitive neuroscience has been trying to perform the replacement of “soul” by “consciousness,” in order to keep the ghost alive. One of the most interesting approaches to consciousness thus far is the one provided by R. Scott Bakker: Consciousness would be the effect of a brain not being able to know itself. “Consciousness is so confusing because it literally is a kind of confusion. Our brain is almost entirely blind to itself, and it is this interval between ‘almost’ and ‘entirely’ wherein our experience of consciousness resides.” R.S. Bakker,  The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness.

  4. G. Sierra, Postdigital fiction: Exit and Memory, (in press).

  5. B. Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Harvard University Press, 1987).

  6. Ccru: Writings 1997-2003 (Time Spiral Press, 2015), Kindle 684. CW

  7. A. Galloway, E. Thacker, and M. Wark, Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation (University of Chicago Press, 2014).

  8. R. Negarestani, R. “Navigate With Extreme Prejudice.” https://www.urbanomic.com/what-is-philosophy/

  9. CW, Kindle 2705.

  10. “After Hermes and Iris, instead of a return to hermeneutics (the critical narrative) or a return to phenomenology (the iridescent arc), there is a third mode that combines and annihilates the other two. For after Hermes and Iris there is another divine form of pure mediation, the distributed network, which finds incarnation in the incontinent body of what the Greeks called first the Erinyes and later the Eumenides, and the Romans called the Furies. So instead of a problem or a poem, today we must confront a system. A third divinity must join the group: not a man, not a woman, but a pack of animals.” Galloway, Excommunication, 63.

  11. E. Ayache, The Blank Swan: The End of Probability (Wiley, 2010), Kindle 112.

    For a recent and extensive review on philosophy of probability, see R. Mackay, ed., COLLAPSE VIII: Casino Real (Urbanomic, 2014).

  12. M.B.N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Kindle 1529. FF

  13. FF, Kindle 446.

  14. “Experience can no longer be restricted to—or reserved for—a special class of being, but must be generalized so as to capture a vast domain of events, including everything that happens when machines interact with other machines in today’s complex media networks, everything that happens when humans interface with these networks, and also, of course, everything that happens when humans self-reflect on these interactions. Put another way, the scope of experience must be broadened to encompass not simply what it has always encompassed—higher-order modes of experience and lower-order, bodily modes to the extent these bubble up into higher-order ones—but a veritable plurality of multi-scalar instances of experience that extend, along the continuum of what Whitehead calls ‘causal efficacy,’ from consciousness all the way down to the most rudimentary aspects of our living operationality and all the way out to the most diffuse environmental dimensions of a given sensory situation.”  FF, Kindle 990.

  15. V. Place and R. Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (Ugly Ducking Press, 2009).

  16. A. Borsuk, J. Juul, and N. Montfort, “Opening a Worl in the World Wide Web: The Aesthetics and Poetics of Deletionism,” Media-N: Journal of the New Media.

  17. http://additivism.org/manifesto

  18. K. Goldsmith, Being Boring.

  19. Following Whitehead, Hansen lists the following features for “potentiality.” FF, Kindle 694:

    • Potentiality is ontologically more fundamental than actuality.
    • Potentiality operates within actuality and contrasts with all conceptions of virtuality.
    • Potentiality is rooted in the superjectal power of the settled world.
    • Potentiality operates through intensity which comprises the product of contrasts of settled actualities.
    • Concrescence is subordinated to potentiality insofar as it is catalyzed by a “dative phase” generated by contrasts of settled actualities.
    • The extensive (or vibratory) continuum provides a general sensibility that qualifies the operation of superjects (in contrast to eternal objects that qualify concrescences).
    • Eternal objects lose their status as eternal and their role as the source of “pure potentiality” and acquire a new, more restricted status as products of the flux of experience.
    • Non-perceptual sensibility emerges as central insofar as it designates how humans are implicated within a worldly sensibility that is not relative to any particular perceiver and that exceeds the scope of perception in both its Whiteheadian modes.

  20. “The real tension is no longer between individuality and collectivity, but between personal privacy and impersonal anonymity, between the remnants of a smug bourgeois civility and the harsh wilderness tracts of Cyberia, ‘a point where the earth becomes so artificial that the movement of deterritorialization creates of necessity and by itself a new earth.’ Desire is irrevocably abandoning the social, in order to explore the libidinized rift between a disintegrating personal egoism and a deluge of post-human schizophrenia.” N. Land, “Machinic desire,” Textual Practice 7:3 (1993): 471-482.

  21. A good example is what Ikoniadou denominates “the hypersonic effect”: “The hypersonic effect includes the potential participation of nonauditory sensory systems for which vibration does not necessarily translate into sound.…Conventional sensory perception may be only a part of the manifold layers of sensation that encompass and produce a body….They are better understood as affects, amodal forces of feeling that impinge upon a system and that may or may not surface to sensory perception.” (47. Emphasis is mine).

  22. “not only will we need to reconceptualize the present of consciousness as an accomplishment that is in some crucial sense always-to-come, but we will also, and perhaps more fundamentally still, need to embrace the coexistence of multiple experimental presents—multiple, partially overlapping presents from different time frames and scales—as what composes the seemingly more encompassing, higher-order syntheses of consciousness.” FF, Kindle 1018.

  23. CW, Kindle 2369.

  24. “Ordinary quantum mechanical systems have a fixed number of particles, with each particle having a finite number of degrees of freedom. In contrast, the excited states of a QFT can represent any number of particles. This makes quantum field theories especially useful for describing systems where the particle count/number may change over time, a crucial feature of relativistic dynamics.

    Because the fields are continuous quantities over space, there exist excited states with arbitrarily large numbers of particles in them, providing QFT systems with an effectively infinite number of degrees of freedom. Infinite degrees of freedom can easily lead to divergences of calculated quantities (i.e., the quantities become infinite).”


  25. Kodwo Eshun, cited in TRE, 1.

  26. E. Ikoniadou, The Rhythmic Event: Art, Media and the Sonic (MIT Press, 2014), 13. TRE

  27. “Building artificial environments from the biophysical movements of cellular vibration suggests intriguing possibilities for the relationship between living and nonliving matter. TRE, 49.

  28. C. Blake, and I. van Elferen, “Hypostition: Sonic Spectrality, Affective Engineering & Temporal Paradox.”

  29. CW, Kindle 2285.

  30. B. Butler, If You Build the Code, Your Computer Will Write the Novel.

  31. “The ‘anthropocene’ masks the vanishing-point of the human; its façade—that under which the ‘electrocene’ advances in the manner of Descartes’s larvatus prodeo—is the foregrounding of the human as the dominant agent of inscription….What we are suggesting here is that the anthropocenic worldview occludes what might at present be an even more fundamental (underground as well as overarching) ‘electro-synarchic’ agent of inscription with respect to which the human is only a conduit and carrier, a force of inscription that the human does not see (one that operates at the ‘vanishing-point’ of human communication). The ‘vanishing-point’ of human communication, we propose…, is the point at which another regime of communication arises—one that is altogether obscene…and that cannot be represented within the theoretical framework advanced in the dominant conception of ‘the anthropocene.’” D. Mellamphy,  and N.B. Mellamphy, Welcome to the Electrocene, an Algorithmic Agartha.

  32. B. Butler, 300,000,000 (Harper Perennial, 2014), Kindle 1325. THM

  33. “Hauntic timespaces are virtual planes in which origin and referentiality are absent, and from which spectral voices emerge. They are planes of immanence ánd of composition. They are planes of immanence because they allow the aforementioned revenants of musical meaning (aesthetic experience, affective connotation, memory, and identification) to emerge; and they are planes of composition because each musical sounding leads to re-contextualisation, re-inscription, and the re-creation of old and new spectres. Hauntic timespaces are characterised by temporal paradox. They are reigned by the conflated chronologies of performative time, hauntological dislodgement, and the durée of lost memory time. Inevitably ghosts emerge from these skewed temporalities. Operated by the daemonotechnics of music, mnemonics, and mnemomusics, human and nonhuman spectres converge.” C. Blake & I. van Elferen, Hypostition.

  34. J. B. Mohaghegh, New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East: The Chaotic Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2. TCI

  35. As Nicola Masciandaro writes, “the perfection of knowledge and its pleasures demand a radically immanent and positive forgetfulness—the conscious oblivion that quickens consciousness to its own blindness. Individuation is not a limit or obstacle that intelligence must overcome. It is the real infinity, the expansive space wherein visionary self-forgetfulness is not only possible, but inevitable and already underway. As though foreign to it, absolutely foreign. I am not an alien, but something stranger still, an insider whose essence is to actually be an absolute outsider.” N. Masciandaro, Absolute Secrecy: On the Infinity of Individuation.

  36. “What if perception is not entirely human, that is conscious, sensuous, and the center of all receptive activity?” TRE, 45. “[C]onventional sensory perception may be only a part in the manifold layers of sensation that encompass and produce a body.” TRE, 47; emphasis is mine.

  37. S. Kauffman in R.E. Ulanowicz A Third Window. Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin (Templeton Foundation Press, 2009), xii.

  38. J. McSweeney, The Necropastoral, (University of Michigan Press, 2015), 32. TN

  39. CW, Kindle 2369.

  40. TN, 42.

  41. TN, 5.

  42. “I see hyperstition not just hype and superstition as it is usually described, but as the kind of mathemagical operation that is best approached as a conjuration, the heretic-al engineering of unlikely assemblages that unleash an uncontrollable power which often if not always has deleterious effects. “Hyperstitions by their very existence as ideas function causally to bring about their own reality,” explains the Nick Land. “The hyperstitional object is no mere figment or ‘social construction’ but it is in a very real way ‘conjured’ into being by the approach taken to it” (ibid). Hyperstitions are conjurations in this sense—they are sorcerous operations that involve the rapprochement of elements that do not normally go or have not normally belonged together but which have the effects of transmuting perceived reality and norms of culture. This is why hyperstition involves the Unheimlich, the uncanny, the unhomely, things which are not normally at home with one another. Hyperstition, as such, is not belief—religious or otherwise—insofar as the religious aims for holy union, communion, harmoni-ous bringing together of any sort; hyperstition is always unhomely and unholy; therein lies its power. This is why hyperstition’s power is felt as insuperable, even weaponized; it is the power produced and released by the metissage of elements previously oblivious to one another. Hyperstition is intimately connected to technè, skill/art/craft, and mètis, cunning intelligence, ruse, deception, involving a mixing of elements and appearances—what Dan Mellamphy has called a ‘métissage’ for the purposes of producing unhomely effects. Hyperstitions are “chinese puzzle boxes, opening to unfold to reveal numerous ‘sorcerous’ interventions in the world of history,” and which can only be unleashed through obscure and oblique, rather than transparent and straightforward, manipulations.” Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, The Three Stigmata of Kodwo Eshun: On the Human as Hyperstition. (Prepared for The New Centre course on Hyperstition, Fictional Worlds & Possible Futures, August 3 2015, at the invitation of Ben Woodard).

  43. R.S. Bakker, What is the Semantic Apocalypse?

  44. Claire Colebrook, We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene: The Anthropocene Counter-Factual.

  45. “In the traditional model, the brain takes in data, performs a complex computation that solves the problem (where will the ball land?) and then instructs the body where to go. This is a linear processing cycle: perceive, compute and act. In the second model, the problem is not solved ahead of time. Instead, the task is to maintain, by multiple, real-time adjustments to the run, a kind of co-ordination between the inner and the outer worlds. Such co-ordination dynamics constitute something of a challenge to traditional ideas about perception and action: they replace the notion of rich internal representations and computations, with the notion of less expensive strategies whose task is not first to represent the world and then reason on the basis of the representation, but instead to maintain a kind of adaptively potent equilibrium that couples the agent and the world together. Whether such strategies are genuinely non-representational and non-computational, or suggestive of different kinds of representation (‘action-oriented representations’) and more efficient forms of computation, is a difficult question whose resolution remains uncertain.” A. Clark, “An embodied cognitive science?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3, 9 (1999): 345-351.

  46. THM, Kindle 22.

  47. TCI, 25-26.

  48. S. Kilpatrick, Sucker June (Lazy Fascist Press, 2015), 75.

  49. “‘Potentiality,’ explores the expansion of causal efficacy that is generated by data-intensive media. Its central aim is to thematize the potential for contemporary microcomputational sensors to directly mediate the domain of sensibility and thereby to facilitate a form of indirect human access to this domain, via the operation of ‘feed-forward.’ Feed-forward names the operation through which the technically accessed data of sensibility enters into futural moments of consciousness as radical intrusions from the outside: it is, I shall suggest, the principal mode in which contemporary consciousness can experience—in the phenomenological sense of live through—its own operationality.” FF, Kindle 736.

  50. http://okhaos.com/plantoid/

  51. “In this way, interpretation, like alchemy, must be traitorous. It must be conceived as an act of treason against the world, for to draw texts into a comparative encounter is nothing less than to set the stage for their radical betrayal. And we must betray literature; we must seek the triggers and the catalysts through which a text becomes a subterfuge—becomes the faintness of an amorphous zone—where articulations devour themselves, shatter, and regenerate in new, unacceptable maskings. To this end, the chaotic imagination must accentuate the pain of transfiguration—it must learn to play both in subtle malformations and in monstrous turnings, if only to reconvene us in a foreign atmosphere, a chamber where deception overrides truth, illusion supersedes authenticity, and where the dominion of reality has long since been overthrown. Stated otherwise, we must train ourselves to lie.” TCI, 4.

  52. “A colossal facet of this inspection resides within the annihilative principle forwarded here as a hardened instinct for ruin, one culminating in the fusion of appearance and disappearance, tragedy and delirium, creation and destruction. For it is amid such an unsteady condition of the writing-act, where nothingness and excess tangle, where finality is brought into full proximity with consciousness, that the literary world overthrows itself. Indeed, the poetics of annihilation serves as a prelude to the poetics of chaos by depleting the constraints of being, an occasion of imminent sacrifice suspended somewhere between rage and sublimity. For it is in this manner that the disciplinary technologies of thought begin to erode, disallowing any epistemological certainty or submission to routinized instrumentality. The emergent text now bars itself from the symbolic orders of the mind—no descent into self-regulation, no self automated models of signification, no faith in causation, and, more than anything, no search for rapid closure. For it is through the materialization of such an annihilative event—itself a ferocious convolution of mortality and power—that the textual encounter might evade its own entrapment, capsizing its self-imposed captivity so as to trespass through the entryway of a chaos-becoming.” TCI, 10.

  53. G. Sierra, Postdigital Synchrony and Syntopy: The Manipulation of Universal Codes in Contemporary Literature (Forthcoming)

  54. S. Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media (MIT Press, 2008), 10.

  55. TCI, 43.

Jan 032016

Afric high res bio pic


A River of Familiars

I have a cat that sharpens her scent on men.
……………I netted her from the river, called her mother.

Perhaps there’s a cat-flap in the sky,
……………because sometimes my mother’s a golden owl.

I have a memory cat that in a past life
……………knew the taste of golden whiskey.

My cat has a curiosity about the whiskey-crazy
……………wish for public nudity.

I have a crazy city cat with a lightning dart
……………across her lazy eye.

And my lightning cat has an earring, just the one,
……………mother-of-pearl. Call it intuition.

And seven secret positions, the last
……………a chanting lotus. I have a cat that doesn’t exist.

I have a penchant for jumping trains, inhaling
……………with each knock. I have a sister cat who inhales too.

I have a lover who becomes a lion under the glassy moon.
……………And the cat exhales her wail, like an accordion.

One cat is a grand, glass-lidded, gleaming ivory,
……………the light, not yet put out.

First-born, I am, of a cat who cycles lightly
……………inside his mansion full of stories, war and music.

My cat and I wear twenty masks when singing
……………out in rain, take it, like a wafer, on the tongue.

I have a cat that purrs in white and black
……………or foggy smoke rings, belly up.

As a foggy curtain rises, a missing cat
……………runs rings around the time inside a clock.



His manner is reserved,
a little secretive.
He scours the room, which also pines
for colour; moves
to the window’s blazing snap of light.

Her age depends on the light,
especially the collarbone’s
slight hollow at the V,
a wishbone, which gives luck
only when broken.

He is both still and moving,
like a tree in the trembling
haul of spring,
building up its nests
and growing puddles.

She spends the water
with spread fingers.
He is afraid of loss –
it’s easier to have nothing.
No way in for the water; no way out.

It’s herself she’s in danger from,
seizing a handful of electric wire,
as though clutching-
a hank of drowning hair.

He paints what’s left behind.
A thought-ghost grieves,
disturbed by mutation;
like seeing the bones of tiny,
once-swimming fish.

She notes there’s no
fountain swishing,
only light.
encloses her.

They share a reading
of each other’s bodies
among the hung-up coats,
mud-sucked boots;
the track.

They look up to find
the sky wiped free
of the drench;
his voice shifting
to a minor key.



God and the Devil are one – Karen Blixen


Chopper’s genuflection;
a whoomph disturbs the air.

Clansmen and women offer fruit;
a whoomph disturbs

a calabash, spills water;
a whoomph: white walls, a flare.


A mob; Kalashnikovs and rocks.
He cowers in a corner.

Hands seize
on splintered glass.

A looming face, teeth yellow-
stained from chewing khat

spring-loaded spittle
screaming hate.


The sea receives more bodies,
lays them on a beach.

Crossings lead
to razor wire, new fences.


Boycotts and defences dance
like pirouettes, a paintbrush.


At an army base: ‘I believe
he had no faith.’

The chaplain’s agitated. ‘But
we’ve got to say a prayer

before we zip the bag.
It’s always been the way.’



They stream invisibly,
like phantom-birds past
a tarred window,

all the houses.
The first African one,
a hammerkop, all messy crest;

another, a paradise fly-catcher;
a third, a heron.
Sometimes they brushed

the edge of wild bush,
or a silvery river,
warming their tails

in the sun, till the vanishing.
One for each year
of a migratory childhood.

Long corridors, tall steps,
cold rooms, glass roofs.
Across a hemisphere,

some stood on lawns,
bright as sugar.
We dressed them up,

like mannequins, knowing
them to be temporary playthings
before another re-crossing.

Tucked at the end of a long cul-de-sac,
one comes close
to what you’d call home:

close enough to look into the glossy
pellet of a sun-struck eye,
see the malachite-amber blur.

But it slips through my fingers,
and once again I am left with another
feather-gold flickering.


Portrait of the Other

Like art (an addiction,
not a cure), you’re

the moonlit flit from
silk to gold, to wings

to glass; light as cats,
and sniper-accurate;

a heliotropic paradox
facing five horizons.

You’re a pack of jokers,
deuces, three-eyed queens;

the immensity of an
ocean or inferno;

you’re a shadow-grue,
sunlight and lawn,

and all the time
in the world.


—Afric McGlinchey


Afric McGlinchey was born in Ireland. She grew up in Southern Africa, moving frequently between countries, and received degrees from Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town, where she was tutored by the Nobel prize-winner, JM Coetzee. She has also lived in London, Paris, Dublin and Spain. She returned to Ireland in 1999 and currently lives in West Cork. Her début poetry collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, was published in 2012 by Salmon Poetry. The poems featured above are from her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, which is forthcoming in February 2016 (Salmon Poetry).


Jan 022016




I feel our initial session today went off the rails, and I feel you began to doubt much of what I said. I could see it in your eyes, the way they wouldn’t meet mine, the way they would shift to the art deco calendar, to your laptop screen, or your cuticles. The way you interrupted my theory of souls and the way you crinkled your brow whenever I mentioned the jungles of Paraguay. It was subtle, that crinkling, along with the quick little blinks, but it didn’t slip past me. Is it right that the patient should observe the doctor more closely than the doctor observes the patient? Is this how it goes with all your patients? I am seeing you for a reason and that reason has nothing to do with finding a dupe to believe me. What happened to me can be found in the newspapers of the day and is catalogued online at several respectable websites, including www.airdisasters.com. I have been interviewed by People Magazine (September 1996) and my story, or at least my flight, was recreated in the Real History Channel’s “Fatal Flight” series, Episode 3, Season 2, “Silence over South America.”

I, Kaye Alan Warwick, am a survivor. But I do not need to be told I am a survivor. I do not need to be told I have survivor’s guilt. I realize you haven’t said this to me, but I know you will, once you stop pretending to pay attention. I am worthy of every ounce of intelligence and training you may have. You have been highly recommended, Doctor Shabazz, and though I may have sworn off therapy years ago, because so many failed me, I do feel the need for help. I do feel my very life is at stake. That is why I am writing this letter, that we may start again with a better understanding that one, I am not a liar, and that two, I am unwell.

Please do your research.

I know the figure I cut, because everywhere I go, it’s the same figure: a short, balding man with mournful eyes, a man who looks frail, who looks shifty, who tries to look more manly by cultivating a goatee and wearing clothing a size too large. It’s been pointed out, thank you. It’s not important. But I assure you I am anything but frail, for my body is little more than sinew and scar tissue. No one falls softly when dropped out of the sky at 300 mph in a tin can sheared open by enormous trees. But I see your brow wrinkling now, don’t I. Look it up: TAB Flight 14, Sao Paulo to Asuncion, a McDonnell Douglas DC 10, 192 souls aboard including five crew.

Two survivors.

At first there were three.

And if I do have survivor’s guilt, that’s where it lies, Doctor Shabazz. Yes there were 189 others who didn’t make it, who were, as I saw first hand, though the photos were never released, torn to shreds – dismembered, beheaded, rendered unrecognizable as human, strewn about like doll parts. Blood pooled in the oddest places. But I didn’t know them, I could not have told you the stewardess’s names ten minutes after the flight landed, had it landed, nor could I have told you the pilot’s name, or the man behind me who kept insisting he was allowed to smoke a cigar, that it wasn’t a cigarette. I won’t light it, he pleaded, just let me suck it. Or the drunk young woman to my left who kept nervously twining her greasy hair around her fingers, who kept asking the same question over and over, É o avião quebrado? They never answered her, for obviously it was, obviously it was very broken. Completely broken. They haunt me, but I did not know them. For all I know every person I saw at the drugstore yesterday is dead today, perhaps the ceiling collapsed the moment I stepped out. It’s not that crazy. I feel nothing.

But Tarala, the little Indian girl.

I realize this is where I lost my train of thought today, where I began to ramble. I can go months without any trouble, live my life normally, slip past all the key triggers as if that part my past has been excised, surgically removed and incinerated to a few carbon specks lifting over the sleeping city. I’d have thrown myself in front of a train years ago had I not learned to deal with this. My first doctor promised easy miracles, said a few waves of his magic finger in front of my eyes and my brain would sparkle like new. When I think of him I even hear a tinkling magic-wand sound, like in “I Dream of Genie.” What a snake-oil salesman! Yet I believe in the science of psychotherapy, and the efficacy of pharmacology, Doctor, because I have worked miracles on myself.

The human brain is capable of so much. The human brain is as complex as the Universe, because it is the Universe. Everything we perceive is an impression, a rubbing of a neural pencil over reality’s bumps. And that reality – we only know it from the bumps! And yet I find myself in an MRI, a machine which reads my body, a machine made by Mind. We have fumbled in the dark and we have made this. Magnetic Resonance Imaging. What does that mean? I was lying there, Doctor Shabazz, worried about fuselage shrapnel being ripped from my flesh, and I thought Metal Ripping Instrument, and then I thought don’t think that, it’s Mind Reading Interrogator, and then I thought I am in a battle with my brain, my brain is an invader, all brains are invader alien species how come no one has written about this, I have to get out and write about this, this is why Man is Man and no longer ape. Eureka!

Do you know what they found, my dear Doctor? Lodged in my brain? Plastic. A fragment of a white plastic fork, prongs tickling my frontal lobe. Plastic, an artificial polymer that’s anything but plastic, unlike our brains. And no, Doctor, I don’t think our brains are invader aliens. It was a metaphor. I am not a nutcase. Please. For a moment imagine the force it takes to lodge a picnic fork into one’s brain. I survived that. Did the fork fly into me, or did I fly into the fork? I remember nothing, I felt nothing. I smelled jet fuel and acrid smoke that made me think of cheap carpeting. I lay on my back feeling no pain (oh but that would come). I heard nothing (a lie, I heard birds, birds, a riot of birds). And for a while… I saw nothing.

But then, yes, I heard Tarala call for her mother. Am’ma, Am’ma. I opened my eyes, wiped away the drying blood. But I am getting ahead of myself. I asked, when they removed the fork, Will my concentration return, it’s not what it used to be. You may notice several improvements, Mr. Warwick, but more importantly you are out of danger. Christ on crack. Isn’t that absurd? Isn’t that the most absurd thing you’ve heard? No, of course it isn’t, not in your line of work. Which is of course why you won’t believe me, a thick wall of lies and false history and evasion standing between you and every ass sitting across you. We need to break through this wall, Doctor, we need to remove the mad wigs of insanity.

I should not have thrown my coffee at you. That was a poor start and I apologize. My wife – yes, I was married – she tended to do that, not throw coffee at me but nibble on her cuticles when I was talking to her, and it’s a petty thing, I know, I know, so petty to hold such rancour after two dozen years, but I loved her dearly and yet she drove me mad, as you’ve seen. I’ve never flung coffee at anyone before. This is what’s happening to me.

But, yes, you’re more interested in what has happened to me.

I’m afraid I left my notes in your office.

My handwriting, I know, says far too much about me, which is why am I typing this despite the difficulty my fingers have with movement since the aircrash. I saw it once, you know, my handwriting, saw it in Issue 1, Volume 59 of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 1998. As if I don’t read. My doctor, without permission, displaying my scribbles and saying the only other cases of such “characterless” handwriting are seen in post-comatose and/or near-vegetative victims of severe brain trauma who, when having moments of lucidity, awake and scribble like Patient X. But scribble is the wrong word, because my slant lacks impression, lacks spontaneity, lacks the character that distinguishes all handwriting, that makes it a forensic science. I could have murdered him, Doctor! My arm doesn’t work right, that’s all!

I don’t believe you have been in an aircraft in your life. Describe it to me.

I described it, every detail, and still he said, Too much detail. You are inventing. I think it is a fiction.


Do you remember the actor who played me in “Fatal Flight: Silence over South America”? Brian Scott Skiver. Now there was someone characterless. As if I look like that, or looked like that, that mating experiment between a pig and a billiard ball, nose like wall-socket, chin so recessed it belongs on some pre-Jurassic protomouse. A whiskered twitcher clutching his briefcase and slobbering on the lovely exotic next to him as the plane, so tragically, crashes in a horrific melange of stock footage and early CGI. All the world saw that, that mockery of me. I called them repeatedly the next day but got nothing but laughter. I talked to a lawyer and he said sure, sure, we can go far with this, and then I got a bill for two grand for just yakking to the prick.

It wasn’t like that. I wasn’t like that.

I’m sorry, Doctor. I will try to keep this short. I must work in the morning, open the library, turn on the lights, wonder what homeless man is sleeping between the stacks this time, water the half-dead plants, close my office door and sit in my chair and weep. This is a train wreck, this recounting of an aircrash. Had things not gone off the rails today I would have told you more about Babs, the woman who married me, about the letter I found, sent while I was missing in the jungle, sent to a friend who later let a room to me, a letter saying, “You know it’s awful to say this but part of me feels relieved because I’ve gotten off easy” and saying she’d planned to leave for months. It felt like she was the one who brought the plane down, like it fell out of the sky because she didn’t love me.

Well, an hour has passed since I wrote that. I thought I would sleep, continue in the morning, but with coffee as my companion I’ll forgo sleep and bring this to a conclusion. So here are the facts:

I have emotional and physical scars.

I have survived what I should not have survived.

I feel tremendous guilt.

I feel that guilt is a lie.

I harbour resentment toward anyone who is happy, who has not had their life repeatedly crushed underfoot.

I have an unshakable belief in my theory of souls (no, this is not some new age ramble-damble about angels and crystal unicorns but the conclusion of a well-read, highly-educated man who has seen the world’s skull peeled back and its inner workings revealed in all their glittering pink detail).

My life is unravelling due to all of the above.

Do you know when I saw the actor, Brian Scott Skiver, again? For a while I would look him up, seek his name in films, sitcoms, movies-of-the-weak, something to feed my loathing, hoping he’d be the extra beaten in an alley or a homeless man eaten by small dogs. This “actor” did not deserve to work but if he did find work I wanted it to be demeaning. Yes, yes, I know, you say, He is not responsible for role he played, he is simply an actor. But, my dear Doctor, an actor chooses how to play a role. An actor would ask, What is the real Warwick like? He would look at a photo of me, strike a pose, tuck in his chin. He would babble, shout into a mirror, practice on his couch and imagine the peeling floral wallpaper a portal to ascending jungle. How did Warwick snivel? Surely he sniveled. How tightly would he hold his briefcase (no matter that I did not have one, and was, in fact, holding a seat cushion in front of my upper torso, something that very well may have saved me)? Oh surely he held it tightly, like this, no tuck in that chin, push out that gut and fear, more fear in the eyes. Wide, wider.

How does this man live with himself? His profile on the Internet Movie Database says he has a wife and three grown children and lives in California where he grows grapes and bottles his own award-winning Merlot. Skiver? From what he makes acting in hair loss commercials? For rubbing that too-round head of his and smiling into the camera? Yes, that was when I saw him next, taking advantage of that shameful excuse for a coif. And then when he couldn’t pull that off any longer (three years of NuGrow propaganda) he flashes his little prick in our faces, rolling over in bed and smiling while his MILF of the Month whispers in his ear. Erectile dysfunction no more, senility before penility with a blue pill or two.

Doctor Shabazz, this is madness.

Your life will go down in flames and when you pull yourself from the ashes a great black boot will stomp you back into the soil.

I need to sleep, but I need to finish this.

I noticed, in your office today, yesterday, that print of a gaudy phoenix rising over the desert. Evocative, certainly, and yes, I get it: we all can be saved, we all can be renewed. I doubt every patient gets it so quickly. I noticed it, yes, how could it be missed being directly behind your head like that and large enough that, if the angle is right (do you practice this?), it appears you have multicoloured wings. Bravo, Doctor. Bravissimo. This shows confidence in your abilities, a smugness, even, which I’ve noticed is a common thread stitching doctors together, especially those who deal with matters of the head. And I noticed the name of the artist, and at first, seeing Shabazz, I thought it was, grotesquely, your own work (for artists who hang their work in their homes are truly the worst kind of narcissist), but then I saw the hyphenated Shabazz-Buford and put it together with the wedding photo on your desk and observed that your daughter inherited your stupendous brow but, fortuitously, not your botch of a face, meaning your mottled complexion and deepening jowl. She is not untalented, but her signature has far too much flourish for someone of such small ambition. I doubt you’ve noticed this, Doctor, as love does blind us.

I mistakenly, or not, first typed ‘bind us,’ which must be my subconscious commanding me back to the matter at hand, for is there a bond greater than mother and daughter? Don’t shrug, this isn’t a subject for debate. You may feel close to your daughter but you will never discus the feminine minutia the way a mother and daughter will, you have never bonded over menstrual periods and eye shadow. I never wanted children, which did not make Babs happy, so we tried but it turned out I’m all but infertile having both a low sperm count and low motility. Or is that mobility? I’ll have to look it up. It’s 4 a.m. and my coffee is cold.

But daughters, yes (and there is no discussion of sons here, since there is only blinding urge to overthrow kings), and mothers and daughters, and Rahata and Tarala sitting behind me, little Tarala, like me at the window, and the noise she made when the lights went out, when the DC 10 went silent, when all we heard on the half empty jet was wind and shudder. The noise she made was a query fraught with fear and I imagine she gripped her mother’s arm, her mother who was knitting, who stopped knitting and sighed when the lights, momentarily, flickered back on and the engines made a sound, a complaint, but nothing more and it was dark again. Throughout the rest of the flight, and I use that word loosely, for it was a fall or a gliding descent if you’re being generous, we were waiting for it, knew it was coming, it had to come: the pilots wouldn’t do nothing, they would start engines, so much depended on it. Yes, yes, it’s coming, the restart, we all nodded while not looking at each other, while staring at the front of our seats. It has to happen, there is no other option.

I found I was holding my breath, Doctor.

And I laughed.

I’ve thought at length about why I laughed and indeed, you’ll point out, it was a nervous reaction. But only in part, for how many other nervous reactions could there have been? Panic. Weeping. Hysteria. Hyperventilation. Sweating. Shaking. Small urination. So why would I laugh, and specifically laugh because I’d been holding my breath? I think it was the sound of the wind and I wanted nothing to do with it. Suspending my breathing was suspending time. But maybe it was just lack of oxygen.

We were in a sweet spot, Doctor, or a strong spot, being above the wing. A lucky spot, too, because none of the other wing riders survived. Do you think they suffered, felt much pain? This was asked by the families of the dead (I do not say victims, as victim presumes malevolent intent, an aggressor, and the only aggressor here was the universal one: gravity). I heard a man say no, they felt nothing, the body is destroyed quicker than the brain can register. So there was no pain? No. But much dread, forty minutes of dread.

So many birds, Doctor.

Had they seen it through the clouds? A god, a juggernaut. Spitting out fire and bodies.

(It has just occurred to me that I forgot to mention Skiver played me as entirely bald even though, and the newscasts of the day will prove it, I had a fine mane of hair during the time of the crash and only began losing my hair in the next year. And it is also quite obvious that Skiver, though bald with merit, was wearing a latex bald cap so not only did he look hideous – admittedly hard for him not to (how is he married, Doctor? Do you understand the minds of women? Does anyone?) – he also looked ridiculous. Ratings information state that only 155,000 households watched that episode, but can you imagine how long it would take to sit and watch it 155,000 times? And how many of those 155,000 told five friends, who told five more, who all said, no doubt, All those beautiful people and guess who was the one to live? There is no justice, Doctor.)

Yes, I am parenthetical. I read a book once (I’ve read many) and the author began a parenthesis and never closed it. It drove me mad.

I feel since the aircrash my life has been one long, unclosed parenthesis.

I stared at the page for minutes after writing that, my mind adrift on a sea of sadness, a sea cluttered with the flotsam of my past.

What haunts me about Tarala, what wakes me more often than my shattered memory of the descent into the trees, the screams, the shearing metal and roar of flames, what haunts me is the brochure she had, a cheap, touristy brochure, some kind of South American – Chilean? – Disneyland. I’ve never been able to find it, this land of dreams, and Rahata and I had no common language, for she speaks only Punjabi or Sanskrit, I don’t precisely remember. And I didn’t dare pull the pamphlet away from the child, who held it tightly, who asked a question of her mother, who reassured her, Yes, yes, I imagine her saying, Yes, yes my child, tomorrow we will be in DisneyChile. All this while the life was not-so-slowly draining from her. Draining may sound cliche, or overly clinical, but that’s how it was: her movements slowing, her energy fading, her voice quieting, her colour paling. There is destroyed aircraft all around you, there are limbs in the trees and surely only the fires and the smoke and the stink of fuel are keeping the jaguars from leaping in, and the goal is still the dreamland, the playpen, as if this were a kind of fantasy quest. Nothing will stop us; we will reach the promised land. This poor child, dying from massive internal injuries, who I had pulled from under a clamour of fuselage and meal cart face down but strapped tightly in her seat calling for her mother and it was not the maudlin sadness of it, Doctor, but the acceptance, that allowance in her little half-beating heart that life was like this, that this was fine, a problem but life is like this. Her mother was holding her, trying to keep her attention but feeling terrible every time she had to wake her daughter. I gathered water, supplies, anything I could find – a first aid kit, towels, clothing – becoming increasingly aware of my own injuries as the adrenaline wore off. Some ribs were broken and my right shoulder was out of joint and my right hand swelling like a melon. I could hear a clicking sound in my neck when I walked and in my sinuses and my mouth was the constant smell and taste of blood.

I don’t know where Rahata came from. I’d searched the wreckage. I’d taken the girl in her seat some distance from the wreckage, into shade, left certain I’d find water bottles strewn about (they however are not designed to survive such impact – the lids pop off!) and when I returned her mother was there, had taken Tarala from her seat and…

And I wonder at times what is my memory and what is the episode of “Fatal Flight.” I watched it repeatedly, making notes and citing inaccuracies along with observations, missed opportunities and outright poor writing. My report to the Real History Channel was 412 pages long, double-spaced, six months’ work, a reworked script footnoted and cross-referenced and presented in spiral-bound format in a box of 12 copies. I suggested they reshoot the episode or burn the first attempt.


Perhaps we can have a beer one day, Doctor Shabazz, and you can share your observations on the psychology of those in the film industry.

So I may add to my role. Yes, I think I do add to my role. I don’t intend to do this but every time I’ve relived or retold the story (which is reliving it) it deepens a groove in my memory. I recognize this. My intention certainly was to help, not to lie there in shock, which I may have done and for longer than is commendable, but I do know from the infection I had in my foot that I wandered, tried to gather, was up to my knees in mud, in swamp. There were snakes. Rahata, remarkably, was uninjured save for a tennis-ball-size welt on her head and a gash on her left shin. She would not leave her daughter. Three days and she never left her daughter’s side.

Who died, of course, during the first night in the jungle.

That’s something “Fatal Flight” did get right.

I did not, however, find a blanket and then wrap her in it, holding her alongside Rahata, huddled through the darkness. Maybe that was Skiver’s touch. The night was warm enough, but the flies were gargantuan and ravenous and I knew Tarala had passed not by her lack of breathing, which was hard to hear above the rising trill of an amphibian chorus and impossible to see in a blackness illuminated only by the light of the southern stars, but by her lack of swatting, scratching. Earlier I had searched for a blanket but had become disoriented, light-headed, had started weeping and had sat in the jungle at the point where the DC 10 first sheared the trees. I remember tracing my steps back as evening descended and how the disaster was revealed limb by limb. Some were still strapped in their seats. Some had burned beyond anything recognizably human. I heard a crashing of leaves and a thump and a little later another, like heavy apples falling, but this was far from Eden. Or maybe not, seeing that the first didn’t end so well either.

So, do you still think this is a fiction, Doctor?

I must make another coffee.

Please disregard my question; of course it was not you who claimed my life to be a fiction, but one Doctor Shearer, who has since left the city. Such an odd man, forever a bachelor, beak-like nose and liver-spotted pate and stooped like a wilted lily. Photos and paintings of classical musicians on his walls. For once I’d like to enter a doctor’s office and find race car posters or those of topless, tanned bikini models. No, Shearer thought I was a joke, a final patient sent by the gods of humour before his retirement after 240 years of service to furthering the decrepitude of the stately infrastructure. Oh, and my next doctor, Doctor Crawford-Nuerys of the Fake Accent School of Shrinkology (please, call me Julia, never call me Doctor, we are friends here, shall we chat a bit?), well she had a wall of horses, fields, and inspirational quotes like Life is not living if living is not your life. And I knew this even when I was a schoolboy, Shabazz, I knew these halfwit classmates would be our politicians, teachers, lawyers and yes (do you hear the disgust in my voice?), doctors.

And yet, here I am. Or there I was, again, in an office. This time in a tower, another great touch. Look how far I can see, helpless patient. Regard my omnipotence. These windows are like windows upon the soul. Let me peer into yours.

Do you even believe in souls, Doctor?

I didn’t until I lost mine, until it abandonned me just as the pilots knew all was lost (for pilots never survive). Seconds before we hit ground zero it was like a zipper tearing though the aisle, and souls were released, torn (that’s the only word I know for this) from their doomed hosts, fleeing the apocalypse. I saw it, Doctor; I felt it. We all did. Light, pure light like a flash, not a flame. And a sound, a horrible sound. And this only happens when survival is no longer possible, and it only happens when survival is no longer desired. And when it goes wrong it only happens to me, it seems.

A mass migration, Doctor, hurling for the skies.

I am supposed to be dead, and all because of a whim, because I’d wanted to travel the world from A to Z. Every year a new city and, in my 40th year, it would all begin at Asuncion, Paraguay. In the end it had more appeal that Athens, if less history, and was cheaper than Aukland, if less English. And I’ve always had thing for South America, the other America, the continent that dangles a tail in the Antarctic. Lush, mountainous, ripe. Babs did not want to travel with me, said her burgeoning business (a ladies’ shoe store) could not function without her for three weeks. It made sense at the time and the following year we would travel together to Belgrade or Bismark (depending on finances). In truth, we did little with our money, and if you save just a few dollars a day by the end of the year you have a substantial travel fund. Add in advance planning, seat sales, and anyone can do this. Babs, admittedly, had a fear of flying, just as she had a fear of tall buildings, but had we travelled together one of us, depending on who chose what seat, would likely be dead. I can’t be sure how I survived but I believe the cushion held in front of my torso helped. I honestly don’t remember much.

The screaming (though yes what I know hear is the screaming from that damn episode).

The DC 10 pitching sharply to the right after my wing caught trees (a point they missed).

Light, so much light.

I suspect our wing spun round and much of the energy was dissipated laterally, that my seat broke free, struck the spongy ground, tumbled, released me.

And then I was on my back, Doctor. Just like Skiver back from commercial my eyes opened, blinked. My vision was blurry but there was sun, trees, smoke. My right arm was twisted behind me as if had been arrested and I had no shoes and only one sock dangling at the end of my toes. My first thought was, Who has assaulted me? I have not wronged anyone. Is the assault over? Perhaps I should lie still but there came a change in the wind and smoke began to billow over me. What a horrid thing, that odour of flesh and fuel, an unholy barbeque. I began to choke. I thought my limp right arm was dead, detached, but it was merely asleep and soon a terrible prickliness rushed through it. I sat and I saw before me the rip in the forest canopy, the towering trees shredded and the white and black of the scattered aircraft, sections of seats, windows, wing, engine. And then clothing moving in the wind, and then hair, and then did I laugh? Or did I cry? Something came from deep within me and I won’t try to name it.

You know, I thought Babs would overcome her fears just to see the cathedrals of Paraguay.

I needed to call her, had to let her know I was alright but that she should tell TAB they lost a plane and also, yes, tell the hotel to not give up my room, and yes I would need some shoes and where was my wallet, my credit cards, my passport.

Three days, Doctor, before they found us.

In the movie version we huddle all night, it fades to black, then comes footage of search and rescue helicopters scouring the land, grimy locals hacking their way through forest, swamp lizards and jungle cats, snippets of the TAB press conference and mourning, wailing relatives at the airport in Asuncion (which I pointed out to the producers was the exact same footage they used in season 4, episode 10 and season 5, episode 5 – surely these professional wailers were well compensated for their superb acting!). Oh, if only we had huddled on cue, listened to messages from our sponsors for five minutes and then woke to rescue!

The sun has risen. I am eating a bran muffin.

Odd what the lack of sleep does to the brain. I’ve always likened it to a blow the head, one blow for each sleepless night. No wonder you die after a week or two.

What else do you need to know, Doctor? What page of my trauma will you dog-ear for return reading, what lines will you highlight in neon yellow? If I knew, I could continue to heal myself, but I’ve reached an impasse. It’s all a lie now, all a story retold, replayed, rerunned, reheated. It’s stale. It has no heartbeat. I spent the second day off on my own just to be far from Rahata’s horrible state – she was, as they say, inconsolable. Not that I tried to console her (unlike Skiver, but who would watch such a sorry excuse for an actor were he not at the very least doing noble things?). Without language what could I say? Pat her head and smile? I found a few packaged meals near where I found her daughter and brought them to her and then I left, wandered a few hundred feet where I found a suitcase which I sat upon for hours, removed the clothing to cover myself from the flies, to cover my mouth from the growing stench. Where was rescue? Where were the vultures?

I thought often of Babs, fell asleep with a vision of her in my arms (she had come through the jungle in khaki shorts and one of those safari hats and she had water and a backpack full of grapes) and woke to screaming, Rahata screaming, but eventually her screaming stopped, night fell, and I slept on the suitcase, though I did not sleep well.

I was ashamed of this, Doctor Shabazz, and avoided telling anyone. Shearer tried to convince me I was a hero, a warrior, while Crawford-Neurys stressed the currency of my experience, a rare coin that only I could spend in the jukebox of my existence. I am paraphrasing. But who is ever trained for this? I was in shock, I was injured, I was insulted. The are plenty of people deserving punishment in the world but they are not women and children off to DisneyChile and librarians travelling by alphabet. That aircraft was an abomination! That DC 10 was little more than a cheap sheet-metal tube with engines hammered on and a few pulleys at the front. It was ancient, and as “Fatal Flight” pointed out, had crash landed not once, but twice before! Each time landing-gear failure leading to a rough “miracle” landing, no one killed, pilot saviours, all that. But each time shoddily repaired cracks in the fuselage, cracks that were ever-so-slowly expanding and when noticed by alcoholic mechanics riveted back together with non-FDA-approved materials, maintenance recommendations not followed (this truly is the only part of “Fatal Flight” worth watching, as the investigation was top-notch, for here they had to rely on facts and not an actor’s needling), flight after flight and pressurization after pressurization and it can’t take it anymore, the rivets snap just as the meal cart is snaking its way down the aisle, the pretty flight attendant offering a mystery last supper, the strip of metal peels back and flies into the left engine, which shatters inside and throws shrapnel that cuts the fuel line but hey, all they need to do is shut the flow to the left engine, there are two other engines everybody.

This is so safe.

I read once, Doctor, about a very experienced skydiver out with friends, camera attached to his helmet. He’s going to film their group jump so they leap then he leaps and at what point does he realize he has no parachute? Immediately? When he goes to pull the cord? And how does that feel?

That moment when you realize you’ve made a truly fatal mistake.

The pilots do not stop the fuel flow to the dead engine with the leaky lines. They descend, wanting enough wind to restart it, but the increased airflow causes the tear in the fuselage to grow, which causes increased turbulence, so they climb again, think they’ve slipped the bad air yet the turbulence is still there.

They climb higher.

Air traffic control says no other reports of turbulence in the area, climb to 33,000 feet.

Puzzled, they turn off the autopilot.

The meal cart comes rattling closer to me. Am I worried? It’s bumpy, the lights have flickered, but the flight attendant is all smiles.

Skiver rifles through his briefcase, finds an exciting pie chart, sits back and reads. Fake Rahata and Fake Tarala are playing a card game. Other passengers adjust their seats, bring down their meal trays. The pilots puzzle over the aircraft’s strange handling, the dead left engine, and then, What the hell? Low fuel warning? It’s electronics again, ignore it, bad sensor. They talk about the new Airbus, they say they’ll miss the DC 10 and they chuckle (all said in bad Spanish accents, of course). They request an even higher altitude and the request is granted, 35,000 feet, and right when the co-pilot says, Hey, didn’t we shut down fuel to, the engine on the right wing flames out and, seconds later, the tail engine.

Inside, everything goes dark and there’s only wind.

We were flying ahead of the terminator, with dawn at our tail.

We’ll crash as dawn sweeps over us.

Did Babs jolt out of her sleep? Little did I know she did not, was entwined with Kerwin, a long-haired pot-smoking classical guitar playing neighbour who never mowed his lawn and had once borrowed and not returned our garden hose (and when I confronted him he took advantage of that convenient lapse of memory his kind have – Was it green, or black? Orange? You had an orange garden hose? No, definitely not, I’d remember that).

She denied it, of course, He’s too scrawny, she laughed, I could never, and you know how I hate big boney feet. But my bed-ridden month led to discoveries: three guitar picks between the headboard and the bed and a faint but unmistakable smell, one that could only be patchouli.

Am I boring you, Doctor? Have you chewed your cuticles to a pulp? Surely you’re wondering by now just what my problem is, my “illness,” or at the very least I hope you’re wondering this. If you’re worth your degrees you will have been pounding these pages with your fists, shouting, Tell me, tell me you bastard. I believe you now so tell me. You should have an insatiable need to know, an unquenchable thirst for the source, the wellspring of all my trouble.

I took a nap. Now, I mean, on the couch, and woke to the sun creeping though the blinds. You told me your secretary would call me first thing today to schedule a new appointment but it is Saturday and you are not open. I don’t think you lied to me. No doubt you are much in demand and feel harried. I saw this on your face yesterday.

I dreamed, just now, that I was homeless, wandering naked but for a few shreds of clothing which were made from scraps of litter – old receipts, grocery lists, plastic bags – and I needed one item, one unnameable item to complete my attire.

A fitting dream, don’t you think?

When I woke on the third day I was covered in brightly coloured slugs. I’d intended to sleep on the suitcase but I woke on moist earth. I was in pain, stunning pain, and I was hungry, thirsty. I staggered through the gap in the jungle, now familiar with the location of bodies and their former parts (which I avoided), and eventually came to Rahata, who was lying next to Tarala, stroking her hair, talking the her, singing to her. She had covered most of the little girl’s body with a purple TAB blanket. She did not acknowledge my approach so I kept walking, walking past her and into the thicker jungle, in a kind of daze, yes, but thinking I would climb a tree for the view (impossible with a dislocated shoulder), find fruit, find water, find something. I was wearing a college basketball player’s tracksuit, much too large, the cuffs and sleeves rolled up but comfortable enough. On my feet I had a pair of ladies’ running shoes, which were once white and pink. I still have them all these years later. A memento mori. After some time (I have no idea how long, but let’s say an hour) I came to more wreckage, a wingtip, a hard-shell suitcase (still shut), cutlery glinting in the moss. I pushed through the tangled roots and treelimbs and could hear water flowing. Not a torrent, just a trickle. The flies had found me and were feasting on my ankles, my hands, and as I got closer to the water the vegetation also thickened. I hacked away with a butter knife but made little progress. My hands were bleeding. My head ached. I became so dizzy I could not stand and then, kneeling over the green, became violently ill.

I would have died there, in a huge red tracksuit and a woman’s jogging shoes, sockless and covered in pretty slugs (which, as you would not know from “Fatal Flight”, were in fact leeches – sixteen of the suckers on my back alone). I would have died there bloodless, nameless, ludicrous but of course that’s when the helicopter finally caught a glimpse of disaster, a silver sparkle through the green and then that arrow-shaped tear in the earth, the mystery of lost TAB Flight 14 finally solved, Rahata and Tarala and I airlifted to Asuncion, and yes lying side by side in the chopper, IVs attached, my pale hand and her swarthy hand seeking each other across the distance, the faraway look in Skiver’s wet eye (but no leeches in his hair), and cut to the newscasts.

Two survivors pulled from the wreckage and so much of the world holds its breath: Is it my loved one? Surely it’s my loved one. Surely. Who the hell is that? Was Babs even happy? She said she was, and she wrote as much to her friend – “It’s not like I wanted him dead!” – but we all know it’s easier to plan a funeral than a divorce. As you suggested, before I threw my coffee, which seemed as much spasm as intention (and it was cold so stop crying), perhaps we should spend time on this, if only to satisfy your curiousity, to “peel away the layers” as you said, to see what’ s underneath.

Well, that’s the problem, Doctor Shabazz, and a waste of time.

Do you know how embarrassing it is to be told you’ve had a plastic fork in your brain for years? A bullet, a shard of pottery, an arrowhead, fine, but my fork became famous. Do you know that Wikipedia mentions my fork? To whit: “Warwick resurfaced in the news in 2003 when doctors revealed his erratic behaviour and suicide attempts were likely caused by a fragment of a plastic dinner fork which had lodged in his frontal lobe and remained undetected. The utensil, which had a TAB logo on it, was later featured in an issue of the web series Phreaky Physics, where it was shown the fork could only have entered the brain through the eye socket. Warwick’s doctors, however, stated there was no scarring in the ocular region and that Warwick’s concussion, occurred during the near-fatal jettison from the aircraft, may have forced open a small fracture in the skull through which an object such as the fork may have entered.”

Maybe, Shabazz, there’s nothing left to find in my head. It’s been probed, sanitized, imaged a thousand different ways. Yes, the ‘erratic behaviour’ halted and my dubious suicide attempts, my stepping out in front of vehicles (which was caused by vision impairment, a large blank spot in my vision which my fork-riddled brain could not perceive), came to an end. Yes, I began to work in the library sciences again. Yes, I was even engaged to a Ukrainian woman (the other disaster in my life). But what hasn’t been dealt with, and what I need help with happened during the three days Rahata and I lay in bed in Asuncion. They kept us under burly guard in the same hospital room, Rahata grief-stricken and still in shock, me broken here and there and both of us riddled with tropical parasites. For the first two days neither of us talked, not to the media, not to each other. We slept. We crashed again and again into the forest canopy.

But on the third day she turned over.

See, she moaned, Shabazz, moaned. She turned over in her bed and moaned and looked at me, right at me, right through me. Her eyes scanned the wall, the floor, the monitors. Her eyes looked everywhere but at me. Out of fear that she wouldn’t respond, I didn’t dare speak to her. Out of fear that she wouldn’t follow my movement, I didn’t move. I then I realized she had never acknowledged my presence at the crash site, and she didn’t drink the water I’d brought, or the food I’d found (likely a smart choice) and wait a minute, I asked myself, did I really grab the child from the wreckage? Did I really bring her the blankets? I’d spoken to her and she’d never responded, but that was just a language thing, right? And I thought well, she must be blind, and deaf, and I lay there relieved yes, she was mute because of her injuries, which worked as an explanation until she spoke to the doctors when they came with a translator later in the day. So I did it, after they left, said, I’m so sorry about your daughter, said it slowly and clearly but she only moaned, stared at the ceiling.

I must be dead, I thought.

Well, it seems absurd now, that I should be so haunted by a drug-induced hour of existential panic, but for a moment I did think it, that I was dead, that perhaps I had died in the crash, or in the jungle with my butter knife, or in the hospital at the moment she turned and moaned, and maybe that was my moaning and not her moaning and that stays with you, there’s eternity in such thoughts and even when a little round nurse rushed in to check my accelerating heartbeat, I thought no I am dying now, now, now, and I thought I had moved on, thought I had moved on quite well, Doctor, but it’s returned again.

And that’s the problem.

I would be happy to be an actor, to step outside myself and play a role. The role could be me, Kaye Allan Warwick, nondescript human, man of books and outsize clothing, permeable to picnic forks, but man married to Babs, the adorable five foot tall Elizabeth who hid behind her auburn bangs at the perfume counter, man without shrapnel, without trauma.

Man who did not have his traitor soul flee into the night and never return.

Man who does not, in any given moment, find himself in a blacked-out DC 10 rushing through the pre-morning sky, listening to nothing but wind and prayers while watching the stars over the silent wing blink out into daylight.

Man who does not relive the moment of his intended death nightly.

Noon is near, Doctor. I’ve had too much coffee but perhaps I’ll sleep a bit. I trust you’ve read this thoroughly and not skimmed. I trust you’ve done your research. All the facts are there and once you accept them progress can be made.

—Lee D. Thompson


Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher.


Jan 012016

Leonard Gardner (left) at City Lights Books. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire. (2)Leonard Gardner, photo courtesy PFLA Newswire.

“Ernie pushed his hands into the heavy gloves held braced for him by the wrists. He stepped into a leather foulproof cup. A headguard was jerked over his brows. Padded and trussed, his face smeared with Vaseline, a rubber mouthpiece between his teeth, he stood waiting while two squat men punched and grappled in the ring. Then he was following his opponent’s dark legs up the steps. For two rounds he punched, bounded and was hit in return, the headguard dropping over his eyes and the cup sagging between his legs . . .”

From FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner


Fat City
Leonard Gardner
200 pages ($14.95)
ISBN 978-1-590178928


It was mid-September, the end of a long heat wave. That kind of heat, this time of year, came from the interior: a gathering mass over the Central Valley pushing west, stifling the ocean breeze, so even San Francisco sweltered. This had changed in the last few hours. The wind shifted. It was cooler. Even so, you could still smell the heat in the Chinatown alleys, and it was still warm inside the buildings, particularly in the reading room upstairs at City Lights Bookstore. A crowd gathered in the small room. They filled the seats. They leaned against the walls, against the railing at the back, against each other. Those who could not fit into the room sat on the landing, on the wooden staircase that led back down to the first floor.

I was one of these latter. I had arrived late and sat on the bottom step.

Leonard Gardner, the author of Fat City, would be in conversation that evening with Eddie Muller, a novelist and film historian. Fat City, originally published in 1969, had just been re-released by NYRB Classics: a publisher who has made a habit lately of reviving American classics in a distinctly desolate vein, including Nightmare Alley (1946), the geek show novel by William Lindsay Gresham, and Don Carpenter’s hard-edged Hard Rain Falling (1966).

Fat City is a boxing novel. That’s the usual tag, but as Denis Johnson writes in the introduction to the latest edition, the two main characters exist, “far outside the boxing myth . . . deep in the sorrow and beauty of human life.”

The story takes place in Stockton, California, in the late ‘50’s, out in the flatlands of the Central Valley, at the east end of the great delta: a town of modest, low slung, wood frame buildings, sloughs and fields, a working class place with a stunted skyline, a warehouse district edged by canneries and old hotels.

I should pause here.

I am not an objective witness or reliable reporter. I don’t pretend to be that. I am not objective about anything, let alone the way I feel about particular writers or the books they have written.

I have known Leonard for some time. By fate, or coincidence—however you want to frame the way events unfold—he lives around the corner from me, in a small wood frame house built shortly after the war: a modest, bungalow of the sort that used to be ubiquitous all over the state. There are yellowing Venetian blinds across the front picture window, a desk on other side of those blinds, a room filled with shadows, a couch, a rattan chair, shelves lined with books.

The fact that Leonard lives in the same neighborhood, though, had little to with why I came that night to City Lights.

It was on account of the book. Because it had moved me in a certain way, long before I’d known Leonard. And still does.

Author Domenic Stansberry (left) with Peter Maravelis of City Lights Bookstore. Photo by Mark Coggins. (2)Author Domenic Stansberry (L) with Peter Maravelis of City Lights Bookstore. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.

The world Gardner writes about in the novel—Stockton in the late ‘50’s, the world of gyms and trainers frequented by young men nursing deeper aspirations—this was not part of the world where I grew up, in the suburbs of San Jose.   It still existed in San Francisco back then: a much different city than it is a now, a port town whose heyday as a venue for legendary ringside battles and fat purses had not quite passed. There was also a kind of minor league of smalltime boxing venues that ran up and down the West Coast and east to Salt Lake. Boxers often traveled to them alone, unable to afford a trainer in their corner. The payoff was small.

But I didn’t know about any of that growing up.

I first read Fat City some 30 odd years ago when living in New Orleans, homesick for California. I had been attracted by the noirish cover on the Vintage Paperback, and also by Joan Didion’s endorsement. She described the novel as “a metaphor for the joyless in heart.” It was the kind endorsement that appealed to me. Though Gardner’s subject matter is much different than Didion’s, they cover similar physical and emotional terrain in their renderings of California. If there is a nostalgia there, it is a dark nostalgia: a yearning for the forlorn, for the desolate and forgotten. I liked the book because it evoked the landscape in ways that rival Steinbeck, but felt hard-nosed, more real, less sentimental. It reminded me too of California writers like Chandler and MacDonald—and just a bit of Hollywood cast-offs like John Fante—who knew something of life in the shadows of paradise. At the same time, there was something deeply tender and familiar in the yearnings of the characters.

I read the book in New Orleans, reread it, then reread it again a few years later when my wife and I moved to Spokane, Washington, a town with its own hard light, a Greyhound Bus Depot, a boarded up Carnegie library, endless freight trains passing over the trestles.

Maybe the town has changed since, but the desolation for me was its saving grace.

My wife, Gillian Conoley, had a teaching job. She made most of the money. I was stringing for UPI, meantime working on my second novel. The more I worked on it, though, the more I looked out the window at those endlessly passing freights—the more I realized the book was not only a tangled mess, but a hopeless imitation of Fat City.

I put it in the drawer.

Gillian is a writer, too, a poet. She had a good job. Her career was going well. We had friends, no real reason to leave. Ultimately though the pull south to California, to whatever remained of home, or my idea of it, was just too strong.

A couple of years later in San Francisco—maybe this was 1990, or ’91, I don’t know—I learned Gardner would be at a retrospective at the Castro Theater: a screening focused on well-regarded movies that had been box office flops. Among these were John Huston’s Fat City, the 1972 film based on Gardner’s novel. It is one of Huston’s best films, up there with Asphalt Jungle and The Dead, remarkably faithful to the book, as Huston films often were. Gardner wrote the screenplay.


I brought my copy of the Vintage paperback version of the novel for Gardner to sign: the same dog-eared copy I’d carried around since New Orleans. Also—though it felt foolish—I gave him a copy of my own first novel, published a few years before. Gillian brought a copy of her first book of poems, Some Gangster Pain.

He looked pleased, bemused, but also a little puzzled, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop.   We gushed, lingered, then turned to leave.

“So, you don’t want anything?”


This wasn’t exactly true. I suddenly felt very silly.

“What could I want?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just sometimes, people want something. ”

He put his hand on my shoulder.

The truth, I did want something. I just didn’t know quite what it was, maybe. Or how to say it. Or maybe I knew but also knew it wasn’t something he could really give me.

I wanted to write a book as good as Fat City.

Leonard Gardner is often referred to as a writer’s writer.  Meaning, I suppose, that his work is more popular and influential with writers than with the general public. Whether this is true, I don’t know. The book has been reprinted several times in English and translated into numerous foreign languages. Not all of these readers could be writers, I don’t think, though it’s true at times the world seems full of them.  Too full. It is also true that many writers—of very different sorts—have admired Fat City, sung its praises, grown and suffered under its influence. Didion once wrote it was the kind of novel every writer wished to have written. Crime novelist Ross MacDonald said it was one of the best novels he had ever read, putting it in the category with Melville and Twain. More recently Denis Johnson talked about the indelible mark the book had made on him, so much so he sometimes felt every word he himself had written was in the shadow of Fat City.

The book starts out like this:

He lived in the Hotel Coma—named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself. Whoever it commemorated, the hotel was a poor monument, and Billy Tully had no intention of staying on. His clean laundry he continued to put back in his suitcase on the dresser, ready to be hurried away to better lodgings.   He had lived in five hotels in the year and a half since his wife had left him . . . His room was high and narrow. Smudges from oily heads darkened the wallpaper between the metal rods of his bed. His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.

Tully works as a fry cook and drinks up his wages. He is a former boxer, 29 years old, haunted by the memory of his ex-wife. In the throes of that hopeless desire, hungover, he heads to the local YMCA, overcome by the notion he left his career too soon. Here he spars briefly with Ernie Munger, a gangly, young man ten years his junior.

From this point, as Denis Johnson says, “the stories of Ernie Munger, a young fighter with frail but nevertheless burning hopes, and Billy Tully, an older pug with bad luck in and out of the ring, parallel one another throughout the book. Though the two men hardly meet, the book blends the perspective on them until they seem to chart a single life of missteps and baffled love.”

That evening at City Lights, I edged past the others on the stairs and found myself a place to lean inside the famous room up there on the second floor, above what had once been Cavalli’s Books: where Mussolini’s voice had blared during weekly broadcasts from an outdoor loudspeaker back in the ‘30’s. And where Ferlinghetti later started the now infamous City Lights Books, a publishing house on a different side of the political spectrum, which found itself at the center of the censorship trials in the late ‘50’s.

Leonard Gardner (right), in Conversation with Eddie Muller at City Lights Books, September, 2015. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire. (2)Leonard Gardner (right), in Conversation with Eddie Muller at City Lights Books, September, 2015. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.

Eddie Muller, who has his own ties with Leonard, took the role of interviewer that night.  Eddie had sought Leonard out at one time, too, with his own first novel. More than that, Eddie’s father and namesake had once been the boxing columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Leonard had read those columns and followed the careers of the boxers there.

Of course there is very little boxing in the city anymore, or need for a boxing column. And the Chronicle too is a shadow of itself.

The conversation that evening was book-ended by two short readings. Eddie began the evening by reading from the opening of Fat City. And Leonard closed the event out an hour or so later, reading a scene where Tully attempts his comeback against Arcadio Lucero, an aging Mexican boxer.

It is a moving scene in the novel, but also in the film, where Huston shows Lucero stepping from the bus, with the demeanor of an aging, wincing matador, pissing blood in the urinal before the fight.

In between these two short readings, Muller asked the kinds of questions people ask at these things: about how the book came into being. Though I have known Leonard for some time, I had never heard him talk much about his own process.

I knew he had gone to San Francisco State and studied in the Creative Writing Program sometime in the early ‘60’s. I knew he had attended that school about the same time as a number of other writers, including Don Carpenter, author of Hard Rain Falling, and Gina Berriault: a dark-haired woman from Long Beach, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who later won the National Book Award for her selected stories, Women in their Beds. Gina and Leonard lived together much of the time and were close companions until her death in 1999. I knew that while working on Fat City Leonard had worked for a while parking cars in a downtown garage along with another young writer and SFSU student, crime novelist Joe Gores. I also knew, later in his career, he had worked for several years with the TV producer David Milch as a writer for NYPD, and did his work for that show on a battered old Smith Corona long after everyone else in the trade had switched to computer.

Other facts:

Gardner, 82, grew up in Stockton California. He worked the boxing circuit when he was young, about the same age as his protagonists. I have seen the faded news clipping of him as a young man posing with a Stockton boxing club. It hangs in a small frame on the wall of his living room. He was rangy then and still is now. His face bears the marks of those early years: a nose that looks to have been broken more than once, flattened and pushed to the side—a boxer’s nose.   Leonard is relatively soft-spoken, not all the time, but most. He seems to listen when you speak, with eyes that fall to the floor and then back to yours, alternately shy and penetrating. He does not fill the air with words, but speaks slowly, in a voice and rhythm that to my ears bears the inflection of an older California, children of depression era migrants, Okies and farmers and ranch hands and laborers that had come out here from the middle of the country. His father used to take him along on walks through downtown Stockton, into the bars there. While his father drank and talked with the men in those bars, Leonard studied the taxidermy on the walls. This was what Leonard told me once when we were sitting in the Elks Club in San Francisco, looking at the stuffed head of a giant elk. There was a boxing gym, too, on those streets where he grew up, more bars, service stations, men disembarking from buses after long days in the field, anxious for a drink. The air stank of the delta, long days of endless heat.

The Hazleton Public Library had not yet been demolished, with its 25,000 titles. So there was plenty of reading material. Meanwhile Owl Drugs—like drug stores everywhere at that time—stocked pulp paperbacks in ways that did little to separate the sacred from the profane; literary and genre writers mingled together on the shelves behind covers that didn’t necessarily have much to do with the content. Erskine Caldwell alongside Mickey Spillane alongside Stegner and Steinbeck and Faulkner and Zane Grey, and Flannery O’Connor, all in revolving racks positioned somewhere between the candy bars and the foot powder.

When Muller asked Gardner if there were any books from that time hat might have influenced him, he mentioned B. Tavern, author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre:

“Tavern wasn’t a very good writer, pretty terrible in a lot of ways, but I read all his books. I read a lot of boxing novels, too, at some point, but most of those were melodramas, and they weren’t very real. So when I realized I could be a writer, and maybe had some talent . . . I didn’t want to write a book like that . . . I wanted to write a book that captured some of the darker side of things . . . And had the feeling of something real . . . Some writers work in conventions, certain things have to happen, in particular places, but I wasn’t interested in that. You only get so many chances with your material. So I thought just because I had Billy Tully in the first chapter, it didn’t mean I had to stay with him.   If I wanted to write about another character for a while, to visit the onion fields, or something, why couldn’t I do that?”

Though Fat City focuses primarily on Munger and Tully, it does move into the consciousness of other characters, sometimes for entire scenes, other times only in passing. The shifts do not seem to grow out of schematic but out of circumstances, out of evolving narrative. True, the events, the scenes, almost always center around Tully and Munger, even when they themselves are off-stage, or involved in activities far from the ring (as they are most of the time).  Though there are impressionistic moments, and a degree of interiority, of reflection, the book is on the clock when it comes to the narrative momentum; suspense rooted not so much in action, though that is part of it, but in the fates of the characters, even when they are just hanging around, lost in reminiscence. There is a reason for this.   The underlying conventions of the boxing story form the skeleton of the action: the process of training, the distractions of romance and love and alcohol, the build-up to the important match. Though these conventions are familiar, they don’t feel familiar in Fat City. Or rather they have the feeling of the familiar, the pleasure of that, while at the same time undermining it. Partly that’s because this is boxing in the regional circuit, far from the big time and the hype, where the gains are transitory, where the trainer can’t afford to travel with you to the big bout, where stepping into the ring is as much about emotional sustenance as it is survival.

Fat City is extremely evocative it its details. Eddie Muller—who grew up around the ring, in the shadow of his own father’s daily boxing column—asked Leonard how much research he had done while putting together the book.

As it turns out, of course, the book didn’t come together all at once. There was an earlier version called The Gym. “The boxing part, I knew pretty well,” Leonard said. “I was into the scene, so you know I followed that.” There were other things, though, about which he had less familiarity, including the nature of the itinerant farm work Billy Tully undertakes to pay for his lodgings.

“I was living in San Francisco while I was working on the book,” said Gardner. “There used to be a place where the bus came to pick up men, in the early morning. Down there by the old hotels.   They came while it was still dark. To pick up the men from the hotels, itinerant workers, and drive them out to the fields. So I went out there and stood in the line. I didn’t do this for a regular living, I’m not saying that. But I went out there on the bus, and worked different jobs. I didn’t live the life of a farm worker, I’m not saying that. I just felt if you are going to write about something, you maybe should know a little bit about it.”

The bus rattled past the dark houses, gas stations, neon lit motels, and the high vague smokestack of the American Can Company, past the drive-in movie, its great screen white and iridescent in the approaching dawn, across an unseen creek beneath ponderous oaks, past the cars and trailers and pickup-truck caravans of the gypsy camp at its bank and out between the wide fields . . . As the blazing curve of the sun appeared, lighting the faces of the men jolting in the bus—Negro paired with Negro, white with white, Mexican with Mexican and Filipino beside Filipino—Billy Tully took the last sweet slug of Thunderbird and his bottle in its slim bag rolled banging under the seat.

—From Fat City

The novel is full of this almost documentary realism, evoking the work in the fields: the task of thinning tomato plants; long hours with a short handled hoe; the bagging of walnuts beaten from the tree. Also the grey streets of Stockton, the gas stations, the mud hens by the river, the Lido Gym, the wrapping and taping of a young fighter’s hands before he steps in the ring, the lovemaking between this same young fighter and his girlfriend in the back seat of a car in the pouring rain, a rain so fierce and hard that the car gets stuck in the mud.

Fat City is a novel in the naturalist tradition, in the older sense of that term: realism in which the fate of an individual is cast as a struggle in the wake of social and natural forces. The prose is finely tuned, realistic, in a transparent style that focuses not so much on itself but on the object and actions rendered. There is a lyric quality, but it seems to emerge from what is observed, not from the hand of the writer.  Yet it isn’t the detail alone that gives the reader attachment to the characters.

There’s that baffled love.

I am not sure really I know how to explain this.

But it permeates the novel. It’s there in Tully’s affair with Oma, another man’s woman, a hopeless lush whose sharp insults Tully longs to escape but whom he regards with a drunken tenderness that reduces him to tears. It’s there in the scene where Tully’s trainer, Ruben Luna, makes love to his own aging wife, while thinking of a waitress in gabardine slacks. And also in the hopeless desire that gives way to sudden resentment, a feeling of being trapped forever, when Ernie Munger finally loses his virginity in the backseat of that car, impregnating a young woman, his future wife, whom he seduces by confessing a love he’s not sure he really feels.

That baffled love permeates the Huston film as well. Eddie and Leonard talked about that film, starring Stacey Keach and a very young Jeff Bridges: how the director cast old timers from the boxing world in San Francisco into supporting roles; how the actress who played the drunken Oma bore an eerie real-life resemblance to the character herself; how John Huston was an aficionado of the old circuit, of the lost world of gyms and back-road boxing venues.

They talked, too, about a review of the novel when it first appeared, a favorable review that had nonetheless irked Leonard, by referring to the characters as “beautiful losers:”

“Yeah, that rankled me at the time. It pissed my off. Because I wasn’t writing about beauty. That wasn’t the thing. Also, the characters weren’t losers. Not in my view anyway. They had something they wanted. They pursued it. They fought for it. And they succeeded. They weren’t losers. So that characterization kind of bothered me. But maybe the guy was just trying, in his inarticulate way, to say something about the book. About what he saw there.”

I thought back to my own lack of words that evening I had sought out Leonard in the Castro. I hadn’t expected that I would see him again, but then a few weeks later, we ran into him at the poet George Evan’s place out in the Sunset District, that foggy remote part of the city once covered in sand dunes. Non-fiction writer Bill Barich was there, author of Laughing in the Hills, and so was Gina Berriault, in all her beauty and elegance. Steve Vendor, too, if I remember, a private detective, and also Clancy Carlile, Leonard’s best friend, a Cherokee novelist and screenwriter who later worked with Clint Eastwood. Over the next several years, we formed a circle of sorts—though none of us would have referred to it that way, in that kind of parlance.   There was nothing formal, just a loose knit group of writers with something resembling a shared sensibility. Who had at times the need to see other people.   To sit in the back room at the felt table in Tosca in North Beach.   To stand around Bill Barich’s house in San Anselmo. To drink until closing on a hot night with all the doors and casement windows wide open while outside litter and trash and discarded wrappers and old newspaper swirled in the Mission Street dust. The circle did not last forever of course. Names changed, faces. People divorced, died, moved away.

Gina BerriaultGina Berriault

Then somewhat by coincidence—maybe it was a dozen years ago, not long after Gina’s death—Leonard moved around the corner. He had no idea we lived the next street over. It was several months before I went up and knocked on his door.

Sometimes I run him into at Colonial Liquors. Or see him walking down by the lagoon near the old police station. Sometimes at a party. Once he and I and the poet Alissa Valles and Gillian went to the race track over in Golden Gate Fields and lost some money. Sometimes, when he is out of town, my daughter feeds Pi the cat, and I check the mail. At such times I will linger for a while on the couch, maybe, reading randomly from the books on his shelves, or maybe just lie there watching the motes in the slanted light that falls through the blinds.

When the event was over, I lingered at City Lights. I took pictures with my cell. I talked to Eddie Muller. To Peter Maravelis, the event manager at City Lights. To book artist Steve Vincent. To Alissa Valles, the poet and translator who these days lives with Leonard, and to her friend the Russian-American writer Anastasia Edel. We planned to meet afterwards at a bar across the street, soon as Leonard was done with the signing. Meanwhile a long line snaked away from Leonard at the signing table, all the way down to the bottom of the stair. It became clear he would be here awhile. I grew impatient and went outside to catch some air, to smoke a cigarette.After the reading at Specs Bar, Columbus Avenue. Anastasia Edel, Alissa Valles, Leonard Gardner, Eddie Muller. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.After the reading at Specs Bar, Columbus Avenue. Anastasia Edel, Alissa Valles, Leonard Gardner, Eddie Muller. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.

I knew this part of town pretty well, North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood, with Chinatown around the corner, and the ghosts of the old Beat writers in the black and white photos on the walls inside City Lights. Of course the city has changed—everybody knows that, the wild influx of money, of technology—but just standing there it still looked pretty much the same. There was an SRO around the corner, a flophouse, absurdly priced no doubt, but a flophouse nonetheless. A man stood in the doorway coughing. A young man and woman across the street embraced sloppily, then pulled away from each other, arguing, before tumbling toward the Barbary Coast, the line of strip joints that runs down Broadway. A cluster of tourists negotiated the crosswalk.  Then for a moment the street was all but empty. Or that was how it seemed. There was no breeze, and I felt the heat, still lingering, the smell of the Central Valley in the air, of the hinterlands, of human sweat and longing and desolation that neither money nor fog nor the future could dispel. I heard voices behind me, coming down the stair.  I put out my cigarette and walked across the street to the bar, to wait. To drink too much. To drive across the Golden Gate to the other side.

— Domenic Stansberry

First print rights to this article provided to Numéro Cinq from the PFLA Newswire, a project of the Pacific Film and Literary Association, a 501(3c) non-profit.


Domenic Stansberry is an award-winning novelist known for his dark, innovative crime novels. His North Beach Mystery Series has won praise in The New York Times and other publications for its rich portrayal of the ethnic and political subcultures of San Francisco. An earlier novel, The Confession, received an Edgar Allan Poe Award for its controversial portrait of a Marin county psychologist accused of murdering his mistress. He is the author of nine novels and a collection of stories. He has a new book coming out in 2016, THE WHITE DEVIL, with Molotov Editions.